Last night we had another one of those eye of the beholder Vincent Browne moments. To set the scene, there was a review of the Fine Gael Manifesto with the panel consisting of two folks from a Labour/Left background, at least Mary Murphy had the decency to be up front about being a Labour party member,and one a centrist sceptic along with Leo Varadkar. And they were joined for a review of the papers by the sub from the UCD equality studies department, Marie Moran, who is there when Kathleen Lynch isn’t available*.
The moment came from the inability of Mary Murphy and Marie Moran to understand that the primary cause of ill-health in those in the more vulnerable social classes might not necessarily that they’re in living on a low income. Leo Varadkar wasn’t arguing that it wasn’t a factor at all in their situation but that in many cases the opposite is true that people are in poverty because they have a chronic illness that limits their ability to work or earn with sufficient regularity to move out of this vulnerability. Vincent then took his bias out for a run, in that laugh it off manner of his, by stating that Leo suffered from the disability of having studied medicine which he had compounded by his membership of Fine Gael**.
The problem for Mary and Marie, and others who thought this was great gas and that Leo was having his ass handed to him on the plage, is that they are looking at a table of data and feeling that it has given them some conclusive insight in people’s life; when all it has done, much like wikipedia, is offer pointers to areas for further investigations. If you select a group on the basis of social exclusion and then you see a pattern of social exclusion that’s doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re seeing a pattern in the data, it could mean you selected the data on the basis of a pattern.
For those for whom the Spirit Level data is some revelatory uncovering, I would say this. I think it is interesting work but too much is made of what appears to be a correlation without there being a necessarily definite causal link. It might actually be that some societies have done better for other reasons, and as a result there is more equality of outcome rather than that they do better because of more equality of outcome in the society.
From personally experience, I did find it strange for example that Japan was included in the spirit level as beacon of equality, certainly the highest earnings in Japan don’t tend to be the same multiples as in the US but there is an enormous degree of social segregation and exclusivity to how the society works. To suggest that Japan is a fantastically more equal society than say Ireland is peculiar to my mind. But that’s what happens when you rely on looking at tables of statistics where people see patterns but ignore the fact that their select criteria helped create the pattern in the first place. People say that numbers don’t lie, but they ignore that there is often more than one singular truth and that the numbers might be telling only one truth and not the whole.
And part of the political problem here, and this is a point of difference for people in Labour and one the left and many of us in Fine Gael, is that it sees people primarily being as members of groups rather than as individuals as Marie Moran illustrated quite well at the end of vinb last night,
A core problem with this work is that it ignores the effect that social mobility over the period of time that relatively free education has operated and what it has done to various communities. In the worst of cases like in the UK with the Richard Boyd Barrettalikes over there, someone from a working class background who goes to college and makes a few quid is viewed as a class traitors as if middle class kids were the arbiters of who was and was not working class. I’m from a working class background as are most of my friends but most of us too are really no longer working class because we were able to make the most of the opportunities that were there with the deliberate assistance of our families. There are others who weren’t able to do so but it wasn’t because they were not well off. It was for a myriad of other reasons, none of which Mary and Marie appear to want to recognise because it would undermine their view that we were simply members of a group and not individuals with our own unique stories.
*I wonder after the Labour party manifesto launch if we will see two people from a right of centre background on the show to tag-team up on the Labour representative, will we hell.