Doubt is their Product

A few words on the resurgent (and utterly predictable) attacks on “The Spirit Level”

The title and sentiment of this piece actually anticipate a much longer piece (on climate change) which has ground to a halt precisely because of the difficulty of navigating such a politically-charged debate. [David Wearing, tweeting about “The Spirit Level”, drew a parallel between the ‘doubt’ lobbies in both cases.] That piece should be ready soon, but today I just wanted to write a couple of paragraphs on the Glenn Beck-eqsue pounding that rightwing think-tanks and commentators have recently been giving Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s “The Spirit Level”.

A Guardian article yesterday reported that “if The Spirit Level were a punchbag, the stuffing would be coming out at the seams.” This interpretation of what has gone on (mainly, and not coincidentally, since the accession to power of the Conservative government in May) may be well-intentioned, but it gives a great deal of credence to criticisms which have been strongly refuted. Kate Pickett feels that the criticisms of the book are being given far too much weight given the scrutiny of peer review and more general critical reception when it came out in 2009. So while the Guardian is probably right to pick up on the fact of the coordinated assault on the book, using terms like “ideas wreckers” simply plays into the hands of its foot-soldiers – some (probably) honourable academics, some intellectually specious hacks. Here is what the authors had to say:

“It was inevitable that these attacks would appear sooner or later. But it is important that people are aware of how ill-founded and easily rebuffed they are. That three sustained attacks from those opposed to greater equality can be dealt with in relative ease should increase our confidence in the case for a more equal society.”

Bold stuff, but it is worth examining the criticisms more closely. The first is Christopher Snowdon’s book, “The Spirit Level Delusion”. The specific answers to the questions posed by Snowdon are given here. They show that most of the points are related to case-level technicalities and I don’t see that any threaten the overall conclusions. These rebuttals have been answered by Snowdon at his blog. Some of the contested points are quite interesting (the validity of family breakdown across cultures needs further explanation, for example, and the answer to Q.12 is handled poorly by both W&P and Snowdon in my view), but in the main I find the criticisms take very little away from the general conclusions. The issue of correlation and causation is again dwelled upon (esp. for the social/communal activity question); Wilkinson and Pickett are sometimes demonstrating the former, but where a claim for the latter is made it is done so in a rigorous framework. (Things like the omission of certain cases even to the detriment of the authors’ conclusions seem ridiculous to harp on about, for example the Portugal teen birth rate.)

The second major set of criticisms comes from the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Ordinarily I would be inclined to dismiss anything that comes from the TPA on the grounds that it is obfuscatory hard-right propaganda. Far from representing the ordinary, hard-working citizen as its name implies, the Taxpayers’ Alliance is a tiny pressure group which does not disclose its funding sources and takes a dogmatic approach to public spending and constitutional ties to Europe. If we were to find out where its money came from, I suspect a more accurate name would be the tax evaders’ alliance. Anyway, enough grousing. The TPA covers much of the same ground as does Snowden; in fact some of the same text and questions are used, underlining the collaborative nature of the attempt to discredit the book.

While there are certainly legitimate gripes with the way the book’s conclusions have been spun into a ‘grand theory’ (not something the authors claim, mind), time and again it comes down to either a) correlation vs causation, b) the ‘notoriously unreliable’ nature of whole-country studies (despite much of the book being backed with state-level data from the U.S., conveniently dismissed again as an unrepresentative case), or c) valid but minute claims relating to questionable technical or selection decisions. The authors responses to the TPA criticisms are here. Much like the climate change debate, opponents of the troubling (troubling for defenders of the status quo at least) propositions repeatedly cite the same few studies which disagree. The illusion of some sort of balanced debate is thus created by multiplying the ‘anti’ voice by presenting the same retort from different sources. (Admittedly in the case of climate change this is much, much more widespread, but I think the opponents of Wilkinson and Pickett have learned a lot from that ‘debate’. One common tactic is to refer constantly back to an older article which contradicts the authors’ findings and to ignore the many subsequent studies which support them).

