Waylaid Dialectic

August 24, 2010


Ok so I missed Friday but here goes…

The Guardian covers recent criticism of Wilkinson and Pickett’s book the Spirit Level, while the authors have a page devoted to responding to the critiques.

Meanwhile, the British Medical Journal has a meta-review of studies of the impact of inequality on health. Summarised conclusion:

The results suggest a modest adverse effect of income inequality on health, although the population impact might be larger if the association is truly causal. The results also support the threshold effect hypothesis, which posits the existence of a threshold of income inequality beyond which adverse impacts on health begin to emerge.

On the subject of inequality, and following from my earlier post on inequality in Latin America, Arthur Ituassu has an interesting article at OpenDemocracy in which he examines the relationship between Brazil’s falling inequality and its rising democracy.

Speaking of democracy, Dani Rodrik a does good job of summarising the economic case for democracy at Project Syndicate.

And at VoxEu John Gibson and David McKenzie examine the economic consequences of migration, in particular the dreaded brain drain. Their conclusion:

Our findings question both the pessimistic view that high-skilled migration hurts development, and the optimistic view that most countries can benefit to the extent Taiwan, China and India have from trade and investment flows. For most countries, the first-order effects are mostly an individual phenomenon – individuals stand to gain a lot from migration, and the second-order effects on others are small in comparison and seem to at least balance one another out if not also be a net positive. In the absence of compelling evidence for massive externalities from their presence, we argue governments should not be so concerned about high rates of skilled emigration, but focus instead on the basics of providing the policy environment needed to foster growth and innovation at home.

On to aid, and a blast from the past in the form of a 1997 Foreign Affairs review by David Rieff of Michael Maran’s book the ‘Road to Hell’. No surprise to discover that people have been launching polemics at aid for a very long time. Rieff’s review is well worth a read both because, depressingly, many of the issues covered remain with us, but also because its evenhanded on the aid industry, criticising where it’s fallen short but also acknowledging the real dilemmas the aid workers face.

I wrote a while ago on the challenges for aid agencies when it comes to admitting they got it wrong. Meanwhile Johann Hari tries to do this on a personal level.

On Melanesian Politics, Phil Twyford writes of his time as an election observer in Solomon Islands, and in doing so provides a handy summary of Solomons politics.

And finally, Our Word is Our Weapon, one of the first blogs I encountered writing regularly about aid, is back. Or maybe it never went away and I just had the URL wrong? Still mostly only posting links; interesting links mind you…


  1. There are diminishing returns to expenditure on health… at very low levels you see large gains and at very high levels you see small gains. This relationship takes on the form of a concave curve.

    If you look at a society with two individuals, average Y is always going to be higher if the Xs are close together, because of the concave relationship (if I take away a thousand dollars spent on health from the richer person, that same thousand dollars will do a lot more for the poorer person.

    But this doesn’t really mean that there is a specific “adverse effect of income inequality on health,” just that average health is, by definition almost, lower in higher equality societies. We can think of other ways inequality might harm health, but I’ve yet to see a study that convincingly shows this.

    Comment by Matt — August 24, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

  2. Hi Matt,

    It’s been a looong time since I read the book but in The Impact of Inequality, IIRC, Wilkinson claims he has evidence to show a direct inequality –> to ill-health link, that operates above the diminishing returns effect you describe above. I don’t know how robust it is (not that mathed up) but it seemed convincing enough at the time. Also, I guess, the longitudinal study of UK civil servants that Wilkinson draws on seems like suggestive evidence (result being that controlling for lifestyle, access to health care etc people in lower paid jobs had worse health outcomes).

    Having said that, I think that even if Wilkinson is wrong, the diminishing returns argument that you use is actually a pretty strong one against inequality on its own terms.

    Sorry – rambly comment – late and I’m tired.

    Comment by terence — August 24, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

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