Saturday, February 09, 2013

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level

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Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have one revolutionary thing to tell you, and they really want you to understand it, to the point of tedium, which is too bad, because the thing they have to tell you is really quite important and will make you think about things differently: social problems and world problems and almost all problems stem from inequality and can be changed by addressing inequality. Of course this is a major oversimplification, but problems affected by inequality include poverty, gun violence, homicide rate, obesity and on and on. We tend to think of these things in term of poverty rates or race or any number of other things but by comparing country's rates of inequality as well as the rates of inequality within the fifty states, Wilkinson and Pickett paint a different picture.

Why? "Imagine living in a society where 90 per cent of the population mistrusts one another and what that must mean for the quality of every day life." This lack of trust, and the sense of shame that many in unequal societies feel leads to a serious issues of status. Shame, Wilkinson and Pickett explain, is "the social emotion." Humans are wrapped up in social status, and low social status, or the extreme emphasis on social status that comes from inequality leads to "psychosocial stress." (This isn't psychobabble.) As our social position becomes one of the main parts of our identity, and inequality becomes bigger, "some people seem to count for almost anything and others for practically nothing." Don't believe that this is important? At one point Wilkinson and Pickett suggest going to a poor neighborhood and insulting someone. The point hit home for me: if you perceive yourself as counting for nothing, you're more likely to take an insult to your status as an insult to your self. This is a road map for social breakdown.

I've read (and written) a lot about education lately, so I'll use that as an example. All of the graphs used in "The Spirit Level" are in the form of the one below (taken from the books' companion site, The bottom of the chart is the level of income inequality and the vertical axis shows the percentage of students dropping out of high school. This particular graph uses levels of inequality in US states while some graphs use economically developed countries.Over and over these graphs show the same line: the linkage between the rates of inequality and the negative societal issue (in this case high school drop out rates) are clear.

Often we think of affluence as the difference between good and bad education rates, but if you look at a state like Montana, it falls low on the rates of both inequality and high school drop out rates, but according to the 2008 Census data, ranked 18th in people falling below the poverty line. Further, Wilkinson and Pickett's data showed that the steepness of the social gradient (this is complicated) matters: the as differences between parents' education grow, average education score drops. This is another way of saying that in societies where the inequality between adult education is greater, childrens' inequality is likely to be further. Reducing inequality, not necessarily poverty, is the solution. Like Lisa Delpit, Wilkinson and Pickett remind us that "performance and behavior in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities seem to be diminished." This goes back to the initial discussion of psychosocial stress: in unequal societies, people are constantly measuring themselves up to each other, and are constantly finding themselves falling short: we're in a rich state, a poor state, we're black, we're brown, we're in a poor district, we're not expected to do well. When considered "minorities" or against the unattainable "American Dream," almost everyone is going to fail, or seem inferior, and therefore fall short, leading to poor performance.

The list goes on- Wilkinson and Pickett remind us that "very few people are victims of violent crime [even in Oakland], but fear of violence affects the quality of of many more." This is, to reiterate a common theme, especially true in more unequal societies, which tend to be more violent. (Their discussion includes short if problematic discussions of gender roles and violence, as well as the role of guns and violence.) They discuss prison rates, and how how violence and imprisonment are cyclical: "imprisonment rates are not determined by crime rates so much as by differences in official attitudes towards punishment versus rehabilitation and reform. In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of 'us and them' are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fer of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes towards the 'criminal elements' of society." Again, the issues of trust come up: if we can't trust our peers, we can't trust them to reform, or live next to us.

Wilkinson and Pickett propose two ways of addressing the financial part of inequality: taxing/benefits to redistribute wealth or having less differential between salaries, as in Japan. To them, it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as the goal is obtained. The government's role in inequality also has to be addressed, as they often further the problem by addressing the symptoms rather than the inequality itself, which leads to further income disparities. Addressing inequality, the authors believe, will also help us achieve sustainability: as we consume resources in our desire for status, we're eating up the earth's resources. More equality would lead to less consumption: smaller cars, houses, etc. They site evidence on this in terms of "savings, debt, bankruptcy rates, spending on advertising and working hours." Not bad. The take home: "equality does not mean being the same... Nor does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity." We have an amazing standard of living in the United States, and the extremely poor should be brought to this standard of living. We don't all need private jets, though, and rectifying this will help everyone.