The two sides of inequality

By Edward Hadas
November 23, 2011

Around 100 BC, a Roman nobleman calculated that it took about 100,000 sesterces a year to live comfortably. That was roughly 200 times the amount of money a poor city dweller needed to eke out a living. If an American needed the same multiple of the subsistence income to join the upper middle class today, the threshold would be $3.5 million. The United States economy has become less equal lately, but it remains much more egalitarian than the ancient Roman Republic.

The modern news on economic inequality is much more good than bad. The good news is very good. The greatest moral problem caused by inequality – the unequal access to the most basic economic goods, those which support life – has become less severe. The portion of the total population that suffers from this bottom-inequality is probably the lowest ever in history.

True, we do not know how many ancient Romans were on the wrong side of the bottom-inequality, but statistics for the most recent decades are encouraging. In 1970, 26 percent of the world’s population suffered from hunger, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The proportion is now 13 percent – still scandalously high, but the gain in food-equality is clear. Nor is food an isolated example. Electricity is a relative new development, but the Soviet dream of universal electrification has already nearly become a reality; more than 80 percent of the world’s population can plug in, according to the International Energy Agency. Health care and sanitary living conditions are now considered basic goods – and access to them has become more equal. The average life expectancy at birth is 65 or above in countries accounting for roughly 80 percent of the world’s population.

The bad news is on the other end of the income spectrum. There has been an increase in top-inequality – a widening gap between the elite and the rest – in the United States, the UK and a few other countries. The bottom 90 percent in the United States are not exactly suffering; they have been getting richer on average for the last few decades. But the rich, especially the very rich, have been getting richer much faster. The top 10 percent of earners took in 32 percent of the nation’s total income three decades ago. That has risen to 46 percent. The share taken by the top 1 percent has more than doubled, from 8 to 18 percent, according to the World Top Incomes Database. In the UK, the newly published report from the High Pay Commission points out that the top 0.1 percent’s portion has multiplied from 1.3 to 6.5 percent.

The increase in top-inequality is bad in principle. People are not different enough in their abilities or in their dedication to work to justify the recent increases in the gap between rich and relatively poor. The damage can be seen in practice. The commission makes a good case that top-inequality reduces social solidarity, making companies less efficient and slowing GDP growth. It also points out, along with the book The Spirit Level, that greater top-inequality is associated with societies which have more health and behavior problems.

Still, there are four mitigating factors:

First, the allocation of wealth within a society is usually best left to the collective judgement of that society. The people have not, not yet at least, definitively rejected the widening gap between rich and poor. That suggests the problem is not widely perceived as grave.

Second, the elite just might be able to do some good with their extra resources. The ancient Romans offered bread and circuses and renaissance princes sponsored artists. In modern industrial societies, the financially secure elite could be a helpful alternative to governments for cultural, social and economic initiatives.

Third, whatever the evil caused by top-inequality in rich societies, it is much less significant than the good news on bottom-equality. As the American and British masses get richer, it becomes harder to argue that they lose out in a morally significant way when the elite gain. Even the poverty which causes the social problems identified by The Spirit Level is arguably more spiritual and social than strictly material.

Finally, if the people do decide that the recent increase in top-inequality is unjust, the trend can be reversed with much less trouble than bottom-inequality. Major social changes are required to increase crop yields or trade in the remaining deprived parts of the world, but the rich can be curbed fairly easily in developed economies. Choose from the following list: shame, taxes, limits on the range of pay inside companies or income caps in the particularly lucrative financial sector. Even for the very rich, the sacrifices needed to reduce inequality would be mild. As Bill Gates pointed out, more money stops meaning much after the first few millions. In his words, “it’s the same hamburger”.

41 comments

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Inequality is essential for the greater wealth of the whole. What’s wrong is government backed bankers. If they win they win, if they lose the tax payers pay. Nuts.

Posted by Truth_Teller | Report as abusive

For sure it is the definition of wealth that matters most, rather than simply who has the biggest pile of money. For the richest the measure of wealth income is typically paper driven, i.e. the trading of stocks, bonds, whatever. These things are symbols of wealth, that is they can be converted to money, ideally, and then money can be converted into something that is of tangible wealth.

A society’s universal access to the things of tangible wealth that are most essential is the truest measure of equality. For example, a society with a good set of roads means anyone with a vehicle can travel about. But, owning a Ferrari in The Congo? What’s the point.

Thus the impending failure of western society, is not so much a measure of paper income disparity as it is the driving force behind that activity. By reducing taxes on the top income levels in the U.S. increased wealth via paper trading has occured. On the other hand a reduction in tax receipts means society’s infrastructure, the real measure of wealth equality, is fragmenting.

To be sure a reform of social programs is in order, but to simply starve the beast as Grover Nordquist oriented Republicans seek to do will ultimately leave even owners of Ferraris dodging potholes.

Posted by jusguessn | Report as abusive

the more inequality in a society the more difficult it
is for the members to willingly act together for the
collective good. yet it is just such collective activity
that is necessary for present societies to deal with the
global problems which confront them. individuals won’t
solve overpopulation, pollution, global warming or
national debt problems but government of the people by
the wealthy for the rich can’t get a majority of the
people to buy into group responsibility.

Posted by siddemontreal | Report as abusive

The real downside of inequality is that the underlings can rise up and strike off the heads of the upper class.

So what if there was a period when the corrupt and tyrannical Roman “Republic” was worse than the USA? Nazi Germany had a less fair, more corrupt judiciary than we now have too. Both benchmarks are far too easy to breach. Burkina Faso beats them both too. What about 1785 France?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Once again you surprise me with what appears (from my perspective) to be shocking short-sightedness. I do appreciate reading another perspective but I’m afraid I’m still not “reading on the same page” as you, despite my best efforts. Some of the documents you’re citing provide excellent supporting evidence for my understanding of how the realignment of wealth is happening and what it means for us as a society.

Purely by word-association, I keep wanting to call you “Midas” or “Hades” – do you mind if I remember your real name this way? Or do your friends have some other method?

> “First, … The people have not, not yet at least, definitively rejected the widening gap between rich and poor.”

What do you mean? The Bastille hasn’t been broken open yet? The people are not yet literally calling for the heads of their oppressors? It’s worth remembering that the French aristocracy largely ended up in that position by saddling their country with unmanageable debts to fight the British alongside the Americans in the American War of Independence… And thereafter, the fate of the rich was sealed by their intransigent refusal to share in the sacrifices of the ensuing austerity, or even to empathise in the plight of the poor… At least, if the rich did empathise, they did a very poor job of communicating this to the poor: an essential function of economic or political leadership.

> “Second, the elite just might be able to do some good with their extra resources… In modern industrial societies, the financially secure elite could be a helpful alternative to governments for cultural, social and economic initiatives.”

We should switch from regulated governmental support, to an unregulated system of patronage in which art becomes once more subservient to the rich, and their peculiar agenda… Carry on…
“…might be able…” – You implicitly concede that willingness is another question. And in a massive down-turn, it’s in the selfish “best interests” of the rich to convert their wealth into gold and ride out the storm… Tempering the political outrage with a few token gestures to the arts and “charities”…

> “Third, whatever the evil caused by top-inequality in rich societies, it is much less significant than the good news on bottom-equality.”

