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Raise your spirit, level your society! - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 02:05 pm
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.

99CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)

What are your thoughts on Japan's very high suicide rate? Personally, I'm entirely unconvinced by the argument put forward in the review you linked to (that people commit suicide more because they know they can't blame society for their troubles).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 02:10 pm (UTC)

I do actually buy that argument. Japanese commit suicide in situations where Americans would sue. They direct conflicts inwards rather than outwards, and resolve them by taking society's view rather than fighting for their own narrow interests. They "resolve contradictions" by removing themselves from the picture.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)

There's also the issue of free will. One person does not deserve to be more wealthy than another because advantages are environmental (accidental). Even the person from the "rags to riches" success story, while not born into a wealthy family, is still born into a situation which will provide him with the mental makeup or the social opportunities for connections that will propel him to wealth. Why set up society to reward accidents?

Communism was a failure because while centralization can increase efficiency at a certain scale, it can then advance to a point where things become completely unmanageable. The ideal might be to keep businesses small and independent, but force equal salaries without bonuses for employees at all levels. Won't happen in this lifetime, though.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)

Interesting -- Do It Yourself: The Story of Rough Trade is a documentary (and being outside the UK I can't watch it, alas) which shows one small business which imposed equal salaries on all its employees in the early days, only to abandon the practice when it got bigger.

Rough Trade is often mocked for its "brown rice and sandals" politics, but I think young Geoff Travis had the right idea, and if Britain had gone his way rather than t'other in the 80s we'd be in a hell of a lot better place -- well, those of you able to watch iPlayer would -- than we are today.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)

Dunno if you know or how related this is but in late february three malls/supermarkets got burnt down to the ground by, as some rumours state, political extremists. That's not fair!

And I personally think that the euqality of Sweden differs a lot from municipality to municipality. Depending on whatever any right wing or left wing (or both) have the most mandates in city hall it also change the equality in that municipality.

Oh, and my hometown got many christians and subcategories. It happens to, lately at least, be one of the more restless places in Sweden lately. Whereas this town with several muslim is seldom written about in the newspaper.

Ah, well, offtopic. But religion and equality are related too, in my oppinion.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)

Japan and Scandinavia are two very "racially pure" societies; Japan actively enforces racial purity standards from the highest levels of government all the way down to the very fabric of its culture.

Human beings are group animals and are naturally programmed through genetics to distrust people from outside groups. If you want the US to achieve similar levels of equality, let's see the last time that happened ... hmmm, when blacks could only drink from certain fountains, Jews had to pretend they weren't Jewish, women could only work as typists or homemakers, etc.

Japan knows what its doing when it enforces its racial purity standards. Don't be so misty eyed and think it's all about free market economics. It's more about our deeply programmed genetic biases... biases that go back all the way back to our primitive origins living in the trees.

Scandinavia is another society obsessed with racial purity, but we'll get there another day. Just because these people are gentle and cute to your (and my) taste doesn't mean there isn't something else lurking beneath the surface.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)

It also makes me a little angry when the Japanese pass judgment on other societies. Japan is the #1 most isolated and closed-off country in the modern world. While that produces all sorts of good stuff that entertain us endlessly, as well as providing us with people who have interesting values we can trump up to oppose our own home values, it also makes their view of the world incredibly inaccurate ... very thought provoking, but not exactly useful for any serious analysis.

"In my society, we're all the same race, we're all the same religion, we all have the same experiences, we all have the same everything. How come this rootless, multi-cultural society isn't as tightly knit as mine???"


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)

There is one dimension that is missing from your analysis. Japan and Sweden are very insular societies where it is hard for an outsider to get a foot in the door. Countless immigrants in Sweden have been frustrated by the impossibility of getting a decent job and a kind of national superiority complex is always lurking behind the tolerant surface. In other words, Japan and Sweden may be good for Japanese and Swedes, but for others ... I am not so sure.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 04:05 pm (UTC)

That point is not missing from my analysis at all, I put it in there:

"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."


