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Digested Read – Spirit Level 2: Health

Written By: - Date published: 12:00 pm, September 18th, 2010 - 62 comments
Categories: equality - Tags:

Digested Read Digested – Inequality is bad for everyone’s health.

In the UK 1 million children – 1 in 10 – have a mental illness.  In a group of 1000 children aged between 5 and 16; 50 will be severely depressed, 100 distressed, 10-20 will have obsessive compulsive disorder and 5-10 girls will have an eating disorder.

In the US, 6% of children have ADHD, 10% between ages 3 and 17 will have moderate to severe difficulties with emotions, concentration, behaviour or being able to get along with other people.

Adults don’t do much better – approximately 1 in 4 in both the UK and USA have a mental illness in any given year.  The UK spends over GBP400 million on anti-depressants each year, the US $100 billion on mental health treatments.

So where does this huge rise in poor mental health come from?  Why are we having such great difficulties with modern life?  Are some countries coping better?

Yes – the more equal countries do better.  Psychologist and journalist Oliver James describes the ‘affluenza’ virus that attacks affluent countries – ‘a set of values which increase our vulnerability to emotional distress’.  These are values of acquiring money and possessions, the desire to look good in the eyes of others and to be famous.  They leave us with a great risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and disorder.  Philosopher Alain de Botton describes a similar condition as ‘status anxiety’, economist Robert Frank calls it ‘luxury fever’.  As the super-rich in an unequal society spend ever more on luxury goods, the desire stretches across society, leaving the rest of us struggling to compete.  Advertisers play on this, leaving us dissatisfied with what we have and addicted to income – working ever harder as we strive for the possessions we don’t need, to the detriment of relationships with friends and family, and on our quality of life.

Good relationships are important to mental health, and as we lose those our minds fray and we are more partial to illegal drugs.  Unequal societies have higher rates of substance abuse of all sorts (legal/illegal) as well.

So mental health is worse – what about physical?  Unequal societies do no better here either.  Average income or health expenditure share no correlation with life expectancy.  But inequality in society leads to all its citizens leading live shorter lives, having higher infant mortality, and higher rates of obesity.  They do have lower suicide rates however, in the one social indicator that runs contrary to inequality.

And the differences cut right across society.  More highly educated people have lower rates of most diseases.  But those with the highest level of education in the US have worse rates of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension than those with the least education in the UK.  In turn those in the UK from the highest social class still have higher death rates amongst working age men than any social class in Sweden.  The chance of a child dying are higher for the wealthiest people in Britain than for the poorest social group in Sweden.  Inequality kills the wealthy as well as the poor.

Across time periods you can see the changes inequality can make to a society.  During the twentieth century Britain, along with the western world, saw a great rise in life expectancy.  But the decades that experienced the greatest rise in life expectancy (between 6 and 7 years) were the decades that contained a world war.  In no other decade was there an increase of life expectancy of more than 4 years.  Material living standards fell during both wars, and whilst rationing gave an improvement in nutrition in WW2, that wasn’t true for WW1.  But the war periods were characterised by full employment and a much narrower income difference as the government made sure that everyone pulled together for the war.  In WW2 working class incomes rose 9% and the middle classes saw their income fall 7% – relative poverty halved (and crime rates fell).

The ever increasing rat race inequality breeds causes us much stress, and there are good physiological reasons stress causes us ill health.  Stress is designed to be acute, as part of the fight or flight mechanism – chronic stress wears the body down.  Where the immune system is heightened short term ready for injury it works; long-term it fails to respond to anything.  Increased heart pressure helps us run or fight in the short term; long term it causes heart disease.  An alert brain will respond fast in a high pressure situation; long term the chemical imbalance leads to memory loss and depression.  And so on through digestion and reproductive suppression etc.

The stress inequality causes is killing us all, physically and mentally.

Next Friday: Inequality and crime.

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

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

62 comments on “Digested Read – Spirit Level 2: Health”

  1. Even a novice statistician can see that the correlations depicted by these trend lines are not robust. The heavy scatter and the reliance on outliers is a dead giveaway. Removing Japan, Sweden and the US from the second two graphs eliminates all correlation. Adding the missing 8 data points to the mental health graph does the same (you did notice there were only 12 data points, didn’t you?)

