Dynamics of Wealth Inequality

Monique Borgerhoff Mulder (Anthropology, UC Davis) and I founded this project in 2006 to bring together scholars from a broad range of disciplines (now numbering well over 50) to study the evolution of wealth inequality broadly defined. Other SFI community members participating in these projects are Matthew Jackson, Robert Boyd, Elly Power, and Simon DeDeo.

Our first major project estimated models of intergenerational wealth transmission in 15 small scale societies and explored the implications for the long run equilibrium level of wealth inequality, resulting in a series of papers in Science and Current Anthropology.

Recent projects have included:

Network structure and inequality. This project explores the hypothesis that network structure affects the distribution of wealth (the reverse is also likely to be the case). To do this we are using newly collected panel data (cross section and time series) and alternative models of which aspects of network structure are relevant (centrality measures and the cardinality of the maximal
independent set.) We anticipate that this project, upon completion following the final round of data collection (in 2022) will result in a number of papers.

Wealth inequality and the demise of polygyny. This project provides a model of the stationary distribution of marital arrangements (including polygyny) depending on the distribution of wealth and the nature of the technologies by which a population produces its livelihood. Then using this model, calibrated using data from a large number (probably 27) of small scale societies, we will propose an explanation of what is termed the “polygyny puzzle” namely the surprising fact that polygyny is greater in horticultural than in farming economies despite the fact that the latter tend to have substantially more unequal wealth distributions. The result will be at least two papers one developing the model and estimating its parameters for a single population – the Kipsigis, a polygynous African agro- pastoralist population, the other [link] exploring our proposed resolution of the polygyny puzzle using the larger sample of data.

Technology, Institutions and Wealth Inequality over Eleven Thousand Millennia. This is (so far) a decade-long project using archaeological, historical, and modern data to explore the very long-term trends in wealth inequality.

Institution shocks and the distribution of wealth. With Mattia Fochesato, I am working on a study based on the abolition of slavery at the time of the Civil War in the United States. We will use county level data and a difference in difference estimation strategy to identify the effect of abolition, comparing slave and non-slave counties prior to and following abolition. This project will be similar in method to my paper with Daniele Girardi on institution shocks in Chile.