Upscaling is a catalyst for inequality

November 28, 2017, Wageningen University

The laws of nature are what drive wealth inequality within a given society – unless society takes action to counteract their effect, such as by adopting laws on taxation. The larger the scale, the greater the inequality. Today's globalisation trend is thus a process that naturally reinforces inequality. At the same time, globalisation also makes it more difficult to provide societal counterbalance. This conclusion is drawn by Marten Scheffer and two fellow ecologists from Wageningen University & Research, along with Utrecht University historian Bas van Bavel, in a publication on inequality that combines insights gleaned from nature and society. The article will appear in the authoritative PNAS on 27 November.

Economically speaking, most societies are dominated by a small elite. In the same way, communities in nature are typically dominated by a small portion of the total number of species. "It's estimated that 1 percent of the world's population own half of total wealth. In the Amazon, 1 percent of tree species account for half of all biomass. Our work shows that this curious fact may be more than just coincidence," according to Marten Scheffer. "In this special collaboration between economic historian Bas van Bavel and our Wageningen team, we have demonstrated that major similarities exist between the patterns of in nature and . Inequality naturally grows as scale increases."

Structural counterbalance

In nature, inequality is counteracted by enemies – including disease – that have an above-average effect on the dominant species. Among microbiologists, this process is known as the 'kill the winner' principle. Within societies, disasters such as war can temporarily work as equalising forces. Structural counterbalance, however, must come from targeted institutions such as taxation. As the scale of the economy expands, it is becoming increasingly difficult to enact such compensation. "This situation is what we are seeing as a result of the current globalisation," according to Van Bavel. "Only once before in human history have we encountered a similar process: in the early modern era, when the counterbalance that had been establish at a local level in the Middle Ages was surpassed by the increasing political and economic scale. Eventually, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we formed a new system of counterbalance at the national level. What we should do today is once again establish a counterbalance, this time at the global level. In fact, it's crucial that we do so, in light of how inequality is a major cause of social and political tensions as well as economic stagnation. Realising such a worldwide form of governance will nevertheless pose a tremendous challenge."

Unique collaboration

The project marks the first time that historian Van Bavel and ecologist Scheffer have worked together. Despite their highly different backgrounds, the two discovered that they share a common interest in the origins and effects of inequality. Which hidden mechanisms are at work there? And how can they cause a system to become so unstable? Van Bavel: "As it turned out, the ecological, mathematical and historical insights dovetailed rather neatly; each one picked up where the other left off."

Explore further: The roots of inequality: Researchers chart rising inequality across millennia

More information: Marten Scheffer el al., "Inequality in nature and society," PNAS (2017). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1706412114

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6 comments

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TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Dec 03, 2017
This sounds like slogan-driven research.

"The laws of nature are what drive wealth inequality within a given society – unless society takes action to counteract their effect, such as by adopting laws on taxation. The larger the scale, the greater the inequality."

- The balkanized nature of a world with sovereign countries enables some of them to be brutal oligarchies immune to outside influence.

Globalization will subject outlaw regimes to international law. It will enable them to be penalized and dissolved. It will subject their leaders to arrest and trial in international court with both criminal and civil penalties.

Globalization can also equalize corporate taxes and wage scales so that there will be no advantage to relocate factories or headquarters.

Globalization allows Democratic and capitalistic competition to take place on an even playing field. Size and visibility reduce thge chance for corruption.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Dec 03, 2017
"Economically speaking, most societies are dominated by a small elite."

- Like I say, sloganeering.

"It's estimated that 1 percent of the world's population own half of total wealth."

-Because, localization allows the wealthy to seek refuge where their assets are not subject to taxation. Globalization will make that more difficult.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Dec 03, 2017
"major similarities exist between the patterns of inequality in nature and society."

-Overpopulation creates inequality. As resources become scarce competition intensifies, along with corruption and tribalism.

Globalization will provide better ways of managing growth through education and empowerment. Fundamentalist ideologies based on forcing growth can be outlawed and eliminated. People can assume responsibility for their own futures and produce families they can support. Most importantly, women can be given options for self-fufillment other than making babies.
PTTG
not rated yet Dec 03, 2017
It's absurd to think that we will make all the world have the same tax programs anytime soon, especially since the tax structure that works in Sweden wouldn't work in India.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (1) Dec 03, 2017
The rich will fight post-scarcity every step of the way and it's obvious why.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Dec 03, 2017
It's absurd to think that we will make all the world have the same tax programs anytime soon, especially since the tax structure that works in Sweden wouldn't work in India
Its not the same in NYC vs west VA. The point is, its managed.

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