You might be interested in this article which explains some of the “evil” or “natural” or “evolutionary” forces at work in our societies:
http://blogs.reuters.com/lawrencesummers  /2011/11/21/the-fierce-urgency-of-fixin g-economic-inequality/
Check this out too:
http://xkcd.com/980/
The “worker/CEO wage comparison” section (in the top-left panel) is interesting. It doesn’t compare very well with the picture you are attempting to promote…
> “The bottom 90 percent in the United States are not exactly suffering; they have been getting richer on average for the last few decades.”
I examined the document you linked here: it shows that the bottom 20% only had an average real increase of 20% in their income over the last 20 years. During that same period, the affordability ratios of vehicles and homes has got worse, and income mobility (the ability of the poor to lift themselves out of relative poverty through hard labour) has declined. This is a cause worthy of protest…
> “People are not different enough in their abilities or in their dedication to work to justify the recent increases in the gap between rich and relatively poor.”
Absolutely. Educationally, I’m within the top 1% of British society; but I’d agree totally with this: the difference in talent and dedication is less than the difference in remuneration. (This disparity is even worse when those selected for leadership positions possess neither extraordinary talent nor extraordinary dedication or personal character…) I think Reuters’ David Cay Johnston has some words to say about this subject… He has more expertise than me on this subject by a long way, but it’s obvious to almost anyone who has been employed, that job performance is not always positively correlated to remuneration.
> “The damage can be seen in practice.”
For sure. It’s becoming hard to ignore, if people will only open their eyes.

> “Finally, if the people do decide that the recent increase in top-inequality is unjust, the trend can be reversed with much less trouble than bottom-inequality.”
How? By confiscating gold from the rich (making it illegal for private American citizens to own gold, as was done in the Great Depression)? A large component of these changes is irreversible, without major societal upheaval. If you go too far down this road, you end up with the situation in France in the 1790′s, or the situation in Czarist Russia in 1917… I know that the inequalities WITHIN Britain or America are less now, than in those countries then; but this does not diminish one more fact that you appear to be ignoring:

> “The greatest moral problem caused by inequality – the unequal access to the most basic economic goods, those which support life – has become less severe.”

In a globalised market with food crops being extracted from the food market as feedstock for biofuels (instead of being carried over from one year to another to cover potential harvest disasters); and this too, in the context of a fuel market with sky-high prices; will you please take a look at the affordability ratios of food in various countries & income quintiles, over the last 30-40 years? And report back on your findings? I have a suspicion the results would make interesting reading, if the data are available…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Your concluding remarks are excellent.

> “Even for the very rich, the sacrifices needed to reduce inequality would be mild. As Bill Gates pointed out, more money stops meaning much after the first few millions. In his words, “it’s the same hamburger”.”

I’ve been contemplating what this means in terms of the U.S. Declaration of Independence…

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If the accumulation of money beyond the first few millions does not bring greater happiness, then does this mean that this accumulation of excess is not a constitutionally protected right?

Open question…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

I’m going to have to agree with matthewslyman on this one. And while I appreciate Hadas’s observation that the poor are less likely to perish from famine in the US, let us not forget that malnutrition is rampant. This like other gains has it’s backside. The accelerating trend in inequality and stagnating underemployment seems to be at the expense of the 99% who will bear the brunt of debt reduction.

This failure is a result of corporate influence on politics that bumps up against the definition of fascism. And while both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement share a distrust of our current political system and it’s ties to the banks, this commonality will continue to be divided on ideological principals. This illustrates how Hadas’s final point is also false.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

In just the last four years inequality between the the uppers and the downers have increased several fold. Where has he had his head stuck. We are talking about our society not Rome.

Posted by David123456789 | Report as abusive

@matthewslyman,

For openers, it’s juvenile to disrespect anyone’s name.

American society is doing just fine, by and large, even in current times. It’s “poor” drive, have genuine educational opportunity, food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment, food banks, and help from church and other civic groups. Only the least perceptive or intelligent American would seriously suggest a “revolution by the oppressed” is imminent or has discernible support, inflammatory rhetoric aside, in America.

The only reason our “rich” might consider converting SOME of “…their wealth into gold [to] ride out the storm…” is that current fiscal policy denies Americans with financial assets (like the 501Ks, etc. of the “middle class”) a rate of return that will maintain value after adjustment for inflation. there is no “bigger fool” the rich might sell their mansions, yachts, second homes and private jets. No, they will continue to sit on the sidelines until sanity returns and minimize losses as best possible.

As to the “evil” or “natural” or “evolutionary” forces at work, the “secret” is now out. America has a “lower class” (surprise, surprise). Our public image and the companions we choose DO help or hinder the ease with which we progress along life’s path. Some consciously eliminate all possibility of employment or advancement with a bank, insurance agency, retail store, etc.

Their “public attitude”, tattoos, body piercings, and life choices such as using tobacco products, bad breath and purchase of excessive junk food and/or booze instead of fixing bad teeth are each a simultaneous IN YOUR FACE rejection of the standards of polite society and a public announcement one is “low class”. No one that looks like the “painted man” (or woman) is going to be hired for a position interacting with the public by a “mainstream business”.

It should be no mystery such individuals are likely to be more or less permanently unemployed, unemployable, without insurance, poor, etc. They tend to live in high density, high crime neighborhoods and in substandard housing, have more children than they can raise properly (i.e. to be upwardly mobile), and unreliable transportation. By their own hand are they, and, by example their children, going to be “systematically denied opportunities and healthy living situations”.

Add to the above others who live paycheck to paycheck who may not know where their next meal is coming from and risk being “thrown out of their homes” every time the economy hiccups. I categorically reject the concept that the average hard working taxpayer should pay the tab for those whose “need” for assistance exists as the primary result of repeated and sustained questionable life style choices and personal values.

“The greatest moral problem caused by inequality, the unequal access to the most basic economic goods, those which support life…” by and large does not exist in the America of today. Yes, it exists internationally for a variety of reasons; but again, largely as a result of repeated bad choices over a long period; but these are not forces which act upon the internal stability of America’s form of government.

But now that we know you’re upper class and educated in England, we know better the perspective from which YOU speak. It isn’t a properly American perspective.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I take issue with Mr. Hadas’ suggestion “Even for the very rich, the sacrifices needed to reduce inequality would be mild. As Bill Gates pointed out, more money stops meaning much after the first few millions.” Yes, “It’s the same hamburger”, but it remains the fundamental right of any consumer, including Bill Gates, to buy or not buy. Similarly, the decision to purchase a hamburger, a steak or to “reduce inequality” is one for them alone. It is NOT a decision on which one’s society should pontificate or control.

Bill Gates is one of the few ultra successful Americans who choose to fund and/or advance their “good causes” personally. All too many American celebrity liberals show that their political advocacy is more personal words than dollars. Their hidden agenda is usually to have ordinary Americans to fund whatever cause they “support” at a given moment. Mr. Gates, with whom I do not always agree, actually puts his money where his mouth is.

@matthewslyman,

I fail to perceive any connection whatsoever between a hamburger and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. By what right do you, as one of Britain’s educated and economic elite, look down your nose and presume to lecture Americans as to the meaning of words written by OUR founding fathers to justify war with YOUR government?

When they wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”, these words were aspirational. Slavery and indentured servitude were each verifiably part of their contemporary society. Any fool that has seen a child with birth defects or one mentally ill knows physical or mental equality does not exist even today. These internet posts show a distinct lack of mental “equality” day in and day out.

I would go so far as to assert that there IS “…meaning after the first few millions…”. Great wealth carries with it great responsibility. Bill Gates knows it. Warren Buffet knows it. Some don’t live up to their responsibility.

