Saturday, 14 August 2010

Today's report in The Guardian

Today's report in The Guardian will no doubt draw the usual hate and bile from people who have no intention of reading my book. Still, a few quick points...

Nobody asked me or paid me to write this book. I never set out write a critique of another book. While I was researching a completely different topic, I bought and read The Spirit Level because, as I said to The Guardian, it was "influential and informing debate." Those are the kinds of books I like to read, whether from left or right. When I started fact-checking The Spirit Level I realised that it was too big a subject to squeeze into an article or blog post and The Spirit Level Delusion was born.

When Dr Patrick Basham kindly offered to write the preface for the book, I published it in association with the Democracy Institute, of which he is the director. Had I known this would leave the book open to accusations of being written by a "wrecker" from a "rightwing thinktank" I wouldn't have bothered. You live and learn.

I knew when I wrote it that the dogmatic right wouldn't be interested because they wouldn't have read The Spirit Level. I knew the dogmatic left wouldn't be interested because they'd put their fingers in their ears if anyone raised difficult questions about such a politically useful text. But I also knew that there would be some people in between who had enquiring minds and a genuine interest in the issues. Perhaps I overestimated how many fell into that camp.

The Guardian quoted a few words from a twenty minute interview. No complaints, that's the way it goes...

He [Snowdon] does not believe that The Spirit Level's claim that the psychological effects on society of income inequality are so great to cause widespread social ills. "I don't think people outside the intelligensia worry about inequality," Snowdon said. "The working class don't worry about how much Wayne Rooney is earning."

It's a crude example, but it serves to illustrate one of the fundamental problems with The Spirit Level. It cannot be stressed often enough that Wilkinson and Pickett's hypothesis rests on the psychological (or 'psychosocial') effects of living in a less equal society, not the material effects of poverty.

When people say that they find The Spirit Level's conclusions to be 'intuitively' true, or that they appeal to 'common sense', I wonder whether they fully appreciate that Wilkinson and Pickett are not blaming poverty, low income or low living standards per se. They are talking about something much less tangible—a sense, a feeling, a response—to other people's wealth. As someone who happens to be in the bottom 20% of earners myself, I don't personally feel traumatised by the existence of the super-rich. Perhaps that's just me, but there is also very little empirical evidence that the psychological response to inequality has a significant effect on people's day-to-day lives.

Wilkinson and Pickett would disagree, but the (left-wing) economist JK Galbraith understood this back in 1958 when he wrote The Affluent Society:

Envy almost certainly operates efficiently only as regards near neighbours. It’s not directed towards the distant rich.

In a later preface to The Affluent Society, Galbraith returned to the issue of inequality, making it clear that so long as people's own living standards were improving, they are not troubled by the thought of other people becoming still richer:

When, as suggested in this book, men and women are employed and at continuously improving wages or salaries, they are not greatly concerned that others, with whatever justification or absence of justification, have more, even greatly more.

More recently, in Status Syndrome, the (left-wing) epidemiologist, Michael Marmot discussed the stubborn refusal of ordinary Americans to become less happy even as their country became less equal. He made a telling comment about who is really 'stressed' by income inequality:

Changes in income inequality did not affect happiness levels of the poor. The subgroup of the population whose happiness declined when income inequality increased, were richer people who described themselves as on the left politically.

I discuss this issue in more detail in the later chapters of the book.

No doubt there is resentment at some of the grotesque disparities of wealth that exist (and have always existed), but that resentment would have to be truly monumental for it to be the main driver of an entire country's performance across so many criteria. Very few variables—let alone psychological variables—show up in aggregate data from whole nations. The psychosocial effect of income inequality is not one of them, and Wilkinson and Pickett have to perform all sorts of twists and turns to make their case to the contrary. At best, The Spirit Level gives a cock-eyed view of the way the world is.

The case for greater income equality remains an ethical, moral and political issue. It cannot be 'proved' by social science.

My response to Wilkinson and Pickett's answers to my 20 Questions is here .

Some of the graphs from The Spirit Level Delusion are here.

Links to other sites discussing the debate over The Spirit Level can be found on the right-hand side of the page.


S said...

