It's money that matters

A new book says economic inequality is the social division we should be worrying about

By Jenna Russell
February 21, 2010

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If you like to think of America as The Greatest Country on Earth, and you’d rather not examine its claim to that title too closely, “The Spirit Level” will not be your favorite new book. On nearly every one of its 250-plus pages, a stark, unflattering graph shows the USA topping the charts among developed countries for some social ailment: drug use, obesity, violence, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy. But authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, a pair of British social scientists, have another, more enlightening point to make. With striking consistency, they say, the severity of social decay in different countries reflects a key difference among them: not the number of poor people or the depth of their poverty, but the size of the gap between the poorest and the richest.

It is economic inequality, not overall wealth or cultural differences, that fosters societal breakdown, they argue, by boosting insecurity and anxiety, which leads to divisive prejudice between the classes, rampant consumerism, and all manner of mental and physical suffering. Though Sweden and Japan have low levels of economic inequality for different reasons - the former redistributes wealth, while in the latter case, the playing field is more level from the start, with a smaller range of incomes - both have relatively low crime rates and happier, healthier citizens.

The idea at the heart of the book is not new; human beings through the ages have intuitively understood as much. What is groundbreaking is Pickett and Wilkinson’s compilation of data, much of it only recently available, allowing sweeping comparisons across dozens of nations and areas of well-being, and showing, for the first time, the breadth and strength of the statistical link. Between the two of them, the authors say, they have devoted some 50 years to conducting and collecting the research. Their efforts have been hailed by left-leaning thinkers and critics as a compass for righting the nation’s current course; the book - its title refers to the tool known in America as a carpenter’s level, which measures slopes - is being translated into 13 languages, including Arabic, Korean, and Norwegian. The authors spoke to Ideas from a friend’s home in Washington, D.C., where they were wrapping up a three-week, cross-country book tour.

IDEAS: What is new about what you’ve done?

WILKINSON: What we write in the book is that our findings fit the intuition of centuries, that inequality is divisive, and that’s what we’ve shown....We realized that this pattern applied to almost all the more common problems, to health and teenage births, to mental illness and obesity. The media is full of stuff about what’s going wrong in society, and what we’ve done is finally put the bits together, collate the evidence and put it out there.

IDEAS: How did you come to link inequality to social ills?

PICKETT: We considered a whole range of alternative explanations - the size of the countries, the racial mix, the proportion of poor people - and it’s clearly not those things. It’s telling us it’s something about the structure of whole societies that really matters.

And the scale of the differences we find between more and less equal societies are very, very large - teenage birth rates might be 6 or 8 times as high in a more unequal society. Again, that tells us that we’re looking at something that affects the whole of society.

IDEAS: What are the psychological or sociological effects of inequality? Are you saying that the “social pain” you describe can be a cause of violence in unequal societies?

WILKINSON: I think people are extremely sensitive to status differentiation and to being looked down on, or disrespected, and those often seem to be the triggers to violence. We quote an American prison psychiatrist who goes so far as to say he’s never seen a serious act of violence that wasn’t provoked by loss of face or humiliation, and so on. And in more unequal societies, status matters even more. People judge each other more by status. There’s more insecurity. And people at the bottom are more often excluded from the markers of status, the jobs and housing and cars, so they become even more touchy about how they’re seen.

PICKETT: But the effects are not confined to those at the bottom.

WILKINSON: No. We worry about it all the way up.

IDEAS: So the people at the top would benefit from change as well?

WILKINSON: The quality of social relations seems to deteriorate in more unequal societies. People trust each other much less....In Sweden, people don’t bother to check your tickets on the train or bus. And it just feels so much nicer.

IDEAS: You also write about consumerism, the obsession with material goods.

PICKETT: We want bigger houses and more cars, not because we need them, but because we use them to express our status. Material goods are how we show the world we’re keeping up, and in a more hierarchical society that’s more important. Status competition becomes more intense, and that increases our need to consume....We came across a website in England called “Ferraris for all,” making the point that if everybody had a Ferrari, there would be no status in owning one.

IDEAS: Do they have a plan for achieving that goal?

PICKETT: I don’t think a practical one, no.

IDEAS: What is the reaction to the book like here in the US? Did you worry that you would be seen as outsiders coming here to tell us what’s wrong with our society?

PICKETT: It’s a very emotional reaction, and that surprised us. We sense a real hunger for change, a feeling that people would like society to move in a different direction....I actually lived here for 16 years, most of my adult life, and my children are US citizens, so I don’t feel like a total outsider....And of course the UK is one of the countries at the suffering end, with [the US].

IDEAS: What can realistically be done to redistribute wealth?

PICKETT: Different societies achieve their levels of equality or inequality through different mechanisms, and it doesn’t seem to matter how you get there - the improved conditions seem to flow from more equality itself, not from particular policies. We’re not advocating any particular way....It’s important to realize how rapidly our inequality has grown, and how different our societies used to be. Inequality isn’t some entrenched characteristic. It’s become much worse since the 1970s. And we can shift things back.

Jenna Russell is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at