Branko Milanovic

Global inequality is such an abstract concept, simply because there is no global government. Telling people in rich countries who have had no increase in real incomes, stagnant median wages and so on, that on the other hand global inequality is going down because people who are much poorer than them are getting richer – it’s something that maybe they would like in an abstract sense, because everyone is happy there are fewer poor Chinese, but you may not be as happy if these Chinese are taking your job.

People in the rich countries who have done very well, who are at the top of the income pyramid, try to steamroll over the opposition of the middle without changing anything in social programs, or any redistribution. And they take their votes for a given. They have rich people that bankroll them. And the globalization would continue, but it would continue with permanent dissatisfaction among large segments of the people.

If, for example, each of us had the same share of capital in the national total capital, then if the share of capital goes up it’s not a problem, because you get as much as I do. The problem is that capital in capitalist countries is very heavily concentrated, especially financial capital. So then if the share of income from that source goes up, that actually exacerbates inequality.

Well, you can do whatever you want, but just don’t call it inequality. Put the word poverty there. Because we have many rich people on our board, and when they see the word poverty that makes them feel good, because [it means] they’re really nice people who care about the poor. When they see the word inequality it makes them upset, because [it means] you want to take money from them.

Most people believe that inequality is rising – and indeed it has been rising for a while in a number of rich countries. And there is lots of talk and realization of this. It’s harder to understand that at the same time, you can actually have global inequality going down. Technically speaking, national inequality can increase in every single country and yet global inequality can go down. And why it is going down is because very large, populous, and relatively poor countries like India and China are growing quite fast.

I was at the World Bank and a commission reviewed our work on inequality for the U.S. Congress or somebody, and the head of the commission said to us: “You are spending taxpayer money to study issues like inequality? Which goes directly against capitalism and growth.” That was the perception, that it should not be studied.

The middle class in the rich countries is where the political game is being played. They are voting in elections in the U.S., U.K., France and Germany. They are working people in the upper part of the global income distribution. They might on average be happy that the Chinese are doing well, but they are not happy that the Chinese are doing well relative to them.

While you can say that the problem of the middle class in the rich countries is too much globalization, the problem of the people who are very poor is really that they are not included in globalization. For them, the success of their own countries at becoming part of this international division of labor would be good news.

When the industrial revolution happened there was the Luddistic movement, and there was a fear that machinery would replace all the labor. Whenever we had a technological revolution we had this fear. So if you look backwards, these fears were not justified, and I think they were driven by our very human inability to visualize what new jobs will be created by this new technology.

In the U.S. when people like me started writing things about inequality, the economic journals had no classification for inequality. I couldn’t find where to submit my inequality papers because there was no such topic. There was welfare, there was health issues, there was trade obviously. Finance had hundreds of sub groups.