How Economic Inequality Harms Societies

Richard Wilkinson’s TED presentation.

8 Responses to How Economic Inequality Harms Societies

  1. Benedict@Large

    Wilkinson’s work is both brilliant and essential.

  2. I think you could also argue that the breakdown of society creates economic inequality.

  3. A huge graph party narrated by the Graphmaster. Sorry, but all those graphs don’t prove anything. Who irons his shirts? Of course, when he says that more economically equal societies “do better”, he’s talking about in the aggregate, using statistics of choice, which is meaningless to any particular individual in that society. It would be impossible to predict the economic circumstances of any one name picked out of the New York City telephone directory (If there even is such a thing anymore, the most impoverished Americans have cell phones.) And, according to Wilkinson, the remedy for this terrible economic inequality, that makes teen-agers have sex and illegitimate children and poor people shoot one another, is the government confiscation of wealth. No causal path leads to that conclusion.

    • You perhaps could have listened more closely. He addressed the issue of choice in statistics and argued it away. Graphs and data don’t prove anything? What does, in your opinion? The condition of a random individual is irrelevant to political economy and the policy-making that must derive from it. We are a society, not merely a collection of autonomous individuals, however much you want to subscribe to that flattering fiction. Results in aggregate do matter and statistics do apply to individuals. Are you one, for example, who believes you can talk on the phone while driving because you won’t have an accident, that you are a great driver, in spite of studies that show a phone conversation makes you as impaired as being drunk and causes a quarter of all accidents? Everyone who does it thinks that way until they have an accident. This myth of personal exceptionalism is a foolish delusion.

      If the example of Europe, with its high levels of taxation, does not prove the causal link between reduced inequality and better social, health, and, (not addressed in his presentation) happiness outcomes, what would? Or have you simply decided that inequality is a fact that has no effect on social outcomes and cannot be altered. If you’ve made up your mind, perhaps we shouldn’t confuse you with facts.

      I am afraid you also give away the game with your choice of social ills and how you portray them. Wilkinson never talks about teenage sex as a problem or illegitimate children generally, only teen births, and that in the mix with many other things you ignore; he only says that violent crime is worse in unequal societies, not that poor people shoot one another. Why not point out infant mortality, where the US is 49th worldwide; or math and science education, where we lag behind our peers–a problem consistently noted by US businesses who need engineers and scientists; or life expectancy? Not to mention that once you call taxation “confiscation of wealth” you have immediately removed it as a legitimate way of funding the goals that a duly elected legislature had enacted for our society. If you don’t like those goals, then you can vote. Go back and take a high school civics class, please.

      Oh, and your mother irons his shirts. That was an asinine and irrelevant comment on your part.

      • If the example of Europe, with its high levels of taxation, does not prove the causal link between reduced inequality and better social, health, and, (not addressed in his presentation) happiness outcomes, what would?
        Happiness outcomes? What are happiness outcomes? Periodically someone brings up increasing or optimizing happiness. The implication that happiness can be increased somehow necessarily implies that there is a continuum of happiness, that as aspects of society change, for good or ill, happiness goes up or down. Does that mean that during, say the feudal era, there were very few happy people? That the peasants on the estates of the dukes of Burgundy sat around moaning during their waking hours because they were poor? That’s simply preposterous.
        Wilkinson also presents a “mental illness” graph that supposedly demonstrates that the unbalanced affluence of the US has created what amounts to an insanity crisis. Recently deceased prominent psychiatrist and author Thomas Szasz would have loved to answer that spurious claim. He pointed out that some members of the psychiatric profession estimate that 40% of the American population suffers from some form of “mental illness” and that others, even Freud, maintained that everyone suffers from mental illness at some point in their lives. Add to this the fact the mental health profession keeps changing the definitions of mental illness and you have what is an essentially meaningless and bogus illustration.

        It’s interesting that you should take exception to a comment on Wilkinson’s clothing. Fashion authorities tell us that “clothes make the man” and that what we wear can tell others a lot about us. You’ll notice that, like campaigning politicians, Wilkinson was in shirt sleeves, with no tie. He’s making a statement about himself in that attire, just as others do with their own particular garb. To ignore a signal like that is the same as ignoring his vocalizations.

    • Our money system is unjust. The banks and the so-called “creditworthy” are allowed to steal the purchasing power of everyone else and drive them into debt with it. That alone justifies restitution for the victims.

      A truly just society would not have extreme wealth disparity. A billionaire is not typically a thousand times more productive than a millionaire or a million times more productive than someone with only $1000.

  4. George Melillo


    1. The nature of study at the population level is that you cannot deduce the circumstances of one individual from patterns in the aggregate. There’s no helping it. Consider epidemiology: we know that tobacco usage correlates very highly with cancer, but it is impossible to “predict” the health status of a name chosen at random from the phone book. And even if we knew that this person smoked, we couldn’t “predict” whether they had cancer or not. That’s just not how probabilistic reasoning works.

    2.It’s true that correlation does not equal causation (and we will probably never get causal explanations of social phenomena as robust as physical phenomena), but there’s a perfectly reasonable prima facie causal explanation for how inequality leads to various forms of social breakdown: we are social animals. You can fill in the blanks.

    3. I think you should study closely the rest of this site. You might develop a better understanding of how the government interfaces with the rest of the economy.


  5. The Dork of Cork

    A study should be done about the changing consumption patterns of the Irish during the EEC & Euro years (post 1987 especially)
    Personel capital goods such as cars or foregin travel could be bought cheaply but going to local sport club functions or the pub with the lads became more and more expensive over time.
    It has made the Irish deeply unhappy and atomised over a period of time as each indivdual must remain withen his rabbit hole so as to conserve symbolic money tokens.
    The Euro has completly changed Irish society and I am afraid it was not for the good.
    Social interface is seen as too expensive now.
    Therefore you get a consequent social breakdown over a period of a few decades. (the modern euro crisis started in 1987 not in 2007)

    It was part of the modern market state system design I guess.
    Just as the Nation state broke up the previous tribal model in the 1600s