Tag Archives: sociology

Book Review: The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowdon

As I stated in my review of The Spirit Level, my intention was to read a counter-argument in order to get a more well-rounded view on the issues being discussed and thought through. As with that earlier review, I will also have to beware of my own potential bias, given my rather left-wing views. Having identified some flaws with detail of The Spirit Level, though whilst largely agreeing with the general drift, I approached this wondering if those same flaws would be picked up by Snowdon. Before purchasing the book, I didn’t do extensive research into the author’s background (neither did I do similarly with The Spirit Level), hoping, instead, that the evidence presented would be a sufficient basis upon which to build an informed opinion. Given the very premise of the book, I did not expect this to be in agreement with what Wilkinson & Pickett wrote, though I was interested in the approach taken, bearing in mind that it is probable that someone who sets out to write such a book has an existing prejudice against the values of fairness & equality which Wilkinson & Pickett are equally and oppositely biased towards.

Suspicions were first around before I even got to the first words of Snowdon. The foreword, written by someone called Patrick Basham from something called The Democracy Institute. This is a right-wing “think tank” that Basham founded and who appear to have been instrumental in getting this book written. The opening starts with praise for an earlier volume that Snowdon wrote in praise of the pro-smoking lobby. I have no hesitation in asserting that anyone who is in favour of smoking is seriously lacking in sound judgement. So the early impression of Snowdon and Basham was not positive. This was only the first paragraph. The rest of the foreword is a diatribe that seems to have been generated by some sort of ‘conservative clap-trap generator’.

Anyway, when Snowdon gets to writing, he doesn’t dive in straight away but looks at the methodology of the studies behind The Spirit Level. Key to the original book was the idea that economic growth had reached the limits of how it could benefit societies that were well-developed. In spite of the subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone, the focus of the Spirit Level was not on all countries, but between economically developed studies. But Snowdon’s critique of the methodology results in him including some more countries than Wilkinson & Pickett used for their analyses. Interestingly, though, as a secondary measure in the original book, a comparison was made between different states of the USA. But Snowdon chooses to overlook this entirely and his book does nothing to attempt to discredit the evidence which came from this second set of data, relegating his ‘reason’ to an unconvincing footnote, inviting readers to visit a website which he set up.

He then progresses, chapter by chapter, to look at some of the specific studies carried out from The Spirit Level drew. Much of this is a fair enough critique, though as with the original, the conclusions reached are stated with greater affirmation than the evidence really justifies. So while Snowdon does a good job of casting doubt on some of the work done by Wilkinson & Pickett, he doesn’t get close to falsifying it. It is probably convincing for those who are already convinced, but it’s unlikely to win any converts.

Undermining his case is his misleading caricature of what The Spirit Level is all about. In several places, Snowdon tries to deceive his readers by supposing that Wilkinson & Pickett were proposing making societies more equal via tax-based wealth redistribution. In truth, they actually rule out progressive tax policies on the basis that they could be easily reversed by alternative governments. Snowdon even gives a partial quote which stated just this, but attempts to twist it to mean the opposite of what it does.

By about half way through, he clearly runs out of steam. His take on crime and imprisonment statistics is a mish-mash of non sequiturs with little coherence. Following this, he looks at infant mortality and spends 10 pages basically conceding the proposition put forward by Wilkinson & Pickett.

After this, Snowdon just goes to pieces. The last 60 or so pages contain little of any merit. Snowdon attempts to further mislead his reader by supposing that Wilkinson & Pickett’s primary aim was to put an end to economic growth, when in truth their idea was to recognise the limits of the good that economic growth may have and instead to focus on how to make societies more equitable. It might not be unfair to characterise Snowdon’s erratic rantings as those of a fundamentalist capitalist. He labours under the misapprehension that fairness and equality are the great evils that must be combated. While he attempts to placate his readers by stating forthright that he is not proposing greater inequality, everything else that he rambles on about belies this.

