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Columns

December 27, 2011

Inequalities breed social dysfunction

In my most-recent column, I presented recent epidemiological evidence that the inequality built into a society underlies the sense many of us have that the country is going in the wrong direction.

I referenced "The Spirit Level," a book by researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, because it reveals how the severity of social problems increases in a society according to the width of its inequality gap.

Problem symptoms involve areas such as physical health and longevity, mental health, addictions, social mobility, educational achievement levels, child well-being, and rates of imprisonment, violence, and teen motherhood. Programs to address one of these while ignoring the root cause of inequality tend to be costly but ineffective.

We are riding the crest of a wave that is not sustainable. There is no stable status quo, but an insidious snowballing of inequality. The results tax us all, with diminishing levels of trust, reciprocity, cooperation, social accountability.

Our brains are wired with powerful links between survival and social connection. Inequality hurts people. Exclusion and inferior status undercut human health and productivity. Being humane is practical. The atmosphere of the group affects everybody, and no individual's well-being can be fully insulated from that truth.

There is now a swing back toward aristocracy with the 1 percent growing their unchecked and undemocratic power, often through corporations. This trend is against the flow of history, which has put absolute royal power under constitutional restraint, has seen the growth of legislative democracy, the right to a fair trial, voting rights for all citizens, health services, employee and even union rights, etc. Achievements like this signify long-range egalitarian trends.

We like to think of ourselves as forward-looking, full of genuine ingenuity and very democratic in the world. But the U.S. society is statistically at the unhealthy end on the scale of social problems.

The Scandinavian countries and Japan are ranked the world's best in social cohesion and stability, with the lowest degree of social problems among their peoples. It has been shown that big-league baseball teams with smaller pay differences do better than the teams paid less equally.

We have yet to grasp how the inequality gaps are at the root of our national dysfunction, and are acting as if more economic growth will be the automatic ticket. But the growth we have is mainly collecting at the top. There is no ready alternative vision of how to make society a better place for the majority of the people.

Some kind of deep transformation of our culture is needed, and it looks like it is going to have to come from the bottom up, somehow. For the Scandinavians, income redistribution works, and it seems not to matter how the equality is achieved in order to offset the terrible collateral casualties that unequal systems create.

We extol the idea of brotherhood, but in reality the rich powers make every effort to play us off against each other. They are an aristocracy, whose shenanigans in the financial world triggered the housing downturn crisis (see the Countrywide Financial scandal of prejudicial loans victimizing blacks). They get bailed out while we get cautioned.

But the defenders of millionaires and billionaires solemnly intone that these are the "job creators" who must not be taxed. The Supreme Court decided to allow big-money interests to propagandize politically in the nation (Citizens United). Their message: government programs to improve equality are improper and cause deficits. They constantly represent that what is good for them is in our best interests.

When blacks in the civil rights movement began standing up against a legacy of brutal and often-violent suppression, their demands to get the boots of discrimination off their necks were labeled as "violent" (antisocial and illegitimate). The effort was to rank them among the "undeserving" (who deserve unequal status).

Big money finances "think-tank" legitimacy for efforts that decrease equality among us. But organizations such as People for the American Way work to shine a spotlight on judicial partiality to corporate interests; on efforts to rig election laws; undercutting civil rights, education, gay rights, financial regulatory reforms and union bargaining rights.

Privatizing Social Security and ending Medicare are on the list. Minimum or living wage standards, unemployment insurance, public health laws and consumer protection standards are all suspect to the business aristocracy.

A small bed of roses within an acre of scrappy devil-grass does not make a park. Nor would a private greenhouse full of rare orchids. We must find the mentality to ensure that the GNP is distributed more equitably among our citizenry, period.

William Masters can be reached at wmasters@thedailystar.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.

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