Even Slaves in 1774 Colonial America Experienced Less Economic Inequality than We Have Today

Even Slave-Holding Societies Had More Economic Equality than Modern America

We’ve repeatedly noted that inequality in America today is worse than it was in the Gilded Age, worse than in Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, and worse than in many banana republics in Latin America.

We’ve also noted that inequality in modern America is twice as bad as in ancient Rome … which was built on slave labor.

A newly-updated study by professors Peter Lindert of the University of California at Davis and Jeffrey Williamson of Harvard shows that inequality is now worse than in the slave-holding colonies. As the Atlantic notes:

American income inequality may be more severe today than it was way back in 1774 — even if you factor in slavery.

This is not a partisan issue: both conservatives and liberals are concerned about runaway inequality and the collapse of social mobility.

Indeed, we’ve known for thousands of years that:

An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.

Obviously, we do not condone slavery.  As the Atlantic notes in a footnote:

Please don’t interpret anything in this article as suggesting that American slavery was anything less than horrific. The paper only suggests that on a strictly dollars and cents basis, income was skewed less towards the rich during the colonial era than it is today.

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  • par4

    correction: both “conservatives” and “liberals” mouth platitudes about inequality.

  • Tom Matt

    The mode of production or the organisation of society matters little to human happiness and progress. What really matters is how humane the people are. http://www.YouTakeResponsibility.com can open anyone’s eyes to the reality.

    • http://chimaeraimaginarium.wordpress.com/ Richard_William_Posner

      Thank you for the link Tom. It does get to the heart of the matter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Brodeur/1819964077 Ken Brodeur

    There are few moments in history like this one. I was born at the birth of the Space Age, the invention of Rock and Roll and have the understanding that the greatest university in the world is now at my finger tips. I understand that the question is more important than the answer and I am about to embark on the Greatest Moments in my life.
    Humanity is at a crossroads, a change of the guard, a new epoch in time. Fiercely, I seek life and abundance for one and all. I care not to be rich or poor but to be in action and equally blessed by all people living freely, happily and working together for our individual capabilities.
    Egalitarian efforts of small groups sharing equally like pirates, all get an equal share, except the captain, he gets two shares because he wins all the time, it is his destiny, until he fails.
    Life is neither equal or fair, both are concepts not reality, what makes humanity humane is the effort for both.
    Be brave, be good, be forgiving, aim for greatness, be the hero of your own movie, the ancients are watching.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Frank-Gimsdale/100001154537833 Frank Gimsdale

    Its stuff like this that keeps me from taking you seriously. Let’s see some data. I am going to guess that you don’t even understand the data you are writing about. If you did, you would know how flawed these studies are and the massive amount of income and wealth they exclude. But even worse, income gain (which is what most of these studies focus on) is determined through statistical models and not actual data since there is no way to determine this kind of thing since income classes are not static. In other words, how do these models account for a guy that goes from being poor to being rich and a rich guy that goes from being rich to being poor? The answer is, they don’t, becuase they are dealing with aggregates. But, when they provide interpretations of the results, they present them as though “the rich” is some sort of static group of people defined by the results of the aggregate. That is patently dishonest.

    Here are some things for you to think about. What is the value of your social security and medicare benefits and how much did its value grow last year? These studies use a value of zero. According the GAO’s audit report in January, these funds are worth about $37T in today’s dollars. Of course, they underfunded by $33T but given that most of this belongs to the middle class, that’s a huge amount of wealth (the solvency is another matter). What is the value of the welfare system that is available to you? What about the unemployment benefits? How about the value of pensions and the income they earned? What about money employers paid towards employee healthcare costs? What about employer provided retirement contributions? Every study I have seen places a big fat zero on these things.

    You write some good stuff, but this kind of non-sense is just carrying water for the establishment.

    • Zeph Smith

      Frank, you seem to think that inequality is OK so long as there is some rotation of who is at the very top of the pyramid. There may indeed be some degree of churn within the very top rungs over time, but obviously the vast majority don’t get their own 15 minutes as a billionaire – the mobility of who is super-rich is still primarily within a small fraction of the populace.
      More importantly, the identified problem doesn’t depend on whether the top names are static or not, it’s about the aggregate statistics you refer to. That is, the research correlates certain social and economic and political ills to those statistics, not to how static the very top is.

      So suppose for discussion sake that the assertion that wealth or income inequaliy contributed substantiallyto the recession (and to the Great Depression) turns to be be true. Would that be no problem for the society, so long as there are decade to decade changes on the list of names of the wealthiest 100?

      This churn at the top thing seems to be a red herring. Or perhaps it’s based on a misunderstanding, if you think the concern about the effects of extreme wealth inequality on our society is just about resentment against specific individuals for staying on the top too long. It isn’t. It’s a problem that should be concerning even those who are at or near the top, because instability won’t be fun for them either.

