Dear oh dear

by Chris Bertram on November 23, 2005

Norman Geras has a little post on inequality today . I’m happy to report that Geras still believes that inequality is a bad thing. However, he can’t let the matter go without writing a few lines directed at those whom he sees as America’s detractors, who made a fuss about the inequality exposed by Hurricane Katrina despite the manifest inequalities of their own societies.

As if the issue was somehow absent before Katrina, isn’t with us continuously. Or as if it was an issue specific to America, and not a general feature of capitalist societies – in which the circumstances of many people’s lives are permanently of a sort that it would horrify others luckier and more privileged to be plunged into.

Well, yes, all capitalist societies are unequal societies. But they are not unequal to the same degree, and among advanced capitalist societies the United States happens to be a significant outlier. Taking the Gini coefficient as an indicator , the US comes in with a score of 45 with other “anglosphere” countries being closest to it among developed countries. Moreover the US does very badly compared to those other countries on measures such as the UN’s Human Poverty Index (17th out of 18 selected OECD countries in in the 2005 report (pdf) , p. 231). So emphasising America’s peculiar position is not, contra Geras, an indication of irrational anti-Americanism but a reflection of the harsh facts.

{ 99 comments }

1

Eric 11.23.05 at 10:35 am

Are you trying to convey the impression that support for the liberation of Iraq predicates against believing inequality is a bad thing?

Perhaps I should be happy to report you still think that inequality is a bad thing, despite your support for the invasion of Afghanistan?

You apparently only read Geras’ blog so you can attempt to smear his leftist credentials.

2

Brendan 11.23.05 at 10:41 am

My own personal view of the matter is that the entire ‘pro-invasion left’ are engaged in an elaborate plot to persuade us of the validity of the views of the ‘later’ Wittgenstein over the ‘earlier’ Wittgenstein. For example it is obvious that words like ‘torture’, ‘democracy’ and ‘intervention’, in their hands, no longer have the meaning i see written in front of me when I check them up in the dictionary. The only possible explanation I can come up with is that they are implicitly arguing that ‘meaning is use’. So that, for example, ‘we are intervening to bring democracy’ to a country now means ‘we are going to blow your country to smithereens, and then run it’.

Similarly. Geras describes himself as a ‘socialist’, even, Allah help us, a ‘Marxist.’. What could be possibly mean? His views don’t seem to be compatible with those of any Marxist I have ever heard of before, although I think Richard (Dirty) Desmond once described himself as a ‘socialist’.

Seriously though. He describes himself as a ‘Marxist’ although he seems to disagree with almost literally everything Marx ever wrote. What could he mean? Does he know himself any more?

3

anon@anon.com 11.23.05 at 10:47 am

Blackadder: He’s mad! He’s mad. He’s madder than Mad Jack McMad, the winner of this year’s Mr Madman competition.

4

Chris Bertram 11.23.05 at 10:52 am

You apparently only read Geras’ blog so you can attempt to smear his leftist credentials.

No, I read it for the music and the sport.

5

harry b 11.23.05 at 10:52 am

eric — I think that’s unfair to Chris. The issue is this: some of the pro-war left have been at great pains to make the war a kind of line inthe sand between them and other leftists. Many say very little about the other domestic topics on which we knew there was previously agreement between them and us (I speak as someone who had the same position as Chris on Afghanistan). We also know (or rather I do) that disillusion with the left on one issue can be accompanied by a willingness to re-examine and find fault with ones views on other issues. I disagree with Norm about the war, but have always assumed what Chris confirms (and what pleases me), that we are still on the same side regarding other vital issues for the left. But its not always obvious. I don’t make the same assumption about Hitchens, I’d add. In Hitchens case I don’t care that much, but I do care about it with respect to most of the pro-war left because, though I disagree with them about the war, I do not regard it as a line-in-the-sand issue. I have a real fear that the heat of debate within the left about the war will have lasting bad effects on its ability to have an impact on other important issues.

6

abb1 11.23.05 at 10:55 am

Like Zell Miller is the one and only true Democrat, Geras is the one and only true Marxist. All other Marxists moved too far to the left and became Michael-Moore-like hateful anti-American traitors.

7

Matt 11.23.05 at 11:04 am

I agree that Geras’s point is pretty silly, but I’m not sure the Gini scale tells us too much that’s useful for this particular case. Apparently there’s more equality in Russia, Belarus, and Kurgystan than in the US, but only a fool would rather be poor in one of those countries. (They are also not really capitalist countries, so of course Chris’s point that not all capitalist countries are equally unequal isn’t touched by this. My point is only that looking at inequality itself doesn’t yet tell us how bad it is to be poor in such a country.)

8

Chris Bertram 11.23.05 at 11:11 am

My point is only that looking at inequality itself doesn’t yet tell us how bad it is to be poor in such a country.

Indeed, though the Marmot studies (Status Syndrome) suggest that the worse relative inequality is the worse some absolute outcomes may be. Also the UNHDR and the related HDI (US 10th) and HPI (17th) can fill in some of the gaps. As Sen’s work (for example) shows, some US poor are very very badly off indeed with respect to really central human functionings (health, life expectancy etc).

