My current WIP is set during 1816, the year when summer didn’t come to the United Kingdom, bringing failed harvests, disease, starvation, and other ills. After the long economic pressures of war, times were tough, and unskilled labourers of the time must have despaired at their chances of keeping their families housed and fed, or even alive.
But things were about to improve, at least according to a lot of modern economists. They see widening real income inequality from the 14th century, peaking in the 18th century and beginning to improve from around 1814. For the wealthy, things improved as income from real estate rose and the cost of luxury goods dropped. The poor found it harder and harder to meet the rising cost of housing, especially as the prices of staple goods trended upwards and upwards.
For my book The Reign of Silence, I researched revolutionary movements in England during the early part of the 19th century. For a long time, those in power took the threat of bloody revolution very seriously, especially once the French provided a vivid example of the results of allowing a population to experience untrammeled greed long enough to get sick of it.
In the 19th century, and through to the First World War, the balance shifted as labour shortages forced wages up and real estate prices trended down. The trend reversed between the wars, with the incomes of the wealthy once more pulling away from the incomes of the rich. In the period I remember as my childhood, after the Second World War, income inequality was low, but since then it has reached 18th century levels once again.
Think about these figures (latest ones from the Oxfam report recently published):
- 1700 England-Wales households:
- Top 1% share 39.3% of the nation’s before-tax income
- 1740 England-Wales households:
- Top 1% share 43.6% of the nation’s before-tax income
- 1774 US households:
- Top 1% share 40% of the nation’s before-tax income
- 1929 US households:
- Top 1% share 44.2% of the nation’s before-tax income
- 2017 global figures
- Top 1% share 82% of income generated during the year.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and 10,000 kilometres of ocean between New Zealand and increasingly desperate people might not be enough.