Bleeding-Heart Liberals Proven Right: Too Much Inequality Harms a Society

by: Robert Fuller

Sun Jun 21, 2009 at 08:00


By Robert W. Fuller and Thomas Scheff

An important new book substantiates something progressives have long intuited. Published first in Britain and now headed for the United States, it's by epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson and health researcher Kate Pickett, and its title conveys its message: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Since the French Revolution, belief in the social benefits of egalitarianism has been central to progressive thought. Now Wilkinson and Pickett have produced some hard evidence for this plank in the liberal platform. They show conclusively that the wellbeing of whole societies is closely correlated not with average income level but rather with the size of the disparity of income between the top 20% and the bottom 20%. Countries with smaller disparities like Norway, Sweden, and Japan (4 to 1) have fewer medical, mental, crime, and educational problems than countries like the Britain, U.S. and Portugal with higher disparities (7 or 8 to 1). France and Canada both have mid-range disparities (6 to 1) and place in the middle on health, education and psychological indicators. Even within American society, it's not the absolute income level of a state that determines its social wellbeing, but rather the level of income disparity. Economic inequality and social dysfunction go hand in hand, and Wilkinson and  Pickett have marshaled the evidence to make the case.

It's one thing to demonstrate the social benefits of egalitarianism, and another to spell out the underlying political, economic, and psychological mechanisms that explain these findings. Only as we understand how the level of income disparity affects social wellbeing will we be able to generate the political will to undo the damage wrought by gross inequality.

Robert Fuller :: Bleeding-Heart Liberals Proven Right: Too Much Inequality Harms a Society
Dignity and Its Enemy-Rankism

An explanation of the social dysfunction associated with large income disparities can be organized around the notion of rankism. Rankism is defined as a generalization of the familiar isms and encompasses them all. Specifically, in the same way that racism insulted the dignity of blacks, and sexism was an affront to the dignity of women, so, too, rankism is behavior that diminishes human dignity-black or white, female or male, gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, poor or rich, etc.

Rankism is the abuse of power attached to rank. A difference of rank alone does not cause indignity, but abuse of rank invariably does. Put simply, rankism is what somebodies may do to nobodies. But just as not all whites were racists, so too not everyone of high rank is a rankist.

Therefore, rankism, not rank differences, is the source of indignity. Indignity causes indignation, and indignation takes its toll either on the health of the individual who must contain it or it manifests as withdrawal or anger/aggression.

Rankism functions socially in the same way that racism does. No one doubts any longer that racism cemented in large, self-perpetuating income disparities between the white majority and black victims of slavery and segregation. In a parallel way, rankism marginalizes the working poor, keeping them in their place while their low salaries effectively make the goods and services they produce available to society at subsidized prices. This process, whereby the most indigent Americans have become the benefactors of those better off, is vividly described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed. In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler depicts the less fortunate as disappearing into a "black hole" from which there is virtually no exit. As class membranes become ever less permeable, resignation, cynicism, and hostility mount.

In the economic realm, the market mechanism, at least when it's working, functions to limit abuses of power, but political arrangements can trump the market. Large enough disparities in economic power may be used to influence politics so that laws and regulations perpetuate the economic gap.

Once established, economic inequality, if it is steep enough, also perpetuates exploitation because it imprisons the poor in their poverty. When missing a single paycheck means homelessness, people are not likely to demand better wages or working conditions. As Rev. Jim Wallis says, "Poverty is the new slavery."

There is another important reason that eightfold factors in wealth disparity cause more social distress than factors of four. When the top 20 % are eight times better off than the bottom 20 %, far more people are vulnerable to rankism because people in the middle quintiles are also separated from the top and bottom quintiles by significant differences in economic status and power. Instead of being confined within a narrower spectrum (characterized by, say, a disparity factor of four or five), people are spread out over a broader economic range. When the first (poorest) quintile is further from the top (richest) quintile, so, too is the second quintile further from the fourth, and the third from the first and the fifth. These larger differences in economic power make possible more abuse. Economic gaps soon become dignity gaps. As rankism gains ground, more people experience its indignities and humiliations, and these individual wounds compound into illness and social dysfunction.

Dignity is to the identity what food is to the body-indispensable. By confirming our identity and affirming our dignity, respect and recognition provide assurance that our place in the group is secure. Absent periodic and appropriate validation, our survival feels at risk. Without proper recognition, individuals may sink into self-doubt and subgroups are marginalized and set up for exploitation.

