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Digested Read – Spirit Level 1: The Problem

Written By: - Date published: 12:00 pm, September 17th, 2010 - 41 comments
Categories: equality - Tags:

Digested Read Digested – We’re succeeding materially, but failing socially.

We’ve never had it so good – the luxury and extravagance of our lives threatens the planet, we have so much… but somehow our lives seem to be a constant psychological battle against stress and emotional exhaustion.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are a pair of epidemiologists with over 50 years of research into the social determinants of health between them; trained in tracing the causes of disease in populations.  They started trying to work out why the life-expectancy of one suburb can be more than 10 years less than a neighbouring wealthier suburb, and have ended up with something that could be called ‘evidence-based politics’.

They make no claims to be left or right on the political spectrum, and got top politicians from all parties to sign up to their equality pledge before the recent UK general election – including the new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.  Rather their philosophy is purely a scientific view of what works best for people – all people – in a community.

Research show that people feel that ‘materialism’ is coming between them and happiness.  People feel they are alone in wanting society to move away from greed and excess toward a way of life more centred on values, community and family – but in fact the vast majority feel the same way.  Mainstream politics doesn’t seem to tap into this feeling, and as such many have given up on society, and feel only able to better themselves as individuals – to society’s further ruin.

But what is the proof of the cause of the decline of community and the rise of the broken society?

This graph shows that above ~$US20,000 GDP/person, growth of wealth makes no difference to life expectancy.  But wealth within a society makes a great difference to life expectancy.  So additional wealth doesn’t gain a country more life for its citizens.  In fact we can generalise across a whole set of health and social indicators – additional wealth doesn’t seem to help with any of them:

But the rates of these various problems definitely varies between countries.  So what’s the difference between the US, UK & Portugal, coming out badly on so many indicators; and Japan & Sweden, which do so well?

Some countries have a far greater income inequality than others – the US, UK and Portugal are very unequal.  That’s us there, just above them after our great rise in Gini (link) in the late 80s and 90s.

So how does the graph look if we correlate with income inequality?

Suddenly the graph is linear.  There are various ways of measuring inequality (Gini, Robin Hood index, richest vs poorest 10 or 20%…) they all come out with a graph very similar to this.  The graph comparing US states inequality to social and health problems comes out similar as well.  So there is definitely a link between these problems and inequality.  I’ll go into more depth in each area in later blogs.

The Spirit Level authors believe income inequality is largely important as it is our current way of measuring hierarchy in society.  Other forms of inequality are probably important too, but income is where the data and evidence is, and it is the way society currently values people.  A certain level of wealth is required but in the wealthiest 50 nations virtually everyone has access to that.  So the problem is social distances and stratification – keeping up with the Joneses.

Second rate goods equals second rate people.  Status matters.  Having less than those next to us makes us anxious and stressed.  It affects our self-esteem.  We become self-promoting and insecure, as we are constantly in a race and scared of being found out as not as important (ie wealthy) as we make out to be.  We have less time to make and keep friends as we spend all our time trying to earn and spend our wealth to maintain our place.

In a more equal society the race isn’t so all-consuming, we have more friends, more trust, more community and more happiness.  But no less wealth.  He who has most toys doesn’t win, he just makes sure others lose out more.

For more detail: Read the book. Buy it and/or support the Trust.

Right-wing trolls: r0b had a recent post with links refuting the arguments you’re about to make…

41 comments on “Digested Read – Spirit Level 1: The Problem”

  1. SHG 1

    Why do people post 4-colour graphics as jpegs?

  2. tsmithfield 2

    There is plenty of criticism about various aspects of “the spirit level” that can be accessed online. Having thought about this for a few days now, there is one glaring aspect that I would like to point out. The study is mainly a correlation study. The well-worn phrase “correlation is not causation” applies here.

    For instance, In the last graph above, income inequality is shown as the IV and “health and social problems” as the DV. This implies that simply by sharing the wealth around more equally health and social problems will disappear. However, this makes no sense whatsoever.

    It would make a lot more sense to have “health and social problems” as the IV (the x axis) and income inequality as the DV (the y axis). This would imply that if we do something about the health and social issues then income inequality will reduce. For instance, if we improve parenting skills, take measures to improve educational outcomes etc, people are more likely to become well educated, get better jobs etc. If we do something about reducing smoking addiction, then people will be better off financially through not wasting money on smokes, and be healthier as well.

    • Puddleglum 2.1

      The well-worn phrase “correlation is not causation” applies here.

      Indeed. It could be a third factor that explains both … wonder what that might be? No, I don’t wonder: It’s the individualistic forms of life that underpin, and are reinforced by, capitalism. They produce both the inequality and the social and personal harms.

