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This is the latest Ted Talk to cross my viewscreen.  It's Richard Wilkinson, speaking about the differences between societies with wide vs narrow differences between the highest and lowest income groups.  The finding is intuitive, but the specific data that he pulls together, and the way he makes sense of it, is very interesting.  At the end of brings it all together with some science about stress.  According to him, the stressors that cause the greatest increase in cortisol are "social evaluative threats" to one's esteem or status.  In other words, "people are sensitive to being looked down on".  In societies where there is greater equality, there is less stress, hence explaining the increased longevity, health and peace that is seen in those societies.  Of course, the US rates only second to Singapore in his scaling of wealth disparity, with Japan and Sweden at the other end of the scale.  Anyway, it's worth seeing for yourself, if you have the 15 minutes.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 4th, 2011 04:50 pm (UTC)
The wealth disparity studies... aren't exactly correct.

The problem is thath they exempt all the social welfare programs, which in a real accounting do count toward the ability of the poor to acquire goods and services.

Also, the wealth gap in the US even according to the traditional accounting methods isn't as wide as many would like to think.

Sorting by r/p 10 and scroll down, you'll find the US fairly close to the middle.
Nov. 4th, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
Yeah, not really surprising that his data was skewed in this way. Everybody's pushing something these days...
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)
Aren't they just.

I was just thinking though... It's not actual *disparity* that would have the physiological effects, it'd be *percieved* disparity. All the discussion of the disparity and the magnitude of it could easily *invoke* the physiological effects of a great disparity whether or not one existed. It's so hard to separate causes from effects sometimes.
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:15 pm (UTC)
True enough. Perception is what matters most, and it is only faintly anchored in reality.
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
Wilkinson acknowledged that he was looking only at the "developed" nations. Unfortunately traditional societies continue to have high rates of inequality (aristocrats vs. serfs and peasants) When the Wikipedia list is divided among "traditional" and "modern" states, the USA has the second highest Gini index (right behind Singapore, as Wilkinson noted),
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:25 pm (UTC)
Ah. This makes good sense.

I really want to check out Singapore. I heard an interview with one of its leaders on NPR once and he was a fascinating character. Laughed out loud that America "permits" an "underclass" to exist. He had some good points.

Edited at 2011-11-04 06:26 pm (UTC)
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:57 pm (UTC)
One could debate where they are drawing the line on what is a "traditional" nation and which are "modern". By that I mean that many of the countries listed as "traditional" have societal structures more similar to the western world, and many of the "modern" nations have very "traditional" structures. But that's neither here nor there. I get that he's drawing a line more between "western/wealthy countries" and "other". The line drawing seems arbitrary to me, but meh.

It also doesn't exactly address the annuity values of the social programming.
Nov. 4th, 2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
Yes, income transfers do make a difference in Gini indices, and can make a big difference. (,6 before taxes and income transfers and medical insurance, ,45 after these are taken into account in the U.S,) But the big picture doesn't change all that much. A .45 is "Agrarian" unequal but it is closer to an agrarian than to welfare state number.

The presence of some "low Gini" states in Africa and in other poor countries creates the interesting possibility of doing the sort of analysis Wilkinson discussed on those poor countries, Does a poor country with a low Gini index have fewer social problems than a poor country with a high Gini index?
Nov. 4th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
Well, it *does* make some sense that the US would be closer to "agrarian" than "welfare state". After all, we've been rather resistant to becoming a "welfare state" :P

I would be interested in seeing the study you're mentioning, I suspect that in nations that have "real" poverty, like the low gini african nations, other factors will begin to dominate the equation and the gini impacts will be reduced in significance.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 4th, 2011 11:17 pm (UTC)
Perhaps, but people seriously underrate the impact of inequality. This is the main reason why Wilkinson's talk is bound to cause controversy. Scientists claim to be objective, but the fact is most of them have pretty good incomes and they see the world from a well off person's perspective more than they see it from a scientific perspective. All kinds of inadequate data are accepted as long they don't question our basic assumptions. I know that is going to sound like radical bullshit, but i will stand by it. Because we are a conservative country, radicals are forced to confront their biases and compensate for them far more often than conservatives are. A sloppy study will convince us to believe what we already believe than an excellent study will convince us of something different. Yes, i have always believed in equality, but my beliefs were challenged in my home, in church, in grade school, by my peers, and in high school. In college i discovered that there ways by which one could supposedly set his or her biases to one side while investigating reality. It was a sad discovery that most trained people outside of the natural sciences still could not do that. I recognize that my own biases keep me from seeing what really is, but i think i am more aware of that than most people and that radicals, in general, are more aware of it than conservatives, in general. IMPPO
Nov. 5th, 2011 09:51 pm (UTC)
I am profoundly skeptical of the introspection of the radical. In fact, I frankly dibeliee it. For a wide variety of reasons.

