Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

During World War I and World War II, Great Britain was threatened with extinction. Enemies hounded its shores, its people lived in a state of material deprivation, and the nation mourned daily the loss of friends and family who died on the front lines.

Under such conditions, what would you imagine happened to the health and life expectancy of the non-combat population?

A) Health and life expectancy worsened.

B) Health and life expectancy improved.

Obviously, we would expect the answer to be A, but since that would be unsurprising and uninteresting, the answer is of course B. According to the excellent new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger*, the British society of that era had several characteristics that led to greater health and longer lives (with lower crime rates, too):

  • Full employment.
  • An erosion of class distinctions and class consciousness.
  • Greater social cohesion.
  • Narrowed income inequality, caused by a fall in middle class wages and a rise in working class wages.

Some of you, having read this far, may be asking themselves, "Are the authors saying that we should have more wars?" or "Are the authors advocating Communism?"

Yes. Yes they are. That is exactly what the authors are saying. Now please go away. The grownups are trying to have a chat.

In The Spirit Level, the authors collect evidence that countries with narrower income inequality show remarkably good results in a number of social metrics:

  • Longer life expectancy
  • Better health at all ages
  • Reduced infant mortality
  • Higher educational achievement
  • Lower homicide rates
  • Lower rates of petty crime
  • Lower teen pregnancy rates
  • Lower incarceration rates
  • Higher rates of social mobility
  • Lower rates of illegal drug use
  • Lower rates of homelessness

A few caveats and details: The authors are making comparisons only between relatively wealthy, industrialized societies. Think U.S. vs. U.K. or Norway or Japan, not U.S. vs. Cuba** or Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Among the poorest countries, the best predictor of how well a country is doing is (unsurprisingly) median income. Among the wealthy countries studied, median income predicts almost nothing.

The authors also present their evidence in such a way that it becomes immune to the standard right-wing counterattacks that afflict most comparisons between countries. Usually, if you say something like, "The United States has the same infant mortality rate as Cuba," you could expect a cleaver critic to try to undermine the comparison by citing some difference in how the data is collected and reported, while a slow critic would just say, "But we don't want to be Cuba."

But the authors rarely compare two countries. Instead, what they do -- repeatedly, and to great effect -- is plot the countries on a chart with two axes, with the y-axis showing some rate of some metric of social well-being (obesity, drug use, life expectancy, etc.) and the x-axis showing that country's level of income inequality***, then show the trendline that best fits the data (if such a trend is statistically significant).

So if you don't like the way Italy collects its teen pregnancy stats, or think France's life expectancy is some artifact of their diet, throw both points out. The trendline remains.

They also make all the same comparisons between the fifty states of the U.S., and invariably find the same correlations between income inequality and societal outcomes. "Icelanders just eat more fish" does nothing to explain why Texas has a longer life expectancy than Kentucky, but a shorter life expectancy than Utah.(*4)

That's the beauty of statistical analysis: when you have twenty or fifty points all helping to paint the same picture, the individual quirks of given states and population tend to get averaged out.

A challenge to right-wing orthodoxy

The results really are counterintuitive, and I think they represent a serious challenge to the whole right-wing, laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog orthodoxy. Here is just one example:

Imagine two relatively wealthy, industrialized societies. In society A, the price for not getting a good education is a life of poverty and shame. In society B, there is little market incentive not to squander your education, because the government provides generous welfare and unemployment benefits.

In Society A, the wealthiest people (those in the top 20%) make about ten times as much as the poorest people (those in the bottom 20%) do, so the rewards for being ambitious and doing well in school are huge. In Society B, the same comparison shows the wealthiest members of society only make about four times what the poorest do, so there is markedly less financial incentive to do well in school.

In Society A, polls of high school students show that almost all of them want to attend college. In Society B, a large fraction of the students say that they'd be happy with trade school. Thus, you would expect students in Society A to be more motivated to excel in their college preparatory work.

No surprise, Society A is the U.S., Society B is Finland, and despite what a social darwinist right winger would say are strong disincentives against performing well in school -- no chance at great wealth if you succeed, no risk of poverty if you fail -- Finnish kids outperform American kids by a wide margin. An interesting feature of this gap is that it is narrower when comparing the children of our wealthiest to the children of their wealthiest, and widens steadily as we go down the socioeconomic ladders.

It's almost as though giving kids security about their future and their place in society leads to a more conducive learning environment. But no, that's crazy.

One other example: while highly-paid sports teams win more games than low-paid sports teams, those teams with big gaps between their best-paid and worst-paid players tend to win fewer games than would be predicted by aggregate salary.


I hope you're convinced now that these correlations exist. But if they're so compelling, what causes them? I accept the explanations provided by the authors, which can be boiled down to this: we are status-obsessed monkey people who get stressed and freak out when we don't feel accepted within the social order.

This makes all kinds of evolutionary sense. In the world that molded our monkey brains, there was no more important resource -- or more pressing danger -- than the monkeys around you. If you were an accepted part of the tribe, you could expect a share of their food, protection from outside threats, and opportunities to procreate. If you were not a part of the tribe, you might be beaten, driven away from sources of food and water, or killed outright. The ability to read the social landscape, to know who was allied with who, who might be expected to return altruistic gestures, and how to keep yourself in the good graces of the tribe, were critical skills, and those who excelled at them got vast evolutionary rewards.

It's no wonder that so much of our conversation revolves around who likes who, who is fighting with who, who just broke up and why, ad nauseam. It's also no wonder that politicians spend their careers promising to do things that will increase your opportunity to improve your social status (jobs programs, homebuyer incentives, assistance with student loans, etc.) or promising to protect us from those who would reduce our social status (welfare recipients, illegal immigrants, big business) or demonizing those who seem to give their base inadequate respect (East-coast liberal elites, academics, fundamentalists of all stripes).

