The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Society Stronger
By Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson
Bloomsbury Press, paperback, $18
Why is it that the United States, which tops the chart in personal wealth and income, invariably ranks near the bottom in many international comparisons regarding happiness, job satisfaction, violent crime, mental health, life expectancy, et cetera. A cursory study of dozens of surveys regarding wealth and, the things we associate with the quality of life, seems to come to the surprising conclusion that those two factors may be inversely related, that is, the higher the one, the lower the other.
Is it really true that our material success has come at the price of health and happiness? The authors of “Spirit Level” make an interesting argument that it is not the singular factor of per capita income by itself that registers so backwardly with the quality of life – it is another measurement that is the culprit: income inequality- The difference between what the “haves” and the “have nots” earn and own. It is not a simple figure — it’s a ratio between numbers for the One Percent and the Ninety-Nine Percent. The further apart these figures are the greater the ‘inequality’.
As one might expect, the US is one of the most ‘inequal’ societies on the planet, comparing to both developed and imperialized countries. Not content just to rate countries against each other, Wilkinson and Pickett compare states and counties in the US. Again it was born out: the greater the inequality, the worse the quality of life.
Mark Twain is often credited with the line: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics!” In an increasingly complex society, numbers, particularly statistics, are used more and more often as political weapons, but as any good journalist knows it is often important to draw back from the heart wrenching personal, on-the-street details of tragedy to understand whether a phenomenon is the rule or merely a curious exception.
‘Spirit Level’ is not a particularly easy read. But it is well written and thought provoking. As with all pithy sociological books, it must use available numerical data (has anyone ever done a relevant survey) and it must explain its methods (how do the measurements selected show correlation and then causality) Merely to say that wherever we find ‘A’, we also find ‘B’, does not necessarily prove that one ’causes’ the other. That requires more work, and the authors have done an exemplary job with very relevant theses and conclusions.
Nor is the book a particularly Marxist interpretation. Sociology takes ‘snapshots’ of society and good sociology often compares snapshots over time, to give a hint of time and change. Were I asked to suggest a companion book, more historical, to read alongside ‘Spirit Level’, perhaps livelier and less abstract, my vote would go to Alain de Botton’s ‘Status Anxiety’.
Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the authors, have also produced a number of downloadable DVDs, FAQ and blogsite at. www.equality trust.org.uk for those who might like to pursue their ideas further.