Saturday, January 30, 2010

Income inequality is killing us

I don't mean that in a metaphorical sense. Rather, the health effects for those of us unfortunate enough to live in societies in which the distribution of wealth is extremely unequal are quite dire. That this is the case is hardly a novel discovery, but one that bears repeating nonetheless. A few clips from the article (h/t naked capitalism):
Two British intellectuals — one a distinguished, gray-haired professor emeritus, the other a rising young academic superstar — have just finished a 15-day speaking tour across the United States. They came to fan the flames of “populist rage.”

We don’t, of course, normally associate populist rage with sophisticated scholars. Our most eminent pundits almost always employ "populist rage” as a condescending, even derisive, put-down, a tag for an unfocused, unthinking anger directed toward elites — a cry from the great unwashed masses born of frustration and envy.


Over 200 studies since the early 1980s have now documented that people living in societies where wealth has concentrated at the top of the economic ladder live significantly shorter, less healthy lives than people who live in societies that spread their wealth more evenly.

And we’re not talking just poor folks here. All people in unequal societies do worse. Middle-income people in the United States, the world’s most unequal developed nation, have shorter lifespans than middle-income people in Japan, Sweden and a host of other more equal nations.

This same dynamic, Wilkinson and Pickett show in their new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, is operating on all our most basic yardsticks of social decency. On everything from homicides and teen pregnancies to drug addiction and levels of trust, people living in more equal nations do better — from three to 10 times better — than people in societies where treasure tilts to the top.

And that treasure, in the United States, is tilting top-bound as rapidly as ever. The latest Wall Street bank bonus totals may have no precedent in American history. Seldom — if ever — have so few profited so profusely in the midst of a general economic collapse.


The data from epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett remind us that gaps like these have consequences: they translate into ever-higher levels of stress and insecurity in nearly every corner of our daily lives. This economic insecurity assaults more than just our household finances. Over time, the chronic stress it causes actually wears down our immune systems. Our epic inequality, in essence, is quite literally killing us.
There's a line from an old social psychology textbook on human aggression that I find quite apt in explaining whatever populist rage we might be seeing: we're nasty when we feel bad. In essence, one means of dealing with chronic stress is anger. In a way, expressing that anger would seem to me a healthy sign, especially to the extent that the anger is directed at the sources of the stress. My only concerns are in how that anger is expressed and how it gets channeled. Certainly one point folks on DC need to get through their thick skulls is that the current status quo is killing us, and that they'd damn well better start acting to fix things. More tax cuts for the rich (which I think is the "solution" offered by the GOP, as well as the puppet masters pulling the strings of the Tea Party organizations) won't cut it, nor will vague promises of change and half-measures (the typical Democrats' "solution") cut it either.

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