His final flourish is to look at the relation between correlation and causality. Though he is correct in stating that the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter, he doesn’t actually engage with the argument (even though it was a vulnerable point in The Spirit Level) than Wilkinson & Pickett give. Instead, his argument, if followed through, would actually undermine the bulk of the better researched chapters of Snowdon’s own response. It seems he want to cross his bridges and then burn them behind him. What had some promise for being a revealing critique, with some good points made, ends up as the mad ravings of someone who is economically illiterate.


Book Review: The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

To review this book requires some caution. Those of you who know me will be familiar with my politics, knowing it to be distinctly left-wing. As such, I came to this book with an acknowledged predisposition to agree with the premise, especially the subtitle, Why Equality is Better for Everyone. The caution needed then, is to attempt something resembling neutrality (an absurd concept, of course!) and avoid confirmation bias. From the outset, I will state that it is my intention to read a counter-argument to that presented in this book, much as I have done with my reviews of books relating to the New Perspective on Paul. To that extent, I have purchased, but not yet read, The Spirit Level Delusion by Christopher Snowdon.

The first thing that strikes you about The Spirit Level is the abundance of scatter graphs. If you don’t like these, then this book will annoy you. The authors have drawn together multiple studies (all of which are referenced) to demonstrate a number of different factors that are affected by inequality in society.

But how might one measure ‘inequality’? Though an intuitive concept, it seems like a hard one to make empirical – a bit like ‘justice’ or ‘faithfulness’. This is done by looking at the difference between the top 20% of incomes and the lowest 20% (presumably including those with no income, though this is not stated explicitly). The opening thesis is that in economically developed countries, economic growth has reached the limits of what can improve living standards. So by looking at 1st world countries (excluding tax havens) they look at how different epidemiological measures change with differing levels of income inequality within that given society. As well as looking at a list of roughly 23 countries (not all had data available for all measures), they also looked at the 50 states that make up the USA.

The text is basically a commentary and expansion on the scatter graphs, each of which has a line of best fit. What I noticed is how tentative some of them were. The samples included a lot of outliers, making the correlation far from convincing in some specific graphs. In others, the correlation was much stronger.

At the start of the text, the authors make the very correct point that correlation doesn’t imply causation; surely the mantra of any statistician. However, about 2/3rds of the way through, the book changes tone. It turns away from the giving of the evidence that developed societies with greater income inequality tend to have more social problems into a discussion on causality. This, however, was a bit a hand-wavey exercise. Though it makes for interesting reading, I don’t think the authors did the best job that they could have done and I am yet to be convinced of the causality argument, depending as it does on supposition and broad generalisations.

However, they carry on regardless, working on the basis of that correlation does correspond to causation. The remainder of the book is a sort of sketch manifesto on how to make society more equal. They are quick to rule out changes in legislation on the basis that any incoming government which is in favour of greater inequality could easily reverse any progress made. Instead they propose employee ownership of companies. The idea then is that executives’ pay would be easier to cap to a sensible multiple of either the lowest or the average wage of the employees. As interesting as this idea is, it does seem to operate on the level of a single company wholly operating in a single jurisdiction. Of course, most large companies are multinationals, with employees spread across the globe, being paid different rates and in different currencies. I think they were too quick to rule out progressive measures such a more equitable tax system or a maximum wage, but that’s just my view.

It’s well worth a read, whether or not you agree with the general premise. I don’t think they made the best case that they could. The end section where they respond to some of their critics is a little weak. That’s not to say the direction they’re headed in is wrong. I think there is an abundance of evidence presented to show that societies that have greater income equality do have more desirable qualities. I think it would be a total nonsense to argue for greater inequality, though there may be many less empirical ways of thinking of inequality which the authors have not considered.

This is not the answer to the problems in developed countries, but it is a step in the correct (i.e. left) direction.

