The Spirit Level

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The Spirit Level

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I just completed The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett.   In a world where rising tides supposedly lift all boats and supposedly left-wing parties are afraid to campaign on increasing taxes on the wealthy for fear of being accused of "class warfare", this book is a breath of fresh air.  Chapter by chapter, it shows how wealth inequality is linked to societal mistrust, mental and physical health problems, obesity, poor educational performance, teenage pregnancies, increased violence, and higher levels of imprisonment.  These manifestations are higher not just in the poorer segments of unequal societies but in the wealthier ones as well.  In the final chapters, it ties everything together to implicate wealth inequality as the most likely cause of these societal problems.

This is a book that needs to be read by people in the halls of power.


Totally but you might have to get them high first and make it into a video book before they notice what it means.

George Victor

quote: "This is a book that needs to be read by people in the halls of power."


A friend who is pres. of the local social planning council has given it to the exec. director to read (noting the charts and graphs that adorn just about every page. Residents of the "halls of power" couldn't help but feel I suspect it won't appear on their coffee tables.


The foreword by Robert Reich is meant as an introduction to American readers, and anyone who just might follow up by reading his Supercapitalism, explaining, as its subtitle says, "The Transformation of Business, Democracy , and Everyday Life". 


Please don't hang your case for social justice off this book - it won't support the weight!

Take a quick look at:

to see how the data in The Spirit Level looks kind of... cherry-picked.

George Victor


The Spirit Level Delusion shines the light of reason onto some of the claims made in favour of big government in the 21st century. In particular, it seeks to dispel some of the myths popularised in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book The Spirit Level.
The meat of the argument is, of course, in the book itself-which is available here (UK) and here (USA). The purpose of this site is to share information that didn't make it into the book. Some of this information takes the form of extended footnotes, and can be accessed at the right-hand side of this page.

If you haven't read the book, my articles in the Wall Street Journal and Spiked Review of Books give a brief overview.

"Snowdon picks so many holes in the theory that were it a building it wouldn't be passed as structurally sound by the most crooked of third world local government surveyors... Next time someone starts spouting off about "equality" - a goal that has dug more graves than all the gods in history combined - send them a copy of Snowdon's excellent book and make sure they read it from cover to cover."  - Ed West, The Telegraph

"The Spirit Level Delusion not only successfully and dramatically undermines much of the evidence in The Spirit Level, but also takes on the other fashionable opponents of economic growth... His engaging discussion unpicks the evidence of the anti-growth brigade and demonstrates that it is selective and partial. This book is excellent "tube reading". - Philip Booth, City AM 

"Comprehensive in its demolition...well written, amusingly thorough and easy to digest...You need this book."  - An Englishman's Castle Posted by Snowdon at


Having taken a look at the language of the criticism (why wasn't Singapore, Korea etc. etc included) and the placement of his articles (Wall Street Journal, et al) and the journals that have carried remarks on Snowdon's work i.e. An Englishman's Castle, I don't understand why you would hang a severely cautionary note like "don't hang your case for social justice off this hook..."


Could you explain please why you support Snowdon's "science" over that of the authors? Don't you find his criticisms pikayune and unsupported?

Just asking.


I've read both books - I don't know if you have, but I recommend it as a compare and contrast exercise.

I think if the conclusions of The Spirit Level were correct, they'd be more robust. If using data with two or three countries different out of thirty changes the conclusions, or if using data one year fresher changes the conclusions, then you have to wonder whether the analysis really holds up. So that's not being picayune, that's just reality testing.

More broadly, for a couple of experienced social scientists, Wilkinson and Pickett are pretty sloppy about correlation vs. causation.

That's why I'm saying it's a mistake to tie arguments for social justice to this book. I think (almost) anyone would be willing to agree that alleviating poverty is a worthy goal. However, the theory that inequality in and of itself, unmediated by any physical means, directly affects health is hard to believe (at least for me). And that seems to be their conclusion.

George Victor

On the last point, Gina Feldberg, a medical historian who just died (her obit the feature in today's Globe) : As one reviewer put it, her work provided a sobering reminder 'that social and political attitudes have at least as much influence on public health as the state of medical knowledge'." Private health care, she said, "impedes access for the poor. And most people who live near the pverty line are women and children."

