Wherever you live in the world, here’s a newsflash: You’ve been robbed. Not by a hidden bandit, but a global kleptocracy: the super-rich who’ve managed to rob the poor blind in every corner of the globe for the past seven decades. And a research team led by pioneering economist Thomas Piketty, the World Inequality Lab, has mapped out how that theft has played out on a global scale.
Not surprisingly, America was near the top of the list in terms of how unequal our country is, in addition to being far richer as a whole than any other nation. Still, while inequality is universal—polarizing countries and dividing individual nations internally—some countries are, surprisingly, more unequal than others.
As of 2016, the top 10 percent of earners in Europe held about 37 percent of total national income; the United States’ and Canada’s top earners held closer to half. In India, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil, the top share reached about 55 percent, and the Middle East’s top 10th had captured more than 60 percent. Back in the 1970s, the privately held share of national income was about twice to three and a half times the national income, but now individuals control the equivalent of four to seven times the national income. According to the researchers, the pattern “marks the end of a postwar egalitarian regime which took different forms in these regions.”
The common rebuttal is that even if the “richer are getting richer,” free markets ensure that all boats rise. But some boats rise much faster than others—and others still have already capsized. Compare the different experiences of the United States and the European Union. According to lead researcher Lucas Chancel, “the US experienced an extreme rise in inequality over the past decades,” such that the top 1 percent of earners doubled their wealth to 20 percent of national income, while the bottom half fell from 20 to 10 percent of the national income. But in Europe, the polarization was relatively stable, with the poorest slipping just a few percentage points.
Similarly uneven outcomes have emerged in post-communist transition economies. Russia has seen a “brutal” economic liberalization since the 1980s, Chancel says, “and the rise in inequality was extreme and fast, with a few individuals capturing most of the benefits of privatization policies.” By contrast, China undertook a much more incremental approach to market opening while the government ”managed to invest a lot in education and infrastructures for its low income groups,” and thus avoided the same abysmal social division that Russia has suffered since the late 1980s, though China’s inequality is rising steadily as the country grows more affluent today.