  • Rich H

    Over the past few weeks I’ve witnessed (and commented) on the lockout of referees by the NFL (a multi-billion dollar industry that just can’t seem to pay a pesky pension), and the strike by Walmart workers for fair treatment and pay (never mind the fact that Walmart holds seminars instructing employees how to apply for food stamps*, etc… while being held by 6 of the richest people in the world).
    One would be surprised just how many people side with the billionaires and have so little respect for their fellow workers. I’d like to say “Only in America” but I don’t really know. I do know the vast majority of Americans are brainwashed to think this way.
    *The list of nefarious Walmart practices would take several pages to detail.

  • lemuria

    “Banana republics”- eh?

    A term of utter contempt for Latin Countries, coined by the Americano, then and now, full of hubris.
    Latin Countries, where American Corporations bought off the Central governments, to kick out the small farmers, so that the American corporations, such Del Monte and Dole, could have HUGE plantations of bananas. Just bananas, in tropical countries, where BEFORE there were a plethora of wonderful fruit and vegetables.

    And after this, to add insult to injury, making the small farmer, a serf worker, in the Corporation plantations.

    But, still, how you, Americanos, love your bananas, eh? What would you do without it!

    Banana cakes, banana muffins, banana cream pies, banana bread, peanut butter and bananas, banana rum cocktail, bananas foster, banana pudding, banana boston pie, banana smoothie, banana splits, etc.

  • MimiR

    The reason is simple: There is no upper bound on wealth. However, the absurdity of the argument that economic inequality is inherently bad. There is no question that the poor today are thousands of times better off than plantation slaves. The question isn’t “are the rich getting rich faster than the poor” but “are the poor also getting richer.” Except for the past few years, the answer has been a resounding “yes.”

    • Rich H

      Oh, let’s disregard flat, stagnant and falling wages, and the increase in poverty.

    • Demosthenes

      Economic Inequality is actually the best predictor we have for a great number of societal ills such as crime, shortened life expectancy, illiteracy, and teenage pregnancy. The data is compelling and to comment on the “absurdity” of calling inequality inherently bad without grappling with Richard Wilkinson’s research is to betray an ignorance of the subject.

      Here’s a primer: http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html

    • Robert Barsocchini

      “There is no upper bound on wealth.”

      You have demonstrated that you have no knowledge of this subject whatsoever. Of course there is an upper bound. At every moment, the world has a finite amount of wealth and resources. The current GWP is around 70 trillion. That’s the current “upper bound”. That’s how much wealth there is. The top .111 percent of people on Earth have 81% of that financial wealth. The “upper bound” that they could have would be 100% of it. Are you stupid?

      You should be ashamed for commenting on this topic without knowing the first thing about it.

  • BodieObserver

    A good farmer takes care of his livestock. Plantation slaves had housing provided, and food and medical care, clothing etc. Healthy, happy slaves are more productive. Wage slaves must work for what they can get in a competitive marketplace and then use that money to provide for themselves what owned slaves got for free as part of their permanent indenture. Unhappy, unproductive wage slaves are soon fired and become destitute. In feudal times, serfs were considered part of the land owned by kings, lords, dukes, etc. They were “protected” by their owners but were required to work the land and tithe 30 percent of what they produced to their owners. What percentage of your earnings do you pay in income, sales, property, excise, gasoline and other taxes, slave? Only technology has given modern slaves a more comfortable life. Socially, we are far worse off.

    • J. Smith

      “Only technology has given modern slaves a more comfortable life. Socially, we are far worse off.”

      This is, without a doubt, the most asinine and ignorant statement I’ve ever seen.

      • Jeremy Cobb

        What is the second-most-asinine statement? Do you rank them? Or are you merely using hyperbole?

  • Cicero

    Pathetic note at the bottom to excuse the writer for any possible PC sensitivity issues!! Get a life and stop being led with the PC nose ring and have some courage of convictions,,after all, slavery was practiced by African tribal chiefs for decades before American colonists were involved, as well as Islamic traders in the 8th century..and let us not forget that the US Congress refused to allot monies for returning blacks to Africa(Northerners included) As a matter of fact, most blacks did not want to return anyway, so it s trumped up that they lived terribly,albeit a few) The entire US economy,including the North, was greased by slaves/rum/cotton/tobacco etc and almost every slave ship was owned by a Jew, now go stick your heads in the sand. How about reparations to American Indian tribes and the calculated destruction of close to 500 treaties under the US Dept of the Interior? What a farce, this Marxist PC garbage has contaminated America and Europe

    • Zeph Smith

      Thanks for the largest assemblage of apologetics for slavery I’ve seen piled together in one heap. Some of what you say is true and has some meaning, some is sorta true but not relevant, and some is false. I doubt you care which is which, so long as it sounds like “I don’t need no stinkin’ guilt about slavery”. Not sure why you have such a chip on your shoulder about that, perhaps somebody guilt tripped you earlier in life and you over-reacted. But then you work in Marxism? That’s pretty irrelevant, y’know. Detracts from your apologetics about slavery to make you look like just another zealot who hates a lot of things and mashes them all together in his mind somehow. If that’s not how you really are, maybe too to stick to one pet peeve per thread.

