The Amazing New Science of the American Dream

“If Americans want to live the American Dream, they should go to Denmark”

So says Richard Wilkinson in his TED Talk below. Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham and co-author of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, a study of the pernicious effects of inequality in modern industrial democracies.

A whole array of social pathologies — including infant mortality, homicides, mental health, teenage births, life expectancy, etc. — are significantly worse in more unequal societies, regardless of the absolute level of wealth of that society as measured by GDP per capita.

In other words, poorer but more equal societies (like Denmark) fare better on this scale of social health than do richer but more unequal societies (like the U.S.).

If you want to live the American Dream, move to Denmark.

What, if anything, does this have to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Just this: Many fearful critics of that movement[ ((See, for instance, cartoonist Bob Crabb’s recent Halloween cartoon))] [ ((See also “Eric Cantor criticizes ‘wealth redistribution’ and Occupy protesters during University of Michigan speech“))] are afraid that the protesters want simply to redistribute wealth, rather than — as is actually the case — make sure that the rules of the economic game are applied more equally and fairly.

In other words, fairness at the starting gate of the economic race — not absolute equality of wealth at the finish line — is the demand.

Professor Wilkinson’s research, which he describes clearly in this short TED Talk, illuminates vividly the unrest we see all about us now.

His work, though not limited to the U.S., could also be thought of as a “Science of the American Dream,” and should interest anyone who is worried about why that dream is dying.

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5 Responses to “The Amazing New Science of the American Dream”
  1. gregzaller says:

    Scientific American magazine (Nov. 2011, p. 32) has a fascinating article titled Cholesterol Conundrum. Apparently changing cholesterol levels with drugs does not guarantee a lower incidence of heart attacks. I notice the Ted Talk video falling into the same trap. Changing income disparity directly will probably not produce a healthy outcome in indicators such as life expectancy etc. as suggested. It is a myth that simple statistical correlations can expose the underlying systemic problems that manifest an outcome. OWS needs a more thoughtful discussion to develop a realistic pathway to positive change. Money should not be the lens to look through at the problems of the world today.

  2. depelton says:


    You said:

    “It is a myth that simple statistical correlations can expose the underlying systemic problems that manifest an outcome.”

    Just so I understand the point you’re trying to make, are you saying that all statistical correlations that suggest (but don’t prove) causation are of no value in suggesting underlying causation?

    The case against smoking, for instance, is based almost entirely on statistical correlations. Would you therefore advise people to not worry about smoking as a health issue (an “underlying systemic problem”)?

    Wilkinson’s copious sets of statistical correlations between inequality and social pathologies are very compelling.

    You also said that “OWS needs a more thoughtful discussion … ”

    Before you can conclude that, you need to understand their discussion:

    Despite your assertion that the inequality issue is simply about “money,” the data showing the higher levels of social ills in affluent societies with lower levels of equality suggest precisely that …

    It’s not about money, it’s about fairness.

    Wilkinson says this explicitly in his TED Talk, and in his book.

    Money only acts in this context as a symbolic token of fairness.

    Money is not the “lens,” as you suggest.

    Fairness is the lens.

    This is a subtle and profound distinction that you must grasp in order to understand Wilkinson’s work, and to understand the Occupy movement now raging like a wildfire across our country.

  3. gregzaller says:

    Hi Don,

    Your point about smoking statistics showing it is harmful is of a different nature than Wilkinson’s statistics showing that income disparity leads to smoking,( as I am sure they would). You wouldn’t suggest that taxing the rich would end smoking?

    My point is that certainly there is income disparity but it is not wrong in itself. Disparity is a manifestation of deeper problems. Cigarette smoking is the same. The important question is “why do we do these things?”

    Money only carries the meanings we give it. Buddhist monks are poor. If all of the poor in Wilkinson’s study were Buddhists would it turn his chart upside down? When I see the super rich I don’t see unfairness, I see cancer and addiction.

    Did you see this Ted Talk about barefoot schools? I suggest that we need our special version here in the USA as a solution to our ills.

  4. Don Pelton says:

    Thanks, Greg. And thanks too for the pointer to the Barefoot Roy TED Talk. It was quite beautiful, even if limited in its applicability to the poverty-ridden interstices of modern society.

    This photo (from that talk) illustrates that limitation: I doubt that the solar panel itself was fabricated by a barefoot engineer:

    If I understand you right, you feel that the root problem of society is .. the human soul. And you consider anything less than a direct effort to change the human soul to be superficial, if not in fact ineffectual.

    At a certain level, I agree with that. The Bodhisattva’s Vow has always seemed to me to embody the deepest integrity.

    In the meantime, though, until either (1) We fix the human soul (all become Barefoot Roys or Bodhisattvas), and/or (2) We fully enter the Post-Peak Oil world of extreme resource exhaustion in which all civilization is rural and sustainable … there is still some value in trying to address the problems of inequality specifically in “Western industrial democracies,” As Wilkinson explicitly says he is doing.

    If you’d like, I can stipulate that yes, inequality is not the root problem, the human soul is.

    But extreme income inequality is the result of government policies enacted in Western industrial democracies — particularly in the last 30 years — at the bidding of the affluent class as a consequence of the overweening money power of that class.

    Previous government policies, which have been dismantled, resulted in more equitable (fairer) distribution of wealth, with consequently lower levels of social pathology.

    Unwillingness to deal with these issues at the policy level may be one of those cases of making the perfect (healing the human soul) the enemy of the good (doing what we can in the meantime).

    The fact that high inequality correlates with manifold social pathologies, and that low inequality correlates with a lower number of social pathologies in advanced Western industrial democracies is indisputable, although I have no doubt that you will dispute it, at which point we will probably arrive at another of our agreements to disagree.

  5. gregzaller says:

    I do agree with you that income disparity is an extreme problem and that it must be remedied.

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