“Why does Income Equality Make Society Stronger?” Why? Radio Episode with Guests Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
9:17PM Sep 1, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Hi, I'm jack Russel Weinstein host of wide philosophical discussions but everyday life on today's episode we will be asking Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett why income inequality makes societies stronger.
A couple of years ago, I started doing triathlons and it has become an all consuming hobby. It has had tremendously positive effects on my life at 50 years old. I'm in the best shape I've ever been mentally and physically. I would recommend triathlons to anyone. But here's the thing. It is so expensive. From bikes to specialized bathing suits. There's always more to buy and the cheap stuff doesn't cut it anymore. If I don't buy professional grade, I end up with some excruciating pain somewhere. It's also incredibly time consuming. I very flexible work hours and a supportive family. And there are tragically to have office jobs or factory jobs, but I don't know how they manage it all. Where I live also helps Grand Forks is a small Midwestern city and a 10 minute bike ride gets you out in the farmland. I haven't been able to swim since the pandemic hit. But I went on a 55 mile bicycle ride two days ago, and the only person I interacted with at all was a farmer who waved from the cab of his massive seed drill. In other words, when I say I would recommend triathlons to anyone, I mean anyone with means sure to split focus and choice are all factors but ultimately, I am healthier because I am economically well off. Consider this another way. Why is it that at the United States the National Hockey League is made up almost entirely of white players, and the National Basketball League is predominantly black. Our team owners just a bunch of racists probably not the issue. That hockey is an expensive sport that needs space and climate control. Every player needs skates and a stick they all need pads and helmets. New to hockey comm estimates that cost 500 to $1,000 per person, half that if you buy used equipment. In contrast, basketball requires one ball for 10 players in each person needs sneakers. Hockey requires an ice rink with regular maintenance. Basketball needs a hoop and a school yard hockey flourishes in the northern Midwest where there is space long winter and middle class communities and a mostly white population. Basketball recruits from densely populated urban areas, poor communities, and the predominantly black neighborhoods of the hotter South hockey like triathlons is a sport for people with money and elbow room. These inequalities establish our options at a very young age. Yes, a black kid can play hockey in 2017 43 out of 700 NHL players were African American, three played with Detroit, but just imagine what these guys had to do to succeed against that social pressure. Now combine this with the fact that poorer areas in the US have less access to medical care, healthier food, better schools up to date, technology and safer streets. And we're forced to ask how poor people can ever be healthy at all. But here's the twist. It's not just that an unequal society breeds healthy, rich people and unhealthy poor, that would hardly be news. It's that an unequal society undermines health for everyone at all income levels. That's what we're going to discuss today. Even the wealthy are worse off in societies with significant income inequality. The rich are better off when there is more inequality, not less. This is counterintuitive, because as capitalists we tend to think of health as another zero sum product. We imagine a scarcity of well being that only part of the population can be healthy at any given time, but there's no reason why this would be true health and some breeds health and others. People tend to gain weight as their friends do. They also smoke and drink similar amounts. If a community can support a co op or a farmers market all shoppers can benefit. If cities tax to cultivate a Greenway or Park, then everyone can spend more time outside. When people act like a community, they become healthy like one. The idea that the wealthy are worse off under income inequality also undermines our perception of individualism. Nothing seems more a product of personal responsibility than someone's own health. But have you ever tried to be relaxed in a room of stressed out people or calm when all of your friends are nervous? That stuff is contagious. You can't just decide to be content doesn't work that way. And it turns out that the psychological contagion does not just come from our immediate surroundings, but from the social, political and institutional structures that form our nations. Each national tragedy in the US since 1950, from the wars to the recession, has exacerbated income inequality. And as our guests today will show, as we become more divided, we've become less healthy. The fact is on Some level individuality is an illusion. We do not stand alone to screen individuals who make our own world through sheer will and persistence. We are parts of communities that help determine even where our bodies begin. And what we ingest, hear and feel are all given by outside forces. And what others can eat, listen to and absorb are handed to them by us, it is genuinely difficult to determine where we begin and someone else ends. Income inequality is not a taxonomy of winners and losers is a shorthand for the ways in which our society limits or cultivates our health and well being. On today's show, we're going to find out why and in doing so, will reinforce the platitude that is bandied about so casually, and argue for the truth of it, that in the face of COVID-19, we really are all in this together. And now our guests, Richard Wilkinson is professor emeritus at the University of Nottingham medical school in England, and has spent more than five decades researching poverty and its impact on people in society. Kate Pickett is a professor of equity geology at the University of York and the founder of the UK based charity, the quality trust. She was a career scientist at the National Institute for Health Research. Richard and Kate, welcome to why.
Hello, thank you.
If you'd like to participate share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is at wire radio show you can always email us at why Radio show.com and listen to our previous episodes for free at wire Radio show.com. So first of all, I hope both of you are faring okay in the pandemic what's what's England like right now?
Well, it's quite strange.We're still under very strict lockdown. We've been under strict lockdown since the 23rd of March. There's a little bit of easing a week or so ago. But pretty much everything is still closed and people are still at home with feel very privileged in our circumstances, but we're aware of How much suffering there is taking place?
Yeah, what lockdown is like for you, is affected very dramatically by whether you're richer or poorer. If you live in the country and have a garden it's very different from if you're in an apartment in a tower block, maybe with a crying child and so on. And that's much tougher.
This has been really vivid for me because of course, I'm in this more rural area, I have a house and backyard. My mother is in central Manhattan and has been there longer. The pandemic started she lives by herself. I live with my family, and just the day to day experience of the two of us it's it's overwhelming, everything. Everything about it changes based on income location, who you're with, it's it's when people started, they talked about this as it would be A universal community building experience, but I'm not sure it's doing that. Do you think it's doing that in the UK?
