rome china
The Roman elite were the original 1%. Status, wealth, power: the good life. Unless they happened to find themselves on a conscription list, in which case they were soon parted from their property, and their lives. The elites of the Chinese dynasties were in a similar position. Constant infighting and jockeying for influence and power allowed for a lot of turnover in the elite class. Families may have reigned for generations only to be wiped out or made paupers. But as long as peace reigned, even these means of coercive redistribution of property did nothing to change the overall situation. In fact, the social divisions polarized even further and inequality rose - often to the breaking point. In fact, inequality in the empires probably reached the maximum levels possible at the time: a small group of people had all the wealth, while the 90% on the bottom lived at subsistence levels.

Today on MindMatters we discuss Chapter two of Walter Scheidel's book, The Great Leveler, which explores the ancient Roman and Chinese empires: the development of their respective aristocracies, the forms in which extreme inequality manifested, and the violence and coercion it took to create and maintain such radical disparities in wealth. We may live in a different world today in many respects, but some things never change.

Running Time: 01:19:08

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Here's the transcript of the show:

Corey: Today we're going to continue our discussion on Walter Scheidel's book, The Great Leveler, Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century. It was published in 2017 and probably one of the best books that I've read - maybe you guys disagree - but one of the best books that you can read in order to really widen your perspective on what inequality is and what it has looked like ever since we have records available.

It's interesting because in the book he discusses the fact that he couldn't have written it 10 or 15 years ago because the research has progressed to such a point that we are almost as close to a lot of these cultures as the people who were actually living them. We've got enough data that we can go back and reconstruct, at least to a general degree and to the satisfaction of anybody who is interested in actually learning, using whatever is available, we can reconstruct the hierarchies, how people were treated and how elites gained their power and what they did with their power.

So when you look around today, inequality is a fundamental characteristic, a fundamental fact of human existence that determines our lives to a large degree, which is why it's such a hot button issue and has been a hot button issue that has triggered revolutions. Today it continues to trigger people's sense of injustice and unfairness due to the fact that some people are born into success and for whatever reason, they can't even fail out of it. They just keep failing upwards and upwards and upwards.

Other people are born into poverty and they work as hard as they can and they will never, ever be able to reach such levels. It could be one person. You could do an experiment if you had that kind of power and just take one person, clone them and put one into a family of great riches and the other into a family of poverty and watch what happens.

It's patently obvious that inequality exists and that there is something highly problematic about it, but the underlying problem is that we don't know what to do about it. If you're serious about the problem then getting to the underlying factors and understanding how long it has been around, what has been done before, what can be done, all of these things are important for any serious student of history.

Harrison: When we covered the first chapter in a previous show, I think one of the main points was the different types of inequality throughout history because the type of inequality that we are familiar with is a relatively recent phenomenon, pretty much from the advent of agriculture. Before then, in the Paleolithic era, in the more tribal cultures, there was inequality but it took a different form. It wasn't really the vast economic inequalities that we see. It was more status-based.

There were economic inequalities in certain situations. We gave the example of tribes that lived next to a rare resource. It might be a prime river fishing location so they'd get a monopoly on that resource and that resulted in a more stratified hierarchical form of inequality within those tribes. But on the whole, things were more equal than any society after the advent of agriculture.

Then, once we get agriculture, that produces the possibility for great inequality because now you have the possibility for surplus production. Once you have surplus production it's a matter of who's going to control that and how are they going to control it. For our entire history since then, it has been people who can control that and have it for themselves if they have the power of violence to control and prevent any possible people from taking that. What you needed to do was to protect that surplus with a private military or a police force or whatever.

For the history of inequality and the history of modern economics in the sense of the last 10 years, there's been this relationship, almost intertwined relationship between wealth and possessing power and that is the element of coercion and the threat and use of violence. So then there's a link between violence and wealth. That allowed for a new form of inequality, an inequality of a degree that wasn't even possible beforehand because now you have surplus production. You've got the potential to create and to hold onto a lot more than will just let you live a subsistence lifestyle.

But even then, after that, there are still variations in the types of inequality that we've seen since then. So this second chapter that we're looking at looks at the Roman and various Chinese empires around the same time period about 2,000 years ago and then before or after. Scheidel points out mostly the similarities between those two systems but also the differences. One of the things that stood out to me, before getting into a lot of the details, is that this was a form of inequality that has some things in common with modern western societies and even eastern societies like China, but there's a difference back then because these were still pre-industrial societies.

I want to get into a little bit of the background, to understand the types of inequality that Scheidel's talking about. He gets into Gini coefficients and things like that. For those unfamiliar with that Gini is a measure of a society's resources and then how those are distributed. So if everyone has exactly the same amount, that would be a Gini distribution of zero. But if one person has all the wealth and everyone is at substance that would be a one. I think that's the way it is. I can't remember if one is one person has everything and everyone else will die...

Corey: Yeah, I think that's what it is.

Harrison: Okay. So in practice you'll never get a Gini coefficient of one because in most societies the majority of people will be at a subsistence level. You need those people at the bottom in order to hold up the people at the top. If everyone else dies and you're the only person with all the wealth, you're going to die too, essentially.

