More equal societies prove superior
TheStarPhoenix.com – Technology
August 24, 2010. By Paul Hanley, The StarPhoenix
Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is a great book. The gist of it is that more equal societies — those where the difference in average incomes is less — are better in almost every way.
The authors look at almost every social measure, from mental and physical health to violence and educational attainment, from social relations and teen pregnancy to imprisonment and longevity. In all cases, where there is a smaller gap between the average incomes of poorer and richer strata of society, people are generally healthier, happier, better adjusted, better educated and more socially cohesive.
The United States, for instance, is riddled with social problems, though it’s the wealthiest of large nations. Yet Japan and Scandinavia, which are also wealthy, have significantly fewer problems. In the U.S., for example, 576 people per 100,000 are in prison compared to 40 per 100,000 in Japan and around 50 in most Scandinavian countries. In the U.S., 30 per cent of people are obese compared to 2.4 per cent in Japan. And so it goes.
The authors make the case that the cause of social problems is not poverty so much as disparity in income. The U.S. has a much wider gap in incomes between the top 20 per cent of society and the bottom 20 per cent compared to Japan or the Scandinavian countries. The richest 20 per cent are more than eight times as rich as the poorest 20 per cent in the U.S., whereas the difference is four times in Japan and Scandinavia. Canada, by the way, is somewhere in the middle.
The issue seems to be that people are highly social beings who care deeply about their relative status. When people are poor relative to others, their self-esteem is affected, creating a kind of cascade of problems. On the other hand, when people have similar incomes, they are more at ease about status and social cohesion builds. Levels of trust are higher and problems such as crime and mental illness are minimized.
Interestingly, poorer societies that are relatively equal can be as successful as rich societies. An interesting example is Cuba. Although a poor country by international standards, and certainly much poorer than its neighbour the United States, Cuba’s infant mortality and life expectancy rates and several other measures of human progress are the same as the U.S.
Even in the area of environment, the inequality standard applies. More equal countries emit fewer greenhouse gases, for example. Sweden and France have a fraction of the emissions of the U.S.
Similarly, the ecological footprint of equal societies is generally lower than for unequal societies. Again, it is interesting that Cuba is the one country that is both above the United Nations threshold for high human development and has an ecological footprint that is sustainable.
“The fact that one country manages to combine acceptable living standards with a sustainable economy,” observe Wilkinson and Pickett, “proves that it can be done.”
This is not to suggest that Cuban socialism is a better economic system than capitalism. More equal societies include capitalistic, socialistic and mixed economies, but they are all more effective in spreading social benefits.
Wilkinson and Pickett argue that equality is actually better for the rich, too. Wealthy people in more equal societies enjoy better physical and mental health and higher security than the rich in unequal societies.
For Wilkinson and Pickett, there are clear limitations to the benefits wealth can deliver. Statistics clearly show that past a certain point, say an average annual income of $20,000 per year per person, there are few benefits to having more money. People with incomes above that level are not happier or healthier, even though they can afford more stuff.
This suggests that the mainstay of the economy of the most wealthy nations, consumerism, is a chimera. It delivers no meaningful benefits, yet is among the main causes of environmental degradation. We are overwhelming the planet’s carrying capacity through our demand for ever more consumer goods, but all analyses of human well-being indicate that, once we have our basic needs met, more consumption causes more harm than good, socially and environmenta;;y.
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