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How Inequality is Killing Us September 3, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Health, Poverty.
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Mon, Sep 2, 2013

How Inequality is Killing Usby Susan Rosenthal

BOOK REVIEW: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by R. Wilkinson & K. Pickett (2009/2011)

If a book’s value can be measured by its ability to antagonize right-wing ‘think-tanks,’ then this book is priceless.

The Spirit Level challenges everything we’ve been told about why people get sick and what it takes to be healthy.

While public campaigns lecture us to eat right, stop smoking, exercise more, etc., in fact, our well-being has very little to do with our individual choices and everything to do with how society is structured. Put simply, inequality is extremely bad for our health.

The United States ranks as the world’s most unequal nation, far outstripping all other nations. The top one percent of Americans have a combined net worth that is more than triple the net worth of the other 99 percent combined. And the bottom 40 percent of Americans own less than nothing, because they are sinking in debt.(1) (See the two charts below)

The high cost of inequality

Wilkinson and Pickett compare income inequality within 23 of the world’s richest nations and all fifty US states. They found that, at every income level, people living in more unequal nations and states suffer:

• lower life expectancy

• higher infant mortality

• more homicides

• more anxiety

• more mental illness

• more drug and alcohol addiction

• more obesity

• higher rates of imprisonment

• less social mobility

• more teen pregnancies

• more high-school dropouts

• poorer school performance

• more school-age bullying

And the extent to which people at every income level suffer these problems is directly related to how unequal is the society in which they live.

In contrast, people living in more equal societies and states enjoy better mental, physical and social health – at every income level. And the more equal their societies, the more they enjoy these benefits.

Once everyone has the basic necessities of life, your health and social well-being is determined less by how rich you are than how unequal is the society in which you live. In other words, poorer people in more equal societies are healthier and happier than richer people in more unequal societies.

The difference is significant. A 1990s study of 282 metropolitan areas in the United States found that the greater the difference in income, the more the death rate rose for all income levels, not just for the poor.(2)

Researchers calculated that reducing income inequality to the lowest level found in those areas would save as many lives as would be saved by eradicating heart disease or by preventing all deaths from lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle crashes, HIV infection, suicide and homicide combined.

Inequality divides us

Why would inequality, in and of itself, have such a profound impact? The answer lies in our mammalian biology. As the most social animals on the planet, we are hard-wired to function best in an embracing community.

More than 95 percent of human existence has been spent in egalitarian societies. Because the survival of the group depends on collaboration, all primitive societies developed rules and customs to prevent anyone from rising too high or sinking too low.

However, for the past 10,000 years, most people have lived in class-divided, hierarchical societies. We have adapted to social inequality, but we pay a terrible price.

Consider this statement, “Most people can be trusted.” Would you agree or disagree?

The probability that you would disagree is directly related to the level of income inequality in your society. Wilkinson and Pickett show that people in the most equal nations, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, are six times more likely to trust each other than those in the most unequal nations – Portugal, Singapore and the United States. In short, inequality makes people distrustful.

When society does not take care of us, when we are abandoned to struggle individually, then we distrust others and fear for our safety. As a result, more unequal societies are characterized by more inter-personal competition, more emphasis on individual status and success, less social security, more envy of those above and more disdain for those below.

Fearful distrust compelled George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin. Fearful distrust prompts us to warn our children about strangers, suspect those who are different, install security systems, view the poor and unemployed as ‘cheaters,’ applaud more spending on police and prisons, and support harsher penalties.

Fearful distrust provides a mass audience for TV shows and movies about traitors, torturers, rapists, sadists, and serial killers. When I asked one person why she followed a particularly gruesome TV serial about psychopathic murderers, she replied, “I want to know what’s out there.” Fearful distrust keeps us isolated and unable to recognize our common interests.

The Spirit Level is rich in information about the benefits of greater equality – enough to convince anyone who cares about human welfare. For that reason, I recommend it most highly. (The book’s facts, charts, and more resources can be found at The Equality Trust).

Unfortunately, the book falls short when it comes to solutions.

Could inequality be legislated away?

