“We quite suddenly realized that we were looking at a general pattern”: Q&A with Richard Wilkinson

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In 2009, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published the book The Spirit Level, making a bold case that economic inequality within a society, the size of the gap between rich and poor, has corrosive effects from the bottom of society right up to the top. Wilkinson spoke about their book and research this summer at TEDGlobal (watch his TEDTalk); earlier this week, he talked to the TED Blog about how he and Pickett came to this insight … and what Occupy Wall Street might mean for the future of fairness.

When did your research start heading in this direction? What made you look at broad inequality within societies?

I’ve been involved in research on health inequalities — the huge social class differences in death rates — for more than 30 years. And the work I talked about at TED really came out of that. I began to work on the contribution that income might make in the differences in health between rich and poor, and then started wondering whether more equal societies, with smaller differences between rich and poor, would have smaller differences in death rates and maybe better health overall. There were things about the nature of the relationship that made me think that more equal societies would be healthier.

I worked on that for quite a long time, before discovering that criminologists had shown that violence was also more common in more unequal societies. And then, in trying to think of the mechanisms that led from greater equality to better overall population health, I began to think about social cohesion, levels of trust and things like that. I may say, the more-equal societies had very much better health than I had expected. I found the correlation was much larger than I had expected. That’s why I started to think it couldn’t just be a matter of the direct effects of individual income, but that there must be wider social processes, maybe involving social relationships, social cohesion, things like that.

But still, it was quite a few more years before I realized that actually, the pattern I was looking at was common to many other social problems. In fact, problems which, like ill health, are more common at the bottom of society, all these sorts of problems seem more common in more unequal societies.

So you started from a perspective of health …

Yes, and then discovering this work on violence showing the same patterns. We also had measures of trust, such as Robert Putnam’s early study on the Italian regions. His measures of social capital were strongly related to income inequality in the regions of Italy. And I also had some qualitative evidence that more equal societies were more cohesive.

In a way it’s obvious. People have had an intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive for a very long time, and seeing the data on trust and social capital really confirmed that. But still, I didn’t look at things like mental illness, obesity, child wellbeing, proportion of the population in prison, drug problems, teenage birthrates — all that has come in the last five years or so while Kate Pickett and I have been working together. We quite suddenly realized that what we were looking at was a general pattern.

Something that doesn’t come up in your talk, and I’d love to explore for our audience, is what you did once this data started becoming clear to you. At what point did you and your colleagues set up the The Equality Trust?

I think writing the book really made us aware of how coherent the picture was. Taking the same group of countries, the same measures of inequality, whether amongst the American states or internationally, we found one problem after another was more common in more unequal societies — and that was true comparing rich countries or the 50 states of the USA.

And although I’d had doubts about whether I’d got things basically right about 10 years ago, I think that writing the book made us absolutely clear that the basic structure, the basic picture we’re putting together, must be right — and at the same time hugely important. If inequality does affect so many health and social problems, you can’t just leave it in an academic journal that nobody reads and forget about it.

Publishing our book coincided with my retirement, and giving a public lecture in London, someone — Bill Kerry — came up to me afterwards and asked me, “Is anyone campaigning on this? You should set up a campaigning organization.” I’d never thought of doing that, and I suppose it seemed like a good idea. Bill is now a friend and co-director of The Equality Trust.

We got some money from a Quaker charity, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust — it supports work on all sorts of social issues.

And so, with their help we set up the Equality Trust really just to make the evidence better known.

People sometimes say, Are we a campaigning organization or an educational organization?, and I say, we campaign through educational work, by making evidence better known.

As we talked about this talk at the TED office — we’re only a few blocks from the Occupy Wall Street protest. Do you have that where you are?

Yes, there’s a growing tent encampment round St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and I think they’ve run out of space and so they’re also starting another one somewhere else in London.

You gave this talk in July — at a time when people were already talking about this meme of the 1% versus the 99% — but now it’s front-page news in a really interesting way because of these protests.

Yes, inequality has come back on the agenda and its prominence is rapidly increasing. There were signs a couple of years ago of growing interest, and I think the interest in our work is largely a reflection of that. You’re probably not aware of how our book has taken off in this country; It’s probably sold about four times the numbers of copies in Britain (despite the much smaller population) as in the United States, and it’s been on the best-seller list several times. There are over 20 foreign editions either out or in preparation. It’s been — well, we feel rather like the dog being wagged by its tail. It’s really taken over our lives in a quite unexpected way. Kate and I have done over 500 talks on it in just over two years. It’s been a bizarre experience.

In 2009, when your book came out in Britiain, did people take it as a policy statement?

It’s interesting — there was interest from several of the political parties. Cameron, our current prime minister, made a very positive mention of it by name in a speech early in the last election campaign, and the other main political parties have also taken it up. The leader of the Labour Party apparently gave copies to his staff and asked them to read it over the summer. The Green Party put greater equality in a central place in its manifesto. So yes, it was taken up politically, but I think so far only as lip service, but lip service is an important start.

