Hot Best Seller

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

Availability: Ready to download

How only violence and catastrophes have consistently reduced inequality throughout world history Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never die How only violence and catastrophes have consistently reduced inequality throughout world history Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The "Four Horsemen" of leveling—mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues—have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future. An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent—and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.


Compare

How only violence and catastrophes have consistently reduced inequality throughout world history Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never die How only violence and catastrophes have consistently reduced inequality throughout world history Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The "Four Horsemen" of leveling—mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues—have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future. An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent—and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.

30 review for The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

  1. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    The Gini in the Bottle If you don’t have it already, you ain’t never gonna’ get it. Following on Thomas Piketty’s by now famous analysis of the increasing concentration of wealth in capitalist society (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...), Walter Scheidel credibly argues that it has always been so. Economic records stretching back to great antiquity show that those who have always get increasingly more than those who don’t. In fact the wealth distribution in the 21st century is probably abou The Gini in the Bottle If you don’t have it already, you ain’t never gonna’ get it. Following on Thomas Piketty’s by now famous analysis of the increasing concentration of wealth in capitalist society (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...), Walter Scheidel credibly argues that it has always been so. Economic records stretching back to great antiquity show that those who have always get increasingly more than those who don’t. In fact the wealth distribution in the 21st century is probably about the same as it was in Egypt of the Fifth Dynasty.* The problem, it seems, is not capitalism but agriculture, the rule of law, and social organisation of any type: “... after our species had embraced domesticated food production and its common corollaries, sedentism and state formation, and had acknowledged some form of hereditary property rights, upward pressure on material inequality effectively became a given—a fundamental feature of human social existence.” So the price we pay for a stable society is a more or less permanent state of material inequality. Importantly, there appear to be no social policies which have ever successfully reversed the trend toward the concentration of economic power. Democracy doesn’t do it. Education and freedom of opportunity don’t do it. Taxation doesn’t do it. Technology doesn’t do it. Socialism certainly doesn’t do it: “Even in the most progressive advanced economies, redistribution and education are already unable fully to absorb the pressure of widening income inequality before taxes and transfers.” The only thing that does do it, that interrupts the apparently inexorable flow of wealth to those who already have wealth, is disaster. Not economic disaster, per se; the rich weather stock market, currency, financial and commodity jitters better than most. It takes real disaster - extended warfare, deadly plague, civil revolution, and the abrupt dissolution of government - to make any significant difference in the long term trends in material accumulation. According to Scheidel, “Across the full sweep of history, every single one of the major compressions of material inequality we can observe in the record was driven by one or more of these four levelers.” Unfortunately Scheidel offers no theory of how to deal with the situation, something which suggests that his analysis, although astute, is less than useful. In fact, despite his professed admiration for the work of Piketty, Scheidel’s conclusions imply that Piketty’s work too is sterile, that aside from one or more of the four disasters, there is no remedy for what is perceived as a growing problem. The rich, it seems, are always with us. And as the rich get richer, they get more arrogant, more powerful, and arguably more corrupt. Religion and ideology have failed to alter the situation. Even armed revolt, disease, and environmental upheavals have only temporary inhibiting effects on the historical trajectory of economic inequality. Could this be the one economic law which is universal and invariable? It appears therefore that the ancient Greeks, for whom disasters were a challenge to virtue rather than a tragedy, knew something that we don’t, namely what the Dutch philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7... ) put it so laconically: “... war and happiness are inseparable...” Perhaps Homer, and after him Heraclitus, and much later Hegel, were right. War indeed might be the father of all things; or at least of all things economic. What hapless beings we are. * Measured particularly by the Gini coefficient which indicates the degree of income and wealth concentration within a society. Scheidel’s analysis of the merits and flaws of this widely used measure is worth the price of admission to the book, if for no other reason than its revelation of the mind of an economist.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Maru Kun

    Update 8.4.2020 - article by Walter Scheidel on covid-19: Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics Some books on insoluble global problems - climate change, water shortages, environmental degradation - add a chapter with a couple of impractical policy solutions that everyone knows could never work in the real world. The chapter’s there to cheer you up so you don’t leave a poor review on goodreads because you finished the book in a state of utter despair. This is not one of those books. To his credit, in his Update 8.4.2020 - article by Walter Scheidel on covid-19: Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics Some books on insoluble global problems - climate change, water shortages, environmental degradation - add a chapter with a couple of impractical policy solutions that everyone knows could never work in the real world. The chapter’s there to cheer you up so you don’t leave a poor review on goodreads because you finished the book in a state of utter despair. This is not one of those books. To his credit, in his final chapter, Walter Scheidel tells us his research shows that there is only one way to materially reduce global inequality in the future: all-out nuclear war: “...unrestricted nuclear warfare...would represent an extreme version of systems collapse...Although contemporary science fiction accounts of a post apocalyptic world would sometimes envision high degrees of inequality between those in charge of scarce vital resources and deprived majorities, the experience of the thoroughly impoverished and less stratified post collapse communities of pre-modern history might be a better guide to conditions in a future ‘nuclear winter’...” Well, that doesn’t sound much fun. At least I could save some money and cancel my subscription to “OK!” magazine. And if you are thinking one of Scheidel’s other “Four Levelers” of inequality might still help (being - besides mass-mobilization warfare - plague, revolution and state collapse) then you are out of luck. These days only a “...few hundred million…” would die in a global pandemic; we would be able to monitor and stop it before it reached Black Death proportions enough to make a worthwhile change to levels of inequality. Also, our social institutions are too strong and we are all too sensible these days to allow revolution or state collapse to happen (unless we are English of course; the book was written pre-Brexit). All-in-all this was a pretty depressing book, but that doesn’t stop it being right. The little joy that could be had from it comes from translating some of the Academicese into English: “...new forms of political and military power contributed to and amplified the resultant inequalities in income and wealth…” means: “I’ve got a sword so now I'm King. Give me your money”. “...a recent study of super-rich entrepreneurs in Western countries shows how they benefited from political connections, exploited loopholes in regulation, and took advantage of market imperfections…” means: “Take your vote and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, loser”. You get the general idea. One surprising thing I learnt was that, while mass-mobilization warfare - essentially WWI and WWII plus a few Ancient Greek wars - is the greatest leveler of inequality, this is not mainly due to bombs blowing up people’s stuff but rather to government policy action during the course of the war. Japan in WWII is a good example, with ever increasing state control over across society, price and wage controls, confiscatory taxation, inflation, compulsory investment in war bonds and similar. This is worth drawing to the attention of Robert Mercer and other billionaires in favor of “culling the masses” as they might think twice about it. Let’s hope they are reading this review.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Alkire

    Not my cup of tea. I wanted to like this book, but was disappointed in the end. The idea was interests actually pretty good. The fault in this book is organization and writing. The organization is bad in the sense that cultures are repetitively discussed over and over since the book is purely thematic. It got old fast. Secondly, the footnotes are at the end of the chapters rather than the back. That got old. Third, the book is too verbose and too long for the central argument which is that wage Not my cup of tea. I wanted to like this book, but was disappointed in the end. The idea was interests actually pretty good. The fault in this book is organization and writing. The organization is bad in the sense that cultures are repetitively discussed over and over since the book is purely thematic. It got old fast. Secondly, the footnotes are at the end of the chapters rather than the back. That got old. Third, the book is too verbose and too long for the central argument which is that wage equality or leveling only occurs when violence and calamity affect societies. It proves its argument but it’s a tortured process. The writing is torture. It’s mostly statistics from the statistics model of social history. I got extremely tired of numbers and charts. Further, the author kept saying, I’ll discuss this further in a later chapter or in chapter x. That just about made me quit the book. The only reason I stuck with it was I wanted to see the argument through. Of course, all the leveling was temporary and the politicians and rich people got their power and wealth back in the end even if it took years. Just goes to show, history is and endlessly drawn circle over and over. Wealth rises, peaks, then often destroyed temporarily and then rises again with new rich people who acquire wealth and power and so it goes. But, I can’t recommend this book about it. Too much repetition and numbers and qualifiers and not enough narrative.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Charlene

