Sapolsky: The Negatives of Income Inequality

Sapolsky: The Negatives of Income Inequality April 4, 2019

Returning to Robert Sapolsky Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst [UK], I thought this following excerpt plays nicely into the piece I posted on countries with the highest wellbeing and peace. It’s a good fit [Chapter 9]:


A nother meaningful way to think about cross-cultural variation concerns how unequally resources (e.g., land, food, material goods, power, or prestige) are distributed.— Hunter-gatherer societies have typically been egalitarian, as we’ll soon see, throughout hominin history. Inequality emerged when “stuff”—things to possess and accumulate—was invented following animal domestication and the development of agriculture. The more stuff, reflecting surplus, job specialization, and technological sophistication, the greater the potential inequality. Moreover, inequality expands enormously when cultures invent inheritance within families. Once invented, inequality became pervasive. Among traditional pastoralist or small-scale agricultural societies, levels of wealth inequality match or exceed those in the most unequal industrialized societies.

Why have stratified cultures dominated the planet, generally replacing more egalitarian ones? For population biologist Peter Turchin, the answer is that stratified cultures are ideally suited to being conquerors—they come with chains of command.— Both empirical and theoretical work suggests that in addition, in unstable environments stratified societies are “better able to survive resource shortages [than egalitarian cultures] by sequestering mortality in the lower classes.” In other words, when times are tough, the unequal access to wealth becomes the unequal distribution of misery and death. Notably, though, stratification is not the only solution to such instability—this is where hunter-gatherers benefit from being able to pick up and move.

A score of millennia after the invention of inequality, Westernized societies at the extremes of the inequality continuum differ strikingly.

One difference concerns “social capital.” Economic capital is the collective quantity of goods, services, and financial resources. Social capital is the collective quantity of resources such as trust, reciprocity, and cooperation. You learn a ton about a community’s social capital with two simple questions. First: “Can people usually be trusted?” A community in which most people answer yes is one with fewer locks, with people watching out for one another’s kids and

intervening in situations where one could easily look away. The second question is how many organizations someone participates in—from the purely recreational (e.g., a bowling league) to the vital (e.g., unions, tenant groups, co¬ op banks). A community with high levels of such participation is one where people feel efficacious, where institutions work transparently enough that people believe they can effect change. People who feel helpless don’t join organizations.

Put simply, cultures with more income inequality have less social capital.— Trust requires reciprocity, and reciprocity requires equality, whereas hierarchy is about domination and asymmetry. Moreover, a culture highly unequal in material resources is almost always also unequal in the ability to pull the strings of power, to have efficacy, to be visible. (For example, as income inequality grows, the percentage of people who bother voting generally declines.) Almost by definition, you can’t have a society with both dramatic income inequality and plentiful social capital. Or translated from social science-ese, marked inequality makes people crummier to one another.

This can be shown in various ways, studied on the levels of Westernized countries, states, provinces, cities, and towns. The more income inequality, the less likely people are to help someone (in an experimental setting) and the less generous and cooperative they are in economic games. Early in the chapter, I discussed cross-cultural rates of bullying and of “antisocial punishment,” where people in economic games punish overly generous players more than they punish cheaters.* Studies of these phenomena show that high levels of inequality and/or low levels of social capital in a country predict high rates of bullying and of antisocial punishment.—

Chapter 11 examines the psychology with which we think about people of different socioeconomic status; no surprise, in unequal societies, people on top generate justifications for their status.— And the more inequality, the more the powerful adhere to myths about the hidden blessings of subordination—“They may be poor, but at least they’re happy/honest/loved.” In the words of the authors of one paper, “Unequal societies may need ambivalence for system stability: Income inequality compensates groups with partially positive social images.”

Thus unequal cultures make people less kind. Inequality also makes people less healthy. This helps explain a hugely important phenomenon in public health, namely the “socioeconomic status (SES)/health gradient”—as noted, in culture

after culture, the poorer you are, the worse your health, the higher the incidence and impact of numerous diseases, and the shorter your life expectancy.—

Extensive research has examined the SES/health gradient. Four quick rule- outs: (a) The gradient isn’t due to poor health driving down people’s SES. Instead low SES, beginning in childhood, predicts subsequent poor health in adulthood, (b) It’s not that the poor have lousy health and everyone else is equally healthy. Instead, for every step down the SES ladder, starting from the top, average health worsens, (c) The gradient isn’t due to less health-care access for the poor; it occurs in countries with universal health care, is unrelated to utilization of health-care systems, and occurs for diseases unrelated to health¬ care access (e.g., juvenile diabetes, where having five checkups a day wouldn’t change its incidence), (d) Only about a third of the gradient is explained by lower SES equaling more health risk factors (e.g., lead in your water, nearby toxic waste dump, more smoking and drinking) and fewer protective factors (e.g., everything from better mattresses for overworked backs to health club memberships).

