Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism

Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism

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Over the past few years, there have been some big hitting books from the left criticising inequality, capitalism and 'free market' economics or neoliberalism. Naturally, these books have received a lot of criticism from the right. However, sometimes it seems that this criticism is overzealous: an attempt not merely to question the book, but discredit it entirely, and accuse the authors of various misrepresentations of facts and people along the way. Now, while it's true that some arguments or ideas are essentially 'just wrong', and that some proponents of certain ideas can be intellectually dishonest, the frequency with which these accusations are made is alarming, and I believe they are often mistaken.

In this post I'm going to look at three books that I believe have received such treatment: The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones, and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.

I'm going to review the books and some of the criticisms they've received in the hope of leveling the debate, and showing that they are far more credible books than the reviews might have you believe.

The Spirit Level

As anyone who's been around in politics for the past few years will know, The Spirit Level (TSL) is a book that caused quite a stir with its claim that inequality is the root cause of many Bad Things (hereafter referred to as 'The Spirit Level Relationship' or TSLR; I will also refer to the authors as 'W & P'). The authors go through the data, finding negative correlations between inequality and numerous social indicators: across time, between countries and between US states. They also discuss the mechanisms through which inequality might cause these problems, typically relating inequality to stress and status. For example, people who have low material and job status suffer from higher stress and as such are more prone to health problems; similarly, young people with a low status are more likely to get involved with gangs and crime as a way of emulating some sort of career progression or finding an identity. Since its release, the book has received heavy criticism from the right - three rebuttals were produced, all of which claimed to have discredited the research. Naturally, W & P have responded to the criticisms, and the debate continues.

Critics generally have much to say on the issue of causality. The idea that W & P simply confuse correlation and causation could not be held by anyone who has read the book properly, so I will not discuss it. However, there are also more substantive criticisms of W & P's purported causal links, such as the charge that W & P are too vague, and switching between inequality, status and stress without really nailing down the causality. For example, Christopher Snowdon, author of The Spirit Level Delusion, believes that W & P may show that stress and low status cause illness, but they have not shown it is inequality which causes this stress. He argues that W & P "fail to demonstrate that inequality is linked to either the mechanism (stress) or the outcome (disease)." He points out that one of their purportedly status-related illnesses, heart disease, is not actually correlated with inequality.

However, while this may be true, heart disease is far from the only mechanism W & P outline, and they do show that both inequality & stress are related to alcohol abuse. They also cite UNICEF children's report, which explores causal links between inequality, stress and health thoroughly for children, and discuss the Whitehall Reports, which do something similar for low paid, low status civil servants. W & P also highlight a couple of quasi-experiments which are consistent with TSLR, such as the changes in inequality and health outcomes post World War 2 in the US and Japan. It's true that W & P sometimes leave the discussion less complete than it should be, but overall, their discussion of causality is far more credible than is sometimes made out.

The criticisms of W & P's regression analysis often focus on the cross country data. However, in my opinion, the strongest points in the original are not related to the overall cross country regressions. First, W & P repeatedly point out that TSLR is strong within similar groups of countries: Scandinavia, the English speaking countries and Spain/Portugal (as well as the PIGS as a whole, if you check) all seem to confirm the relationship. Second, the critics pay little attention to the data from US states, where all but one (crime) of TSLRs hold. Third, W & P have pointed out that the health relationships (which are among the most contentious) have also been shown to hold with multivariate analyses within the provinces of RussiaChileChina and Japan. If I were a critic, I would pay more attention to these areas, where 'all else is equal', as they are far more important pieces of evidence.

In any case, the criticisms of the cross-country data can be overblown. A frequent criticism is of the measures W & P use. They use the 20:20 ratio measure of inequality, which compares the incomes of the rich and poor directly, but critics such as the Tax Payer's Alliance (TPA) claim that if you use different measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient, TSLR disappears. However, the authors have cross checked their data against both the UN and OECD Gini, as well as the alternative 10:10 ratio, and found that most (though not all, particularly with the OECD Gini) of their findings remain statistically significant for every measure. Furthermore, W & P stick to internationally comparable measures for other data, such as mental illness, where differences in legal tolerance and reporting methods can render comparison difficult.

Inevitably, there are some areas where the critics simply fall into the trap they often accuse W & P of: cherry picking and bad statistics. W & P have argued - and it bears repeating - that while they stick to their chosen methodology throughout TSL, the criticism has a decidedly ad-hoc feel to it, which detracts from its coherence. The methodology of the health section of the TPA report fits this description. First, the data for the measure of inequality they use is unavailable for 9 out of their 26 countries, simply too big a gap for the analysis to be credible. Second, they use inappropriate health measures, such as cancer (which W & P have explicitly argued is not correlated with inequality), and alcohol/tobacco use (which again is not correlated with inequality) rather than abuse (which is). Another seemingly bizarre recurrence is when critics make out the exclusion or inclusion of a particular country is some sort of trick, but fail to note that including it scarcely alters TSLR. This is true of Slovenia in general, Singapore with respect to mental illness, and so forth.

Peter Saunders' criticism in particular was so poor that he received his own rebuttal from an independent author, Hugh Noble, who was basically forced to give Saunders a statistics lesson, focusing on two major points. First, Saunders' reason for removing certain 'outliers' was not only statistically unjustified in the first place; he was completely inconsistent, removing some countries but not removing others which were even larger 'outliers'. Second, Saunders' multivariate regressions used variables that were not 'independent', something that any statistician will know completely undermines the analysis. More generally, Noble notes that even though a great fuss has been made about how the USA inflates W & P's results: "No one...has been able to show that the statistical data about the USA is actually wrong. The USA is a very unequal society and it is afflicted by a plethora of social problems." Lest people think that Noble's approach is one-sided, he goes on to note several problems he has with TSL, many of which I agree with (such as the idea that increasing equality will benefit rich people directly - a losing battle if there ever was one).

Overall, the most authoritative summary of TSL debate was the independent Rowlingson Report. This concluded that "there is a correlation between income inequality and a range of health and social problems", but that causation was of course far harder to establish and further research was needed. Rowlingson also made the interesting point that "some research suggests that inequality is particularly harmful after it reaches a certain threshold", an idea that surely warrants investigation. The report includes a pertinent quote from Chris Jencks, which sums up the debate quite well: "the social consequences of economic inequality are sometimes negative, sometimes neutral but seldom – as far as I can discover – positive." The critics may give reason to doubt some of W & P's methods and conclusions, but they do not alter this overall picture.


Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism (pt.2) / Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones

In Chavs, author Owen Jones argues that media caricatures and opportunistic politicians have helped shape the image of the British working class as feckless, scrounging criminals, or 'chavs'. We direct a level of ire toward this people that would be unthinkable were the word 'chav' replaced with 'black', 'gay' or even 'pleb', which alone shows how unacceptable it is. Yet this vilification of 'chavs', combined with the fact that many of us consider ourselves 'middle class', obscures the simple fact that a majority of people in the UK fit a fairly reasonable definition of working class, and, on top of this, these people are not work shy louts...


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