Book Review – The Spirit Level

TSL Inequality is bad for us, individually and socially. So say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (with extensive website).

Do you love scatterplots? I hope so because the book is chock full of them, establishing correlations between high levels social inequalities and high levels of a variety of social problems, from physical or mental health, to violence and incarceration, to teenage pregnancies.

Indeed, this book is data-driven, slowly but surely and progressively building a case for egalitarian societies as simply more successful and more humane than their more unequal counterparts. The amount of data should (ideally) help progressives make the case for egalitarianism is not a bleeding heart’s wet dream but rather the only rational course of action in terms of public policy. Again, the data Wilkinson and Pickett marshal show very clearly that more equal societies really do better, are better for individuals and societies, and are better for everybody (not just the disadvantaged). This would leave very little room for anyone to argue FOR stratification (be they conservatives, libertarians, or social Darwinists).

The website lays out the starting point of the book and what triggered the research: when it comes to rich societies, more economic growth no longer yields benefits in terms of health and other well-being indicators:

The data show that there is a point at which increased economic growth no longer brings objective (such as longer life expectancy) or subjective (such as happiness) benefits.So, the others got data that compared rich countries by correlating their levels of inequalities with a variety of social problems variables:

  • Level of trust
  • Mental illness and addictions
  • Life expectancy and infant mortality
  • Obesity
  • Children’s educational performance
  • Teenage births
  • Homicides
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Social mobility

For all of these variables, the data show that these issues are not only more concentrated in the lower classes within societies but also more widespread in more unequal societies. Take health, for instance (click on the graphs for a bigger image… all the graphs are available at the Equality Trust website):


See the difference between the US and Japan? The correlation is clear.

Drug abuse:






Social mobility (not the reverse correlation: more inequality = lower social mobility


Trust and community life:


And on and on it goes. Interestingly, the authors also collected data for the 50 American states and found similar correlations. The more unequal states have higher levels of social problems than the more equal states. In other words, all these social problems have a social gradient: they become more common as one goes down the social ladder and they are more common in more unequal countries.

But this shows is that social inequalities have far and deep reaching consequences. More unequal societies generate more stress for their members not just because people experience more precarization and competition but also because  of what the authors greater social evaluative threats (threats related to the inability to keep up).

In more unequal societies, status is more significant and the display of status signals is central to the presentation of one’s self. This is a major source of stress accentuated by mass advertising.

"Higher status almost always carries connotations of being better, superior, more successful and more able. If you don’t want to feel small, incapable, looked down on or inferior, it is not quite essential to avoid low social status, but the further up the social ladder you are, the easier it becomes to feel a sense of pride, dignity and self-confidence. Social comparisons increasingly show you in a positive light – whether they are comparisons of wealth, education, job status, where you live, holidays, and any other markers of success." (40)

And when pride becomes so important, it is not surprising, according to the authors, that much interpersonal violence has to do with "repairing" humiliations and shame and saving face. Shame is the social emotion par excellence. Pride and shame are major social evaluative feedbacks and they are status boosters or destroyers.

And again, the more hierarchical a society, the more status matters and therefore the more one’s status needs to be protected from structural and symbolic violence, especially when one is not at the top of the social ladder. For the authors, violence and mass consumption through debt are products of this. The negative health effects of such constant competition for status and the stress it generates are well known. The fear of falling is less pronounced in more equal societies and status issues are less predominant.

Incidentally, the authors note as well that greater inequality is bad for the environment as keeping up involves mass consumption. Status competition leads to social distinction that is maintained through getting more stuff. Furthermore, research has shown that once basic necessities are covered, greater consumption and possession does not make people happier as mass consumption is a never-ending quest. And as the denizens of Richistan consume more extravagant luxury goods and services, they reduce everyone else’s satisfaction. As the authors state,

"This dissatisfaction [is] a cost which the rich impose on the rest of society." (222)

Veblen’s concepts of conspicuous consumption, pecuniary emulation and invidious comparisons are very relevant here. Combined, they constitute what the authors name the "Veblen Effect"…

"… To refer to the way goods are chosen for their social value rather than their usefulness. And research confirms that the tendency to look for goods which confer status and prestige is indeed stronger for things which are more visible to others." (225)

Inequality is also divisive as greater competition reduces the level of trust and community (see graph above) leading to "bowling alone" to paraphrase Robert Putnam’s idea. For the authors, this is materialized through the rise of gated communities, bigger houses that insulates from crowded neighborhoods and the massive sales of cars such as SUVs which emphasize "looking tough" and feeling "above the crowd" on the roads.