      That third factor even explains your ‘poor parenting skills’ factor.

      Well done TS – you led us to the cause.

    • Zorr 2.2

      I love this common misconception around the whole “correlation does not imply causation” issue. Correlation DOES imply causation – the issue ends up being that many people just assume that because it does that there is a relevant point to be made from just doing correlation studies and latching on to any results at all.

      Also, your labeling of the axes would be unscientific. You always have the fixed value as the x-axis and the variable as the y-axis. In this case the income inequality is a known fixed value and the y-axis is the value they are wanting to measure against it – in this case the social and health issues. Ultimately though, just another flash in the pan from you ts because that isn’t even an argument, just a diversion.

    • Draco T Bastard 2.3

      Still trying to deny reality there I see TS

    • Ari 2.4

      Correlation suggests possible causation, and shifts the burden of proof- that is to say, we should be suspicious that inequality causes health and social problems from that alone. You’re right that it doesn’t by itself prove anything, but I’d be genuinely curious to see what you think is actually causing this correlation if it’s not simply a linear relationship.

    • Bunji 2.5

      Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.

      But the Spirit Level does look at a number of studies for various effects that look at correlation vs causation – does trust cause income difference or vice-versa. You can guess the conclusion given the book’s premise…

      The graphs have a particular format to make them easy to read. They all have the same simplified format, so you don’t need a science degree to understand it all. Having a science degree myself, I miss the detail; but prefer that it’s in a more widely understandable format.

      (SHG: which format would you prefer me to re-save them into? PNG? I exist to make y’all happy…)

      And TS – people who aren’t desperately trying to catch up on income tend to have more time to spend on their parenting skills, their children’s education etc. Equalising income a) won’t happen overnight and b) if it did it would still have a lag before some problems were solved/showed significant improvement.

      • SHG 2.5.1

        Just teasing mate, although you could have posted them as 4- or -8-color gifs and they would have looked better and been much smaller 🙂

        • Bunji 2.5.1.1

          Ah, but I have a philosophical objection to gif. Having programmed graphics applications in the past and then you have to *license* gif, I’m all about the png. That’s the best you’re getting.

          But then png is the best.

  3. roger nome 3

    You’re right – tsmith, i’ve heard that more unequal societies are targeted by extra-terrestrials for abductions as they offer more variety accross the human spectrum. The abductions harm poorer people more because they are better abducties (people won’t notice they’re gone as much). This is the crucial variable that the authors of the spirit level are missing – or is there a cover-up going on? (i.e. earth’s scientists being told to lie about global warming so the communist space lizards can centralise power and turn earth into a gulag planet).

    Can you email me? I would like to co-author a piece for investigate magazine with you about this pressing issue…

    • tsmithfield 3.1

      Zorr, as I understand it there are numerous variables from various studies that have been combined together to become one variable (index of health and social problems). The fact this has been described as an index means that it could validly be used as the x axis, so I am not sure your argument is sound.

      The problem with trying to address “health and social problems” by equalising income is that it does not change human habits that are causing the “health and social problems”. For example consider the examples often cited of people who have become instantly rich through a Lotto win or the like and then lose the money within a short time frame. Consider the likes of Mike Tyson who came into boxing with a lot of behavioural issues. Getting wealth did not change his behaviour.

      However, by looking at the picture the other way, and seeing “health and social problems” as the causal variable, then we can actually do something to address the problems that are stopping people from getting ahead. Simply throwing money at people simply won’t do this.

      • Draco T Bastard 3.1.1

        Nobody has said anything about throwing money at people. More that we should be looking at getting a more equal share going rather than giving it all to the worthless rich people.

      • Puddleglum 3.1.2

        Hi TS,

        Don’t you like my idea that there may be a third variable that causes both inequality and social and health problems? If not, why not?

      • bbfloyd 3.1.3

        ts.. you highlight a basic stumbling block to creating balanced societies.

        the philosophy that everything that ails us can be fixed with money. most people i know who are in the “deprived” sector of society don’t see having more money as any more than a basic necessity, required because their utilities and groceries etc, are purchased with money. given the choice, most would prefer to be self sufficient, and most have the skills and knowledge to do that.

        the fact that money is a necessary commodity for basic survival in todays society is seen as one of the largest sources of sress by these groups. unfortunately, we have government that, it seems is hellbent on ensuring that the aquisition of money is as fundamental to our continued participation in society as breeding.

        can’t help but wonder if commodity based economics wouldn’t lend itself to a more balanced approach to social outcomes

  4. roger nome 4

    ts – there are other simiar studies that have found the same thing.

    http://www.ccsd.ca/pubs/2002/olympic/indicators.htm

    The challange for the right is to replicate these studies, and see if the results come out different. But that won’t happen will it? Because “reality has a left wing bias…”

    • tsmithfield 4.1

      Roger, I am sure there are plenty of studies that are showing similar things. However, in each of the studies I would give the response I have given above.

      At least what I have proposed can be operationalised in specific changes that will improve people’s capability to get ahead. What I am suggesting will enable people to develop life-long habits that improve their life over the long-term.

      Simply equalising income does not achieve this. All it does is make people richer for a time. However, as it has been said before, if all the wealth in the world was distributed equally, it wouldn’t be long before most of it was back in the hands of those who had it in the first place.

      By actually giving people tools to improve their own situation they have the opportunity to generate sustainable wealth that will close the income gap in a more sustainable way. What objection do you have to this course of action?

      • mcflock 4.1.1

        By actually giving people tools to improve their own situation they have the opportunity to generate sustainable wealth that will close the income gap in a more sustainable way. I agree fully, TS.

        There are two ways for an individual to generate sustainable wealth: the work of their mind or the work of their body. I believe that everyone should be given these tools to generate their own wealth.

        To give them an effective mind, education up to and including tertiary level should be freely available.
        To give them effective bodies, we must give them healthcare, shelter, clothing and nutritious food.

        I am glad we are in agreement, and will look for you at the next socialist rally.

        • tsmithfield 4.1.1.1

          Actually, I think the tools are much more fundamental than that. For instance, I know someone who is a multi-millioinaire who has reached that position using tools that are available to nearly everyone.

  5. roger nome 5

    ts – i agree that the changes would take a decade or two have their full impact. I don’t see this as an argument to not impliment them however.

  6. roger nome 6

    ” Simply equalising income does not achieve this.”

    So we have a pronouncement from an anon blogger with no back up facts or argument, versus decades of meticulous research by experts… hmmm which side to pick…..

    • tsmithfield 6.1

      Since these sort of studies are invariably correlational it is quite open to see the research from the other direction. One way to determine which direction is most likely to be the correct view is to come up with some logical ways in which the effect might occur. I think its quite easy to see how improving educational outcomes etc will increase the likelihood of succeeding in life and thus earning more money.

      I don’t think it is at all easy to see how simply giving people more money will improve their outcomes. In fact, in many cases it might actually make things worse for people. For instance, what would be the likely effect of giving more money to a heroin addict?

      So roger, which part of my statement below do you disagree with and why?

      I said: “By actually giving people tools to improve their own situation they have the opportunity to generate sustainable wealth that will close the income gap in a more sustainable way.”

      • Puddleglum 6.1.1

        Sorry to pursue you, TS, (see comments above) but you seem to think that causality can only be from A to B or from B to A.

        What about a third variable? I’d really like to know what you think of that. (It might also help explain why, as you put it, if all the income were ‘equalised’ it would soon end up with an unequal distribution.)

        • Bunji 6.1.1.1

          I think ts is confusing income with wealth, and maintaining a system that pushes wealth to an elite.

        • tsmithfield 6.1.1.2

          You are quite right, Puddleglum. And this is one of the failings of the research in that it has lumped numerous variables, each with their own diverse 3rd variable relationships into one neat variable “index of health and social problems”.

          However, the approach I am suggesting would deal with third variable problems in the process of dealing with other issues. It is probably a lot harder than redistributing wealth, but in the long-term it is likely to be much more effective in achieving the same end.

  7. roger nome 7

    “I don’t think it is at all easy to see how simply giving people more money will improve their outcomes.”

    But we’re not not talking about “giving people more money”. We’re talking about changing the social contract so that the health and happiness of the people is improved. That you discount the evidence in favour of your bluster does not show you in a favourable light.

  8. KJT 8

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting that unskilled get paid the same as skilled workers for instance. The problem is the gross inequality of income where a manager gets 100’s of times more pay than his/her staff. Or the owners of capital are able to remove most of societies wealth as of right even if it means other people live in unnecessary poverty.

    As Warren Buffet said. “There is class warfare and it is my class, the rich class, that is winning”

  9. tsmithfield 9

    Roger nome: “But we’re not not talking about “giving people more money”. We’re talking about changing the social contract so that the health and happiness of the people is improved. That you discount the evidence in favour of your bluster does not show you in a favourable light.”

