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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: The Spirit Level

I have mixed feelings about The Spirit Level. On the one hand, I agree with the premise and the thesis of the book: a more equal society makes everybody happier, and every one better off, rich and poor, wealthy or not. A more unequal society leads to more problems than you might believe, including higher violence, more stress, more diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and other problems, and those problems affect everyone in society, no matter how wealthy or poor.

This book draws lots of pictures, including graphs from various studies, and shows that there are very few outliers in statistics as infant mortality, and to a high degree, inequality is correlated with all sorts of societal ills that you might not realize were related.

Unfortunately, it's very difficult to go through this book without wanting to scream at the book: "Correlation is not causation!" There's precious little evidence of the causation. Now as an unabashed liberal and as someone who's seen frequently how frequently there is little correlation there is between financial success and hard work, talent, or even personality, I agree that inequality is a major problem and it's worth fighting hard to do something about it. On the other hand, I don't see anything in this book changing the minds of people whose fundamental attitude still is: "I've got mine, screw you." Unfortunately, those people are the ones with wealth and power in our society, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Nevertheless, this book is easily available at your local library, and it's worth checking it out. Recommended.

1 comment:

M said...

"Because of the problem of what econometricians call reverse causality and missing variables, the correlation studies used in the Spirit Level are not accepted as scientific evidence by trained economists.

A very bad sign for their hypothesis is that as soon as you put some controls the relationship between inequality and health vanishes. The micro-studies with controls that I linked to find no (and some factors are unobservable, so we cannot even control for them). Using levels for OECD countries we have no statistically significant relationship. Using levels for UN we still have no statistically significant relationship, and even find the opposite of what the book claims. Using change we find no statistically significant relationship, and the opposite of what they claim.

This does not mean Wilkinson is wrong. It just means he has no evidence for his hypothesis. Wilkinson and people who think inequality causes lower health (for example through stress) need to find exogenous experiment to verify their hypothesis. Until they have done that we cannot accept they claims as science."