Similarly, the authors show that more unequal societies tend to be more stereotypically masculine and womens’ status tends to be lower. And finally, greater equality generates greater trust but also greater generosity as measured by levels of foreign aid to less fortunate countries as empathy is greater (remember how the conservative crowd mocked the notion of empathy regarding a US Supreme Court nominee… empathy is seen as a soft, feminine value to be contrasted to masculine toughness). And because greater inequality generates a greater lack of trust, it also generates greater social distance (again, physically in patterns of housing) but also in terms of stereotypical thinking and a greater capacity to divide the world between "us" and "them".

But people on the conservative side of the political spectrum as well as social Darwinists argue that competition is somewhat conform to human nature. We are driven to compete and pursue our self-interest. To interfere with that is to go against nature. As a counter, the authors argue that modern human beings spent most of their history in egalitarian and cooperative societies (hunting and gathering):

"So, rather than assuming that we are stuck with levels of self-interested consumerism, individualism and materialism which must defeat any attempts to develop any sustainable economic systems, we need to recognize that these are not fixed expressions of human nature. Instead, they reflect the characteristics of the societies in which we find ourselves and vary from one rich market democracy to another. At the most fundamental level what reducing inequality is about is shifting the balance from the divisive, self-interested consumerism driven by status competition, towards a more socially integrated and affiliative society." (227-8)

And as I mentioned in my post yesterday, the authors do emphasize that greater equality benefits everyone, not just the poor. More equal countries do better across the board, for all social classes. The top social classes benefit from greater equality.

So what is to be done to reduce inequality? The authors advocate steady-state economics as well as employee ownership and participation. They also mention forms of solidarity economics. They also note that there are many paths to reducing inequality: generous welfare redistribution is only one model (to put it simply, the Scandinavian model) but this can also be done with more equal pre-tax incomes (the Japanese model) or other model (Singapore or Hong Kong). And in the US, the authors show that Vermont (high tax) and New Hampshire (low tax) are both successful because they both have low inequality. It does not matter how you end up with low inequality. What matters is the level of inequality a state or nation ends up with.

And this warning should be heeded:

"However, in the figures there is also a clear warning for those who might want to place low public expenditure and taxation at the top of their priorities. If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prison and more police. You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problems. If keeping taxes and benefits down leads to wider income differences, the need to deal with ensuing social ills may  force you to raise public expenditure to cope." (237)

Mainly, it also involves the recognition that the variety of social problems examined have inequality as their root cause (they devote an entire chapter to showing that these correlations indeed reveal causation) which is why treating all these social problems through specialized services and programs has had limited success and ignores the elephant in the room: their common cause.

Obviously, I thought the book incredibly informative. I have only one quibble: not everything can be explained by evolutionary psychology (and do we have to always go back to the gender stereotypes popularized by David Buss). For one, it is contradictory: evolutionary psychology explanations are supposed to be universal and reveal human nature, so, how can they be applied to explain social differences?

And, of course, social theorists, ever since Durkheim, have researched the emergence, persistence and/or reduction of social inequalities. Issues of status in interaction have been deeply analyzed by Erving Goffman. Issues of social distinction and symbolic violence were one of Bourdieu’s central research topic. Countless others have explored the structural changes in the post-War era that have deepened social inequalities and their relation to social issues. It would be nice if some of this work had been mentioned. After all, who better than sociologists to explore the social determinants of health and related issues.

But as Will Kymlicka notes in his review of the book, the prescriptions are pretty radical:

Radical indeed, but one could argue that we have just witnessed the collapse of a very unequal system and that may be exactly the right time to push for the data-based agenda for equality.

Inequality Kills

It also produces a variety of other social problems, which I will explore in a longer post tomorrow. In the meantime, sociologist Goran Therborn distinguishes between three types of inequalities, all with deleterious effects (hat tip to Mike Buhl for this):

And then goes on to list four ways in which societies become unequal:

Which of these factors matter the most vary historically, geographically and culturally. And each "inequalization" process has the capacity to increase certain types of inequalities more than others. This also means that it possible to reduce different types of inequalities by reducing the impact of these four factors.

Therborn shows that all three types of inequalities, as produced by the processes listed above, can kill people in different ways in the sense that they lower life expectancy and have damaging effects on health. Even the most "immaterial" form of inequality, existential inequality, has a negative impact on health through stress and a range of negative health effects. Hierarchies are lethatl, even in rich countries.

Moreover, countries that are more equal enjoy all sorts of rewards in terms of low levels of social problems and dysfunctions across the board, and not just for the poor. When a society is more equal, everybody benefits. And the opposite is true in more unequal societies.

And this is why we should care about inequalities rather than treat them the result of some sort competitive human nature and evolutionary pressure.

