Monday, June 13, 2011

"The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" UNISON, IER & The Equality Trust

 Last Thursday evening I went to a talk by Richard Wilkinson, one of the authors of "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" in the new UNISON HQ in Euston. It was co-sponsored by The Institute of Employment Rights (IER), UNISON and the Equality Trust.

The meeting was Chaired by John Hendy QC (below 2nd left). UNISON Assistant General Secretary, Bronwyn McKenna (3rd left) welcomed everyone and spoke about the grim environment that Unions face. "We are being attacked by the Government, employers and the Courts. The information in The Spirit Level could be one of our ways to stop being defensive and go on the attack. It is clear that the health and well being of a country is also linked positively to levels of trade union density. Since countries where trade unions are strong tend to be more equal and successful societies". I love her quote from the Supreme Court

The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work.” Unfortunately of course this was not the British Supreme Court - but the Canadian.
UNISON Head of Health, Karen Jennings (4th left) was the next speaker and she told us that she believes this book is as important as the research carried out in the 18th and 19th century into poverty which proved that those who lived in filth and overcrowding died the earliest. 

Professor Richard Wilkinson (left) and Kate Pickett (absent) wrote the "The Spirit Level”. I’ve read the book and seen him speak at least twice now. He keeps trying to say he is a boring speaker and you should not want to see him at all if you have read the book. However, each time I have heard him he has been entertaining and informative. 

Some key stuff (to me anyway):  Richard enjoys countering the arguments of the right who attack his book and who appear to believe that grinding poverty is actually good for you! Yep.

He believes that “the left” lost its way when Marxism was discredited by the loss of freedoms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  We should be confident of a better future, but this must be based on empirical research. It’s not good enough just to say we want an alternative without doing the maths. He thinks that his book is a small contribution to change.

I only really understood that night that it is not only the right who will have “a problem” with the “The Spirit Level”. While the United States is the most unequal country with the corresponding worse health and social failings. The 2nd greatest advanced capitalist society, Japan, is the most equal and has by far the best health and social outcomes. Both societies are very different with regard to individualism and paternalism but their actual economic systems are pretty similar.

Richard thinks it is bizarre that we have such a wealthy material society for so many but still have so many social failings. We are richer than ever but look at levels of self harm at schools, drug abuse, violence and levels of mental health. When you map economic growth in rich countries there is a diminishing returns curve. There is no significant difference in life expectancy amongst the very rich countries but there is when related to income.

The Spirit Level is not a theory of everything but a theory of a problem that tends to be common.  

How can you explain why 23% of the UK have mental health problems but only 8% of Germans? Why have some countries 300% increases in mental health when compared to others?

Why does Canada and the USA have such different homicide rates from the use of firearms - yet similar levels of Gun ownership?  

How can the prison population of countries be predicted so accurately by the degree of income inequality in that country?

Why do harsher prison sentences and use of the death penalty tend to be found in more unequal societies?

Why is social mobility (the Cameron “Big Society” wanted outcome) higher in more equal societies? Why is Richard able to tease audiences across the pond by saying that if they want to live the American dream then statistically they should move to Denmark?

Why is infant mortality in Sweden when compared to England and Wales better in all social classes including the rich?

Why is income inequality so damaging to health and well being?  This question is I think a problem that has not yet been properly explained.  On the one hand it may seem like the "bleeding obvious". But where is the empirical proof? Richard thinks it is down to Psychosocial risk factors such as
"Feeling of inferiority"..."low social status"... weak social affiliations" and maybe the sheer stress of being poor and downtrodden.   This makes sense but not entirely convincing in the absence of the statistical proof that makes the rest of the book so compelling.  Still, this proves that it is not the theory of everything and does not distract from the overwhelming power of the main argument which is backed by tons of research.

In the Q&A I mentioned that we are trying in our sector (the “not for profit” and voluntary sector) to introduce the principles of “The Spirit Level”. Since surely if it is bad for society to be unequal then it is as corrosive and damaging for such inequality to take place in the workplace? I asked if there was a trade union guide to becoming a “Spirit Level Negotiator”. Richard replied that apparently the Swedish Trade unions have published a cartoon guide and others have done some work on this. One member of the panel said "you only have to ask".  I will.

So there you have it. If you work for any organisation where the income gap between the top and the bottom is too high - then you work for a bad, bad company

UPDATE: Richard will be speaking to a fringe at this years UNISON NDC conference.  I will post timings and venue as soon as poss.
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