Is Twitter more unequal than life, sex or happiness?

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Undercover Economist

Bill Gates has more money than I do. JK Rowling sells more books. Katy Perry has more Twitter followers. Usain Bolt is faster. And I can only presume that Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, reportedly “the happiest man alive”, is more cheerful.

The world is an unequal place. Exactly how unequal, though, depends on what we measure and how we measure it.

Researchers concerned about the concentration of money in the hands of a small number of people tend to focus on the income or wealth share of high earners. In the US, the income share of the top 1 per cent has soared from 11 per cent in 1980 to 20 per cent in 2016, according to the World Inequality Report 2018. But in western Europe it has merely moved from 10 per cent to 12 per cent.

The top income share highlights something important, but it misses changes elsewhere in the income distribution. If you want a single number to summarise the whole distribution, the natural choice is the Gini coefficient, which varies between zero (equality) and 100 per cent (one person has everything).

The coefficient of post-tax income in the US is nearly 40 per cent, and has been increasing for years. This rise — alongside the increase in the US top income share — has created a perception that inequality is rising everywhere and by every measure. That is not true.

Globally, the Gini coefficient of income is a shockingly high 65 per cent, but it is falling, helped by strong growth in large emerging economies. In France, the Gini coefficient of income has been broadly falling since the 1950s; it is now about 29 per cent.

In the UK, the Gini increased sharply in the 1980s, but not since; it is around 35 per cent today. And as the website Our World In Data observes, the Gini coefficient was also much higher a couple of centuries ago in the UK, perhaps 50 or even 60 per cent.

So that is the story for income inequality. But the Gini coefficient can be applied to inequality in any set of numbers you like, from the number of storks in each country to the body weights of a family of hippos. For example: authoritative data on sexual activity in the UK are available from Natsal-3, the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Natsal-3 reports the number of opposite-sex partners we say we’ve had in our lives, and the number of times we say we’ve had heterosexual sex in the past four weeks. (It will surprise nobody to hear that men and women make rather different claims, so I’ve averaged their responses.)

Since I know you may be curious, I have made my own calculations, based on these data. For 35-44 year olds, the Gini coefficient of recent sexual activity is 58 per cent. The Gini coefficient of lifetime opposite-sex partners is lower: 50 per cent. Both are much higher than income inequality in the UK.

Nor are these figures driven by a few outliers with thousands of partners. When it comes to the bedroom, we don’t need to consider extremes to witness considerable inequality: many perfectly ordinary people have had only one sexual partner, or none, and many perfectly ordinary people have had at least 10. Bigger variations exist in income, but only at the extremes of distribution.

Of course, while one can measure income and sex using the same statistical method, that does not mean the moral or political implications are comparable. Most of us wouldn’t mind having more money, but it is far from obvious that we all want more lovers. Who has the time?

I would be pleased if the Financial Times decided to increase my salary, but unsettled if they set up a profile for me on Ashley Madison, the marital affairs site. And while the government can redistribute money, it cannot redistribute consenting adults.

There is more to life than money and sex. What about — well, life itself? Some people die young; others endure.

Researchers have computed Gini coefficients for longevity. The economist Sam Peltzman found that inequality of life expectancy has declined enormously since the mid-19th century. The Gini coefficient was then around 50 per cent in the US, because so many people died in infancy. It is now about 10 per cent.

Across the world — according to Jeroen Smits and Christiaan Monden — longevity inequality is just 18 per cent. Looking only at those who survive to adulthood, it is 12 per cent. Recall that the Gini coefficient of income is 65 per cent globally. Since life cannot be reallocated, it is cheering to see that it is far more equally distributed than income.

I have given into temptation in comparing Gini coefficients across domains. Such comparisons can lead us astray. Yes, Perry has a thousand times as many Twitter followers as I do, but Bolt will never be a thousand times faster, nor Ricard a thousand times happier — not according to the oft-used life satisfaction scale of 0-10, anyway. Does that make Twitter more unequal than happiness? I am not sure.

There lies a statistical lesson: measuring inequality is just a step on the road to understanding it. Or so a Zen statistician might say.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 August 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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Why big companies squander good ideas – a reading list

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Marginalia

My FT Magazine cover story tomorrow is “Why Big Companies Squander Good Ideas“, and I wanted to give some pointers to further reading, because I learned a lot and had a lot of fun writing this piece. (I’ll post the feature article on this website in due course.)

 

About innovation

The classic here is Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (UK) (US) – a book I loved and found compelling, but also has some tantalising gaps. Well worth your attention, though.

Then there is Joshua Gans’s The Disruption Dilemma (UK) (US) – this book places Christensen’s work in a broader academic context, in particular comparing and contrasting with the work of Rebecca Henderson. Lots of interesting case studies and the distinction between demand-side and supply-side disruption is instructive.

The seminal 1990 Rebecca Henderson article, with Kim Clark, is here.

