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Why Greater Equality Makes Us Stronger

By every measure that matters, relatively equal nations far outperform nations where income and wealth concentrate at the top. This powerful new book explores these contrasts — and explains them.

The Spirit Level [1]A review of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Us Stronger. Bloomsbury Press, 2009

Huge numbers of people in the United States hold prescriptions for anti-depressants. Huge numbers of other Americans “self-medicate” — through illegal drugs and alcohol. Huge numbers of Americans, in other words, are feeling plenty of pain. Why? What’s causing all this anguish?

Our conventional wisdom blames the grind of our always-on-the-go modern existence, the stresses and strains of life in the fast lane. The conventional wisdom, suggests this splendid new book, has that half-right. Stress is indeed doing us in. But that stress doesn’t come from “modern life.”

That stress comes from inequality, the vast gaps in income and wealth that so divide us.

How can the authors of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, be so sure? They’ve crunched the numbers. All of them, you might say.

These two distinguished epidemiologists have identified nearly every social problem where reliable data let us compare how well — or poorly — the major nations of the developed world are delivering a decent quality of life.

People in more equal societies simply live longer, healthier, and happier lives than people in more unequal societies. And not just poor people in these societies, but all people.

Epidemiologists study the health of populations, and Wilkinson and Pickett have, naturally enough, included in their comparisons all the basic health yardsticks. In which developed nations, they ask, do people live the longest? What nations show the highest levels of obesity? Where in the developed world do people suffer the most mental illness?

But the comparisons don’t stop there. In which nations, Wilkinson and Pickett wonder, do children do the best in school? Where do people born at the bottom of the economic ladder have the best shot at climbing up? Which nations send the most people to prison? Have the most teenage moms? Exhibit the highest levels of trust? Tally the most homicides?

Wilkinson and Pickett answer all these questions — and many more. And their answers fascinate. The nations of the developed world, so alike on the trappings of daily life, turn out to differ enormously on the markers that measure how well we lead our lives.

People in some developed nations, the data show, can be anywhere from three to ten times more likely than people in other developed nations to be obese or get murdered, to mistrust others or have a pregnant teen daughter, to become a drug addict or escape from poverty.

And the nations that do the best, on yardstick after yardstick, all turn out to share one basic trait. They all share their wealth.

“If you want to know why one country does better or worse than another,” as Wilkinson and Pickett note simply, “the first thing to look at is the extent of inequality.”

The United States, the developed world’s most unequal major nation, ranks at or near the bottom on every quality-of-life indicator that Wilkinson and Pickett examine. Portugal and the UK, nations with levels of inequality that rival the United States, rank near that same bottom.

Japan and the Scandinavian nations, the world’s most equal major developed nations, show the exact opposite trend line. They all rank, on yardstick after yardstick, at or near the top.

And we see the same pattern within the United States. America’s most equal states — New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Vermont — all consistently outperform the least equal, states like Mississippi and Alabama.

The wider the economic gaps between us, the more social status matters. The more social status matters, the more likely we will be to feel shame and humiliation. The more stress these emotions evoke in us, the weaker we get

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People in more equal societies simply live longer, healthier, and happier lives than people in more unequal societies. And not just poor people in these societies, Wilkinson and Pickett emphasize continually, but all people.

If you have a middle class income in an unequal society, you’re going to be more stressed and less healthy — mentally and physically — than someone with the same income in a more equal society.

So what makes inequality so potent a curse? Wilkinson and Pickett explore the impact of inequality from all sorts of angles. Sociologically, for instance, they explain how “the stresses of a more unequal society — of low social status — have penetrated family life and relationships,” how inequality undercuts the sense and reality of community and fosters, in their place, suspicion and fear.

“We tend to choose our friends from among our near equals and have little to do with those much richer or much poorer,” the two authors note. “And when we have less to do with other kinds of people, it’s harder for us to trust them.”

The wider the economic gaps between us, The Spirit Level helps us understand, the more social status matters. The more social status matters, the more likely we will be to feel shame and humiliation. The more stress these emotions evoke in us, the weaker we get.

“Chronic stress,” The Spirit Level observes, “wears us down and wears us out.”

Want the biochemistry behind that wearing down? The Spirit Level has it for you, in passages you don’t have to be a biochemist to comprehend. Wilkinson and Pickett can speak academese as well as anyone. But they don’t speak that here. They’ve attempted instead to make a generation’s worth of scholarship on inequality accessible to the general public. And they’ve succeeded.

The Spirit Level appeared earlier this year in Britain. Wilkinson and Pickett, one British daily noted [2], may have produced “the most important book of the year.” They have. Anyone can order [3] the British edition, right now, online. An American edition will appear [4] the end of this year.

Sign up for To Much [5]“In the past,” Wilkinson and Pickett note as they close this remarkable book, “when arguments about inequality centered on the privations of the poor and on what is fair, reducing inequality depended on coaxing or scaring the better-off into adopting a more altruistic attitude to the poor.”

But that’s all changed, the authors point out, now that “we know that inequality affects so many outcomes, across so much of society.” Reducing inequality, they add, has become “a project in which we all have a shared interest.”

If you share that interest, get this book. Give this book to others. We need a movement to make the world more equal. This book can help create it.

Interested in getting a more in-depth sense of what Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have to offer? Check out the Equality Trust [6], a new Web portal on inequality that highlights their data and insights.

.— Sam Pizzigati, editor, Too Much, an online weekly on excess and inequality.