Thursday, August 10, 2017

Death by Poverty - British Style

I was going to give this one a pass. After all, the United States is the mother lode for really bad societal outcomes from institutionalized inequality and a shredded social safety net. However a recent study of the inequality/poverty/premature death phenomenon in Britain reveals that these social scourges are everywhere. We've got plenty of it here too.

Let's begin with one point - inequality is institutional. It's legislated. The people we elect to our legislatures and our parliament drive inequality even if unwittingly. Whether they realize it or not they absolutely never take responsibility for what they inflict on society. If this sounds outrageous please read Joseph Stiglitz' "The Price of Inequality, How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future." That link takes you to a free summary in pdf. It should be enough to pique your interest in reading the entire book. The summary is short enough that your elected representative has no excuse for not reading it. Stiglitz is not only a world leading economist and former chief economist of the World Bank, he's also a Nobel laureate and inequality just happens to be his forte. I won't dwell on that point any further.

Let's return to the British experience. As in America, the scourge of inequality is regional. There are places where it and its consequences are especially prevalent. In England, it's a north-south divide.

Has England’s north-south divide turned into a deadly one? If the latest research on premature deaths is to be believed, it certainly seems so. Researchers from Manchester University looked at the death rates of two groups of 25 million people either side of a line from the Wash to the Severn estuary. Above the line “northerners” between the ages of 25 to 44 died in much greater numbers than “southerners” below it. The figures are staggering: in the age group 25-34 years nearly a third more northerners died. For those aged between 35 and 44 the mortality rate was 50% higher among northerners. This gap is a modern phenomenon: in 1995 regional mortality converged to within a whisker.

The reasons for the differing rates of death are not, perhaps, as surprising as the causes. Young people die from “diseases of despair” – those associated with drug overdoses, suicides and alcoholism. These blight regions unequally: the north-east had the highest drugs-related mortality rate, 77 per 1 million people. In London the comparable figure is just 32. While the north represents 30% of the population of England, it includes 50% of the poorest neighbourhoods – and a rapid increase in suicides from 2008, concentrated in areas of high unemployment, contributes to higher premature death rates.

There is also a longstanding acceptance that there is a social gradient in health – the lower a person’s social position, the worse his or her health. What seems to be happening is that a person’s ability to improve their position in society on their terms has become so hampered in the north that it is life-shortening. Look at who has prospered since 2008: household median wealth in London has risen by half, whereas in the north-east and across the Midlands there has been a small fall. This question of whose recovery since 2008 this has been and its implications for a nation’s health are devastating. Austerity’s role looms large: councils in leafy shire areas in the south-east have been more protected against the cuts than their northern and urban counterparts. That means less money for social care for the elderly, fewer Sure Start centres for children. The former can stave off an early death, the latter improves life chances. Little wonder that while premature deaths have fallen in both the north and the south in the second half of the 20th century, the decline has levelled off for both since 2010. Slashing budgets has also stalled the rate of increase in life expectancy. An unequal society with a withered state unable to level life’s playing field is dangerous.


England’s deadly divide is rooted in social and economic inequalities. If the governor of the Bank of England’s prediction that the financial sector could double in size to be 20 times as big as GDP within two decades is correct then we should re-imagine the economy. We cannot accept that rising prosperity goes just to the southern-based top 1%. We should question why the return from the financial markets takes precedence over profit through investment in industry. Finance is concentrating wealth spatially in ways that undermine our wellbeing. The problem barely registers in political discourse. Yet it should. Not least because this is a matter of protecting people’s lives.

Western governments, Canada's included, have lost their way. They've become "withered states" that lack the will and the ability to provide the lifeblood of any healthy, democratic society - equality. And that means equality of income, equality of wealth and, most importantly, equality of opportunity. By their neglect of equality they have enshrined privilege, health, wealth and well-being for the few and increasingly less of these things for the many.

"In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows."

"At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth."

"Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled."

"...every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation."

"The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.

"There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.

"We must have complete and effective publicity of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public. It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs."

"The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. ... We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

"No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective — a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."

"I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children. That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children. The farmer is a good farmer who, having enabled the land to support himself and to provide for the education of his children, leaves it to them a little better than he found it himself. I believe the same thing of a nation."

"We are face to face with new conceptions of the relations of property to human welfare, chiefly because certain advocates of the rights of property as against the rights of men have been pushing their claims too far. The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it."

"The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare. Understand what I say there. Give him a chance, not push him up if he will not be pushed. Help any man who stumbles; if he lies down, it is a poor job to try to carry him; but if he is a worthy man, try your best to see that he gets a chance to show the worth that is in him. No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living, and hours of labor short enough so after his day’s work is done he will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load. We keep countless men from being good citizens by the conditions of life by which we surround them."

If you're unfamiliar with those passages they may sound like the ravings of some wild-eyed radical. They're actually extracts from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt on the last day of August, 1910 in Osawatomie, Kansas. I post them at such length here because they illustrate how "withered" our governments have become in this neoliberal age of free market fundamentalism. They open our eyes to how far special interests, corporate interests have been allowed to supplant the public interest in our legislatures and our parliament. Many of us struggle with the question of how Canada and our provinces can break the bonds of neoliberalism. To me, it's clear. We have to recalibrate our political moral compass. That means giving life again to the principles Roosevelt stated more than a century ago.

If you're interested in how to pry Canada from the clutches of neoliberalism here's a helpful article on how Britain's political establishment is beginning to turn away.

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