From WBUR's On Point, January 27 2011: Warnings at the World Economic Forum this week as the rich and powerful jet into Davos, Switzerland, that inequality in and between nations is spiraling into dangerous territory. In Davos yesterday a top IMF official said that the run-up now in global inequality is now the most serious challenge for the world. America is far from immune. Inequality has soared here.
The guests today are Philip Aldrick, economics editor for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.) He joins us from Davos, where the World Economic Forum is taking place; Richard Wilkinson, professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School. He’s co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger; Kate Pickett, professor of epidemiology at the University of York (U.K.) and a National Institute for Health Research career scientist. She’s co-author of The Spirit Level; and Barry Bluestone, professor of political economy and founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. Read his 1994 piece on inequality in The American Prospect – he says it resonates strongly today.
Tom Ashbrook, host: We go first, today, to Davos where this has become an issue. ...Philip Aldrick, thanks very much for joining us. It's not what we necessarily expect to hear from Davos where the rich and powerful jet-set come in. How did inequality make and appearance there as an issue?
Philip Aldrick: Yes, it's a slightly unusual place for inequality to be discussed as it hasn't heavily represented the poor... The concerns are on the economic level. They're looking three decades ahead at the big economic picture. Everybody is going to be worse off is the message if the inequality situation isn't addressed.
TA: What was the warning that attendees there heard from Min Zhu -- this is the special advisor to the International Monetary Fund.
PA: Min Zhu said that inequality could be the biggest challenge for the world in the years ahead. Obviously there's potential for social unrest. There are many people, including Larry Summers, who are talking about the inequality situation over here. Comments such as, "This is a tinderbox situation," have been made. But also you've got effectively a build-up of very rich people investing in asset classes which are causing bubbles that are unhealthy for economic growth. If the wealth were spread more evenly, the money would be spent in the real economy thereby fueling more natural economic growth. Businesses retailored, manufacturers making more profits -- that kind of thing. So it's on that economic level that people here are worried inequality is actually causing problems such as the one we've just seen.
TA: Let me ask you, Philip: you're also quoting in your report Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the big media company WPP, saying it's a "really serious issue, the concentration of wealth." You quote the British who, in turn, quote American Nouriel Roubini from New York University who warns about inequality exacerbating political instability. Is this now an issue of such significance that it's a welcome topic for conversation in this meeting of bankers and the powerful? Do they try to sweep it away? Or do they look at it and say, "No, that's really a problem"?
PA: As you say, it's not a natural topic of discussion for the rich and powerful. But it is very high on the agenda. The World Economic Forum produced a report before the meeting on the global risk outlook. One of the biggest risks they've identified over the fifty years -- they take a long view -- is the inequality situation. This is a talking shop and they're talking very seriously about it. Obviously what people hope is that they take away some of the lessons and act on them!
TA: ...Thank you, Philip. Joining me now from York, England, are Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger." They are professional epidemiologists from the University of Nottingham Medical School, of the University of York, Britain's National Institute for Health Research. Their book, "The Spirit Level," was received with great acclaim and considerable controversy in the UK last year. It's out now in the States. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron adopted its argument. Critics bashed it. ... I guess I'm looking at the heart of your argument here. You collected data from around the world, from a lot of countries over a number of years, and you're saying that equality makes countries healthier. Inequality brings on a litany of woes: mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, school drop-outs, teenage births, homocide, suicide, heart disease, maybe even cancer?! How can you link all of those things to inequality?
Richard Wilkinson: Well, as you say, we collected internationally comparable data on all these kinds of problems -- not for all countries, just for the richest developed countries, the rich, developed market democracies, if you like -- and you find that almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder within our societies are much more common in societies with a bigger income gap between rich and poor. Some of them twice as common, others as much as ten times as common. If you look at drug problems or teenage prenancies or the proportion of the population in prison or levels of violence and homicide rates -- things like that -- all those sorts of problems are much worse in countries with bigger differences between rich and poor.
TA: Which countries did better, Kate Pickett, and which did worse in your research? Which had the greater inequalities and its costs and which equality and its benefits?
