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When we were more equal

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Weapons: a positive view

It is now well established that hunter-gatherer societies relied on relationships of equality and group co-operation to survive. Individuals who acted in selfish ways could be ostracized and would not be likely to survive if they did not find another group to join.

Fear of being seen as selfish and of being rejected by others is innate in humans who are not psychologically damaged. It was partly tool-making that resulted in humans evolving to favour the survival of those among them who were more inclined to be egalitarian and one particular group of tools may have been key: weapons. Without weapons, the largest and fittest tend to dominate. With weapons, even the smallest can be a killer.

Party for justice!

Greater equality was also a prerequisite for human settlement. To settle in an area, and especially to farm it, requires a degree of co-operation that cannot easily be sustained if the strong are constantly pouncing on the weak. Crops have to be planted. A small surplus needs to be stored and respected to get through the winter, to sow next year’s harvest, and in case of drought.

However, once settled, a degree of surplus can be amassed that hunter-gatherers would never have been able to carry around with them. If not dissipated, a surplus creates a problem because it gives the people who hold it power over others.

One way to deal with this is to redistribute the surplus regularly. Potlatch was the name given to those gatherings routinely held around the American Pacific northwest coast to feast and party. Such feasting was developed as a way of redistributing wealth while coming together in celebration. The world’s earliest surviving map is of folk dancing in a field.

Pyramids and other follies

Early unions

Equitable societies tend not to leave follies behind. Throughout history, where people lived well they left the least traces – generally just their bones and a few essential possessions. A sustainable society leaves as little trace of its existence as possible. The Indus Valley civilization of the second and third centuries BCE, for example, is famed for both its sustainability and for leaving no palaces. Why would people in an equitable society waste their lives building enormous monuments? Monuments are built both to soak up surplus labour and to demonstrate superiority. With superiority comes a rationale for conquest.

You could not persuade a set of free-minded people to build a pyramid. You would have to enslave the labourers either physically, economically or emotionally to get them to work on huge monuments that serve no obvious utilitarian purpose or are unnecessarily grandiose.

What did the Romans do for us?

The Romans

The standard view of the Roman Empire is of a civilizing force for good. Yet skeletons found from times and places of Roman colonization have indicated that people were shorter and in a worse state of health, with the bones showing evidence of increased disease and starvation. There is even evidence of a curtailing of creativity in the diminishing quality of pottery found in those parts of Europe most effectively colonized by the Romans.

Innovation in general stalled in Europe and around the Mediterranean under the yoke of the Roman Empire. Inventions were largely imported from outside rather than created within. More egalitarian China produced a far greater variety than did subjugated Europe; from the wheelbarrow to printing and gunpowder, from new religious beliefs (the East Asian or Taoic religions) to innovations in both philosophy and ecology.

Industry ups the ante

In all of human history, social inequalities rose most abruptly during the 19th century – and most clearly in those parts of the world that were industrializing. Before industrialization, fashions changed slowly and the consumption of material goods was low. There were limits to both growth and to the wealth that could be accumulated when people relied on wind, water and, indirectly, the sun as their primary sources of power.

It was when the more natural and sustainable power sources were replaced by burning coal that many more ‘goods’ could first be made. Steam was generated to drive machines that could more quickly transform one commodity into another: wool into jackets, iron into nails. But the machines could not run themselves. They needed people to tend them. There was suddenly no limit to what could be accumulated by a small group of people who enslaved another group to work for them, magnifying the effects of that labour by attaching human beings to looms and all manner of other machines.

Early capitalism and shrinking people


Victorian Britain was a place of extremely, if not unprecedentedly, high inequality. Life expectancy in the worst parts of Manchester and Glasgow fell to be as low as 25 years of age for decade after decade in the early 19th century, and this was from within the powerhouses of the British Empire. By the 1850s in England, people’s average heights were at an all-time low. They recovered only slowly. By 1918, average heights were only back to where they had been a century earlier in 1818.

The rise of capitalism is often heralded as a great economic success, but until 1917 it was only a success for those who owned great amounts of capital. Only after that year did economic inequalities begin to reduce across the world. Only from then onwards, right through to the 1970s, did the wealth generated in factories powered by burning coal begin to be spread.

The rich, the poor and the earth

The most important benefit of the equality effect may be that it leads us to behave in ways that are less environmentally damaging. The evidence for this is only emerging now. We can track the effect across a range of indicators by looking at the 25 richest countries in the world, which have varying levels of inequality. The measure of inequality used here is the ratio between the incomes of the best-off 10 per cent of households and those of the worst-off 10 per cent. Bear in mind that this comparison is different from that on Page 14, which compared the income of the top one per cent with the average income. Bear in mind also that the figures for the very rich are probably an underestimate because so much of their income and wealth is hidden, especially in the most unequal countries. All the same, it is clear that some rich countries are substantially more unequal than others, ranging from the most unequal – the US – to the most equal – Denmark.equality, inequality

So what is the environmental effect of living in a country in which households are economically unequal as compared to living in one in which the economic differences are far smaller? The book from which this magazine theme is drawn is able to track the effect in detail across 11 different indicators but there is only space here to touch briefly on four: waste; meat consumption; CO2 emissions; and transport.

World leaders in waste

Almost all of what you buy ends up in the bin. We can only store a finite amount of possessions in our homes for any great length of time. When you buy an item, you don’t think about junking it. But you will eventually throw away almost everything you buy. Some of it you may recycle, but recycling is not only never fully efficient, it also uses a great deal of energy and hence generates pollution itself. Not buying things you don’t need is far better, but in a world where the main function of advertising is to get you to buy things that you could live without, that is hard.