    And before you ask, yes, I did read the book and the very unconvincing explanations given by the authors for the selectivity of their data and the use of that entirely novice technique, the trend line.

    Cue large numbers of dissenting and disparaging comments from people with no statistical knowledge whatsoever…

    • bbfloyd 1.1

      sorry doc… but you’ve got to put forward an idea of substance before it can be quantified, or the merits debated… that last sentence was corny though.. gave me a chuckle anyway…

    • Draco T Bastard 1.2

      Rhetoric does not an argument make.

    • Bunji 1.3

      Novice statistician, eh? Strange, because expert statisticians have done the calculations without Japan, Sweden and the US and there’s still a strong correlation, despite a non-scientific arbitrary removal of data points.

      And yes, there are only 12 data points in the mental health graph, due to a lack of data from the other 8 countries. So I don’t know how you’re going to add them in and remove the correlation. Other than arbitrarily.

      Tell us what failed to convince you about how they selected their data. What would have worked better for you? And what’s your axe to grind against the widely used mathematical technique of linear regression or “trend lines”?

    • Loota 1.4

      Sure MacDoc maybe they should have chucked in some r-coefficients to satisfy you?

      I am interested that some few countries manage to buck the trends. Italy in mental health and Singapore in life expectancy for instance.

      • Bunji 1.4.1

        yes, it is interesting which ones buck on which trends. Italy’s slow-life culture no doubt helps with mental health. Singapore bucks a few trends. It’s fairly authoritarian, so they have no difficulty interfering into people’s health for their own good. Do well on child health stats too. Freedom to smoke etc, not so much…

  2. Matt 2

    And the reason why if you take out Portugal, the US, Sweden and Japan that correlation is less strong is because they are at opposite ends of the equality spectrum. Surely the correlation is going to be weaker if the variation of the countries measured is less.

  3. jcuknz 3

    You can quibble over the accuracy of the stats but the basic fact is that the premise that ecconomic inequality promotes ill heath is inescapable common sense. I’m suprised that a medical person challenges the matter unless they are concerned that the nit-pickers will have a field day. It is a serious concern expressed about the underclasses of the United States by a New York Times editorial in the past day or so, though it applies world wide.

    • RedLogix 3.1

      You can quibble over the accuracy of the stats but the basic fact is that the premise that ecconomic inequality promotes ill heath is inescapable common sense.

      Thanks for that. As P&W themselves point out, the underlying idea is scarcely original. Indeed it’s an idea found in one form or another in virtually all the major religions.

      And as they clearly demonstrate, inequality adversely affects not just the poor and dysfunctional, but everyone in a society.

      Look around the modern world and ask the question, while some suffering in this life in inescapable, is there anyplace or any people actually happy and contented with life? Is our imagination so impoverished that we cannot conceive of something better?

      • jcuknz 3.1.1

        I guess that I have been one of the lucky ones that despite various set-backs I have reached a stage where I know I have lived a good life and am reasonably content with what life throws my way for the remaining days of my life.

  4. jbanks 4

    The good news is that economic liberalism decreases global economic inequality.

    Click to access EFW2009_ch1.pdf


    pp. 19-22

    • Bored 4.1

      Which quite frankly is a total load of bollocks. The stats you refer to are (like the paper) extremely selective. For example it has New Zealand 3rd on “economic freedom” and we all know how we have gone backwards….then theres the graph of what the bottom 10% gets, where the article states..The share of income earned by the poorest 10% of the population is unrelated to the degree of economic freedom in a nation.…so no pretense in this towards any equality, sure the income may be higher but it is all relative.

      As an aside I dont need to read left wing or right wing books or the stats to know about income inequality and its social linkages and results. ts just as easy to go and have a look in South Auckland, talk to some teachers, social workers or police who see it up close and personal. Or you can just ponse around Reemers and pretend there is no link between your affluence and the effects of relative poverty.