So, reducing social inequalities is not just better for individuals. It is better for society (at the national or global level):

So what should be done? Therborn suggests two approaches:

This one is a tough nut to crack in a country like the US where the perception is that the wealthy have all earned their wealth and they drive economic growth and the poor are there because of their own individual failing or inadequate values (a mix of Weberian Protestant ethic and culture of poverty with a dash of social darwinism) and that inequalities are the representation of individuals’ respective merit and political discourse is rife with reference to "hard-working middle class families" (never mind that families cannot, by definition be hard-working). Any notion that policies should be implemented to reduce inequalities is perceived as going against nature, giving handouts to the undeserving by taking away from those who have earned their money.

It is an uphill battle to demonstrate that inequalities are the product of social mechanisms, not individual failings, that it may seem satisfying to perceive those below oneself on the social ladder as  deserving of their fate but that a look at the data proves that everybody loses when inequalities are high. Finally, that more equal societies are more humane societies… let anyone try to argue against that one.

The US: Failed or Rogue State?

That is the question asked by Josh Harkinson over at the Blue Marble:

It’s an interesting notion indeed, also in light of the massive financial crisis. One could perfectly argue whether corporate money and corporate media played a part in the stimulus package as well as the Geithner plan where a central part of government action involved equating saving the economy with saving the banks and the bankers with limited action designed to significantly support homeowners or the unemployed. In effect, the Obama administration limited its own capacity for action and hollowed itself from significant reform thereby continuing years of economic policies designed to limite state’s actions in the face of global integration on neo-liberal terms.

Saskia Sassen on Reforming The Overgrown Executive Power in Democratic Systems

The problem?

Saskia Sassen identifies six trends that have led to growth in power of the executive branch relative to the legislative branch:

  1. "The growing power of particular state agencies because of corporate economic globalisation: the treasury, the federal reserve, the office of the trade representative, and other agencies in the case of the US."

  2. The waves of deregulation and privatization as part of the greater integration of national economies into the global economy. Deregulation and privatization became then overseen by specialized executive agencies rather than legislatures.

  3. The rise of intergovernmental networks touching upon many domains beyond the economy.

  4. The rise of intergovernmental agencies (IMF or WTO) that only negotiate with executive branches.

  5. The privatization of formerly public functions, thereby eliminating legislative oversight.

  6. The convergence of the executive and corporate logics.

In other words, the Bush/Cheney administration enormously expanded executive powers but they did not do so in a vacuum. The groundwork had already been laid out roughly 15 years before (Sassen states that Obama might be different in that respect. I find that highly doubtful considering his continuation of policies against disclosing information regarding torture and the administration considering preventive detention).

Sassen’s main point is the Bush/Cheney extension of executive power was not an aberration but a structural feature and a "natural" development from the previous period of neo-liberal push of the 1980s.

This takes political will that is just not present right now in the US. The Summers / Geithner plans have been clearly designed to not touch the roots of the problems as systematic but rather to treat them as institutional/individual aberrations.

Such structural analysis has simply not been part of the political response to the crisis and from the mainstream media. One had to read blogs and individuals such as Paul Krugman to get to the structural part.

Blood Diamonds of Zimbabwe

Of course, Mugabe kept control of the police and military… which means reform is very unlikely. And military control over the diamond mines means that the potential revenues that should flow into government coffers are being siphoned into the pockets of Mugabe supporters and cronies.

This is only one item that reveals the ineffectual nature of the Kimberley Process.

The Human Rights Watch report is available here.

Social Stigmas That Kill

Burned alive in Kenya:

This is horrifying, of course, but it is even more so to see how casually people who have participated in these lynchings behave afterward and how just a touch of rationality could put a stop to this:

I have already mentioned how these cases seem to increase as the economic situation deteriorates and people see their conditions degrade and experience even more uncertainties than before. In such conditions, it is not uncommon for scapegoating mechanisms to emerge and for the population to turn against a specific category of people who have no way of avoiding their being stigmatized and targeted, in this case, the elderly targeted by the youth.

Lest we think these things are limited to Kenya (or Tanzania in the case of stigmatized Albinos), case number two: poisoned in Kosovo.

Violence against Roma is not limited to Kosovo… not even to Eastern Europe:

Stereotypes abound about the Roma and here again, economic deterioration makes them an even easier target for violence and institutional discrimination.

In both cases, there is no way the targeted population can disprove the accusations against them. How does one prove a negative ("I am not a witch")? Or how does one prove that one has the right "soul"?

There are always anecdotes available in public discourse that support the stereotype (along with "personal knowledge" stories taken as sufficient evidence). And confirmation bias is commonly used: any information that reinforces the stereotype is easily believed without questions whereas information or data that does not support it is treated with suspicion and questioned. And if that is not possible (the information is factual), then, the new information only proves that there are a few exceptions ("they’re not all bad") but that these do not invalidate the rule.

