Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 17, 2013

The Evolution of Inequality: Or, You Lost Me After Graph 17

“Inequality Regimes and Rawlsian Growth Rates: Some thoughts on the evolution of inequality 1960-2010, with special reference to Venezuela”: So many graphs…could you summarize that for me?

Inequality in Venezuela has indeed decreased relatively quickly since 1999 – the second fastest decrease after Ecuador, which has also had left-leaning governments (though a far more unstable political context, with five different presidents since 1998). Three things are worth noting about the context of these trends, however.

First and most important is that this reduction in inequality is not driven by direct redistribution: there is barely any difference between the “market” gini index (our measure of inequality before taxes and transfers) and the “net” gini index (our measure of inequality after taxes and transfers). To the extent that the reduction in inequality is the result of government action rather than something else, it must have come about through measures like investment in human capital and labor market policies (see Morgan and Kelly 2012, ungated here, for the proper peer-reviewed argument). This is true of all Latin American countries save for Puerto Rico (which is part of the USA in a sense) and (to a lesser extent) Brazil; indeed, redistribution in some countries (Peru) appears to have perversely increased inequality.

Second, most Latin American countries have experienced reductions in inequality during this period, though most remain highly unequal. But Venezuela was already among the most equal countries in Latin America; in 1999, only Uruguay and Costa Rica had lower measured inequality (and the difference in net gini was within the margin of measurement error, so it should probably be disregarded). This surprised me; I had expected higher levels of inequality in Venezuela when compared to other countries, given the level of class conflict on display during the Chavez era. More surprisingly perhaps, if we take a broader look we discover that inequality in Venezuela appears to have been remarkably stable over the past fifty years, fluctuating around a flat trend…

Finally, it’s probably worth noting that Venezuela’s economic fortunes are deeply tied to oil prices, and that the rapid reduction in inequality in the last decade or so should also be placed in the context of the very large rise in the value of oil and gas during this period.

Thanks. And the conclusion:

In other words, over the last half-century, the income of the poor has risen fastest under regimes that have not been on average highly democratic, but also has grown least in these regimes; non-democracy looks like a (potentially quite bad) gamble, though both democracy, long-run inequality, and the long-run growth rate of the income of the poor are probably determined by (or are a reflection of) some deeper social fact, like state capacity, which is not really susceptible to policy intervention.



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