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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Apology alert!

Apology alert! This is a rant. As a dutiful Canadian, I should probably commence and conclude with an apology to my dear friends and relatives (please don’t disown me!) south of the border. So, I’m sorry. Here goes...

The Gini coefficient is a useful measure that describes the level of income or wealth inequality in a society. The greater the number, the greater the disparity. It’s a fascinating indicator, used by some economists studying factors leading to revolution. Even more fascinating is when calculations reveal that the Gini coefficient for a particular country is both on the rise and rapidly approaching levels calculated for Russia and France immediately in advance of their particular revolutions. Would you care to guess which country I’m talking about? Is the Gini coefficient a predictor of revolution? Stay tuned. Time judges all. I’ll share here a listing of income Gini coefficients for all members of the G7.

  • Germany 27.0

  • France 29.3

  • Italy 31.9

  • Canada 32.1

  • United Kingdom 32.4

  • Japan 37.9

  • United States 45.0

Interesting, huh? Or should I say, eh? Would you use the word ‘outlier’ here?

Here’s a few more for context:

  • Sweden 24.9

  • Norway 26.8

  • Finland 27.2

  • Denmark 29.0 (See a connection here? Reference the Happiness Report.)

And a few more on the other side:

  • Saudi Arabia 45.9 (not good company)

  • China 46.5 (how can that be in a communist country???)

  • Mexico 48.2

  • Brazil 49.0

The Gini coefficient in the United States is at its highest level in fifty years. It continues to rise.

Current tensions south of our border are one more checkpoint in a 400 year twinned journey of systemic racism and systemic poverty.

I would contend that the only path out of this mess will be marked, if successful, by transition to what every single other western industrialized democracy has adopted for many decades. The answer will be found in universal access to both education and health care. If this is the dreaded socialism, so be it. The fire department is socialism. The public library is socialism. Garbage collection is socialism. The court system is socialism. I could go on and on.

Those who demonize universal access to education and health care are people who make a profit from the current alternative. Those who say that the American health care system is the best in the world should look at the numbers more carefully. The United States spends more than twice as much on health care per capita as almost every other country in the world. Yet Americans rank 1st in obesity among 29 countries measured. Among G7 nations, Americans have the second highest infant mortality rate, next to Italy. Life expectancy in the United States ranks 33rd of 36 OECD nations measured.

What the hell is going on?

I would argue that it’s really not that complicated.

An unregulated free market will inevitably lead to a monopoly. When corporations are allowed to lobby (buy) political decisions, policies serve those with money and power... and they get more money and power. They buy freedom from regulation. They buy freedom from common sense food guidelines. They buy freedom from health care practices that centre on the patient in favour of profits for HMOs and private insurance companies. And they sell bacon double cheeseburgers wrapped in buns of deep fried chicken.

But what about all that extra money spent on health care??? Well, it’s not actually spent on “health care”. It’s spent on the profits from providing health care (or depriving health care, as the case may be).

Unless and until the United States wakes up to the reality of universal health care, it will sacrifice both the health and economic productivity of huge swaths of the population who cannot afford access. The current pandemic shock to the economy has shone a very bright light on the flaws of an employer-based health insurance program. What will they do if we see the predicted depression-era unemployment levels? What a wasted resource to marginalize significant proportions of society with a winner-takes-all strategy. Sick people cannot work. Dead people cannot work. What part of this does Mitch McConnell not understand?

The very same argument applies to education. An uneducated person cannot make an optimal contribution to society. I’ll go further. An uneducated person falls prey to manipulators who promise to drain the Washington swamp and to rescue them from demon elites. If you’re going to let public education fail, you should first take the vote away from the people, or they will ultimately make you pay for it with their vote. Oops! Too late now.

Poverty breeds illness. Poverty breeds crime. Make no mistake of it. There is a direct line from poverty to illness and to crime... and from there to high economic costs, and a repeating cycle in a downward spin. The end of the line will not just see the United States losing its pre-eminence in the world. With failing health care and education as foundational supports for the population, the society, and the economy, the risk of falling dramatically in all world rankings will weigh heavily on its future prospects. Without equal access right across the population, failure of the whole is inevitable.

How many great sports dynasties have we watched get old and fat, never to recover? Never to be great again? Why should we expect anything different for countries! One of the best predictors of failure is success... when coupled with complacency. Handicapping a large portion of your potential contributors with inadequate health care and education pretty much assures a decline in pre-eminence. Saying that you’re the best doesn’t make it so. Being the best means you don’t need to keep saying it. Do the job and it’s yours. Fail and we’ll give it to someone else. Please do the job! It’s yours to lose!

Democracy is not a reality. It’s aspirational. Until the entire population possesses the right to participate - in the vote, in education, in the economy, and in good health, democracy will remain out of reach.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve conducted more than 450 research projects at more than 100 schools across North America, the majority of these in the United States. The single most important lesson I’ve learned from this work is very simple: “Engagement is everything!” Until you’re engaged, nothing good can happen. Absolutely nothing!

As long as the “free market” of “democracy” continues to lock out tens of millions of people from this engagement, the voices of these people will answer as they have this past week, “What do we have to lose?”

We can debate forever the direction of cause and effect in this downward spiral of racism and poverty. Better still, those in charge must embrace universal access to health care and education. Only by way of this structural correction can American society at last have some chance of cutting through the generational cycle and making positive progress. Without it, in my view, nothing can change.

To conclude, I’m sorry... and as Colin Mochrie once put it in his infamous Apology to America, I’m sorry we keep apologizing...

(While my focus today is on the Gini coefficient and the American experience, I should add emphatically that Canada is by no means immune from systemic racism and systemic poverty. Our living history of crimes against First Nations persons is an unresolved tragedy all of its own. For an exploration of my own caged thinking in this regard, see my celebration of friendship with Nee-Gon-ee.)

With apologies,

Kevin Graham

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