The bubble chart below, in which each country is sized according to its population, tracks an environmental indicator (the vertical axis) against levels of inequality (the horizontal one). Countries to the right are more unequal, while countries that are high up produce more waste. If the correlation between the two were perfect, they would all line up along a line drawn from the bottom left to the top right. Inevitably there are outliers that don’t fit – in this case Denmark and Switzerland, and this could be because they do a better job of collecting data on waste than other countries.

equality, inequality, waste
Economic inequality and Waste Production (domestic), 2009-13 Ratio of the best-off tenth to the worst-off tenth (the farther a country is to the right, the more unequal it is)

But the tendency of the more unequal countries to produce more waste is still striking overall – and would be even more so if the 50 US states were included separately as smaller circles. In Japan people on average buy and throw away half as much as people in the US – of everything!

In economically unequal countries the pressure to buy items to keep up with your peers, with ‘people who count’, is enormous, especially when it comes to clothes, fashion, new cars and other status symbols. We are encouraged to be aspirational, to better ourselves, not for the greater good, but for selfish reasons – ultimately, to be able to get all that stuff. A good job is no longer one which benefits society, but one that pays you well.

Equality and carbon dioxide

The most damaging form of pollution (in terms of absolute effect) is the carbon dioxide (CO2) we are responsible for releasing into the atmosphere. Residents of the US contribute more emissions of CO2 than any other of the 25 rich countries featured. US emissions per person are almost twice those of the Japanese, and more than three times those of the French.

In general, the more economically unequal a rich country is, the more CO2 it emits. There are exceptions of course: the UK is a relatively low emitter because it currently has access to natural gas from the North Sea and has already mined and burned its most accessible coal; 75 per cent of France’s electricity production meanwhile derives from nuclear power, which emits less CO2 but creates much longer-lasting radioactive waste. In contrast, Australia mines and burns a great deal more coal (and also, incidentally, mines a large amount of uranium).

equality, poor, rich
The average amount of emissions of someone in the poorest 10 per cent of the global population is 60 times less than that of someone in the richest 10 per cent. 1

In 2015 Oxfam reported in detail on why emissions from some countries were so much greater than others. Collaborating with economists including Thomas Piketty, Oxfam discovered that what drove excessive consumption in any particular affluent country was economic inequality. This is because the best-off in a country tend to waste more energy, heat their homes more than they need to, drive more than they need to in bigger gas-guzzling cars, take more flights and require more cement and other materials to construct their larger-than-needed buildings, while at the same time buying and throwing away more items. In short, if you are very rich, money is no object and you want to be seen spending your riches. In a more equitable country people are, in general, more careful, public transport is better, and the need to keep up with those above you and mimic their behaviour is far less acutely felt.

'Globally, the CO2 emissions associated with individual lifestyles are due to the actions of the richest tenth of humanity'

Globally, half the CO2 emissions associated with individual lifestyles are due to the actions of the richest tenth of humanity, who disproportionately live in the more unequal of the world’s most affluent 25 countries.

The meat-eating problem

Eating a lot of meat is good neither for you nor the planet. The amount of crops that have to be grown and transported to feed the animals that we eat is far greater than the amount that would be needed if we just ate the crops themselves. So, the more meat per person that is eaten in a country, the less environmentally friendly the people of that country collectively are.

By weight (if we ignore insects and fish) most of the animal life on our planet is now intensively farmed for our own consumption. Those animals produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases during their short lives, with cattle being the worst polluters of all. The most common bird on the planet is now the domestic chicken, reared solely because so many of us in the rich world have become so used to eating cheap meat.

The bubble chart below suggests that the more unequal countries (again sized according to population) tend to consume more meat. Again, there are a few outliers – notably Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa, possibly because their cultural histories are bound up with the rearing of sheep and cattle and their high levels of meat production. But the general trend is pretty clear.

equality, meat
Economic inequality and meat consumption (excluding fish), 2011 Ratio of the best-off tenth to the worst-off tenth (the farther a country is to the right, the more unequal it is). A value of 82 = eating approximately one beef steak a day all year

Our great-grandparents did not eat much meat at all, and chicken was often for Christmas Day and the occasional Sunday. Increasing meat consumption has not made us healthier. In some countries we are now eating so excessively that it is making many of us obese. Obesity rates are much higher in affluent countries that are more economically unequal. One theory as to why is that the poor in such countries have to resort to cheap fast food, which is advertised to them aggressively and often includes lower-grade meat. Another theory is that in more equitable countries the population tends to be better educated and so can more easily see through the folly of fast-food advertising and gluttony.

These theories remain unproven, but what we do know is that people in more economically unequal countries in general eat more meat per person by weight. Whatever the reason, greater equality is associated with less obesity and less meat eating, and the world needs human beings to eat less meat if we are to avoid depleting our soils, increasing greenhouse gases and also reducing the biodiversity of the planet to such an extent that monocultures prevail and we lose habitats.

Cartoon by Ella Furness

Transport: breathing in the fumes

Our excessive use of motor vehicles contributes not only CO2 but also other damaging gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides as well as pumping particulate matter into the air we all breathe. Among the most affluent 25 countries three stand out as extreme in this regard: the US, Canada and Australia. These three are among the least densely populated countries in the rich world and driving distances between homes and workplaces are often long, but they have chosen to arrange their cities in this way. That choice was again affected by economic inequality and the beliefs associated with it: that individual aspirations should trump the collective good and that ‘the car is king’.

