Saturday, March 21, 2009


The Spirit Level Proves the Left's Critique Right

To the left, though it hasn't come out so well, is the front jacket of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket. I realise I'm a bit late on it-it's already been widely reviewed- but I've been reading it! I happen to think it's one of the most important books to come out since The Future of Socialism in the fifties; I'd go further and say it's more so. The latter book posited some theories about good governance from left of centre, the latter effectively proves the left's critique of modern society is correct: relative inequality is extremely harmful and at the root of most of our major social problems. Rightwingers will hate this, of course, and I've yet to read a response to the book from this quarter. So what's it saying?

First of all, the authors are not head-banging lefties. Wilkinson is a long-time epedemiological medical researcher and widely respected; Picket is of the same discipline and based at York University. They offer evidence from a series of longitudinal studies which show how closely certain conditions correlate positively with relative social inequality. Let's dip into a couple of them.

Low Levels of Trust: The book shows how countries with low relative inequality(e.g. Japan, Scandivavia, northern Europe) have high levels of response to the question 'most people can be trusted'-about 60%; while those with high inequality(US, UK, Portugal, Singapore) register lows of in one case 10%. Near identical graph profiles result from asking the question in states of the US: high values in low inequality states like New Hampshire; very low in the like of Mississippi and New York.

Mental Health: The Daily Mail recently led with the story that one in ten of children aged 5-16 suffered mental illness. It's worse than that though: about a quarter of all people in the UK and USA suffer similar maladies, compared with only 10% in Japan, Sweden and Germany.

The chapters continue relentlessly to illustrate, via scatter graphs, these astonishingly high correlations. We see it with drug abuse, physical health and life expectancy, educational performance(as we all know), teenage births, violent offences, incarceration, social mobility, even obesity. And, mark this, even the rich have more mental illness and lower life expectancy is high inequality countries. The USA in the 1960s had relatively high levels of equality but salaries for senior executives took off along with the 'rediscovery' of market forces in the 1970s and rocketted to the end of the century, ultimately feeding causally into the banking collapse in which we are still entrapped. Reviews, here and here provide longer analyses than I have space for.

Let me conclude this all too brief review with this quotation from the book:

'Early socialists and others believed that material inequality was an obsacle to wider human harmony...The date we present in this chapter[on community life and social relations] suggest that this intuition was sound.: inequality is divisive, and eevn small differences seem to make an important difference.'(p.52)

How you progress from this analysis to doing something about it is also addressed but I have insufficient space to comment on that. However, as with any problem, it's vital to diagnose its causes correctly: this book does that for so much of what is wrong with us right now. Finally, you can buy this important book, destined to become a modern classic, for £14 from Amazon-UK: it really is a bargain.

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your kind words about our book - can I just point out that my name is actually Kate Pickett and, like Richard Wilkinson, I am also an epidemiologist.

With very best wishes, Kate
Sorry to think your name was 'Ruth', Kate and for getting your discipline wrong but I was dead right4 about your book.
At risk of critiquing a book I haven't read...I will read it when I get back to the UK again, although I will do my best to borrow a copy and not reward the publishers of such a cliche-type book.

The countries cited as examples are perhaps not as good examples as the authors think. I know little of Scandanavia, but for the fact that it is a small and strategically unimportant area of the world. Northern Europe? Er, specifically?

I will comment on Japan, since I lived there for four years and have family connections. Using Japan as a sociological example for anything is at best naive and at worst downright academically dishonest. Japanese society functions efficiently(although perhaps not as efficiently as some think) for all manner of reasons. Shinto traditions and how they have evolved, strong family units, respect for elders and a desire for conformity. It is simply not the done thing to object, to dispute decisions made by superiors or to protest(regardless of how illogical or downright stupid their decisions often are). Witness their feeble electoral system post-WWII. The Japanese aren't really a democracy in the way that we understand the word.

As for mental health issues. Don't make me laugh. We over-report these issues in the west, and glorify in our exposure of mental health "issues". The Japanese do the exact opposite. The problems are covered up and hushed up. Having worked in a large organisation there, I can tell you that all manner of problems exist that are simply ignored.

To summarise my point. The use of Japan as an example is part of the same old tired arguments of the left, to say "here is a wealthy country which distributes income evenly". The truth is that Government in Japan does nothing to achieve this. It is companies and society. Japanese workers are expected to make sacrifices of their time, dignity and independent thought that we in the west would reject. High rates of pay in the lower strata are merely part of the Faustian pact society signs up to. Good luck to them, they are a fantastic people. But let's kid ourselves and cite them as an example we could follow.
I was wondering if you'd comment and interested in your comments on Japan as I know you live there.
1. 'Northern Europe' means countries like Finland, Germany Austria and France- all lesss unequal than UK.
2. Maybe it is companies which are responsible for more equal rewards but there are more equal rewards which is surely the main thing.
3. Did you not miss out a 'not' in your last sentence?
On the last sentence, it was what I meant. Sarcasm. Sorry, got to stop doing that.

I lived and worked in Germany and I found a people that we very cynical about the people who governed them(mostly Merkel, even if they voted for her). That said, they had the kind of blind obedience that served them so badly before(RSHA, Stasi, take your pick really). Nice people, but haunted by their past and doomed to a socialist mentality.

Best leave it to the companies. Let them pay what they like. In the case of Japan, human refuse makes up a much smaller part of their population than the west(namakemono means a lot more than "lazy" in their culture). As a company manager, I wouldn't object to paying most Japanese more. They work hard, have skills, and are educated. Britain?! Peanuts for monkeys.
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