Thursday, January 27, 2011

And now for something completely different...

There is a strong liberal consensus today that young people need to be educated about sex, that the stifled prohibitions and innuendos of the past need to be replaced by frank, open discussion. Channel 4's new series The Joy of Teen Sex is a kind of logical conclusion: a TV series in which curious youngsters ask sex experts for advice about their weird sexual maladies or doubts.

The Joy of Teen Sex pulls no punches, showing close-up shots of genitalia and simulated sex acts, and giving a wide range of advice. Last night a gay teenager was introduced to the pleasures of sado-masochistic sex and a teenage couple were counselled to confront the conservative parents who didn't want them having sex.

Yet it struck me that TJOTS, by focusing on sexually active teenagers, may be distorting the extent to which most British teenagers are active. In their hurry to shake off taboos over teenage sexual activity, they may instead be shifting them onto chastity: increasing the emotional pressure on teenagers to become active, worsening the unhappiness of those who cannot.

Then there are doubts about some of their "experts". Last night featured one teenage boy who hated the idea of giving his girlfriend oral sex. In the process of fixing this boy's problem the experts gave him some advice on how best to stimulate his girlfriend, using a large padded model of the vagina. The expert advised him, among other things, to stimulate her G-spot:

Expert: "Also work on the G-spot inside."

Girl: "Where is that, exactly? 'Cos I thought it was just a myth."

Expert: "It's not a myth. Every lady has a G-spot."

Eh... hang on. King's College London published a study last year in which they compared female twins and found that there was no genetic basis for self-reported existence of a G-spot:

A possible explanation for the lack of heritability may be that women differ in their ability to detect their own (true) G-spots. However, we postulate that the reason for the lack of genetic variation—in contrast to other anatomical and physiological traits studied—is that there is no physiological or physical basis for the G-spot.

Some specialists suggest that women who cannot find their G-spot (which might not exist) may feel themselves somehow dyfunctional or abnormal. Yet TJOTS expert is perfectly confident, speaking as if the case is closed - even while the debate continues.

Meanwhile other medical doctors have been responding to TJOTS. Dr Petra Boynton said she had been approched by the producers before the show was made, but that she had "reservations from the outset" and refused to be involved:

The phrase that put me off supporting the programme most was ‘Sex is the most important thing in a teenager’s life’. It may surprise you, but I profoundly disagree. ‘Sex’ may be important to some teens some of the time, but not to all teens all the time. For many young people the most important thing in their lives may be their friends, their schooling, hobbies or sports, their pets, their faith, music or a whole slew of other stuff I’m probably to old and boring to know about....

The majority of young people (2/3 of the UK population) do not have ‘sex’ (at least defined as penis in vagina intercourse) until they are 16 or over (the UK’s age of consent). Many young people aged under 18 have not have sex or a relationship. Those having sex at a very young age tend to be more vulnerable due to numerous reasons (covered here) and are of particular concern to educators, healthcare staff and youth workers....

Critics of sex education often argue that talking about sex encourages early experimentation, which is not accurate. However, you can see why critics get worried when young people are being encouraged to view sex as the cornerstone of their entire lives, when for many it isn’t (at least not all the time).
Another, Dr Stuart Flanagan, criticised the programme on Twitter:

#thejoyofteensex is frustrating because they are getting info re common concerns WRONG. Did they ask the Screen Dr to review the script??

Average time b/n penetration to climax is NOT 7 mins it is 3-4 mins. Plenty of research to back it up #thejoyofteensex 's random stats

So is #thejoyofteensex saying no oral sex is a relationship deal breaker? What about trust, loyalty, kindness? Aren't they sexy?

#thejoyofteensex isn't a realistic view of sexual health services, or young people. Plus you can see a male Dr/Nurse/advisor if you want to!

#thejoyofteensex "the average u16 has slept with 3 people" WRONG! For most u16s it's zero, <1/3>

And so on.

So The Joy of Teen Sex is an odd one. Standing as a source for curious teenagers to learn about sex, it seems instead to be repeating questionable "facts". It may also normalise sexual activity among teens to the extent that the inactive feel like abnormal failures. Not sure how healthy all that really is.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bloody borders

The late Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, sometimes remarked that Islam has "bloody borders". He meant that everywhere in the world that Muslims share a border with non-Muslims there is violence: with Christians in Bosnia, Lebanon and Philippines, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Thailand and Burma.

