Saturday, June 18, 2011
Reading The Spirit Level
So it's not a good bedtime book. But it is important. It systematically shows, using evidence, not ideology, that societies that are more equal have better outcomes for people: better health, less crime and fewer social problems.
The book debunks the neoliberal myth that we are all better off when people are encouraged to make money. New Zealand does not do particularly well in the statistics, and is shown as one of the countries with a high degree of income inequality.
People have attacked the book because they don't like the message. And it's possible to raise some questions about some of the analysis. It feels at times as if the authors are making rather too much of some of the more inconclusive data.
But the fact remains that, even if we accept some of the data may be inconclusive, there is just too much statistical evidence in favour of their argument that equality is good for us.
The book is weakest in the closing chapters when the authors try to make sense of the data and offer suggestions about some possible alternatives to our unequal societies. In my view the book would have been more powerful if the authors had simply stuck to analysing the data on inequality, rather than advocating solutions to create more equality. Some of those solutions don't to me sound as if they've been well thought out, and that fact detracts from what is otherwise a powerful body of work.
It's one of those books you should read, however. But make sure you read the 2010 edition, or a later edition if one comes out, because the 2010 edition devotes a chapter to addressing criticism of the work. Much of the criticism has been politically motivated, which is no surprise when one considers the damning verdict it delivers on neoliberalism.
The right in NZ have taken strong exception to the book. Most of the arguments they make as to why the book has no merit (e.g. David Farrar in this post, who appears not to have actually read the book, else he'd not have made such a fool of himself) stem from a misunderstanding as to how the 23 countries studied were chosen and how the data was analysed. Or they could be simply cherry-picking data in an attempt to show that because one or two of the graphs are inconclusive or questionable, therefore the entire theory falls down. This is the standard tactic used by people like climate change denial cranks.
Anyway, I'm now off to read a trashy novel. Something with fewer graphs and more car chases. And hopefully a secret agent or two and gratuitous amounts of sex. There wasn't much of that in The Spirit Level (do teenage pregnancy statistics count?).