Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: "The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century"

If there is no redistributive chaos and/or no Jubilee, all becomes stasis entrenching current regimes.
Although the writer of this review, Victor Davis Hanson, argues against shaking things up to the extent required by his subject he does fairly present the thesis.
See also after the jump.

From Inference Review, Volume 3, Issue 2:

Equal by Catastrophe
In his new book, Walter Scheidel offers a simple, though jarring, story of how past societies struggled with inequality. The Great Leveler is a cautionary tale to policy makers who believe in economic redistribution as a means to level the playing field. A professor of ancient history at Stanford University, Scheidel’s thesis unfolds in the following way: economic inequality is always terrible and disruptive. We should be worried that vastly disproportionate increases in wealth in twenty-first-century America approach something analogous to the high Roman empire or the unchecked roaring twenties in the United States. According to Scheidel, inequality is worse than the Gini coefficient might suggest, given the difficulty in measuring the demographic, sociological, and technological factors affecting the distribution of wealth.1

Scheidel argues that history offers few peaceful antidotes to the accumulation of property, money, and leverage in the hands of the few. “For thousands of years,” Scheidel observes, “civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality.”2 Civilization is the culprit; its absence, the cure. Scheidel wrote the book as a warning to progressives: “If we seek to rebalance the current distribution of income and wealth in favor of greater equality, we cannot simply close our eyes to what it took to accomplish this goal in the past.”3

Scheidel notes that large estates and monopolies, and the wealthy classes that control them, collapsed only during relatively rare times of chaos. The “massive and violent disruptions of the established order” encompass the four horsemen of the redistributive apocalypse, which Scheidel collectively describes as the “the Great Leveler.”4

The first horseman embodies existential conflicts, and specifically the conflagrations of the twentieth century’s two world wars, which collectively killed more than eighty million civilians and soldiers and reduced much of Europe and Asia to rubble. Workers, given an obvious manpower shortage, briefly gained leverage over capital. Elite powers of accumulation were temporarily interrupted. War did through carnage what peace never achieved under the square, new, and fair deals of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. The poor and working classes glimpsed, at least for a moment, a great leveling of wealth, albeit by bringing the rich down rather than lifting the poor up. The Europe of 1945 was a far more egalitarian place than in 1935; 1920 had also seen more equality than 1913. In Scheidel’s view, there is a direct current in human affairs leading from what is bad to what is good. Even Hitler’s Wehrmacht, which conquered the continent from the English Channel to the Volga, and the forces needed to defeat it played a role in dismantling entrenched wealth.

By the same reductive reasoning, are we to imagine that the mass confiscation of Jewish wealth during 1939–1945 fell under the rubric of wealth redistribution?
Ian Morris, Scheidel’s colleague at Stanford, in his recent book War: What Is It Good For? has also argued for the utility of war.5 The bigger the war, the better things become in the long run. War gives the state the power to make their citizens’ lives safer and richer. This is a thesis as counterintuitive as anything found in quantum mechanics. George Orwell’s 1984 argues against just such themes. In the aftermath of a catastrophic British civil war following World War II, three governments have divided up the world. The threat of perpetual conflict brings about a relative form of enforced equality. Orwell saw nothing encouraging in either the consolidation of states through conflict or the achievement of equality brought about through the disasters of past wars.

Scheidel’s second horseman may be seen galloping after the first: violent revolution on the scale of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In the more lawful Western democracies, strikes, protests, or periodic riots never proved prolonged or forceful enough to erode the plutocracy and redistribute its money. This proved true of the Wobblies, Red Brigades, the Los Angeles riots, and Occupy Wall Street. In narrow terms of revolutionary equalization, Scheidel notes, the more death, the better. But he is reluctant emphatically to acknowledge that revolutionary equalization succeeds only by impoverishing the vast majority of the population. Twentieth-century Russia and China are cases in point. Take also his summary note on Cuba:
Development in Cuba has followed the same pattern: after the market income Gini dropped from 0.55 or 0.57 in 1959, the year of the communist revolution, to 0.22 in 1986, it appears to have risen to 0.41 in 1999 and 0.42 in 2004, although one estimate put it already as high as 0.55 by 1995. In the majority of these cases, nominally communist regimes remain in power, but economic liberalization has driven up inequality.6
Scheidel slides over the reality that committed communists, such as the Castro brothers and the successors to Mao, were no fans of liberalization. They turned to it in desperation, and only after failed releveling attempts. Might this suggest that the greater the presence of free markets, the greater the general well-being of the population? “Whether communism’s sacrifice,” Scheidel writes, “of a hundred million lives bought anything of value is well beyond the scope of this study to contemplate.” This seems odd given his efforts to quantify egalitarianism, assess the cost of achieving it, and emphasize the steep price exacted by the levelers of war, revolution, plague, and collapse. These are the very themes of his book.

The third horseman is the implosion and utter ruin of the state. Collapse on this scale brings an end to law and its protocols. For a rare moment, class becomes fluid. The rather mysterious and abrupt end of the hierarchical Mycenaean world in the thirteenth century BCE led to depopulation. The impoverished tribes and herdsmen of Dark Age Greece, if they were equal in their impoverishment were, at least, equal in their misery. A few traces of this diminished world survive in Homer’s Odyssey and Hesiod’s Works and Days. In the fifth century CE, the collapse of the Roman Empire, for all its disastrous consequences, did away with a great deal of accumulated wealth. The ensuing void ruined the entrenched commercial and aristocratic classes in the western empire. The chaos of this second Dark Age left everyone poorer, and in Scheidel’s ironic sense, more equal. And the more hierarchical a former society, whether Mycenaean or Roman, the greater the impoverishment of the Dark Ages that follow....MORE
We've looked at Scheidel a few times and it was in fact the gilets jaunes juxtaposted with Delacroix's "La Liberté guidant le peuple" which prompted the recollection of the Inference review.

Inequality: Apparently What the World Needs Is Some Death and Destruction
From Inverse, February 15, 2017:

Income Inequality Is Likely Here to Stay
Author Walter Scheidel explains why it's so hard to level the playing field.,15,1920,960&dpr=1.5&auto=format,compress&q=75
Income inequality has become an increasingly visible and salient issue in the past few years, with ideas for fixing it on all sides of the aisle. But according to Stanford History Professor Walter Scheidel, author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, these approaches may not be the panacea many might like them to be.

Scheidel says that’s because violence is the only force in history that has truly managed to liberate wealth from the upper stratum of society. He frames his historical analysis of trends in inequality around what he calls the Four Horsemen: “mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues.” Only these “shocks” have the transformative power required to reduce inequality. It’s a grim, grisly prospect, one that raises more questions than it answers about how to move forward.
Inverse talked with Professor Scheidel about just that: the inequality of the past and what it means for the solutions of the future....MORE
And July 2, 2017
Are Plagues and Wars The Only Way To Reduce Inequality?

June 2018
Some ways to introduce a modern debt Jubilee"
The bigger problem with debt is not so much the inequality aspect but the deadweight anchor it places on societal and individual growth unless the returns on borrowed capital are quite a bit greater than the cost to borrow.
And then there's the whole "debt intensity" thing where it takes more and more borrowing to achieve a given level of general economic increase.

From VoxEU:
Charles Goodhart, Michael Hudson 11 June 2018
An example of the stasis would be Thursday's report at MarketWatch and elsewhere:
Student debt may have prevented 400,000 young adults from buying homes
Now I know they were idiots to take on the debt, obviously not all that intelligent, and they should not be advantaged versus the young people who went into trades rather than debt but the debt is, to quote myself, a deadweight.