This controversial narrative attracted lots of attention after 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror. Long-ignored Islam became a story, fought over bitterly by rival political groups.

I witnessed this struggle first hand on the Orkut discussion forums, where anti-Muslim Westerners allied with anti-Muslim Hindus, moderate Pakistanis allied with leftist Westerners, and Islamists fought everyone.

Other weird alliances of convenience popped into existence for only the few seconds it took to make a point. The most radical anti-Muslim zealots and the Islamists could agree on one thing: there is no moderate Muslim!

Debates became almost comical at times as these bitter enemies put aside their differences because the one thing they agreed about was Islam. Both anti-Muslim and Islamist radicals agree that Islam is locked in a battle to the death with the US and its allies, a battle that will be won only with the destruction of the other civilisation. Both agree that a real Muslim is extremely violent, responding to the slightest challenge to Islam with aggression. Both think true Muslims hate the cultures of the kufr, force women to wear hijab or niqab, and want to sweep Israel into the sea.

It can be odd to see chilled-out Pakistani Muslims taking time out of chatting about rock music to tell off the extreme Islamists, only to be stabbed in the back by vicious Western or Indian anti-Muslimists!

The idea of Islamists and anti-Muslimists is that any Muslim who shows tolerance towards liberal politics or other faiths is not, in fact, following Islam as described in the Quran. Therefore, they reason, there are no moderate Muslims.

I haven't read the Quran, but I have seen every shade of Christian, each interpreting Christianity for their own ends: communist Christians, anarchist Christians, conservative Christians, pacifist Christians, fascist Christians, pro-war Christians, feminist Christians - you name it. Which ones are the real Christians? Whichever - demographers count all of them as Christian when totting up populations, just as every kind of Muslim from liberal to radical is included in official numbers.

From my Orkut experience, moderate Muslims are a-plenty. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan (IRP) community is the battleground of their struggles with the extremists: here is one of the bloody borders Huntington described, but it is within Muslim communities, not at the edge. They are fighting to define Islam, the winners will decide what Islam is and how it relates to non-Muslims.

Yesterday one Muslim member posted a link to a video allegedly shown on Iqra TV, an Islamic television station based in Saudi Arabia, in which a speaker explains that a wife must consent to her husband's demand for sex and, therefore, Islam has no concept of marital rape. The Muslim member said he had been arguing with another Muslim who supported this idea, the latter blaming adultery on men who are dissatisfied with their marital sex lives. The former asks:

"Do you think it's a valid reason to have forceful sex?"

To be clear, he was being sarcastic - the same member is renowned for provocative sarcasm in making anti-extremist points. A good deal of the responses are in mixed English and Urdu, which I can't read, but here are a sample of those in English:

A): "!!!! I cant belive u asked this question bro?

rape is never justified..

so it's not valid"

B): "LOL...Saudi Mullahs are insane.

Use of force or doing something against someone's will is wrong, no matter what."

C): "There's never a valid reason 4 rape 2 occur. NO means NO the world over."

Another thread highlights the struggle between extreme and liberal Pakistani Muslims. Many of the liberals want a shift towards secularism in Pakistan, i.e. a country where all religious people are free to follow their own faiths, with no blasphemy laws, no official religion. The Islamists sometimes dismissively call the liberal secularists "sickulars". Bear that in mind when reading on:

"Who still says Islam is peaceful...
Oddly ... only the 'sickulars'

The rest of the Muslim world believes in violence and murder and the rest of the world thinks Islam is a violent religion.

Did someone say Irony?"

Here he was poking fun at the common Islamist claim that Islam is "the religion of peace", while simultaneously advocating intolerant and violent policies. His point was that the Islam of the despised seculars is truly peaceful, while the Islam of the radicals is not - and their violence has won Islam enemies all over the world. He adds:
"If bullets, bombs and chopped off heads are peaceful then we might need to update dictionaries."
One Muslim objected, arguing instead that:
"Islam blvs in Justice and justice brings peace."
Another joked in response to this:
"Islam blvs in killing and killing brings peace.

FTFY" (FTFY is internet geek-speak for "fixed that for you"!)
The thread-starter later remarks:
"Now that I think of it, I can't even recall anyone in IRP who has used the term 'sickular' to ever preach patience or tolerance.