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brokenjunior
brokenjunior
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC)

but according to this map on Wikipedia, your "Sweden" should actually be Denmark:


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 05:20 pm (UTC)

Yes, Denmark is better than Sweden in terms of Gini. Denmark emerges as the hero of Oliver James' Affluenza book too, and we looked at how its low Gini-rate (0.247, compared with the US rate of 0.408) even impacts mating rituals:

"In Copenhagen, people don't advertise their attractiveness to the opposite sex via Ferraris and short skirts, but by promises that they will make a good parent, will dedicate time to child rearing.

"The Ferrari guy is obviously telling us he will be absent, earning the money to pay for the Ferrari. The short skirt woman is telling us she will be spending a lot of time on her appearance (or will stop caring about her appearance and be a very different person than the one currently advertised). Removed from a hypercapitalist environment, these people would find each other attractive for different reasons, reasons more suited to what couples actually are, and actually do. (Obvious hypercapitalist relationship prognosis: breaks down quickly, followed by embittered lawsuit in which the richer partner is stung for several million.)"


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mrobot
mrobot
Ben
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)

glad to see you care about hypocrisy again


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)

Well, you predicted most of my caveats, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that severe difference causes all kinds of unhappiness and seems to be correlated to odd things like health, height and longevity (but that stuff is still circumstantial).

That said, I think Japan and Sweden are not models for a future age for the reasons that you've stated (Switzerland too). I've never been to Japan, but a great many of my friends are Japanese and the xenophobia and other problems they report are daunting. However, they are in NYC, so maybe they're representative of people who are dissatisfied with Japan? (But the circumstantial evidence seems to be overwhelmingly in their favor.) I've spent a fair amount of time in Sweden and Switzerland, however, and they are incredible countries that are also incredibly stifling and severely xenophobic. Despite their shallow hierarchies, they're not models I'd like to follow.

Also, you know you have a predilection to dote on Japan and hate on the U.S. and UK. As an intellectual, you need to keep that predilection in check. I don't know about the UK, but the U.S. had their shallowest social hierarchy after WWII. It lasted from the 30s all the way to the late 60s, and was also the most liberal period for the U.S. possibly in the nation's history, and it was also the most prosperous. HOWEVER, it was a pretty xenophobic age, and is still remembered for stifling conformity. The late 60s opened up the society in many great ways, but also seemed to usher in awful neo-liberal politics and extreme social inequality.

Again, those things aren't necessarily correlated, but they should be enough to make you and me pause.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)

I was going to say -- before I got to your last paragraph -- that you're on thin ice if you're suggesting that Reagonomics was the full flowering of some kind of wonderful individuality. I think I slay that chimera in my song Robocowboys: "they're all wild and crazy and one of a kind, anarchists to a man, everybody does it like no-one else can."

If "being an individual" just means possibly getting to start a business that might possibly maybe make you a ton of money that might theoretically (but actually won't) "trickle down" to poorer people, it doesn't really mean much, does it?

Misaki Kawai -- a very typical Japanese woman of her generation, in terms of her influences and attitudes -- seems to me to have a better way to be original. But then I'm biased.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 06:22 pm (UTC)
In Japan there's peace, and people are still nice in the city. But here, America, people very indepe

shift perspective 90 degrees and you'll see that basically in japan one is nice to one's neighbour not because one cares about him but in order not to have to deal with him.
whereas both japanese and europeans tend to be impressed that in america people are genuinely interested in you, curious about you, interact and talk to you.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
Re: In Japan there's peace, and people are still nice in the city. But here, America, people very in

I think you're describing fairly superficial commercial conversations that Americans engage in mostly for the purposes of hustling, or as a sort of "quo vadis?" ("How ya doin?") or as mere phatics. I think that covers up a lot of indifference and isolation in the US, and I think Toqueville was a pretty sharp observer of the origins of this when he said:

"In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fé, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution.... The body is left free, and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says: "You shall think as I do or you shall die"; but he says: "You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people."


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internought
internought
denial o'niall
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)

I'll have to keep an eye out for Misaki -- we're neighbors. For the record, there are at least three 'bourgeois' coffee shops in the neighborhood now, and we're even getting a wine shop just two galleries down from the natural foods store! Although the median household income in the area is still only $22K or so. If you took that NYC income map and shrunk it down to a 10-block radius, it would fit right over Bushwick. It is a glorious microcosm of the US of A.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 15th, 2009 10:17 pm (UTC)

I guess you know that Wyckoff is being dubbed "the future Bedford Avenue"? Right next door to the Wyckoff Starr, the cafe Misaki takes VBS to, they're going to build this big yuppy mall called Wyckoff Exchange, a piece of "architecturally progressive retail". Work may already have begun, or already have stopped because the money ran out.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 12:48 am (UTC)

But do you accept that the more non-disparate their wages are, the happier they'll both be?

