INEQUALITY by James K. Galbraith


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Economist Galbraith (Univ. of Texas; The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth, 2014, etc.) ventures an anti-Pikettian view of the sharply divisive fact that not all wallets are created equal.

In strictest economic terms, inequality is not a bad thing; it “generates the competition that determines status and standing and prestige,” writes the author, and therefore serves as a driver of economic progress. Galbraith, who allows that it’s hard to separate politics from the idealized world of numbers and formulas, enumerates several kinds of inequality, of which one in particular, income inequality, is hard to measure: income is often hidden, tax records obscured, numbers skewed for (mostly) political reasons. The French economist Thomas Piketty has made the same observation, most recently with regard to tax statistics. Galbraith, though, sharply departs from Piketty on many points, arguing, for one thing, that income inequality has become “less certain and inexorable after 2000 than it was before” and that after the crisis of 2008, inequalities have declined slightly. This seems counterintuitive given the pronounced gulf between the haves and the have-nots, as does Galbraith’s assertion that richer societies are generally more equal than poorer ones because “a rich society, by definition, must have a large middle class.” Given another trend, the steady erosion of the middle class, this again seems questionable, at least for the U.S., but Galbraith defends his arguments capably. At times his prose, generally dry but accessible, catches fire, as when he writes in favor of the inheritance tax in light of “the privileged, feckless, and lazy brats that the original founders of great fortunes tend to spawn.” Readers with economics and political science backgrounds will benefit most from the book, and they alone are likely to be interested in such things as his account of inequality in history and his political excurses on, for instance, “whether egalitarian societies do better on the battlefield than their unequal opponents.”

An arguable thesis, perhaps, but an evenhanded view of a topic generating much heat.

Pub Date: March 10th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-19-025046-1
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2016


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