Wednesday 11 August 2010

Reply to Prospect magazine article

This is my reply to an article in Prospect by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. That article can be read here. The article that inspired it is here.

I’m pleased to be able to agree with Wilkinson and Pickett (W & P) on one point. I’m not a public health researcher and was surprised to be described as such. That, sadly, is where agreement ends.

Wilkinson and Pickett once again imply that they are merely the messengers of a scientific consensus and that there are 100s of peer-reviewed studies saying the same thing. Can we please put this one to bed? Even if quantity was a substitute for quality, the argument does not apply here. There is a large body of conflicting research about health and inequality and a smaller body of research studying violence and inequality. Both are hotly debated, not least because it is very difficult to isolate the effects of income inequality from the effects of low income.

Beyond this, Wilkinson and Pickett are out on their own, making claims that have virtually no support in the scientific literature. In contrast to what he says in the third paragraph of this rejoinder, Wilkinson recently told the magazine International Socialism:

"There are about 200 papers on health and inequality in lots of different settings, probably 40 or 50 looking at violence in relation to inequality, and very few looking at any of the other things in relation to inequality. In a way, the new work in the book is all these other variables—teenage births, mental illness, prison populations and so on—and the major contribution is bringing all of that into a picture that had previously been just health and violence."

W & P confuse making assumptions based on other people’s research with having those people actually agree with them. For example, they cite studies that quite reasonably associate overeating with stress, but it does not follow that obesity rates vary internationally because the population is stressed about inequality. At best, this is speculation.

W & P continue to cite perfectly sound studies showing there to be social gradients to health and social problems as evidence that inequality affects a nation’s overall performance. It does not. These are completely different issues.

Which leaves us with W & P’s own evidence, which relies on comparing whole countries, a notoriously unreliable method which allows unlimited scope for misinterpretation. The criticisms recently made of this evidence by myself and others closely echo criticisms made in peer-reviewed journals when Wilkinson used similar methods in the past. They also echo criticisms made by the few serious academics who have reviewed The Spirit Level.

Anyone who believes that W & P “never pick and choose data points to suit our argument” should compare references 2 and 6 in The Spirit Level (p. 271) and ask themselves why one year’s data were used for one graph and another year’s data used for the next. Anyone who believes that they use “the same measures of inequality” should turn to page 224 and ask why a dramatically different measure of inequality was preferred when working hours were studied (clue: see how it looks when we use W & P’s more usual measure of inequality). Anyone believing that they have not “picked problems to suit our argument” might ask why they show how much overseas aid is given by a country’s government, but do not show how much is given privately (there is no correlation with inequality when the two are combined).

As for always using the same group of countries, one of The Spirit Level’s most serious flaws is the baffling assumption that “rich market societies” come in batches of 50. If there is to be a cut-off point beyond which economic growth has “largely finished its work”, it should be based on something more than a round number. Without a convincing justification for why places like the Czech Republic and South Korea – let alone Hong Kong – cannot be considered rich market societies, we must ask the next question: why do these societies conspicuously fail to fit Wilkinson and Pickett’s theory? The United Nations classes these countries as being of “very high human development”, why doesn’t The Spirit Level?

I hope that readers will take the time to look at these issues themselves, but, if not, they should at least take a deep breath and ask themselves which is more plausible – a theory that seeks to explain the workings of whole societies by reference to a single factor, or one that says that a country’s performance is the result of countless historical, geographical, political, legal, demographic and economic factors, of which the public’s response to income inequality may or may not be one.

1 comment:

Åsa said...

Actually, there is a connection between inequality and the effects of (relative) poverty. There are studies showing that inequality is amplifying the already known effects of poverty. As distance between people grows, the well known effects of poverty become more severe. Thus, this is also a sideeffect of increased income inequality to be taken into account.

What matters is not necessarily the income of the extremely rich, what matters is the differences in income within a reference group, may it be defined by geography, education, occupation or age. If rich and poor are physically and culturally isolated, they might not affect eachother so much. Segregation might therefor be a response of individuals to minimize the negative effects of income inequality. If you define your peers amongst a narrow income-span, you are not exposed to the negative effects. However, this leaves a fragmented society with internal tensions and effects on a different level.

Besides. according to the law of diminishing returns (of investment in health), the logical consequence of income inequalities is worse health, given a set amount of resources.