    How did the concentration of wealth make it into so few hands? Scheidel traced the origins of power back to before recorded time. Using evidence from burial sites and other anthropological finds, he was able to construct a story about the concentration of power in the hands of the leaders of each society as humans went from nomadic lives in which they foraged for food to civilization builders who used the land as currency. Scheidel surmised that original income inequality was tied not to the ris How did the concentration of wealth make it into so few hands? Scheidel traced the origins of power back to before recorded time. Using evidence from burial sites and other anthropological finds, he was able to construct a story about the concentration of power in the hands of the leaders of each society as humans went from nomadic lives in which they foraged for food to civilization builders who used the land as currency. Scheidel surmised that original income inequality was tied not to the rise of Kings, but was instead tied to the value of plants and animals that allowed certain humans to control food production. Those humans -- who claimed these lands, and thus claimed all the riches from the food production of the plants and animals as well as the riches from the rents each person who wanted to live on the land had to pay -- were able to concentrate the wealth that land brings into their own pockets. The more land a person owned, the more power and wealth they had. Essentially owning land meant that you as a human could direct more and more of the sun's energy into your own pocket. The sun freely gives up its energy to help plants grow. Eating plants helps animals grow. Humans spend a lot of their time securing plants and animals to keep themselves healthy and alive. When humans no longer had to forage for plants grown over long distances, and could instead domesticate plants to grow in a smaller space, then that food is then available in great abundance. The problem is, not everyone owned land equally. Once land was divided unequally, so too was wealth. When humans began passing down wealth, they were able to keep that wealth concentrated in a family over generations. With the accumulation of wealth in a confined space, a few hands, the political power could also be confined. That political power created laws that kept money in the hands of the powerful and out of the hands of the poor. Interestingly, things like the plague or some other type of catastrophe had the power to alter who was wealthy and who was not. Short of large events like this, it was difficult to establish any type of true equality once inequality had been established. Throughout history, there have always been efforts to make things more equal, but once inequality gets a foothold, it seems hard to change, especially because the laws constructed by those in power make sure it is almost impossible. Even if a group of people were able to organize so effectively that they were successful in bring about real change in property laws and other laws that made income distribution more equal, they will likely face challenges from the wealthy powerful. If history gives us any clue, when the poor rise to get their slice of the pie, the rich often engage in great effort to make sure that does not happen. We certainly have societies now that are more equal than anything we have seen in the past. However, only time will tell if that is the rule or the exception and what wealth equality on a global scale will look like. The second half of the book was less interesting to me-- how wealth remained concentrated in the hands of the few. It was ok, but going back to the dawn of human existence in the first part of the book really set my brain up to want more of that. So, I was sad to read about modern day humans. Not as interesting.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    Be sure to have a stiff drink ready for when you finish this book. Basically, we probably won't be able to deal with inequality without a lot of violence. I mean, he tries at the end to say, "you never know--the future could be different than the past," but his data shows a much grimmer story. But be warned, the book is so dry. So hard to get through. Another reason to have the stiff drink in waiting. Be sure to have a stiff drink ready for when you finish this book. Basically, we probably won't be able to deal with inequality without a lot of violence. I mean, he tries at the end to say, "you never know--the future could be different than the past," but his data shows a much grimmer story. But be warned, the book is so dry. So hard to get through. Another reason to have the stiff drink in waiting.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Alex Moran

    While incredibly depressing, this is an exhaustive and deeply informative account of how inequality has been central to pretty much the entirety of human experience. What is most impressive is Scheidel's willingness to publish a book without any clear policy answers; he offers no easy solutions to seemingly insoluble questions, and it is refreshing to read an academic book on such a hot-button issue that does not pretend to have all the answers. Clearly reasoned, wonderfully structured, and prov While incredibly depressing, this is an exhaustive and deeply informative account of how inequality has been central to pretty much the entirety of human experience. What is most impressive is Scheidel's willingness to publish a book without any clear policy answers; he offers no easy solutions to seemingly insoluble questions, and it is refreshing to read an academic book on such a hot-button issue that does not pretend to have all the answers. Clearly reasoned, wonderfully structured, and providing seemingly indisputable proof of his thesis, this is a must-read for anyone interested in inequality.

  7. 5 out of 5

    David

    The Great Leveler was a natural extension of the work done by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century and because of this takes a profoundly dismal view of the present and the future. The central notion, difficult to refer to it as a thesis, is the only way to make society more just/equal is to have a massive loss of life such as: 1) Mass mobilization warfare such as the Second World War 2) Communist Revolution such as in Russia 3) State collapse, like the Roman Empire 4) Pandemics The Great Leveler was a natural extension of the work done by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century and because of this takes a profoundly dismal view of the present and the future. The central notion, difficult to refer to it as a thesis, is the only way to make society more just/equal is to have a massive loss of life such as: 1) Mass mobilization warfare such as the Second World War 2) Communist Revolution such as in Russia 3) State collapse, like the Roman Empire 4) Pandemics such as the Black Death If Piketty's solution is theft, a massive redistribution of capital via draconian taxation; then Scheidel's is genocide. In both cases, the Left appears to have departed from reason entirely and opted for massive violence: taxation and genocide. Disturbing, but that is the Left for you. Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

  8. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

    This was a real slog. It makes a convincing and alarming case, but you still finish the book with a sense of optimism, since you no longer have to read the book! Despite the last sentence, I am not complaining about dry, but detailed and careful, analysis, and there is great value in thoroughness, even when the result is less than riveting. My main gripes are, first, the choice to structure the book around the pointless division of violent societal transformation into subcases given by the "Four This was a real slog. It makes a convincing and alarming case, but you still finish the book with a sense of optimism, since you no longer have to read the book! Despite the last sentence, I am not complaining about dry, but detailed and careful, analysis, and there is great value in thoroughness, even when the result is less than riveting. My main gripes are, first, the choice to structure the book around the pointless division of violent societal transformation into subcases given by the "Four Horseman" of war, revolution, societal collapse, and plague. At the beginning of the book, the division seems gimmicky, but you put up with it in expectation of underpinning content; unfortunately, it turns out all of the case studies are essentially unique from each other, and the classification was arbitrary. My second main gripe is the choice to explicitly reject any sort of chronological structure. In the opening of the book, Scheidel defends his choice by saying this would impose an inaccurate taxonomy onto the study. I would respond that, in the absence of some other valid choice, a chronological structure taps into the reader's preexisting historical narrative, making the content easier to retain. I'm not advocating a strict adherence, and he could even maintain the broader Four Horseman division if he's really married to it, but there is, so far as I can tell, no reason to jump forward and then backwards again hundreds or thousands of years in a single paragraph. More specific comments: It was cool to learn of the existence of the freely available World Inequality Database. Throughout the book, a repeatedly explicit assumption is that inequality is naturally constrained by the need to provide minimum subsistence for the entire population (that is, the richest cannot have so much that there is too little left for the poorest to feed themselves). This is not a self-evident upper bound to me, and it is surprising that, as careful and precise as Scheidel is, he either accepts this unquestioningly or else thinks it so obvious as to not need an explanation. To me, the two possible justifications for this axiom are either that the poorest are alive, and so this threshold is self-evidently being met, or that if the rich have too much, the poorest will soon succumb, reducing inequality by removing the low end of the tail, and thus bumping it back under the putative bound. The first defense seems too static, ignoring that societies evolve or, more basically, that a person can be starving without yet having perished. The second is perhaps more plausible, maybe requiring that "the" bound is some sort of asymptotic result that takes into account how the interplay between minimum subsistence and a changing population in the self-regulation mechanism described above. I'm not sure I'm convinced. In a section of Chapter 1 titled The Original "1 Percent", Scheidel describes his view that it is natural that large states (where "large" is a relative term depending on the era) proliferate, as they are able to out-compete their neighbors. He views periods where city states or feudal societies dominate a region as unstable equilibria in which some novel quirk of the environment protects them. It is interesting to compare this to the strong, almost causal, narrative of societal evolution in Russell's History of Western Philosophy. In a section of Chapter 3 titled Scaling New Heights, he mentions that public debt feeds inequality because the cost is born by society as a whole, while the rich are able to purchase and benefit from the debt. This bitter pill is sweetened slightly when he points out that this relatively modern phenomenon is still preferable to the mechanism it replaces: outright extortion and theft by the elite of older societies. Later in the section "The Drama of the Thirty Years War": The Great Leveling of Inequality from 1914 to 1945 in Chapter 5, he points out that inflation provides a leveling mechanism, as it eats away at resources disproportionately held by the wealthy (such as liquid assets or rent). As an aside, that whole discussion of the world wars and mass mobilization warfare paints a sobering view of the price for just societies. He explicitly argues (and references a large body of literature supporting the position) that there is a strong correlation between expanded suffrage and mass warfare, as controlling interests need a way to maintain support from the general populace if there is to be any possibility of coordinating such massive cooperation on the scale needed to be competitive. Similar comments apply to social safety nets, and he argues that modern welfare states could only have been forged in such a bloody furnace; see the section "A Revolutionary Moment in the World's History is a time for Revolution, Not for Patching": From Violent Shocks to Equalizing Reform in the same chapter. It's worth recording that I was frequently in a foul mood while reading this book; if one is not careful, it is easy to get drawn into a vortex of despair over the fear that every success we humans have had tamping down the society-wide consequences of following our basest instincts has come at the cost of hundreds of millions of lives, and, what's more, these gains are likely only temporary. It is worth noting (i) maintaining this nihilism requires one to accept that nothing original can ever be done, despite mountains of historical evidence that tomorrow will bring things not even conceivable yesterday and (ii) this pessimism requires one to accept that the Gini is an accurate measure of how good a society is (for example, it ignores the admittedly unpalatable possibility that the bottom rung of tomorrow's society may well be better than a middling rung from on yesterday's). The science fiction scenarios (AI, human-machine interface, nanotechnology) at the end were a little jarring. It was interesting to read his speculations, but maybe a little hard to take them seriously after he spent the past four hundred pages searching for universal truths and arguing that understanding, say, pre-agrarian inequality would help one understand inequality in the modern US. my favorite quote: "It is fair to say that the message of this book has been unremittingly bleak."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Vidur Kapur

