A FiveBooks interview, over at The Browser:
What do non-economists think, in your view?
My caricature of a layman’s view is that inequality is an indication of something that is failing in society. If a group of people used to earn twice as much as another group of people, and then, over 20 years, that ratio increases to four, that’s something that is concerning and might indicate a failure of social policy. My own view is a mixture of the two. If you’re looking at the average college graduate versus the average high school graduate, or the 90th versus the 10th percentile, then the things economists have emphasised – technology, globalisation, offshoring and outsourcing, changes in the supply of skills, et cetera – have played a major role and probably tell the bulk of the story. But if you want to understand the top inequality, why the top 0.1% – even more than what the 1% Occupy Wall Streeters are talking about – have been earning such huge amounts, then really you have to think about the social policy aspects of it and the politics of it. There is perhaps some sort of failure in how our system is working.
In terms of the actual figures, how bad is inequality in the US and, say, the UK?
Based on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, if you look from the 1950s up to the end of the 1970s, the share of total national income in the US earned by the richest 1% was about 10%. If you look at the 2000s, it’s well over 20%. It rose up to nearly 25% and then came down. In the UK it’s at about 15%, up from 7% or so. The trend towards inequality over the last 50 years has been very similar in the Anglo-Saxon economies, though it’s important to say that it’s not just an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. There are similar trends in many economies, though there are a few that haven’t experienced it to any notable extent.
Finland and Sweden. Even there, there’s been an increase in the top percentile share – which is not so surprising, given they have many multinational companies where the CEOs make a lot of money – but the increase is much less pronounced. The share of the national income that the top one percentile captures is significantly lower.