Posts Tagged ‘history’


It just so happens this week I’m teaching, in both Topics in Political Economy and Marxian Economic Theory, the consequences of the British enclosure movements. These were the movements, beginning in the thirteenth century and lasting into the nineteenth, whereby communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands were consolidated into individually owned plots, thereby creating a massive group of landless, impoverished workers. Much the same process of enclosing communal lands occurred across Western Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continues to take place today across the Global South.

Today, of course, there is little common land left. But other commons, especially in the United States—for example, national monuments and the internet—are now under threat from the various twenty-first century versions of the enclosure movements.

It’s time then to remember an anonymous seventeenth-century folk poem [ht: sm], which is one of the pithiest condemnations of the English enclosure movement:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who takes things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Here are a couple of later variations:

They hang the man and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common,
Yet let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.

The fault is great in man or woman
Who steals a goose from off a common;
But what can plead that man’s excuse
Who steals a common from a goose?


Robert McElvaine, premier historian of the first Great Depression (whose books we have used to teach A Tale of Two Depressions), argues that Republicans today are repeating the same mistakes as the Republicans who were in charge during the 1920s, whose trickledown policies led to the spectacular crash of 1929.

As a historian of the Great Depression, I can say: I’ve seen this show before.

In 1926, Calvin Coolidge’s treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, one of the world’s richest men, pushed through a massive tax cut that would substantially contribute to the causes of the Great Depression. Republican Sen. George Norris of Nebraska said that Mellon himself would reap from the tax bill “a larger personal reduction [in taxes] than the aggregate of practically all the taxpayers in the state of Nebraska.” The same is true now of Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other fabulously rich people.

During the 1920s, Republicans almost literally worshiped business. “The business of America,” Coolidge proclaimed, “is business.” Coolidge also remarked that, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple,” and “the man who works there worships there.” That faith in the Market as God has been the Republican religion ever since. A few months after he became president in 1981, Ronald Reagan praised Coolidge for cutting “taxes four times” and said “we had probably the greatest growth in prosperity that we’ve ever known.” Reagan said nothing about what happened to “Coolidge Prosperity” a few months after he left office.

In fact,

The crash followed a decade of Republican control of the federal government during which trickle-down policies, including massive tax cuts for the rich, produced the greatest concentration of income in the accounts of the richest 0.01 percent at any time between World War I and 2007 (when trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the hyper-rich, and deregulation again resulted in another economic collapse).

In 1929, the share of income captured by the top .01 percent (the über-rich, whose income share is indicated in the blue line in the chart above) reached 4 percent, and their share of wealth (the red line) even higher: 10 percent. Much the same kind of inequality existed in 2008, when the top .01 percent shares of income and wealth were 4.1 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively—on the eve of the Second Great Depression.

The only real difference is, while the top .01 percent shares of income and wealth fell during the depression of the 1930s (and continued to fall during the postwar period), they’ve been rising since 2008. In 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the top .01 percent share of income had increased to 4.4 percent and their share of wealth to 9.7 percent.

And now Coolidge’s Republican descendants are attempting to ram through a set of tax cuts that will allow those in the top .01 percent to keep more of their extraordinary income and to accumulate even more wealth.

All the while claiming that the benefits will trickle down to the rest of us.

In his position as a historian of the first Great Depression, who has also lived through the Second Great Depression, McElvaine certainly understands what’s going on:

Republican policies in the ’20s instead pushed to concentrate more of the income at the top. Nine decades later, Republicans are rushing to do it again — and they are sprinting toward an economic cliff. Another round of Government of the People, by the Republicans, for the super-rich will be catastrophic. The American people must call a halt before it’s too late.



Special mention

Clay Bennett editorial cartoon  Less-is-Moore.jpg


The United States, as I have shown over the past week (e.g., here, here, and here), has an obscenely unequal distribution of wealth.

As illustrated in the chart above, the members of the bottom 90 percent own only 27.8 percent of total household wealth, while the bulk of the wealth is held by the top 10 percent: 43.9 percent by the top 10 to 1 percent, 18.2 percent by the top 1 to 0.1 percent, 9.4 percent by the top 0.1 to 0.01 percent, and finally 9.7 percent by the top 0.01 percent.

How do we put that grotesque level of inequality into perspective? One way is by taking a historical perspective; the other is by looking across the world today.

