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ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL

THE GLOBAL CHALLENGE OF INEQUALITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS: HOW DO WE MEASURE UP?

The Spirit Level:Why Equality is Better for Everyone
By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Penguin Books                                               London
2010                                                               $20.00
 
World Poverty and Human Rights
By Thomas Pogge
Polity Press                                                     Cambridge
2008                                                                $25.95
 
“What we desire for ourselves, we desire for all,” is one of the most powerful slogans of the labour movement and a good capsule summary of the ideals that have informed the most radical versions of Canadian social democracy since J.S. Woodsworth first coined the expression.

The slogan reflects an idealistic commitment to the principle of equality, a principle that has informed the best of our collective practice over the past century as workers, trade unionists, feminists and human rights advocates. Two recent books provide on the one hand a comprehensive review of social science research that demonstrates that equality is not only desirable in the abstract, but a condition that pays off in physical and mental health benefits for everyone in the society, and on the other a profound reflection on the challenge that world poverty poses to the conscience and ethical integrity of those of us who live in comfort in the developed world. Taken together, The Spirit Level and World Poverty and Human Rights are a powerful intellectual package reminding us of what has always been best in our movements for social justice and suggesting even more arguments, both pragmatic and principled, for ongoing struggle to get closer to realizing the dream of equality for all.  

The Spirit LevelThe Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, pioneers in the field of the social determinants of health, is a well written, deeply researches and morally persuasive argument for equality. Comparing the most prosperous developed democracies in the world ( and one should note that the definition of democracy used is perhaps an over generous one that stretches to include the authoritarian Singapore) across a broad spectrum of measure of  mental health, social cohesion and physical health, the authors show that in study after study, economic inequality is regularly associated with negative outcomes, while countries with more level economies that feature less inequality, such as Japan and the Nordic social democracies, all feature less  pathological phenomena, from obesity to teen pregnancy, mental health issues to drug addiction, social isolation and mistrust to child mortality.

Equality, it turns out, is good for our health, and the benefits, interestingly enough, show up for all social classes in the more equal countries, even those at the top of the social ladder. The research results are displayed in well designed graphs that make sense even to a reader like me who suffers from profound statistics phobia. If there is an award granted each year for most lucid exposition of difficult social science research findings, Pickett and Wilkinson are strong candidates. They have created a book that conveys complex data in an accessible way, and provides objective support for our most profound moral intuition- a society that allows both obscene wealth and agonizing poverty to co-exist is in deep trouble.

Canada regularly appears in the middle of the graphs in  The Spirit Level,  manifesting more social pathologies than equity champions like Japan and Finland, and far fewer than the top inequality countries like the US and the UK . However, it is important to note that Canada is becoming more unequal under the Conservatives. A recent CCPA study (http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/rise-canadas-richest-1) shows that our country’s richest 1% of the population now controls more of the nation’s wealth than any time since the 1920s. Over the decade from 1997 to 2007, that same richest one percent appropriated 32% of all growth in the economy.

The Spirit Level demonstrates that the neo conservative transformation worked on the English speaking countries since the Thatcher/Reagan era has consistently increased a broad range of social dysfunction. The international findings are reinforced by similar studies of American states, where again high levels of inequality are predictive of high levels of social decay and dysfunction, with relatively equal states like Vermont and Maine showing better numbers on all the measured outcomes. (All these graphs are available, together with an invitation to join activists around the world in fighting for income equality at the website of the Equality Trust at www.equalitytrust.org.uk )

World Poverty and Human RightsLooking beyond the American states or even the top performing developed countries, of course, the inequality picture is even more disturbing. Billions around the world live in abject poverty, and philosopher ethicist Thomas Pogge argues in his dense and somewhat difficult text on the matter that those of us who live in relative affluence and comfort are directly responsible for the poverty and anguish at the far end of the global income spectrum. We benefit from coercive structures like “free trade” agreements, the World Bank and the IMF, which all collude in stacking the deck of the world economy to benefit our economies and keep the poor, especially in the global South, down and out.
   
Pogge’s prose is less accessible than Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s, but his argument is equally compelling. If we hope to hold on to any moral integrity, Pogge suggests, those of us who fatten at the global trough need to take active steps to see that the radical inequality that distinguishes the current economic system is reformed. He goes on to argue that the worst of global poverty could be eliminated without creating significant reductions in our First World life styles. I am not entirely convinced on this point, but I hope he is right, because the prospects for persuading developed world leaders to get serious about the human rights abuses that are structured into the world economy seem slight, and a need for real sacrifice might make it even harder to win the necessary political battles in the First World. In any event, Pogge labours mightily in this book not only to denounce the moral incoherence of world poverty and rights abuses in an era of unprecedented abundance, but also to propose plausible policy alternatives, including a global resource dividend to be paid on all resource extraction and devoted to eliminating the worst levels of global poverty and a reform of intellectual property law to encourage pharmaceutical companies to focus their  research into the currently un lucrative field of diseases that kill the poor. Both reforms seem worth considering, but again it seems to me implausibly optimistic to imagine such reforms would be allowed by the profiteering minority who currently champion and benefit from the way the economy works now.

Clearly, if we are to meet the challenge of inequality in the 21st century, we will need new ideas and cogently designed and executed research. The two books under review here are rich in both of these elements. It will take a coalition of mass movements around the world to implement these suggested policies. That part is up to us. Both these books are strongly recommended to any reader who values both freedom and equality.

 








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