    This is a richly rewarding study of inequality that brings together much of the recent literature on the topic, from Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century to the late Tony Atkinson's Inequality: What Can Be Done?. However, as the author makes explicit at the end, the aim of the book is essentially to demonstrate that the various policy programs promulgated by a host of economists (including the aforementioned) since the financial crisis, that aim to reduce inequality, are pie-in-the-sky This is a richly rewarding study of inequality that brings together much of the recent literature on the topic, from Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century to the late Tony Atkinson's Inequality: What Can Be Done?. However, as the author makes explicit at the end, the aim of the book is essentially to demonstrate that the various policy programs promulgated by a host of economists (including the aforementioned) since the financial crisis, that aim to reduce inequality, are pie-in-the-sky fantasies. Indeed, if our priors are informed by the grand sweep of human history, as opposed to the aberrant post-WWII period, then short of another mass mobilisation war on a similar scale to that of the world wars, or violent transformative revolution, or some sort of state or systems collapse, massive reductions in inequality seem exceedingly unlikely. And the nature of modern warfare almost precludes the former. Ironically the book, certainly not anti-capitalist, gives succour to the dwindling (by 20th Century standards) band of revolutionaries who argue that violence is required to secure what they perceive to be "economic justice", and that piecemeal reform can only reduce inequality at the margins. Yet, as Scheidel also notes, historical levelings, including those that followed transformative revolutions, were short-lived: inequality has an almost natural tendency to rise or stabilise at relatively high levels in the vast majority of human societies. He marshals an impressive volume of evidence to support this thesis - the footnotes are very rewarding in themselves - and his grasp of the literature is excellent; he fairly represents the objections to his ideas, tackles them head-on, and adroitly summarises other key debates in the literature. The sections on ancient Greece and ancient Rome were particularly illuminating. Overall, the book is well-written, though packed with facts, figures and graphs that have the potential to scare some readers away. Speaking of which, while Scheidel does his best to describe some of the history pertinent to his case studies of levelling or potential levelling events, I would principally recommend this book to an educated individual who has some grounding in world history. With that caveat in mind, I aver that this is the best book on inequality currently out there.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Clark Hays

    Inequality that would make robber barons blush Walter Scheidel, author of The Great Leveler, provides a scientifically rigorous, excruciatingly detailed and politically agnostic survey of wealth inequality from pre-history to the present. The focus is on factors that reduce, or level, that inequality and the core message is disheartening. Given the far-reaching scope, in both time and geography, finding reliable and comparable data related to wealth requires making some assumptions — actually, a Inequality that would make robber barons blush Walter Scheidel, author of The Great Leveler, provides a scientifically rigorous, excruciatingly detailed and politically agnostic survey of wealth inequality from pre-history to the present. The focus is on factors that reduce, or level, that inequality and the core message is disheartening. 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.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Antti Värtö

    The thesis of this book is simple: during peaceful times, inequality in any society will grow until it reaches pretty much the maximum possible. In agrarian or industrial societies, the "extraction rate" (the percentage of peoples surplus earnings that gets sucked up by the economic elites in one way or another) stays pretty constant at 75%, no matter what the time or place . Unless there's a leveling event. There are four different kinds of levelers: mass scale warfare, revolution with a distri The thesis of this book is simple: during peaceful times, inequality in any society will grow until it reaches pretty much the maximum possible. In agrarian or industrial societies, the "extraction rate" (the percentage of peoples surplus earnings that gets sucked up by the economic elites in one way or another) stays pretty constant at 75%, no matter what the time or place . Unless there's a leveling event. There are four different kinds of levelers: mass scale warfare, revolution with a distributive agenda, deadly pestilences and state collapse. Without violence in horrible scales, the rich will keep on getting richer. This is a manifestly depressing thesis, which is why it's nice that there are 550 well-though-out pages detailing the ideas and showing the inevitable growth of inequality. We think that industrial societies just got more equal because we had, I don't know, lots of wealth and democracy, I guess. But Scheidel very much does not believe this: all the equalization we had in the 20th century was due to the two World Wars and the communist revolutions. During the wars the states needed cash, so they took it where it was most plentiful: from rich people. After the war, the sacrifices the people had made emboldened the leaders to institute systems that distribute the wealth of the nations more equitably. Perhaps inequality would've started to rise again in the 50's and 60's, except that the fear of communist revolutions spreading to the west kept the politicians and the financial elites on their toes, so building the welfare state seemed like the better option. We had a natural experiment that shows what could've happened in the West without the leveling effects of the wars: the Latin America. The world wars didn't really touch the southern America, and as a result the countries therein became notorious for their massive inequality. Scheidel uses examples from around the globe and from different times to show how peaceful attempts to reduce inequality failed again and again, and how the only leveling events were violent. The book was so good. When the author casually mentions that a nuclear war would be very effective at reducing inequality, you know you are reading a book that follows it's ideas to logical end points (in fairness, Scheidel does stress that despite the leveling efects, nuclear conflagaration would be a really bad thing). That's the sort of spirit I want to see in my non-fic!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    This book posited that only 4 things can reduce inequality: war, revolution, government collapse, and epidemic. Numerous historical examples were given, and whenever inequality decreased, it was always accompanied by massive economic collapse. Depressingly, the author explained that even this levelling is unlikely to be repeated in future. He also explained what policies worked previously (e.g. land reform). It required massive Robinhood like actions by the governments. Extremely depressing read. This book posited that only 4 things can reduce inequality: war, revolution, government collapse, and epidemic. Numerous historical examples were given, and whenever inequality decreased, it was always accompanied by massive economic collapse. Depressingly, the author explained that even this levelling is unlikely to be repeated in future. He also explained what policies worked previously (e.g. land reform). It required massive Robinhood like actions by the governments. Extremely depressing read. However, I am not entirely convinced by his arguments, because he did not explain why some countries (Scandinavia) are more equal than others. With his extensive knowledge of economic history, he should have been able to explain this. Of course they are homogenous groups; however there are lots of homogenous countries that are not egalitarian. Instead, the author basically just told us inequality is inevitable and nothing would work to decrease it. I think he can do better than that.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Tollemache

    A very interesting book that takes a super long term contrarian take on Piketty to argue almost all true periods of income equalization were due to catastrophic societal disasters like social revolution(Bolsheviks), state collapse (Roman Empire), epidemics (Great Plague) and mass moblization warfare (WWI and WW2).

  14. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    When Thomas Piketty’s book Capital was published three years ago, I had hoped it would mark the beginning of a serious discussion about the growing wealth inequality in the United States and, indeed, throughout much of the world. Unfortunately, this has not happened, the matter shouldered aside by the more incendiary issues of terrorism, immigration, and populist nationalism and, on the part of politicians and media alike, a seeming unwillingness to delve too deeply into its many implications. B When Thomas Piketty’s book Capital was published three years ago, I had hoped it would mark the beginning of a serious discussion about the growing wealth inequality in the United States and, indeed, throughout much of the world. Unfortunately, this has not happened, the matter shouldered aside by the more incendiary issues of terrorism, immigration, and populist nationalism and, on the part of politicians and media alike, a seeming unwillingness to delve too deeply into its many implications. But the wealth gap continues to widen: as of 2016, the top 1% of the population of the US owned 38.6% of the nation’s wealth, representing a mean average household wealth of $18,623,000. By contrast, the bottom 90% of US citizens held just 22.8% of total wealth, and the bottom 40% actually had a negative household wealth approaching $11,000. Similarly, the global elite 1% owns 50.1% of the world’s wealth, even though almost half the world’s population earns less than $2.50 a day and, of this group, 1.3 billion people somehow manage to survive on less than $1.25 a day. Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveling compared to Piketty’s focus on the United States and Europe since the Industrial Revolution, a period for which detailed records exist by which to accurately assess disparities in income and wealth – is extremely ambitious as he attempts to assess levels of inequity as far back as prehistoric times. Unlike the voluminous hard data available to Piketty, though, for most of the period Scheidel studied few detailed records exist. Consequently, he closely examined what archaeology has found: graves, for instance, that yielded greater ornaments or weapons than others, or the size and contents of excavated ancient dwellings. From these and similar findings he was able to extrapolate probable levels of wealth inequity in antiquity. Given the realities of human nature, it is hardly surprising that varieties of inequity appear to be a consistent feature of human societies; even the burial sites of hunter-gatherers reveal that some of their dead were buried with more jewelry, weapons, and gifts than was common for most. However, Scheidel concludes that significant inequality did not really “take off” until after the end of the last Ice Age when a transition “to new modes of subsistence and new forms of social organization that eroded forager egalitarianism and replaced it with durable hierarchies and disparities in income and wealth [began]. For these developments to occur, there had to be productive assets that could be defended against encroachment and from which owners could draw a surplus in a predictable manner. Food production by means of farming and herding…came to be the principal driver of economic, social, and political change.” He observes that the two most crucial determinants of inequality were individual possession of land and livestock and the ability to transmit accumulated wealth to heirs. Over time, as settlements grew in size, both the magnitude and complexity of inequity increased. While in the earliest societies the number of very wealthy was relatively small, consisting primarily of the religious-political elite, as communities expanded in size and wealth the number of those who were better off swelled: joining the rulers were bureaucratic servants of the state, landed families, and wealthy merchants. One of Piketty’s most important findings was that, over time, the return on capital always exceeds gains in income originating from labor. Scheidel’s findings affirm this, for the elites consistently dodged taxation, especially on wealth accumulation. Scheidel notes, however, that the upward march of inequality has experienced dramatic collapses in the past, such as followed the decline of the Roman Empire in the West and after the Black Death decimated Europe’s population. Time and again, past wealth inequities were compressed as a consequence of one or more of what he calls “the Four Horsemen of Leveling” – mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. Despite such leveling, however, within only a few generations the growth of wealth disparity resumed. Piketty’s Capital also noted this pattern when he discussed the period of wealth compression from the 1930s into the early 1970s, and its subsequent rebound. What we now remember as a “golden age” –when gains in income and wealth were more widely distributed – was the direct result of the 20th century’s two world wars and the Great Depression that eroded the wealth of the rich through higher taxes, rapid devaluation of currencies, and destruction of physical assets. But, as is clear from the vantage point of the 21st century, this egalitarian period did not last long, either. Is a future fearsome visit of one or more of the “Four Horsemen,” then, the only way that our current period of massive inequity can end? There are policies that have worked in the past to deliver greater prosperity to the majority, including creating and sustaining vital social nets (for unemployment, illness and old age), the existence of thriving labor unions, and truly progressive taxation on income and accumulated wealth, as was demonstrated in the immediate post-World War II period. However, since the wealthy and powerful are always seeking ways to enhance their status advantage over the rest of us, inevitably they succeed in weakening or destroying these same policies, as is clear from the West’s social and political history since the 1970s. Unfortunately, addressing – let alone acting to correct – severe wealth inequality is absent from the agendas of most Western states. Only China has made addressing the consequence of wealth inequality – poverty – a priority. In the United States, on the other hand, our government is currently pushing measures that would increase it. We know what policies work to correct wealth inequity. What we lack is the will and courage to demand them!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mer

