Wednesday, 8 May 2013

In which the North/South divide proves (again) that "The Spirit Level" is bunkum


The Work Foundation (pdf), in one of those studies that seem much cleverer than they actually are, has pronounced that, the further you get from London, the more “equal” places become:

What you're seeing there is a near perfect correlation between distance from London by train, and inequality. The further away you are from the capital, the more equal your city is.

Which rather begs the question doesn’t it? For what we see here is that income inequality (as an aside this is not ‘wealth’ as the New Statesman rather ignorantly puts it) is much higher in London than anywhere else in England. And this really isn’t a surprise, not even a little one – there are relatively few multi-millionaires in Bradford but a significant smattering all across London.

The problem is that we’ve been told – relentlessly by acolytes of Wilkinson & Pickett – that more equal places are more successful. It seems to me that, in little old England, we have a microcosm of why “The Spirit Level” is so utterly wrong and probably misguided.

People in London and the South East live longer,

Life expectancy in the south-east is 79.7 for males and 83.5 for females, while in the north-west it stands at just 77.9 for males and 81.1 for females.

Although life expectancy has grown in every region of the UK over the past four years, in some areas the growth has been considerably faster than in others. 

Growing differences appear to reflect increasing wealth in the South - particularly in the capital.

And have better mental health:

Many of the risk factors for mental illness are linked to deprivation, so a general pattern occurs with the three northern regions (North East, North West and Yorkshire & Humber), showing worse measures than the three southern regions (South East, South West and Eastern England) and the two midlands regions (West Midlands, East Midlands) in between.

Only in crime rates does London top the pile and it would be easy to suggest that its size and the problems with policing in a large city make that inevitable.

Yet, in reporting on the Work Foundation’s little calculation, the New Statesman misses the point (quite staggeringly):

But the really interesting question is whether you want to reduce urban inequality. The "Spirit Level" argument – that high inequality causes a number of bad outcomes – has only been shown to apply on the national level. Is there anything bad about inequality in cities on its own terms?

It seems to me that the “Spirit Level” argument cannot be true at one spatial level and untrue at another. Since it isn’t true at the level of the city  - no-one would claim Liverpool or Newcastle as more successful, happier or better places than London (blind local pride aside) - it cannot be true at the level of the nation.

Not that this will stop people trying to argue that all the world’s ills can be laid at the door of the wrong Gini co-efficient.


1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

Well, it's often been pointed out that the easiest way to make a society more equal is to make it poorer overall...