The third set of criticisms directly addressed by Wilkinson and Pickett is this report by Peter Saunders, produced by the Policy Exchange. Though endorsed by an unabashedly ideological institution, this document is probably the most weighty of the attacks on “The Spirit Level” covered here. It should be clear why the Policy Exchange would commission a report which had the sole purpose of debunking “The Spirit Level”; if the claims of the book were unambiguously correct, then the Policy Exchange would simply have no reason to exist, its mission being to promote “free market and localist solutions to public policy questions.” (It is interesting, if a little tangential, that Wilkinson and Pickett have attempted to portray themselves as distinctly non-partisan, and prior to the election of the Cameron government, their findings were supported by members of all major parties, if only out of convenience. Even vocal Policy Exchange supporter Boris Johnson has got behind a hike in the minimum wage to around £8.00 p/h, if only in London.)

One direct untruth in the headline summary of Saunders’ findings is that only one of the claims made in “The Spirit Level” stands up. Wilkinson and Pickett counter that fifteen of their original twenty major claims have been manipulated by Saunders (apparently through the extremely selective removal of certain case studies) to reduce their statistical significance. Not only that, there is plenty of other data-kneading alleged against Saunders, such as splitting the data into sub-groups, dismissing whole groups of culturally-homogeneous case-studies, and inconsistent application of his own ‘rules’ for a fair test. Despite being an apparently serious academic report, “Beware False Prophets” seems to be the most underhand of the three.

There are critics beyond those directly answered by the authors, both on the right and the left. The Adam Smith Institute’s dismissal of the book foregrounds the claim of an Australian Labor Party candidate (a party which has recently changed its leader in order to be more palatable to the mining industry among other rightward panderings) that ‘inequality has no impact on growth’, a piece of information which is pretty tangential to the substantive claims of the book.

Gerry Hassan’s more detailed critique of “The Spirit Level” rests on a fundamental assumption: that “the debate between greater equality and inequality involves winners, losers and choices”; this is precisely the truism that Wilkinson and Pickett implicitly try to debunk. Those of Hassan’s criticisms which come from the left do tend to hit home – especially the charge that the reason for the inequality, i.e. neoliberalism, gets an easy ride from Wilkinson and Pickett (surely I can’t be the only person who keeps thinking of them as Wilson-Pickett). However, in the most recent discussions of their work, the link between the spread of neoliberal doctrine and detrimental societal trends is made explicit (see answers to TPA, linked above.)

In summarising that “things are a little less clear-cut than the thesis put forward by the authors”, Hassan hardly lands the death blow that is being claimed elsewhere. Part of his criticism rests on the use of outliers, but I don’t see that one can argue that the U.S. is irrelevant to the debate – particularly when the state-by-state analysis within the U.S. supports all of the main findings. The United States is by common consensus the capitalist paradigm. Besides being the biggest economy in the world, it is also a model to which many developing nations aspire. After saying that the U.S. and Japan cannot be usefully included because they are outliers, Hassan then declares all such comparisons useless when the nations in question are “very different in their cultures, values and histories”. If you don’t accept the precepts of any comparative study (which is the reductio ad absurdum of what he is saying), then clearly this book is not for you. But then nor is virtually any work of social science, nor many of history. If we are reduced to region specific studies of small timescales, there is not much hope of tackling a huge topic like inequality.

Finally on Hassan, his list of “successes aided by our unequal societies” is laughable, and I must assume that it is made with tongue firmly in cheek: from “Chelsea FC to Tiger Woods to Tony Hayward and Fred Goodwin” we have a football team whose captain is so out of control that children voted him the worst role model in the game; a golfer who by his own admission had let success drive him away from “a life with integrity”; and two of the most unpopular human beings in their fields. Are they really “winners whose lives flourish”? I’m not so sure. If this was a serious point (and it might be), the choice of examples is extremely odd.

In many ways, though, Hassan’s critiques are the most pertinent, but (I feel) for the wrong reasons. He sees the book as the defining text of a generation which sums up the bleeding-heart liberal ennui tied up with a crisis of consumerism. As such it is easy to dismiss it as “deep, moralising, middle class liberal superiority” – but this frequently is an instinctive reaction by the more partisan elements of the left when really they are being presented with evidence that supports their own arguments. Instead of castigating Wilkinson and Pickett for not going the extra mile and espousing revolution, it might be more constructive to take this small (but very significant) contribution to the debate on what makes a good society and use its substantive content to bolster current political positions. Perhaps the most useful section of Hassan’s review is the part which points the reader towards Daniel Dorling’s “Injustice” – but surely this is best read as a companion to “The Spirit Level” rather than in its stead?

