Aug 022012

The Spirit Level argues that the income inequality in a society, country or state screws everyone over. A lot. Income inequality is how many times richer the top 20% are from the bottom 20%, not absolute levels of poverty. And there’s abundant data showing that income inequality makes anything you care about worse, such as: social trust. Or Levels of mental illness especially depressoin and anxiety disorders. How about worse educational performance? Lemme throw drug addiction levels in there too. In fact, it’s a wonder anything isn’t affected by it.

People in countries with more inequality die younger than in other countries. One reason why the Japanese (very low inequality) have such a long life expectancy compared to say the new generation of Americans (highest income inequality in the world) who’s life expectancy is actually lower than their parents. And it’s not just the poor that suffer–these issues affect the rich as well and the entire society, meaning the rich die younger than the rich in more equal countries.

Short talk by my hero:

I decided to apply my new found knowledge of stats to look at the data. It may be incorrect, but here goes: I calculated the r-squared values, which tell you the percentage of variation that is accounted for by income inequality. That sounds wordy but you don’t need to know what that means.

Say you’re trying to figure out why a particular fake person is obese while another fake person isn’t. The percentage below for obesity is 32%. Imagine that they each represent the average obesity level for their countries and one person’s from Japan and other from the US. About 1/3rd of the reason the US person is fatter is cause of high inequality in that country.

Since percentages need to add up to 100%, what about the rest of the variation? Well, that could be due to diet difference, exercize differences, genetics or just lots of random chance/noise. Science!

Here’s another kicker: usually the things that are made worse in a country because of high income inequality have a social gradient. Basically, as you go down income levels in society, you’ll find people getting fatter, less trustworthy, more likely to be in prison, to smoke and they’ll die younger.

As always correlation does not equal causation. However, this evidence is incredibly strong and income inequality is the most likely predictor of all this very varied data. It’s way less likely that there’s a 3rd factor that affects income inequality and everything else on this list. Either way, this is the best information we as a society have and it’s enough to make some decisions around to reduce income inequality and well…stop killing people through our inaction.

Indicator International data
% explained  Proportion explained
Trust 43.56%  Almost 1/2 (half)
Life   expectancy 19.36%  Around a fifth
Infant   mortality 17.64%  Almost a fifth
Obesity 32.49%  A third
Mental   illness 53.29%  Over half
Education   score 20.25%  A fifth
Teenage   birth rate 53.29%  Over half
Homicides 22.09%  Over a fifth
Imprisonment 56.25%  Over half
Social   mobility 86.49%  Almost entirely – rest is likely random chance
Index of   Health & Social Problems – Total of above 75.69%  Ridiculously high
Overweight   children 34.81%  A third – is A major reason American kids are fat
Drugs   index 39.69%  Over a third
Calorie   intake 21.16%  About a fifth
Public   expenditure on health care 47.61%  Almost a half
Child   well-being 39.69%  Over a third
Triple   education score 19.36%  A fifth
Child   conflict 38.44%
Spending   on foreign aid 37.21%
Recycling 67.24%
Peace   index – is nation war like? 20.25%  A fifth
Paid   maternity leave 30.25%
Advertising 36.00%
Police 27.04%
Social   expenditure 20.25%
Women’s   status 25.00%

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