    I think in some ways we are talking about the same thing. I am all in favour of people improving their situation in life and improving their outcomes. However, this is probably where I would differ from the socialist perspective which is largely based around taking money from the wealthy and redistributing it. However, that doesn’t in itself achieve anything to improve the ability of people to move away from dependence on others, or to change dysfunctional behaviours.

    I think that improving the ability of people to build their own wealth, prosperity and well-being is a through helping them overcome dysfunctional behavioural patterns and increase their skills and abilities is a much better long-term solution. This concept doesn’t seem that radical to me.

    • felix 9.1

      Interesting that you consider the poor to be dependent on the rich.

      It seems to me to be quite the reverse – that the wealthiest people in society are the ones riding on the backs of the rest.

      • tsmithfield 9.1.1

        I guess you could have that perspective.

        However, I see the roots of poverty are in dysfunction rather than inequity.

        The way I see it is that socialists want to take people out of the gutter to achieve equity. I don’t think this approach actually achieves very much other than to shift existing wealth around.

        My approach is to take the gutter out of people. This is much harder, but is likely to result in the pool of wealth actually increasing rather than just being shifted around..

        • Puddleglum 9.1.1.1

          TS, I think you’re confused abut socialism.

          Socialism is not about redistribution; it’s about re-organising society in such a way that work, community processes and the general economy are based on and run by the people in those workplaces, communities and economies.

          Socialists qua socialists, are opposed to the notion of limited liability companies, private corporations, etc., and their ability to be treated as legal individuals, because they see them as vehicles deliberately constructed for the leveraging, appropriation and accumulation of wealth for an individual person (or persons as shareholders) out of the work of a collective of people who do not fully share in the benefits of that production.

          They suggest a range of cooperatively controlled and run ‘entities’ to produce goods and services and participatory collective processes for determining what gets produced, how much, when, etc.. In addition, they advocate alternative processes for rewarding individuals’ economic activity to that of the market price for particular forms of labour. The assumption is usually that some individuals will receive greater reward than others, but just not in the extreme way it can happen in a capitalist market economy with its contraptions such as companies, etc. that allow immense differentials in how individuals are ‘rewarded’ for their economic activity.

          What you describe as ‘socialism’ is actually some hybrid of modern social democratic and liberal approaches. With these, capitalism is accepted as the best way to organise and run most of the non-state economy but they apply some degree of constraint to, regulation and limitation of that activity.

          Social democrats/liberals are the ones who use redistribution primarily to compensate the losers in an economic system that they tend to think cannot be (or should not be) replaced, while realising that it produces harsh and unfair outcomes for many people.

          More on topic, the best way to “take the gutter out of people”, as you put it, is to re-organise the social system that creates gutters so that it no longer does so.

          My point in response to your suggestion is that ‘poor parenting skills’ and other forms of what Richard Prebble used to call “behavioural poverty” are actually generated by market capitalism, as a general tendency,

          That’s because the incentive and impulse towards so-called economic efficiency encounters all non-market processes of social cohesion, connection and self-maintenance and organisation (e.g., parenting) as obstacles to the process of capital growth and wealth accumulation. At best such a society ends up commodifying those social processes and selling them back to us.

          For example, we all need connections to others (family, friends, etc.). Capitalist evolution results, necessarily, in the dismantling of communities, families, friendships and other forms of social support and connection. After creating a world in which people routinely move about and migrate for jobs and other opportunities. and, as a consequence, repeatedly leave family and friends and break social connections to place, those connections then get sold back to us (in emaciated form) via mobile phones, social networking sites and so on.

          The same pressures and incentives that dismantle other social processes have exerted themselves on parenting. Parenting isn’t an instinct. It needs to be passed on by exposure (from childhood) to others raising children. It needs to happen in a family life-sphere that is essentially organised around raising children not around earning incomes in workplaces far-removed from the domestic world. It needs to happen in a broader society, economic system and culture that is, itself, organised around the process of reproducing, socialising and enculturating new human beings rather than one organised around reproducing wealth and capital. (In evolutionary theory, it’s all about achieving an integrated balance between material ‘survival’ – economic behaviour – and reproduction.)

          In the latter society, the best that can be done is to sell ‘parenting’ back to parents via daycare, parenting books, tapes, etc.. In New Zealand – because of social democratic/liberal initiatives – we also have the non-market ‘redistribution’ of parenting skills via Plunket, Ante Natal groups, state-funded fostering, CYFS and the like.

          You’re right, ‘getting the gutter out of [society]’ is much harder and will no doubt take much longer than getting particular individuals out of the gutter. But some of us are trying to do just that. And at least some of those trying to do that call themselves ‘socialists’. Want to join the effort?

