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Of Stress and Inequality

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s “The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being” is a follow-up to their 2009 best-seller “The Spirit Level.” That book reviewed several hundred studies expounding on their book’s subtitle: “Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” and came to the breakthrough finding that “inequality affects the vast majority of the population, not only the poor minority.”

The data also supported their contention that closing the wealth gap between the highest- and lowest-income citizens reduced the cost and impact of health and social problems, such as violence and drug abuse, for an entire society. They update this previous research to demonstrate ever more strongly that the United States is not “the land of opportunity,” but one of the world’s most unequal societies, offering less upward mobility than most other economically developed democracies.

Had they gone no further, the new book could have served as a valuable revision of their original work. But they do go further. In fact, I felt that their contention that we are in a new era where inequality affects everyone’s mental health was at times too ambitious for the data presented. Nevertheless, the authors break new ground. They go beyond the economic impact that weakens a society when it cannot create a reasonably balanced distribution of wealth, extending into the psychological fallout from inequality. But they’re quick to dissuade readers from assuming that they are concerned about individual neuroses, beginning with the title of the first chapter: “This is Not a Self-Help Book.”

The book’s subtitle could also serve as the opening of a manifesto: “How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being.” It’s a grand, sweeping description of what ails our modern psyche: Stress caused by inequality leads to anti-social behavior along all class lines, from poorest to richest. While there is data to support this connection, the authors tend to gloss over the extent to which inequalities in the past have had the same effect.

For instance, they say “the rise of inequality since the end of the 1970s has intensified status competition and consumerism,” yet note that over a hundred years ago Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe how Americans’ purchases “expressed their social status aspirations.”

It’s not just that stress has increased, but “depression, psychotic symptoms, schizophrenia and narcissistic traits are all significantly more common in unequal societies.” Lacking a control group to validate these conclusions, social epidemiologists Wilkinson and Pickett examine the ways institutions and social structures in other countries influence public health.

Scandinavian countries score the highest on equality and mental-health measurements. One might then assume that they offer the best model to adopt. Still, there are other societies from the 20th century that have pursued more rigorous measures to eliminate inequality, like the Soviet Union and Cuba. The authors missed an opportunity to see if their efforts translated into better mental-health conditions or if there were other institutional influences that negated these benefits.

Instead, they focus on the precivilization egalitarian societies of hunters and gatherers. They note that the introduction of agriculture required a routine division of labor. This change brought about a social revolution that created class divisions, subsequent inequalities and greater psychological stress. While it’s apparent that inequality has been part of human culture going back a long time, the authors argue that data shows it has grown over time.

The authors propose practical steps that a country can pursue to reduce existing and growing inequality and improve the overall health of citizens. Countries can nourish the development of cooperative organizations for manufacturing and the delivery of services that private businesses provide, such as health care and retail services. A more systematic measure would be to democratize the economic field and corporate structures in order to give employees more of a say over their everyday activity. Some of the most economically developed democracies have achieved greater equality by pursuing these practices.

For the U.S. to take these approaches, our culture of valuing individual competition more than community cooperation would have to change. This book hopes to readjust those values, by showing that a more equal society is a better society for everyone.

 

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