There are also around the country a growing number of autonomous Equality Groups setting themselves up campaigning with The Equality Trust. We now have about 15 local groups round Britain and a similar number of internal groups in different countries. We didn’t set them up; they’ve formed themselves and got in touch with us, asking for support and advice on campaigning.

Another thing we’ve seen is that a number of local governments in England, in the major cities, have set up what they call Fairness Commissions to make suggestions about how inequality can be reduced locally.

The first one I co-chaired with Andy Hull in one of the London boroughs, Islington, but there have also been ones or are ones being set up in Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and here in York … The York one is sponsored by the Archbishop of York. The range of people we’ve been asked to speak to is also interesting. Not only political groups but religious groups, charities, civil servants, businesspeople, community groups, people working in the National Health Service and other services of different kinds and of course academics in various disciplines – an extraordinary range.

We feel the reception is always so positive that we’ve taken to saying that the world is full of what we call “closet egalitarians”. So with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations — there may be people who disagree with forming these encampments and so on, but there is a lot of good will towards the purpose of it. I think people are realizing the way top incomes have taken off over the past 20 years or so is unacceptable.

What do you think was the tipping point for that? I know in the US, it was our financial crisis …

Yes, I’m sure the financial crisis was absolutely key. It made people aware of the need for a change in direction in our social and economic development, perhaps linked to an idea that sometime we’ve got to get to grips with the environmental problems, but people knew that we couldn’t simply go back to the kind of comsumerism and ineqality which preceeded the financial crash.

The way our book has taken off, the growing media interest in inequality, the demonstrations, the local groups and the Fairness Commissions, are symptoms of that.

As you look at these local groups and commissions, do you get the sense that this might work, that this is a step forward?

They are all steps forward. There is also more discussion of it in the media, and that is crucially important. TED’s willingness to have this conversation, the occasional question that gets asked in Parliament — not just here but in other countries as well. But there is also our government’s keenness that the recent cuts should be seen as fair, meaning that they should affect rich and poor equally. (I don’t actually think there’s anything fair about cutting services to the least well-off to pay for the mistakes of the rich, the mistake of the bankers.) But still, the government was very concerned that the cuts should be seen to be fair, and that is a new element that reflects a wider concern for these sorts of issues

Are there historical parallels — have unequal nations successfully addressed inequality before?

Well, people often talk about the parallels with the crash of 1929. It’s very clear that the 1929 crash and the 2007-8 crashes were both peaks of inequality and – closely related to that – peaks of indebtedness. A growing number of economists are pointing out that that great inequality played a key role in fueling the speculative bubble and other processes which led to the crash.

I’ve just been reviewing a book called The Cost of Inequality, by Stewart Lansley, and he is really filling out that argument in detail. The American economist Paul Krugman and one or two others have also put that story together.

So I feel increasingly that even if you’re just interested in preserving the free market and democracy, you should be interested in greater equality. Too much inequality is extraordinarily destructive. It’s not simply a matter of the health and social problems we discuss in our book: the quality of democracy also deteriorates with greater inequality. People trust politicians less and less. Paul Krugman has shown that the political divide in the USA increases with greater income differences. When your income differences were smaller, there was much more overlap in voting apparently between Democrats and Republicans, and now of course all that’s gone. Sometimes the political system seems locked in impossible disagreements, unable to make decisions. But also, fewer people vote when there’s more inequality. I think the mistrust of politicians and the feeling that “what these rich people at the top get up to is nothing to do with you” increases with more inequaity. People just feel “one lot’s as bad as the other”.

Compare attitudes toward government action in the States with attitudes in the Scandinavian countries, for instance. The Swedes tend to regard their government as the instrument through which they do what they need to do together – as indeed we in Britain used to do when income differences were smaller. I was at a conference in Norway a few months ago and one of their main trade union leaders started off her talk by saying: “We trust our government, we trust our political parties, we trust our civil servants.” And for a trade union leader of all people to say that! It’s something that you’d never hear people say here, or in the States. It’s very very different. It’s remarkable how deep these things go.

One of the interesting things about the responses to our work is that people often think that income differences are fairly superficial. But what we’re talking about is the whole shape of the social class pyramid, whether it’s a very steep pyramid or a much broader and lower pyramid.

When I say that the problems that are common at the bottom of societies are more common in more unequal societies, basically what’s happening is that income differences are amplifying the effects of social status differentiation. But what’s really remarkable is the explanation of why the differences in performance are so large. Some studies have shown tenfold differences in homicide, in teenage birth rates and in the proportion of the population in prison – all related to inequality. Those differences are so large because it’s not just the poor who are being affected by inequality: it’s the vast majority of the population. It affects the social fabric from top to bottom.

