Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Come on Get Happy....Except for Some of You

I was not happy that I missed the first three lectures in a four-part series called "Prospects of Happiness" at Green College. But it's no use beating myself up about it, so off I went to last night's final lecture. It was an unhappy climax.

Not because it was a bad lecture. It was gripping, actually. But it was gripping in the same way a train wreck or a horror movie is gripping. The speaker was Richard Wilkinson, a professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. Wilkinson has spent 30 years studying one thing: What affect does living in an unequal society have upon its citizens? What that means is, what happens if there are vast differences in income in a society--with the top 20 percent earning eight times more than the lower 20 percent, say?

To find out, Wilkinson looked at data from about two dozen wealthy countries. The bottom axis of his graph was income inequality. The further along to the right a country was the bigger the gap between the richest and the poorest. Then he graphed various social problems along the vertical axis. The higher a country was, the worse off it was.

In slide after slide--infant mortality, teen births, poor life expectancy, high rate of violence, etc.--the United States was way up and to the right. It often looked as if it was shooting off the page, headed for the stratosphere. Down and to the left on the charts were the nordic countries and Japan. "I'm sorry they're all the same story, but that's why I'm here telling you this," said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson's thesis is that income inequality has detrimental social effects. He says he's corrected for things like poverty and access to health care. It isn't just a case that the USA has more people and thus more poor people (and more "poor people's problems"). He's eliminated everything as a factor but the distance between the richest and the poorest. And that very distance brings everyone down--not just those at the short end of the stick.

So why would this be the case? Wilkinson thinks it has something to do with social status. A grossly unequal country threatens the self-esteem of every citizen, as you worry about your place in the pecking order. It is a "less friendly" country. While friendship is based on sharing, reciprocity and notions of social obligation, social status is based on power: who has it and who doesn't. Wilkinson said that when researchers give people tasks to test their body's level of cortisol--a hormone that rises with stress--those tasks that invoke threats to self-esteem or social status, tasks which others can judge negatively without the subject having much control, raise levels the most.

It was depressing stuff. The United States did not come out well and it was a reminder that as wealthy and free as we are, we're nowhere close to the dream we ought to have for our country. Even typing that makes me feel like a goddamn communist and of course I'm not. I believe in the free market and I think people have a responsibility to themselves and their families to do the best they can to prosper. But great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few is bad for the nation as a whole, not just for those on the welfare rolls.

Wilkinson said he just studies this stuff. He doesn't offer recommendations. But he did wonder if employee ownership of companies might help address the inequality. I didn't quite understand that, actually, but I do question the massive compensation packages some CEOs receive, even when their companies are doing poorly. And, yes, why not tax the rich more? It seems to me they can afford it.

By the way, here's one of Wilkinson's papers, on inequality and child well-being. The graph is a bit different from the ones I described, and so it goes in the other direction. But it doesn't paint a very happy picture.


mark from alexandria said...

I often wonder what factors determine who will overcome the circumstances of their birth and childhood and who will either (depending on your perspective, I guess) get stuck there or wallow in it. There are cruel and absurd inequalities still, in the US. But, until a strong majority of Americans choose to exercise their franchise and either throw the rascals out or vote the saviors in, I don't know how much can change. Of course, alot of those folks tried to do just that in Florida in a recent Presidential election and were turned away before they could even reach the polls.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Among other discrepancies one may point out that the United States is far more heterogeneous in its population than either Japan or the Nordic countries. Japan discourages immigration and the Nordic countries have small populations.
As for the stress induced by inequality I would say that that is probably more common in the metropolitan areas of America than in its rural parts.

mark from alexandria said...

I am not sure I agree with your analysis of urban versus rural stress. The crystal-meth epidemic came out of the rural areas, for example. I think the stress of urban living is shared to a greater extent by all but the wealthiest, but the benefits are also shared. I think rural poverty, isolation, and intolerance are often more significant stressors.

richard said...

As you point out, the achilles heel of the happiness merchants is to ask what would be lost if society was organised to attempt to maximise the happiness of the greatest number of people. And do you want to lose it? I think Aldous Huxley had it about right in Brave New World.

Oh, the whole debate brings me out in hives.


PS For six programmes on this stuff, put "happiness formula" into google

John Kelly said...

I wonder how many people really KNOW about the inequality. I mean, we all sort of "know" it, but seeing it on a graph was really upsetting, especially as compared to other countries. I'm competitive enough that I want the USA to kick ass, whether it's in the Olympics or the health and wealth of its citizens. I like to think that there's enough inherent good in Americans that if someone (our new president?) made the case that we need to help the poorest, for the betterment of all of us, we would respond.

Candadai: That's a good point and someone raised it last night. Wilkinson said he corrected for that. Also, he claimed that Sweden has a 12 percent immigrant population, the exact same as the US. Also, he said that 40 years ago Japan and the US were in opposite positions, but have switched. And that while Sweden is a sort of welfare state, with many government subsidies, Japan doesn't, and yet it scores well on well-being quotients.

As for urban/rural, I don't think that applies. Wilkinson did something interesting: He plotted all US states. Those with greater income inequality--Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama--scored poorly. And all scored poorly compared with Canadian provinces.

I loved Brave New World! I'm a proud Epsilon, ready to serve my time scraping barnacles off the outside of space stations in exchange for some soma and a night at the Feelies.

Joyce said...

People here in England keep asking me, "Why are you so happy?"
Do you think that's the Canadian side of me, or the Hong Kong Chinese side that makes me so unusually joyful? (This questions is often related to my undying optimism about the weather).