Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

via An Ancient Civics Lesson –

ANCIENT Greek and Roman politics rested on a conundrum. Lest they undermine social peace, the poor could not routinely threaten the lives or property of the rich. But unless the laws were fair enough to the poor, why should the plebs respect them?

Greeks and Romans addressed this challenge — one that we continue to face — with three distinct models. Athenian democracy empowered the poor, while employing the rich to serve; Roman republicanism empowered the rich, while building in special protections for the poor; and the political theory of Aristotle imagined a new politics of what he called the “middling” class.

In full flower in the fifth century B.C., the Athenian democracy enfranchised all male citizens without requiring any wealth qualification (though slaves were excluded from political participation altogether). This created a majority who were poor — “the many,” as opposed to a small elite, “the few.” Who were the many? By some reckonings, they were 90 to 95 percent of adult citizens, all those who had to work for a living; by others, they were the two-thirds who lacked the means to qualify for elite military status.

As an anonymous writer at the time observed, the poor majority perfected a way of wielding its power by making use of the power of the rich. On one hand, the poor often elected the wealthy to key offices and followed their advice in the assembly; on the other hand, they used their collective power in the assembly, juries and executive council to restrain the wealthy and rein in corruption. And so the poor majority asserted ultimate control over the elites, even while allowing them considerable influence.

The Roman poor fought more of a rear-guard action. Roman republican politics expected the rich to hold sway in the offices and also in the Senate. Technically, the popular assemblies dominated by the poor majority had the sole power to approve all laws. Yet in other kinds of assembly, citizens voted by property class, starting with the richest groups, who sometimes decided the issue before the poorer groups got to cast their votes.

The balance between rich and poor in Rome was unstable. In 494 B.C., for example, the poor were so burdened by debts that they effectively went on strike: They put down the tools of their labor and absented themselves from the spaces under elite control. By seceding from the city, they forced the establishment of a new political institution: tribunes, whom the plebs would elect to defend their interests. Among their powers, the tribunes could veto proposed senatorial measures and provide a safe haven for those who were threatened or abused by members of the elite in the markets or on the streets.

Today, this model might inspire giving a panel of “lottery-selected, nonwealthy citizens” a set of powers to intervene in and check federal proceedings, as the political theorist John P. McCormick has proposed. As Roman tribunes had the power to veto Senate decisions, so modern tribunes could have the power to cast a certain number of legislative vetoes each year. Another kind of modern tribune would be ombudsmen to whom the poor could appeal against routine bureaucratic indignities, as the Roman poor were protected by a tribune’s “sacrosanct” physical presence.

What if we were to abandon Athenian and Roman models of managing class conflict, in favor of a promised land in which virtually everyone was middle class? That model has an ancient pedigree too, but, tellingly, it is found only in philosophy, not in Greek or Roman history. In his “Politics,” Aristotle imagined what he called a “middling” regime that would cultivate and expand a group of citizens who were neither rich nor poor, instead being “equals and similar,” and make them the political center of gravity.

Middling dominance would require making it impossible for the rich to use their money to buy special political power. At the same time, it would marginalize the poor, who would no longer make up a numerical majority. The philosopher called this “middling” model “the best constitution for most states and the best life for most men,” even though his highest ideal was a regime in which all citizens would be leisured, relying on noncitizen artisans, farmers and slaves to do the dirty work.

Yet a modern regime based on this Aristotelian “middling” model would be less congenial to both left and right than either might imagine. It would have to tax the rich drastically in order to reduce their social and political power, while at the same time reining in support for the poor, in order to keep the balance squarely away from each extreme. In the end, the Aristotelian “middling” model is no less a recipe for class dominance than the Athenian or Roman regimes, and it, too, would most likely require the services of a permanent underclass.

This range of ancient options suggests that it is pointless to imagine a politics in which no class is dominant or one in which the interests of different classes don’t sometimes conflict. History and philosophy alike counsel that the most practical course is to moderate class conflict, not by pretending it away, but through the self-assertion of the weaker classes and institutionalized recognition of their interests.

via This Map Reveals Just How Unequal The So-Called Recovery Is.

Here’s more proof the middle class is dying.

The middle-class share of American wealth has been shrinking for the better part of three decades and recently fell to its lowest level since 1940, according to a new studyby economists Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics.

In other words, remember the surge of the great American middle class after World War II? That’s all gone, at least by one measure.

The Gates Foundation Education Reform Hype Machine and Bizarre Inequality Theory.

