The Ancient 99 Percent

From Tim De Chant:

Over the last 30 years, wealth in the United States has been steadily concentrating in the upper economic echelons. Whereas the top 1 percent used to control a little over 30 percent of the wealth, they now control 40 percent. It’s a trend that was for decades brushed under the rug but is now on the tops of minds and at the tips of tongues.

Since too much inequality can foment revolt and instability, the CIA regularly updatesstatistics on income distribution for countries around the world, including the U.S. Between 1997 and 2007, inequality in the U.S. grew by almost 10 percent, making it more unequal than Russia, infamous for its powerful oligarchs. The U.S. is not faring well historically, either. Even the Roman Empire, a society built on conquest and slave labor, had a more equitable income distribution….

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. Indeed, based on a widely used measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, imperial Rome was slightly more equal than the U.S….

Schiedel and Friesen aren’t passing judgement on the ancient Romans, nor are they on modern day Americans. Theirs is an academic study, one used to further scholarship on one of the great ancient civilizations. But buried at the end, they make a point that’s difficult to parse, yet provocative. They point out that the majority of extant Roman ruins resulted from the economic activities of the top 10 percent. “Yet the disproportionate visibility of this ‘fortunate decile’ must not let us forget the vast but—to us—inconspicuous majority that failed even to begin to share in the moderate amount of economic growth associated with large-scale formation in the ancient Mediterranean and its hinterlands.”

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 laborers, 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?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://awilum.com Charles Halton

    While I am an ANE scholar and not a Roman one, I find it hard to believe that these estimates on ancient wealth concentration are anything other than complete ad hoc guesses. Furthermore, only a relatively tiny population of the Roman were citizens and many were slaves–it doesn’t get much more “unequal” than that. So, my guess is that all things being equal, wealth is more evenly distributed in modern America and Europe and opportunities for economic and social advancement are far greater now than they were in the ancient period.

  • James

    “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 laborers, traces of whom have all but vanished.”

    This same realization hit me during a trip to London several years ago (living in Russia at the time, we went to London to renew visas and see old friends in England). This is true of all the places middle-class USAmericans love to travel. The museums of St. Petersburg, the Southern plantations, the castles of Europe, and the grand villas, the ruins of Rome, the mansions along the Hudson of NY…all are the old homes of the elite. History is written by the victors, as they say, and to the worldly eye, the 1% get the pen. It all gives us a false sense of the past. For example, we see a castle and think it’s romantic, not thinking of the cruelty, disease, and extortion that built it. Fairy tales, not history, are too often what we seek.

  • Richard

    The facts are clear but the question remains: when will we begin to question our national mythology that blinds us to these injustices?

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    “Whereas the top 1 percent used to control a little over 30 percent of the wealth, they now control 40 percent.”

    1. Why is that bad?
    2. How do you propose to change it without hurting the economy and thereby the nation as a whole?
    Please answer the above without violating this one guideline: “Thou shalt not covet…”

  • Dan Arnold

    ChrisB (#4),
    Why is this bad?
    Wealth creates influence. If what you seek is a plutocracy (which is by-and-large what Rome was), then there is nothing wrong with this concentration of wealth. But such influence concentrated in so few hands is counter-productive to democratic ideals.

    How to change it without hurting the economy?
    This question is based on the belief that the 1% stimulate the economy more than the 99%. But which creates more jobs: One person buying a $50000 car or two people each buying a $25000 car?

    Taxes have little to do with coveting. If I covet something, I want it for myself. But taxes in a democratic society are about paying for the services that they believe need to be available to everyone (roads, clean water, safe travel, food, etc…). Do I benefit? Certainly. And so do you and everyone else reading this blog. But I’m not coveting, I’m asking that those who benefit the most from these things pay proportionallly. Indeed, it could be argued that this concentration of wealth in so few hands is supported by policies fueled by covetesness.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    @ChrisB wrote: 1. Why is that bad? 2. How do you propose to change it without hurting the economy and thereby the nation as a whole?