So there's always some wealth at the bottom, even if it's just at a subsistence level. But there's another limiting factor on the Gini coefficient. He gets into it in the appendix and what it means is that if you take a society, a nation or whatever, it depends on how much money and production that economy produces. Let's take a hypothetical example of a fictional country with 100 people. The GDP might be $100. So in a perfectly distributed, equal system, each person has $1. So everyone has one.

Now if the GDP is $101 then you can have 99 people with $1 and then one person with $2.00. So that person has twice as much wealth as everyone else but it's not a very big difference. The Gini coefficient is going to be really low because there's just not enough surplus to make a big difference between the lowest and the top. So when you have a GDP of $1 million for these 100 people and 99 people still only have $1 and then one other person has just shy of a million dollars, that's a huge disparity and a very high inequality measure, Gini coefficient.

What that shows is that the Gini coefficient is limited by the total wealth or production within any individual country. So the point he makes about these empires, the Roman and the Chinese, was that because they were pre-industrial, equivalent GDP, trying to figure it out in the terms we use to think about modern GDPs, wasn't very high. I think at one point he says that in the Roman empire it was maybe twice the subsistence level and modern economies go several orders of magnitude higher than that, above subsistence. There wasn't a lot of money relatively, to go around.

But the point he makes about that is that in the Roman republic - I'll read a quote where he's talking about the estimate that he and others have come up with for the Gini of the Roman republic, maybe up to the time of the empire too - but he says that during these periods he's given the number of households and basically that about 1.5% of all households captured between a sixth and close to a third of the total output. This equated to about a Gini in the low 0.4s. A lot of modern western societies are in the mid-0.4s or even up to low 0.5s.

So it looks a little bit low and comparable to modern inequality. But he points out, this value is actually much higher than it might seem because "Average per capita GDP amounted to only about twice minimum subsistence net of tax and investment, the projected level of Roman income inequality was not far below the maximum that was actually feasible at that level of economic development, a feature shared by many other pre-modern societies. Measured against the share of GDP that was available for extraction from primary producers, Roman inequality was therefore extremely severe. At most a tenth of the population beyond the wealth elite would have been able to enjoy incomes well above bare subsistence levels."

So essentially what you had in the Roman republic and even more so I guess in the empire in the hundreds of years after the fall of the republic, was an extremely unequal system where the elite class had everything. The top 12% had all the wealth. Everyone else was living bare subsistence. This would be pretty much below poverty levels in a lot of developed countries. That was the maximum Gini they could possibly have in order to survive. If they were making modern GDPs their Gini might have gone up to .6, .7, .8 because bigger, richer societies have a higher capacity for inequality.

So that's something to keep in mind in general when reading articles about inequality and Gini coefficients. There are factors that you have to take into account that provide the context for what that number actually means because you can have what seems to be a low Gini compared to other countries but that might mean that in practice that society might be vastly more unequal than a country with a higher Gini coefficient. It really depends on how you look at it.

So a developing country with a Gini of .4, might mean that everyone is in total poverty and a tiny percent of the population has everything whereas in a richer country you can have the majority of the population significantly above the poverty level and above subsistence levels and then an even larger group that has an even more absolute amount of the wealth.

There are all these different factors that you have to look at when thinking about inequality, whether it's absolute or relative, what the GDP is of these countries per capita. All of these things have to be taken into account to understand it. So when you're looking at the Roman and Chinese empires of these times, you really get the picture that things were bad. You think inequality is bad now? In an absolute, monarchical dictatorship, things were a lot more extreme. In this chapter he gives an explanation of how this happened, how this progressed. Again, part of it has to do with having surpluses of production. You have extra food. You have grain. Who is going to control that? It's the person with the most power.

Eventually you get to a system like in China where the warring kingdoms were united and now you have an absolute government that has control over everything and those resources are then controlled by the might of the military. I don't know, do we want to get into details of how that happened?

Elan: I just wanted to jump in there because what's interesting about this chapter - like you said, it focuses on the inequality within empires - is that most often if there was any attempt to create greater equalization and less inequality, it most often took the form of elitist in-fighting. In other words, occasionally you had a revolt among the peasant class here and there, especially in the Chinese empire. In the Roman empire you did have a working class struggle, if you want to call it that, supporting those senators and individuals like the Gracchi brothers who would push forward with agrarian bills.

But most often the biggest levelling we saw of any kind wasn't really a leveling at all. It was more one group of semi-militarized political class families, aristocrats who were fighting and usurping the other factions and they would take turns over a period of hundreds of years, toppling one another.

Taking a step back from it, the impression I got was that the working class or the slaves or the peasantry were quite often so disenfranchised, so far from wielding any kind of economic or political power that they didn't even have the opportunity or means or a hint of it, to put forward any kind of viable way of maintaining a more equal distribution of wealth. This was an interesting part of it to me because what we learn from Scheidel's book, at least in this part of it is that there was no opportunity for many individuals to create any kind of lasting and viable distribution of wealth as I just said. It was a permanent underclass of disenfranchised individuals who were existing as farmers or merchants or craftsmen, really much at the whims of whoever was then in power.

