Book Reviews

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Inequality that would make a robber baron cringe

Walther Scheidel in his book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century provides a scientifically rigorous, excruciatingly detailed and politically agnostic survey of wealth inequality from pre-history to the present. The focus is on factors that reduce, or level, that inequality and the core message is disheartening. 

Given the far-reaching scope, in both time and geography, finding reliable and comparable data related to wealth requires making some assumptions — actually, a LOT of assumptions. But he’s very straightforward about that, explaining each at length including, for example, how burial practices might indicate wealth, how measures of wheat could be stand in for wages and — at least in the modern world — how reported income may not accurately reflect hidden assets. 

He relies heavily on one metric especially, the Gini coefficient, which attempts to capture wealth inequality in a closed system (say, a country) in which zero represents full wealth and resource equality for all members (everyone has as much as everyone else) and 1 equaling maximum inequality, in which one person possesses all the wealth. 

It’s a thorough and far-reaching study leading to a disheartening and inescapable conclusion: wealth and resource inequality (which is maximized by the compounding advantages of wealth, access to political influence and the narrowing effects of inheritance) — has always been part of the human experience.

In his view, only four things have ever leveled inequality in any significant way — mass mobilization warfare (WWI and WWII, for example), pandemics (the Plague), transformative revolutions (as in, the communist variety) and state collapse.

He walks readers through many, many explorations of each of the four examples, studying before and after wealth and resource distribution from countries around the globe and throughout recorded history (and even a bit before).

The research brings to life a troubling trend — a gulf of wealth inequality that continually increases, putting the capital and resources into the hands of a small (and shrinking) wealthy elite while extracting them from basically everyone else (especially the working- and lower-classes). Then one of the four levelers unwinds and the rich — who have the most to lose — slip down the social scale and working poor (who suddenly have a resource that’s in demand — their labor) are able to charge more and live more cheaply, and so move up the scale.

Then it all starts over again.

His research skills are incredible, so perhaps it’s no surprise the writing is solid but never lofty or in the slightest bit lyrical, but still is a punch in the gut.

For example: “…in eleven of the twenty-one countries with published top incomes shares, the portion of all income obtained by the “1 percent” rose between 50 percent and more than 100 percent between 1980 and 2010. In 2012, inequality in the United States even set several records: in that year, top 1 percent income shares (both with and without capital gains) and the share of private wealth owned by the richest 0.01 percent of households for the first time exceeded the high water mark of 1929.”

In other words, congratulation America, the chasm of inequality is now greater than during the era of the robber barons. 

The question the book raises, and one he frames specifically, is — given that inequality in the U.S. is at near historic levels (or beyond) — are there any leveling events that could close the gap, even briefly, and are there in ways we could use policy to reduce inequality. The answers, it seems, are no (short of a far-reaching nuclear conflagration, which he deems unlikely), and also no, given the lack of political will needed to redistribute wealth away from the controlling elite (even though there are scads of ways — dozens of which he lists — to at least nibble around the edges without actually leveling).

It’s an important work that is, at times, mind-numbingly boring and at times pants-wettingly frightening, and almost always disheartening. I found myself almost rooting for a return of the plague, if only to knock the elites temporarily out of their golden towers and close the wealth gap just a tiny bit to the good old days of 1930.