The best critique I have read of the book was the review in the London Review of Books by David Runciman. It explains one issue with the book which is that essentially two different claims are being made on behalf of increased egalitarianism – sometimes that everyone would do better, sometimes that the average person benefits. Sometimes the “disadvantages of inequality are distributed across the social scale” and sometimes “they cluster at the bottom”. Wilkinson and Pickett needed to be clearer about this. But, and it’s the proverbial ‘big but‘, Runciman finds that the evidence for their central claim – that inequality is detrimental to society in a number of important ways – is nonetheless “overwhelming”. The title of his review sums this up perfectly : “how messy it all is”. Runciman, in the second half of his piece, explains why this is so problematic: from education to health, the politics of redistribution are a minefield, and without irrefutable arguments, policies will be torn apart by vested interests.

Above and beyond the criticisms, Malcolm Clark at Left Foot Forward does a great job of pulling together some parallel evidence in support of the more general claim that inequality is an undeniably bad thing in society, even when it underpins growth (which is dealt with somewhat ambiguously by Wilkinson and Pickett in their quest to be politically neutral). The ding-dong in the comments section is worth a look, though I suspect your reaction will entirely depend on your point of departure (ideologically-speaking). In spite of the methodological flaws, David Runciman could still conclude that “The Spirit Level does contain a powerful political message. It is impossible to read it and not to be impressed by how often greater equality appears to be the answer, whatever happens to be the question.”

I will conclude with a link to this piece by Greg Philo of the University of Glasgow, who proposes an (extremely) progressive one-off tax to pay the deficit, in contrast to the plans of the current government to disproportionately put the burden on the poorest (and especially poor women). Inequality? Clearly not a problem.

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Published in: on August 15, 2010 at 6:37 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. The questions on my website were more about establishing straightforward errors by Wilkinson and Pickett than pulling their thesis apart. That’s done in The Spirit Level Delusion itself. I would say W & P answered maybe 1 and a half of the 20 question I asked them satisfactorily. Gerry Hassan gets it. The Spirit Level is going to an embarrassment for the left. Not because it undermines the case for inequality. The ethical case for less inequality will always be there. But because it will undermine the left’s faculty for critical judgement. It’s not about left/right. It’s about the truth. BTW, don’t believe everything The Guardian tells you. I’ve never had a penny from a think-tank.

    More importantly (re: your previous post) how can you leave out Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All along the Watchtower?

    • Thanks Christopher – first of all, I must apologise for consistently misspelling your surname in my post. I have corrected that now, not sure where I got the ‘e’ from.

      Next up, I do see differences in your approach vis-a-vis those of either the TPA or the Policy Exchange, and I certainly am prepared to believe that there is less of an ideological basis to your criticisms, some of which I found to be valid. But (and you’ve probably guessed this reading my post, though I have no party political affiliation), I am more prepared to overlook the smaller technical criticisms because I *don’t* see them as fundamentally detrimental to the thesis as a whole.

      Also, I think much of the problem with “The Spirit Level” is the over-claiming done on its behalf by some on the left (I’m sure this is why Gerry Hassan has gone after it so hard). This is where there is real potential for embarrassment in my view. I just see it as a strong (but far from flawless) contribution to the debate. It doesn’t replace the need to make the ethical argument (which is my main problem with the authors’ position, and one I more or less share with David Runciman, who talks about the inability to substitute ideological arguments with so-called ‘evidence-based politics’). However, I feel like there is plenty of good evidence in there, even though some is partially compromised.

      Re: Hendrix, it is a wonderful cover of course, but I didn’t want it to turn into a post just about Bob Dylan. Also I’m sure everyone is familiar with it, so I don’t really need to bang the drum for Jimi!

  2. If you get a chance, read my book and get back to me. Failing that, read up on the ecological fallacy (eg. Emile Durkheim’s logical error about suicide in Protestant countries). The Spirit Level is full of them. If there’s anything in W & P’s theory it’s at too low a level to be seen using aggregate data. Most of the time they mistake the material effects of poverty with the psychological effects of inequality. So do a lot of people, which is why critics of TSL are assumed to evil capitalists who want to keep poor people poor when we are really just debating the best way to make the poor richer.

    It’s a little obscure, but check out Belarus’s cover of Here, there and everywhere. It’s so good I picked it as the first song at my wedding.

    • I’ll read it when I get back home in a few weeks. I have some familiarity with the ecological fallacy from stats courses (but if I am remembering correctly it’s not completely uncontroversial?); I’ll give it another look though.

      And cheers for the H,T & E tip.


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