I think there are many people who feel it is. There's a sort of outbreak of sociability all over the country, Whatsapp groups, streets and villages and so on. People feeling they are in it together, despite the huge economic differences, still well facing a threat from the virus and having to deal with lockdown. And so I think there is a feeling that it's a shared experience, and in a sense that it overcomes the inequalities of income and wealth.
Well, I disagree slightly. I agree with Richard that we have an epidemic of solidarity as well as an epidemic of Coronavirus. And I think we started out with much more feeling that we're all in this together and that is deteriorating quite rapidly. It's very clear from data in the UK that you're more likely to be sick and you're more likely to have a serious illness or die of coronavirus if you live in a deprived area, or if you're a member of a black minority ethnic population. And that's due to both sort of increased risk of catching the disease because of living in overcrowded conditions, multi generational households, not being able to stop working outside the home because your income is so low, but also worse complications and deaths, because those populations are more likely to have underlying health conditions. So it's exposing the health of social and economic inequalities that were there already. And we're seeing that we're not all in this together. Some of us are at much more risk than others. So I think it's the two things go On social solidarity is a real positive thing, that this crisis is really highlighting existing inequalities.
I have a, an odd question, but I want to ask it in preparation for the larger conversation that we're having. And it's how on display is poverty in the UK, in the United States, we have very segregated societies obviously segregated by race and ethnicity, but also by by income level. In the urban areas, it's much more together and you see homelessness on the street, and there are transitional neighborhoods where the wealthier and the less wealthy tend to overlap but in rural areas, even in small towns in in the United States. There's a poor neighborhood and a wealthier neighborhood and so it is easier for a person to To go through life without seeing the difference and without attending to poverty, is that possible in the UK and ours, say, England different than Scotland in that regard?
I would say it is possible. Um, and I should point out I lived in the United States for 16 years. So I know very well, that segregation that you're talking about. We don't have parts of Britain that are so segregated by ethnicity, as in the United States, and certainly in big cities, there are poor and rich neighborhoods next to one another. And, and it would be quite difficult for people to be unaware. But there's no doubt that if you come from an affluent area, and you're middle class and educated and perhaps you went to private school, that you'll have very little understanding of the lives of people who are living in deep poverty, perhaps Even just down the road from you.
Yes, I think much of what's been said so far, including your introduction, concentrated on on the very outward material effects of differences in income. But I think really to understand what inequality does, you have to think of it in terms of creating a sort of aura of superiority and inferiority. In some strange way that I think we don't fully understand people know their position in society, their class and so on. And it might be by their education, what kind of jobs they do or could apply for, but also things like what part of town they live in. And, you know, we've heard of people being really pretty ashamed of where they live and even getting off the bus early so that others The people on the bus don't know that you live in this sinker state. It's those kinds of more cultural effects of inequality that matter. They're still based on income, in that, you know, you can send your children to private schools and so on if you're wealthy, you can eat in good restaurants who are more likely to be familiar with the arts and so on. But it's a sort of cultural superstructure built on top of the material differences in income, which and that material in that that cultural superstructure depends very much on the income underpinning,
I think, in both our countries. It is possible for the rich to not know how the other half lives, but I don't think it's possible for the other half, not to know how the rich live.
We're all exposed to that. reading about it every day and seeing it on television.
It the rich are certainly established as the normative standard as what everyone should be as what everyone should strive for. And in some sense the poor are regarded as a variation. I don't want to say an anomaly because they're always there but but somehow a distortion of of the proper way that a human being should be is that true in in the UK as well?
Yes, very much so. But actually the cry again the coronavirus crisis is is causing change. We now label as key workers, people with jobs that were looked down upon before. So now we recognize that the people who really keep us going are our health care workers, carers for the elderly and small children
people supermarket shelves and take away trash
they're still not paying more, but they are actually being appreciated more. And maybe that will be long term. And we'll see a shift in an understanding of the value of different kinds of contribution. And people
refer to that rather often. The fact that it is the workers regarded as the essential workers who are paid so little.
This is what's so fascinating about your book, the spirit level, in that it really, it is a conversation about this material foundation that you call it, but ultimately is an exploration of our social and cultural connections, our interpersonal relationships and the way that we look at ourselves as individuals and we look at ourselves as a society. Now the first edition came out about a decade ago and then you you have a new edition recently. It's not a new edition. It's a new book. Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. My mistake. Let me let me let me frame this in a couple different question ways then. So the first question is, when the pandemic happened, did you feel like you had established the foundation for the conversation that was going to happen? Or did you feel that that the conversation shifted radically? And the second form of the question is, as your work has changed from the earlier version to the later version, and to this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this new approach to it, or this new book? Does your approach change? And will it have to change again, because of the lessons learned from the pandemic? Or do you feel that there's a central continuity, a central continuity between the poverty research that you've been doing for so long.
It's really a very strong continuity. And in the first book, the spirit level, we were showing the statistical relationships, the tendencies for countries with bigger income differences between rich and poor, to have worse outcomes, to have lower life expectancy to have more teenage births to have higher homicide rates, all sorts of poor outcomes like that. In the second book, the inner level, we were showing at a more fundamental psychological way, why these relationships exist, what it is that inequality does to us, which has those effects. And some of them are quite simple. I mean that homicides go up with inequality, because violence is triggered by loss of face humiliation. disrespect and so on. And in a more unequal society, the differences in status and class matter more. We're more sensitive to those issues. And actually the studies which actually show that we all become more worried about status, higher levels of status anxiety in every income group in a more unequal society.
