Inequality reaches a record high in the US, but which countries are worst off?

Five years after Lehman Brother's collapse, one group has fared spectacularly well: the richest 1 per cent. The world's superpower is now worryingly dependent on the financial fortunes of just 1.35m taxpayers. But where in the world is inequality the grea

It’s now almost five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, precipitating a global financial crisis. In the US, one group has fared significantly better than the rest as the country struggles out of recession – the richest 1 per cent.

Recent data from the Internal Revenue Service shows that the incomes of the richest 1 per cent of Americans increased by 31 per cent between 2009 and 2012, while the incomes of the bottom 99 per cent grew less than 1 per cent. There’s a good Economist chart to illustrate this here. The share of national income flowing to the richest 1 per cent has now reached a record high of 19.3 per cent.

So how does this compare internationally? The UK has little reason to feel smug. According to a report this February by the Resolution Foundation, the richest 1 per cent of Britons own 10 per cent of national income.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned earlier this year that inequality was increasing across its 34 member countries. It has rated its members according to levels of inequality using the Gini coefficient (which measures the extent to which the distribution of income varies from perfect equality.) The UK ranks 28th out of 34 countries, and the US fares even worse at 31. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile are more unequal than the US. Meanwhile Slovenia, Denmark and Norway are three OECD nations with the most equal income distribution. You can find the full list here.

The Gini coefficient can’t distinguish between different distributions of inequality, in that it doesn’t tell you if inequality is high because the top 1 per cent hold a huge proportion of national wealth, or if the majority of the country’s wealth is held by the top 25 per cent. The Gini coefficient also depends on up-to-date GDP data, which is especially hard to extract from developing countries. This can sometimes make comparison hard.

The CIA world fact book, for instance, compares 136 countries in terms of inequality, but some of the data it uses is over 15 years old. Here the US ranked 95th out of 136 in terms of inequality, with the UK in 76th place, and Sweden, Slovenia and Montenegro topping the list. The most unequal countries were Lesotho, South Africa and Botswana.

One conclusion that can be drawn is that both the UK and the US may be wealthy nations, but compared to their wealthy peers they stand out because of the wide gap between rich and poor. This has all kinds of implications. Rising inequality raises moral questions about fairness and social justice, and some researchers believe that inequality holds back economic growth. There’s also a worry that as the economic power of the richest 1 per cent increases, their political power increases with it.

In the US, for instance, the richest 1 per cent pay 37.4 per cent of income taxes – leaving the world’s superpower worryingly dependent on the financial fortune of just 1.35 million tax payers. Similarly in the UK, 30 per cent of government tax revenue comes from just 308,000 earners in 2012.
 

A homeless man rests along Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.