March 19, 2010

The Source Of Society's Ills


hint: it's the guy on the right

(Part 1 here)

Richard Wilkinson, epidemiologist, looked at data to determine if numerous social ills-- from crime to teen pregnancy to mental illness-- are caused by any one single factor.

In fairness, he knew in advance what he wanted the answer to be, so when he found it it wasn't so much a surprise as a potential 350 page book available at Amazon.  But data is data.

One might accuse me of misrepresenting people's ideas, so I'll give Wilkinson the first word:

[Aside: did this make you angry?  Realize your anger is directed at the people, not specifically the ideas even though you disagree; you hate the kind of people you imagine this video represents.  Empty political discourse reinforces a division among people, not ideas.  Not only did Wilkinson fail at winning you over, he's made it impossible for you to even consider listening.]

The single cause that he found isn't poverty or a lack of economic growth.  What Wilkinson did not find-- and what too many other intelligent people think that he found-- is that income inequality is the cause of society's ills.  The problem is not that your country has too many poor people:

50 percent poverty.JPG

The single cause is relative inequality. Those 25% Americans who live 50% below the average income still have a lot compared to Slovakians; but they're sicker/unhappier than most Slovakians because they are poorer than other Americans

Wilkinson makes explicit that the relationship of relative inequality to social ills is 

  • nation specific (Americans compare themselves to other Americans, not Slovakians)
  • in one direction: crime/obesity/unhappiness is caused by income inequality, not the other way around

and implicitly that the issue is not necessarily an inability to access services (e.g. health care) but a relative inability to participate in that society. By analogy that is not at all a joke: the problem isn't that you don't have a million dollars, the problem is that the other guy does, and now he doesn't want to hang out with you.

Wilkinson has numerous solutions, previously discussed at Starbucks, of varying levels of efficacy or insanity, depending:

  • progressive income and property taxes
  • good labour law, protection of union rights
  • more generous pensions
  • higher minimum wages
  • ceiling/maximum wage


It's important to point out three things:

  1. Why he titled his book, "The Spirit Level:"  Not a reference to living free of materialism, but rather a carpenter's tool to check and see if things are level.  There's no "invisible hand" at work here.
  2. Wilkinson is not just another academic social policy theorist who references Marx; he is also the editor of the 2003 version of the WHO report on social justice.  
  3. Despite Wilkinson's explicit reference to inequality being judged within a specific country, the WHO report extends it to cover all countries-- so it doesn't just call for income redistribution within your nation, it calls for it across the world.
So we're back to the beginning: what does income redistribution have to do with medicine?  Since it is apparently the cause of numerous social ills including crime and war, why is it the role of one of them (health) to start the process, and not, say, the Department of Corrections or the military??

What, you think doctors are just better humanitarians?

Part 3 here


The spirit level is just tr... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 12:50 PM | Posted by TheUnderwearBandit: | Reply

The spirit level is just tremendous hokum. Of course what is really scary is that people will love it and believe it. Just look at the Amazon reviews.

The sad part of all this is that there is serious and good academic research on this subject. But statistics and hypothesis testing take a backseat to ideology. The serious research on this subject does not come close to confirming Wilkinson. See this.

The real trouble with society? Some dudes can't get laid. Violence will follow. The beta through zeta males are to blame for societies ills.

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Haiti: What Equality looks... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 1:00 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Haiti: What Equality looks like.

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What I found interesting is... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 2:13 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

What I found interesting is that I felt a reflexive fear the minute I realized this individual was advocating for redistribution of wealth. I literally felt a tiny jolt of panic.
However, on an intellectual level, I don't think that's such an awful idea (probably not a GOOD one, but certainly not a fear-inducing one that will DESTROYZ TEH WORLDZ).

This, right here, proves to me just how very effective industrial-capitalist media brainwashing has been. Since I was a child I was taught to "fear" anything vaguely like wealth redistribution, even before I was old enough to form my own ideas or think about it. Extremely wealthy capitalists who owned the media taught me to fear this, and so now I do fear it as if the proposition were about genocide.

