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Will the Age of the Internet Boost Economic Equality? Are Electronic Networkers the New Hunter-Gatherers?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 05, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Material wealth is easily passed from one generation to the next, and societies that place high value on material goods have the highest income inequalities, according to a team of anthropologists, statisticians and economists. The team also found that the "silver spoon effect"-the benefit bestowed on the offspring of wealthy parents-was well established in some of the world's most ancient economies.

The study, reported in the October 20 issue of Science, expands the concept of wealth, by examining hunting success, food sharing partners and kinship networks as well as worldly possessions. Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, the anthropology professor at the University of California at Davis who coordinated the study with economist Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute, explains that material goods are passed on with greater reliability than social networking or foraging abilities, according to the UC Davis newsletter. But economic equality and inequality are influenced by a society's governing rules and regulations as well as by its most valued type of wealth.

"An interesting implication of this is that the Internet Age will not necessarily assure equality, despite the fact that knowledge-based capital is quite difficult to restrict and less readily transmitted from only from parent to offspring," she said. "Whether the greater importance of networks and knowledge, together with the lesser importance of material wealth, will weaken the link between parental and next-generation wealth, and thus provide opportunities for a more egalitarian society, will depend on the institutions and norms prevailing in a society."

Borgerhoff, Bowles, and scholars from a dozen institutions studied patterns of wealth and inheritance around the world. Rather than looking at countries, they studied types of societies: hunter gatherers, herders, small low-tech horticultural farmers and land-owning farmers and peasants in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. They found that the offspring of wealthier farmers and herders, whose land and livestock constitute wealth, are vastly more likely to keep the family's high wealth status. In fact the level of economic inequalities in these societies rivaled most unequal of today's national economies.

A U.S. News & World Report article on the study says that because hunter-gatherers reply on their wits, strength and social connections, success is less easily transferred to new generations. "The level of economic inequality in hunter-gatherer societies is on a par with the most egalitarian modern democratic economies," the article says.

Bowles has done extraordinarily interesting work on modern economic inequality. In their article"Garrison America," Bowles and Arjun Jayadev report that societies with economic polarization and conflict among classes, ethnic groups and political factions, have higher proportions of "guard labor" in their work forces. They defined guard labor as police, private security guards, military personnel and others who make up "the disciplinary apparatus of a society." They found guard labor ranged from less than a tenth of the labor force in Switzerland to one fifth or more in Spain, the U.S., the U.K., and Greece. They say the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that by 2012 the U.S will have more private security guards than high school teachers.

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