July 9, 2012
Bad History

So last week my dashboard was lit up with posts and reposts of the same claim: that economic inequality at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed was much less severe than it is today. “Aha!,” the posters seemed to scream: “we’re not living up to the Framers’ legacy!”

At which point my “bad history alarm” started to go off.

Folks, it’s possible that the income differential between highest and lowest earning persons in 1776 was much less profound than it is in 2012. Actually, given the comparative wealth of the two economies (we’re much, much wealthier now), I’d be staggered if 2012 wasn’t more unequal: we have CEOs of global corporations and an information economy that moves at literal light speed. They had, you know, mules. Wider ranges of activity afford opportunities for wider ranges of compensation. Our income differential is a sign of our wealth, not our poverty.

But that isn’t what really bothered me about this “we’re worse off now” thread. No, what bothered me was the casual way the posters and reposters seemed to ignore the obvious: ALMOST NO ONE IN 1776 EARNED AN INCOME. The United States enslaved a third of its population. It disenfranchised and economically dominated half its remaining population (non-slave females). It practiced indentured servitude. And, particularly among the Southern elite, it was a society based on land wealth, not income. For example, George Washington owned a huge portion of what today is West Virginia. What, exactly, was his wealth in 1776? Compared to some dude working in a textile mill? Or a slave working on Washington’s farm? Care to offer a calculated guess, adjusted for 236 years of inflation … and the fact that we now know West Virginia has lots of coal?

At most, 15% of the US population in 1776 was earning an income. It was probably less. So, is it possible that of that tiny fraction of persons earning an income, the income differential between best and worst paid persons was lower than it is today? Absolutely. But given that 85% (or more) of their population was enslaved, disenfranchised or otherwise outside the “income” economy, do you really want to claim things were more economically equal then than they are today?

I didn’t think so.

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