We’ve all heard Bernie Sanders talk about how the top 1% of earners in the world own more than half of all global wealth. Unfortunately for most, Bernie is not wrong. In recent years, income inequality has been growing globally at an alarming and ever-increasing rate.
It has been growing, however, at vastly different speeds in different countries. It seems that the way in which a country legislates has a real and important effect on inequality. In this piece, I’ll examine the possible relationship between income inequality and happiness by looking at figures from, among others, the World Happiness Report (WHR) and the World Inequality Report (WIR)
It is definitely worth noting that happiness is a subjective and complex notion which surely depends on any number of factors outside of wealth. My aims here are simply to a) showcase some pieces of evidence (in the form of graphs from various sources) which suggest a link between inequality and happiness and b) to provide a largely theoretical discussion of the possible mechanisms for such a correlation and what the implications are if the correlation holds water.
Before I go any further, I’ll tell you a little about the measurements being used. For happiness (or more accurately ‘subjective wellbeing’), the figures come from so-called Cantril ladder answers. The Cantril ladder question is simply asking people to rate how happy they are on a scale of 1 to 10. On which rung of the ladder do you think you are? For inequality measurements, the Gini Coefficient is perhaps the most useful here. The Gini Index shows how much inequality there is in a country on a scale of 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality) by measuring the “average distance between the income or wealth of all the pairs of individuals” (WIR). Some graphs included in this report, however, use more tools than just the Gini.
Back in the seventies, the ‘father of happiness economics’ Richard Easterlin found that while people with a higher income in a given country were more likely to be happy, this relationship did not hold up on a national level. While the US is the wealthiest country on earth, for example, it ranks just eighteenth in the 2018 World Happiness Report. Though there is a correlation between absolute wealth and happiness in the short term, it is by no means guaranteed that a country with a higher GDP will be happier than one with a lower GDP, nor is it guaranteed that an increase in the wealth of a country will positively affect the country’s ranking in the world happiness report.
The above graph from the WHR shows that while average US income more than doubled over the studied period, happiness was the same if not lower in 2016 than it was in the early seventies. This is the Easterlin Paradox in motion.
There could, of course, be any number of reasons for the findings shown in the above graph (WHR figure 7.1). A possible explanation is the idea of diminished returns. This is the concept that as we acquire more and more wealth, the happiness that a given quantity of money brings us diminishes. If most people won fifteen grand on the lottery, for example, the money would transform their lives for the better. If Bill Gates or Donald Trump won the same amount, it is debatable whether they would even notice.
This idea could help account for the theoretical reasons why inequality should affect happiness. If, as the data shows, the majority of global wealth is being accumulated by people who already have plenty to spare, there will not be a huge ‘return’ of happiness. In a perfectly equal world, everybody requires the same amount to be satisfied. In a perfectly unequal world, the majority of people require little to be satisfied but do not receive even that because all the money is tied up in the bank accounts of people who take their yachts for granted.
Easterlin’s hypothesis was that our happiness depends not on the absolute wealth of the country we live in, but rather where we rank in the social pecking order within the country. This is the concept of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, which could also be a possible mechanism whereby inequality may affect happiness. In a perfectly equal world, people look around and see that everyone around them has the same amount of money they do. In a perfectly unequal world, the vast majority of people can look around and see some people who own more money than they could make in a hundred lifetimes at their salary. This is not to say that everyone would be unhappy because of petty jealousy but it is disheartening for someone who is starving to see someone else participating in an eating competition until they make themselves puke. Higher income inequality means more people starving and more people who have enough money to last a hundred lifetimes, lying dormant and useless in an offshore bank account.
Figures from the World Inequality Report show that while the income of the Russian population grew by a total of 34% between 1980 and 2016, the income of the top 0.001% over the same period in Russia grew by a gargantuan 25,269%. When we look at the global rankings, we see that, for the most part, the most equal countries are also the happiest and the least equal are the least happy. Some readers may question here whether correlation implies causation or if external factors may be influencing the data. Happiness, after all is a slippery and complicated thing to measure. In the US, for example, low happiness levels relative to wealth may be due to such factors as high rates of gun violence, racism and obesity or any number of other problems.
However, if we look at the trends over time on a global scale, there seems to be a link and it is important that we explain that link if we are to learn how best to organise society in terms of subjective wellbeing. Perhaps some countries have both high happiness and low inequality because they have effective governments with a knack for social policy. These governments may provide the infrastructure for happiness through effective legislation aimed at increasing public wellbeing. Might it not be their legislation in other areas which increases national happiness, thus making our apparent link redundant?
It makes sense to me to conclude, at least, that part of the effective policy required to increase national happiness is legislation designed to minimise income inequality. Raising the minimum wage. Raising taxes for the wealthy and using that money for social goods. This is what smart governments do. Legislation influences both the happiness of a country and its place in the Gini index. What is good for income equality may also be good for happiness.