Dignity and recognition are inseparable. We can't all be famous, but fortunately recognition is not limited to the red carpet. We can learn to understand the effects on those who are either denied a chance to seek it, or from whom it is otherwise withheld. Once aware of the deleterious effects of "malrecognition," we can act against it as we now take steps to prevent malnutrition.

Like malnutrition, malrecognition lowers the body's resistance to disease and reduces life expectancy. For most people, just the opportunity to contribute something of themselves to the world is enough to stifle the indignation that accumulates from exposure to indignities caused by rankism. This means that malrecognition, like its somatic counterpart, is a preventable and treatable malady. To increase the supply of recognition we need only discern people's contributions, acknowledge them appropriately, and compensate them equitably. When the average compensation of the richest 20 % exceeds that of the poorest 20 % by factors greater than four or five, the poor experience this as unfair, unjust distribution of recognition. The deleterious consequences of malrecognition manifest in the familiar array of social problems tracked in The Spirit Level-mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy, an elevated homicide rate, a shorter life expectancy, and lower educational performance and literacy rates.

More than either liberty or equality, people need dignity. In contrast to libertarian or egalitarian societies, a dignitarian society is one in which everyone, regardless of role or rank, is treated with equal dignity. The findings reported in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better suggest that as societies become more dignitarian they will, in the words of the subtitle, "do better."

A startling example of this proposition comes from, of all places, our prison population where indignity and malrecognition are endemic. Recent work done under the auspices of The Center for Therapeutic Justice in Virginia indicates that the recidivism rate for inmates who serve their sentences in a dignitarian community drops from 50 % to 5 %.

Social Isolation and Depression

In explaining their findings, Wilkinson and Pickett put the emphasis on the lack of trust fostered by large wealth disparities. Put the other way round, the connectedness experienced in dignitarian communities is the equivalent of social oxygen.

Some thirty years ago a physician (Wolf) and a sociologist (Bruhn) teamed up to explain why, in the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, there was a group of poor Italian immigrants whose health and welfare were vastly better than their neighbors. After a twenty year study of immigrant families in Roseto, and a comparable study in a nearby, non-immigrant town, they found that health and welfare were dependent on what they called cohesion, the opposite of isolation and the antithesis of distrust. As the younger generation adopted American ways of geographic and status mobility, their health and welfare levels decreased to the level of the neighbors.

In addition to directly affecting health and welfare, disconnection has an effect on the emotions. Just as being closely connected with others leads to authentic pride, so disconnection leads to shame and humiliation. The isolated person is apt to feel rejected, if not completely worthless, and live in a more or less permanent state of shame.

One way of defending against the shame of malrecognition is to withdraw, sometimes all the way into the isolation of depression. Such withdrawal then leads to further isolation, which in turn compounds the rejection by the community and accelerates the downward spiral. Again, malrecogntion compounds into social dysfunction as confirmed in this eye-opening book.  

Conclusion

In addition to caring for the weak, humans are still capable of predatory behavior towards those lacking the protection of social rank. Rankism is the residue of more overt predatory practices of the past. Now that rankism has a name, the miasma of malrecognition is visible and we are in a position to begin rooting it out. Rooting out rankism, like overcoming racism, is a multi-generational undertaking. Despite the enormity of the task, we are likely to look back on the 21st century as marking an epochal transformation from a predatory to a dignitarian era. Disallowing rankism betters human wellbeing in the same way that disallowing racism and sexism improve the lives of blacks and women. The hard evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett have provided demonstrates the benefits of dignitarian societies and validates the egalitarian instinct that has long been a mainstay of the liberal creed.


References

Bruehn, John G. and Stewart Wolf. 1979. The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press.

Fuller, Robert W. 2003. Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

Scheff, Thomas. 2009 "A Social Theory and Treatment of Depression". Journal of Ethical and Human Psychiatry 11, 1, 37-49.

Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate. 2009. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allan Lane

Wolf, Stewart, and John Bruhn. 1993. The Power of the Clan: The Influence of Human Relationships on Heart Disease. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

The Center for Therapeutic Justice. A video of the Community Model cited in the article is available at "www.communitymodel.org"


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Ranki$m Fuck$ Re$ource$, Opportunity & Freedom (0.00 / 0)
In most societies, wealth/re$ource$ is something that the few have, and they spend their time protecting their re$ource$ or trying to take the re$ource$ of others.

When more people have access to more re$ource$, more wealth can potentially result. It can be useful stuff and wealth - like the wealth coming from billions having gazillions of electric light bulbs - or, it can be stupid shit, like another 50 cent / madonna music video. oh well.

