Friday, December 17, 2010

The Spirit Level

The little public library in my new hometown doesn't compare with the Toronto Public Library system. However it is part of a larger network, the Annapolis Valley Regional Library system, and has connections to other libraries, including university libraries, across the province. The interlibrary loan system lets me borrow from them all. And as a local university alumna, I also have a university library card here. Over the past few weeks I have been building up my Books on Hold list and it is starting to bear fruit.

A book that I had put on hold in Toronto almost a year ago just came to me via the local library, after only a week or two on my Hold list. So there are a few advantages to a much smaller system. I imagine the one copy in the Toronto library was much in demand necessitating a lengthy wait for it, while here in the Valley hardly anyone had ever heard of the book and I got it almost immediately.

The book is The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009). The authors are experts in social determinants of health and the book is a look at the statistics of various social and physical health indicators compared to relative income inequalities in various countries and American states. The final chapter of the book explains which statistics and countries they used and why they chose them. For the most part the countries are European and North American, generally the more affluent countries of the world. That's not why they were chosen, but rather for the availability of comparable statistics. No point comparing apples and oranges.

The most obvious conclusions one could draw from the many graphs in this book are:

1. There is a very clear link between levels of income inequality and both individual and social health indicators. The authors argue that the link is directional: income inequality causes health and social problems, not vice versa.

1. The USA does very badly: it has one of the highest levels of income inequality and very poorest levels of social, mental and physical health and educational attainment. The UK is in a somewhat distant second place for badness.

2. In almost every instance Canada stands in the middle of the pack, neither very good nor very bad. We Canadians are not surprised.

3. Japan does very well on all fronts, the Scandinavian countries also do well for the most part.

The authors attribute these findings largely to our human need for status. We are crushed by a sense of low status and thrive when we think we have high status. A sense of low status brings out the worst in us, young men respond with violence, young women with early pregnancy, everyone with headaches and sick stomachs.

In our modern world status is largely dictated by financial well-being, and the further the distance between the most well off and the least well off then the greater the inequality and the greater the pressure on status. Curiously, other forms of inequality do not have such a large impact. Gender inequality does not have the same repercussions for either men or women as does income inequality. In Japan women generally do not have the same levels of gender equality as we have here in North America and Europe, but nevertheless appear to fare very well with respect to mental, physical and social health. And educational attainment.

The achievement of greater income equality is accomplished in different ways in different countries. In the Scandinavian countries high redistributive taxes ensure that the after-tax income of all citizens is within a fairly narrow range; in Japan the same result is achieved by simply having a much narrower gap between high and low before-tax income levels. CEOs and labourers are not that different from each other.

A very interesting conclusion to this study is around the issues of climate change and social justice. The authors discuss what needs to be done in order to reduce carbon emissions globally, and essentially it requires the popular acceptance of serious curtailment in carbon consumption. The level of cynicism in a country with high income inequalities works against such acceptance. At the same time, it is clear that the greatest contributors to carbon emissions are the wealthy, those who can afford it. In broad strokes, the way to reduce global carbon emissions is to reduce the carbon emissions of the wealthy, which almost automatically alleviates income inequality as well. The two issues have the same solution, but will be difficult to implement in countries of high income inequality.

At the end of the book there is a graph plotting environmental footprint against income level for all of the countries of the world, and two lines indicating an environmentally sustainable footprint (horizontal line) and threshold of adequate income (vertical line). All of the poor countries of the world are also the most environmentally sustainable with respect to carbon emissions; the rich countries of the world are hugely unsustainable.

With one notable exception. One country---one country alone in the whole world---manages to be both environmentally sustainable and provide an adequate income for its citizens. Cuba?!?

Within the USA there is a range of income inequality levels across the states, and the global correlation between inequality and health also applies within the USA. Curiously, the state with the lowest income inequality level is Alaska. I guess the very wealthy don't see Alaska as their Shangri-la.

Something I did not know but learned from this book is about crime and punishment, penal policies in different countries. The USA has one of the highest per capita prison populations not because of its extremely high crime levels but because of its harsh sentencing policies. In California alone there are 340 prisoners doing life sentences for shoplifting. Amnesty International has repeatedly protested what amounts to torture in the American prison system.

Ironically, most of the routine forms of punishment in American prisons are far more likely to produce hardened criminals than to reduce crime levels. Prisoners are systematically isolated from normal social interaction and generally rendered incapable of functioning in normal social life once they are released. Prisons are being created and built at a much greater rate than universities, 'supermax' prisons are essentially and deliberately the most socially degraded environments possible.

Japan has one of the most civilized penal policies with noticeable good effects: low prison populations and low crime rates. In general accused lawbreakers are shown extreme leniency if they confess and express remorse and contrition. Once in prison the rules are very strict but social life is encouraged and positively directed. Prison guards are expected to perform as mentors and counsellors to prisoners. Former prisoners generally express satisfaction and even gratitude for the experience, it turns their lives around.

