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Much of what I talk about in this space touches on subjects and themes commonly found in science fiction, and while I’ve read a lot of it over the years (though always less than I wanted to read) I only recently noticed that much of it shares a common feature: science fiction novels frequently feature individuals who are unimaginably wealthy. This is particularly the case when you’re talking about novels in the cyberpunk genre. I would say all of the William Gibson I’ve read is that way, as well as much of Neal Stephenson’s stuff. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which was recently made into a TV series on Netflix, also fits the bill. (Additionally I’m reliably informed that the Jean le Flambeur series by Hannu Rajaniemi also features incredible wealth. But don’t take my word for it, I’ve only read the first book, and Hannu Rajaniemi is nothing if not opaque.)

All of this is to say that when people imagine the future, particularly the near future, they imagine a world in which inequality has increased. Of course there are exceptions. Star Trek’s lack of money presumably puts it in a different category, though Star Trek is not the near future, and it also concerns itself with a very limited slice of the future it does imagine. (Consider, what your view of modern America would be like if it came entirely from stories about submarine crews?) I bring up this element of science fiction not as proof of some assertion, but rather more to support the general observation of where people think things are headed. Which is to say, inequality is likely to continue to increase.

As I said, pointing to a few (or even a hundred) science fiction novels doesn’t prove anything. But that’s where The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel comes in. Rather than make a general observation about the proclivities of science fiction authors he went back through history. Bringing in statistics from as far back as Assyria and continuing all the way through to the present day. As you can imagine the farther back you go the worse the data is, though they’re able to make some significant inferences from the size of skeletons and the square footage of dwellings. Based on all these statistics he comes to the same conclusion as our example science fiction authors, inequality trends inexorably upward over time. That, absent massive societal disruption, (a subject we’ll be spending the majority of our time on) inequality will rise forever. Meaning that rising inequality isn’t just a literary tick of science fiction writers, but that it also matches the facts on the ground.

Of course inequality is not some unique concern of Scheidel, he bases much of what he says on Thomas Piketty’s well known work Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Though Piketty only covers the last 250 years or so, and recommends taxation as the solution for rising inequality. On the first point, Scheidel goes much further back and on the second point, he is far less optimistic that there’s any effective policy-based solution. If one were to consider merely Piketty’s numbers from the last 250 years the argument could be made that inequality is a function of the modern world, a child of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution along with so many other things. Scheidel argues persuasively that it’s not, that recent levels of inequality are not an aberration, but rather just the way the world works. If this was the only point of The Great Leveler than it would be an interesting expansion to Piketty, but hardly be saying anything unexpected. It’s when we consider his second point, the difficulty of doing anything about inequality, absent, as I said, massive societal disruption, where the book really sets itself apart.

Before we get to the main discussion of what Scheidel considers massive societal disruption, and the identity of “The Great Leveler”, we need to deal with the book’s unstated assumption. The assumption that inequality is a “bad thing”. In my opinion not spending the time to lay out a foundation for why it’s bad is one of few weaknesses of the book. Though, I suspect that when you’re as deep into the subject as Scheidel is, the harm of inequality seems so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. And while I largely agree with this assertion, I think there are several arguments which could be made in opposition, and by not acknowledging them in the beginning, Some people will take it as an opportunity to dismiss the book out of hand. This might take the form of pointing out that, today, even the poorest people are so materially well off that it doesn’t matter that the top 1% of people have 40% of all the wealth. The modern poor still live lives that would beggar the imagination of even kings if you go back more than a few hundred years.

One of the reasons why Scheidel may have ignored this argument is that in the simplest sense it’s obviously not true. We don’t live in a society where everyone is getting more wealthy. Any explanation of inequality will not merely point out the disproportionate share of the wealth held by the top 1% (or 0.1%) but will also point out that real wages have been stagnant or declining for decades. Inequality is increasing in both directions so to speak. As I have pointed out in previous posts, it’s not merely that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer.

This is not merely something which is only happening in the present day. Inequality appears to always expand in both directions. Of course, this makes sense. In pre-modern times wealth was much more of a zero sum affair, nevertheless some of the examples Scheidel gave were striking. In particular I appreciated his examples from the middle ages. The fall of the Roman Empire led to an enormous leveling, which lasted for centuries. Thus in contrast to how most people view the “dark ages” we find that peasants were comparatively well off, and things actually got worse during the high middle ages:

English inequality rose throughout this period [1000-1300]. Whereas the Domesday Book survey of 1086 shows that most peasant households held enough land to achieve income above subsistence from their own plots alone, the Hundred Rolls survey of 1279 to 1280 suggest that most of their descendants could hope to break even only by supplementing their farm production with wage income from harvest work for others. A model simulation indicates that demographic growth by itself was insufficient to produce this outcome…Some peasants became entirely landless, which raised asset inequality even further. Moreover, English land rents for commoners rose greatly between 1000 and the early fourteenth century, even as the size of their holdings shrank. In France meanwhile, typical plot size fell from around ten hectares to often fewer than three hectares between the ninth and early fourteenth century.

