31 October 2009

It's the inequality, stupid

By Rupert Read

Are big ideas dead in politics?

I don't think so. For there is a big idea that is coming back, and strongly. The idea is: equality. That people are equal to each other. That economic and social inequality is a huge harm, in itself.

The leading scholar of inequality is Richard Wilkinson. Here are a few of the key results that Wilkinson has shown:
  • Life expectancy is closely related to differences in income within societies, but unrelated to differences in average income between rich countries, and only fairly weakly related to differences in average income between poor countries. It is mainly inequality itself that is leading people to die younger, not income levels.
  • The UN index of child wellbeing in rich countries is related to inequality, but not to GDP.
  • Virtually everyone in a society is harmed by the society being unequal.
The list of ills that can be attributed to inequality is shockingly long. Wilkinson has demonstrated significant connections between all of the following and the level of inequality within a society:
  • Levels of trust (i.e. far more people trust strangers in more equal societies than in less equal societies)
  • Levels of mental illness
  • Infant mortality, and also children's educational performance
  • Obesity (people are fatter in more unequal societies)
  • The status of women, and teenage pregnancy rates
  • Homicides, and also imprisonment rates
  • Voting rates (i.e. the more unequal a country, the lower the participation in elections)
  • Levels of friendship (if you live in an unequal country, you probably have less friends than if you live in a more equal country)
  • Levels of (self-reported) happiness.
Wilkinson has shown convincingly that there are remarkably strong influences of inequality in itself on well-being. These considerably outstrip the influence of absolute poverty (certainly across the entire 'developed' world), and are not accounted for by differing lifestyles of the rich and poor (i.e. the poorer lifestyle on average of the poor (higher levels of drinking alcohol, nutritionally-worse food intake etc.) does not account for more than a fraction of the differences found). Here is Wilkinson, in his recent book, The Spirit Level:
"I, like most researchers working on this problem, [had] assumed that the health differences we saw between different classes resulted from differences in material living standards. (…[S]tudies had shown that differences in health-related behaviour – differences in drinking, smoking, exercise and so on – failed to account for the bulk of the health differences.) Most of us assumed that our task was to identify what aspects of the differences in material living standards contributed to which diseases. But what has become clear from numerous studies over the years is the surprising success of psychosocial variables in explaining differences in … mortality."
The main such 'psychosocial variable' is: inequality. What Wilkinson is saying here is that, while inequality may well exacerbate lifestyle deterioration, it is in itself the main problem. (Wilkinson develops detailed hypotheses as to why: including the effort to emulate the rich in one's level of consumption, the stresses this involves, and the damaging psychological effects of failure to successfully emulate one's 'superiors' or to attain their level of wealth.)

Wilkinson concludes:
"There are still people who say that greater material inequality does not matter, who think that only the absolute levels of income and wealth enjoyed by a society matter. That is a view that can no longer be sustained in the face of the evidence."
Wilkinson has launched a new non-governmental organisation / think-tank, to promote the idea that what we ought to be doing above all, all of us, is trying to make our society more equal. Check it out: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/. It's a whole new way of seeing our world.

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