Interview with Gwangeun Choi on Economic and Political Inequality in Cross-national Perspective

Gwangeun Choi presented the paper, “The Link between Economic and Political Inequality in Cross-National Perspective” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland in December 2018.

Dr. Choi recently received a PhD in Government at the University of Essex in the UK. His research interests are in the areas of democracy, quality of democracy, political inequality, economic inequality, perceived inequality, redistributive preferences, redistribution, and universal basic income. His latest article, “Revisiting the Redistribution Hypothesis with Perceived Inequality and Redistributive Preferences” appeared at the European Journal of Political Economy (2019).

We asked Gwangeun Choi for an extended abstract of his Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about his research. We are thankful for his positive and detailed response.

Extended Abstract by Gwangeun Choi

It is widely believed that there exists a debilitating feedback cycle linking economic and political inequality. However, there has been a lack of empirical evidence about this association, particularly, in cross-national comparative research. It is largely because cross-national measures of political inequality are underdeveloped. To fill this gap, this study introduces the Political Inequality Index (PII) and the Political Power Inequality Index (PPII). The PII is composed of the two dimensions: participation and representation, which are based on the reconceptualization of political inequality from the perspective of a middle-range conception. The PPII comes from the indicators that measure the distribution of political power across socioeconomic position, social group, and gender, which the Varieties of Democracy provides. This inquiry then investigates the two-way causal relationship between economic and political inequality. In the first causal direction, net income inequality is used as a proxy for economic inequality, while in the reverse causal linkage political inequality is supposed to influence market income inequality and redistribution separately, as income inequality is considered as an outcome of the two different distributive stages. In doing so, both causal directions between economic and political inequality are integrated into a unified framework. With respect to estimation techniques, a system GMM estimator for a dynamic panel data model, which is an increasingly popular estimation method, is mainly used to address the issue of endogeneity. The findings show that net income inequality does not significantly affect political inequality and that political inequality appears to have little impact on market income inequality, while political inequality seems to contribute to economic inequality by influencing redistribution in a negative direction.

Interview with Gwangeun Choi

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the relationship between political inequality and economic inequality in cross-national perspective. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

I first became interested in a concept ‘political equality’ while I was doing research on the quality of democracy. In my framework designed to conceptualize and measure the level of democracy, political equality was one of the three core principles of democracy. Thus, it was easy for me to construct a new measure of political inequality, building on this framework. The next step was to investigate the reciprocal relationship between economic inequality and political inequality, as I realized that there is a lack of empirical evidence on this linkage although no one seems to doubt the widespread belief of the vicious cycle between economic and political inequality.

What is most challenging about measuring political inequality, and why?

I think that the most challenging part is to provide convincing theoretical arguments on the conceptualization of political inequality. Measuring the quality of democracy is also faced with the same issue. My study on democracy and political inequality and several other studies attempting to measure them with relatively thick concepts reached a consensus in excluding both minimalist and maximalist approaches. However, this does not guarantee that the majority of scholars agree with a specific middle-range concept of democracy or political inequality. This is therefore a more pressing issue than a range of measurement problems.

What surprised you most about your research on political and economic inequalities?

What surprised me most is the consistent findings of the paper I presented across the different measures of political inequality that are based on a middle-range approach: Political Inequality Index (PII) and Political Power Inequality Index (PPII). I reported the results at the conference that political inequality significantly reduces the level of redistribution, not market income inequality, while the effect of net income inequality on political inequality is not significant. After the conference, I got to know that the dataset of the Democracy Matrix directed by Hans-Joachim Lauth has become publicly available since last December. The Democracy Matrix is also based on a middle-range conception of democracy, and political equality is one of its three principles. I constructed another measure of political inequality right away from the aggregate index of political equality in this dataset and redid the main analysis of the paper with this new measure. Surprisingly, the results strongly support the main findings of the inquiry.

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

The main findings of my paper should be interpreted with caution⸺that net income inequality does not significantly affect political inequality, while political inequality contributes to economic inequality by influencing redistribution rather than market income inequality. First, the concept of political equality in my paper focuses on securing an equal opportunity by encouraging political participation and making a more representative political system, not guaranteeing equal political outcomes.

Second, addressing either economic inequality or political inequality, not both of them, is incomplete, irrespective of to what extent they are associated, as economic inequality and political inequality are ubiquitous and troublesome in the modern world. Last, the finding that enhancing political equality in terms of participation and representation has clear limitations in influencing market income inequality leads us to pay more attention to other political efforts beyond enhancing redistributive policies, given that both market conditioning policies and redistributive policies are important to redress economic disparities that may influence politics in myriad ways.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

The empirical analysis of the current paper could not directly test the theories of political inequality discussed in the literature so far. For instance, to examine the elite theory, we need to exactly define the elite and measure their disproportionate political influence, but there is no such measure currently available. As Jeff Manza argues, contemporary theories of political inequality, such as elite and oligarchic theories, power resources theories, and globalization models, do not present a satisfactory explanation for the causes and consequences of political inequality, and they are also faced with many cases that contradict the theories. Therefore, theory building in the study of political inequality is pressing although it is a challenging task. Further investigation of the channels of influence between economic and political inequality, using various research methods beyond macro-level analysis, will open up an avenue for that.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

I’d like to list Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age (Schlozman, Brady, and Verba, 2018) as one of the books I recommend. I would say that this book is a newly published classic as it is a brief summary or a synthesis of their earlier works, Voice and Equality (1995) and The Unheavenly Chorus (2012), as well as an updated empirical research with recent data reflecting the new political and economic landscape. Another one is the completely revised and updated second edition of Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Bartels, 2018). The two books seem to be complimentary to each other in the sense that the former focuses on political voice, while the latter addresses political responsiveness. Reading these books may give readers something more than that: the whole picture of political inequality and critical thinking towards different views on political inequality.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

The Power Elite (1956) by American sociologist C. Wright Mills is one of the great classics for social scientists, but its profound insights can also shed new light on contemporary democracies in which political and economic inequality has been growing. In 2006, G. William Domhoff, a successor to Millsian elite theory, said, “Mills looks even better than he did 50 years ago.” Many advanced democracies as well as the United States appear to be dominated by an elite ownership class that monopolizes political and economic power. The growing importance of the asset economy since 1970’s and its accompanying politics require us to rediscover and reinterpret the elite theory in revealing the mechanisms of the interplay between political inequality and economic inequality.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Be sure to read:

Choi, Gwangeun. “Revisiting the redistribution hypothesis with perceived inequality and redistributive preferences.” European Journal of Political Economy 58 (2019): 220-244.

Choi, Gwangeun. “Conceptualizing and Measuring Political Inequality in a Cross-National Perspective.” Comparative Sociology 20, no. 1 (2021): 1-44.