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Global Economic Inequalities and Development: A Very Special Issue of JAPE

by Franklin Obeng-Odoom on January 24, 2017
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The publication of every issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE) is an occasion for celebration, but No. 78 of JAPE, focusing on ‘global economic inequalities and development’ warrants even more celebration. This is the first time in over three decades that JAPE has taken such a bold step to study the political economy of development. The special issue is worth reading for that reason, but it is also worth reading because of other reasons best described with a parable.

A mother found her son searching desperately around the home for something he might have misplaced. She approached him and asked what it was that he was looking for with so much fervour. ‘My soccer ball’, the little boy replied. ‘Where did you lose it’, she asked. ‘At school’, the boy answered firmly to a mum who was puzzled by his answer but, like most good mothers, was empathetic. ‘Son’, she said, encouragingly, ‘if you lost your soccer ball at school, why do you look for it here? Surely, it cannot be here.’ The son retorted, ‘because it is easier to look for the ball here!’

This story captures the nature of the debate about global economic inequalities. The deeper causes of the story are either too hard to untangle or too uncomfortable to raise. So what is the easier way out? Blame neoliberalism in extenso, focus exclusively on the top 1 per cent, and analyse capitalism. This is the broad way and the path on which much political economy today takes. It is useful in the sense that it calls into question orthodox economics claims that either underemphasise the seriousness of inequality, justify inequality, or treat it merely as a risk to economic growth.

But the broad way is paradoxically also too narrow for bigger issues, notably the social foundations of Western Civilisation and the resulting I-first values, a trenchant superiority complex, patronising logics, and the ‘othering’ of regions in the South. Ignoring all these social forces for one narrative about neoliberalism is unsatisfactory. A story of inequality told from the perspective of the North alone, ignoring others as different without recognising social differentiation, and discussing exploitation without exclusion are not satisfactory either.

The parable  suggests that this discomfort with confronting these bigger questions is a reflection of the ‘White man’s burden’, that deep sense of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of centuries of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism in the Messianic project of civilising ‘others’. It is much like how the Brits preferred to follow Rev. Thomas Malthus’ population-based analysis of social problems, while sweeping under the carpet imperial Britain’s landlordism in and colonialism of Ireland.  Others may say that political economists prefer to focus on the ‘big’ stories of NCNC: Neoliberalism. Capitalism. Neoclassical economics.  And deal with ‘smaller’ or ‘secondary’ dimensions such as race and peripheral societies later. Perhaps, it is a combination, but the resulting consequences are not simply additive; they are multiplicative.

Fragmentary analysis of economic inequalities rests on a very troubling logic, similar to that of the man who jumped from the 100th floor of a building complex in Manhattan, while shouting ‘so far so good!’ every time he whizzed past a floor, forgetting that it is the total impact of the journey and its intersections with the intermediate steps that matter; not the dimensions (floors of neoliberalism, gender, class…) of it.

Much of this fragmentary analysis has also become quite formalist. Semantic debates are common and conversations about which schools of thought represent the best political economy are not uncommon. We can search for the many factors that explain why critics of formalism have become formalist themselves, but the one reason that requires no re-search is the postcolonial sphinx which paradoxically forces the colonised to adopt or adapt the tools of the colonist.

It is these problems that this special issue on ‘Global Economic Inequalities and Development’ seeks to elucidate and, in some cases, address. Specifically, the articles consider five questions: (1) what are the patterns and dimensions of inequality across the world? (2) What causes inequality? (3) Why does inequality persist? (4) Why is inequality an important focus for political economic analysis? (5) What can and is being done about inequality and by whom?

The authors provide important revelations, too profound to summarise in this brief blog post and hence I invite you to read the papers and reviews for yourselves. What I want to stress is that the issue theorises rather than moralises global economic inequalities, even though the moral question is an inseparable part of the process of theorising.

As editor of the special issue, I wish to thank the members of the JAPE editorial collective, especially Frank Stilwell, the reviewers and the copy editors, especially David Primrose, for supporting this very special issue of JAPE.

Franklin Obeng-Odoom

Franklin Obeng-Odoom is a Senior Lecturer in Property Economics at the School of Built Environment and a member of the Asia Pacific Centre for Complex Real Property Rights at the University of Technology Sydney. His research interests are centred on the political economy of development, cities and natural resources (specifically water, oil, and land).

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