And now, a brief interlude from all the Sherlockiana for a bit of politics and economics. After hearing a radio interview today about a fascinating new book, I’ve done a bit of digging and realized I may have come a bit late to the game, for—at least in England—this book has been gathering serious attention for the better part of a year now. It deserves to do the same here in the U.S.
The interview was with Prof. Richard Wilkinson of Nottingham University, co-author (with Kate Pickett of York University) of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. (The title is perhaps a bit less than apt; the authors apparently wanted to call it “Evidence-Based Politics,” which to my ear would have been superior.) Wilkinson and Pickett, epidemiologists both, started out studying data on public health outcomes and wound up with a project much larger than they had originally envisioned. Their data demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that economic inequality within a society, regardless of overall wealth, is the single biggest predictor of a wide range of other social ills, from life expectancy to violent crime and far, far more.
This may of course seem intuitive and self-evident to people of a certain frame of mind, those of us who approach policy questions with an eye to things like facts and reason (not to mention ethical consistency) and who live in what factions of the reactionary right have quaintly dismissed as “the reality-based community.” It is, however, a proposition roundly and passionately rejected by certain of our less progressive fellow citizens, who insist with stubborn faith that the unregulated “free market” will solve all ills, that too much capitalism is never enough, that the wealthiest society is by definition the best off, and that questions of fairness are moot because, after all, wealth naturally accrues on the basis of merit. It does little good to say to them “But can’t you see?…” when they wear their blinders with such pride. Unfortunately, however, there had been no comprehensive body of research to bolster one’s arguments, no hard data to which one could point to prove that economic inequality really is bad for everyone in a society.
Now there is.
Wilkinson and Pickett have laboriously sifted and aggregated data from some 200 data sets from sources such as the U.S. Census, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization. They have compared data from over twenty wealthy, developed countries (so we’re not talking about sheikdoms or dictatorships or third-world nations here; it’s an apples-to-apples comparison, with some form of representative government and capitalist economy as a constant), as well as from all fifty American states. And what that data show is that all else being equal, the countries with the worst income inequality between the top and bottom quintiles (the U.S. tops the list, with the U.K. and Portugal not far behind) consistently suffer the severest social problems in a wide range of categories, including measurable rates of:
- public health
- life expectancy
- infant mortality
- drug addiction
- violent crime
- imprisonment rates
- teen pregnancy
- educational performance
- mental illness
- social mobility
In a sentence: the root of these problems is not differences in wealth between places, but differences in wealth within them. The nations that scored the highest quality of life across all these variables were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, and Finland), as well as Japan. And social outcomes are distributed across the economic spectrum: even the poorest populations in these countries often scored better in many categories than much richer residents of more economically polarized countries. The same pattern held within the U.S, where relatively egalitarian states (e.g., New Hampshire, Vermont) did well, while unequal ones (e.g., California) did poorly.
Some obvious objections are foreseeable, and rebuttable. The authors are speaking of matters of degree, not of absolutes, and they appreciate the value of democracy and individual freedom, so they’re not advocating some tyrannical scheme in which a coercive government forces an abstract notion of perfect equality on everyone. Nor do they propose that we would be better off in some preindustrial hunter-gatherer society ; they acknowledge that many of the social goods they discuss do require a certain foundation level of GDP, which is why they compared only “wealthy” nations.
Wilkinson emphasized in the interview that while aggregate economic growth may have been a net social good in the past, however, our continued focus on it today is misplaced, as it passed a point of diminishing returns some time ago in terms of the outcomes produced. He also emphasized that countries can and do switch positions in terms of inequality, and the social problems can be observed to adjust accordingly: for example, in the 1960s the U.S. was significantly more egalitarian than today, and Japan considerably less so—and their rankings then for correlated social problems were the reverse of today’s. Such change (for good or ill) can be traced to political trends: notably, the pro-market fervor that swept the U.K. and U.S. with the rise of Thatcher and Reagan some thirty years ago.
In the end, what the authors have produced is a solid, empirical rejoinder to the right-wing shibboleth that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The facts show the exact opposite. They turn an intuitive sensibility into demonstrable fact. To quote the book:
The health and social problems which we have found to be related to inequality tend to be treated by policy makers as if they were quite separate from one another, each needing separate services and remedies. … These services are all expensive, and none of them is more than partially effective… we know that our societies are endlessly re-creating these problems in each new generation.
…[Yet] for several decades progressive politics have been seriously weakened by the loss of any concept of a better society. People have argued for piecemeal improvements in different areas of life … But nowhere is there a popular movement capable of inspiring people with a vision of how to make society a substantially better place to live for the vast majority.
The authors argue for a politics that moves beyond hidebound ideology, built on reliable data. They’ve even set up a nonprofit foundation to promote just such policies. It’s a hard battle, to be sure; today’s politics are too often dominated by vested interests who can’t see beyond their short-term wealth, or idealogues who prefer faith to facts. Still, Wilkinson and Pickett have from all accounts provided some valuable new ammunition for that battle.
I haven’t read the book yet, of course, nor looked at the data in detail. I hope to do so at the soonest opportunity, however. And I hope to be hearing a good deal more about it as well.Tags: books, economy, government, health care, inequality, Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level