Publications

The Global History of Inequality

Zwart, Pim De

Summary

Inequality has increased in most Western countries since the early 1980s. In a recent report, the international non-governmental organization Oxfam noted that the twenty-six richest people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest fifty per cent of the world's population. Discontent with the growing disparities in wealth and income has soared in recent years, especially in the wake of the 2007/2008 financial crisis and the "Great Recession" that followed. The Occupy movement protested against the greed of the "one per cent", referring to the highly skewed income distribution in the US. Former US president Barack Obama proclaimed the growth of within-country economic inequality as "the defining challenge of our time". Yet, he enacted few policies that reduced inequality during his two terms in office; the Gini coefficient in the US actually increased slightly between 2007 and 2016. His successor, whose election has often been explained as a consequence of these high levels of inequality, has slashed taxes for the wealthy, probably causing further rises in inequality in the future. In this essay, I will review two recent economic history books that examine the historical roots of within-country inequality on a global scale: Branko Milanovic's Global Inequality (2016) and Walter Scheidel's The Great Leveler (2017). Formerly a lead economist at the World Bank, Milanovic is a well-known scholar working in the field of economic inequality, while Scheidel has a background as a specialist in the economic, social, and demographic history of antiquity.