March 15th, 2009


Raise your spirit, level your society!

Inequality is bad for us. That's the message of The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, a new book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two epidemiologists from northern English universities (Nottingham and York).

This is a book which draws political conclusions from scientific observations, and as such it's full of fascinatingly counter-intuitive insights, such as the idea that inequality makes the lives of the rich worse as well as the lives of the poor. The authors take up and run with Oliver James's point that capitalism makes you mentally sick, saying that it's not just the poor who suffer from the effects of inequality, but the whole population; mental illness is five times higher across the whole population of the most unequal societies than it is in the most equal ones. It's not being poor per se that sucks, it's living amongst people with very different life outcomes. Mental illness and obesity, drug addiction and violence, teenage pregnancy and the weakening of community life -- all increase in more unequal societies.

The most equal societies studied in the book turn out to be Scandinavia and Japan. The least equal -- pyramided by thirty years of Thatcherite and Reaganomic "incentivization" -- are Britain, the USA and Portugal. As Lynsey Hanley points out in her review of The Spirit Level, there is now a 30-year male life expectancy gap between central Glasgow and parts of southern England. In fact, you can get almost as shocking a statistic -- as we saw back in January in our piece about folk singer Matt McGinn -- by traveling from Calton, Glasgow's poorest area, to Lenzie, an affluent suburb just eight miles away. Males in Lenzie can expect to live 28 years longer, on average. That's a hell of a lot of inequality of life outcomes in a hell of a small space.

The reason inequality negatively impacts both the rich and the poor is that it produces stress, and stress is bad for your health. This theme actually comes up in the third part of the VBS documentary about artist Misaki Kawai we looked at yesterday. Walking up the block from her Bushwick, Brooklyn loft to the neighbourhood's only bourgeois coffee shop (defined, in this instance, as a coffee shop offering soy latte), Misaki compares the US to Japan: "I don't know, I don't really like New York so much, it's kinda like crazy city. I like more mellow nice peace town, like where I'm from, Japan. In Japan there's peace, and people are still nice in the city. But here, America, people very independent, like each person more separate, not together."

Under the video, someone has written: "Good God, if this chick can live in Bushwick, anyone can." I think the implication is that life in Bushwick -- a super-poor neighbourhood with low median incomes and short life expectancy -- is tough in a way that seems at odds with Misaki's childlike, apparently stress-free manner. But Misaki's description of the city as crazy and unmellow -- not to mention the police sirens cutting across her studio interview -- shows that the stress of inequality does get to her. Nobody -- not even someone doing well at a pleasant job of their own choosing -- lives entirely in a bubble.

When Lynsey Hanley -- author of the Granta book Estates (some of which was written while she was subletting my apartment on the Karl-Marx-Allee during my trips to Japan in 2003 and 2004) -- wrote to me the other day to draw my attention to the Spirit Level book (a surprise hit, the book is currently at 25 in Amazon UK's Bestsellers list, and actually sold out), I replied with a couple of reservations, based on the reviews and descriptions I'd read, and also in anticipation of the kind of things people might say when I endorse these arguments here on Click Opera (Sweden and Japan are great, blah blah blah).

"One thing [The Spirit Level] doesn't seem to cover," I wrote, "is the correlation between high equality and low immigration societies. Is Japan's low Gini level related to its low immigration policies? Is inequality, in other words, just shunted up one level, from within the same nation to between different ones? You could achieve the same "equality" rates by isolating a bunch of toffs at the Ritz; to get in there, they'd all have to have roughly the same income."

"I can also anticipate people saying, when I blog this, that mental illness and other social problems are merely underreported in Japan, and you do touch on this in your article. This is all the more likely a response since I've been covering carpet-lifting documentaries like Kazuhiro Soda's Mental recently."

But these are caveats, prolepsis. I'm going to level with you and say that I'm very much down with the message of The Spirit Level. All the signs are that we are living in a new age of leveling, and not before time. Societies like Japan and Sweden really are more equal, and really are better (and better for you) as a result, for all the reasons Misaki Kawai spells out: they're more mellow, nice, peaceful, co-operative, together. I don't think this contradicts the message in my Prodigal Wanker piece the other day, either. After the fatted calf was slaughtered and the grumbling died down, a new equality settled over the farm. It had to, really.