    Only observations of the causes of inequality with semi-hegelian historicism. Scheidel did indeed realise the conventional dark side of neoliberal realities, but provides no case study of solutions.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    A massive, strongly evidence-based tome of the sort I tend to be quite fond of, making the same points again and again and again. Namely, that humans tend towards inequality, unless this is disrupted by war, violent revolution, famine, or plague, and even the social democratic calm period of the mid-20th Century was more a byproduct of two world wars and the cataclysmic destruction of the ancien regime then it was of the cautious, Keynesian practices that we associate with that time period. It's A massive, strongly evidence-based tome of the sort I tend to be quite fond of, making the same points again and again and again. Namely, that humans tend towards inequality, unless this is disrupted by war, violent revolution, famine, or plague, and even the social democratic calm period of the mid-20th Century was more a byproduct of two world wars and the cataclysmic destruction of the ancien regime then it was of the cautious, Keynesian practices that we associate with that time period. It's not exactly breezy, but it is important, and it's worth considering -- now this is the point where I go interrogate the evidence and read the counter-arguments.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ellis Morning

    Violence is the only thing that effectively levels inequality in society, and “equality” usually means “everyone is equally poor.” A depressing conclusion, but the author has painstaking data to support the point. “Be careful what you wish for,” indeed!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Charles J

