Book review: The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
Every so often a scientific study comes out that makes you say, "I can't believe they actually had to spend money on this to find this out - it seems intuitively obvious." Authors Wilkinson and Pickett have collated many studies of this sort and have drawn some less-obvious conclusions: namely, that many major health and social problems - from teen pregnancy to ever-increasing prison populations - in the developed world are more common in societies with unequal distribution of wealth.
The authors argue that countries with vastly different cultures, such as Japan and Sweden, consistently show lower incidence of such problems because their distribution of wealth is more equal. Even their methods of achieving greater income equality are different: Japan has less wide variation in salary levels from labour to management, while Sweden has high tax rates that compensate for pay differentials. The English-speaking world, while having often greater overall per capita incomes, also has the highest levels of inequality and thus the most severe social disruption. The US is indeed "number one" in this dismal competition, followed not too distantly by the UK.
The same analysis applies to the various US states: the increased inequality goes hand in hand with increased social disturbance, and again the states that do best have less in common than one would expect - other than a more equal income distribution. Alaska, Vermont, and Minnesota all perform well, while Louisiana and Mississippi trail along behind.
I found one of the most compelling features of the book to be the authors' concrete suggestions for tackling inequality: either increasing taxes on the rich or bringing their incomes down to more sustainable levels. Common sense, but nobody seems to want to say it or hear it. The authors have also set up a trust to promote equality, which is a benchmark of their sincerity if nothing else.
Unsurprisingly, their ideas have recently come under attack by right-wing pundits who dispute their statistics, their qualifications, and their good faith. To me this suggests that they've struck several really sensitive nerves.
For a quick 10-minute intro to the book, check out the authors' video at the bottom of their homepage.