The Economist in its January 20th issue has an excellent discussion of many issues related to inequality within and between countries. I believe the main issues related to judging inequality and its changes over time come down to deciding whether the inequality is of the good or bad kind.
Many people, especially academics and other intellectuals, find the phrase “good inequality” jarring because they can hardly think of any aspect of inequality as being “good”. Yet a little thought makes clear that some types of economic inequality have great social value. For example, it would be hard to motivate the vast majority of individuals to exert much effort, including creative effort, if everyone had the same earnings, status, prestige, and other types of rewards. For example, many fewer individuals would engage in the hard work involved in finishing high school and going on to college if they did not expect their additional education to bring higher incomes, better health, more prestige, and better opportunities to marry.
On my first trip to China in 1981 I visited several factories in the Beijing area. All the employees in each factory received more or less the same pay, and they could hardly ever be fired for bad work or absenteeism. This was an extreme eqalitarian approach to compensation, and the result was that no one worked hard, even though Chinese workers have traditionally been known for their diligence and energy. The picture was more or less the same in all of the factories I visited, and there was also little difference in pay between factories. Urban China was then highly eqalitarian, but it was also extremely poor because of very low productivity. China’s economic miracle has been in good measure based on allowing much greater inequality in pay and incomes to motivate greater productivity in both urban and rural areas.
(photo credit: epSos.de)