9

Eric 11.23.05 at 11:12 am

Harry b,

While I agree with you about the issue of re-evaluating other positions (I have changed my opinions on free trade as one fall-out of the past few years), I have to disagree on your line in sand issue about the war. This is because the line is not solely about the war in Iraq, but also about a deeper schism about how to deal with reactionary threats to liberal democracy: even for some a deliberate blindness on the issue.

Personally, I am no longer willing to reach across that line to maintain a fictional united “left” any more. They can stay on the other side and either be consigned to history or wake up.

10

Michael H. 11.23.05 at 11:29 am

I’m glad that Matt point out the issue with the Gini coefficient. This is a really a nonsense metric. The Gini gets messed up by having Bill Gates and Warren Buffet even though their existence harms no one.

The issue is not “inequality” but poverty. And if we measured poverty in the same way that India does (fewer than 1600 calories per day), I doubt many people in the U.S. would be considered poor. There are more poor people in India than there are people in America. This puts the issue of poverty in perspective.

If we want to do something about poverty in the world, we need to support free trade. There is nothing that will lift the poor out of poverty more than allowing them access to our markets. And we benefit from trade as well – it is a “win-win” situation.

11

Chris Bertram 11.23.05 at 11:36 am

This is because the line is not solely about the war in Iraq, but also about a deeper schism about how to deal with reactionary threats to liberal democracy: even for some a deliberate blindness on the issue.

You entirely mischaracterize that division, Eric. First, on the war. Many of us, as you well know, had no objection in principle to the idea of overthrowing a murderous dictator, but thought the Bush-Blair plan of action was going to be disastrous in practice.

Second, the war is seen by you (and those of your ilk) as part of a global struggle against an Islamofascist enemy which mortally threatens liberal democracies. Moreover, to varying degrees, the Muslim immigrant populations of countries like France and the UK are see by those on your side of the “line” as a kind of 5th column. But this is an absurd fantasy. Despite the risk of more bloody terrorist attacks, there is no such mortal threat to the existence of liberal institutions to which we need to “wake up”. Indeed the main danger to democratic institutions comes from those who push for our basic liberties to be suspended (because they think we literally live in time of war) and who preach a constant mantra of hate against our Muslim co-citizens.

12

Chris Bertram 11.23.05 at 11:38 am

Michael H. I refer you to an early post of mine here at CT which quote’s Sen’s _Development as Freedom_ .

http://crookedtimber.org/2003/12/12/sens-development-as-freedom/

13

Matt 11.23.05 at 11:39 am

For reasons that Chris notes above I’d not want to go as far against the idea that inequality is problematic that Michael H would. It is important to see that a much more subtle and complex analysis is needed than just “inequality is bad!” but of course very few people who are considered egalitarians say something so simple. (Larry Tempkin might be an exception, but then his view is crazy for many reasons, not just this.)

14

Javier 11.23.05 at 11:39 am

I’m looking at the HDR and I have some questions and quibbles.

First, it says that 20 percent of the United States population is functionally illiterate. First off, it doesn’t say where it got the data, while it specifies where it got for each other country. And I wonder to what extend this measure is influenced by immigration from countries like Mexico. I’m not saying it’s invalid, but just some concerns.

Also, I’m skeptical about the income measures they include. Again, I don’t see where they got the data. Second, income measures are out of whack with the poverty rate, at least to some degree. I don’t know how the US stacks up when you factor in transfer programs, black market labor, etc.

The bottom line is I’m not sure how much this international comparison reveals.

15

almostinfamous 11.23.05 at 12:06 pm

michael h, i love the smell of macro-econ textbook bullet points in the morning.

“If we want to do something about poverty in the world, we need to support free trade. “

i believe we need to support fair trade, not free trade as the global corporate oligarchy wants to shove down our throats. because the poor can only afford a leaky boat and when the tide rises, leaky boats only have farther to sink.

There is nothing that will lift the poor out of poverty more than allowing them access to our markets. And we benefit from trade as well – it is a “win-win” situation.
there may be some truth to your first sentence, although what the poor need more is a system that ensures basic sustenance regardless of whether they have ‘access’ to ‘our markets’ or not. our markets do not possess the midas touch and do not guarantee anything(see leaky boat analogy above)

And we benefit from trade as well – it is a “win-win” situation.
we do not benefit from trade just because trade exists. if trade agreements and the like do not incorporate fair labour laws or proper environmental regulations as an integral component, “we” as in the entire human race will continue the race to the bottom that is already in progress using the prime examples of call centers, sweatshop labour, and other outsourceable jobs.

16

Rob 11.23.05 at 12:17 pm

Matt,

I know this is largely a boring semantic argument, but I don’t think Temkin’s an outlier. So far as I’m concerned, egalitarianism is a commitment to the intrinsic value of equality or, conversely, the intrinsic disvalue of inequality. That’s why it’s called egalitarianism. Caring about the bad effects that usually follow being worse off is not the same thing as caring about being worse off. Egalitarians have to care about people being worse off no matter whether that has any bad effects on them. I find that implausible, so I find egalitarianism implausible.

