Sunday, July 29, 2018

Branko Milanovic — A la recherche of the roots of US inequality “exceptionalism”

It has been long argued that American income inequality was, in the past 40 years or so, exceptionally high compared to other OECD countries. The latest results available by Luxembourg Income Study that harmonizes income concepts across countries show inequality in disposable (per capita) income in the US to be 41 Gini points, that is, higher than in any other similarly rich country (Germany’s Gini is 32, British 35, Italian 35, Dutch 28). So, this part is not controversial.

What is more controversial is technical (as opposed to substantive) explanation for this “exceptionalism”. Some people have argued that US market income inequality (that is, inequality before government redistribution through social transfers and direct taxes) is not much higher than elsewhere and that the entire explanation has to do with an insufficiently redistributive state. In simple terms, the argument is that the market generates same inequality in the US and Sweden, but Sweden redistributes much more though pensions, unemployment benefits, social assistance etc., and also taxes the rich more, so in the end disposable (after transfers and taxes) income inequality in Sweden is less than in the United States.

Janet Gornick, Nathaniel Johnson and I have recently looked at this more carefully. Without going through all explanations (which can be found in the paper here), we conclude that this is not entirely true: US market income inequality is generally greater than in other rich countries and the American state redistributes less. So, we argue, both the underlying (market) inequality is high and redistribution is relatively weak.

But one can go further than that, and ask the following question: what part of redistribution is “weak”: is it that US transfers are small and not sufficiently pro-poor, or is it that US direct taxes are not sufficiently progressive?
Now, I look at that issue in the following way....
Global Inequality
A la recherche of the roots of US inequality “exceptionalism”
Branko Milanovic | Visiting Presidential Professor at City University of New York Graduate Center and senior scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), and formerly lead economist in the World Bank's research department and senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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