Relatively low petrol/gasoline use in the UK, Singapore and Israel shows that very unequal countries need not necessarily use huge amounts. In these three cases there are large dense urban areas that can only function with good public transport such as underground trains, buses and trams. But it is worth noting that no relatively equal affluent country consumes more than half as much gasoline per person as Canada and the US do each year. All of us will have to consume far less fossil fuel in the near future and those reductions will be far more easily achieved in a country that sees the provision of efficient, low-polluting public transport as a collective good rather than a dangerous precedent.

The equality effect on the environment is most evident when we look within countries. In its December 2015 report, Oxfam found that the greatest polluters of all were the most affluent 10 per cent of US households. Each emitted, on average, 50 tonnes of CO2 per household member per year. The Canadian top 10 per cent were the next most polluting, followed by the British, Russian and South African elites, as shown in the graph to the right. In more equitable affluent countries such as South Korea, Japan, France, Italy and Germany, the rich don’t just pollute less, but average pollution is lower because the bottom half of the population in those societies also pollute less (despite being better off) than the bottom half of the population in the US, Canada or Britain. The equality effect is clearly also an environmental effect. The poor pollute less when less poor and the rich pollute less when less rich.

Alternatively we could consider something as simple as the proportion of people who cycle or walk to work in each country. This ranges from 50 per cent (in the Netherlands) to less than 5 per cent (in the US).

Everything is connected. People are fatter in the US because they eat more food; because they sit in cars more often and for longer; because they are exposed to more advertising and eat more and buy more cars as a result; because they live in greater fear of crime and so are afraid of not driving; and because they are surrounded by other obese people and therefore don’t feel so unusual if they are also fat. But behind all of these factors lies the basic difference in how human beings are ranked.

'The poor pollute less when less poor, and the rich pollute less when less rich'

Ranking really matters to people. Rank them sky high by paying them many times more than other people and they can become so conceited that they more easily treat others who are less well-off poorly, with no respect and with little empathy. When pay differentials are less and no-one’s income is out-of-this world, people realize that they have far more in common with others. They then argue for cycle routes, pavements, good public transport, and to be able to afford to live near where they work. The equality effect influences almost everything we do and so much about us.

equality, inequality, pollution
The equality effect: emission of pollution by income group in selected rich nations, 20152


Lake Suwa

In 1443 Shinto priests who lived on the edge of Lake Suwa in Japan began recording the date when the lake froze over in winter and when the temperature changes created a ridge of ice across the surface. They believed that the ridge was formed by the feet of the gods as they walked over the lake and so they carried on recording the date the ridge was formed each year after that, to the present day.

Want to know more? Get The Equality Effect book by Danny Dorling. 

In the first 250 years of the priests’ recordings the lake only failed to freeze over three times. Between 1955 and 2004 it failed to freeze over 12 times. Between 2005 and 2014 it failed to freeze over five times, every other year. Since 2014 it has not frozen over. There are many different records of global warming, but the Lake Suwa records are the longest and most striking.

It has only been since the late 1970s that the 25 rich countries that have been the focus of this article have begun to diverge widely to arrive now at very different levels of economic inequality. Because they have done so, a set of natural experiments has been set up which today allows research into the effects of these differences.

The preliminary conclusion based on these natural experiments is that the more economically equitable countries tend to perform better across a wide range of environmental measures. Once we know what the driving forces are, and become fully aware of the damage that is done by inequality in environmental as well as social terms, we will know how necessary it is to embrace change.

The Equality Effect

For the three decades prior to 2008, some countries, including the US and the UK, chose a path that led to greater inequality, often on the assumption that there was no viable alternative. Yet, even under intensifying globalization, many other nation-states have continued to take a different road and have chosen ever-greater equality. Today, it is through the examples of how life differs between more and less economically equitable countries that we are able to measure the equality effect.

The equality effect can appear magical. In more equal countries, human beings are generally happier and healthier; there is less crime, more creativity, more productivity, and – overall – higher real educational attainment. The evidence for the benefits of living more economically equitable lives is now so overwhelming that it will soon start to change politics and societies all over the world.

This may be hard to credit with a puerile reality-show host in the White House and rightwing populism on the march in Europe. But the time will come when this positive equality effect will be as readily accepted as the benefits of women voting or of former colonies gaining independence, which were seen as outlandish ideas only a century ago – and that time may come very soon. Greater equality is no longer just ‘a dangerous idea’; we now have evidence of what happens when some countries choose to become more economically equitable and others don’t.

But we also have short memories. We forget that not long ago people argued vehemently against women being allowed to vote or whole countries having their freedom. So we often fail to ask what we are doing today that will be regarded with horror in the future.

The basic thrust of this magazine theme – and the book from which it is drawn, which tells the story more fully – is that human beings are found to be happier and healthier the more economically equal we are. Greater equality is not sufficient for widespread happiness, but it is necessary. This is borne out by looking at statistics from all over the world – as well as by surveying long stretches of human history with the benefit of hindsight.

Greater economic equality does not mean all people doing very similar work, or living in very similar types of families, or similar homes. It does not mean all schools being the same or all people being paid exactly the same. It means moving towards all people being respected and fairly rewarded for the work they do, the contributions they make and the needs they have. It means respecting reciprocity. Money is relative. If some people are over-rewarded, others are effectively fined.