17

abb1 11.23.05 at 12:29 pm

The Gini gets messed up by having Bill Gates and Warren Buffet even though their existence harms no one.

Their existence harms a lot of people who might’ve otherwise benefited from the wealth these people accumulated for themselves. Every dollar in Buffet’s pocket is a dollar unpaid to a worker at a company Buffet owns, or a dollar overpaid by a consumer.

18

harry b 11.23.05 at 12:30 pm

Larry Temkin’s view implies nothing about what ought to be done, though. He thinks equality has some intrinsic value (and refers to other non-person afecting intrinsic values). He seems happy, though, with judgments about actions being such that person-affecting values always trump non-person affecting values (or at least, always trump equality). Is this crazy?

19

Brendan 11.23.05 at 12:30 pm

‘They can stay on the other side and either be consigned to history or wake up’.

Ah the ‘dustbin of history’.

Funny how those who are so quick to condemn others to that dustbin have, historically speaking, frequently ended up there themselves?

20

Eric 11.23.05 at 12:32 pm

Chris,

Don’t put opinions on me that I don’t have.

1. I do not see the immigrant populations of France and the UK as 5th columns (as the increasingly unhinged Melanie Phillips does) and have blogged along that line. I would suggest that the pro-war left have taken that line, despite what you would like them to think to fit your prejudices.

2. I do not preach a constant mantra of hate against Muslims, and my Muslim friend in Afghanistan would be somewhat surprised to see me characterised in this manner. In fact, she has very similar opinions to me on the issue of the reactionary elements in Islam – although hers are more strongly held given her current location and her commitment to rebuilding her country.

You also, rather touchingly I might add, have a rather naive view that liberal democracy is some sort of default setting which requires no defending in the face of threats. It is essential that we confront threats early, rather than allowing them to grow. If you are concerned about the effects of the current terrorism threat on our basic liberties (and you hide the important argument about the trade-off and balances in this area), then you ought to consider what the effects would be on Western societies in terms of basic liberties and our foreign policy if a nuclear bomb was set off in any Western city?

Why not fight a smaller fight now, while we still have a chance to ensure it can be used to bring security both to others and ourselves?

21

Chris Bertram 11.23.05 at 12:37 pm

Quoth Eric:

Don’t put opinions on me that I don’t have.

and

You also, rather touchingly I might add, have a rather naive view that liberal democracy is some sort of default setting which requires no defending in the face of threats.

22

abb1 11.23.05 at 12:38 pm

Why not fight a smaller fight now, while we still have a chance to ensure it can be used to bring security both to others and ourselves?

Bombing and occupying countries is quite a eccentric way to fight the terrorism threat. I like contrarian ideas, but this one doesn’t seem to work at all.

23

Uncle Kvetch 11.23.05 at 12:41 pm

Why not fight a smaller fight now, while we still have a chance to ensure it can be used to bring security both to others and ourselves?

Because the people leading us in that “smaller fight” are a duplicitous band of thugs, con artists, fanatics, and bootlicking suckups who wouldn’t know “liberal democracy” if it bit them in the ass.

24

Matthew 11.23.05 at 12:52 pm

Geras’s remarks are a bit strange really. Why does the quote:

“S]ome hope that the aftermath of the hurricane will force people to confront the issue of inequality.”

imply (as Geras says it does) that the person who wrote it doesn’t believe inequality existed before Katrina, or isn’t with us continuously, or is specific to America? The point is surely that it is with us continuously and was there before the hurricane, but wasn’t being confronted?

25

Eric 11.23.05 at 12:54 pm

a duplicitous band of thugs, con artists, fanatics, and bootlicking suckups who wouldn’t know “liberal democracy” if it bit them in the ass.

That’s the best description of Galloway, Pilger and his ilk I have seen for a long time.

26

Brendan 11.23.05 at 12:56 pm

‘You also, rather touchingly I might add, have a rather naive view that liberal democracy is some sort of default setting which requires no defending in the face of threats.’

Eric is of course here arguing that Venezuela and Haiti have to defend themselves against the US. He is a lefty after all!

27

and on 11.23.05 at 1:01 pm

Javier — for basic facts and figures, both pre-redistribution and post-redistribution, take a look at Timothy Smeeding & Lee Rainwater’s Poor Kids in a Rich Country (Russell Sage 2004). Or, for papers written to a more academic audience, see Smeeding’s articles from the past decade.

Smeeding mostly uses the Luxembourg Income Study, which means his data pertain mainly to advanced industrialized nations. This has its shortcomings, of course, but it also means that the comparisons he offers are of apples to apples.

