My girlfriend and I heard Richard Wilkinson talk yesterday at the Department of Communications building on the University of Washington campus. From what I've learned in the past two days, Wilkinson is an epidemiologist, renowned for his work about how social inequality impacts the physical and mental health of a given society. His focus is on rich countries. One of Wilkinson's tenets is that we now living in developed democracies are of the first generation to experience the outer limit of the benefits of economic growth. That is, while economic growth continues to be the best way for poorer countries to improve the health and welfare of their peoples, in the rich, developed countries of the world, further economic development has no statistically measurable benefit on health, happiness or quality of life.
Instead, Wilkinson says, the health, happiness and quality of life in a rich society relate to income differences within that society. The greater the social inequality within a society, the poorer its overall health (for both the rich and poor of that society).
Wilkinson has a standard slide presentation to make his case using graphs. "Social inequality" can be defined differently -- and from questions from the academic audience yesterday it was obvious that Wilkinson and others are conversant with more nuanced statistical methods of defining the concept -- but for purposes of his presentations to the general public (as well as for a book just published, The Spirit Level, co-authored with Kate Pickett), "social inequality" is measured by the extent of the gap in income between the top 20% and bottom 20% of a given society.
In category after category, Wilkinson asserts, rich countries with less of a gap between their rich and their poor, or, to put it in positive terms, rich countries with greater social equality, are healthier and happier. Societies that close the gap between rich and poor experience less crime, fewer teen pregnancies, fewer mental health problems, and less incidence of manifold other ills. The correlations are not simply statistically significant, he says; they are extraordinarily regular and have almost no outliers (key exception: Japan performs on all scores as a relatively equal society, in spite of unusually high gender inequality there).
Wilkinson seems concerned that his thesis could be countered by arguments that creativity and innovation might be stifled in societies that place too great a premium on equality. It's a savvy concern for someone who does not appear to be steeped in business affairs or entrepreneurialism. (I don't know the man or his background; I make this deduction from his use of business terminology, which is not idiomatic for him, even after adjusting for the fact that he is from the UK). I think Wilkinson intuitively appreciates that the case for social equality could be undermined by an argument from a kind of social Darwinianism, which would say that societies should permit social circumstances of potentially great difference or even extremes, in order that innovators might be singled out and rewarded.
That said, the chart Wilkinson produces to protect his vulnerable "flank" is not as satisfying or compelling as one might hope, though it is interesting. Here it is (courtesy of The Equality Trust, an organization associated with Wilkinson):
As an faq on the Equality Trust site puts it, "[t]here is a weak but statistically significant tendency for more equal societies to gain more patents per head than less equal ones." Query whether patent issuances are an appropriate proxy for innovation; to the extent they may be, however, the suggestion is that the US may be underutilizing its human capital.
Wilkinson in person carries himself with confidence, grace and ease, but nevertheless wears on his sleeve a sense of futility about the possibility of effecting change through government policy. At one point, he mentioned that he and his co-author have been invited to present their ideas to the cabinet of the British government on Downing Street in February, though he was (a) skeptical about how many cabinet minsters would bother to show up, and (b) convinced that politicians cannot adopt positive measures to effect change, regardless of their judgments, without a broad political mandate from their electorates. To a question from the audience about the wisdom of changing Washington State's regressive sales tax policy as a means to promote social equality, Wilkinson grudgingly acknowledged that such changes could be marginally useful; but changes of that order, Wilkinson went on to opine, are just as likely to be undone by a succeeding administration, and in any case are not basic or fundamental enough.
What would be fundamental enough? Here Wilkinson showed his cards and (wittingly or not) stepped into an arena that startuppers and their investors know and live with (and sometimes struggle with): something fundamental would occur, he said, with greater employee ownership of the businesses in which they work. In Wilkinson's terms, greater employee ownership turns the place of work from alienable property into community. (For a quote on this point that is closer to the words Wilkinson spoke yesterday, see my tweeted notes.)
I now move from the realm of Wilkinson's statistics to the subjective and the anecdotal. Although I see, and share, some ambivalence in recent years about the kind of company-wide stock option programs that were typical in the dot com era, all of us in the startup and emerging company ecosystem (founders, management teams, investors, lawyers and other advisors) routinely wrestle with setting and implementing ownership and equity incentive stakes for management and key personnel. In our subset of the economy and society, we know that the employees we want, need themselves to speak for, to identify with, the enterprises they are building. Giving the right people the appropriate stake in an enterprise will, we believe, help the enterprise succeed. I don't know how well statistics might bear out that belief.
I do know, however, that tech entrepreneurs who start new companies, in this century, do so not so much to pay themselves bank executive-like salaries but instead primarily out of a desire to live more authentically. Those who found ventures after working for years or decades at a larger enterprise are especially adamant about finding in work the means to fulfill that ambition, to change themselves and others around them, and sometimes, yes, to change the economy or the world. It can get very, very personal; startupers who are parents come to understand how imperative it is to model for their children a way to live well and purposefully, to refuse to mark time in an unsatisfying relationship with one's work.
So something about what Wilkinson says resonates deeply. If he is suggesting that a kind of social vitality is borne of widespread engagement in a shared enterprise, he is saying something we already know to be true. There remain implications to be worked out.