Don't tell Dave or Ed: backlash begins over 'must-read' poverty bible
The Spirit Level's authors, hailed for highlighting society's wealth gap, allegedly cherry-picked their facts, writes Margarette Driscoll
11 September 2011
The Sunday Times
© 2011 Times Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved
It has been hailed as the "theory of everything" — no, not the key to the universe but its social equivalent, a way of explaining society's ills and how to fix them.
The Spirit Level, written by a pair of obscure academics and published to little fanfare two years ago, has gradually become one of the most influential books behind current political thinking.
Its theme, that social problems increase in line with levels of inequality in rich, developed societies, was first given an airing in a speech by David Cameron as he was setting out his vision of a "big society".
Cameron said: "Research by Richard Wilkinson and Katie Pickett [the authors of The Spirit Level] has shown that among the richest countries it's the more unequal ones that do worse, according to almost every quality-of-life indicator.
"They show that, per capita, GDP is much less significant for a country's life expectancy, crime levels, literacy and health than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest."
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, echoed Cameron's sentiments when he said the gap between rich and poor "doesn't just harm the poor, it harms all of us". Miliband was so impressed by the book that he gave a copy to each member of his shadow cabinet to read over the summer.
However, its thesis has also sparked off an academic row with accusations of intellectual dishonesty and even racism.
WILKINSON and Pickett arrived at their conclusions after charting levels of crime, stress, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, depression and other "negative" indicators across 20 of the world's richest countries — plus each of the 50 states in America. They found a pattern: where income disparity was greatest so, too, were a range of social problems, suggesting that inequality increases stress across society.
Rates of mental illness were five times as high across the whole population in the most unequal societies as compared to the most equal societies they looked at. In the United States, where the gap between rich and poor was at its widest, health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease were more prevalent across society.
"The impact of inequality is most marked at the bottom of society, of course, but seems to be pervasive," said Pickett.
Countries where income differentials were smallest — such as Scandinavia and Japan — came out best on almost all markers, argued the authors. They had a greater sense of social cohesion, higher levels of trust and lower levels of crime.
A number of critics believe The Spirit Level's findings are misleading. Peter Saunders, emeritus professor of sociology at Sussex University and a former colleague of Wilkinson, says the book's authors have "cherry-picked" the countries they compare and the social ills they have examined. Two countries left out of their analysis illustrate the problem, says Saunders. South Korea is very unequal but scores low on social problems, while the Czech Republic is very equal in terms of income but fares badly on the social front.
SAUNDERS also accuses Wilkinson and Pickett of selecting issues deliberately to illustrate how inequality is bad for society. "The Spirit Level looks at teenage pregnancies but not divorce," he said.
"If you look at divorce rates you get the opposite pattern. They [Wilkinson and Pickett] look at murder but not suicide — the more equal countries have the worst suicide rates." In any case, the high murder rate in the United States might be attributable to its gun laws rather than anything to do with income.
Saunders is not alone in his criticisms. John Goldthorpe, emeritus fellow of sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford, said the book relies too heavily on income inequality over other economic problems. And Christopher Snowdon, a researcher, has produced a rival book, The Spirit Level Delusion, disputing the original's findings.
So stung have Wilkinson and Pickett been by the criticism that they have published an updated version of their book with an additional chapter rebutting the allegations of flawed research. They now decline to engage in further public debate and insist that all academic criticism of their work should be confined to peer-reviewed publications.
"It was inevitable there would be a reaction to our work from the far right but it's come from the far left, too," said Pickett wearily. "For some people this is a radical idea and one in opposition to the ideologies they've held dear. For others we're not radical enough."
Saunders, who has conducted his own analysis of some of the data on which The Spirit Level is based, believes what it really flags up is that social problems are more likely to occur in societies that are ethnically diverse rather than financially unequal. The two sometimes go hand in hand, of course, but high levels of infant mortality, for instance, among the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities in Britain are more to do with intermarriage than income inequalities.
"WHICH is where the debate degenerated and I was accused of being a racist," said Saunders.
"The book's evidence consists of a series of graphs apparently showing that people in more equal countries live longer, are less likely to get murdered, enjoy higher literacy rates, suffer less mental illness and trust each other more. But I think what we may really be looking at is social homogeneity versus social diversity. "It might be one can say the Nordic countries are more equal in terms of income but it is also the case that almost everyone in Denmark is blond and blueeyed.
People there are amazingly nationalistic and have a strong common identity.
"Historically there have been high levels of public spending in the Nordic countries as their inhabitants were willing to share their income — they felt they were all the same people. Now that the Nordic countries are becoming more diverse, support for a high-spending welfare state is waning."
Pickett believes the book's success is because its findings confirm what people see around them. "If someone of our grandparents' generation could have foreseen the levels of wealth and affluence we are living with today, they would think we'd be living in great happiness and luxury," she said.
"Instead, people are stressed and anxious. And for the poor, society sometimes feels an unwelcoming place.
"We need to create sustainable economies instead of striving for ever-greater financial growth and [we] have to work out how to do it without making people unhappy."