    Because societies with higher inequality feature lower levels of social “goods” — lesser educational achievement, lower life expectancy, more misogyny, and reduced trust amongst neighbors. Also, higher rates of incarceration, mental illness, obesity, violent crime (much greater homicide rate), poor infant/child health and higher rates of teen pregnancy. Inequality is like a pollutant that spreads through society. Also, it sets up an “arms race” of relative positioning, that siphons resources not only into extraneous resource over-consumption. but into gates, jails, police, etc.… In essence, Pottersville in place of Bedford Falls.

    Unequal societies are unhealthy societies. See the work of economists Robert Frank, Samuel Bowles and researchers Richard Wilkinson and others.

    Addressing the problem could start with simple measures of restoring taxation system to that of what was in place during America’s economic golden age (1930s to 1980) where the middle class became ubiquitous and the diamond shape structure in effect, as opposed to the economic “inequality” pyramid that has reigned for most of 6,000 years of human history.

    Not sure about your aphorism about “thou shall not covet” as anyone living in modern society rejects the notion that taxation is theft. That as part of a social contract (that also provides the middle class and affluent with functional highways, electricity, education, communication systems such as the internet, just about every modern technological marvel made possible primarily via public investment) grants economic opportunity and protection from privation as something that modern civilization does.

  • DLS

    The mental gymnastics that people will go through to rationalize their own desire to take from others continues to baffle and astound me.

  • Wyatt

    What’s wrong with being rich?

    I am very suspicious of criticizing the wealthy just
    because they are wealthy. Why? Because behind the criticism, I venture to guess, is nothing more than envy (the root of socialism and communism and other forms of totalitarianism).

    Taking from the rich, many of whom got that way by hard work and lots of sweat equity, and giving it to people who think they aren’t so equal, is simply immoral.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    @Wyatt wrote: Taking from the rich, many of whom got that way by hard work and lots of sweat equity, and giving it to people who think they aren’t so equal, is simply immoral.

    A LOT of people work hard and give A LOT of sweat equity, yet barely scrabble for a living. OTOH, many in the 1% never lift a finger, born with the proverbial silver spoon, and are rewarded handsomely for their zero work effort.

    If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.

    Those at the top profit immensely from investment on the public dime and the toil of workers, not just domestic, but from exploited population all over the globe. Ensconced Americans living in comfort go about their business in blissful ignorance, but many throughout the world know the score.

    @DLS wrote: The mental gymnastics that people will go through to rationalize their own desire to take from others continues to baffle and astound me. — Does not address a single point made and simply accepts the deluded notion that “taxation equals theft” and blatantly disregards the social edifices and structures (along with “power over” mechanisms that inflict and maintain such imbalances throughout most of human history) that enables the capture of wealth and riches.

  • Wyatt

    #9 Naum,

    Thanks for your response. But it has the envy edge of which I spoke. I never said wealth was the inevitable result of hard work. What I did say is that many wealthy people have gotten wealthy because of hard work and it isn’t right to just take something of what they have earned and simply give to people who think they should be more equal.

    I also don’t know where you get the idea that many in the so-called 1% never lift a finger and are rewarded for their zero work effort. That sounds like you are whining and I don’t find your idea convincing because of it.

    You offered a lot of talking points but you never answered the question. What’s wrong with being wealthy?

  • Christopher Stewart

    The decay of religion may have something to do with it, whether old Roman religion or the profligate and false Church that condones capitalism. A Christian who condones capitalism is a false Christian as much as a slaver or child rapist is a false Christian. I, for one, believe that economic justice is the best cause for just war in history and that such course is the moral and least destructive course.

  • Dana Ames

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being wealthy.

    Especially with a global economy, we all make compromises with regard to our consumption. The poor in this country who shop at big box stores for clothing also benefit from the low wages paid to workers other countries, which allow for cheap production of such clothing, for example.