As it turns out, Nature (unfortunately behind a paywall) has just published a study in which the authors attempt to estimate the degree of wealth inequality in ancient societies for which we do not have written records.* What they did is collect data from 63 archaeological sites or groups of sites, used the distribution of house sizes as a proxy for wealth, and assigned Gini coefficients to each society.**

What they are able to show is that wealth disparities generally increased with the domestication of plants and animals and with increased sociopolitical scale. The basic idea is that wealth disparities cannot accumulate within lineages until mechanisms for the transmission of wealth across generations become common, as is much more likely within sedentary societies. Thus, less wealth is typically transmitted across generations in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies than in agricultural or pastoral societies.


As is clear from the chart above, there were huge differences in the responses of societies to these factors in the New World (North America and Mesoamerica) and the Old World (Euroasia) after the end of the Neolithic period. Much to the researchers’ surprise, inequality kept rising in the Old World while it hit a plateau in the New World. They argue that the generally higher wealth disparities identified in post-Neolithic Eurasia were initially due to the greater availability of large mammals that could be domesticated, because they allowed more productive agricultural extensification, and also eventually led to the development of a mounted warrior elite able to expand polities to sizes that were not possible in North America and Mesoamerica before the arrival of Europeans.

These processes increased inequality by operating on both ends of the wealth distribution, increasing the holdings of the rich while decreasing those of the poor.

The authors note that the highest modeled wealth Gini coefficients in their Old World sample (0.48 at around ad 1, 0.60 at around ∆6,000 in the chart above) are similar to contemporary values for the Slovak Republic (0.45) and Spain (0.58), although much lower than for China (0.73) or the United States in 2000 (0.80).

Thus, the authors conclude,

Even given the possibility that the Gini coefficients constructed here may underestimate true household wealth disparities, it is safe to say that the degree of wealth inequality experienced by many households today is considerably higher than has been the norm over the last ten millennia.

How right they are!


According to the latest Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report, the members of the global top 1 percent now own more than half (50.1 percent) of all household wealth in the world.

In terms of wealth bands, the United States has by far the greatest number of millionaires: 15.4 million, an increase of 1.1 million adults over 2016. For 2017, that amounts to 43 percent of the world total. (Japan holds second place, with only 7 percent of the world’s millionaires, a decline of 338 from 2016 to 2017.)

top pyramid
Much the same degree of concentration also occurs at the top of the pyramid. According to the Credit Suisse calculations, 148,200 adults worldwide can be classed as ultra-high net worth individuals, with a net worth above US$50 million—an increase of 13 percent (19,600 adults) during the past year.

Once again, the United States dominates the regional rankings, with 75,000 ultra-high net worth residents (51 percent), with China occupying second place with 18,100 ultra-high net worth individuals (up 3,000 on the year).

The authors of the report are clear: since the crash of 2007-08, top wealth holders benefited in particular and, across all regions, wealth inequality has risen, as median wealth declined. And their projections for 2022 suggest “more pessimistic scenarios for the immediate years ahead.”

Yes, indeed, the arc of recent capitalist history appears to be following that of millenia of prehistory, which bends toward greater inequality.


*The archaeological contexts sampled from the Old World range from around 11,000 to about 2,000 years ago (plus one recent set of !Kung San encampments), and in the Americas, from around 3,000 to about 300 years ago.

**The Gini coefficient (named after the Italian statistician Corrado Gini) is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the distribution of income or wealth among the members of a group (e.g., a nation). Inequality on the Gini scale is measured between 0, where everybody is equal, and 1, where all the income or wealth is captured by a single person. I have expressed my own reservations about comparing Gini coefficients across countries or regions here.

wage share-growth

We’ve been hearing this since the recovery from the Second Great Depression began: it’s going to be a Golden Age for workers!

The idea is that the decades of wage stagnation are finally over, as the United States enters a new period of labor shortage and workers will be able to recoup what they’ve lost.

The latest to try to tell this story is Eduardo Porter:

the wage picture is looking decidedly brighter. In 2008, in the midst of the recession, the average hourly pay of production and nonsupervisory workers tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — those who toil at a cash register or on a shop floor — was 10 percent below its 1973 peak after accounting for inflation. Since then, wages have regained virtually all of that ground. Median wages for all full-time workers are rising at a pace last achieved in the dot-com boom at the end of the Clinton administration.

And with employers adding more than two million jobs a year, some economists suspect that American workers — after being pummeled by a furious mix of globalization and automation, strangled by monetary policy that has restrained economic activity in the name of low inflation, and slapped around by government hostility toward unions and labor regulations — may finally be in for a break.

The problem is that wages are still growing at a historically slow pace (the green line in the chart above), which means the wage share (the blue line in the chart) is still very low. The only sign that things might be getting better for workers is that the current wage share is slightly above the low recorded in 2013—but, at 43 percent, it remains far below its high of 51.5 percent in 1970.

