Democracy Lab

Mind the Gap

Inequality is an increasing problem around the world. But there are cures.

Economic inequality seems to be Topic A for the global chattering classes. Even at the Davos World Economic Forum Meetings, where billionaires go to compare aircraft sizes, talk turned away from self-congratulation to sobering topics like where the next 600 million jobs will be coming from.

The big worry is that economic growth and inequality go together like doughnuts and heart attacks. And not just in rich countries, but across the developing world. That concern is surely justified: Developing economies that have outperformed the pack in recent decades have generally also experienced enormous increases in the gap between poor and rich. But this lock can be picked -- and has been in a few big countries. The question is whether governments have the political will.

Step back for a moment. It’s critical to distinguish inequality between countries from inequality within countries. The explosive growth of Asia, combined with tepid growth in Europe and North America, is almost certainly narrowing the difference in average incomes between nations. But with a few significant exceptions, inequality within developing countries has risen sharply since the 1980s. By one standard measure, the Gini Index, inequality has increased by about one-fifth in India and China. And extreme wealth has become ever more extreme. In 2002, India was home to four billionaires ($US); today the number is 55. In 2002, China claimed only one billionaire. Last time Forbes added up the numbers,  China clocked in with 115 -- more than Germany, France and Japan combined.Should you care? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might expect. Rapid growth in emerging markets largely explains why at least a half-billion fewer people live in poverty today than in the 1980s. So if the leap to affluence can’t be sustained unless a disproportionate piece of the growth dividend goes to the rich -- and if the rising tide still more or less carries all boats -- glaring inequality is hardly the worst of possible worlds. Or to switch metaphors: Most people, one suspects, would prefer the crumbs from a very large pie to a thin slice from a small one. And that’s what they’re generally getting.

It’s one thing to say, though, that growing inequality hasn’t stopped advancement at the low end of the pecking order, and quite another to say it should be a minor concern in the context of rapid growth. Other things equal, most of us would rather live in a society that invests in upward mobility for those who are capable, and shares the bounty with those who aren’t. Besides, other things aren’t equal: In emerging market countries, even modest amounts redistributed from the haves would pay for a hefty increase in living standards for the have-nots.

It’s good news, then, that rapid growth has coexisted peacefully with declining inequality in one large, emerging market county. That country is Brazil, where in the years 2000-2008, the incomes of the bottom-fifth grew at an average annual rate of six percent, compared to two percent for the top-fifth.

How did Brazil manage to narrow the gap between rich and poor, when neither China nor India have even come close? For starters, Brazil spends a higher percentage of GDP on social programs -- housing, education, pensions, medical care, unemployment compensation -- than other middle-income countries. In fact, in some years it has spent a higher percentage on social programs than the United States.

Probably more important, Brazil targets the benefits well, among other things giving a fair shake to rural residents (who have less political voice than urban dwellers) and insuring a relatively large portion of the work force against joblessness.  Brazil moreover, seeks a bigger bang for its real, using cash grants as an incentive for poor families to increase their prospects for mobility. A portion of the money handed out is conditional on sending kids to school, visiting health care clinics for preventive medicine and, in the case of pregnant women, undergoing regular check-ups.

To be sure, the starting point for Brazil -- in 2003, when it elected a charismatic left-center president by the name of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (see photo above) -- was a level of inequality far worse than that of the rest of the Americas. (In fact, the only big country that had a worse gap between rich and poor was South Africa.) But the success of Brazil’s effort to lean against the winds of inequality is instructive. First, it proves that a focus on equity need not undermine growth. Indeed, allowing inequality to balloon can generate discontent that threatens political stability and thus, economic progress. In Egypt, the revolution that has been led by economically frustrated urban youth threatens to nip the country’s very real economic successes in the bud.

Second, emerging-market countries don’t have the luxury of subsidizing everybody as a politically acceptable means of subsidizing the poor. But Brazil’s tightly targeted anti-poverty program is a rarity. Contrast it, for example, to the unaffordable policy in Egypt of allowing middle-income households to garner a hefty share of the bounty from food and cooking fuel subsidies.

There’s an irony here. Brazil proves that government can be part of the solution to inequality in emerging market countries, offsetting the dynamics of capitalism by redistributing money and basic services, and providing incentives for education. But government is also part of the problem.

