A Slice of a Pineapple

Income Inequality: Food History

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 13, 2013    •    615 Views

After reading Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity, we can see the connection between food and income inequality and the surprising significance of the pineapple.

First, some history…

Ancient hunter-gatherer groups had to be egalitarian. With sharing the best way to guarantee a daily supply of food, the best hunter was a modest hunter. When no one was jealous of anyone, they could best work together. Accumulating food and material goods was pointless. Knowing they would move on once the local food supply was exhausted, families possessed little more than the tools they needed to survive. Economic inequality was impractical.

By contrast, agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle generated income differences. Once farmers could produce a surplus, urbanization became feasible. And once we urbanized, we stratified and specialized far beyond the hunter-gatherers’ division of labor. In Mesopotamia, “The Standard Professions List,” written in cuneiform script on clay tablets from 3200 B.C., included 129 professions with “supreme judge,” mayor and sage at the top. Even the social complexity that characterized Egypt’s pyramids or Mesopotamia’s ziggurats could be traced back to agricultural surpluses.

My favorite fact, though, was about a portrait of England’s King Charles II. Painted towards the end of the 17th century, the painting shows the King’s gardener on his knees offering Charles a pineapple. Yes, we also see the King’s elaborate dress, his 2 spaniels, his estate. But it was the pineapple that made the difference. Rare and distantly grown, its very presence signified the King’s status, his elite taste, and England’s maritime dominance.

Sources and resources:  I recommend the Standage book for its historical perspective and suggest moving beyond to what Tyler Cowen has written in his article, “The Cookbook Theory of Economics” and his book, An Economist Gets Lunch.

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