Top critical review
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Worth a read
on January 4, 2011
One does not have to google too deep to be convinced the authors; Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, are active advocates for progressive causes so the uneasy feeling that the evidence presented in their book was sifted and selected to suit the author's preconceptions should not cause much surprise. Indeed, by the end of the book the authors have cast aside any pretence of being disinterested researchers. This is not to suggest their effort should be written off as political rhetoric, just that a grain or two of salt may be called for.
The bulk of the book is devoted to examining, one by one, various social ills and demonstrating they are correlated, in rich societies at least, to the degree of income inequality within the society. The greater the inequality; the worse off the society, regardless of its overall wealth. This explains, for example, why the USA, one of the world's wealthiest countries, has higher levels of mental illness, lower life expectancies and so on, than poorer countries in which income is distributed more equally than in the U.S. The results are consistent both in comparisons between selected rich countries and in comparisons between the U.S. individual states. The data presented is extensive and well documented.
It is easy to concur with the authors. After all, isn't it obvious that taking inequality to the extreme by limiting all income to one or a few individuals would be disastrous? And too, we have the example of the odious income of Wall Street bankers which has had less than ideal results. Still, some of the correlations cited are more difficult to accept as causal than others. For example, call it a gut feel but it seems likely something more than just income inequality is needed to explain high rates of obesity. The authors themselves concede the evidence linking inequality to social mobility (achieving a higher status than your parents) is weak. On the other side, the data and discussion on why income equality leads to greater violence was revealing and fascinating. We could do worse than to incorporate some of this thinking into our social planning. In some instances Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Pickett are repetitive, driving their points home maybe once too often but, on balance, their hypothesis is well developed.
Early in the book the authors cite the case of a young, unemployed lad who spent a month's income purchasing the latest cell phone in order to be more attractive to girls. If you can accept the author's contention that such behaviour is entirely normal and efforts to limit the damage it causes should be focused on ensuring the lad has a more adequate income then this book should hit home with you and contains much data you might find useful and informative. But if you feel the lad's cell phone purchase was irresponsible or at least has elements of irresponsibility and the damage could best be limited by smartening the boy up then you will be less enamoured with the book. In either case, it is worth a read.