All the rapidly growing, emerging market countries are lands of opportunity. Returns on capital (both physical and human) are very high, and labor productivity is increasing rapidly as workers move from less productive sectors (agriculture) to more (typically manufacturing and services). But a disproportionate share of dividends to growth in the private sector ends up in the pockets of the already rich and powerful, at least in part because regulation and corruption favor incumbents over outsiders. Brazil, China and India are all very difficult places to start businesses, ranking 120th, 151st and 166th respectively (out of 183 countries) on the World Bank’s index. They are also places in which who you know matters as much or more as how well you do it: All three countries rank as moderately to highly corrupt on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. So when opportunity knocks, those with money and influence have the inside track on exploiting it. By the same token, insiders have a relatively easy time protecting lucrative niches from competition.

Thus, there are really two related issues here: income inequality and economic mobility. Governments can and should use some of the surplus from economic growth to offset the trend toward inequality. Arguably the tougher challenge, though, is to level the playing field -- to increase economic mobility at the expense of incumbents.

In recent decades, the spectacular performance of the big emerging market economies has made life better for almost all residents, taking the sting out of rising inequality. But as they mature and growth slows, the ones that have failed to pay attention to the issue may well pay a price. Just ask Hosni Mubarak.



Nice Oil Imports You've Got There. Shame if You Lost Them.

Why Americans need to be more grateful to Canada.

In laying claim to the majority of Michigan's delegates in the Feb. 28 primary, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also laid claim to the precious natural resources of America's northern neighbor. "I'll get us that oil from Canada that we deserve," he said.

That may not have been the most artful way to put it, but critics on both sides of the border should ignore that infelicitous phrasing, recognize the ties that bind the United States and Canada together, and work assiduously to maintain those vital energy links.

Many Americans may think that Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of U.S. oil imports -- after all, isn't that why the United States keeps aircraft carriers in the Gulf and why the Saudi kings are either held by hand in Texas or offered deep bows? Some may even believe that Iraq has taken that place -- wasn't the war all about getting hands on Saddam's oil? But such beliefs are nothing but proof of Americans' general ignorance about Canada's importance for the U.S. energy supply, of which oil is just one component.

For decades, Canada has been the single-largest supplier of imported crude oil and refined oil products to the United States. In 2010, Canadian exports provided about 26 percent of all net U.S. liquid fuel imports (consisting of crude oil and refined products) -- or nearly 12 percent of America's total demand for liquid hydrocarbons, roughly every eighth barrel.

Canada's crude oil exports to the United States are greater than those of the entire Persian Gulf region, which only accounted for about 18 percent of America's crude imports in 2010. As for Iraq, it accounted for a paltry 4.5 percent of U.S. crude oil imports in 2010, and more oil was shipped from its southern port city of Basra to China than to the United States.

The United States doesn't rely on Canada only for oil. In 2010, Canada's natural gas exports accounted for nearly 90 percent of all U.S. gas imports, and they provided nearly 14 percent of America's total gas consumption. In cold Midwestern states, the percentage supplied by Canada is even larger.

Canada also exported nearly 10 percent of its total annual electricity generation, or some 44 terawatt-hours, to the United States. Although this accounted for only about 1 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption, Canada's hydroelectric plants provided the highly valuable peak power that covered spikes in demand during the winter and summer.

The United States also couldn't supply its nuclear reactors without its northern neighbor. Canada is the world's largest uranium producer, providing more than a fifth of the global total. The United States imports about 80 percent of the uranium that fuels its nuclear power plants, which produce about 20 percent of America's electricity, and roughly half those imports come from Canada. That means Saskatchewan's uranium produces nearly 8 percent of America's electricity.

Simply put, no other country fills America's energy needs as effectively as Canada -- and the United States doesn't need to resort to large military buildups and deals with shady dictatorships to secure its supplies, as it does in the Gulf. For this reason, Romney is right to focus on the importance of Canadian energy. Recent increases in domestic natural gas and crude oil extraction have slightly reduced U.S. dependence on hydrocarbon imports, but they will not eliminate the United States' future reliance on Canada.

President Barack Obama's decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have linked oil sands in Alberta to the U.S. market, was motivated by his desire to mollify one of the more extreme segments of his constituency in an election year -- not by a long-term vision of nurturing the vital U.S.-Canada energy relationship. The most disturbing consequence of this decision was the sight of the Canadian prime minister flying to China to peddle future oil exports to America's greatest strategic rival.

Canadians are hardly assertive or demanding. We don't expect U.S. presidents to bow down to our prime ministers when they visit us in Ottawa, nor are we looking for the occasional kickback on an F-16 deal. You don't even need to look the other way when the police crack down on hockey rioters in Vancouver. But a "thank you" every once in a while would sure be nice.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images