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A Spirit Not Quite on the Level

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, published last year in the United Kingdom, has attracted a great deal of attention in Europe without yet being the subject of many debates in America.  Its thesis, that economic inequality is a bad thing, is not the freshest tomato on the shelf.  The book's claim on the attention of opinion makers is, rather, that the balefulness of inequality can be demonstrated statistically.  Comparing data from several nations, and then looking at differences in the 50 states of the U.S., Pickett and Wilkinson conclude that "large income inequalities within societies damage the social fabric and the quality of life for everyone."  That is, they find a strong, positive correlation between economic inequality and each affliction on a long list of social problems, including: illnesses, both physical and mental; drug abuse; violent crime, and teenagers' pregnancies.  These problems are so severe and extensive that even prosperous people in unequal societies would be better off after income redistribution, since they would enjoy their diminished but still considerable personal wealth in safer, healthier societies that were more congenial and harmonious.

Pickett and Wilkinson argue that more equal societies have greater cohesion and higher degrees of social trust, which helps lubricate all kinds of social, political and economic transactions.  In the website that accompanies their book, Pickett gives an interview in which she says:

As human beings, we're very sensitive to social relationships.  We have an evolved psychology that makes us very aware of how others judge us.  If you think about it, some of the most difficult things to do, or the most embarrassing situations we're in, are ones where others can judge us negatively....  If we're looking at societies where the social distances between people are bigger, as they are in more unequal societies, there's just much more potential for all of us to feel that we're judged negatively by others . . .

The goal of The Spirit Level, then, is to incorporate this non-judgmental sensitivity into a wide range of public policies and social practices.  Which makes it all the stranger that Pickett and Wilkinson, after responding to some books and newspaper articles criticizing their work, recently posted this peevish announcement on their website: "Almost all of the research presented and synthesised in The Spirit Level had previously been peer-reviewed, and is fully referenced therein.  In order to distinguish between well founded criticism and unsubstantiated claims made for political purposes, all future debate should take place in peer-reviewed publications."

As Brendan O'Neill points out, this new stipulation is dubious intellectually, since a lot of crap gets published in peer-reviewed journals while intelligent things show up in magazines, newspapers and even, occasionally, blogs.  Given Pickett and Wilkinson's ultimate objectives, however, what's really striking is how anomalous their position is politically.  They come across as notably callous about the psychological wounds they're inflicting on people who can't get their critiques of The Spirit Level into a peer-reviewed journal.  What could cripple one's self-esteem more lastingly than being snubbed by two of England's leading egalitarians?  Even the term "peer-reviewed" would echo comfortably in the halls of Versailles.  The peers of the realm of intellectual discourse get to decide who is fit to join their ranks, and who is unworthy even to talk with them.  Pickett and Wilkinson won't second-guess the judgments of those peers - their peers - and won't waste their time responding to the riff-raff who were sorted out during the vetting process.

As Pickett and Wilkinson's countryman Samuel Johnson said nearly three centuries ago, "Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves."
Categories > Economy

Discussions - 15 Comments

Are you intellectually qualified to question the merits of this book? I know I am not. Therefore I feel qualified to complain about inequity between those "peers" who are not my peers and myself. Well, not to mention most people who write on the back pages of this blog and almost everyone I know. All sorts of social ills: misunderstanding, doubts, outright questioning of the validity of the insights (if not the data) and irrepressible cries of "Wow, what idiots!" are a result of this inequity, this gap between whatever they are and whatever I am.

Why can't we all be the same? (I feel deprived.) Why this social distance between us? (I don't trust them.) Why would I pay to read this book when I can just read the website and look at the slide show? (I think I'll share it on Facebook and see what my family and friends think.)

Thank you for sharing this, Mr. Voegeli. Bringing this to us in the hoi-polloi may effect a breakdown between intellectual classes that can only strengthen society. The ills of economic inequality are actually evident to everyone I know. Nearly all of them spend their days in the pursuit of happiness, of which the pursuit of economic comfort seems to have a place of primacy. I would tell them to sit back and wait for income redistribution, but think that they will look around at those to whom their income is already being redistributed through taxation and decline to join those "noble" ranks.


What was all that about - did you have a point to make there? That was a really incoherent ramble.

I'm sure they have left out something important in their analysis (guess I should read it). Most of the European nations they compare us to do not have our degree of racial pluralism -- every country that has a large black minority has massive inequality (e.g., Brazil, Haiti, the United States, South Africa). Moreover, the New World has always been more unequal than, say, Asia. There are many reasons for this, few of which can be solved by redistribution.

I'm sure if you "control" for all the underlying factors, the actual relationship between inequality and social problems fades away.

If they had wanted to restrict the discussion to academic journals, they could have restricted the presentation of their research to that realm. They presented their work in a monograph intended for a general readership and intend to influence public debate, but do not wish to be bothered with criticisms or responses to criticisms in that venue. Telling.

One might avoid references to 'racial pluralism' and just suggest a possibility that...

1. Societies vary in how evenly or unevenly human capital is distributed in their populations;

2. Aspects of one's character which influence one's quantum of human capital also influence one's vulnerability to pathologies of one sort or another. (Edward Banfield suggested that one's time horizons were a crucial factor in influencing behavior in the economic and non-economic realm).

3. Redistribution addresses some effects but not causes, and structured improperly may be frustrated by equal and opposite reductions in productive effort on the part of the client population.

4. Any society with a complex division of labor will incorporate 'social distance'. It will have more if the society is divided into legally-recognized orders or castes, but that is not the case in any Occidental society. It will have more if the characteristics of the labor market make it economic to employ domestic servants in large quantity. That is fairly unusual as well.

