As within-country inequality is on the rise worldwide, considering how people actually perceive inequality in their societies and how they respond to it is a question worth asking. In 1973 Albert Otto Hirschman proposed an explanation of changing tolerance for inequality associated with different ‘stages’ of the development process. In this post I’ll revisit Hirschman’s theory and link it to emerging studies of how inequality is perceived in China. The Chinese people generally seem to be satisfied with rising inequality, yet it is unclear how long this tolerance will last.Read More »
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.
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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 »
This month, four prominent Marxists met at The New School in New York to debate the relevance of imperialism. The debate was related to the publication of Prabhat Patnaik’s (Jawaharlal Nehru University) new book A Theory of Imperialism (written with Utsa Patnaik). With him in the panel were geographer David Harvey (CUNY), political scientist Nancy Fraser (The New School), and economist Duncan Foley (The New School). Economics Professor Sanjay Reddy (The New School) moderated the debate. The main question for the panelists was: Is ‘Imperialism’ a relevant concept today? A fruitful debate followed, suggesting that contemporary imperialism is crying out for analysis and critique.
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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 »
Any discussion of inequality includes an implicit normative or ethical comparison of distributions; a certain distribution of some good, or of gains in that good, is acceptable or not acceptable, is better or worse, is improving or stagnating. If discussions of inequality also inevitably involve rankings and comparisons of different distributions, then how inequality is defined and measured will affect these rankings and comparisons. The choice of measurement of inequality is therefore not value neutral.Read More »
The first modern book in economics was called the “Wealth of Nations” because its writer, Adam Smith understood (and transmuted the idea) that the key to prosperity and growth was the generation and distribution of wealth – not just the flow of income. Recent interest in economics has started to return to this question especially in the context of today’s rich countries. The academic attention on the metamorphosis and concentration of wealth has so far excluded poor countries. In fact the study of the wealth of poor nations should be a core question in development economics (over income growth) because wealth tends to cumulate all past prosperity or disparity.
I found it notable that despite the detailed historical analysis in Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century, there was no mention of Indian wealth (Piketty did study top Indian incomes). To an extent this is understandable because data on India is so limited and unreliable that documenting it would require a book in itself. Till date, the Indian central bank (RBI) does not follow the tradition of publishing regular household and private sector balance sheets at market value, to assess accumulation and asset prices. And yet due to its sheer size and importance, India presents a unique challenge to the notion of prosperity – it is simultaneously home to some of the wealthiest and poorest global citizens. In the past, the question of India’s colonial subservience was related to the drain of wealth, rather than income – the British enriched themselves at the cost of their prized colony. What happened once India became independent?
My new paper “Capital and the Hindu rate of growth: Top Indian wealth holders 1961-1986” tries to answer this question for a particular historical phase in Indian history. Read More »