      • jbanks 4.1.1

        Ha ha ha. How unsurprisingly hypocritical of you to brush aside peer reviewed studies and statistic that YOU don’t like.

        • Loota 4.1.1.1

          I think Bored did more than “brush aside” your points, he FUBAR’d them.

          • jbanks 4.1.1.1.1

            No. The study shows that economic liberalism decreases global inequality.

            The graphs begin with the data on the relationship between economic freedom and the growth rate and level of per-capita GDP. In recent years, numerous scholarly studies have analyzed these relationships in detail (e.g., de Haan et al., 2006). Almost without exception, these studies have found that countries with more economic freedom grow more rapidly and achieve higher levels of per-capita GDP.

            Eatadickup

            • RedLogix 4.1.1.1.1.1

              Per capita GDP is not the same same as GINI.

                • RedLogix

                  Cripes did you even look at the graph you linked to? It actually shows an L-shaped distribution that strongly suggests that the nations with a GDP of less than about $10k per capita fall into a distinct group to those above that threshold. All it’s doing is reproducing a well-known observation made by many, many others.

                  Below this $10k threshold there are real developmental issues around education, health, justice, social and physical infrastructure that entraps large numbers of the poorest into absolute poverty.

                  Above that $10k threshold, the relationship between the two figures is completely different and much, much flatter. In order to avoid just this effect and to compare like with like W&P explicitly confined their study to those wealthier, developed countries above the threshold.

                  They justify why they make this choice in the book in some detail. Would help if you read it sometime. You’d be less prone to making these simple errors.

                  • jbanks

                    So you want to convince me that equality is better than inequality by leaving out countries with highest GINI scores?

                    Anti-spam word: Delusion

                    • RedLogix

                      See my comment at 8.0 below.

                      But yes if you actually read the book they explicity make the case for why they confine the study to developed nations.

                    • Puddleglum

                      Jbanks, so you are saying that wealthier countries are more equal in the distribution of income than poorer countries? I agree.

                      In poorer countries in the global world we live in, the elite can, indeed, commandeer fortunes that would be impressive even in wealthier countries. Given that the income of the vast bulk of the population in poor countries is so low, then those impressive incomes will lead to a higher GINI. By contrast, most wealthy countries (which came into their wealth quite a long time prior to today’s poorer countries) have had a long history of the active resistance by the people of the accumulation of power and wealth – e.g., the long fought battle to establish unions, universal suffrage, progressive tax systems, public health systems, etc..

                      It is these redistributive attempts, of course, that have allowed working people to claw back at least some massive inequalities that were generated by the industrialising of Europe and North American societies in the 19th and early 20th century. That is, it was not economic growth but active, organised attempts by the ‘lower classes’ to redistribute wealth and incomes that achieved the effect of making wealthier societies more equal. This cause of the equalising is evident by observing what happened once those redistributive attempts were rolled back from the 1980s on in many wealthy societies – with the Anglo-American axis being the keenest on this roll-back. Those societies became more unequal despite continuing impressive growth in GDP.

                      What I don’t understand is why you want to point this out. I thought you were claiming that there was no relationship between levels of inequality and health and social outcomes (contra what W&P claim). Yet you have just argued that GINI is lower in wealthier countries. I presume you think that health and social outcomes are also better in wealthier countries (e.g., life expectancy, literacy, etc.)? If so, then you agree that greater equality results in better health and social outcomes, just like W&P?

                      When we just look at wealthier countries on your graph, the US is an outlier, as indicated. That is, its GINI coefficient is higher than most other wealthy countries. Given that it is uncontroversial that its health and social statistics tend towards the lower end, in most cases, when compared with those of other wealthy countries that, too, would support W&P’s hypothesis, wouldn’t it?

                      Have I missed something in your argument?

            • Bored 4.1.1.1.1.2

              Hey Banksey, get in the Beemer and take a little drive, out of your nice safe little gated community with all of its nice safe gated neo lib minds, and head down to Otara, Porirua, Aranui and have a good close look. Pick up TS en route for moral support. If you are really brave get out the car and have a word with a few benefiaries of the neo lib dream about how marvellous it is. We will send you flowers in hospital out of the goodness of our “lefty”hearts. Good luck.