Kate Pickett: The most equal of the countries include Japan and the Scandinavian countries. The most unequal that we looked at include the UK, USA, Singapore and Australia and New Zealand as well.
RW: And Portugal.
KP: Thank you -- and Portugal! Then there are countries in the middle of the distribution like France, Canada. We look at between 23 and 25 of these developed countries for all of the different problems that we look at.
TA: How do you determine that these problems you cite -- and they are many... many in the high-inequality countries, including the US -- how do you determine that those are caused by inequality and don't just happen to reside in those high inequality countries?
RW: Well, it's partly a problem of finding any other explanation. The relationships between the level of inequality and all these problems is remarkably close. To find another explanation of why, say, the US does so badly on almost all these outcomes and other countries that, as Kate said, like Japan and the Scandinavian countries do better on almost all of them is very difficult. For some of these countries, we know the causal mechanisms quite well. For instance, violence seem to go up in more unequal countries not because the poor start attacking the rich but because the common triggers to violence are people feeling looked down on, disrespected, humiliated, loss of face, all that kind of thing. In non-equal societies there seems to be more status competition, more status insecurity, and people become more sensitive to how they're seen and looked at -- whether they're being disrespected or not. But other things like levels of health or mental illness -- it's a matter of the social environment and how stressful social relations are in the society. Again, if you have a society where there's a lot of status competition and people are fending for themselves, there's a lot of work now on the effects of social stress health -- on the immune system, the cardiovascular system. It's increasingly well understood.
TA: Kate Pickett, is that effect felt only by those at the bottom end in unequal countries, or are the rich immune?
KP: The rich are certainly not immune. That's a second really important finding from our research. Not only is inequality within a society related to a whole range of health and social problems, but the effects seem to travel all the way up society. Now, it is true that the biggest benefits of greater equality are seen at the bottom for the poorest, the least educated, and those living in the most deprived neighborhoods. But we have a few studies where we can actually compare people in different societies at the same place on the social ladder. It's clear that their health and the education of their children is better -- even for those in the top groups, say, the top third of the education grade although by top fifth by income -- that their health and their children's well-being is better in more equal societies. So it's as if we took me and somebody like me with exactly the same level of income and education: if someone like me is living in more equal Sweden than in less equal Portugal, they will do better.
TA: And the poor suffer more because they have fewer resources? Or because, as you put it, the disrespect? Or status competition?
RW: Yes. I think it's not so much the direct material effects of, say, poor housing, as the feeling of being looked down on, the disrespect. Issues having to do with superiority/inferiority. Social status itself.
TA: ...Kate, may I just ask you about your title, "The Spirit Level"? What does that refer to?
KP: In Britain, a spirit level is what you call a carpenter's level or just a "level" in America.
TA: ...the tool...
KP: ...the tool you use to see if something is level. Our publishers actually chose the title rather than us. I think they felt it reflected the fact that in our book we show a lot of graphs with sloping lines showing that things are better in more equal places and worse in more unequal ones.
TA: Is that what you're asking for, then? A carpenter will often use that to find something is perfectly horizontal! Is that what you want? A perfectly level society? Is that what this is about?
KP: Well, it's not. Because actually, we have no idea what would happen in a perfectly level society. We've never seen such a thing and we certainly don't have data on any society like that. As Richard said earlier, the countries that we're looking at are all rich, developed market democracies. What we can see is that if they are slightly more equal than others, then things improve. It's really important for me to mention that we repeated all of our analyses on the 50 US states, looking at health and different outcomes in those different states in relation to state levels of income inequality. We found exactly the same pattern -- that the more equal states have better health and well-being. So even within one country we can see that what might look like rather small improvements in equality have large payoffs. So we're not talking about some perfect egalitarian utopia. We're simply talking about achievable levels of equality and egalitarianism that seem to benefit the whole population.
TA: Within those 50 American states, what were maybe the top five -- the most equal -- and the bottom five -- most unequal?
KP: I'm probably going to get this slightly wrong because I don't have my graphs in front of me. But among the most equal states are Vermont, New Hampshire, Utah and Iowa. Among the more equal ones many of the southern states but also New York.