This I find most interesting of all.

Regarding the content: Anyone who attempts to attribute ONE cause to all societies ills is clearly full of shit. Obesity, for example, is multifactored: cheap carbohydrate food, sugar, high calories low nutrition, limited physical labor, limited sleep and sunlight, excessive abnormal stress/rumination, exposures to toxins and chemicals which damaget he mitochondria promoting insulin resistance and diabetes thus obesity as a first presenting symptom.....
"inequality of wealth" is just one of many factors that makes exposure to other factors more likely. But there are plenty of wealthy fat asses.

I tend to think the correlation is reversed there - people who are wealthy are probably by personality more interested in success and social status, thus they make sure they remain thin and associate with "better" people. People without a drive upward are content to live and behave like others in their class, including eating real shitty foods and gaining weight.

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That website is scary dude.... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 2:22 PM | Posted, in reply to TheUnderwearBandit's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

That website is scary dude.

If dude really "creates jobs" as he says and can't get laid, I find it amazing that he cannot see the problem is 100% himself.

Clearly the problem is that he simultaneously hates and fears women too much to even approach them, compounded with the fact he probably is shooting way out of his league (and is uninterested in women more accessible/on his level of social skill and appearance). Exposure to media and television has probably taught him this, as on television trollish men are frequently paired with much more attractive women, and an unattractive woman is never seen in the media unless she is a gag joke or gimmick or grandmother. E.g. Susan Boyle. Unattractive women are so foreign to the media, that sometimes men will play the role just to make the point double clear (e.g. john travolta in hairspray).

So, I say, the problem then must be the media, as this swamp of malcontented 50 year old virgins seems spoiled by porn and other forms of sexual media where in which all women are beautiful, to the point where they ignore the more available/on their level frumpier women who are lonely and looking for husbands.

This is like free association! GO~

Starts with wealth, turns to pathetic male virgins, turns again to media...

Play the game, what do YOU attribue the ills of the world to?

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"Play the game, what do YOU... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 2:55 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by FunPsych: | Reply

"Play the game, what do YOU attribue the ills of the world to?"

Why attribute it to anything? Has there ever been a society without ills?

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Everybody has something to ... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 3:38 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Everybody has something to sell.

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Noone is willing to incenti... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 4:28 PM | Posted by spriteless: | Reply

Noone is willing to incentivise doing social good on a scale like giving crap to charity for a tax reduction. Poor Americans have enough crap. I wish people would shift their extra warm fuzzy energies collectors to deeds that have better impacts.

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So again, there's no reason... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 4:29 PM | Posted by Selfish American: | Reply

So again, there's no reason for the american government to give money to other countries. We can cure our own social ills by redistributing the wealth in our own country.

Furthermore, if what Wilkinson says is true then poorer countries shouldn't need our money--they can cure their social ills by redistributing the money they have. The WHO's extension is bogus.

And one wonders how narcissism fits into all of this ... (drumrolls)

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My silver bullet to fix the... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 6:59 PM | Posted by Basil Valentine: | Reply

My silver bullet to fix the world's problem: stop being such an asshole. Society doesn't owe you anything. There are no magic answers, your life is not a movie awaiting some transformative experience in the form of a soulful new black friend, alien visitation or secret revelation. You will not "get your groove back".

You don't need a new messiah every few years to lead you to some promised land. If you want to live longer, you should exercise, eat healthy things and let go of all the hate, jealousy, and yes, rage. Stop living according to the script you imagine exists and choose what you want to do with your life. Or just resign yourself to getting your newest lines, every few years, from someone with a tricolour poster or a video involving puppets.

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So basically this is the se... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 7:17 PM | Posted by Sfon: | Reply

So basically this is the self esteem movement for adults. Less successful people feel bad about being less successful, so make them all think they are successful.