              • tsmithfield

                So you’re running out of actual arguments then?

                • Loota

                  the grim reality of peoples’ lives don’t exist in arguments in your head tsmithfield it exists in some of the more run down streets of Otara, Porirua and Aranui.

                  Should you ever bother to take a look that is.

                • Bored

                  No TS, far from it, I would just prefer you got out a bit more, you know, get out of the theory and articles from either side trying to justify their little pet theories etc. As an alternative get down and dirty with the reality, good field research where you can see, feel, smell, touch reality, no wimoing out from behind safe little ivory towers (or gated communities)…as they say seeing is believing.

                  By the way I have experience in applied research and statistical analysis from my Honours year (many centuries ago), so trying to pull the wool over my eyes with chosen stats, pet theories, and tendentious mantras tends to make me very Bored. I could just say “get a life”.

            • Loota 4.1.1.1.1.3

              GDP is a failure of a measure when you are looking at the well being of the citizens of a country.

        • Bunji 4.1.1.2

          Have you seen how they calculate the “Economic freedom”?

          And by they I mean the NZ Business Roundtable who are contributors to the study (no bias in the thinktank conducting this study at all, no…)

          “Economic Freedom” means such things as how small your government is, that you have ready access to debt (sorry “Sound money”) and that the personal property rights of the rich are heavily enforced. Oh, and there’s a new category for how easy it is to fire people. Yay, we’re third!

  5. tsmithfield 5

    Much better reading.

    Detailed criticism of “the spirit level”. Note that several of the criticisms I have been making about outliers and making assumptions about the direction of causation are expanded on here.

    Also pointed out is how statistics from different periods of time are cherry-picked and combined into the one factor as if they were the same thing. P & W’s attempts at justification for some of these choices are discussed and demonstrated to be nonsensical. Also interesting facts such as crime being higher in more equal cultures, a point ignored by P & W.

    • Loota 5.1

      Meh, even NZ research done by public agencies and and universities over the last 10 years demonstrates how socioeconomic inequality and deprivation is a massive driver for a wide range of individual and community problems.

      Also interesting facts such as crime being higher in more equal cultures, a point ignored by P & W.

      What, you mean in a more equal culture like a prison population? 🙄

      • tsmithfield 5.1.1

        Did you actually read the link I pointed to?

        Or perhaps you might prefer this one.

        Or perhaps you might prefer a high powered academic criticism of “the spirit level” such as this one:

        “Wilkinson and Pickett have no time for nicely balanced judgements. They believe that the evidence they present shows beyond doubt that more equal societies ‘do better’, and they are also confident that they have the right explanation for why this is so… Their case is by no means so securely established as they try to make out… it has been called into question by other leading figures in the field – a fact that WP might have more fully acknowledged… WP’s inadequate, one-dimensional understanding of social stratification leads to major problems in their account of how the contextual effect is produced.”

        — John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Nuffield College, Oxford; ‘Analysing social inequality’ European Sociological Review, 2009

        • Loota 5.1.1.1

          The MSD deprivation index suggests that everything that The Spirit Level points to happens in NZ. Its pretty clear cut, for everything from violent crime to mortality/morbidity to teenage pregnancy rates.

          As for Goldthorpe: he offers no better explanation for how the contextual explanation is produced and certainly has no answers himself for how to resolve it.

          In other words, sour grapes.

        • Loota 5.1.1.2

          By the way tsmithfield can you please give me the full reference for your Goldthorpe quote; in particular the particular issue/page number of the European Sociological Review you referred to. I can’t seem to find it on my search engines using just the info you provided.

          • tsmithfield 5.1.1.2.1

            I guess it would be this one. Don’t know what you were using to search with. I found it in approx 20 seconds.

            From his comments it seems that leading experts in the field think “the spirit level” is less than convincing and is based on dodgy methods and assumptions. Then again, I guess they all could be wrong…

            • Loota 5.1.1.2.1.1

              Meh. What leading experts? You named a single one?
              The Spirit Level robustly covers decades worth of data across many countries and many different environments.

