The last edition of The Economist featured a 25-page special report on “The new politics of capitalism and inequality” headlined “True Progressivism“. It is the most recommended and commented story on The Economist this week.
We have looked at various forms of economic inequality on this Blog before, as well as other manifestations (market share, capitalization, online attention) and various ways to measure and visualize inequality (Gini-index). Hence I was curious about any new trends and perhaps ways to visualize global economic inequality. That said, I don’t intend to enter the socio-political debate about the virtues of inequality and (re-)distribution policies.
In the segment titled “For richer, for poorer” The Economist explains.
The level of inequality differs widely around the world. Emerging economies are more unequal than rich ones. Scandinavian countries have the smallest income disparities, with a Gini coefficient for disposable income of around 0.25. At the other end of the spectrum the world’s most unequal, such as South Africa, register Ginis of around 0.6.
Many studies have found that economic inequality has been rising over the last 30 years in many industrial and developing nations around the world. One interesting phenomenon is that while the Gini index of many countries has increased, the Gini index of world inequality has fallen. This is shown in the following image from The Economist.
This is somewhat non-intuitive. Of course the countries differ widely in terms of population size and level of economic development. At a minimum it means that a measure like the Gini index is not simply additive when aggregated over a collection of countries.
Another interesting chart displays a world map with color coding the changes in inequality of the respective country.
It’s a bit difficult to read this map without proper knowledge of the absolute levels of inequality, such as we displayed in the post on Inequality, Lorenz-Curves and Gini-Index. For example, a look at a country like Namibia in South Africa indicates a trend (light-blue) towards less inequality. However, Namibia used to be for many years the country with the world’s largest Gini (1994: 0.7; 2004: 0.63; 2010: 0.58 according to iNamibia) and hence still has much larger inequality than most developed countries.
So global Gini is declining, while in many large industrial countries Gini is rising. One region where regional Gini is declining as well is Latin-America. Between 1980-2000 Latin America’s Gini has grown, but in the last decade Gini has declined back to 1980 levels (~0.5), despite the strong economic growth throughout the region (Mexico, Brazil).
Much of the coverage in The Economist tackles the policy debate and the questions of distribution vs. dynamism. On the one hand reducing Gini from very large inequality contributes to social stability and welfare. On the other hand, further reducing already low Gini diminishes incentives and thus potentially slows down economic growth.
In theory, inequality has an ambiguous relationship with prosperity. It can boost growth, because richer folk save and invest more and because people work harder in response to incentives. But big income gaps can also be inefficient, because they can bar talented poor people from access to education or feed resentment that results in growth-destroying populist policies.
In other words: Some inequality is desirable, too much of it is problematic. After growing over the last 30 years, economic inequality in the United States has perhaps reached a worrisome level as the pendulum has swung too far. How to find the optimal amount of inequality and how to get there seem like fascinating policy debates to have. Certainly an example where data visualization can help an otherwise dry subject.