They are all about killing people or stonning them etc etc."
The same member had a thread asking what "Islamophobes and Mullahs agree upon", pointing out my earlier observation that both extremes hold very radical views of Islam. This is a rather tongue-in-cheek thread, as Muslim Pakistani members list the extreme ideas about Islam that radical Islamists and anti-Muslim foreigners hold in common. A few examples:
A): "Adultery is punished by stoning to death"

B): "Music is Haram" (forbidden)

C): "Osama Bin Laden is a Jihadi role model for muslims"

D): "Both Mullahs and Islamophobes believe that Islam is incompatible with democracy."

E): "Muslim women should remain covered from head to toe in a black garment all the time"

F): "Both Mullahs and Islamophobes believe that in Islamic law a women's intellect is considered inferior and oft faltering hence her testimony is not equal to that of a man."

Remember, these are the words of practicing Muslims, some of them quite serious and devout about their faith, but nonetheless rejecting the sexist and puritanical views of the extreme clerics. We have seen plenty of the other kind too, radicals who advocate forcing women into niqabs the world over to prevent rape and admit wishing Hitler had succeeded in exterminating the Jews (then immediately denying that the Holocaust had happened). One cheerful fanatic even announced that Israel would be swept into the sea, and then it would be called "Fishrael".

But the moderates weary of that radicalism, and spend more time fighting their Islamists neighbours than arguing over American foreign policies.

Yesterday the debate shifted even further against the Islamists. Members were discussing a news story from Tajikistan where the state has intervened aggressively in religious activity, hoping to crush Islamic extremism. Religious leaders are forbidden from giving sermons on controversial topics; there are stories even of police forcing men to shave their beards. This is an oppressive step unthinkable in "Western" countries. The debate on the IRP community is varied, with some Muslims supporting the oppressive moves, others rejecting it - but on liberal grounds, not religious.

A): "Good step.

Pakistan should follow this now.

We need to take counter radical steps to stop this growing religious and islamic extremism in our land.... If militants can try to force us to keep beards, we should do the exact opposite."

B): "Then you are also a militant. Shame on you bro... You cannot fight fascism with fascism."

C): "Extremely bold step.
Unusual circumstances require unusual rulings."

D): "Good Step. Nip the evil in the bud. this tumor had to be stopped."

E): "Great, should to be followed everywhere...need of time."

F): "Education is the key, not government high-handedness."

G): "lol and here people give speeches in the support of freedom of speech

and also supporting this law that a person doesnt have the freedom to keep a beard"

H): "This sounds so suffocated. Once you start using the iron fist it won't start anywhere then the same people who are supporting this would cry for freedom of expressions."

I): "fascism in any form is wrong."

What we see is Muslims here divided between those who are willing to use the state to destroy Islamic extremism by force and those who prefer more liberal routes.

Yes, liberal, pro-democracy, secular, but devout Muslims exist. These moderate Muslims stand between the violent radicals and the non-Muslim world, sometimes literally dying in defense of liberties for the kufr. They constantly expose and undermine the simplistic global narratives promoted by Islamists.

...So it might not be clever for the rest of us to deny they exist, or to weaken their position by promoting the rival Islamist narrative of a violent, beseiged Islam. For the liberal Muslims stand at the real bloody border - not at the edges of Islam, but at its heart - and it's rather important that they come out of this victorious.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Supposing they're right...

To finish my observations of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level, I'm going to explore an alternative way to look at their data.

Supposing Pickett and Wilkinson are completely correct about their claims that high levels of inequality in society create pressures on individuals that cause a great number of social ills. The Spirit Level seems to consider inequalities in wealth as being interchangeable with inequalities in status, i.e. that rich people are high status and poor people are low status. In some historical cases this is obviously relevant, as wealthy aristocrats, for example, held far higher status than peasants or serfs.

Yet exceptions were common. Catholic priests in Ireland were until a few decades ago high-status but not particularly rich. In Edo period Japan the ruling samurai class included some rather poor samurai who, nonetheless, had status and priviliges greater than the rising wealthy merchant class.

I use these examples only to show that wealth and status are not interchangable, that Catholic priests and poor samurai could punch far above their economic weight in status. One could be influential, admired and poor.

Pickett and Wilkinson argue that the insecurity caused by lower social status causes people to engage in drug abuse, comfort eating, violent crime and so on. The presumption is that erasing income inequalities would reverse these trends - but perhaps that would not really erase the status inequalities.

