Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2355th Meeting

At the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC
December 4, 2015

President Larry Millstein called the 2355th meeting of the Society to order at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. on December 4, 2015 at 8:05 p.m.  He presented a summary of the 24th meeting of the Society, held in 1872.  He announced the order of business and welcomed new members.  The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved.  President Millstein then introduced the speaker for the evening, Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, and Director of the Institute of Health Equity, University College London.  His lecture was titled “The Health Gap: Why It Concerns All of Us and What to Do About It”


Dr. Marmot began with a passage from Aldous Huxley’s dystopia “A Brave New World”, in which society was stratified by caste through deliberate tampering with human development.  He explained that our society is similarly stratified due to the pollutant of poverty and argued that if the true effects of poverty were widely understood society would demand its removal as if it were any other toxin.

Acknowledging that philosophy, as the term is now understood, is not ordinarily the business of PSW, he posed the philosophical question of what we mean by a “fair society”, positing that a key indicator is the fair distribution of health.  If inequalities persist that are avoidable by reasonable means, he suggested, that is unfair.  Politicians, of course, are bound to support equality of opportunity, in theory.  The problem, he explained, is that the playing field is tilted.

To illustrate the point, he presented a chart showing the income of adults versus those of their grown children.  The US and the UK show high correlation, indicating low social mobility.  Finland, Norway, and Denmark, on the other hand, show low correlation, i.e. high social mobility.  Social mobility, furthermore, is correlated with the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality.  Where there is high income inequality (such as in the U.S.), equality of opportunity is low, as demonstrated by a low social mobility score. Therefore, he concluded, politicians cannot profess to support equality of opportunity if they tolerate income inequality.
He next noted that the mortality for non-Hispanic whites in the U.S.—in  contrast to Western Europe, Canada, and Australia—has  actually been increasing since the late 1990s.  This rise is due primarily to suicide, alcohol and drug poisoning, and violence.  Risk from these factors was inversely correlated with education.  He further noted that although healthcare accounts for 17 percent of the United States budget, access to adequate health care is not a major factor in these risks.  Instead, they arise from more systemic causes, including education level and firearm access.

He explained that although the differences in life expectancy between the most affluent and the poorest neighborhoods is 18 years, even those in the median income group live lives 9 years shorter than the most affluent.  Dr. Marmot said we must flatten the slope.

He noted that income alone does not explain these differences.  At low levels of income, small increases in income have a large effect on life expectancy, such as between starvation and survival, or access to fouled water versus clean water.  However, at about $10,000 per year (a global average), the link to life expectancy begins to attenuate.  Differences that persist are related to broader social factors linked to systemic inequality of opportunity, such as lack of education, un- or under-employment, lack of family cohesion, and lifestyle choices.

These troubling data raise the question, “What can we do?” Dr. Marmot suggests that we can “break the link” between economic status and the developmental and health impacts that follow from deprivation.

Dr. Marmot presented a study comparing child poverty before and after taxes and transfers.  In countries such as Norway, Slovenia, and Sweden, the effect of the transfer was to cut the child poverty rate in half or better, compared to before the transfer.  Dr. Marmot explained that the magnitude of this intervention is a reflection of how tolerant the society is toward child poverty.  The U.S. child poverty rate, after accounting for social transfers, is worse than it is in Latvia. This suggests that the U.S. is not using the legal and economic “levers” available to it.

He noted that these principles do not necessarily require national level action.  Local and regional governments can choose to implement these concepts in their communities, and have done so to great effect in England and Sweden.

Dr. Marmot concluded by suggesting that an alternate title for his talk might be “The Organization of Misery,” as socioeconomic misery appears to follow organized and predictable gradients based on a society’s structure.  But he also saw inspiring examples that hope, too, can be organized.  Noting the dramatic improvements realized by countries that have committed to these principles, he encouraged policy makers to do something, do more, or do better.

After the conclusion of the talk, President Millstein invited questions from the audience.

One questioner asked about South Africa, which has recently experienced dramatic changes in social equality.  Dr. Marmot noted that relative inequality with respect to income translates into absolute inequality with respect to outcomes.  Thus, in South Africa the inequalities are still extreme, and so the outcomes remain similarly extreme.

Another questioner asked why it appears that being or having been a world superpower correlates with increased inequality.  Dr. Marmot noted, without hypothesizing, that China’s growing superpower status has been accompanied by rising inequality as well.

Finally, a questioner asked about the apparent discrepancy in the effect of inequality on the health of men.  Dr. Marmot observed that single men, whether unmarried, widowed, or divorced, suffered more adverse effects from poverty than women of similar socioeconomic status.  He theorized that under difficult socioeconomic conditions, women were more adept at the social networking required to seize the benefits available from their limited social systems.

After the question and answer period, President Millstein thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to join the Society.  At 9:55 p.m., President Millstein adjourned the 2355th meeting of the Society to the social hour.

Attendance: 83
The weather: Partly Cloudy
The temperature: 8°C

Respectfully submitted,

Preston Thomas
External Communications Director


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