Study: Inequality is a phenomenon of the past 10,000 years

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tags: inequality

A team of researchers, led by the archeologist, Timothy Kohler, at Washington State University, examined ancient or prehistoric societies using a very modern tool. It's a scale you might have heard of called the Gini Co-Efficient. Developed by an Italian statistician in the early 1900s, the Gini measures inequality on a scale of zero to one. In a group of people who all had the same amount of wealth, you would have a Gini score of zero. In a group in which one individual has all the wealth and the others have nothing, you have a Gini score of one. So zero to one.

The German bank has one of the most quoted Gini scales out there. It ranks the United States as the most unequal nation with a score of 0.81. Germany is lower with 0.73. Russia is at 0.69. The most equal countries on the scale are South Korea with a 0.54, China with a 0.53, and Slovakia with a 0.48. All of them are far from totally equal, which would be zero.  

So Kohler team to the Gini Co-Efficient and applied it to archeological data from 63 societies, some dating back 11,000 years to the beginning of the new Stone Age when society started to settle down with permanent structures and plant crops. Kohler had few records to drawn on from this period. And some of the archeological sites were better preserved than others. But what they all have and what Kohler's team decided to physically measure were the remains of houses. Big ones for richer people, smaller ones for their poor neighbors. What the research suggests is fascinating. Before the advent of agriculture, which is recent in the long perspective of human history, beginning around 9000 B.C., there was very little inequality. Hunter-gatherer societies had low median Gini scores, 0.17. Then came the domestication of animals, especially the large ones that made to Europe and Asia that did all the heavy farming work. So if you had oxen or horses to help you till your fields, you were a much more efficient farmer, thus, you could sell more crops and get richer. With that extra wealth, you would buy more horses or oxen and plow more fields and get even richer. Then you could leave it all to your children. Meanwhile, the farmers who could not afford animals were left behind. Thus, began human inequality. And it often perpetuated itself.  

Now, modern societies found ways to break the cycle, through capitalism and meritocracy, which allowed bright and successful people of no means to rise up. But this new elite had, in my countries, found ways of perpetuating itself by stacking the deck in its favor, as the tax bill does. The greatest inequality the team found was a 0.68, in Khoum (ph), an Egyptian settlement. It's bad, of course, but not as bad as the Gini score of the current-day United States. Kohler, who studied the rise and fall of societies across millennia, had some words of warning for us, "If we become too unequal, violence and state collapse could follow."  
Read entire article at Fareed Zakaria GPS (CNN)

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