Edited at 2009-03-16 12:48 am (UTC)


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 02:50 am (UTC)

how would you propose to establish wage equality? by what mechanism?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC)

In Denmark it's done with a 50% tax rate, and nobody seems to complain (have a gander at that 60 Minutes doc above).


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krskrft
krskrft
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 06:40 am (UTC)

Well, even if we want to put things in the most cynical terms, relatively more equal societies are actually better for the bottom line of the rich because it means more people have the resources to buy the shit they produce in order to turn a profit. If you reduce the amount of capital your domestic labor force can produce to a mere living wage, they are left with nothing extra to spend. You'd have to market your products almost entirely to foreign markets in order to turn a decent profit under those conditions.

This is why I always find the anti-welfare arguments (in America) so stupid. Would you rather have the government invest in a jobless person, in an attempt to resuscitate him/her as a "productive" citizen, or "let the person fail," as it were, and lose his/her buying potential entirely? I mean, I could understand some people being against it if the welfare system were only based on compassion, and had absolutely no economic upside. I wouldn't agree with those people, but I would at least register their argument as a valid entry. Not only does it speak to a moral impairment, however, it is also just really stupid from a purely cynical economic standpoint.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 08:32 am (UTC)

Momus, what do you make of this different take on equality and Japan, by a Japanese academic:

http://www.iht.com/bin/printfriendly.php?id=20503513

Conservative pundits here like to speak of this equality and sameness as being cornerstones of "Japanese" tradition. Nonsense. Throughout much of its history, Japan has had social stratification and great inequality of wealth and privilege. The "egalitarian" Japan was a creature of the 1970s, with its progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth, subsidies and the dampening of competition through regulation.

This all seemed to work just fine until our asset-price bubble popped in the 1990s. Today, the hemmed-in Japanese seem satisfied with the knowledge that everyone around them is equally unhappy.

Signs of despair are everywhere. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among rich countries. There may be as many as one million "hikikomori," from teenagers to those in their 40s, who shut themselves in their rooms for years on end.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 09:32 am (UTC)

I think it's glass-half-empty, glass-half-full stuff. "Signs of despair are everywhere" if you look for them.

This academic is pretty selective and provocative in what he picks out to lament: "we have become a nation of bureaucrats... there can be no justification for all those mostly unused airports... for roads that lead nowhere... for the finance minister who appeared to be drunk at the Group of 7 meeting this month in Rome."

Why mention the relatively trivial matter of the LDP minister's press conference and not the more serious matter of Ozawa, leader of the DPJ, being investigated for corruption over improper payments?

This man defines progress as "establishing individual autonomy and liberty" and says the West has done this whereas Japan has "a concept of order and placement, which is essentially stasis". He is completely blind to the various paradoxes of individuality and liberty which exist in the West -- the fact that we all tend to be "individual" in the same way -- and to the fact that Japan does indeed represent progress in many ways. Its cities and products are more advanced than those of the West, and Japan understands social virtues and living together better than we do. For me, it's simply a nicer and less toxic society than anything I've seen in the West.

No mention at all of the financial crisis, either, I see, which a more bureaucratic and regulated West might have been able to prevent.


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)

One anomaly Oliver James admits to in "Affluenza" is China. China comes out close to the top in most attempts to measure happiness, even as it's become less and less equal, & now does capitalism with far more gusto than America. There is a very obvious way to explain the anomaly, and James is trying to avoid seeing it. Think about it:

US/UK: 1) unequal; 2) diverse; 3) unhappy.
Denmark/Japan: 1) equal; 2) homogenous; 3) happy.
China: 1) unequal; 2) homogenous; 3) happy.

Maybe James et al think they're measuring 1). But they're actually measuring 2). They make this mistake because 2) is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for 1).

Just a thought.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Mar. 16th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)

Well, people keep making this point as if it were startlingly at odds with what I wrote. It's not -- I devoted paragraph 7 entirely to it.


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