Wednesday, 27 November 2013


This website exists as a forum for additional notes and discussion related to the book The Spirit Level Delusion. Some of this information takes the form of extended footnotes, which can be accessed at the right-hand side of this page.

The meat of the argument is, of course, in the book itself—which is available here (UK), here (USA) and here (Sweden). If you haven't read it, my articles in the Wall Street Journal and Spiked Review of Books give a brief overview.

Please scroll down for more recent entries, including a fact-checking of the response given by The Spirit Level's authors to my 20 Questions, a rebuttal to their article in Prospect magazine and some highlights from Kate Pickett's interview on BBC Radio 4's More or Less.

You can also read (for free) the new chapter included in the second edition of the book, which deals with Wilkinson and Pickett's response to criticism. Download Chapter 10 as a PDF.

"A devastating critique"
The Economist

"If you haven’t read a book that made you laugh out loud on the bus or the Tube in a while, try Christopher Snowdon’s superb release, The Spirit Level Delusion. But the book’s subtle humour is not the reason I am recommending it. The Spirit Level Delusion is, above all, a book that delivers and goes well beyond the promise of its subtitle – 'fact-checking the left’s new theory of everything'... It may well be that the next big battle for a free society will be fought against the new anti-wealth egalitarianism. Christopher Snowdon has provided defenders of freedom with powerful ammunition."
— Kristian Niemietz, Institute of Economic Affairs

"Snowdon picks so many holes in the theory that were it a building it wouldn’t be passed as structurally sound by the most crooked of third world local government surveyors... Next time someone starts spouting off about “equality” – a goal that has dug more graves than all the gods in history combined – send them a copy of Snowdon’s excellent book and make sure they read it from cover to cover." 
Ed West, The Telegraph

"This year’s most important publication"
— James Delingpole, The Telegraph

"The myth of inequality as the root cause of just about all social ills is dismantled... Snowdon’s thorough appraisal of available data and literature, and examination of alternative causes – all underpinned by acerbic wit – sees to that." 
Sam Hamilton, Medical Writing

"The Spirit Level Delusion not only successfully and dramatically undermines much of the evidence in The Spirit Level, but also takes on the other fashionable opponents of economic growth... His engaging discussion unpicks the evidence of the anti-growth brigade and demonstrates that it is selective and partial. This book is excellent “tube reading”.
Philip Booth, City AM 

Homicide and teen births

Part of The Spirit Level hypothesis is that teen births and homicide are somehow caused by inequality (chapters 9 and 10). However, Wilkinson and Pickett face a problem insofar as inequality has been rising in most countries for many years while rates of teenage births and murder have been falling. They attempt to square this circle on page 142 when talking about their worst performer, the USA.

Homicide rates in America, after rising for decades, peaked in the early 1990s, then fell to their lowest level in the early 2000s. In 2005, they started to rise again. Similarly, after peaking in the early 1990s, teenage pregnancy and birth rates began to fall in America, and the decline was particularly steep for African-Americans. But in 2006, the teenage birth rate also started to rise again, and the biggest reversal was for African-American women.

The standard Gini measurement of inequality (see below) isn't very helpful to Wilkinson and Pickett in this instance since it shows inequality to have been rising pretty much continuously since the early 1990s which is exactly when the homicide and teen birth rates started to fall.

Faced with this obstacle, they resort to an obscure discussion paper which paints a quite different picture of the US trend, with...

...inequality rising through the 1980s to a peak in the early 1990s. The following decade saw an overall decline in inequality, with an upturn since 2000.

This finding is contrary to all other evidence and has been described as "the equivalent of the sun orbiting the earth", but it nevertheless allows Wilkinson and Pickett to triumphantly conclude...

So there is a reasonable match between recent trends in homicides, teenage births and inequality—rising through the early 1990s and declining for a decade or so, with a very recent upturn.

In other words, the 1990s saw falling inequality and therefore falling rates of teen births and homicide, whereas the Noughties saw rising inequality and therefore rising rates of teen births and homicide.

This is patently at odds with the facts. As I mentioned in The Spirit Level Delusion, it is a stretch to say that the homicide rate "started to rise again" in 2005. In fact, there was a tiny blip in 2005-06 when the murder rate went from 5.5 per 100,000 to 5.7 (see below). After that, the downward trend returned. By 2011, it was 4.7 per 100,000.

Moreover—and the reason for this little blog post—I recently had cause to look up the US's teen birth rates which last year "reached historic lows for all age and ethnic groups". Here too we see a little blip in the middle of the Noughties followed by a continued decline.

The Spirit Level was published in 2009 and so the data from the most recent years were naturally not included. Nevertheless, it was, at best, rash of its authors to present a slight upturn in the figures as the start of an inequality-fuelled rising trend. No matter which set of inequality figures one uses—and the Gini figures are vastly more credible—Wilkinson and Pickett's argument does not stand up.

We now know for certain that the small increase in the homicide and teen birth figures in 2005-06 was just a blip. The facts are quite clear. Inequality has been rising in the USA while the homicide and teen birth rates have been falling. There is simply no correlation between these variables. We need to look elsewhere for an explanation.