28

Matt 11.23.05 at 1:09 pm

What I find particularly crazy about Tempkin’s view is not even so much that he thinks inequality _as such_, that is, independent of any effects of it, is bad (though I think that’s very weird, too) but that he thinks that many purely natural things that might be called “unequal” in some sense are also “injustices”. An example- two people are walking down a path. One steps in a hole and hurts his leg while the other one doesn’t. On Tempkin’s account this is not only an instance of inequality but also an injustice. I suppose we should be happy if the doesn’t think that this sort of injustice means we should do something [hurt the other person’s leg, maybe?] I don’t think he thinks this sort of supposed injustice is morally different _as injustice_ from what is normally called injustice. But,it’s also, frankly, a pretty crazy view to think this is properly called an injustice at all. (My knowledge of Tempkin mostly comes from reading some papers he presented at Penn a few years ago and talking to him, so maybe he has other more sane views, but this one is nuts.)

29

Uncle Kvetch 11.23.05 at 1:17 pm

That’s the best description of Galloway, Pilger and his ilk I have seen for a long time.

No! Please, no, I beg you! Not “I’m Rubber, You’re Glue”! Anything but that!

30

harry b 11.23.05 at 1:20 pm

Matt — we should probably go soemwhere else to discuss this as I think it is not what others are interested in! But, in the interests of time, I understand your point (Look at Dan Hausman’s paper about equality on the equality exchange, where he makes much the same point). Some days I agree that its wrong to call inequality which is not generated by agency unjust, but other times it seems entirely natural to me. Here’s the intuition contrary to yours. If we say that non-agent-generated inequalities are not unjust, are we saying that there is nothing unjust about leaving them as they are? At least I think the following: there are strong moral reasons to address those inequalities (which might get trumped by reasons concerning liberty, benefitting the least advantaged, etc, but are strong nonetheless). We might say that those reasons are not reasons of justice, and I suppose that’s fine, but isn’t that merely a semantic dispute? Or, do you think there are no moral reasons for addressing such inequalities?
(You can pprobably tell that I’m thinking about this and can’t quite firgure out what I think, so am eager for you to show me I’m heading in the wrong directon…)

31

harry b 11.23.05 at 1:36 pm

eric,

So you are drawing a line in the sand? Some opponents of the war probably do fall into the traps you describe. Personally, while most of my acquaintances oppose the war, only one falls into the category you describe (a person who is, well, not very thoughtful or well-informed abut anything very much); certainly no CT poster does.

This is a disagreement about the level of threat, and about how best to deal with it. Personally I think the threat has been exaggerated rhetorically by those who promoted the war and increased by their reckless actions. I also think that the perpetrators of the war in Afghantistan worsened the threat by pursuing that war without their eye on the ball (ie, I think it should have had more and better resources put into it, and thught that at the time, though with the tentiveness that came of recognising that I didn’t know much about what they were doing). I also believe that the threat is worsened by numerous US actions, not least its refusal to crack down on Saudi funding of militant Muslims in Europe (the 5th column is small, but owes its existence pretty much entirely to the actions and support of the Saudis).

So, where does that leave us? It seems to me that many pro-war leftists really enjoy recklessly mischaracterising anti-war leftists, and have much more interest in distancing themselves from the left than perusading the rest of the left of…well, anything (Hitchens is the most prominent example of this). It reminds me of the days when I hung out on the far left and most people seemed much more interesting in portraying others as sell-outs/looneys than in providing reasons for action. So, I often fear the pro-war left is simply on a ride into the arms of the right. That is why I am pleased to see pro-war leftists whom I respect (and there are many) reaffirming the principles on which I have always agreed with them (non-dogmatically, I should add).

32

Louis Proyect 11.23.05 at 2:05 pm

The main thing about Geras is his cynicism. A week or so ago, he admired Trotsky’s characterization of Marx and Engels “complete and ingrained independence of official public opinion at all times and under all conditions.” Now you don’t have to be a genius to understand that Geras was being self-referential. He too has an “ingrained independence” about the war in Iraq in clear defiance of the rest of the left and at this point a big majority of people living in the USA and Great Britain. This galled me so much that I wrote the toad telling him how shameless he was to quote Trotsky on this or any other matter. It is like Mitterand or Thorez quoting Marx in the 1950s to justify French control of Algeria.

33

jake madison 11.23.05 at 2:08 pm

michael h, i love the smell of macro-econ textbook bullet points in the morning.

“If we want to do something about poverty in the world, we need to support free trade. “

considering I’m actually reading CT right now instead of studying for a macro-economics final… this was absolutely hilarious.

34

John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 2:43 pm

In a similar vein, I was struck by Nick Cohen pn hte “middle-class left” a while back, saying

“I’m sure that any halfway competent political philosopher could rip the assumptions of modern middle-class left-wingery apart. Why is it right to support a free market in sexual relationships but oppose free-market economics, for instance?”

This seems to imply that Cohen himself
(i) has abandoned at least one of these viewpoints
(ii) never gave either of them serious thought when he held them

35

a 11.23.05 at 2:45 pm

jake – I’m not quite sure what’s hilarious about that statement. The single society which has done the most to bring the most people out of poverty in the past ten years has been America – by importing all those goods and services from China and India.

