We need a Global Summit on Inequality
Life is unfair, but what can we do about it?
Income and wealth inequality is unjust, and yet the world continues to tolerate rising injustices, the most recent being inequalities in vaccine distribution.
French political economist Thomas Piketty and his colleagues at the World Inequality Lab have just published the World Inequality Report 2022, a real goldmine in data and insights on global inequalities. I found at least three nuggets inside that are blindingly obvious, but no one has quite tied it together so well as Piketty and his team.
First, inequality is primarily a political issue. We can all do something about it, but since politics has been captured by money, the few remain more equal than the many. Between 1995 and 2021, the top one percent wealthiest people in the world captured 38 percent of the growth in global wealth, whereas the bottom 50 percent had a pitiful two percent share. Similarly, the richest 10 percent of world population take home 52 percent of global income, whereas the bottom 50 percent earned only 8.5 percent.
The Report showed why these inequities could not be reduced despite increases in average income and wealth per capita. The progressive tax rates where the rich paid more than the poor, introduced in the first half of the 20th century to deal with inequality, were dismantled in the 1980s. The neoliberal free market philosophy preached low taxes and small governments to encourage entrepreneurship, but effectively handed more income and wealth to the elite few.
Piketty's second historical insight is that Europe and later America got rich on the back of both the Industrial Revolution and colonisation. In 1820, inequality between countries (inter-country) was only 11 percent of global inequality, meaning that most inequality was domestic (intra-country). But inter-country inequality rose when the West advanced with industrialisation and resource extraction from the colonies. That peaked in 1980, when it represented 57 percent of global inequality. Since then, the rise in income of China, India and other newly independent countries narrowed the gap with the West, but by 2020, domestic inequality again accounted for 68 percent of global inequality. This meant that the developing countries allowed their own inequalities to worsen, even as they were narrowing the gap with the West.
In short, the rich are the same everywhere. They have more and want more.
But there is a twist to this story. One reason why the Rest has caught up with the West is that "nations became richer, but governments have become poor." In essence, because the governments in Europe, North America and Japan used debt to tackle slow growth since the 1980s, private wealth grew at the expense of public wealth. Privatisation policies transferred public wealth such as utilities to the private sector, whereas public sector debt continued to increase. UK and US public wealth, which was around 15 to 30 percent of total wealth before the 1980s, declined to net liabilities of -10 percent to -20 percent of total wealth respectively. Contrast this with China and Russia, where public wealth represents around 30 percent of national wealth, down from 70 percent at the end of the 1980s.
The third Report insight is that inequalities and climate change are highly corelated. Between 1850-2020, half (49 percent) of historical carbon emission was accounted for by North America (27 percent) and Europe (22 percent). China accounted for 11 percent, but has now become the largest emitter, although per capita emission remains lower. A recent IMF study pointed out that "the richest countries represent only 16 percent of the world population but almost 40 percent of CO2 emissions. The two categories of the poorest countries in the World Bank classification account for nearly 60 percent of the world's population, but for less than 15 percent of emissions." The COP26 debate was all about whether China, India and other emerging markets that are increasing their carbon emissions should do more on Net Zero pledges.
The entanglement between CO2 emission and income and wealth levels suggest that climate warming policies should focus more on making those responsible for carbon emissions pay more for remedial climate action. The bottom 50 percent of the population in Europe emits around five tonnes of carbon per person per year, with their counterpart class emitting three tonnes in East Asia and 10 tonnes in North America.
But the top 10 percent in these regions account for 29 tonnes in Europe, 39 tonnes in Asia and 73 tonnes in North America. Indeed, the top one percent in the US account for 269 tonnes of carbon per person per year, compared with 139 tonnes for the top one percent in China. The rich everywhere are the biggest carbon emitters.
All these suggest that tackling climate change and social injustice are part of a total political package, cutting across nations. It's one thing to promise to cut carbon to Net Zero, it's another to design the projects and programmes to deliver on their promises. Back home, each government will face huge resistance from vested interests that want to delay or just green-wash any action. In other words, talk more and do less.
The Report has made some excellent suggestions to tackle inequality, such as progressive tax measures and a global asset register, that are bound to be controversial. But to be effective, they need global cooperation. No single country can impose higher tax rates or tougher action without being undercut by another country.
Since everything is politics, I have to agree with inequality blogger Branko Milanovic that the recent Summit on Democracies is the wrong idea for the world, because it tried to divide the world into two opposing ideological camps. The priority should be to work together globally to tackle climate and human inequalities that require domestic action against vested interests that are common across nations.
The next Global Summit should be about how to tackle inequalities. Given the complex issues and facts raised by Piketty and his colleagues, the least we can do is to have a democratic, transparent and constructive dialogue on how those who can afford and emit more carbon should pay more taxes to foster a more sustainable and inclusive world.
Copyright: Asia News Network
Andrew Sheng is one of Asia's foremost economists. He is based in Penang, Malaysia.