And then that thread sort of continues with the pandemic. Because I think it's making a lot of people realize how deeply inequality is affecting people's both sort of immediate risk of harm during the pandemic and their long term risk of economic and health harm as well. We're hearing loads of calls, you know, worldwide as a community level, national level, international level, to build back Better, or bounce beyond, or we're hearing lots of different terms, this idea that we should rebuild our societies to be better than they were before the pandemic. And this is a sort of a teachable moment. And every single one of those discussions, they're talking about inequality as the as the heart of this. So I think there is a continuity between the work we've done before the pandemic, and the policy changes that are needed to truly build back better.
So I'm gonna interject for just a second and admit something that explains the confusion that also will make a university students gleeful everywhere, especially my own, which is, we were indeed talking about two different books. I read the spirit level, I actually haven't read the inner level because I didn't know it existed until this very moment. So I'm a little embarrassed here that are that I wasn't as clear in my communication. But what is really fascinating about what you're saying is that all of the stuff that you're saying now is very much established in the first book, because through the the data that you've articulated, you see these questions that you're now bringing up these these these psychological questions, these motivational questions as clearly established by the medical facts clearly established by the health outcomes on the different income levels. And so, I want to ask, Is it possible to have a conversation, as many people want to that is entirely material? Is it possible to have a conversation that you look at blood numbers, you look at physiological concerns, you look at medication, you look at all of these other things, and you can address health issues purely in Material circumstances or do you have to look at the more characterological the more psychological and the more sociological elements or you're not going to get any kind of real solution.
You've been involved in research on health inequalities, the big social class differences in health differences between well educated and poorly educated, which amounts to in countries like United States and Britain, you'll often find 10 or even 15 year differences in life expectancy between rich and poor neighborhoods. And one of the real surprises that I suppose started to come in probably 20 years ago, was a recognition of how important chronic stress is psychosocial stress in explaining these differences, the lower your social status, the faster To your age, in effect, becoming more vulnerable to a great many diseases and recently, it's been discovered that this is a common pattern in many different animal species. crucial to this stress are really three things, issues to do with friendship, your social connectedness, how many friends you've got friendship is extraordinarily protective of health. social status is a second one, and the quality of early life as the third and across different species, but very strongly in human beings. You see, these three factors are crucial in a whole range of social stresses. And I think it's really important to recognize that those worries about how you're seen and judged by other people, you know what two people think that they respect you and Look up to you. You know, we live in societies where some people seem hugely important, and others are regarded as complete failures. And, you know, people use words like trash for them. That makes us all more worried about how we are seen increases those social anxieties and I think those are not those are not the worst kinds of stress, but they're the most common forms of stress in populations. And those are absolutely central to understanding health inequalities.
You mentioned two different things that are related to your answer. The first is, you had remarked that friends are incredibly protective of health and in the spirit level, you indicate that people with strong friend groups get are less likely to get cold viruses, and that people with strong friend groups are also they heal physical wounds faster, with I think is astonishing and really interesting. At the same time, you make this distinction between friendship and social status and suggests that they're in opposition to one another and that they play opposing roles in a society. What's the difference between friendship and social status? And what's the tension there?
In a sense, the two different ways human beings can relate to each other. These things are so fundamental because the way friends deal with the different needs is, as friends share, you share food words for companion, calm and pan with and bread. So your companions of people who share your food and nessa necessities with whereas social status is exactly the opposite. In think of the monkey dominance hierarchy, the stronger ones at the top, eat first and the subordinates who are weaker, only get food if the sun left. So, those are two opposite ways people can come together, either as competitors for everything, or as sharing groups. And we are extraordinarily sensitive to the quality of social relationships, because that's always been an important determinant of well being.
I would just add that research has shown that friendship is as protective for health, in terms of your risk of dying over a certain number of years, as smoking is bad for it. These are powerful forces. These social psychosocial determinants of health
are our popular culture, our literature. It's all filled. With discussions of social status, competition within friend groups, there's a famous movie from about 15 years ago called Mean Girls about competition within High School, high schools for girls, but but even our sitcoms and all of that sort of stuff. There's a lot of this. Do you think that that's what Aristotle would call a category mistake? Do you think that it's wrong to emphasize this, this the the social competitive nature of friend groups, or is that a sign that they're not really friends something is going wrong in the in the interpersonal activity? What happens to friendship when that competition when that social status element infects it?
Well, I think it's really interesting that you said in our culture, we see that because I think what the evidence shows is that this is not true. cultures. So if we look at bullying among schoolchildren, clearly linked to inequality with much higher levels of bullying, that's both being a perpetrator of and being a victim of, in more unequal societies. So those friendship groups where competition becomes really intense, that's much more likely to be happening in society
a nd it ceases to be friendship. You know, feel bullied is it's about hatred much more and do get kids suicidal as a result of even even cyber bullying. I mean, there's there's joshing between friends, but we never treat each other and if if I really put somebody down and you know, think that someone is just there to get the tea or coffee for people, and not really equals status, it can be enraging for them if that's not not true to discuss them in that sort of way.
So I don't think people should mix confuse these two categories and indeed studies that show that a good friendship network offsets some of the damaging effects of low social status. Because other people who value bottom what this is about is whether or not you feel valued.
So it's not accidental that in most of these narratives, the bullies are at a different economic class often in the high school films it's the the rich popular kids are bullying the the poor kids, but it doesn't have to be. I'm actually thinking of a counter example. My Cultural references a little old here but but the English Film for Weddings and a Funeral where there's a group of friends and one is the third richest person in England, but he's so generous and so happy and so sharing with it, that it's never a source of conflict. So if I understand what you're saying, and if I connect it to your research, right, that, that when you find these instances of bullying, what you are really finding is some profound inequality that needs to be addressed.
I think there's no doubt at all that bullying is much more common in more unequal societies, where status is more important 10 or 15 times as common amongst kids of 11 or 1213 years old. I mean,
what we'd really like to be able to measure is bullying among adults. Unfortunately, there are no sources of that kind of data
comparable across countries.
