Help may be at hand for the intellectual left from an unlikely source; Darwinian evolutionary psychologyby Marek Kohn / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
An actress tosses her hair and lets drop the catchphrase, “because I’m worth it.” By her own estimation, she is worth $1m per episode of the sitcom in which she stars, but settles for $750,000. A pop star spends ?15,000 a month on flowers. A top footballer wants earnings of ?100,000 a week, the rate phrased as if he was still a worker on a wage.
People raise their eyebrows at sums like these, but rarely their voices. The public feels resentment when bosses seem to appropriate wealth whose source is public: in utility businesses, or high street banks which hold substantial fractions of the public’s money. Stars, on the other hand, have always been felt to deserve their wealth for the pleasure they give, especially if they have emerged from humble origins.
In any case, we now have half a century’s experience of mass prosperity and when all but a few are secure in the essentials, the force drains out of arguments about inequality. Who cares if David Beckham is paid ?100,000 a week, while those watching him earn ?20,000 a year? If his “wages” were redistributed around the stadium, they would stretch to a round of drinks; but the spectators don’t need an extra pint any more than he needs the money.
Wealth is presumed to be good in itself, however it is distributed: even if it only trickles down, a trickle is better than nothing. But a growing body of data suggests that this assumption-apparently shared by the government and certainly by Philip Collins in his Prospect essay (April) defending the government- may be flawed. Inequality-not just the difference between comfort and want, but inequality per se-appears to do profound damage to health. Richard G Wilkinson, one of the leading interpreters of inequality research, puts it bluntly: “Inequality kills.”
One of the most remarkable findings in this field concerns the effect of infant mortality, surveyed across 70 countries by Robert J Waldmann. Take two countries in which the bottom 20 per cent are equally poor, but the top 5 per cent in one are richer than their counterparts in the other. Common sense would suggest that the country with more resources at the top would have the lower infant mortality rate. But the reverse is the case: the babies of the poor are more likely to die in the country whose rich are wealthier.