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Posted by on Mar 9, 2010 in Economy, Health, Politics, Society | 67 comments

Money Changes Everything

Specifically, the money gap between the richest and poorest in society — income inequality, in other words. And according to a new book called The Spirit Level, income inequality is a leading explanation for why the United States ranks at or near the bottom on a number of social indicators, compared with other developed nations in the world.

If you like to think of America as The Greatest Country on Earth, and you’d rather not examine its claim to that title too closely, “The Spirit Level” will not be your favorite new book. On nearly every one of its 250-plus pages, a stark, unflattering graph shows the USA topping the charts among developed countries for some social ailment: drug use, obesity, violence, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy. But authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, a pair of British social scientists, have another, more enlightening point to make. With striking consistency, they say, the severity of social decay in different countries reflects a key difference among them: not the number of poor people or the depth of their poverty, but the size of the gap between the poorest and the richest.

It is economic inequality, not overall wealth or cultural differences, that fosters societal breakdown, they argue, by boosting insecurity and anxiety, which leads to divisive prejudice between the classes, rampant consumerism, and all manner of mental and physical suffering. Though Sweden and Japan have low levels of economic inequality for different reasons – the former redistributes wealth, while in the latter case, the playing field is more level from the start, with a smaller range of incomes – both have relatively low crime rates and happier, healthier citizens.

The idea at the heart of the book is not new; human beings through the ages have intuitively understood as much. What is groundbreaking is Pickett and Wilkinson’s compilation of data, much of it only recently available, allowing sweeping comparisons across dozens of nations and areas of well-being, and showing, for the first time, the breadth and strength of the statistical link.

It’s interesting, in this context, to recall the word that’s missing from The Mount Vernon Statement recently touted by a group of leading conservatives.

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