Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

A book review from The Times Online. This is something we as Americans really need to think about. I’ve known about this sort of stuff for decades but most Americans are simply convinced our way of life is the best and frankly that’s a crock of crap. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, looks like a fascinating and important read. It seems it may be available only in the UK right now.

This is a book with a big idea, big enough to change political thinking, and bigger than its authors at first intended. The problem they originally set out to solve was why health within a population gets progressively worse further down the social scale; they estimate that together they have clocked up more than 50 person-years gathering information from research teams across the globe. Their eureka moment came when they thought of putting the medical data alongside figures showing the extent of economic inequality within each country. They say modestly that since dependable statistics both on health and on income distribution are internationally available, it was only a matter of time before someone put the two together. All the same, they are the first to have done so.

Their book charts the level of health and social problems — as many as they could find reliable figures for — against the level of income inequality in 20 of the world’s richest nations, and in each of the 50 United States. They allocate a brief chapter to each problem, supplying graphs that display the evidence starkly and unarguably. What they find is that, in states and countries where there is a big gap between the incomes of rich and poor, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy are more common, the homicide rate is higher, life expectancy is shorter, and children’s educational performance and literacy scores are worse. The Scandinavian countries and Japan consistently come at the positive end of this spectrum. They have the smallest differences between higher and lower incomes, and the best record of psycho-social health. The countries with the widest gulf between rich and poor, and the highest incidence of most health and social problems, are Britain, America and Portugal.

Richard Wilkinson, a professor of medical epidemiology at Nottingham University, and Kate Pickett, a lecturer in epidemiology at York University, emphasise that it is not only the poor who suffer from the effects of inequality, but the majority of the population. For example, rates of mental illness are five times higher across the whole population in the most unequal than in the least unequal societies in their survey. One explanation, they suggest, is that inequality increases stress right across society, not just among the least advantaged. Much research has been done on the stress hormone cortisol, which can be measured in saliva or blood, and it emerges that chronic stress affects the neural system and in turn the immune system. When stressed, we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and more likely to develop a host of bodily ills including heart disease, obesity, drug addiction, liability to infection and rapid ageing. (emphasis mine — read the rest here)

In other words we live in a sick society. I think I talk a lot about that and a lot of us with a more nuanced view of “mental illness” do.

4 thoughts on “Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

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  1. See, I was having problems with that too… maybe a society can be crazy long hours when it comes to work but as long as the disparity isn’t that much, the long hours don’t matter. If that is the case, is it an enjoyment thing? Is it because of how they work the hours?

    I would like to know the causation here.

  2. actually the Japanese work obscenely long hours…BUT there isn’t such great disparity in wealth. So I’m not sure what to conclude there. Because, in general, I would agree with you…most Americans work inhumane hours.

    (by the way I know this about Japan because both my brother and cousin have lived and worked in Japan)

  3. This reminds me of a conversation you and I had, Gianna.

    I am nearly certain that I have a “personal rhythm” that does not fit into what is looked at as every day life. My peak performance hours are from 11PM to about 4 or 5AM. I have never been able to get up in the morning, but if I wake up on my own – without having to get up due to an alarm – I’m much happier.

    I also believe US industry creates a level of stress that is not only unhealthy, but amplifies stress related illnesses.

    My experiences only allow me to speak for US life, so I am not sure what life in Scandinavian countries and Japan is like, but I have a feeling their lifestyle is more adaptive to what humans need from life.

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