Over the past forty years, leading developed economies, most notably the United States have experienced an upsurge in inequality of income and wealth. Most of the benefits of economic growth have accrued to those in the top 1 per cent of the income distribution. Meanwhile, living standards for those in the bottom half of the income distribution have stagnated or even declined.
Piketty’s work, published in reports and academic journals, has documented these trends. His book, Capital, not only brought the issues to the attention of a broader public, but presented an analysis suggesting that worse is to come. Piketty argues that we are in the process of returning to a ‘patrimonial’ society, in which income from inherited wealth is the predominant source of inequality.
Piketty’s work has previously focused mainly on the United States, but the research presented in Capital points to similar trends in the United Kingdom. Although inequality has grown much less in France, the third country on which he has detailed data, Piketty argues that the same trend will emerge unless there is a substantial change in political conditions.
To the extent that there is a general trend of the kind described by Piketty, we would expect it to emerge first in the English speaking world, where the shift to market liberalism and financialised capitalism was earlier and more complete. And, indeed, a sharp increase in inequality may be observed in other English speaking countries including Canada and New Zealand.
Australia, on the other hand, looks like a counterexample. On most measures of inequality Australia looks more like France than like the rest of the English speaking world. Although Australia’s have experienced an increase in inequality on most measures, the general picture is one of broadly distributed improvements in living standards, as illustrated by Peter Whiteford’s contribution to a recent seminar on Piketty published by the Australian Economic Review (AER). As Whiteford notes:
Income growth was highest for the richest 20 per cent of the population, at close to 60 per cent in real terms, but even for the poorest 20 per cent, real incomes grew by more than 40 per cent between 1996 and 2007.
Other measures such as the Gini coefficient and the ratio of median to mean income tell a similar story. Inequality has increased over the period since the 1980s, but only modestly and with frequent reversals.
Turning to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution, evidence from tax data, presented by Roger Wilkins in the AER volume suggests that the share of income accruing to this group has risen, but not to the same extent as in other English speaking countries This is consistent with the observations of Piketty himself, who notes:
the upper centile’s [top 1 per cent] share is nearly 20 percent in the United States, compared with 14–15 percent in Britain and Canada and barely 9–10 percent in Australia.
Much of the credit for this comparatively benign outcome must go to the Labor government that held office from 1983 to 1997 and implemented a relatively progressive version of the market liberal reform agenda. Labor managed a reform of the Australian tax and welfare system that shielded low income Australians from the worst effects of the market liberal revolution that swept the English speaking world in the 1970s and 1980s.
In most countries, policies of financial deregulation, privatisation and microeconomic reform were accompanied by regressive changes to the tax and welfare systems. By contrast, Labor introduced broadly progressive tax reforms including a capital gains tax and a crackdown on tax avoidance.
Rather than treating welfare payments and tax policy as separate, the restructuring sought to integrate the two, taking account of the combined impact of means tests and tax policies to optimise the balance between efficiency and redistribution.
These changes weren’t sufficient to prevent growing inequality of income and wealth, and some of them were eroded over time. Nevertheless, in broad terms, a redistributive tax–welfare system was maintained under the succeeding conservative government, even as it was being eroded in other English-speaking countries.
Labor returned to office in 2007, just in time to make its next big contribution: the fiscal stimulus that allowed Australia to avoid the recession generated by the Global Financial Crisis in nearly every other country. In combination with previous successful pieces of macroeconomic management, such as the Reserve Bank’s handling of the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s, the result has been an economic expansion lasting nearly 25 years, unparalleled in Australia’s economic history, and scarcely equalled anywhere in the world. The strength of the labour market has encouraged a broad spread of prosperity not seen elsewhere.
Together these factors explain why Australia has avoided the drastic increases in inequality seen in other English speaking countries. On the other hand, although Australia’s a long way from the plutocracy that already characterises the United States, there is no room for complacency.
Australia’s relatively equal distribution of income and wealth depends on a history of strong employment growth and a redistributive tax–welfare system. Neither can be taken for granted. The end of the mining boom has inevitably resulted in slower growth which bears hardest on those at the bottom of the income distribution. And, as elsewhere, the political pressure to take burdens from the rich and shift them to the poor is never-ending.
Moreover, Australia has not proved itself immune to the political dynamic, noted by Piketty, by which increasing personal wealth allows the wealthy to dominate politics, then enact policies that protect their own wealth. The archetypal example is Silvio Berlusconi in Italy but the situation in the United States is arguably worse. The majority of members of the US Congress are millionaires, with not much difference between Democrats and Republicans.
Given the pattern of highly unequal incomes, and social immobility observed in the US today, we can expect inheritance to play a much bigger role in explaining inequality for the generations now entering adulthood than for the current recipients of high incomes and owners of large fortunes. Inherited advantages in the patrimonial society predicted by Piketty will include direct transfers of wealth as well as the effects of increasingly unequal access to education, early job opportunities and home ownership.
The move towards a patrimonial society already happening in the US is evident at the very top of the Australian income distribution. As in the US, the claim that the rich are mostly self-made is already dubious, and will soon be clearly false. Of the top 10 people on the Business Review Weekly (BRW) rich list, four inherited their wealth, including the top three. Two more are in their 80s, part of the talented generation of Jewish refugees who came to Australia and prospered in the years after World War II. When these two pass on, the rich list will be dominated by heirs, not founders.
The same point is even clearer with the BRW list of rich families. As recently as 20 years ago, all but one of these clans were still headed by the entrepreneurs who had made the family fortune in the first place. Now, all but one of the families are rich by inheritance.
So, Australians have no room for complacency. In an economy dominated by capital, and in the absence of estate taxation, there is little to stop the current drift towards a more unequal society from continuing and even accelerating.
On the other hand, Australia’s relative success in using the tax and welfare systems to spread the benefits of economic growth provides grounds for optimism elsewhere in the world. Australia’s experience belies the claim that any attempt to offset the growth of inequality must cripple economic growth. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that there is plenty of scope for progressive changes to tax policy that would partly or wholly offset the trends towards greater inequality documented by Piketty.
This article was first published on John Quiggin’s blog on 2 January 2016.