Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Disturbed minds and disturbing facts

Wow. 25% of Americans have mental health problems. 5-10% of Japanese do. Living in an equal society is good for your mental health, while advanced capitalist societies will make you mentally ill. I knew this, vaguely knowing a little about 1970s psychiatry - the mavericks questioned why they should patch people up to cope in such a messed-up society, rather than pushing to develop a culture and economy which doesn't literally drive people mad.

Unequal countries lock far more people up: the USA locks up 0.5% of its population, which is huge, and the UK isn't far back. It isn't more crime, it's harsher punishment: 3 Californians were imprisoned for shoplifting. We also have nastier prisons: nice Scandinavians try to help criminals - Americans, British and Singaporeans brutalise their prisoners, leading to even worse outcomes. We fear each other more and empathise less (or in prime minister John Major's words, 'it's time to condemn a little more and understand a little less', which is one of the dumbest and most cynical things I've heard for decades.

We're on to inherited wealth. A witty aside uses David Cameron et al. to point out that your father's income predicts a son's wealth far better in unequal societies than equal ones: rich people hold on to their cash and make sure their kids get all the advantages. Cameron's father made millions in finance. David inherited millions, went to Eton (£40,000 per year) and got into an élite university, the classic springboard to further wealth and power. If your dad is a milkman, you won't start with an élite education, a big bank account, a deposit for a house, and the social networks which come with wealth. Unless you're in Scandinavia, where they've managed to arrange a society in which humble backgrounds don't automatically lead to a humble life. In Sweden, infant mortality is better for every class than England and Wales - and the percentage hardly wavers across social classes, whereas far more poor infants die than rich ones in England and Wales. Why? Better-educated parents spotting problems? Better-fed mothers and children? Pushier parents? Probably all of these reasons and more.

It's about time we just asked the Norwegians to invade.

Lots of good questions: whether it's possible to persuade ideologically-opposed people, and what the practical steps to a more equal society might be. Unsurprisingly, cracking down on tax avoidance and bonus culture, and asking the rich to pay more tax are top of the list. Also having more workers on boards of directors (as that notoriously poor country, Germany, does). More democracy, more mutuals, more co-operatives, better working and living conditions with less social segregation. Fewer line managers (Oh yes, that strikes a chord…)! Lots of attacks on the government's claims to 'fairness' while public services are being cut.

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