Friday, August 06, 2010

Spirit Level: new Fischer yawns in the Boston Review

David Aaronovitch tweets approvingly of this review of the Spirit Level in the Boston review. The reviewer, Claude S Fishcer, is a sociologist, and is vaguely critical of the thesis that equality is better for social functioning.

He starts by setting up a straw man - if we exiled the richest 5% of a country, the level of social functioning would improve. Nuff said.

Next, the criticises Wilkinson&Pickett's (W&P) chosen indicator - income. There are other measures of wealth, and he mentions capital ownership and consumption  patterns, which might produce different results. OK, but income inequality is what W+P have been studying, and what this book and its thesis is about. If people think distribution of possessions would produce a different picture, let them amass evidence for this point of view.

Fischer points out that suicide rates and births outside of marriage are inversely proportional to inequality. W+P are not suggesting that all social problems (assuming for a moment that unmarried mothers are such a problem) are related to inequality - only the ones for which they find positive evidence. Which are quite enough.

Fischer disses W+P's explanation of suicide rates - that in unequal societies people project their status anxiety outward, blame others rather than themselves, and thus end up killing others rather than themselves, but suicide rates also go down in times of war, which tends to back them up.  As a sociologist, Fischer should have remembered this.

His next objection is remarkable. He complains that average rates of outcomes hide the fact that individuals within nations may buck the trend. Although the average Japanese life span is longer than the average US citizen, some US peeps may live longer than some Japanese. Well, and the Pope is a Catholic.

Here's a more valid criticism, which I will throw in : recently we find that some long-lived Japanese are only living longer virtual  lives, for social security purposes, and that their physical bodies have signed off years ago. A critic will seize on this as a crowning objection; a scientist will see it as just a cause for another necessary adjustment to the dataset.

Fischer's next objection is more interesting. Other equality sceptics have asserted that the observed differences are racial, and that the more equal and more healthy Scandinavian societies are perhaps genetically predestined to be more equal and healthy. He points out that the international differences between healthy Nordic cultures and unhealthy Anglo-Saxon cultures is also reflected in the US state pattern, with Nordic Minnesota being more healthy than Anglo-settled states.

Tellingly, he says: The Nordic-British contrast also corresponds to the difference between social democratic and neoliberal states, which can confuse cause and effect even more. Is there something about the Nordic region’s history or culture that leads those nations to be welfare states, relatively equal, and healthy, and something about Anglo-Saxon history or culture that does the opposite—with varying levels of inequality being simply a byproduct? 

Is there Something Else? Please? Any explanation will do, except the idea that more social democracy type equality is good for people?

W&P back the claim that the correlation is causal with several lines of evidence, two relating to developments over time. After WWII, Japan was unequal and unhealthy, the US was more equal and more healthy.  Over time, those positions have reversed. Secondly (and Fischer has the grace to air this) after the reunification of Germany, East Germans, moving into a more unequal society, developed some of the problems that W&P would predict.

Fischer counters with a fall in US homicides over a period when inequality increased. Fair enough. Social affairs are complex, multifactorial things, and Fischer acknowledges that inequality plays a part in social problems; he just wants it to be less than W&P would have.

Finally, he takes W&P to task for not setting out their plan for remediation of inequality, apart from their endorsement of workers cooperatives. W&P make no claim for setting out a full political programme. Unlike some.  It is the job of politicians to pick up the equality issue and develop economic policies designed to reduce the Rich Poor Gap.  The Green Party is on the case (though we still need to adopt the Green Wage Subsidy

David Aaronovitch's tweet that led me to this read: "Excellent centre-left US critique of The Spirit Level here - Not the basket where the Mili-eggs should be put." 

Clearly, he wants Labour to avoid any commitment to equality. He needn't worry. Milliband D is going to win the Labour leadership, and carry on the tattered, bloodstained banner of NuLabour. But the Green Party will continue to pursue economic policies that tend to greater equality and therefore greater social cohesion and health.

What strikes me is the central robustness of the Spirit Level thesis. We must expect attacks from the Right, because it threatens their core ideology. I find the objections from the centre left, both from the Rawlsians on openDemocracy, and now from sociologist Fischer, both puzzling and illuminating. Puzzling because they do not accept it as a seminal new addition to the field. Illuminating because it suggests the central problem with centre-left intellectuals. They are suffering from cognitive sclerosis. 

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