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July 1, 2013


Jared Diamond is at his Pulitzer-best in his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, in which he writes about traditional societies and what we may be able to learn from them. This is not an Easter Island tourist picture guide book; it treats serious problems seriously then and now in a wide-ranging look at how and under what conditions humans constructed their societies over the last 11,000 years or so, and how they have evolved to the present day.

He tells us of some of the taboos and conventions of hunters and gatherers, tribes, and chiefdoms – and traces the rise of urbanism and crowd disease from the agricultural revolution some 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent – and in general fills in a lot of blanks in how ancient societies became societies. The narrative is multi-disciplinary; he writes of trade and weaponry and religion and whatever else he chooses to write about, weaving it all into a plausible history of a necessarily unknown and unrecorded history of pre-literate and on into post-literate times.

We have had a history since we became man (and even before); we just haven’t always had anybody around to record it. Those who would presume to write such a history at this late date do not have an easy task and I am not qualified to judge such efforts on their merits; but whatever my shortcomings, I think his effort from the available evidence and reasonable inference likely to be largely accurate – and fascinating. The history of man and even pre-man is, after all, our history long-since removed.

The purpose of this essay is not to give a glowing review of his new book, but rather to pull out of his effort a factoid to give some historical perspective to the subject of this essay, i.e., inequality, and how it cannot co-exist with democracy over time. The two are oil and water, as we have seen before (the Crown and colonial America and European colonialism in Africa, Asia and South America) and are now starting to see in Egypt, Greece, Spain, Brazil and Wall Street Occupiers here. Oligarchies are (hopefully and finally) being called to account for their greed and corruption.

He points out in his book’s prologue that…. “Chiefdoms develop shared ideologies and political and religious identities often derived from the supposedly divine status of the chief….. there is now a recognized leader, the chief, who makes decisions, possesses recognized authority, claims a monopoly on the right to use force against his society’s members if necessary….. an economic innovation of chiefdoms is termed a redistributive economy; instead of just direct exchanges between individuals, the chief collects tribute of food and labor, much of which is redistributed to warriors, priests, and craftsmen who serve the chief…. Redistribution is thus the earliest form of A SYSTEM OF TAXATION to support new institutions.  In addition to these political and economic innovations beyond the practices of bands and tribes, CHIEFDOMS PIONEERED THE SOCIAL INNOVATION OF INSTITUTIONLIZED INEQUALITY. For members of higher-ranked lineages or castes, the tribute collected by the chief funds a better lifestyle in terms of food, housing, and special clothing and adornments.”

Nearly all the known world has moved from chiefdom societies to state societies, but we still have clear attributes of the chiefdom societies within our state societies, one of which is the scourge of inequality.  The rich and corporate class in our midst today lays claim to the rights of the chief with their redistributive practices, but unlike Marxists and other utopians who would redistribute the society’s wealth to chiefs and commoners alike, their redistribution of the wealth starts and stops within their own narrow band of oligarchs. Though not written in any tax code, today’s “new chiefs” (the rich and corporate class) are taxing the rest of us today to assure their material accumulation as surely as traditional chiefs taxed their commoners, and are redistributing the resulting trove in far less democratic fashion than the old chiefs did. By thus allowing a narrow slice of our populace to monopolize the fruits of our collective labor as though it were the result of their contributions alone, we as a society have regressed. This practice has to end.

The pretense for exercise of such a “right” to hog the material wealth of our current society cannot (as with English kings and Roman popes) rest on a claim of divine right to govern, so the “new chiefs” instead trumpet long-since discredited theories of classical economists and other such mythology in institutionalizing inequality so that they may continue to amass ever more wealth while their unemployed and hungry fellow countrymen are left to beg for sustenance and shelter. Earlier forms of social organization (bands and tribes) were far more democratic in that as hunters and gatherers and herdsmen, they shared the common bounty, and even though they had problems then we do not have now (as we have problems now they did not have then), they did in fact survive to become our predecessors, whereas our survival as a successful society under the present regime of widening inequality is at best uncertain. Present day European experiences with inequality as well as our own suggest that something has to give – and soon. We continue to tolerate widening inequality at our considerable peril as a viable and socially cohesive state.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist, former Chief Economist for the World Bank, and professor at Columbia, has recently published a book, The Price of Inequality, which outlines what our future holds if the inequality we are currently experiencing continues to widen. It is not a pretty picture; it is rather a fearsome one.

He correctly points out in his book that, “No one succeeds on his own. There are plenty of bright, hardworking, energetic people in developing countries who remain poor – not because they lack abilities or are not making sufficient effort, but because they work in economies that don’t function well. Americans all benefit from the physical and institutional infrastructure that has developed from the country’s collective efforts over generations. What’s worrying is that those in the 1 percent, in attempting to claim for themselves an unjust proportion of the benefits of this system, may be willing to destroy the system itself to hold on to what they have.”

He further points out in this connection that we are paying a high price for the inequality that is increasingly scarring our economy – lower productivity, lower efficiency, lower growth, more instability, an erosion of our sense of identity and community – and that the benefits of reducing this inequality, at least from the current high levels, far outweigh any costs that might be imposed. He finally concludes that: “There is another cost of America’s inequality, beyond this loss of sense of identity and beyond the way it is weakening our economy: OUR DEMOCRACY IS BEING PUT AT PERIL.”

The current inequality America is suffering did not arise mysteriously from abstract market forces or the theories of classical economists; this plague was given birth and shaped by politics. No thoughtful citizen would deny that there are major problems extant in our economic system. For instance, most Americans polled don’t believe that regulations under the Dodd-Frank statute went far enough in corralling Wall Street excesses after bailouts and the Great Recession, but it matters little what they think because, though the law has been in effect for years, its implementation by regulation is still being held up by Wall Street’s billion-dollar intense and continuing lobbying efforts. What is the lesson to be learned from this despicable delay? It is this: that the one percent oligarchs can (to date) oppose a bill to be passed, and if it is passed anyway, can successfully delay the implementation of its terms AFTER it becomes law. The practical effect of this near-criminal opposition is the same as though the bill had never been passed into law! It is as though we the people have ceded a veto right to the oligarchy, a right formerly believed to be within the exclusive constitutional preserve of the president, a public official accountable to the people who elected him and not to the bottom lines of Wall Street banks (whose perfidy brought on Dodd-Frank in the first place).

I cite the foregoing insult to democracy as perhaps the most egregious example of the oligarchy’s venture into owning the political as well as the financial sector of our economy. I will be citing more in succeeding parts of this essay in an attempt to flesh out how such chicanery borne of greed is accelerating our plunge into a deepening inequality along with some estimates of where such a journey may lead.

I have often blogged that there are few things left worth dying for, but that democracy is one of them. If we could (and we can) lose our democratic freedoms to oligarchic greed, then it follows that I for one will strenuously resist such greed-mongers in their continuing quest to extract what little we have left to their coffers. These Wall Street disciples of taking what is theirs and ours as well have done a good job in framing the (so-called) issues; their incessant propaganda has worked – many individuals in the 99 percent have been persuaded to adopt the interests of the 1 percent as their own, an irrational and ultimately tragic choice, but not an altogether surprising result given the daily exercise in economic mythology in newspaper business pages, Wall Street financed and captive “think tanks,” and, of course, TV business channels (and not just Fox). Part II of this essay is en route. Stay tuned.  GERALD  E


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