Equality means being afforded the same rights, dignity and freedoms as other people. These include the right to access resources, the dignity of being seen as able, and the freedom to choose what to make of your life on an equal footing with others. Believing that we all deserve such parity is very far from suggesting that we would all behave in the same way if we had more equal opportunities.

Although leftwing and green politicians tend to advocate greater equality more vocally, and rightwing and fascist ones tend to oppose it, equality is actually not the preserve of any political label. Great inequality has been sustained or increased under systems labelled as socialist and communist. Some free-market systems have seen equalities grow and the playing field become more level. Anarchistic systems can be either highly equitable or inequitable. Many such social systems existed in the past before the rule of law and the concept of property became widespread, and they were not all greatly equitable or inequitable.

Setting out to become more unequal

At the beginning of the 20th century most affluent countries were similarly unequal, and then became similarly equal by the middle decades of that century, so it was very difficult to ascertain what specific effects could be associated with different degrees of inequality and equality. However, since the 1970s the affluent countries of the world have diverged. Because of that divergence we are now able to quantify what the effects of varying levels of economic equality appear to be.

It was 44 years ago, in 1973, that inequalities in the US reached an all-time low – at this point, the richest one per cent of people earned only 7.7 times the average US wage – a remarkably high level of economic equality. The table above shows the earliest and latest records on inequality in 12 major countries as well as highest and lowest points achieved since those records started being collected.

These figures really do matter because they show not just how much inequality has varied across time but also that it varies greatly between affluent countries at any one point in time. When people tell you that high inequality is inevitable, you need a table like this as evidence that they are wrong.

It is true that within recent living memory almost everywhere was more equal than it is today. If you live in the US, it will be hard to imagine a world in which the boss earns just 7.7 times more than the average worker – yet this was the case as recently as 1973. People in the Netherlands or Finland, by contrast, would be appalled if inequality in their countries rose up to those levels. They are already horrified that they have risen up from their own minimums of, respectively, five, three-and-a-half and four times the average worker’s wage. However, the most recent data for the US, UK and Germany show the average pay of the top one per cent being respectively 18, 13 and 12 times average earnings.

Income Share

Britain was even more equitable than the US in the 1970s and peak equality lasted a little longer. I grew up in that era of much greater equality in the UK. I was 10 years old in 1978 when the rich were least rich, when the best-off one per cent earned only 5.7 times the average income. By 2007, that figure had risen to 15.4 times. Almost every year since I was aged 10 I have watched the very rich get even richer and, immediately below them, the affluent take more and more of what was left. This has left less and less for most people, especially for the poorest, whose numbers have grown. The somewhat heartless statistics in the table above tell a story both of the relentless growth of inequality in some rich countries, and of other countries choosing to keep levels of income inequality comparatively low.

If you have lived through the last four decades in the US, Canada or the UK, then simply by observing what has happened around you it looked (until very recently) as if the best-off would always take more and more. You might have concluded that, if you didn’t join them, or at least begin to behave like them, your life and those of your children would suffer.

But look again at the table above and you’ll see that the same trend of ever-rising inequality hardly applied at all in the Netherlands, Sweden or France over this same time period. There is greed and corruption everywhere – but it is better controlled in some countries than in others.

Greed of the rich worldwide

At the start of the last century, almost everywhere in the world, the richest one per cent received between 10 and 30 per cent of all the personal income. Who those richest people were changed in China from feudal lords to communist officials (and their friends), and in India from the Raj to local entrepreneurs (and the most corrupt politicians), but there is always a top one per cent.

For 60 years of the 20th century, inequalities fell rapidly almost everywhere. The income share of the top one per cent in society is just one measure of inequality, but it is a good measure; using it ensures you focus on the rich, their take and their behaviour. Even a cursory study of inequality reveals that the greed of the rich is the real problem, not some laziness among the poor. In practice, the ‘one-per-cent-take’ statistic correlates closely with other measures of inequality, but it may be one of the best to focus on because the very richest have such a disproportionate effect. People compare their own situations with those just above them and with the richest more than with those just below. Scholars who study inequality are coming to believe it is vital to concentrate on the rich as the major problem, rather than to continue the historical tradition of focusing so much on the poor.1

By 1980, almost nowhere did this elite receive as much as 10 per cent! By the end of the first decade of this century, inequalities had risen again, but we also had a wider variety of outcomes between countries in terms of equality and inequality than has ever previously been recorded. Worldwide, we collectively appear to be making new choices and winning at least some of the battles.

It is important to remember that the majority of the rich countries of the world still enjoy levels of equality similar to those experienced by Canada, the US and the UK when they were at or near their most equal. It is far easier to treat others as equals in times and places of greater widespread equality. Then you do not have to behave like a saint in order not to fiddle your expenses. It is easier to behave well when you are all more equal. And we have known this for many centuries. It led to one of the most famous declarations of all time about the right to be treated as an equal and to be healthy, free and happy as a result:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

US Declaration of Independence, 1776

Today, on its website, the officials of the US House of Representatives celebrate key gains in greater equality, writing:

‘The House’s first African-American member was elected in 1870. The first Hispanic member took office in 1877, the first woman member in 1917, the first Asian-American member in 1957, and the first African-American woman member in 1969. In 2007, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California was elected as the first woman Speaker of the House.’2

Nowhere are losses of equality listed as achievements. In future the 2008 election of Barack Obama will be added to that list. Donald Trump’s electoral victory is unlikely to be immortalized in the same way. Progress is never linear; but those who are not progressive are forgotten more quickly unless they become the worst of tyrants.

