Saturday, May 21, 2022

Saturday Snippet: Equity, equality and inequality - what's changed?


We hear a lot of discussion today about "equity" of outcomes, equality and inequality, and so on.  Much of it is very ill-informed;  a great deal of it is nothing more than political propaganda, with the speaker spouting dogma and theory from his or her perspective but not basing it in historical or current reality.  Such terms have become buzzwords, slogans, in popular discourse, rather than something concrete.  What's more, they're often used to whip up emotions, even violence, against the "haves" by the "have-nots".  You can see the pernicious influence of such incitement in the statements of leaders of Black Lives Matter (who are, by their own admission, "trained Marxists"), Antifa, etc.

What's the reality behind the polemics?  In his book "The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century", historian Walter Scheidel argues that violence has been the principal contributor to declines in inequality throughout human history.

That's a very uncomfortable theory for modern First World societies, but Prof. Scheidel defends it with a great deal of historical data.  However, he doesn't become pedantic about it.  He presents his case, and the supporting evidence, then invites us to make up our own mind.  I'm not entirely sure I agree with him upon first reading of his book:  but, based on what I've seen and experienced over decades in Third World environments, I can't say he's wrong, either.  My personal jury is still out on that.  In particular, current trends and influences such as what Michael Yon terms PANFAWAR - Pandemic, Famine, War - are already exerting an inexorable influence on every nation on the planet, not least our own;  and they're likely to get much worse before we see any improvement.  Are they merely the latest manifestation of the historical reality Prof. Scheidel identifies?

Here are some excerpts from the book's opening chapter.  I've highlighted certain passages that I think are key.  Read them in the light of our recent discussion of the global influences at work all around us.  Whether or not you see those influences as deliberate or coincidental, Prof. Scheidel's conclusions aren't comforting.


How many billionaires does it take to match the net worth of half of the world’s population? In 2015, the richest sixty-two persons on the planet owned as much private net wealth as the poorer half of humanity, more than 3.5 billion people. If they decided to go on a field trip together, they would comfortably fit into a large coach. The previous year, eighty-five billionaires were needed to clear that threshold, calling perhaps for a more commodious double-decker bus. And not so long ago, in 2010, no fewer [than] 388 of them had to pool their resources to offset the assets of the global other half, a turnout that would have required a small convoy of vehicles or filled up a typical Boeing 777 or Airbus A340.

But inequality is not created just by multibillionaires. The richest 1 percent of the world’s households now hold a little more than half of global private net wealth. Inclusion of the assets that some of them conceal in offshore accounts would skew the distribution even further. These disparities are not simply caused by the huge differences in average income between advanced and developing economies. Similar imbalances exist within societies. The wealthiest twenty Americans currently own as much as the bottom half of their country’s households taken together, and the top 1 percent of incomes account for about a fifth of the national total. Inequality has been growing in much of the world. In recent decades, income and wealth have become more unevenly distributed in Europe and North America, in the former Soviet bloc, and in China, India, and elsewhere. And to the one who has, more will be given: in the United States, the best-earning 1 percent of the top 1 percent (those in the highest 0.01 percent income bracket) raised their share to almost six times what it had been in the 1970s even as the top tenth of that group (the top 0.1 percent) quadrupled it. The remainder averaged gains of about three-quarters—nothing to frown at, but a far cry from the advances in higher tiers.

The “1 percent” may be a convenient moniker that smoothly rolls off the tongue, and one that I repeatedly use in this book, but it also serves to obscure the degree of wealth concentration in even fewer hands. In the 1850s, Nathaniel Parker Willis coined the term “Upper Ten Thousand” to describe New York high society. We may now be in need of a variant, the “Upper Ten-Thousandth,” to do justice to those who contribute the most to widening inequality. And even within this rarefied group, those at the very top continue to outdistance all others. The largest American fortune currently equals about 1 million times the average annual household income, a multiple twenty times larger than it was in 1982. Even so, the United States may be losing out to China, now said to be home to an even larger number of dollar billionaires despite its considerably smaller nominal GDP.

All this has been greeted with growing anxiety. In 2013, President Barack Obama elevated rising inequality to a “defining challenge”:

And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain—that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.

Two years earlier, multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett had complained that he and his “mega-rich friends” did not pay enough taxes. These sentiments are widely shared. Within eighteen months of its publication in 2013, a 700-page academic tome on capitalist inequality had sold 1.5 million copies and risen to the top of the New York Times nonfiction hardcover bestseller list. In the Democratic Party primaries for the 2016 presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders’s relentless denunciation of the “billionaire class” roused large crowds and elicited millions of small donations from grassroots supporters. Even the leadership of the People’s Republic of China has publicly acknowledged the issue by endorsing a report on how to “reform the system of income distribution.” Any lingering doubts are dispelled by Google, one of the great money-spinning disequalizers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, which allows us to track the growing prominence of income inequality in the public consciousness.