    The problem is not the economic system. The problem is greed, envy, the refusal to look beyond one’s nose about anything, and the difficulty and avoidance of understanding our own motivations. The line runs through the heart…

    I wish the tax revenue I pay were spent more wisely in many instances, but I have no problem with paying taxes; it’s called “promoting the general welfare” (the 18th century meaning of “welfare”). It boggles my mind that people see the paying of taxes for this purpose as “theft”.

    Dana

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    Tell me then, how is it that you are rich? From whom did you receive it, and from whom did he transmit it to you? From his father and his grandfather. But can you, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one person rich and another poor. He left the earth free to all alike. Why then if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it? ~John Chrysostom

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    I think a lot of people have no idea how wealth is created.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    Dan said, “This question is based on the belief that the 1% stimulate the economy more than the 99%.”

    No, it is based on the belief that wrestling money away from the people who earn it tends to create disincentives to work and create wealth for other people.

    “I’m asking that those who benefit the most from these things pay proportionallly.”

    They do. Those 1% have 30% of the money and pay 40% of the taxes.

    @Naum, it’s almost like you believe the very presence of rich people causes cancers in our society. I think it’s greed that is a cancer. It’s not his riches but my desire for his riches that makes me miserable.

    @Anyone: How much is too much? How much should a person be allowed to have? Or how much should we be allowed to tax a person?

    “Enough” isn’t a good answer, because someone will always come up with another program that needs to be funded. How much is appropriate? 50%? 70%? At what point does taxation become excessive?

    And if you were going to be taxed at that level, how would that affect your decisions?

  • DT

    How do you get to be part of this 1% unless you are greedy. And if you call all remedies against this greed a form of covetousness or envy, what solution do you propose? Where your greed injures my well being is where I have a right to speak out.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    DT, would you say that Bill Gates is greedy? Or Warren Buffet?

  • Dana Ames

    ChrisB,

    these folks have some statistics that incorporate the overall picture:

    http://ctj.org/taxjusticedigest/archive/2011/12/the_top_five_tax_myths_to_watc.php

    Frankly, if I got the same return for my taxes in terms of infrastructure, education and health care as they get in the Scandinavian countries, or even Germany or Switzerland, I’d be happy to pay 40%.

    Naum,

    in St John’s day, that was in fact the only way people got wealthy. That is not the only way today. Context matters. His call was for awareness and compassion and action within his context. His call would be the same for us, and the working out of it may not look exactly the same, because we have a different context.

    Dana

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    @Jeff Doles wrote: DT, would you say that Bill Gates is greedy? Or Warren Buffet?

    Bill Gates, as a teenager, had opportunity presented that 99.999% of peers of his age were denied to — at a time when computing costs were measured in hundreds of dollars per hour, his parents got him access to computing machinery that simply was not available to most everybody else. He then, on the public dime (at a public university) developed most of the foundational “intellectual property” that he then leveraged as a toll booth on every desktop computer running Windows (and Mac OS too). Seriously, look into Gates history or give Malcolm Gladwell Outliers a read. Granted, Gates still achieved, as many do not take advantage of opportunity in front of them (or are blind to it, when it crops up), and not intending to denigrate wondrous achievements of Gates and MS, just establishing that it (a) happened on structure of giants that preceded and (b) largely was a result of public investment.