We have about five graphs, later in the book, that show that inequality has its biggest effect among the less well off but that even among the well-off there is a benefit of living in a more equal society. Perhaps you’d live a bit longer, your children would do a bit better at school, they’d be less likely to get involved in drugs and all that kind of thing.

And just as the effects of social status somehow imprint themselves on us from early childhood onwards, I think the way that inequality works is that big income differences amplify that.

Inequality also has some extraordinary personal effects. I wrote early on in The Spirit Level that one of the costs of greater inequality is modesty about one’s abilities and achievements. Modesty disappears under the pressure of greater inequality. In a society where status matters even more, and money matters even more for the same reason — you use money to show your status in many ways — you have to talk yourself up. Last month a study [linked below] was published on what psychologists call “self-enhancement.” A team of people from many different countries took the same measures on how you compare yourself to average on various things — how clever are you, do you think you’re much cleverer than the average, or about average, or less clever, or whatever — they did that with lots of characteristics. And there is a very clear pattern: In more unequal societies, people rate themselves higher.

[Study: S. Loughnan et al, “Economic inequality is linked to biased self perception,” Psychological Science, September, Issue 22, page 1254. PDF download.]

We’ve all been to dinner parties where people tell endless stories, and the point of each is ostensibly some funny thing that happened, but another point of the story is perhaps to mention that you went to a very good university or to give some other indication of status or achievement. There are lots of ways we talk ourselves up, even in personal face-to-face relationships. I think it’s important to recognize that inequality affects us that intimately, making people increasingly neurotic about how they are seen, judged and valued by others.

It’s interesting in this study, they have Japan on one end and South Africa on the other. One of my brothers was in South Africa recently, and he heard a story of a young man living with his grandmother. His parents had died of AIDS and she lived on a pittance of a pension, and he said he must have a particular very expensive pair of jeans. She said she couldn’t possibly afford that, and he said he’d commit suicide if he couldn’t have these jeans. My brother was visiting some schools, and he asked the children if they knew what this was about, what was happening, and they said, oh yes, it’s just about status. Status becomes so much more important in a more unequal society.

People sometimes talk about low aspirations for children as if that was the problem. But we found that in more unequal countries, children tend to have higher aspirations — but they’re completely unrealistic aspirations. They all want to be sports stars or celebrities or directors of large companies: the only thing that matters is being rich. In more equal societies, it may still be acceptable to be a skilled craftsman without being regarded as a loser. The culture shifts with inequality.

One of the things I really liked about your book is that it’s powered by data, but at the end of the day it isn’t about money, it’s about the monkey brain, the pecking order …

I sometimes say, “This is about monkeys, not Marx.”

That might be the headline of this story.

Well, okay; that might make it more palatable to the well-off but it’ll make it less palatable to the Left, maybe.

That brings up the question: How do you make this idea palatable to the 1%, the people who think their lives are just fine?

We’re becoming increasingly aware from occasional wealthy people who get in touch with us that even a proportion of the rich feel some sense of disquiet with levels of inequality — and I don’t just mean Warren Buffet. For instance, an ex-banker e-mailed me saying he’d bought a hundred copies of our book for his friends and colleagues. He recently hosted a dinner for us and some of them. He regards it as immoral not to pay tax. We’ve come across a number of business people who feel that way strongly. One of them suggested that there should be a tick box on tax forms, which you tick if you’re willing for the amount of tax you pay to be made public. Some people would be able to take pride that they’ve contributed, say, fifty thousand dollars to the well-being of society. But the implication for those who did not tick it might be that they felt ashamed and had something to hide.

There’s a book by an American scholar, Kwame Anthony Appia; it’s called The Honor Code and he looks historically at a number of really important changes in social behavior. He takes the end of footbinding among Chinese women, the ending of fighting duels among the English aristocracy, the ending of slavery and the decline, and the decline of honor killings of women in some countries. And he says in each case something happened that meant that these practices were no longer sources of respect, esteem, honor. For example, as China had more contact with other countries in the 19th century, a few charities set up offices in China campaigning against footbinding, and the Chinese that Western visitors looked down on them for the practice. As a result, a practice which had apparently existed for a thousand years disappeared in ten years. It shows the scope for an ethical element in this.

Our societies have changed radically in the way we view racism; homophobia has lost its respectability; and those are all changes we’ve made quite rapidly in a few decades. And we’ve got to do the same with the inequalities that exist. Make people at the top feel that this is an antisocial way of behaving, and they will be regarded as greedy, selfserving and selfish.

But I think we also need structural changes to solve the problem. CEOs in many large corporations quoted on the stock exchange pay themselves three hundred or more times as much as the lowest-paid full-time worker in the same company. To deal with this, we need to make people at the top more accountable to others, to employees in their organizations and to the community. You can do that by having employee representatives on company boards, or by having more thorough-going forms of economic democracy — more employee-owned companies, cooperatives, mutual societies and friendly societies. These kinds of companies have much smaller income differences within them.