Wealth-income ratios are rising everywhere – they are not cyclical but rather unambiguously upward trending for the past three decades. Put simply, the accumulation of wealth is outpacing economic growth. This is true in America, Europe and Japan (Piketty and Zucman 2014), as well as China and Russia (Novokmet, Zucman & Yang 2018). In recent research (Kumar 2018), I found this same trend to persist in the world’s largest democracy – Indian wealth-income ratios have been rising since the 1970s. Why are these trends so similar in countries with such deep structural differences and distinct economic trajectories? By themselves, high wealth-income ratios are not necessarily a social dilemma – they may imply more wealth for everyone. But in general, there is a tendency for wealth to be more concentrated than income. As a result, a rise in wealth over income tends to increase wealth inequality. This is certainly the situation in most economies today. Thus, these trends and the mechanisms behind them need to be understood with careful attention.
The recent global financial crisis sparked renewed debates, both within academia and policy-making circles, about regulating highly mobile cross-border money-capital flows. A particular type of policy tool has received considerable attention: capital controls (CC). Within mainstream economics and policy-oriented circles (including policy-makers in central banks, finance ministries, and international organisations such as the IMF and the G20) there has been a growing recognition that unregulated cross-border money-capital flows can considerably disrupt capital accumulation, and debates have accordingly focused on the potential role and effectiveness of temporary CC in limiting the destabilising potential of those flows, while maintaining a long-term commitment to an open capital-account and free capital mobility. By contrast, the Left (including organised labour, progressive economists, and civil society organisations) has been largely critical of capital-account liberalisation, and has denounced its detrimental effects in terms of constraining policy options for development and long-term industrial development.Read More »
Inequality in India may be returning to levels last seen during British Rule. To understand this, it is necessary to put India’s elite at the center of macro-history.
One of the central questions in political economy is how wealth evolves, particularly at the top. In Europe and the USA, we now accept that progression of wealth inequality followed a “U” shape or what has been called the “Inverted Kuznets Curve.” Briefly put, on the eve of World War I, the richest few percentiles dominated Western society with their massive wealth holdings. Fast forward to a decade after World War II and we see that their wealth declined substantially, but then started rising again in the late 1970s. Much has been written on this since (and due to) the publication of Piketty’s (2014) Capital in the 21st Century. My new and revised paper (Kumar, 2017b) puts the rich at the center of India’s economic history over the last eight decades. The main question I want to ask is the following: Is the state of contemporary wealth concentration in India a continuation or a break from its history?Read More »
Although Zimbabwe was the victorious outcome of a nationalist struggle against Rhodesia, there were significant continuities in the country’s economic structures in the first two decades of independence. The government exhibited limited commitment to land reform and economic indigenisation. Even though the ZANU PF government needed to be tactful not to upset historical structures of Zimbabwe’s economic inheritance, it needed to strike a delicate balance and undertake some form of transformation to maximise the country’s future prospects. However, limited progress was achieved in terms of economic transformation in the first twenty years of independence, resulting in political disaffection in the 1990s.
To retain political support at the turn of the twenty first century, the state undertook sudden and radical measures aimed at transforming the racial structure of the economy, resulting in the Fast Track Land Reform Programme. However, the racial undertone and process of this overdue exercise was problematic. Moreover, land reform did more than destabilise race relations. Although a steady decline had started in the early 1990s under the weight of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), land reform prompted rapid economic collapse. The most visible symptom of this was inflation. With its Special Drawing Rights (SDR) suspended at the World Bank and with its government officials facing European Union and American sanctions, these challenges ushered in a deepening political and economic crisis. By comparison, Rhodesian history had also been characterised by political conflict and international sanctions between 1966 and 1979.Read More »
African economic history today lacks a literature to provide an accurate portrayal of economic growth in Africa during the decades after the Second World War.  The scholarly field of African Studies has exacerbated problems caused by the lack of synthetic works on African economic history or discussions of national or regional policymaking, because of its focus on localized studies often undertaken with an anthropological focus. One of the fathers of the anthropological turn in African history, Steven Feierman noted in 1999 that the success of his methodology was making it increasingly difficult to tell African history at a macro-level on its own terms.  Read More »
Developed countries often lecture developing and emerging countries on the appropriate policies and institutions necessary for economic success. This is done either bilaterally or through multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, OECD or European Union. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang exposed the hypocrisy of this approach in his provocative 2002 book Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective. Chang suggests that when today’s rich countries were themselves developing, they used practices opposite to what they preach today, including industrial policies, high tariffs and infant industry protection. Therefore their current advice to poorer countries amounts to ‘kicking away the ladder’ of development.
A lesser-known but equally disturbing process has occurred in the realm of economic statistics, in particular national income accounts. The EU and OECD often criticize the national accounts of developing countries, and a recent example is a claim made in a blog by Robert Barro: “There are suspicions that China’s reported growth rates in recent decades have been boosted by manipulation of the national-accounts data.” While no statistical system is beyond doubt, the biggest manipulations of data in history, in fact, have benefited (and were supported by) rich countries.Read More »
During the summer I wrote a piece on the rise of emerging markets since World War II for the Delma Institute, a consulting firm based in the UAE. The piece is designed to be read on the web as an interactive (apparently that is what all the hip kids are doing nowadays). This blog post is a shameless plug to get you to read it. Below I pick a few juicy items from it to wet your appetite.
But first, who should read the full piece? It will make for perfect holiday reading if:
- You want to take extended bathroom breaks to escape your family and need some reading.
- You want a big picture overview – for yourself or your undergraduate students – of global economic development since WWII.
- You haven’t been on your computer enough during the last quarter.
The piece essentially tries to answer two questions: Have emerging markets ‘risen’? And will their ‘rise’ become more widespread? It does so by painting a picture of the major changes in the global economy since World War II, focusing on: 1. Increasing global economic integration and the spread of capital; 2. The rise of emerging Asia (and China in particular); and 3. The fall of communism. Read More »
Morten Jerven, image via Wikimedia
Development economics as a field of study was formally launched in the 1950s by the Afro-Caribbean economist Arthur Lewis who, out of necessity, wanted to understand how his own country, Saint Lucia, could transform from an agro-based economy into a modern industrial state (later, in 1979, Lewis was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for this work, the only black person to have won the prize to date). For Lewis, the key to providing a satisfactory answer to the problem of underdevelopment lay in studying those societies as they were and not in comparing them to some mythical ideal. Saint Lucia, like all developing countries, had a lot of underemployed labor in its agricultural sector. The question was how best to marshal this valuable resource into driving industrialization.
Sadly, development economics has moved away from Lewis’ pioneering contribution of studying poor countries on their own terms. For example, today’s development economists explain Tanzania’s lack of development as stemming from its inability to be more like Sweden. This way of studying development, termed the “subtraction approach”, has led us down a dark alleyway where there is more confusion than elucidation. That, at least, is the charge leveled by economic historian Morten Jerven in his book Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong published in 2015, but still circulating and prompting debate in academia and amongst practitioners.