Only welfare-state governments and totalitarian ones genuinely believe it possible to regulate and/or legislate everything. An an American, I’m proud that America still doesn’t.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

good

Posted by FangJianyong | Report as abusive

I am occaisonaly shocked to read such an unsophistcated and naive essay on Reuters. That this egregiously uninformed opinion was able to find its’ way past ostensibly educated editors is depressing, jarring, inexplicable. I’m embarrased for Reuters.

The topic of income inequality has been discussed in literature since before De Tocqueville. This article follows a well trod path in attempting to pacify the reader’s concern about the negative effects of income inequality. Yet the argument has been roundly debunked. It is a canard which has long been disproven by science. Yes, that’s right. Science.

Edward Hadas compares the plight of the poor in absolute terms and says, “Hey look–poor people today are much better off than they were in the past, therefore income inequality isn’t very important.” This is an idea often repeated by self-satisfied conservatives who are either comfortably rich or else (as is more likely) imagine themselves to be. It is true that a poor American today is, on average, better off than a poor ancient Roman was. However science, that bastion of liberal bias, has already shown us that this comparison is irrelavant.

Inequality among primates (we’re primates) is a problem because we evolved as social animals to experience acute physiological changes according to our status in the hierarchy. Although this has been backed up with lots and lots of tests, it really just seems like common sense. Imagine you can have a life of luxury and safety, but you will have to submit to being someone’s slave. How many would accept that? Some would, no doubt. But most of us would find that situation intolerable, no matter the creature comforts.

“As studies of wild baboons in Africa have shown, there are certain key side effects of inequality — namely, stress. Baboons have a rigidly enforced social hierarchy in which fights to win alpha status are common and higher-ranking males constantly abuse and bully those below them. Not surprisingly, this results in chronically elevated levels of stress hormones in the lower ranks.

Chronically high stress hormone levels are bad news, for both humans and baboons. While these hormones can be helpful in short-term fight-or-flight situations, if they are elevated over long periods of time, they increase the risk of virtually all major mental and physical illnesses, including stroke, heart disease, diabetes, depression, infectious disease, many cancers and, of course, all types of addictions.

In humans, in fact, differences in health linked to social status — which tracks closely with economic status — have often been attributed only to addictions and to the generally bad health habits of the poor, such as eating a lousy diet. But baboons don’t have these “lifestyle factors” and yet increased mortality in the lower ranks is still seen.

Human studies bear out the association between low socioeconomic status and ill health.”

Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/19/ho w-economic-inequality-is-literally-makin g-us-sick/#ixzz1ebnZlgbB

I’m dumfounded that Mr. Hadas seems blithely unaware that his thesis has long been thoroughly debunked. And I’m doubly dumfounded that no one in the editing process saw fit to challenge his cliche reasoning. Edward Hadas seems to have never been poor nor ever experienced the sharp end of the stick of inequality. Or if he has, then he’s long since forgotten. I will be kind and say that I do not think he is of the other type–those who have been beaten down and thus, like dogs, love their masters.

You know the type (speaking of Romans).

BEN the Prisoner
Best thing the Romans ever did for us. Oh yeah. If we didn’t have crucifixion, this country’d be in a right bloody mess! Nail ‘em up, I say! Nail some sense into them!
Now take my case. They hung me up here five years ago. Every night, they take me down for twenty minutes, then they hang me up again, which I regard as very fair in view of what I done. And if nothing else, it’s taught me to respect the Romans! And it’s taught me that you’ll never get anywhere in this life unless you’re prepared to do a fair days work for a fair day’s…

CENTURION
Shut up!

BEN the Prisoner (smiling)
Right. Right. Terrific race, the Romans. Terrific.

(Remind you of anyone? Cough! OneOfTheSheep! Cough!)

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

@OneOfTheSheep:

Firstly if anyone thinks I’m disrespecting Mr. Hadas’s name, my apologies; it was merely intended to be a play on words, without treading on his toes (at least, it’s a way for me to remember Mr. Hadas’s real name.) If you think I’m just poking fun, you should have heard what they called ME at school! Just look at MY name! With a name like mine and an outstanding academic record; one might expect some teasing, no?

> “But now that we know you’re upper class and educated in England, we know better the perspective from which YOU speak. It isn’t a properly American perspective.”

You evidently don’t know me very well! The last folks in my family with any significant money or power were three generations back (if you go back further, there were some very rich people, as there are in most families if you do a little research). Many of my ancestors were working-class folks almost in abject poverty, or lower-middle-class. All of my recent ancestors, from my grandparents back; whatever background they were from, were honest people of excellent character; not the sort whose misfortune was generally self-inflicted.

My grandfather lifted himself some way out his working-class background through education, ambition, innovation and hard work (helping to invent or implement life-saving and war-winning innovative technologies, eventually taking his secrets patriotically to his grave) – he worked hard his whole life to make the world a better place.

Likewise, despite inheriting virtually nothing financially and despite various other severe disadvantages, I made my way up from a very normal state-funded school into a scholarship at what you would call an Ivy League university. I was 60-75% deaf until the age of five, started my schooling at one of the worst primary schools in the country where I regularly got beaten up or pushed into thorny bushes, and through hard work and dedication made my way into the best university in the country if not also the world where I graduated with a degree in computer science. I must at this point thank my mother for her hard work and determination to teach me well during my childhood.

So excuse me if I feel an affinity for American ideology, or for sharing in the “American dream”… Excuse me for feeling that if I had lived 200 or 300 years ago, I might well have sacrificed everything to emigrate to the New World. I’m a natural entrepreneur, and it’s in my blood.

Only, as with my grandfather, the system has sometimes treated me like a game at the gambling table with loaded dice (I’ve been fortunate in some things, but employment is not thus far one of them). On leaving university, I applied for hundreds of jobs, and each job application was respectfully and thoughtfully worded. I received a dozen or so curt rejection letters from that effort.
Like many current graduates, I had no choice but to take low-paid temporary work, because all the best jobs were being taken by:
* People with connections (irrespective of qualifications),
* Crooks with charisma (I had one short-term position serving a very wealthy and insane boss who was reported to be a fugitive from the law living under an assumed name.)
* Expendable minions willing to do their paymaster’s bidding (I got sacked from one temporary job for being unwilling to “cook the books” on some statistical reports that would have dishonestly given some folks a big bonus. I was sacked from another because I was unwilling to lie to creditors that the chief accountant was absent from the accounting department.)

I found out too late, that the real world just doesn’t work the way our Western “Free Market” propaganda says it does… I believed wholeheartedly in the principles of the free market, and was a big fan of Ronald Reagan, but I found out in real life that the assumptions on which extreme deregulated free-market capitalism is built don’t completely hold true. People don’t always make rational and pragmatic decisions with their money – instead, they often make emotional or nepotistic decisions.

Partly through ambition, and partly by default; I became a self-employed entrepreneur with present income well within the bottom quintile, despite having educational credentials that are by some measures well within the top 0.2%. Ask me in a few years and I might be wealthy and willingly paying lots of tax (I’ve got some interesting products in the pipeline); but if so, it won’t be thanks alone to the “free market” aspect of the system. I simply can’t afford to patent my work AND feed my family. But I am grateful for what I have… If not for the “welfare-state”, my family would be in abject poverty right now, AND I would be doing cleaning work full-time or coal-mining (if that career still existed) instead of innovating with new high-technology products as I have been educated to do, and as it will benefit my country most in the long term.

Now you know I’m not one of the “upper class” folks who apparently shouldn’t have a voice in a “proper” American forum, I’ll deal with one other point of misunderstanding between us.