In response to this, I can imagine people like Steven Pinker (a review of his book Enlightenment Now is coming) and perhaps some of the transhumanists saying, “Sure, that sort of thing happened back then, but now we have progress and technology!” In other words they don’t disagree that inequality may be widening, or even that the poor are not, by some measures, getting poorer, but that if we look at more subtle measures people aren’t actually worse off.

The argument goes something like this, we can imagine that technology is increasing at a rate such that even if an average person living below the poverty line has $0.90 of purchasing power for every $1 they had ten years ago, that this $0.90 buys more than the $1 did ten years ago. Certainly this is the case with computers and smartphones and TVs. It’s less clear that it’s the case with things like healthcare and education. Thus while there’s definite evidence for the simple argument being false, the argument that technological progress is moving faster than rising inequality has a lot going for it.

Unfortunately even if this more subtle version of the theory is true, I don’t think it will matter, because that’s not the way people see the world. You can tell someone they’re better off than they would have been 50 (or even 10) years ago till your blue in the face. You can provide charts and graphs and side by side comparisons, but they’re going to ignore all of that in favor of a good story. Stories like the one about the AIG employees who took home $1.2 billion in bonuses after needing a government bailout, or about how the average CEO is making 940% of what they were making in 1978, or the story about that guy they knew in high school making a million dollars a year on Wall Street. In light of these stories, the fact that the PlayStation 4 is ten times as powerful as the Playstation 3 while essentially being the same price, is going to have very little impact. Unfortunately, people don’t have some absolute standard of material well-being to measure themselves against. Rather they have a relative standard which is driven by the availability bias. Meaning even if people are objectively better off, it’s unlikely to make any difference in perceived inequality.

Accordingly the question of whether inequality is inherently bad may be beside the point, people experience it as a bad thing, and in the end this probably amounts to plenty of harm for our purposes. Having established that inequality is a bad thing, or at least if we agree to proceed from that assumption, the question then becomes what can be done about it? And the answer is nothing, or at least nothing anyone is going to be very excited about. As Scheidel puts it:

Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality but did little if anything to bring it under control. Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another with violent shocks. (emphasis mine)

And not only are all reductions of inequality associated with violence, but Scheidel further asserts that:

State collapse served as a more reliable means of leveling, destroying disparities as hierarchies of wealth and power were swept away. Just as with mass mobilization wars and transformative revolutions, equalization was accompanied by great human misery and devastation, and the same applies to the most catastrophic epidemics: although the biggest pandemics leveled mightily, it is hard to think of a remedy to inequality that was dramatically worse than the disease. To a great extent, the scale of leveling used to be a function of the scale of violence: the more force was expended, the more leveling occured.Even though this is not an iron law—not all communist revolutions were particularly violent, for example, and not all mass warfare leveled—it may be as close as we can hope to get to a general premise. This is without any doubt an exceedingly bleak conclusion. (emphasis mine)

In other words, to end the suspense (not that there was ever very much of it.) Violence is The Great Leveler, the only thing, Scheidel claims, which has ever reduced inequality. GIving us two very unattractive options: either inequality increases more or less forever, and we get the dystopian science fiction worlds I started the post with, or we have to periodically have horribly violent shock to level things out. And of course this assumes that the two things are disconnected. It’s entirely possible that once inequality reaches certain extremes that something like a violent revolution becomes inevitable. That inequality will eventually create the violent shocks necessary to it’s reversal. That even if we decided we were fine with inequality because the violence necessary to undo it is worse, that we may not have a choice.

Most people, of course, are hoping that this is not the case, that there is some third way which doesn’t involve either extreme inequality, or extreme violence. Scheidel spends 400+ pages arguing that there’s not, but it’s worth reviewing those arguments.

First let’s start with explaining precisely what Scheidel means when he says violent shocks:

Through 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.

As you can see there’s not a lot of wiggle room, none of the horsemen are particularly attractive and even those that might seem okay, suffer from the flaw I already pointed out, that leveling is a function of violence, the more leveling the more violence. Meaning there’s no way to achieve leveling through “fake” mass mobilization, or peaceful revolution, or a smooth state failure or a pandemic that kills only a few thousand people. Still it’s worth going through each of the Horsemen in turn.

For the first Horseman, note that Scheidel specifies “mass mobilization warfare”, not merely just war. As it turns out previous to the era of mass mobilization war had no effect on inequality. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why there was so much of it. The wealthy elites who were making the decisions didn’t suffer from the wars they started. The rich continued to get richer regardless of whether the country was at war or not. This is pure speculation, but this change is perhaps why, in addition to the deterrence provided by nuclear weapons, we haven’t had another large war. It was suddenly no longer something which the elites could engage in without consequence.