Also, to put a point on it, like you said Harrison, these are empires we're talking about so a lot of the power that was held by the governments at the time was at the force of a military or police state, so to say, who had administrative control over the courts and who were able to tax individuals and confiscate their land or redistribute it as they saw fit. It could only have been accomplished with the power of brute strength and force. So as we look at contemporary times a little bit, there are some differences but certainly some parallels I think on a global scale of what an empire looks like and how it behaves and what it does. When you compare these empires to what some might consider the western empire and you look at the same dynamics involved, not much has changed in thousands of years. The same dynamics seem to be at play. There are vassal states and countries that have been forcibly manipulated and coerced to do the bidding of these militarized big bully countries.

Corey: I just want to rip on a point quickly. It's the idea that nothing has changed in that way but people's perspective on it has changed. Economically, technologically a lot has changed but people expect the state or the government to do something good for the people, that there's something good about government. Government can come in and legalize things, prohibit this, prohibit that, protect you or protect you from the evildoers. There's something about government that can be good. That's a concept that's relatively new. It probably dates back to the revolutionaries, John Locke, Thomas Hume and all those philosophers and a more modern way of viewing the individual and the social contract and that we are all in this together and that there are some values that are higher than us or the government and that there is something objectively and absolutely true about justice and it doesn't depend on the whims of those in power.

So there's some sort of shared sentiment there but deep down, like you were saying, I think everything pretty much functions, especially behind the scenes and then it's sugar-coated for mass consumption in the same way. I just want to read what Walter Scheidel had to say about that. He writes,

"From a contemporary perspective, states are considered to be failing if they are unable to supply public goods to their members. Corruption, lack of security, breakdown of public services and infrastructure and loss of legitimacy serve as markers of state failure. Yet this definition holds states to standards that need not have applied in the more distant past. The notion that states are supposed to provide varied public goods beyond basic security and that failure or collapse can be inferred from their inability to meet this expectation, seems anachronistic for most of history.

For the purposes of this global survey, we are better served by a bare bones characterization of essential state functions. Inasmuch as pre-modern policies focused in the first instance on checking internal and external challengers, protecting the key allies and associates of rulers and extracting the revenues required to perform these tasks and enrich the power elites, state failure is best understood as the loss of the capacity to accomplish these basic objectives."

So it all revolves around a small power elite, a small group that has shared goals and interests, which is to enrich themselves, to gain power, to thwart external enemies. If you do what you have to do to keep the plebs happy, if you're not strong enough that you can't just brutally thwart and enslave them like they did in Barbados when they would just work people to death in chain gangs, then you've got bread and circuses to keep people at least pacified. And the entire way, you're raking in billions and billions and billions and you're buying up land and buying up land and you're just doing whatever you can to make sure that you and your own are set up as far into the future as possible.

But the problem is that you're then in that position and you have a big target on your back, so it's constantly live by the sword and die by the sword, as he shows throughout the book. But the interesting thing is that no matter how many times an elite family loses all that they have to another elite family, that general state continues to grow and it continues to become more powerful and continues to increase the inequality level and the Gini coefficient to the breaking point.

So it doesn't really matter, it's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss". This same thing continues to happen and on a deep level I think that one reason why people are so anxious about high levels of inequality is that when it gets really bad it's like a harbinger of doom. What is the name of the book? The Great Leveler-Violence. He talks about the four horsemen, mass mobilization, warfare, revolution, state failure and lethal pandemics. State failure can come about because of massive climate disruptions and all that kind of stuff. It's usually when there's a lot of inequality then for whatever reason something clicks and everything starts crashing down to the ground for whatever reason.

Elan: Right.

Harrison: An example of the elite in-fighting is from China where the system has evolved to the point where you had what were essentially local leaders that had a vast amount of power over their constituency and at one point they were warlords because they had enough power that they could do what they wanted with what was going on in their region. If one of those families or rulers got weak then it wasn't just other elite families that were smelling that and coming in for a fresh kill because they smelled the weakness of this leader, the subjects of that person would even turn against the leader. So once the leader showed signs of weakness and losing power, they might ally with another strong man from another region to take him out and get a new warlord put in place.

So the system was self-reinforcing on multiple levels. No one was trying to change it essentially. One of the points he does make is that there were several emperors periodically -- he especially talks about the ones in the Chinese empires -- that would try to introduce policies to level things out a bit through wealth, usually land redistribution or limits on the amount of land people could own because the dynamic was that once someone got rich enough to own a chunk of land then they had the wealth to invest in other pieces of land and they acquired mini-fiefdoms, mini-kingdoms for themselves where they owned all the land and then all the people on that land.

The people underneath them because serfs, slaves to a degree, where they were owned by that person and had all of their production expropriated for the purpose of enriching that family or that governor. So you had a system of chieftains of the various regions that had control over vast amounts of land and people and that's all tax revenue that can come from those sources. We'll get into that a bit.

