How Inequality Harms Societies

I highly recommend this Ted Talk by Richard Wilkinson, “How Inequality Harms Societies.”  It’s based on his 2011 book with Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (love that title!).  Wilkinson and Pickett public health experts and specialists in epidemiology.  They analyzed reams of statistics from the UN, World Bank and national databases on over 50 categories of physical and mental health and social well being.  The overall message is more equal developed societies (Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands) have higher life expectancy, less social problems and greater child well being than less equal societies (UK, Portugal, Singapore and USA).  Look for how the USA is the negative outlier in almost every example!

Note also how all data strongly correlates with degrees of in/equality in these nations, and NONE with simple GDP per capita or economic growth.  The USA, despite our riches, scores extremely low on ALL measures of well being, including social trust, mental illness and addiction, violence, incarceration, high school drop outs and social mobility.  Despite our reputation as the “land of opportunity,” the ability to move from one class to another is far higher in Western Europe than the USA.  Indeed, Wilkinson states, “If you want to live the American Dream, move to Denmark!”  Touche!

In conclusion, there are two paths to a more equal future.  First, the Japanese model, which begins with low inequality and less need for higher taxes and redistribution.  Second, the Swedish model, which starts with higher inequality and corrects it with higher progressive taxes and more redistribution.  The USA seems to fall into the second camp – higher progressive taxes, anyone?


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