              Further, NZ based research data backs up The Spirit Level very well.

              Oh, in NZ obesity and incidence of diabetes is strongly correlated to levels of deprivation.

            • Bunji 5.1.1.2.1.2

              Snowdon of the Spirit Level Delusion is no scientist or social expert, but rather a history graduate whose main claim to fame is a book criticising anti-smoking campaigners. Still, the Spirit Level authors gave him one reply before asking for any further criticism to be subject to peer-review, to show that the criticisms are worth response, not just selective muck-raking.

              The Swedish Taxpayers Alliance are a right-wing pressure group, desperate to break the fairly egalitarian Swedish system. Despite their obvious bias, the Spirit Level authors were polite enough to give them a reply as well, before making the same peer-reviewed criticism request.

              LPrent had a good post a while ago about Emeritus Professors, but in general finding one scientist to disagree with any hypothesis from string theory to gravity is not difficult – it is the balance of peer-reviewed research that matters.

              And the Spirit Level is actually from an analysis of all that peer-reviewed research – it seeks to balance 100s of studies and their conclusions. It’s not 1 study with a new result, it’s a “hey, outside world, this is what we have generally been saying over in social science land for a while now”.

            • Puddleglum 5.1.1.2.1.3

              Hi TS. I wouldn’t get too excited over the point Goldthorpe was making. It’s actually rather beside the point in this thread (though it is a criticism of some of the assumptions, perhaps, of what ‘inequality’ involves).

              His work on social mobility was a reaction to the claim that there was a decline in social mobility in Britain because of the 1980s ‘reforms’ there (Thatcher, etc.). Economists had argued that, when income was used, people born in 1970 were less likely to improve their incomes relative to their parents than were those born in 1958.

              Goldthorpe (a sociologist) basically argued that, nevertheless, there was still considerable occupational advancement still going on (i.e., opportunities to move out of blue collar to white collar work) and an increasing ‘service class’ group of occupations. It’s the sociological equivalent of ‘all boats rising on the tide of growth’.

              So his criticism of W&P was that they weren’t ‘subtle’ enough about the (standard economists’) measure of inequality and that means that their suggestions of how the contextual effect (the correlations) were produced (i.e., through the action upon people via status hierarchies, etc.) could be questioned. (BTW, even he admits that mobility did decline in Britain but, as he might put it, that was from the highs of post-war times.)

              This is interesting but beside the point. He doesn’t dispute the stats underpinning the correlations. He disputes their understanding of social stratification, given the kinds of explanations they provide of why the correlations occur.

              Personally, I don’t think they are far off. Juliet Schor has done a lot on this – she’s an economist and sociologist. The video on her book ‘The Overspent American’ suggests the ways that status aspirations became ‘turbo-charged’ so that ‘keeping up with the Jones” started to go global (Sadly, the link here is to a 3.5 minute promo for the full 32 minute video).

              Her book ‘Born to Buy’ (at the first link above) is one of many accounts of how consumerising babies and children has become a priority. That connects with Tim Kasser’s review of the literature on the psychological effects of materialism associated with consumerism (the book actually shows that poorer physical health is connected with materialist values as well.)

              It also connects with work by Jean Twenge showing a one standard deviation increase in children and young people’s scores on standard anxiety scales between 1952 and 1991, increased scores on depression scales and movements from an internal to external locus of control (since 1938). (See this for a readable snapshot of that work.). Here’s her CV. The 2000 paper in JPSP is the one from her PhD – a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies. Worth a read.

              • RedLogix

                Thanks…another learning moment.

              • Puddleglum

                Almost forgot – the Goldthorpe ‘paper’ looks like it was a journal-commissioned book review (of two books). In general, they tend not to be peer reviewed (often just by invitation from the editor) so, technically, it’s not part of the peer-reviewed literature.