36

abb1 11.23.05 at 2:58 pm

…bring people out of poverty? Gees. Have you ever read a description of a Chinese factory? Go read something written by Charles Kernaghan.

37

John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 3:15 pm

Oops! Sorry about unclosed tag above!

38

Ginger Yellow 11.23.05 at 3:22 pm

I’m generally a fan of Cohen, even post-Iraq, but when he starts banging on about the left these days he really does go insane. What leftist believes in “a free market in sexual relationships”? What does that even mean?

39

John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 3:24 pm

“Egalitarians have to care about people being worse off no matter whether that has any bad effects on them. I find that implausible, so I find egalitarianism implausible.”

I can’t follow this at all. On the face of it “worse off” and “bad effects” mean the same thing.

Is “worse off” intended to mean “having a lower income”, and if so how would this have no bad effects? Look at the data on health status and income for example.

Or is something more exotic intended here, like that suffering is good for moral character?

40

Javier 11.23.05 at 3:38 pm

Javier—for basic facts and figures, both pre-redistribution and post-redistribution, take a look at Timothy Smeeding & Lee Rainwater’s Poor Kids in a Rich Country (Russell Sage 2004). Or, for papers written to a more academic audience, see Smeeding’s articles from the past decade.

Thanks anon, I’ll see if I can get my hands on it.

41

soru 11.23.05 at 3:47 pm

What leftist believes in “a free market in sexual relationships”? What does that even mean?

Is that really not clear?

A free market, in the abstract ideal, means as many possible decisions about what should happen economically are made independantly by individuals (one of those individuals being Bill Gates). The Ministry of production has minimal involvement, as do the Ministries of Health, Safety and the Environment, the Church, the unions, the military, etc. There is no voting and deciding, no balance of interests, there is production and consumption managed by a medium of exchange.

In terms of sexual and family relations, same same.

Now, there are worse things than a free market, but surely the absolutely core assumption of anyone who claims to be socialist or even just ‘progressive’ is that there are also better things, even if they are not entirely clear what form they take.

soru

42

Javier 11.23.05 at 3:54 pm

Actually, I’ve just run through Timothy Seeding’s online paper on American poverty in comparative perspective. One thing to note is that Seeding doesn’t rely on data about consumption patterns, he uses an income metric of poverty. Thus I’m not sure it evades the problem sketched by Nicholas Eberstadt:

In the Labor Department’s latest Consumer Expenditure Survey (2003), the average reported income for the bottom fifth of households was $8,201, while reported outlays came to $18,492 – well over twice that amount. Over the past generation, that discrepancy widened significantly: back in the early 1970’s, the poorest fifth’s reported spending exceeded income by 40 percent.

Unfortunately, economists and statisticians have yet to come up with a clear explanation for this gap (which is not explained by in-kind payments like food stamps or other assistance). The divergence may be in part a measurement problem: partly a matter of income under-reporting, partly a consequence of increasing income variability in our more “globalized” economy. But whatever its cause, it does drive home the unreliability of using reported household income as a benchmark for poverty.

43

Javier 11.23.05 at 4:16 pm

I should also note that this paper uses some of the only consistent data available on consumption patterns and finds that consumption inequality has barely increased in the past 30 years in the United States. Thus for some reason earnings inequality has not been tracked by consumption inequality. It might be that the relative poor are putting in more hours to compensate for growing wage inequality or perhaps there’s some other explanation.

44

Uncle Kvetch 11.23.05 at 4:21 pm

Thus for some reason earnings inequality has not been tracked by consumption inequality.

Could increasing household debt account for some of the discrepancy?

45

Javier 11.23.05 at 4:24 pm

Could increasing household debt account for some of the discrepancy?

It could well be. I haven’t seen much evidence for it, but it sounds plausible that greater access to credit markets is driving the disparity.

46

Uncle Kvetch 11.23.05 at 4:49 pm

I don’t know about evidence specific to the poorest Americans, but hasn’t the increase in household spending outstripped that of income in the US overall, over the past several years?

47

John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 4:51 pm

Soru, you’re quite right that “a free market in sexual relationships” is a silly way of putting things, but this kind of formulation is common among (some kinds of) libertarians

The claim that personal freedom and “free markets” are the same thing was discussed, and refuted, by JS Mill, and has been batted about ever since. Cohen writes as if he has just discovered it.

48

Daniel 11.23.05 at 5:30 pm

I don’t understand what the Eric/Chris controversy is about here. Chris made a fairly simple point; that Norman G was saying some fairly odd things about inequality in the USA (in particular, he was claiming it was unreasonable to suggest that the USA had worse inequality than other OECD countries, which it does). I don’t think it’s unreasonable to surmise that Norm was saying this because he has become more sympathetic to George W Bush than he might otherwise have been, because of the war. If your views on the war have led you to be more inclined to agree with George W Bush about the subject of inequality in America, then they’ve led you toward the right and away from the left.