    The Buffet story I do not know but consider that both Gates and Buffet have lobbied recently for higher taxes on the wealthy.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    So, Naum, you would not say that Gates or Buffet are greedy. That refutes DT’s suggestion that one must be greedy to be in the 1%.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    There have been plenty of people, many homegrown as well as many immigrants, who started out with nothing but became successful and prosperous. They did not inherit wealth, they did not win it in a lottery, they did not steal it. Nor were they greedy. But they knew how to work hard and how to work smart, they knew how to save, they knew how to create goods and services, and how to build businesses that met needs and served their communities. They did not despise or spit at the wealthy, they learned how to create wealth themselves. They did not wait for someone to give them a slice of the pie, did not ask the gov’t to take pie from someone else and give it to them. They learned how to bake pie for themselves. In the process, they also put many others to work and provided income for them. God bless ‘em.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I think we need to ground this conversation in the reality of present day policy. What is not stated here is that the divide being raised is over something like an additional 4% tax on those most able to afford it vs. the angst that the nation feels without it.

    We can argue all day in general terms, but the actual situation giving rise to the angst is not a rich or poor argument, it is strictly greed. The additional taxes for those most able to afford it are in the noise people. They would probably get even more rich by paying 10% but being active in ensuring the lower classes knew that they gave it to them. That’s what all the great American people in the past did, the Carnegies and such.

    What we should do is put a big statue of anyone who starts giving that much money to help the country right where everyone can see it. That would be the best way. Give them a big statue of their self, that is what they really want.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    As far as the original post, I actually don’t think the divide between the very rich and the rest is the issue. The issue is the percentage of the people who are destitute. You get enough people who are poor, and that is the direction we are heading, then it causes all kinds of societal problems.

    The rich in our country are much like the oil cartels in the middle east. They charge various amounts for oil to maximize they wealth. When they charge too much for oil their customers start to invest in electric vehicles and such. Their objective is to charge the most while making the people remain dependent on the oil. Its what any good drug dealer does.

    But the rich in the US balance the amount they siphon off from the poor, but only enough to stop them from revolting. It seems that we are reaching the point where the masses are starting to revolt, we will see what the rich do.

    But, as stated earlier, not all of the rich are that smart. Many of them are simply inhereted wealth. The may suck and suck and suck until there’s nothing left!

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    DT#16, you do not need to be greedy to be part of the 1%. I know many 1%’ers who are just really smart and people are willing to pay them that much to solve lots of intellectual problems, like we are doing here.

  • Jared Nuzzolillo

    “How do you get to be part of this 1% unless you are greedy. And if you call all remedies against this greed a form of covetousness or envy, what solution do you propose?”

    Where did this arbitrary 1% distinction come from? Why not the top 2.5%? Or 5%? Why not the top 10%? Or top 25%? It is a ridiculous political marketing trick, and that is all it is.

    First, they use this as an absurd rallying call, as if the vast majority of Americans — even 99% of them! — would agree with them. “We are the 99%” is an outright lie. I suspect the number of Americans who agree with the majority of their proposals are a small minority, but we know for a fact that they are not 99% strong.

    Secondly, the policies they — as a majority — push wouldn’t only apply to the 1%. They would affect every person in the US indirectly, and would very directly affect far more than the top 1%.

    Third, it is just ridiculous to say that “all of the rich became rich through hard work and sweat”, as it is to say that “all of the top 1% (which is usually just code language for “anyone who is significantly more wealthy than I am”), are greedy”. Obviously, there are many who were incredibly philanthropic all the way to becoming incredibly wealthy, as well as those who stumbled into riches rather quickly based on a wonderful idea, as well as those who inherited wealth from someone else. To assume that they must be greedy is just absurd, logically speaking.

    I also can’t help but to point out that the very BOTTOM DECILE of Americans is better off *in terms of wealth* (which is exactly what we are talking about), than 66% of the rest of the world.

    What happens when the 99% of the global population hold you to the same standard to which you hold your fellow citizens? Are we prepared for a massive, forcible global transfer of wealth? Well, why not?!

  • Dan Arnold

    ChrisB,

    No, it is based on the belief that wrestling money away from the people who earn it tends to create disincentives to work and create wealth for other people.

    Actually, it could be argued that the demonstrated redistribution of wealth upwards has this effect. If you are middle class, why work hard when all of your money is going to support the 1%?

