Friday, October 22, 2010

Review of The Spirit Level - Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

By Matt Jonas
Sex education for potential teenage mothers; free gym membership for the obese; cognitive behavioral therapy for badly behaved children - all are inadequate, piecemeal solutions to the symptoms of a wider social malaise - inequality - says a new book by UK researchers.

The Spirit Level argues that the difference in earnings between richest and poorest in developed societies is the source of a catalog of social problems.

What is more, the authors insist, these problems cannot be solved without first addressing the underlying structures of inequality.

Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham and his co-author Kate Pickett at the University of York argue that throughout human history the most effective way of increasing well-being has been to increase material wealth.

But we have reached "the end of that historical journey".

The starting point of The Spirit Level is the suggestion that when average income levels reach a certain level - comparable to earnings in countries such as Chile or Poland - increases in wealth cease to have any impact on well-being.

The book charts how inequality, not average income, is the more accurate predictor of signs of distress in developed countries - poor mental health, drug abuse, obesity, low educational performance, teenage parenting or violence.

Thus, in the US, one of the world's most unequal societies, one in four people have mental health problems. By comparison, in more equal societies such as Germany, Japan and Spain, the rate is lower than one in ten. This is just one of countless examples, backed up by compelling data. Across the 50 US states the pattern is the same: more equal states do better.

The common explanation for this is that unequal societies have proportionally more poor people. But Wilkinson and Pickett argue that although these problems affect the poor more seriously, the rich still suffer. This is why the super rich in the US, UK and Portugal - three unequal societies - do not live as long as the rich do, for example in Sweden, which has a more equal income distribution.

And this applies across the board. A rich child in the UK will not achieve as much educationally as children do in more equal European states like Belgium or Finland. On the face of it, the message is clear: we all suffer from inequality.

Wilkinson and Pickett draw on a range of evidence and theory, hypothesizing that more inequality leads to greater "status anxiety" - our concern about our standing in the world, whether we are going up or down, if we are winners or losers. Our self-image is forever in need of external praise to accept ourselves. Greater status anxiety leads to negative reactions like stress and violence, and their knock-on effects.

In offering a solution, Wilkinson and Pickett consider how some countries may have succeeded in achieving more equality. It seems that there is no single solution. Sweden and Japan for example, two of the most equal societies, operate by entirely different models.

Sweden has high taxes and redistributes wealth through a large welfare state; Japan, with some of the lowest public spending in the developed world, achieves the same by having much greater income equality before tax.

They also look to solutions already flourishing within unequal market democracies, turning to the success of the not-for-profit sector and workers co-operatives for inspiration.

Almost an outcomes agenda for the economy

A chapter is dedicated to suggesting how this philosophy can link up with current debates about environmental sustainability. Discussing the reduction of carbon emissions, they advocate a system that would make the rich - who inevitably expend more through greater consumption - pay their fair share.

But a more radical approach is needed. They question the entire ethos of consumerism and never-ending economic expansion that, they claim, is fueled largely by status competition. According to their research, cutting economic growth does not mean reductions in real quality of life. It almost sounds like an outcomes agenda for the economy.

Publishing of the book coincides with social activism in the form of The Equality Trust to carry the findings further. The trust is promoting employee-owned businesses; it commissions research on equality issues, lobbies politicians and policymakers, and engages with the media.

Were they to be widely corroborated, the conclusions of The Spirit Level would have potentially far-reaching implications for prevention and early intervention efforts. The authors acknowledge that governments can dampen the impact of some of the privations of growing up in poverty, for instance through social housing, health care and high quality early childhood education.

However, they are forthright in their criticism of interventions to tackle social problems one-by-one, on an individual basis.

"The unstated hope is that people - particularly the poor - can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs." They are in no doubt that tackling inequality should be the priority before turning to intervention programs.

They question how far we can go by assisting the poor financially, without reining back the earnings of the rich. Far from being an asset, it appears the super rich are actually a burden on the rest of us. Salary caps and more progressive taxation are one way forward. Although this may horrify supporters of neo-liberal economics, Wilkinson points out that, in a curious twist of logic, equality is actually in everyone's own self-interest.

Addressing inequality is, in some ways, far simpler. It provides a universal remedy for many of society's ills. But it implies a much grander task. Rolling out a program of parenting classes for kids with conduct disorder is hard enough. Taking on inequality implies altering the values of entire societies.

The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is published by Allen Lane. It is also available as an ePub and an eBook.

Prevention Action ( is an online news publication reporting internationally on prevention and early intervention programs for improving children's health and development.

The focus of the website extends to physical, behavioral, emotional, social and intellectual development. Daily stories, comment and blogs look at the potential causes of impairments to children's health and development, such as poverty, poor housing, genes and gene-environment interactions, and family dysfunction.

We are also interested in public policy, professional practice and public behavior that bears on the success of prevention.

Coverage takes a determinedly broad view by reporting on initiatives from all over the world, among developed and developing societies.

Prevention Action is intended to provide a high quality resource - as readable as a quality newspaper and as reliable for its high scientific standards as an academic journal.


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