Saturday, October 11, 2014

On rising income inequality

The second article from the October 4, 2014 issue of the Economist which I believe can be very useful for IB Economics students in their effort to understand the concepts & theories of the syllabus but especially to equip themselves with real world examples which they can effectively employ in their paper 1 essays is titled: The history of inequality Breaking the camel’s back What an impressive work of economic history tells you about inequality

It is a brief report on a new work by the OECD and the University of Utrecht 'How Was Life?
Global Well -being since 1820' which can be found here.

Quoting from the Economist article:
There is an exception to this generalisation, though: inequality. You would expect that the world of the Qing dynasty, Tsar Nicholas I and the British East India Company would be more unequal than today’s. Yet in China, Thailand, Germany and Egypt, income inequality was about the same in 2000 as it had been in 1820. Brazil and Mexico are even more unequal than they were at the time of Simón Bolívar. Only in a few rich nations—such as France and Japan—do you find the expected long-term decline in income inequality

And what about between nations?
What is true for individual countries is also true if you treat the world as a single nation.  The global Gini rose from 49 in 1820 to 66 in 2000. But this was not caused by widening disparities between rich and poor within countries. Inequality of that sort fluctuated for 130 years to 1950, before falling sharply in 1950-1980, in what the report calls an egalitarian revolution. Since 1980 it has risen again (as Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has shown), back to the level of 1820.
Also, the gap between rich and poor nations ('between-country inequality') has widened sharply:
 In 1820 the world’s richest country—Britain—was about five times richer than the average poor nation. Now America is about 25 times wealthier than the average poor country. The Gini coefficient for between-country  inequality stood at only 16 in 1820 (ie, very low). It soared to 55 in 1950, and has been stable since.

The concluding paragraph is also telling as it wraps up findings on the effect of globalization on income distribution:
As globalisation ebbed, it argues, rich countries had more freedom to steer domestic policies and used it to narrow differences between rich and poor. As globalisation spread again after 1980, the opposite happened: “globalisation contributed to higher income inequality within countries,” the report concludes, “while at the same time leading to a decline of income inequality between countries.”

The above may come in handy when discussing several sections of the IB Economics syllabus.  For example:

  • Analyse data on relative income shares of given percentages of the population, including deciles and quintiles 
  • Explain how the Gini coefficient is derived and interpreted. 
  • Explain that due to unequal ownership of factors of production, the market system may not result in an equitable distribution of income. (but also role of institutions and, globalization...)

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