“The Spirit Level” debate

I’ve already blogged several times about a fascinating book called “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett. In my review of the work, I commented: “This is one of the most important books that I have read in five decades of reading because its scope is so wide and its message so compelling and because it resonates powerfully with my own political principles and passion for social justice.”

The central proposition of the book is that, in the more developed countries of  the world, the more unequal the income distribution the more that nation suffers from a range of poor social outcomes.

This week I attended a debate at the Royal Society of Arts in London in which the two authors of “The Spirit Level” were challenged by two critics of their work, Christopher Snowden, author of “The Spirit Level Delusion”, and Peter Saunders, author of “Beware False Prophets”. The whole thing will be podcast here.

The critics presented three main arguments.

1) The data used is selective in terms of countries and that a small number of outliers distorts the apparent correlation.  RW & KP argued that they consistently used the same 23 nations for which robust data was available  in order not to be accused of selectivity and that the predictive power of their thesis had been demonstrated by new data for additional countries fitting well the correlations.

2) That the thesis does not take proper account of cultural and historical factors which would better explain why the Scandinavian countries appear to do so well and the Anglo nations seem to do so badly. RW & KP pointed out that the same correlations are found in the 50 states of the USA which share a common culture and history.

3) That the influence of third variables has not be considered so that, for instance, for the US data ethnicity is a more powerful predictor of homicide rates that income distribution. This begs the question of whether in any given state there are more murders because there are more African-Americans or because there are more black people who happen to be poor.

Pickett was particularly confident and convincing in her presentation and answers and said that on Monday the web site of the Equality Trust would carry a detailed rebuttal of all the criticisms made of the book. She was the one of the four speakers who reminded the packed-out lecture theatre that we are dealing with human issues: “We are talking about human suffering here”.

My overall conclusion was that Snowden & Saunders had raised sufficient methodical and computational issues to suggest that the original thesis may not be as simple or as powerful as the book asserts, but that the central proposition remains valid and strong. More research and debate would be valuable, and politicians and policymakers need to examine how best countries can reduce inequalities of income and wealth.


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