Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Greed is good?

First this week we have the vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs, Lord Griffiths,  saying

We have to accept that inequality is a way of achieving greater opportunity and prosperity for all.

No we don’t. It’s just not true. Inequality is NOT a way of making life better for ALL. The evidence actually points the other way. Inequality is a BAD way of trying to make life better, even for the privileged.

Then the Duke of York chips in to defend the bonuses –

I don’t want to demonise the banking and financial sector. Bonuses, in the scheme of things, are minute. They are easy to target. A number will have abused their privilege of a bonus, so get rid of the excesses, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Have these guys never read the research on the effects of inequality? Take a look at just two books – The Impact of Inequality, and The Spirit Level, and make up your own mind. Or go to The Equality Trust and read more.

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I don’t know about you but in the middle of this “world economic crisis” I’m just not hearing what seems like a decent plan. The main so-called solutions seem to be about how to get people borrowing and spending again. But weren’t borrowing and spending actually at the heart of the problem? Wasn’t it the system which encouraged the unregulated pursuit of self-interest which produced exactly the current crisis? But tired old slanging matches between free market capitalists and state control advocates just seem like debates about who should hold the reigns of power. It feels like something more radical and new is needed. I found myself saying, don’t we need a society more based on love, than on power? (and does that mean I’ve never quite left Woodstock, flower power, and the “LA habit” behind?)
I’ve long since been impressed with the work of Richard Wilkinson and been convinced about his findings on inequality so when he commented on one of my posts recommending his latest book, The Spirit Level (ISBN 978-1-846-14039-6), I knew a trip to Amazon was imminent.
Most of The Spirit Level, which he has written with Kate Pickett, re-presents the findings and the arguments I’ve read before. If you’ve never read any of his work, then is, for sure, the best starting place. However, where it got exciting for me was at chapter 14. In fact, the last three chapters of the book were the three which gripped me most strongly.
The authors quote Thomas Hobbes who believed that there was always a danger of conflict in human societies as people competed over scarce resources, so the purpose of strong government was to keep the peace. You’ll be familiar with the Hobbes’ phrase that without such government life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Against this view they propose

“As well as the potential for conflict, human beings have a unique potential to be each other’s best source of co-operation, learning, love and assistance of every kind. While there’s not much that ostriches or otters can do far an injured member of their own species, among humans there is.”

They describe the ‘ultimate game’ where volunteers are paired randomly, one is given a sum of money and told to propose to the other a share of the money. If the ‘responder’ accepts the proposal both keep the money. If they reject it, neither keeps the money. Interestingly, what happens is that the commonest offer is 50%. This is despite the fact it’s made clear that there will be only one ‘round’ of this game and the volunteers will never meet again. ‘Responders’ reject offers less than 20% on average, so punishing greedy proposers. This shows two interesting human characteristics – co-operation and “altruistic punishment” which reinforces co-operative behaviour.
Somewhat startlingly, but undeniably, they claim that human beings have lived for 90% of our history in egalitarian societies based on co-operative, hunter-gatherer groups, and only with the invention of agriculture did dominance hierarchies develop.
Their conclusion is to call for more “affiliative strategies”

At one extreme, dominance hierarchies are about self-advancement and status competition. Individuals have to be self-reliant and other people are encountered mainly as rivals for food and mates. At the other extreme is mutual interdependence and co-operation, in which each person’s security depends on the quality of their relationships with others, and a sense of self-worth comes less from status than from the contribution made to the well-being of others. Rather than the overt pursuit of material self-interest, affiliative strategies depend on mutuality, reciprocity and the capacity for empathy and emotional bonding.

I think this hits the nail on the head. I think we need some bright minds to come up with the  detailed methods, but I do believe what we need now is a radical realignment of our energies and our structures away from the mistaken belief that competitive self-interest producing dominance hierarchies are the best model for society, back to our roots, to the 90% of our history, to

“mutuality, reciprocity and the capacity for empathy and emotional bonding”

Wilkinson and Pickett make it clear that their research has compared existing developed nations, not current models against a hypothetical utopian one. If we can reduce our enormous economic inequalities, we can look forward to less violent, more healthy societies. If you’re not convinced about that, read this book.

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There was a headline item on the morning news which, even though, it wasn’t really new, was still shocking. In Lenzie, Scotland, the life expectancy of a child who lives there is 81 years. Eight miles away, in the East End of Glasgow a child of the same age as the one in Lenzie has a life expectancy of 53 years. It’s not just the fact that such premature death is so common in present day Scotland, but the difference! 28 years! Neither of these facts are trivial. Wouldn’t you think that such a problem would command the attention and action of a society? What’s the problem? Funnily enough, it certainly isn’t a problem to be pushed off into the NHS to solve. Yes, the NHS has to provide the services to help the people who are suffering from the illnesses which cut their lives so short, but this is a much more complex problem than one which doctors and health care teams can effectively address.

Research by Prof Wilkinson and others has made it crystal clear that economic and social inequality is the heart of the problem. If we don’t address that as a society, we will never bring about any significant change to consign such shocking headlines to history.

These startling facts come from the WHO’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health.

Sir Michael Marmot, chairman of the commission, said: “The key message of our report is that the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age are the fundamental drivers of health, and health inequity.” He added: “We rely too much on medical interventions as a way of increasing life expectancy.”

And what kind of response has come from the government to this report? Ann Keen, health minister for England said –

The UK is at the forefront of tackling health inequalities, but the challenge of reducing the gap in life expectancy is still very much an issue.

Really? At the forefront? In fact, over the lifetime of the present UK government, inequality has increased significantly, not decreased. Isn’t it time to deal with this issue more honestly?

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