Well, I have read the Guardian article and your retort to it. The funny thing is, I have not read either books, The Spirit Level or you own. Not really impressed by the description of the book or your ideas. But something stood out as I was reading the Guardian article. This being that the counter arguments being presented about The Spirit Level were, well let's bunch of opinionated rubbish. No empirically based observations, just comments based on typical ideological self interest. So I thought let's see if there's anything deeper provided by the Guardian links outside the article. Behold your blog. Ah wonderful, a chance to take in an opinion constructed on empirical evidence and logical analysis. Well, I have been wrong before and looks like I am again now. Your retort is useless and makes you appear, well desperate and a bit daft. As a right wing thinker you do not do anyone any favours here. Who cares if you were asked to right the book or not, who cares about the preface, not many read them. But, but the real kicker is that you trying to attack The Spirit Level authors about an untangle factor (psychosocial effects). You truly are are daft. We can come back to this. But you really do seem quite a bit well oblivious to things around you. You by no means are on of the bottom 20% of earners in this world! You have a blog, have wrote a book and by the picture on your blog site, you are not hurting for clothing or a well stocked library. Pardon me but you might do well to stay away from such claims, can smell the @#$% from here. As for speaking to the psychosocial aspect, you say the empirical evidence is very little. However, you show none. Unless they have changed thing very little is still more than none. You also speak of JK Galbraith speaking in the 1950's about equality. You do realize this is now a half century later, don't you. I believe that in the Guardian article it was noted that the author's of the Spirit level had put forward the argument that the impetus for wealth accumulation had climaxed and now they suggest wealth distribution. How does an out dated opinion/comment with no empirical basis become relevant to the argument?

Remember I have not read either book. Oh, and should you want to reply to this posting by saying something about I should read both books and make an informed comment, or some such rubbish. Then you will have confirmed that you are quite daft. That is not the point. The point is that your retort to the Guardian Article is, well, poor and insulting to those who are seeking well researched and sound arguments on topics. I am annoyed by your arrogance and inability to treat readers with some respect.

Mash Morgan said...

"I don't think people outside the intelligensia worry about inequality," Snowdon said. "The working class don't worry about how much Wayne Rooney is earning."

I can assure you that a discussion we had recently down the miners welfare club was
1) How come a person can get paid millions for kicking a bag of wind about a field?
2) Why do banks always make money (and we always have to pay silly charges), whatever the weather?

Its a HUGE issue, and something that is a worry.

Even more worrying is the fact you and your colleguses think its a NON issue.

Pete Morgan

Snowdon said...

Despite what you may have read in The Guardian's little hatchet job, I don't have any colleagues. I do, however, agree that footballers get paid ridiculous amounts of money, but that's between them and the chairman. The team I support (Middlesbrough) is in one of the poorest regions of the UK, but I've never heard a fan say that they feel the salaries of our players, or Steve Gibson's wealth, has a negative impact on their lives.

What would improve our lives is greater income, not greater equality. This is a crucial distinction. Wilkinson and Pickett continually mistake the effects of being poor with the psychological effects of income inequality. They say we already have enough and should curtail economic growth. I fundamentally disagree, as would millions of others if they were asked. I want working class people to be able to enjoy the lifestyles that are already available to public school educated, middle class intellectuals like Richard Wilkinson. He is happy to close the inequality gap by making the rich poorer, even if the poor get no richer. This seems to me to be a gross betrayal of the original aims of the labour movement.

According to The Spirit Level, the huge disparities in wealth represented by footballers and bankers make us want to eat more, they kill our newborn children, they make us die younger and they make us mentally ill. The evidence Wilkinson and Pickett give for this is junk science at its worst, but if you want to believe that resentment of bankers and footballers is the main driver of every social problem in the country then go ahead. One thing I've learnt in the last few months is that people believe whatever they want to believe regardless of the facts.

Snowdon said...

@ S

Yes, I do think you should read both books. I don't think that would be "daft". I would say it's the minimum requirement for someone before they shoot their mouth off about a subject of which they know nothing. So, yes, get yourself a copy of the two books. If that is too much to ask, at least consider buying a dictionary.

E Hart said...

The laughable notion in all this - from their side and yours - is that acquisitiveness can ever deliver anything. It's a proxy. It's neutral. If you really want to enjoy life - as far as the human condition permits - you'd be well advised to read more interesting books, go out with your friends and family, watch good films, ignore most television, learn a musical instrument, paint, think... in short - eschew any request to become yet another propaganda victim.
The biggest false premise and bogus predicate in the Western
World is that well-being, health, happiness and life-expectancy are inextricably linked with how much manufactured junk, property and money you can get your hands on. This no more validates or encapsulates a "good life" than a pile of horse manure represents the best of the countryside.
The sooner people wake up to this the better because with it comes real not faux empowerment.

Large Melot Please said...

There is something deeply neurotic and insecure about the "liberal" left. I am sure it is that under a free market, libertarian, small government system there is no need for their bon mots, planning of the economy and constant intrusions into my lifestyle choices. You are not needed to create a content society, if anything you detract from it.

Let me ask you a question, taking Wilkinson and Pickett's to its final/"logical" conclusion who among the poorest have/had a better standard of living? North or South Korea, West or East Germany, USA or the USSR?

A free market capitalist society delivers jobs, wealth, engineering, science and above all hope.

