Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

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.”

I recalled Milanovic’s remarks this week when I found myself on a panel at the Brookings Institution, one of those Washington research groups, discussing income inequality, including the research collected in a new book published by Brookings titled “Inequality in America.” In reply, Kemal Dervis, the vice president of Brookings, who co-wrote the book and led the panel, joked that if he turns up on the job market next month, we will know he overstepped the mark.

It was a characteristically polished line – Dervis is a former Turkish cabinet minister – but the truth is that the Brookings event was a sign of the recent sea change in the U.S. public discourse about income inequality.

‘We can’t say they didn’t warn us’

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 29, 2010 17:54 UTC

Chrystia wrote an essay for Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers Issue on the economists and financiers whose ideas survived the financial crisis:

In a letter to shareholders written just after the dot-com bust, Warren Buffett observed, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” The 2008 financial crisis had a similar effect on our economic and financial gurus: It revealed whose thinking was based on whiggish, End-of-History assumptions about the essential triumph of Western democratic capitalism and whose mental framework admitted the possibility of radical disruption. The thinkers whose intellectual — and maybe even psychological — starting point was that Western market democracy is neither perfect nor eternal turned out to be much better at foreshadowing the financial crisis, and it is those thinkers whose ideas are the most relevant today, in the uncertain, post-crisis world.

These specialists in uncertainty are a broad church: They range from academic economists who saw the crisis coming, like New York University’s Nouriel Roubini and the University of Chicago’s Raghuram Rajan, to philosophers of finance like George Soros and Mohamed El-Erian, who have made huge market bets, as well as intellectual ones, on how bubbles are formed and how they burst. One striking similarity between many of them is that they have seen regime change up close.

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