Notes from: The great leveler : violence and the history of inequality from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century

I don’t agree with the book’s conclusions, but it assembles a great deal of interesting material.

p. 37 “A collaborative study of 21 small-scale societies at different levels of development – hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, herders and farmers – and in different parts of the world identifies two crucial determinants of inequality: ownership rights in land and livestock and the ability to transmit wealth from one generation to the next. Researchers looked at three different types of wealth: embodied (mostly body strength and reproductive success), relational (exemplified by partners in labor) and material (household goods, land and livestock). In their sample, embodied endowments were the most important wealth category in foragers and horticulturalists, and material wealth was the least important one, whereas the opposite was true of herders and farmers… Transmissibility of wealth is another crucial variable. The degree of interngenerational wealth transmission was about twice as high for farmers and herders as for the others, and the material possessions available to them were much more suitable for transmission than were the assets of foragers and horticulturalists. These systematic difference exercise a strong influence on the inequality of life chances, measured in terms of the likelihood that a child of parents in the top composite wealth decile ends up in the same decile compared to that of a child of parents of the poorest decile. … even among the foragers and horticulturalists offspring of the top decile were at least three times as likely to reproduce this standing as those of the bottom decile were to ascend to it. For farmers, however, the odds were much better (about 11 times) and they were better still for herders (about 20 times)…according to this analysis, inequality and its persistence over time has been the result of a combination of three factors: the relative importance and characteristics of different classes of assets, how suitable they are for passing on to others, and actual rates of transmission. .. transmissibility is critical: if wealth is passed on between generations, random shocks related to health, parity and returns on capital and labour that create inequality will be preserved and accumulate over time instead of allowing distributional outcomes to regress to the mean.”

p. 39 Historically, inequality was sometimes slow to take off. Catal Hoyuk, a Neolithic proto-urban settlement in southwest Anatolia… is a striking example. Its several thousand inhabitants relied on a mixture of horticultural hoe-farming and herding. Land was abundant, and there are no clear signs of governmental structures r social stratification. Residents inhabited family households where they stored grain, fruit and nuts … Intact millstones and querns are unevenly distributed across dwellings, whereas households generally enjoyed broad access to cooking features and stone tools. Intact querns are predominately found in more elaborate buildings, but we cannot tell whether these represent higher status households or whether they merely hosted cooperative tasks related to food processing. The observation that most millstones and querns had deliberately been broken long before they would have worn out may speak against the first of these interpretations. This custom may even reflect a widespread though not universal injunctions against intergenerational transmission of these valuable assets: in later Mesopotamian societies, querns featured prominently among heritable wealth. It is possible that levelling measures were actively applied go curb wealth imbalances among households.

p. 40 Yes inequality increasingly became the norm. Archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia shows strong signs of stratification long before the first states were established in the region. In the village of Tell es-Sawwan on the Tigris, north of modern Baghdad, for example, a mud wall with a ditch that contained many sling missiles, all made of clay, points to violent conflict some 7,000 years ago, conditions that were conducive to the creation of centralised leadership and hierarchy. Some of the richest burials at this site are of children, reflecting status distinction based on family wealth rather than personal achievement. .. some time between 6,000 and 4,000BC all the basic ingredients of structural inequality were already in place”

“A cemetery at Varna by the Black Sea in what is now Bulgaria has yielded more than 200 occupied graves from the 5th millennium BC. One burial stands out, a middle=aged man laid to rest with no fewer than 990 gold objects … a third of all gold objects found at this site and a quarter of their total weight… more than half of the occupied graves contained some goods, but fewer than one in ten is rich in deposits, and only a handful contain a wide range of material. The Gini coefficient for the number of goods per grave varies from 0.61 to 0.77, depending on the period, but would be much higher if we could adjust for the distribution of value.”

p. 71 once Rome projected power well beyond the Italian peninsula and increasingly tapped into the resources of the Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Med. The size of aristocratic fortunes grew enormously…over the course of about five generations, the private wealth ceiling had risen by a factor of 40. .. inflation had been modest, and there is no sign that average per capita output or personal wealth among ordinary citizens had grown by more than a trivial fraction of the expansion experienced by upper-class fortunes.

p. 73 Where did all the additional resources come from? Economic development grounded in market relations certainly picked up in the later stages of the Republican period. The use of slaves in cash crop production and manufacturing, as well as rich archaeological evidence for the export of wine and olive oil, points to the success of Roman capital owners. Yet this was only part of the story … our sources emphasize the paramount significance of coercion as a source of top incomes and fortunes … at a time when annual interest rates of 6 per cent were common in Rome itself, wealthy Romans imposed rates of up to 48% on provincial cities, which were in desperate need of money to satisfy the demands of their governors.”

p. 75 Imperial unification and connectivity facilitated the expansion and concentration of personal wealth. Under Nero, six men were said to have owned ‘half’ the province of Africa (centred on modern Tunisia), albeit only until he seized their properties. While clearly hyperbolic, this claim need not have been dramatically far from the truth in a region where large estates could be described as rivalling city territories in size.”

p. 77 It is possible to quantify Roman imperial inequality at least in rough outlines. At the peak of its development in the mid-second century CE, an empire of some 70 million people generated an annual GDP of close to the equivalent of 50 million tonnes of what, or approaching 20 billion sesterces. The corresponding mean per capita GDP of $800 in 1990 International Dollars appears plausible in relation to other premodern economies… about 1.5 percent of all households captured between a sixth and close to a third of the total output.”