I think your arguements are too whiny and snivelly - 'we should be nice cuz then the world will be nice, and isn't nice when everyone is nice...'

yeah, whatever. sounds great in Lexington MA and Queen Anne Seattle, where everyone is affluent ... (well, except for the serfs keeping the houses, cars, toilets, food ... supplied)and everyone can AFFORD to be nice.

ALL the weatlh/resources created last year - it was created by ALL of us.

Unfortuneately, much of it was stolen by the pigs at the top who make the rules to make sure they're the first pigs in line, AND, they're the only 1 ones with big buckets. A LOT of the resources were pissed away, in the usa, on our consultant managerial professional class of powerpoint desk jockeys - at least they hire a lot of people to keep their Lexingtons and Queen Annes nice.

Quite simply, the MORE of us who have MORE of the wealth we fucking EARNED -

NOT 'deserve' cuz of some university tome, or on-the-mall speech,  about being nice cuz nice is nice

- the MORE opportunity and the MORE freedom we have to create the next light bulb, or penicillin, or google

... or sex toy party business.

THE GOAL,

given that there are 6++ billion people who'll need education, clothes, transportation, housing, safe water and sewage, power, retraining, retirement, health care, vacations to see the Effil Tower and The Grand Canyon

THE GOAL should be EVERYONE can have access to these resources - FOR THEIR FAMILY - by working 1 40 hour a week job.  And, guess what powerpoint college grads ? MOST of your work is fucking worthless.

rmm.



It is too full o' the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way


I Think You're Missing The Biggest Thing Here (4.00 / 2)
In most societies, wealth/re$ource$ is something that the few have, and they spend their time protecting their re$ource$ or trying to take the re$ource$ of others.

This really isn't true.  The few spend relatively little time protecting what they have.  Legitimating myths do the work for them.  There's only a few among the few who devote much time or energy to social control--it's mostly farmed out to trusted hands.  Even acquisition of mew goodies is mostly done by proxies.

Which is why work like this diary matters--because it challenges legitimation.  Or at least it does when folks like you and I internalize it and make it foundational in our struggles.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Whoa! The Overseer of the Bosses IS Busy (0.00 / 0)
or he ain't the overseer of the bosses anymore -

and, it IS true in most societies that the rich are just f'ing parasites -

why did America invent / desiminate / mass market the ... flush toilet, home refrigeration, relatively inexpensive housing, autos, electricity, the airline industry, ... ??

out of the goodness of anyone's heart? I doubt it.

They did it to get rich.

WHY did it NOT happen in China, Russia, Africa, India ...?

cuz their elites were and are toooooooo busy making sure no one has access to any resources!

don't get me wrong - the rockefellars and bill gates and intels ALL squashed competitors UNFAIRLY and ruthlessly once they got big enough to, but, at 1 time IBM and GM were little guys!

in the last 60 / 30 years, all these HUGE ass dinos have been fighting for primacy in a shrinking pie, AND, doing whatever they could to make sure that the next ford or microsoft or ibm or smith corona didn't come along!

I think people will ALWAYS disagree on what is a fair split of the pie. ALWAYS. I also think that if you take ANY 2 normal people, NOT hampshire college /lexington affluent idealists, give them the same EXACT same job to do and 1 of them does it it better, the 1 who did a better job is gonna want a bigger cut of the paycheck.

I don't think that is bad or good, it just IS.

So, how do we use that? If the speeches on the mall worked, or the ghandi jesus thing worked nicely, things would work nicely. they don't.

Let's reward those who do MORE social good - they get enough money in the bank to take 10 or 30 years off from working for inventing that water faucet turny thing or google or pencillin.

The rest of us get a little piece of bankroll for our incrementally better ideas, and maybe we can someday start the next McDonald's, OR, the PETA McDonalds.

MAYBE someday we'll all be able to keep granny company, the kids taught, the clothes clean and organic and recyclable, ... AND only work 5 hours a week a piece!

In hte rest of your time, IF you want to write the next great earth shaking ... yawn ... Marxian critique, or, paint your f'ing toenails while bopping to britney videos, or break your ass on some moonlighting job cuz you have to have a 400 foot yacht ... have at it.

A just, fair, equitable society would allow for more wealth creation, HENCE more free time for ALL of us, not just the wealthy pigs and the self anointed university pointy heads ...?

rmm.



It is too full o' the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way


[ Parent ]
Rank vs meritocracy (4.00 / 2)
Thanks for the valuable heads up on this book. I'm off to request it at the library.

