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The Spirit Level New Edition: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone Paperback – International Edition, December 14, 2010
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About the Author
Richard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research and his work has been published in ten languages. He studied economic history at the London School of Economics before training in epidemiology and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham Medical School and Honorary Professor at University College London.
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The Spirit Level is a very analytical approach to the topic of income inequality that is presented in an understandable format. The first couple chapters set the scene in describing the difference between wealth and inequality and how our success in getting things may actually be setting up cultural failure. Some of the points are key insights to human behavior. Pages 36-37 are very fascinating in describing the evolution of self-esteem. We now have a population of people who put off great self-esteem but not because they are accomplished or talented. Rather, these seemingly confident individuals continue to tell themselves they are right about everything and in turn are the most racist, violent and insensitive people in our culture.
By this same token, many people today measure success only as in comparison to others. They must continually show to themselves and others that they have more than most of those around them. This promotes a cultural values system that leads to great inequality. The majority of the book then goes on to detail all the negative social consequences that seem to come as a result of inequality. Countries are listed in accordance to their level of inequality. Beyond that, the book lists each of the 50 American states according to the same criteria. Each chapter is then dedicated to a social problem everyone would agree is a cultural negative (violence, mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancies and poor education). Research results are given on each topic that show with amazing consistency how inequality (whether in a country or state) causes more of the negative social reality. These parallels hold true whether the country (or state) is rich or poor. It is simply the level of inequality that seems to make the condition worse.
The final chapters then give some suggestions toward correcting this disparity. One of these was a solution to global warming in which everyone is given credits for waste or pollution allocation. Poorer people who are then not going to use all of theirs could sell them to richer people who want/need more to meet their standard of living. This would be a voluntary redistribution of wealth that would work to correct multiple social wrongs. Another option outlined was the idea of bringing democracy to the workplace in a way more similar to our political system in America. In our country, everyone gets one vote for our politicians, but if money is how we vote in the marketplace, then those who have less money aren’t able to have their votes be heard.
The book contains much more than I could describe here and goes into greater detail on the subjects in which I did mention. I will say that I was curious and possibly skeptical going in. The book has made me more aware, though, of the crippling effect of poverty and inequality even within my own southern community. If there were five books I could force everyone in the world to read, this would be one of them.
Its graphs and analyses make a deep case for the role of income inequality in causing all kinds of social problems. The authors blend quantitative sociology, philosophy, psychology, climate science, and other fields in a way that can sometimes seem scattered but generally works well. This isn’t a book that purports to have “the” solution to income inequality, and this is a good thing.
In a nutshell: the data and arguments of this book should have been the platform of Occupy Wall Street.
Our current political system is literally making us chronically ill and dying younger. This effect is independent of poverty. As a physician with children, their message is clear. The text is well written (and dense). It has been a slow read for me. I am using this text is a reference for a lecture I plan to give our medical students this spring. Highly recommended.