Monday, January 19, 2015 — Taking ‘The Spirit Level’ to a New Level

I sometimes talk about how everyone – regardless of politics — wants a society with better health, lower rates of mental illness, less violence, stronger community life, higher standards of child wellbeing. But the idea that you can get a bit closer to these goals by reducing inequality, some people find that an absolutely monstrous suggestion. 
You know the American book, The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway? It’s about the attempts to rubbish climate science and the research on the harmful impacts of pesticides and the links between smoking and ill health. The book looks at who the people behind these attempts are, where their funding comes from, and what their motivation is. 
The book makes the point that these people are basically neoliberalist free market fundamentalists. And anything that seems to be an encroachment on the free market, they feel, must be attacked. A previous publication of one of our right-wing critics was an attempt to rubbish all the evidence on the health effects of second-hand smoke. So I do think that’s what this is about. They’re trying to protect the free market.…
Wilkinson: But there’s an important point I’d like to make about the major changes in inequality. The basic picture of changes in inequality during the 20th century in most rich countries is that there was high inequality in the 1920s, then declining inequality from sometime in the 1930s, which continued through the middle of the century until it petered out in the 1970s. Then, from around 1980, you get the modern rise in inequality. That trajectory I am absolutely sure reflects the strengthening and then the weakening of the labor movement, plus the fear of communism and the strength of the social democratic movement. 
If you look in one country after another, you see inequality dropping when the proportion of the working population in trade unions rises and inequality rising when the union population is dropping. It really is an extraordinary fit.
I don’t think it’s simply that trade unions make such a huge difference to the wages of their members, though I’m sure they make an important difference. But trade union membership also provides an indicator of the strength of the countervailing voice of the whole labor movement in society, offering a different perspective.
As soon as this countervailing voice weakened, suddenly inequality shoots up again and we lost the progress we made. I think that means that if it’s right to think about the swinging of the political pendulum, and if we are going to get a period of perhaps more radical progressive views, it is really essential that this time we make more structural changes. If the political tide turns again, we don’t want it to be so easy for progressive changes to be reversed. 
That’s why I emphasize the importance of forging real economic democracy. If you just reduce inequality with a bit of redistribution through taxes and safety-net benefits, then the first government that doesn’t like that redistribution simply undoes it all.
Lots of interesting factoids.
Taking ‘The Spirit Level’ to a New Level

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