Greater equality is often won only after great insult has been recognized. Future egalitarians may look back on us today and ask why we did not consider children’s rights more fully than we do today. They may wonder why we did not value more highly the rights of those at the end of life, of prisoners of war, of criminals, of people considered deranged or simple, of animals, of diversity in nature, of future generations and their rights to a habitable planet, and of others whom we are unable yet to recognize as a disregarded group. If we act now, then future generations may look back at us and say we were living in the years when the trend changed and we helped to change it. Many things become clearer with hindsight but, given what we know about the benefits of greater equality today, it is already clear what we should be striving for now.

Poverty wages in the world’s biggest economy. Cooks, cashiers and other minimum-wage earners join anti-Trump activists on a march for an increase in the minimum wage during a ‘March on McDonald’s’ in Chicago, Illinois in May 2017. © Frank Polich / Reuters

Where wealth and poverty are locked in

For those of us unfortunate enough to live in inequitable countries, but fortunate enough to live in the rich world, we have to look back to before the 1980s to realize the great equalities that were lost and many of the ways in which life has changed. We have to work hard to remember what it was like to live in the US when Americans were more equal. When they were more equal, more people found it easier to stay married to someone they loved, to find a job they liked and to stay longer at school than their parents. It was similar in Britain, but Britain is now almost as unequal as the US and, during 2011-15, its population underwent public-sector cuts worth tens of billions that were mostly to the detriment of those with less. Many of these planned cuts have yet to be fully implemented and more cuts are to come.

Then, in 2016, a slim majority in the UK voted to leave the European Union and in the US a minority voted in President Trump. Both events have been widely reported as being linked to the very high rates of economic inequality. And high economic inequality manifests itself in high inequality between men and women, by race and by class3 – and in myriad other levels of oppression all made manifest by some having much less than others. As Vito Laterza put it:

‘If we simplistically frame Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote as a revolt of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised white working classes – based on a partial and biased reading of the actual data – there is a real risk that the solutions we come up with will contribute to reinforce various forms of white nationalisms and xenophobic alliances, rather than providing a clear and uncompromising alternative to them. The attention has to shift to the whole system, with its myriads of levels of discrimination and oppression.’4

The Equality Effect

Within the US today, wealth inequalities have recently risen rapidly as measured between households designated white and those labelled black or Hispanic. This increase in inequality in wealth began before the economic crash of 2008, but was greatly exacerbated by it. The upper of the two charts below shows that, by 2009, the average white family had recourse to 19 times more wealth than the average black family.

When all the wealth of black households in the US is averaged out, by 2009 there was just $5,677 to share out among every household. Just four years earlier that figure had been $12,124. The housing-market crash hurt black families especially hard. However, Hispanics were similarly affected, with their average wealth falling from $18,359 per household in 2005 to just $6,325 by 2009. These are huge drops, over very short time periods, for millions of people already with relatively low levels of average wealth.

In contrast, the average US white family saw its mean household wealth fall from $134,992 in 2005 to $113,149 by 2009. Most white families are not that wealthy – the mean average is inflated by a very rich minority – but the median white family was still much richer than the median black or Hispanic family.6 Having low wealth in the country that perceives itself as the richest on earth is particularly demeaning.

The ‘American Dream’ is based on the notion of social mobility, that anyone poor can become rich. Yet social mobility is very low in all the world’s most unequal rich countries. There, the income of your parents really matters in determining your likely income in future. The reasons are not hard to understand. Affluent parents are likely to give their children a leg-up, to pay for them to attend selective better-funded schools or to live in areas where the teachers are less stressed because they have to teach fewer children experiencing extreme poverty. These economically unequal societies are also far more socially segregated.

By contrast, social mobility is high in more economically equitable countries because in those countries children have access to more similar resources. They will tend to go to similar schools, receive similar educational opportunities, and also be able to access a wide range of career options – few of which will lead to either very highly paid or very lowly paid jobs. More economically equitable countries are also less socially segregated. Parents worry less about whom their children mix with and what career path they take, because a person’s income bracket is of much lower importance. The rich are less rich and the poor are less poor. All are therefore freer to follow their heart’s desire.

Cartoon by Ella Furness

Equality: The tide has begun to turn

Today even rightwing politicians sometimes talk of wanting to increase economic equality. They often express their concern for those ‘left behind’ economically, but it is hard to see any evidence that they are interested in much more than the votes of such people. However, the fact that they have changed how they talk demonstrates a more widespread change in our common understanding. Their immediate predecessors talked of ‘rewarding talent’, ‘a rising tide lifting all boats’, ‘allowing the tall poppies to bloom’ to the supposed (but not actual) benefit of all. Now even the perpetrators of growing inequality claim they are against it, but they do not admit to their own complicity in creating, maintaining and even increasing it.

The tide may be turning again towards greater economic equality, but the case for it needs to be made clearer – otherwise rightwingers will again subvert the argument. They will claim they are against inequality while quietly promoting a rebranded version of it.

The case for greater equality is not just the reverse of the case against income and wealth inequality. Gaining greater equality has a set of particular positive effects on a society; we can call this ‘the equality effect’. Greater economic equality makes us all less stupid, less fearful and more satisfied with life. It may bring even greater benefits than that. We are not sure because we have tolerated immense inequality for so long that we can’t be sure of all that is possible when we eventually do treat each other with economic respect.

The evidence of this positive equality effect is now overwhelming. But the message has not yet got through to most politicians and to the wider electorates to which they respond. Getting that message across is a job for all of us.

  1. See, eg, Susan George, Whose crisis, whose future? Polity, 2010.
  2. On the House of Representatives website, see: house.gov/content/learn/history
  3. K Geier, The Nation, 11 Nov 2016, bit.ly/2kx5mVY
  4. Vito Laterza’s Blog, 10 Nov 2016, nin.tl/Trumpmyth
  5. For 2009: Pew Research Center tabulations of income survey and program participation data from the 2008 panel; for 1984-2004: various US Census Bureau reports including Curren Population Reports.
  6. R Kochhar, R Fry and P Taylor, Pew Centre Research, 26 July 2011, nin.tl/oDlVYp

The ‘religious truth’ of inequality

Professor Danny Dorling explains why it is important to think about equality.

At a recent panel event to launch the latest titles in the New Internationalist NoNonsense book series, Professor Danny Dorling stripped away the myths surrounding inequality while providing an introduction to his own book, the No-Nonsense Guide to Equality.

Danny is a British social geographer and the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is the author of many books, including the No-Nonsense Guide to Equality.

This video was produced by Hedgerley Wood.

About the No-Nonsense Guide to Equality: the book discusses the positive effects that equality can have, using examples and case studies from across the globe, including many from Britain. The book examines the lessons of history and covers race, gender and ethnicity, age and wealth. Danny considers, realistically, just how equal it is possible to be, the challenges we face, and the factors that will lead to greater equality for all.

Other speakers on the book launch panel included:

The discussion was introduced and led by Chris Brazier, co-editor at New Internationalist.

About the NoNonsense Series: The all-new NoNonsense books cut through the noise and hype surrounding today’s big issues. Concise, comprehensive and critical, they get to the heart of the matter. You can buy the NoNonsense books from our website.

Rising cornflakes – or Boris Johnson’s faux pas

London Mayor Boris Johnson

Financial Times under a Creative Commons Licence

Boris Johnson needs attention. He doesn’t just like it, he needs it. When he described 16 per cent of the human ‘species’ as being the equivalent of severely intellectually sub-normal (having an IQ below 85) he knew exactly what he was doing. He was getting attention. But he also got himself in trouble. Here is part of what he said

‘Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.’

Boris was giving the annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture at the Conservative Centre for Policy Studies, but he wasn’t really talking to those sitting in front of him. He was playing to the press gallery. Boris was talking to us through how he knew his words would be reported by newspapers, on the radio and even on TV. And through talking to us, he was telling his colleagues who were not sitting in front of him, those at the top of the coalition government, that he had grown tired of pussy-footing around. He was going to give it to us straight.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was the first to slap Boris down before being joined by a small army of the liberal commentariat. In the pages of The Guardian, Nick described Boris as being ‘carelessly élitist’. The implication being that it was more of a problem that Boris was careless than that he was being élitist. The élite often talk of being shamelessly élitist, of wanting the best person for the job, collecting together the brightest minds. As long as meritocracy also gets a mention, such talk is rarely criticized.

Boris’s crime was failing to mention the sub-clause about it being apparently OK if a few were grossly over-rewarded as long as everyone had an equal chance to get to the top. When Boris talked about how we should worry less about greed at the top and the envy of such greed, he went on to say that those at the top were there because god or genes had put them there. He wasn’t so much ‘careless’ as loudly confident that the time had come when it was safe to say what he thought. Boris put it bluntly:

‘And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.’

Government in Britain is quietly élitist and publicly populist. Nick Clegg is a careful, quietly confident, élitist. He advocates higher rates of social mobility so that what he imagines are a few really able children missing out at the bottom of the heap can rise to the top, but he advocates without using the damming language of Boris. We do not know what Nick Clegg’s thoughts are about whether a large number of children are so inherently stupid they are destined to fail. Clegg has never made his opinion on variations in innate ability clear.

Boris has done the populace a favour. He has described the view of the world that is held by a comparatively small group at the top. A few years ago I wrote a book, Injustice, which mostly documented examples that (when collected together) suggested a majority of those at the top believe that just a few are capable of leading us all. It is a view that makes sense of their lives.

When Boris called in his speech for more help to be offered to the two per cent of the population with an IQ above 130, he was partly explaining to his audience why he thought it was good that so much more had been spent on his education as compared to the monies that are spent on resourcing the teaching of most children in Britain. Boris is, famously, an Eton boy.

Nick Clegg is a Westminster public school boy. Nick may secretly think that there was not much difference between him and the next child born in Britain around the minute of his birth. He may believe that like most people he is pretty average, but that advantages of wealth, schooling and a little luck propelled him forward faster than most. Or he may think that he has done well, got to the top of his party, partly because he was a little special from the start. We don’t know. He wisely does not say.

It is not hard to say that the circumstances which alter the likelihood of who may be in a top job are affected by many factors. What is hard to say, what is not currently seen as wise, is to suggest that one of those factors is that you were somehow born more of a chosen one than others, with an eventual potential for greatness just waiting to be nurtured and unleashed.