Right-click and select “save link as” to download a copy: Punkonomics2014-6-4_Climate

We talked about several topics from recent blogposts and had 3 callers join the discussion and steer us towards climate issues.

In the studio with Jesse and me were Mitch Koebke and Shaheen Alhumaydhi (both Rollins students).

One of the callers mentioned this site:



Science 23 May 2014: 
Vol. 344 no. 6186 pp. 818-821 
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6186.818



What the numbers tell us

Gilbert Chin,
Elizabeth Culotta
Gilbert Chin is a senior editor for Science and Elizabeth Culotta is a deputy news editor for Science.

In 2011, the wrath of the 99% kindled Occupy movements around the world. The protests petered out, but in their wake an international conversation about inequality has arisen, with tens of thousands of speeches, articles, and blogs engaging everyone from President Barack Obama on down. Ideology and emotion drive much of the debate. But increasingly, the discussion is sustained by a tide of new data on the gulf between rich and poor.

This special issue uses these fresh waves of data to explore the origins, impact, and future of inequality around the world. Archaeological and ethnographic data are revealing how inequality got its start in our ancestors (see pp. 822 and 824). New surveys of emerging economies offer more reliable estimates of people’s incomes and how they change as countries develop (see p. 832). And in the past decade in developed capitalist nations, intensive effort and interdisciplinary collaborations have produced large data sets, including the compilation of a century of income data and two centuries of wealth data into the World Top Incomes Database (WTID) (see p. 826 and Piketty and Saez, p. 838).

It is only a slight exaggeration to liken the potential usefulness of this and other big data sets to the enormous benefits of the Human Genome Project. Researchers now have larger sample sizes and more parameters to work with, and they are also better able to detect patterns in the flood of data. Collecting data, organizing it, developing methods of analysis, extracting causal inferences, formulating hypotheses—all of this is the stuff of science and is more possible with economic data than ever before. Even physicists have jumped into the game, arguing that physical laws may help explain why inequality seems so intractable (see p. 828).


In the United States, the new information suggests a wide rift between top and bottom. Tax data from the WTID suggest that today the top 1% control nearly 20% of U.S. income, up from about 8% in the 1970s. But inequality is increasing within the 99%, too, as a consequence of a growing premium on college and postgraduate education: The fates of the tech-savvy worker at Google and the blue-collar employee at General Motors have been decoupled (see Autor, p. 843). According to surveys by the Census Bureau, in 2012 the richest 20% of Americans enjoyed more than 50% of the nation’s total income, up from 43% in 1967. The middle 20%—the actual middle class—received only about 14% of all income, and the poorest got a mere 3% (see p. 820).

Flip to a world map, and America’s inequality, despite reaching levels last seen in the Gilded Age, turns out to be far from extreme. Many nations, especially emerging economies, have even larger chasms between the super-rich and the poor. One widely used metric, the Gini coefficient, estimates inequality as an index between 0—at which point everyone has exactly equal incomes—to 1, in which a single person takes all the income and the rest get nothing. The U.S. Gini, at 0.40 in 2010, seems relatively high compared with, for example, Japan at 0.32. But South Africa is a sky-high 0.7.

Many assume that governments in emerging economies have chosen to favor growth even at the cost of inequality on the grounds that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But evidence that this trade-off is necessary is sparse, and recent data show that policies to reduce inequality need not stymie growth (see Ravallion, p. 851).

What of those at the bottom? Research has established a base of knowledge about the harmful effects of disadvantageous circumstances on education and health. These influences can begin early in life, even prenatally (see Aizer and Currie, p. 856). But researchers are still exploring whether the stress of being low-ranked itself adds to the poor’s burden, causing illness and even early death (see p. 829). In addition, psychological mechanisms may spur a negative feedback loop in which poor individuals behave in ways that help keep them poor (see Haushofer and Fehr, p. 862).

Harsh as life can be for those at the bottom, the opportunity to move up the ladder can compensate. Newly available data from taxes and other records promise to yield insights into intergenerational mobility, in which children advance from their parents’ socioeconomic status. But so far, researchers have a relatively limited view of how and why people move into different social, as well as economic, classes (see p. 836 and; also see Corak, p. 812).

Few would deny that excessive inequality can be unhealthy for societies and economies, but the new data don’t pinpoint a desirable level. They do show that the forces that foster inequality—from the patchy distribution of resources among ancient hunter-gatherers to the sheer earning power of capital today—are many and potent. It is up to society to decide whether, and how, to restrain them (see p. 783).