Sunday, December 14, 2014

Impact of inequality or equality on growth…it depends

Dani Rodrik on inequality: there is no universal evidence that inequality jeopardizes growth (alternatively, equality supports growth). It all depends on other supporting factors (the root causes may not be known or cannot be factored in econometric analysis), and there is no iron law.

Excerpts from the article:

The belief that boosting equality requires sacrificing economic efficiency is grounded in one of the most cherished ideas in economics: incentives. Firms and individuals need the prospect of higher incomes to save, invest, work hard, and innovate. If taxation of profitable firms and rich households blunts those prospects, the result is reduced effort and lower economic growth. Communist countries, where egalitarian experiments led to economic disaster, long served as “Exhibit A” in the case against redistributive policies.

In recent years, however, neither economic theory nor empirical evidence has been kind to the presumed tradeoff. Economists have produced new arguments showing why good economic performance is not only compatible with distributive fairness, but may even demand it.

For example, in high-inequality societies, where poor households are deprived of economic and educational opportunities, economic growth is depressed. Then there are the Scandinavian countries, where egalitarian policies evidently have not stood in the way of economic prosperity.

[…]Economics is a science that can claim to have uncovered few, if any, universal truths. Like almost everything else in social life, the relationship between equality and economic performance is likely to be contingent rather than fixed, depending on the deeper causes of inequality and many mediating factors. So the emerging new consensus on the harmful effects of inequality is as likely to mislead as the old one was.

Consider, for example, the relationship between industrialization and inequality. In a poor country where the bulk of the workforce is employed in traditional agriculture, the rise of urban industrial opportunities is likely to produce inequality, at least during the early stages of industrialization. As farmers move to cities and earn higher pay, income gaps open up. And yet this is the same process that produces economic growth; all successful developing countries have gone through it.

In China, for example, rapid economic growth after the late 1970s was associated with a significant rise in inequality. Roughly half of the increase was the result of urban-rural earnings gaps, which also acted as the engine of growth.

Or consider transfer policies that tax the rich and the middle classes in order to increase the income of poor households. Many countries in Latin America, such as Mexico and Bolivia, undertook such policies in a fiscally prudent manner, ensuring that government deficits would not lead to high debt and macroeconomic instability.

[…]It is good that economists no longer regard the equality-efficiency tradeoff as an iron law. We should not invert the error and conclude that greater equality and better economic performance always go together. After all, there really is only one universal truth in economics: It depends.