The book’s primary weakness is revealed in Robert Reich’s Foreword,

“By and large, ‘the market’ is generating these outlandish results. But the market is a creation of public policies. And public policies, as the authors make clear, can reorganize the market to reverse these trends.” (p.xii)

In reality, capitalism is based on a fundamental inequality: the capitalist class owns the means of production and all that is produced, so it has the power to shape society. The rest of us, who do the actual work of producing, get virtually no say in how society is run. This two-class system cannot be legislated away, any more than the systems of slavery or feudalism could be legislated away.

Most important, the capitalist system is based on the accumulation of capital which, by its very nature, increases inequality.

Every capitalist is committed to raising productivity – increasing the amount of capital that can be squeezed from each worker and confiscated by the employer. As more wealth is extracted from the working class and concentrated in the hands of the one percent, society becomes increasingly unequal. Counter-measures can slow the twin process of capital accumulation and growing inequality, but it can be stopped only by eliminating capitalism.

Could we all live in Sweden?

As Wilkinson and Pickett explain, there are two ways that countries offset rising inequality: by capping higher incomes; and by imposing higher taxes on the rich to pay for social programs. In other words, by holding the very rich down and by elevating everyone else. So it might seem that the solution to inequality could lie in redistributive public policies. However, wanting and needing such policies has never been enough – it’s always required a fight. As the authors point out,

“Sweden’s greater equality originated in the Social Democratic Party’s electoral victory in 1932 which had been preceded by violent labor disputes in which troops had opened fire on sawmill workers.” (p.242)

The book offers more examples of governments that implemented social programs for fear of revolution if they didn’t: the New Deal in the 1930s, the revolutionary wave that struck Europe in the 1840s, the post-war ‘social contract’ in England, the radicalism of the 1960s, etc.

Wilkinson and Pickett recount how income inequality in the United States reached a peak before the Great Crash of 1929. Beginning in the later 1930s, income inequality decreased as workers organized and fought to divert more social wealth to the people who produced it.

Beginning in the 1970s, income inequality began to rise again. This change was marked by an employers’ offensive against unions. As the proportion of workers in unions fell, income inequality rose until it is now similar to the level of inequality that preceded the 1929 crash.

The authors explain that the American example is not unique,

“A study which analysed trends in inequality during the 1980s and 1990s in Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States found that the most important single factor was trade union membership…[D]eclines in trade union membership were most closely associated with widening income differences.” (p.244)

The lesson from these examples is clear: when the working class is ascendant, inequality decreases and society becomes more fair; when the capitalist class is ascendant, inequality increases and society becomes less fair.

Despite their own evidence, the authors do not call for a working-class uprising to reduce, if not eliminate, class inequality. Instead, they state that,

“The transformation of our society is a project in which we all have a shared interest.” (p.237)

This is a fundamental error, because we do not all have a shared interest. Greater equality would require the capitalist class to give up a substantial amount of its wealth and power. History shows that they never do this willingly.

Individual capitalists might see the value of a fairer society, but any who chose to slow the rate of capital accumulation would be replaced by others with no such concern. Moreover, those who accumulate the most capital can ‘buy’ as many politicians as necessary to shape public policies.

Instead of challenging the two-class capitalist system, the authors want to make it more humane by building a network of worker-co-operatives.

“The key is to map out ways in which the new society can begin to grow within and alongside the institutions it may gradually marginalise and replace. That is what making change is really about…What we need is not one big revolution but a continuous stream of small changes in a consistent direction.” (p.236)

Mondragon Corporation in Spain is offered as an example. Mondragon encompasses 120 employee-owned co-ops, 40,000 worker-owners and sales of $4.8 billion US dollars. However, despite being home to one of the world’s largest co-op networks, Spain ranks midway between the most equal and the most unequal nations. And it has recently implemented severe austerity policies that dramatically increase inequality.

Despite their many benefits, worker-owned co-operatives cannot transform society. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out more than 100 years ago,

“Producers’ co-operatives are excluded from the most important branches of capital production — the textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine construction, locomotive and shipbuilding. For this reason alone, co-operatives in the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of a general social transformation…Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives.” (3)

And one cannot imagine the global military-industrial complex becoming a worker-owned co-op.

