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12 responses to “Inequality and social well-being”

  1. Mark Bahnisch

    I’m in full agreement with Pickett and Wilkinson, but I think the optimal wealth gradient experiment provides much better support for their argument than the evolutionary psychology stuff.

    I distrust the form of such arguments from anthropology (because that is what they really are – I don’t see any actual reasoning that behaviour is “innate” because it manifested that way in prehistory).

    The actual story is that with the agriculture came surpluses, and hierarchies to distribute and control them. “Primitive communism” among nomadic bands strikes me as a sort of pre-Lapsarian fall narrative.

    I don’t think it has anything much to say about either possible or optimal social arrangements in the 21st century.

    I suspect that both conflict and co-operation are anthropological universals, and that the balance between the two is dependent on culture and the sum of the choices (conscious and unconscious) that bring about social change.

  2. Matt C

    The “optimal wealth gradient” study in the US has been replicated in Australia by some local researchers as well as the original US authors. Here’s the paper: http://www.actu.org.au/Images/Dynamic/attachments/7282/ACTU-Report-Inequality-and-Minimum-%20Wage.pdf

    It was a paper commissioned by the ACTU. Full disclosure: I work for the ACTU.

  3. Peter Whiteford

    I think the case for arguing that there is a strong health gradient by income within countries is overwhelming.

    As an income distribution pedant, however, there are lots of problems with this chart, the most notable of which is that Japan is not and never was a low income inequality country. Until the 1990s the income surveys for Japan left out all single person and self-employed households – or about 40% of the population. Studies that corrected for this estimated that Japanese inequality was above the OECD average. (I can send references if wanted.) It seems likely that Japan’s good health outcomes are likely to be better explained by diet than income distribution.

    More recent data than that used by Wilkinson and Pickett complicate the picture quite a lot. For example, Denmark has worse health outcomes than other Nordic countries, but has had lower income inequality for a long period (they smoke a lot). Many of the countries shown here as having lower inequality than Australia don’t (e.g. Greece, Italy, Ireland and Spain, and more recently Canada). New Zealand has had higher inequality than Australia since the end of the 1980s. Overall, there is a lot more bunching in the middle of the income inequality distribution for countries than shown here.

    I certainly agree that reducing the degree of inequality in health outcomes is very important, but I don’t think that international income inequality comparisons provide a sound basis for this argument.

  4. Jess

    Matt C: Figure 10 of that report you linked to was very interesting.

    Predictable that just about everyone except the richest LNP supporters would support an increase in the minimum wage. But what was suprising to me was the support that raising the minimum wage across the rest of the community, even amongst LNP supporters who are less wealthy.

    Doesn’t look like mob rule is working very well for Australia – seems like the rich LNPers are getting their way.

  5. wilful

    Actually Australia are relatively at the good end, in that we’re below the line. For our income inequality (which is only a subjective moral question*) we achieve the same objective index scores as France and Austria, better than Ireland or Greece.

    * I accept the view that more equal societies are happier, but I understand this is contested.

  6. Mark Bahnisch

    Brian, I think that article is probably a useful corrective to claims that inequality and brutish competition is “natural” or “innate”, but only within the terms of that particular way (wrong imho) of seeing things.

  7. fxh

    As Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pointed out, you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.

    As I often point out you will frequently see two or more bonobos carrying on together without being married.

  8. Joe

    Wow– first impression of the graph, we have, for our relatively high income inequality, pretty good social and health outcomes.

    Puts the EU countries to shame.

    Mind you the relationship between the two axis is arbitrary– things might look different if the income inequality axis wasn’t flattened out so much.

    USA is an outlier– nothing unusual there.

  9. Labor Outsider

    There is another important problem with this comparison, in that the strong relationship in levels does not hold in the changes. That is, reductions in income inequality are not associated with significant improvements in health outcomes. Andrew Leigh had some useful posts on this back when he was blogging.

  10. Jarrah

    It is a pity that both Mark and Brian express support for Pickett and Wilkinson, because their work has been very strongly criticised (particularly from Snowdon, but also people like Andrew Leigh), showing their overall thesis to be unsustainable.