How messy it all is

David Runciman

  • The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
    Allen Lane, 331 pp, £20.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 84614 039 6

The argument of this fascinating and deeply provoking book is easy to summarise: among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them (which would result in the US coming top, with the Scandinavian countries and the UK not too far behind, and poorer European nations like Greece and Portugal bringing up the rear) but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems. It is true that some of the most unequal American states are also among the poorest (Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia), so you might expect things to go worse there. But some unequal states are also rich (California), whereas some fairly equal ones are also quite poor (Utah). Only a few (New Hampshire, Wyoming) score well on both counts. What the graphs show are the unequal states tending to cluster together regardless of income, so that California usually finds itself alongside Mississippi scoring badly, while New Hampshire and Utah both do consistently well. Income inequality, not income per se, appears to be the key. As a result, the authors are able to draw a clear conclusion: ‘The evidence shows that even small decreases in inequality, already a reality in some rich market democracies, make a very important difference to the quality of life.’ Achieving these decreases should be the central goal of our politics, precisely because we can be confident that it works. This is absolutely not, they insist, a ‘utopian dream’.

Why then, given all this – the concise argument, the weight of the evidence, the unmistakable practical purpose of the authors – does the book still feel oddly utopian? Part of the problem, I think, is that the argument is not as straightforward as its authors would like. Despite their obvious sense of conviction, and maybe even because of it, they fudge the central issue at crucial moments, whereas at others, perhaps in order to compensate, they overstate their case, which only makes things worse. To start with the fudge. Is the basic claim here that in more equal societies almost everyone does better, or is it simply that everyone does better on average? Most of the time, Wilkinson and Pickett want to insist that it’s the first. ‘Reducing inequality,’ they argue, ‘is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us.’ They also contend that inequality takes its toll on almost everyone because of the increased stress of living in a society where rewards are unequally distributed, leading to constant worries about our place in the pecking order, even if we are quite high up it. So that’s why, in unequal societies, even many of the rich are getting fatter and dying younger than they might otherwise. However, most of the data they rely on doesn’t exactly say this. Instead, the graphs rank different countries’ performance according to life expectancy rates, incarceration rates, obesity rates, etc, which are simply average measures. What these graphs tell us is that overall there is a better chance of getting fat or dying young if you live in an unequal society. But it doesn’t follow that almost everyone is going to benefit from increased equality. That depends on whether the disadvantages of inequality are distributed across the social scale, or whether they cluster at the bottom. One possible explanation for the poor showing of unequal societies like the US might be that the bottom 20 per cent are hopelessly cut adrift from the benefits of prosperity, and this group does so badly in quality-of-life terms that it brings the average down for the society as a whole. If a significant minority of people are dying very young, or growing very fat, or learning very little, then the average scores will be worse, but it doesn’t follow that almost everyone is worse off.

Take rates of imprisonment. Here the US has the worst record of any rich country by far (the graph showing rates of imprisonment per 100,000 of population is the only one that has to be recorded on a log scale, because otherwise the US would be off the chart, even off the page). But, as Wilkinson and Pickett admit, ‘there is a strong social gradient in imprisonment, with people of lower class, income and education much more likely to be sent to prison than people higher up the social scale.’ The US imprisons great swathes of its poor, black population. It doesn’t follow from this that almost everyone is worse off than they would be under a more equal system. To show that, we would need to know that even members of the white middle class are much more likely to be jailed in the US than they are in, say, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Switzerland and Ireland (other countries on the graph). Now it is almost certainly true that white middle-class Americans are more likely to be jailed than they would be elsewhere, simply because a system that is so hooked on incarceration at the bottom end of the scale is bound to suffer from a kind of ‘trickle-up’ effect. From a European perspective, it is still shocking to see the spectacular prison terms sometimes handed down to those Wall Street miscreants unlucky enough to find themselves before the courts. But if there are figures to demonstrate that almost everyone is worse off in the US than elsewhere, Wilkinson and Pickett don’t provide them, even though this is what they need to support the case they want to make.

Yet elsewhere in The Spirit Level, the authors do provide precisely this kind of data, and it immeasurably strengthens their argument. The single most compelling chart in the whole book comes near the end. It compares infant mortality rates for England and Wales as against Sweden, dividing the data up into six segments according to the father’s social class. This shows two remarkable things. First, whereas in England and Wales the chances of your child’s surviving rise with each step you take up the social ladder, in Sweden children from the lowest social class have a better chance of surviving than members of three of the five classes above them. Although the figures are fairly constant across Swedish society (around 4-7 per 1000, as compared to around 7-14 per 1000 in England and Wales), it remains the case that children from the highest social group are slightly more likely to die than children from the lowest. Second, even children from the highest social group in England and Wales, though significantly less likely to die than children from other social groups, are more likely to die than children from any class in Sweden; they are very nearly as likely to die as children of Swedish single mothers, who do worst of all in Sweden just as they do in England and Wales. Here, we have clear evidence that a more equal society does leave almost everyone better off. It is not simply the case that in England and Wales economic inequality means bad outcomes are shunted down the social scale; it is also true that inequality means bad outcomes are being distributed across the social scale, making even rich English parents more vulnerable than poor Swedish ones.