Class consciousness
I was inspired to think of this difference by my own experience growing up in rural Ireland. Until I left for university in Dublin, I had no sense of belonging to a specific socioeconomic class. The majority of students simply attended the local school because it was the only school in the town. We wore uniforms in school, and outside there were no class markers in how people dressed. My impression was that we were all normal, average, medium - in status and wealth. Peer pressure in school revolved around the behaviour of individuals, not around the income of their parents. We had a crude meritocracy, albeit a dysfuncational one where the most cruel and ignorant students were at the top of the social ladder!

There were, of course, differences of income in this region, and even I noticed that several of the more troubled boys came from "the estate" - the town's small council estate - but those boys had no lower status in school than the rest of us and outside school I noticed no clear upper, middle or lower classes.

Moving to Dublin I found a completely different situation, where whole communities identified themselves by socioeconomic class. Dublin's underclass were immediately obvious by their accents and clothing, Dublin friends talked about 'rough' schools and people joked about "skangers" and "knackers" (something like Britain's "chavs" - widely despised youth subcultures associated with the underclass). There were also references to wealthy "D4" (Dublin 4, the postal district associated with the high-income class) people and influential schools like Blackrock College. I was even astonished to see left-wing activisits calling for greater "class consciousness".

Class divisions carved up Dublin in a way I had never experienced before. However I suspect that class had more to do with identity than income. During the boom years of the early 2000s I noticed that formerly "working class" occupations related to construction were now earning very high incomes.

This brought me back to wonder if the social problems Pickett and Wilkinson observe are caused, not by income inequality, but by differences in status, differences which might even resist an equalisation of wealth. (I think of the contempt with which the nouveau riche are sometimes regarded - wealthy but still ignorant of the social norms of the upperclass.)

How does this cultural acceptance of the stratification of society into socioeconomic classes affect an individual's sense of wellbeing? I'm not sure, but two consequences seem plausible:

- a less stressful society, as individuals compete only with members of their own social strata and feel content even when they fail to rise to a higher class, since expectations are low.

- a more stressful society, where individuals distrust other social groups, high-status classes fear the lower classes and low-status classes enjoy no social mobility: the cultural divisions between classes make promotion more difficult.

Mammon
The earlier mention of high-status, low-income Catholic priests brings me to another point about the relationship between status and wellbeing: many of the world's religions urge the abandonment of wealth as a route to salvation. With that perspective, the status and respect afforded to the wealthy could be undermined.

The Spirit Level argues that low status individuals feel so bad about their inferior position that they develop poor health and harmful behavioural traits. Yet, without redistributing wealth or altering the differences in income, a simple shift in attitudes might change radically how people feel about their place in society. If a very low income individual can feel himself to be as valuable as the wealthy elite, must he still suffer from the social problems described in the book? Note that this shift in attitudes need not be religious, any world view that dismisses wealth as an indicator of an individual's worth could work.

Awareness of one's oppression must matter too. People who are raised into a very strict caste system and view it as being natural and inevitable, could be fairly comfortable within it. If one accepts unequal casteism as a natural or divine order, it seems logical that the obsessive desire to appear high-status would lessen.

The American Dream
Perhaps this gives us an idea of why the US scores so poorly in many of The Spirit Level's indicators. The US simultaneously has high inequality, low social mobility and a culture based on the idea that any individual can succeed - the American Dream. In such a society, failure must be difficult to deal with; low status an indication of personal defeat.

By contrast an unequal culture with a more conservative stratification might actually be less stressful. There, a miserably poor farmer, for example, can still feel proud of his very humble successes since expectations are already extremely low. Irish writer Dervla Murphy observed during her cycle across Europe and Asia in 1963 that some young Muslim women in South Asia had none of the insecurities and fears of their Western equivalents, since their expectations of life were so much simpler: an arranged marriage followed by domestic work and child-rearing for the rest of their lives.

Without necessarily embracing a new casteism, perhaps a cultural shift away from judging individual status by their income is possible, removing some of the stress of low income individuals.

That's a bit vague, of course, and manipulating culture is extremely difficult. But it is worth questioning The Spirit Level's assumption that income and status are one, that the end of income inequality will end status inequality. There could be much cheaper solutions - no change in money necessary.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Spirit Level vs Robert Putnam

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level repeatedly references the work of American political scientist Robert Putnam, who argued that ethnic and cultural diversity within a society leads to a series of major social problems. Pickett and Wilkinson, however, deal with his views of inequality ("income diversity", I suppose it could be called) rather than ethnic diversity.

