What matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has.
By Chris Dillow – Roland Benabou gave the example (pdf) of how egalitarian South Korea has done much better than the unequal Philippines. And IMF researchers have found (pdf) a “strong negative relation” between inequality and the rate and duration of subsequent growth spells across 153 countries between 1960 and 2010.
Correlations, of course, are only suggestive. They pose the question: what is the mechanism whereby inequality might reduce growth? Here are eight possibilities:
1. Inequality encourages the rich to invest not innovation but in what Sam Bowles calls “guard labor” (pdf) – means of entrenching their privilege and power. This might involve restrictive copyright laws, ways of overseeing and controlling workers, or the corporate rent-seeking and lobbying that has led to what Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles call the “captured economy.”
An especially costly form of this rent-seeking was banks’ lobbying for a “too big to fail” subsidy. This encouraged over-expansion of the banking system and the subsequent crisis, which has had a massively adverse effect upon economic growth.
One reason for this is simply that if people don’t trust each other they’ll not enter into transactions where there’s a risk of them being ripped off.
5. Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest. National Grid is belly-aching, maybe rightly, that Labour’s plan to nationalize it will delay investment. But it should instead ask: why is Labour proposing such a thing, and why is it popular? more>