TA: And within those then, you find what? Those issues of crime and so on greater in the more unequal states?
KP: That's exactly right. More unequal states have lower levels of trust, worse health, more obesity, more kids dropping out of high school, more violence and more imprisonment.
TA: With me in the studio right now is Barry Bluestone, a professor of political economy at Northeastern University, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. He's dean of the school of public policy and urban affairs there, author of any number of books including "Growing Prosperity: The Battle for Growth and Equity in the 21st Century."...What are you hearing in this years of research we're hearing reported on from Professors Wilkinson and Pickett? It's global; it also includes, as you heard, the US. American inequality is now very notable inequality in the world. At a gut level, I think a lot of people would think that if you have a grossly unequal economy... we used to laugh at those in what we used to call "banana republics." And I don't mean disrespect to many South American countries which have now dramatically improved on that front! It might make sense at a gut level. Do you buy it -- as a matter of evidence that inequality can produce this enormous range of social and even physical and medical ills?
BB: I actually think that Wilkinson and Pickett have done a great service. That is, they have really put their fingers on a very, very important issue. As you said at the beginning of the show, we see it showing up in Davos.
TA: Even the rich are talking about it!
BB: Exactly. And for a reason I'll mention in a second. The fact is that there's a lot of quibbling about this new book. I think it's a terrific book. You can find other factors. Our murder rate is much higher. But we also have lots of guns. So it isn't the only factor nor would I think these authors would suggest that it's the only factor that explains these things. When Ben Harrison, my late, great colleague, and I wrote "The Great U-Turn" (the title was also suggested by our publishers because we were seeing things getting better in terms of equality and then, beginning in the early '60's or mid-'60's going in the other direction). We found, for example, that things like high unemployment caused the same kinds of problems. There's a correlation between high unemployment and inequality. So I'm not surprised that we find the things they do. But it seems to me -- and they stress it -- that there's an intermediate variable going on here. It's social stress and the search for social status. In societies that are more equal, you can look up but you don't have to look too far. You can look down but you're not looking too far down. In a society where you have great inequality it's a great leap to get up to the top and if you fall down you're falling a great distance. As a result, you have people under a tremendous amount of stress to succeed. We just saw a report the other day that the level of stress among college students is higher than ever in this society with such great inequality. So in a society where everybody is trying hard to get to the top -- because the top is where you want to be! -- you're going to have a lot of people getting stressed out by it. It will show in both their mental health and their physical health. You'll see others doing it by hook or by crook. You'll see increased crime. So I think there really is something to this...
TA: Let me ask you about crime... I don't know. I don't have the figures in front of me. But my sense is that in the '60's -- the mid-'60's, the heyday of a more equitable distribution of wealth in this country, was a period when we also saw crime on the rise. My sense is that, in the '90's and lately, we've seen crime go down very widely in this country, even as inequality has soared! What do you make of that?
BB: That was more demographic. You had huge numbers of young people, baby boomer like myself. And we get in more trouble with crime. But look at white-collar crime. That's crime, too! And what happens when the goal is to make that million, you'll sometimes bend the rules. We saw a lot of people -- "Wall Street," the movie, was a great example! -- of people striving beyond what would be normal to make it in a society that's really unequal.
TA: Can you remind us just how much inequality has grown in this country in recent decades?
BB: Well, first of all, it was very high in the 1980's.
TA: Inequality was?
BB: Inequality was higher...
TA: ...Wow! Back in the happy days...!
BB: Now it comes down. We used something call the Gini Index, named after an Italian mathematician. The bigger the number, the more inequality. It was about .38. It fell to a low of .35 -- this doesn't vary very much -- in 1968. But since 1968 -- now more than 50 years -- it's been continually rising. By 1985 it's .40.
TA: Those numbers mean almost nothing to most people... What about the concentration of wealth?
