Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Inequality and anxiety

Richard Smith has written an interesting article in Educational Theory which looks at the causal mechanism Wilkinson and Pickett propose in chapter 3 of The Spirit Level to explain the correlations they show in the rest of the book. As Smith writes...

The argument runs as follows. Unequal income leads to unequal status, and in a world where people are alert to and anxious about where they are positioned on the social ladder, this anxiety affects both mental and physical health. Psychological insecurity and distress rise; self-esteem falls.

There is, however, a problem tallying this theory with the empirical evidence.

A highly inconvenient fact for their thesis, and one that they fully acknowledge, is that over the time-scale under consideration self-esteem as well as anxiety ‘‘showed a very clear long-term upward trend. It looked as if, despite the rising anxiety levels, people were also taking a more positive view of themselves over time’’ (SL, 36). Surely, it would seem, anxiety about status should be reflected in lower, not higher, self-esteem.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s solution is to distinguish ‘‘healthy’’ self-esteem from the defensive kind found in those prone to violence, racism, and insensitivity to others. This latter kind is fragile and more akin to ‘‘whistling in the dark’’ (SL, 37); we might compare this analysis with Ruth Cigman’s discussion of ‘psychological fraudsters.’’

In the context this looks like a rather desperate strategy on Wilkinson and Pickett’s part to save the explanation in terms of concern for status and self-esteem.

I agree with Smith's analysis, but I think there is more to be said. Chapter 3 is crucial to everything that follows in The Spirit Level, but, despite being superficially plausible if read casually, what little evidence they present does not support their argument. Indeed, the evidence goes some way to refuting it.

They start the chapter with two graphs showing the rise in anxiety amongst US college students between 1952 and 1993 (based on research by June M. Twenge) (p. 34). These are the only graphs in the chapter and they show anxiety rising continuously since the early 1950s. Whatever else might have been responsible for this trend, it was not income inequality, as Wilkinson and Pickett acknowledge:

We are not suggesting that [these rises in anxiety] were triggered by increased inequality ... the rises in anxiety and depression seem to start well before the increases in inequality which in many countries took place during the last quarter of the twentieth century. (p. 35)

Not only did inequality not rise until much later, but inequality actually fell in the first half of the period. What bearing do these graphs have on their inequality hypothesis? It is not at all clear, but Wilkinson and Pickett promise to explain, saying: "It is important to understand what these rises in anxiety about before their relevance to inequality becomes clear."

Their explanation begins with the discussion moving from anxiety to self-esteem (p. 36). Self-esteem appears to have risen over the period in much the same way as anxiety, but this anxiety, as Smith says, seems incongruous with rising self-esteem. Wilkinson and Pickett square this circle by arguing that this is really quasi-self-esteem, which reflects the way school-children are taught to have excessive faith in themselves, leading to narcissism.  There is, they say, good self-esteem and bad self-esteem, and this is the latter.

Smith has doubts about this argument, but even if we take it at face value, the connection with inequality eludes us. Neither anxiety nor self-reported self-esteem are in any way correlated with changes in the Gini coefficient.

Wilkinson and Pickett then introduce some causes of psychological stress which include "low social status, lack of friends, and stress in early life." They offer some rather banal observations such as "friends make you feel appreciated" and "how people see you matters." (p. 39) This is all perfectly plausible, but so what? Do people have fewer friends in less equal societies? We are not told, but there is no particular reason to think so.

The next study Wilkinson and Pickett discuss leaves us none the wiser because that, too, does not address income inequality at all (p. 41). They then return to the issue of anxiety and seem to be on the brink of explaining its relevance to inequality.

Why have these social anxieties increased so dramatically over the last half century—as Twenge's studies showing rising levels of anxiety and fragile, narcissistic egos suggest they have? Why does the social evaluative threat seem so great? A plausible explanation is the break-up of the settled communities of the past. (p. 42)

Again, this is more than plausible. The rapid rise in geographical mobility over the last half-century may well offer part of the explanation for the decline in social cohesion that has been documented by Putman and others. People who leave home are less likely to benefit from being around old friends and family. "Familiar faces," they write, "have been replaced by a constant flux of strangers. As a result, who we are, identify with, is endlessly open to question."(p. 42)

A lot of this appeals to common sense and is often based on sound sociological evidence, but still the link with income inequality is nowhere to be seen. It only arrives in the final pages of the chapter, and even then, speculatively. They repeat their admission that there is no correlation between rates of anxiety and rates of inequality...

Although the rises in anxiety that seem to centre on social evaluation pre-date the rise in inequality...

But they make the association all the same... is not difficult to see how rising inequality and social status differences may impact on them. (p. 43)

This is no more than a hunch and no evidence is presented in its favour. In fact, is is difficult to see how inequality impacts upon "the rise in anxiety", because none of the variables they associate with anxiety seem to be linked with inequality, and "the rise in anxiety" itself is demonstrably not linked with inequality in the time-series graphs that kicked off the chapter. Nothing they say in the intervening pages explains why anxiety rose when inequality was falling and continued to rise (at the same rate) when inequality went up.

Further hunches follow:

Greater inequality seems to heighten people's social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status. (p. 43)

No evidence is presented for this assertion (the only references given are a quote from a nineteenth century philosopher and a study which shows that people are judged on first impressions—neither mentions inequality).

