Off the ‘Spirit Level’ [update 4]
The authors of the British book The Spirit Level have a political agenda, and they’ve got it talked about everywhere. Even here. The NZ Labour MPs’ blog Red Alert for example is so excited it even has a ‘Spirit Level’ “tag”, and breathless comments from the likes of Grant Robertson that “These people’s work can not be dismissed.” And Colin James, the commentator on the tired and the bleeding obvious, wonders if the 300-page tome might not become “a sort of guidebook for the next Labour ministry,” should there be one.
So what’s their work, and why are Grant Robertson and his comrades so excited about it? It’s a “revolutionary” thesis overturning all previous research: that societies with more “equal” incomes do better than those that don’t.
So how did they do what no other researchers before them have managed to do? Simple, They fudged the figures.
Here, for example, is a graph that is central to their thesis, purporting to show how much better off our life expectancy would be if we all copied “the workers’ paradises of Scandinavia and the egalitarian nirvana of Japan.” See how the culturally egalitarian Japan and Sweden skew the left side up, and the culturally meritorian USA skews it down?
And here it is again, this time with the many elephants in the room they neglected to include because they inconveniently contradict their thesis, charted using figures from that bastion of inequality, the UN. See how the addition of Hong Kong alters the right-hand side, and the additions of the likes of South Korea and the Czech Republic give a more “realistic” level to the left-hand end.
Adding in the countries that contradict their thesis shows that there really is no significant trend at all (maybe one month, or two?), which means their much-hyped thesis is basically bosh. [Further clarification on the graphs below.]
As the author of The Spirit Level Delusion, Christopher Snowdon, explains at Spiked, (from whom I stole those graphs) this sort of statistical legerdemain exposed here cannot be unintentional. Which means, to put it bluntly, that the authors have lied—and if you have to lie to make your point, that probably means you haven’t got one. Nonetheless, it’s a lie perfectly calculated to get the chattering classes talking; so after tearing apart their “research,” Snowdon draws the only conclusion about their thesis and its widespread acceptance that you could:
The only real difference between ‘less equal’ and ‘more equal’ countries is the size of the government and the amount it takes in tax, rising from less than 15 per cent of gross domestic product in Singapore to almost 50 per cent in Denmark. The fact that Singapore outperforms Denmark under almost every measure of what makes a country ‘do better’ only serves to underline the folly of The Spirit Level and, by association, the futility of its political agenda.
That this agenda takes the form of zero-growth economics and eco-authoritarianism perhaps explains why journalists at the New Statesman and the Guardian have been so willing to suspend disbelief when confronted with such an improbable explanation for the problems of all mankind. It seems not to have struck them as odd that two left-wing epidemiologists were able suddenly to unearth a ‘theory of everything’ which had eluded the world’s finest minds for generations.
To The Spirit Level’s legion of admirers, this uncanny turn of events is only proof of Wilkinson and Pickett’s unique genius. A more prosaic explanation is that the grand unifying theory had not been unearthed because it was never there.
If there were such a thing as a passion for equality (not equality de jure, but de facto), it would be obvious to its exponents that there are only two ways to achieve it: either by raising all men to the mountaintop—or by razing the mountains.
And naturally, the exponents of forced equality always end up advocating the latter. That the talk about this book and its recommendations at the Red Alert blog usually ends with a recommendation to soak the rich is proof once again that this thesis is still fundamentally correct. But don’t expect them to change that one big idea in their policy manual—because it’s the only “big idea” they’ve actually got.
UPDATE 1: Phil Sage has some complementary comments over at the No Minister blog, concluding,
Phil links to two excellent reports on the central thesis of The Spirit Level, which I hope he won’t mind me linking here; first, from the UK Taxpayers’ Alliance:
Before policymakers rush to enforce the income equality that the authors suggest is so vital to improve public health and general wellbeing, it is important that we properly scrutinise its claims.
The new report published today by the TaxPayers' Alliance does just that. The Spirit Illusion looks at whether the most important correlations established in the book can be replicated.
The findings are stark. On almost no measure does the central claim of the Spirit Level, that income inequality decreases life expectancy, stand up to scrutiny…
[The report’s] main point is that the most important statistical correlation between countries that the authors claim to have established – the connection they point to between life expectancy and income inequality in different industrialised nations – is simply wrong…
I recommend the report. It’s free. And the UK Policy Exchange has produced its own report on the phoney tome, Beware False Prophets, in which “Wilkinson and Pickett’s empirical claims are critically re-examined using (a) their own data on 23 countries, (b) more up-to-date statistics on a larger sample of 44 countries, and (c) data on the US states. Very few of their empirical claims survive intact.” The hardback costs you £10 + £3p&p—but you can download the PDF free.
UPDATE 2: If you think those “dots” have moved in the two charts above, you’re right. Chris Snowdon clarifies in the comments:
The two graphs are from exactly the same UN source, but are from different years. The first is from the 2004 UN Human Development Report, the second is from the 2006 report.
The reason I mention this is that, if you own a copy of The Spirit Level, take a look at references 2 and 6. Reference 2 is the 2006 report and is for their graph showing no relationship between life expectancy and GDP. Reference 6 is the 2004 report, and that's used to show there IS a relationship between life expectancy and inequality.
Why use two different data sets? We can only speculate, but I would speculate that its because, even if you exclude places like the Czech Republic, the 2004 data fits their hypothesis better than the 2006. This, from two researchers who insist they took their data "warts and all."
UPDATE 3: Dinther sums it all up perfectly. At the end of the day, even if the research were true …
UPDATE 4: Spirit Level authors Wilkinson and Pickett's responded to the Spirit Level Delusion author’s 20 Questions to them. Hong Kong was excluded because, apparently, it’s not “an older, rich, developed, market economy.” Presumably because it’s a young, poor, undeveloped, communist state like Cuba? I guess this gives you a taste of Wilkinson & Picket’s acumen.
Snowdon’s response to them is here. It’s good.
Some of the graphs from The Spirit Level Delusion are here. And Snowdon’s Spirit Level Delusion blog is here.