Casaubon's Book

From the current issue of _American Educator_, fascinating research on Equality issues by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (PDF alert!) that shows that greater economic and social equality don’t make things better just for the bottom:

It may seem obvious that problems associated with relative deprivation should be more common in more unequal societies. However, if you ask people why greater equality reduces these problems, the most common assumption is that greater equality helps those at the bottom. the truth is that the vast majority of the population is harmed by greater inequality.

Across whole populations, rates of mental illness are three times as high in the most unequal societies compared with the least unequal societies. Similarly, in most unequal societies people are almost ten times as likely to be imprisoned and two or three times as likely to be clinically obese, and murder rates may be many times higher. The reason why these differences are so big is, quite simply, because the effects of inequality are not confined just to the least well-off: instead, they affect the vast majority of the population. For example as epidemiologist Michael Marmot frequently points out, if you took away all the health problems of the poor, most of the problem of health inequalities would still be untouched.

I think this is an important message – if somewhat counter-intuitive to many, who believe that equity benefits only those beneath them.



  1. #1 Eric Lund
    March 18, 2011

    People tend to compare themselves to people who are higher in socioeconomic status. Thus the rants from people with incomes around $250k who claim that they aren’t rich: they are comparing themselves not to ordinary people but to their neighbors who have incomes of $500k and up, and realizing that they don’t have enough income to maintain the lifestyles of their wealthier neighbors. Once you remember those “poor old rich me” rants, the idea that income equality also helps people way up the income distribution doesn’t seem so counterintuitive.

  2. #2 Russell
    March 18, 2011

    To me, the other natural explanation is social connectedness. It’s one thing to have a nice house, perhaps one of the better in the neighborhood. It’s something a bit different to be so different from one’s neighbors that they have to be walled outside. While there always will be some of that, worse and better neighborhoods, it can reach a point where neither the rich nor the poor feel part of the community, but live and perceive themselves as two different groups, largely antagonistic, occupying the same geographic space.

    Which describes quite a few third-world nations. But is not how I would want to live.

    And is quite different from the American ideal. If you think of every fictional depiction of idealized American towns, in both written and visual fiction, they have rich and poor, but still are a single community.

  3. #3 Jadehawk
    March 18, 2011

    they have an entire book on the subject, which until recently wasn’t really available in the US (I had to order it from 2 years ago):

  4. #4 vera
    March 18, 2011

    Right on, Sharon.
    Inequality sucks across the spectrum.

  5. #5 Ben W
    March 18, 2011

    @1 – but an income of $250k really doesn’t mean you’re rich. Maybe you just graduated from medical school and have $300k of student loans, or maybe your wife is recovering from cancer and you have enormous medical bills. Or like my father, you run a consulting business with extremely lumpy revenue, you might earn $200k one year, but not more than $30k for the next two years.

    “Rich” is better defined by net worth or lifestyle, rather than income.

    Ok, that’s the end of my off-topic rant.

  6. #6 Lynne
    March 18, 2011

    This phenomenon has been so well documented for such a long time, that it surprises me that it even surprises anyone at this point. It isn’t even counter-intuitive – living in a safe,stable, equitable society benefits everyone. It benefits the wealthy to not have to have body guards, to not have to live in gated communities, and to not be mugged, kidnapped, or even just asked for change on the street.

    It is one of the many reasons to support socialized medicine and sane systems of taxation.

  7. #7 daedalus2u
    March 18, 2011

    Maintaining an unequal social hierarchy takes a lot of work and causes a lot of stress. That stress takes a toll on everyone. That is why life expectancy is dropping. Stress of being abused causes health problems, stress of abusing someone causes health problems. That stress is mediated through low nitric oxide, which is why it is heart disease and vascular problems that are major causes of death. Low NO is a killer. It is the physiology behind karma. Abuse people for a lifetime and the stress of that abuse will affect your health negatively. Treat people nicely and the milk of human kindness will affect your health positively. Good and good for you.

