Skip to content

Book Review: The Spirit Level

2017 August 21
by Ian Welsh

Given all the controversy around inequality, this is a must read book.

About three-quarters of it is what I call “proving the obvious”–that inequality is, in fact, bad in every way imaginable.

Inequality correlates to almost every bad social metric you can imagine. Health, lifespan, performance, violence, happiness, and so on. The more unequal a society, holding other stuff even, the worse the society is to live in.

It really is that simple, and The Spirit Level goes to ludicrous lengths to provide the evidence, because in our society the ludicrously obvious is disputed by people with a lot of money.

But The Spirit Level also has some non-intuitive information to share, of which the most interesting to me was that high inequality is bad for the people at the top. People in, say, the top one percent in a more equal society are better off than those in the top one percent in a more unequal society–even though those in the latter would have more money.

You’d think having more money would mean that you “win,” but, in fact, your life span is shorter, you are more unhealthy, and you are more unhappy than those in the same relative position in a more equal society.

Another interesting fact is the performance effect of being unequal: Simply being told they are lesser destroys people’s performance. This is quite robust. You can test them, then tell them they’re unequal, test them again, and see it happen.

The causes of inequality’s other effects are hard to tease out, but the most likely reason is stress: Being unequal is stressful. It’s more stressful for people on the bottom, constantly worried and being ordered around, but it’s stressful even for those on top. The more unequal the society, the more people below you are stressed and angry and the more you have to do to defend your situation.

And, of course, unhappy people just aren’t nice to be around, and if your society systematically makes people less happy, that’s going to feed back into you, because you live in the society.

I really do think everyone should read this book. It’s not that it’s earth-shattering, it’s that it makes you one hundred percent confident that, yes, inequality is just bad, whether or not the people at the bottom have a TV.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

24 Responses
  1. bruce wilder permalink
    August 21, 2017

    “People in, say, the top 1% in a more equal society are worse [better]
    off than those in the top 1% in a more unequal society even though those in the latter would have more money.”

    Perhaps needs the indicated edit?

  2. Herman permalink
    August 21, 2017

    A friend of mine from Bulgaria once told me that it is very hard to make friends in the United States because when Americans meet they seem to immediately size each other up to see who is the dominant person. This is usually measured in wealth and accompanies the usual “So what do you do?” question that is often the first thing a person asks you. You are then judged by your occupation. According to my friend and other people I have met from other countries, what you do for a living is not seen as being so important as it is in the United States.

  3. dude permalink
    August 21, 2017

    Couldn’t agree more. Everyone should read this book. Can’t recall where I first heard about it, but I picked it up about a year ago. Americans in particular should examine this comparison to other nations around the globe and consider the how far we fall from our stated goals and ideals.

  4. Dan Lynch permalink
    August 21, 2017

    Agree, though most people would be better served by Richard Wilkinson’s Ted talk, which covers the same material without the tedium.
    .
    Want to reduce racism? Then reduce inequality.
    .
    Want to reduce violent crime? Then reduce inequality.

  5. Ian Welsh permalink*
    August 21, 2017

    Woops. Yes, thanks Bruce.

  6. nihil obstet permalink
    August 21, 2017

    It’s probably included in “stress”, but inequality weakens relationships, and humans are social animals. Deciding how to relate to another by considering the external factors of power prevents strong positive emotional bonds, or as Plato put it, “True friendship can exist only between equals”. Studies show that people who have good family/friends/community bonds are healthier than those who lack them. We introverts do not like those studies.

  7. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    August 22, 2017

    The problem is, the answer to Inequality in the past has only led to more Inequality. That’s because The System is designed for Inequality. You can’t reform a design, you can only replace it and that replacement won’t emanate from within the Unequal System.

    If you want True Change, our lives are going to have to radically change. If you want a new World, you have to be willing to shed the Old World. From my vantage, no one is willing to do that who has a vested interest in the Current World.

    Naked Capitalism is about investing smarter and yet it’s The Alternative Voice for those who feel the Cognitive Dissonance. All it accomplishes, all the Endless Words, is the pacification of your Cognitive Dissonance. No change can come if those who influence your thinking are wedded to the Current System.

    A Camel through the Eye of the Needle is instructive. If you want a New World, one that is Universe-Centric vs. Human Centric and consequently one that is more equal & egalitarian, then you must divorce yourself from the trappings of the Old World.

    Stoking a Nuclear War between India & Pakistan is not the way to go about that. Or, on second thought, maybe it is. If India & Pakistan engage in a Nuclear Conflict, the Die-Off Ted Turner & Friends are hoping for will manifest and after several years they can emerge from their Palatial Bunkers to a New World devoid of Useless Eaters and a New Spirit Level.