                That’s not necessarily a problem – after all Chomsky’s famous review of Skinner’s book ‘Verbal Behavior’ in the journal ‘Language’ is a bit of a classic in the literature of cognitive psychology. But it might be worth noting given that you tend not to have to construct a defence, based on literature, for the views you express in such reviews. People often use it as a means of ‘letting their hair down’ on their pet area.

              • Draco T Bastard

                The Overspent American – full length preview.

              • tsmithfield

                Thanks Puddlegum. I appreciate your time in putting all that together. I will have a look at it all.

                After taking a quick look at the snap shot of Twenage’s work, I notice that Peter Gray, who summarises Twenge’s work actually disagrees with her. He posits the increased scores on depression scales etc with a “decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling.” He then goes on to explain his hypothesis.

                • Puddleglum

                  You’re right – if you think about it, though, and ask yourself why there might be fewer opportunities for free play and more emphasis on schooling …???

                  All roads may very well lead to Rome.

                  • RedLogix

                    It’s also worth noting that W&P firmly reject the idea that the inequality idea is not a ‘theory of everything’. While they make a case for inequality to be at least one fundamental underlying driver of social dysfunction in the developed nations, they make no claim that it explains everything.

                    • Puddleglum

                      yes indeed RL. The Rome I was referring to, however, was the general consumerist/materialist culture rather than inequality. It’s a pretty ‘large’ basket of a whole bunch of related trends (including inequality).

                      The link TS was talking about, and I was referring to, talks about how Twenge thinks the rise in anxiety/depression is a result of matirlaism, whereas the writer (Peter Gray) hypothesises that it’s a result of the loss of free play and the increase in schooling and structured after school activities and sports.

                      I was simply pointing out to TS that, really, both Twenge’s and Gray’s explanations are related in that they both implicate the same basic culture (competition, achievement, status, etc.).

  6. Loota:
    You are now talking about deprivation, not inequality. Nobody would argue that having a lower income does not produce worse health statistics. The argument of the Spirit Level, however, is that the inequality of income produced by the drive for increased wealth causes worse health statistics overall. This is a much more dubious proposition.

    • Descendant Of Smith 6.1

      Funny I read it as when the inequality of income produced by the excessive drive for increased wealth causes worse health statistics overall.

      When profit and wealth is an end unto itself.

      Take sugar as an example. We know that sugar is present in foods at much higher levels than needed and that the scientists recommendations in the WHO guidelines were to insist on a maximum level in foods. This did not appear in the final report – and it was found later that this was due to the lobbying and influence of the sugar industry.

      The consequence is that foods have much more sugar than needed and contribute significantly to obesity and tooth decay. Profits are maintained while health suffers.

      There is simply no need to have as much sugar in so many many products so the only reason left for doing so is profit.

      Profit first health last.

    • Loota 6.2

      This is a much more dubious proposition.

      Dubious? To whom? Its very obvious in day to day operation and the Spirit Level reviews a wide body of literature spanning decades.

      Nobody would argue that having a lower income does not produce worse health statistics.

      Yet its still National policies to reward the rich with lavish tax cuts + bailouts and suppress wages and benefits for the working class and lowest socioeconomic groups in society?

      Are you really in a caring profession?

  7. tsmithfield 7

    Bunji ‘Snowdon of the Spirit Level Delusion is no scientist or social expert, but rather a history graduate whose main claim to fame is a book criticising anti-smoking campaigners.’

    Resorting to ad hominems is usually a sign people are losing the debate. The strength of the argument is the critical factor. Why not actually respond to some of the issues raised in that criticism, rather than try and undermine people’s reputations.

    Bunji: “LPrent had a good post a while ago about Emeritus Professors, but in general finding one scientist to disagree with any hypothesis from string theory to gravity is not difficult – it is the balance of peer-reviewed research that matters.”

    Another ad hominem. Are you losing it or what?

    The criticism made is actually very strong for an academic document. Academics are usually much more polite when criticising each others work. The strength of the language suggests the professor thinks “the spirit level” is very obviously utter tripe from an academic perspective.

    Bunji “And the Spirit Level is actually from an analysis of all that peer-reviewed research – it seeks to balance 100s of studies and their conclusions.”

