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Symposium 2014

Virtual Library File - Redistribution, Inequality and Growth.

The Challenge

Inequality is rising in most parts of the world, irrespective of whether one looks at it in terms of annual income, in terms of wealth (i.e. of accumulated capital and other assets) or in terms of o ...

Inequality is rising in most parts of the world, irrespective of whether one looks at it in terms of annual income, in terms of wealth (i.e. of accumulated capital and other assets) or in terms of opportunity. In most high-income countries, the share of national income earned by households at the top of the income distribution has soared since the past decades (from the 1980s onward). As the World Top Incomes Database shows, the income share of the richest households continued to climb during and after the crisis of the past few years. In 2012, the income of the top 1% of households accounted for 22.5% of total income; the highest figure since 1928. One explanation is that globalization expands the market for a small group of people with sought-after talent, but competes away the income of ordinary employees. In turn, the competition among countries for skilled individuals constrains the ability of governments to maintain high tax rates on the wealthy.

Economists are increasingly focusing on the links between rising inequality and the fragility of growth. Narratives include the relationship between inequality, leverage and the financial cycle, which sowed the seeds for crisis; and the role of political-economy factors (especially the influence of the rich) in allowing financial excess to balloon ahead of the crisis. While considerable controversy surrounds these issues, we should not jump to the conclusion that the treatment for inequality may be worse for growth than the disease itself. Equality-enhancing interventions could actually help growth. While we should be cognizant of the inherent limitations of the data set and of cross-country regression analysis more generally, we should be careful not to assume that there is a big trade-off between redistribution and growth. The best available macroeconomic data do not support that conclusion.