> “By what right do you, as one of Britain’s educated and economic elite, look down your nose and presume to lecture Americans as to the meaning of words written by OUR founding fathers to justify war with YOUR government?”

My question was philosophical and genuine. KNOWING already that I am NOT American (and not hiding the fact), I hoped to get some feedback and discussion on this from proper Americans who have been schooled in their constitution, and in the true meaning of this inspired document we are discussing… My question was basically, (if you put it in a more provocative way);
“Many Americans today appear to use their constitution basically as a justification for an ideology that would make America into a rich man’s playground [as though one man should be free to pursue marginal improvements in happiness, at the expense of another man's extreme disadvantage, unhappiness and lack of real freedom]. Is this really what America’s founding fathers intended?”

> “the decision to purchase a hamburger, a steak or to “reduce inequality” is one for them alone. It is NOT a decision on which one’s society should pontificate or control.”

I agree with this 100%. I do not suggest otherwise. People should be free to enjoy the fruits of their own labours, without fear of confiscation. Ideally, the fruits of these honest labours should endure forever, never to decay (through inflation etc.) My only addendum to this is that the system needs to be fixed so as to reward people proportionally to their virtues and “punish” people (or, withdraw privileges) proportionally to their vices. Initial remuneration must reflect merit – otherwise, inflation becomes an inevitable injustice required for rebalancing the system before it disintegrates at the seams.
It’s not easy to fix and balance the system, but I do believe it is possible to rebalance the system so as to make it much fairer than it presently is.

Having seen things from both sides of the divide (and having also visited the United States, where I observed both cramped but well-kept trailer parks and palatial mansions); I say that when I’m fortunate enough for my hard work to harvest riches, I hope to pay good money into a system that helps those in genuine need.

The wealthy who are still not understanding Bill Gates’s or Warren Buffett’s message should consider my case: I am living proof, along with millions of others, that the descendants of the wealthy will find themselves before long in very ordinary economic circumstances. The wealthy had better help lift the rest of us into a truly meritocratic society, because their posterity will share in our lot.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

…Perhaps the simplest possible refutation of what @OneOfTheSheep has said, can be explained as follows: merely on the basis of me being educationally privileged; he/she automatically presumes that I must be economically privileged as well!

Clearly, @OneOfTheSheep also believes deep down that there’s something wrong with class mobility in the United States today…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Monsieur Slyman,

I never thought I’d be in a position to say this to another commenter, but your posts are too long. Coming from a pedantic twit like myself, that’s saying a lot.

I kid. Seriously, you seem very bright and earnest. Keep the bright, lose the earnest. Your work history made me smile. What, the real world is full of crooks?!

You’ve been to America. Presumably you’ve met folks like Mr. Sheep. There’s very little point in trying to seriously engage anyone in the comments section of any website in thoughtful debate, but especially people like The Sheepster. He is not here to be convinced by anyone. He’s only here to convince others. In this way, he’s like 98% of the rest of us, only much more so. Comment sections like this are like a dating service that promises to match-make sadists and masochists, but lacking any masochists tries to hook up sadists with one another. In other words, just a bad scene all around.

Sheepster, like myself and most anyone else who bothers to type out their indignant opinions in such a meaningless forum, is only interested in dominating the conversation. Nothing you wrote demanded the outraged (outraged!) reply he gave you, and nothing you can write will mollify him.

So why am I even bothering? I see that the Force is strong with you. Turn away from the Dark Side of the Force before it is too late, and you end up as that loud guy at the party who won’t shut up and who never gets laid. You know, like Senor Sheeple.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

@BajaArizona: I’m sanguine about this sort of thing, and will follow your excellent advice.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

You’re poor, but you can afford McDonald’s. Problem solved.

What a ridiculous article.

PS- The Roman Empire failed.

Posted by rcrystal78 | Report as abusive

In the USA, the rich are permitted, yes that is the word, permitted to remain within our society as long as they share certain values and behavior. At the start of the American republic, the 1/3 of the population that supported the aristocracy of England was driven from this land and forbidden to own property in the new nation. The “Tories” were expelled, mostly to Canada. We have no heritage of tolerating aristocracies. Unfortunately we have a heritage of public corruption of the foulest sort.

Do not presume to think that treading on the American people has no consequences. Most “wealth” in this country comes from wrongful behavior by Government officials, both “elected” and not, channeling money to people who pay them part of the proceeds. In other words, it comes from wrongfully suppressing competition. This includes the overvaluing of the US dollar to make foreign investments profitable. And many other distortions of the market. Look for any and everything in the USA that costs significantly more than in other industrialized societies and you will find the stench of corrupt, anti-competitive market manipulation. And addresses in the Hamptons.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Written Like a man who has never missed a meal,had no money for medicine, lived on the street.

Who also believes that the poor are uneducated slackers- Like me- two degrees, a long productive career, an expensive, beautiful home all flimflammed away from me by unethical banking practice,and a middle class that can not longer afford the products, due mostly to their money being flimflammed away from them by same.

Posted by mitchi2 | Report as abusive

Mr.Hadas mentions the ancient Romans. It is possible to find free online, every source Gibbon used for the Decline and Fall and I have saved them all. I’m trying to read a few of them.

The Roman’ writers continuously denounced the massive inequality of wealth, luxury and power the empire caused. They instinctively knew what it did to their society.

Oneofthesheep dislikes poor “lifestyle choices” but thinks low-income people are living embodiments of poor choices. That is not always the case and in fact the wealthy can afford more poor lifestyle choices than anyone else. Winston Churchill was a notorious drunk. But he apparently knew how to hold his liquor.

Upper class people have a history of being able to engage in all sorts of poor “moral” choices and have learned how to live with it. I read recently the Franklin Roosevelt most regretted that he was not admitted into Yale’s Porcellian Club in spite of his family wealth and prestige. The club was known for its exclusivity, the wealth of the membership and their legendary ability to drink heavily. None of them were particularly good students either.

I am skirting dangerously close to puritanical fundamentalism here and don’t want to give the wrong impression. I just mean to say – wealth makes it much easier to party hearty and for far longer than most working people. Working people with small means have to live with stricter codes of personal conduct actually, because they don’t have ample means – and have less room for error. And the environment of the very poor can be very dangerous. Wealth can buy protection from the worst physical dangers. But it exposes one to so many other more subtle threats.

I think Matthewslyman makes a good point about the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not being exactly synonymous with being “stinking rich”.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

For the real British perspective on inequality:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3E5vYNzr ds

My favourite line is “I look up to him, because although I have money, I am vulgar.”

The deep point point in this levity is surely that for the longest time, we all knew we were unequal, but at least there were lots of different ways to be unequal. For example, I don’t begrudge that people who can manage office politics are richer than I who retired because I couldn’t. On the other hand I do, occasionally, feel a twinge because I an richer than J S Bach ever was, despite being almost talentless.

One suspects that inequality is only a hot political topic today because we have managed to convince ourselves that those who run the world are just as talentless as we are, and for the most part, they seem intent on proving us right. One might not dislike enforced equality so much if there were any way to achieve it that did not bring with it massive moral hazard; one might have more sympathy with Anonymous if their main aim was not more benefits and subsidies for members of Anonymous, for example.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

15% of U.S. families experience food insecurity. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSec urity/

That’s the downside of inequality.

Posted by Fishrl | Report as abusive

“In modern industrial societies, the financially secure elite could be a helpful alternative to governments for cultural, social and economic initiatives.”..

the operative word here is ‘could’…. and so far its ‘could’ but ‘haven’t or won’t’

“the social problems identified by The Spirit Level is arguably more spiritual and social than strictly material”…. “inequality reduces social solidarity”….
How about inequality breeds social discontent – one of the tenents of the Arab Spring BTW.

