Sunday, January 9, 2011

From Russia with Inequality

Another puzzling comment from The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. Arguing that life expectancy rose in UK rapidly during the two world wars (when the state intervened decisively in the market, reducing inequality to boost morale), they add:

In contrast, Russia has experienced dramatic decreases in life expectancy since the early 1990s, as it moved from a centrally planned to a market economy, accompanied by a rapid rise in income inequality.

Their choice of Russia is a strange one. Let's look at World Bank statistics for Russian life expectancy over this period:

Nothing wrong so far, Russia's life expectancy did fall from 68.9 in 1990 to 64.5 in 1994. It did recover a bit, but today is still lower than during the Communist era.

Fair enough - until we start looking at other former Communist states. Estonia, for example:

Czech Republic:

What we are seeing in these other former Communist states is quite different from Russia. While countries like Estonia do experience a short dip in life expectancies, they quickly bounce back. Hungary experiences accelerated growth in life expectancy after economic liberalisation. In the thirty years between 1960 and 1990, Czech Republic managed to add an (estimated, since it was part of Czechsolvakia back then) 1.1 year of life expectancy. In the eighteen years between 1990 and 2008, they added 6.8 years.

At first this would seem to be completely contrary to what The Spirit Level suggests, but actually Hungary and Czech Republic are still today among the most equal societies in the world. Still, Armenia isn't particularly equal, yet their decline in life expectancy happened during the Communist era, only reversing with economic liberalisation in the 1990s.

So the end of Communism is followed by starkly different scenarios in different countries. Perhaps Pickett and Wilkinson's off-hand example of Russia is misleading, when other countries apparently adapted more successfully to the free market.


  1. This all reminds me of a quote I've always liked from Robert M. Pirsig's Lila; "Seeing is not believing, believing is seeing."

    But the authors of The Spirit Level don't seem to be deluding themselves. They seem to be doing something quite shameful. Something a lot of books and "studies" do. They manipulate the facts by not telling the whole truth.

    I have not read The Spirit Level (only some reviews and critiques) but it seems that the authors had an idea first and then found statistical information to back up that idea. This is a strange reversal of how you'd imagine people would formulate an opinion or even an ideology but it seems to happen all the time.

    I can't help being cynical about "studies". It's amazing how they always contradict each other (which in one sense is a good thing). Your blog referring to the article about think tanks in The National Interest sums up what I've been thinking for a while. I take little heed of "studies". They always seem to back up the opinion of the person or organisation who funded the study. Take the causes of global warming. There are "studies" which show that it isn't happening or others that show if it is, it has nothing to do with human behaviour. Then there are others (most of them) which say it is all our doing. And they all find statistical data to back their arguments.

    And don't get me started on the shameless lies that are told to a stupid public for their money. Mind/Body/Spirit section in Eason or other large book shops. I'll say no more about that.

  2. Cheers Dave, I also read some criticisms of The Spirit Level before I started the book but I'm trying to read it with an open mind. I mention in the previous post that some of their ideas seem plausible: that trust levels are weaker in highly unequal societies, for example.

    But I get suspicious about some of these apparent discrepancies! Anyway I'll keep reading. I need to be open to having my views changed.

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  4. Good observation Shane. Statistics without context can be misleading.


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