In a remarkable piece of scholarship, two historians estimate the income inequality in 2nd century Rome and find that our society is a little bit more unequal that Rome at the height of the empire.
We conclude that in the Roman Empire as a whole, a ‘middling’ sector of somewhere around 6 to 12 per cent of the population, defined by a real income of between 2.4 and 10 times ‘bare bones’ subsistence or 1 to 4 times ‘respectable’ consumption levels, would have occupied a fairly narrow middle ground between an élite segment of perhaps 1.5 per cent of the population and a vast majority close to subsistence level of around 90 per cent. In this system, some 1.5 per cent of households controlled 15 to 25 per cent of total income, while close to 10 per cent took in another 15 to 25 per cent, leaving not much more than half of all income for all remaining households.
So what does that mean for America? Well, in Rome the top 1.5% controlled 15-25% of the national (imperial?) income while in the United States in 2007 the top 1% controlled 23.5% of income thus indicating a bit more inequality in the United States than in Imperial Rome. The authors calculate the GINI coefficient for the Roman Empire at .42 – .44, slightly less than the U.S. coefficient (depending on the source) of around .4 – .45.
Washington fiddles while the American dream burns to the ground…