That’s an awful lot of ground to make up.

productivity-wage share

The situation for American workers is even worse when we compare labor productivity and the wage share. Since 1970, labor productivity (the real output per hour workers in the nonfarm business sector, the red line in the chart above) has more than doubled, while the wage share (the blue line) has fallen precipitously.

We’re a long way from any kind of Golden Age for workers.

But, in the end, that’s not what Porter is particularly interested in. He’s more concerned about what he considers to be a labor shortage caused by a shrinking labor force.

So, what does Porter recommend to, in his words, “protect economic growth and to give American workers a shot at a new golden age of employment”? More immigration, more international trade, cuts in disability insurance, and limiting increases in the minimum wage.

Someone’s going to have to explain to me how that set of policies is going to reverse the declines of recent decades and usher in a Golden Age for American workers.

Henry_P._Moore_American_-_Slaves_of_General_Thomas_F._Drayton_-_Google_Art_Project  5c79dba28c324a9794507ced2a6987c95c392552

As I tell my students, nothing gets a mainstream economist frothing at the mouth quite like mentioning Karl Polanyi.

Or at least it used to, when mainstream economists actually knew who Polanyi was and grasped—however dismissively—what he wrote about the history of capitalism.

To his credit, Eric Hilt (pdf) appears to know something about the author of The Great Transformation and how his work influenced the new history of capitalism. And his review of ten recent books, including Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History, is not as dismissive as those of other mainstream economists, such as Alan L. Olmstead.

Much of the research of economic historians focuses on questions originating in economic theory, which tend to be quite narrow. In contrast, these book present expansive narratives and explore questions that may not be amenable to the analytical tools of economists. The authors’ critical perspectives also distinguish their work from that of economic historians and make it relevant to the concerns of many popular readers. The historians of capitalism rightly remind us that economic growth and development can have human costs not captured in average incomes; that our economic history includes no small measure of cruelty, coercion, and expropriation, rather than free exchanges occurring in the context of secure property rights; and that the economic system we have today is not a natural condition, but the outcome of policy choices that could have been made differently.

Hilt is, I think, correct: the new history of capitalism does represent a reminder to—and thus an indictment of—contemporary mainstream economics, precisely because it includes an analysis of the “cruelty, coercion, and expropriation” of the emergence and development of capitalism and the idea that contemporary capitalism is “not a natural condition.”

Generations of economics students won’t have seen or heard either of those propositions. Indeed, what little history has been presented to them emphasizes exactly the opposite: that capitalism emerged both smoothly—without conflict, through voluntary decisions and the spread of markets—and naturally—in a manner that corresponds to human nature.

But then, as if he can’t help himself, Hilt chooses the side of mainstream economists against the new historians of capitalism—because they haven’t demonstrated the appropriate respect. On Hilt’s reading, Baptist, Beckert, and the others haven’t respected capitalism, either historically (because of the role of slavery and its coercive institutions in the history of capitalism) or today (especially after the crash of 2007-08 and the misery it has visited on tens of millions of ordinary citizens, in the United States and around the world). And they don’t respect the “rigor” and “sophisticated analyses” of mainstream economic history, which they “have failed to engage.”

The influence of the recent crisis and the Great Recession in these works. . .creates something of a pitfall for their analysis. Just as poor historical analogies can distort our understanding of the present, modern analogies can produce fallacious or unsound is misapplied. Although financial development often leads to volatility, and although venality and corruption among financiers seems to be as close to a historical constant as one can find, not all finance is harmful. The financial sector performs of vitally important function. . .

Ignoring the economic history literature has led historians of capitalism to make assertions that have been refuted conclusively and to get important elements of their arguments wrong.

In the end, what Hilt can’t seem to abide in the new history of capitalism are two things: first, that historically violence played an important role in the emergence and development of capitalism—rather than, as mainstream economists would have it, that the brutal institutions of slavery and government imposition of market forces are fundamentally incompatible with capitalism; and second, that methodologically the new historians fail to articulate and test “counterfactual” statements.

The fact is, mainstream economists always seek to minimize the role of violence and force in the emergence and development of capitalism and to resort to problematic causal inferences in an attempt to isolate the effects of economic, cultural, political and natural forces within a complex, evolving social totality.

So, no, capitalism didn’t need to resort to “cruelty, coercion, and expropriation” over the course of its history. But it did—and those conditions that are often hidden underneath the “very Eden of the innate rights of man” have stamped both its origins and the way it continues to operate today.

Or, as Polanyi (pdf) himself wrote,

the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends.



Special mention

BrancJ20170828_low  download