This sounds like a knock-down political argument: more equality would give rich people in unequal societies the kind of life chances that even poor people enjoy elsewhere. Who could object to that? It needs to hold for more than just infant mortality, however, and this is where the evidence is shakier. Another area where Wilkinson and Pickett present the data according to social class instead of simply the overall average is literacy scores. But here we find a slightly different story. Finland probably has the best educational system in the world, and disadvantaged Finnish children significantly outperform disadvantaged children in the UK, just as these do better than their counterparts in the US. But it is not the case that rich kids in the UK have worse literacy scores than poor kids in Finland; they simply have worse scores than rich kids in Finland. Moreover, rich kids in the UK have much better literacy scores than poor kids in the UK, because the social gradient is so steep, so the gap between the top and bottom is wider than it is in Finland. Education, unlike infant mortality, is a comparative as well as an absolute good. Parents want their kids to do better than other kids (whereas, one hopes, they don’t need to see other people’s children die in order to enjoy bringing their own safely home from hospital). Inequality in the UK means that rich parents can see their kids doing much better than other kids, even if they are not doing as well as they might if they lived in Finland. So the politics is considerably harder here: you can’t simply say that inequality means we are all suffering together. Instead, it may mean that the poor are doing so badly that the rich aren’t interested in looking at the wider picture. They are focused on making sure they don’t wind up poor.

This is why the difference between ‘almost everyone’ and ‘everyone on average’ matters so much: politics. If it is almost everyone who would benefit from a more equal society, then this is an encouragement to solidarity across social boundaries, so that joint action to remedy the problem might be possible. But if it is everyone on average, then this can go along with an absence of solidarity and the hardening of divisions, because the disadvantages may be so unequally distributed. The practical political difficulties of bridging the gap between these two positions are clear from Obama’s recent speech on healthcare reform. He wants to be able to say to the American public that everyone will be better off under a reformed system – indeed, in an earlier, far wonkier speech he made to the American Medical Association in June he sounded pretty much like the authors of The Spirit Level: ‘Today, we are spending over $2 trillion a year on healthcare – almost 50 per cent more per person than the next most costly nation. And yet . . . for all this spending, more of our citizens are uninsured; the quality of our care is often lower; and we aren’t any healthier. In fact, citizens in some countries that spend substantially less than we do are actually living longer than we do.’ But he knows that most Americans think that the problems of their system are heavily concentrated at the bottom end, among the uninsured. So, as the politics got more fractious over the summer, this is where he directed his argument: not at the idea that the present system leaves almost everyone worse off, but at the thought that almost anyone could suddenly fall through the hole at the bottom. ‘Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured,’ he said to Congress in September. ‘We are the only wealthy nation that allows such hardship for millions of its people. There are now more than thirty million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without healthcare coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.’

This is not an altogether helpful argument in the light of what Obama said in June, because it directs attention at the frightening gap that exists between the haves and the have-nots, rather than at the problems which apply across the board (to be fair, Obama does touch on these later on in his speech, though mainly to reassure Americans that no one will end up paying more under the new system). By talking about the increased risks of finding yourself uninsured, he also ties the case for reform to the social insecurity caused by the recession, which might lead his audience to want him to concentrate on dealing with that. Still, it shows Obama’s awareness of the difference between the generalised social effects of inequality and the divisive political effects of inequality. Too often, Wilkinson and Pickett simply gloss over this problem. Early in the book, they publish a chart showing that mortality rates in the US improve with each step you take up the social ladder. ‘Higher incomes are related to lower death rates at every level in society. Note that this is not simply a matter of the poor having worse health than everyone else. What is so striking is how regular the health gradient is right across society – it is a gradient which affects us all.’ This makes clear that it is not simply a case of the bottom 20 per cent having been cut adrift. Nevertheless, the idea that finding ourselves on a steep social gradient is something we all have in common is not going to have much political bite. What matters to most people is where they are on the slope, not the fact that those higher up and lower down are on the slope with them. Later in the book, Wilkinson and Pickett re-emphasise that ‘across whole populations, rates of mental illness are five times higher in the most unequal compared to the least unequal societies. Similarly, in more unequal societies people are five times as likely to be imprisoned, six times as likely to be clinically obese, and murder rates may be many times higher.’ But that ‘whole populations’ (their italics) is protesting too much. These are simply average figures, and they don’t show the unequal distribution of inequality’s ill-effects.

Occasionally, in pushing their case that inequality is bad news for the rich just as much as it is for the poor, Wilkinson and Pickett go too far. In their chapter on obesity, for example, they write: ‘It is clear that obesity and overweight are not problems confined to the poor. In the US, about 12 per cent of the population are poor, but more than 75 per cent are overweight.’ This seems incredible – I know that Europeans sometimes look around themselves in parts of the US and conclude that almost everyone is fat, but can more than three-quarters of all Americans really be overweight? Well, the answer is no – the correct figure is closer to 66 per cent (roughly a third of Americans are currently obese and a third are overweight, leaving a third at a healthy weight or even under it). If you type ‘75 per cent Americans overweight’ into Google, you immediately get directed to a widely publicised survey from 2007 which said that three-quarters of Americans will be overweight by 2015 if current trends continue. (Incidentally, according to its forecasting model, the same survey also pointed to every single person in America being overweight by some point in the 2040s – we’ll have to see about that.) Wilkinson and Pickett don’t give a source for their statistic, so perhaps they simply borrowed it from this 2007 forecast. The current figures are bad enough, but there is still a big difference between two-thirds and three-quarters, and we’re not there yet.

At other points, the authors rely on evidence that is now out of date. They want to claim that more equality doesn’t simply improve individuals’ life-chances, it also improves their performance. ‘Although a baseball team is not a microcosm of society,’ they write, ‘a well-controlled study of over 1,600 players in 29 teams over a nine-year period found that major league baseball teams with smaller income differences among players do significantly better than the more unequal ones.’ Again, this doesn’t sound right, and it isn’t, or at least it isn’t any longer. Like much of the source material for the book, the research was done in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before baseball became the money monster it is today. A more recent study has shown that the really rich teams, which have a high measure of income inequality because of the vastly disproportionate salaries they pay their top stars, do better than teams with a more equal pay structure. From 2001-5 the two most unequal teams (the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox) won the greatest number of games; the two most equal teams (the Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals) won the fewest. You can see the same thing happening in English football: very rich, inegalitarian Chelsea do better than relatively rich, more egalitarian Arsenal, and a lot better than poor, more egalitarian Hull. At a certain point, once all the money starts to flow towards the top teams, equality just can’t compete, and inequality wins.

Maybe that’s just sport. What about other areas of human endeavour? The authors quote George Bernard Shaw (never a good sign) to counter the view that in a more egalitarian society there will be a general levelling down of achievement and a lowering of standards. ‘Only where there is pecuniary equality,’ Shaw said, ‘can the distinction of merit stand out.’ Wilkinson and Pickett then go on to remark: ‘Perhaps that makes Sweden a particularly suitable home for the system of Nobel prizes.’ Yet having the Nobel prizes in Sweden doesn’t stop them from going year after year to scientists from the really rich, unequal countries, starting with the US. In fact, a graph that would point in exactly the opposite direction to all the others in the book is one that ranks countries by Nobel prizes won over the past generation or so. The US comes way out in front with 189 in the past 35 years, the UK is second (39), then we get Germany (27), France (15), Japan (11), Sweden (6), Norway (2), Finland (1). Even if you rank by prize per head of population, the US remains on top (though Sweden, with home advantage, comes a close second), while Japan, which tends to come first on most of the other quality of life indicators, is bottom. Of course, all sorts of cultural and other factors might go into explaining this, including the readiness of top scientists (like top footballers) to move where the money is. Still, on this measure at least, inequality does not look like the enemy of excellence.

In their preface, Wilkinson and Pickett say that they wanted to call their book ‘Evidence-Based Politics’. But what this book indicates is how elusive evidence-based politics can be. It’s not just that the evidence is always going to be stretched and tweaked to suit various political purposes, even by otherwise scrupulous researchers like Wilkinson and Pickett. It is also that the evidence as it is presented here often seems to point away from conventional politics altogether. On the one hand, the authors’ emphasis on how much difference little, incremental changes can make suggests a stealth approach. The book reads as if it is directed to civil servants as much as politicians, encouraging them to slip a little equality in with their ministers’ tea in the hope they won’t notice. The authors tell us that the public has its part to play too in what will be ‘not one big revolution but a continuous stream of small changes in a consistent direction’. Nonetheless, this remains a highly technocratic conception of politics, in which what matters is the gradual permeation of the public mind by enlightened expert opinion. On the other hand, when Wilkinson and Pickett discuss the historical reasons why some countries have gone down the equality path while others have not, they emphasise the role of outside help and external shocks. ‘Japan owes its status as the most equal of the developed countries partly to the fact that the whole establishment had been humiliated by defeat in the Second World War, and partly to the support for political and economic reconstruction . . . provided by disinterested and remarkably far-sighted American advisers working under General MacArthur.’ The Scandinavian countries opted for egalitarian policies in the 1930s when they were faced by the dual threat of Stalinism and Fascism. South Korea is partly a more egalitarian society because of the existential threat posed by North Korea. Britain briefly became a more egalitarian society in the 1940s when faced with a war of national survival.

All this makes it hard to see how a gradualist approach is going to work. Wilkinson and Pickett insist that societies can change of their own volition, and they cite as evidence the rapidity with which inequality grew in Britain and the US following the Thatcher and Reagan reforms of the early 1980s. ‘If things can change so rapidly,’ they write, ‘then there are good reasons to feel confident that we can create a society in which the real quality of life and of human relationships is far higher than it is now.’ But it seems more likely that the shift since the 1980s, and the readiness with which it has been embraced by voters, is evidence of how hard it will be to change things back, certainly without some significant external shock. There is a faint hope (including among the technocrats around Obama) that the current recession might be the opportunity to force through otherwise unpalatable reforms that will create a more egalitarian society. But the public response so far doesn’t bode well; if anything, the current crisis seems to show how set in their ways both inegalitarian and egalitarian societies can become. In Britain and the US, the mood seems suspicious, hostile to government action and worried about the debt. In Japan, where the present economic difficulties stretch back twenty years, the public has learned to be more accepting of the idea that low growth and high public debt are the price of keeping people in their jobs. If anything, the experience of recession has served to make Japan a more equal society; it threatens to make Britain and the US less equal ones.

Yet despite all this, The Spirit Level does contain a powerful political message. It is impossible to read it and not to be impressed by how often greater equality appears to be the answer, whatever happens to be the question. It provides a connection between what otherwise look like disparate social problems. Wilkinson and Pickett make this point clearly:

The health and social problems which we have found to be related to inequality tend to be treated by policy makers as if they were quite separate from one another, each needing separate services and remedies. We pay doctors and nurses to treat ill-health, police and prisons to deal with crime, remedial teachers and educational psychologists to tackle educational problems, and social workers, drug rehabilitation units, psychiatric services and health promotion experts to deal with a host of other problems. These services are all expensive, and none of them is more than partially effective. For instance, differences in the quality of medical care have less effect on people’s life expectancy than social differences in their risks of getting some life-threatening disease in the first place. And even when the various services are successful in stopping someone reoffending, in curing a cancer, getting someone off drugs or dealing with educational failure, we know that our societies are endlessly re-creating these problems in each new generation. Meanwhile, all these problems are most common in the most deprived areas of our society and are many times more common in more unequal societies.

The usual remedy for this disjointed approach is known as ‘joined-up thinking’, which means trying to track the knock-on effects of different government policies and follow the money to make sure it is not being wasted or duplicated. In many ways, this is the pure form of ‘evidence-based politics’, since it always stops to ask whether the evidence adds up. What The Spirit Level invites us to do is something different. There is enough evidence here about the impact that more equality can make that it ought to be possible to stop trying to join everything up and seeing how it all fits together. Indeed, it’s when you try to join up all the material in this book that the problems start, because it’s only then that it becomes clear how messy it all is. Sometimes inequality is bad for almost everyone, and sometimes only for certain people; sometimes it is worst for the people at the bottom, and sometimes it is just as bad for the people at the top. Different societies are equal or unequal for different reasons, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice. The evidence points in all these different directions, and if you try to fit it all together then it’s easy to get lost.

There is enough evidence here that equality is a good thing to be able to take it on faith, and to move away from evidence-based politics towards a politics that is, for want of a better word, more ideological. Wilkinson and Pickett are committed to evidence-based politics because they seem to feel that ideology has had its day. ‘Political differences are more a reflection of different beliefs about the solution to problems than of disagreements about what the problems are,’ they write. ‘Almost everyone, regardless of their politics, would prefer to live in a safer and more friendly society.’ But they also reveal a hankering for something more. ‘For several decades progressive politics have been seriously weakened by the loss of any concept of a better society. People have argued for piecemeal improvements in different areas of life . . . But nowhere is there a popular movement capable of inspiring people with a vision of how to make society a substantially better place to live for the vast majority. Without that vision, politics will rarely provoke more than a yawn.’ More equality is a good thing and it’s an idea that’s worth defending. It would be nice if there were more politicians willing to stand up and defend it, however they saw fit. That may be wishful thinking. But so too is the idea of an evidence-based politics, which just opens the door to all the prevarications of joined-up thinking.