Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The mantra of growth; or, Bhagwati vs. Pogge

Given the nature of the news cycle, the debate sparked by Pres. Obama's (successful) nomination of Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank has long since been eclipsed by a spate of fresher stories. But I wanted to write this post before the Kim story faded into complete oblivion, because the debate over Kim raised again some fundamental questions about economic growth, inequality, and poverty.

In a column published last month criticizing the choice of Kim,
Jagdish Bhagwati asserted that the Obama administration has the wrong view of development. He wrote:
...perhaps the most compelling factor in Obama’s choice [of Kim] seems to have been a fundamental misunderstanding of what "development" requires. Micro-level policies such as health care, which the Obama administration seems to believe is what "development" policy ought to be, can only go so far. But macro-level policies, such as liberalization of trade and investment, privatization, and so forth, are powerful engines of poverty reduction; indeed, they are among the key components of the reforms that countries like India and China embraced in the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s....

[I]t is the rapid acceleration of economic growth in the major emerging countries that has reduced poverty, not only directly, through jobs and higher incomes, but also by generating the revenues governments need to undertake the public-health, education, and other programs that sustain poverty reduction – and growth – in the long term.

Now, there's no question that economic growth in India and especially in China has enabled millions of people to improve their living standards and leave the ranks of the extremely poor. And it's also true that economic growth generates revenues that governments, if they have wise priorities and some administrative resources, can use for public-health, education, and similar purposes. But Bhagwati failed to ask an important question: Could 'emerging countries' have reduced poverty even more by following a different, more equitable growth path?

A 2008 article by Thomas Pogge suggests that the answer is yes.* Pogge used China to illustrate his case. He argued that although poverty in China has gone down substantially, "it is likely that more equitable growth," i.e., growth accompanied by less income inequality, "would have been much better for the Chinese poor." Pogge pointed out that although China's gross national income (GNI) increased dramatically from 1990 to 2004, the relative income share of the bottom ten percent (decile) of China's population decreased from 30.8% in 1990 to 16.0% in 2004. This decrease in its relative share meant that the absolute income of the poorest decile increased "by only 75 percent" at a time when China's GNI was going up by a whopping 236 percent (see section 5.3 of the article as reprinted in Pogge's Politics as Usual, pp.100ff.).

What if China had preserved the income distribution as it existed in 1990, even if that meant sacrificing some growth? Pogge assumed, for the sake of argument, that preserving the existing income shares would have cost China 2.3 percentage points in per capita GNI growth from 1990 to 2004. Under this assumption, the poorest decile "would have done much better..., ending the period [in 2004] at an average income of $715, rather than $500, thus with a gain of 150 rather than 75 percent." (p.101) Slower, more equitable growth also would have caused less environmental degradation, a consideration that, coupled with equity, suggests that "all countries should conceive growth much more from the standpoint of their poorer population segments" (p.102, italics in original). He also pointed out that economic inequality is much easier to create (or generate) than to reverse, because the better-off are able to change the relevant rules in their favor (ibid.). There are, in other words, lock-in effects (though Pogge does not use that phrase).

Pogge also highlighted the growth in global income inequality from 1988 to 2002, with the relative share of "the poorest 30 percent of humanity" down by about 20 percent during that period, "from 1.52 to 1.22 percent of global household income" (p.106). Again, inequality translates into differential influence over the rules that shape the distribution of global income and wealth (p.107).

These are the sorts of considerations one should keep in mind when reading the celebratory assertions of
Bhagwati and others about rapid economic growth in 'the emerging countries' and its effect on poverty. Of course such growth has reduced poverty, in some cases substantially, but poverty would have been reduced even more if that growth had been more equitable, even if less rapid. Neoliberal globalization, heralded by its supporters for reducing poverty, has likely not reduced poverty as much as a more equitable form of globalization would have, and it has perpetuated the unequal structure of influence in global institutions. The appointment of Kim to the Bank will obviously not drastically change this, since no single appointment could have such an effect and the institution will no doubt exert its organizational pull over any leader. But Kim's critical stance toward neoliberal globalization -- or what was his critical stance some years ago, at any rate -- perhaps offers a bit of hope. In any event, Bhagwati's critique was completely off the mark.

*T. Pogge, "Growth and Inequality: Understanding Recent Trends and Political Choices," Dissent (Winter 2008), reprinted (in slightly different form) in his Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric (Polity Press, 2010), pp.93-109.

No comments: