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 27 2012: If by permanent aristocracy you mean a hereditary one, you are introducing a new factor into the discussion, which has so far been focused on general taxation rather than inheritance tax and inherited wealth.

    As regards the tax situation in the 50s, the fact that high tax and economic boom were contemporaneous doesn't imply a cause and effect relationship - what makes you think there is one?

    And if you look at taxation of the rich, there are several factors you haven't considered. One is the global nature of commerce, which allows prosperity to move around the globe. Another is the definition of 'taxing more' - if you apply a flat rate tax to everyone you do in fact tax the rich more. A third is human nature - those who work hard lose motivation if they do not benefit from their efforts.

    And when you talk of the propaganda machine, we are all to a greater or lesser extent influenced by the wholsesale PR which spills out on all sides. The fact that we don't all have the same opinions indicates that we still make individual judgements. A viewpoint which differs from yours is no more and no less than a different viewpoint. So far in this thread I haven't seen anything to prove that channelling wealth through a bureaucracy provides any greater benefit than a system which allows people - at ALL wealth levels, to benefit from their ability and willingness to generate wealth.
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      Apr 28 2012: I don't think general taxation is analytically distinct from estate taxes or inheritance. It matters how we tax capital gains versus wages, because taxing the former less than the latter amounts to a continuous subsidy of the wealthy, which propagates the plutocracy.

      In the 1950's we had extremely high top marginal tax rates, and we also had one of the largest, most successful public works projects in US history - the Interstate Highway system. The up front costs of this were enormous - roughly 450 billion dollars in today's terms. But it also created many jobs, and broad prosperity (instead of prosperity for just a few), and we are still, to this day benefiting from the infrastructure investments that were made in the past.

      In one of our other threads, I did respond to "the global nature of commerce," and my response was that "wealth generation" and "making money" are distinct concepts.

      "Wealth generation" is a blunt concept. What is wealth? Do we mean individual wealth or the wealth of a society as a whole? If there are 300 million people in the country who own lots of pieces of paper claiming ownership to things, that's certainly one component of it. But suppose half of those 300 million people were extremely uneducated. You can toggle factors like education, public infrastructure, the strength of the legal system, the depth and availability of cooperatively validated scientific research, the public health system, etc., and then the question becomes - by wealth do we mean that a few people own lots of property in the midst of crumbling public services? How much wealthier are we living in a healthy society versus an impoverished one?

      It's a good thing to work hard and to make money - but not all money is earned by being socially productive, and if some rich people don't see themselves as invested in the community infrastructure that allows them to do well, then we don't want them in our communities.
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        Apr 28 2012: A couple of questions for you:

        What criteria do you use to determine that someone is wealthy?

        How do you distinguish between those who risk their money to make gains in a way which either creates work for others, or generates some other form of 'social good', and those who make money without risking what they already own?
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          Apr 29 2012: It depends on how narrow a lens you use to look at a person. You could define wealth as how much property a person legally owns. But that would ignore a huge amount of reality.

          How educated is that person, and in what fields are they knowledgeable? Do they enjoy life and love their friends and their family? Do they have a rich and intelligent view of the world? Are they well-traveled and worldly? Do they have a pleasant way of being in the world, and do they treat others with kindness and respect? Do they live in a community with other educated people, strong social safety nets, and strong public infrastructure or not? Is the air and water in their community clean, and is the food readily available to them fresh, affordable, and healthy? Do they give back? Are they healthy? Do they have access to affordable healthcare? If tragedy struck them or their community, how resilient would they be in the face of that adversity? Do the political and legal institutions they're governed by produce fair and reasonable outcomes?

          My point being that if you look with broad enough lens, you start to ask about "quality of life" rather than "property owned." If you see a man who owns lots of property, BUT he's an idiot, mean-spirited, with a narrow and bigoted view of the world and no compassion or respect for his fellow man; the infrastructure in his country is crumbling, but he doesn't care, and he makes money by skirting pollution regulations and lobbying for rules that allow him to do so; and the only field he's knowledgeable in is that of making money, developing his entire life philosophy around doing so by any means necessary. I consider that sort of man to be deeply impoverished despite his ownership of lots of property.

          And I am speaking, of course, about David Koch and his brother Charles (badam tsh!)

          But seriously, once you start looking more broadly than property toward something like "quality of life," wealth is a rich (:P) and complex concept.

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