          • mcflock 9.1.1.1.1

            It depends on whether you are using the strict political philosophy “socialism”, the popular interpretation of “socialism”, the obscure RWNJ “socialism”, or socialism as a continuum of beliefs from communism through democratic socialism to social democrats and, indeed, hybrid state/private enterprise mixes of any degree.

            I remember two good comrades having a drunken argument as to whether they were social democrats or democratic socialists. The only thing that was important was that they were to the left of Labour5.

            • Puddleglum 9.1.1.1.1.1

              Fair enough, mcflock. To be honest – and despite that comment – I’m not that fussed about definitional debates unless they make a point.

              The point I wanted to make to TS was simply that redistribution is the bare minimum response to the problems of inequality. Reorganising society goes more to the root of the problems – including the parenting issue he was concerned about. If socialism was just the advocacy of redistribution then just about every western government and party that has ever existed has been socialist – so that definition really doesn’t help discriminate anything, politically.

  10. RedLogix 10

    ts
    My approach is to take the gutter out of people. This is much harder,

    You’re right, it’s much harder because you’re locked into a perpetual egg chasing chicken loop there.

    There is of course a thread of truth in what you are saying; dysfunction creates chaos. That’s obvious, but the immediate question that follows is ‘what causes the dysfunction?’. If you are simply going to say that it’s because they are ill-bred, brown or simply bad people…. then you’ve really just parked yourself into the ‘blame the victim’ garage.

    Equally the left is probably guilty of ‘throwing money at problems’ and hoping they will go away to a greater or lesser degree. Up front and personal, dysfunctional adults, chaotic families and the damaged children they create are not easy problems to solve. Ask any social worker.

    Put like this it’s not hard to understand that inequality and dysfunction are mutually interdependent sides of the same coin. The decent individual does not thrive in an indecent society.

    When life is nothing but a series of dissapointments and failed plans, it’s far less likely someone will be keen to commit to long-term goals and delayed gratification. When the ladder’s is too steep, there are too many others ruthlessly crawling over you to get up it as well , or when you get to a certain rung those above start pulling it up behind them… there’s just too much risk you’ll never get to the pay-off.

  11. tsmithfield 11

    RedLogix: “You’re right, it’s much harder because you’re locked into a perpetual egg chasing chicken loop there.”

    Of course I realise this. However, resolving the “egg” inequity side of the equation by shifting resources from one pocket to another doesn’t actually do much to catch up to the “chicken” dysfunction side of the equation. In fact, as I pointed out above, there are situations where this approach can be counterproductive.

    However, resolving the “chicken” dysfunction side will actually result in the “egg” inequity being caught in a sustainable way.

    Those countries in “The Spirit Level” that are high in GDP and low in dysfunction might well generating high GDP because of low dysfunction rather than the opposite direction that “The Spirit Level” proposes. Do you agree?

    • tsmithfield 11.1

      BTW, Red, I’m not thinking in terms of blaming people for their circumstances. Rather in terms of recognising that their are problems that need to be addressed so people can advance and improve their circumstances.

    • RedLogix 11.2

      It’s late and I’ve a big day tommorrow. Below is a repost of something I put on an earlier thread:

      The argument here is not unlike the one around the Laffer curve.

      Absolute equality can only be achieved at the expense of extreme interventions, the costs of which greatly outweigh the marginal benefits involved in eliminating the last few marginal degrees of inequality.

      Absolute inequality, ie where one person owns everything and all the rest of us are his/her chattels is equally undesirable.

      Logically somewhere in the middle must lie an optimum. Exactly where is hard to determine, because although there is a wide spread of GINI coeficients across the nations, there are also a wide range of other uncontrolled variables and data uncertainties that make ‘eyeballing’ the data a completely useless tool. (The obvious parallel with the climate change debate is rather compelling.)

      The argument can only hinge on whether in general NZ is on the positive or negative slope portion of the curve. NZ is in fact one of the more unequal nations, and more importantly over the last 30-40 years our GINI has been increasing at a faster rate than any other OECD nation. During that same period many of our social indicators have detoriorated.

      The chances that we are on the positive portion of the curve (ie that increasing inequality would yield positive social outcomes) is slim to zero.

      .

      The Spirit Level arrives at the same conclusion, but with an observational methodology.

      I’m happy to accept that there is a mutual, self-reinforcing interdependence between the individual and the society they live in. Put simply, while each is responsible to make the best of the opportunities they find in life, equally we are our brother’s keeper. Personal and collective responsibility is not an either/or choice….

  12. roger nome 12

    Have you read kierkegaard RL?

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