Another interesting factoid is around the issue of teenage pregnancy.

We generally think of teen mothers as a bad idea: bad for the mother and bad for the baby. However, in some populations the health of the mother is at its best in her teen years, and babies born to such mothers are ironically better off than babies born to the same mothers at a later age. These would be mothers of such low income and social status that their health is seriously challenged, and these would also be the ones most likely to bear children in their teen years.

The rate of teen pregnancy in the USA was declining until 2005, since then it has been rising again (likewise for the rate of violent crime). Most teen mothers in the USA are unmarried. In Japan the rate of teen pregnancy is low and the mothers are far more likely to be married. As a result these mothers and babies fare much better than their counterparts in the USA.

In light of all this, I think that it is very ironic that the USA was created out of the ideals of freedom and equality. The concept of equality was about equality of opportunity, everyone gets a shot at the goal. These ideals are still cherished but their reality in practice has not lived up to expectation. The USA has turned out to be a land of great inequality, and in some ways one can attribute that to the very pursuit of freedom and equality.

It should also be noted that many of the greatest critics of American achievement are Americans, they hold themselves to very lofty standards.

It is not surprising that Canada has turned out to be somewhere in the middle, not too good not too bad. Never in our history did we take on freedom and equality as our ideals, it was all about keeping the peace, whatever it takes. We try not to get too excited about stuff. Not to say we don't care about freedom and equality, but I think our attitude is more along the lines of good housekeeping; it saves a lot of trouble to not let things get too far out of hand.

Our country was born out of the passions of the American Civil War, we wanted to avoid that at all costs. The American Civil War ended in 1865, Canada began in 1867, it is not coincidental. Recent Wikileaks cables indicate that some American diplomats think Canadians watch the USA enviously and snipe at American political actions out of that envy. There is an element of truth in that, but we also watch in a bit of dread: whither thou goest...


Rain said...

That was interesting and probably has a lot of truth in it. The US has a very diverse population and with uncontrolled numbers coming in, difficult borders to protect, we will change even more with the future and hard to say in what ways. We have lost much of our manufacturing base which is hurting middle income earners maybe the most. Complicating it even more is the 'christianist' ethic that so many give at least lip service to which doesn't really face a lot of social problems (isn't even Christian) as the responsibility of the people. I think it's hurt us a lot.

Last night I had been thinking about our education problems and how we show up lower on testing than many other countries like China or Japan but we try to educate everybody and don't have early tests to block access to high school level classes aimed at college. Considering our drop out rate, which is too high, we also have a lot of students that just hang around to get the twelve years but don't care much about education or maybe aren't even capable of attaining a full one. We have no real way to deal with that and with the right wing gaining power, there will be even less government desire to do so as they try to direct money to the private sector there also and away from a public responsibility to educating the youth.

I like my country but after reading The Third Chimpanzee, I am less liking the human race for what it tends to do when it has power to do so. And this isn't recent. It goes way back in mankind's march toward being on top. I thought a lot about it after reading it regarding what an education system could do about that to redirect minds in a way that goes against what is likely the human animal nature. I didn't come up with any answers though as so many politically correct classes end up just time wasters. A lot of this is taught in homes and schools can't do much about it. Or am I defeatist and giving up because there hasn't been anything that works-- recently

Annie said...

Hi Rain, I agree with you that these are very complicated issues, it's hard to know how it will all turn out and easy to be pessimistic. I haven't read The Third Chimpanzee but I don't doubt we humans didn't get to be in power over all other creatures by being nice. Somehow that is going to have to change, we are not going to continue as "top dogs" if we don't learn to play nice. They say education is the answer, but how exactly does one do that, when as you say it's hard to keep kids in school at all? I like your country too, but I am not real thrilled with your government's policies and priorities in the past decade or so. I do see some really exciting things happening at the state and municipal levels in some jurisdictions though, it's not all bad.

Wisewebwoman said...

An interesting premise to me is the idea that Canada's basic principles are founded on First Nations way back in the day and it explains our concern and care for those less fortunate and our "freedom", so easily bandied about as an oxymoron by the US is attainable (to some degree) here.

Annie said...

I am not sure that I entirely agree with what you say WWW, Americans care but it gets expressed differently. They do have government programs for those who cannot afford their own care (Medicaid, Medicare, the VA), but perhaps the bar is set a bit high to catch all who truly need it. Americans set much more store on personal responsibility and independence than Canadians do, many of them actually prefer to take care of their own problems if they can at all help it. Americans traditionally have looked to churches and other informal institutions to take care of charity, we in Canada tend to look to governments to do that. Unfortunately the churches and other informal institutions are no longer able to cope with the scale of the problem and turning to Big Government to take over is hard for most free-thinking and independent-minded Americans. Americans fear Big Government much more than Canadians do, and looking at their government I think their fear may be well founded. Not that we have a better government, just not as powerful in the world.