Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Me, I Would Far Rather Live in a More Equal Society

Regular visitors to these musings will know that I care about the greatest well-being for the greatest number.  In other words, I would rather live in a more equal society.

I know perfectly well that the United States of America is not only the richest, it is the most unequal society in the West, as can be seen in the attractively coloured graphic below (and more clearly by clicking the Wikipedia link).  Even central Asia, south Asia and parts of Africa are less unequal that the US.

Nevertheless, when I saw one of the most egregious manifestations of this shameful datum in LA recently, even I was shocked.  I wrote about my observations in The Social Ecology of Bunker Hill. And UK is sadly not far behind - it is the third most unequal society in this group of wealthy western countries.

This index measures the degree of inequality i...Image via Wikipedia
Derived from CIA Data.

To help me understand what is going on regarding inequality in the US (and elsewhere) I have since read The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Better late than never you might say.

However, yesterday I also had the pleasure of meeting Professor Pickett, who made an excellent presentation at a meeting that I am co-facilitating, and as the authors are also rebutting their detractors this very week, this post seems not untimely.

The Spirit Level is the clearest exposition I have yet read that reducing the poverty gap in the world's richest countries would improve life not only for the poor, but for society as a whole.

Its a really interesting read, and you can also check out the whole argument and the impressive evidence that the authors have amassed on the website of the  Equality Trust.

The arguments have of course been challenged by various exclusionary elements.  These have been summarised in a recent Guardian editorial, from which they may also be accessed: The Spirit Level: Spooking the Right.  The authors have responded to these attacks here

Wilkinson and Pickett show that in the richer group of countries, and also, interestingly, within the US, inequality is correlated directly, often very closely, with higher levels of mental illness and drug use, of obesity, of teenage parenthood, of violence and imprisonment.  Conversely inequality is negatively correlated with trust in society (a sense of community), with children's educational achievement and with social mobility (although data on social mobility is not available for the various states within the US).

In other words, countries that have more income equality have less mental illnes, drug use, obesity, teenage motherhood, violence and imprisonment, and more trust, educational achievement among children and social mobility.

What's not to like?  Sounds like a pretty darn good bargain to me.

There are two ways, according to Wilkinson and Pickett, through which we might achieve greater income equality:
  • Less income gap in the first place (as in Japan), or
  • Redistribution through taxes and benefits (as in Sweden)
I think the second would be easier for us (although not easy), so we should go for it.  

Really, this is a total no-brainer.  The disadvantaged would be better off, and I (and everyone else) would have greater well-being.  More equal societies work better for everyone.  As I say, what's not to like?

And of course we'd get a whole lot of other things I'd like as well, such as less Murdoch, less carbon emissions, less consumerism and more ecological conservation and public spiritedness.  So I'm definitely in.

Maybe the struggle for all this would throw up better, more informed and genuinely engaged leadership too.  Could hardly be worse than what we've got at the moment.

So I am very clear in my own mind:  the first thing I'm going to do between my travels is fight the cuts in UK, and also work for more discussion, and through that greater understanding and acceptance, of the Spirit Level theory.

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