Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Does inequality help growth- or hurt it?

Chrystia Freeland
May 16, 2013 20:56 UTC

One of the most urgent questions in economics today is the connection between inequality and growth. That is because one of the big economic facts of our time is the surge in income disparity, particularly between those at the very top and everyone else. The other big fact is the recession set off by the financial crisis and the consequent imperative to jump-start economic growth. Figuring out the relationship between these two tent-pole issues is therefore a good way for economists to spend their time.

There are two main and contradictory ideas about how that relationship might work. One is that inequality is the price of robust economic growth. If the private sector is thriving, the most successful capitalists will be getting very rich. Creating a system that allows – indeed, encourages – the best and the brightest to pull away from everyone else is how you shift your economy into its highest gear.

There is, however, another theory, and it has been winning adherents in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In this view, rising inequality is not a symptom of a fast-growing economy or an incentive that will help create one. Instead, too much income inequality crushes economic growth.

There are different arguments for why that might happen. One is that high income inequality creates an unstable system that is vulnerable to costly booms and busts. Another is that when too much of the income goes to the very top and not enough goes to the middle, spending slumps – how many yachts does a plutocrat need? – putting a brake on growth.

David Howell, a professor of economics at The New School in New York, has written a draft paper for the Center for American Progress, a progressive research group, that investigates the first argument. Howell argues that the United States and Britain have acted over the past three decades on what he calls the laissez-faire theory, that the equation of rising inequality and increasing gross domestic product is correct.

Interview with Christine Lagarde at the IMF

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 18, 2013 16:27 UTC

Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde sat down for an interview with Chrystia Freeland yesterday, January 17th, following the IMF’s New Year Press Briefing.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND:

Thank you for joining me, Madame Lagarde.

CHRISTINE LAGARDE:

My pleasure.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND:

One of your themes as we enter 2013 is that financial reform must continue.  And you have just said that you’re concerned, you see a waning commitment to financial reform.  What do you see going on?

CHRISTINE LAGARDE:

I see a lot of pressure coming out of the industry.  Which is clearly part of their job.  They will naturally lobby to support more flexible, more accommodating regulations.  I think, you know, the financial sector is so particular and so special because of the confidence factor associated with it and the role played by the authorities sometimes in order to support that sector, that it warrants stronger regulations.

Income inequality: government, Warren Buffett and growth

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 30, 2012 18:57 UTC

When Branko Milanovic, a World Bank economist, published “The Haves and the Have-Nots,” a study of global income inequality last year, one of his most striking observations was the extent to which the subject was taboo in the United States.

As Milanovic explained, “I was once told by the head of a prestigious think tank in Washington, D.C., that the think tank’s board was very unlikely to fund any work that had ‘income’ or ‘wealth inequality’ in its title. Yes, they would finance anything to do with poverty alleviation, but inequality was an altogether different matter.”

“Why?” Milanovic asked. “Because ‘my’ concern with the poverty of some people actually projects me in a very nice, warm glow: I am ready to use my money to help them. Charity is a good thing; a lot of egos are boosted by it, and many ethical points earned even when only tiny amounts are given to the poor. But inequality is different: Every mention of it raises, in fact, the issue of the appropriateness or legitimacy of my income.”

The Mumbai consensus

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 22, 2010 14:14 UTC

They call economics the dismal science, but Larry Summers, one of its pre-eminent public practitioners, is anything but dull. That penchant for intellectual controversy means he hasn’t always won popularity contests, but he is unfailingly stimulating, as he proved in a speech in India last week, when he hit on one of the biggest issues in the world economy today, and coined a snappy catch-phrase to describe it: the “Mumbai Consensus”.

The Mumbai Consensus, Summers said, is “people-centric.” He contrasted it both with the Washington Consensus, the U.S.-led, free-markets-and-democracy formula that seemed to have conquered the world after 1989, and with the Beijing Consensus, China’s state capitalist approach that today is winning fans in emerging markets and in some developed ones.

Summers thinks the real model to watch is India’s, the world’s largest democracy. Partly because of its political system, India’s economic rise has been powered as much by the voracity of its domestic consumers as it has by the country’s push into foreign markets. That’s a sharp contrast with China, where the focus has been on working for the rest of the world, while the Chinese people, who are poorer on average than those of Albania or Jamaica, nonetheless save more than half of their GDP.

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