The 99 Percent Movement effectively changed the American political debate from debt and deficits to income inequality, highlighting the fact that income inequality has increased so much in the U.S. that it is now more unequal than countries like Ivory Coast and Pakistan. While those numbers are startling, a study from two historians suggests that American wealth inequality may actually be worse than it was in Ancient Rome — a society built on slave labour, a defined class structure, and centuries of warfare and conquest.
Waldron is referring to the study by historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen, summarised by Tim De Chant in his blog Per Square Mile. De Chant provides detail on how Schiedel and Friesen estimated the distribution of wealth in the Roman Empire, 150 C.E. De Chant writes that the study finds:
the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control… In total, Schiedel and Friesen figure the elite orders and other wealthy made up about 1.5 percent of the 70 million inhabitants the empire claimed at its peak. Together, they controlled around 20 percent of the wealth…
These numbers paint a picture of two Romes, one of respectable, if not fabulous, wealth and the other of meager wages, enough to survive day-to-day but not enough to prosper. The wealthy were also largely concentrated in the cities. It’s not unlike the U.S. today.
Using data which estimates the gini coefficients of various nations (a statistical estimation of income inequality), De Chant writes that imperial Rome was ‘slightly more equal than the U.S.’:
In other words, what we see as the glory of Rome is really just the rubble of the rich, built on the backs of poor farmers and labourers, traces of whom have all but vanished. It’s as though Rome’s 99 percent never existed. Which makes me wonder, what will future civilizations think of us?
De Chant cites the inequality of ancient Rome as partly based on the exploitation of poor workers and slaves. The USA has a long history of slave exploitation, as do many other countries. Moreover, the USA also has a monumental problem with modern day slavery, as do many other nations. The USA also has problems with the exploitation and poor treatment of migrant workers. Again, as do many other advanced nations.
What De Chant, Scheidel and Friesen’s work highlights is that the impact of income inequality and social stratification in the United States is embedded in historical practices that are not unique to the USA, nor to Ancient Greece. The Occupy Wall Street movement has indeed opened up a useful debate about the upper class elites in American society (the 1%) versus the general population (the 99%). This movement, has mobilised a narrative that is about how everyday citizens are being exploited by big business and bankers. The movement has not specifically located the struggles of modern day slaves and undocumented migrants who are even more marginalised, given that they do not have, by definition, citizenship rights.
I find De Chant’s summary of Scheidel and Friesen’s paper fascinating not specifically for the point these authors make - that average Americans in modern day USA are not much better off than ‘the majority of plebeians’ in Ancient Greece. Instead, it highlights that income inequality, slavery and exploitation of vulnerable workers today has not progressed far enough in comparison to America’s own early history. The Occupy movement keeps evolving. It has not yet focused on the exploitation of the ‘invisible’ sub-groups within the ‘99%’, such as slaves and undocumented workers. Hopefully this movement can continue to expand its narrative of class inequality even further to give voice to these groups.
Sources: De Chant (2011) ‘Income inequality in the Roman Empire’, Per Square Mile, 16 Dec.
Scheidel, W., & Friesen, S. (2010). The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire Journal of Roman Studies 99.
- Source: zeezeescorner
Hi thanks for your question. No is the short answer. Sociology was founded as a quantitative discipline, meaning we used a lot of maths for much of our history. For example, Durkheim conducted statistical analyses of suicide data from around the world in 1897. It was more during the 1970s with the advent of feminism that sociology had a methodological shift towards qualitative methods (interviews, ethnography and so on). In some parts of the world, sociology is still largely about mathematics and statistics. Economics and sociology differ in our theories, the principles and ethics of our research, and our interests. Simplifying things, economics study human behaviour as the outcome of wealth production, while sociology studies behaviour as the outcome of history, culture and other social institutions. Our topics overlap sometimes, but the way we define our key concepts, as well as the politics of our research, are often different. Sociologists are interested in social critique of power and social change. Economists want to improve the market (though not all of them agree on how this should be done).
Here’s an example. Someone (who is not an economist) posted to Science on Google+, which is a community I help to moderate. He linked to an economic model of racial segregation. If you scroll to the bottom and read my comments, I show how sociology would explain things differently. Rather than observing that racial groups like to “stick together,” sociology shows that external forces such as the law, institutional racism, and economic disadvantage make it harder for non-White groups to move out of racially segregated areas.
