Sunday, January 2, 2011

Today in inequality reading: A sick society

There’s growing evidence that the toll of our stunning inequality is not just economic but also is a melancholy of the soul. The upshot appears to be high rates of violent crime, high narcotics use, high teenage birthrates and even high rates of heart disease.

That’s the argument of an important book by two distinguished British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They argue that gross inequality tears at the human psyche, creating anxiety, distrust and an array of mental and physical ailments — and they cite mountains of data to support their argument.

“If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prisons and more police,” they assert. “You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problem.” They explore these issues in their book, “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.”

I'm about halfway through reading Paul Krugman's "Conscience of a Liberal," and like today's Nicholas Kristof column (above) it's raising more questions for me than it answers.

Conservatives cast a low-tax low-regulation structure, often, in terms of freedom. And that's appealing: We all want to be free, right? But there's just a ton of evidence that the way the United States does capitalism isn't leading to income or social mobility -- and if the researchers Kristof cites above are correct, that it's not helping us create a healthy society.

The conservative era that began in 1980, then, appears to be one in which the rich get richer -- and everybody else gets sicker. It's a good deal for the rich, I suppose, but I wonder why the rest of us should go along with it.

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