Greater inequality is likely to be accompanied by increased status competition. It is not simply that where the stakes are higher each of us worries more about where he or she comes. It is also that we are likely to pay more attention to social status in how we assess each other. (p. 44) (my italics)

They may believe so, but what they think "likely" can only be viewed as conjecture unless it is backed up with evidence. This, they fail to provide. Instead, they discuss the "stark contrast between the way people see and present themselves" in Japan and the USA. The Japanese, we are told, are more modest while Americans are "more likely to attribute individual successes to their own abilities." This leads Wilkinson and Pickett to jump to the heroic conclusion that:

As greater inequality increases status competition and social evaluative threat, egos have to be propped up by self-promoting and self-enhancing strategies.

... Not only do large inequalities produce all the problems associated with social differences and the divisive class prejudices which go with them, but, as later chapters show, it also weakens community life, reduces trust, and increases violence. (p. 45)

If the comparison between Japan and the USA is supposed to seal the deal with the reader, it falls flat. As Saunders and others have noted, it would be hard to find a more hierarchical and status-conscious society than Japan. The modesty Wilkinson and Pickett attribute to the Japanese applies to many Asian societies. Furthermore, Japan's high suicide rate is not indicative of a low-anxiety nation.

By contrasting Japan and America, Wilkinson and Pickett are comparing apples with oranges. They are very different countries, to be sure, but the difference is rooted in culture, not income inequality. Wilkinson and Pickett say that by focusing on these two countries, they can contrast "the most equal with almost the most unequal of the rich market democracies". "Almost" is the key word here. The most unequal country in their book is actually Singapore, but if they had compared Singapore with Japan, they would not have achieved the desired effect.

So, to recap, Wilkinson and Pickett's theory goes as follows: Those of us who live in rich societies are "much more anxious than we used to be" (p. 33) and this rise in anxiety has been mirrored by a rise in self-esteem. This self-esteem, however, is not real self-esteem but narcissism driven by stress. This stress is driven by feelings of inferiority and the "social evaluative threat" which are "likely" to be driven by inequality.

There are many problems with this torturous chain of reasoning, not least Wilkinson and Pickett's tendency to oversimplify complex ideas and treat contentious theories as fact, but leaving them aside, let us take the proposition that stress and anxiety are the root causes of many modern social and health problems. If inequality is, in turn, the root cause of this anxiety, there must be a correlation between inequality and anxiety over time, but no amount of sophistry can disguise the fact that no such relationship exists.

Chapter 3 involves so many digressions and non-sequiturs that the unwary reader can be forgiven for having forgotten this little fact by the time they reach the end, and yet those two graphs indicating no correlation between anxiety and inequality seriously undermine their hypothesis.

But those graphs tell us something more. Wilkinson and Pickett are forced to accept that the rise in anxiety between 1950 and 1980 cannot be blamed on inequality because inequality was flat or falling during this period, but they never ask the obvious question—if inequality was not the cause, what was?

If the anxiety data is to be believed—and Wilkinson and Pickett cast no doubt on it—something important clearly happened after 1952 (at the latest) which led to greater anxiety, but Wilkinson and Pickett display not a hint of curiosity as to what this might be. Had they not been so committed to their a priori hypothesis, they might have paid more attention to this mysterious third variable. As it is, they ignore it for the remainder of the book in favour of their hunch that inequality is somehow the culprit despite their own evidence.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Wilkinson in The Guardian

Last week, Richard Wilkinson wrote an article for The Guardian in which he claimed that a large reduction in inequality took place in the 1930s which led to a large rise in life expectancy, despite economic hardship.

Rather surprisingly, health – and probably other indicators of wellbeing – continued to improve in the great depression of the 1930s. This is likely to have been partly because that period saw the most rapid sustained increase in equality on record.

There are two problems with this assertion. The first is that the Great Depression of the 1930s did not see "the most sustained increase in equality on record." The big fall in inequality began in 1939-40 as a result of the Second World War and continued through the austerity years of the 1940s. Rationing, conscription and full employment are the most plausible explanations for this decline. 

As the graph below shows, this was an international phenomenon known as the Great Compression. A similar graph appears in the revised edition of The Spirit Level (p. 296) clearly showing little change in British inequality in the 1930s. (Both graphs show the share of income held by the top 1% of earners. Other measures tell the same story.) It is puzzling that Wilkinson, whose bachelor's degree was in economic history, can confuse the Great Depression with the Great Compression.

The second problem is that Wilkinson's only piece of empirical evidence linking reduced inequality with better health during this period comes from life expectancy data (he offers no evidence at all to support his hunch that "probably other indicators of wellbeing" also improved). Life expectancy is indeed a good proxy for health, but there was nothing remarkable about the improvements seen in the 1930s. As the graph below shows, life expectancy increased throughout the century at a steady rate. There is no historical correlation between inequality and health (nor with any of the other criteria studied in The Spirit Level)

Life expectancy neither rose more sharply when inequality was low, nor declined when inequality was high. Because of the sustained rise in life expectancy, it is possible to point to any event in the 20th century (except for the two world wars) and say that it coincided with a rise in life expectancy. It would be fatuous, but it would be factually correct. But if you were to say that x caused a rise in life expectancy—as Wilkinson is doing here—you would rightly be accused of mistaking correlation for causation and committing a basic post hoc ergo propter hoc error.

Wilkinson is so committed to the theory that inequality is the main driver of social outcomes that he is compelled to view any period of history which saw a decline in inequality as a time of national revival, regardless of what the history books say. In The Spirit Level, he and Pickett display nostalgia for wartime Britain, austerity Britain and the 1970s, despite these being notoriously miserable times to be alive. It is appropriate that the grim 1930s be added to that list.

The main aim of Wilkinson's article is to dismiss the academic field of happiness studies. More of that in January when the Institute of Economic Affairs publishes a monograph on that subject...