Understanding the evidence, getting into mechanisms, and making a contribution: Reflections on The Spirit Level (Why equality is better for everyone)

I read Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level in the same year that I started my MSc. It was a book that impressed me at the time; it was a book that put economic inequality firmly onto the academic and political agenda. W&P argued that once countries had passed a certain level of wealth, it was no longer GDP that mattered for the health of the country but rather the way that income was distributed within a country. Comparing rich countries with other rich countries, it appeared that more unequal countries do worse than more equal ones on many outcomes including health and mental health. Later in my academic career, I began to scrutinize The Spirit Level more closely. Armed with better knowledge of data and methods, it became clear that the evidence was weak. And I also started to spot difficulties in their argument: if income inequality is a proxy for status inequality, and those with high incomes have higher status, how exactly is it that equality is better for everyone, even those at the top? In this talk, I will reflect on W&P’s book and talk about some of my own research that makes a small contribution to the debate. I’ll get into some of the mechanisms and suggest an alternative approach to measuring status inequality.