40 Years of Data Suggests 3 Myths About Globalization

March 2, 2018 Lucas Chancel

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Three beliefs about globalization have propagated since the early 1980s. First, that globalization leads to a reduction in global inequality. Second, that high income growth among the richest will lift the incomes of the poorest. Third, that there is no alternative to rising inequality without turning our backs on trade and technology. The recently released World Inequality Report, the first research study to comprehensively examine wealth and income inequality trends across rich and emerging countries over approximately 40 years, dispels these notions.

Globalization has led to a rise in global income inequality, not a reduction

Inequality between individuals across the world is the result of two competing forces: inequality between countries and inequality within countries. For example, strong growth in China and India contributed to significant global income growth, and therefore, decreased inequality between countries. However, inequality within these countries rose sharply. The top 1% income share rose from 7% to 22% in India, and 6% to 14% in China between 1980 and 2016.

Until recently, it has been impossible to know which of these two forces dominates globally, because of lack of data on inequality trends within countries, which many governments do not release publicly or uniformly. The World Inequality Report 2018 addresses this issue, relying on systematic, comparable, and transparent inequality statistics from high-income and emerging countries.

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The Economy in 2018

The conclusion is striking. Between 1980 and 2016, inequality between the world’s citizens increased, despite strong growth in emerging markets. Indeed, the share of global income accrued by the richest 1%, grew from 16% in 1980 to 20% by 2016. Meanwhile the income share of the poorest 50% hovered around 9%. The top 1% – individuals earning more than $13,500 per month – globally captured twice as much income growth as the bottom 50% of the world population over this period.

Income doesn’t trickle down

The second belief contests that high growth at the top is necessary to achieve some growth at the bottom of the distribution, in other words that rising inequality is necessary to elevate standards of living among the poorest. However, this idea is at odds with the data. When we compare Europe with the U.S., or China with India, it is clear that countries that experienced a higher rise in inequality were not better at lifting the incomes of their poorest citizens. Indeed, the U.S. is the extreme counterargument to the myth of trickle down: while incomes grew by more than 600% for the top 0.001% of Americans since 1980, the bottom half of the population was actually shut off from economic growth, with a close to zero rise in their yearly income. In Europe, growth among the top 0.001% was five times lower than in the U.S., but the poorest half of the population fared much better, experiencing a 26% growth in their average incomes. Despite having a consistently higher growth rate since 1980, the rise of inequality in China was much more moderate than in India. As a result, China was able to lift the incomes of the poorest half of the population at a rate that was four times faster than in India, enabling greater poverty reduction.

The trickle-down myth may have been debunked, but its ideas are still rooted in a number of current policies. For example, the idea that high income growth for rich individuals is a precondition to create jobs and growth at the bottom continues to be used to justify tax reductions for the richest, as seen in recent tax reform in the U.S. and France. A closer look at the data demands we rethink the rationale and legitimacy of such policies. 

Policy – not trade or technology – is most responsible for inequality

It is often said that rising inequality is inevitable — that it is a natural consequence of trade openness and digitalization that governments are powerless to counter. But the numbers presented above clearly demonstrate the diversity of inequality trajectories experienced by broadly comparable regions over the past decades. The U.S. and Europe, for instance, had similar population size and average income in 1980 — as well as analogous inequality levels. Both regions have also faced similar exposure to international markets and new technologies since, but their inequality trajectories have radically diverged. In the U.S., the bottom 50% income share decreased from 20% to 10% today, whereas in Europe it decreased from 24% to 22%.

Rather than openness to trade or digitalization, it is policy choices and institutional changes that explain divergences in inequality. After the neoliberal policy shift of the early 1980s, Europe resisted the impulse to turn its market economy into a market society more than the US — evidenced by differences on key policy areas concerning inequality. The progressivity of the tax code — how much more the rich pay as a percentage — was seriously undermined in the U.S., but much less so in continental Europe. The U.S. had the highest minimum wage of the world in the 1960s, but it has since decreased by 30%, whereas in France, the minimum wage has risen 300%. Access to higher education is costly and highly unequal in the U.S., whereas it is free in several European countries. Indeed, when Bavarian policymakers tried to introduce small university fees in the late 2000s, a referendum invalidated the decision. Health systems also provide universal access to good-quality healthcare in most European countries, while millions of Americans do not have access to healthcare plans.

Re-examining these pervasive beliefs around globalization and its impacts on global inequality is more important now than ever before. Using new data from the World Inequality Report is the first step in rectifying these myths and generating a new public discourse that has the potential to effect long-lasting, systemic change.

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