49

John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 5:33 pm

One point in support of the household debt hypothesis is the dramatic increase in personal bankruptcy since the early 1990s. About 1 per cent of the adult population now goes bankrupt each year. Whether this is sustainable in the long run is unclear, but it certainly suggests heavy reliance on debt to smooth consumption.

50

Ray 11.23.05 at 5:45 pm

That’s an amazing figure. Is that for the US or ‘the West’?

51

Jim Buck 11.23.05 at 6:14 pm

>As if the issue was somehow absent before Katrina, isn’t with us continuously

In other words:’The poor are always with us’–a curious sentiment for a secular socialist.
By the way, I’ve noticed, recently, that Normblog no longer links to Crooked Timber; a little more light has left the world, eh?

52

asg 11.23.05 at 6:37 pm

I clicked the comments thread here specifically looking for some howlers to cheer me up on this dreary day, and #15 and #17 do not disappoint. Thanks guys!

53

John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 6:43 pm

Ray, the figure is for the US. I wrote about it here and the stats are here.

The US adult population is a bit over 200 million, so 2 million personal bankruptcies per year is about 1 per cent.

54

Rob 11.23.05 at 7:19 pm

John,

the difference between being worse off and bad effects is the difference between their status in relation to others – in this case, not having as much of x as some other people have – and an absolute bad – in this case, not having enough of x to avoid some bad consequences. I hope that helps.

On the person affecting thing, Temkin needs to be able to show not only that the person affecting view, i.e., that someone being better off – in the absolute sense – makes a state of affairs better, is false, but that any case which shows the falsity of the person affecting view relies on a claim about the value of equality to do so. On Harry’s point about non-agent-generated inequalities, it looks like to me that whilst we probably have an obligation, which might well be a justice based obligation, to assist someone who injures their leg, that does not have a relational status – it doesn’t matter whether or not anyone else has or has not injured their leg. For egalitarianism to fly, it at least has to make some difference – not necessarily a decisive difference, but some at least – whether or not the injury results in an inequality, and simply from the bare fact of the inequality, rather than any effects that flow from it.

55

BigMacAttack 11.23.05 at 7:35 pm

Adjusting for PPP the percentage of poor people, % of folks below a certain income level, is roughly the same for France, Germany, and the US. And either the same or worse for England.

The difference is that the high end of income spectrum in the US earns more than their European counterparts.

In the wake of Katrina, folks weren’t expressing indigination that the rich in the US earn more than the rich in Europe.

They were expressing indigination that so many people in the US had so little. Completely and utterly unaware that the level of material poverty in the US is the same as in France and Germany.

Our rich have less stuff than your rich is triumphant claim of non ignorant European Social Democrats. Not much of a boast. Hence the need for ignorance.

56

soubzriquet 11.23.05 at 7:51 pm

bigmacattack: I may be misunderstanding your adjustment, but it seems to me that you have it around backward. I say this knowing that I have limited information, and so am quite willing & able to be convinced otherwise by solid argument.

As far as I can see, the fact that the US has a `richer rich’ and an wider wealth gap in the population goes a long way to explaining why although the US is consistently at or near the top of GDP number etc., it is never a threat for that position in any reasonable quality of life index that I’ve seen. This doesn’t mean it notably low in such indices, just noting the looseness of correllation. Granted, q-o-l indices are tricky, but this is roughly what we are *really* talking about.

In the other direction, though, it is completely clear that income level alone is not a very meaningful comparison here. The social programs (in particular, health care) available to people at these threshold levels is really not comparable.

57

Shuggy 11.23.05 at 8:08 pm

Um, I may be misreading it but I don’t think Norman Geras’ point was intended to be particularly defensive of the United States in the way most of you are suggesting. Rather was it not the idea that we’re a long way from rectifying what is ‘deeply wrong’ about extreme economic inequality if it a) takes a hurricane for people to learn the extent of poverty in somewhere like New Orleans and b) if it is imagined that this is in someway a peculiarly American problem?

What leftist believes in “a free market in sexual relationships”? What does that even mean?

He was using it stylistically as shorthand for a very individualistic approach to sexual relationships that tends to make a priority of individual choice in sexual conduct, and specifically over the choice of partners, over any other considerations. I would have thought it unarguable that this has been the case with large sections of the left for many years? Elsewhere he has expressed the view that the old cliche about the left winning the social argument and the right winning the economic one is inaccurate; instead it’s the case that ‘individualism won them both’. The implication is that this is a bad thing because he believes neither can be properly described as left wing on account of the fact that this individualism runs counter to the left tradition of collectivism. I’m not sure he’s entirely right about this mind you – but I think that’s what he was getting at.

58

BigMacAttack 11.23.05 at 8:43 pm

soubzriquet,

What I am saying is this. Pick a threshold level for poverty. Say 20K US. Now adjust the income levels in France for PPP, a dollar buys more in France than in the US, so adjust French income level upwards to compensate. Add means tested transfers to both sets of income. (I am pretty darn sure that state provided health care counts as a means tested transfer. Actually US residents probably receive more non means tested transfers, US poor receive more stuff that is left out of the calculation.)