So have the rich simply kept getting richer? Not quite. For all the much-maligned rapacity of the “billionaire class” or, more broadly, the “1 percent,” American top income shares only very recently caught up with those reached back in 1929, and assets are less heavily concentrated now than they were then. In England on the eve of the First World War, the richest tenth of households held a staggering 92 percent of all private wealth, crowding out pretty much everybody else; today their share is a little more than half. High inequality has an extremely long pedigree. Two thousand years ago, the largest Roman private fortunes equaled about 1.5 million times the average annual per capita income in the empire, roughly the same ratio as for Bill Gates and the average American today. For all we can tell, even the overall degree of Roman income inequality was not very different from that in the United States. Yet by the time of Pope Gregory the Great, around 600 CE, great estates had disappeared, and what little was left of the Roman aristocracy relied on papal handouts to keep them afloat. Sometimes, as on that occasion, inequality declined because although many became poorer, the rich simply had more to lose. In other cases, workers became better off while returns on capital fell: western Europe after the Black Death, where real wages doubled or tripled and laborers dined on meat and beer while landlords struggled to keep up appearances, is a famous example.

How has the distribution of income and wealth developed over time, and why has it sometimes changed so much? Considering the enormous amount of attention that inequality has received in recent years, we still know much less about this than might be expected. A large and steadily growing body of often highly technical scholarship attends to the most pressing question: why income has frequently become more concentrated over the course of the last generation. Less has been written about the forces that caused inequality to fall across much of the world earlier in the twentieth century—and far less still about the distribution of material resources in the more distant past. To be sure, concerns about growing income gaps in the world today have given momentum to the study of inequality in the longer run, just as contemporary climate change has encouraged analysis of pertinent historical data. But we still lack a proper sense of the big picture, a global survey that covers the broad sweep of observable history. A cross-cultural, comparative, and long-term perspective is essential for our understanding of the mechanisms that have shaped the distribution of income and wealth.


Material inequality requires access to resources beyond the minimum that is needed to keep us all alive. Surpluses already existed tens of thousands of years ago, and so did humans who were prepared to share them unevenly. Back in the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers found the time and means to bury some individuals much more lavishly than others. But it was food production—farming and herding—that created wealth on an entirely novel scale. Growing and persistent inequality became a defining feature of the Holocene. The domestication of plants and animals made it possible to accumulate and preserve productive resources. Social norms evolved to define rights to these assets, including the ability to pass them on to future generations. Under these conditions, the distribution of income and wealth came to be shaped by a variety of experiences: health, marital strategies and reproductive success, consumption and investment choices, bumper harvests, and plagues of locusts and rinderpest determined fortunes from one generation to the next. Adding up over time, the consequences of luck and effort favored unequal outcomes in the long term.

In principle, institutions could have flattened emerging disparities through interventions designed to rebalance the distribution of material resources and the fruits from labor, as some premodern societies are indeed reputed to have done. In practice, however, social evolution commonly had the opposite effect. Domestication of food sources also domesticated people. The formation of states as a highly competitive form of organization established steep hierarchies of power and coercive force that skewed access to income and wealth. Political inequality reinforced and amplified economic inequality. For most of the agrarian period, the state enriched the few at the expense of the many: gains from pay and benefactions for public service often paled next to those from corruption, extortion, and plunder. As a result, many premodern societies grew to be as unequal as they could possibly be, probing the limits of surplus appropriation by small elites under conditions of low per capita output and minimal growth. And when more benign institutions promoted more vigorous economic development, most notably in the emergent West, they continued to sustain high inequality. Urbanization, commercialization, financial sector innovation, trade on an increasingly global scale, and, finally, industrialization generated rich returns for holders of capital. As rents from the naked exercise of power declined, choking off a traditional source of elite enrichment, more secure property rights and state commitments strengthened the protection of hereditary private wealth. Even as economic structures, social norms, and political systems changed, income and wealth inequality remained high or found new ways to grow.

For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. Violent shocks were of paramount importance in disrupting the established order, in compressing the distribution of income and wealth, in narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Throughout recorded history, the most powerful leveling invariably resulted from the most powerful shocks. Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling. Just like their biblical counterparts, they went forth to “take peace from the earth” and “kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one another, they produced outcomes that to contemporaries often seemed nothing short of apocalyptic. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake. And by the time the dust had settled, the gap between the haves and the have-nots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.

