Canada Income Gap: Richard Wilkinson, Inequality Guru, Says Canada Risks Becoming 'Anti-Social,' Violent

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Income inequality guru Richard Wilkinson meets with The Huffington Post Canada's editorial board, May 3, 2012. (HuffPost photo) | HuffPost

Canada risks becoming a more violent and anti-social place if it allows income inequality to worsen, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject says.

Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, told The Huffington Post Canada’s editorial board Thursday that Canada is bound to become a society where “people are more out for themselves” if differences between the rich and poor continue to grow.

“I expect if your income differences keep rising, as I think they have been since the early 1990s, you will become a more anti-social society, people will be more out for themselves,” Wilkinson, a retired professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham in the U.K., said in response to a reader question.

He also said he expected Canada’s violent crime rate to become more comparable to the rate seen in the U.S. if inequality continues to grow.

The Huffington Post chose four of the best questions readers asked to put to Wilkinson. Read the complete Q&A below.


Question from reader Lorax 8: What is the end result for a society -- such as Canada's -- that continues to increase along the rich-poor divide? Can our economy or our society survive another one or two decades of this, and would it be recognizable as Canada?

I think there’s no doubt that … rising income differences do affect the whole social fabric of society. So I expect if your income differences keep rising -- as I think they have been since the early 1990s -- you will become a more anti-social society, people will be more out for themselves. And with that, if you get more unequal more rapidly than other countries, then your position in all sorts of league tables will fall. Instead of being much less violent than the United States, you might get more overlap. And similarly with health.

It’s an extraordinary picture. The U.S., one of the most unequal developed countries, has worse health, in terms of life expectancy, than any of the other developed countries. It has higher teenage birth rates, it has more people in prison, it has more violence, it has worse mental health. A whole raft of things are affected.

At the moment, Canada does much better than the United States. And it almost certainly is doing better because it’s more equal. And you must retain that.

Question from reader Heather Blackett: I see all around me an erosion and a devaluation of what I would regard as institutions of public trust and civic commons; libraries, parks, public spaces, public education and health care, community associations ... The very institutions that protect and promote social equality, mobility and inclusion. Do you believe that this is a one-way slide, or are there still opportunities for my generation to defend -- or create new -- institutions that value and promote equality?

I would say the causality has been primarily in the other direction. You’re losing all those kinds of provisions because income inequality develops an ideology that we have less to do with each other. There’s less reason why the better off should provide for others, [and less belief] that it’s the government’s job to provide these things for society. Growing inequality is about fending for yourself.

So I think the main effort must be in reducing the material differences.

Question from the editorial board: So in your view, the inequality comes first, then the attitudes of selfishness follow from it?


It was [Alexis] de Tocqueville, who lived in the States in the 1830s, who said we don’t empathize with each other across material differences. ‘It’s not my job to look after these people.’ We make judgments of each other based on social status, so the prejudiced view of the poor has always been that they’re lazy and stupid, and the rich are brilliant, and growing inequality increases all those [perceptions].

De Tocqueville talked about how the French landed aristocracy empathized with each other enormously over their trials and tribulations, but couldn’t understand what the peasants were fussing about. And similarly with white America, he talked about the extraordinarily cohesive nature of white society, but no empathy with slaves at all. And even in my childhood the most common justification for racism was people saying, ‘Well they just don’t live like us, do they.’

What the question is pointing out is the policy that’s followed in the wake of growing differences, I think. But it has also been affected by an international ideology -- the neoliberal economics [of Reagan and Thatcher] that swept through the developed world, one country after another. Canada caught the disease a little later than others, but Canada still caught it.

Question from reader Djimcintosh: The focus of the past 50 years on computerization and automation has increased productivity on average 2.1 per cent each year since 1961 (StatsCan). This means a 20 per cent improvement every 10 years. We should be living in a Utopian society, except we reduced employment instead. Higher wages and profits for the rich, and a pink slip for the poor. Can Mr. Wilkinson address the role of productivity improvements in establishing the current income inequality? How can we share future productivity improvements across society?

I think that’s a very important question, particularly as we become aware of the environmental limits to economic growth.

The New Economics Foundation in London has argued that we need to take the benefits of increased productivity out not in terms of higher levels of consumerism and so on, but in terms of more leisure, more time for friends, family and community.

I don’t know how they calculated it, but they said we should be moving toward a 21-hour work week.

income inequality chart

Source: Wilkinson & Pickett

This [chart] shows life expectancy in relation to national income per person. What it shows is rapid improvements in life expectancy in the early stages of economic development, and then it levels off.

