Monday, November 21, 2011

Utopian Dreamers

When I first read this piece I thought the writer, a woman named Kate Pickett, was composing an amusing parody of the British Left, but as I continued to read I realized that she was herself a British Leftist and that she was, as incredible as it seems, completely serious:
When Richard Wilkinson and I sat down towards the end of 2007 to start writing The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which was published in March 2009, we had a clear objective. After years of research, and having published a large number of papers in academic journals, we were frustrated that what we and other researchers had learned about the damage caused by income inequality was so little known.

We had shown that bigger income differences lead to worse physical and mental health, more drug use, violent crime and higher rates of imprisonment, less trust and worse child wellbeing, more children doing poorly in school and low social mobility. Yet when any of these problems were discussed in the media, there was absolutely no discussion of the role of inequality.

Politicians and policymakers were happy to talk about poverty, but almost always failed to make the necessary distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. In the rich, developed countries, it is relative poverty and inequality that really matter and, because inequality wreaks its damage through status competition and status anxiety. Almost all of us are touched by the impact of inequality, not just the poor, the unemployed or the disenfranchised....

[T]he truth is that not only are high salaries and bonuses often undeserved, but the inequality they create damages society. Those countries that have a smaller gap in income and wealth between the bottom 99% and the top 1% do not suffer, they flourish.
There is more claptrap per paragraph in Pickett's article than in any piece I can recall ever reading. Her point is that we need to level out income inequality by taking wealth from those who earn it and giving it to those who don't. If we do that, she implies, we'll all flourish. If we don't do it, the implication is, we'll all be dysfunctional citizens of a dystopian hell.

Luckily, this happens to be an empirically testable claim. There are many countries which, over the last sixty or seventy years, have conducted their affairs precisely as Ms Pickett suggests. Several which spring immediately to mind are the old Soviet Union, East Germany, China, North Korea, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.

The fortunate residents of these idyllic Shangri-las flourished so profoundly and achieved such blissful levels of contentment from knowing that no one (except government honchos) had any more of the world's goods than anyone else, that their rulers were forced to erect walls with armed guards on their borders to keep their people from fleeing the place. They had no problem, of course, keeping people out because no one in their right mind wanted to get in, except perhaps for Ms Pickett. The problem was that they had to make emigration illegal because everyone wanted to do it.

Yet the countries cursed with that awful income inequality to which Ms Pickett alludes, countries rife with gross economic injustice, countries where the people despair because, despite all they have, they still don't have as much as the guy next door, those countries can't handle all the people who, for some reason, are willing to risk everything, including their lives, to live there.

I wonder how Ms Pickett explains that.

Thanks to Bill for passing the article along.