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Branko Milanovic, the political economist of global inequality

The Serbian-American researcher is one of the best economic thinkers to emerge in decades. He has redefined the debate on equality on a global scale

Branko Milanovic
Luis Grañena
Ignacio Fariza

It is the most famous elephant in history. It was just over a decade ago, shortly before Christmas 2013, when two World Bank economists—Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner—published a paper with an illuminating title: Global Income Distribution: from the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the Great Recession. They demonstrated, in short, how globalization has benefited the wealthiest individuals and the incipient middle classes of the emerging bloc, while harming the working classes of Europe and the United States, hit by the closure of factories that were packing their bags for Asia. Everything, absolutely everything, was illustrated in a single graphic that resembled the silhouette of a pachyderm, from tail to trunk. It would become, shortly thereafter, one of the most cited studies in recent decades.

These were not exactly years in which inequality occupied a prominent place in the public conversation. Not even a place, period. A Fukuyamesque idea prevailed that, after November 9, 1989, political and economic liberalism had definitively imposed itself and that the market, all by itself, would resolve all evils. It took the painful crash of 2008, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, for the world to abruptly wake up from that dream. “It revealed a harsh reality to the Western middle classes and, above all, to the American middle class: that their purchasing power had depended, to a large extent, on their debt capacity,” Milanovic himself notes on the other end of the phone.

Thus, everything that the Lakner-Milanovic duo had made clear in their elephant curve was revealed: that the internationalization of production chains had created a lot of wealth and lifted millions of people out of poverty in low and middle-income countries — whom it had also elevated to another stage — but had also frayed the former industrial societies of the West and fueled the rise of populism and the far right. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

“Until then, internal inequality was only being studied within each country and then the national data was compared,” said Janet Gornick, a colleague of the Serbian economist at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, which she directs. Gornick, whom Milanovic has collaborated with on papers the most in recent times, noted in a telephone interview that “Branko completely changed that perspective, dissolving national borders and imagining, if you will, a global community.” And always from an independent, progressive and unorthodox perspective, a trademark of the house.

Although still within the bounds of academia, Milanovic had been researching inequality for decades. In his doctoral dissertation, more than three decades ago, he analyzed this phenomenon in the now extinct Yugoslavia. The spotlight, however, would come to him much later, with that elephant that catapulted him to fame with the general public and with two other works that have allowed him to reach far beyond the niche reader: Capitalism, Alone and his recent Visions of Inequality.

Both of these, as well as his other three books published in the last 18 years—all with inequality as the common thread—evidence a generalist approach and a subtle way of combining scientific rigor with communicative skill, two of the most difficult ingredients to mix in the always complex cocktail of the essay. “He is a brilliant practical researcher, with a characteristic mix of innovation and caution,” Gornick emphasizes.

Far removed from the style of the best-selling economist, Milanovic has two layers: that of the rigorous academic and that of the writer of books that permeate far beyond economics. “He is not a publicist either: behind every statement of his that may be popular or media-friendly, there is a paper full of calculations or historical research that reaches back to the Middle Ages. He does what very few people do,” says economic historian Leandro Prados de la Escosura, professor emeritus at Carlos III University of Madrid. Like asking—and answering—what place Anna Karenina would occupy today in the economic pyramid.

Milanovic, who has lived in the United States for decades, is one of the best economic thinkers in decades, on a par with Mariana Mazzucato, Thomas Piketty, Olivier Blanchard, Daron Acemoglu, Angus Deaton, Carmen Reinhart and Barry Eichengreen. And he is, above all, a person who gets involved in what is happening in the world, unlike so many academics, says Prados de la Escosura. “He is capable of giving his opinion, with restraint and judgment, on practically any topic of today: on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on Gaza... He is a tolerant person, with one maxim: not to try to convince anyone of his ideas; not because he doesn’t want to, but because he believes it is a lost battle.”

Born 70 years ago into a relatively wealthy family in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the Serbian economist grew up with some luxuries of the red bourgeoisie, which most of his contemporaries lacked. His adolescence would be spent, however, in a clearly leftist Belgian public institute. It was there, in Brussels, that his father, also an economist, was stationed as his country’s representative to the newly founded European Economic Community, and it was there where he was able to see with his own eyes the income gap from the side of the privileged. He learned French, which, like English and Serbo-Croatian, he speaks fluently. A linguistic panoply to which, over the years and academic stays in cities like Madrid, he has added more than decent Spanish, Russian and even Polish.

His university years were spent, however, in Belgrade, where he studied economics after considering sociology. There his genuine interest in inequality began and there, too, he began to become what he is today: a cosmopolitan guy, with a down-to-earth attitude and infinite curiosity. Married with two children, he devotes the rest of his time to his two great hobbies: soccer and history, with a predilection for the Roman Empire and World War I.

The latter inclination lies somewhere between the personal and the academic, and has earned him enormous respect in that field. “He has read everything and, furthermore, he remembers what he has read. And, like Acemoglu or James A. Robinson, he has been able to establish a research agenda for historians,” notes Prados de Escosura.

A tweeter for years, Milanovic also remains faithful to the now classic genre of the blog, which he has cultivated for years and to which in recent years he has added a newsletter of variable frequency, but with very fine content that combines the experiences of his childhood and adolescence with purely academic matters. That is where he shows his personality as a political economist, with which he has broken the sadly insurmountable wall between the economic and the social. A barrier that, like all the greats in this field, the current professor at City University of New York never viewed as his own.

Although timidly, in recent years his name has begun to pop up as a potential Nobel Prize winner in Economics. “Nothing would make me happier, because he has a unique mind: an economist, a philosopher, a historian, a storyteller…” says Gornick. “Is it even vaguely likely that he will be awarded the Nobel Prize? I don’t think so, because he doesn’t fit the mold.” Not fitting into the mold is, paradoxically, one of his great virtues.

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