CSAD: Global Perspectives on Inequality

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As part of the Center for the Study of American Democracy’s conference this week, students and faculty were treated to a panel discussion from Branko Milanovic, Ben White and Charles Horner (see here for our interview with Horner). Milanovic is a Serbian economist specializing on inequality and development who is currently a visiting professor at City University of New York, White is an alumnus from the class of ’94 and Politico correspondent, and Horner is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute specializing on Chinese views of that country’s development.

The topic of the discussion was global perspectives on inequality, though the focus alternated between discussions of American and Chinese economic and political structure. Milanovic displayed his passion for data with charts and figures that detailed the history of the widening wealth and income gaps that were occurring globally. His segment set an excellent tone in connecting the idea of the ‘political economy’, which would follow through as the theme for much of the discussion.

When Ben White took to the podium, he shifted this discussion of inequality to how it has been playing out in Washington D.C. White started by discussing the economic policy battles that have been occurring on the hill, focusing on how the tone of discussion over past years has become corrosive due to absolutist trends in both parties. Looking forward, he forecasted more difficult times for Democrats in advance of upcoming midterm elections, suggesting that it was more than likely that the party would not be able to retain the Senate, let alone take back the House of Representatives. As a parting note, he offered hopeful possibilities for tax reform in that he believed that there are several candidates from the GOP who appear willing to move towards more compromising stances, naming John Kasich from Ohio as one of them.

Finally, we heard from Charles Horner regarding issues of inequality that have been plaguing the People’s Republic of China. In doing so he examined the structure of the Communist Party of China as well as their views on their own development. He suggested that it was important to realize that the Party has grown so large and held power for so long because it continually analyzes and re-analyzes its own position domestically and globally. This calculating approach is what has allowed them to steer their country’s economy through a strange hybrid of socialism and capitalism. However, it’s also what’s holding them back from reforming their economy so that it is truly communist and not facing all the same issues of widening wealth gaps seen in capitalism. The Party is unable to really enact these reforms because they would involve weakening its hold on the PRC; redistributing the power of the state-run banks, for example, would dramatically decrease the rampant corruption and embezzlement in the country, yet also hamstring the Party’s ability to enact rapid, sweeping economic policy.

Overall, the discussion was eye-opening and informative in outlining the progression of inequality as a global issue, and how the major world powers today are reacting to its prevalence. However, the panel seemed to have a narrow focus when looking into these issues, as many of the controversies surrounding global inequality are in regards to the wealth gaps between developed and developing countries – yet the panel prioritized the problem in the U.S. and China much more heavily. This structure provided a good view into what the future of reform may look like in these countries, and subsequently the world, due to their combined influence.

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