It’s been a while since we talked about the inequality hypothesis on this blog. It’s also been a while since I’ve seen any coverage of it elsewhere. For certain politicians and commentators on the left it seems to have settled into the status of fact (“we know that inequality causes all sorts of social problems”), while everyone else seems to have just forgotten about it. The torrent of academic studies has also slowed to a trickle – like everyone’s got inequality fatigue.
The trouble is that there are still some really interesting questions that need answering. One of the most fundamental for me is whether more income inequality really translates directly into stronger differentiation of social status. Just as a re-cap, the inequality hypothesis basically argues that more economically unequal countries will do worse on a whole range of outcomes (worse population health, more crime, more drug abuse, etc.) because bigger income differences mean bigger social differences. The larger the social gap between the rich and poor (or the slightly richer and slightly poorer), the more the social fabric is stretched and torn, and the more people feel a constant sense of competition and inferiority.
Central to this idea is the equation of income inequality with status inequality. For the inequality hypothesis to work, a steeper income gradient has to result in a more pronounced status hierarchy – more people thinking of each other as either superiors or inferiors. Given the importance of income in determining social standing, this seems like quite a safe assumption. But until it’s been directly tested it’s just that – an assumption.
Strangely enough, what made me think of this was listening to the last episode of the Radio 5 film programme (presented by Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo). After having received an unusually large number of messages from members of the clergy over recent weeks, they jokingly instituted a segment of the programme called ‘Clergy Corner’, wherein they would read out these various missives. This is a message they received this week from a Church of Scotland priest (I’ve paraphrased it a bit for the sake of brevity):
I’m writing to let you know about the moral problems that have been raised by the establishment of Clergy Corner. Unlike other denominations, all our clergy are meant to be equal. We have no Bishops, Canons, Cardinals, or Popes. However, I regret to inform you that, instead of being content with our equality, we simply look for other means to identify who is the greatest. Who gets to moderate our general assembly? Who preaches for the Queen? Who has the largest Sunday School? Now a new method has emerged in our attempt at establishing hierarchy: Who has had the most mentions on Clergy Corner? [my emphasis]
This is unusually profound email even for Radio 5’s flagship film programme, and it highlights a big potential problem for the inequality hypothesis. What if people just reproduce the same status hierarchies wherever they are, with whatever tools are available? The ‘tools’ in this case being any perceptible social differences (including income). According to this hypothesis, people in the most economically equal countries, like Sweden or Japan, just use smaller income differences (potentially along with other social markers) to produce the same level of social status stratification as found in the most unequal nations (like the UK and the US). People in Japan and Sweden are still feeling the same status anxiety and competition, they are just basing their feelings on smaller absolute income differences (Japan is actually an interesting case here – they are one of the most economically equal of the rich countries, but, at least from a naïve outside perspective, Japanese culture appears to place a strong emphasis on status differences, deference, and respect).
This theory has profound implications for the inequality hypothesis. More pronounced status inequality might well create a lot of the suggested problems, but it might not actually vary all that much between modern economically developed countries. Even if it does, it might have little or nothing to do with the income distribution. I’m saying I think that this theory is definitely true (in fact I think it probably isn’t). But we won’t know until we test it empirically. The first thing would be to come up with a good, comparable measure of ‘status inequality’ that is separate from income. If anyone’s got any ideas, they’d be most welcome!