Sheffield Equality Group

Christmas and the Challenge of Inequality

For Christmas, a re-post of member David Price’s reflections on Christmas and Inequality…

CHRISTMAS AND THE CHALLENGE OF INEQUALITY

Christmas is a time when church leaders recommend books which they have found compelling in the previous year. These are usually books about the Christian faith, about religious devotion or about saints of the church.

But of all the books published in 2009 the most challenging for Christians is perhaps a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – two epidemiologists – that is, experts on the distribution, effects and causes of diseases in populations. Their book is not obviously religious, yet it has a religious title – ‘The Spirit Level’ – and its message resonates with the message of Christmas. For the subtitle is ‘Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.’

We are all uncomfortably aware of the contrast between the original Christmas story and the modern Western consumerist Christmas. The original story was not about glitzy department stores full of goods from all over the world. It was about a poor couple forced by an oppressive government to undertake a winter journey, when the mother was heavily pregnant. She gives birth in the crudest of surroundings and her first visitors are humble shepherds. The only hint of consumerism is when the wise men bring gold, frankincense and myrrh but these are symbolic gifts, not Western style indulgence. Later, the situation of this family becomes grimmer still as they flee to Egypt as asylum seekers.

What did Mary think was happening at this first Christmas? According to Luke, when she became aware of her unique destiny, she did not sing about the wonderful binges we would all have from now on every Christmas. No, her song was a radical vision in which God would scatter the proud, put down the mighty, raise the humble, feed the hungry and send the rich empty away. This egalitarian Christmas message has been ignored by most Christians as altogether too subversive and inconvenient.

Yet Wilkinson and Pickett reinforce Mary’s subversive and egalitarian message by producing of all things a mass of statistics. They point out that Britain is the third most unequal society in the developed world. Only the USA and Portugal have greater inequality. Then they point out that we cannot solve the chronic problem of poverty in our society through economic growth. For one thing, the earth itself sets finite limits to growth in terms of climate change and dwindling mineral resources. For another, there is no evidence that increased wealth trickles down to the poor.

Wilkinson and Pickett argue that the overriding evil is inequality. They bring an astonishing amount of international evidence about developed countries to demonstrate that nearly all the ills of society are linked to inequality. Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, lower literacy, more infant mortality, more homicide, more imprisonment, more teenage pregnancy, lower levels of trust, more obesity, more mental illness, more drug and alcohol addiction and less social mobility. Indeed, the only social ill where they could find no relationship is suicide.

All this evidence suggests that a more equal society offers a win-win situation for everybody – even the rich. Countries like Sweden and Japan both have much less inequality and in all sorts of ways are happier and better to live in than our own. In a more equal society, the better off can move out of their ghettos, their gated communities, and mingle freely with the rest of society with less fear for their own security.

You may wonder what is the causal link between inequality and social evils like violence, drug taking, obesity or mental illness. The argument is that a high level of inequality creates a preoccupation with status, a desperation to keep up with the Jones, an arid consumerism, huge levels of debt like those which have helped to generate the current economic crisis and above all psychological stress and anxiety. The Spirit Level book shows, for example, a link between violence and perceived threats to self esteem in a man’s immediate environment. It describes two kinds of society – unequal societies where there is a war of all against all and the fittest survive- and more equal societies where people co-operate in order to fulfil common goals. Christians might consider whether greater equality would bring Jesus’ vision of the kingdom a little nearer.

According to Wilkinson and Pickett, the four most equal countries are Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland. They say that, if Britain was as equal as the average of these countries, remarkable improvements would occur:

• levels of trust between people would be two thirds higher,
• mental illness might be more than halved,
• everyone would get an extra year of life,
• teenage birth rates would fall by two thirds,
• homicide rates would fall by 75%,
• everyone could have the equivalent of almost 7 extra weeks holiday a year and
• the Government could be closing prisons all over the country.

Now you may find these claims hard to believe. But one distinguished academic has suggested that their level of proof is similar to the original statistics comparing the health of smokers and non-smokers in the medical profession (Professor Danny Dorling). In other words, they are as well based as many important statistics on which we rely.

Suppose the evidence of the Spirit Level is true. The implication is that we should be working hard to make our society more equal – making it at least as equal as the average in developed countries. In this way, we shall be making for a happier society, in which relationships between people will be less competitive and more constructive.

The present economic crisis has brought many evils in its wake, notably increased unemployment, which in itself will intensify inequality. But it has also created a situation in which many hallowed assumptions are being questioned. We may now have a unique opportunity to find a better way than the discredited pursuit of ever greater national wealth which is distributed very unevenly.

We should not assume public opposition to policies designed to promote greater equality. Opinion polls over the last 20 years have shown that around 80% of the population think that income differences are too big, though most do not realise, for instance, how extraordinarily large boardroom pay increases in the top 100 companies have been in recent years – as much as 37% in 2006-07 alone, just before the credit crunch. Average pay including bonuses of chief executives of top companies has now reached around £3 million – more than 100 times average earnings in the UK which are around £26,000. And of course many people earn far less than £26,000. The argument that massive salaries are necessary for international competitiveness is less convincing now that we have seen overpaid bankers place their own companies and indeed the whole national economy in peril. There is growing recognition that it is undesirable and unnecessary to have such huge gaps in pay. .

So in conclusion we come back to Mary’s radical egalitarian vision of a world in which everything is turned on its head, in which the mighty are put down and the humble raised. Is this what Christmas is really about?

David Price