    Economic inequality is, and has been for several years now, the talk of the town. But most of this talk is political—of economic goods today, and whether and how our society should change who owns them. Little mainstream attention has been paid to the history of inequality, and here Walter Scheidel offers an exhaustive look into the past. "The Great Leveler" is a good book, if pretty dry, but the author only offers statistics and graphs, and does not consider inequality philosophically. He merel Economic inequality is, and has been for several years now, the talk of the town. But most of this talk is political—of economic goods today, and whether and how our society should change who owns them. Little mainstream attention has been paid to the history of inequality, and here Walter Scheidel offers an exhaustive look into the past. "The Great Leveler" is a good book, if pretty dry, but the author only offers statistics and graphs, and does not consider inequality philosophically. He merely concludes that society-wide inequality can only be reduced, and that just temporarily, by death on a massive scale. That’s probably true, but it does not tell us whether, focusing more narrowly, we can reject bad inequalities while keeping good inequalities. Scheidel says he was inspired to write this book by the 2013 release of Thomas Piketty’s Capital, a very lengthy attack on modern Western distributions of income and wealth. Piketty’s core point, as I understand it (like most people, I own a copy and have not read it), is that under modern capitalism rates of return to capital exceed rates of return to labor, and therefore, absent state intervention, inequality will, on average, inevitably increase. Scheidel took it upon himself to investigate the ebb and flow of past inequality, with an eye to how it had been ameliorated in the past. Probably not to his surprise, he discovered that the only effective mechanisms of equalization have ever been his Four Horsemen, cousins to those of Saint John: mass mobilization war; Communist revolution; total system collapse; and pandemic disease. Changes short of these, including democracy, education, technology, and broad economic growth, have no lasting effect, and often no effect at all, on inequality. In other words—if you want to reduce inequality by any significant amount, a lot of people have to die. And even then, empirically, inequality will, soon enough, creep back into any society, vitiating the “benefit” achieved earlier. Sounds depressing. It is depressing. Most of the book is endless, highly convincing, technical details about the Four Horsemen and their impact at various times in history. The bulk of the technical detail revolves around the Gini coefficient for income, for which, to a greater or lesser degree in many eras of history, values can be assigned. Much less emphasis is placed on the Gini coefficient for wealth, since data on wealth is harder to obtain, both historically and still in modern times. In some instances, though, rough percentages of wealth held by defined segments of society can be estimated. A lot of this is eye-glazing; Scheidel even includes a lengthy appendix on relevant measuring concepts, including theoretical maximum extraction rates and other interesting ways of looking at income and wealth distribution. Scheidel is very careful to state the precision he thinks assignable in each of the scores of cases he examines, which varies widely (although he ignores the problem with Gini measures of income, that people move rapidly in and out of income brackets). At the end, the author is pretty convincing that mass death is all that has ever had a significant impact on broad measures of inequality in any society. Scheidel is not exaggerating the sweep of his analysis. He does start from the Stone Age, talking about hunter-gatherer societies, which (especially after the advent of weapons made all men pretty equal, until much later Sam Colt made them all completely equal) had very low levels of inequality (except to the extent they were slaveholding, as were many American Indian tribes), largely because it was hard for anyone at all to obtain more than a subsistence living. Then we get the rise of agriculture and the first states, which by increasing surpluses increased inequality, often to extremely high levels (as in pharaonic Egypt), with Scheidel’s basic point being that increases in technology and economic development always increase inequality. We get Rome, too, along with the Ottomans and many other ancient empires, and then a great deal about medieval Europe, for which the records are by far the best for any pre-modern society. Inequality was sometimes extreme, sometimes less extreme, but always very significant, by all obtainable measures. Except when people died. The First Horseman, mass mobilization warfare, gets the most text. All past societies were violent. Most violence, though, didn’t reduce inequality. Pre-modern war, in general, whether on a tiny or large scale, just transferred wealth from one set of elites to another, while destroying assets such that sometimes inequality went up, rather than down. In Scheidel’s analysis, only twentieth-century mass warfare reduced inequality, and not on a consistent basis. For example, Japan, hit by a perfect storm of leveling during World War II due to regulation, inflation, taxes and capital destruction, followed by occupation by victors bent on redistribution and elimination of old elites, and the discrediting of prior social structures, saw a very significant drop in inequality. Other countries saw less, and those not much involved (e.g., Argentina) saw none. The author attributes this broad leveling, during and in the decades immediately after World War II (which he calls the Great Compression), to the mass mobilization effects of the world wars. The exact causal chain, though, he’s pretty vague on. He argues that leveling even in countries, like America, which did not experience capital destruction or occupation, was due primarily to political requirements—the need to satisfy the masses they were getting something through their sacrifice. Scheidel therefore attributes the Great Compression to various new government policies, from high taxes on income and estates to the welfare state, as well as to government-aided changes, such as increased unionization. He does not attribute it to broader education, or technology, or democracy as such. His claim is, rather, that the political desire and will by elites to engage in leveling was a function of mass mobilization for the wars. There must be truth in that, although certainly ideological politicians are always eager to take advantage of crises to ram through policies they could not have otherwise, so how much is necessarily a result of the wars isn’t clear, since most of these policies had been pushed for decades by Progressives and their counterparts abroad (after all, the Progressives got their ideas from the Germans). Regardless, the Great Compression has been slowly unraveling, and even in Japan, within sixty years inequality had risen back close to historical norms. And, as is well known, inequality in the United States has increased dramatically over the past thirty years, with almost all of the benefits of economic growth accruing to the top 20%, the professional-managerial elite, while the rest of our society stagnates, told a myth of social mobility to encourage them to keep working toward an ever more impossible goal. All this sounds simple, and it is in summary, but Scheidel offers reams of analysis of historical warfare and its effects on leveling, with an eye to distinguishing modern mass mobilization warfare and its effects. He covers the American Civil War, the Chinese Warring States period, and Roman warfare, concluding that all of these had only occasional and temporary leveling effects, which he attributes to none of these being truly wars that involved mass mobilization of society. He contrasts this to Ancient Greece, where he finds that true mass mobilization, even if small in absolute numbers, tended to reduce inequality over long periods of time, which he attributes, as in the modern era, to the political power that accrued to all orders of society as long as they served in the military, and the need of the ruling classes to keep mass mobilization on track. Scheidel notes, for example, the cultural imperative among the Greeks for the rich to spend freely on public goods, something that sharply reduced inequality, though he calls it a form of taxation, which is a stretch. But it must be true that a mass mobilization society encourages the ruling class, in one way or another, to contribute to the common good, by some combination of cultural imperative and implicit threat. The Second Horseman, Communist revolution, is in a way derivative of the First. The summation here is simple—the Communists killed tens of millions, and that reduced inequality (though Scheidel mostly ignores if that just meant everyone was worse off, all poorer together). But whenever and wherever Communism gave way to reality-based systems, inequality returned to normal levels, or higher. Scheidel contrasts modern Communist revolutions to the French Revolution, the only significant pre-modern ideological revolution, finding that the French Revolution did not, contrary to the general impression, significantly reduce inequality in France. (He ignores that the Jacobins were not economic illiterates like Communists, and so did not destroy their own economy as the Communists always did.) After reviewing other candidates for ideological revolt, such as the Taiping Rebellion, Scheidel concludes “Prior to 1917, the gap between ideological goals and preindustrial realities was too wide to be bridged by force.” Such force included all the innumerable peasant rebellions of medieval times. Only Communism, abetted by modern technology, could kill and coerce enough people to result in substantial leveling. The Third Horseman, systemwide collapse, no doubt is very leveling. But the cure is worse than the disease, Scheidel is quite clear. Not for him the James C. Scott idea that collapse is, for the most part, a gentle reassertion by the common people of their independent rights and a mere decapitation of an extractive elite. From Mycenean Greece to Tang Dynasty China to Somalia, everyone is worse off, even if they are more equal. And, soon enough, as always, inequality reasserts itself. Finally, we get the Fourth Horseman, pandemic disease. Most pandemics don’t kill enough people to level. Some do, including the Black Death, which as is well known, substantially improved the pay and state of the laboring classes, as labor increased its value relative to capital, the more so the less coercive power the upper classes had, as in England relative to Mamluk Egypt. But even with leveling pandemics, after a hundred or a few hundred years, inequality reverted to the mean, as did wages. Only during the Industrial Revolution did workers begin to earn as much in England as they had in 1450. All four Horsemen are thus voluminously documented. But they have all left the stage, or so it appears (and Scheidel tells us why he thinks they have all permanently left the stage). And so, what we have today, across most of the world, is growing economies but also steadily growing inequality, reverting to the historical norm of very significant inequality. In other words, in the developed world, the Great Compression has been effectively decompressing for thirty years, and in the developing world, there is just as much inequality as always in history. No change appears imminent. Scheidel thinks this is a problem, but he offers no solution. Even if governments were to take drastic redistributive measures, as recommended by many leftists, such as massive wealth taxes and confiscatory income taxes, for which there is no political will, Scheidel doubts this trend can be reversed. When you combine a growing pie with the power of a subset of society to seek economic rents, this is what you get, whether you are a Bronze Age peasant or a Silicon Valley fast food worker. Not that Scheidel is opposed to leftist solutions—he eagerly, and jarringly given that he says they are all both impossible and ineffective, endorses a long laundry list of such proposals, many with a very tenuous connection to inequality, like “creation of a global wealth register,” making “bankruptcy law more forgiving to debtors,” unspecified “campaign finance reform,” and much more along the same lines. I suppose, as a Harvard professor, he has to genuflect to leftist pieties, but it’s a bit annoying, even though I agree with quite a few of these policies, such as limiting executive pay. (I find that I have more and more in common with Jacobin magazine, although we are not going to converge.) But, regardless, since the Horsemen have exited, or so it appears, Scheidel says that more inequality is likely in our future. Politics is a vain hope. Nor will technology help; it is more likely to exacerbate inequality (he does not cite the movie Elysium, but some variation on that is basically what he predicts). The end. All very interesting, but I want to explore what Scheidel does not—is economic inequality bad, and if so, to what degree under what societal conditions? This is a question that does not lend itself to simple analysis or answers; any response is always going to be a weighing of many different, often vague and indeterminate, factors. We don’t get anything useful in this regard from The Great Leveler—which in this regard offers only unargued and unsupported normative judgments, such as references to the wealthier paying their “fair share”; less inequality being necessarily “more equitable”; and increasing taxes being “tax reform.” We constantly hear from many sources broad claims that inequality is bad for society. Piketty says it promotes “instability”; Robert Gordon, in his The Rise and Fall of American Growth, says it is terrible for the economy. But neither says why; it is just a bald conclusion. Any random look around at others talking about inequality will get you pretty much the same result. Those who desire to reduce inequality usually think it adequate to portray the reduction of inequality as a moral imperative with sound, but vague, social benefits. They never discuss the role of simple envy, a universal human characteristic, and the reader suspects that envy looms larger in the thinking of most opponents of inequality than they are willing to admit. Scheidel is pretty typical: channeling others, he offers two pages noting without his usual backup and statistics that some claim that inequality reduces economic growth, and can lead to “internal conflict.” Fumbling, he mutters that we should perhaps instead focus on “normative ethics and notions of social justice,” then disclaims responsibility for that as “well beyond the scope of my study” and flees for the exit. We can see pretty clearly that those who criticize inequality never seem to have a thought-out set of reasons why and under what circumstances it’s bad. Mostly they just jabber, point in the air, and say that someone else will tell you, or imply that it’s obvious. It’s circular, and useless, as a way of examining social policy. So let’s start from first principles. What is . . . . [review completes as first comment.]

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gary Godefroy

    This is an exhaustive analysis of income and wealth disparity throughout history. I would call it non-fiction's Ulysses. It's not for everyone and takes grit and time to finish, but it's an important book, with reams of supporting data. The major premise is that increasing income and wealth disparity have always been the norm, only checked or reversed briefly by the violence of major wars, revolution, or occasionally, pestilence. It's hard to argue with this pessimistic view after being overwhel This is an exhaustive analysis of income and wealth disparity throughout history. I would call it non-fiction's Ulysses. It's not for everyone and takes grit and time to finish, but it's an important book, with reams of supporting data. The major premise is that increasing income and wealth disparity have always been the norm, only checked or reversed briefly by the violence of major wars, revolution, or occasionally, pestilence. It's hard to argue with this pessimistic view after being overwhelmed by the evidence. Scheidel ends with more than 20 recommendations of how to peacefully reduce the gap with everything from a more progressive income tax to endowing all children with stocks and bonds. Good luck with that one! I highly recommend this book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Erik

