Foreign Affairs Magazine Features Global Inequality

Foreign Affairs Magazine Features Global Inequality

“Real incomes and wealth have stagnated for the vast majority of Americans, even as they have skyrocketed for those at the very top,” and this trend has largely been repeated across the developed world, writes Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, in his introduction to the new issue’s package of articles on inequality. “These trends are starting to define our era. But what is driving them? What is the significance of the economic inequality that has resulted? And what can or should be done about it?” The six articles leading this issue focus on the definition of inequality and its role in a healthy democracy.

“The extent to which inequality increases or decreases,” writes Ronald Inglehart, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, “is ultimately a political question.” As issues such as the environment, gender equality, and abortion were introduced into politics in the later decades of the twentieth century, an earlier tendency to vote along social-class lines all but disappeared, weakening demand for distributive economic policies. Yet thanks to unprecedented growth in the gap between haves and have-notes, the political pendulum may soon start swinging in the other direction, predicts Inglehart. “The more current trends continue,” he writes, “the more pressure will build up to tackle inequality once again.”

“The same factor that can be credited for the decline in inequality among countries can also be blamed for the increase in inequality within them: globalization,” writes François Bourguignon, professor of economics at the Paris School of Economics. “To maintain the momentum behind declining global inequality, all countries will need to work harder to reduce inequality within their borders, or at least prevent it from growing further,” he concludes. “Failing to do so could cause disenchanted citizens to misguidedly resist further attempts to integrate the world’s economies—a process that, if properly managed, can in fact benefit everyone.”

The conditions that led to the egalitarian policies of the early twentieth century have disappeared and have been replaced by the celebration of individual performance and responsibility, writes Pierre Rosanvallon, professor of political history at the College de France. “If inequality is to be reduced once more, therefore, the effort will have to be grounded in a solid, shared conception of what equality involves and why it is worth promising.” That conception requires “a more robust vision of democratic equality—one based on the singularity of individuals, reciprocal relations among them, and a social commonality.”

Danielle Allen, director of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, focuses on the notion of “an eternal conflict” between equality and liberty, pointing out that until Cold War rhetoric took hold, Americans saw equality and liberty as mutually reinforcing ideals. “Political equality, shored up by economic equality, was the means by which democratic citizens could secure their liberty,” she explains. To get back to economic equality, Allen writes, “we need a virtuous circle in which political equality supports institutions that, in turn, support social and economic equality.”

Politicians like talking about the inequality problem, but they have proposed few ideas for actually solving it, asserts Anthony B. Atkinson, Centennial professor at the London School of Economics. Atkinson proposes a number of measures to chip away at growing inequality, including increasing the percentage of taxes paid by those in the top income brackets, providing government transfers with a focus on children, and establishing a specific target for unemployment. Not only are these politically feasible, but, he writes, “If properly designed, the measures can in fact improve the performance of the economy.”

Since taking office in 2009, “the president has been besieged by foreign policy crises, constrained by diminished American power, and pressured by opponents at home and allies abroad to take action and show leadership, even when dealing with intractable problems,” writes Fred Kaplan, a columnist for Slate. Kaplan pulls back the curtain on the decision-making process behind the president’s foreign policy, drawing on interviews with dozens of senior administration officials to write an account of the decisions that have defined Obama’s tenure. He gives Obama credit for steering clear of military adventurism and for remaining patient with drawn-out diplomatic negotiations. But Syria, he writes, “is where Obama’s foreign policy met its most brutal challenge, and where his tools for dealing with crises—words, logic, persistent questions, and sequential problem solving—proved inadequate.”

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