To their credit, the authors acknowledge,

“The truth is that modern inequality exists because democracy is excluded from the economic sphere. It needs therefore to be dealt with by an extension of democracy into the workplace.” (p.264)

Realistically, there’s only one way to achieve workplace democracy across the whole of society – a global working-class revolution that takes collective control of production and eliminates the two-class system of capitalism. Then we could build a truly cooperative society in which everyone is equally worthy to share life’s work and life’s rewards.


1. Wolff, E.N., “The asset price meltdown and the wealth of the middle class” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 18559 (2012)

2. Lynch, J.W. et. al. (1998). Income inequality and mortality in metropolitan areas of the United States. Am J Public Health. Vol. 88, pp.1074-1080.

3. Luxemburg, R. (1900/1908). Reform or revolution. London: Bookmarks, p.66.

See also Inequality: The Root Source of Sickness





A Thousand Words August 17, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, History.
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War Talk, the Death of the Social, and Disappearing Children: A Lesson for Obama December 16, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in George W. Bush, Human Rights, Iraq and Afghanistan.
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afghan-childAfghan girl in a war-torn region. (Photo: Reuters) www.truthout.org  December 2008Under the Bush administration, the language of war has taken on a distinctly new register, more expansive in both its meaning and its consequences. War no longer needs to be ratified by Congress since it is now waged by various government agencies that escape the need for official approval. War has become a permanent condition adopted by a nation state that is largely defined by its repressive functions in response to its powerlessness to regulate corporate power, provide social investments for the populace and guarantee a measure of social freedom. This has been evident not only in the all-embracing militarization of public life that emerged under the combined power and control of neoliberal zealots, religious fanatics and far right-wing conservatives, but also in the destruction of a liberal democratic political order and a growing culture of surveillance, inequality and cynicism.

by: Henry A. Giroux, t r u t h o u t | Perspective


    The concept of war occupies a strange place in the current lexicon of foreign and domestic policy. It no longer simply refers to a war waged against a sovereign state such as Iraq, nor is it merely a moral referent for engaging in acts of national self defense. The concept of war has been both expanded and inverted. It has been expanded in that it has become one of the most powerful concepts for understanding and structuring political culture, public space and everyday life. Wars are now waged against crime, labor unions, drugs, terrorism and a host of alleged public disorders. Wars are not just declared against foreign enemies, but against alleged domestic threats.

    The concept of war has also been inverted in that is has been removed from any concept of social justice – a relationship that emerged under President Lyndon Johnson and exemplified in the war on poverty. War is now defined almost exclusively as a punitive and militaristic process. This can be seen in the ways in which social policies have been criminalized so that the war on poverty developed into a war against the poor, the war on drugs became a war waged largely against youth of color and the war against terrorism continues as a war against immigrants, domestic freedoms and dissent itself. In the Bush-Cheney view of terrorism, war is individualized as every citizen becomes a potential terrorist, who has to prove that he or she is not dangerous. Under the rubric of the every-present state of emergency and its government-induced media panics, war provides the moral imperative to collapse the “boundaries between innocent and guilty, between suspects and non-suspects.”[1] War provides the primary rhetorical tool for articulating a notion of the social as a community organized around shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and civic courage. War is now transformed into a slick, Hollywood spectacle designed to both glamorize a notion of hyper-masculinity fashioned in the conservative oil fields of Texas and fill public space with celebrations of ritualized militaristic posturing touting the virtues of either becoming part of ” an Army of one” or indulging in commodified patriotism by purchasing a new (hybrid) Hummer.

    War as spectacle easily combines with the culture of fear to divert public attention away from domestic social problems, define patriotism as consensus, enable the emergence of a deeply antidemocratic state and promote what Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has called the “war on the constitution.” The political implications of the expanded and inverted use of war as a metaphor can also be seen in the war against “big government,” which is really a war against the welfare state and the social contract itself – this is a war against the notion that everyone should have access to decent education, health care, employment, and other public services. One of the most serious issues to be addressed in the debate about Bush’s concept of permanent war is the effect it is having on one of our most vulnerable populations, children, and the political opportunity this issue holds for articulating a language of both opposition and possibility.

