Sir Tony Atkinson, the doyen of inequality economics, passed away in January. This column, by a longstanding friend and co-author, outlines his contributions to the analysis and measurement of inequality – and many other areas of economics, including taxation, social protection, and the welfare state. The ultimate goal of Atkinson’s research was to translate economic analysis into policy actions: economics is a tool for understanding the world and taking informed decisions on policies, but economists must strive to communicate their results beyond the narrow circles of decision-makers, making them accessible for public discussion.
Andrea Brandolini, 27 February 2017
Enrico Spolaore, Romain Wacziarg, 10 February 2017
Since the Industrial Revolution, modern prosperity has spread from its European birthplace to many corners of the world. Yet the diffusion of technologies, institutions and behaviours associated with this process of economic modernisation has been unequal both over space and time. This column, taken from a recent Vox eBook, argues that the divergent historical paths followed by distinct populations led to barriers between them. Although these barriers are deeply rooted, their effect is not permanent and immutable.
Gustavo A. Marrero, Juan Gabriel Rodríguez, Roy Van der Weide, 08 February 2017
Inequality can be both good and bad for growth. Unequal societies may be holding back one segment of the population while helping another. This column exploits US data to argue that inequality affects negatively the future income growth of the poor and positively that of the rich. This relationship is largely driven by inequality of opportunity, which limits the growth prospects at the bottom of the income distribution.
Ufuk Akcigit, John Grigsby, Tom Nicholas, 02 February 2017
A pressing issue facing policymakers around the globe today is how to generate long-term economic growth through technological innovation. Using a new dataset that matches 19th and 20th century patent records with census data, this column attempts to shed some light on the ‘golden age’ of US innovation. Population density and financial development are found to be important determinants of state innovativeness, while education appears to be the critical input at the individual level. These findings have important implications for innovation policy today.
Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, 30 January 2017
The immense economic inequality we observe in the world today is the path-dependent outcome of a multitude of historical processes, one of the most important of which has been European colonialism. This column, taken from a recent Vox eBook, discusses how colonialism has shaped modern inequality in several fundamental, but heterogeneous, ways.
Guido Alfani, 15 January 2017
Recent research into the share of wealth owned by the richest households has given us important insights into trends in inequality. This column shows how we can now estimate the share of wealth owned by the richest households in Europe, and how many they numbered, from 1300 to the present day. Throughout this time, the only significant declines in inequality were the result of the Black Death and the World Wars.
Thomas Piketty, 07 January 2017
Anthony B. Atkinson passed away on the morning of 1 January 2017 at the age of 72, after a long illness. This column describes how he established a unique place for himself among economists over the past half-decade by putting the question of inequality at the centre of his work while demonstrating that economics is first and foremost a social and moral science, in defiance of prevailing trends.
Pushkar Maitra, Sandip Mitra, Dilip Mookherjee, Alberto Motta, Sujata Visaria, 14 December 2016
Lack of access to credit in developing countries traps farmers in poverty. At the same time, there is a lack of evidence that microfinance raises the incomes of the poor while maintaining high repayment rates. Using a field experiment in West Bengal, this column argues that incentivising local intermediaries to select loan recipients improves both average income growth and crop yields compared to traditional microfinance. There is no evidence that this strategy lowers equity, although some disadvantaged groups performed better in the existing system.
Danny Leipziger, 08 December 2016
Despite lifting millions out of poverty, globalisation is facing growing political opposition. This column surveys the successes and failures of globalisation, and some of the critical policy implications. Globalisation has reached a stage where its benefits have been captured but its costs have been largely ignored. Going forward, governments need to address inequality and social inclusion, boost global investment, and restore confidence.
Nora Lustig, 29 November 2016
Why did so many of those who feel left behind vote for a member of the global elite in the US election? This column argues that rather than an increase in income and wealth inequality, it may be a rise in equality for wealthy African-Americans, for women, and for the gay community that is feeding a greater sense of unfairness. If we advocate greater horizontal equality, we must also ensure that it is embraced, or at least tolerated, by all.
