19 January 2010

Equal societies

had the opportunity at work to sit in on a telecast of a fascinating talk from DC today.

not sure if anyone is likely to be as intrigued by this as me, but i thought i would try and put a concise little blurb here to stimulate the brain juices.

the title of the talk was "Why more equal societies almost always do better" and was given by british epidemiologists richard wilkinson and kate pickett who have a book out called "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger."

they have focused their research on the top developed nations of the world in an effort to better understand the differences seen between wealthy societies. thirty years of research combines thousands of data points from dozens of countries over many, many topics and time periods to tell a story. the case they make is that "the income gap between a nation's richest and poorest is the most powerful indicator of a functioning and healthy society."

of course, the way the data is collected (retrospectively) cannot prove a causal link, but they have amassed such a large variety of data over different time periods, topic areas, and geographic areas that the argument is pretty compelling, to me at least.

(income gap graph of some of the countries in the study; a historic look at the income gap of the u.s. and how and when it has grown over the decades. interesting.)

they start out by saying that third world and developing countries are NOT part of the study. there is a certain level of income and material goods your people need to have before they can hope to be afforded health and safety (according to the graph ive seen many many times in public health talks, this level is at least around $15K-20K average income per person). but, once this level of adequacy is achieved (as a population) more is just more and it doesnt provide massive benefits, especially if parts of the population disproportionately gain more than everyone else. their data also suggest that a large income gap in a society doesnt just harm the poor (as is most obvious to see), but that there are actually negative effects on the rich too (see graphs below, highly educated and "the rich" are often seen as going hand in hand).

(example of a low income gap country [sweden], a moderate income gap country [canada] and a high income gap country [u.s.] and how even the most educated in an unequal society have children who dont measure up to those at their same level in countries with a more equal society; even though england is just a couple steps "better" than the u.s. in being more equal, the most educated in their country have less disease in almost every category compared to our more unequal society)

listening to this talk in a small room filled with citizens of canada, japan, england, and possibly beyond, it was regularly embarrassing to see and have pointed out on graph after graph how the u.s. is routinely doing so poorly in virtually every measure. the u.s. was almost always doing the worst, along with singapore, portugal, and sometimes england.

(condensing data on several social indicators [see the list to the left of the graph] the line-of-best-fit is applied to the data and the u.s is doing so poorly that it doesnt even fit with the already increasing trend; the same procedure is done within the u.s. to see if the relationship holds. each u.s. state is now a data point, and indeed our more equal states [in terms of income gap] are doing much better than our less equal states.)

(so the argument for capitalism and the large income gap in the u.s. usually goes that our type of society will be more creative, to try to strive to be on top. yet, our rate of new patents is actually lower than almost all of the other more equal societies; similarly, there is the idea of "the american dream" that anyone can work their way up from nothing. yes that happens, but according to this graph...not often. this uses fewer countries for data points because it required more long term information. this graph shows the likelihood for change between a fathers income the day his son is born and his sons income 30 years later.)

anyway, i wanted to include a few graphs, before your eyes glaze over, but then leave you to explore the groups website yourself for more data should you be interested. you could also try the book, since it is kind of the full report/synthesis on their data so far. sorry if i tried to include too much and got confusing, or included too little and was confusing. i thought it was interesting enough to post, but didnt want to go too crazy.

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