Dr. Jerry Stinner / Dean, College of Science and Mathematics
Congratulations graduating class of 2010. You have definitely achieved a major milestone in your lives.
Today I want to spend just a few minutes talking about the role of society in your future success. And if you know me, you know that I like to begin by talking about evolution. For at least 2 million years humans evolved to be a highly social species. The ability to work in groups is fundamental to our success. In many ways we’re like the social insects—honeybees, ants, and termites. Very few other species have accomplished group cooperation.
Humans learned to share and to work together because their lives literally depended upon it. Hoarding wealth was not tolerated. Those who did were punished. For most of our evolutionary history we were largely egalitarian much like hunter gatherers are today. Over time we became quite good at comparing ourselves with each other and judging relative wealth.
Many of you have probably seen the longevity curve versus income for nations around the world. Plot life span against per capita income and what you see is quite interesting. Not surprisingly, as income goes up so does life span. But what is surprising is that once annual income reaches about $25,000 there is no affect of income on life span. Apparently once certain needs are met, more money doesn’t buy a longer life.
In countries like Spain, Germany, and Sweden per capita income is half what it is in the US, but their citizens live longer than we do. This is especially surprising when you realize that the US makes up 5% of the world’s population but accounts for almost half of the world’s spending on health care. But we don’t live longer!
Much the same thing can be said about happiness. Once income reaches $25,000 per person, studies show that there is no relationship between per capita income and happiness when comparing countries.
But now here is where things get really interesting. If you look at developed countries like Spain, Germany, Sweden, the UK, and Japan-- those with per capita incomes above $25,000-- life expectancy and happiness do correlate with income inequality. The greater the differences in income within a country, the shorter the life span and the people are less happy. And that is for all levels of wealth, from poor to rich. For the same per capita income, you will live longer and be happier if you live in a country with less income inequality. The data is quite clear on that. This is our evolutionary legacy at work.
It’s no secret that income inequality has grown alarmingly in the US since the 1950s. Consider the following numbers:
• In the 1960s CEOs of major companies took home 25 to 30 times the wage of their average worker employee. In 1997 it had ballooned to 350 times!
• In 1968 the CEO of General Motors, the largest US company at the time, took home 66 times the average GM workers’ salary. In 2005 the largest US company was Walmart. Its CEO, Sam Walton, took home 900 times the average worker’s salary at Walmart.
• And, in 1980, 8% of income in the US went to the wealthiest one percent. Today almost 25% of income goes to the wealthiest one percent.
Life span and happiness are not the only things that correlate with income inequality. Here are some others:
• Levels of trust. The greater the differences in wealth, the less people trust each other. When college students in 1960 were asked “Can most people be trusted?” 60% said yes. Today 40% say yes.
• Anxiety levels. Today the average college student reports an anxiety level that exceeds 85% of college students questioned in the 1950s.
• Mental illness, including drug and alcohol addiction. In the US one in four adults reports mental illness within the last year. In countries like Spain, Germany and Sweden it is one in ten.
• Homicide rates. Murder rates are four times higher in the US than in the UK, and 14 times higher than in Japan.
• Prison populations. The US is 5% of the world’s population but accounts for 25% of all prisoners. From 1984 to 1998 California built one new college and 21 state prisons. In 1980 10% of California’s general fund went to higher education and 3% went to prisons. Today 11% goes to prisons and less than 8% goes to higher education.
• As everyone knows the rate of imprisonment is strongly correlated with race. For example, if you are African American born in California, your chances of going to prison are 7 times higher than if you’re born white like me. And states with higher percentages of African Americans have higher income inequality. But I’m sure you as educated college graduates know that race is not the cause. In fact, racial discrimination is used by societies to maintain class and social differences. In the 1940s it was shown that certain neighborhoods in Chicago had chronically high crime rates, despite changes in ethnicity from Irish to Polish to Hispanic. And 25% of whites have committed violent crimes by the age of 17 while 36% of African Americans have committed violent crimes by age 17. Rates of property crimes are similar. These small differences between the races cannot possibly explain the huge differences in imprisonment.
• Other factors that correlate with income inequality are obesity, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and children’s performance in school.
In conclusion, we evolved to be a highly social species. We work together and we are keenly sensitive to inequalities. So class of 2010, in the future don’t just pay attention to your own wealth and prosperity, but also pay attention to the health and well being of those around you. Because if you do, I promise that you will live longer and be happier.
Thanks for your attention class of 2010!