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Let Them Eat Cake: The Economic Costs and Causes of our Societal Ills

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From Occupy Wall Street: DAY OF ACTION - 11/17/11 - 42
Occupy Wall Street: DAY OF ACTION - 11/17/11 - 42
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br />Occupy Wall Street: DAY OF ACTION - 11/17/11 - 42 by ChairWomanMay

Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, England and researcher in social inequalities in health and the social determinants of health, gave a TED talk on the effects of unequal distribution of wealth in rich, developed market democracies, which includes us.

He emphasized two important findings from his research: 1) Country to country comparisons showed no correlations or statistical relationship. Which means the unequal distribution of wealth between countries had no discernible effect.

2) The unequal distribution of wealth within each country had overwhelming negative statistical relationships to its society's health. And the most egregious negative societal effects, the findings of which are confirmed by at least 200 peer reviewed journals, is found in the United States.

Wilkinson's study compared the distribution of wealth between the top and bottom 20 percent in each country. For example, the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States is twice that of countries like Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.   None the less, they were consistently found to have much healthier societies.

This cannot be a surprise to anyone but the most unconscious among us: A society's unequal distribution of wealth has a negative correlation to the health of its society. In other words, the greater the one, the less the other.

What are the factors that constitute a healthy society? Life expectancy, math and literacy skills, infant mortality, homicides, imprisoned population, teenage births, trust, obesity, mental illness, including drug abuse and alcoholism, and social mobility.

In effect, what this means is the health of our society as measured by these factors is at the low end of all the rich, developed market democracies in the world while our unequal distribution of wealth is at the high end. Our top 20 percent has 8.5 times more wealth than the bottom 20 percent.

Now before you think I am advocating for government enforced redistribution of your personal wealth, please relax. I'm coming to this issue from a constructive perspective that was an integral part of capitalism for a long time before Milton Friedman.

There are two remedies I can think of in this regard: 1) a more equal distribution of the ownership of the our economic engine. "Ain't gonna" happen in my lifetime. 2) a more equal distribution of the responsibility for and the sharing of the gains to be had in the functioning of a more effective economic engine.

In simple terms, get capital and labor working together to make the whole pie bigger and enhance everyone's life. In other words, reverse the current trend taking us down the road toward even more corrosive effects on our society.

I'm a dreamer, you say? No, I'm the voice of experience. I've done exactly this and proved the concept.

In the 1980's, while a plant manager for Dana Corporation, I had the pleasure of working with Fred Lesieur who at that time held the Scanlon Chair at MIT. Lesieur consulted to companies who wanted to implement Scanlon Plans and had partnered with Joseph Scanlon in the development of the first plan of this type at Lapointe Tool Company in the 1930's.

Initially, the plan was seen as a union management cooperation plan designed to save a company from bankruptcy. I found it to be a great deal more. It remade every one of my 400 employees into a capitalist by sharing the responsibility and the gains that came from new efficiencies they themselves produced.

During those years, Dana corporation was in the top 100 Best Places to work while they had their Lesieur Scanlon Plan. My plant was one of those places.

In concrete terms, the plan released a 20 to 25 percent improvement in efficiencies previously blocked by employee/management conflicts of interests. We all enjoyed the bonus income that came from our joint efforts, not to mention the improved morale and reduction in grievances about trivialities.

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Author, columnist, and blogger with a long career in business management, management consulting and executive coaching. I've authored and published six books: "You, Your Self and the 21st Century,"The Flowers Are Talking to Me," and "Faith (more...)

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