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  The Herman Trend Alert

March 27, 2019

The Future of Inequality

Inequality has been around for millennia. Looking at the recorded history from Pompeii, we can see that even back in Roman times, social inequality thrived. We can also see these indications even farther back in other archaeological sites dating back 11,200 years. What we see is that economic disparities, there from the beginning, have increased over the centuries.

The global rise of nationalism
These inequalities are taking a toll on nations, as those who feel unappreciated and under-served have begun to demonstrate and voice their anger. This anger has led to a new wave of populist nationalism in the United States, France, Brazil, and elsewhere around the planet. In their new book, Ten Thousand Years of Inequality, Michael E. Smith an archaeologist at Arizona State University and Timothy Kohler of Washington State University add to what is known about the gulf between the haves and the have-nots and sadly, that gap is growing.

How the past informs the present
In their book, Smith and Kohler show how humanity's history with its early manifestations of wealth inequality has led to the current gap between the top one percent, the ultra-rich, and the other 99 percent, most of humankind. Basically, they connected what happened in the ancient world with what is happening today.

Size matters
The researchers used house size as an indicator of economic status, and they found a new way to assess the economy of ancient settlements from structural measurements. For each homesite they calculated a value which quantifies how evenly wealth is distributed. This value is known to economists as the Gini coefficient. If the Gini coefficient is 0, then everyone in the population has the same economic resources. If the Gini coefficient is 1, there is the maximum disparity. One of the most unequal countries, the United States, has a Gini of about 0.81, while Slovakia's Gini is only about 0.48.

Looking backward
In times gone by, the hunter-gatherers were inclined to be the most equitable. Then beginning in about 10,200 BC, people started farming the land. Not surprisingly, economic disparity began to increase. Farming allowed families to amass wealth and leave it to their children. Wealth was further concentrated when beginning around 10,000 years ago, the domestication of draft animals in Europe and Asia, permitted some landowners to cultivate ever larger areas. It was not until the 16th century that wealth inequality came to the Americas, when Europeans brought that idea to the New World. The researchers believe that with advancing technology comes increasing inequality. This concept does not bode well for our ever more complex high-tech future.

Time Is Money
As the researchers compared the size of dwellings at archaeological sites over thousands of years, they found increasing wealth inequality. Technology accelerated that trend, first in the Old World and then in the New.

Looking Forward
Given advancing technology and the increasing concentrations of wealth in the hands of the ultra-rich, I do not see this trend changing direction any time soon in most of the developed countries. Some of the Scandinavian countries are notable exceptions. It was not surprising to see some people from the US in Denmark recently who are really happy with their "all-for-one" society. High taxes not-withstanding, happiness matters!

Special thanks to Smithsonian Magazine and the Association of Professional Futurists Listserv for calling this topic to our attention. Order the book at Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences (Amerind Studies in Archaeology, 2019).

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