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easier to ask someone how much they earned last week than calculate their total debt and assets.
The problem with this approach is that variations in income tend to be much smaller than variations in wealth. Because wealth represents all of someone’s income and inheritance built up over time, wealth inequality is almost always a lot greater than income inequality.
In order to analyze wealth across a big group of countries, Bagchi and Svejnar created a novel measure using a well-known source — the Forbes magazine annual list of billionaires. In 1982, Forbes began curating a list of the 400 richest Americans, and in 1987 it expanded this list to global billionaires. The authors sum the wealth of all the billionaires on the Forbes list in a given country, and then divide that total by a country’s GDP, population or physical capital stock to normalize billionaire wealth for the country’s size.
The researchers found that wealth inequality was growing over time: Wealth inequality increased in 17 of the 23 countries they measured between 1987 and 2002, and fell in only six, Bagchi says. They also found that their measure of wealth inequality corresponded with a negative effect on economic growth. In other words, the higher the proportion of billionaire wealth in a country, the slower that country’s growth. In contrast, they found that income inequality and poverty had little effect on growth.
The most fascinating finding came from the next step in their research, when they looked at the connection between wealth, growth and political connections.
The researchers argue that past studies have looked at the level of inequality in a country, but not why inequality occurs — whether it's a product of structural inequality, like political power or racism, or simply a product of some people or companies faring better than others in the market. For example, Indonesia and the United Kingdom actually score similarly on a common measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient, say the authors. Yet clearly the political and business environments in those countries are very different.
So Bagchi and Svejnar carefully went through the lists of all the Forbes billionaires, and divided them into those who had acquired their wealth due to political connections, and those who had not. This is kind of a slippery slope — almost all billionaires have probably benefited from government connections at one time or another. But the researchers used a very conservative standard for classifying people as politically connected, only assigning billionaires to this group when it was clear that their wealth was a product of government connections. Just benefiting from a government that was pro-business, like those in Singapore and Hong Kong, wasn’t enough. Rather, the researchers were looking for a situation like Indonesia under Suharto, where political connections were usually needed to secure import licenses,

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