5. What the authors propose is to reduce economic distance between different social strata. Doing so would enhance the relative position of those whose earning power is circumscribed but whose work is well-endowed with prestige, like college professors. Funny how that works.

Wow Ohio Voter - great comeback, full of facts and enlightment. What flavor Koolaid today?

William, that quote is priceless. BTW, I'm half-way through Never Enough and enjoying it quite a bit.

And Ms. Kate Pickett, if by any chance you happen to read this...know that I sincerely think you did and are doing a BAD JOB. I'm so sorry if this poses a "social evaluative threat" to your esteem and stress levels.

I for one note that while you cite R. Putnam, it appears you do not find that the dismaying connections he found b/t diversity and mistrust would adjust your findings about greater inequality in the U.S. creating greater mistrust. Of course, maybe this is admitted in your book, but one sees no discussion of this in this link.

I for two note that your research obviously cannot measure how trustful and esteem-enjoying people felt in some of the most egalitarian societies that ever existed on our planet, namely, the Communist ones.

I do work on Plato, and examine especially the dystopian vision of radicalized democracy he presents (briefly but quite richly) in book VIII of the Republic. Sometimes I feel as if one of the key conclusions I draw from my analysis is simply too far-fetched. The conclusion? That one of the main democratic conceptions of freedom, which is always particularly emphasized by insustainable radical democracies as they slide into tyranny, is what I call Freedom from Subordination. This is to be free not simply from measurable inequalities of riches and opportunities, but also to be free from anyone regarding themselves as better than you, or at least displaying any sign of doing so.

Sometimes political theorists like me get into wieird territoriy like that. But then, Ms. Pickett, someone like yourself comes along to prove that we are not that far out there from reality.

"Social evaluative threat"--a phrase for our future!

AD, "human capital" just encourages more talk of redistribution. Obviously someone hasn't had the same educational/occupational opportunities, and so we need government intervention!

Political correctness will be the death of us -- so long as its double-standards are accepted as "fair," no argument we might make will stick. What PC does is to eliminate half or more than half of possible explanations -- they are off-limits, which forces us to play on the Left's home field, usually. This is the primary reason why, despite being a conservative nation, we have gradually drifted toward socialism.

So, nobody has a substantive critique of the data or the conclusion that the book's authors are drawing from it? Some "liberal agenda" (Communism!! Fascism! Terrorism! Egalitarianism!!!!) has been detected, but then their data does seem to hold up, so I guess the conservative position will have to be "Inequality is no problem!"

Also, the notion that the authors are being somehow hypocritical by insisting that discussions of the data and interpretations thereof should be in peer-reviewed publications is pretty funny.

While there is SOME semblance of meritocracy and hierarchy within academic circles, this doesn't translate to status or wealth in 99.9% of cases. Ask all of the adjunct professors with PhDs (and excellent academic records) who get by on minimal salaries moving from one college to the next, never able to land a steady job (let alone tenure - which most NLT bloggers have)... It's not like Pickett and Wilkinson have endorsed the idea that those who don't get published in peer-reviewed journals should be banished from academia, or (more relevantly) that they should then be forced into sweatshop labor for a meager subsistence wage. Further, the peer-reviewed journals are not controlled by Pickett and Wilkinson, and if the data interpretations are accurate and fact-based, they could actually end up contradicting their claims. Which brings us back to the facts, which I haven't seen any substantive dissection of thus far...

I do not know why you object to the term 'human capital'. It is a descriptive term to describe a factor of production. Some people have more of it than others. The question of what you should do about that is a partially normative one and quite separate.

I never heard of this book until the other day and do not have a copy, so I am not able to critique it in that way. Even if I had the book, I would have to rummange through the bibliography to get hold of the actual studies they cite.

Econometric research is seldom if ever presented in trade books or even university press volumes. It is found in academic journals and working papers. They made use of a volume for general audiences in attempt to disseminate their argument and then insist that any responses appear in obscure academic journals, which is to say be disseminated only to the few and subject to cumbersome processes of review even if the editors would accept any submissions by persons outside a certain circle. Their pose is inconsistent in a way that is self-serving and self-protective. That is pretty funny, but not in the way you suggest.

I'm not objecting to "human capital" as a factor of production. I'm objecting to using it as the main explanatory factor for inequality. Instead of using it as a cryptic term for things like race, personal habits and the like, let's just call things as they are. Education/skills are actually only a small part of the story. The type of economy matters (heavy industrialization equalizes wages, whereas high-end service economies increase inequalities - productivity, you see). Rapid population growth increase economic growth, but creates a gulf between established workers and those struggling in a very competitive job market (typically young people). Countries that still have lots of rural employment are typically less equal than those that don't. And the list goes on, such as cultural values.

None of these large-scale forces lend themselves well to government intervention.

With regard to your first sentence:

People's earning power is a function of their salable skills and work habits. It is a function of their phenotype only in caste societies.

With regard to the remainder of what you say:

I would seriously doubt you could verify any of these contentions.

Well, AD, I neither have the time nor the obligation to relieve your ignorance of the social science literature on income inequality. I assure you that everything I listed (including phenotype) has been found to correlate with inequality. Perhaps you should read more widely.

Scrolling through the NLT archives after having been away (I'm sure I was really missed!) and reading this entry and its comments, I was so strongly reminded of this gem from Reinhold Niebuhr in his book "Moral Man and Immoral Society":

"Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold."

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