Friday, June 27, 2008

Unequal America

This essay, "Unequal America," by Elizabeth Gudrais, published in the July-August 2008 Harvard Magazine, is -- yikes.

Well, you haven't been living in a cave over the past ten years, so you know about the growing income and standard-of-living disparity, which is where she starts; you know that despite this Americans seem to keep voting for representatives who pass laws that increase, rather than mend, that disparity; you know that most Americans, despite all evidence around them, still believe with all their wistful hearts, that we have the best system in the world, and are the best country in the world; you know some reason must exist why all this continues, when, good shit, why, why, why?

Gudrais's essay addresses all these questions. I can't start quoting, or I'd never stop -- oh, all right: here's one or two paragraphs:

An argument commonly made in inequality’s defense is that it serves to motivate. Here, Kawachi cites evidence from the sports world. A 1990 study of golfers found that they performed best in professional tournaments, where the spread in the size of the prize money is widest. Similarly, a study of professional auto racers found that performance improved as the spread in the size of the various prizes widened.

So inequality may act on the human psyche to elicit hard work and high achievement—but it also may make us more individualistic. In a study of baseball players, teams with wider pay dispersion performed more poorly—and so did individual players within those teams. “In a world in which each individual is looking out for themselves, players will tend to concentrate on improving their own performance to the exclusion of team goals, since their own performance is what matters for moving up the pay scale,” Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy (a former HSPH professor who passed away this year) wrote in The Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health. “Concentrating on trying to hit more home runs or improving one’s own hitting average are not necessarily the tactics that lift team performance—as opposed to, say, practicing great defense.”

This gets at the ways inequality may affect the fabric of society. Perhaps motivated by inequality and the prospect of getting ahead, Americans work longer hours than their European counterparts—about 200 more hours per year, on average, than the British, and 400 more hours per year than the Swedes. Again, there are counter-examples (the Japanese work almost as much as Americans do, just 50 hours less a year), but in any case, time spent at work is time not spent with friends or family, and this has its own implications for health.

This reminds me of another bit of data I discovered, when I was research kibbutzim for the ethnographic essay I was having my 1203 class write -- I had read, long ago, Bettelheim's book on the kibbutzim, in which he had claimed no jet pilots or artists would ever come out of a kibbutz, because, you know, that way of rearing children, keeping them secure and safe, and letting their mothers as well as their fathers have a life, while it would make excellent committe members, would never create great individuals, blah blah blah. Well. You'll be pleased to learn Bettelheim was wrong, and that, in fact, %75 of the Israeli air force pilots come off the kibbutzim. Oddly, it seems, raising children without making them anxious and miserable creates good kids who can do well in life. Who would have thought?

As to why we keep getting politicians into office who keep voting for the policies that make the rich richer -- why would that be?

Previous research has shown that voter turnout is low, particularly at the low end of the income spectrum, in societies with high inequality. Again, this is counterintuitive: in unequal places, poor people unhappy with government policies might be expected to turn out en masse to vote, but instead they stay home. Campaign contributions may provide the missing link.

Candidates, naturally, target voters with money because they need funds for their campaigns. And since the poor gravitate toward parties that favor redistribution and the wealthy align themselves with parties that do not, campaign contributions end up benefiting primarily parties and candidates whose platforms do not include redistribution. By the time the election comes around, the only candidates left in the race are those who’ve shaped their platforms to maximize fundraising; poor voters, says Campante, have already been left out. In a study of campaign contributions in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, he found that higher income inequality at the county level was associated with fewer people contributing to campaigns, but contributing a larger amount on average—so the haves participated, and the have-nots did not.

I'll stop quoting; the essay is long, and by picking out bits of it, I'm doing it a disservice, since she's arguing in more detail than I'm showing here. (Also, graphs!) The data about how our declining life expectancy is being driven by our increasing disparity in wealth is especially good; also the bit about how the descrease in funding for education is helping to increase that disparity -- well, the entire thing! It's all good! Read it! You must!

No comments: