Globalization is the usual suspect when people discuss the causes of contemporary increases in income inequality in many Western nations. As a result of easier transportation, trade and communication, low skilled workers in those nations now face ever tougher competition from cheap workers in developing countries, and this competition drives down wages at the poor end of Western income distributions: workers have to swallow wage reductions under the threat of outsourcing. Increased immigration – another facet of globalization – has the same effect.
At the top end of the income distribution, the reverse is happening: the job of a CEO is now more complicated in our globalized world, and hence his pay is higher. The threat of relocation also has an effect on income inequality through the channel of the welfare state: companies threaten to relocate, not just because of labor costs, but also because of tax rates. Taxes in Western countries tend to be relatively high because social security tends to be relatively generous. The threat of relocation convinces governments to reduce tax rates, but the price to pay is often a less generous welfare state. This as well puts pressure on the income distribution.
All this sounds convincing, but I’m afraid it’s too simple. The effects of globalization on inequality starts to look more complicated when we take consumption into account. Globalization tends to lower the consumption prizes of a lot of goods, and cheaper consumption can counteract downward pressures on wages and social security. If you can buy more and better stuff with your paycheck, your unemployment benefit or your disability check, then perhaos you’re not worse off.
There’s an interesting paper here by Broda and Romalis in which they look at
the compositional differences in the basket of goods consumed by the poor and the rich in America. Using household data on non-durable consumption between 1994 and 2005 we document that much of the rise of income inequality has been offset by a relative decline in the price index of the poor. By relaxing the standard assumptions underlying the representative agent framework we find that inflation for households in the lowest tenth percentile of income has been 6 percentage points smaller than inflation for the upper tenth percentile over this period. The lower inflation at low income levels can be explained by three factors: 1) The poor consume a higher share of non-durable goods —whose prices have fallen relative to services over this period; 2) the prices of the set of non-durable goods consumed by the poor has fallen relative to that of the rich; and 3) a higher proportion of the new goods are purchased by the poor. We examine the role played by Chinese exports in explaining the lower inflation of the poor. Since Chinese exports are concentrated in low-quality non-durable products that are heavily purchased by poorer Americans, we find that about one third of the relative price drops faced by the poor are associated with rising Chinese imports.
When measuring income inequality, we should correct for the different prices of goods and services consumed by people in different income groups. This doesn’t mean that we should be happy about the fact that poor people live on cheap stuff; it simply means that some of the rising income inequality is compensated by cheaper stuff. And we have cheaper stuff because of globalization. Turning globalization into some sort of bogey man is therefore rather too simple. Income inequality has many causes, and it’s not clear that globalization is, everything considered, an important one.
Finally, a word about the supposed wage pressures of increased immigration: they are indeed no more than supposed.