This one’s for you if you’d like to read more about the possible correlation between social problems and income inequality.

The Spirit Level is easy to summarise- the authors make two points: 1. That greater income inequality is closely correlated to a higher prevalence of a vast number of social problems and 2. That this correlation can be explained by the stress and anxiety induced by awareness of lower social status. They use a data set of 23 countries to create scatter plots comparing the prevalence of social problems against the level of income inequality in these countries.

After reading the book, I became aware of criticism of their methodology, which lead me to read a report written by policy exchange, a think tank which according to wikipedia is centre-right of the political spectrum. The authors do respond to that criticism in most recent publications of their book and in an article for the Guardian. The criticism questions the need to exclude countries with populations less than 3 million, and suggests that income distribution data is in fact available for countries which the authors say is not. As this paragraph makes clear, sociology is an inexact science, with facts obscured by personal opinions, and fundamental differences between, and allegiances to, the political left and right muddying the waters even further.

Putting the criticisms to one side, I have, as is the pattern on this blog, picked out quotations which I think are particularly interesting. Two of my highlights from the book are the many thought provoking experiments that are discussed and the fascinating chapter comparing international differences in prison systems and attitudes towards prisoners.

The authors suggest that a study published in the BMJ supports their idea that high levels of inequality are associated with poor health across the population. By following the link you will learn that “If the inequality-mortality relation is truly causal then the population attributable fraction suggests that upwards of 1.5 million deaths (9.6% of adult mortality) could be averted in 30 OECD countries by levelling the Gini coefficient below the threshold value of 0.3” alongside the admission that studies included are heterogeneous and that a “consensus remains elusive”. Hopefully with further work in this area, a consensus might be reached in the future!

“We knew of a young man who was unemployed and had spent a month’s income on a new mobile phone because he said girls ignored people who hadn’t got the right stuff. As Adam Smith emphasized, it is important to be able to present oneself creditably in society without the shame and stigma of apparent poverty.” p25

“Familiar faces have been replaced by a constant flux of strangers. As a result, who we are, identity itself, is endlessly open to question.” p42

“Empathy is only felt for those we view as equals, ‘the same feeling for one another does not exist between the different classes.'” p52 Quotation from De Tocqueville.

Describing an experiment in North Carolina with macaque monkeys. Once a dominance hierarchy had been established, and the monkeys were given access to self dispensed cocaine, the subordinate animals took more cocaine. The researchers also found that dopamine levels rose in those who became dominant while there was no change in brain biochemistry in the subordinate animals. Wilkinson and Pickett suggest “In effect, the subordinate monkeys were medicating themselves against the impact of their low social status.” p72

Talking about policies aimed to prevent obesity focusing on individuals “these approaches overlook the reasons why people continue to live a sedentary lifestyle and eat an unhealthy diet, how these behaviours give comfort or status, why there is a social gradient in obesity, how depression and stress in pregnancy play a role.” p101/2

An experiment was carried out in India involving around 300 high caste and 300 low caste boys who were asked to carry out maze solving tasks before and after an announcement of their name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names and caste. Before it, the low caste boys did slightly better than the high caste boys. “After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how they did- the performance of the low caste boys dropped significantly.” p113

David Downes (who?) discussing how experts came together to influence the prison system in the Netherlands, “the offender must be treated as a thinking and feeling fellow human being, capable of responding to insights offered in the course of a dialogue…with therapeutic agents.” p151

The above comments about prisons in the Netherlands is in stark contrast to the tent city jail in Phoenix, Arizona where “prisoners live under canvas, despite temperatures that can rise to 130 degrees F, and are fed on meals costing less than 10p per head.” p152

“When people react to a provocation from someone with higher status by redirecting their aggression on to someone of lower status, psychologists label it displaced aggression.” One example given is people from poor backgrounds criticising immigrants. p166

How can equality be achieved? The authors compare Sweden and Japan, two of the countries they found to be most equal. “Sweden does it through redistributive taxes and benefits and a large welfare state. As a proportion of national income, public social expenditure in Japan is, in contrast to Sweden, among the lowest of the major developed countries.” p183

Several high status macaque monkeys were placed together, and as a result, some adopted lower social status. “Animals which move down in these conditions have been found to have a rapid build-up of atherosclerosis in their arteries.” p194

“One suggestion now is that people should use an electronic card to cover payments for fuel, power and air travel. Those using less than their ration would be able to sell their unused allocation back to a carbon bank, from where it could be bought by richer people wanting to use more than their allocation of fuel and power.” p222. A similar idea was put forward by David Miliband and a trial was started in Manchester in 2007.

“the consumption of the rich reduces everyone else’s satisfaction with what they have, by showing it up as inferior” p227

Experiment asking participants whether they would rather have a higher income but be less well off than others in society or vice versa. “Fifty percent of the participants thought they would trade as much as half their real incomes if they could live in a society in which they would be better off than others.” p229

“Economists sometimes suggest that the market is like a democratic voting system: our expenditure is, in effect, our vote” p295. As the authors point out this is hardly democratic given that wealthier people get many times more votes than those who are less well off.