BB: What it means is that the top 20% of the population today has nearly half of all the income. Whereas the bottom 20% have about 3 to 4%. That's how big that difference is. What's fascinating is during those glory days after World War II -- 1947 to 1973 -- we not only had the fastest economic growth in our history. Median household income literally doubled, controlling for inflation. But it was also a period of time in which inequality continued to decline. The poor saw their incomes rising faster than the rich, percentage-wise. And it was a time of some euphoria despite Vietnam, despite the civil rights movement. People felt better about where this country was than they do today.
TA: And now the wealthiest 1% of Americans with the greater collective net worth than the bottom 90%. That's kind of incredible. Especially if the evidence holds up here, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present, that this makes an unhealthy community ... country. Megan in North Kingston, RI, is calling
Megan: ...I just wanted to say I'm really pleased you're having this conversation. I haven't yet read Wilkinson's and Pickett's book because it wasn't available in the US for a while. I went to the University College London and studied globalisation. Beyond issues of poverty levels, the biggest thing that struck me --and I thought, why don't we have this conversation! -- was about inequality and how it affects nations internally as well as world-wide. Since living in the UK, I've returned home and have worked with resettling refugees. I always note that people have such issues with immigration and there's some xenophobia and I always wish that Americans would understand that if we had more global equality people wouldn't want to come to other places.
TA: What about more American equality?
Megan: American equality as well because that affects not only me who has been uninsured very often. But in resettling refugees here, the fact that we don't have health care. The issues that the authors talk about: more cancer, more stress. The fact that we don't take care of our own people in any equal fashion.
TA: Another caller from Lexington, MA.
Rick: This is a very interesting subject. I had a question that sort of dives into the methodology and the finer details. Did the researchers notice whether there was a difference in the way that wealth and inequality was arrived at and the severity of the problems?
TA: What do you mean by that?
Rick: Say, for example, in countries where the wealth inequality was achieved very slowly over time, perhaps through an aristocracy that took place over centuries versus countries -- I'd put the US in this case -- where the wealth difference is actually more rapid. In fact, over the past 30 years it's been almost a matter of government policy under the theory that greater wealth attainment would eventually trickle down to the bottom...
TA: That's a very interesting question. Richard Wilkinson? Kate Pickett? What about that? Does it matter in terms of the negative effects of high inequality how or over what period of time that inequality emerged?
KP: We haven't looked at over what period of time, but we do know that certainly you can -- your caller is right -- achieve greater equality through different means. It doesn't seem to matter how you get there. For instance, Japan has quite small income differences to start with, whereas Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries achieved theirs through redistribution -- taxes and benefits. They both do very well. It doesn't seem to matter which way you go. And we've seen the same among US states. Next door to one another we have Vermont and New Hampshire, one with high levels of public expenditure in Vermont -- a big more like Sweden -- and New Hampshire looking more like Japan with smaller income differences to start with. But because they are among the more equal of American states they both do much better on all of these health and social problems.
RW: So it seems as if this picture isn't a matter of simply having higher taxes. If you can have smaller income differences before taxes, you do just as well. It's not a matter, necessarily, of having a large welfare state. It really is about greater income equality however you get it.
TA: Here's a call from Buffalo, NY.
Lynn: ...This is so refreshing and such an interesting concept. It just makes sense to me. I studied psychology and sociology for my Bachelor's and then counseling for my Master's. It kind of takes me back to the theories of hierarchies of needs where, if you're struggling for your basic survival needs that it makes it harder for you to achieve the higher needs, to get closer to self-actualization, to your highest potential.
TA: But here, Lynn, it's interesting because professors Wilkinson and Pickett are saying it's not just poverty, it's actually a matter of the inequality of resources. Does that make sense to you?
Lynn: Yes, it absolutely does. I went to college in the '70's. This would have been very well received then because we were, to me, more open then to these concepts of inequality and helping people to achieve their highest economic, social, and individual personal levels of success.
TA: I appreciate your call. Barry Bluestone, the time Lynn's talking about I remember traveling very widely in the third world. At that time when American equality was much greater. And looking at these societies and feeling intuitively the kinds of stresses and problems Wilkinson and Pickett are writing about here and thinking, "Thank heavens! Back home, in my country, the USA, we've got this big strong middle class. If you fall, you don't fall so far. It lets people be more humane. It's not cushy. You work hard. But there's a sense that we're in this together. There's a sense of community and a sense that the bottom is not a bottomless pit!"