How do you define a christian? Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

Part 1: Self-definition
Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

In most forms of christianity, there are various “ceremonies” which are often referred to as ‘sacraments’ by those of a high church persuasion. Sociologically, these can be good demarcation boundaries for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ In particular, the two I am thinking of are baptism and communion (the latter also known variously as eucharist, holy communion, mass or The Lord’s Supper). Personally, I’m not a fan of the term sacraments, as it is quite pretentious and off-putting for those who are not well versed in high church terminology. My own view is that church should be open and welcoming, including in the terminology used. The ordinary person on the street should not be given any reason to stay away from church on the basis that they don’t know what the “right way” is to behave and talk in church.

There’s an early christian handbook for new believers, which seems partly based on the gospel of Matthew, called the Didache [you can read the full text of the book here]. If you read down, chapter 7 has specific instructions on baptism and chapter 9 has instructions on communion. Both are very formal and ritualised but will be familiar to those who have grown up in many western churches today.

I recently read both the book itself, along with an analysis of it by a catholic professor, Thomas O’ Loughlin (you can read the review here). Although I think O’Loughlin missed the point somewhat, he does make an interesting observation when he says:

“any group which has a developed sense of belonging…; a firm sense its own history….; and a clear unifying set of ‘facts’….will have a very clear sense of its boundaries, and of who is within the group. Furthermore, it will ritualize [sic] the gateways in those boundaries so that the whole group have a badge of identity and newcomers know they have crossed a threshold.”

This is also echoed slightly by the christian theologian, Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope, when he says:

“I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation….God’s future has burst into the present and…somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of the new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism – the action, the water, the going down and coming up again, the new clothes – is not just a signpost of the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.” (emphasis added)

I do not think that the purpose of baptism and communion is to act as ritualised gateways, though I do think such the sacraments may be used thus. To draw an analogy, the raison d’etre of a book is to be read, although that doesn’t stop me from using it as a doorstop or as a spider-squashing device. The purpose of baptism is to publically declare one’s faith, but this is no way determines whether or not someone is a christian. If you accept the idea of baptism as a “gateway” then, when taken in a soteriological sense, this would mean that those who are not baptised cannot be part of God’s kingdom. I would argue instead that it is an indication(but not a definitive marker) that one already has become part of God’s kingdom.

One very interesting thing to note is that while we have a record of Jesus being baptised, and of John the Baptist doing the same to others, there is no record of any members of The Twelve themselves being baptised. They are instructed in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The book of Acts describes some of the early church leaders performing baptisms, yet I don’t recall seeing a specific incident where they themselves were baptised. The closest I could find was in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he uses the inclusive term “us” to describe those are baptised, implying he was shortly after his experience on the road to Damascus (watch this space for a further post on that topic, later this week or early next week).

This, of course, does not mean baptism is a once-and-for-all thing, which I suppose sets me apart (pardon the pun) from Calvinism where the idea of a secure election is sacrosanct. I have many friends who have publically declared their faith and been baptised only later to have left church life, renounced their faith or just plain old given up. One of the better writers on the web who has done this is Daniel Florien, author of the Unreasonable Faith blog.

In any sociological group, there is an important concept of “the other” – i.e. to define oneself not only by what you are, but also by what you are not. So I acknowledge it can be helpful to think in terms of those who are baptised as different from those who are not, or to consider those who take part in communion as having a different belief from those who do not take part. Yet I think it isn’t helpful to regard these as absolute boundaries.

There is a very obvious thought experiment one could do: suppose someone, having examined the evidence and reasons for belief, makes the free and conscious decision to “become a christian” (however they want to phrase this). They are on their way to publically acknowledge this by being baptised and on the way there they are killed. If we take Wright’s view at face value, then this person would not have met the membership requirement of the new birth. O’Loughlin’s view is not quite as harsh, but there would certainly be considerable doubt over whether they might be considered to be an ‘insider.’

It is also interesting to note that between them, the different stances churches adopt on baptism and communion are probably two of the main reasons for divisions and splits, which in my opinion is a sad state of affairs. I won’t go into any detail here, as the next section in this mini-series will be on denominations where I will be exposing some of my own prejudices on the matter.