Blog 18. Social Anxiety Rooted in Inequality?


In talking with people-including conservatives, liberals, the young adults, and especially the retirees-I detect an underlying tension, an angst, as though something is generally wrong, the world is decaying despite the visible affluence without a particular ill symptom or dissatisfaction. What’s going on?

The ways of living are changing and the speed of change is increasing-as noted in Blog 1.  But that’s not all. There’s a feeling that people sense an impending social failure but are unable to identify it. What’s causing this stress?

As documented in a recent scholarly book, The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett*, we really are much more anxious than we used to be.  That’s true in the U.S. and in some other economically developed societies, but not all. We have material success but social failure. Long before the financial crisis that began in 2008, British politicians commented on the decline of community and the rise of anti-social behavior.  We see more depression despite more material goods, materialism without community value, illegal immigration, longer work days, lack of time for gentle activities, more teen births, less trust, more impoverishment, more drugs, obesity, school bullying, and continued environmental degradation despite the federal clean air and water rules of the 1970’s.  In the U.S., I don’t see suburban kids playing ball in yards and streets as I did and as my own kids did later.  Instead, I see kids driven to and from formal activities by anxious parents while other kids are playing electronic games of violence, and most kids are relating electronically more than personally.   These seem to be characteristics of the underlying complex social system (Blog 14), but is there a common cause, a way to understand this, a way out when you feel uneasy?

Wilkinson and Pickett (W&P) are professors who have studied economics and epidemiology.  They quantitatively evaluate many symptoms of social dysfunction, comparing results for 23 developed countries and also comparing data for the 50 states of the U.S. In each case, they correlate the severity of a social problem (e.g. teen births or homicides or obesity) with income inequality. The correlations are independent of the average income or overall wealth of a country.  In other words, the greater the disparity in income, the more dysfunction a society has in multiple characteristics including infant mortality, social mobility, literacy, AIDS, homicide rate, degenerative diseases, teenage births, trust, and status of women.

What’s the cause?

Correlation does not necessarily indicate cause.  The fact that each of the social symptoms correlates with income inequality suggests the symptoms also correlate with each other.  Which is cause and which is effect?

The authors present extensive arguments to justify inequality as the common factor underlying the other characteristics.  For example, public spending on health and education does not correlate with homicide rates, but income inequality does.  In a postscript, the authors counter what appears to be politically motivated criticism of the book, including statistical arguments or missing factors such as ethnicity.  W&P assert ethnicity is not a factor because the same correlations occur across societies of widely differing cultures.  Data from Italy and Finland fall along the same line in the graphs.

Wilkinson and Pickett argue that our need to feel valued and capable implies we crave feedback regarding our worth, but social status causes distress because it carries messages of superiority and inferiority.  Greater inequality amplifies the importance of social status.  For example, W&P note that many 4-wheel drive SUVs never get off the pavement but they display model names of dominance like Trooper or Wrangler, being vehicles for display in the urban jungle, not for the wilderness.  The social insecurity, based on maintaining position in the absence of trust, carries the ill effects into the upper classes.  Inequality raises competitive consumption.  However, both the relatively rich and the relatively poor have relatively better health, less violence, and less anxiety in a country (or state) with less inequality.  That is, despite our expectations otherwise, all classes are happier in a society with less inequality.  W&P quote Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”  For either the rich or poor, psychological consumerism does not replace a lost sense of security, fellowship, meaning, or control over the direction of one’s life.


Obesity occupies a special chapter in Spirit Level.  In the U.S., about half the population were overweight and 15 percent were obese in the late 1970s.  Now two-thirds of adults are overweight and about thirty percent are obese as measured by body mass index, which normalizes the effect that a taller person normally weighs more.  Life expectancy might now be decreasing due to childhood obesity.  What’s going on?  A hundred and fifty years ago, the poor were thin and the rich were fat.  Now obesity is more prevalent among the lower classes.  Calories are available now, and consumption of food creates a hormonal balm for stressed persons.  The upper classes aren’t immune-they expend efforts to maintain the status of thinness.  Fat is a class issue.  Fast food restaurants represent both sanctuary and status to the relatively underprivileged.  Obesity in the U.S. is more than twelve times greater than that in Japan, which is the least unequal society of the 23 so-called rich countries.