Only specific types of violence have consistently forced down inequality. Most wars did not have any systematic effect on the distribution of resources: although archaic forms of conflict that thrived on conquest and plunder were likely to enrich victorious elites and impoverish those on the losing side, less clear-cut endings failed to have predictable consequences. For war to level disparities in income and wealth, it needed to penetrate society as a whole, to mobilize people and resources on a scale that was often only feasible in modern nation-states. This explains why the two world wars were among the greatest levelers in history. The physical destruction wrought by industrial-scale warfare, confiscatory taxation, government intervention in the economy, inflation, disruption to global flows of goods and capital, and other factors all combined to wipe out elites’ wealth and redistribute resources. They also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing policy change, providing powerful impetus to franchise extensions, unionization, and the expansion of the welfare state. The shocks of the world wars led to what is known as the “Great Compression,” massive attenuation of inequalities in income and wealth across developed countries. Mostly concentrated in the period from 1914 to 1945, it generally took several more decades fully to run its course. Earlier mass mobilization warfare had lacked similar pervasive repercussions. The wars of the Napoleonic era or the American Civil War had produced mixed distributional outcomes, and the farther we go back in time, the less pertinent evidence there is. The ancient Greek city-state culture, represented by Athens and Sparta, arguably provides us with earliest examples of how intense popular military mobilization and egalitarian institutions helped constrain material inequality, albeit with mixed success.

The world wars spawned the second major leveling force, transformative revolution. Internal conflicts have not normally reduced inequality: peasant revolts and urban risings were common in premodern history but usually failed, and civil war in developing countries tends to render the income distribution more unequal rather than less. Violent societal restructuring needs to be exceptionally intense if it is to reconfigure access to material resources. Similarly to equalizing mass mobilization warfare, this was primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Communists who expropriated, redistributed, and then often collectivized leveled inequality on a dramatic scale. The most transformative of these revolutions were accompanied by extraordinary violence, in the end matching the world wars in terms of body count and human misery. Far less bloody ruptures such as the French Revolution leveled on a correspondingly smaller scale.

Violence might destroy states altogether. State failure or systems collapse used to be a particularly reliable means of leveling. For most of history, the rich were positioned either at or near the top of the political power hierarchy or were connected to those who were. Moreover, states provided a measure of protection, however modest by modern standards, for economic activity beyond the subsistence level. When states unraveled, these positions, connections, and protections came under pressure or were altogether lost. Although everybody might suffer when states unraveled, the rich simply had much more to lose: declining or collapsing elite income and wealth compressed the overall distribution of resources. This has happened for as long as there have been states. The earliest known examples reach back 4,000 years to the end of Old Kingdom Egypt and the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia. Even today, the experience of Somalia suggests that this once potent equalizing force has not completely disappeared.

State failure takes the principle of leveling by violent means to its logical extremes: instead of achieving redistribution and rebalancing by reforming and restructuring existing polities, it wipes the slate clean in a more comprehensive manner. The first three horsemen represent different stages, not in the sense that they are likely to appear in sequence—whereas the biggest revolutions were triggered by the biggest wars, state collapse does not normally require similarly strong pressures—but in terms of intensity. What they all have in common is that they rely on violence to remake the distribution of income and wealth alongside the political and social order.

Human-caused violence has long had competition. In the past, plague, smallpox, and measles ravaged whole continents more forcefully than even the largest armies or most fervent revolutionaries could hope to do. In agrarian societies, the loss of a sizeable share of the population to microbes, sometimes a third or even more, made labor scarce and raised its price relative to that of fixed assets and other nonhuman capital, which generally remained intact. As a result, workers gained and landlords and employers lost as real wages rose and rents fell. Institutions mediated the scale of these shifts: elites commonly attempted to preserve existing arrangements through fiat and force but often failed to hold equalizing market forces in check.

Pandemics complete the quartet of horsemen of violent leveling. But were there also other, more peaceful mechanisms of lowering inequality? If we think of leveling on a large scale, the answer must be no. Across the full sweep of history, every single one of the major compressions of material inequality we can observe in the record was driven by one or more of these four levelers. Moreover, mass wars and revolutions did not merely act on those societies that were directly involved in these events: the world wars and exposure to communist challengers also influenced economic conditions, social expectations, and policymaking among bystanders. These ripple effects further broadened the effects of leveling rooted in violent conflict. This makes it difficult to disentangle developments after 1945 in much of the world from the preceding shocks and their continuing reverberations. Although falling income inequality in Latin America in the early 2000s might be the most promising candidate for nonviolent equalization, this trend has remained relatively modest in scope, and its sustainability is uncertain.

