Unequal Societies

This is the 500th blog I’ve written on Marks in the Margin during the past three years. From time to time, I have taken a break and I’m going do so once gain. I hope to resume with a retooled version of the blog. After the last break, I wrote about Occupy Wall Street movement that galvanized me into action. I conclude on a similar theme as I write about the multiple effects of the ever-growing, ever-pernicious effects of economic inequality in this country and elsewhere.

In addition to wide financial disparities, what are the other, equally harmful effects that economic inequality gives rise to? This is the question posed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their wide ranging analysis reported in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

I first heard about the book in a talk Wilkinson gave in at a TED presentation and later in Andrew Hacker’s review last month. Although the assumptions built in to The Spirit Level's statistical analysis are complex, the results are straightforward. Wilkinson and Picket rank the quality of life in twenty-three countries, primarily European, but also the US, Israel and Singapore.

By quality of life they mean several indices including education, incarceration, mental and physical health, etc. These measures are then “related” to how income is distributed in each country. Consider some representative findings:

• People in more equal societies live longer and their self-rated health is better.

• People in more equal societies are far less likely to experience mental illness.

• Children do better at school in more equal societies. Measures of child well-being are also better in more equal societies.

• Unequal societies have a higher proportion of incarcerated individuals.

• Measures of obesity, drug abuse, and violence are higher in more unequal societies.

Wilkinson and Picket write, “As income gaps grow, it’s not only the poor who suffer. Unequal societies not only bear “diseases of poverty,” but also “diseases of affluence.” The latter include cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as the afflictions of well-off people who are “anxiety-ridden,” prone to depression,” and “seek comfort in overeating, obsessive shopping and spending.”

Here is an example of the type of data reported in the book. The horizontal axis of the graph shows the level of economic inequality (The US, UK, and Portugal are the highest; Japan, Sweden, Norway and Finland the lowest). On the vertical axis is a composite measure of social problems. Wilkinson and Pickett conclude there are significantly fewer social problems in more economically equal societies. A similar relationship holds for most of the other measures they report.

However, it is important to remember that the results reported in The Spirit Level do not demonstrate a casual relationship between income distribution and any particular outcome measure. Instead, they describe societal averages in which even in unequal societies, there are individuals who are in good health, do well in school, and have few social problems. We can say that on the average individuals in unequal societies do worse on these measures and on the whole people in more equal societies do better.

Some critics have questioned Wilkinson and Pickett’s statistical model and, at present, there have been few attempts to replicate their findings. However, in one, the authors report that, “the most straightforward measure of health simply has no robust correlation to income equality when comparing industrialized countries using standard OECD [Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development] and UN statistics.”

In spite of these cautionary notes, The Spirit Level does put forward a powerful claim about the wide-ranging, seemingly interrelated consequences of economic inequality, a claim that is especially pertinent now as we enter into yet another political campaign and try to assess the future impact of unexpectedly popular Occupy Wall Street movement.