I don't feel like getting into the debate that this is heading toward in this forum. Suffice to say that I do not consider inequality to be a particularly big deal in the scheme of things, at least compared to real problems like sytematic oppression, suffocating poverty, and outright genocide. So I oppose socialism, because it leads to one of those as day leads to night. You disagree. I can live with that.
Nov. 5th, 2011 09:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that sounds fair. And those are certainly things worth eliminating.
Nov. 6th, 2011 04:58 am (UTC)
=-] You rock.
Nov. 6th, 2011 04:58 am (UTC)
I'm surprised you went as far along into this discussion as you did. Congrats to both of you for remaining civil though you approach this question from opposite ends of the thought universe!
Nov. 4th, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for sharing this.
I have studied and taught on this for fifty years.
Never have i seen it as well presented as by Mr. Wilkinson here!!!
I would have required at least an hour to share the same material. And he also did some of the research.
Nov. 4th, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. ...Did you see the other comment, that suggests that his estimation of the income disparity in the US is biased by not considering aid to the poor? I'm interested to know where in the spectrum you think we fall.
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC)
No, i have not seen the other comment, and so i am not responding to it. I do think that many people who talk about the poor and what they are or are not getting are simply talking bullshit. I trust Wilkinson's data to have considered the relevant factors, and more egalitarian countries also practice charity, maybe even more so.

We are the wealthiest country in the world. The disparities in income are wider than in any developed country except Singapore (and i wonder about that) and Russia (where the social problems are even greater than they are here)

When Russia changed from "Communism" to "Capitalism" it went quickly from being one of the more egalitarian countries to one the most unequal of the developed countries.This may help account for the resurrection of Russian mobs, internal terrorism, ethnic conflict, and crying out for the "good old days" of Stalin .

We are among the most inegalitarian countries, and are quickly becoming even more unequal. As we search for our own "austerity measures" to ease the debt problem, we are almost certain to affect the poor disproportionately.

As the video made clear, it is the way wealth is shared, not how much there is to share that matters. Terrence Cook theorized three basic theories of distribution: the Aristocrat's way (the poor should restrain their desires),the socialist's way (society should create more wealth and share it equally), the capitalist's way (society should create more wealth and not worry about how it is shared), and the saint's way (everybody, especially the rich, should restrain their desires). I think i have almost always preferred the "saint's" way.

Wilkinson's data shows that both the aristocrat's way and the capitalist's way are destructive of souls.
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:34 pm (UTC)
What strikes me about this is my perception, based on one of his early slides comparing communities in Britain, that what matters most is the most local of disparities, not even so much the disparity within a country. What I take from this is that if one lives in such a way as to not be "less than" others on a daily basis, one is less likely to be stressed out by one's status even if it is low. So if the poor live among the poor, they may actually be quite happy and not so stressed. I have witnessed this in my travels, for example among poor Mexican farmers for whom it is no big deal to not possess an iphone: they have food, family and home, and it is all they need. When left to their own devices they are grateful and not overly stressed. It is where the interfaces occur that the stress occurs.

The Occupy movement, by bringing the homeless and unemployed (who are the ones who persist in camping in business districts when others must go back to their homes and work) into direct contact with the well-employed business elite, is accentuating the differences and escalating the stress.

I personally would like to help create a local sustainable community that is able to isolate itself from mainstream society sufficiently enough to eliminate these stresses.
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:59 pm (UTC)
You make a good point, and i think Wilkinson also made though though it my have got buried in the broader analysis. It is exactly local conditions which are more important in affecting the lives of people, especially the middle class, and especially especially, the poor.
Nov. 5th, 2011 09:58 pm (UTC)
It's worth mentioning here that measuring local inequality is exactly hat national level inequality indices such as the gini are bad at. In fact, the larger the area surveyed, the higher the inequality indices will be due to regional fluctuations. A person in the top 10% of upstate NY income would be lower middle in dc.

One of the things that I am wondering on that basis is how the state level inequality indices compare to the national indices of europe. They will still probably be higher, but almost certainly the discrepancy ill be smaller.
Nov. 4th, 2011 06:46 pm (UTC)
I think it is also worth mentioning that income distribution (how much we made last year) is not nearly as complete an index of economic well being as wealth distribution ( the value of all the things we own --homes, businesses, investments, savings, personal property, etc. Wealth is far more unequally distributed than income.
(e.g. Whites earn twice as much as Blacks but have fourteen times as much accumulated wealth as Blacks. The richest one percent earn percapita, sixty-three times as much as the poorest twenty percent, but they have 500 times the percapita wealth of the poor, EVEN WHEN THOSE WITH NO WEALTH OR NEGATIVE WEALTH ARE IGNORED!) In the mid 80s, when there was less inequality than there is now. six percent of the households owned fifty percent of all personal wealth.
Nov. 4th, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Inequality
Yes. That is also intuitive but well worth bringing to the front of our awareness. As The Long Emergency commences, those with nothing now will have less than nothing in short order, whereas those who are well set up because of accumulated wealth, and the bonus that wealth begets wealth, will continue rule the world for generations to come.
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