Kenneth A. Mugi's Reviews > The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better

The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson
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Aug 01, 12

bookshelves: awesome, non-fiction, social-justice, economic-theory
Read on August 01, 2012

NOTE: For sake of brevity, I will refer to the book as 'The Spirit Level' throughout the review.

SUMMARY

The Spirit Level is an engaging and easy to read non-fiction book that explores the correlation between inequality and multiple social ills plaguing today's modern societies. Kate and Richard use simple to read graphs and lead the reader through a variety of potential analysis before explaining why they have interpreted the data their way. They also provide several potential solutions to the inequality conundrum and (in the new edition) provide arguments against their critics.

You can buy this wonderful book on US Amazon here: http://amzn.com/1608193411

INTRODUCTION

I've read quite a few non-fiction books over the years, but this is my first time reviewing one. Generally speaking, the mileage one gets out of these books, I find, is determined by your political leanings. If you come with an uncertain mind and intellectual curiosity, I think this book will add significantly to your knowledge. If you're already left / liberal / progressive leaning (as I am) then there won't be a significant disconnect between the evidence presented and your worldview. However, if you are conservative / right wing / libertarian then there is definitely going to be some mental barriers to accepting the theories proposed.

Therefore, the purpose of this review is not to say if you will enjoy it. I plan on outlining why I agreed with his data, if I enjoyed it and any areas that I found lacking for a non-fiction research book.

WRITING

The writing is crisp, clean and easily accessible to academics and the curious. Although, in saying that, I'm glad I did a statistical course at university several years ago so that I was familiar with statistical terminology: correlation and causation, outliers and so on. At the start I felt a little overwhelmed and had to wait until my brain recollected all the lessons that I tried not to sleep through about statistics before I could really get into it.

The structure is pretty simple: There's an outline at the start of what Kate and Richard intend to show and how they sampled the data, several chapters where they delve into the minuscule details and outline for each situation on why they believe what they do and then a summary. Part III is a series of suggestions for how we can get back to an equal society. That's technically the end of the book, but they've added a couple of sections to rebut the arguments made against them and then provide a link to their website which explains their position in more detail.

There's also an index and reference section. Essential for a non-fiction book.

I know that they kept it at a research level to stop criticism of halo effect and emotional manipulation but sometimes the theory is just too much. Talking about how equality decreases crime, for example, is a really good chapter but what does that actually mean? What does it mean to the thousands of people in jail and what does it mean to a person where a criminal is rehabilitated?

I wanted to know and I have no stories to argue to my parents. All I can say is, 'If CEOs earn less then we can live in a community of trust.' But what does that mean to them? What does trust mean in these other countries?

That's my only gripe. I really enjoyed the way Kate and Richard would talk about the other reasons for the problems in certain countries and show how these explanations doesn't correlate with the data before presenting their arguments. I think that was a good way to remove my questions, and also ensure that I wasn't tainted by their argument first.

STATISTICS and CONTENT

I've seen the other book on Amazon: The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left's new theory of everything by Christopher Snowdown so I looked for statistical manipulation and 'cherry picking' of data. I couldn't see any. What I mean by my previous statement is that Kate and Richard are very transparent (as most academics are) with their data and methodology. They list their sources (300 of them!) and explain why they did certain things (their methodology). As best as I could tell, their data sets conformed to statistical standards and they showed situations where the theory didn't match up to reality. (Always the sign of an honest academic).

The data they've used was collected from reputable sources and peer reviewed journals. They looked at cultural factors and discussed weak correlations. I mean, it's a theory with pretty robust models but if you want to check each thesis then you should look at their references. All the data is there for us to have an intelligent debate about. Why you would need to buy a book that contains an implied threat (and descriptive phrase) in the title to check it is beyond me.

I was impressed and the conclusions, for me, were surprising. I came in a believer that inequality made a little difference on my life and left with evidence that it actually makes a HUGE difference on people's lives. Before I read this book I thought that the only effect of having a class of super rich on society was that there was a class of super rich who were (more than) a little selfish with their money. I left wanting to change the world and give this to everyone who can read.

Their arguments are solid and the detail they go into refuting their critics is excellent.

BOOK FORMAT and PRICE

I bought this on the Kindle and paid $9.99. I don't know, I think that's too steep. I know academic books are priced quite high (traditionally around the $50 mark in Australia) but that's because they're big and the print runs are small. They're solid and clunky. This is a Kindle version. It's digital.

They don't lose any money by putting it on the web if only one person buys it or three hundred thousand, and this is a resource that should be the hands of everyone. For a book that talks about equality, I find it odd that it's priced above standard novel price. Shouldn't the idea be to get it into the hands of everyone? Isn't the idea more important than making a few extra dollars?

I gripe. I gripe. I just get frustrated with high priced business (and social-political) books because I read them and (generally) enjoy them more than novels.

However, the Kindle version is not great. Tragically. The pictures pop in at the wrong times, the headings overlap pages and the chapters are not correctly marked for chapter jumping and the TOC. When I tried to read the charts, it was incredibly difficult. I had to squint at the screen to see which states / countries were represented and where.

I think the paperback version will be a better read and I'm looking forward to seeing all the details in their full glory. Also, for referencing and highlighting, the Kindle is not great for academic books.

Don't get me wrong, I live in Australia and buying this at a bookstore will almost be impossible. I'm glad I could download it in a second, but for ten dollars it's not well laid out and is definitely lower in quality than its print counterpart will be.

SUMMARY

The Spirit Level, for me, is a must read for anyone who cares about society in general. I am looking at buying several copies and sending (at least one) to my local MP. The research is solid, the conclusions understandable and the referencing transparent. At the end I felt like this was the beginning of a wonderful conversation to be having in society. This is what I want to talk about with my friends when I see them next instead of my favourite novel. If you care about your kids, read this today and then think about it for the next week.
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