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Should We Worry About Income Gaps Within or Between Countries?

The rise of populist nationalism throughout the West has been fueled partly by a clash between the objectives of equity in rich countries and higher living standards in poor countries. Yet advanced-economy policies that emphasize domestic equity need not be harmful to the global poor, even in international trade.

CAMBRIDGE – At the beginning of classes every autumn, I tease my students with the following question: Is it better to be poor in a rich country or rich in a poor country? The question typically invites considerable and inconclusive debate. But we can devise a more structured and limited version of the question, for which there is a definitive answer.

Let’s narrow the focus to incomes and assume that people care only about their own consumption levels (disregarding inequality and other social conditions). “Rich” and “poor” are those in the top and bottom 5% of the income distribution, respectively. In a typical rich country, the poorest 5% of the population receive around 1% of national income. Data are a lot sparser for poor countries, but it would not be too much off the mark to assume that the richest 5% there receive 25% of national income. 

Similarly, let’s assume that rich and poor countries are those in the top and bottom 5% of all countries, ranked by per capita income. In a typical poor country (such as Liberia or Niger), that is around $1,000, compared to $65,000 in a typical rich country (say, Switzerland or Norway). (These incomes are adjusted for cost-of-living, or purchasing-power, differentials so that they can be directly compared.)

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