Now compare the % of people in France that live below this level versus % of people in the US that live below this level.

The % is pretty much equal.

The reason the US ranks so low in so many material quality of life indexes, is because this common sense gut approach is not used. Instead the indexes are based solely on income inequality. So because the US the rich earn more than the rich in France, the US has a higher level of income inequality, and ranks lower.

(There is also an implicit disregard for cultural effects when these indexes are used.)

Income inequality is important. But when comparing poverty between Europe and the US, I am extremely doubtful that income inequality is the correct guage. It might be a part, less than 50%, of the guage. But is used because the culturally Social Democrats must use it.

(Bonus points to anyone who can point out why it is pretty much the only guage used. Hint, think non flattering thoughts about conservatives. Darn liberal media is incorrect.)

59

hirvi 11.23.05 at 10:03 pm

bigmacattack:

“The difference is that the high end of income spectrum in the US earns more than their European counterparts”

Personally, I don’t care if the bigshots live on cloud 7 or cloud 9, but I do care if the less fortunate live below cloud zero.

Can it be a coincidence that English-speaking countries have relatively low unemployment rates at the moment, but at the same time occupy practically ALL the worst rates of child poverty in developed countries (as bad as 25%)?

60

BigMacAttack 11.23.05 at 10:28 pm

Hirvi,

Child poverty defined as income inequality or as
% living below cloud 0.

That is my point the % living below cloud 0 in the US and France is similar.

61

chris bertram 11.24.05 at 3:03 am

bigmacattack: Since the points have been made using not only income measures but also outcome/functioning ones your comments really are beside the point. As for those who claim that inequality doesn’t matter: it does, even on a purely instrumental view, when some goods are intrinsically scarce (positional goods), where the poor lack access to social networks that presuppose a certain level of income (no car, no access to edge city mall), and for political and legal equality. Obviously we could extend the list.

62

abb1 11.24.05 at 3:16 am

Inequality is not about poverty. Pretending that it’s all about poverty is a trick used by both conservatives and liberals in the US.

It’s about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s about majority of the population (85-90%) being robbed by a small group of plutocrats, as demonstrated here. So, enough about the poverty already.

63

Chris Bertram 11.24.05 at 4:29 am

Incidentally, there’s one marked difference between the two of the sources linked by “Javier” above.

One of them, Eberstadt, an American Enterprise Institute hack (and therefore nakedly a professional apologist for the leisure class and not be trusted) says that whilst income measures show growing inequality, consumption measures don’t, and draws the conclusion that there has been a hidden success in the war against poverty, one that isn’t showing up in the official stats.

The other source, Krueger and Perri, first

bq. document that, while the cross-sectional variation in wages and disposable earnings has significantly increased, the overall dispersion in consumption has not significantly changed.

(Like Eberstadt so far then …) but notice that

bq. households at the bottom of the consumption
distribution have increased their working hours to a larger extent than the rest of the population.

They then proceed to “assess the magnitude and the incidence of the welfare consquences of these trends.”

Their conclusion:

bq. We find that about 60 percent of US households face welfare losses and that the size of these losses ranges from one to six percent of lifetime consumption for different groups.

In other words, in order to maintain a similar level of access to the basic essentials of life, the poor in the US have had to work increasingly harder and longer over the past 30 years.

64

Chris Bertram 11.24.05 at 4:36 am

abb1:

Inequality is not about poverty. Pretending that it’s all about poverty is a trick used by both conservatives and liberals in the US.

Partly for the reasons given by me in #61, inequality is, also, about poverty. Relative differences in income can translate into absolute differences in well-being.

As for pretending that it is “all about” poverty, I agree that would be wrong. But the alternative isn’t “not about poverty” but “also” and even, perhaps “largely” about poverty. That is, it is possible to think both that the condition of the very poorest is bad because of their bad outcomes in absolute terms (health, life expectancy, general shittiness of conditions) and _also_ that exploitation-based inequality (which is what I take it you’re objecting to abb1) is wrong.

65

abb1 11.24.05 at 4:58 am

I think poverty is a side effect that often gets too much attention, that’s all I’m saying.

Discussion like this almost unavoidably tends to focus on poverty and at that point I feel like people are arguing about ethical and compassionate ways to treat their serfs or slaves or something. It’s much more about justice than about poverty.

66

Javier 11.24.05 at 5:04 am

Chris, the claim is that “the poor in the US have had to work increasingly harder and longer over the past 30 years.” However, I’m having trouble squarring this with some other studies on the distribution of leisure time in the United States.

First, John Robinson and Geoffrey Godby found on the basis of time diaries that the average American has gained 6.2 hours of free time over the past 30 years. Second, it seems that more educated people in the labor force have lost leisure time, while the less educated have actually gained it. Godby and Robinson has found that the “working” class has seen a more rapid reduction in working hours than people in the higher end of the distribution. You can find the reference here.

Also, we should note that “more working hours” does not always translate into less leisure. One time diary study, for instance, found that Americans work more hours than Germans, but Americans actually have slightly more leisure time after you factor in household maintenance.

