The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die
By Keith Payne
219 pages, $28
Unlike most books about income and wealth inequality -- and there are plenty -- this one offers no remedies to even the playing field. Don't look here for Social Security overhauls, tax reform or magic bullets.
Instead, this work is designed to explore the consequences of inequality for individual families, communities and for the nation as a whole. And it doesn't paint a pretty picture.
Where inequality is widespread, Payne writes, people who are struggling are far more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, exercise too little, eat too much, make short-sighted decisions and die much younger than those who are financially secure.
"Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again," says Payne, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. "It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification."
Consider Jason, who worked on a tobacco farm and in auto body shops in Macao, Kentucky. He fell deep in debt trying to establish his own repair shop and then spent eight years in prison for what seemed more lucrative and less demanding --manufacturing and selling drugs.
Even before his shop went bust, Jason lived life on the edge. "I'm never gonna have nothing," he said. "So I gotta do what I'm gonna do now."
Insecurities driven by poverty foster "us-versus-them" divisions, and "provoke us to embrace simplistic beliefs, extreme ideologies, and prejudices that provide easy answers, but do so by sabotaging the healthy functioning of civil society," Payne said.
When asked what values they treasure, survey respondents stress love, faith, loyalty, honesty and integrity.
"And yet," Payne writes, "no one ever mentions something that we know to be true, both from scientific studies and from simply being human: 'I crave status.'"
That instinct, he said, is prevalent even at the highest levels of income and wealth, where luxury cars and prestigious homes are perceived as necessities.
"We are unconsciously comparing what we have to what someone else has -- our friends, our neighbors, that handsome couple in the magazine -- and we are aware only of the conclusion our brain has silently computed: Compared to that, this isn't sufficient."
The book has an authoritative ring, weaves together numerous studies and offers a thoughtful and important message.
But there is little here that hasn't already been broadly addressed by earlier works. In addition, Payne reaches too far for background material, including discussions on early human dwelling in the African grasslands, the longevity of fruit flies, seating arrangements at France's traditional legislative assembly and other topics that are marginally relevant at best.
Peter Simon was formerly the News' longtime education reporter.