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Some economists are beginning to sound like social justice advocates

 Some of our economists are sounding like social justice advocates as they point out the consequences to society of national and international fiscal policies, and explain the short-sightedness of cutting funds for such budget items as food stamps and unemployment compensation.

After all, they point out, these funds move quickly into circulation, contributing to our economic recovery.

They are also focusing on the unfairness of such behavior and its contribution to the growing inequality between the now-proverbial 99 percent and the 1 percent.

A political cartoon from four or five years ago described the division as the 9 percent who were then unemployed plus the 90 percent who feared they could become unemployed versus the seriously rich 1 percent who were confident of their security and oblivious to any consequences of the laws and conditions that favored them.

Not too long ago, it seemed that most of the economics commentary printed on the business pages of the newspaper gave the impression that economics has to do only with financial matters.  As long as the stock market was going up and the numbers associated with the Gross Domestic Product were showing growth in employment, manufacturing, exports and productivity, we were doing fine economically.

There is a growing body of research, in which economics and sociology intertwine, and it is demonstrating dramatically how the inequality wracking our world is not healthy for the economy, social structure, human beings of all ages, or small puppies and kittens. 

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are active in this area of research.  In their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, they have gathered data on 23 of the richest countries in the world, eliminating those that are primarily tax havens. 

In addition to gathering data on the United States as a whole they also looked at the states individually.

Incidentally, equality here does not mean identical.  It refers to an absence of the huge gaps in resources that limit access to the benefits of our society.

Their international index of health and social problems covers 10 areas: life expectancy, teenage births, obesity, mental illness, homicides, imprisonment rates, mistrust, social mobility, education and infant mortality rate. 

Their index for the 50 states of the United States included all of above except social mobility.  Income inequality data was also gathered.  The appendix to the book gives data sources, statistical methods and an extensive reference list.

We have a gigantic trust—or mistrust—problem.

The percentage of people agreeing that “most people can be trusted” is higher in more equal countries and states. A “Hmmmm”-evoking footnote is that Wyoming has data on trust but not on homicides.

According to the study, changes in inequality and trust go together.  With greater inequality, “people are less caring of one another, there is less mutuality in relationships, people have to fend for themselves and get what they can—so, inevitably there is less trust.  Mistrust and inequality enforce each other.  As de Tocqueville pointed out, we are less likely to empathize with those not seen as equals.  Material differences serve to divide us socially.”

Here are some other observations that illustrate again that everything is connected. 

In more unequal countries and states, the following dynamics exist: Women’s status is significantly worse.  There is less social mobility.  Homicides and other violent crimes are more common.  More people are imprisoned.  Infant mortality is higher.  More people suffer from mental illness.  Teenage pregnancy rates are higher.  Life expectancy is lower.  Aspirations of young people are lower.  The use of illegal drugs is more common.

More equal countries recycle a higher proportion of their waste, and their business leaders are more strongly in favor of their governments’ complying with international environmental agreements.

We have strayed far from the New Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, when we lose sight of the widest meaning of love and the consequences of our individual and collective behavior.

Nancy Minard

Contributing editor


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