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Unhappy talk: Spirit Level authors are back

We’ve never had it so good but Heaven knows we’re miserable now. A follow-up from the authors of The Spirit Level asserts that inequality is to blame, says John Sutherland

02 August, 2018 — By John Sutherland

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have returned with the follow-up to 2007’s The Spirit Level

AMERICA’S Declaration of Independence is an uplifting statement. But there is a line in it that has always given me thought: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.

Overlooking that pesky word “Men” (and, in the shadowy background, “black Americans”) happiness is an odd thing to be told to spend your life pursuing.

Imagine a Labour/Conservative/LibDem election manifesto that proclaimed happiness for the country as the party’s big idea. But this book maintains such a proclamation would make sense.

The Inner Level is a follow-up to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2007 volume The Spirit Level. It makes the same point. Our country is better off, in better health, enjoying more creature comforts, and its people living longer than at any time in our history. But we’re unhappier than those who went before us.

Wilkinson and Pickett are social scientists who reach their conclusions by statistical evidence. The text is as clunky as its subtitle. But there’s truth in clunk.

The argument is simple: the problem is not wealth (we’ve got more than enough) but wealth inequality.

The gulf between the proverbial rich man (forgive the word “man” again) in his palace and the poor man (ditto) at his gate is wide, widening and more uncrossable, in the UK and US, than at any time in history. Lottery tickets give better odds.

We’ve created the most unlevel playing field in history and called it progress. One per cent of the world’s population own 95 per cent of the world’s wealth.

The authors note that the happiest people on the planet are the Xingu and the Yanomami foraging tribes in the Amazon rain forest

And the US and UK are where income-inequality is widest. The result? It makes us sick, anxious and depressed.

I noted recently, for example, a truly startling Times headline that warned: “Pupils aged 4 will learn how to beat depression.” And, if the lessons don’t work give them Prozac? One in six Americans take anti-depressants – add happy pills and the whole population is rattling.

Our near neighbour Norway is a rich country but, per capita, its riches are more evenly shared out. Cross population blood pressure, a classic stress-anxiety-depression marker, is magnitudes higher here than among Norwegians, one of Wilkinson and Pickett’s graphs glumly informs us.

In Norway, the prison population (another social stress marker) is per 10,000 of Norwegians a 10th that of the UK. Life expectancy is higher. Norwegian happiness, insofar as it can be measured, is higher.

Why? Because of income equality, Wilkinson and Pickett argue.

Anyone, Mrs Thatcher believed, who rides a bus or a tube after the age of 30 is a failure. She envisaged a car-owning democracy and herself was carried about like a four-wheeled Queen of Sheba. Clement Attlee, the PM who brought in the post-war welfare state, was often seen going to work on the Underground from Stanmore to Downing Street. Don’t expect to see Theresa May sitting next to you on the Northern line.

He says many foolish things, but among the most foolish is the view, expressed by Boris Johnson, that society is like a packet of cornflakes (echoes of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates): shake it and the genetically gifted cornflakes will rise to the top. Like Boris.

Wilkinson and Pickett (with the usual supporting barrage of graphs) see it differently. “The belief that people are genetically endowed with substantial differences in intelligence and ability, which determine where they end up in the social hierarchy, is almost the opposite of the truth,” they tell us.

Those who reach the peaks in an entrepren­eurial society, like those of the US and UK, they assert are quite likely what they call “snakes in suits”. Entrepreneurism has created “an epidemic of narcissists”. What do narcissists lack? Empathy.

Narcissists, like snakes, are out for themselves. Try stroking one.

Oddly, Wilkinson and Pickett don’t mention the sociologist who pioneered the techniques they use. Why, asked Emile Durkheim (definitely a top cornflake), are Catholics less prone to suicide than Protestants? A moment’s thought supplies answers – look, for example, at the families coming out of Our Lady of Hal church, in Arlington Road, on a Sunday.

The biggest causal factor in suicide was what Durkheim called anomie. Rootlessness.

Why is there an epidemic of self-harm, gloom and suicide among today’s young – even that privileged elite at university? “Deracination”, loss of community. We live in lonely crowds.

“Human beings are more fundamentally social animals than is often recognised” assert Wilkinson and Pickett.

How does that Lennon-McCartney song go? “Come together, Yeah!” (repeated nine times, in case you don’t get the point). Despite the wisdom of the Fab Four we do just the opposite. We come untogether.

As regards social togetherness in Camden, I despair at the conversion of public houses (not to mention that public gym, in Arlington Road) into privatised “luxury apartments”. The latest conversion is the Victoria, in Mornington Terrace – Woody Allen’s favourite English pub, someone once told me.

The Crown and Goose in Delancey Street and the neighbouring billiard hall have gone.

The building I live in, in Miller Street, used to be a public swimming pool: a togethery sort of place. Now it’s a honeycomb of solitary confinement apartments. It’s “upgrading”, as any of the 15 or so estate agents on Parkway will tell you; but at a human cost?

Camden is atomising. Reach for the Prozac.

Is there a way forward? Wilkinson and Pickett try – but not convincingly.

They note that the happiest people on the planet are the Xingu and the Yanomami foraging tribes in the Amazon rain forest. “The members of these tribes live together almost naked, without private areas in their huts.” One can’t quite see it working in NW1.

How many times have you heard politicians boast that ours is the fifth-richest country in the world?

Good for us. But if you want to be happy, Wilkinson and Pickett tell us, spoon the gravy out more fairly.

The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being. By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Allen Lane, £20
John Sutherland is ­an Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London.

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