    I'm giving this book only three stars because I'm not really its audience. Weighing in at 504 dense pages, nearly each page filled with numerous statistics on Gini coefficients, Scheidel's tome seems targeted at an academic reader in economics or economic history. A 10-page summary done as a New Yorker article probably would have sufficed to make the point to a general reader. And it's a good point. Economic inequality, which is higher today in most countries than it's been in nearly a century, i I'm giving this book only three stars because I'm not really its audience. Weighing in at 504 dense pages, nearly each page filled with numerous statistics on Gini coefficients, Scheidel's tome seems targeted at an academic reader in economics or economic history. A 10-page summary done as a New Yorker article probably would have sufficed to make the point to a general reader. And it's a good point. Economic inequality, which is higher today in most countries than it's been in nearly a century, isn't so easy to fix. At least judging by history. Whether it's wealth or income, the rich have always been with us and as long as there is an economy, the rich will always be with us. But can we make the 1% less rich while making the 99% less poor? Don't count on it. Barring catastrophes major enough to kill enough people to disrupt world order, the rich will just keep getting richer. History backs this up, Scheidel claims. That's hard to accept, since many people alive today can remember when things were different. Starting in the New Deal and continuing through the 1970s, economies in the US and beyond were much more equal. But in the 1980s inequality started to grow again, reaching levels today not seen since the 1920s or even the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. With good public policy like more progressive taxation to make the 1% pay their fair share, and more progressive social programs to help lift the poorest people up, can't we go back to a more New Deal level of income and wealth equality? Some experts have even predicted that since the economy has swung so far towards inequality, that as part of a cycle that would restore some kind of natural balance, the economy may naturally swing back to more equality on its own in coming years. Scheidel doesn't think so. He argues that the recent decades of relative equality were unique and don't provide a model for the vast expanse of economic history. The period of 1914-1980 did enjoy a compression of inequality in the economies of most of the world. But this compression would not be easy to reproduce without the events of this period, which all happen to have been not just violent, but extremely violent: two unprecedented World Wars along with violent Communist revolutions and the Great Depression. Without all that violence, no equality. Inequality is the rule and equality is the exception argues Scheidel. Peace and health bring inequality. Only death and suffering can shake it. History back to the dawn of time shows that humans and the primates that preceded us nearly always create unequal social orders. Once farming societies appeared, that social hierarchy translated into unequal economic systems. To the deep chagrin of utopian levelers, inequality has turned out to be the natural state of both our species and global civilization. Economic inequality has only ever contracted in a substantial way with the appearance of the four horsemen of leveling: mass mobilization war of the kind seen only in the twentieth century, state collapse, violent revolution, and global pandemic. And for real leveling, you can't go half way on any of these. If the catastrophe isn't big enough, and if enough people don't die, then you won't get much contraction of inequality. Just think about the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. Millions of people worldwide lost their jobs but yet, despite a few scary days of drops, the stock market soared overall. The pandemic and quarantine didn't cause massive leveling. If anything, it made inequality worse. What economic disruption did occur just caused the poor to get poorer while helping the rich get richer. That's because the suffering just wasn't disruptive enough. The Black Death of the middle ages killed up to half of people in different parts of Europe, killing so many rich people as to disrupt their management of society while at the same time killing so many poor people as to create a shortage of unskilled labor that helped workers demand higher pay and better conditions. By contrast, at nearly 2 million deaths as of January 2021, Covid just isn't deadly enough to disrupt things and give increased value to the unskilled labor that's the main economic asset of the poor or to destroy the capital assets that undergird the rich. At the rates of a world war or the bubonic plague, a modern pandemic would have to kill hundreds of millions of people to disrupt economic inequality today. And that kind of suffering is just too high a price to pay in order to make our economies more equal. Nobody wants any of the four horsemen of leveling to mount their steeds. So, we must find a peaceful way to get some leveling -- or else, just do without. While everybody seems to think inequality is bad, Scheidel seems to be suggesting that it's a disease we can live with, because the cure is much worse. This is a thought-provoking book with a depressing conclusion. Don't expect to contract economic inequality easily. A little contraction can occur through politics by tinkering with taxes and distributions, with trade rules and union rules. But absent catastrophe like World War I or II that threatens the existence of a nation or group of nations, there won't develop enough political will to really soak the rich.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bob Duke

    A depressing book. The only effective levelers of inequality have been wars, plagues and bloody revolutions. The author makes use of Piketty's work about rising inequality and how wealth and income accrues to those who already are so advantaged. A depressing book. The only effective levelers of inequality have been wars, plagues and bloody revolutions. The author makes use of Piketty's work about rising inequality and how wealth and income accrues to those who already are so advantaged.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Noah Graham

    More fun than mandatory safety training Less fun than being waterboarded.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jack

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century is a conglomerated analysis of the various peaks and valleys of economic inequality in both ancient and modern contexts. This encompassing text showcases the role of major levelers in terms of the condensation and expansion of monetary inequality. Scheidel examines four distinct causes of this economic leveling. This division is less historically significant and operates mo Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century is a conglomerated analysis of the various peaks and valleys of economic inequality in both ancient and modern contexts. This encompassing text showcases the role of major levelers in terms of the condensation and expansion of monetary inequality. Scheidel examines four distinct causes of this economic leveling. This division is less historically significant and operates more as an aid to meaningful engagement with the text. Additionally, Scheidel’s rejection of chronology works against the cohesion of the book. Despite these complaints, the book is effective in its ability to effectively communicate the history of ancient and modern economies in the context of monetary inequality. Moreover, Scheidel’s departure from the similar work done by other economic historians—namely Thomas Piketty—is refreshing and brings more to the table that previous analyses near the end of the text. The whole of Scheidel’s Great Leveler is primarily valuable: despite the flaws he encounters in his immense task, Scheidel does an exceptionally good job in creating a model to examine the history of violence and inequality. Scheidel’s principle argument is contingent on the presence of the four-horsemen—that is, state failure, pandemic disease, radical revolution, and mass-mobilized warfare—which are rooted in violent societal transformation and bring about reduced economic inequality. Scheidel’s argument greatly depends on the categories he sets up. In his conjecture that these four categories are responsible for the economic leveling in both the ancient and modern world, he lists and analyzes many historical examples and identifies the leveler responsible for bringing about greater monetary equality. For the sake of the argument and for the readability of the text, this four-pronged assessment is incredibly interesting and ambitious. Scheidel handles it incredibly well given the scope of the material he covers. This is largely the extent of the horsemen mechanism, as it serves little historical purpose and more or less functions as a device to benefit the reader: the division of violent societal transformation is relatively arbitrary, which makes the four horsemen approach less convincing in the context of the entirety of ancient and modern history. Firstly, the ultimate cause of the leveling he describes is not exclusive to a single horsemen but rather the events are catalyzed by the shared trait of violent societal transformation. The horsemen argument operates as a needless divider of this violent societal transformation that continues throughout the course of history. For example, pandemic disease as described in the text—specifically throughout chapter 11—is more often a contributor to leveling rather than a primary source for the compression of economic inequality. Specifically, Scheidel mentions the Antonine plague as an agent of leveling in Roman Egypt: he states, “in the Fayyum village of Karanis number of taxpayers fell by between a third and a half between the 140s and the early 170s CE...Moreover, specific mortality data reinforce the impression of mass mortality” (Scheidel, 326). He continues, “the value of rural labor as documented in contracts rose by between a few percent and close to a fifth depending on duration of employment...Conversely, the price of non-essential foodstuffs such as oil and wine dropped relative to that of wheat” (328). In this way, the plague itself is not the direct cause of reduced economic inequality, but rather it serves as a mode for which death and the shifting demands of labor—in this case quantified by rent and real prices—can enforce the constriction of inequality. This is generally the case for many of the examples Scheidel lists within this category of leveling. In this way, the divisions Scheidel sets up as horsemen are less historically significant and are used as symbolic representations of the prolonged encroachment of violent societal transformation. The scope of this text is both impressive and questionable. It’s amazing to see how Scheidel is able to boil down many revolutionary moments in both ancient and modern and place them into four surmounting categories. However, the text is affected by these drastic jumps and the failure to stick to any sort of chronology. Scheidel often jumps back and forth thousands of years, which attenuates the significance of the events he discusses and disallows any gradual, cultivated context for the incidents. Specifically, I think that Scheidel’s historical leaps make it harder to engage with the examples he gives because there is less cohesion and congruence in the presentation of violent transformation than there would be if he had proceeded chronologically. Specifically, if each event Although these jumps work against the cohesion of the text, they feel intentional because they work to solidify the four-pronged assessment he applies throughout the book. If he had listed his examples chronologically, there would be less need to categorize the violent transformation because it would be easier to see how non-mutually exclusive each leveler is. Two smaller gripes I had during my reading were formed in the early stages of the text. Firstly, I found the strict adherence to the economic paradigm to be relatively unconvincing: Scheidel states, “Disparities in the distribution of income and wealth are not the only type of inequality of social or historical relevance: so are inequalities that are rooted in gender and sexual orientation; in race and ethnicity; and in age, ability, and beliefs” (9). Although the task that Scheidel provides for himself is already enormous, I feel as though the text is bereft of exploration in certain areas that could have been historically beneficial. How is it possible to thoroughly examine the history of economic inequality without considering the -isms that so strongly influence the dynamics of power? In this way, the title is a bit of a misnomer. However, I do acknowledge that this complaint is fairly minimal and could definitely be the result of publishing/marketing demands. Secondly, I am not thoroughly convinced by the modes of which inequality is measured within the text. Early in the book, Scheidel familiarizes the reader with the Gini coefficient from which he consistently references as he progresses. Scheidel states, “the Gini coefficient measures the extent to which the distribution of income or material assets deviates from perfect equality” (11). This coefficient can occupy values between 0 and 1, with 1 representing perfect inequality and 0 representing perfect equality. Obviously there are problems with measuring and representing the “level” of inequality with a numerical value. Firstly, the Gini is a measurement that is highly dependent on the quality of evidence used to inform it. In situations lacking substantial information regarding wealth discrepancies, the Gini is subject to approximation. This problem becomes more apparent the further back in history Scheidel progresses, as the sparsity and quality of evidence generally decreases. Scheidel addresses this problem in the introduction, stating, “Prior to 1800, income inequality across entire societies can be estimated only with the help of social tables, rough approximations of the incomes obtained by the different parts of the population that were drawn up by contemporary observers or inferred” (15). Another problem with the Gini is that is not a significant indicator of a society’s quality. The various flaws Scheidel notes in the introduction make the Gini seem like little more than an arbitrary number tacked onto the end of an analysis rather than an informative description of a society’s inequality. It’s curious why Scheidel even used the Gini, since his own analysis and characterizations of economic inequality are far more substantial than the value. Inversely, this book is incredibly well researched and presents ancient economic history in a way that is both interesting and communicable. Although the text was incredibly dense, I never felt as though the ideas Scheidel presents were exceptionally hard to understand or otherwise unattainable. This is probably the result of the four-pronged approach to his argument; arbitrariness aside, the concept of the horsemen makes it easier to examine and historical events in the context of leveling economic inequality. The historical information he draws from fits suitably into his broader argument. Numerical data are present in most areas of the text, which makes his claims more believable. For example, Scheidel’s discussion of capital gains in Japan during WW2 is met with a surplus of statistical information. These statistics, however, are never blurred or masked by confusing diction or abstraction, which makes his argument both provable and digestible; he states “the income share of households between the 95th and 99th percentiles hardly fell at all during the war and thereafter stabilized for a long time at around the same level as in the early 20th century, or about 12 percent to 14 percent of national income” (123). While the density of this book is heightened by mathematical models and statistical representations, the intricacies of his arguments are never smudged by needless complexity. Most of his statements feel both weighted and intentional, which leaves little room for extraneous and undeveloped claims. Additionally, Scheidel builds off of the research and conjectures of other historians in a way that is both pleasing and depressing. The most obvious example is Thomas Piketty. Piketty pops in and out of the text―which makes contextual sense given the similarities between Scheidel’s Great Leveler and Piketty’s Capital—but some of the most substantial departures between the historians comes near the end of the book. On the topic of solutions to the widening wealth gap, Scheidel notes, “Piketty states outright that this proposed ‘global tax on capital is utopian idea’ but sees ‘no technical reason why’” (434). It seems Scheidel is passively critical of Piketty here, which allows for a refreshing departure from previous historical conjectures. To be reductive, Piketty’s solution predicates upon draconian taxation, while Scheidel’s is based on the rolling of heads. In terms of lessons and potential solutions to widening wealth gaps, the last few pages of the book engage current ideas and proposals to combat this disparity. He cites Piketty, Atkinson, and Bourguignon in these final moments with a specific emphasis on tax reform and other tangentially related programs. For example, he says, “Income should be taxed in a more progressive manner...Wealth should be taxed directly and in ways designed to curtail its transmission across generations” (432). He mentions sanctions, taxation on corporations, and even a levy on capital in order to reduce public debt. While these attempts to address or mitigate income inequality are informative, they seem mostly pointless, especially after reading the previous 430 pages highlighting the prolonged violence necessary to bring about any sort of economic retribution. It’s nice to imagine a post-horsemen world in which economic equality is ingrained in the ethos of all individuals, but Scheidel’s prevailing lesson regarding violence hints towards the futility in these attempts. The Great Leveler doesn’t immediately feel very satisfactory because it generally attests to the necessity of violence as an agent of monetary retribution. Despite the alternatives presented by Scheidel in the latter portions of the book, the eventual need for violence remains the biggest lesson. This stagnation appears to be the case in contemporary history as well, but masked by pseudo-progressivism and faux-pas reformation attempts. It’s easy to be depressed about realities like this, especially in the context of recent history. Proposals by individuals such as Anthony Atkinson seem promising, but the effectiveness of these programs is at the mercy of the institutions responsible for implementing the change.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Finegold

