Maybe inequality causes suicide, drug abuse and mental illness. Maybe it’s the “American Dream.” Maybe both.

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A magisterial paragraph by Frank Rich at The New Yorker.

In 2008, America Stopped Believing in the American Dream

That loose civic concept known as the American Dream — initially popularized during the Great Depression by the historian James Truslow Adams in his Epic of America — has been shattered. No longer is lip service paid to the credo, however sentimental, that a vast country, for all its racial and sectarian divides, might somewhere in its DNA have a shared core of values that could pull it out of any mess. Dead and buried as well is the companion assumption that over the long term a rising economic tide would lift all Americans in equal measure. When that tide pulled back in 2008 to reveal the ruins underneath, the country got an indelible picture of just how much inequality had been banked by the top one percent over decades, how many false promises to the other 99 percent had been broken, and how many central American institutions, whether governmental, financial, or corporate, had betrayed the trust the public had placed in them. And when we went down, we took much of the West with us. The American Kool-Aid we’d exported since the Marshall Plan, that limitless faith in progress and profits, had been exposed as a cruel illusion.

Meanwhile at The Economist, the reviewer isn’t sure this book’s argument holds. For me, even if inequality cannot be proven to cause societal illness and disarray, it’s sure not helping the situation, is it?

Play it again, Frank.

 … just how much inequality had been banked by the top one percent over decades, how many false promises to the other 99 percent had been broken …

Best follow the money.

The crack-up: Does inequality cause suicide, drug abuse and mental illness?

In “The Inner Level”, the authors of “The Spirit Level” argue that it does

 … In a paper published in 2010, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson found that about one in ten people in Japan and Germany suffered some form of mental illness in the year they studied, compared with one in five Britons and Australians and one in four Americans. If economic ups and downs are the source of such troubles, they seem to have torn at the minds of citizens in some societies more than others.

The key to the puzzle, Ms Pickett and Mr Wilkinson argue in their new book, “The Inner Level”, is inequality. When the distribution of income spreads apart, a society begins to malfunction, affecting the mental health of everyone living within it.

Curse of the social animal

The pair have addressed the subject before. In “The Spirit Level”, a bestseller released in 2009, they sought to demonstrate a link between high levels of inequality and all manner of social ills, from poor health and obesity, to crime and violence, to educational failure and low social mobility. The more unequal a society, they wrote, the worse it was likely to perform on such measures. Indeed, the social damage wrought by inequality might be severe enough that the rich in less equal societies would benefit from efforts to even things up. The book attracted its share of criticism, as theories of everything tend to, in particular for confusing correlations with causality. Nonetheless, it helped to inspire a burgeoning debate about the costs of widening inequality.

“The Inner Level” seeks to push that debate forward, by linking inequality to a crisis of mental health. This time the authors’ argument focuses on status anxiety: stress related to fears about individuals’ places in social hierarchies. Anxiety declines as incomes rise, they show, but is higher at all levels in more unequal countries—to the extent that the richest 10% of people in high-inequality countries are more socially anxious than all but the bottom 10% in low-inequality countries. Anxiety contributes to a variety of mental-health problems, including depression, narcissism and schizophrenia—rates of which are alarming in the West, the authors say, and rise with inequality.

Manifestations of mental illness, such as self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse and problem gambling, all seem to get worse with income dispersion, too. Such relationships seem to apply within countries as well as between them. Damaging drug use is higher in more unequal neighbourhoods of New York City, in more unequal American states and in more unequal countries. The authors emphasise that it is a person’s relative position rather than absolute income that matters most …

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