A reasonable expectation of success has always been the mantra of Americans (at least in my life-time). It is exactly THAT, the feeling that you CAN succeed if you work hard, is what is dying in the US. The FEELING that the deck is stacked against you is growing exponentially, and the implications of ‘social upheavel’ are on the increase.

During the Great Depression, the powers that be developed a slogan. “There’s No Way, Like the American Way”….. Why (WHY?) would anyone need a slogan like this?
If not to quell the rising anger within the society as a whole.???

Most people (IMHO) fail to see the significance of the OWS folks. These people are NOT bums and derelicts, as portrayed by faux News. Some are, to be sure… But many are NOT…. They are people who have ‘lost hope’ of ever attaining the American Dream. Any Psychology teacher will tell you that when people ‘lose hope’, they are apt to do harmful and dangerous things…. See history of the world – 1930 thru 1945….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Its not necessarily the basic income disparity that is at issue, but moreover, the increasingly degenerate trend of funding this largess through more unscrupulous means, to which, matthewslyman touches on in posting, a thoroughly unrequired, but stellar, account of himself.

For an introspective and a connection to matthewlyman – and i can’t really explain why this is becoming a sticking point with me – this recent article bears mentioning:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/ nov/16/why-britain-doesnt-make-things-ma nufacturing

Focusing on the upside of privation does little to address the fundamental and structural economic inequities here and abroad.
The decline in outright starvation and malnutrition are more a testament to scientific and technological advances in past decades than any financial contribution.
The growing income disparity is the by-product of the financial market.
There are cities, counties,..entire nations becoming insolvent, not because they lack the benefits of current technology, but because they’re inextricably enmeshed in the hollow promise of financial innovation and its accompanying malfeasance.
Once again the citizens of various countries (ie; those with bad breath, or body piercings) will be expected to make whole the markets through various forms of austerity
and taxes levied.

Had this been an actual economy, or some semblance of a free market, losses would have been already realized and remedied, returning economies to a more solid footing.
This is not a natural market. The insidious tipping of western economies toward financial services hasn’t come without a price.

Without the natural market force of loss, the condition exacerbates (Grecian bailout as a quick example), and becomes more untenable.
Now the natural market occurrence of loss is unthinkable thanks in part to those who saw an opportunity to profit without regard to risk.
Decades long de-coupling of financial instruments from any true value leaves fewer profits to be eked from an over leveraged market where future obligations are running up against diminished liquidity creating all manner of financial and legal aberrations, and when i stated countries are inextricably enmeshed, there can be no doubt the regulatory capture has left governments hostage to the continued viability of these markets.

What at one point could have been defined in the constructs of a social trap has devolved into a morass of outright fraudulent regulatory arbitrage by an elite group of wealthy financiers and an underlying class of rent-seeking minions who remain compunctionless toward their selfish ends.

There has always been economic inequality. The issue, through time immemorial, has been at what cost.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Over time commentors who are persistent “get to know” by words and deeds those whose philosophies parallel or oppose their own. Some are honest advocates and others present points of view that are clearly disingenuous or incorrect and/or antisocial. It’s a free country.

In the second post of this thread, txgadfly warns the “upper class” that “underlings” can “rise up and strike off” their heads, referencing 1785 France. Since only in the alternate reality of his mind does there exist more than a handful of unfortunate and dull victims that might seriously contemplate such action, txgadfly reveals himself as a frustrated would-be anarchist with the morals of the Taliban willing to employ their methods.

In the third, matthewslyman echos the idea that it is only a matter of time before here in America the “people” will be “calling for the heads of their oppressors”. Please.

If the stores in England are as mobbed as the shopping centers near me, the “oppressed” are much more interested in scoring their “Black Friday” bargain. Parking lots are filled, not with protesters or Occupiers, but with the cars of consumers willing and able to spend!

Drop down to LEEDAP, who points out that “malnutrition is rampant”. Hey, most of those electric riding carts in Walmart are not being ridden by the honestly “disabled”, but by people too FAT to walk around and shop!

If kids that are “malnourished”, it’s because momma done spent the welfare money on drugs, misused the food stamp money buying Ding Dongs, sodapop, ice cream, frozen pizza (it’s a vegetable!) and other pre-cooked but expensive convenience foods and trades the stuff from the food bank (that she’d actually have to prepare from scratch) for spending money…cigarettes, lottery tickets, etc. You gonna call 911?

Obviously malnourished children aren’t showing up at school for the free breakfast or lunches, so call Child Protective Services. Giving such people more money is like going faster when you’re on the wrong road hoping to reach a destination elsewhere.

My straightforward comments seem to have attracted the ire of BajaArizona, who briefly mentions in the abstract sense “the negative effects of income equality” and then discusses how hierarchial stress affects wild baboons in Africa.

While I have been unable to discern any worthwhile suggestion in all of his words, I would offer that a group of baboons is properly referred to as a “Congress of baboons”. This may help us to better understand why things in Washington are as they appear.

Then Baja, matthew, and txgad (please excuse the first names) pat each other on the back, with the latter asserting America has “…no heritage of tolerating aristocracies…”. The “Tories” of revolutionary times were those of the landed governing class that supported the British Crown. The “Revolutionaries” were those of the landed governing class that didn’t.

The American Revolution was NOT class warfare, but a contest of philosophies. Guess what…America now has probably a 60-70% of the population that is now “landed” to some degree, and EVERYONE today (for all practical purposes), including women, can vote.

In every society and every extended period there are good times and less good times. The “American deck” IS “stacked” against those on the bottom of the pile somewhat…always has been, always will be; but NOT as much as elsewhere; or such that the skillful, the enterprising, the persistent and the inspired do not, in general advance here.

That’s why America is the destination of virtually everyone allowed the choice to come here and live. It isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have to be.

Those who are capable and willing to “do harmful and dangerous things”. as edgyinchina put it, remain such a tiny minority in our society that our municipal police can handle them as necessary.

The OWS mobs are a transient and insignificant aberration of unreasonable expectations and uncivil behavior utterly incapable of the planning yet duly aware of the risks of physically doing “harmful and dangerous things. See British youth riots 2011. Ho hum…

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

There are two issues here. One is whether or not the unemployed, disabled, and working poor are able to meet their basic needs in our society. The second is whether the unemployed, disabled, and working poor deserve to have those needs met.

The answer to the first question is clearly no. One need only look out on the street to see the homeless, one need only look in the ER to see people in need of healthcare turned away. One need only ask a pharmacist to know that even retirees, people who have worked hard all of their lives, are often unable to afford all of the medication they need. One need only go to the Food Stamp Office to see working families whose wages don’t cover the cost of food.

The answer to the second question, whether these groups deserve to have their basic needs met, is clearly no, at least according to the champions of our current economic and political structure. Unless one succeeds in a specific area of the economy, one is expected to struggle along with less than the necessities, and no one counts the dead.

The answer to the second question clearly should be yes, according to protesters, activists, and most Americans (for after all, most Americans are poor, have been poor, or fear they will be poor in the future).

The only reason our society does not meet the needs of all its citizens is because the issue is constantly manipulated or obscured by irrelevant references to history, morality, and necessity. Either we will shed our past and become a society that meets the basic needs of all its citizens or we will not. The issue is just that clear cut.

