Nat O'Connor: The topic of economic inequality is (rightly) high on the news agenda in recent months. A recent report from the UK Tax Justice Network estimates that a minimum of $21 trillion has been hidden in tax havens by just 92,000 people.
Gene Kerrigan gives a particularly vivid description of $21 trillion as 250 Croke Parks, each with one million euro sitting on each seat. He might have added that there would only be 368 people in each stadium gathering up the cash.
And how is it done? Kerrigan points the finger at the banking sector for facilitating tax dodging on a massive scale.
Even the Conservative-led UK Government is also taking a new, hard look at aggressive tax avoidance.
More unusually, the theme of economic inequality is taken up in a nine-page special feature and editorial in the latest New Scientist (28 July 2012). They too focus on the richest one per cent, but they go beyond this to look at the scientific evidence underpinning how we got into this position.
The New Scientist report looks at the anthropological development of inequality, which only rose in the last 5,000 years after millenia of egalitarian human societies (from which and for which we have evolved). The report examines the impact of stress caused by inequality as a health factor. Societies with inequality above 30 measured by the Gini co-efficient (i.e. the standard measure of economic inequality) experience thousands of avoidable deaths. The UK with a Gini score of 33 had 12,000 avoidable deaths due to inequality.
The latest Gini score for Ireland is 33.2 (Eurostat 2010 data). TASC's Health Inequalities report gives more detail on the socioeconomic links to ill health and avoidable deaths in Ireland.
The New Scientist report also describes cognitive biases around money and other psychological aspects of inequality and acquisitiveness. They point to the inherent instability of unequal societies.
Conversely, one article makes the observation that environmental damage is partially lessened by inequality, as a more equal distribution of that money would lead to more consumption. However, they don't take into account the likelihood of inflation and the option of increased taxes to reduce this threat.
Overall, the feature suggests that economic inequality is being more widely acknowledged for the substantive social problem that it is. The editor writes: "...for much of the past 40 years, inequality has remained a topic of serious discussion for just a small cadre of academics."
However, increasingly, scientific analyses (such as The Spirit Level as well as the New Scientist feature) are reinforcing the normative arguments for creating more equal societies. As one of the New Scientist articles concludes:
"The policy implications seem obvious, if politically contentious: a more even distribution of wealth would improve health on national and global scales. ... a clearer picture is emerging of inequality and its relation to health, self-worth, the ability to participate in society and to take control of one's life."