So I emailed Professor Putnam and asked him if he agreed with their use of his work. He replied:

I have a mixed view about the Spirit Level. On the one hand, I believe that inequality is bad for society in many ways, just as that book argues. On the other hand, Pickett and Williamson’s work has been heavily (and I believe correctly) criticized as methodologically flawed. (For example, they don’t really show that the relationship between inequality and other bad things is causal, though they assume it is.) I hope that they (or others) will pursue that basic hypothesis in ways that are more scientifically persuasive.

So neither support nor condemnation for the work. This is similar to my own sense that much of their argument about inequality being harmful feels intuitively correct, but that their numbers and examples are often questionable.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Does Justice system discriminate against men?

In most developed countries men can look forward to higher incomes than women, and a greater chance at ending up running the country.

But men also experience less well known disadvantages, particularly those men who come in contact with the Justice system.

It starts with sexual discrimination by police in "stop and search" events, when police search members of the public on suspicion of carrying some illegal substance. Police are strongly biased towards searching males, a discrimination that goes largely unmentioned as John Staddon of Duke University explains:

Age and sex profiling are essentially universal: police rarely stop women or old men; young males are favored. The reason is simple. Statistics in all countries show that a young man is much more likely to have engaged in criminal acts, particularly violent acts, than a woman or an older man. The same argument is sometimes advanced for racial profiling, stopping African-American drivers, or airline passengers of Arab appearance, more frequently than whites or Asians, for example, but in this context it is politically controversial.
As Staddon points out, the logic is obvious: since more men committ crimes than women it makes sense to disproportionately target men. When this logic is applied to racial groups, however, there is outrage, so that Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission complained vehemently last year about racial discrimination in stop and search events, while leaving the discrimination against men unmentioned.

Supposing, though, that a man is indeed guilty, is arrested for a crime and faces a court. In the UK the discrimination will continue, according to a 1997 Home Office report:

Women shoplifters were less likely than comparable males to receive a prison sentence. They were also more likely to be sentenced to a community penalty or to be discharged....

Men and women stood an equal chance of going to prison for a first violent offence. However among repeat offenders women were less likely to receive a custodial sentence.

Women first offenders were significantly less likely than equivalent men to receive a prison sentence for a drug offence, but recidivists were equally likely to go to prison.

Among first and repeat offenders, women convicted of violence and drug offences were always more likely to be discharged and men more likely to be fined.

This report continued that a 1995 survey of British magistrates showed them to view female criminals with greater sympathy than male criminals. Females were given sentences aimed at helping them lead law-abiding lives, rather than punishing them for their crimes.

This trend appears to have continued since the 1990s. Andrew Ashworth's Sentencing and Criminal Justice shows that 22% of adult women received discharges for indictable offences in 2006, compared with only 12% of adult men.

The US has a similar experience. A 2010 report by Victor Streib at Ohio University pointed out that women make up a disproportionately low number of death row inmates:

(1) Women account for about 10.0% of murder arrests annually;
(2) Women account for only 2.0% (167 / 8,292) of death sentences imposed at the trial level;
(3) Women account for only 1.7% (55 / 3,261) of persons presently on death row; and
(4) Women account for only 1.0.% (12 / 1,232) of persons actually executed in this modern era.

Since 1632 there are only 569 recorded executions of females in the US or its colonial predecessor, out of around 20,000 total executions. Since 1900 only 0.6% of all executions were of females. Streib goes into greater detail in other articles:

It appears that female offenders have always been treated differently from male offenders in the death penalty system, sometimes for reasons that are easily justifiable but too often simply because of sex bias.

Streib suggests two reasons for the disparity:

Obvious examples are using the felony murder rule and a past record of violent crime in considering the death sentence, both of which are more likely to put a man on death row than a woman, albeit perhaps for good reason. The second source of differential treatment may be subconscious, but certainly it is not benign. Examples here are assumptions that women who kill are more likely than men who kill to have been acting under emotional disturbance or under the domination of their co-felons.

In other words, at least some of the disparity comes from sexism, from different assumptions about the behaviour and motivations of men and women. He notes the "greater ability of almost all women to manifest their emotional side" than men in court, helping defence teams to present female killers as victims of emotional disturbance or duress.

