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
  • obesity
  • 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.

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8 Responses to “Economic inequality increases social problems: who’da thunkit?”
  1. Hoping you’re wrong in a good way this time out, then. I’ve been getting more than a little worried of late regarding election turnouts up here in Canada over the last couple of decades. Paranoia leads me to think that it’s part of what got Stephen Harper into 24 Sussex the last couple of federal elections, and we need some hope and change ourselves.

    Soon, please.

  2. I couldn’t tell you without Googling, but I do recall that it was a strong turnout compared to the previous few election cycles. What we’ve seen in the various local and special elections since then are another story, though, and most expectations aren’t high for this year’s midterms.

  3. As part of the process of that improvement, I’d like to have my memory refreshed: What percentage of the voting-eligible US population actually turned out to vote back in ’08? As opposed to ’04 and ’06, that is.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, V.

    I don’t think we can necessarily conclude that Americans in general place a lower value on social goods. If you look at surveys that actually ask them what they’d like in the categories discussed here (or regarding policies that affect those things), more often than not a majority of Americans express surprisingly progressive views. How (and whether) people actually vote, though, and the kind of policies and outcomes they get as a result, are another matter.

    Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the nature of historical contingency and the way it tends to freeze certain situations; part of it has to do with unfortunate feedback loops. The fact is, there will always be a minority of people who both (A) lean toward short-term, self-centered thinking, for whatever reason, and (B) actually benefit from that. Minority or not, when a critical mass of them happen to see their (apparent) interests converge and thus seize the opportunity to use their good fortune to try to lock in those interests, they can have a very disproportionate effect, regardless of what their fellow citizens may prefer. The power of such folks waxes and wanes over time, but it definitely seems to have waxed some 30-odd years ago in both the U.S. and the U.K.: certain vested interests (largely corporate ones) seized a tight hold on the reigns of power, and haven’t let them go since, regardless of which party is nominally in control.

    The feedback loop comes in when we consider the effect these policies have on everyone who’s not rich and influential. We see the fortunate few do well and the rest of us slide gradually downhill, regardless of who’s in Washington… and the recourse for many people is at least one (if not both) of two things: (A) you try to work even harder, so you might make it big too or at the very least avoid the increasing economic insecurity you see everywhere, and/or (B) you cry “a pox on both their houses” and give up on politics in general, concluding that voting doesn’t matter and that government either wouldn’t or couldn’t ever actually be helpful anyway.

    The sad fact is, both those approaches are not merely futile but counter-productive. The single prolonged period of genuinely shared, relatively crisis-free prosperity we’ve enjoyed in this country since the Industrial Revolution came from the 1940s to the ’70s, when “the market” and its players were under rigorous regulatory control, and American tax and spending policy was as progressive as it’s ever been. Some countries in a similar situation (e.g., most of Europe) managed to build on that; others (us) have instead been sliding backward.

    Clearly, enlightened social policies that look to the well-being of the whole country are both possible and effective. That’s what the example shows historically, and it’s what this data shows today. The problem remains how to free the political system from its bought-and-paid-for ineffectiveness and get it to actually move forward.

  5. Vamberfield says:

    Excellent post Chris. Glad to see the you’re back in action.

    I’d be interested to know your opinion on why the U.S. values social goods so much less than other countries. Obviously Reagan and the decades of “free market” worship by the wealthy and not so wealthy have exacerbated the problem, but there has to be something more too it than that, right? Perhaps not, and maybe Americans really don’t care about social progress and growth, but I’d like to think FDR’s legacy isn’t quite dead yet.

  6. Phredd, I’m afraid of the answer even as I ask this, but how many radio plays about farmers could there possibly be? 😉

  7. Trying to remember if this book has made it to the business plates of CBC’s The Current or Q radio shows yet. We could use the intellectual reinforcement at the moment.

  8. phredd says:

    Yeah, I caught the same interview yesterday and was also intrigued. Yes, I do happen to stream WBEZ as my default radio station even while I’m in the UK. Radio 4 just has too damn many radio plays about farmers.

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