    Walter Scheidel's The Great Leveler is a very thought-provoking book that leaves you wondering whether greater income and wealth equality is something worth chasing or, even, something we can chase. The largest empirical lesson the book teaches us is that periods of relative equality are rare. Progressive tax and redistribution programs can help arrest growing inequality and may help temporarily equalize, but the results are insignificant compared to the few great periods of leveling in human hi Walter Scheidel's The Great Leveler is a very thought-provoking book that leaves you wondering whether greater income and wealth equality is something worth chasing or, even, something we can chase. The largest empirical lesson the book teaches us is that periods of relative equality are rare. Progressive tax and redistribution programs can help arrest growing inequality and may help temporarily equalize, but the results are insignificant compared to the few great periods of leveling in human history. For most of human history, steep inequality was probably impossible. You can only have inequality in a world where average output per capita is above sustenance. Only when there's a surplus can it be captured by one or a few individuals, rather than spread out equally among the population. It follows that inequality is a feature that came about after the transition to agrarian agriculture and was, in fact, exceedingly rare among foraging and hunter-gatherer societies. Once the transition to agriculture took place, inequality — very high inequality, in fact — became the norm. There are three major leveling events in Western history, two of which also have a global history: the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Bubonic Plague, and the Great Compression between 1914–50. No other periods of equalization can match the same degree of change in the rate of inequality. Scheidel organizes historical periods of steep increases in economic equality into major themes or causes of the change. There are four: war, revolution, plague, and system collapse. He looks at a broad range of evidence for each of the four. He finds that it's not just any wars that reduce inequality, it's industrialized warfare that requires mass mobalization, of which we have just two examples: World War I and World War II. Equally, it's not just any plague. Coronavirus is not going to equalize our society. It requires death on massive proportions, like the 30–50% death rates of the Bubonic Plague. And it's not just any revolution that will do the trick, but revolutions accompanied by violence and the use of state violence to enforce radical ideological redistributions — two fit the bill, the communist revolutions in Russia and China. The horrors of system collapse speak for themselves. In other words, when abstracting from the causes, there are two features to equalizing periods: mass deaths and the destruction or consumption of capital at a gargantuan, global scale. He does look at peaceful attempts at equalizing and finds that they all come short. No less important, even marginal gains are temporary. The major evidence for peaceful equalization comes from Latin America, which began to see reductions in inequality in the 2000s, but these trends were marginal by comparison and reversed in the 2010s. Where dramatic regulatory changes were made that helped to maintain relative equalizing are in countries that suffered from the equalizing effects of plague, war, and revolution, and even here the gains are temporary. The high relative levels of economic equality achieved in the United States, as a result of the Great Depression and World War II, and Russia, as a result of the communist revolution and the violent force needed to enforce collectivization, were erased by the 1990s (sooner in the U.S.). The great lesson of the book, that very high inequality is a feature of complex civilization and that equalizing is rare, requiring death and violence on a massive scale, is a very difficult one during a social era that eschews inequality and seeks to equalize. It makes us rethink how we can achieve these ambitions and whether they are achievable at all, or whether we should start to think about the exceptional period between 1870–1990, and more specifically the period between 1920–1970, as a coincidence. That is, whether the correlation between the greatest period of economic growth and an era of significant equalization are not two things that go together – as perhaps Kuznets would have us believe –, but rather two things that happened to align because a great period of technological advancement (which began way before 1914 and the beginning of equalization) intersected one of the great violence and death (WWI, social revolutions, WWII, and the rise of communism in China and Vietnam). Whatever your takeaways, if you're curious about economic inequality, its raison d'etre, and what to do about it, The Great Leveler is a must-read.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Max Tang

    Walter Scheidel is a professor of ancient history at Stanford. This book is an attempt to systematically study the equalizing forces of distribution throughout the human history. The author observed that there were only four types of events that flattened economic inequality: mass warfares (>10% of the population mobilized), communist revolutions, state collapses, and plagues. He calls them “four horsemen” of equalization, alluding to their apocalyptic nature. Civilization could not render any p Walter Scheidel is a professor of ancient history at Stanford. This book is an attempt to systematically study the equalizing forces of distribution throughout the human history. The author observed that there were only four types of events that flattened economic inequality: mass warfares (>10% of the population mobilized), communist revolutions, state collapses, and plagues. He calls them “four horsemen” of equalization, alluding to their apocalyptic nature. Civilization could not render any peaceful equalization. Those four horsemen brought equalization through two mechanisms: 1) the destruction of capital and labor - thus flattens wealth of the rich and inflates wages; 2) strong policy responses that are only possible in time of stress (such as punitively progressive taxes and land reforms). Scheidel built upon the analytical frameworks of Milancovic and Piketty. Milancovic attempted to develop alternative measures to Gini coefficient. Specifically, he created two important concepts - inequality extraction ratio and inequality possibility frontier. Scheidel used these concepts as his quantitative framework of analyzing inequality over a long period of time. Piketty’s framework on return of capital versus return of labor also served as an important intellectual resource, especially in explaining why wages of the mass population gained relative weight in times of distress (because of the scarcity of labor and the compression of skill premium). Counterintuitively, Sheidel’s narrative was more insightful when he talked about two distinct periods: the most ancient societies - where data is scarce and mostly qualitative evidence was used - and the more recent World Wars - where a wealth of data could be relied on. For example, it is interesting that the invention of cereal - a hordable food source - might have contributed to inequality. Also interesting was the fact that embodied inequality was more prominent in ancient times - as assorted marriage might have passed on the hereditary traits across generations. Thus the rich was distinctively taller in a society dominated by malnutrition. In the end Scheidel briefly discussed the peaceful alternatives that are debated among policy circles today. However, he did not develop a convincing thesis why those would not work. He also tried to hypothesize whether those violent shocks are indogenous to unequal societies - whether revolutions are destined to happen if inequality sustained for a sufficiently long time. But he quickly pointed out that it is very difficult to reach any conclusion, as violent shocks tend to happen on a recurring basis regardless of the social conditions of those times. While some chapters are engaging, some other chapters seem redundant and could be boring to read. For example, Scheidel devoted copious pages to the corruption in the Roman Empire and ancient China, which in my view offers little new and quite unnecessary to support his thesis. The book would have been much more readable if it were more concise. Nonetheless, I did learn a lot about inequality - and my gratitude to Scheidel.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Masatoshi Nishimura

