Review

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conomics, or more accurately, writings by those who are engaged in the study of economics (macro, micro, etc.) often induce involuntary yawning.  Like tax law, it is nearly an impossible task to produce a text that is both informative and entertaining.  The authors of Freakanomics did it, and so too has Branko Milanovic , the author of The Haves and the Have Nots (Basic Books 2011) out in paperback today.

The Haves and the Have Nots is not entertaining in a comedic way.  There are very few laughs to be had given the current state of global inequality which, contrary to the early predictions of those who extolled the virtues of the greater movement of trades and goods, has not raised all boats (or even most boats) appreciably.  What Milanovic does, however, is take ideas usually too encumbered by field- specific jargon to be readily accessible to the layperson and presents them in easy-to-follow chunks, by illustrating them with a series of vignettes. The initial essays that proceed the anecdotes in each section of the book do veer more towards the academic and inchoate, only to be rescued by the interesting stories he tells with the most unexpected materials.  He uses sources as disparate as Pride and Prejudice and Anna Kaenina to tax records from thirteenth century France and late 20th century growth rates, among others, to illustrate how global inequality has changed (or not) over time.

While it is fun to contemplate who is the richest person ever to live (hint: it is not Marcus Crassus or Bill Gates) or what is the best Parisian arrondissement in which to live, The Haves and the Have Nots  also use events from our recent past to shed light on the problems currently facing different regions of the world.  According to Milanovic , the Soviet Union crumbled, in part, because it was “a conglomerate that, within its confines, held countries with income levels as vastly different as South Korean and the Ivory Coast.”  When the rich republics no longer wanted to make the massive redistributions of wealth to the poorer republics needed to foster national unity, they opted out and their less fortunate brethren could not stop them.  Milanovic’s point has obvious implications for the troubled Euro zone where Germans are constantly being asked (or so they believe) to take their hard-earned savings and bail out their poorer (and they would argue fiscally irresponsible) neighbors.  Nor is the potential for disunion limited to Europe.  China, with its wealthy seaboard provinces and its poor inland territories might also find itself facing a secessionist movement in the future led by the very people who benefit most from the current regimes economic policies.

Moving from nations to individuals, Milanovic makes a convincing case that, like housing prices, income inequality is all about location, location, location.  Even the poorest people in a rich nation, on average, will enjoy a better life, financially, than roughly two thirds of the planet.  His brief discussion on the life trajectories of President Obama, his father and his paternal grandfather is an incisive succinct demonstration of this point.  So is the chapter on how the material disparity between the poor of different nations has rendered impossible a sustained international proletariat reaction of any consequence, and makes it unlikely that the structural reforms needed to bring more parity between people living in Luxembourg and Bangladesh will ever find a persuasive constituency in the wealthy nations.

Those looking for solutions to the ever-increasing global inequality will be disappointed with The Haves and the Have Nots.  While Milanovic posits that the challenge of the 21st century “will be to have economic progress in Africa,” he proposed no plan for how to bring the second largest continent (and other severely poor nations) into alignment with their more successful counterparts.  Those readers without a bachelor’s degree or higher in economics but who want to understand the financial forces shaping our present world will thank Milanovic for an easily digestible book that reveals more than it obscures about the workings of the global economy.