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May. 11th, 2014 05:17 pm (UTC)
Hm. " 'Inequality isn't a problem'. It's about time someone said this." linked to a spectacularly stupid article from the Torygraph, the newspaper which recently published an article on "the squeezed middle", featuring a man who earns £120k and spends £45k privately educating his two children. The article argued against a straw man of totally uniform equality, even though it conceded "almost no-one claims that [this would be better]".

In fact, it's surely obvious that a certain amount of inequality benefits society, while too much is harmful. So we urgently need to understand where the tipping point is and whether some forms of inequality are more damaging or beneficial than others, but Lilico's article, being devoid of pretty much any evidence of intellectual activity, did not address this.

I enjoyed "The Spirit Level" from the left, and would welcome recommendations of a view from the right, but please, this was just embarrassing.


May. 11th, 2014 06:55 pm (UTC)
May. 11th, 2014 07:07 pm (UTC)
May. 11th, 2014 07:38 pm (UTC)
Rules 39 to 42 are relevant here:

I broadly agree with you on the 'straw man' point, although in economics a lot of reasoning works this way, and often to good effect. Sometimes it is necessary to strip out as many variables as possible in a complex system to understand the variables you are studying. If you were to say that this is a fundamental weakness of economics, especially macroeconomics, then to some extent I would actually agree with you.

And I definitely agree with you on the absurdity of someone earning 5-6 times mean income as being in the "squeezed middle".

I do think it's unfair to criticise Lilico for writing a simple newspaper article that is short and to the point and aimed at a general audience and not an audience of economics graduates. Lilico is a highly respected economist (which is more than can be said for the authors of The Spirit Level, who weren't economists at all).

It also seems a little unfair to refer disdainfully to the "Torygraph". The Daily Telegraph is hardly alone in being pro-Conservative Party. In fact at the last election only the Independent of the reputable print newspapers didn't back the Conservatives. Admittedly, there have been previous elections when it backed the party and most others didn't. In my Phligm Phlagm posts, I don't always agree with the article I link to, but I will link to a variety of sources if they pass the bullshit test and they're interesting. As it happens, I find the Daily Telegraph to be about the soundest and best-informed of all news outlets when it comes to articles on economics, together with (unsurprisingly perhaps) The Economist.

The book 'The Spirit Level' has been widely mocked for its sloppy methodology and dodgy use of statistics (it's easy to use a line through a scatter graph to prove the point you set out to make if you're careful which data points to include and which to exclude). And like I said, they're not economists. 'The Spirit Level Delusion' is the most famous rebuttal in book form. A much better work* arguing that inequality has bad effects is Joseph Stiglitz's 'The Price of Inequality'.

* Disclaimer: I've not read it, but I've read reviews from economists on both sides whose views I respect. Those reviews are somewhat critical, but at least he's an economist, albeit one whose views are usually in the minority.
May. 12th, 2014 08:44 am (UTC)
I think we're using "straw man" in different ways. You seem to be using it to mean "highly simplified toy example"; I'm using it to mean "easily-demolished argument which you attribute to your opponent in place of their actual argument". As an ex-physicist and a present computational neuroscientist, I have no problem with highly simplified toy examples!

I would never criticise Lilico for writing "a simple newspaper article that is short and to the point and aimed at a general audience", but I do criticise him for trying to turn the uncomfortable question "Is it bad if bankers can earn many millions in a year while their cleaners don't earn enough to feed & house their family?" into one he's clearly much happier answering, "Is it bad if some folk are rich?"
If as you say he's a respected economist, I assume he's not stupid, so is presumably doing this for completely cynical reasons. Hence why the article wound me up so much.

I'm surprised you criticise the authors of the Spirit Level for not being economists; I'd have thought epidemiologists were equally or more qualified to study the social consequences of inequality. But I shall add Stiglitz's "The Price of Inequality" to my PlayBooks; thanks for the rec. Have recently read Robert Peston's "Who Runs Britain?" and have started on his "How do we fix this mess?". The first made interesting reading although I felt it was poorly structured.

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