You have different families, different rich people with a whole bunch of land. That's what certain emperors were trying to fix because you have one family with all of this land and making all of the money and getting all of the power. They tried to cut into that a bit by limiting the amount of land that people could have but they immediately ran up against problems. It never lasted. It was an impossible policy because they were trying to put into practice a policy that goes against the interests of the class with the most money and power.

Corey: And the only ability to actually follow through with these policies.

Harrison: Right. In a sense it's the same problem that you get with revolutions of various sorts where you have the weakest people trying to overthrow the strongest people with the most weapons and power. It's a very difficult proposition to put forward and to make a success. So these elites had various means of getting around this, the first of which was basic corruption. They would forge certain documents, put land titles in other people's names, change the legal status of one piece of land in order to change the tax rate, continue collecting the old tax rate and...

Elan: Fix the census.

Harrison: ...fix the census, any number of things they could do plus they had lobbies because they were a special interest group that had influence in court, all of the whisperers in the imperial court who could not only make their wishes known but then put them into practice because this corruption was systemic throughout the whole system. If you had a good emperor, what you had was one emperor against the entire elite class which would be against any kind of policy to have their stuff taken away from them. So that's one level of the complexity.

The other that you guys mentioned was the amount of in-fighting that went on. It's not like the elite class of these times had it easy. Sure, they had vast amounts of wealth and could live extravagant lives to some degree, but always with the threat of someone stabbing them in the back, which happened repeatedly. There was no assured long-term security to one's status in life and the longevity of their wealth and their property. It was not guaranteed. But, adding another level of complexity onto that, like you were saying Corey, despite all of this in-fighting which was coerced redistribution of wealth, "Well this person's out of favour now. We're going to take his money and either give it to someone else or give it to the Emperor and redistribute it like that."

I think that's all I wanted to say about that one.

Elan: While you were saying all that I was thinking I wanted to transpose a little bit of what we read in this chapter to current events. It's very difficult to read this without also having certain developments and politics in the way that the US functions in particular and without seeing these parallels that are incredible to me. Like I said earlier, it's as though there is a psychological dynamic among the elite class for this insatiable thirst for not only having a certain amount of wealth and power, but accruing more, which in their minds I suppose equals maintaining their power. It's difficult to describe in some sense, but the point is, I think, that once they've gotten onto this track of tasting a certain amount of control and accruing a certain amount of wealth and conspiring with others in their class to make alliances and find ways of maintaining their wealth, it's like a self-imposed destined road to greed. It's like it exists for no other reason than for their own self-gratification.

So what I was thinking of - and I mentioned this on a previous show quite briefly - was this whole Hunter Biden controversy with Joseph Biden's son sitting on the board of one of these companies in the Ukraine where he had no experience in energy or in the particular field that he was put on the board of. As a quick recap, 2014, through the colour revolution that was implemented in large part by the United States in an administration that Joseph Biden served as Vice President of, Ukraine becomes effectively, not a protectorate but this newly formed vassal state of the American Empire.

So Biden in perpetuating his own power in his own mind through one of his sons, shunts him into this position of power in a place that it's so obvious he shouldn't be. This is largely a dynamic that's described in the chapters. In the Han dynasty you had warlords, householders or elitists who would have seven sons or 10 sons and put them in various positions of power and this was all in an effort to perpetuate the accrual of more power and wealth. In that sense it was really instructive to see how the same dynamics are at play today in what might be described as capitalism's last stage in a given country where the pathology of wealth reaches a tipping point of obviousness and exploitation and begins to become so apparent to so many that it falls apart of its own accord. It becomes this vacuous hole that sucks up everything and begs for a response from either other elites who see an opportunity or from groups that are tired of being exploited and become capable of responding in some way.

Harrison: I think I might have an even more cynical take on that. Corey you read that quote in the book about the modern views on what the state is and should be and what governments are and should be. I think this is just taking down the mask and showing what the reality is, always has been and is everywhere; there isn't anything special in this regard, at least about western democracies. At root underneath the surface they all operate under the same principles. The corruption just takes different and more sly forms because the corruption in other countries, I'd say, is even more obvious and over-the-top, especially in developing countries where the extraction rate is even higher, reaching that top level of inequality in a given country. In a lot of countries in Africa for instance, they have inequality rates and types of inequality that are similar to the Roman empire. But when you have these glimpses behind the curtain, you see that the dynamics are the same everywhere. Political power is a fast track to wealth and to expanding your wealth.

That's the point he makes about the Roman and Chinese empires. Office holding was a means of getting rich and holding power. The two were inextricably intertwined. They were systems of patronage which is cronyism and keeping things in the in-group. In modern western societies that would be no-bid contracts, giving contracts to your buddies, over-charging for certain things so you can skim off the extra money and various lobbying efforts, under the table favours here and there that might look fine on paper but they result in an economic advantage to the politician giving them. Then once you're out of political office you just happen to be a multi-millionaire or billionaire. No one really knows how it happens. That's just the way it works.

Elan: Right.

