Wednesday, December 21, 2016

#356 / Stark Inequality, Or All-Out War?

The New York Times published two disturbing articles, side by side, in its "Business Day" section on Wednesday, December 7, 2016. 

One of the articles, by Patricia Cohen, carried this title: "Research Shows Slim Gains For the Bottom 50 Percent." The other article, by Eduardo Porter, said this: 

History - from Ancient Rome through the Gilded Age; from the Russian Revolution to the Great Compression of incomes across the West in the middle of the 20th century — suggests that reversing the trend toward greater concentrations of income, in the United States and across the world, might be, in fact, nearly impossible. 
That’s the bleak argument of Walter Scheidel, a professor of history at Stanford, whose new book, “The Great Leveler” (Princeton University Press), is due out next month. He goes so far as to state that “only all-out thermonuclear war might fundamentally reset the existing distribution of resources.” If history is anything to go by, he writes, “peaceful policy reform may well prove unequal to the growing challenges ahead.” 
Professor Scheidel does not offer a grand unified theory of inequality. But scouring through the historical record, he detects a pattern: From the Stone Age to the present, ever since humankind produced a surplus to hoard, economic development has almost always led to greater inequality. There is one big thing with the power to stop this dynamic, but it’s not pretty: violence. 
The big equalizing moments in history may not have always have the same cause, he writes, “but they shared one common root: massive and violent disruptions of the established order.”

Porter's article was titled, "History's Dilemma for Humanity: Stark Inequality or All-Out War." Here are two points in response. 

First, Scheidel explicitly introduces his predictions and his analysis by saying, "if history is anything to go by...." Well, let me suggest that history is NOT "anything to go by" when we are talking about the need for fundamental change. History tells us what has happened, not what will happen. The essence of human freedom is that we can, always, do something unexpected, something new, something that will begin a "whole new story," as Hannah Arendt puts it

This is not just a quibble (though I know it may seem like one). We tend to observe what has happened in our human world, and deduce that there are "laws" at work, which, like the laws of Nature, tell us what must and will happen. What usually happens, we think, must necessarily happen. That is a mistake. The laws of Nature are descriptive of the inevitable realities that prevail in the physical world. Human actions are not subject to the laws that govern physical objects.

In our human world, the world that we create (and that certainly includes a determination of who gets how much of the world's wealth), all options are possible. Nothing is "inevitably necessary" in the world we create. Admittedly, our past actions do have momentum, and significant momentum, and drive us forward in familiar tracks, but the blessing of human freedom is a gift that is always at hand. We can do unexpected and startling things, and by so doing disrupt the momentum of the past, so that the future will be different, and new. 

And here is a second point. A "historian" is necessarily an "observer." He or she looks at what has happened in the past, and what is happening now, and then reports. To an observer, the realities observed are always a given. There is no doubt that Scheidel is right about the history of inequality. The mistake is in thinking that the realities observed in the human world are like the realities of the Natural world, and that they are inevitable. Again, not so. We can "observe," but we can also "act," and when we act, we change the world. Our actions are unconstrained by any determinism, if we have both courage and will. 

Thermonuclear war does not seem like a desirable way to correct the economic inequalities that beset us in the United States, and that beset the entire world. So we do we give up? I'd say not!

Gandhi, I think, would not have been convinced by Scheidel's determinism, and Gandhi certainly would have rejected Scheidel's claim that massive violence is the only route to fundamental change!

And didn't Gandhi change the world? Wasn't what Gandhi did a part of history, too? And what about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? He, too, made history, and his unexpected actions, challenging the momentum of past injustice, transformed an apparently unchangeable reality.

What about you? What about me? Are we actors? Or observers?

Will we change the world? Or not?

What is it they say on that TV channel?

You decide!

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) -
(3) -


  1. I support Trump. If there is unemployment then all the work necessary for the community (and for trade) is being done. Period. The unemployed should be given Social Investment dividends to retrain, educate, be with family, reinvigorate the body, etc., from the Black Hole budget or from some defensible fund (?). And if there's not that much work to go around, well then, let people work half days on worker-centered, flexible policies and even share jobs. The cause of the Oakland warehouse fire: Lack of affordable housing; the cause of the head-on locomotive crashes: 11-hour driving days, no one else in the cab, no fun driving a train that way!; the cause of 40-car pile-ups: 80 mph instead of 60 mph and again long driving days in a daze. Don't pit workers against each other, requiring fruitless, demeaning, endless job searches, resumes, interviews, etc. (all the while being guided by a bloated, retirement-secure bureaucracy sucking up most of the welfare dollars). You're only hired if you are better than what they've got, then then they fire the low-person on the corporate suck-up totem. You get ahead by putting others around you down, and when you've put everyone down . . . you're the corporate CEO taking 50% of the profit of the corporation or non-profit organization. You should be paid not to work; USA uses 25% world's resources daily and should only be using 5%; we need austerity by another name: Smart Small living. When we're in balance with the environment and other countries (trade balance), we can live in peace with those we built our great country from and all enjoy fresh air again and unclouded, petroleum-free skies! Live where you work and work where you live; demand it! The daily, endless streams of idling hundreds and hundreds of horsepower being wasted into fumes while people are told they can't use their cell phones to break the monotony. Occupy Fort Ord, demand a microhouse village at the top of Obama Way, with bike, hike, pedestrian, skate and moped pathways simply a non-polluting glide-path down to Seaside City Center (Obama Way & Fremont Blvd.). And don't get me started on that resource-wasting travesty of Monterey Stupid Transit . . . which could be Monterey Super Transit once we decide to subsidize it the final 20% so the bureaucratic requirement to get 20% operating and maintenance thru the farebox is ended and we can put black bags over the fare boxes and the driver can again enjoy efficient driving and meeting members of the community instead of being told by an authoritative voice, “Beep! Please show ID,” which nobody does. I suggest this instead of individual interrogations as now conducted, and the need to have the System accept the passenger as valid and able to get on and ride; otherwise not (I had to walk from Seaside to Monterey the rainy day Jose wouldn't good me for 50¢ and shut his bus #20 off, folded hands across chest, facing us passengers and stated he wouldn't move the bus until I got off. Out of consideration for the other passengers, none of who offered me help with the fare, BTW, I did get off and walk in the light rain. There will come a day when we need to occupy the MST bus system, to make it work in an efficient, humane manner, sharing what has been built by workers for the transportation of their fellow humans. Not to be owned by one rich CEO who makes the rest of us beg, as the again, bloated, retirement-assured drivers don't care if they are mostly driving the big bobbing buses around town empty most of the time. I can design better! The current MST is basically just clogging up the streets and getting priority treatment in Monterey Peninsula. Stand up, men and women, or go down with the Titanic. God's, or Mohammad's, or perhaps a mindless endless materialistic universe reigns by periodically impacting us. Take your pick. Charles in Monterey

  2. Thanks for this comment, Charles. Lots of good thoughts here, and it would certainly be nice if the new President were of your persuasion!


Thanks for your comment!