BB: There was that sense. And there was a greater sense of community. We see it even in the last election, a kind of pulling apart, the polarization that we see that I think has some deep roots that Pickett and Wilkinson have touched upon. We see it in our politics. We see it in our economics. Part of the reason we're having trouble getting out of this great recession is that so much of the additional income has gone to a very small number of people who save a lot of it. Right now we need people to spend money. Middle income people, lower income people, working class people spend. So when you have an income distribution that becomes more and more unequal it's more difficult to pull out of recessions. So there are economic impacts, there are social impacts. It affects the whole sense of community. And it affects things like health -- mental health, physical health and so forth. I think, though, that it's also important to keep in mind that there are people making the exact opposite argument. That inequality is good for the country. Because what it does it presses people to work harder, to be more entrepreneurial. Some people would celebrate the inequality in the US saying that it spurred the great entrepreneurial spirit we have, the great new technologies...
TA: Weren't we entrepreneurial before we were so unequal?
BB: Absolutely. I think we were tremendously entrepreneurial. All I'm saying is, there are people who will argue that and that's why this book is so controversial.
TA: ...Caller from Boston.
Howie: ...I served this country back in the '60's. Twice. I'm mad as hell. I think the inequality in this country is getting extreme. When you see CEO's of companies making 400 or 4,000 times more than the lowest employee in that firm. I see Wall Street and the banking system corrupted with their lobbyists on K Street in Washington. There's no voice for the people. I see equality affected in other parts of the country -- in the midwest and in the rust belt. I'm mad as hell! And many of my friends, who 've also served, are getting angry. I remember a time when there was an embarrassment of riches! Your guest authors know what I'm talking about. I don't see this anymore. I just see being betrayed by capitalism in the sense that it's being paid off in Washingon, day in and day out.
TA: Howie, I want to ask you -- and please do keep your cool here -- because one of the things they say is that this inequality can even bring heart disease! Can you see heart attacks coming out of this?
Howie: I want to give the heart attacks to the politicians! I just finished shoveling two feet of snow, and I'm in my early 70's. The fact is, we've been betrayed by the system. I don't believe democracy was meant to just enrich the few and make the rest of us poor. I see a lot of angst around me and it's unfortunate when young people are getting out of college with two or three hundred thousand dollars worth of loans and can't get jobs.
TA: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have you looked over time at the American numbers? For example, if you go back to what Barry Bluestone calls the "golden age of much greater equality in this country" before it got so tilted. Were we better off along the metrics that you have examined for your research?
KP: We can't look at all the metrics. And, of course, our expertise is particularly in health. But certainly at that time America ranked really high internationally in population health -- life expectancy was longer than in other countries. Now you're way, way down in the league table. But I did want to pick up, Tom, on what Barry was saying earlier about one of the challenges to the ideas in the evidence that we present is that you need some inequality to drive innovation and creativity in a society. We find exactly the opposite. We find that equal societies are significantly more innovative and we do that by look at patents per head in different countries. That shouldn't surprise us. We really need to stand very firm against this idea that somehow an unequal society spurs people on.
TA: I have to say that Americans will hear that and think back to the time when we had big communist countries around the world and they were revealed to be sort of bankrupt once they toppled. They didn't have those high patents per head. And we came to see that as a recipe for poverty!
RW: It's interesting, actually, that the eastern European countries and the Soviet Union do quite well until about the late 1960's, give that they're much poorer. But from about then on, health ceases to improve throughout eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. West Europe rapidly overtakes them and this huge gap opens up. If you know what's behind those trends, you'll know why those regimes fell at the end of the 1980's. It's a very interesting picture. Something goes wrong in all those countries.
TA: But are you making an argument for socialism here?