Sean Reardon Professor of Sociology from Stanford University discusses the sociological reasons why the middle class has been shrinking in the USA. This is from November 2011 but the argument is still valid and useful. The report referenced in this video can be accessed here: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/national/RussellSageIncomeSegregationreport.pdf
Nona Willis Aronowitz analyses the portrayal of “poor” young white women in the American version of Shameless and in the U.S. show Girls. Writing for The Nation, Aronowitz makes a distinction between being “privileged poor” and being born into an underclass. "Privileged poor" are (usually) white middle class people who have experienced downward mobility due to the financial crisis. Aronowitz argues that these young people seek to unionise and they feel entitled to a better life. Aronowitz argues that life-long working-class people who have been disadvantaged all their lives have a precarious sense about their working conditions and their futures. TV shows portray poverty in a more rigid sense, without exploring how working class relations are changing. Aronowitz writes:
For the most part, both shows are stuck in the old model of strict class segregation. In Shameless’s universe, you’re either rich and smug or poor and righteous. Hannah mostly interacts with her own kind, and when her free-spirited friend Jessa suggests to her fellow nannies that they all join a union, it’s played for laughs rather than inspiration. But in the real world, the labor movement may indeed benefit from the class mixing that’s already going on. Last year, when I reported on a group of young, mostly educated, mostly white kids trying to organize the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities, I spoke with Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff. He compared the organizers to certain Occupy kids who are “entitled,” “aware of their rights,” and have a safety net in case they get fired. I met a young woman who was galvanized by the realization that her middle-class aspirations may end up being pipe dreams. “What are the real dreams that we can actually accomplish? Fucking building a union,” she told me.
Compare this mentality to that of the working class employees I spoke with at Walmart last month, when reporting for The Nation on the workers who did not join the strikes, many of whom were terrified about retaliation or just happy to be making money at all. These workers are also hanging back from organizing at places like Burger King, Domino’s and Target.
Via The Nation.
- Source: zeezeescorner
Investments: We now offer ‘social conscience’ funds and ‘corporate ethics’ funds.
- Source: cartoonstock.com
A lesson I first learned reading Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities:
Why does Apple manufacture abroad, and especially in China? As the article explained, it’s not just about low wages. China also derives big advantages from the fact that so much of the supply chain is already there. A former Apple executive explained: “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away.”
This is familiar territory to students of economic geography: the advantages of industrial clusters — in which producers, specialized suppliers, and workers huddle together to their mutual benefit — have been a running theme since the 19th century.
And Chinese manufacturing isn’t the only conspicuous example of these advantages in the modern world. Germany remains a highly successful exporter even with workers who cost, on average, $44 an hour — much more than the average cost of American workers. And this success has a lot to do with the support its small and medium-sized companies — the famed Mittelstand — provide to each other via shared suppliers and the maintenance of a skilled work force.
The point is that successful companies — or, at any rate, companies that make a large contribution to a nation’s economy — don’t exist in isolation. Prosperity depends on the synergy between companies, on the cluster, not the individual entrepreneur.
Also, have you seen the related NYT piece about Apple that’s really about Foxconn but doesn’t really acknowledge that ultimately it’s really about us? For a better take on it, read this TechCrunch piece <—this is a sentence I’ve never written before in my life.
- Reblogged from kenyatta
Temporal time is the passing of time as measured by clocks and calendars. Social time refers to the cultural meaning that societies place on time and the social norms that shape how people imagine their relationship to time. Social time also determines how societies organise the past, present and future. (Read more.)
Werner Bergmann discusses several sociological studies that demonstrate the historical and cultural variation of social time. In the past, societies were organised around the rhythms of sun rise and sun set. Industrialisation led to a stronger emphasis on ‘the clock’ as a primary way of organising society. Cultures reformulate the demands of modern life against cultural ideas of social time.
Bergmann discusses how Australian Aboriginal family and community relationships (kinship systems) are not simply a way of classifying social responsibilities. Rather, family relations also reflect a perspective that life is timeless. Indigenous Australians do not mention the names of the dead. The term for grandparent and grandchild relationship is the same. Such aspects of Aboriginal cultures denote a relationship between the ancestral past and the present. While some people might interpret from this that Indigenous Australians are past orientated, this is untrue. Instead, Aboriginal Australians are firmly present-orientated, but with a view that the present is timeless. I would also argue that Indigenous spirituality, stories of ancestral beings and creation (the ‘Dreamtime’), as well as cultural rituals similarly reflect the timelessness of the here and now. Aboriginal cultures reflect that nature, ancestors, and the present are interconnected.
Berman further shows that studies of American society emphasise how different sub-groups are motivated by different conceptions of time. Some sub-groups that are close-knit are more driven to work together to improve the material and wellbeing of group members in the present. The immediate need to take care of family and kin take precedence over individual achievements. Other sub-groups that are highly individualist are driven by ideas of the future. In this case people are taught to delay immediate leisure, invest in education, and work towards long-term goals that will pay off many years down the track.
Class, ethnicity, religion, gender and other social markers will influence how different groups understand social time.
Institutional forces will also shape this process. When an economy is prosperous, future-orientated perspectives are easier to maintain, but this can manifest in different ways. A current example I would offer is that in a strong economy, people might save all their resources towards future goals, or people might alternatively get into a habit of lending and rely on credit cards because the future seems a long way away. When there is economic stagnation or downturn, delayed gratification becomes a necessity. People’s ideas about the present and future therefore shift in relation to changing material realities and social norms.