Considering what the separation of self esteem from reality has done to children, I don't see this solving many social ills. Very appealing to a society of hedonists who believe that feeling uncomfortable is the greatest evil, though.

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You're all morons.... (Below threshold)

March 19, 2010 7:37 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

You're all morons.

What makes you think you're on the other side of the 50%?

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The only take home sociolog... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2010 11:33 AM | Posted by Jack Coupal: | Reply

The only take home sociological theory from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book is that they're from Britain, formerly Great Britain.

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Why not read the book(s) yo... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2010 2:23 PM | Posted by berit: | Reply

Why not read the book(s) yourself, instead of sounding off, without a clue, other than Alone's..feeding locally preconceived notions of too many Americans.

Ignorance is fertile ground for reinforcing prejudices, for instance that politics and the health of individual people and all as members of society are unrelated, that it is about business, big business. Look at what that has done to USA.

Read the books, Think for yourself. To leave thinking to anyone else, even to Alone, is recipe for the disasters at home and abroad.

Some human societies are more egalitarian and more peaceful than others. Not perfect, just better for most of us, the people. I'm sure even Americans could learn something from Europeans like Wilkinson.

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As long as I can scream "we... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2010 5:44 PM | Posted by David: | Reply

As long as I can scream "we're number one," enjoy my sports channel on wide screen, drink a few micro-b's and screw a trophy, hey ... "I'm number one!" Everyone else can just f*ck off.

Did I mention ... "I'm number one!?"

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Berit,The point is... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2010 6:35 PM | Posted, in reply to berit's comment, by TheUnderwearBandit: | Reply


The point is that Wilkinson's correlations are spurious. See the Deaton paper I linked to above.

Wilkinson has a prior, he then confronts that prior with statistics that DON"T CONFIRM the prior. Wilkinson retains prior. You be the judge of that.

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I believe Wilkinson should ... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2010 9:58 PM | Posted by tehag: | Reply

I believe Wilkinson should begin his equalization policy by seizing the wealth of rich politicians. Let's see how things work out after equalizing the wealth of the Rockefellers, Clintons, Kennedys, Gores, etc. The journey to social justice begins with a single step. Let's take that step: impoverish politicians now!

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When you looked at Wilkinso... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2010 10:29 PM | Posted by sigh: | Reply

When you looked at Wilkinson's work, what did you want to find?

Seriously, you have to put up at least one fact yourself if you want to dismantle the other guys argument.

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In fact, Robert Nozick was ... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2010 10:42 PM | Posted by Mastiff: | Reply

In fact, Robert Nozick was way ahead of Wilkinson. By Nozick's analysis, people like Wilkinson are making the problem of relative inequality worse.

Envy is apparently a recurring feature of human society. Its effects can be mitigated by having several dimensions of status to evaluate yourself on; so if you don't have as much money was Person A, you can take pride in your exceptional dancing skill, or whatever.

By focusing on a single dimension of status competition, such as wealth, you diminish the welfare-enhancing effects of the other possible dimensions, harming individuals' ability to develop their own unique identities.

Worse, the effect of envy seems to be increased as the absolute differences grow smaller. (Are you more envious of Bill Gates, or that jerk in the office who makes $5,000 more than you?) So redistribution would in fact increase the level of neuroticism attached to status competition.

This is not to say that all is sunshine and flowers. Indeed, one of the great sicknesses of American society (and most other societies) is that we give independent value to wealth, fame, and power, in themselves (as opposed to the things they can facilitate, such as leisure or respect), as a cultural virtue. All of these traits are by definition exclusive, and defined in relative terms—in other words, most people will by definition not achieve these things, because only a few people can have them.

It would be better to value things that all people can cultivate at the same time, such as wisdom, humility, competence, and self-control. Wealth and power will remain attractive whether or not societies worship them, so why go out of our way to do so?