Other factors have a mixed record. From antiquity to the associated with violence or the threat of violence—and least when not. Macroeconomic crises have only short-lived effects on the distribution of income and wealth. Democracy does not of itself mitigate inequality. Although the interplay of education and technological change undoubtedly influences dispersion of incomes, returns on education and skills have historically proven highly sensitive to violent shocks. Finally, there is no compelling empirical evidence to support the view that modern economic development, as such, narrows inequalities. There is no repertoire of benign means of compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen.

Yet shocks abate. When states failed, others sooner or later took their place. Demographic contractions were reversed after plagues subsided, and renewed population growth gradually returned the balance of labor and capital to previous levels. The world wars were relatively short, and their aftereffects have faded over time: top tax rates and union density are down, globalization is up, communism is gone, the Cold War is over, and the risk of World War III has receded. All of this makes the recent resurgence of inequality easier to understand. The traditional violent levelers currently lie dormant and are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future. No similarly potent alternative mechanisms of equalization have emerged.

Even in the most progressive advanced economies, redistribution and education are already unable fully to absorb the pressure of widening income inequality before taxes and transfers. Lower-hanging fruits beckon in developing countries, but fiscal constraints remain strong. There does not seem to be an easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality. From a global historical perspective, this should not come as a surprise. So far as we can tell, environments that were free from major violent shocks and their broader repercussions hardly ever witnessed major compressions of inequality. Will the future be different?

. . .

Inequality either grew or held fairly steady for much of recorded history, and significant reductions have been rare. Yet policy proposals designed to stem or reverse the rising tide of inequality tend to show little awareness or appreciation of this historical background. Is that as it should be? Perhaps our age has become so fundamentally different, so completely untethered from its agrarian and undemocratic foundations, that history has nothing left to teach us. And indeed, there is no question that much has changed: low-income groups in rich economies are generally better off than most people were in the past, and even the most disadvantaged residents of the least developed countries live longer than their ancestors lived. The experience of life at the receiving end of inequality is in many ways very different from what it used to be.

But it is not economic or more broadly human development that concerns us here—rather how the fruits of civilization are distributed, what causes them to be distributed the way they are, and what it would take to change these outcomes. I wrote this book to show that the forces that used to shape inequality have not in fact changed beyond recognition. If we seek to rebalance the current distribution of income and wealth in favor of greater equality, we cannot simply close our eyes to what it took to accomplish this goal in the past. We need to ask whether great inequality has ever been alleviated without great violence, how more benign influences compare to the power of this Great Leveler, and whether the future is likely to be very different—even if we may not like the answers.

Makes you think . . . doesn't it?



Vitaeus said...

I didn't read most of the post. One point I never see being made anymore is that the bottom of the economic pile is getting higher. Electrification, refrigeration, air conditioning are becoming more ubiquitous. Food is a continuing issue, but it is also an infrastructure problem in Third World countries as much as a total food available.

SiGraybeard said...

The issue nobody talks about when they talk about what percentage of the world's resources the richest people have (whichever definition of "richest" they use) is what percentage are they supposed to have?

Or, as Thomas Sowell put it, "What is your 'fair share' of what someone else has worked for?"

I care infinitely more about the government destroying the value of my life's savings (that I'm living off) by their stupid and reckless monetary creation than I care about how much more someone else has than I do.

Old NFO said...

I agree with Sig on this one.

Jonathan H said...

Notice that in both the 1920's and now, growing since the 70's, fortunes have been made in the financial sector, not the actual making, moving, or selling of things. Also, in both cases leveraging magnified investments and the stock market, moving them away from a connection to tangibles.

I'm glad he mentioned wealth concentration of the past; too many people think this is something new, not a recurring cycle.
Also as mentioned above, the average American is living better today than most of the rich 120 years ago - health, comfort, conveniences, etc

Hamsterman said...

Sometimes even the 'how and why' of the violence has an impact on the leveling. The land redistribution in Zimbabwe resulted in massive destruction of wealth, while that of Peru in the 70s mostly just removed absentee landlords from the picture, at least for a time.

I'm more worried about what 'the rich' will do. Someone else owning the business I work at isn't a problem. It is what kind of hoops they will force me to jump through if I want to work there. If they own all the businesses and actively stamp out any startups, this is a return to the old exercise of raw power.