Harrison: That's what's been going on for all of these thousands of years. It may be that in modern countries in general, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the country, the class lines are more permeable so you will get politicians that build themselves from nothing to something great. There are tons of stories about politicians and people in positions of power who didn't start in an aristocratic family. You get othesr that did, like JFK or George Bush. But you get plenty of people who make their way into the ruling elite class.

It was the same as the Roman empire developed where at first the ranks were closed and you had a very small number of senators and people of patrician rank but then as the years went on that class grew and grew. It would be the equivalent of there being more and more millionaires and billionaires in the Roman empire as things developed and the wealth of the empire got greater and greater and as with all those things, inequality got greater and greater but the class lines weren't so rigidly defined. Then in China, again you had a system that developed where even despite all of the in-fighting - this is a point you already made Corey - despite the uncertainty and risk and the changes of fortunes between these competing families, the system itself was stable.

So you always had the controlling, ruling families and as a collective they got progressively richer throughout time, even though the particulars and who was on top at any given moment would change at any given time. They might all be wiped out at some point to be replaced by a totally new group, but the system itself perpetuated. That's a depressing thought when you think about it.

Corey: It's really like the snake devouring its own tail. There's no better depiction I think than of that.

Harrison: That gets to the central thesis of the book, that historically the only thing to have changed things to any degrees have been these mass catastrophes of mass violence, bringing everyone down to zero to restart.

But one thing to get into, I think, is when reading these stories about how these things are set up it seems there is always a mixture between what I think many people would consider legitimate ways of making money and getting rich as opposed to illegitimate ways. In all of the examples of the establishment of powerful ruling elites, it's always a combination of the two but oftentimes the illegitimate ways vastly outstrip the legitimate ways.

So in the Chinese empires you could have rich merchant classes who could buy themselves into office. An interesting thing which I don't know what to think about yet is that in both China and Rome, merchants were seen as lowly people. The upper classes saw merchants as this low class, beneath their contempt. Merchants did business and services with the public, with the plebs, with the refuse of society so they were seen as not really aristocratic material. But you get to the point where there are some people who become rich enough to buy themselves into the ruling class. Once they've got that they now have the means, instead of hard work and even if they got their wealth originally through shady means and screwing people over, now they had even more opportunities to use even more, let's say, criminal means of getting more wealth.

Elan: Right.

Harrison: So now once you're in the ruling class you have the ability to fleece the locals using all the means and techniques we mentioned just a few minutes ago, whether it's changing the census records, fudging with the tax records and the classifications of land and all of these ways of covering up the theft of money for one's self which was an agreed upon practice. Everyone knew everyone else was doing it even if you fell out of favour it could be used against you to have your stuff expropriated. Not only did you have all this, you yourself now as part of the ruling elite weren't taxed. You were exempt from taxation and at a certain level of status the courts needed the Emperor's permission to charge you with anything.

So now you entered into a new justice bracket where the laws didn't apply to you. There's a lawless environment that you enter into where you are empowered and incentivized to not only fleece the public but get away with whatever crime you want essentially. Again, always keeping in mind that if you mess with the wrong people or anger the wrong people you could bear the brunt of that and lose everything but you had vastly more opportunities for getting wealth in an underhanded and criminal way.

One of the points he makes is that the higher your status, the more you were able to fleece. He gives examples of the amount of money that each level could make where if you were a close minister of the emperor you made just billions and billions and billions. Some level just below that would be maybe an order of magnitude lower. The higher you are, the more graft you got.

Corey: I've got a few examples that I pulled from the book. Scheidel writes,

"Provincial governors were paid up to one million sesterces a year for their good services but continued to extract great wealth on the side. One governor entered the province of Syria as a pauper and left it filthy rich two years later. A century on, a governor of southern Spain unwisely bragged in his correspondence that he had extorted four million sesterces from the provincials and had even sold some of them into slavery just to make a little bit of extra money.

Much farther down the food chain, an imperial slave overseeing the imperial treasury in Gaul commanded the services of 16 under-slaves, two of whom were in charge of his apparently extensive set of silverware."

So a slave himself had two under-slaves! So there was an even filthier underclass devoted to the petty tyranny of the slaves. It sounds like that was the structure of society - tyranny - and you'd just fleece whoever you can for whatever you can get and that's the moral code. With might, comes right.

Harrison: And that's the way the system of Roman government was set up where if you got your proconsulship to rule one of the provinces, it was accepted that you were going to fleece the locals because now you could tax them. You determined how much they had and then took as much as you could. When the interest rate was six percent in Rome, in some of the provinces it was 48%. They'd go and figure out how much they could take and that was an agreed-upon practice. But again, even in Rome, if you got caught and someone didn't like you they could bring you to court and potentially you could suffer for it.

So that happened all the time too. It was a constant battle of 'how much can I take and how can I get away with it by not pissing off the wrong people'. So it was a constant jockeying for power. But it didn't stop anyone from doing these things because that was common practice. It was 'how much can I just steal from the people I'm now going to control for a year or two or longer?' That's how the entire system was set up. It was a system of complete vassalship over the locals that had been conquered. That's what warfare was for in the Roman republic.