And the interesting thing is that if you show measures of well being or measures of happiness against national income, you get very much the same shape -- rapid improvements at the beginning of economic development, and then it levels off.

That is a curve of diminishing returns to economic growth. Economic growth is what has transformed the real quality of our lives in the past, but it’s largely done its work now. ... We still do have improvements in life expectancy, but unrelated to economic growth.

So what that’s really telling us, it’s important for poorer countries to have rises in living standards, but for us in the rich world, to have more and more of everything makes less and less difference. So instead of using our gains in productivity to raise material standards through consumerism, status competition and so on-- there’s pretty good evidence that that’s a zero sum game.

And so we do need to take out gains in productivity in terms of more leisure. It’s time for friends, family and community. That’s particularly important to recognize when faced with the environmental consequences of continued [high] levels of consumption.

Question from reader Shaun L: I would like to ask Richard Wilkinson: In his expert opinion, do the policies of the Conservative government (of Canada) purposely target the poor and middle class in order to keep them "occupied" and “in check" so they do not have the physical or mental energy to oppose the aristocracy we live in?

I don’t think one should [promote] conspiracy theories about what’s going on. It’s more a reflection of people’s ideas of how [things] work.

There is I think, a real conflict of ideologies, which I think stems at some very fundamental level from our view, our sense of human nature -- how fundamentally social we think people are, or whether we think we’re basically materially self interested.

The truth is that we change in different environments. What inequality does is make us more [inclined] to self interest, but actually that consumerism that appears to be material self interest, is not a relationship between us and things, it’s a very alien form of communication. It’s actually an expression of how deeply social we are, because actually what we are using our money for is to communicate our status and success and so on, and to give a good account of ourselves to others. So actually it’s an indication of how social we are, but it’s a very alien way of expressing that.

And the alternative view is that what we’re really motivated by is feeling valued by friends and society more widely. In a way everything to do with the effects of inequality can be expressed in terms of whether we feel valued or not. At the big multinationals, the most junior employees are paid one third or one quarter of one per cent of the CEOs. There’s no more powerful way of telling people that you’re almost worthless.

And with that, of course, goes the feeling that some peope are extremely valuable and others don’t matter at all.

[Politically] I think there will always be a hard core of opposition [to these ideas]. But in a democracy that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

I think what is a problem is where you get money being too entrenched in politics. l really think it’s crucially important to keep money out of politics, have limitations on electoral spending, sizable donations from companies or rich individuals. It’s very damaging to the political process and democracy itself.

I think the media are also crucial. For democracy to function you’ve got to have good information. And I think we shouldn’t have too much of the media controlled by any one person or organization. It’s got to be diverse.

If you could ask one of the world’s most esteemed income inequality gurus one question, what would it be?

British scholar Richard Wilkinson, a pioneering expert in the field of social inequality and author of the best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, will join The Huffington Post Canada for an editorial board meeting at 11 a.m. ET on Thursday, May 3. We will present him with a selection of your best questions, as chosen by HuffPost editors.

Leave your questions now in the comments section, and check back later to see Wilkinson’s answers.

Here are a few questions to get you going:

Why should Canadians care about growing income inequality?

Does income inequality affect both rich and poor people?

How does income inequality relate to obesity?

Are there any solutions to the growing rich-poor divide?

When Richard Wilkinson talks about income inequality, people listen.

Over the past four decades, he has studied the social implications of high levels of inequality -- and has uncovered some disquieting connections between the rich-poor divide and our well-being. A retired professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, and co-founder of the U.K.-based think tank Equality Trust, Wilkinson has found that more unequal societies also have higher rates of everything from homicides and imprisonment to obesity and teenage births.

It’s a message that Canadians should take to heart. Over the past 25 years, the poorest Canadians have seen their real incomes decline even as the wealthiest have made progress. An increasingly small share of people are taking up an increasingly large share of Canada’s impressive economic growth. As we have reported in our Mind The Gap series, in Canada the growing rich-poor divide is already having all kinds of unexpected implications, including making us more unhealthy and driving up house prices for everyone.

At the moment, Canada’s income divide still puts us in the middle of the pack among developing countries. But as debate about this deepening trend heats up, we are opening up the discussion to you.

Wilkinson will be meeting with The Huffington Post Canada’s editorial board on Thursday, May 3, at 11 a.m. ET.

Leave questions for the inequality guru now in the comments section, and check back later to see Wilkinson’s answers.


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