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay on Xerox is a classic, and the New York Times published a lovely biographical essay about Steven Sasson, the inventor of the digital camera at Kodak.

Chris Goodall’s book about solar power, The Switch, is a must-read.

If you’re intrigued about what my colleagues and I were thinking about back in Shell around the year 2000, here are the long-term energy scenarios created around that time, out to 2050.

 

About tanks

The original spark for this piece came from reading The Psychology Of Military Incompetence (UK) (US). Not much of that book made it into the final piece, partly because I don’t really buy Norman Dixon’s curious thesis. But there are some amazing and tragic stories of error in this book.

Brian Holden Reid has a thorough biography of JFC Fuller (UK) (US), and Mark Urban’s Generals (UK) (US) has a chapter on him with some telling details.

And there’s also this more academic essay on military innovation in peacetime, by Murray and Watts.

 

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How can we resist the seduction of the mobile phone?

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Undercover Economist

On a recent trip to Venice I saw a striking sight. Of course, I saw many: the Ponte de Rialto at dusk, the ornate glasswork of Murano, the view over the city from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore, and works by Bosch, Titian and Tintoretto. Lucky me.

But the sight that has stayed with me was plain whenever I rode a vaporetto, Venice’s waterborne answer to the London bus. All around were people pecking at screens as they played slither.io or scrolled through Instagram feeds.

A few of them, no doubt, were locals who had grown tired of gawping at their own city. But on a weekend in high summer, my guess is that most were tourists. The vaporetto provided them with a magnificent view of a unique city that is neither easy nor cheap to visit. Yet they felt compelled to look away from the vista they had paid so dearly to gaze upon.

We are hooked. Our devices can, at any moment, demand that we focus upon them by flashing, pinging or even vibrating insistently against our skin. They are constantly evolving to do so more and more effectively. As a result, phone users in developed countries now spend about two hours a day pawing at their little blue screens — a big chunk of our available leisure time.

Recently, the big tech companies, most prominently Apple, have started to trumpet new distraction-fighting features, such as tools that track your usage or remind you to stop watching YouTube videos. While welcome, these features have been halfhearted and slow to arrive.

No wonder. Technology companies, notably Facebook and Google, make money by selling your attention to advertisers. The more attention they have, the more they can sell. There is a limit to how much we can expect them to help us regain control.

So, without letting the technology companies off the hook, the main responsibility for managing our attention has to lie with us. And there is plenty we can do.

The first and simplest principle: if you want your future self to do something, make it easy; otherwise make it hard. So, switch off notifications — of course. Make sure your phone automatically reverts to a silent mode every night, muting incoming calls and messages. My phone is silent between 10pm and 7am; a more aggressive muting might be better.

Set up your phone charging station away from where you sleep (although the London Fire Brigade says don’t charge it at night at all). This is obvious advice, but I can assure you it works. Your phone becomes less distracting without you needing to exert any willpower; I predict that you will recoup the set-up time within 24 hours.

Tristan Harris, a former Google designer and founder of the Time Well Spent movement, suggests taking things further — putting only basic tools such as a calendar and a camera on your phone’s home screen. He hides icons for distracting apps altogether: if you want to use Instagram, you can type “Instagram” into the phone’s search bar. This works because while the search is quick, it requires deliberate effort.

My fellow tourists, I guess, started by taking photographs. Then their attention leaked: they wanted to post those photographs on social media, and from then they slipped unthinkingly into games or newsfeeds. Using Mr Harris’s method might have helped.

A second piece of advice is to notice your own emotional state. On vacation I sometimes found it easy to forget about my phone. The exceptions were instructive: a (small) problem arrived on email; I felt slightly anxious, wanted to send a quick response, wanted to alert the necessary people, wanted to see how they had responded, and suddenly I was checking every few minutes until I noticed my own feelings and got a grip.

Third, keep adapting, because the tech companies certainly will. A few months ago I installed an inbox blocker, a simple plug-in which deflects me from my email inbox by forcing me to click an extra button. After a while I noticed unintended consequences had set in: I had hit a mental block while working, so I would self-medicate by going to check email, where I would be fended off by the inbox blocker and end up checking social media instead. The result: just as much distraction in a less useful form. I have now uninstalled the blocker.

Finally, use social pressure. Platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and LinkedIn turn reciprocity and fear of missing out into weapons. The most egregious is the Snapchat “snapstreak”, where you need to keep exchanging messages every 24 hours with a friend to keep the streak going. Some kids will do anything to maintain a streak — including giving out their passwords to let others message when they cannot. Adults may sneer, but only because our own phones are subtler in the way they manipulate our social anxieties.

The good news is that social pressure works both ways. Make a point of telling your partner, your friends or your colleagues that you will not look at your phone during a conversation, a meal or a meeting. Ask them to nag you when you fail — and to remind you to look at the view.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 August 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop. Yes, the iPhone is one of the inventions.

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