That is really interesting. Part The the the first instinct I had was to suggest that someone does a study on the university level because I've actually found that there's tremendous amount of bullying in the university setting amongst certain types of faculty. But I think that that's probably true. in universities with either scarce resources, or very strict hierarchies. It's probably not true when everyone is in the same boat because the instances that I know of, are instances where one of the faculty members or administrators is threatened by the resources or the reputation of let's say, a newcomer.
I think universities are exceptionally hierarchical places but but many institutions are actually working in two different institutions. I work in a university but also in a national health service based Research Institute, which has a very clean All egalitarian feel to it. Concept flows flows from the director. And during lockdown, you know, I'm spending most of my life in zoom meetings and my meetings with those colleagues are wonderful, friendly, sharing, lots of work gets done. And then some other meetings I'm in, you feel like you haven't got a voice you can't be heard. They've been managed in a completely different way in a very hierarchical way. Reflecting I suppose the different institutions when they're in sort of normal times, and yeah, much more alienating.
So if I were a bullying consultant, or I should say an anti bullying consultant, and and I was going into a dysfunctional workplace and I found an extreme amount of bullying would a first question or the first question I asked, should it be okay, what are the inequality He's here. What are the resource? What are the power? What are the status inequalities is inequality, the the lexicon, the legend that allows us to see the sort of competitive dynamics
and support all the sources of status competition in s. I was once sent to a school where every class in the school, the kids in that class were ordered according to their marks over the last month. And the bullying was appalling. It was a form order class order, and the one at the top was regarded as having the power to boss the others around. That's absolutely what you do if you were to increase bullying because what we want is to value people more equally. The damage that inequalities doing is valuing people. So Quickly. And I think we really haven't gotten to the conversation we need to have about those feelings of self worth the feelings of self doubt, the lack of confidence that is such a common form of stress.
I mean, I think in a workplace, one could start by asking questions of what is the pay ratio here? How much more are the people at the top paid compared to the people at the bottom? So in large British companies, the chief executives often make about 300 times what the lowest paid employees made. So they're in effect, they are feeling that they are 300 times more worthwhile than the people at the bottom so it could be asking questions about that. But then there are power inequalities as well. There will be inequalities and who has a voice and Richard and I have been wrong. A lot recently about economic democracy within work settings as a way of combating those inequalities and getting greater equality more deeply embedded within companies.
So let's talk about this status competition then. And, Kate you you talk about the sort of external influences. And then Richard talked about self esteem and self worth, you cite a scholar who talks about two different kinds of self esteem a sort of secure and an insecure self esteem, that that what we mean by self esteem isn't entirely consistent and leads to different levels of empathy and different ideas of, of how to treat other people. What do you mean by self esteem and how does that mimic or respond to the status competition?
Yeah, we Write about that a lot more in our more recent book. So for decades, scholars would measure what they thought was self esteem. They had standard measures for doing that. And then they noticed that, although happiness was not improving in societies and levels of anxiety and depression were increasing self esteem seemed to be on the rise. And it was also much higher. For instance, in America, among African American men, who probably are the group receiving the most prejudice and discrimination and precarity, etc. So there was a gradual realization that perhaps self esteem wasn't really measuring what we mean by self esteem, which is a sort of sensible reflection on your own capabilities and capacities and confidence in yourself a realistic confidence in your in your capabilities. But instead was more people trying to put on a good front say they're doing okay even when they're not. And so in fact, they were measuring both healthy self esteem and narcissism at the same time. And it was only when the measures changed to sort of disaggregate those things that we can see narcissism rising over time with inequality,
genuine self esteem going down
genuine self esteem going down. Yes.
And with the narcissism came, a lack of empathy, a lack of attention to others. I when I read the passage aloud to my wife, Kim because I thought it was so fascinating, and talking about how the insecure self esteem was about that went when someone is secure with their self esteem, they know the limitations. They know what they can and can't do. They, they can celebrate their confidences and work around their their their insecurities, but For the more insecure self esteem, they're they're defensive and hostile about the things they can't do and can pretend they do better. And my wife's reaction was, that sounds like American culture. And what she meant by that was that, that America likes to pretend that it does all of these things. Well, when in fact, it doesn't like to address what it doesn't do well, and and as this narcissism expands, it becomes less and less empathetic to the rest of the world. Right. And we see now what's going on politically that this is exacerbated even more. So. Can you can you make these claims on the cultural level? Do you think that that what's true of an individual can also be true, collectively or culturally or societal Lee?
We see it very clearly in the data. You'll see where big income differences make status more important. It also affects own evaluation of ourselves and our own feelings of self worth. And as I say, we become more worried about how we are seen and judged by others more twitchy about it if you like. And there seem to be two responses that you see more commonly in modern equal societies. And one level people become overcome with doubts about self esteem, self worth, cotton levels of confidence, and so on, and start finding social contact. pretty stressful, and so you avoid going to parties avoid going out in the evenings. you isolate yourself to some extent, to avoid those social judgments. But the other response, even more common is the two fronts flaunt your abilities and achievements to become narcissistic in a way self aggrandizement. Self enhancement psychologists call it you big yourself up in other people's eyes. You spend more time thinking about self presentation both how you come across conversationally, as well as makeup and appearance. And you see both those responses and the withdrawal as social anxiety, depression, more common in more unequal societies, as well as the bigging yourself up for self aggrandizement, both more common in response to those worries about status being more important with bigger income differences.
So your wife was spot on.
She always always is
much more self enhancement in American culture than there would be in more equal societies,
but more in Britain than many other European countries.