Does equality imply Robin Hood?

Japan and the Scandinavian countries rank as having the least inequality.  The Scandinavian countries have large taxes and large programs of social welfare, reducing inequality by the Robin Hood method.  Visitors tell me most Scandinavians feel they get their money’s worth from the taxes.  In Japan, the basic wages are more equal, with smaller differences between the highly paid and the lower salaries.  Both societies maintain a sense of greater equality, despite being culturally different.  Both societies enjoy the benefits of less crime, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, obesity, and other problems.  Either method of limiting inequality can work.

The cure?

Wilkinson and Pickett explain that many people have a strong personal belief in equality and fairness, but these values have remained private, hidden, unshared, inactive because people think their fellows disagree.  Instead, political differences reflect beliefs about how to solve the problems, while desire for a safer and more friendly society goes across political lines.  Politics have been weakened by the loss of any concept of a better society, a vision of how to get from here to there.  The authors, however, clearly identify corporate power as the elephant in the living room-the biggest determinant of political action.  In the U.S., the highest-paid people in corporations received almost 40 times as much as the highest-paid people in the non-profit sector, and 200 times more than the highest-paid generals or cabinet secretaries in the Federal Government.  Does that illustrate where our social priorities lie, despite our underlying shared personal belief?  I would argue that extreme inequality exists because democracy is excluded from the economic sphere-and (as Blog 16 concluded) from the political sphere as well.  B&P suggest that worker ownership of corporations would induce both better satisfaction and better production.  We can picture it, but how do we get there from here? Revolution is probably the worst way.

Some conclusions.

Wilkinson and Pickett conclude that many of the growing social problems are maintained by income inequality, whereby the poor cope with their own poverty and also with the consequences of the poverty of their neighbors, while the rich pay to live separately in residential economic segregation.  As the authors say, governments can spend either to prevent social problems or else to deal with the consequences.  In the U.S. since 1980, public expenditure on prisons has risen six times as fast as public expenditure on education.

This reader wonders what would happen if school teachers garnered the same wages as surgeons, and if the best-funded schools were located in the poorest neighborhoods.  I see equality of opportunity as the key, but people don’t have equal opportunity so long as they have highly unequal social status.  With our current rules, the power of wealth excludes the middle and the poor from legal and political equality.  Justice is neither fair nor blind.

A missing argument.

One key observation seems missing from the excellent presentation of data and observations in Spirit Level.  Almost any enduring symptom (good or bad) of a complex system is maintained by a loop of positive feedback, as outlined in Blog 14 and Blog 16.  The search for ways to rectify income inequality must first locate the unchecked positive feedback loops that maintain and increase the inequalities.  Often, those loops are what we label “growth.”  As argued in Blog 16, disallowing political action by corporations would be one powerful step toward equal justice because corporate governance is simply sophisticated bribery.

*  Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level,  Bloomsbury Press, 2009, updated 2010.

One thought on “Blog 18. Social Anxiety Rooted in Inequality?

  1. A reader (Joyce) asked, “Could you describe the positive feedback loops in corporate capitalism for us?”

    Positive feedback occurs when the result of an action propagates through the system in such a way as to encourage more of the same action. For example, an ant may find food near an anthill, and leave a smelly trail as he carries a bit of the food back to the nest. Other ants find the trail to the food, resulting in more food being brought to the nest. Carrying food to the nest generates more food, a positive feedback.

    A for-profit company is in business to make money. It spends some of its profits in advertising to attract more customers, to generate still more profits. Likewise, it can spend some profits to influence government (e.g. to elect a friendly governor), with the intent that the government will then create environmental rules or tax breaks that enable the company (or a consortium of companies) to make still more profits. That’s positive feedback, ultimately acting to exclude or to overwhelm the citizens’ influence while the company gains still more profit with which to influence still more government. As I said, that’s sophisticated corruption, but it also leads to collapse, as happens with any unchecked positive feedback. Witness the financial collapse of 2008 and the banking rules.

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