Posted by MaraZinia | Report as abusive

Thanks @OneOfTheSheep and @Mathewslyman. I enjoy the Reuters comments because this site has comments from both the left and the right without to much bickering. I am a firm believer in “There are two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in-between.”. On Reuters you can clearly see both sides.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Monetary measures of inequality are one metric but by far not the most meaningful. People are often willing to subsist on lower disposable incomes in the hope that their children will somehow benefit and move up the economic ladder once they join the job force. And they are often willing to sacrifice substantial chunks of this disposable income for the future of their children.

Inter-generational mobility is the acid test of inequality, not prawn cocktails vs hamburgers. The likelihood of one’s children moving up the income ladder is the real test of an economic system’s ‘fairness’. And as Larry Summers related in a very recent article in Reuters, this metric in America has stopped improving for the first time in history.

We can all agree with Mr Hadas that the bottom 90% have improved their lot over the last few decades: that is not a statement of overpowering revelation or subtlety. The fact that both his children and his gardener’s children are more likely than not to follow in their parents’ income bracket is the real tragedy he has chosen to ignore.

Restricting people’s hopes for their children’s future is the real inequality, and one that can bite back with a vengeance…

Farfoor

Posted by Farfoor | Report as abusive

The American rich will more cheerfully give up their wealth to the Army and then to the dictator than to their poorer neighbors. This is the real lesson of the Roman history this author presumes to expound.

Posted by ChrisHerz | Report as abusive

The American Revolution may well have been about philosophy, but the landed governing class had to give up their hopes of making themselves hereditary lords. The Duke of Dorset owned Martha’s Vineyard and apparently had to abandon it to the colonists. The revolution wasn’t just about philosophy but was also a way of taking lands from the Crown without compensation and the new government tended also to confiscate the property of the exiles.

The first presidents, however, believed in giving back to the point of near personal extinction. Washington was almost bankrupt and Jefferson was very deep in debt after their terms as Presidents. That isn’t at all popular today with any politicians.

This country could have been far more violent and class riven had it not been for the enormous territories that allowed the bottom tiers of the economic system to go out and make themselves a decent standard of living at least. In fact, it enabled them to become the new King Carter’s and Thomas Jefferson’s of the territories. Those new territories don’t exist now and any acquisition of them in the new world order by purchase, treaty, or even force of arms is impossible. And obviously, not everyone is going to fit into corporate life no matter how scrubbed and polished they are.

BTW OOTS – the atmosphere of Mars contains Methane. Mars smells like a septic tank and the atmosphere of Venus is poisonous and acidic. Any colonists on Mars would have to live in an hermetic environment that would always smell like a sewer drain. It may be impossible for large numbers of human beings to live on them at all. They will have bigger problems than looking good for the corporate culture.

Society seems always, as Nancy Mitford described the ancien regime, “a moving ladder of preferment with half the rungs sawn through”. Those at the top know how to saw a lot of rungs and can afford the tools to do a very thorough job. That may frustrate guys like OOTS who resent the fact that the “undeserving” may resort to being termites.

You ignore them at your peril – OOTS, or you may very well have to live in a concrete bunker and preserve your standard of living, your civil liberties, and possibly you life, with bug bombs. But I also don’t believe for a minute that only frustrated welfare moms start WalMart or even London riots. Some well-healed Boston shoppers used to get violent in Filene’s basement over 40 years ago and that was when the New England economy was in a growth phase. I don’t think anyone ever got hurt back then and now they are.

Greed isn’t the exclusive province of the poor, obviously but I am very sure the well healed and secure would be the first to want to clap the nation under martial law if they felt threatened. The wealthy of ancient Rome made the emperors and only they became the first families. They didn’t stint at placing enormous burdens on their subjects until the entire state and all its subjects became, effectively, slaves of the empire. The emperors like Nero and Caligula were actually very popular with the poor because they knew how to spread the money around. They were almost popular revolutions at first. And the wealthy would put up with the emperors’ whims until they started to go after them and their wealth. The wealthy were even fawning sycophants until they felt the pinch of princes who had to balance their budgets somehow. The Roman writers (certainly not Gibbon), never paint a flattering portrait of Imperial Rome’s upper classes. Almost all of them were eaten alive by the two-tiered society Rome became. All of the ancient families went extinct and it sounds like they died off within the reigns of the first five emperors. So much of that extinction was due to their being killed off by the system of concentrated power they created.

Already we are the country with the largest prison population on the planet. That doesn’t argue that the USA is a healthy environment and the problem is more than body piercing or poor lifestyle choices. Lifestyle is just that – a style. OOTS’ finishing school ethics isn’t going to fix it either.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@paintcan,

So many of your words fall as darts on the board thrown by a blind person that they prejudice themselves.

We must all keep a wary eye on those clearly unlike us in society to assure we do not fall victim to their excess. The fire and police reports and court filings in the paper relate their doings in great detail for those interested.

The local police seem to take care of their excesses. You and I can speculate as to what is “responsible” for resulting incarcerations, but to what end? If the U.S. has “the largest prison population on the planet”, it is because the U.S. is now producing an ever-increasing population of immigrant and home-grown sociopaths.

It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to note those in and going to jail are upper teens to upper forties in age. These are not people who have been thrown off the gravy train as victims of the recent economic downturn. Most have steadily progressed down the road to failure for years propelled by and large by numerous bad choices then repeated again and again.

As they demonstrate again and again that they cannot live within society’s rules, they are removed from it. You’ve heard the saying…”When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?

Whether junkie, deadbeat, check forger, child abuser, bully, woman beater, robber, burgler, rapist, etc., certain “lifestyles” are NOT PERMITTED. Accept that or go to jail. Bad “lifestyle choices” have bad consequences.

You would have us give them the “keys to the kingdom”? Those who criticize without credible suggestions for improvement waste everyone’s time.

Current learned speculation is that the ancient families of Rome “went extinct” because the Romans “discovered” that adding lead to wine gave added “quality” to the feel and flavor in the mouth and on the tongue. No one would know for many centuries that lead poisoning was widespread among the “comfortable” of that society which well may explain the excesses and unpredictability in behavior of Caligula, Nero and others.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OOTS – Where are you finding that idea that lead added to wine made for better taste? How would anyone know? I even have questions about lead poisoning arising from ancient water systems. Concentrations of lead only seem to occur when water has been siting still in pipes for an extended period. Roman water systems did not seem to have valves of any kind and were continuously flowing systems. The pipes may have been made of lead – usually the parts within buildings – but they always emptied, apparently, either into fountains or cisterns. The fountains and cisterns were most often stone or stuccoed brick. Since it isn’t generally possible to do tissue analysis on many roman corpses – they tended to be cremated – that idea about lead poisoning may be an old wives tales or a good guess. How does one add lead to wine at all? Was it a powder?

But that theory ignores many episodes of purges of the Aristocracy for political or economic reasons. The upper class was selfish and cruel in many ways and burdened the lower orders while absorbing the available resources of land and natural resources.

The military/police state that was imperial Rome – something many wonder we are becoming – was given to massive rounds of political paranoia and overt class warfare. Unlike you, apparently – I read all of Gibbon (except for the Byzantium period) and some of Dio Cassius and am now reading Herodian. I’ve also read Juvinal, Tacitus, Suetonius and Petronius and some of the plays. The Colosseum was show time for capital punishment and people shared your very smug attitude about crime. Their justice system was corrupt too and the lower the person was in the social hierarchy, the less likely they would get fair treatment.

