Editor's Notes

Social inequality is wrong -- and it makes you fat



Social inequality is morally wrong, politically dumb, and economically unsustainable. It also makes you fat.


There's a book by two British epidemiologists that argues the physical and mental health case for economic equality — and it's full of great stuff. It's a year old, but I read a nice analysis of it in Nicholas Kristof's column in the Jan. 2 New York Times. Kristof notes that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, both British epidemiologists, cited vast and growing evidence that societies with greater equality are in general more healthy. And by that they mean not only that those societies have less crime and violence; the people who live with greater equality actually have less heart disease, mental illness, and obesity.

The book is called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. A lot of it's kind of touchy-feeley, but in the end, they come to a scientific conclusion: "The relationships between inequality and poor health and social problems are too strong to be attributable to chance."

The two scientists also take on one of the great taboos of modern economics. They argue that growth isn't necessarily good, that the standard goal of every official government policy in every major nation in the world — capitalist, socialist, or communist — over at least the past half-century, has been based on a flawed assumption.

There aren't even that many progressives in this country who want to challenge the idea that the economy needs to grow to solve problems like unemployment and poverty. Sim Van Der Ryn, the visionary planner and architect, once told me that it makes no sense to have "a perpetually adolescent economy." But in most polite company, that's heresy.

But our new governor, who once employed Van Der Ryn as the director of the Office of Appropriate Technology, has a few heretical cells in his Jesuit-trained brain. And while I don't expect him to turn the state's growth frenzy on its head, he ought to be willing to think about this:

The solution to California's problems may lie more with redistributing the pie than with making it larger.

I'm not arguing that we should abandon growth, particularly at a time of high unemployment. But keep in mind: corporate profits are already up, both here and nationwide — but the big companies are hoarding their cash and not hiring. Banks are making money again — but they're not lending it out. We're in a different sort of recovery here, one that may, for the moment, be structurally jobless. During the deep recession, businesses figured out how to survive with fewer employees, and they're not about to start expanding the payroll.

And of course, the public sector has done nothing but shrink, and there's little talk of anything but more shrinking.

So maybe the only way we're going to get out of this is to inject more money into the economy, not by borrowing but by sending some of the idle wealth at the top back down to the level where it might become production. It might make us all a lot healthier. Because it turns out that you don't have to eat the rich; just tax them.