The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World Book 74) Kindle Edition
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From the Back Cover
"If you think you've heard it all about economic inequality, think again. Walter Scheidel's analysis of what really reduces inequality is provocative, but he makes the case with reason, evidence, and style."--Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
"Brilliant, erudite, and chock-full of historical detail, The Great Leveler has a powerful message and asks a big question for the twenty-first century: Can we find a cure for inequality that isn't worse than the disease?"--Branko Milanovic, author of Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization
"This is the best book on the history of income inequality. And the central message is that most significant reductions in inequality come through violence and destruction. Have a nice day!"--Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream
"This brilliant and thoroughly researched book solves a major paradox in the study of historical inequality. If we accept Thomas Piketty's rule that returns on capital are greater than the rate of economic growth, the 10,000 years of evolution since the Neolithic period should have resulted in all wealth becoming concentrated in the hands of a single individual or family. The Great Leveler explains why that didn't happen. A major breakthrough in our understanding of the historical dynamics of income and wealth inequality."--Peter Turchin, author of Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth
"Inequality and violence are fundamental features of human society. No one before Walter Scheidel has shown us just how closely they have been intertwined. This is a masterful new assessment of an age-old problem."--David Stasavage, coauthor of Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe
"The Great Leveler makes a convincing case."--Robert J. Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth
"This superb, and superbly written, book justifies its profound but pessimistic conclusion that in world history inequality has declined significantly only as a result of violent changes caused by wars, state breakdown, or pandemics. It should have a huge impact on world historians and generate interesting and important debates about growing inequality in today's world."--David Christian, author of Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
"Walter Scheidel offers a fascinating and powerful analysis of how worldwide income and wealth inequality have evolved from the Neolithic revolution to today. No other book on inequality has the temporal breadth or reach of Scheidel's book. And his interpretation is strikingly new."--Philip T. Hoffman, author of Why Did Europe Conquer the World?--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
- File Size : 5009 KB
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print Length : 537 pages
- Publisher : Princeton University Press (January 9, 2017)
- Publication Date : January 9, 2017
- ASIN : B01M34NBLZ
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #660,659 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This is a book of impressive scholarship. It is rare that someone is motivated to study this topic without an obvious political and policy agenda. Even after finishing the book I still could not tell you what Professor Scheidel’s political views are. The book is descriptive not prescriptive.
The thesis of the book is that, throughout all of human history, only violent cataclysms and plagues have produced significant and long standing reductions in economic inequality. Peace and prosperity always tend to lead to increasing inequality over the long term. With the benefit of hindsight, this is less surprising than it first appears. The overwhelming majority of humans have always lived with little or no economic savings or financial net worth. That is the constant.
Peace and prosperity necessarily change the net worth and income of the richest more than the poorest because the economic situation of the poorest just can’t get a lot worse. The effect of compounding earnings is very powerful and not intuitively well understood by most people. This effect is even more dramatic when it spans several generations in a family. Increasing (or at least high and stable) inequality has been the default tendency throughout all of human history.
Scheidel cites what he calls the Four Horsemen of economic leveling: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and plagues as the only forces that have consistently led to major economic leveling. It is important to note that only mass mobilization warfare has this effect. Ordinary warfare tends to shift fortunes between victor and vanquished without overall leveling.
The period of the 20th Century that included the two World Wars and the communist revolutions represented one of the great economic levelings in all of human history. Those of us who grew up just after those events consequently have a somewhat distorted view of what is a typical historical level of economic inequality. Before reading this book I felt that there was something abnormal about he increasing degree of economic inequality we see around us. After reading it I feel like I knew all along this was inevitable. It is a rare book that can change your perspective like that.
Scheidel is not arguing that economic inequality is good. He is well aware of the role of plunder and cronyism in contributing to it. He realizes that economic inequality is problematic for a number of reasons including the possibility that it may contain the seeds of the next cataclysm. He is just giving the history here not making any argument about the appropriate policy response.
It’s not that the cataclysms that produce leveling don’t also hurt the poor. They always do. It’s just that the rich have a lot more to lose when a lot of people lose everything. Scheidel closes with this: “All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.”
To put it another way, and to put it in the words of Woody Allen, after the next great leveling we may well look back on the previous period of inequality and think “We were happy then but we didn’t know it."
The book itself is quite good for what it's trying to do. It's a comprehensive summary of all the instances where inequality has changed throughout history, trying to establish the causes of these changes.
Because the author wanted to be data-driven, precise and comprehensive, there is a lot of data and not much narrative.
This is very well suited for a written book, where you can look at all the data on the pages at once, going back and forth from one data point to another.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work for an audiobook. I had to rewind once every minute or two, totalling hundreds or thousands of times I had to rewind. It's also really hard to keep the focus on: when you're walking and hearing "the share of the national income to the top decile went from 17.6% to 15.2% between 1921 and 1933 in Australia, but 19.7% to 14.3% in France", it's pretty easy to zoom out.
That would be ok if the audiobook came with a free kindle. Unfortunately, it doesn't. At the steep price of both versions, I don't think it's acceptable to only sell a barely usable one.
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 1935.
Top reviews from other countries
The author takes a historical and global approach to analyzing income inequality and in particular what factors are the potentional great levelers of income inequality. The author identifies four - what he calls the Four Horseman (of the Apocalypse); World War involving mass mobilization; Revolution; Failed States; and Pandemics. Its incredibly researched with lots of statistics and detailed footnotes to support the author's conclusions. Unfortunately, it is rather a depressing conclusion - namely - income inequality probably started when humans formed agrarian communities and small urban centres and grew with emerging states; that income inequality is probably inherent in economic growth; economic growth in the terms of jobs creation doesn't necessarily reduce income inequality; nor does liberal democracy impede the growth of income inequality.
In fact, his conclusion is only world wars involving mass mobilization have had significant impact on halting income inequality. While he discusses on other time periods, he particularly emphasizes WWI and WWII for the halting income inequality for North American and Europe for at least a generation through the destruction of capital assets, the growth of welfare state and progressive taxation.
He is pessimistic about the possibilities of halting income inequality through peaceful measures - such the expansion of the welfare state and redistributive economic policies for a number of compelling reasons.
It is a sobering, if not outright depressing read but nevertheless very thought provoking, especially in the light of the recent election of Trump in the US, Great Britain's Brexit vote and the upcoming elections in France.