Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Branko Milanovic. Harvard University Press. 2016.
Some of my favourite development economists are nomads, people with feet in different regions, which seems to make them better able to identify interesting patterns and similarities/differences between countries. This includes Ha-Joon Chang (Korea/UK), Dani Rodrik (Turkey/US) and now Branko Milanovic (Serbia/US), whose latest book, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, is a brilliant and thought-provoking essay stuffed with enough graphs to satisfy the numerati, anecdotes for the general reader and political insights for the policy wonks. Read it.
Milanovic is best known for his number crunching, in particular his great graph of where the money from global growth went between 1988-2008. There’s no better way of showing the simultaneous rise of the emerging world (mainly Asian) middle class and the global plutocracy, accompanied by the hollowing out of the Western middle class and the neglect of the poorest.
But this book, even more than his previous ones (most recently, The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality), shows that Milanovic is much more than a tweeter of top graphs: his level of political curiosity and insight is uncommon for an economist. He introduces politics much more centrally than other inequality gurus like Thomas Piketty or Angus Deaton, for example. In fact, I wish he’d given more time to the politics bit, and less to the economics. More on that later.
Milanovic also writes Jack Kerouac-fast. His acknowledgements section depressed me deeply when he said of a writing trip to Panama: ‘After a week almost fully dedicated to the book (with a few dips in the Caribbean in between), a good part of the text was done.’ If that ‘a week almost fully dedicated’ is not some kind of typo, he will be hated by authors everywhere.
So what does Milanovic say? He sums up the book structure with a nice infographic on page 8. He shows the overall trajectory of global inequality, then decomposes it into what happens within and between countries. Like Piketty, Deaton or Chang, he takes the long historical view – centuries rather than decades – with erudite asides on inequality in the Roman Empire. He then pulls it together to discuss how inequality is likely to evolve in the twenty-first century (the best section, in my opinion).
There is so much in here that doing it justice in a blog post is pretty much impossible, but the things that most struck me included, firstly, the move from Kuznets curves to Kuznets waves. Simon Kuznets predicted that income inequality would follow an inverted U-shape as countries develop: rising first as societies grew, while the large pool of un/underemployed poor people kept wages low, but then falling as countries reach full employment and wages start to rise. The trouble is that this doesn’t explain the rebound of inequality in much of the West since 1980. Piketty’s response was to replace Kuznets’s optimism with his own pessimism, arguing that the downslope of the U was an unusual event driven by the destruction of capital by two world wars, and that normal service (i.e. rising inequality) has now resumed. Milanovic thinks it is more like a long wave, with contending forces alternating over time. Growth, differentiation and elite capture of politics increase inequality; war, welfare and progressive politics decrease it.
Secondly, on inequality between countries, Milanovic argues that the convergence between rich and poor countries is returning the world to the status quo circa 1820, when the main source of inequality was class rather than location (i.e. where you stood in the social pecking order of your country, rather than whether you were born Indian or American). The younger Karl Marx would recognise the new order more than, say, Frantz Fanon.
Finally, the most readable section was the speculative Chapter Four on where the twenty-first century is likely to take us on the Kuznets rollercoaster. He argues that China’s high inequality levels are likely to fall as labour shortages push up wages, but is much more pessimistic about the US, where he sees the drivers of inequality (e.g. political capture by the rich) as far stronger than the countervailing forces, leading to its politics acquiring a ‘quasi-dynastic look, which the country shares with India, Greece, the Philippines and Pakistan’. He thinks inequality is leading to a ‘hollowed out democracy’ in both Europe and North America, in which state spending moves from providing services to funding police and security to protect the rich. He compares the West to the Roman Empire, where an increasingly autocratic regime masqueraded as a Republic before crumbling.
The writing reminded me a lot of Piketty – like a very long dinner listening to a particularly erudite and interesting guest. Milanovic finishes with ‘ten short reflections on the future’, in which there are some great points: for example, that given the mobility both of capital and high earners, future attempts to reduce inequality will have to be more like East Asian ‘predistribution’ of assets and education than European tax and spend. But he then wanders down some eccentric or disappointing blind alleys, e.g. arguing that achieving equality of income is the best way to reduce prostitution or dismissing as hypocrites those concerned with planetary boundaries and limits to growth.
And then, suddenly and frustratingly, the book stopped. I wanted him to push himself harder to apply the great political insights in Chapter Four to produce a real conclusion and advice on the most promising political pathways and opportunities for those wishing to tackle the scourge of inequality in this century. Any chance he could spend an extra week in the Caribbean sometime and finish the job?
- This post appeared originally at the LSE Review of Books.
- The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image credit:mSeattle CC-BY- 2.0
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Duncan Green is a strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of ‘From Poverty to Power’. He is also a Professor-in-Practice in LSE’s Department of International Development. Follow him on Twitter @fp2p. The original version of this review was published on From Poverty to Power.