From the assent of man out of Africa 250,000 years ago this is the first time in history in the USA and the UK the poor tend to be fat while the rich tend to be thin as they have the wealth to over indulge.

Dave Atherton

Anonymous said...

I have read the spirit level and I have read the Taxpayers Alliance's "The Spirit Level:Response to the Equality Trust" and their report "The Spirit Illusion" as well as the article in the Gaurdian. I have not read your book and I will probably not because I don't feel I need to at the moment. I am certainly not 'qualified' enough to comment on the argument, or counter argument, of statistical evaluation! However, I think the key point is being overlooked. We should strive to achieve a fairer, more trusting, safer, happier, healthier... etc. etc... society. The greatest achievement of The Spirit Level, for me, was the thought process it provoked - it really is intuitve. But more importantly proposes suggestions/ideas (at least) on how we can start to achieve this. I have heard (I know - hearsay!) that statistics can be altered to prove anything! The statistics, coupled with my lack of mathematical understanding, are not the key point. I appreciate that if they are wrong this can lead to false conclusions, ultimately a negative outcome/response - both sides of the argument can't be right - can they? What I am convinced about is that our society is not improving. In my lifetime it has become worse (overall) and change is needed. I think you are wrong to conclude that the vast majority of people to not concern themselves with the disparity of income. Prehaps you are not wrong about the flawed statistical proof of the Spirit Level - I don't know. I do find it suspicious though - why not a more rounded review/appraisal? I'm sure a clue can be found in your response to "S" where you encourage him/her to buy a dictionary!

Snowdon said...

The comment from Anon above is quite typical of a common sentiment, ie. that The Spirit Level might be wrong but the underlying message is valid — society would be better if income inequality was reduced.

I don't think any of The Spirit Level's critics have argued that the ethical/moral case for greater inequality is destroyed by debunking The Spirit Level. Nor has anyone argued that a less equal society would be a good thing. What we do argue is that this is not a political argument that can be "proved" by social science. The moral case for reducing inequality has always been there and always will. Likewise, the case for economic growth will always be there.

The word 'intuitive' is used a lot in this debate, which suggests an element of faith over reason. Many readers and commentators seem to regard it as only 'common sense' that The Spirit Level's basic message must be correct. I understand why some people feel this, but I wonder if they are conflating inequality with poverty.

It seems to me to be common sense that society will improve if there is less poverty (and there is ample empirical evidence to support that assertion). But The Spirit Level does not argue that. Indeed, it argues quite the reverse—that absolute income does not matter, only relative income.

Since inequality can be alleviated by narrowing the gap without making anyone any richer, their logic dictates that society would improve if the poor got 5% poorer so long as the rich got 20% poorer. A doubling of everyone’s income, on the other hand, would make everyone’s life worse.

That seems anything but intuitive to me (aside from the fact that there is very little empirical evidence for it), but I welcome readers' thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Christopher, I don't want to enter into a protracted debate about this but, by definition for there to be rich there has to be poor - it is about relative difference not the quantitative amount of money a person has. (Please also confirm the definition of poverty) More equality would result in a fairer, more evenly distributed access to resources, services etc. I assume you have read Das Capital - if not please do! Anyway, all I really ask myself is why anyone would claim that more equality isn't beneficial? Why attack the spirit of fairness? Ah, lest I forget the human condition!boxic

Snowdon said...

By poverty, I'm referring the least well-off. It's not a very satisfactory word in the context of rich countries but it'll have to do.

It's not about attacking 'the spirit of fairness', it's about testing empirical claims. That's what I'm interested in. It's hard to tell from your comments whether you are too but, if so, I really suggest you read The Spirit Level Delusion and get back to me. If you don't want to buy it, get it from the library (if they don't have it, they'll order it for you).

Jane said...

I read your Guardian article today. I've also read The Spirit Level and Beware False Prophets, but not your book. I'll try to remedy that.

I read a review of TSL when it was first published and thought something like -- US homicide rate due to inequality not lack of gun regulation -- OK -- don't bother to read that one, so, I was a bit surprised when TSL became a succes fou.

I happen to believe in the ethical case for a more equal society, but not in monocausal explanations and bad science. That did not stop me being called a "rightist" and a "denialist" when I contributed to the comments thread on your article today.

Well done you. I look forward to reading your book.

Snowdon said...

Thanks Jane. Do come back when you've finished and give us your thoughts.

lesslucid said...