    Walter did an extensive research on the history of inequality. I knew the conclusion from the Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But he takes it further down from prehistory. It was the unique information to see the inequality happens in a hunter gatherer society with a better access to a favorable fish stream. While I agree pandemics reduce inequality, Walter suggested that's because of an increase in workers' bargaining power. But that reason is flat out wrong. Piketty described po Walter did an extensive research on the history of inequality. I knew the conclusion from the Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But he takes it further down from prehistory. It was the unique information to see the inequality happens in a hunter gatherer society with a better access to a favorable fish stream. While I agree pandemics reduce inequality, Walter suggested that's because of an increase in workers' bargaining power. But that reason is flat out wrong. Piketty described population decline as a contributor in increased concentration of capital wealth. That is because there are less people to split the capital with. Also, if everyone is dead, your income will not increase when no one is buying your stuff. That's a basic economics. For example, you are one of the 10 farmers serving 100 people. Your gain is $10 let's say ($1 per each serving). If all other farmers died from epidemics, leaving you the only farmer in town. But there are now only 10 people to serve. That leaves you the same $10 as before. Similarly, Japan has been facing population decline, but the real wage has not experienced an increase. That's because the economic pie is also smaller. I think the pandemic flattens out the inequality because it kills off bunch of people in the top distribution leaving out more to share for the rest. It'd have been interesting if he's talked about the transition of wealth. The wealth distribution might remain unequal in society. But if the people who hold that wealth constantly change, that situation is a lot more justifiable, tolerable, and hopeful. For example, today's society seems to have a lot more fluidity in the movement of people (the top richest guys don't stay the same family across generations). That is in sharp contrast to 1000 years ago in feudalism society. In that sense, this book is still incomplete in how we view the history of inequality.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maciej Nowicki

    The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel is a provocative and insightful contribution to our understanding of inequality over the long run and despite being grounded in economic history it is a book where you find serious questions about the future of inequality and the shape and structure of our societies. It shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when bloodbath and disaster strike and increases when stability and peace return. Anyway, the book details some principal dynami The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel is a provocative and insightful contribution to our understanding of inequality over the long run and despite being grounded in economic history it is a book where you find serious questions about the future of inequality and the shape and structure of our societies. It shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when bloodbath and disaster strike and increases when stability and peace return. Anyway, the book details some principal dynamics of the evolution of economic inequality. There are obviously many different types of inequality we could talk about, but the book limits to income and wealth inequality and in particular to one question – are there some patterns across the full scope of history that have repeatedly reduced economic inequality and how do they compare to other variables. Walter Scheidel, the author of the book, names four major variables of levelling: • mass-mobilisation warfare • transformative revolutions • state collapses • catastrophic plagues which have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich and filled up pockets of the poor. Violent upheavals have been the single, most important means of levelling wealth and income inequality in human history. So violent disturbances are often associated with the death of tens of millions of people have been by far the most effective means of reducing economic inequality. Starting with state collapse is simply the flipside of state formation. If we look at thousands of years of human history, most people lived in societies that were governed by states and were more or less openly predatory, unfair, hierarchical, exploitative. To a large extent, they were focused on the benefit of a small ruling class at the expense of everybody else. The longer these governments lasted the bigger they became in the form of pre-modern empires, in particular, the more potential there was for the concentration of income and especially wealth among a small ruling class, the worse it was for the rest of the population. The second main pre-modern levelling force was pandemic, a very severe outbreak of epidemic disease. A few times in our history (black death that killed about half of all people in Britain and a third of all people in Europe, the pandemics in a new world introduced by the Europeans after 1492 that introduced smallpox and measles decimating a local population) what happens after all these occasions was that inequality went down. As a result of these epidemics, tens of millions of people lost their lives but survivors happened to be better off and the real incomes of the working class went up about 150%. Unfortunately, the idyll lasted as long as these plagues and their aftermath were active and once the stabilisation began and everything went back to normal the high levels of economic inequality showed up once again. The third factor – mass-mobilisation is a capital phenomenon where capital holdings lost their returns on capital dramatically as a result of state intervention in the private sector associated with the war effort. Belligerent states had to raise taxes on income and wealth the rich, in order to pay for the war effort, got higher tax rates. For high earners, there was even a 90% tax introduced, and 70% for income gained large entities in the US and similar rates in Britain, France and Japan. All over the place this effectively resulted in a redistribution of resources from the rich to workers. These countries achieved full employment because of conscription systems and the money ended up, primarily, in the pockets of the working population. Many of these events worked in the past, let’s say until 1970. In the world, we inhabit today, in an environment that is much more globalized, much more integrated than it was in the past all these things have really begun to fade. The environment today is quite different from the shape it was a couple of generations ago when we could observe significant reductions in inequality. Sadly there are estimations reflecting that it will go up rather than down in the 21st century. Globalization is enormously beneficial to many people in developing countries but disadvantageous to certain groups in developed countries which we have observed now for some time. Automation is an ongoing completely open-ended process. Nobody knows what jobs are actually going to be done by robots or by software in the coming years. From now there is certainly enormous potential for destruction of certain types of jobs. Retraining is an answer, but not a perfect remedy because we cannot just retrain our skills overnight. A lot of friction is bound to occur as a part of this process. Another “development” – ageing of the general populations we already see in Japan and in Western Europe, in particular, is going to become much more widespread. Next generations are going to have a problem because the older population of developed countries is going to receive less public funds. It will be available for aggressively the distributive programs because more money will have to be spent on caring for the pensions healthcare. The flipside of secular ageing is immigration, the idea that if there are more and more elderly people and not enough young people it will just have more people coming from other parts of the world. In the case of Europe, it would have to be the Middle East. It would have to be Africa which creates new challenges with respect to inequality. Something we have not really seen yet because the processes really are just beginning on a large scale, but there are lots of... (if you like to read my full review please visit my blog https://leadersarereaders.blog/the-gr...)

  28. 5 out of 5

    Alexandre

    The book contains lots of interesting information, covering most of human history. However, the author seems convinced that any information is worth mentioning, regardless of its relevance to the argument being formulated, like when he clarifies, when talking about state collapses in ancient times, that the city of Megiddo is on “the plain of the biblical ‘Armageddon’”. Besides this excessive attention to minutia, the book suffers with successive reiterations of the main arguments. First they ar The book contains lots of interesting information, covering most of human history. However, the author seems convinced that any information is worth mentioning, regardless of its relevance to the argument being formulated, like when he clarifies, when talking about state collapses in ancient times, that the city of Megiddo is on “the plain of the biblical ‘Armageddon’”. Besides this excessive attention to minutia, the book suffers with successive reiterations of the main arguments. First they are presented in broad lines, then they are outlined, after that they are thoroughly detailed, number after excruciating number, with many caveats about the quality of data available or the scope of the conclusions reached. At the end of each chapter there is a summary as well as at the very end of the book. The author really wants to be sure that we the readers will not stray away from his line of thought. At least for me, it all made the reading a little bit tiresome. In the end, given that most levelling episodes throughout history occurred in spite of human agency (the only exception are the revolutionary movements, whose outcomes do not seem very tempting for the modern audience), it remains unclear for me why such levelling should be more important than simple poverty reduction from an economic point of view. I realize that wealth concentration goes hand in hand with political cronyism, but the blueprint for overcoming its shortcomings remains at fault. Perhaps a more focused approach had allowed the author enough time to address this conundrum.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Breana

    It has been a couple of years since I read this book, but I remember feeling frustrated at its omissions. The many nations that thrived in Australia prior to its colonization are, as I understand, a direct counterpoint to the thesis of this book. I would recommend reading Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, which demonstrates that sophisticated agriculture and accumulation do not inevitably bring about rising inequality.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    One can quibble with some of the details (for example, Scheidel sometimes conflates economic and political barriers to leveling in a way that makes it difficult to evaluate his main thesis) but overall, it's an exceptionally well-reasoned and well-researched argument, interesting to contemplate and full of fun facts to pick up along the way. It is dense and technical but clearly written. Impressive. One can quibble with some of the details (for example, Scheidel sometimes conflates economic and political barriers to leveling in a way that makes it difficult to evaluate his main thesis) but overall, it's an exceptionally well-reasoned and well-researched argument, interesting to contemplate and full of fun facts to pick up along the way. It is dense and technical but clearly written. Impressive.

Add a review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Loading...
We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By using our website you agree to our use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.