When the rich get richer, everyone suffers. Even the rich.
This is surprising, countercultural news to most people. The economies of the USA, Australia and most of the developed countries in the world are built on the assumption that economic growth benefits everyone in the society. As long as the rich are getting richer, then the poor must be doing better as well, right? Wrong!
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have written a fascinating (and at times disturbing) survey of life in the modern world. It is a book full of statistics and facts and figures, which take a bit of patience and perseverance to wade through. But the essence of their message is that it is not the amount of wealth in a society that determines how happy/safe/healthy people are. It is the distance between the poorest and the most wealthy in the society. Where the gap is largest, the is more crime, higher levels of imprisonment, higher levels of infant mortality, lower levels of trust, higher levels of teenage pregnancy, … the list goes on. Wilkinson and Pickett have collated research by a wide range of researchers, and they all support the same conclusion. Not only is equality the most significant determinant of most measures of quality of life between different countries, Wilkinson and Pickett show that the same is true even between different states of the USA and provinces of Canada.
The following passage from pp 79-80 of the book is perhaps one of the most poignant illustrations of the author’s thesis:
Let’s consider the health of two babies born into two different societies. Baby A is born in one of the richest countries in the world, the USA, home to more than half of the world’ billionaires. It is a country that spends somewhere between 40-50 per cent of the world’s total spending on health care, although it contains less than 5 per cent of the world’s population. Spending on drug treatments and high-tech scanning equipment is particularly high. Doctors in this country earn almost twice as much as doctors elsewhere and medical care is often described as the best in the world.
Baby B is born in one of the poorer of the western democracies, Greece, where average income is not much more than half that of of the USA. Whereas America spends about $6000 per person per year on health care, Greece spends less than $3000. This is in real terms, after taking into account the different costs of medical care. And Greece has six times fewer high-tech scanners per person than the USA.
Surely Baby B’s chances of a long and healthy life are worse than Baby A’s?
In fact, Baby A, born in the USA, has a life expectancy of 1.2 years less than Baby B, born in Greece. And baby A has a 40 per cent higher risk of dying in the first year after birth than Baby B. Among developed countries, there are even bigger contrasts than the comparison we’ve used here: babies born in the USA are twice as likely to die in their first year than babies in Japan, and the difference in average life expectancy between the USA and Sweden is three years, between Portugal and Japan it is over five years.
This was written beofre the recent economic and social troubles in Greece. They may struggle to pay their bills. There may be rioting in the streets. But the average person living in Greece, by almost every possible standard, has a better quality of life than the average person living in the USA.
This is a book worth reading, worth buying, by anyone interested in a more just world. It is a wakeup call to politicians who argue for ‘growth, growth, growth’, and those who support them.And it prompts everyone, no matter who we are, to take stock of our own priorities. To ask difficult questions, like ‘how much is ‘enough’, and ‘If I am rich and my neighbour is poor, am I really rich at all?’.
Some critics have panned this book as old fashioned socialist propaganda. Some old fashioned socialists have hailed this book as vindication of what they have been saying all along. But Wilkinson and Pickett are not promoting socialism – old fashioned or otherwise. They are merely demonstrating, from a wide range of compelling evidence, that what makes a happy, safe and secure society is economic growth which favours all citizens. If the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, then everybody suffers.
If I have not convinced you to buy the book perhaps this short film will do the trick. This video contains a full length lecture, with discussion, in which Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present their data to an audience in the USA.