The best books for understanding inequality and why there are still big disagreements over the cause

Francis J. Teal Author Of The Poor and the Plutocrats
By Francis J. Teal

Who am I?

I have worked on the problems of poverty, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, for much of my professional life. I worked at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, which is part of the Department of Economics at Oxford University, from 1991 until my retirement in 2012. I continue to work both with the Centre and the Department as a Managing Editor of Oxford Economic Papers and Chief Editor of the Journal of African Economies. My recent book The Poor and the Plutocrats grew out of this background where I wanted to understand the links between very poor countries and those of much richer ones.

I wrote...

The Poor and the Plutocrats

By Francis J. Teal,

Book cover of The Poor and the Plutocrats

What is my book about?

The Poor and the Plutocrats offers a perspective on how we can understand radical differences in income both within and across countries. The subtitle of the book is: From the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich and documents how we can understand the path from the poorest in poor countries to the wealth of the plutocrats in rich ones. I show that there's a common factor in these different inequalities which is how the price of unskilled and skilled labour has changed over time which differs across countries. The poorest are those who lack skills in poor countries, the richest are those who have high skills in rich countries. The country in which you are born matters as much, or more, as the skills you have.

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The books I picked & why

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

By Thomas Piketty, Arthur Goldhammer (translator),

Book cover of Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Why did I love this book?

In contrast to seeing the causes of inequality flowing from the labour market, this book is focused on how the capital income ratio has changed using long time series of data that Piketty and his collaborators have assembled.

Piketty argues that there is a long-run tendency for the growth of capital to outpace income and this leads to increasing income accruing to capital which explains the rising levels of inequality in capitalist economies. His most well-known assertion is that r>g where r is the average annual rate of return on capital and g is the rate of growth of the economy.

In fact, this inequality has been emblazoned on t-shirts of those protesting the rise in income of the 1 percent.

By Thomas Piketty, Arthur Goldhammer (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Capital in the Twenty-First Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times #1 Bestseller
An Amazon #1 Bestseller
A Wall Street Journal #1 Bestseller
A USA Today Bestseller
A Sunday Times Bestseller
A Guardian Best Book of the 21st Century
Winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
Winner of the British Academy Medal
Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award

What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard…

Book cover of The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets

Why did I love this book?

The divide here is not within a country but across countries, in particular between rich and poor countries, which are often referred to as ‘The Global South’.

Hickel argues that the activities by those in rich countries designed to ‘help’ poorer countries have exactly the opposite of their claimed effect. Rather than being the mechanism by which poverty is alleviated the policies they advocate for these poor countries are really the causes of their continuing poverty.

He writes: "Today British apologists defend colonialism in India and interventions in China on the basis that it brought ‘development’ to these regions. But the evidence we have suggests exactly the opposite story. It was the colonial period that forced market integration that inaugurated the ‘development gap’ between Britain and Asia."

By Jason Hickel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Divide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than four billion people-some 60 percent of humanity-live in debilitating poverty, on less than $5 per day. The standard narrative tells us this crisis is a natural phenomenon, having to do with things like climate and geography and culture. It tells us that all we have to do is give a bit of aid here and there to help poor countries up the development ladder. It insists that if poor countries would only adopt the right institutions and economic policies, they could overcome their disadvantages and join the ranks of the rich world.

Anthropologist Jason Hickel argues that this…

Book cover of Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization

Why did I love this book?

The approach of Milanovic is very different from that of Hickel in that it is intensive in the use of data which, he would argue, shows a much more nuanced picture of the success of the global economy in reducing poverty than argued by Hickel.

He begins by reproducing the ‘Elephant Chart’ from his earlier work. This is a chart showing the relative gain in real per capita income by global income level. The name ‘Elephant’ comes from the shape of the chart which shows the largest income gains to have occurred for those in the middle of the distribution and the lowest in the range of 70 to 80 in the percentile distribution and the highest for those at the very top. Those in the middle being the hump of the elephant those at the top being its trunk.

Milanovic argues that in many respects the years before the financial crisis were the most globalized years in human history and, during this period, saw a dramatic rise in income for most (but not all) of the poorest. 

By Branko Milanovic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Global Inequality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Bruno Kreisky Prize, Karl Renner Institut
A Financial Times Best Economics Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year
A Livemint Best Book of the Year

One of the world's leading economists of inequality, Branko Milanovic presents a bold new account of the dynamics that drive inequality on a global scale. Drawing on vast data sets and cutting-edge research, he explains the benign and malign forces that make inequality rise and fall within and among nations. He also reveals who has been helped the most by globalization, who has been held back, and what…

Inequality: What Can Be Done?

By Anthony B. Atkinson,

Book cover of Inequality: What Can Be Done?

Why did I love this book?

Atkinson died in January 2017. His life’s academic work focused on the causes of inequality and poverty. He had a particular interest in policy in these areas which is reflected in this book which offers a rationale for and a detailed account of how household income can be made more equal.

He is concerned with inequality in developed countries, so his focus is on the US, UK, and European countries. He first sets out how it is that income inequality has so greatly increased covering some of the same ground as Milanovic. He then, in chapters on progressive taxation and social security, sets out detailed proposals which he argues would considerably reduce inequality and promote social justice.

His proposals on progressive taxation would, it can be safely asserted, reduce Tory MPs to apoplexy.

By Anthony B. Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inequality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Richard A. Lester Award for the Outstanding Book in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics, Princeton University
An Economist Best Economics and Business Book of the Year
A Financial Times Best Economics Book of the Year

Inequality is one of our most urgent social problems. Curbed in the decades after World War II, it has recently returned with a vengeance. We all know the scale of the problem-talk about the 99% and the 1% is entrenched in public debate-but there has been little discussion of what we can do but despair. According to the distinguished economist Anthony Atkinson,…

Book cover of The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them

Why did I love this book?

The papers in this book follow on from an article in Vanity Fair, "Of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%". Mimicking Abraham Lincoln’s famous definition in his Gettysburg Address.

A central argument that runs throughout the book is that the growing inequality in the US is chosen, not by its peoples, but by its government. The implication is that the rising inequality and its causes are a threat to US democracy. The book sees a great divide opening between the mass of its citizens and a plutocratic class whose income, and relative position, continues to improve. The book documents how governments have pursued policies that only benefit the 1%.

By Joseph E. Stiglitz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Divide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Great Divide, Joseph E. Stiglitz expands on the diagnosis he offered in his best-selling book The Price of Inequality and suggests ways to counter America's growing problem. With his signature blend of clarity and passion, Stiglitz argues that inequality is a choice-the cumulative result of unjust policies and misguided priorities.

Gathering his writings for popular outlets including Vanity Fair and the New York Times, Stiglitz exposes in full America's inequality: its dimensions, its causes, and its consequences for the nation and for the world. From Reagan-era to the Great Recession and its long aftermath, Stiglitz delves into the…

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