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How Inequality Found a Political Voice

MILAN – It took a long time for widening inequality to have an impact on politics, as it suddenly has done in recent years. Now that it is a central issue, national economic priorities will need to shift substantially to create more equitable, inclusive economies and societies. If they do not, people could embrace explosive alternatives to their current governments, such as the populist movements now sweeping many countries.

Political leaders often speak of growth patterns that unfairly distribute the benefits of growth; but then they do relatively little about it when they are in power. When countries go down the path of non-inclusive growth patterns, it usually results in disrespect for expertise, disillusionment with the political system and shared cultural values, and even greater social fragmentation and polarization.

Acknowledging the importance of how economic benefits are distributed is of course not new. In developing countries, economic exclusion and extreme inequality have always been unconducive to long-term high-growth patterns. Under these conditions, pro-growth policies are politically unsustainable, and they are ultimately disrupted by political dislocations, social unrest, or even violence.

In the United States, rising inequality has been a fact of life at least since the 1970s, when the relatively equitable distribution of economic benefits from the early post-World War II era started to become skewed. In the late 1990s, when digital technologies began to automate and disintermediate more routine jobs, the shift toward higher wealth and income inequality became turbocharged.