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IN 2002, two economic historians, Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff, published an influential paper that tried to answer a vexing question: why are some countries in the Americas defined by far more extreme and enduring levels of inequality—and by extension, limited social mobility and economic underdevelopment—than others?

The answer, they argued, lay in the earliest history of each country’s settlement. The political and social institutions put in place then tended to perpetuate the status quo. They concluded that societies that began “with extreme inequality tended to adopt institutions that served to advantage members of the elite and hamper social mobility.” This, they asserted, resulted in economic underdevelopment over the long run.

More specifically, they observed that regions where sugar could be profitably grown invariably gave rise to societies defined by extreme inequality. The reason, they speculated, had to do with the fact that large-scale sugar plantations made intensive use of slave labor, generating institutions that privileged a small elite of white planters over a majority of black slaves. These institutions, their later work suggested, could encompass everything from property rights regimes to tax structures to public schools.

Where slavery thrived, inequality rules today - Ideas - The Boston Globe (via guerrillamamamedicine)
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