If it were not the case that just a few children were inherently so much more able than the rest, it would be very hard to justify the continued existence of very expensive private and even more expensive public schools. If more people, especially those who think their IQ is high, understood that IQ is defined so that 16 per cent will always score under 85, there would be less fear of comprehensive schooling. Having a high IQ is about scoring well in a series of weird, largely context-free tests of visual logic. It is not about understanding.

The core beliefs of much of the establishment would be a lie if children did not come with a fixed dial inside their brain which, with enough early investment, can be turned up to a particular maxima but no higher. Maximal intellectual ability or ‘potential’ is – according to those who ‘assure’ Boris – both inherent and inherited. Scoring well on an IQ test does not mean that you can understand context or subtext well; it is a one-dimensional trait.

The core beliefs of the establishment are a lie, then. The core beliefs of every establishment in history have always rested on one lie of superiority or another. From the very first priests of the world’s most ancient dominating religions, through to every monarch who believes they are ordained to rule, right through to those who have substituted the word genes for god and believe it is their superior little chromosomes that mean others should take orders from them, it is always a lie.

So what’s the problem with the truth?

The problem with any belief that we are pretty much all equal, that there are no special little Nicks and Borises just waiting to be discovered, is that once you begin to accept the thesis that we are all created pretty much equal you have to then start to question almost everything about the society you live in. You are also denied an obvious route to revolution, by saying: ‘follow me everyone, I know the way.’ Your potential followers would simply retort: ‘what’s so special about you?’

The establishment usually does not question what they see as their inherent superiority. If they do they are said to be having a dog-day, to be out of sorts. When they are functioning normally they do not worry about what Boris called ‘shaking the cornflake packet’. Trying to get the few children they assume might be very able, but are stuck at the bottom of the box, up to join their little club at the top. Boris’s mistake was a failure to be careful over how he described this.

If the debate between Nick and Boris does turn into a ‘do we tell the kids Santa doesn’t exist and most of them are going to be losers’ argument, it could get more interesting. In a way Boris is right – if we don’t temper/change/terminate capitalism then only the two per cent will be OK, and half of them will feel poor, while the bottom 16 per cent really will suffer badly and not much can be done for them. What Boris sees as the future is the future if his beliefs prevail.

In some ways the future that Boris wishes for is largely already here. As David Graeber puts it:

‘What does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if one per cent of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.)’

This debate has very little to do with IQ, which is a hang-up from the 11 plus, eugenics and the Nazis. It is about the right-wing seeing no alternative to the status quo. Some on the right can now again see an end of history. They think that the future is so set in stone that it is safe to say so. The élite think that the worst that can happen if they tell the electorate that their leaders think they are stupid is increasing abstentions, which only reinforces their position.

It might be that neither Boris nor Nick are smart enough to imagine all that really is possible and all that might soon occur – because none of us are that smart. Contrast what Boris writes, and how Nick chides him, with what Neal Lawson had to say in the same week about those at the top and those at the bottom:

‘So these new times demand leaders without egos and movements without silos on a journey in which our behaviour is key. Through our behaviour we both prefigure a good society and build support for it; because how we treat people is what they become. So the practice must be one of tolerance, empathy, compassion and, yes, love.’

There is more than just one story, one argument, and only two sides out there. Some stories are nasty, others are nicer. Some are spats between Conservatives and Liberals, others are utopian dreams that step above the spats, and yet others the wisdom of anarchists who remind us just how hard it is to change the élite from below without simply reproducing them again. We need to hear them all.

Danny Dorling is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Equality.


This article was originally published by STRIKE!. Cross-posted with permission.

Video: Even the 1% would benefit from equality

 Wealth and income inequalities in the UK are the highest they have been since 1918. 90% of people are getting poorer, while the top 10% are richer than ever. Yet even the wealthiest CEOs are unhappy. Danny Dorling talks about inequality at Occupy London and explains why a more equal society would benefit all.

How do the other four-fifths live?

Neighbours but strangers: rich and poor usually know little of each other’s lives.

IRRI Images / under CC Licence

In most of the world today people tend to be segregated, mostly along economic lines. This division can block us from meeting and talking with people as equals and can be a barrier to social harmony.

Residential segregation takes place where the well-off buy themselves out of poorer neighbourhoods and rarely visit these places. The poorest often do not even feature in the mental maps which many of the rich hold of their home city. People in the poor parts of a city rarely spend time in wealthier areas and vice-versa.

In our research, we find it useful to divide societies into fifths to talk about inequality. We ask people to imagine that the population of their country is divided into five groups – the poorest 20 per cent, a modest 20 per cent, a middle 20 per cent, an affluent 20 per cent and the richest 20 per cent.

In Kenya, Mexico, Zanzibar, New Zealand/Aotearoa, Britain, the US and Japan we then asked six questions to gauge how much variation there is in how much we understand of each other. When we pose these questions we hold up our right hands and point to each of our fingers (and thumb for the rich) to ask for the answer for each group.

1 At what age do you think most people now leave full time education?

2 How many vacations do you think people take a year? (A vacation means a holiday staying away from home for at least one night, not in family or friends’ homes.)

3 What do you think the typical household income is per year? (Income before tax and including benefits.)

4 What is the usual number of cars and vans that most households have or have access to?

5 What age, on average, do you think people live to in each group?

6 Which group are you in?

We found that rich and poor usually know little of each other’s lives. The affluent know more about their rich neighbours than they do about the poor. Those on modest incomes know more about the poor than they do about the affluent. A majority placed themselves smack in the middle. Generally people perceive themselves to be average. The reality is that most of us tend to know people who are a bit richer and a bit poorer. Most of us don’t know many people who are very different from us. Thus, from each of our own differing vantage points in society, it often seems to us that we are average.

