The humiliation of inequality: An interview with Richard Wilkinson

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Richard Wilkinson speaking at The Pursuit of Happiness gathering in Rome to discuss the theories behind his book The Spirit Level, May 2010.

Canada is quickly slipping from its status as an equal and fair society, according to Richard Wilkinson, a British social epidemiologist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham in England.

After 30 years of research into the topic of social inequality, Wilkinson co-wrote The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, with Kate Pickett (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). The book argues that poverty is not responsible for the social ills it's usually associated with. Rather, social inequality is to blame for epidemics of violence and poor health, and even for environmental degradation. The income gap is narrowest in Japan and northern Europe, two relatively peaceful and healthy parts of the world. At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. and the U.K. have the highest levels of inequality. Canada falls in the middle, at least for now.

Wilkinson and Pickett also founded the Equality Trust (2009), a UK-based non-profit organization whose aim is "to reduce income inequality through a program of public and political education." As part of a Canadian tour, Wilkinson gave a seminar at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University this week. He sat down for an interview with rabble.ca.

Helen Polychronakos: Around the world, conservative and neo-liberal governments are privatising essential services and slashing social program budgets. What have been the effects of such policies on society?

Richard Wilkinson: Pretty damaging. I'm not an expert on policy. My role is to understand the generation of those social problems, the social gradients. Knowing how to best reduce income inequality is a matter for economists and social policy people and I can make some suggestions. You ask me about cutting services. Even medical care is not one of the most important determinants of life expectancy. It's important in terms of the quality of life in old age to have your hips done or your knees done or corneas or hernias, but that is the quality of life in old age, and that's not much to do with the length of life. Many other services, such as early childhood intervention, although we do know that they do accomplish worthwhile things, don't really determine the level of social problems in a society. I think that the scale of income difference and social hierarchy, those feelings of inferiority, are more important.

HP: What causes the social inequality that's so damaging to a society's wellbeing?

RW: Income differences, after falling from about the 1930s right through every decade into the 1970s, widened suddenly in the 1980s. Why they widened has to do basically with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and neo-liberal economics. They reduced our tax rates and changed trade union legislation to weaken our trade unions. I've seen several studies that suggest strong trade unions are an important part of more equal societies.

The "bonus culture" is also to blame. What's been happening really is that the rich have been running away from the rest of us. Income distribution is getting drawn out at the top. It's these fantastic rewards they pay themselves in the bonus culture. It's really damaging to the whole of society. And of course it spreads from the top of the private sector and downwards, and other people think that, well, if they are getting millions I should be getting hundreds of thousands. Then it crosses into the pubic sector and the university vice-chancellors start thinking they should have these kinds of salaries and so on.

HP: Violence is one symptom of an unhealthy society that results from income inequality. Yet it seems simplistic to say that poor people look at rich people and get so enraged that they go on shooting sprees. Can you explain how the relationship between violence and social inequality actually works?

RW:  It's not that at all. It's not the poor attacking the rich. It's that in more unequal societies the status differentiation is bigger. We judge each other more by status. There is more status competition. More status insecurity. More worries about how you're judged. Is this person someone I need to take notice of or is he a nobody? Violence is typically triggered by people feeling disrespected, looked down upon. They experience loss of face, humiliation. And of course people at the bottom will be very sensitive to those things. And that's what counts in a society.

HP: That makes me think of the movie Bowling for Columbine. Michael Moore tries to explain why there is such an explosive level of violence in the U.S. It can't be explained by history. Other countries, like Japan, have violent histories, but their contemporary societies aren't violent. In your studies, Japan and Scandinavian countries have the lowest levels of inequality, as well as the lowest levels of violence.

RW: Yes. And in these school shootings it's often kids who have been left out and are loners. I'm not an expert on youth violence particularly but it does follow the same pattern as adult violence, and there are about 50 different research papers showing that violence is reliably more common in more unequal societies. I think it is because violence is triggered by people feeling looked down at and disrespected. I quote an American prison psychiatrist who says that after 25 years of talking daily to violent men, he has never seen an act of violence that was not triggered by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated and disrespected.

HP: You've been in Ottawa and Toronto for the last few days to meet with politicians. What were your discussions like?

RW:  They are as interested as anywhere else I've been. I think that people look at it seriously. In the federal government in Ottawa I was impressed that so many deputy ministers gave an hour and a half. In all the government departments they were willing to give that time. I just gave them the evidence that's in the book. They were quite likely interested in testing it out. Some people offered alternative explanations. [Instead of income inequality] they suggested ethnicity or immigration or reverse causality. But there are fairly clear answers in the book.

