Spirit Level

ABF had invited Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone to give a presentation in Stockholm and Honeybuns and I thought it would be an excellent outing. As always, we (I) got caught up in things so we arrived at the ABF house just five minutes before the lecture was to start. There was a long queue snaking outside the Z hall and when we got in, we got two of the remaining half-dozen seats, people coming after us having to line the walls.

Carl Tham introduced professor Wilkinson, who then made his presentation. The thesis of Spirit Level is that the larger the income inequalities in a country or region, the larger the problems with crime, bad health, lack of trust, academic performance, etc in that region, at least when measured for relatively affluent countries (as those are the ones who can produce the required statistics to begin with). At one end of the spectrum is the USA, with high disparity in income between the richest and poorest parts of the population, as well as high incidence of crime, teenage pregnancy, etc, and at the other end Japan and the Nordic countries, with a relatively low income spread and relatively low rates of societal problems.

At about this point I realised the young people sitting in the row in front of me were US students—who knows what had brought them there, a class assignment perhaps—and at least the woman whose notebook I could read over her shoulder was not amused by the “kissing of Sweden’s ass”. Most of the rest of the audience seemed to be appreciative of the presentation though.

There was a Q&A session after the presentation, the questions ranging from quite incisive ones to some that were that were completely out of the blue. Professor Wilkinson handled most of them well, even though I thought his argument for actual causation, rather than mere correlation between the cited factors was a bit on the hand-wavy side. The FAQ on the Equality Trust web site is slightly more strict, but I would like to go through their actual peer-reviewed papers to see what can be properly argued and what not.

The American students suddenly realised they probably should go on the attack and started urgently waving their hands, but Tham the moderator decreed the break was well overdue and finished the Q&A session.

We found the Swedish translation of Spirit Level, Jämlikhetsanden, being sold outside the lecture hall. We asked for the English original, but the guy hawking them said that they only had the Swedish version and the English one was “pretty hard to read”. We felt a bit insulted by the presumption of lacking language skills, but still bought the book as it was there and then got it signed. A panel discussion in Swedish had been announced for after the break, but we had an appointment at Chutney so had to leave.

Well there, I browsed the book, which certainly was not, at least in its Swedish guise, particularly hard fare, but rather a very popular, not to say polemical, and definitely political, presentation of the research of Wilkinson & Picket, as well as others they quited in turn. The literature references were, however, extensive, so should serve as a starting point for further exploration.

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