It is surprising to find how much we don’t know about our own countries when we try to answer the six questions above.

In some countries affluent people do not have to study for as long as poorer people to gain employment, so they don’t. In others, like Japan, you’re more likely to own a car (the subject of our fourth question) if you live in the country rather than the city. So car ownership has little to do with economics.

The most significant gulfs are found when we look at what the ‘correct’ answers should be to the fifth question on life expectancy. People were widely off the mark when asked about the average lifespan of each group.

Try answering the six questions yourself. Try asking others what they think. Try finding out what the answers really are where you live. And please let us know what you discover.

Danny Dorling and Anna Barford
Department of Geography
University of Sheffield
S10 2TN, UK
[email protected]

Mean machine

Worlds apart: the plight of India’s poor is worsened by the caste system and income inequality.

Mark Henley / PANOS

Don’t be so hard on rich people who appear stupid! All of us are made less able, less imaginative and less mentally effective in more unequal, affluent societies. And it is only in very unequal affluent societies that the rich can be very rich. George W Bush attended both Yale and Harvard Universities. Former and current Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron and a small army of previous prime ministers (and even more wanna-be-prime-ministers) studied in just a few élite Oxford colleges.

All these men were made what they became largely by their circumstances, by growing up with structural inequalities so great that they could not easily understand the lives, motivations and unlimited potential of others because their own lives were so different, literally cloistered from late teenage years onwards.

George Irvin, in his 2008 book Super Rich: The rise of inequality in Britain and the United States, suggests: ‘Perhaps the most serious problem created by growing inequality is that it facilitates the reproduction of the politics and ideology of inequality.’ Jane Kelsey, in her 1997 study The New Zealand Experiment, showed how an entire nation could be made to think more callously through the introduction of greater inequality.

The level, content and clarity of public debate in more unequal, affluent nations fall far below that which most citizens of OECD countries enjoy. The outpouring of anger in the US over President Obama’s watered down ‘socialized medicine’ proposals are testament to that. Almost anyone who lives outside of the US understands this and yet in that country ‘Tea Party politics’ passes for rational debate. Ask Canadians about why they would not live in the US – but make sure you have plenty of time to listen.

Evidence is slowly amassing that the sense of impotence felt by US citizens is not a result of their apparent privileges or freedoms, but of the huge inequalities they live with

In more unequal European countries, such as Britain and Portugal, claims are made about people that would simply not be countenanced elsewhere in Europe. Elsewhere most people are far more trusting of their neighbours and do not so often look down on others as feckless and worthless. Nor do they consider that a few are worth their multi-million euro/dollar/pound salaries because they are somehow wonderfully gifted and need to be encouraged to get out of bed by such vast sums – because no-one else could substitute.

Living in a country where huge income and wealth inequalities are accepted as normal dulls everyone’s capacities, from top to bottom. Well-known social critic Noam Chomsky was once asked how he responded at talks given to American audiences when he was asked, ‘What should I do?’ He replied he was only asked this by American audiences: ‘I’m never asked this in the Third World… they don’t ask you, “What should I do?” They tell you what they’re doing… enormous privilege and freedom carries with it a sense of impotence, which is a strange but striking phenomenon…’

Evidence is slowly amassing that the sense of impotence felt by US citizens is not a result of their apparent privileges or freedoms, but of the huge inequalities they live with. Equally affluent but far more equitable Norway, with a population at least 66 times smaller than the US, shows what a people can do when not so encumbered by inequality. Norwegians each generate 5.55 times more international development assistance than US citizens and they spend it far more effectively.

In Japan I can have conversations with young people from the poorest fifth of society about income distribution and inequality that would simply not be possible in England. In England I would have to try not to use the word ‘distribution’ and I would have to cope in my conversation with the near certainty that the people I was talking to would have no accurate idea what average wages were or what the best-off fifth of households received in income a year, or what their wealth was.

Sadly it is because the poorest young people in unequal rich countries are so badly schooled that the richest don’t even realize that their education was not great. They assume that they, the richest fifth, have received a ‘good’ education and often say they are ‘privileged’. The richest 20 per cent in Britain and the US also have almost no idea of how unequal income and wealth distribution have become, but they are often taught to bluff an understanding of the word ‘distribution’, or the mathematics of fractions.

So how does a nation made stupid by rising inequality get out of its hole? People have to think their way out. They did this before, when inequalities fell in the US and United Kingdom, consistently from 1918 to 1978. They can do this again with the help of lessons from abroad. And they can do it by waking up one day and thinking: ‘I’m never going to be rich, but there is no need for me to be ignorant. I can start to teach myself about what’s going on.’

*Danny Dorling* is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. His latest book is Injustice: why social inequality persists.

Tops in inequality

Of all the 25 richest countries in the world (excluding very small states), Singapore, the US, Portugal, the UK and Israel are the top five most unequal when the annual income of the best-off 10% of the population is compared with the poorest 10%.

For example, the top 10% in the US makes 15.9 times more than the bottom 10%.

Multiple by which the income of the top 10% in the world’s richest countries is greater than the income of the bottom 10%:

12.5New Zealand/Aotearoa
7.8North Korea