Inequality and the West

Bridget Williams Books
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This stunning sweep of western societies by New Zealander Robert Wade,
professor at the London School of Economics, reveals why inequality has
risen internationally, how it's been justified, and the arguments
against it.
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About the author

A professor of political economy at the London School of Economics, New Zealander Robert Wade is a leading international writer on globalisation,inequality and world financial systems. He is the author of the award-winning work Governing the Market. Professor Wade was awarded, with José Antonio Ocampo, the 2008 Leontief Prize by the Global Development and Environment Institute.

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Additional Information

Bridget Williams Books
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Published on
Jul 1, 2013
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Inheritances are often regarded as a societal "evil," enabling great fortunes to be passed from one generation to another, thus exacerbating wealth inequality and reducing wealth mobility. Discussions of inheritances in America bring to mind the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and "trust fund babies"---people who receive enough money through inheritances or gifts that they do not have any need to work during their lifetime. Though these are, of course, extreme outliers, inheritances in America have a reputation for being a way the rich keep getting richer. In Inheriting Wealth in America, Edward Wolff seeks to counter these misconceptions with data and arguments that illuminate who inherits what in the United States and what results from these wealth transfers. Using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances---a triennial survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board that contains detailed information on household wealth, inheritances, and gifts---as well as the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and a simulation model over years 1989 to 2010, Wolff reports six major findings on the state of inheritances in America. First, wealth transfers (inheritances and gifts) accounted for less than one quarter of household wealth. However, for persons age 75 and over, the figure was about two-fifths since they have more time to receive wealth transfers. Indirect evidence, derived from the simulation model, indicates a figure closer to two-thirds at end of life - probably the best estimate. Second, despite prognostications of a coming "inheritance boom," it has not materialized yet. Only a small (and statistically insignificant) uptick in average wealth transfers was observed over the period, and wealth transfers were actually down as a share of household wealth. Third, while wealth transfers are greater in dollar amount for richer households than poorer ones, they constitute a smaller share of the accumulated wealth of the rich. Fourth, contrary to popular belief, inheritances and gifts, on net, reduce wealth inequality rather than raising it. The rationale is that inheritances and particularly gifts typically flow from richer to poorer persons, thus lowering wealth inequality. Fifth, despite a rapid rise in income inequality, the inequality of wealth transfers shows no discernible time trend from 1989 to 2010, neither upward nor downward. Sixth, among the very wealthy, the share of wealth accounted for by wealth transfers is surprisingly low, only about a sixth, and this share has trended significantly downward over time. It is true that inheritances and gifts are unequal, with only one fifth of families receiving wealth transfers and these transfers benefitting the rich far more than the middle class and the poor. That, however, is not the whole picture of inheritances in America. Clearly-written and illuminating, this books expertly distills an abundance of data on inheritances into important takeaways for all who wonder about the current state of inheritances and gifts in the United States.
This book is an in-depth discussion of rising inequalities in the western world. It explores the extent to which rising inequalities are the mechanical consequence of changes in economic fundamentals (such as changes in technological or demographic parameters), and to what extent they are the contingent consequences of country-specific and time-specific changes in institutions. Both the 'fundamentalist' view and the 'institutionalist' view have some relevance. For instance, the decline of traditional manufacturing employment since the 1970s has been associated in every developed country with a rise of labor-market inequality (the inequality of labor earnings within the working-age population has gone up in all countries), which lends support to the fundamentalist view. But, on the other hand, everybody agrees that institutional differences (minimum wage, collective bargaining, tax and transfer policy, etc.) between Continental European countries and Anglo-Saxon countries explain why disposable income inequality trajectories have been so different in those two groups of countries during the 1980s-90s, which lends support to the institutionalist view. The chapters in this volume show the strength of both views. Through empirical evidence and new theoretical insights the contributors argue that institutions always play a crucial role in shaping inequalities, and sometimes preventing them, but that inequalities across age, sex, and skills often recur. From Sweden to Spain and Portugal, from Italy to Japan and the USA, the volume explores the diversity of the interplay between market forces and institutions.
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