What can we say about the impact of the pandemic on the global distribution of income? It is hard to say anything meaningful now because we have no idea how long the pandemic will last, how many countries will be affected, how many people will die, whether the social fabric of societies will be ripped apart or not. We are totally in the dark. Most of what we say today may be proven wrong tomorrow. If someone is right, it may be not necessarily because they are smart, but because they are lucky. But in a crisis like this, luck counts for a lot…
How likely is the crisis to reduce global income? Figure below shows global real per capita growth rates from 1952 to 2018. The thick line gives the conventional (plutocratic) measure: it shows whether the average real GDP per capita of the world had expanded or shrunk. (All calculations are in dollars of equal purchasing power.) Global world per capita GDP had gone down only four times: in 1954, 1982, 1991, and most recently in 2009 as the consequence of the Global Financial Crisis. Each of the four global declines was driven by the outcome in the United States. This is quite understandable. US was until recently the largest economy in the world and when it slowed down, the world growth rate was affected.
A different measure of global growth is the so-called democratic or people’s real growth rate (thin line in the Figure below). It asks the following question: assuming that income distribution in each country remains the same, what was the average growth experience of the people in the world? To put it more simply: if GDPs per capita of India, China and other populous countries increase fast, more people will feel better off than if some rich, but small, countries’ GDPs per capita go up. Or yet differently: think of the time in the 1960s, when the total GDP of (say) Benelux was similar to the total GDP of China. In a plutocratic calculation, increase of both will count the same. In a democratic calculation, the increase in China will count for much more because many more people would feel an improvement. This second measure therefore weighs growth rates of countries with their populations. There we notice that the world has never had a negative growth rate except in 1961 when the disaster of the (ironically termed) Great Leap Forward reduced Chinese per capita income by 26 percent, and moved the world into negative territory.
What can we say about the likely evolution of the two measures in 2020? The IMF which calculates only the first measure, recently estimated that the world GDP would be reduced by at least as much as during the Global Finacial Crisis. The second measure is unlikely to be negative as China is on the mend, and as we have seen, it is the populous countries that largely determine what happens to that measure. Yet we do not know how India will be affected by the crisis. If its growth rate becomes negative, it may—combined with almost certainly negative growth rates of most of Europe and North America—produce the second people’s recession since the 1950s.
ROG=rate of growth; e.g. 0.05=5%.
So the negative effects of the crisis on growth will be very strong. But it will not affect everybody the same. If the economic decline is the severest, as it appears now, in the United States and Europe, the gap between large Asian countries and the rich world would be reduced. This is the main force which has led to the reduction in global inequality since approximately 1990. Thus we can expect, akin to what has happened after 2008-09, an acceleration in the decline of global inequality. Like after 2008-09, the reduction in global inequality will be achieved not through the “benign” forces of positive growth in both rich and emerging economies of Asia, but through “malignant” forces of negative growth in the rich countries.
This would have the following two effects. First, geopolitically, the shift of the center of gravity of economic activity will continue to move towards Asia. Whether one decides to “pivot” toward Asia or not will be increasingly irrelevant. If Asia continues to be the most dynamic part of the world economy, everybody will be naturally pushed in that direction. Second, the decline in real incomes of Western populations will come exactly at the time when Western economies were exiting the period of economic austerity and low growth, and one could expect that the lack of middle class growth that characterized these countries since the financial crisis would come to an end.
In purely accounting (economic) terms we are thus likely to see to some extent a replay of the Global Financial Crisis: the deterioration in the relative income position of the West, increasing inequalities within rich countries (as low-wage and more vulnerable workers lose out), and stagnation of middle class incomes. The shock of the coronavirus crisis thus might come as a second dramatic shock to the position of rich counties within the past 15 years.
We may expect, in some area, the reversal of globalization. This is most obvious, in the relatively short-term (one to two years) during which, even under the optimistic scenario on the handling of the pandemic, movement of people and possibly of goods will be much more controlled than before the crisis. Many of the impediments to the free movement of people and goods may come from the well-founded fear of the recurrence of the pandemic. But some of them will dovetail with economic interests of companies. Thus the removal of restrictions will be difficult and costly. We have not removed expensive and cumbersome airplane security measures despite the absence of terrorist attacks for years. We are unlikely to remove them in this case too. There will be also a not unreasonable fear that depending entirely on the kindness of strangers in the conditions of national emergency is not necessarily the best policy. This will undermine globalization as well.
Yet, we should not overestimate these impediments to trade and movement of labor and capital. When our short-run self-interest is at stake, we are very quick to forget the lessons of history: so if several years pass without any major new turbulence, we are, I think, likely to go back to the forms of globalization that we lived through before the coronavirus crisis.
What however may not go back to where it was is the relative economic power of different countries, and the political attraction of liberal vs more authoritarian ways to manage societies. Sharp crises like this one tend to encourage centralization of power because this is often the only way that societies can survive. It then becomes difficult to divest of power those who have accumulated it during the crisis, and moreover can credibly claim that it was thanks to their ability or wisdom that the worst was avoided. Thus politics will remain turbulent.