That’s the claim made by the authors of The Inner Level, which furthers arguments first laid out in their 2009 work, The Spirit Level. They reveal the bleak truth about uneven societies
In 2009, when the world was still absorbing the shock of the previous year’s financial crisis, a book called The Spirit Level was published. Written by a couple of social epidemiologists, it argued that a whole raft of data conclusively showed that societies with greater inequality also had a range of more pronounced social problems, including higher rates of violence, murder, drug abuse, imprisonment, obesity and teenage pregnancies.
Given that naked profit motive had just taken the world to the brink of economic collapse, it was a good moment to take stock and reflect on where rising inequality was leading us. For the previous 30 years a broad consensus had operated in politics, particularly in the US and Britain, that as long as those at the bottom were being lifted by the rising tide of wealth, then it didn’t much matter that those at the top were rising much faster.
As Peter Mandelson famously said to a gathering of Silicon Valley executives in 1998, when he was Labour’s secretary of state for trade and industry: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” What’s usually knocked off that statement is Mandelson’s proviso: “As long as they pay their taxes.”
That was the big breakthrough in New Labour’s politics. Instead of demonising the rich or sending them abroad with punitive taxes, they realised it was better to encourage them and raise revenue that could be spent on the underprivileged and other needy causes. And in many respects it worked. The economy expanded, more money was spent on education, the NHS and social benefits, and who cared if in the process a few more billionaires were created or the bonus culture got a little excessive?
But then the crash came, it turned out that the boom and bust years were not over, and we found ourselves as ordinary taxpayers in the unjust position of bailing out the banks that had been guilty of the greatest excesses of greed and social irresponsibility. As a result austerity followed and those who suffered most from its effects were the poorest members of society. Meanwhile the bonus culture continued, the banking industry has changed little (in America, the Trump administration is now loosening the limited financial regulations put in place after the crash), and, despite a slight decline, income inequality remains strikingly high in the UK – FTSE CEOs earn on average 386 times more than workers on the national living wage, and the top 20% of the country earn 15 times more than the bottom 20%, before tax and benefits, and about four times after that readjustment.
Now Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the authors of The Spirit Level, have returned with a new book, The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Wellbeing. I meet the pair, who are a couple, at a bar in St Pancras station, London, where we talked about their work while they waited for a train back north – Wilkinson is emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, and Pickett is professor of epidemiology at the University of York.
Wilkinson is in his mid-70s, but aside for a slight hearing problem and a pair of impressively wintry eyebrows, he is a picture of youthful energy, not to mention scathing opinions. If anything it’s Pickett, 22 years his junior, who is the moderating voice….