I really have no idea what to write about…… but I’ll ramble about worldwide economic inequality for a while

If I don’t do this regularly, my lackluster skills become even more lackluster.

The NYT today (is it even useful for me to talk about the NYT when people can just read it themselves?) featured an op-ed from Economist Joe Stiglitz. Stiglitz, one might remember, wrote an excellent book on the 2008 financial crash. In it, he detailed point by point all the events that led to the worst economic crisis the US had seen since the Depression. “Freefall” is like “Inside Job” for people who read books.

Stiglitz has long been concerned about the growing divide between rich and poor in the US, so much so, that he wrote another great book “The Price of Inequality.,” mostly focusing on domestic issues. Policies which encourage loose markets disproportionately favor the wealthy, creating economic imbalances which marginalize the poor even further. While free market advocates claim that loosening markets liberates the citizenry from government, in fact, by freeing markets, politics shape the market itself, to the advantage of those who hold power. The market, then, becomes as tyrannical as all of those bed time baddies American right wingers keep warning us about. It’s worth noting that in the US, we allowed investment bankers to write banking policy for much of the run up to the crash.

We know that inequality is on the rise in the United States, but Stiglitz argues that America, as a global financial powerhouse, has encouraged a worldwide trend toward financial loosening, exacerbating economic disparities in other countries as well.

…widening income and wealth inequality in America is part of a trend seen across the Western world. A 2011 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that income inequality first started to rise in the late ’70s and early ’80s in America and Britain (and also in Israel). The trend became more widespread starting in the late ’80s. Within the last decade, income inequality grew even in traditionally egalitarian countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. With a few exceptions — France, Japan, Spain — the top 10 percent of earners in most advanced economies raced ahead, while the bottom 10 percent fell further behind.

I took issue with his listing Japan as an exception. Though Japan’s widening divide between rich and poor may not be as dramatic as in the US, Japanese people on the bottom rungs have watched their incomes fall over time. A slow down of the economy and the deflation era has disproportionately impacted low wage earners there.

Excessive financialization — which helps explain Britain’s dubious status as the second-most-unequal country, after the United States, among the world’s most advanced economies — also helps explain the soaring inequality. In many countries, weak corporate governance and eroding social cohesion have led to increasing gaps between the pay of chief executives and that of ordinary workers — not yet approaching the 500-to-1 level for America’s biggest companies (as estimated by the International Labor Organization) but still greater than pre-recession levels. (Japan, which has curbed executive pay, is a notable exception.) American innovations in rent-seeking — enriching oneself not by making the size of the economic pie bigger but by manipulating the system to seize a larger slice — have gone global.

He is entirely correct here. Just about every facet of life has been morphed into a commodifiable good worthy of investment and trade on financial markets. This has long impacted agricultural products and created a trend of increasing prices and violent price swings that do little to raise the lives of the international poor.

African countries, lacking the stabilizing effect of steady manufacturing sectors like those in Asia, depend almost entirely on the resource market. Though they experience significant growth when worldwide prices go up (as has been the case for the past decade), a sudden drop in the price of commodities can quickly wipe out last year’s gains. This is similar to the situation of very poor households in the US. One might have plenty of work this week, but be fired the next. Planning for the future is impossible one isn’t sure whether one will have the cash to eat next week.

I’d like to see a comparison of worldwide trends of inequality. Though it is true that African economies were left in the dust until the early 2000’s, and the continent is in a period of excellent growth at the moment, I’m wondering whether the pace of growth is slower than what it would be without loose international commodity markets and financialization.

Of course, one might also argue the the loosening of markets around 2000 is what caused the current trend in growth.

OK, I wrote something. Thanks.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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