Does just a conversation of the reaction change depends On how self aware isn't the right phrase but but but how self consciously a country is aware of these things? I in the United States, any mention of the word economic class gets yelled down. You know the right especially the moment you use the word class they start screaming bet marks and class warfare. But in England at least the the language of class is pretty much on the surface and commonplace even if there are difficult conversations to be had. The more a society talks about and addresses the the status, just acknowledges the status difference does that make a difference? Or do there have to be actual attempts to really mitigate the causes and the consequences?
I don't think it matters what you call it, whether you dislike the word class and prefer status or something like that. What matters is those feelings of whether or not you're valued self worth. And that's why friendship is part of this picture. And we see, I think, in our modern rather very unequal societies, a crisis of of self confidence, whether you respond to that by withdrawing from social life or or by trying to beat yourself up, they're both pretty sad responses to the same underlying problem.
I want to pivot the conversation to talk about what I take to be one of your central insights, which is that the making a society more equal, does not just help the worse off but it helps the better off as well that that an equal society is better for pretty much everybody. In the society, I wonder if you talk a little bit about what that means and why that is because most of the conversation about economic justice, at least in the United States is raising the bottom. And there is this language of sacrifice the billionaires have to, or I don't want to say the billionaires because because I know you remark that there's there's very few data points to analyze that but but the the upper classes, they have to make the sacrifice, they have to make pay more taxes, and there's, there's this zero sum approach. But your insights indicate that that's actually not the case that it's better off for everyone. Why and how did you come to that conclusion?
It's quite simple, really. When we talk about health inequalities, or inequalities in any other kind of outcome we're interested in like homicide rates or teenage births, etc. There isn't just a Problem among the poor and no problem among the rest of us. For all of these issues, there's what we call a social gradient. So it's more like a ladder where the problems are worse at the bottom. But even just below the top, they're a little bit worse than they are at the very top. So there's a social gradient in life expectancy, there's a social gradient in social mobility, there's a social gradient in educational attainment as a social gradient, in mental health, etc, etc, etc. And so it's not just about a problem among the poor. It's a problem across society. The social social gradient shows that and what inequality does is it makes that ladder steeper, and it pulls the rungs further apart.
So the effects of inequality is biggest at the bottom of society. But even amongst people with good jobs, income Education. If they lived in a more equal society on the same incomes and so on, they probably live a little bit longer. And that kids might do better at school, they'd be less likely to become victims of violence, in that sense, even better off, do better and a more equal society. But the big differences are at the bottom bottom escape says.
So there is there's some sense and you hear this in a variety of forms that if you become wealthy, it's good to move to America, because the tax rate is lower because there's certain kinds of economic freedoms that America celebrates, and and it's probably bad to be wealthy and Sweden, but you're actually suggesting the opposite. you're suggesting that if you compare what it means to be wealthy in America, which is a largely unequal country, and what it means to be wealthy and Sweden, which is a much more equal country, that all in all It's probably better to be wealthy in Sweden. Because there are all of these other benefits.
Yes, that's absolutely right. But also, taking your hypothetical wealthy person moving to America, how they would do in America over the long term would depend on the quality of the country where they're coming from. There's a very nice study out of Harvard, that shows if you come to America from a more unequal society, over the long term, you will tend to do better than if you had stayed where you were. But if you come from a more equal society, and the opposite is true.
You know, this, um, two things popped into my head. The first is that that this certainly speaks to my experience and the people I know who have come to America, from Pakistan and from India, and who have flourished in the United States and then I wanted to think about it People who I know from Norway or Sweden who've done that, and of course, I know very, very few of any. And that made me think of, of, you know, pardon the language here. But that made me think of, of Donald Trump's famous comment early on in his presidency that we never get people from Norway, we only get people from the shithole countries. And clearly, there is some instinctual understanding that if you are doing well in Norway or Sweden or some other, more egalitarian society, you you don't want to come to the United States because you know, you're going to do worse.
Well, maybe it's instinct.
I think people don't look at the data they don't realize, you know how America comes one of the lowest in the rich world for life expectancy, one of the highest in terms of homicides and highest in obesity, and, you know, US does badly and it's been doing badly, since it's income inequality is becomes High. If you go back to, I don't know, the 1950s at least amongst the white population, there was a much greater level of equality. And America used to do well in terms of life expectancy compared to other countries. Its life expectancy is improved, but it's been outstripped by almost every other rich developed country where life expectancy has improved faster.
My wife likes to tell a story. She was on a airport train coming back from the airport in Washington DC. She lived in Washington DC at the time, she's a grad student. And she was sitting next to a German, a German who came and was asking her questions and she was explaining that there was a no drink order in the Washington DC area at that time. That's something had happened, the water was polluted. You weren't supposed to drink it. And she was telling the German this, and the German just refused to believe it, and said, you know, but this is America, these things don't happen in America and just dismiss the idea. Because the vision of America that so many people have, and this is changing, of course, is that everything works incredibly well. And so that, that that sense that people don't know, the reality of America, I think is is is very real, although it might be changing. So then the question becomes, Kate, in response to your comment, how much of this is known by instinct? I mean, how much of this is, is a sort of collective knowledge that trickles through without having to do the research or or how much of this sense of the the connection between inequality and unhappiness and lack of health is just unknown because people aren't scientists because people don't read the literature because This stuff is not talked about.
Well, the reason we wrote the spirit level was because stuff wasn't talked about. And now I think inequality it is talked about a lot. We collect data in Britain every year in something called a British Social Attitudes Survey. And it shows that British people underestimate inequality consistently. Although they wish society to be more equal than it is, and I think that's true. In other countries around the world, people consistently underestimate the state of their society. There was a there was an interesting study that was that was done of Americans, where they were asked to choose the income distribution they thought they'd got, and then choose the one they would like to have. And about 90% of them chose what they would like to have was actually what what is currently Swedish.