  8. V. Arnold permalink
    August 22, 2017

    The Stephen Miller Band
    August 22, 2017

    A Camel through the Eye of the Needle is instructive.
    Oh, really. Just how is that instructive? Hm?
    You don’t even know what that means!
    Its a bibical admonition about the rich; and the eye of the needle is the man door into the city (walled) of Jeruselem.
    “I’ll say it again–it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” New Living Translation
    Your garbage here is hurtful to mine eyes and spirit. Be gone evil spirit…

  9. Buzzard permalink
    August 22, 2017

    There is no way for a society — any society — to avoid the costs of poverty. Even if you’re one of the affluent ones.

    There are three ways to deal with poverty. You can (a) institute a government jobs program so that those at the bottom of the economic spectrum have at least SOME income and contribute at some level; (b) have a welfare program to keep people from starving and becoming homeless; or (c) do nothing, and just deal with the extra crime, that necessitates bloated law-enforcement budgets and generates extra unpleasantness at every level.

    I grew up in a relatively affluent envirnoment in the third world. Yes, we lived “well” materially speaking, but having to go through six layers of security just to go pick up a pizza, driving on crap roads, constantly needing to have my “situational awareness” antenna up in just about every part of town, and our family having to coat our home with multiple alarm systems — well, all of that plain sucks. It’s a hefty price to pay to be rich in a vastly unequal society.

    My upbringing is essentially what caused me to reject conservative economics. Once I came back to the US (when there was still a significant amount of postwar prosperity), just not having to live in a gated community to be physically safe was a massive stress-reducer.

    I really don’t get why more upper-income people don’t understand this. Isn’t Canada a vastly better place to live than Peru, whatever your level of wealth?

  10. V. Arnold permalink
    August 22, 2017

    I really don’t get why more upper-income people don’t understand this. Isn’t Canada a vastly better place to live than Peru, whatever your level of wealth?

    No!

  11. The Stephen Miller Band permalink
    August 22, 2017

    Oh, really. Just how is that instructive? Hm?

    In the New World, you can’t bring your Child Prostitutes with you through The Crucible. I know, that sucks for you, but hey, we will all have to make sacrifices if we’re to survive The Juggernaut heading our way at Breakneck Speed.

    I will never ever let anyone forget that you tacitly supported Trump as a solution and I will never let you remove that Albatross from your cowardly neck. You will wear it for ALL TIME. You can’t wiggle out of this one as has been your wont all these years. YOU MUST OWN IT, and you will.

  12. V. Arnold permalink
    August 22, 2017

    The Stephen Miller Band
    I have never supported Trump!
    Just what insane idea are you responding to?
    You are just supporting my original theme that you are insane!
    Oh, do carry on…

  13. V. Arnold permalink
    August 22, 2017

    Ian, you know what?
    I’m fed up with these ad hom attacks by obvious trolls; TSMB and RC; who add nothing to your valuable blog; I’ve fucking had it!!!
    So. they won; bye!

  14. realitychecker permalink
    August 22, 2017

    that they are very young

  15. August 22, 2017

    Come on V, it’s what makes it interesting 😎

    Those gates, Buzz, swing both directions.

  16. August 22, 2017

    Probably going to get my teeth kicked in, but… I don’t disagree with the evil of inequality, but where is all the politicking getting us. Whenever it comes up, the focus seems to be on bringing the top level down, but much of the talk sounds suspiciously like envy. And even if we do bring the 1% down, what does that do for the bottom?

    Share that wealth out and everyone on the bottom gets a few dollars. So we focus on the minimum wage. If we raise it to where everyone wants it to be a worker won’t starve on it, but he is still working for minimum wage. When did this become a nation that is satisfied with minimum wage?

    Why aren’t we talking about giving power to the working class with collective bargaining? Why aren’t we talking about making real jobs, like plumbing and carpentry and such, pay the kind of top wage and offer the type of dignity that they once did?

    This endless clamor of “he has so much more than I have” sounds like childishness to me.

  17. Charlie permalink
    August 22, 2017

    VA, that man door in the city canard regarding the eye of the needle is usually brought up by those looking for excuses, but the meaning truly is a good analogy (and literal) for those wealthy who refuse to look at themselves regarding change.

    Hence, it is instructive. TSMB has been knocking it out of the park lately.

  18. Ian Welsh permalink*
    August 22, 2017

    Keep on topic, and avoid the ad-homs and the feuds. I’m losing patience.

  19. Peter permalink
    August 22, 2017

    @BillH

    You are doing some dangerous thinking that the tax and spend collective will not like. You will notice that they demand that their Statist structures must be in charge of the redistribution. Even the use of the l% as the target is a distraction, their wealth is not in income but property and investment. Those people with moderate levels of wealth will have their income taxed to create this utopia for minimum wage workers.

    Your point about unions and skilled jobs needs to be rearranged to show that without the good jobs there is no new working class to organize for collective bargaining. The high skill working class occupations are mostly unionized but their numbers have declined dramatically with the deindustrializing of our eco9nomy.