    Wars are almost always legitimated in order to make the world safe for “our children’s future,” but the rhetoric belies how their future is often denied by the acts of aggression put into place by a range of ideological state apparatuses that operate on a war footing. This would include the horrible effects of the militarization of schools, the use of the criminal justice system to redefine social issues such as poverty and homelessness as violations of the social order and the subsequent rise of a prison-industrial complex as a way to contain those youth for whom class and race loom large as a generation of suspects. Under the rubric of war, security and antiterrorism, children are “disappeared” from the most basic social spheres that provide the conditions for a sense of agency and possibility, as they are rhetorically excised from any discourse about the future. Children now pass easily from school to the criminal justice system to the prison. Unemployed youth disappear from the discourse of social concern only to reappear in the demonizing and punishing rhetoric of the criminal, drug addict and thug. One particularly repugnant example of the “disappearing” of children was made clear in a report issued by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2007. The report states, “In the United States, dozens of 13- and 14-year-old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults.”[2] In this case, the United States has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world “where a 13-year old is know to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”[3] What is to be said about a country that is willing to put young children behind bars until they die? These alleged criminals are not adults, but immature and underdeveloped children who are too young to marry, drive a car, get a tattoo and/or go to scary movies, but not too old to be put in prison for the rest of their lives. According to a recent Equal Justice Initiative report, “at least 2,225 people are serving sentences of death in prison for crimes they committed under the age of 18.”[4] Even more disturbing is the fact that “73 children sentenced to die in prison who are either 13 or 14 years old.”[5] Moreover, on any given day in the United States, 9500 juveniles under the age of 18 are locked up in adult penal institutions.”[6] At the current time, 44 states and the District of Columbia can try 14-year-olds in the adult criminal system.[7]

    The Bush administration’s aggressive attempts during the last eight years to reduce the essence of democracy to profit making, shred the social contract, elevate property rights over human rights, privatize and corporatize public schools and promote tax cuts that benefit the rich and destroy social programs and public investments failed completely when applied to the vast majority of citizens, but especially failed when applied to children. And yet, children provide one of the most important referents for exposing and combating such policies. Making visible the suffering and oppression of children cannot help but challenge the key assumptions of “permanent war” and market-driven policies designed to destroy public institutions and prevent government from providing important services that ameliorate ignorance, poverty, racism, inequality and disease. Children offer a crucial rationale for engaging in a critical discussion about the long-term consequences of current policies. Any debate about war, regime change and military intervention is both unethical and politically irresponsible if it doesn’t recognize how such policies affect children. For the Obama administration, the focus on children may be one place to begin to develop a unifying rallying point of political struggle and resistance in order to make clear to a broader public that a permanent war strategy and discourse of moral absolutes of the past promote democracy neither abroad nor at home, and its alleged value can best be understood in the hard currency of human suffering that children all over the globe are increasingly forced to pay.


[1] Ulrich Beck, Ibid, “The Silence of words and Political Dynamics in the World Risk Society,” p. 3.
[2] The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison, (Montgomery, AL: The Equal Justice Initiative, 2007). Online: http://www.eji.org/eji/files/20071017cruelandunusual.pdf.
[3] Ibid., The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison.
[4] Ibid., The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison.
[5] The Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison,
[6] Marian Wright Edelman, “Juveniles Don’t Belong in Adult Prisons,” Children’s Defense Fund, (August 1, 2008). Online at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marian-wright-edelman/juveniles-don’t-belong-in_b_116747.html
[7] Marian Wright Edelman, “Juveniles Don’t Belong in Adult Prisons,” Children’s Defense Fund, (August 1, 2008). Online at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marian-wright-edelman/juveniles-don’t-belong-in_b_116747.html


Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Beyond the Politics of Disposability,” will be published by Palgrave Mcmillan in 2009.