Monday, March 01, 2010

"Hey, America: It's Time to Redefine the "Good Life"

From AlterNet / By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett:

...We are social epidemiologists; people who usually spend their time trying to understand how social factors affect population health. Our work has focused on different aspects of wellbeing in rich market democracies. Rather than looking at subjective measures, such as happiness, we have looked at objective measures, such as life expectancy, homicide rates, drug abuse, child well-being, levels of trust, involvement in community life, mental illness, teenage birth rates, children’s math and literacy scores, and the proportion of the population in prison.

Instead of finding that each society does well on some of these outcomes and badly on others, we found that countries tend to be consistently good or bad performers, across the board. If a country has high life expectancy, it also tends to have stronger community life, a smaller proportion of its population behind bars, better mental health, fewer drug problems and children doing better in school.

The differences in the performance of more and less equal countries are very large. Rather than things being just a bit worse in more unequal countries, they are very much worse. More unequal countries have three times the rates of violence, of infant mortality and of mental illness. Their teenage birth rates are six times as high, and rates of imprisonment are eight times higher.

What could account for such huge differences in performance, spread across so many outcomes?

The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple -- inequality. The bigger the income differences between the rich and poor in a country, the worse it does. The relationship could not have been clearer: the greater the inequality the more socially dysfunctional societies become -- regardless of their overall economic performance. Whether a country is as rich as the USA or, like Greece, only half as wealthy, seems to have no bearing on levels of health and social problems....

We found that child wellbeing too, was strongly associated with the size of the gap between rich and poor, but unrelated to national levels of average income per person... There are now over 200 studies of income inequality and health. A recent study covering 60 million people concluded that inequality affects population health, even after adjusting for individual incomes in each society. There are also many studies showing that homicide rates are lower in more equal countries.

Throughout the centuries, there have always been those who have believed that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. That intuition seems to be borne out by our data. In the more unequal countries and US states, only about 15 or 20 percent of the population feel they can trust others, compared to around two-thirds in the more equal ones. More equal societies are also more cohesive, with stronger community life. Coupled with the evidence on violence, this confirms that inequality damages the social fabric of society. If you have to walk home alone late at night, you’d feel easier about it in a more equal society.

Our interpretation of these findings is that bigger income differences lead to bigger social distances across the status hierarchy, increasing feelings of superiority and inferiority, and adding to status competition and status insecurity. Some of the causal links between greater inequality and adverse outcomes are well known: the physiological effects of low social status, lack of social support and of stress in early childhood are now understood: chronic stress has profound effects on all biological systems. Similarly, the reason why violence is more common in more unequal societies is because high levels of inequality make status even more important, and the most common triggers to violence are, of course, disrespect, loss of face and humiliation.

But there is a more fundamental explanation of why we are so sensitive to inequality. Because individuals within any species have the same needs, the greatest potential for conflict is almost always between members of the same species. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes regarded this as the central problem of politics. Because we all have the same needs, the competition "of each against all" would, in the absence of a sovereign power to keep the peace, make life “nasty, brutish and short”. But, of course, unlike other species, human beings also have the potential to be each other’s best source of cooperation, assistance, love and learning....

People often assume that the benefits of greater equality are confined to the poor. Not so. The differences in the performance of more and less equal societies is so large because the vast majority of the population benefit from greater equality. Our research shows that even the well-off, well-educated, middle classes benefit from living in more equal societies. Whilst the benefits of greater equality are largest lower down the social ladder, even at the top of society people live longer and do better in more equal societies.

The reason why the benefits of greater equality are not confined to the poor is, of course, because we are all caught up in status competition. We all worry about keeping up appearances, about what others think of us, and how we are judged....

But what about the transition to sustainability? Greater equality contributes to the ability of societies to reduce carbon emissions in two different, but important, ways. First, coping with climate change is a major test of people’s willingness to accept policies for the sake of the common good -- for humanity at large. Greater equality is a crucial determinant of how societies measure up to this test. Because people in more equal societies feel they can trust others, are more involved in community life, and less out for themselves, those societies are also able to be more public spirited: they spend more on overseas development aid; they recycle a larger proportion of waste materials; they score higher on the Global Peace Index, and their business leaders think it more important that their governments abide by international environmental agreements.

One of the most important obstacles to reducing carbon emissions is consumerism. Here too greater equality has an important role to play. The pressure to consume is driven substantially by status competition, which is in turn increased by inequality. People in more unequal societies work much longer hours and are more likely to get into debt -because money and status are even more important. But what people wish for, and consistently express in national surveys, is more time with family and friends, and less ‘materialism’. Greater equality reduces the need to strive -- against our better judgment -- for material wealth to the detriment of our relationships with one another.

And finally, our research shows that there are quite different roads to greater equality. Not only are there ‘big government’ solutions, involving redistributive taxes and benefits, but there are also ‘small government’ solutions, involving smaller earnings differences even before taxes. Sweden is an example of the ‘big government’ approach. It has large differences in earnings but then redistributes income through taxes and benefits. In contrast, Japan has smaller earnings differences to start with, does less redistribution and has a much smaller welfare regime....

The implication is that it doesn’t matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. Societies, politicians and policy makers can follow a range of pathways to lower inequality -- but reduce it they must. Our future quality of life, and our ability to live within the environmental constraints, depend upon it