  8. #8 Jenn
    March 20, 2011

    The problem with eutopic notions of equality is that they takeaway opportunity or perhaps more importantly, Hope. One of the biggest misconceptions that people have is that equal means fair when in fact that is not ture. Equality and fairness are not the same things. Income and wealth are also not the same things (as per Ben’s comment). It is quite possible to have a “high” income and a very low net worth. In fact, not only is this possible but it’s the very situation that many Americans are in right now and yet our taxation is based on income alone – harldy equal, hardly fair. The truth is that happiness in any community starts with the freedom of the individual. When you take freedom away, you also take away hope and a sense of adventure. You really don’t have to look very far into the past or around the world at present to see that this is true. “Just another brick in the wall…” is a wonderful lament from a post world war II England that was striving for “equality”. If we were just bricks in a wall, maybe then equal would be fair, but (fortunately) the human spirit is so much more than that.

  9. #9 tim-10-ber
    March 20, 2011

    isn’t it more about equal opportunity and how a society decides to spend its money? meaning in the US there are countless tests done in healthcare that are relatively useless but costs tons of money — the US does not have the world’s best healthcare it just spends the most money…

    on education vs prisons…I cannot help but wonder if the government education monopoly was busted and kids were truly educated according to their needs (meaning extra time to catch up) and families that were screwed by the education system when they were kids were taught the importance of education for their kids if we wouldn’t have far fewer in prison, thereby spending much less on prisoners, more on education and better outcomes becomes there were more opportunities for more?

    right now we need a solid manufacturing base brought back or revitalized in our country..we need real jobs that demand real skills and pay decent wages…

    I agree with the comments of others income does not determine wealth…

  10. #10 Jadehawk
    March 20, 2011

    tim, your assumption is counter to the evidence. the countries with the most educated populace and the lowest rates of imprisonment have very strong systems of public education. There is no evidence that dismantling it would help anyone with anything.

    and “equality of opportunity” is a catchphrase that doesn’t actually often mean what it seems to mean. usually it refers to negative equality. That however does not produce equality of opportunity except in a society in which all people are born into exactly identical households (IOW nowhere). A lot of what’s billed as “equality of outcome”, i.e. positive equality, is actually a society’s attempt to even out inequalities of opportunity based on people coming from different backgrounds. The rest mostly functions as insurance: you pay more now so that if you have bad luck or made an unfortunate choice, you’ll not have to suffer later.

  11. #11 Jadehawk
    March 20, 2011

    The truth is that happiness in any community starts with the freedom of the individual. When you take freedom away, you also take away hope and a sense of adventure. You really don’t have to look very far into the past or around the world at present to see that this is true.

    actually, if you want to rely on data rather than pop-culture, you kinda have to look VERY far. Because the data in fact suggests that positive equality produces more happiness than negative equality alone. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that income inequality reduces productivity. Nowray, one of the most equal countries, also has the worlds highest per capita per hour productivity.

  12. #12 Jadehawk
    March 20, 2011

    and “another brick in the wall” is about the authoritarian British education system, and has fuck-all to do with post-war attempts at equality. If you look at the data, the British actually liked such programs like food rationing, and the removal of it caused a lot of anxiety in the population.

  13. #13 auntieintellectual
    March 21, 2011

    I would love to hear how socialized medicine and a sane taxation system would adversely affect my free will. I would also like to hear how poverty provides people with opportunity and hope.

  14. #14 Ford
    March 25, 2011

    The graphs in the paper don’t really show that rich people are hurt by inequality. Fig. 3 shows that even the children of college-educated parents are slightly less literate in the US than in Finland, but they’re still more literate than high-school grads in Finland. Could the problem perhaps be “too much” equality, that is, a larger fraction of the population going to college in the US than in Finland?

    Their other graphs do show that more-equal societies (many of which are also less religious and more homogeneous) have fewer social problems overall, which certainly seems like it could have some negative effects on rich people. But negative enough to balance the positive effects of wealth? You can’t tell from the data in this paper.

  15. #15 quietmarc
    March 28, 2011

    @5: I think dealing with cancer with a $250k income presents much different challenges than dealing with cancer with a 20k income. You can always find an individual case as to why a 6-figure income “isn’t that wealthy”, but if you’re looking at the population as a whole, I have absolutely no trouble calling $250k a year “rich”.

    I agree that income is not the only factor to look at when assessing wealth, but it’s going to take a lot for me to dredge up sympathy for the “poor” people who make 10x or more than the income of me and my peers.

  16. #16 BrendanH
    April 7, 2011

    The US–Finland comparison isn’t a good one for Ford’s point, as in recent cohorts Finns have been getting just as many third level qualifications as Americans (about 41% of the 25-44 year old cohort in both countries, going by OECD “Education at a glance” figures).