It looks to me like you've found some serious errors in The Spirit Level's statistical foundations. And I do think there's something problematic with the way it argues for a single-factor explanation of so many complex social phenomena. As you point out, it would be better if they could control for the other factors involved - if only there were some reliable way for social scientists to do that! In spite of that, I think they are in some way bringing out some useful information, just overreaching with it. For example, it appears on many measure that the United States is a worse place to live for many of its inhabitants than France or Japan, despite higher average incomes. On some other measure it may be a better place to live, for some or for most people. I think there's something inherently interesting in that. I suspect any single-factor explanation will prove inadequate. And yet, most of what we are offered in the way of explanations aren't really explanations at all, just "narratives". You know - "Japan is successful because they're ethnically homogeneous". There's no analysis of what this means are why a similarly ethnically homogeneous Tanzania doesn't share this success. In some way I think the search for a single explanatory factor for all these problems moves the conversation forward, even if - as in this case - the evidence is incomplete, the analysis weak (really, envy is the sole link in the chain between income inequality and every single social problem in the world?) and the conclusion incorrect. Because - hopefully - we can refine the picture that W&P have painted and see if there is another, better, more complex explanation we can give for those results which go against the normal claim that only absolute wealth matters.

victor said...

Don't present the false reductio ad absurdum that the choice would be between South or North Korea. Nobody doubts the wealth creating abilities of capitalism. The point is that pure wealth creation does not correlate directly with better lives for all people in a society. There comes a point that wealth creation alone is not enough, but wealth redistribution accomplishes more. And by all means this does not necessarily implicate that a society becomes poorer as a whole, preventing obesity, teenage pregnancy and criminality creates wealth also. It is also telling that more equal societies have more patents per capita. The fact that all scandinavian countries, Japan, Germany, Netherlands and Austria are both among the most rich as well as the most equal societies (and have shown more growth than USA since WW2) proves that both need not be mutual exclusive.
Paradoxically, it is the equal countries where people can be who they want to be, and it is in de USA, the land of opportunities, and other unequal countries where you are most likely not to transcend your origins.
It should be faced that unequal countries are not using their people optimally, equal countries do this better.

The right presents an ideological thinking based on egoism, unable to see that analytical thinking and steering could create a higher optimum for the society as a whole.
In the USA millionaires vote republican, billionaires vote democratic, their motives are obvious.


Victor, capitalist, globalist and social democrat

Snowdon said...

Reducing income inequality does not prevent obesity, teenage pregnancy or crime, as I show in the book. On the subject of patents, Sanandaji et al. have already covered Wilkinson and Pickett's sloppy research in this area:

"Another example is their use of low quality data to assess patent intensity. In our initial report, we found that the data regarding a link between patents and inequality in The Spirit Level was innaccurate. Wilkinson and Pickett defend their book, explaining that the data is from the World Intellectual Property Organization. But they actually give a link from, where the data is clearly wrong.

Wilkinson and Pickett explain to us that patents per capita are roughly the same for the US and for Portugal. Anyone who goes to the actual source – to actually look up data from the World Intellectual Property Organization rather than just log on to – would find that the US in fact has close to 50 times as many patents per capita as Portugal. It is telling that Wilkinson and Pickett did not do so when confronted with the finding that the US is no more innovative than Portugal, which is absurd at face value."

victor said...

Countries like the UK and the USA have many social ills, much more prolific than more equal countries on continental Europe. How would you explain this, and what would you propose as a solution?

Patents might be questionable, but what about Nobel prizes per capita. The first 5 countries are the scandinavian countries and Switzerland. And this without the massive influx of talent and the topnotch universities that the UK and the USA have.

Surely you must wonder sometime also why big government Scandanivia does so much better on so many different parameters as small government UK and USA?

Larry said...

"It seems to me to be common sense that society will improve if there is less poverty (and there is ample empirical evidence to support that assertion). But The Spirit Level does not argue that. Indeed, it argues quite the reverse—that absolute income does not matter, only relative income."

This is false. The Spirit Level expressly says that money and wealth matter, but only up to a point, and that point is clearly above the poverty level.

I'm not defending The Spirit Level, but it's clear having read some it and some of your writings that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

They push interpretations that support their preconceived beliefs and you seem to do the same. While I am by no means a member of "the Left," I have found those who start their arguments off with disparaging references to the Left, such as you did in the subtitle of your book, or who refer to those with different views as delusional are anything but objective.

In fact, such references, intended to call the credibility of those with whom you disagree into question strike me as a form of ad hominem argument, and as you say, ad hominem arguments are intellectually feeble.

Snowdon said...


This illustrates the problem of talking about poverty in rich countries. To be clear, I'm saying that people's lives in rich countries would improve if they get richer even beyond the level that W & P say is enough to satisfy their material needs. They give various examples of the wealth of the 'poor' eg. two cars, air conditioning, dishwasher and say that once people reach this level, the benefits of further wealth flatten out. I disagree.

The subtitle is 'the left's next theory of everything' because the Guardian described the Spirit Level as a theory of everything and because W & P are socialists and the book has been adopted by the left. That's not disparaging. It's just a statement of fact.