Adrian Adermon, Mikael Lindahl, Daniel Waldenström, 27 November 2016
Recent studies on intergenerational income mobility have looked beyond the two-generational model to the role of grandparents, but multigenerational patterns in the wealth distribution have received less attention. This column uses a Swedish four-generational wealth dataset to study the role of family background for people’s wealth status and how much of this that is due to material inheritance. Most of the transmission in wealth status between generations comes from parents in the form of bequests and gifts, with only a marginal contribution from grandparents.
Yoshio Higuchi, Naomi Kodama, Izumi Yokoyama, 11 November 2016
Studies have confirmed an increase in earnings inequality in Japan, but do not agree on how or when it increased, or which groups were most affected. This column decomposes changes in earnings data to show a recent decrease in the returns to general human capital of almost all Japanese workers, at the same time as an increase in the returns to firm-specific human capital among male workers with high wage rates. Gender-based wage inequality has persisted.
Simon Boserup, Wojciech Kopczuk, Claus Kreiner, 04 November 2016
Economists normally study wealth formation and inequality among the adult population, but some people already possess economic resources in early childhood. This column uses data from Denmark to examine childhood wealth and the role of wealth transfers early in life. A main result is that wealth inequality starts as early as childhood. Although overall wealth levels in childhood are low, they are better predictors of wealth in adulthood than parental wealth.
Peter Bofinger, Philipp Scheuermeyer, 20 October 2016
The effect of income distribution on aggregate saving has important implications for aggregate demand and global current account imbalances. Drawing on evidence from a panel of high-income OECD countries, this column documents a hump-shaped relationship between inequality and aggregate saving rates. It also shows that the relationship between inequality and saving depends on financial market conditions.
Gianni La Cava, 08 October 2016
The rising share of income accruing to housing is a key feature of the changing US income distribution. This column examines the determinants of this phenomenon. The rise occurred due to an increasing share of income accruing to owner-occupiers through imputed rent, it is concentrated in states that are constrained in terms of new housing supply, and it is closely associated with the long-run decline in real interest rates and inflation.
Matthew Weinzierl, 24 September 2016
Tax policy to correct inequality assumes that nobody is entitled to advantages due to luck alone. But the public largely rejects complete equalisation of 'brute luck' inequality. This column argues that there is near universal public support for an alternative, benefit-based theory of taxation. Treating optimal tax policy as an empirical matter may help us to close the gap between theory and reality.
Speaker: Professor Elhanan Helpman FBA
Chaired by: Professor Richard Blundell FBA, University College London
While the rise in income inequality is hardly disputable, its causes have been debated for the last 20 years. Extensive research is shedding new light on the contribution of globalization to rising inequality. Although the ascent of less developed countries in the world economy has impacted inequality in the developed part of the world, the new research identifies drivers of inequality that are common to both rich and poor countries. The lecture will start with a historical account and end with the most recent insights.
James Bessen, 22 September 2016
A popular notion is that computer automation leads to major job losses. However, this ignores the dynamic economic responses that involve both changing demand and inter-occupation substitution. Using US data, this column explores the effect of automation on employment growth for detailed occupational categories. Computer-using occupations have had greater job growth to date, while those using few computers suffer greater computer-related losses. The real challenge posed by automation is developing a workforce with the skills to use new technologies.
Giacomo De Giorgi, Anders Frederiksen, Luigi Pistaferri, 17 September 2016
Household consumption can be influenced by the consumption behaviour of peers. This column examines why this is the case, and considers some policy implications. The tendency for individuals to under-save (or over-borrow) in an attempt to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ appears to be driven by the average consumption of their peers, rather than by the consumption of conspicuous items. If tax policy fails to consider these peer effects, it risks wrongly estimating the effects of tax reforms that target certain groups.
John Helliwell, 06 September 2016
Discussions about inequality tend to focus on the distribution of income and wealth. This column argues for a shift in focus towards another source of inequality – subjective wellbeing. Wellbeing inequality has grown significantly for the world as a whole and in eight of the ten global regions. One way to address this inequality is to increase social trust.