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Does Trade Fuel Inequality?

To explain the rise in inequality that began in the 1980s and has accelerated since the turn of the century, many have pointed out that indicators of globalization, such as the trade-to-GDP ratio, have also been rising rapidly over the same period. But does that correlation imply a causal link between trade and inequality?

CAMBRIDGE – Inequality has become a major political preoccupation in the advanced economies – and for good reason. In the United States, according to the recently released World Inequality Report 2018, the share of national income claimed by the top 1% of the population rose from 11% in 1980 to 20% in 2014, compared to just 13% for the entire bottom half of the population. Qualitatively similar, though less pronounced, trends characterize other major countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

To explain the rise in inequality that began in the 1980s and has accelerated since the turn of the century, many have pointed out that indicators of globalization, such as the trade-to-GDP ratio, have also risen since 1980. But does that correlation imply a causal link between trade and inequality?

There are certainly reasons to doubt it. The global trade-to-GDP ratio peaked in 2008 at 61%, after a 35-year climb, falling back to 56% by 2016 – at precisely the time when fear of globalization reached political fever pitch.

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