Sexism, then, is a double-edged sword, robbing male criminals of the excuses common to females: that they committed crime to help their family, or under some terrible emotional distress. In Ireland the sexual disparity in punishments continues after sentencing.

The biggest prison for men in Ireland is Mountjoy, with a daily average of 632 prisoners in 2009. The biggest prison for women is the Dóchas Centre, with a daily average of 110 prisoners in 2009. A report by the Irish Prisons Expectorate in 2003 compared these two institutions:

Mountjoy
...The first was of a system so old and seriously defective as to warrant immediate transformation or replacement as a matter of basic respect for the dignity and human rights of the prisoners and officers.... The sanitation facilities within it are deplorable and it is a disgrace that chamber pots (or indeed other types of receptacles e.g milk cartons) are in use with the “slop out” as part and parcel of everyday life.... The drug culture among so many of the prisoners is frightening.

Dóchas Centre
The visit to the Dóchas Centre provoked a response quite different from that which the visit to Mountjoy Prison engendered. The reasons are obvious: one moves from a seriously overcrowded regime operating in buildings more than a century and a half old to modern (albeit overcrowded) regime in new premises with state-of-the-art facilities.

Perhaps the very sexual stereotyping that leaves men in positions of political and financial authority at the top of society also exposes men to harsh discrimination at the very bottom of society.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Wedding Present

Just as a brief change of tone from my usual posts, here is a clock I recently finished and gave as a wedding present to some friends:


Made from burl elm. The points of the clock are actually drill-holes filled with little chunks of solder.


So there: a little shameless self-promotion!

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:

Latvia:
Poland:
Slovakia:
Czech Republic:
Hungary:

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.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Doubts about Equality

Early last year I wrote for the Irish Medical Times about the impact of poverty on health, exploring the large differences in life expectancy between the richest and poorest in modern Ireland. The correlation between wealth and health was such that I wondered if the best way to improve the latter was to aim at full tilt, hell-for-leather economic growth - to increase wealth as quickly as possible.

But several times while researching for this article, Irish health experts disagreed, emphasising instead the negative role not of material poverty, but of inequality, of the great differences in wealth between rich and poor. Health experts like Dr Jane Wilde, chief executive of the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, pointed me towards a new book by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

The Spirit Level argues that material poverty is highly detrimental to health in poor countries, but once countries become reasonably developed, continued economic growth makes little difference to health. Instead it is inequality itself, not poverty, that needs to be tackled. Pickett and Wilkinson then list a great number of social problems and claim that each is strongly correlated with the extent of income inequality in a given society.

Some of the ideas are intuitively pleasing. The authors argue, for example, that people tend to interact and empathise with others of a similar socioeconomic class. In regions with high income inequality, there are great sections of the population with incomes much greater or lesser than one's own, making it harder to identify with - and trust - these other groups. They say that unequal societies tend to have low levels of trust, suggesting that the social breakdown of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a result of the distrust caused by a highly unequal society.

There are a lot of important ideas here that I may come back to, yet I find puzzling weaknesses in Pickett and Wilkinson's analysis. The book is peppered with graphs comparing income inequality in various countries with levels of various social ills. Some of the measures chosen, however, seem doubtful.

Mental health
One section relates inequality to mental illness. The authors show a graph of developed countries listed by mental illness and inequality: equal Japan with low mental illness, unequal US with high mental illness.

Yet Japan has a well known problem with high suicide rates, almost double the suicide rate in the US. Pickett and Wilkinson address this briefly at a later point in the book, arguing first that suicide rates don't usually increase down the social gradient (most of the social problems they say are worse in unequal countries are those which lower economic classes tend to suffer from more than the rich) and also that negative impulses may tend to go outwards (into homicide) in unequal societies and inwards (in suicide) in equal societies.

Yet there is some evidence that suicide is indeed worse among vulnerable, poorer people, i.e. that suicide increases down the social gradient. In any case it seems odd to conclude that a society with very high suicide rates is healthier than another.