Studies in animals show that moving an ape from a population where he is the alpha male to a population where he is the... omega male? What do they call the animal at the bottom of the totem pole? Anyhow, moving to the other population will dramatically raise his cortisol levels, meaning that he is under stress, which has strong life-shortening, mood-altering consequences.

All this indicates that humans don't generally do well at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy.

So now what?

In light of this, what sort of policies should we be pursuing? Here are a few suggestions.

Treat conspicuous consumption as pollution. Like pollution, ostentatious displays of wealth have negative effects on those downstream.

Treat marketing as pollution. The most effective advertisements are often the ones that target your sense of social status. Your teeth are unacceptably yellowed. Your flabbiness tells others that you are lazy, and causes them to find you unattractive. What does your car say about you? A certification in the hot new field of penitentiary services is a ticket to a better life. You need makeup. Now you need better makeup. Your hair color doesn't "pop". Your acne repulses even your best friends. Your Mac tells people that you are a creative person who recognizes quality craftsmanship(*5).

There is something immoral about attacking peoples' insecurities in order to make a buck. But in the United States it is not only perfectly legal, it's tax deductible. Advertising -- even excessive, Nike-scale advertising -- is treated as a business expense. We're effectively paying Pepsi thirty cents for every dollar they spend blighting the landscape with billboards. Advertising works by trying to make people unhappy enough about themselves to buy a product, and the negative influence of advertising needs to be confronted.

We need more equal outcomes, not just more equal opportunity. The more unequal a society is, the harder a sell this one becomes. If you're already extremely conscious of social status, you're already primed to fear that such measures may reduce your ability to improve or maintain your own status. The Right will take advantage of that.

But facts are stubborn things. It's easy to speak glowingly about living in a meritocratic, equal-opportunity, colorblind society where hard work is rewarded with great wealth. It's much harder to do so while simultaneously explaining why generational wealth and poverty persist in such a paradise of opportunity, or why the United States ranks lower in many measures of social mobility than the supposedly crippled economies of Europe.

It's easy and cheap to shame the poor into believing they are wholly responsible for their lot in life. But those who want to do so are trying to lower the bar by which we judge policy; rather than demanding that policies demonstrate good outcomes based on hard numbers, they want us to be satisfied with a notion of equality that can be endlessly redefined to suit their agenda.

Attack inequality directly with greater educational funding for the poor, higher minimum wages, more generous unemployment benefits, universal health care, high taxes on excessive concentrations of private wealth, caps on CEO pay, and other measures. Replace the income and social security taxes of most Americans with a carbon tax (while expanding the EITC to fight the somewhat regressive nature of a carbon tax). Research ways to make education more affordable, effective, and accessible.

If the authors are correct, doing this will not only reduce poverty, but slim our waistlines, increase our life expectancy, reduce crime rates, and cause a whole host of other social goods.

Will it work? I think it's worth a try.

* The subtitle of the UK version was, "Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better."

** Though Cuba does have some notable features which are discussed in the book. For example, it manages to have a life expectancy on par with the United States despite living in what we would consider extreme poverty. Also, it has the highest U.N. Human Development Index rating of any country which has what the World Wildlife Fund calls "a sustainable ecological footprint."

*** I believe they use the Gini coefficient, but they claim that the specific measurement used doesn't make any difference to their findings.

**** Note that we're discussing statistically significant trends in noisy data, not perfectly linear correlations where a certain amount of increase in inequality always results in a proportional increase or decrease in obesity or life expectancy. For example, New York ranks #1 in income inequality, and it's not even a close contest. Yet it has nearly the same life expectancy of Utah (the second most equal state), and a way higher life expectancy than Arkansas.

While the authors never explicitly mention it, my impression of the many, many charts is that classic "blue states" (states with strong commitment to social welfare, that traditionally vote Democratic, like California, New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii) tend to overperform the trendline. That is to say, they seem to do better than you would expect just by looking at inequality in isolation. Southern red states seem to underperform, though Utah seems to overperform somewhat.

I'll hazard a guess about Utah: it's the Church. We have to get our sense of social unity and equality from somewhere, and for a big chunk of the Utah population, membership in the Church provides that. I saw it as a member; no matter who you were, what you did for a living, or what marks of social status you had or lacked, as long as you were an active member you had a clear path to social acceptability.

***** Written on a Mac.


Anonymous said...

Mmm, socialism. What a load of garbage. I especially liked this bit:

We're effectively paying Pepsi thirty cents for every dollar they spend blighting the landscape with billboards.

Yeah, because every cent a company earns rightfully belongs to the state, doesn't it? How they spend it themselves?

The Spirit Level is a massive pile of bullshit. Check the facts and grow up.

Bryce said...

Thank you, Mr. Anonymous, for your well-reasoned contribution to the discussion. Your keen -- and might I add, comprehensively documented -- observation that the book is "a massive pile of bullshit" really opened my eyes.

If you just want to have the "all taxation is theft" argument, please have it elsewhere. While I don't think that Pepsi contributes anything of value to society, the argument doesn't rest on that at all.

The government taxes corporations. The government lowers the tax burden when the corporation engages in certain activities that the legislators considered valuable. I'm arguing that one particular loophole is stupid.

I'm proposing a reasonable tweak to the current tax code, one which is broadly consistent with the way the tax code has been used for decades. It would only affect a relatively small number of big corporations whose products can't compete on price and quality, and who have to paper over their deficiencies by saturating the landscape and the airwaves with their logos.

As socialist power grabs go, it's pretty damned weak stuff. But my billboard drenched eyeballs will be grateful.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.