    And the criticism I pointed to demonstrated that many of the proclaimed supporting studies did nothing of the sort.

    • RedLogix 7.1

      Resorting to ad hominems is usually a sign people are losing the debate.

      You are failing to tell the difference between a personal ‘ad-hominen’ attack and making reference to someone’s actual background and allegiences.

      After all if someone tells you that CO2 induced global warming is a crock, it’s relevant to find out that they are allied to a coal or oil company in some way.

      • tsmithfield 7.1.1

        RedLogix, a little while ago some high school students conducted an experiment that demonstrated that a popular black current drink didn’t contain vitamin C as was claimed. I don’t recall to many people questioning the credentials of the students. It was the power of their evidence that counted.
        Same with the reference I gave.

        So far as bunji insinuating that Goldthorpe can’t be considered because he is obviously old and senile and all due to being “emeritus”, this is blatant ageism without any evidence at all to support the insinuation. Should not be tolerated IMO.

        • RedLogix 7.1.1.1

          ts,

          Would you have considered it relevant if, for example, one the students’ parents was a marketing manager for one of Ribena’s competitors? In that case you might well want to subject the claims being made to an extra level of scrutiny.

          Background is part of the picture. In this case Snowdon’s track record as an apologist for the tobacco companies is to say the least…interesting.

          • tsmithfield 7.1.1.1.1

            Red, I have no problem with giving extra scrutiny where there is the possibility of vested interests distorting an argument. However, that does not diminish the strength of the argument if it is a good one. If it is a good argument, it doesn’t really matter who’s name appears at the head of it.

            The problem is that bunji dismissed the reference I gave out of hand soley on the basis of what he viewed to be a vested interest. No attempt to address the actual argument at all.

            So far as vested interests go, I note the authors are members of “the equity trust”. That would suggest to me that they have a vested interest in massaging their research to support the aim of their organisation. Also, I guess the authors are coining quite a bit of cash by putting out a book that has strong findings in the direction of their research. If the research was ambivalent or contradictory they probably wouldn’t sell many books.

            So, on the basis of your own argument, I have can legitimately dismiss “the spirit level” on that basis alone.

            • Bunji 7.1.1.1.1.1

              I did not dismiss it out of hand, I gave the links discrediting their work. I just also pointed out that they weren’t willing to have their ideas tested to the same level of scrutiny as the scientists who submit to peer-reviewed journals. Yes I mentioned their background to give further understanding to where they were coming from, but their arguments fall on their own lack of merit.

              The authors are members of the “equality trust” (an equity trust is quite a different thing) as a result of their decades of study, encouraging to found such a thing. It did not exist before they had done decades of research.

            • Bunji 7.1.1.1.1.2

              Goldthorpe may well be worth reading, I was more making the point that getting 1 emeritus professor to say something does not mean that all previous evidence is contradicted.

              At any rate Puddleglum shows that you are misrepresenting his argument anyway.

              And you may be all about “the coin”, but a lot of scientists have a little more ethics about that – their duty to science will mean they give a balanced viewpoint. Wilkinson & Pickett are quite happy to show where things don’t fit in with their model – suicide runs contrary to inequality, and male obesity is only linked in 1 out of their 2 scenarios (they do everything on a country basis and on a US state basis)

        • Loota 7.1.1.2

          I don’t recall to many people questioning the credentials of the students. It was the power of their evidence that counted.
          Same with the reference I gave.

          Yeah I know what you mean, the Spirit Level covered decades worth of peer-reviewed evidence.

          I don’t recall to many people questioning the credentials of the students.

          They employed a standardised food science test did they not? Nothing which required in depth sociological interpretation, maybe that’s why.

          • tsmithfield 7.1.1.2.1

            So, on that basis you would agree with John Goldthorpe who I quoted above since he very obviously does have those credentials?

            • RedLogix 7.1.1.2.1.1

              Dissenting opinions are inevitable and normal. Some of them are just cranks, some mis-informed, some who cannot accept that the conventional wisdom they received decades ago has changed, some with an agenda, and some whose world-view simply means that they interpret the meanings of data differently.

