I’ve just finished The Spirit Level. In case you’ve missed it, this book has been making some political waves and so I thought that I’d pick it up to see what it is all about.
Essentially the argument made in The Spirit Level is a very simple on. You can find strong correlations between things that everyone would agree are bad (poor health, crime, an uneducated populace, low levels of happiness and trust etc) and income inequality. The book concentrates on developed countries and finds that the overall wealth of the country makes little difference to the health and happiness of its populace. Once you’ve achieved a certain level of national wealth becoming more wealthy won’t really offer the population many benefits. So if overall wealth is not important then the way that wealth is shared out is very important. The relative wealth of people matters more than the absolute wealth of people.
The authors Wilkinson and Pickett hammer home this message about the importance of income equality with a huge number of different examples. They write engaging and draw in qualitative examples to help explain the point they are making, but the overall power comes from the correlation of the various measures of misery and the level of income inequality. An equal, fair society in which everyone has a stake is likely to be a better environment in which to live than a society where people observe huge differences between their situation and that of those around them. They acknowledge that there are a range of different ways to achieve income equality, so Japan maintains a much smaller gap between the rich and power through the medium of rates of pay, whereas the Scandinavian countries achieve equality through a redistributive taxation system. However, both of these systems work in terms of creating the good life for their populations. The more you allow inequality to grow the more crime, the worse your health, education and so on. What is more this doesn’t just hit the poor it also hits the middle-earners and the rich. Equality is good for everyone it seems.
Wilkinson and Pickett have described their book as ‘evidence based politics’. The problem is that their evidence suggests that a fairer, more equal and probably a more redistributive society is what is needed to heal “Broken Britain”. There final chapter suggests some fairly radical ways in which this could be achieved through workplace democracy and share ownership schemes. However this is probably not a message that is going to play well with the right. David Cameron has apparently said some positive things about the book, but the UK political right are now engaged in mudslinging against the research and conclusions of the Spirit Level. It seems difficult to find a way to square the message of the book with neo-liberal parties basic beliefs. However will it be possible for them to just dismiss the findings of the book. Wilkinson and Pickett have found that equality works and also that subtly different political economies can produce quiet different political results. Perhaps their biggest finding is that politics does matter and that change and different political solutions are still possible.
What does all this mean for those of us who are interested in guidance? On one hand it is rather depressing as the ultimate conclusion of The Spirit Level is pretty structuralist. The likely outcome for individuals and societies is determined not by what they are told, but rather by the social and economic circumstances in which they find themselves. It is very unlikely on a reading of The Spirit Level that significant numbers of people are going to upskill themselves out of poverty. Political change is required if you expect to see social change. Career guidance is unlikely to be the factor that breaks the strong correlation between income inequality and educational or labour market achievement.
However there are a number of messages that might be of interest to careers workers in this book. The first is that aspiration is relative. We seek to be more like others and to ape their behaviour and achievements. Current society tends to emphasise the financial and material achievements and to centre aspiration around that. Guidance potentially has a role in challenging this version of aspiration (having more) and introducing alternative vision based on social impact (doing good) or work life balance (feeling good) or education (knowing more). Careers work may have a role in understanding things about the way the world works and in helping people to ask questions that improve their own understanding. People probably know that the world isn’t fair, but they may be interested in knowing more about how unfair it is or why it is unfair. Careers work has one role in helping them to individually circumvent the unfairness of the world, but it may also have a role in helping them to collectively challenge the unfairness. Wilkinson and Pickett’s call for workplace democracy might be one thing that careers workers would be more interested in knowing about and in directing their clients to think about.
Perhaps this is pushing impartiality a bit too far, but if the alternative is just to conclude that the current level of income inequality is likely to determine an individuals health, wealth and happiness more than their abilities or potential, it might just be worth the push.