Inequality leads to bad public life


by Sunny
27th March, 2009 at 1:05 pm    

This post has an interesting conclusion:

And what Wilkinson and Pickett’s study points to is that the inequality inherent in hierarchy is unhealthy and unsuccessful. You can listen to the authors interviewed about it here. They emphasise that inequality results in a decline of trust, reciprocity and community life, or as Kropotkin would have it, mutual aid. I would take this analysis further and suggest that if we are to have a successful and healthy public sector, we not only need to question the distribution of wealth, but also deal with the distribution of power and how it is exercised, especially in our day-to-day working environments.

New Labour placed great store in a form of Fabian managerialism, enthusiastically setting themselves targets as much as they imposed them on others. The discontents registered by Radice point to the dysfunctions of such an approach. Rather than transparency and efficiency, they certainly led to well-documented failures attributed to target chasing, but perhaps there was something more intangible happening as well, the erosion of the sense of common purpose and ethics on which the public sector depends. Those 19th Century Anarchists may just have been on to something.

I’d agree with that…


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  1. pickles

    New blog post: Inequality leads to bad public life http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/3939




  1. Ravi Naik — on 27th March, 2009 at 2:52 pm  

    And what Wilkinson and Pickett’s study points to is that the inequality inherent in hierarchy is unhealthy and unsuccessful.

    I do not think hierarchy is bad by itself, in fact, it may be a necessity in any social organisation. What is bad, I believe, is the inability to climb the leader, so to speak, because of your race, caste, gender, etc.

  2. persephone — on 27th March, 2009 at 6:32 pm  

    I agree with some amount of heirarchy, albeit a flat hierarchy as opposed to a cantilevered one. Otherwise who would direct things? You always get a certain proportion of people who do not want to take responsibility to lead and are happy to follow.

    But if you are prepared to shoulder extra responsibility or possess a specialist skill then I have no issue if you are recompensed for it.

    Also, even where an official hierarchy does not exist you will find that the natural leaders will emerge.

    The type of hierarchy that lacks credibility is any gained without merit – for example hierarchy by virtue of birth.

    From scan reading the link, the study does not give examples of countries/economies/populations operating successfully without a form of hierarchy.

  3. Riz Din — on 27th March, 2009 at 6:39 pm  

    The authors have a well designed blog and campaign platform here:

    http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/

    and a much longer presentation of their thoughts here:

    http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/the-spirit-level

    When I read this, the first thought I had was that a simple culling of the rich would solve the problem of relative wealth and relative health in one fail swoop. I have many other thoughts which I will share later…but I have definitely hit my comment quota for now!

  4. persephone — on 27th March, 2009 at 7:06 pm  

    @ 3. I visited the first link to the Equality Trust site & particularly liked the fact that they had a Board.

  5. Riz Din — on 27th March, 2009 at 8:00 pm  

    The Spirit Level (via the link in the article) looks like interesting reading. Or you can do what I did, and read about and around it and assume you have captured the essence of the message. Actually, their web-site (linked above is so comprehensive, I don’t think you need the book!).

    Here is the summary from The Times:

    “What they find is that, in states and countries where there is a big gap between the incomes of rich and poor, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy are more common, the homicide rate is higher, life expectancy is shorter, and children’s educational performance and literacy scores are worse. The Scandinavian countries and Japan consistently come at the positive end of this spectrum. They have the smallest differences between higher and lower incomes, and the best record of psycho-social health. The countries with the widest gulf between rich and poor, and the highest incidence of most health and social problems, are Britain, America and Portugal.

    In an experiment with macaque monkeys, the animals were housed in groups, and the social hierarchies that developed among them were observed. Then the monkeys were taught to administer cocaine to themselves by pressing a lever. The dominant monkeys in each group were relatively abstemious, but the subordinate monkeys took a lot of cocaine to medicate themselves against the pain of low social status. In a similar experiment, high-status monkeys from different groups were housed together, so that some of them became low status. The downwardly mobile monkeys accumulated abdominal fat and developed a rapid build-up of atherosclerosis in their arteries, just like humans.

