Radical Inequality Is Literally Killing Us

Two British intellectuals — one a distinguished, gray-haired professor emeritus, the other a rising young academic superstar — have just finished a 15-day speaking tour across the United States. They came to fan the flames of “populist rage.”

We don’t, of course, normally associate populist rage with sophisticated scholars. Our most eminent pundits almost always employ "populist rage” as a condescending, even derisive, put-down, a tag for an unfocused, unthinking anger directed toward elites — a cry from the great unwashed masses born of frustration and envy.

But Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, our two recent scholarly British visitors, would beg to differ. Populist rage at bank bailouts and Wall Street bonuses, they believe, actually reflects state-of-the-art scientific insight.

Wilkinson and Pickett both work as epidemiologists. They study the health of populations, and, over recent decades, pioneering work by Wilkinson has helped reveal the most reliable foundation for good health and long life. Want to live long and prosper? Go live in a relatively equal society.

Over 200 studies since the early 1980s have now documented that people living in societies where wealth has concentrated at the top of the economic ladder live significantly shorter, less healthy lives than people who live in societies that spread their wealth more evenly.

And we’re not talking just poor folks here. All people in unequal societies do worse. Middle-income people in the United States, the world’s most unequal developed nation, have shorter lifespans than middle-income people in Japan, Sweden and a host of other more equal nations.

This same dynamic, Wilkinson and Pickett show in their new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, is operating on all our most basic yardsticks of social decency. On everything from homicides and teen pregnancies to drug addiction and levels of trust, people living in more equal nations do better — from three to 10 times better — than people in societies where treasure tilts to the top.

And that treasure, in the United States, is tilting top-bound as rapidly as ever. The latest Wall Street bank bonus totals may have no precedent in American history. Seldom — if ever — have so few profited so profusely in the midst of a general economic collapse.

The 32,500 souls fortunate enough to work at Wall Street banking giant Goldman Sachs will pocket an average $498,153 for their labors in 2009. Their total compensation for the year, $16.2 billion, runs $3.3 billion more than the pay that went the year before to the 207,315 teachers who staff New York state’s public schools.

We see this same top-heavy distribution of income throughout the U.S. economy.

Two weeks ago, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that just a tad over a million U.S. taxpayers will take home over $500,000 in 2010. These one million top-earners will collect $200 billion more in income this year than the 80 million taxpayers who make $40,000 or less.

The data from epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett remind us that gaps like these have consequences: they translate into ever-higher levels of stress and insecurity in nearly every corner of our daily lives. This economic insecurity assaults more than just our household finances. Over time, the chronic stress it causes actually wears down our immune systems. Our epic inequality, in essence, is quite literally killing us.

Last week, on the last day of the Wilkinson and Pickett U.S. speaking tour, Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich joined the two British scientists at an Economic Policy Institute forum in Washington, DC.

Democratic Party politicos, Ehrenreich charged, “have failed to speak to the resentment out there on inequality."

Average Americans will rage, and rightfully so, until they do.


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