RW: We're making an argument for greater equality and egalitarianism. Of course, as we mentined earlier, that can be achieved in different ways. I think it's really important to remember the founding principles of your country -- the notions of freedom and the American dream. That's a notion that most modern democracies also hold dear. We want all of our citizens to have opportunities to fulfill themselves. And yet in the most unequal societies, social mobility is lower. It's much harder for people to get ahead. They're more likely to fail educationally. They're more like to fall of the tracks and engage in delinquent and criminal behavior. So rather than having an image of America being like a melting pot these days, a more appropriate image would be a very, very steep ladder with the rungs much further apart than the ladder in some equivalent modern democratic society.
TA: Harder to climb. And we've seen evidence of that. I've got comments here from the website. "Zeno" says it's all about opportunity, as you say, Kate. But he then says, "The US has millions of talented people who are unemployed or immensely underemployed now." On the other hand, William writes: "I guess life is just not fair to everyone. If we have a system that does not stop people from upward mobility, I think that's the best we can do." Maybe we've got the best we can do? Barry?
BB: I think the real point here is that I don't think any of us here is looking for a society of perfect equality. First of all, you can't achieve it. But it's not clear that's what you're looking for. The real problem we have here is that we've seen inequality rise to a point where it's counterproductive, where it's beginning to create -- and had been creating for a number of years in America -- very serious problems. That's why very wealthy people at the Davos meeting are talking about it! They can see it in their own lives. They can see it in the people around them. They can see it in their own countries. So the real question isn't how do we get to a socialist society, the question is what are the things we could do to reduce inequality and increase the potential for opportunity. When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, it cost me $128 a semester [late '60's, early '70's] to go to the University of Michigan and ultimately get a PhD. Today the cost of education is way beyond what most people can afford. So they come out with tremendous debt when they start their work lives.
TA: It's a kind of servitude.
BB: Exactly. So the real question -- and I think this is why the book, "The Spirit Level," is so important, is that it reminds us in such stark terms how costly this outrageously high level of inequality is.
TA: Richard Wilkson, Kate Pickett, let me ask you. When the book came out even David Cameron, now your conservative -- conservative! -- prime minister seemed to embrace the ideas. Once they got a little more currency, you got pushback. People saying, "You can look at this evidence in other ways; you don't have this right." How is this sorting out in the UK, this argument? You've got the austerity program there now. Conservative David Cameron talking about different ways of assessing national health. Is this catching on? Or are people saying, oh, you're just trying to undermine free enterprise.
RW: I think there's much more concern for fairness and that the cuts in public expenditure should affect the better off just as much as the less well off. So I think we're beginning to have an impact. But I think what this depends on is that the majority of the population recognizes that what improving the real quality of life depends on is greater equality and why it appeals to even conservatives is that nobody wants a society with more violence, with more drugs, with more teenage births, and so on. I think for a long time people have been worried about the social development of our society. In a sense, all our book is saying is something that people have known intuitively for probably hundreds of years. That inequality is divisive and socially corrosive. The numbers, when you look at them, show us that's that truer than most of us ever recognized. So really, if we want a better social environment and a society that's nicer to live in, we need a more equal society.
TA: Let me go to Shelbyville, Tennessee, and Alton.
Alton: I wanted to say that I think one of the major problems that I'm seeing is that the rich are able to buy the rules of the game and therefore stay rich even as we have all these problems. I had a case in front of the Supreme Court this last week. It was over me being able to watch my chickens get weighed which should be an easy thing because past rules allowed me to get my chickens get weighed. But the Supreme Court wouldn't enforce those rules on the bottom, so we have massive fraud in the meats industry. They're taking over the meats industry. And they're giving all the opportunities to business in that industry because of how they're doing it, and the abuse of market power. We have federal judges, even Supreme Court Justice Thomas giving speaking engagements to industries part of this fraud.
TA: I heard of your case. You were up against the big boys in the poultry industry. Did you lose?
Alton: Well, they denied cert -- which means it went to the lower court where it says I can't even watch my chickens get weighed. I had been talking to the former head of the [inaudible] about my rights... All of the farmers knew this company was cheating them [Tyson]. They're having bomb threats now over the past two months in Shelbyville because of this bad management...
TA: Alton, I'm sorry about the way your case turned out. But I do appreciate, as a citizen, you taking it to that extent. We've got other people here online saying similar things. Here is Steve, on Facebook, saying that "anytime anyone talks about taxing the rich, the rich whine it's class warfare. Anytime business wants to cut wages, benefits...", maybe the way chickens are weighed, "it's just 'good business'."
