TED Conversations

Bill Harrison


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Do socio-biological determinants of health justify redistribution of wealth in grossly unequal societies?

Google "Low social status is bad for your health. Biologists are starting to understand why" to read an Economist article describing how relatively low social status acts as an epigenetic trigger, which can contribute to inflammation, heart disease, Alzheimer's, etc. In other words, relatively low social status makes you unhealthier, not just at the level of chronic stress and cortisol (see the work of Dr. Robert Sapolsky and the talk by Richard Wilkinson), but down to the level of your genes.

Consider also this idea by Robert Frank:

Namely, there are cases in which everyone pursuing their individual rational self interest leads to absurd or horrific outcomes, just as with the tragedy of the commons.

As primates, we are wired to seek and maintain high social status (for ourselves and our children.) If we fail to do so, arms race logic and our own epigenetic responses dictate that we will be worse off - you would be a sucker not to seek higher status, or to fail to give your children all the advantages (relative to other children) that you can, even if that means that kids who are smarter or more talented than your kids (impossible, I know, but humor me) don't get an equal shot.

See also this article describing how equality of outcome and equality of opportunity are essentially the same thing:

The government's role in the economy is to correct for such absurd outcomes, so that we can live and work more effectively together. In the 1950's we had a top marginal tax rate of 90%, yet today such talk is derided as "socialism," as though that's a bad thing. Given that relatively low social status has real negative (mental) health impacts upon people, how is it socially justified to have a country in which 25% of the income goes to 1% of the people?


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    Apr 26 2012: Bill, it's not a mattter of what should happen, it's a matter of what actually happens. People have a motivation to increase the wellbeing of themselves and their families. Many have a motivation to increase their power and influence. You can argue that this should or shouldn't happen, but that won't change the nature of humanity. Like it or not, we have global mobility and a global economy and some people are in a position to take advantage of it.

    As regards tax rates in the 50s, that was also the period of post war economic resurgence - prosperity during that era cannot be credited purely to the American tax regime.

    As a matter of interest, do you feel that the charitable work of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet should be restricted to American causes rather than having the global reach which they do? That would be a side effect of forcing the rich to keep their wealth in their own communities.
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      Apr 27 2012: I'm not arguing against people increasing the wellbeing of themselves or their families, but I am opposed to the existence of a permanent aristocracy/plutocracy.

      While I'm not crediting the tax system in the 1950's with all our economic prosperity, it's not unreasonable to think it was a factor.

      Also, raising taxes on the rich is not an all or nothing proposal, and the reflexive conservative counterarguments are completely inane. We shouldn't tax the rich any more ore else they'll leave. We shouldn't tax the rich anymore because they're job creators. We shouldn't tax the rich anymore because it wouldn't completely resolve the deficit. We should always lower taxes on the rich even though aggregate demand is what creates jobs and not trickle down economics, which completely fail as an economic policy.

      In a sane society, taxing the rich a little bit more would be completely uncontroversial, but the anti-government, anti-tax, pro-plutocrat propaganda machine has been working for the past few decades to make that an impossible proposition to advance, under any circumstances.

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