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Interesting discussion. In ... (Below threshold)

March 21, 2010 4:25 AM | Posted by berit: | Reply

Interesting discussion. In a USA reeling from imploding economy, the cumulative stresses of under- and unemployment,housing bubble-bust, widely unequal education, unequal health care, everything hitting hardest on the segments of population with least resources,as public services too are deteriorating, you hit on Wilkinson for advocating policies that could lessen and ameliorate the very real suffering of millions of your fellow Americans, because all the dots are not well-enough connected.

Heard of social justice up over there in USA, where high-up politicians prefer to let people die of treatable conditions, just as in poorest third world countries?

Universal singel-payer health care is less costly, more efficient, fairer, humane and caring, most of all. I wonder what you will be getting after todays vote. As a Scandinavian I look in wonder at Americas self-obsessed nothing-to-learn discussions.

BBC reported in july 2006 on an article written in the journal Aging Cell that scientists have come to believe, on the bases of their research, that the stresses associated with belonging to a lower social class may be to blame for their finding that poor people age more rapidly than people higher up, quicker shortening of key pieces of DNA called telomeres, thought to correlate to biological age. Thought to correlate is a good temporary posistion, as it happens also scientific, till more data, or other data, connects the dots, or leads to new theories.

In the meantime, we all choose what and who to believe, as we do not know. I'll stick to Wilkinson's - and all his co-researchers - commitment to social justice and human rights for all.

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Ok, so you've just given us... (Below threshold)

March 21, 2010 7:29 AM | Posted by SusanC: | Reply

Ok, so you've just given us a tirade against Wilkinson, implying that we ought to be angry ("Realize your anger is directed at the people"), casting aspersions on his proposed remedies ("varying levels of efficacy or insanity").

But no-where in it do you give us any evidence to suggest that Wilkinson is wrong, or that his proposed remedies won't work.

As the old joke goes, this is abuse, not an argument.

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Health is personal and so i... (Below threshold)

March 21, 2010 8:45 AM | Posted by Allegra: | Reply

Health is personal and so is very sticky -- people (mostly) consider war to be something that happens far away, and crime as something they are not culpable for (even when they engage in crime). I am sure that people have noted that crime and war are bad for income equality, but health makes it personal, and so more noticeable. You might want to try asking why do you notice it in the arena of health instead of why is it being introduced via health concerns.

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Since the Obama regime took... (Below threshold)

March 21, 2010 9:09 AM | Posted by Jack Coupal: | Reply

Since the Obama regime took over temporary control of America, we've been hearing a lot about something called "social justice".

Redistributing the wealth of Americans is being promoted as the next new thing for Americans to achieve.

Our brothers across the pond (and probably some Canadians, too) comenting here say that social justice is the way to go.

Americans tend to strive for acheivable goals, not something as amorphous and ambiguous as social justice, which means something different for each person hearing the words. However, in socialized cultures, social justice is defined in law and legally enforceable.

Based on what you know about Americans, what are the chances for success in getting Americans to embrace legally-enforced social justice? For an hint about its long-term prospects, look at the history of "Affirmative Action" in the US.

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"The curious task of econom... (Below threshold)

March 21, 2010 3:49 PM | Posted by Andrew: | Reply

"The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." - F. A. Hayek

Social Justice is a pipe dream. It's like TLP said, empty political discourse reinforces a division among people, not ideas. The reason politicians spout off about Social Justice is to look like the hero, the savior of the disenfranchised. Narci-what?

Meanwhile, redistributing income discourages the producers of our society from productive activity. Food, medicine, homes, cars, computers exist in abundance because it makes people money. Rising waters raise all ships.

If innovators aren't allowed to reap the rewards of their innovations, why bother with the risk?

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The Democratic Party: What... (Below threshold)

March 22, 2010 12:35 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The Democratic Party: What co-dependency looks like.

