Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power

By Jetin, Bruno | Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, August 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power


Jetin, Bruno, Journal of Southeast Asian Economies


Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power. Edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. Singapore: NUS Press, 2015. Pp. 208.

Inequality is a much-debated and controversial issue in the social sciences. Academic and public discourse on inequality is usually confined to advanced economies and rarely includes the developing world, despite rising inequality in economies such as China, India, or Southeast Asia. This volume, dedicated to inequality in the case of Thailand, is the first comprehensive study of its kind. The book highlights that the repeated political crises and coups d'etat in Thailand are rooted in inequalities. Thanks to the quality and multifaceted contributions, this edited volume will surely become a key reference book for students of Thailand and of inequality.

Phongpaichit and Baker's introduction presents their analysis of how economic inequalities underpin inequalities of power, social positions and access to resources. Using extensive time series data (1962-2015), they show that income inequality has worsened sharply during the development era. Thailand's inequality was one of the highest level in the world when it peaked in 1992. The authors point to several political-economic factors to explain this rising trend in contrast with neighbouring countries. For example, while rising inequality in Thailand is due to the benign neglect of authorities, in Malaysia, the government targeted inequalities after the riots of 1969 by implementing a policy of positive discrimination in favour of the Malays, which also provided it a source of durable political legitimacy. It was only in the 2000s that the Thai government enacted a set of policies, including its universal healthcare scheme, that income inequality declined (though nonetheless remaining the highest in Southeast Asia). The remaining chapters look at different sources of inequality in Thailand.

In Chapter 2, Laowakul analyses the skewed distribution of wealth based on the analysis of household surveys and the distribution of landholding based on the first ever study of a database of the Land Department. She shows that the concentration of land owning is indeed very high. She attributes this to the under-supply of public goods and services. However, public money is lacking, not because Thailand is a poor country, but because of the low rate of taxation. She proposes a tax on wealth which would fall on relatively few people--given the very high concentration of resources--while generating much-needed public revenues for the supply of public goods.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to inequality in education and wages. Lathapipat highlights that overall progress in education has been accompanied by growing disparities in the access to tertiary education. Household income plays an even more important role in limiting continuation to the tertiary level. This explains the widening wage gap between those with secondary and tertiary education as well as between those receiving different standards of tertiary education. The author suggests that providing fair access to good-quality tertiary education will be key to reducing social inequality in the long run.

Chapter 4, authored by Achavanuntakul, Rakkiattiwong and Direkudomsak, examines how capital markets affects inequality. First, the stock exchange exacerbates the inequality between those who have access to stock exchange and those who do not because the Thai government has never seriously taxed financial gains and has even granted tax exemptions to investors. Second, the stock exchange advantages the 200 richest families with access to inside information--such as loopholes in regulation or from the non-enforcement of rules --over the vast majority of investors which depend on public information. To support this claim, the authors tracked fifty-seven "political stocks" at the time of three general elections between 2005-11 and found abnormal returns in all cases. …

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