Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.
Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.
Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse
In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.
In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.
See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.
Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.
His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.
Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.
Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status
In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.
Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.
If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.
Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.
Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.
Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.
Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns
In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review).
Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.
In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:
If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.
If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.
Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.
Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.
Will This Time Be Different?
On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.
On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.
Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.
So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.
But, at the very least, baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.