What then is the principal cause of the gradient? Key work by Nancy Adler at UCSF showed that it’s not so much being poor that predicts poor health. It’s feeling poor—someone’s subjective SES (e.g., the answer to “How do you feel you’re doing financially when you compare yourself with other people?”) is at least as good a predictor of health as is objective SES.

Crucial work by the social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson of the University of Nottingham added to this picture: it’s not so much that poverty predicts poor health; it’s poverty amid plenty—income inequality. The surest way to make someone feel poor is to rub their nose in what they don’t have.

Why should high degrees of income inequality (independent of absolute levels of poverty) make the poor unhealthy? Two overlapping pathways:

A psychosocial explanation has been championed by Ichiro Kawachi of Harvard. When social capital decreases (thanks to inequality), up goes psychological stress. A mammoth amount of literature explores how such stress—lack of control, predictability, outlets for frustration, and social support—chronically activates the stress response, which, as we saw in chapter 4, corrodes health in numerous ways.

A neomaterialist explanation has been offered by Robert Evans of the University of British Columbia and George Kaplan of the University of Michigan. If you want to improve health and quality of life for the average person in a society, you spend money on public goods—better public transit, safer streets, cleaner water, better public schools, universal health care. But the more income inequality, the greater the financial distance between the wealthy and the average and thus the less direct benefit the wealthy feel from improving public goods. Instead they benefit more from dodging taxes and spending on their private good—a chauffeur, a gated community, bottled water, private schools, private health insurance. As Evans writes, “The more unequal are incomes in a society, the more pronounced will be the disadvantages to its better-off members from public expenditure, and the more resources will those members have [available to them] to mount effective political opposition” (e.g., lobbying). Evans notes how this “secession of the wealthy” promotes “private affluence and public squalor.” Meaning worse health for the have-nots. –

The inequality/health link paves the way for understanding how inequality also makes for more crime and violence. I could copy and paste the previous stretch of writing, replacing “poor health” with “high crime,” and I’d be set. Poverty is not a predictor of crime as much as poverty amid plenty is. For example, extent of income inequality is a major predictor of rates of violent crime across American states and across industrialized nations.—

Why does income inequality lead to more crime? Again, there’s the psychosocial angle—inequality means less social capital, less trust, cooperation, and people watching out for one another. And there’s the neomaterialist angle— inequality means more secession of the wealthy from contributing to the public good. Kaplan has shown, for example, that states with more income inequality spend proportionately less money on that key crime-fighting tool, education. As with inequality and health, the psychosocial and neomaterial routes synergize.

A final depressing point about inequality and violence. As we’ve seen, a rat being shocked activates a stress response. But a rat being shocked who can then bite the hell out of another rat has less of a stress response. Likewise with baboons—if you are low ranking, a reliable way to reduce glucocorticoid secretion is to displace aggression onto those even lower in the pecking order.

It’s something similar here—despite the conservative nightmare of class warfare,

of the poor rising up to slaughter the wealthy, when inequality fuels violence, it is mostly the poor preying on the poor.

This point is made with a great metaphor for the consequences of societal inequality.— The frequency of “air rage”—a passenger majorly, disruptively, dangerously losing it over something on a flight—has been increasing. Turns out there’s a substantial predictor of it: if the plane has a first-class section, there’s almost a fourfold increase in the odds of a coach passenger having air rage.

Force coach passengers to walk through first class when boarding, and you more than double the chances further. Nothing like starting a flight by being reminded of where you fit into the class hierarchy. And completing the parallel with violent crime, when air rage is boosted in coach by reminders of inequality, the result is not a crazed coach passenger sprinting into first class to shout Marxist slogans. It’s the guy being awful to the old woman sitting next to him, or to the flight attendant.*

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