What this all means is that in order to achieve significant leveling through war, you need something like World War I and II, Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria are not going to cut it (though they probably work for the Iraqis, the Afghanis, and the Syrians.) And with the existence of the aforementioned nuclear weapons, it seems very unlikely that we’re ever again going to have large scale conventional war of the sort requiring mass mobilization. Some people like Paul Krugman have offered up the suggestion that it might be possible to fake mass mobilization (his idea was an alien invasion) but it seems unlikely that anything short of a perceived existential threat has the power necessary to produce the leveling. A real alien invasion would do it, it’s unclear that a fake one would…

The second Horseman, “transformative revolution” is where the connection between the amount of violence and the amount of leveling becomes most apparent. On the one hand we have the communist revolutions of the 20th century which accomplished significant leveling, but at a staggering cost, killing tens of millions of people in pursuit of that goal. On the other hand we have the French Revolution which:

…holds pride of place in the popular imagination and would seem a particularly promising candidate among potentially equalizing conflicts…That said, there is no indication that the French Revolution resulted in anything even remotely comparable to the leveling brought about by the major twentieth-century revolutions. Changes in landownership, wealth concentration, and income distribution occurred at the margins…But this process was far from transformative overall. This finding meshes well with the comparatively moderate degree of violence directed against the propertied classes: however much it may have scandalized conservative contemporary observers, a revolution that by later standards turned out to be quite restrained in its means and ambitions yielded correspondingly less leveling.

It’s frightening to imagine that even the French Revolution, as terrible as it was, had only a tiny effect on inequality. Which is to say that, if history is any guide, so-called revolutions like Occupy Wall Street are unlikely to have any effect on inequality.

I could spend a whole post on the third Horseman, state failure. Because, for all the advantages that come with the existence of a state, it is also the mechanism rich elites use to increase inequality. As an example of the inverse, to my surprise, I learned while reading the book, that the average Somali is doing quite well in the absence of a central government. We also saw this same thing earlier in the post with the average 11th Century European. And, indeed, historically, when the state collapses the mechanisms for creating inequality collapse with it. Though, as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, state collapse does not represent some non-violent shortcut for reducing inequality, it has always been exceptionally bloody.

The final Horseman, lethal pandemics, is also great at leveling, though again at enormous cost. The mechanism for this should be self-explanatory, so instead I’d like to focus on something else, the eventual adaptation by rich elites during the Black Death. From the book:

…this compression of inequality was not to last…remarkably the plague recurrence of 1630, which was the worst regional mortality since the Black Death itself and which is thought to have killed as much as a third of the population of northern Italy, failed to have any comparable effect on inequality…This suggest that after the initial shock of the Black Death and its immediate recurrences, which hit landowners who were ill-prepared to deal with the economic consequences, the propertied classes eventually developed strategies for protecting their estates in times of demographic shocks…It seems that even the most violent of epidemics could be tamed by cultural learning…

It is this adaptation, even in the face of staggering catastrophe, which makes inequality so hard to reduce, and which makes policy solutions largely ineffective. We’re about out of space so I’ll give just one example from the book:

The most detailed and precise equalization program that has been put forward to date, Anthony Atkinson’s recent blueprint for how to reduce inequality in the United Kingdom, illustrates the limitations of this policy oriented approach…top income tax rate should rise to 65 percent, income from capital should be taxed more aggressively than earnings from labor…every citizen should receive a capital endowment… guaranteed employment at the living wage…

And if the UK were to do all that?

…the Gini coefficient of equivalised disposable income would fall by 5.5 percentage points…To put this in perspective, by his own account the same British Gini has gone up by 7 percentage points between the late 1970s and 2013. Thus even a combination of several quite radical and historically unprecedented government interventions would reverse the effects of resurgent inequality only partially, and more moderate policies would yield even smaller benefits.

You can certainly see where the fantastically unequal future imagined by science fiction novelists appears less like a possible outcome and more like an unavoidable outcome. And unfortunately the advances envisioned by transhumanists would appear to only only exacerbate this problem (how much easier would it be for Bezos and Gates and Zuckerberg to hold on to their wealth if they never died?)

There was much in the book I didn’t cover, and some things I tossed out without necessarily going to the trouble of including the supporting passage, and I guess this leads to the question of whether I would recommend that you read the book in its entirety. Probably not. And this is not because it’s not a good book, if you were about to engage in a debate on inequality, I would definitely recommend it, if this is a subject you’re particularly interested in, I would also recommend it, but if you just want to understand his point, and you’ve read this far, then I’m sure you already do, and reading the entire book would not add much to that understanding.

We still need to address the question of what to take from all of this? What should we do? Frankly, it’s not clear. Given the scale of violence necessary to reduce inequality, I suppose it’s probably better to accept inequality as a fact of life rather than risk the deaths necessary to do anything about it. But even if that is the best course of action, in the long run it may not be an option. Perhaps there are a few people who can calmly accept this conclusion and go on their way (almost certainly these people will be those who benefit from the inequality) but my sense is that the great mass of people will not. It may be that regardless of the potential consequences, people will inevitably and eventually resort to violence as a means reducing inequality. And that’s assuming that we can avoid the Four Horsemen of Leveling otherwise. In any event, when all is said and done this is one more potential reason why “We are not saved…”

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