More or Less, Unequal

16 Sep

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger is a book by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. It was published in 2009. With every publishing house, the book’s sub-title changed from Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better to Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger to Why Equality is Better for Everyone to Equality is Joy (the German edition: ‘Gleichheit ist Glück’). As of September 2012, the book had sold more than 150,000 copies in English. It is available in 23 foreign editions.

In this book, authors Wilkinson and Pickett highlight the correlation between income inequality and health and social problems. Looking at 23 rich countries and 50 US States, they conclude that of the eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries. Based on their research, people living in unequal societies were more likely to be in jail, be mentally ill, be obese, be murdered, and have higher infant mortality. Inequality, in this view, is a virus that infects society and creates mistrust. The stress of it all leads to diseases and forms a society that is divided and competitive. This inequality is equal in that it even affects the rich because they have to be vigilant, protect their status, their jobs, their wealth, and so on. In an unequal society, society is broken and everything is bad for everyone.

Based on the numbers sold, and the amount of discussion it created, this book is popular and well known. However, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing, and that the correlations being made were overlooking something fundamental, something that makes the picture they have drawn incomplete. With every re-read, I had more unanswered questions.

income-inequality-by-nationFrom a research methodological stance, the book’s data was presented well and convincingly. Using the gap between the richest and poorest 20% of the population, the authors provided evidence to back up their claims and addressed the many concerns and questions that readers had in regards to their country choices and measurement procedures and techniques. All clarifications and explanations confirmed and supported their claim that inequality leads to broken societies.

Still… I had my reservations and many questions. I wondered… A study that is comparing countries with different histories, population size, geographic makeup, and cultural values – how were these factors accounted for? Is such a comparison valid? What about comparing countries using only one criterion: inequality? This simply did not feel statistically sound to me. What about cultural values and race? Today’s family structure of single parent households – How did that play into income inequality? What of the role of technology, skilled labor, and globalization in today’s market world? To ignore all of these and simply focus on the financial aspect of humanity is overly simplistic and reduces people into an economic factor.

harshipsTo assume that inequality only leads to jealousy, stress and ultimately disease is not painting the full picture. It is assuming that we all want more material and feel envy towards those that have more than us. I do not believe that to be true. Such assumptions reduce humans to mere consumers.  What about human spirit? Man’s will to survive? The intrinsic motivations of so many that despite all odds shine through?

Growing inequality is a political, social, and economic challenge that is on everyone’s mind. The Spirit Level brought this issue to the forefront and paved the way for dialogue. Trust, basic needs, and honesty are essential for a society to exist, grow, and function, no one can argue that point; however, when one tries to force all of social inequalitiesunequal-logos into “income inequality”, something is missing. By adopting ‘income inequalities’ as the sole cause leads to different focus and places all of our attention on one arena. Looking holistically and culturally at the reasons that bring about this inequality is important if we wish to find the right solution.

 

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