Unintended Consequences: Redistribution and the World’s Poor

Last summer, two consultants at the Minneapolis Fed published a paper entitled “On the Ethics of Redistribution.” They begin by framing the discussion with a global perspective:

A typical American in the lowest 5 percent of income (for America) has a higher income than 95 percent of Indians, 80 percent of Chinese and 50 percent of Brazilians. In the United States, 99 percent of households have indoor plumbing (a toilet with a sewer connection). In India, it’s 12 percent. For Americans below the poverty line, nearly three-quarters have a car (and 31 percent have two or more) and 97 percent have air conditioning. In India, only 5 percent of all households have cars and 2 percent of all households have air conditioning.

This then begs the following question: Are policies that purport to help the comparatively well-off (those at, say, the poverty line in developed countries) at the expense of the superlatively well-off (the rich in developed countries) desirable from the behind-the-veil perspective assuming that that perspective is global?

Increasing world trade is an example of the tension between policies that help those in developing countries versus those that help those lower in the income distribution in developed countries. According to a World Bank Study, in the three decades between 1981 and 2010, the rate of extreme poverty in the developing world (subsisting on less than $1.25 per day) has gone down from more than one out of every two citizens to roughly one out of every five, all while the population of the developing world increased by 59 percent. This reduction in extreme poverty represents the single greatest decrease in material human deprivation in history.

But this decrease in extreme poverty in the developing world has coincided with a marked increase in income inequality in the developed world, and the latter has received much more attention, at least from policy analysts in these richer nations.

The authors then move to the subject of skilled/unskilled labor and the effects of redistribution:

Image result for redistributionIn a world with just two countries, one developed and the other poor, output is produced in each by a combination of skilled workers and unskilled workers. When they’re young, unskilled workers have the opportunity to become skilled by working with older, skilled workers.

…A rich-country policy to tax high incomes will redistribute income (within that country) from those with high innate abilities (and, by assumption, with the ability to become highly skilled) to those with lower innate abilities. In so doing, that policy will reduce inequality within the rich country, but it will also create disincentives there to becoming highly skilled and thereby reduce the global supply of skilled workers. This reduced supply of skilled workers from the developed country then reduces opportunities for young workers in the poor country to become skilled.

Applying the Harsanyi-Rawls behind-the-veil-of-ignorance criterion but considering only people in the developed country would appear to make this a beneficial policy because it helps the poor of that rich country. But, in our example, it hurts the poorest of the poor in the world, those in the developing nation. A proper application of the behind-the-veil-of-ignorance criterion—one that takes all people in all countries into consideration—can thus lead to the implication that such a policy is extremely undesirable. At the very least, a proper application of the criterion says that redistribution within rich countries imposes costs on people in other countries which need to be taken into account.

They conclude, “A giant literature in public finance justifies such social welfare functions by appealing to the veil-of-ignorance. Our point simply is that those who use this criterion should weight the welfare of poor people in Chad, the world’s poorest nation, very heavily. To our knowledge, very little if any of the relevant research does so.”