Transcript: Thom Hartmann & Prof Wilkinson: London Riots and economic inequality. 12 August '11

Thom Hartmann: Welcome back, Thom Hartmann here with you. One of the enduring rants that I do, both on radio and television, has been about equality and I try every single time to credit the website, it’s become almost a mantra for me. And the book, The Spirit Level, and Why Inequality Matters. IN fact one or the other, or perhaps both, have been my Buzzflash books of the month over the years. I wanted to get the perspective of either Kate Pickett or Professor Richard Wilkinson who wrote The Spirit Level, and co-founded the Equality Trust to discuss what’s going on in London right now, these riots. Because it seems to me like this is a piece of it and I am very, very pleased and honored that joining us, from the United Kingdom, is the co-founder of the Equality Trust, studied economics at the London School of Economics, professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, honorary professor at the University College London, visiting professor at the University of York, and co-author of the Spirit Level. The website,, Professor Richard Wilkinson. Professor, welcome to the program.

Richard Wilkinson: Hello, you’re overdoing it, thank you.

Thom Hartmann: I don’t think it could be overdone. I think your work is absolutely profound. So anyway, in or outside of the context of the work that you’ve done about equality, is there a relationship between the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the United Kingdom and the riots that we’re watching right now in London?

Richard Wilkinson: Yes I think there is. Because what happens with a more unequal society is that like becomes increasingly about status competition. We judge each other more by status. And of course we express our status by, through consumer goods, money becomes more important. So in more unequal societies people work longer hours and spend more and they save less and in a way what these riots have been about is just kids breaking into shops and pinching the shoes or phones or electronics that they can’t buy.

Thom Hartmann: But the, we saw riots here in the United States in the 1960s, in the early ‘60s, in Detroit and in Los Angeles in particular, the Detroit and Watts riots. And in both cases the spark that lit the tinder was a police arrest. And it seems that it was almost an issue of respect, respect and trust. And I know you talk in your writings and your research and your book about the breakdown of trust in a society and of course the current wave of riots in the UK, if my understanding of the news is correct, I’m watching it from across the pond here, began with a young man being killed by the police. To what extent is this a symptom of inequality versus, I mean the republican or conservative line here in the United States is oh these are just bad people, they’re hooligans, this is the result of the welfare state, they’ve been on welfare so long they expect it. And when David Cameron starts cutting it back they go crazy and this is why we should do away with all welfare in the United States because it makes people dependent on government. What’s your response to all that?

Richard Wilkinson: Well I think actually the key level is the high levels of unemployment amongst young people, particularly young men. And the national rate of unemployment amongst kids, 16, 17 years old is about 40% and of course in the more deprived areas it will be much higher. It’s lower amongst the vast majority of the population, you know, across all age groups, I think more like 7%. But the riots have been amongst very young kids. And you’re right, it started with the police shooting of somebody. But these riots were then taken up all over the country, in 50 or 60 different incidents and groups of young people. And in a way what they’re doing is just taking what they think they can get away with, helping themselves. And that’s very much what we’ve seen both amongst the bankers and CEOs who are taking these huge bonuses, but also in Britain we had a scandal in 2009, a very major scandal, when it was found that most members of parliament were claiming expenses way beyond what they were allowed to claim. And so they too were helping themselves to what they could get away with. And so when people talk about a need for moral examples, the examples that these kids have been set are pretty poor. I think that’s quite an important element. They’re not doing something that is quite unlike people at the top end of society. But with much, well they’re doing it with much more justification, in effect.

Thom Hartmann: So what’s the solution?

Richard Wilkinson: Well I think that what really transforms a society is the amount of inequality, simply the scale of income differences between rich and poor, as you know we’ve shown that more unequal societies and more unequal American states have more of a whole range of health and social problems. They have more mental illness, lower life expectancy, much more violence measured by homicide, more people in prison, more crime, more teenage births, all those kinds of things, go wrong with more unequal societies. So I think that has to be an absolute key. And Cameron, our prime minister, has several times said that of course we do want a more equal society. But there’s not much evidence of any effective measures to get there. But crucial of course is the high levels of unemployment amongst these young people.

Thom Hartmann: Right. Here in the United States, basically since Reagan came into office and created a fundamental transformation. His presidency was as revolutionary as was Franklin Roosevelt’s, only in the opposite direction.

Richard Wilkinson: Yes.

Thom Hartmann: And it seems that Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister, and, or sentenced, or I guess it’s election, indirectly through the parliament. And the subsequent administrations. I mean we’ve even had democratic administrations here in the United States that have continued Reagan’s policies. And in the UK, even, you know New Labor, the labor governments, have basically continued Thatcher’s policies. And am I correct that the United States and the United Kingdom have become two of the most unequal societies on earth or at least among the developed nations?

Richard Wilkinson: That’s right. We look at the 50 richest countries in the world for which there’s good data on inequality and Singapore does worst then comes the United States then Portugal and then Britain. At the good end, with the small income differences are countries like Japan, Sweden, Norway, Finland. And what’s happened is that our income differences in Britain, but also in America, grew very rapidly from the late ‘70s, during the ‘80s, really. A very rapid widening of income differences. Here they continued to widen slowly from the beginning of the ‘90s to the present with little ups and downs but the damage of the big widening of inequality in the 1980s hasn’t been reversed. You too in the states have seen long term widening of income differences. So both our societies are as unequal as they were in the 1920s. You know, you’ve lost middle class America in a sense and we are becoming increasingly polarized. And with that, as several researchers have shown, goes on increasing political polarization. You know, there used to be a lot of overlap in the voting of republicans and democrats in more equal times, but now not at all. But the other thing is, if you take the gap between the top and bottom 20% in our societies, we are twice as unequal. That gap is twice as big, as in the Nordic countries.

Thom Hartmann: That is remarkable. Professor, we are out of time but thank you so much for all the contributions that you have made to this dialogue and for coming on our program today.

Richard Wilkinson: Well thank you for having me.

Thom Hartmann: It’s an honor. Professor Richard Wilkinson.

Transcribed by Suzanne Roberts, Portland Psychology Clinic.

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