Comment From John: What are some of the "by-products" of income inequality? For example, what does research tell us about income inequality and health status or crime?
Armine Yalnizyan: John, your question is timely. Professor Richard Wilkinson just finished a tour of Canada, discussing his research findings from the past 30 years or so. A social epidemiologist, he has gathered international data showing the very tight correlation between life expectancy and income inequality, between literacy and income inequality, between rates of incarceration and income inequality, etc. etc. Over and over again he shows a range of issues that have a strong social gradient which reveal that almost everybody is better off in a society with greater income equality, including the rich. You can see his presentation in Vancouver at this link. http://i.sfu.ca/TmyYCh or read his best-selling book (with co-author Kate Pickett) The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone.
Comment From RonMacKinnon: Would a "guaranteed income suppliment" be a solution to this crisis?
Armine Yalnizyan: Ron it could indeed be a solution, and has been the subject of discussion in Canada, with various iterations, since the 1970s. The Mincome experiment in Manitoba in the mid 1970s, the MacDonald Commission i n the mid 1980s, and the House Report from Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 1990s all had proposals for providing a basic income. Only Manitoba tried it, as a pilot project, for a few years. The problem with the guaranteed income idea is at what rate you set it, and at what rate you tax it back. It could remove the stigma of income support programs, but it could just as easily be a costly experiment that, essentially, guarantees poverty. Also, as Dr. Wilkinson has suggested, at some point on the GDP per capita curve, income inequality is no longer about material deprivation, but rather one of psycho-social responses. We are, after all, pack animals.
Comment From Gerry Sanders: Seems to me we can keep going down the road of winner take all corporatism like the US or develop a middle class by going the route of social democracies. Why not have prospering Norway as our economic model rather than the declining US?
Armine Yalnizyan: Gerry, you have put your finger on the nub of the problem, which is not economic in nature, but cultural in nature. For better or worse, our culture is more likely to mimic the Americans than the Norwegians. But Canadians have always trod a slightly different path too. We have perhaps the most diverse population on the planet, and Canada has for some time been regarded as the United Nations in action. We have had leadership from virtually all of our provinces in ways to do things more effectively and inclusively, and it is highly likely that we can continue that pattern of marching to the beat of a different drummer, even as the Americans pursue their own course of action. We should remember, too, that some of the most vocal opponents of inequality come from the U.S. See Senator Bernie Sanders' speech here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5OtB298fHY
Comment From Scott: It seems to me that, generally speaking, we have become less educated about the need for collective action and benefits. Do you agree that we need a massive public education campaign, beginning with discussion of public goods, the role of taxes (and progressive taxation) etc? I am starting to this that we're having these complex discussions (poverty reduction, equity, etc) and fewer and fewer people are equipped with the fundamentals to even partake in the discussion. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.
Armine Yalnizyan: Scott, you are right, and this very conversation is part of that public education process. The Globe's "discussions we need to have" series, and on-line media in general, has the capacity to open up all sorts of important discussions. But it isn't til there is some sense of groundswell to move in a certain direction that the need for collective action and benefits takes place, as governments at every level and of every political stripe are compelled to move in the same direction. After the Second World War, the collective wisdom was to expand government provisions (and taxation, to support those services). After the mid 1990s the collective wisdom was to cut taxes (and reduce the services that came with them). It will be interesting to see where the majority opinion flows next. It is clear that inequality is a huge underlying issue that could colour the public mood and push action in one direction or another.