One argument often invoked to justify racism attitudes and behaviors is that the target (as representative of a whole category and proxy for it) must have done something to the racist perpetrator(s). There is something about the Roma that predisposes them to be victims of violence. This conveniently turns the table and blames the victims for their own victimization.

Research, however, has shown that prejudice and discrimination against one category of people is usually accompanied by prejudice against other categories (racism, sexism and homophobia often go hand in hand). So, unsurprisingly, once the Roma were gone, more violence followed against other categories:

The Return of Blood Diamonds?

As Global Witness puts it:

Many other groups have already warned of the problems with the Kimberley Certification Process. Even one of its initiators has sharp words for it.

The “Talibés”: The Lost Boys of Senegal

If you missed this story, please read it (I’ll provide some translation below for the non-French readers).

A "talibé" ("talibanized" seems the closest translation I can think of) is the term used to describe the beggar children who populate the streets of West African countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Bénin or Sénégal. During the day, these boys are supposed to be studying the Koran in religious schools called "daaras" under the leadership of a marabout. The reality is quite different:

Starting at 6am, the children are expected to start reciting the Koran verses that the leader has written on their tablets. Most of the kids do not understand the meaning of what they are memorizing in Arabic. Most of them can’t even read. If they make mistakes, they get whipped. The kids are all sleepy because once the "lessons" are over, the other part of the curriculum kicks in: begging. Begging is part of learning a lesson on humility. So, the kids have to go beg and are expected to bring back money and food. Many marabouts quickly figured out how much could get out of this system and opened these "schools" whose main goal is to create a children army of beggars. Of course, if the children fail to make their assigned quota, corporal punishment ensues.

How do these boys end up in daaras? Mostly, their parents or relatives dump them there. It is a convenient way to get rid of a child. As mentioned, begging is their main activity not only for the marabout but also for themselves since the schools only provide breakfast in the form of pieces of bread.

Unsurprisingly, when they reach adolescence, many boys run away and end up on the streets, join bands of other runaways, with all the consequences of life on the streets for children: drugs, violence and sexual abuse. In order to survive, a runaway has to seek the protection of a gang leader, at best by running errands for him, at worst by becoming his sexual slave. The drug of choice? A paint thinner called the "guinz" that the kids sniff and which ultimately renders them blind.

It seems that Sénégal is finally trying to do something about the daaras but these tend to enjoy some popular support and we know that rehabilitating street children is not an easy task, especially for a poor country.

Awareness of this issue was vividly raised by a report in the popular French television program Thalassa. Even if you do not understand French, watch the video. Based on what I have written above, you will be able to make sense of what is going on:

Sociology of the Body: The Incarcerated Body

Le Monde has a very interesting (and interactive) feature on the impact of incarceration on inmates’ perception of (and relationship to) their body along with the bodily transformations that incarceration involves.

Le corps incarcéré
LEMONDE.FR | 22.06.09

© Le

The corporal trajectory, as described by men and women inmates, includes several broad categories of bodily treatment based on institutional and systemic actions that impact individual behavior:

  • The searched body:
  • The Other’s body: pornography, frigidity, forced intimacy
  • The sick body: vision, teeth, hair loss, rotting
  • The reclaimed body: self-mutilations, torture, the thick skin developed through intense exercise
  • The liberated body: suicide, death, liberation

The article also includes interviews with two sociologists: Arnaud Gaillard who wrote his thesis on sexuality in prison and Laurent Gras who wrote Le Sport en Prison (if this brief interview is any indication, this looks like a really interesting book).

Physicians and psychiatrists have tried to raise the alarm on the sorry state of French prisons without much being done. I am quite sure that the sociologists will have no impact as they are seen as even less legitimate scientists and researchers and more as social workers.

It never fails to amaze me how much Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Goffman’s Asylums, despite their flaws, have relevance when it comes to analyzing the relationship between the body and social (and total) institutions. And also how much total institutions have the capacity to generate precisely the type of (socially defined) deviant behavior they claim to neutralize.

Taking Gated Communities and Gentrification to A Whole New Level

How about an entire canton?

Zygmunt Bauman noted previously that it is an obvious trend for the super-rich to voluntarily segregate themselves from the rest of the population and live in their own quasi-country (Richistan) and operating on a very different market for goods and services than the rest of us do (therefore, cutting their taxes does not generate an economic jumpstart).

One has to love the logic of this canton official:

Hey, maybe California could adopt a system like that statewide: become the rich folks state and only accept people whose wealth will generate money even on these low (and capped) rates. But it is nice to see the absurd consequences of a race to the bottom in terms of taxes.