And even if what you say were true about lead – there is allot of evidence to suggest that the populations of modern industrial societies are accumulating toxins not only in their bodies but in the environment and of a broader array of contaminants and potential harms. What makes you think the modern world has all it’s marbles either? There is no absolute yardstick in the matter. You don’t believe in “psychobabble” as I recall. But Nero does not read like a mad man as much as a person unfit by temperament and background for the office. The Romans fluctuated from mild to fierce it seems, depending on the political attitude of the ruling factions.

The Romans were trapped in a system of low literacy, centralized and very corrupt government without a constitution, and a huge displaced underclass without significant property and dependent, through the client system, on the wealthy for survival. They were controlled by a very corrupt military apparatus.

The corporate world you praise is very like the client system and very unlike the new territory that made this country and so many others, including the Roman world while it was at it’s a happiest, prosperous and most peaceful.

I tend to see Roman history as some kind of trace of a biological organism and BajaArizona makes a good point about stress playing a large factor in human well being and probably on how societies function as well. Mathewslyman also noticed social imbalance. Their attitudes are sounder than your comfortable certainties.

Actually Roman history during the monarchy and again during the Imperial period look and sound so alike it is boring.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

OOTS – You, and the few people who share your views completely, criticize people like me for not having credible suggestions for improvement. The biggest problem is finding the problem(s). There is very little agreement on that. You don’t offer many suggestions. You usually describe the line you want everyone to toe. There are worldwide disagreements about where the line should be drawn. There may actually be no line to draw and it is only a figment of your self serving hallucination. But I have to admit I like some of my self sevrivng rationals for my life too. I couldn’t live without them.

BTW – To what kingdom are you afraid of loosing control of the keys? Are you sure it isn’t a rattle trap because the owners were often absent, exploitive and very selfish slum lords?

You are right perhaps, that I cannot see, but I can’t see other people’s hallucinations either. Isn’t it obvious that societies too can wander off into self-induced dreams? You may want courage – but you have to have some idea where you’re going first. You may fancy yourself the best pilot but they can’t deal with crashing either- they just try to avoid it. In times of crisis, even those in control may not see either.

It’s funny how people like you won’t complain about prisons but will balk at public housing. You tend to complain about the residents bad lifestyle choices. Prisons cost a lot of money that could be used elsewhere – and societies that want large degrees of personal safety, that institutionalizes their own collective fears and prejudices, can put people in there and even lie about it. They do not even always have to rely on good sense or tolerance and any kind of compassionate, legal or sane matters of appropriate crime and punishment. The way states impose punishments for specific crimes is very like the way the Catholic Church created definitions of venial and mortal sins and the number of prayers required for absolution. I have no idea what the exchange rate for crimes and punishment is in “absolute terms” that you so stupidly cling to. There is no absolute valuation of tangible things and there is certainly no absolute valuation of crime.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@paintcan:

9-10/08: American Interest, “Through a Wine Glass, Darkly (Ian Brunskill) – “Wine and fraud have gone together for as long as wine has been made. Unscrupulous Roman vintners… beefed up poor vintages by adding lead, too, in a pre-modern act of octane boosting.

[various sources]: [An obvious] cause of chronic lead poisoning…was the consumption of defrutum and sapa. Cato, Columella, Pliny, and Palladius (On Agriculture, XI.18) all describe how unfermented grape juice (mustum, must) was boiled to concentrate its sugar. “A product of art, not of nature,” says Pliny (XIV.80), the must was reduced to one half (defrutum) or even one third its volume (sapa), and the thickened syrup used to sweeten and preserve wine and fruit that otherwise was sour or would spoil.

Cato, for example, recommends that olives and pears be preserved in boiled must (VII.4) as does Varro (I.59.3). And Columella indicates that defrutum should always be boiled with quinces or some other flavoring (XII.20.2). Apicius, in De Re Coquinaria, offers directions for preserving quinces in defrutum and honey (I.21) and added the rich syrup to many of his sauces to enhance the color and flavor of almost every dish, whether meat, fish, fowl, or fruit. Accordingly, “…the dainties and elaborate sauces prepared with defrutum by gourmands…are likely to have been [a] primary source of ingested lead by the Roman aristocracy.

Pliny advises the must be prepared in lead vessels…”…boiled-down must and must of new wine should be boiled…; and moreover leaden and not copper jars should be used…”. He writes that “When copper vessels are coated with stagnum [a lead alloy], the contents have a more agreeable taste and the formation of destructive verdigris is prevented” (XXXIV.160) and that the best bronze was alloyed with ten percent lead and tin (XXXIV.95).

“…assumptions [must] be made regarding how much defrutum was added to sweeten and preserve the wine, the amount of wine consumed, and its lead content. Both Eisinger and Patterson et al. found that must reduced to one-third its volume contained approximately 1000 milligrams of lead per liter. If, as Columella recommends (XII.20.3), one sextarius of defrutum should be mixed with one amphora of wine, which held approximately 26 liters, the resulting proportion would be one part in forty-eight or almost 21 milligrams of lead per liter (2100 µg/dL), a concentration that certainly would induce symptoms of lead poisoning (even more so, if one follows Cato’s recommendation of one part in thirty, XXIV).

“Martial accuses a wine merchant of Marseilles of shipping poisonous and overpriced wines to his friends and, indeed, being reluctant to visit Rome for fear of having to drink them himself. (Epigrams, X.36). Pliny, too, complains that…”So many poisons are employed to force wine to suit our taste—and we are surprised that it is not wholesome! (Epigrams, XIV.130)”. So much for Romans and probable lead poisioning.

The “…corporate world [I] praise…” (actually the correct word would be “admire”) has, by and large been the primary economic engine by which the AVERAGE American standard continues to surpass that of any large society in the history of the world. Is it perfect? No.

It doesn’t have to be. It just has to be the best of acceptable genuine alternatives. “The system” works, even though it can and has been be corrupted by individuals. You point out and fixate on minor imbalances present to some degree in all organized societies. We are men, not Gods; and warts, or imperfections will always be with us.

You have earlier confessed yourself unable to glean nuggets of “truth” from “information”. I cannot envision how one builds meaningful “core” VALUES on a foundation of anything but truth.

The very challenge of standing erect on intellectual quicksand must make our world appear ever threatening and unsatisfactory. That might explain your evident frustration and dissatisfaction. May you someday find that which you seek, and may it give you satisfaction.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@oneof the sheep – Thankyou for the information and thankyou.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Trade offs and getting the economy moving is a difficult balancing act in the United States. My major concern is the Democrats will not move on medicare reforms. In my opinion if people who do not have private medical insurance where paid for not using the traditional medical system could this be a long term stragedy. You could work out the demographics and have a rebate say starting at $10000 in total over 5 years reducing each time you use the medical system.You may even let people borrow funds in advance against this scheme. You could also work out what consults this is to apply to. You could also give chemists greater power to distribute medications.
With the internet people can better self manage there health life cycle. A Health life cycle programme may even be set up by the Department of Health on the internet and supported by call centres. Maybe you could have blood tests with out Doctor follow up eg. lab give a short summary.
In my opinion the only way to make cuts to Americas health system is to give people who do not have access to private health insurance incentives to control there own health life cycle.
Perhaps a model can be developed and used by other countries. The internet and personal responsability and financial incentives could be a cure to the market failure of not only Americas but other countries in similiar positions who have multi tiered medical systems.
David Wajand
Adelaide,Australia

Posted by wajand96 | Report as abusive

OOTS – I withdraw my thanks. The Romans population tended to engage in bouts of slaughter of the upper classes and the lower classes were being forced into long military service for which the terms could be changed at will. They seemed to have grown accustomed to thinking of the gladiatorial games as sadistic entertainment. I was talking to a vegetarian friend who suggested that the games were a way for everyone to get a meat rush. Their diets were generally low in animal protein and the games were a kind of community barbeque. The bread and circuses ethic made them gullible (Dio Cassius mentions many very dubious miracles) venal and easily lead. Murder by cruel and unusual methods in the arena was reinforced by a feel good sense of being better fed than at normal times. The entire Roman system ultimately made slaves out of the entire population. Rich or poor were reduced to having no political voice and could only take political power back in short term coups d’etat. The state became so degenerate the Historia Augusta is apparently a work of fiction. The later histories – and I am not an expert – may be fictions. Your assertion that wine killed the ruling classes doesn’t quite explain why the entire population didn’t die off. And you ignore the effects of the paid informers and spies the imperial system employed whenever they needed money. You down play the effects of military tyranny.

