Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Some Fundamental Questions

In light of our economic near-full-stop, some basic questions regarding economic policy are actually being asked. Via Matt (whom I don't know, but consider on a first-name basis anyway), comes a link to a book review in The Guardian (the book is entitled The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett):
On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country's level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable "low" end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable "high" end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world's richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence - murder, in particular - that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality - within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging.

The graphs also reveal that it is not just the poor, but whole societies, from top to bottom, that are adversely affected by inequality. Although the UK fares badly when compared with most other OECD countries (and is the worst developed nation in which to be a child according to both Unicef and the Good Childhood Inquiry), its social problems are not as pronounced as in the US.

Rates of illness are lower for English people of all classes than for Americans, but working-age Swedish men fare better still. Diabetes affects twice as many American as English people, whether they have a high or a low level of education. Wherever you look, evidence favouring greater equality piles up. As the authors write, "the relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance".

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of reading this book is the revelation that the way we live in Britain is a serious danger to our mental health. Around a quarter of British people, and more than a quarter of Americans, experience mental problems in any given year, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in Japan, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

Wilkinson and Pickett's description of unequal societies as "dysfunctional" suggests implicit criticism of the approach taken by Britain's "happiness tsar" Richard Layard, who recommended that the poor mental health of many Britons be "fixed" or improved by making cognitive behavioural therapy more easily available. Consumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement and anxiety all follow from inequality, they argue, and so cannot rightly be made a matter of individual management.

There's an almost pleading quality to some of Wilkinson and Pickett's assertions, as though they feel they've spent their careers banging their heads against a brick wall. It's impossible to overstate the implications of their thesis: that the societies of Britain and the US have institutionalised economic and social inequality to the extent that, at any one time, a quarter of their respective populations are mentally ill. What kind of "growth" is that, other than a malignant one?

As this is a review article rather than, say, an opinion piece or an analytical article, I find Matt's take somewhat . . . well, I don't think he gets it.
Long-term readers will recognize that I’m a longtime booster of all-things Scandinavian, and it’s actually as a big fan of Nordic countries that I have my doubts about this argument. The crux of the matter is that the Scandinavian countries are not poor. They’re not even close. These are some of the richest countries on earth. After all, good health and high levels are trust are not only consequences of equality, they’re causes of growth. Likewise, it strikes me as unlikely that Denmark would stick with its egalitarian social model if it entered a prolonged period of declining real living standards. The lesson of Scandinavia isn’t that other countries should abandon growth in the quest for equality, it’s that if you can manage to build an effective public sector that people have confidence in, that will pay off in terms of both growth and equality.

The other issues to consider here have to do with the interconnected nature of global life. If we sealed the border and kicked all the immigrants out, measured inequality in the United States would plummet. But real living standards for the remaining poor people would only increase modestly and real living standards for the exiled used-to-be-immigrants would decline drastically. This sort of thing is not sound policy even if the egalitarian result has some desirable aspects. Similarly, economic growth in China and India is unquestionably leading to large increases in human welfare and it will be very hard for poor countries to grow unless rich countries also grow so we can buy stuff from them.

The review essay itself is nothing more than a precis of the book being reviewed, presenting the argument that economic policies that opt for economic growth as the chief good toward which all other social goods should be geared creates as many social ills as it does generally raise the standard of living, therefore access to amelioratives for these negative results (the debate over health care reform going on right now is a wonderful example of this phenomenon).

Yet, the question needs to be asked: Should unhindered economic growth be the chief goal of national social and economic policy? Don't the deleterious effects (apparently presented in vivid if literally graphic detail in the book under review in the original article) create social ills that, at some point, hinder a society's attempt to provide for the maximum welfare for the greatest number of citizens? How do we structure our social and economic policy in such a way that these negatives can be treated, yet still encourage innovation, and economic well-being? Is economic growth a zero-sum game? Is the pursuit of greater social equality a brake on economic prosperity for society as a whole?

These issues have been kind of swirling around in my head for some months. The on-going economic downturn has accelerated my interest in them, precisely because it is right now that we have the opportunity to ask these questions as we fashion, one hopes, different economic and social policies that recognize other social goods of equal and even more importance than increasing the annual GDP.

Of course, asking the questions is not a substitute for pursuing certain achievable goals in the near-term. Yet, as the health care reform debate goes on, it is part and parcel of the whole series of questions that really come down to one question: What sort of society do we want? Is the simplistic dichotomy between equality versus economic growth even correct?

While I have no answers right now, it is nice that some other folks besides me are asking the questions, and offering in to evidence some real data to be considered.

Virtual Tin Cup

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