Kristof: Low-Income Americans Are Like Cocaine-Snorting Monkeys

Most people don't stay up nights seething over the fact that some people are wealthier than they are. Good thing Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is there to bleed on their behalf.

The issue of income inequality in America reliably sends Kristof off the deep end. The latest demonstration in his Sunday column on the soul-killing "polarizing inequality" of today's United States: "Equality, a True Soul Food."

Kristof is serious about the soul-killing part, as it leads to heart disease, obesity, and most grievously, cocaine use by frustrated monkeys, reminding Times Watch of a 2003 Times editorial writer's foray into monkey socialism (last item).

There's growing evidence that the toll of our stunning inequality is not just economic but also is a melancholy of the soul. The upshot appears to be high rates of violent crime, high narcotics use, high teenage birthrates and even high rates of heart disease.


The heart of their argument is that humans are social animals and that in highly unequal societies those at the bottom suffer from a range of pathologies. For example, a long-term study of British civil servants found that messengers, doormen and others with low status were much more likely to die of heart disease, suicide and some cancers and had substantially worse overall health.

There's similar evidence from other primates. For example, macaque monkeys are also highly social animals, and scientists put them in cages and taught them how to push a lever so that they could get cocaine. Those at the bottom of the monkey hierarchy took much more cocaine than high-status monkeys.


So why is inequality so harmful? "The Spirit Level" suggests that inequality undermines social trust and community life, corroding societies as a whole. It also suggests that humans, as social beings, become stressed when they find themselves at the bottom of a hierarchy.

That stress leads to biological changes, such as the release of the hormone cortisol, and to the accumulation of abdominal fat (perhaps an evolutionary adaptation in preparation for starvation ahead?). The result is physical ailments like heart disease, and social ailments like violent crime, mutual distrust, self-destructive behaviors and persistent poverty. Another result is the establishment of alternative systems in which one can win respect and acquire self-esteem, such as gangs.

Tom Maguire at Just One Minute warned readers off Kristof's column: "So Dumb I Fear I Am At Risk Of A Brain Hemorrhage."

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