Beth, Charleston, SC: I'm concerned with the Republican party being fair or not, that they have the reputation of being the wealthier of the two parties, and with all the midterm gains they made in the election, I'm concerned that their goal seems to be to do away with the health care reform bill that was passed.
TA: A lot of Democratic investment bankers -- or at least investment bankers --contributed to Barack Obama back in his presidential campaign.
Beth: Yes, and I live on medical disability and medicaid myself. It's a great concern to me. I see the wealthiest -- the Republicans -- and those that back them are the wealthiest in our country -- threatening to disavow the health care...
TA: ...take supports away. Kate Pickett, Richard Wilkinson -- speaking of health! -- did you look at the health of democracies when inequality comes into play? Or is that beyond your epidemiological purview?
RW: We're looking at democracies. But there are studies that compare democracies with non-democracies and countries with more progressive governments, and it looks as if democracy is beneficial to health...
TA: But what about the health of democracy itself in countries with high inequality?
RW: Yes, it looks as if voter turnout goes down with increasing inequality. There's more "us" and "them" and what rich politicians do is irrelevant to the rest of the population. Something like that is probably going to explain why voter turnout falls off in more unequal societies. It looks as if there's probably more corruption in government in more unequal societies with measures of corruption more suitable to developing countries than the rich developed world. But I think also there's also an effect on market democracy. The great crashes in 1929 and 2008 have both been at peaks of inequality and peaks of indebtedness. So it's not only a danger to democracy, but inequality also endangers the workings of a good market system.
TA: We were hearing that concern... from Davos itself.
John, Princeton, MA: The states they listed as the highest equality level here in our country also seem to be the least diverse. Did they take diversity into account in their measurements here?
TA: Interesting question. What about ethnic or cultural diversity? Did you see distinctions in the countries that tended towards greater or lesser equality?
RW: People have studied this and found that it doesn't explain the inequality effect. But these issues of diversity aren't quite as people imagine. For instance, Sweden has a similar proportion of foreign born to the US...
TA: ...with a big immigrant and refugee population...
RW: ...Yes, but of course your main immigrant group are hispanics. Rather than dragging health down, the hispanic population in the US has health almost as good -- in terms of death rates, infant mortality, and so on -- as non-hispanic whites.
TA: And longevity greater, I think I heard recently.
RW: This isn't a matter simply of what's going on at the bottom of society, in some poor, maybe ethnic, minority. It's something that affects all of us. That's why the differences are so big. You couldn't get ten-fold differences in homicide rates driven just by what's happening to the 5, 10, or 20 % of the population. Violence goes up throughout the population. Teenage birthrates go up throughout the population. Literacy scores go down throughout the population. Equality makes the most difference at the bottom of a society. But even amongst the better off it seems beneficial.
TA: And Kate Pickett, did you speak with the wealthy in Sweden or Japan -- among these more equal countries. From your survey, do they have a greater sense of well-being? from not being in a highly unequal country?
KP: Our work is all statistical. We haven't actually conducted interviews with people in different countries. Although there certainly is plenty of research out there. I think one thing that highlights very clearly what's going on is if we look at children's well being. Because we can think of children as sort of being affected by what's going to their parents as well as what's going on in society. The differences are very, very clear. Children do so much better on everything you could possibly measure when they are born in a more equal society -- whether they are born to richer or poorer parents.
TA: Barry Bluestone, is this a self-correcting thing? If it's unequal to the rich themselves, do they turn around and say, "I don't know. This doesn't feel so great!" Or not?
BB: Unfortunately it's not self-correcting. When we look at great improvements in equality in the country during the 1960's, it was driven by the war on poverty. It was driven by much higher tax rates on the rich. It was driven by the Great Society programs. It was driven by the expansion in Social Security. And so forth. It takes government action and it also takes a market that's willing to change to get us to a level of equality good for society.
TA: And an economy that's not toppling over, as in the Great Depression or just two years ago.