One point before I get to the warfare aspect is that Scheidel points out that one of the only reasons that these vast levels of inequality were able to develop was that there were relatively stable periods of peace. The Roman republic itself, even though it was constantly at war with other nations and regions, the state itself was stable for several hundred years. That's what allowed these levels of inequality to develop. The more stable your system is, the more inequality is going to develop. That seems to be true today as well.

One of the other aspects of warfare in the Roman republic and empire was that you could go to war and when you went to war and conquered another people, then it was your right to enslave whoever you conquered and steal all their stuff. That was the booty that was then delivered to the troops as payment for conquering this other people. So it was, "See that group of people over there? We're going to go attack them, steal all their stuff and enslave them and then get rich off of it". That's how some people made their money. It was a totally legitimate way, within that class, of getting rich, through theft, warfare and enslavement.

Elan: There's another element to this which I find quite interesting, especially with the Roman empire and that is that this elite class that would hold these consulships and who were senators and called the Optimates, this ruling class would meet. They had this pretense of being in a republic, a democracy, and these guys would get up and speak before one another. You had guys like Cato who would get up and they had such a gift, some of them, for rhetoric and for making the case for certain policies in defense of exploiting the merchant class or not passing a certain bill that would alleviate the suffering of the peasantry or lower classes, that was their CNN. That was their New York Times and their Washington Post.

They would get up in many cases and just flat out lie and do it with such aplomb, do it with such a skill and a wit and rhetoric level, that they would take people in and they would arouse the emotions of certain people. That's how they would win influence in many cases. In present day, Trump could not be Trump without his bombastic and some would argue, charismatic criticisms and bombs that he drops on people, that he has the balls and the gumption to put out there. When Bill Clinton was president, another guy who was very highly articulate and for all his major failings and his corrupt nature, he was able to talk the talk.

It's not clear that this was even an element that had a great part to play in the Chinese empire but it may very well have been. Getting the ear of the emperor and becoming his second or third or tenth in command probably required some amount of verbal talent. So that was the media. That was the newspapers and the TV and the sound bytes. It was these guys who made speeches before their constituency and vied for influence. They could lie through their teeth. In the case of guys like Cicero, they could exalt themselves to the status of father of Rome and have a certain number of people believe it for a period of time, for as long as he needed them to, just to win a certain amount of influence and consolidate power for himself.

So that's just another dimension to all this that seems crucial.

Harrison: I want to read a quote about the final dynasty that he talks about in China, the Manchu Qing. I'm not sure how to pronounce that. He says,

"The final dynasty, which has confiscated and reallocated vast Ming estates to the imperial clan and others, was beset by a wide array of tax corruption schemes. (These are some of the ones I was mentioning.) Official concealed embezzlement by fabricating arrears, exaggerated the scale of natural disasters that required tax exemptions, falsely declared a barren status for their own land, borrowed tax advances from the rich, stole the money and then applied the liabilities as arrears to commoners, reclassified land but collected taxes at the usual rate pocketing the difference and withheld or falsified receipts. Gentry or retired officials often paid no tax at all with active officials and clerks passing the burden on to commoners in exchange for a cut of the profit.

Finally, land was registered under as many as hundreds of false names which made it too cumbersome to track down small arrears. Corruption by high officials was a standard mechanism of wealth accumulation, the more so the higher the rank. According to one estimate, average incomes of officials amounted to a dozen times their official legal incomes in the form of salaries, rewards and allowances but well more than 100 times for a governor general and as much as 400,000 times in the case of Heshen, grand secretary of the Qing court in the second half of the 18th century. Executions and confiscations were employed as equally timeless counter-measures.

Present day China demonstrates the remarkable resilience of such practices. As a member of the standing committee of the Politburo, Zhou Yongkang was able to acquire 326 properties all over China worth about $1.76 billion in addition to $6 billion deposited in hundreds of bank accounts that belonged to him and family members and securities worth another $8.24 billion. When he was arrested in December 2014, domestic and foreign banknotes worth $300 million were found in his various residences alongside stashes of gold. Thanks to his exalted rank, his exploits dwarf those of his rivals. His total wealth would have put him in the 55th spot in the Forbes world's billionaires ranking for 2015, even though they tried hard."

Corey: Loser. {laughter}

Harrison: "An entire ton of neatly boxed up cash was discovered in one general's mansion and even a mid-level water supply official in a resort town popular with party leaders managed to accumulate real estate and cash worth more than $180 million."

So this is the kind of graft that happens everywhere. It's a similar thing that the Lebanese are protesting against right now. It's a system that's been entrenched for hundreds of years of political patronage and corruption. It's just the way things work, unfortunately. One other example that he talks about is the case of Mamluk, Egypt from 1250 to 1571 in which this principle, "Inasmuch as inequality could be contained within intact imperial policies, it was by means of violent recirculation of assets within the elite." He says he has already mentioned this case of Mamluk, Egypt, "In which this principle played out in perhaps it's purest historical documented form. The Sultan, his Amirs and their slave soldiers shared the proceeds of conquest. They formed an ethnically separate and spatially detached ruling class bent on extracting rents from the subordinate indigenous population which was brutalized if revenue flows failed to meet expectations." Similar to Rome.