Yesterday's mood
World surveys by Gallup help us to see how insecure or content people feel in various countries. According to The Spirit Level, people in unequal countries have greater feelings of anxiety and unhappiness. Instead Gallup shows rather less obvious results. When asked if respondents would like to experience more days like yesterday, the most positive results came from the following:

1 Costa Rica
2 Singapore
El Salvador
4 Paraguay
Kuwait
Iceland
Guatemala
8 Ecuador
Panama

Yet most of these are highly unequal societies. Here is the list again, along with their ranking for inequality based on CIA World Factbook's Gini Index:

1 Costa Rica: 30
2 Singapore: 29
El Salvador: 18
4 Paraguay: 17
Kuwait: (not listed)
Iceland: 123
Guatemala: 13
Ecuador: 31
Panama: 12

A world map for this Gallup result shows that people were happier with yesterday in relatively unequal Ireland and US than in highly equal Sweden or Germany:

Other questions show vague results that don't support the idea that inequality increases stress, anxiety and unhappiness. When asked if respondents felt they were treated with respect yesterday, there are no clear differences between equal social democracies like Germany (90% yes) or Sweden (93% yes) and less equal peripheral EU states like Greece (92% yes) or Spain (97% yes):

Let's get more specific. Gallup asked respondents if they felt stress for a lot of yesterday. Result:

We see no correlation between income inequality and stress among developed countries. Cyprus has the third highest positive response for stress (56% say they felt stress a lot yesterday), yet they have the 18th lowest level of income inequality in the world, just after Denmark. Highly unequal Mexico is less stressed than the US.

Gallup continues with questions about boredom, sadness, depression, anger and so on. Few show the kind of correlation we would expect if inequality was really the driving factor behind these attitudes. In the case of anger, for example, unequal Portugal is far more chilled out than equal France! Likewise, unequal Americans were much more likely to volunteer time to some organisation in the previous month (43% yes) than equal Swedes (13% yes), despite claims in The Spirit Level that 'with greater inequality people are less caring of one another, there is less mutuality in relationships, people have to fend for themselves and get what they can.'

I have similar concerns with other indications of societal wellbeing. Pickett and Wilkinson use an "index of health and social problems" that correlates health with equality. Yet when I look at a particular indicator - life expectancy - compared with inequality in OECD countries I get the following graph:

There is only very weak correlation between income equality and life expectancy. Mexico is many times more unequal than Slovakia, yet Mexicans still live longer (or did in 2005, OECD's latest figures).

Since Pickett and Wilkinson focus on developed economies, next I zoomed in on the richest OECD countries only. I have labelled a few countries and coloured the dots to indicate GDP per capita (size of each dot indicates population size). Again we see weak, if any, correlation between income inequality and longevity.

Japan here is more unequal than most of the European social democracies yet has higher life expectancy than any of them.

The Japan question
This brings another puzzling point: Pickett and Wilkinson consider Japan a highly equal society while OECD's Gini Index shows them more unequal than almost any European country. This may be partly due to the authors' choice to use the Gini Coefficient for exploring income inequality between states of the US, but to base international comparisons on inequality between the richest 20% and poorest 20%. If both are useful indicators of inequality then they should show similar scores, so it is confusing that other studies describe Japan as a rather unequal society.

My concern is that Pickett and Wilkinson emphasise specific indicators that tend to support their thesis. For their thesis to be correct, we should be able to predict that increases in inequality will show worsening social problems of various kinds, but I can't seem to find these results in independent studies. If inequality causes social decline and violence, why do murder rates in the US dramatically fall during the 1990s while inequality continued to rapidly rise?
I will keep reading. There may be more to The Spirit Level and its ambitious attempt to explain the world. But since its claims are being taken seriously by influential people already, it matters deeply whether The Spirit Level is right or not.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bias in think tanks

Writing occasionally here about ways that media can, usually unintentionally, distort news, I was interested to see this article pointing to similar distortions by defence think tanks. Benjamin H Friedman gives five ways that think tanks may become biased:

1) Institutional funding: "If you take government or industry money, you will hesitate to undertake research that offends your sponsors."

2) Personal profit bias: "Many defense and homeland security experts, especially the most prominent ones, work for defense contractors or investment companies in that industry."

3) Ambition: "Those pining for jobs in the Obama or Thune administration are not going to tell you exactly what they think about Afghanistan without considering how their would-be bosses would react."

4) Selection bias: "as people that go into the international development business are likely to support increased foreign aid, defense analysts are more likely than most to be hawkish people."

5) Social convention: "...it seems impolite and for many people uncomfortable to swim against the tide. And we unconsciously adjust our political views to fit in with those around us."