p. 78 A conservative range of assumptions points to an overall Gini coefficient of income in the low 0.4s for the empire as a whole … not far below the maximum that was actually achievable at that level of economic development, a feature shared by many other premodern societies.p. 81 “Inasmuch as inequality could be contained within intact imperial polities, it was by menas of violent recirculation of assets within the elite.. Mamluk Egypt, in which this principle plated out in maybe its purest historically documented form… Incessant jockeying for power within this class determined individual incomes, and violent conflict frequently altered these allocations” .. the mature Ottoman empire … officeholding was to be nonhereditary and officials’ assets were concerned prebendal, in effect appurtenances of services rather than private property. When they died, gains made during office were to be deducted from their estates and absorbed by the treasure. In practice, all their possessions might be ceased for the simple reason that officeholding and wealth were deemed indistinguishable. Confiscations at the time of death were complemented by the liquidation and expropriation of current officials who had attracted the sultan’s attention.”

p. 54 premodern societies … were about as unequal as they could be. Exceptions were rare, the only reasonably well documented case is that of classical Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, where direct democracy and a culture of military mass mobilization helped contain economic inequality. If modern estimates based on scant ancient evidence can be trusted, Athenian per capita GDP in the 330s BCE was relatively high for a premodern economy – maybe four to five times minimum physiological subsitence, similar to 15th-century Holland and 16th-centyury England – and the market income Gini coefficient reached around 0.38. By premodern standards, the implied extraction rate of about 49 percent was exceptionally modest.”

p. 146 “In World War I, the democracies of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada were prepared to ‘soak the rich’, whereas more autocratic systems such as Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia preferred to borrow or print money to sustain their war effort. The latter, however, later paid a high price through hyperinflation and revolution, shocks that likewise compressed inequality.”

p. 147 “In the United Kingdom, top income tax rates rose from 6% to 30% during World War I, and a new war profits tax levied on companies – raised to 80% by 1917 – became the single most important tax in terms of revenue. .. the country lost 14.9% of its national wealth and it lost another 18.6% in World War II.. The share of the largest `% of fortunes in all private wealth contracted from 70 to 50% – less dramatic than the concurrent collapse from 60 to 30% in France, but nonetheless significant.”

p. 353 “land reform has a poor track record in alleviating inequality. A survey of 27 reforms during the second half of the 20th century shows that in a large majority of cases (21 or 78%) land inequality either remained largely unchanged or even grew over time. Cronyism might undermine peaceful land reform. .. in the Philippines even when a more serious attempt was made after 1988, results were modest, just as they had been in India, Pakistan and Indonesia. In Iran in the 1970s, although more sharecroppers obtained some land through compulsory sales of excess landlord holdings, favouritism coupled with compensation requirements and the lack of state support coupled with compensation requirements and the lack of state support, all of which advantaged better-off peasants.”

p 356 Genuinely peaceful reform often appears to have required some form of foreign control that checked the power of local elites. It worked in Puerto Rico in the late 1940s – and even there it was an outgrowth of equalizing reforms in the United States that had been driven by the Great Depression and World War II and coincided with top-down land reform in Hapan under American occupation. Colonial rule was also instrumental in Irish land reform. In the late 1870s, the so-called ‘Land War’ agitation for fair rents and tenant protections from evictions, involved organised resistance in the form of strikes and boycotts… The British Parliament addressed these grievances in a series of acts that regulated rents and provided for loans at fixed interest for tenants who wanted to purchase land from willing landlords. In 1903, the Wyndham Act finally bought peace as the government agreed to cover, out of state revenue, a 12% premium between compensation offered by tenants and the asking prices of landlords, thereby subsidizing the privatisation of smallholdings. This allowed smallholders to take control of more than half of all Irish farmland by the time of independence in the early 1920s.” (Barraclough, 1999, “Land reform in developing countries: the role of the state and other actors.” UNRISD Discussion Paper 101

p. 365 “scholarship on the relationship between democracy and inequality has long produced contradictory results. .. democracy does have a robust effect on tax revenue as a share of GDP. This suggests that democracy’s role in shaping the net distribution of resources is complex and heterogenous … Two reasons for this stand out: equalization can be impeded if democracy is ‘captured’ by powerful constituencies, and democratization provides opportunities for economic development that may by itself increase income inequality.”

p. 405 The last generation to have lived through the Great Compression is rapidly fading. .. As with people, so with levelling. In developed countries, the massive decline in inequality that commenced in 1914 has long run its course. For about a generation, give or take a decade, income disparities have been growing in all countries for which we have reliable data… inequality began to rise in 1973 in the United Kingdom, and in 1973 or 1976 in the United States, in 1977 in Ireland, in 1978 in Canada and in 1981 in Australia.

p. 410 “formally or effectively post-communist societies have witnessed enormous increases in material inequality. This development has been particularly dramatic in China, where the market income Gini more than doubled from 0.23 in 1984 to somewhere around 0.55 in 2014 and the corresponding measure of wealth concentration rapidly rose from 0.45 in 1995 into the 0.7s by the early 2010, and likewise in Russia, where the market income Gini has hovered above 0.5 since 2008, up from 0.37 in 1991”

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