    They do. Those 1% have 30% of the money and pay 40% of the taxes.
    I’d be curious where you get your statistics. What you say may be true of income tax, but is definitely not true when other taxes are factored in. As just one example why, Social Security taxes (OASDI) cease after the first $106800 of income, making them a much lower percentage of income the more you earn.

    As for what is an appropriate amount, the Laffer Curve has been brought up here before. The difficulty with it is that you never know just where you are on the curve and very likely it is a moving target anyways. But others on this blog have argued that where the nation was in the 1970′s was too far to the right and where we are today may be too far to the left.

  • DLS

    Dana @12

    “but I have no problem with paying taxes; it’s called “promoting the general welfare” (the 18th century meaning of “welfare”).”

    - This is not true. You need to read up on the views of the people who drafted that clause as to what they thought it meant. It did not mean ‘welfare’.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    DLS, I want to ask you to actually state what you mean instead of simply telling others to either “read up” or accuse people of “going through mental gymnastics”. Virtually know one here does not read up nor do they not go through lots of mental gyrations. Simply saying that is not argument.

    Thanks

  • DLS

    I did state exactly what I meant. A person who claims that the general welfare clause meant that the drafters of that section believed it meant “welfare” (in any way remotely close to how we know it) has not read up on the issue. Do you need a link?

    And yes, I do think that the endless handwringing over statistics like the one outlined in the main article constitute a process of rationalization for certain beliefs and behavior.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    …but DLS, you are not providing a basis for what you are saying. Yes, in the case where someone has given a quite specific point I would recommend that you provide a link. Dana has shown to be reliable here and you need to do more than simply say if you read more you will disagree.

  • Dana Ames

    DLS, I most certainly did not mean “welfare” as in “welfare state”. That’s why I included the phrase “the 18th century meaning”. I don’t know where you got that idea.

    From merriam-webster.com:

    General: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin generalis, from gener-, genus kind, class (more at “kin”)
    First Known Use: 14th century
    1: involving, applicable to, or affecting the whole
    2: involving, relating to, or applicable to every member of a class, kind, or group
    3: not confined by specialization or careful limitation
    4: belonging to the common nature of a group of like individuals : generic

    Welfare: Middle English, from the phrase wel faren – to fare well
    First Known Use: 14th century
    Synonyms: good, interest, weal, well-being

    I understand the phrase “general welfare” from the preamble of our Constitution as meaning the good, interest and well-being of our whole citizenry. I think that’s what the writers of the Constitution meant (even with “citizenry” restricted to males who owned land). Right now, I think the countries I mentioned above are promoting the well-being of their whole citizenries (not perfectly, granted) better than we are in the US.

    We seem to have lost our sense of what is for the common good – or at the least it’s being depressed by the fallout from the financial mess we’re in (which people who know more than I about economics agree is due to deregulation), and drowned out by people who want everyone else’s benefits cut, but not theirs (which has been shown by numerous reputable surveys).

    Dana

  • Jared Nuzzolillo

    “which ” SOME “people who know more than I about economics agree is due to deregulation”

    FTFY.

  • DLS
  • Dana Ames

    DLS:

    From the Cato document:

    “…those objects are the broad ends or purposes of the Constitution, not just means or powers.”

    Yes, exactly. And I don’t think Madison would limit those “broad ends or purposes” only to what is specifically notated in the Constitution.

    From the Wikipedia article on Madison:

    “During these final years in the House of Delegates, Madison grew increasingly frustrated with what he saw as excessive democracy, especially the tendency for delegates to cater to the particular interests of their constituents, even if such interests were destructive to the state at large…. He thought legislators should be
    ‘disinterested’ and act in the interests of their state at large, even if this contradicted the wishes of constituents.”

    Jared:

    http://www.fdic.gov/bank/historical/history/167_188.pdf

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/boom-for-whom/

    Dana

  • DLS

    Dana, have you read Madison outside of Wikipedia?