Let me say we've been shown the Swedish data they chose it.
And that was true of Republicans and Democrats, men and women of different ethnicities, different ages. So I think there is a human preference and a lot of economic, um, experiments show this for egalitarian ism between people for sharing being cooperative rather than being competitive. And yet we still hear people talking about human nature's being instinctively competitive. So I think we're not and we might have some instincts about what feels good about a society and what doesn't, without necessarily being able to describe why that is or understand the underlying statistics. I mean, I think if you if you just cross the border from Canada to The United States or vice versa, the country's feel very different straightaway in ways that you probably couldn't quite put your finger on, but most likely all linked to inequality.
We are in Grand Forks. We're just a short drive from the border to Canada and our nearest big city is Winnipeg and Winnipeg is often maligned is the most dangerous city in Canada and not the nicest place to live and of course, and it has a rough and tumble field. But the problem is ultimately that it has the largest car break ins in Canada, and there is a few muggings. But nothing like any of the places I've ever lived. When I lived in an American city, there's no comparison. And you do have a sense, a very different sense even even there of what candidates like I want to go back something you said and I want to figure out how to phrase it because I'm not sure that I can I can phrase it exactly right. But, Richard, when you were talking about the 1950s, of course, this is a very touchy area for the reason that you absolutely acknowledged you said that, that if you're looking at the the experience of white people that there was that there was more equality then amongst whites, not counting African Americans. And so there are going to be people who say that, that, that that's a version of just just distorting everything that if you if you and I don't mean to suggest you're disregarding it, but if you if you're just comparing the one group without looking at the oppressed group that then things get that they're not really accurate. There's an expression we use the United States sometimes, which is, you know, well, other than that, how is the play Mrs. Lincoln, right. And what it means is that everything is such a disaster. How can you ask, you know whether there there's good aspects, so so guess the question I want to ask is, is it possible to have a fair assessment of a society or of a, let's say, a subgroup within a society, while bracketing the people who are are stepped on in order to get that? I? I'm not sure that I'm phrasing the question, right. But ultimately, what I mean to be asking is, so much we talked about, we talked about economic data is selective. How do you know when the data you're looking at is inclusive enough to make appropriate claims? And how do you know when certain populations are disregarded or invisible, and their inclusion would would change the results? That question makes sense.
The data we use his whole population data, so the figures on life expectancy Very, very sound for the developed world, the rich countries that we look at. And although figures on crime, they may be different because crime different laws means what kinds of crime is different homicide rates who can really compare accurately across countries and all sorts of other outcomes own kids maths and reading ability where they're assessed internationally, according to OECD criteria. They use exactly the same tests on random samples of kids.
I think Richards right. You know, we try really hard to use sort of robust sources of data that are going to be population based, and where everybody has a chance of being included if if, if not actually been counted as in censuses or mortality data or something, but I think Do you think it's important to, you know, theoretically, always be aware that you're more likely to respond to a survey that is perhaps sampled at random? If you are not from a very marginalized group and so we do you know that there does always have to be some thought about who should be in these data sources who is not. I don't think that's a problem if what you're trying to do is look at what's happening across the range of socio economic status or, or across different ethnic groups or different social classes and more specifically, sort of seeking to make those comparisons. But I do think it's always worth thinking for any source of data or for any comparisons. Is my average true average for everybody? Should I actually be looking at comparisons and distributions across groups? All the groups that I would want to make those comparisons about represented.
There's a struggle every census in the United States every 10 years to get minority and marginalized populations, because they're often unwilling to answer the door, especially if they're not in the country. Legally, and and so how hard is it to for the data gathers and for you as users of the data, to verify that the the methods were made those extra efforts to be inclusive and that the inclusivity validates the data? And I'm not I'm not challenging your choices at all. I'm just curious. How much can you be aware as a researcher of the methods used and to sort of and to make sure that it fulfills your requirements for inclusion is that hard? Is that Is that advertised in in the descriptions of the data set? How does one evaluate that?
I think it varies from source to source. So things like deaths, births, um, tend to be well recorded tax records are quite complete for populations. I think when you're talking about respondents to surveys, that's more problematic, although most of them will report you know, the efforts made to get a representative sample and whether or not they feel they have succeeded,
which we use almost entirely objective data. So we're not asking people's opinions or whether or not they're happy, where we're using fingers on, for instance, deaths or homicides or obesity, or clear measures, but also we're not collecting the data. So we're downloading them from the World Health Organization or from OECD, or from the American census. So it's very unlikely that those results will have biases in that is substantial. And it's very unlikely that those biases will relate and create misleading relationships with inequality.
Do you ever find conflicts significant and, and meaningful conflicts in the data? For example, the US Census data, does it ever conflict with the World Health Organization? Or do you find that largely the numbers are consistent across the board that that there's enough people enough researchers, enough of a history and consistent methodology that there's a correspondence between the data
There's a high level of consistency and quality in the data sources we choose to use. For many things, for instance, the European Union will collect standardized data across 28 member countries, the OECD will do the same for I think it's what 36. Now, members of the OECD things like the Centers for Disease Control, and the Census Bureau in the United States will try to ensure consistency and methods and quality across states. So I think I think there's a fairly high degree of reliability robustness in the in the data sources, we're choosing to use, my comments really on who might not be in the data, I think become much more relevant if you're trying to do local research or understand a particular context.
But if you think of Data like the number of people in prison in different countries, you know, the maybe countries where they measure that rather badly. But it's not going to upset the whole relationship. We know very clearly and there's no doubt at all in researchers minds around the world that which countries have low rates of imprisonment and which are high. And the relationships we find between, for instance, the number of people in prisons in different countries and levels of inequality, make it impossible but that is is somehow a misleading relationship and inaccurate one. And the same for a number of other variables and when we analyze differences between the 50 American states in relation to inequality the night Kids dropping out of high school. Those figures aren't misleading nonsense. They give you a fair idea which states have bigger problems on that score than others.
