Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why you should care about economic inequality -- and why Americans seeking to live the American dream should go to Denmark

Below is a TED Talk by British academic Richard Wilkinson about how economic inequality harms societies. Like all TED Talks, it's less than 20 minutes, and it only covers the basics. Nevertheless, it provides an excellent introduction to the topic of why you should care about economic inequality, a subject I'll be covering in far greater depth in subsequent posts on this blog.

A few days ago, someone on Facebook asked me just this question. He wondered why anyone should care about inequality -- if we just deal with poverty, isn't that enough? Putting aside for the moment that societies with high poverty rates tend to have high rates of economic inequality as well, and that it can be hard to attend to one of those problems without attending to the other, Wilkinson's talk helps answer my Facebook friend's question.

Wilkinson makes a couple of points well worth emphasizing:

-- Somewhat surprisingly, research shows that economic inequality hurts not only those at the bottom and middle rungs of the economic ladder, but those at the top as well.

-- It doesn't seem to matter much how a society gets to economic equality -- whether it's through a more compressed pre-tax wage structure or post-tax income transfers. Regardless of the policy mechanism it takes to arrive at equality, once a society is relatively economically equal, it tends to perform well on a host of social indicators.

-- Perhaps the most fascinating part of this talk, to me, is when Wilkinson talks about why it is that unequal societies seem to suffer from far higher rates of social pathologies than their more egalitarian counterparts. According to Wilkinson, in unequal societies people live in a state of anxiety about constantly being judged, respected or disrespected, rated as inferior or superior according to their attractiveness, smarts, wealth, etc. This breeds psychosocial insecurities that are a recipe for societal dysfunction.

-- Finally, I liked his quip that,"If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark." Indeed.

UPDATE: Honesty compels me to report that Wilkinson's social science methodology has been seriously called into question. I've ordered the book and will read it for myself, but based on an initial perusal, Saunders' critique looks persuasive.


  1. It's nice that a big hollywood A-lister like Harrison Ford is giving talks about inequality :)

  2. Well, Indiana Jones is an academic, after all. Maybe he got tired of digging up ancient ruins and found a new specialty?

  3. Didn't G.B. Shaw point out that it takes a square mile of squalor to finance a lot in Mayfair? (or someting like that)

  4. John, I don't know, but that's a great line!