  • Jared Nuzzolillo

    Thanks Dana…

    But I fail to see how sharing a link that shows that Paul Krugman agrees with you regarding deregulation contradicts my claim that *only some* people who know more than you about economics believe that the (being charitable) primary cause of our current financial crisis is “deregulation.”

    The same goes for the (interesting) document regarding the Savings and Loan Crisis.

    You realize that for my claim to be true, I’d only need to share one economist (or, perhaps, even just someone who has studied economics academically) who disagrees that deregulation is the primary cause of the current financial crisis.

    Surely you acknowledge the existence of such economists, even if you don’t agree with them.

  • Jared Nuzzolillo

    BTW, I happen to agree that deregulation (and/or lack of regulation) did play a role in the financial crisis. But it was only one of many factors.

    Besides, it’s probably rather simple in hindsight to dream up one specific regulatory measure, or a suite of them, that could have either prevented — or mitigated — the financial crisis. But with systems as complex as the global economy, turned upside by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, it isn’t easy to know what other effects those regulatory measures would have had on our financial system. Furthermore, we don’t get the benefit of selecting our regulatory measures after the fact. So it’s terribly unlikely that we would have only implemented those regulations that would have actually helped prevent the financial crisis; rather, it’s likely that we would have implemented further unnecessary regulations beyond those needed to avert the crisis, thus having further unknown and potentially negative effects.

  • RJS

    DLS,

    Now you are simply being gratuitously insulting.

  • Dana Ames

    DLS,

    Nope. I admire the man for his service to this country. Long ago my dad used to take me fishing on the Madison River. I have chosen to spend my study time with the writings of a few theologians.

    DLS and Jared,

    I’m not posting these things to win an argument, only to say that there are other plausible views out there. Thankfully, we live in a country where we are free to seek out and weigh information, and come to conclusions based on what we find and how we believe the world is supposed to work. It seems we all want to present reasonable information. It’s clear we we are not going to agree; that’s ok. I don’t think that because we don’t agree you are somehow deficient.

    RJS,
    thanks.

    Dana

  • DLS

    “I’m not posting these things to win an argument, only to say that there are other plausible views out there

    - But Dana, that’s the point. I’ve tried to explain that all of the easily available material points to only one conclusion about the general welfare clause that you cite. You seem to want to ignore all of that because it doesn’t fit with what you want to believe. You admit that you don’t know much about Madison, don’t wish to read about it, but then demand that your opinion on the subject of what the founders meant in the general welfare clause should be given equal weight. It doesn’t make any sense. If you’re going to ignore clear, readily available history, it’s hard to demand that your view is entitle to equal consideration.

  • Dana Ames

    DLS,

    I fear we are talking past one another. I was not speaking of “the general welfare clause” in terms of trying to discuss the history of the political/legal interpretation of certain portions of the Constitution. That’s why what I wrote doesn’t make sense to you; it seems you insist on seeing it in a way that I was *not* presenting it.

    I don’t demand anything with regard to my opinions – take ‘em or leave ‘em. Scot has provided a place to share our opinions; it remains safe for everyone if those who participate try to contribute to understanding with respectful speech. This does not mean that everyone has to have a flat affect. I’m Italian, and sometimes I raise my voice and “talk with my hands” – and I try to do that without insulting anyone or casting aspersions on their intelligence or character. If I’m not clear about something, I’ll ask a question, rather than simply assume things that might not be true. And I’ve asked forgiveness of folks here plenty of times for my mis-steps.

    Especially in this written medium, we all need to pause and ask ourselves how what we are writing might “sound” to someone reading.

    DLS, I wish you a very happy new year.

    Dana

  • DLS

    I guess I don’t understand. I thought you cited the general welfare clause in support of something, and I responded with facts about the general welfare clause. I’ve not insulted your intelligence nor character. This is bizarre, but Happy New Year to you too.


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