The Guardian allowed David Cameron’s favourite think tank – Policy Exchange to launch comment on their latest report on the Comment is Free website.
In a piece headed “The Spirit Level is not on the level” and subtitled “A new report fatally undermines the [Spirit Level’s] authors' claims about the link between income equality and social problems” the Policy Exchange editor of the report in question says:
Beware False Prophets is a hard-hitting critique that shines a powerful spotlight on the flaws in the analysis, assumptions and conclusions of The Spirit Level. We all want to improve people's quality of life and tackle deep-rooted social ills, but as Saunders clearly identifies, the case for radical income distribution to achieve this is no more compelling now than it was before The Spirit Level was published.
Two instant reactions overwhelm any reasonable reader of this really nasty comment. The first is that when Conservative thinking is all about more material well being as the solution to all personal ills such a comment, so blatantly intended within the subtext to say sufficient income is to be enjoyed by a minority and not to be shared with a majority , is so obviously hypocritical that all else the author says is to be doubted.
Second, you’re left feeling, having read the book and having seen so much research suggesting similar conclusions, that it would be stunning that if a work of real quality proving Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett were wrong was to be published then Policy Exchange would be the likely publisher.
And of course the Policy Exchange paper is wrong – as even the briefest review shows. But perhaps that destruction is best left to the Spirit Level authors who have issued a statement saying:
Beware False Rebuttals
A response by the authors of The Spirit Level to a report by Peter Saunders (Beware False Prophets), published by Policy Exchange
Responding to the new report by Peter Saunders, published today by Policy Exchange, Professor Richard Wilkinson & Professor Kate Pickett said:
“We welcome open debate of our findings that more equal societies do better, but Peter Saunders' analysis contains serious methodological errors. There are many peer reviewed analyses of relationships with inequality carried out by other researchers which support The Spirit Level's conclusions. In particular there is substantial evidence elsewhere that infant mortality, life expectancy, violence, trust, social capital and school bullying are all worse in more unequal societies. The evidence for the benefits of greater income equality remains compelling.”
The Spirit Level is based on many decades of research by its authors and other respected academics – it represents a synthesis of research and critical thought that has been subjected to stringent and robust quality control before being widely disseminated.
All analyses of income inequality and health and social problems in The Spirit Levelhave been either: (a) replicated by other researchers, in some cases hundreds of times, or (b) published in peer-reviewed academic journals This is fully referenced in The Spirit Level, but Peter Saunders is either unaware of this very large body of evidence or has chosen to ignore it. (1)
The selective removal of countries suggested by Peter Saunders does not have the effect of removing the relationship between inequality and health & social problems. The Index of Social Problems (http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/images/index-graph-inequality.jpg) remains statistically significant even if those countries suggested for removal - Japan, Norway, Sweden, Finland, USA and Portugal - are disregarded.
Peter Saunders analysis includes much poorer countries. The Spirit Level explicitly restricts analysis to rich, developed market democracies, where average levels of income are no longer related to average life expectancy, happiness or quality of life.Confining the analysis to the richest countries very clearly demonstrates the effects of relative income (Fig 1.4 in The Spirit Level) which contrast so clearly with the lack of effect of absolute income (Figure 1.3 in The Spirit Level). By including poorer countries the sharp distinction between relative and absolute income is lost. (2)
Saunders is wrong to claim, in analyses of the US states, that many of the associations are explained by the proportion of African Americans in each state. There is a detailed, empirical argument against Saunders' claim and other researchers also show his analysis is incorrect. (3)
Saunders misunderstands the evidence that shows that almost everyone does better in more equal societies. The Spirit Level does not say that everybody in a more equal society does better than the highest social class and income groups in a less equal country. It shows that for any given social class or income level, people do better than their class or income counterparts who live in a less equal society. (4)
The Spirit Level is sometimes called a 'theory of everything' but the book makes it clear that it is a theory of problems which have a social gradient – that is, problems which become more common further down the social and income ladder. Saunders ignores this and chooses counter examples such as suicide rates which do not have this social gradient.
And so what does one really conclude of the Policy Exchange paper? Simply this: that it is further example of the sheer nastiness of the Tory party – the left of the Tory party on this occasion. These people hate those not on above average income. It is clear they not only want them to suffer inequality and all that goes with it – but to increase that inequality – as the plan they put forward in the budget to create mass unemployment proves.
You were right Theresa May when long ago you termed your own party the Nasty Party.
But you may have understated the case for just how nasty it is.