HP: So you really believe that the link between income inequality and unhealthy societies is not just a correlation, it's a cause and effect relationship?

RW:  Yes. There are hundreds of papers looking at health in relation to inequality in different settings. There are 50 on violence. So people know this. And you know that the U.S. has more violence than Canada, it has more obesity, it has more teenage births, it has higher prison populations. You also know that the Nordic countries have less of all these things. What people haven't recognized is how closely it ties up with inequality. And yet people have that intuition that inequality is divisive and corrosive.

HP: It's an intuition for a lot of people. How were you able to demonstrate it in a more concrete or scientific way?

RW:  We do suggest the causal mechanisms. Some of them are more simple, like the violence one I've just explained. The rise in prison populations is due to more punitive sentencing, and not primarily due to more crime. Data has come in that conforms to the pattern long after we made that suggestion. So it's a theory that has predictive value. It's not just something I've dreamed up in a short time. It's an attempt to make accessible a picture that's been growing up in the epidemiological literature that's come out in the research on health inequalities and social determinants.

Aspects of the social environment, social positions, lack of connection, are important sources of stress, and we know how important levels of stress are to the immune system and the cardio-vascular system. You can't really think that stress has an important effect on death rates and doesn't affect anything else. And I think that these same pathways that explain the social gradient in health are probably close to pathways that affect other social gradients. All these problems, which we know are related to social status within our society, get worse if you make the difference in social status bigger. It's pretty simple stuff. The really odd thing is that somebody else didn't write our book 10 or 20 years ago.

People have had this intuition for hundreds of years. There are probably tens of thousands of people doing research on these various kinds of social problems but nearly all of it is looking at individual data sets within a society. They're blind to the differences between countries. I do think it's surprising, given that most people know the overall patterns of greater obesity and violence and so on in the U.S., that nobody put it together.

HP: Canada is ranked in the middle. What does that mean in concrete terms for Canadians in their day-to-day lives?

RW:  Well, first, you probably no longer rank in the middle. You have been growing rapidly more unequal at a faster rate, I'm told, than most other OECD countries, so your position has probably worsened since the data we used. It means that, although you don't do as badly as Britain or America, if you had less inequality then you would have less violence, fewer teenage birth rates, fewer drug problems, longer life expectancy. Kids would do better.

HP: Why has social inequality increased so rapidly?

RW:  I think this neo-liberal ideology has actually spread. In one country after another the income differences have widened. The task is to reign in the top incomes, to campaign against the bonus culture, and stop tax avoidance and all that kind of thing.

HP: We've sensed for a while now that inequality has grown in Canada. But we used to be very proud of our social safety net. Do you think we can go back to being a more equal society, or are these trends irreversible?

RW:  No, of course they are not irreversible. And if you look at the long-term trends in income distribution, most of our societies were very unequal until about 1930, and then there was the great crash and the New Deal. Societies became more equal. So that was a big reversal. Increasing equality went on until some time in the 1970s. But I'm afraid that inequalities have risen again, and we're going to have to reverse it.

HP: You also talk about the relationship between social equality and environmental sustainability. That's less intuitive. Can you explain it?

RW:  Greater equality has a very important part to play in reaching sustainability. Inequality is what drives consumerism because it's about status competition. So if we are going to reign in consumerism, which we must do to attain sustainability, we have to reduce income differences. The other important element in how those two, sustainability and income equality, are linked together, is that sustainability, reducing carbon emissions, involves acting for the general human good on a worldwide scale. In more equal societies, there are higher levels of trust, more social cohesion, so people are more public spirited. More equal societies do better in environment outcomes. We demonstrate this in a number of ways in the book.

HP: On a personal level, what motivates you to keep delivering this message about social inequality?

RW:  I suppose I've always had a strong sense of purpose. I was sent to a Quaker school and I was brought up with these values. I did about four years of manual work, and I think that's informed my research quite a lot.

HP: How so?

RW:  Seeing how much social status matters to people, and how ashamed they can be. I remember people who were doing manual jobs and changed into overalls once they got to work, but they came to work in a pinstripe suit and tie on because they wanted to look like someone. So much of it is about the importance of shame and embarrassment. Are they looked down at as a failure or looked up to and respected and valued? It's really about whether people feel valued or devalued.

Helen Polychronakos is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and editor. Her articles have appeared in rabble.ca, TheTyee.ca , Kyoto Journal, and TokyoWrestling.com.

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