Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Spirit Level Delusion And Lefties On The Defensive

Oh dear.

Natalie Evans of Policy Exchange has upset CiF residents by mentioning that her think tank have rubbished a modern lefty bible.

For those not aware of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, its premise is that, almost without question, countries boasting more equality - that being the difference in income between the top 20% and the bottom 20% of the population - fare better in every known sphere of life. Apparently eschewing the notion that growth is a good thing for all of society, the authors (Wilkinson & Pickett) point instead to a definitive correlation between a nation's equality, and its people's happiness, health and longevity.

It seems remarkable that anyone could claim a nation to be better off if the poorest earn only £10,000pa compared with another where the lower limit is £20,000, but Wilkinson and Pickett do so by reference to the disparity between their earnings relative to those at the top of the scale.

The sole premise for this is that if the difference between rich and poor is large, those less well off are exposed to stress and inferiority which damages them in a plethora of ways. Far from being happy with rising global prosperity, the fact that others have more than them is enough to poison their existence.

Sounds a bit like self-destructive envy to me, but what do I know, eh?

Still, lefties love it. Wilkinson and Pickett have been fêted for putting into cold statistical fact what the left have been banging on about for generations. That the rich are evil, despite the fact that absolute poverty diminishes as economies grow on the back of entrepreneurial endeavour.

Roy Hattersley was so impressed with the book that, reviewing it for the New Statesman, he wrote:

It demonstrates the scientific truth of the assertion that social democrats have made for a hundred years – sometimes more out of hope than intellectual certainty.
The problem seems to be, though, that the book itself appears to have been written 'more out of hope than intellectual certainty' ... which is why it is coming under sustained, and well-referenced, attack.

As well as Policy Exchange, whose extensive report is particularly damning ...

The evidence in The Spirit Level is weak, the analysis is superficial and the theory is unsupported. The case for radical income redistribution is no more compelling now than it was before this book was published.
... the Taxpayers' Alliance have also waded in this week with their own rebuttal of the book's methodology.

The Spirit Level is flawed in two ways: The correlations shown do not withstand scrutiny; and a depth of existing research into the causes of the social ills that the authors cite has been overlooked. Policy makers need to be aware of the fact that The Spirit Level is not a reliable book based on objective science.
Both organisations quite rightly pick holes in the way the authors present their evidence, and also their selective sampling of data.

Wilkinson and Pickett have given their response to the Policy Exchange report, but it consists of little more than their saying that others have said the same and that it has been peer-reviewed ... the customary old pals act which allows any old junk to be presented as legitimate.

CiF commenters, as one would expect, merely perform the usual trick of dismissing any criticism of their idols as right of centre spin. By sticking their fingers in their ears and repeating "they would say that, wouldn't they", they can convince themselves that all those graphs they saw really did prove something quite ludicrous and illogical after all.

Unfortunately for them, Christopher Snowdon, an author who is not politically-affiliated to anyone, had already covered all the methodological discrepancies highlighted by PE & the TPA in his book, The Spirit Level Delusion.

What's more, he goes further than both of this week's reports by widening the scope to draw comparisons with similarly daft lefty tomes.

Snowdon also quickly spots the exclusion of countries such as Slovenia, Hong Kong and Singapore. What's more, he exposes systematic cherry-picking of data such as the authors' use of 2004 life expectancy data rather than the freely available stats from 2005 or 2006 which don't provide the results the book requires.

On mental illness, Snowdon refutes the idea that the huge increase witnessed in the 80s and 90s was a result of Thatcherite/Reaganite economics. A rather silly notion as it ignores the indisputable fact that psychiatrists of the time had adjusted the way data was collected to include hundreds of conditions previously not considered as mental illnesses. A schoolboy error from the lefty dreamers.

Similarly, Snowdon points out that high imprisonment rates in countries considered unequal was less to do with incomes and more to do with government policy. By looking at crime rates instead, the same reasoning used by Wilkinson and Pickett could equally prove that egalitarian countries suffer more from crime ... because they don't jail those who commit it as much as their unequal counterparts.

Considering this week's defence by the authors - stating previous research as proof of their assertions, remember - Snowdon, almost prophetically, rubbishes that by mentioning that a huge proportion of it since 1992 was written by, err, Mr Wilkinson himself.

And, as mentioned, by comparing The Spirit Level with similar middle class lefty nonsense such as Affluenza (written by an Old Etonian, oddly enough), Happiness, Status Syndrome, and All Consuming, Snowdon paints a vivid picture of a quite terrifying tranche of political opinion who would seek to catapult us back to 1940s-esque policies of widespread rationing of food and fuel, as well as the promotion of new initiatives to enforce crippling taxation, restriction of liberties, and across-the-board increases in benefits (and believe me, these are just scratching the surface. Some of the madness proposed would result in Britain more resembling a soviet state than the historically successful economy that we see today).

And all this to deliver the benefits of a more equal society ... which are wholly unproven once Snowdon pulls apart the cherry-picking, statistical contortions, and occasional outright fantasy exhibited in The Spirit Level.

The Spirit Level Delusion is a masterful book, written in a calm fashion which is both informative and wide-ranging, whilst also being very entertaining.

As with other manufactured 'proof' covered on this blog, Snowdon shows that the ideology behind The Spirit Level was a theory desperately crying out for some evidence. Wilkinson and Pickett have provided it, but only at the expense of epidemiological principles and scientific rigour.

If you haven't read The Spirit Level Delusion, I'd heartily recommend you do so.

To buy it, click on the cover in the 'Recommended Reading' rolling sidebar widget.


BTS said...

If anyone wants to change the world, Profs Wilkninson and Pickett recommend that you buy a badge. For £24:

It's a special badge. It will make everybody happy. Promise.

Or you could pick up a Blue Peter badge on ebay for 99p. Which will get you into Hampton Court Palace for free.

Leaving you enough change to buy a bag of weed and some acid to enjoy a summers day giggling manaiacally in the maze.

One of these will provide you with a deeper understanding of the nature of happiness and how this is affected by our relationship with our fellow man.

The other gets you a badge which no-one will recognise. And some junk mail every few months.

But it's your money. For now.

Vladimir said...

Good article, and a most amusing comment from BTS.

Christopher Snowden's critique on "The Spirit Level" is valuable to people who care about what's true, but unfortunately the lefties really do take the content of "Spirit Level" on faith. While they like having "hard evidence" for their beliefs, it doesn't matter if there is no evidence, or if the evidence points elsewhere as Snowden has shown. In a conflict between reality and leftism, it is always reality that is wrong. There is another group of people that behaves in this way. We call them "religious fundamentalists".

Mark Wadsworth said...

But will the lefties hit back with a book called "The Spirit Level Delusion Delusion"? That would be fun.

J Bonington Jagworth said...

"high imprisonment rates in countries considered unequal"

Unfortunate, then, that the present government is drawing attention to the great rise in PP during Labour's recent tenure. Still, I suppose one couldn't really accuse Blair of being a socialist.

The massaging and cherry-picking of statistics for the book is strongly reminiscent of the behaviour of the global warmists. I'm sure they all make the Grauniad very proud, though...

Gordon Morris said...

So what is "the" answer: can it be that increasing inequality is actually a good thing? Surely not.