And this is actually as an American reader, one of the wonderful things about the research because you do have the global comparisons, but you also have the state by state comparisons in the United States. And so I've seen North Dakota, you said North Dakota a couple times in the book, and it was very interesting to read your comments and how they fit with my sense of the state. And so the next question then is is how local can this go? Because the towards the end of the spirit level, you have this comment that baseball teams that have strong amounts of equality and equal pay? I think the implication was do better than than unequal baseball teams. That seems like a fairly local and specific claim done The the the the filter of inequality and the social and and the status competition doesn't really apply just all along the ladder of of size that you can make these analytic evaluations about nations. But you can also make these evaluative claims about baseball teams. Is the filter that robust and is the filter that persuasive that it really works on that level.
JACK, I'm going to let Richard answer this one and go and join my other meeting. I, I should have been in Rome today. I'm at a meeting there. It's moved online. And so I am now going to virtually join the Vatican and hear what they've got to say.
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. and say hi to the Pope. For me.
We haven't got the pope but we have got a Monsignor.
Thank you very much. Yeah, what
you asking about Whether you find these same relationships with inequality at the local level, there are lots of studies which have looked at that. And the relationships are much clearer when you look at large areas, large populations. And I think that's because when you get down to neighborhoods, there is residential segregation. So you might get a very poor, deprived neighborhood. But it doesn't have bad health because of the inequality within it. It has bad health because it's on the downside of inequality in relation to the wider society. You know, that neighborhood is the losing end of inequality in a much larger area, at the state or national level. In a sense, I think what we're dealing with is whether a society has a very steep social pyramid Or a much shallower one. And we sometimes say that bigger material differences within a population lead to bigger social distances, more of those feelings of superiority and inferiority. And I think we know what our position within a hierarchy at that wider level whether it is a state or a nation, they, they have their own hierarchy.
I want to circle around to emphasize your main point about about overall well being, by asking you about something you mentioned twice in the spirit level, which is that well being went up amongst civilians in Britain. During the World Wars, that seemed counterintuitive to me, because first of all, scarcity and anxiety and all of that sort of thing, but also, I never really thought about it in those terms. Can you talk a little bit about what you may mean by civilian well being and why this is an example of precisely the kind of thing you're talking about?
Well, yes, it is extraordinary. But if you look which decades, British life expectancy improved fastest. It's the decades with the two world wars in it. Civilian mortality dropped dramatically, despite the worries about loved ones and fighting overseas and shortages and so on, and the bombing. The housing shortages What a pity To have happened is that there was a sense of shared identity, of shared sense of purpose. And that people felt valued. Of course, unemployment almost immediately disappeared. And the wars were famous for the sense of solidarity. People pulling together and helping each other out. And indeed, historian of war and social policies says that Churchill and the British government during the Second World War, realized that it was important to make people feel that the burden of war was equally shared. And to do that, they realized they had to lower the social hierarchy. And so they took steps to reduce income differences by taxes but they also tax luxuries and subsidized benefits they introduced rationing. So in also earned it and even the royal family made a show of sharing the living standards and the utilitarian clothing and so on of the rest of the population, and that that engendered the sense of pulling together, of all being in it together despite the still being very considerable differences in incomes and so on, and, of course, people cheating on the rationing and shopping each other to authorities and so on. But nevertheless, for most of the population, there was that feeling and we've seen it a bit in this COVID lockdown everywhere. groups have made sure they know know who the vulnerable people on to the shopping is getting done for them all right. And this curious practice on at eight o'clock every Thursday evening of people coming out to their houses and standing at their front doors and just clapping the national health service workers and care home staff and so on the essential workers who are so underappreciated in terms of their incomes. And, you know, our knowledge that our life depends on those people. And it's a very interesting response to the lockdown, the sense of being in it together despite the huge income differences. So that sense of a of a shared threat if you like a shared experience has been created by the pandemic
and it carries over. In I remember this very specifically in 1994 Christmas of 1994 I was in Bournemouth and England and I was having coffee I was staying with a family and there was an older woman in the family who had lived through the war and we were talking about the Royals and she said with tremendous amount of passion and affection, the Queen drove a truck during the war. And and you could tell just the pride the pride and how important it was to her and you know I remember that quite I'm a political philosopher by trade so of course I remember that but last month or or when the when the pandemic started. I don't know how people in England reacted but when the Queen gave her first message, the you know, the working together message it went viral in the United States. It was an people, lots of people were sharing and saying, Oh, if only we had a leader of this, who would express this message in this poise. And as I was listening to her, I kept thinking about this older woman saying the Queen drove a truck, right and, and this woman who was giving this message drove a truck and, and that carried over to me, giving her the benefit of the doubt. And it was very, very powerful experience for me is as you know, I don't have any strong feelings towards the royal family, right. But um, but there was a sort of authenticity about the message, knowing that it has been consistent. And I know that in New York City where where I said, my mom lives, they all clap at about 7pm every day, but there's nothing like that here. And there isn't that sense here in North Dakota, that we're all in it together. And in fact, the moment things started loosening up. People I think, in my opinion, have been acting rather badly and And I think that has to do with this sense of of status and competition and not the sense of community that you're talking about. And so it's fascinating to know that the war, you know, while so many other terrible things were going on that this this, this this increase in inequality had such positive effects. Do you think? Um, are there ways that you and Kate would suggest, we can move back towards this are there policies or their behavior or their national international changes that you would recommend that we pursue in order to recapture these sorts of things?
