Inequality and Economic Growth

By Joseph Stiglitz |

In the middle of the 20th century, it came to be believed that “a rising tide lifts all boats”: economic growth would bring increasing wealth and higher living standards to all sections of society. At the time, there was some evidence behind that claim. In the ensuing economic and political debate, this “rising-tide hypothesis” evolved into a much more specific idea, according to which regressive eco­nomic policies—policies that favor the richer classes—would end up bene­fiting everyone. Resources given to the rich would inevitably “trickle down” to the rest.
Today, the trend to greater equality of incomes which characterized the postwar period has been reversed. Inequality is now rising rapidly. Contrary to the rising-tide hypothesis, the rising tide has only lifted the large yachts, and many of the smaller boats have been left dashed on the rocks. This is partly because the extraordinary growth in top incomes has coincided with an economic slowdown.
This chapter looks critically at both claims. It argues in favor of alternative explanations of inequality, with particular reference to the theory of rent-seeking and to the influence of institutional and political factors, which have shaped labour markets and patterns of remuneration. And it shows that, far from being either necessary or good for economic growth, excessive inequality tends to lead to weaker economic per­formance. In light of this, it argues for a range of policies that would increase both equity and economic well-being.

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Joseph E. Stiglitz is Senior Fellow and Chief Economist at the Roosevelt Institute and a professor at Columbia University. A recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (2001) and the John Bates Clark Medal (1979), he is a former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank and a former member and chairman of the (US president’s) Council of Economic Advisers.