"Incessant jockeying for power within this class determined individual incomes and violent conflict frequently altered these allocations. Local property owners sought refuge in extortion rackets that had them cede responsibility for their assets to strongmen from the Mamluk caste and pay fees in exchange for protection from taxation, a practice backed by elites who took their cut. Rulers responded by increasingly resorting to outright confiscation of elite wealth."

So the picture he's painting is that for all of these periods of history and all of these empires, the elite classes have just been mafias.

Elan: Exactly.

Harrison: They're really no different, except there are mafias that paint themselves as the fathers of their country, like you mentioned Cicero, and these benevolent leaders looking after and protecting their subjects when essentially they may offer protection but it's a protection racket. It's the protection that the corner Mafioso is offering you at the point of a gun. When you strip back the propaganda and the image-making, that's essentially what you have, a mafia state, various mafia states unfortunately.

Elan: When you said that I was thinking of civil forfeiture and this new racket that the police in the US are engaged in at the moment where they get you on some kind of technical violation, maybe they found a small amount of marijuana in a state where it's still illegal or they find it in your car or you've committed some kind of minor infraction...

Harrison: Even not. I've heard of cases where they just pull you over where they think you might have committed something. They might not even think that but then they just - well, go on.

Elan: Well exactly. They confiscate. They take your shit. They take your stuff. They might take your car. They might go to your home. This has become an institutionalized practice in the past five to 10 years. This is a major development that is indicative of a police state. And what is a police state? It's where local law enforcement has become militarized and incentivized to confiscate property because it's in this technically legal, if not morally illegal, framework. And why has this happened? Everything that the US has become in the last 15 or 20 years after 911 has been a movement towards this hyper militarized global mafia. The CIA and the state department have always instituted colour revolutions and coups around the world, but they've gone into this hyper-aggressive mode which is reflected domestically.

So we're seeing this across the board and the police are, for lack of a better description, in some cases or in many cases, mafia-ized. When you read stories of individuals and how little recourse they've had, given the laws, to get their stuff back, because of all the legal wrangling and attorney fees that are involved and perhaps a bureaucracy that's sympathetic to and getting a cut of, all of this confiscation, it has become state-sponsored extortion.

Like you were saying before Harrison, there were Roman elitists who had these governorships who were tried for extorting from the people who were under them, but so often it wasn't because it was the right legal thing to do, to call them on it and have some justice served. It was all political retribution. It was all elitist infighting. So given the trajectory that the US now appears to be on, I think most people are becoming more and more subject to this police state, this Mafioso state of being, that they'll have little recourse to, except to finally reach that horrific tipping point that isn't going to solve anything but that is probably going to result in a lot of bloodshed.

Corey: You know, this is all very uplifting. {laughter} But I was thinking about it and, to make it even less uplifting, as we've discussed, this is a problem that spans races, cultures, millennia and it shows no signs of abating. It just seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, really, that there's petty tyranny and that there are powers in elite circles that just lure human minds in or they mold human minds to fetishize power and glory, worship of the self, narcissism, psychopathy and sociopathy and all of the darkest instincts in human nature. But at the end of the day, this is something that has been observed time immemorial ever since it's been going on. There have been people who stand back and watch and say, "You're not any better than me. You're not god! You're not some super powerful prophet and at the end of the day you will be reduced to the level that I'm at." And it has happened time and time again.

One of the early popes was talking about how he offered up small donations to elite Roman families who had previously owned large portions of the world and who overnight were reduced to being paupers and beggars, begging the earliest church for money because they had lost everything and now they were reduced to nothing. That's where the wisdom of the stoics, of the early philosophers, early Christianity and Confucius and all of these things really shines through I think. This is a problem that mankind has been grappling with since we first observed it. Occupy Wall Street wasn't the first group of people to observe that there was a one percent and that they seemed to be able to do whatever they want and the Trump supporters weren't the first ones to notice that there are crooked Clintonites in every organization who are above the law and who can do whatever they want and there's an elite circle out to take out their popularly elected official.

This is something that's been going on, as we've said, since we have records and it's a struggle. In many ways it's probably one of the biggest catalysts for that religious, spiritual awakening in many areas across the world because how do you live - especially in the times that we're talking about - under-slaves, being extorted, barely a tenth of the population can even live above subsistence levels. There's more to life than these crazy individuals seem to think and in the long term, I would say that we have learned quite a bit and that we are the other side - not just the crazy elites power-hungry side - the other side. We are better off. We're immeasurably better off than they were, with all the riches and whatnot that they have, the morals and the lessons that are on the poor or whatever, the ones who aren't in power, there's still hope there.

It reminds me of the final scene in the first episode of True Detective where Rust is outside and they're looking up at the sky and he says something to the effect that at one time it was pure darkness but now you can see the light. He says, "I think that means we're winning." In some ways, as corny as the lesson is to take away from that, it just means that there's another side to things. It's not just about power. It's not just about inequality in that sense. It's not just about the great game, but about the great arts of the soul, really.