    By reducing income inequality, they can improve the health and wellbeing of the whole population. How this should be effected, Wilkinson and Pickett do not think it is their job to say, but increasing top tax rates or legislating to limit maximum pay are possibilities they suggest. They warn, though, that short-term remedies like this could be reversed by a change of government, and that we need to find ways of rooting greater equality more deeply in our society.”

    Economist John Kay reviews the book in the FT and makes the following criticism:

    “…a larger source of irritation is the authors’ apparent belief that the application of regression methods to economic and social statistics is as novel to social science as it apparently is to medicine. The evidence presented in the book is mostly a series of scatter diagrams, with a regression line drawn through them. No data is provided on the estimated equations, or on relevant statistical tests. If you remove the bold lines from the diagram, the pattern of points mostly looks random, and the data dominated by a few outliers.”

    But he does conclude, ‘… This is not to downplay the significance of the issue. The argument is a powerful counter to any simple equation of social progress and the advance of GDP.’

    And another chap makes a few critical points on his blog here: http://www.danielbenami.com/2009/03/spirit-level.html.

    I wonder about the direction of causality in the argument – it’s damn hard to be successful if you are in prison, an alcoholic, etc, so by definition those at these various states of poor well-being will be correlated to inequality. Was inequality the cause? Perhaps, perhaps not.

    I also agree that equality is a nice ideal in and of itself, but view it as too rose-tinted and I don’t think it is even worth trying to achieve in a practical sense, simply because taking such an approach risks destroying the machinery of progress. If we look at the order of the natural world, most animal societies live in a world of constant stress and competition, where tournaments produce winners and ‘if you ain’t first, you’re last’ allocations of resources. It’s not all that different in the hyper competitive world of man, where the marginal winner takes all. This seems to be bad for the individuals and for all involved, but it is a system of natural evolution found so widely, there must be merits to it by way of an optimal furthering the genes of the species. Now, are we above the animals?…hell yes, at least in the sense that we don’t have to destroy each to survive. However, I do think that we could leave it to the individual to develop himself or herself better rather than offloading the responsibility on to the system, which would lead to less inequality through reduced efficiency and enterprise, for it knows no other way. Changing the structure doesn’t get to the root of the problem which I believe can be better understood by a deeper understanding of oneself, by asking deeper questions like:

    - what do I want in life?
    - what does money mean to me?
    - what does status mean to me?
    - how do I consume and what does it mean?

    Etc. Deep contemplation of such issues, I believe allows one to rise above the system and drive the change by inner resolve of spirit. At the same time, it leaves the door open to those who want to play the game and compete to the highest level – society benefits greatly from the positive externalities of such competitive enterprise.

    I guess this is where I differ deeply with the authors of the study, who were quoted saying, “We have got close to the end of what economic growth can do for us”. I say we haven’t even started.

    Rant over. Thanks for listening, if you held out for that long!

  6. MaidMarian — on 27th March, 2009 at 10:48 pm  

    It is not that targets are per se dysfunctional, or even that managerial ism is always and everywhere bad.

    The problem with Labour and targets was a tendency to be far more reactive than they needed to be. The pressure, it should be noted came from right and left and commentators would do well to take a long hard look at the demands made by pressure groups, the press, the unions and others on government.

    These pressures led to a slapdash type of thinking that went-

    Something must be done – this is something – therefore this must be done.

    Good intent does not always make for good outcomes and problems can not be legislated away. For example many of New Labour’s application systems established, as a part of the statues, mandatory deadlines. Great up to the point where tough cases come along that need time, advice and the like.

    It was similar with equal opportunities where targets were set with seemingly little regard for complexity and the real world. Great for the diversity industry though.

    Another topical example is the demands being made to increase the conviction % in rape cases with, it would seem, little regard for the nicities of evidence.

    The common purpose, I posit, went when government started over-indulging pressure groups (again, from across the political spectrum). Indulgence is not compatible with common purpose. Are pressure groups to blame for indulgence, or is government to blame for being too accommodating? Probably a bit of both.

    I do not as such have a problem with targets – just with establishing targets on a whim to mollify pressure groups who really don’t have the common good in mind.

  7. David Jones — on 28th March, 2009 at 2:58 pm  

    And you think you can remove inequality … how exactly? And it would be desirable if achievable why?

    Ridiculous.

    http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/hb.html

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