You claim to know the truth. One very large difference between the way the various people’s of the world live has to do with marriage practices and I wonder how much of the animus aimed at the Islamic world by the West may arise from that difference? The Islamic world lives with polygamy. The west doesn’t approve it as a legal practice and yet tends to practice a modified serial form of it in terms of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Gay people want the right, and have it in some states, to marry. I know many people who don’t marry at all. The Chinese government still practices the one child policy and you are one who would encourage that. They wanted a limit to the birth rate so that resources could be devoted to development of the economy. I suspect they will make a disastrous decision and allow the new millionaires to have as many children as they can afford but I don’t know for sure. Is there a true practice or a right way?

I still think your notion that information yields core truths is partly right and is wrong at the same time. What is the essential truth about the structure of subatomic particles or even about human nature for that matter?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@paintcan,

You asked for information, I gave. Take it or leave it, with or without gratitude. I care not.

I did not assert that wine killed the ruling classes of the Roman civilization. I merely offered academic speculation that wine adulterated with dissolved lead could be the reason for the considerable and sometimes lethal apparent “mood swings” of some of Rome’s leaders.

The entire population was constantly being replenished by healthy children…lead is individually accumulative in it’s effect, and is not passed sire to son, etc. Many of the upper class chose not to have children. More than a few were gay. Thus there were fewer “new Romans” than most societies of the day, and the average life span was about forty (if I recall facts correctly).

The “end” came when invaders destroyed the aqueducts that brought pure water into Rome in the quantity necessary to sustain a large population in a relatively small area. When the water ceased to flow that their way of life depended upon, they dispersed quite quickly. Many were probably unsuccessful in making the necessary transition from urban to rural life.

Most of us function in life guided by some religion or adopted “core values”. These differ according to individual experience and circumstance to forge an utterly unique perspective.

The “moral compass” of a majority usually points in the same direction and is influenced similarly by the challenges that we encounter. All must play the cards they are dealt, but the deal is sometimes influenced for or against us by our own hand or that of others. Some play well, some badly; but all must play.

I think there is usually a “right” or best path for each at any given time, but it is not always obvious at the time or timely chosen. My “notion” is that we are each exposed to a never-ending stream of information all of our waking moments. It is for us to see the sparkle in the pan that is truth and not be diverted by the “fools gold” that has the shine but not the value.

Each of us has the tools to find our own way; but we, alone, must use those tools. The sledge hammer can be used to build a railroad or destroy the train’s engine. Our choice. Our responsibility. Our consequences, good or bad.

I see “core truths” as those each of us fit together to form or reinforce an interlocking self-compatible self-reinforcing mental matrix to facilitate timely decisions that are usually, but not always, correct (for us). I think Mark Twain gave us an “essential truth” when he described “human nature” in these (or similar) words: “If you take a starving dog and feed him and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; and that is the difference between a man and a dog.”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

You make very nice sounding but very false homilies. I know of a dog down the street that has been taken from a police-training program and has since been fed well by a kinder caretaker and he is still a very dangerous animal. Apparently only the new owner can go near him at all. He barks without provocation and is the only dog in this entire neighborhood I cannot even touch. In a way, the attack-training program drove the dog insane.

You also failed to reveal a “core truth” about any of my questions. The truth you claim to see is very like a mirage. All that glitters is not gold, not even glittering core truths as you claim.

Hitler thought he could establish a third Roman Empire and what he founded instead was a killing machine that would have made the Romans blush. Hitler knew how easy it was to pull the wool over a nation’s eyes and how ready they are to believe what they want to believe. He knew how to play on prejudices and hatreds as well. He put people in touch with dearly held “core truths” and many loved him for it.

It may be wiser in fact – not to accept easy or deceptive core truths and to realize that the world is always full of better card players than one can ever be. It is nearly impossible to beat a computer at anything and a computer can eat core truth whole. It can be programmed with myriad variations of them as well.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@paintcan,

If all truth is, to you, a mirage, you would make the quintessential politician.

You would make a poor friend, for anything we have in common today you might shed tomorrow as a snake sheds it’s skin. Hitler inspired people to bring our their worst. It was Mussolini, nor Hitler who dreamed of a new Roman Empire. Despite their “marriage of convenience” Hitler did not respect fascist Italy because their military was poorly lead and of limited potential or accomplishment.

Reagan inspired Americans, even those who shared few of his values, to believe again in America. We need a bit of that magic today for America remains the best hope for a world where each may have a chance to be all they can be.

Knowing there are better players “out there” makes the prudent cautious, but they do not retire to their bed and pull the covers over their head. That which does not kill us makes us smarter and stronger.

Today, the computer is an 1d10T that accepts what it is told and can regurgitate it piece by piece as appropriate almost instantly. No one has yet programed one to recognize truth from mere information except by looking for an “acceptable match” which a person must program in.

It would be more accurate to say that a player “plays” the momentary best combination of programmer input AND machine speed and accuracy. GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I’d make a poor politician but that is beside the point. You would make a better one – you are a smoother talker. Reagan may have inspired a lot of people but what really won them over were tax cuts and the now questionable economic philosophy of neoliberalism.

Garbage in – garbage out has been a rule of the computer programmers. I am not saying it always pumps out garbage. I just can’t tell many times. This was a subject of other posts.

The basic subject of this article is inequality. I sent an article to someone recently about the Belgian elections and he sent back a reply that no government means no corruption and that the wealthy can rule their neighborhood in a paternalistic way. I don’t know how he arrived at that conclusion but the social situation he describes is too like a very romanticized version of Mario Puzzo’s godfather, Don Corleone. The Godfather was his own government.

The first Godfather was somewhat humane but the second one was becoming a more ruthless monster. You really must read the Old Roman histories of the Imperial period in translation if you haven’t already. I cannot stress how corrupt the military regime actually was. The system was a killing machine and could turn its gaze on anything. It never spared the leaders or those who profited most. Maybe it was smart. Few of the emperors were able to live as long as a one-term president. The Pax Romana was followed by 100 years of civil war.

There are better ways to describe the “mood swings” of the ancient roman civilization. Europeans have been drinking wine for centuries and they were not introducing lead into the mix. That struggle for balance of power, or territory, or wealth and autonomy and civil rights has characterized their history for the past 2000 years.

The history of the Roman Empire and the histories of many other historic empires all tend to resemble each other in many ways and they all differ just enough to defy easy characterization. Roman history was also a primer for later periods. We haven’t ever tried to look at Chinese dynastic history or the empires of the Middle East. This country disliked a standing army during its founding years. The Roman imperial army was a volunteer army too.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive