Saturday, 20 February 2010

The root of almost all evil

"What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong measures, we will strive for the wrong things." - Joseph Stiglitz

After hearing so much about The Spirit Level over the past year, actually sitting down and reading it was almost an anticlimax. The authors point out that the results of social science research often seem obvious in hindsight, once the evidence has seeped in. Just how obvious the arguments of The Spirit Level now seem is a testament to the weight of evidence that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have brought to public attention.

The book opens with a startling observation: that the rich countries of the world can no longer achieve gains in wellbeing from increasing their material wealth. This is illustrated with a graph of life expectancy versus national income per person. For poor countries life expectancy rises rapidly up until an average income of around $10,000. After that it starts to slow, and beyond $25,000 the curve flattens out. Similar results are seen in surveys of happiness and other measures of wellbeing.

However, within a given rich country, income differences do still matter. For example, there is a smooth downward gradient in a plot of mortality against average income levels in different US postal code areas. The trend affects everyone in society, not just the poor. Why the difference?

The key to resolving this apparent paradox is to compare income inequality between countries rather than average incomes. The bulk of the book is dedicated to investigating the role that inequality plays. To this end Wilkinson and Pickett have compiled data on a wide range of health and social issues: trust levels, mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, and social mobility. When an average of this data is plotted against national incomes, there is no significant correlation. But when plotted against inequality, the correlation is very strong indeed.

As someone with a background in physical science, I tend to experience culture shock on exposure to the social sciences. If they're not trying to draw conclusions from data that looks like a random scatter plot, then they're actually taking anecdotal evidence seriously, etc. But culture shock only means that the culture is different, not worse. Society is not a high-precision lab experiment with two carefully-controlled variables. In these circumstances, a different approach is needed to gain insight.

I say this not as an apology for The Spirit Level, but as context, for the evidence in this book is truly extraordinary. The authors, who are epidemiologists, had started out by looking only at the role of inequality in health, but the strength of the correlation was such that it encouraged them to look at the other social issues too. In the second part of the book, they work systematically through each indicator in turn, showing how in virtually every case there is a clear link between inequality and a deteriorating society.

The most depressing aspect of this is the light it shines on the UK, which is among the most unequal countries surveyed (along with the USA and, news to me, Portugal). The authors conclude that if our country was as equal as Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland, "trust levels might be expected to be two-thirds as high again as they are now, mental illness might be more than halved, everyone would get an additional year of life, teenage births could fall to one-third of what they are now, [and] homicide rates could fall by 75 per cent".

The story is so unchanging that I began to wish for exceptions just for the sake of variety. In fact, there is one: suicide, which is more common in more equal countries. The only other possibility I could think of is alcohol abuse, as we all know the Scandinavians like an occasional drink. But then it's also an issue in the UK, so it would be interesting to see whether it is related to equality rather than just long winter nights (compare drug abuse, which is shown here to be closely correlated with inequality).

Perhaps the most interesting link is between equality and social mobility. It has become common among politicians, particularly of the New Labour type, to say that income differences don't matter and instead we should only be striving for "equality of opportunity", where everyone has the chance to find their rightful place in society in a kind of grand meritocratic bubble sort. But what the evidence suggests is that the two cannot be separated: the least equal societies are those with the lowest social mobility. The USA, self-proclaimed land of opportunity, is worst of all. More damning still is a plot of social mobility over time in the US. From the 1950 to 1980, the situation gradually improves, but from the 1980s onwards, as inequality widened dramatically, social mobility correspondingly fell. If you want to pursue the American Dream, you'd better start by moving to Europe.

In each chapter the authors discuss why inequality might cause so many problems. This is necessarily more anecdotal, but most of the explanations boil down to status anxiety. In more unequal societies, there are less people we feel comfortable around, more people to feel jealous of, more to look down on. Our need to maintain status causes us to spend more, eat more, worry more, and act more selfishly. Ultimately, the extra stress affects our health. And this is not just a problem for the very poor. If the bottom 10% of the population were removed from the analysis, the conclusions would remain unchanged. As the subtly reinforced subtitle of the paperback edition notes, everyone does better in a more equal society.

In the final part of the book, Wilkinson and Pickett look at what can be done to improve our situation. The main point is that it does not really matter how we make societies more equal, only that they are more equal. Sweden, for example, reduces inequality by progressive taxation, whereas Japan achieves the same by having relatively low pay differentials between the lowest and highest paid.

The authors bring up the concern that a misguided government could reverse such measures very easily, as in the UK and US in the 1980s. One of their proposals for cementing equality for the long term is 'economic democracy' through employee-ownership. It's a laudable idea, one that plays the system at its own game, but we've had co-operatives for centuries and they've yet to take over the economy. I guess we're limited by the available number of entrepreneurial Quakers. What is needed is some kind of virus-like mechanism of growth, as was so successful, for example, for copyleft in the software industry. Beats me what this mechanism might be though.

Overall the final part is not as strong as the first two, as it tends to wander off into diversions ranging from global warming to digital downloads. Some of these do have an interesting connection to inequality, but they don't strengthen the argument of the book. What I would have liked to have read instead is more historical analysis, in particular why the political mood changed from the 1970s onward to favour policies that increased inequality. The authors often talk about how increased equality reinforces itself, while conversely inequalities result in a vicious circle. It would be interesting to know how the trend turned from good to bad, if only to give clues to how to reverse it again.

Wilkinson and Pickett lament that in recent years, politicians in general have given up on the idea that they can build a better society, and instead have been relegated to passive management teams. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a graph of inequality over time for the UK:

After 12 years of Labour government, there is no sign whatsoever of a reversal of the destruction wrought by Thatcher's Conservatives.

To be fair to Blair and Brown, they until recently operated in a political environment where idol-worshipping of the free market was commonplace, and where increased regulation, let alone progressive taxation, was unthinkable. But everything has changed in the wake of the financial crisis. The next generation of politicians have the opportunity to strive for real equality again. This book proves beyond reasonable doubt why they must do just that.

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
First published 2009 as The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
See the Equality Trust website for further information

Saturday, 13 February 2010

On the Oregon Trail (via Newark)

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself several times: I visited America for the first time ever in November, with two free days to explore the city of Portland. You could argue this is not sufficient to draw deep and general conclusions about American life, but that won't stop me trying.

The first thing that struck me about Portland was how big the hotel we were staying in was. I was on the 12th floor, which was less than halfway up the building, and there was another tower of a similar size across the street. My hotel room was also insanely huge, and I'll leave the TV set to your imagination.

The second thing that struck me was how nice the beer in the hotel bar was.

Describing everything in America as bigger is of course a tired old cliché, and not really true either as there's a hotel that's just as high in Manchester. But there was a definite sense of bigness about the city in general which I think is caused by it being oddly spread out. The city centre of Portland is a small area, but it feels diffuse. There really is space to park your gigantic car next to the shop you're going to, just like in American TV shows. I think it also helped that there was hardly anyone walking the streets (except for a distressingly large number of homeless people).

No doubt I would have got a similar experience from walking around any American city, though perhaps with a greater likelihood of being shot. But throughout this time Portland itself was also showing through, giving me a weird sensation of being in two different places at once.

The beer is the most obvious sign that something is different about Portland. While the likes of Budweiser work hard to make American beer the laughing-stock of the world, the independent brewers of Oregon are quietly providing the antidote. There are 28 breweries in the city alone (more than Cologne!). Pretty much any beer you try will be excellent but I can especially recommend the Mirror Pond Pale Ale.

Daytime vices are also well served, thanks to Portland's coffeehouse culture (second only to Seattle's, so I'm told). I spent a happy hour in Sip and Kranz tasting Stumptown coffee and voodoo doughnuts while reading lefty opinion pieces in The Oregonian. The first refill's free...

I think it was on about my third beer that I realised that God had taken everything that was good about America and gathered it together in Portland. Perhaps it helped that we travelled to the bar for free on Portland's excellent tram system. Or that I'd had an amazing Mexican meal for lunch. Or that the bar was hosting live indie music all night. Or that I'd finally seen the point of cupcakes thanks to the local artisan baker. Or maybe it was because a kindly corporation was paying for the reception. Who's to say? But then my only experience of the rest of the country is Newark International Airport, and anywhere will seem like the promised land after that.

The best discovery of all, and proof that sometimes big is beautiful, is Powell's City of Books.

Powell's takes up the entire city block that you can see in this photo. It claims to hold over a million new and used books (not including the technical bookshop down the road). I spent the better part of a day browsing, partly just thinking of obscure books and finding out that yes, they did stock them.

Sadly my hold luggage was limited, so I wanted to find the one book in the million that epitomised life in Oregon. I sneaked back to the hotel internet to find out what it was, and came back with a mission to find Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey. Powell's had three different editions to choose from.

has nothing to do with Portland, except insofar as it's the big city that bad news comes from. It's about life in the country, where there is still money to be made from bringing down trees. It's the Oregon that I never saw because I was too busy sipping coffee (maybe next time...)

The book follows the fortunes of the Stamper family as they stubbornly try to fulfill a logging contract while the rest of the town is on strike. The main characters are the macho Hank Stamper and his bookish brother Leland. They're both very well-written with distinctive voices, but not to the point of being stereotypical. Hank's internal monologue in particular is perfectly nuanced.

Kesey employs an unusual technique of switching between omniscient narration and 1st person voices (mainly Hank and Leland) without announcing that he's done so. Sometimes this happens in the middle of a paragraph, so the same events are seen from multiple viewpoints. It sounds intimidating but it's actually very effective, and not hard to follow. It's a tribute to Kesey's writing that the voices are so instantly distinguishable.

Most of the other characters are also well-drawn, with even the incidental ones given room to breathe. However, the female characters are very thin compared to the men. This is to some extent understandable in such a male-dominated environment, but even Viv, a central character, is weak compared to the brothers fighting over her.

The story is an epic struggle with many powerful moments. The plot never puts a foot wrong from start to finish. But the writing itself is the main attraction, particularly in the descriptions of the outdoors, which verge on poetic.

So why did it take so long to read?

The problem is the sheer bigness of the book. Each individual paragraph is exquisite, but the whole is too much. It reminds me of our last night in Portland, when we went to Henry's and I had one of the most delicious burgers I've ever tasted. Unfortunately we'd been stupid enough to order starters beforehand, and everything was served on a massive scale. The feeling I had while attempting to eat the burger was much the same as I experienced about a third of the way through this book.

In many respects it's the closest thing I've read yet to the Great American Novel.

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
First published 1964