  20. DMC permalink
    August 22, 2017

    Quick Biblical note: It should be “Rope through the eye of a needle” rather than “camel”. This was a translation error going back to at least St. Jerome, because the two words are spelled the same. It becomes obvious when you consider what usually goes through the eye of a needle.

  21. Herman permalink
    August 22, 2017

    The thing about inequality and “statism” is that much so-called statist policy is designed to redistribute income upward. For example, increasing protection for intellectual property while decreasing protections for wage earners favors the wealthy at the expense of the working-class majority. That is why people should drop the term “free trade” when discussing things like NAFTA and the TPP. These agreements should be called selective protectionist agreements since they selectively benefit the wealthy.

    Dean Baker has written a lot about this issue:

    http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/u-s-pursues-selective-protectionism-not-free-trade

    http://cepr.net/publications/op-eds-columns/inequality-as-policy-selective-trade-protectionism-favors-higher-earners

  22. Christopher permalink
    August 22, 2017

    It’s important to keep in mind the distinction between equality of opportunity and of outcome. I think a society easily becomes totalitarian if it insists on equality of outcome. Outcome should not be regulated.

    Most everyone agrees there should be no laws that restrict equality of opportunity. For example, persons that have a certain physical characteristic based in biology (skin, hair, sex, etc) should not be discriminated against. This sort of equality is something to fight for tooth and nail, and I believe most western democracies have achieved it in a legal sense. I doubt there is any sophisticated country that has laws on the books that permit discrimination unless it’s valid, e.g., someone without the required strength or mobility can not be hired.

    There are at least two ways to run into problems once we achieve the above.

    1. Membership in the group with grievance might be a mutable choice. No one would be upset if a company does not hire someone because they insist on wearing clothing with political slogans on it or something. But can we say the same of clothing with a political or religious dimension, like a burqa? What about a job that requires a certain sex to perform?

    2. Societies that have achieved radical equality of opportunity have some of the greatest variability in equality of outcome. Example, Scandinavian countries have the strictest rules about gender and employment, but have the most skewed ratios of women in nursing for example. Should we strive for equality of outcome in this case? e.g., How do we legislate to get more men into nursing? Is that something we should even do?

    I think that the solution is that societies that are equitable start to expose the underlying statistical differences underlying the population’s biology. There certainly are underlying characteristics, and as we get more equal (in the opportunity sense), we see more ‘signal’ from the biology and less from the society. IMO that is not a bad thing. As long as we’re not forcing people into things, there is no ‘harm’, even if the careers a group of people statistically ‘choose’ more often are lower paying, skewing the population statistics.

    I know this sounds terrible to some ears, but to claim otherwise is to reject the idea that genetics plays a role at all, and that is patently false. It’s simply un-scientific to claim that there are no measurable biological differences in the population. Nor should we want us to all be the same, but that’s another matter.

    And note that I’m not claiming that there is *always* a difference. For instance, skin colour is obviously not correlated with intelligence or job preference. Sex sometimes is. Men tend to have a broader distribution of intelligence than women. More dullards and more exemplars. Perhaps this has to do with sexual selection? We should assume these differences don’t exist for legal and moral reasons, but when the differences show up *none the less* we shouldn’t use legal or moral means to suppress the differences. This leads to a pathological society that applies unequal-opportunity laws in order to achieve equal outcomes. Why should the legal system be imposing any sort of legal pressure to make more men to enter nursing for instance? Who does that serve?

    I firmly buy into the common law idea that we each have **unlimited rights**. We don’t know all the rights, but you have **all** of them except insofar as those rights infringe on someone else’s. One of the rights each person has is the right to expect equal treatment before the law, and clearly having that right should not infringe upon anyone else’s expectation of equality. I worry that focusing on equality of outcome will lead to a society that infringes on some in order to equalize outcome for others.

  23. nihil obstet permalink
    August 22, 2017

    What outcome are you thinking of? There’s no reason to want the same proportion of all races, sexes, heights, religions, whatever, in nursing and pipelaying and computer programming. There is, however, every reason to want each individual to have a pretty equal say in how she lives her life, what policies his government enforces, what dramatic plays they put on, and the like. Usually, people inveighing against equality of outcome mean that the society’s casino should be open to everyone but that it’s all right for the casino to have an outcome of a few spectacular winners and many losers.

    And of course, there’s no such thing as a society whose unequal outcomes came out of equal opportunities. There has never been a society in which a child growing up in a poor household has opportunity equal to that of the child of rich, influential, well-connected parents, so I guess discussing equality of opportunity is like discussing the diet of unicorns. But even if equal opportunity were possible, unequal outcomes of personal rights and autonomy is a bad thing.

  24. Altandmain permalink
    September 2, 2017

    Unsurprisingly, the rich, the libertarians, and conservatives are desperate to persuade people otherwise about this one.

    So far though, they have been unable to provide positive evidence of what inequality can do. The bottom line though is that the rich are essentially parasites. Society is becoming worse for it, and not just for the poor, but ironically the rich.

Comments are closed.