Sunday, 1 November 2009

Equality and inequality

A fascinating piece in 22nd October's LRB: David Runciman's 'How messy it all is', reviewing The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Wilkinson and Pickett's book sounds like exactly the sort of thing to gladden the heart of an old liberal socialist like me:

Among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them ... but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems.
Sympathetic as he is to this line, Runcimann makes one excellent core point, and several less telling other points, against it. Crucially he asks: 'is the basic claim here that in more equal societies almost everyone does better, or is it simply that everyone does better on average?' Although Wilkinson and Pickett 'want to insist that it’s the first' in fact it's generally the second. This is no good. That's because the data may mean, and probably do mean, not that more equal societies improve life for everyone, but that in unequal societies the rich do very well where the poor do so disproportionately badly that it skews the average sharply downward. And the problem with this, as Runcimann notes, is that 'the idea that finding ourselves on a steep social gradient is something we all have in common is not going to have much political bite. What matters to most people is where they are on the slope, not the fact that those higher up and lower down are on the slope with them.' Runcimann shows that you don't get very far passing off 'the average improves' as 'everybody wins!' They're actually far from being the same thing.

In fact, and much as I want Wilkinson and Pickett's argument to be right, I'm not sure Runcimann is hard enough in his demolishing. So, he says:

The single most compelling chart in the whole book comes near the end. It compares infant mortality rates for England and Wales as against Sweden, dividing the data up into six segments according to the father’s social class. This shows two remarkable things. First, whereas in England and Wales the chances of your child’s surviving rise with each step you take up the social ladder, in Sweden children from the lowest social class have a better chance of surviving than members of three of the five classes above them. Although the figures are fairly constant across Swedish society (around 4-7 per 1000, as compared to around 7-14 per 1000 in England and Wales), it remains the case that children from the highest social group are slightly more likely to die than children from the lowest. Second, even children from the highest social group in England and Wales, though significantly less likely to die than children from other social groups, are more likely to die than children from any class in Sweden; they are very nearly as likely to die as children of Swedish single mothers, who do worst of all in Sweden just as they do in England and Wales. Here, we have clear evidence that a more equal society does leave almost everyone better off. It is not simply the case that in England and Wales economic inequality means bad outcomes are shunted down the social scale; it is also true that inequality means bad outcomes are being distributed across the social scale, making even rich English parents more vulnerable than poor Swedish ones.
But doesn't this ignore the fact that in the UK rich and poor alike use the same technical mechanism (the NHS) to have their babies delivered? Mightn't that account for the 'across-the-boardness' of Wilkinson and Pickett's results?

One other thing struck me as unsaid in this piece, something which, if it's true, will tend to be horribly corrosive of the political agenda for equality. Runcimann compares the data on infant mortality with the data on education, and says that 'Education, unlike infant mortality, is a comparative as well as an absolute good. Parents want their kids to do better than other kids (whereas, one hopes, they don’t need to see other people’s children die in order to enjoy bringing their own safely home from hospital).' But I wonder if his 'one hopes' isn't too sanguine. I don't mean that people actively want others' kids to die; but I do mean something related to that unsavoury notion.

It seems to me that one metaphorical sheet anchor, holding back progressive political programmes that work towards equality, is precisely the inertia of a large group in any society that actively wants to see a set of society (the underclass) suffer; or perhaps it might be more accuare to say: a large group that doesn't want to see people rewarded for behaviour they deem sinful. Sinful, though tendentious, seems to me the right word here. For many middle-class Brits and Americans, the problem with welfare is not the absolute cost of it, but rather that it is perceived to reward indolence, and indolence is seen as sinful. Arguments that it results in less social inequality and so moves us towards Wilkinson and Pickett's utopia crash and break upon the rocks of middle class moral indignation ('I work hard to afford the mortgage payments on this house; Mr and Mrs Chav are getting their house for free, and I resent that'). This, sadly, is an argument that adapts to various ideological environments. For example: many Americans will not be sold on sex education programmes (up to and including abortion) by the manifest and rational arguments concerning social and public good: more deeply ingrained is their belief the illicit sex (which is most sex, for them) deserves to be punished, not rewarded, which in turn means that they are, essentially (and though they may not even admit it, perhaps even to themselves) happy to see unmarried mothers living in squalor and people dying of AIDS.

Or again, it is better to treat drug addicts as people with an illness than as sinners ... better in social terms, I mean. But many people cannot bear the thought that, after abdicating all social constraits and responsibilities, after perhaps stealing, and above all after enjoying the pleasure of getting high on heroin, an individual should be 'rewarded' with medical care. They feel that such people should be punished. The root of this, I suspect, is a profound twist in the bourgeois soul, almost a psychopathology: the horror that somebody somewhere is having fun, which in turn translates into the belief that such people must be punished and hang the consequences. It should be challenged; although it won't be easy. We could start by pointing out that being really poor really isn't fun; that punishing people for being poor involves a deplorable sort of double-jeopardy. Or maybe we should put our efforts on the other side: and convince people that it's OK for others to enjoy themselves ... really it is.


redrichie said...

Interesting bits in light of the governments bizarre decision to fire the drugs advisor chap.

Drug management policies seem messed up to me. I *think* that I'm right about this. I'm sure that with regard to the likes of heroin, the health problems (with the exception of the actual addiction be it physical or psychological) are actually associated with poverty and poor lifestyle (and whatever crud your drugs are cut with!) and not the drug itself.

Problem is that it's easier to criminalise behaviour that you don't like than deal with poverty. Grrrr.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Redrichie: if the US experiment with Prohibition of Alcohol taught us anything, it's that lawmakers are King Canute when the incoming tide of cultural inertia and actual popular practice is against them.