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The Sixth Extinction


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Ear to the Ground

Inequality in Ancient Rome and Modern America

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Posted on Dec 21, 2011
Moyan_Brenn (CC-BY)

Historians used the Gini coefficient, a modern measure of wealth inequality, to compare disparities between the classes in the Roman Empire 150 years after the death of Christ and those in the United States today. The ancients, with their ranks of plebeians, patricians and senators, scored slightly better than we did.

To become a ruling Roman, would-be senators had to be worth at least 1 million Roman sesterces. Most were far wealthier, with the average worth well over 5 million sesterces.

Today, the Center for Responsive Politics calculates a U.S. senator’s average estimated wealth was $13.2 million in 2010, and a U.S. House member’s was $5.9 million. The median American household pulls in about $54,000 per year. —ARK

Per Square Mile:

To determine the size of the Roman economy and the distribution of income, historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen pored over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages. Their target was the state of the economy when the empire was at its population zenith, around 150 C.E. Schiedel and Friesen estimate that the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control.

To arrive at that number, they broke down Roman society into its established and implicit classes. Deriving income for the majority of plebeians required estimating the amount of wheat they might have consumed. From there, they could backtrack to daily wages based on wheat costs (most plebs did not have much, if any, discretionary income). Next they estimated the incomes of the “respectable” and “middling” sectors by multiplying the wages of the bottom class by a coefficient derived from a review of the literature. The few “respectable” and “middling” Romans enjoyed comfortable, but not lavish, lifestyles.

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By Cliff Carson, February 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm Link to this comment

My amazement is that this is presented as news.  The re-distribution of wealth from the lower 85% to the upper 15% has been going on for years and there have been charts published for at least the last 30 years demonstrating such.

As time has passed over these years the charts reflected a majority wealth transition from the 15/85 distribution to the 10/90 to the 5/95 and now to the 1/99%.

Wilfredo Pareto an economist who developed the 80/20 rule discussed what will happen should this very pattern develop.  His end of the trend was a collapsing of the World’s Economic system.

Taken to the extreme, once too much wealth is concentrated into too few hands, wealth diminishes in value.  What would all the wealth of the world help the only person who had any?

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By heterochromatic, December 26, 2011 at 1:06 am Link to this comment

Laffy, why do you assume that I haven’t worked to help others with less?
It seems like a pretty shabby assumption.


and it sure ain’t a valid one.

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, December 26, 2011 at 12:20 am Link to this comment

If I’m living in a big house that I own and earning $80,000/y, then I should feel put upon when I read the list of the countries 100 wealthiest people?

Perhaps not - but you could get off your butt and militate that just some of that economic privilege should finally get to the bottom, where people are living in abject poverty. Or is that fact outta sight, outta mind for you?

It would be called a “civic duty” and not “I’ve got mine so eff-you”. You’re one of the survivors on the Highway of Life and going so fast you can’t see the road-kill? Or you don’t want to see the road-kill?

Which is it?

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By heterochromatic, December 23, 2011 at 8:30 am Link to this comment

If I’m living in a big house that I own and earning
$80,000/yr, then I should feel put upon when I read the
list of the countries 100 wealthiest people?

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, December 23, 2011 at 1:58 am Link to this comment

wealth inequality ain’t the be-all and end-all.

It beats whatever else is in second-place by a light-year.

What planet do you live on .. ?

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By Dan Karan, December 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

too many fundamentalist christians…not enough lions

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By bpawk, December 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm Link to this comment

As your article states “...Today, the Center for Responsive Politics calculates a U.S. senator’s average estimated wealth was $13.2 million in 2010, and a U.S. House member’s was $5.9 million. The median American household pulls in about $54,000 per year…”

There’s no way these rich politicians can relate to the plight of the average American - this is one reason why Americans must put the politicians to work - remember, they enjoy socialised medicine and other benefits while a Senator or House member, but for everyone else, forget it.

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By heterochromatic, December 21, 2011 at 9:07 pm Link to this comment

wealth inequality ain’t the be-all and end-all.

did the poorer half of the Romans have a better of worse standard of living and a
smaller or greater amount of liberty than the poorer half of our citizenry?

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By Morpheus, December 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm Link to this comment

This people in this country are the real problem, not the crooks.

Memo to America: Stop waiting for Democrats and Republicans to save you. It’s bad for your health and your future. Can’t you tell? You have another choice - use it!

“WAKE UP PEOPLE!” 
Read “Common Sense 3.1” at ( http://www.revolution2.osixs.org )

Enough talk, it’s time to get organized.

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By gerard, December 21, 2011 at 1:40 pm Link to this comment

A shattering thought:  The moment anything passes into “history” it is “as if it never existed.” What is “remembered” is inadequate and most often inaccurate and misunderstood. 
  In this sense, the probability is that human beings, without a spiritual sense, will also fall into the category of “anythings”.
  In order to maintain some sense of human importance, we cling desperately to a denial of this possibility. 
  Comparing us to the long-gone Romans using Gini-engineered summaries based on histories almost impossible to verify leaves us in a vulnerable state indeed!
  Where to go from here?  What to believe in an age of obvious failures and lack of vision and faith?  Maybe Chris is right—that human progress is a “myth”—(”... told by an idiot, signifying nothing ...”).
  And yet ...  snd yet ... that ingrained desire to KNOW that we ARE and that we might yet BECOME ...
  A fire burning, a light lit, a love found ...

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By Lafayette, December 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm Link to this comment

I can’t help but wonder how the authors of this study accounted for the slave-workers of Rome. They were not no-cost, but lo-cost domestics as well as both masons and gladiators.

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