Harrison: One thing I want to come back to is that modern vision of what the state is and should be and how I think there is some validity to that, just in the sense that there are a lot of people who believe it and even some public and civil servants who believe it. There are politicians who actually do have ideals whether or not they manage to implement them or not is another question. But there is both a tradition and a reality behind that sentiment, that there is a place for selfless public service.

Taking that into account, I think that it's important not to fall into both resentment and a total cynicism about this. On the other hand, there is a place for cynicism. There are certain harsh realities that I think should be accepted. But I think that those two can go together in some way, that you can hold onto a certain ideal but ground it in realism. What I mean by that is to realize in your utopian thinking that there are probably certain aspects of your utopian thinking that are totally unrealistic, that would never come about. But there are certain principles in there that are probably worth hanging onto and worth trying to exemplify primarily in your own life and spreading them through your own life and through your influence to those around you.

So in a lot of the utopian political ideologies and philosophies there's this idea of removing inequality. Well we have to just eliminate that notion from our minds. We're never going to eliminate inequality. We have to plan for inequality. I don't think very many people have actually accounted for inequality, saying, "Okay, these are the things we're never going to eliminate. Now how do we operate within this system? What policies can we move towards that will mitigate some aspects of that system but which won't try to tear it all down because it's impossible to tear it all down?" We need to be realistic and practical at the same time that we're idealistic. We have to make a marriage between those two aspects of our aspirations.

We have to take into account that there are things that will never change and then find a way to maneuver within those things that can't change in order to make things right. I like that you brought up stoicism because that brings it down to the very individual level. I think there is a place for political evolution and introduction of potentially effective policies that would mitigate some aspects of the problems that we see dealing with corruption and those kinds of things, knowing that we're never going to eliminate them completely. But what we can do in our own lives is learn to navigate that situation for ourselves so that we're not controlled by the circumstances around us. That's one of the central things about various philosophies and world views, including stoicism, that are compatible with stoicism.

You find the same thing in early Christianity in the letters of Paul. At one point, Paul says that he has been initiated into great wealth and great poverty. He has been rich and poor and he knows the secrets of each, that it is possible to live a good life with very little money and it's possible to live a totally wretched life with a lot of money and vice versa. By focusing so much on wealth and our own money, we're missing something about the potentials that are actually in front of us, regardless of our place in that hierarchy.

I guess it just comes down to learning to navigate your life realizing what conditions you're in and realizing that despite whatever forces are out there in the world keeping you down, there's still an area of movement, still a degree of freedom that you have within those strictures. What comes to mind for me are the stories of the great martyrs and heroes, even of the last hundred years, those people who, even in imprisonment, whether it's under a totalitarian government or for some other reason, who retained their internal freedom even within those conditions.

Again, that goes back to stoicism and early Christianity. It's the inner fortitude and character that can be expressed regardless of the external conditions over which you have no control. When you are able to maintain that freedom despite the factors oppressing you from the outside, then you're living a life that's more worth living than anyone else, than the people oppressing you, the prison guards and the arbitrary rulers that are power hungry.

Elan: And have a sickness of the soul really. I just wanted to add that by the same token, I don't think that what you're saying is having as one of your focuses, living in monetary, financial and physical comfort is a bad thing. Not at all. In fact as things continue to destabilize all around us in various ways, making sure that you are healthy and physically strong and secure in your environment and having some modicum of financial independence is probably as wise a thing as you can do, as not becoming too identified with the accrual of wealth and the trappings of external power because that's a part of it too, just basic day-to-day living or even more than basic, because there are always expenses and needs that arise that are unanticipated.

So just thought I'd put that out there as well.

Corey: Did you guys have anything else that you wanted to say? I wanted to finish by reading an interesting little quote from Walter's book. He's talking about China I believe during the Han dynasty.

"Guan Fu, a highly placed government official, has accumulated a large fortune and owned so much land in his native region that widespread loathing of his preeminence inspired a local children's song. "While the Ying River is clear the Guan family will be secure. When the Ying River is muddy the Guan family will be exterminated. {laughter} This cute little ditty captured the precarious fortunes of the politically wealthy. More often than not, families that had risen high fell far. Risks extended to the very top of the status pyramid to the families of the Han emperor's consorts."

So what those little kids really captured was the uncontrollable, natural force that is this hierarchy that we are a part of. You have no idea. The stoics said you have to practice some sort of detachment from these influences in life that are outside of your power and outside of your control. In fact there are higher values out there beyond being poor or being rich. These are just very superficial things that can change just like they point out the Ying River changes. The Ying River changes. So will your fortunes in life, so will your status in life. But as the stoics also point out, it's something that's been developed and developed over the years that there's much higher values and in my opinion, reading books like this, gaining this kind of insight from the works of people who have laboured, sometimes their whole lives to figure out the theoretical and evidential problems behind understanding the history and problems like inequality and violence in society. This is a much higher value and they've given us and Walter himself has given us great insight by publishing this book.

So that said, we are going to tune out this week. We hope that you hit smash like grab {laughter} and subscribe and we will see you next time.

Elan: Bye everyone.

Harrison: See you later.