I think first it's important to recognize that these are wartime examples and the Queen and the royal family and so on. They can make those gestures and, and try and create the image of dwell in it together. But those changes just depend very much on making it look as if the material differences between us as a suddenly smaller, you know, the, the Queen starts doing ordinary jobs and these the members of the royal family in the warded and wearing austerity clothing and so on.
There's that sense of, of, although it's a gesture, it's just a manipulation to create this sense of togetherness, it depends on reducing the apparent material inequalities and to get the real effects, as we see an international comparisons of solidarity, of friendliness, of sharing and so on. You get that in a solid, substantial way, built into ordinary life where you have small income differences. The US used to have very high taxation on on top income zone in the 1960s and 70s. It was 80 or 90% of top incomes, attack top tax rates. We think that that isn't the way to do it. Because, you know, if you had a government that did push up top tax rates, it would so easily be changed at the stroke of a pen by a new government, a new president who didn't like it. We think that the most important way of moving towards greater equality is through forms of economic democracy, by which I mean employee representation on company boards, not just token representation, but very substantial and incentives to cooperatives to employee owned Companies, the formation of those kinds of structures. It does look as if in evaluations and the good many of them now that those kinds of companies are more efficient, they do better in terms of productivity, but they also do better in terms of people's experience of work and, and working relationships. And, of course, as Kate said earlier, in many of the large multinationals, there are these huge pay differentials. But they have those huge pay differentials of 300 to one also have appeared fairly recently. Until the early 1980s. The gap between CEOs at the top of the big companies and the average production worker we're about 30 or 40 to one. But by the first decade of this century, sort of 2025 years later, they were more like three or 400 to one. And so within institutions, there's been this huge increase in differentials. And I think that is, is damaging to production. There have been studies which have looked at those pay differentials, the companies where CEOs are paid more or paid less, and shareholder returns are significantly higher, where the CEOs are paid less. It's quite extraordinary. And of course, in the great the heyday of Japanese economic growth there was quite an aura of CEOs. wearing the same uniforms eating in the same canteen. This is the left breast of the workforce. And the directors not being financial elite parachuted in but often being people promoted from within the companies who had loyalties to other colleagues in the company.
What's fascinating about this response is that it really is at the core, what you're recommending throughout the whole book, because if if all we do in order to increase income equality is tax the rich, then only the rich have status, but if what we do in order to create equality is give agency to the poor and give voices to the workers, then we are giving them the status that they're they would otherwise have to compete for So ultimately, it sounds like your solution is getting right to the heart of the matter, which is how do we respect each person and allow them to, to not have to compete for the status, but rather to be full members of society?
Yes, and this isn't just sort of pie in the sky. About half the countries belonging to the European Union have some legislation for employee representation on company boards. In some countries, it's very weak and others like Germany, it's it's pretty strong in German company with more than I think 2000 employees, half the people on the remuneration committee deciding on Pay have to be employee represent representatives. So you know, you'll see this in one Well, one of the world's most advanced economies working perfectly all right. It has many benefits. Although Japanese, low German income differences have widened, they haven't widened nearly as much as in Britain or the United States.
We have to stop here. But I want to thank you so much for this conversation that has been fascinating. And I hope that when I read the next book, that we'll be able to continue this conversation because it's such an incredibly important one and a very different way of looking at some of these issues. Looking at it in terms of health and well being and, and even some of the psychological considerations that we haven't had a chance to talk about the increase in anxiety and depression. You make you point out at one point that by 1995, the average college student had the same amount of anxiety as mental patients in the 1950s. And so there's lots of psychological stuff and internal stuff that we'd still have to talk about, but this has been challenging and fascinating and thank you so much for joining us. And please thank Kate again when she's done at the Vatican.
Well, thank you for having us.
You have been listening to jack Russell Weinstein and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions with everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, about their book, the spirit level and the way that equality makes society stronger. And I say the spirit level a bit sheepishly because as those of you who just heard, I read the wrong book, and that happens, and when Richard pointed that out, I had an opportunity to avoid it. We could have edited out we could have done smoke and mirrors, but I decided to address it directly. And that's because I trust the listeners. And I know that the listeners trust me that when you are in a circumstance where you're not competing for status, but you are part of a community of friends, who share and are generous and believe in one another, you can admit your mistakes, you can be embarrassed, you can laugh about it. And so, I hope what my willingness to admit my mistakes shows is exactly what Kate and Richard are pointing to, which is that equality makes things stronger. Competition doesn't necessarily make everyone better off competition may make some people better off relative to the people they're competing with. But if you compare similar scenarios in competitive and non competitive environments, those folks who are in the more equal environment are better off. It's better to be rich in Sweden than it is to be rich in the United States. That's counterintuitive because we think capitalism, but nevertheless, it turns out, it's better in terms of life expectancy, in terms of safety, in terms of mental health, in terms of child education, all of those things are better when you're in a more equal society. And so being able to admit my mistake and being able to chuckle and laugh at myself, and I'm sure Some of you are rolling your eyes at jack while he does this. It really goes to show how vulnerable we can be in an environment of trust and friendship and fairness. And ultimately, that's the question we have to ask ourselves right now in the United States. We live in an unequal society. Is it so unequal, that we can't be vulnerable? I think maybe it is. I think we are at a time when we are so nervous about the bottom falling out that we are so nervous about making a mistake of that so nervous about doing the wrong thing, that everything is going to fall apart, we get sick, we become bankrupt. We make a mistake at work, we become fired. How much better would our lives be if we were equal and not competing for status and resources, but rather with friends Who helped us share and be generous and have better lives. That is the message of the spirit level. And that is the message of this discussion. And I hope that it makes sense to all of you. If you liked what you heard, please do share your insights on social networks and tag us so that we can share it as well. Otherwise, you've been listening to Jack Russel Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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