Income Inequality Explains Why Economic Growth Does Not Always Translate to an Increase in Happiness – Shigehiro Oishi and Selin Kesebir
Mapping Three Decades of Rising Income Inequality, State by State – Richard Florida
Money and Happiness: Rank of Income, not Income, Affects Life Satisfaction – Christopher J. Boyce, Gordon D. A. Brown and Simon C. Moore
Purchasing Power Parities – OECD
Richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, study finds – Rupert Neate
The World Factbook – The CIA
Whales are notoriously vocal animals. Indeed, the catalyst for the ‘Save the Whales’ campaign of the 1970s can be said to be the release of the album ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ recorded by bio-acoustician Roger Payne. This was the first time that the public was able to hear and appreciate the astonishing variety and beauty of the Humpback’s songs. This love affair with the whales came in the nick of time, since the humpback population had at that time fallen to a historic low. It is estimated that by the late 1960s, over 90% of humpbacks had been wiped out by human activity.
Since the early 1920s, a technique known as ‘reflection seismology’ has been used to locate reserves of natural resources such as oil, gas and salt. Reflection seismology operates on much the same principle as sonar. Sound waves are emitted which reflect off the sea floor and are then measured by an array of sensors. Using this technique, areas of the sea floor can be accurately mapped, and it is possible to determine whether natural resources lie beneath the rock.
Modern reflection seismology is carried out using huge arrays of seismic ‘airguns’. These airguns can produce sounds of up to 240 decibels, over twice the volume of a standard rock gig. What’s worse, this noise level is produced every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day. According to Oceana, a single survey ship may carry up to 96 airguns at a time.
Whales and dolphins use sound to communicate with each other and, in some cases, for the echolocation of prey. Although insufficient research has been conducted to ascertain the detrimental effects of seismic testing on whales, preliminary data shows that almost all cetaceans give seismic airguns a wide berth. Further, sightings of cetaceans fall significantly when seismic testing is being conducted in a given area. Even in the absence of solid data, mere common sense dictates that the levels of noise produced by seismic testing may well prove to seriously harm the hearing of cetaceans, as well as disrupting their feeding, mating and migratory habits. In any case, if reflection seismology is at all likely to damage already strained marine environments, it is imperative that we halt that practice before the damage is irreversible.
It is not just whales that are at risk. During periods of seismic testing, local fishermen have reported an increase in dead fish floating in the sea. Squid, crabs and fish eggs have also been shown to be harmed by seismic airguns. It seems, then, that as well as deafening and disorienting endangered whales, seismic testing is also harming their ecosystem and thus limiting the availability of their prey. One study found that the number of zooplankton – tiny creatures that are the backbone of marine ecosystems – fell by 64% within 1,219 meters of airgun activity. That is guaranteed to have huge knock-on effects not just for whales and dolphins, but for all ocean life.
On the 1st of February 2018, seismic airgun testing off the coast of Newcastle, Australia was approved by NOPSEMA. The tests, which will be carried out by Asset energy, are approved right up until the 31st of May, with the whale migration set to begin around the 1st of June. This has been met with serious resistance. Greenpeace Australia campaigner Nathaniel Pelle noted that “Whales and other endangered species do not adhere to the Gregorian calendar and do not know the difference between May 31 and June 1”. The fact that this must be noted at all speaks to the greed and short-sightedness of regulators and fossil fuel companies.
In December of 2018, the U.S. (under the command of Donald Trump) began extensive seismic surveys of the entire east coast. This happened despite vehement opposition from almost all U.S. environmental agencies and state governments. The area which the U.S. has begun to survey is the home and breeding grounds of the North Atlantic Right Whale, a species so endangered that there are less than 500 of them alive today.
A final and crucial point to consider is that even if seismic tests did not damage marine populations directly (which they certainly do), they are a gateway to offshore drilling, a practice which damages marine populations in a number of ways. First, there is a possibility of oil spills which, as we all know, can be cataclysmic events for marine ecosystems. Further, when the oil is successfully extracted, it will be burned as fuel, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating the already severe effects of climate change. Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave energy are the planet’s last hope for any sort of meaningful recovery. One may consider it an added bonus, then, that these energy sources do not require that we seriously harm marine species while they attempt to recover from the immeasurable damage that humans have already inflicted upon them.
Beachapedia – Seismic Surveys
Gordon, Jonathan C.D et al. – A Review of the Effects of Seismic Survey on Marine Mammals
Greenpeace Australia – Humpback whale migration threatened by seismic blasts
Stone, Carolyn J. and Tasker, Mark L. – The effects of seismic airguns on cetaceans in UK waters