As for the critic,  I've not read his work, but my shit-detector goes into overdrive for someone who writes for the "Wall Street Journal."  It usually means someone hired to "refute" the evidence offered in an offending liberal/left work.  And as I say, unles you know what the "missing states" would mean, statistically, just noting their absence means diddly squat. 

But perhaps you have some numbers and sources that he used.


I think you're missing my point. I think improving people's situation is a worthy goal, but there were plenty of valid reasons to do that before The Spirit Level was published.

Here is one example of possible cherry picking by Wilkinson and Pickett (as described in Spirit Level Delusion pp. 27-29). Wilkinson and Pickett have a graph of life expectancy vs. inequality, based on UN 2004 data. It shows life expectancy declining with inequality, which is of course the conclusion that they would like to reach.

However, if you draw the graph with UN 2006 data, life expectancy increases with inequality. Since the 2006 data was available well before The Spirit Level was published, you have to wonder whether the correlation if any is weak enough that it changes sign from year to year, and that Wilkinson and Pickett just picked a year that supported their thesis. Now at this point a rational person would like to see a longer series to see if 2006 is an outlier.

So by all means fight for the right (well, left, you know what I mean), but be cautious about hinging your case on this book.

George Victor

When you say that from 2006 data "life expectancy increases with inequality" are you saying that in those societies of greater inequality, the poorer can expect to live longer?  Or is it that by 2006, the poorer folk began to live a little longer than they did in 2004?  Or does the critic say?

Do any of the graphs demonstrate a consistent skewing due to cherry picking (which suggests that the authors were building a political case)? Does the critic prove anything from his own research - does he provide the empirical data to support his critical case(s) ?  Or is he simply "cherry picking" his way through some trouble spots?   Why do you think he wrote it, except as an exercise from the right of Vlad the Impaler... and appearing in the blesses Wall Streat Journal and applauded by An Englishman's Castle? 



Neither. In the first case (2004 data) life expectancy declined with inequality. In the second case (2006 data) life expectancy increased with inequality. In each case the data cited is from the United Nations Human Development Report. I've given you a citation for the graphs.

You do know that ad hominem arguments are invalid?

George Victor

I know that anyone who does not see the correlation between place of publication and publication is naive...most famously the Fraser Institute in Canada. Or perhaps you meant something else by "ad hominem argument"  ?

But I'm still puzzled about the empirical support for the critic's position.  Does he apply the missing data to the graph(s) and find that another conclusion is necessary?

And wiith life expectancy decreasing or increasing, there must be some base point which says (i.e.) don't expect to live as long as those wealthy folks if you're poor (and I would really question the methodology if it came out otherwise)...  :)   I'm going to ask to see my friend's copy again.


I'm sure you'd like to keep this evidence-based. Both the Fraser Institute and the CCPA (for example) have published some whoppers from time to time - that doesn't mean everything they publish is false.

Please take a look at Figure 6.3 in The Spirit Level in your friend's copy. It looks like an open-and-shut case, although you have to backtrack to Figure 1.3 to see where the data comes from (2004 UN Report). The same graph, redone in The Spirit Level Delusion using 2006 UN data, has a positive slope instead of a negative slope. Now we're less certain that it's an open-and-shut case.

Clearly the poor in most countries have a shorter life expectancy than the rich in those same countries. This would make sense given poorer food, worse medical care, and so on. I'm not disputing that - that's a reason to try to improve their situation, by improving food, medical care, and so on.

BUT that's not the claim that The Spirit Level is making! It's claiming that better food, better medical care, and so on, are not the issue - that it's the Gini coefficient (inequality measure) for the countries that determines the life expectancies. And this is a strong claim that more evidence casts doubt on.

Anyway, enjoy the book.

George Victor

Will do. And I'll look again at the constancy of Japan on one end of the inequality spectrum (although that is changing a bit under economic duress recently) and the United States on the other end.  

And may I say I've enjoyed the invective-free exchange.  That's a bit of an anomaly  :)


Agreed, George - it's possible to disagree on specific points while still maintaining general agreement - or at least civility. 

Impose_Cures_Ob... Impose_Cures_Obese-Riches's picture

Is the title as close as they got to mentioning spirit channeling as causal to multi mega gross inequities?

While Berlusconi has been lifting psychopath channels, those channels have been tracing others down, to "stimulate the economy",the previous quote being one of the greatest absurd misnomers of governance. The reality is they're stimulating avarice Money mouthexigence.