              There is no single magic wand that we can use to determine truth. We gather data, we devise hypothesis, we debate the correlations and meanings and in the long run attain a consensus. And then the process starts all over again. It’s intriguing, fun and messy.

              Trying to claim victory in the debate with a single appeal to authority …when you STILL haven’t read the book… is plain silly.

  8. RedLogix 8

    The point being missed by so many critics of The Spirit Level is NOT that GDP, economic freedom and development are unimportant. The point is far more subtle than that.

    Once a society attains a certain degree of material wealth, the crucial question becomes not how much? but who has it?. After all there is only a certain amount of material wealth required to feed, shelter and clothe a person. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would suggest that as the basic physical needs of a person are fulfilled, their next level of need transitions from purely material requirements (and thus purely captured by GDP numbers) towards activities that are essential more social and ethical in nature… and thus a lesser tendency to be captured by pure economics.

    Indeed at the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy…. self-actualisation… is scarcely captured by GDP numbers in any direct sense at all.

    For societies trapped at the lowest levels of development, and thus still battling to provide needs at a largely material level of development (the sub-U$10k threshold I mention above)… GDP is a relevant and important measure of success.

    But above that threshold the effect of GDP becomes increasingly less relevant….precisely because people’s needs become increasingly more social, ethical and spiritual in nature. Needs that are quite obviously compromised in a society that stratifies it’s citizens into rigid, immobile extremes of wealth and poverty. Intense class rigidity closes doors, perpetutates unfair privileges and diverts energy away from constructive purposes into a sullen sense of anxiety, resentments and yes…envy even. (Envy might rationally arise in any person forever shut out from the prosperity they see being enjoyed by a tiny elite…by the mere and unjust accident of birth.)

    Equally those who do enjoy privilege, will logically find their good fortune far more satisfying (again in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy) if they can live without the anxiety that those less privileged seek nothing more than to take it off them.

    In wealthy, developed societies, people do better when the social gradient is sufficiently low that most people believe they can trust most other people, that there is not just equality of opportunity, but that there is some reasonable possibility of fair and just outcomes. In a trusting environment people will invest in long-term plans because they have confidence that they will eventually see a reward for their efforts. This must apply equally to everyone, from the poorest to the richest.

    • Loota 8.1

      Once a society attains a certain degree of material wealth, the crucial question becomes not how much? but who has it?. After all there is only a certain amount of materiall wealth required to feed, shelter and clothe a person.

      Between 2000 and 2010 the Treasury’s measure of the amount of NZD in our financial system (a.k.a. M3) (OK admittedly I don’t understand the measure perfectly yet) increased from $99B to $206B. Now, we also know that the country’s population did not more than double in those 10 years.

      So who holds the additional $106B created by the banking system?

      I sure as hell don’t.

  9. Matt 9

    Sorry, you’re linking to the Taxpayer’s Alliance and expecting us to take it seriously? If you could provide some criticism by people who are not part of the right wing agenda to maintain ad increase inequality in the UK, US or NZ it might be possible to have a debate with you. And the stats criticism is no good – as others are saying there is a lot of other statistical analysis that links economic inequality to social and health harms – actually if you look at any statistical analysis or qualitive research on economic inequality and social and health harms you’ll find a correlation 9 out of 10 times. The main thing the authors have down is provide a narrative and attempt to pinpoint a possible causative affect. The fact that you continue to argue with the data rather than the thesis is telling.

  10. tsmithfield 10

    This is more than a dissenting opinion Red. It is an assessment of how “the spirit level” stacks up as an piece of academic research. Here is part of that quote from Goldthorpe:

    “Their case is by no means so securely established as they try to make out… it has been called into question by other leading figures in the field – a fact that WP might have more fully acknowledged…”

    Goldthorpe is a respected academic making this comment in an article in an academic journal that will be read by his peers. He is not going to make this sort of comment if it is not true. Otherwise he would be roundly criticised and rightly so. He is in a good position to judge how “the spirit level” stacks up as an academic document. It appears to be is his considered view that it is not well accepted in academic circles.

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