We need to talk about income inequality.
In a recent public lecture at Swansea University, Professor Danny Dorling painted a startling picture of the reality of health and wealth inequality.
If you have been searching for some explanations regarding the Brexit/Trump juggernaut that has created waves both sides of the Atlantic this year, then you could have done much worse than listen to Professor Danny Dorling‘s public lecture at Swansea University on Monday night. Dorling’s message was a remarkably simple one, given that we are fast growing accustomed to the idea that everything is “just too complicated” to explain in the post-truth era. His diligent number-crunching and illuminating maps consistently reveal one thing that the UK and the USA have in common – and in spades: income inequality. In fact, the UK and the USA – two of the richest nations in world – have some of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the so-called developed world. And it hasn’t always been like this, as recently as the 1960s and 1970s our societies were far more equal.
What does this mean on the ground? Well, for one thing, as Dorling explained, our health has been declining since 2010. That’s right, in the UK, one of the richest nations on earth, health is declining and death rates are rising. Recent figures suggest that we are currently experiencing the biggest rise in mortality since 1940. The same trend is happening across the pond. In Texas, where the gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor is most extreme, infant mortality is rising. These are major public health events and yet those voices who are trying to blow the whistle are being drowned out by the cacophony of media hysteria around Brexit, backstabbing, and Theresa May’s (£995) trousers.
As Dorling poignantly reminded his audience, what really matters most in life, is health. In the US it was health – not racism – that most accurately correlated with a vote for Trump. Combine this with economic and social deprivation, and you’ve got a pretty bad situation. As Dorling put it “if your world is falling apart … if you can’t see a future for your children … why not vote for a man who says he is going to change it all?”
A similar sentiment can be translated here in the UK. By and large, it was life’s winners – primarily those living in cities – who voted to remain in the EU. People who are feeling the sharp end of declines in health care, rising house prices, terrible employment conditions, and lifeless towns, were much more likely to vote leave.
But what choice do we have? We are led to believe that continual cuts in public services – “austerity” – are necessary in order to balance Britain’s books. We are led to believe that our NHS is struggling because of all that money that gets sent to the EU. What we aren’t told is that Germany, for example, spends more on its health service than the UK does AND pays more to the EU. How is this possible? Some kind of jiggery-pokery? Not exactly – they just have higher taxes, particularly for the very wealthy. And when you see the graph (below), it hits you like a pound coin between the eyes – Britain has the lowest state spending in all of Europe. And suddenly the murky waters of Brexit seem to clear just a little bit. People’s quality of life is declining because our public services are woefully underfunded when compared to the rest of Europe. Austerity is not a necessity – it’s a choice.
All the while, the richest 10% of people in the UK own 45% of the wealth. This doesn’t just harm the poorest, it undermines the functioning of a society as a whole. For example, as Dorling illustrated, in both the UK and the US, younger generations are bad at maths and literacy. Some of them may get A*s in exams, but for the rest of their adult lives, they will generally still suck at maths and literacy in comparison to more equal countries. Why? Because the same mentality that allows inequality to thrive in UK and US society (that if you work hard enough you will get all the riches you deserve), also underpins an educational ethic which revolves around the passing of exams and attaining results. You don’t need to learn maths, you just need to learn how to pass the exam. Even modes of transport can be linked to inequality: in the Netherlands 50% of people walk or cycle to work, whereas in the UK that figure is just 1%, with implications for our health and environment. As if that wasn’t bad enough, inequality also is a major driver of climate change because it promotes a culture of unfettered consumption – buying, using, burning, throwing – that pollutes and exploits and doesn’t make us happy anyway.
Taxing the very rich doesn’t just provide the money to support public services, it also keeps a lid on greed. In countries that have high rates of tax, there is little incentive to earn over, say, £300,000 per year, because it no longer makes financial sense. This is why, in Germany, there are around 200 bankers who are paid €1m per year – that’s 200 too many, perhaps – but in the UK there are nearly 3000. In shrinking the inequality gap through higher taxes, the slope between the richest and the poorest is gentle enough so that people can just about stay linked up along it – social cohesion is possible. When the rich aren’t taxed much, that slope morphs into something like a skate ramp, with a few people perched at the top, impossibly removed from the masses which accumulate on the plateau below. Interestingly, it’s not an entirely comfortable place for the rich people perched at the top, either, because the prospect of having their privilege taken away and a sharp, steep fall down the ramp is frightening, and is why they cling to the top so dearly. The whole situation doesn’t just create economic division, it means we are increasingly divided along social, cultural, ideological, and political lines, too – as the Brexit vote showed.
And yet despite this gloomy picture, Dorling’s talk demonstrated that there is at least one fairly straight forward route to a more equal society in the UK and that is to raise taxes and spend more on health and education, at least to the level at which our European neighbours are doing. In fact, he was somewhat sympathetic towards the UK and the US, describing them as struggling nations who are navigating through a great existential shock: the extreme politics of the Brexit/Trump era is not – as some like to jest – a sign of genetic stupidity in UK and US voters, but rather a symptom of some traumatic growing pains in their countries’ histories. In Dorling’s view, the two richest nations in the world have, for centuries, endowed themselves with a feeling of superiority. We thought we were special, but actually, we were just lifted high on a pile of wealth and resources extracted under conditions of exploitation from empires. This success was dressed up as the success of a ruthless “winner takes all” ideology, an ideology which is threatening to hang around long after the empires themselves have disintegrated. But there is only so much of this mantra that people will continue to swallow, particularly as the impacts of inequality – health especially – are increasingly felt by an aging population, and as this squeeze reaches the middle classes. The NHS itself emerged out of a similar period of turmoil in the 1940s, so there’s hope (it’s always darkest before the dawn, as the saying goes). Dorling ended by suggesting that perhaps what Brexit and Trump represent are the last gasps of empire ideology – of wanting to “take back control” and feel special. Of the UK, he said that he hopes – and believes – that we will one day get over the obsession with growth and become a normal (more equal) European country. How long this will take, and how dark things could get first, were the questions he left hanging in the air.