  • JosephConrad

    There are OVER 300 MILLION licensed firearms in America PLUS another 75 MILLION MORE UN-licensed and STILL the MAJORITY of AMERICANS are WILLING SLAVES of the 1,00 WHITE WEALTHY. Only when they are COMPELLED to surrender THEIR WEALTH & THEMSELVES FOR IMPRISONMENT wilkl his nation return to greatness. RIGHT NOW, THE U.S. IS A 315 MILLION INMATE ‘GULAG’ FOR TH 1,000!

    • Polymarkos

      Lay on MacDuff, an damned be him who cries, “HOLD! Enough!”

    • Polymarkos

      Lay on MacDuff, an damned be him who cries, “HOLD! Enough!”

  • Crusty Curmudgeon

    “Income inequality” is defined how? It’s bad enough to write an entire blog entry about this subject without defining it, but to make a bold assertion like this: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” in quote-like fashion, without attributing it to anyone, is downright pathetic or dishonest or both.

    What is “income inequality”? How is anyone supposed to take this seriously without knowing what it is? What does it mean to have an “imbalance between rich and poor”? How would you have a “balance” between rich and poor?

    “Income inequality” is nothing more than an Orwellian term that is intended to mean “injustice.” In reality, it means nothing. I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut you’ve never bothered to define it for yourself.

    I have a few questions…

    1. Should a 13-year-old, new to the labor markets, with no experience and no particular talents, get paid the same income on his first day of his work as a dishwasher as a waiter with 25 years experience? Consider the employer doesn’t know anything about the 13-year-old…he doesn’t know how industrious or lazy he is, he doesn’t know if he’ll show up to work the next day, he doesn’t know if he cares whether he breaks half the dishes or cleans any of them. The employer knows the waiter is reliable and is excellent at what he does. People return to the restaurant and ask to be seated in his section. Who deserves more income? Why is the waiter getting more income than the dishwasher? Is this the evil you are referring to? And before you respond with “that’s not what I meant by income inequality,” exactly how would I know that?

    2. To suggest that income should be equal is suggesting that people should never be able to better themselves. Many “rich” people now were “poor” earlier in their lives. I know many people who are now classified as “rich” and are in the top 5% income bracket but who started out with nothing and their first jobs were at minimum wage. Is this the evil you are referring to?

    3. If “income inequality” is bad, what country has the least amount of “income inequality”? I would suggest it is North Korea–where virtually everyone is dirt poor. Is this a model of utopia for you? If only those poor starving people knew how awesome it was to have such “balance” of income!

    4. Does “wealth” have anything to do with “income inequality”? Does income here include investment income or only wages? If many have huge estates with safes filled with billions of dollars but have no jobs and no income, including investment income, is there an injustice as compared to people with no wealth and living on the streets? There clearly is no “income inequality” here.

    I could go on and on with many more examples but I’d like to see you address these questions first.

    • Zeph Smith

      There exist both income and wealth inequality. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t expect there to be some differentials – of course some people work harder or have more skill or talent and deserve more. That’s not at issue here, let’s drop it.

      The asserted problem is with extreme wealth or income inequality, where for example the top 0.1% have more wealth than the bottom 40%, and the ratio is getting larger every decade. The income disparity was far smaller in the 1950′s, and our rate of growth of productivity was higher, so while some disparity is obviously necessary, extreme disparity is not needed and the evidence is suggesting that it’s probably corrosive and unstable. Even some at the top of the pyramid, who would be glad to stay very wealthy, are concerned that too large a disparity may bring down the system for all of us, even them. In other words, this is something which should concern everybody, bottom to top, out of enlightened self interest, even if they are far from bleeding hearts who care about the poor. A healthy middle class seems to be correlated with a stable democracy – as we pull it apart as a thin middle between a lot at the bottom and a few at the top, there will be “collateral damage” even for you – no matter where you are in the pyramid.

  • Polymarkos

    Anyone who would misconstrue these remarks to be a call for a return to slavery should be soundly beaten and made to pick cotton all day

  • hsbh

    Slaver were assets, they were important for masters. Today workers are worthless, the boss can easily replace them.