The Age of Global (In)equality?

Many of the readings from Chapter 9 of O’Neil’s Essential Readings address the issue of global divergence/convergence in economic growth and/or inequality over the last few decades (and even further back than that–i.e., the Pritchett reading). The question comes down to whether there has been more or less inequality over time. Which is it? Well, the answer depends to a large extent on how one chooses to measure inequality. I’ll begin my response to this by quoting a student’s e-mail I received earlier today:

Hello, below is a link to a video showing one aspect or area of convergence.

I don’t know if I agree that countries are converging in regards to wealth and health; after all, Africa still seems very far behind.  I general, yes, countries today are healthier (longer life spans) and wealthier (not looking at inequality) than they were 200 years ago…

…For our purposes, what is the meaning of convergence and divergence?  From Pritchett, he seems to be measuring growth in terms of GDP and concluding that there is divergence between developed and developing nations (i.e. the levels of growth are not coming together, but separating).  What about China and India, who experienced faster or “larger growth” than some developed nations in the 80’s to mid 90’s?  Then with Milanovic, he is talking about inequality – how it is decreasing at the world level (when Indian and China are included) and this shows convergence.  To me, O’Neil seems to be trying to present two sides of an issue; however, I see two separate issues.  One is divergence in economic growth and the other is convergence in equality. I suppose that China’s and India’s economic growth can explain or at least correlate to lower inequality at the world level, but is that the correct way of interpreting Milanovic?  Is he saying that there’s a convergence of equality (or lower inequality gap worldwide), because countries (when including China and India) are converging in regards to economic growth?

Thank you.

This student is essentially correct in his reading of the respective arguments. As I mentioned earlier, which view one takes on the question of the recent direction of inequality convergence/divergence depends upon how one chooses to measure inequality. To put it differently, it depends upon whether your unit-of-analysis is the country or the individual. A Gini Index score that is calculated on the basis of mean levels of national income (or wealth) may not be the same as one calculated on the basis of comparing the wealth of individuals worldwide. In fact, Milanovic tells us that the values are indeed different, and the difference is due mainly to what has happened in China and India over the last two decades or so.