Social ills and disparity linked

Democracy must be extended to the workplace before big gaps in income will change, Spirit Level author Prof Richard Wilkinson told an audience in Dunedin yesterday.

Prof Wilkinson and fellow epidemiologist Prof Kate Pickett are visiting New Zealand from the United Kingdom to speak about their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

The book argues a host of health and social ills are linked to the economic inequality within countries, rather than the country's overall wealth.

It has proven politically controversial because the pair argue the ''neoliberal ideology'' of the 1980s onwards caused the gap to greatly widen.

Prof Wilkinson said the research really just showed what most people had known by intuition for centuries.

''Basically, what we all know makes sense.''

More equal countries consistently fared better in life expectancy, imprisonment, infant mortality, addictions, social mobility, obesity, literacy and other measures.

As had been expected, the research showed New Zealand had high levels of both economic inequality and social problems, Prof Pickett said.

Prof Wilkinson said workers must be given representation on company boards to reduce top pay of executives.

Workers might be inclined to vote their boss a salary several times more than their own, but were hardly likely to approve one hundreds of times their own.

Employees could also be encouraged and aided to buy shares in the company.

The pair favour higher taxes to improve equality, but Prof Wilkinson said these were more easily reversed by governments.

Big business had become so powerful it was virtually immune from government influence, to an ''appalling extent'' in the United States but also elsewhere.

Economic inequality had implications for the environment, because more equal countries fared better on environmental measures including carbon dioxide emissions.

In more equal societies, people were less concerned with status, which meant they were less prone to over-consumption.

eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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