Monday, January 17, 2011

RSA Debates "The Spirit Level" 22 July 2010

I am a little early at Congress House waiting for tonight’s seminar by one of the authors of “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better”. Checking my netbook I see that I still have my note from the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA) debate last year which I haven’t got around to posting. So at the risk of confusing things I might as well post it now – it will remind me of the issues. I’ll post on tonight soon (and not leave it 6 months this time)

RSA CEO Matthew Taylor chaired the lunchtime meeting. He remarked that he had never seen the lecture theatre so packed. The debate was between Peter Saunders and Christopher Snowden (Spirit Level Deniers) and the authors of “The Spirit Level” - Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.

Christopher Snowden spoke first and claimed “The Spirit Level” was a delusion. The charts used actually do not show any link between “happiness” and inequality. People “happy” from greater income. But "happy" is only one indicator. No significantly significant coloration. No significant evidence that inequality in itself causes ill-health and not income or other factors. One exception is over life expectancy and inequality. But the evidence is that there is no direct link between inequality and life expectancy.

The authors are selective about which countries used to compare so not to spoil their argument. Portugal, not mentioned. Japan may have little obesity but this is due to Asian culture rather than greater equality.

For Peter Saunders the problem is the use of statistical “outliers”. For example “income inequality and homicide”. Need in statistics to take out the USA which is an “outlier”. There is a reliance on such exceptions. USA on high child obesity and Japan with its high life expectancy. Take Japan out (greater life expectancy due to eating more oily fish rather than equality) and the arguments fail. As a Professor of Statistics he would have failed his student’s papers if they used these arguments.

Teenage births rates are the same. There are differences due to historic and sociological reasons - nothing to do with inequality. Look at third variable? Look not only at inequality but look at the link between homicide and African Americans. Ethnicity predicts homicide twice as much as inequality. This is the same for infant mortality. 18 times more likely to predict infant mortality as income inequality. He is upset at being accused of a racist slur.

Richard Wilkinson then spoke and defended their use of statistics. They didn’t use the most dramatic statistics. They did not self select and used respected and independent World Bank statistics on the 50 richest countries. Their results are based on the data. Poor health increases with stress. It is implausible that chronic stress does not cause worse health. The suggestion to remove black Afro-Americans from data is like removing manual workers in the UK.

Final speaker was Kate Pickett. All the research had been peer reviewed and responses published online. She claimed that her opponents had misquoted her and that she would fail any of her students who misquoted facts. White homicide rates in America, in the south and the north, are still associated with inequality.

Next was Q&A panel. I asked Kate and Richard whether there is a link with greater inequality in USA when compared to Scandinavian and levels of trade union density. Which Matthew Taylor asked me did I mean that if you joined the GMB you would live 5 years longer? I pointed out that I was a UNISON member. The answer was that they had not researched this point yet.

You can read more and download an audio file of the event here. I’ll post a picture from the July event when I get home. UPDATE: done.  The good guys obviously are on the left :)  Buy the book here
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