Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Great Triumph of Global Capitalism

In addition to taking advanced coursework on pastoral counseling, I'm also rounding out my D.Min. electives with a class on the sociocultural context of the Apostle Paul's letters.   Meaning, what was the world like, really, when he fired off those annoyed letters to the endlessly fractious Corinthians?

I've been reading one book for the last few days, the one I've got to complete a paper on by the end of the month.  It's by a professor of religion at Baylor, and delves deep into Paul's attitude towards the poor and disenfranchised.  Some of it is…um…"academic."  Two entire chapters parsing out scholarly responses to one…ONE…verse in Galatians?  Lord have mercy.

Like, say, the exploration of the way income and wealth worked out in Rome.  Using the best available historical data of the economy of Rome in the first and second centuries CE, historians have come up with a scale measuring the income structure of the world at the time Paul was writing.  

Several scales are proposed, but one seven point scale has significant data behind it.  It goes like this:

1) Imperial Elites  (members of the dynasty, senatorial families, royalty):  0.04% of population
2) Regional/Provincial Elites (equestrian families, provincial officials, military elites): 1.0 % of population
3) Municipal Elites (decurial families, some merchants and freed persons): 1.76% of population
4) Moderate Surplus (merchants, artisans, military veterans, traders): 7% of population
5) Stable/Near Subsistence Level (merchants/traders, wage earners, shop owners, some farmers): 22%
6) Borderline Subsistence-Unstable (small farms, laborers, most merchants, small shop owners): 40%
7) Poverty/Below Subsistence (small farms, beggars, disabled, unskilled labor, widows, slaves): 28%

Meaning, if you translate that into where humanity stood two thousand years ago, about nine point eight percent of humanity living under the rule of the Roman Empire were economically secure.  They could reasonably expect that they would experience no significant hardship.  A tiny fraction--just under two percent--controlled most of the wealth.  An additional seven percent were functionally secure, consistently receiving enough income to maintain a surplus.

Twenty two percent were just above subsistence, meaning hunger was at bay and shelter was consistently present, but they were vulnerable.  And sixty-eight percent were either in poverty or scrambling day to day just to keep afloat, one accident or illness away from real privation.

That was two thousand years ago, before industrialization, before science and technology, before the global economy and the dynamism of capital markets.

Now, according to the magazine Business Insider, our world looks like this.  Give a click on the image below:

That bottom number hasn't budged.  Sixty eight percent remain poor.  Two thousand years, and for all intents and purposes, not a thing has changed economically.  The wealth profile of our world looks no different than the world ruled by Rome.  

On the bright side, I suppose, that makes everything the Bible has to say about justice, wealth and poverty still completely relevant.