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So I'm poor, but I'm agains... (Below threshold)

March 22, 2010 5:39 AM | Posted by MH: | Reply

So I'm poor, but I'm against Obamacare because I don't feel its fair for the rich to have to pay for my unproductive ass. That must make me uber-sick and socially-justicially-deprived. I'm grateful I have the right to be poor. There's nothing stopping me from becoming a doctor or lawyer, except that I like watching TV more. And since I hate traveling, boating, hiking, flying, swimming, cruising, and entertaining, I'd say my own sense of opportunity cost lead me right where I should be: laptop in my lap, sitting on a used couch in my apartment with my credit card debt than I can't pay off in 2 years. I don't see the problem...

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Or we could hold people res... (Below threshold)

March 22, 2010 8:46 AM | Posted, in reply to berit's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Or we could hold people responsible for their own choices. That's where SJ theories don't work. All it does it cause Atlas to shrug -- everybody wants to get and no one wants to give, thus rather than work harder for success, people work less and try to get on the gravy train where all their needs are met and mamma will even change their nappies for them.

Social Justice is why Canada will never be as successful as the US, and why Britain lost her empire.

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As a woman who can vote and... (Below threshold)

March 22, 2010 10:12 AM | Posted by brainchild: | Reply

As a woman who can vote and who is seen (in some nations) as a person in their own right, I'm much less cynical about social justice being possible because there have been big changes even in my lifetime. I'm not talking about some unrealistic utopia or fantasy, I'm just talking about giving people an actual chance to participate based upon personal merits instead of some arbitrary gender, race, ethnic or class requirement they were born into.

America, successful? Not really anymore. But, yeah, keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel personally important and successful though.

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Is the US successful? Sendi... (Below threshold)

March 22, 2010 1:22 PM | Posted by berit: | Reply

Is the US successful? Sending young people overseas to kill and be killed for pipedreams of cheap oil and a crumbling empire? Letting unregulated greed and big banks rip off broad segments of the population, unsettling Greece too, for good measure, and the EURO, and the corruption of Big Pharma...

..instead of federal and local governments securing basic services of equally good quality to all citizens, regardless of colour and class, softening the laws of the jungle and civilize society.

Congratulations on the health care bill being passed! It is far from perfect, but a step towards universal single payer health care for Americans too, like advanced nations in Europe and your neighbour north of the border.

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Easy fix: ship the US poor ... (Below threshold)

March 22, 2010 1:49 PM | Posted by Duke: | Reply

Easy fix: ship the US poor to Slovakia

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[Aside: did this make yo... (Below threshold)

March 26, 2010 1:26 PM | Posted by Purpletempest: | Reply

[Aside: did this make you angry? Realize your anger is directed at the people, not specifically the ideas even though you disagree; you hate the kind of people you imagine this video represents. Empty political discourse reinforces a division among people, not ideas. Not only did Wilkinson fail at winning you over, he's made it impossible for you to even consider listening.]

That's true, but not because I'm angry. I can't be angry when I'm too busy laughing at the worst sales pitch for a book, ever. I'm grateful you read it for me because there would be no way I'd pick the thing up after seeing that.

Marketing is everything.

Hm, isn't that a sort of sub-theme of this blog? Being that successful marketing is so connected to identity...

Damn, Alone, you should just write a book on that. I would buy it. I know it's been covered before but you'd do it better. You could call it "Narcissism, Marketing and Flying Into Buildings." Tie both the Joe Stack guy and 9/11 in there and you've got a best seller.

All that aside, it seems like Wilkinson is not wrong about the problem, just about the solution. No?

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This is great that we can g... (Below threshold)

January 22, 2011 11:52 AM | Posted by SummerDiaz: | Reply

This is great that we can get the credit loans and this opens completely new chances.

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I wonder whether a regular ... (Below threshold)

May 27, 2012 5:01 PM | Posted by freddy barray: | Reply

I wonder whether a regular health insurance could cover for a drug rehab Santa Clara County entire stay over and treatment. I have looked up for it on some other sources as well and I haven`t exactly figured it out whether some centers cover expenses within the average health insurance. I would assume not, given the things I heard along all this time, but I would really appreciate if someone would shed light on this issue for me.

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