Growth and Inequality: Understanding Recent Trends and Political Choices

In current debates about the world economy, “growth is good” often appears as a truism. Growth leads to wealth, it is said, and greater wealth is surely desirable, especially for the poorer developing countries. Closer inspection, however, leads to a far more nuanced assessment.

Legend has it that there was a time when economists celebrated economic growth, regardless of its distribution. Such economists would have judged alternative economic practices and policies exclusively by their relative impact on the inflation-adjusted (per capita) social product. I am not sure such economists were ever dominant. Economists have long seen the point of income and wealth in the satisfaction of human preferences and understood that, insofar as such satisfaction increases with rising income or wealth, it does so at a declining rate. At any rate, the legend of the growth-only economists is useful because it allows real economists to stress that they are different, that they favor pro-poor growth, growth-with-equity, or some such thing. This is crucial to their theological role of appeasing the conscience of their wealthy constituents and of reconciling rich and poor alike to the great globalization push of the last twenty-five years. If economic experts committed to equity and eradication of poverty celebrate this push and the growth it produces, how can we withhold our approval?

Consider this example from the Economist (March 11, 2004).The message the Economist conveys with these two charts is that critics of recent globalization are mendacious or confused when they complain of inequitable growth: Only when the population size of countries is ignored (as in the top chart) can it appear as though global economic growth is benefiting the rich disproportionately. As soon as population size is taken into account (as in the bottom chart) it becomes clear that the poor are benefiting mightily—the rise of China and India is living proof of this. A further message here conveyed is that globalization’s supporters, such as the Economist, care about poverty and inequity and would not be such ardent supporters if the poor were not benefiting along with the rich.

Who Benefits from Recent Growth?

Growth can benefit rich and poor alike, and thereby reduce poverty. But to what extent has World Trade Organization (WTO) globalization actually done so? The Economist is right to suggest that the top chart cannot answer the question. And it rightly prefers the bottom chart: The added information about population size matters in that, other things being equal, it is better for faster growth to occur in more populous poor countries than in less populous ones.

Nonetheless, the bottom chart cannot settle the matter either. One reason is that ...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.