A question I keep asking myself is: "Is protecting the Wall St crowd worth one GI's life?"  The answer I keep getting is No.

Why don't the Wall Streeters serve in the military? Perhaps we should have a draft limited to the children of the wealthy and the graduates of our most prestigious universities, particularly the business and econ majors. Or limit hiring by financial firms to military veterans. I'd like to see how the right wing would attack that idea.

Ranking, and ascribing negative worth to "lesser breeds," is also related to extreme meritocracy. In the US we boast that we have a meritocracy, which in effect says that those with power and wealth deserve it and those that lack it are deficient. Except for the truly down and out that liberals can feel good about because they care so much about these poor victims. Caring can easily be a form of posturing and power display.

When I lived in New York I observed how so many liberals would ask the question, "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" The liberals were always fishing to see if you went to the "right schools."

We are watching the elite in Iran lose credibility with the Iranian people. This is happening on a lesser scale here. Not having a public option in any health care reform will further undermine confidence in our elite. But the elite will continue to have confidence that they deserve everything they get, and others deserve whatever low status and restricted lives that they have. Makes no difference whether that elite is left or right.



i agree with much of this (4.00 / 1)
though the social-scientist-in-training in me would like to see the data :P

to add though - rankism and social hierarchy and similar concepts are useful in that you can analyse both class and gender and sexual orientation and many other categories (Which themselves are reductive anyway) in a more general framework.  This allows you to then look carefully at their interactions or non interactions, which factors seem to be most relevant in a given context, etc.

The only gripe I have with the argument presented here is that it doesn't take into account scarcity.  In many wealthy countries, scarcity is a non issue, which is why inequality would within the country would pose a much larger problem than  sheer poverty (thought that too still poses a problem in terms of health, life expectancy, chances of success in life, etc.).    However, if you include citizenship status and nationality in the factors you include in rankism - which it most frequently is not - and take the analysis global, you see that artifically created scarcity in poor countries is a severely constraining problem which not only operates on its own, but actually feeds inequality (the less resources you have availale in a socirety, the more the most powerful will hoard them to the extent possible, further feeding inequality as well as poverty for most - that applies both globally and locally).  

And that mass scarcity (poverty) is an enormous prolem of itself, apart from objections to inequality for its own sake.  It essentially removes the possibility of any kind of choice that most people in wealthy countries would want to make.


Q&A (0.00 / 0)
though the social-scientist-in-training in me would like to see the data :P

Methinks the answer to this is "buy the fook" as they say in the trade.  I know there's data supporting this thesis, I've seen it in dribs and drabs.  I'm hoping the book delivers it wholesale, though I haven't yet seen it myself.

to add though - rankism and social hierarchy and similar concepts are useful in that you can analyse both class and gender and sexual orientation and many other categories (Which themselves are reductive anyway) in a more general framework.  This allows you to then look carefully at their interactions or non interactions, which factors seem to be most relevant in a given context, etc.

Precisely!  It's this generality that drew me immediately to social dominance theory, and Fuller's concept of rankism is even more general, since it encompasses abuses of rank even within social groups, as well as between them.

The only gripe I have with the argument presented here is that it doesn't take into account scarcity.... However, if you include citizenship status and nationality in the factors you include in rankism - which it most frequently is not - and take the analysis global, you see that artifically created scarcity in poor countries is a severely constraining problem

As Fuller defines rankism, every invidious distinction is covered, including citizenship status and nationality.  As to your larger point, I think that will probably be addressed in the book, and if not, you could write one yourself that does address.  The moral framework lends itself quite well to this sort of project, as you yourself are arguing here.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
doesn't 'buy the book' implicitly support economic ranks? :) (4.00 / 1)
put more broadly, i like chris's take on how academic writing should be free and accessible to everyone.  I also don't have the attention span for books and would like a precis with supporting data :)  I am busy reading foucault right now :D

[ Parent ]
Petitio principii (0.00 / 0)
How much "begging the question" is too much?

If the ratio of circular reasoning to all other forms of argument exceeds a factor of four or five, then readers experience resentment, authors experience malrecognition, and the host-site experiences an indignitarian loss of traffic.


Real and relative hardship (0.00 / 0)
The pseudoscience of this diary is bad enough, but when the authors confuse real hardship, like homelessness and hunger, with relative prosperity, then their diary isn't just undignified, it's contemptible.

1,000,000,000 people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition right now, and isn't it surprising that some of us don't give a flying fuck about the petty resentments of Americans who happen to be relatively less affluent than their neighbors?


[ Parent ]
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