I don’t think Eberstadt can be so easily dismissed. There is a genuine mystery about the consumption patterns of the people in the bottom of the income distribution which isn’t accounted for by more working hours or transfer payments.

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abb1 11.24.05 at 5:05 am

Side effect or a border case.

68

Chris Bertram 11.24.05 at 5:13 am

John Quiggin and Dsquared are better qualified to address the technical matters than I am (and John knows the literature). But I’m inclined to think that cross-country comparisons that focus on objective outcomes (life expectancy etc) are more likely to get at the truth than income measures.

On leisure time, I’m not sure what it means to say that Americans “have slightly more leisure time after you factor in household maintenance”. Round where I am, household maintenance is actually an important leisure activity! And my experience of time diary studies is such that I think we ought to be suspicious of them. (I remember one that purported to show that British female professors work, on average, 80 hours a week!).

As for Eberstadt, let’s just say that if the AEI (or similar) issued a study saying that 2+2=4, I’d start staring at my fingers, just to check.

69

Javier 11.24.05 at 5:32 am

Round where I am, household maintenance is actually an important leisure activity!

Here I would differ with you, and not for the sake of being contrary. I dislike household maintenance and would prefer to work. For example, I hate painting my apartment and find cleaning to be no fun at all. Anyway, you can find the study here.

Life expectancy is more interesting. However, it’s another measure that’s hard to interpret in large part because the determinants of life expectancy are still unclear. Access to health care, for instance, seems to have surprisingly little to do with it.

70

Chris Bertram 11.24.05 at 5:54 am

Just a quick skim, which is all I have time for at the moment, reveals that a lot of the difference is accounted for by the different incentive structures and, especially, by the way in which the German social security system directs married women away from paid work and into domestic labour.

I’m not sure how typical of Europe generally Germany is in this respect. Certainly, members of my family who recently relocated to Hamburg (from the UK) have been quite surprised by German assumptions about gender roles. My impression from this, and from other sources is that one of the measures on which the anglo-saxon countries do _comparatively_ well is gender equality both at work and in the home. There was a hilarious edition of WifeSwap recently, where a working-class British couple exchanged with some middle-class Germans. In the British family both partners worked and shared domestic labour and childcare, the German family was much more, um, patriarchal. All this is merely anecdotal, of course.

71

Chris Bertram 11.24.05 at 5:58 am

Life expectancy is more interesting. However, it’s another measure that’s hard to interpret in large part because the determinants of life expectancy are still unclear. Access to health care, for instance, seems to have surprisingly little to do with it.

Indeed. Though if “Marmot”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0805073701/junius-20 is right, income and status inequality has a lot to do with it.

72

Javier 11.24.05 at 6:08 am

I haven’t read Marmot, I’ll see if I can track it down. However, I do think that the claims of Richard Wilkinson and his followers are suspect. I don’t know if Marmot advances the same claims.

73

Chris Bertram 11.24.05 at 6:13 am

He does.

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Javier 11.24.05 at 6:34 am

In the British family both partners worked and shared domestic labour and childcare, the German family was much more, um, patriarchal. All this is merely anecdotal, of course.

I’m living in Germany right now, so I know what you mean!

75

John Quiggin 11.24.05 at 7:21 am

The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin et al provides an excellent comparison of Germany, the Netherlands and the US. The patriarchal features of the German model are not typical of Europe as a whole, though some other countries share aspects of this model.

76

Matt McGrattan 11.24.05 at 11:04 am

My experience of central Europe (the Czech Republic) is that Britain is massively more equitable in its distribution of ordinary domestic duties/childcare, etc. Most British women I know simply wouldn’t accept the division of labour that many in the Czech republic take for granted.

I’d imagine the situation in Germany is quite similar.

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bill b 11.24.05 at 11:10 am

I agree with Matt way back in post #7. Irrespective of one’s position on the Geras point, the Gini scale hardly serves to underscore the “harsh facts” as Chris would have it. China, Malaysia and Croatia all, according to the Gini scale, have a lesser proportion of their populations below the “Poverty Line” than does the US. Go figure.

78

soubzriquet 11.24.05 at 11:40 am

bigmacattack: I’m not convinced that the income inequality is the dominant reason that US rates lower in quality of life indices. If so, I would agree those particular indices are broken (but my gut feel is that fixing them won’t put US above countries like Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, etc.)

I am quite certain that the poor in Canada are on average better off that the poor in the US (notwithstanding native population, a complex issue). I would guess the same is true of the average, but without certainty, and likewise not true of the rich. Comparisons with EU countries are harder for me, as I haven’t lived there for any significant length of time. Canada vs. US comparisons have there own problems, of course.

I’ll have to do some reading to respond very meaningfully though, and that isn’t likely to happen very quickly, I’m afraid.

79

hirvi 11.24.05 at 1:28 pm

bigmacattack:

“That is my point the % living below cloud 0 in the US and France is similar”

Disabuse yourself! More kids grow up in poverty in the US and other English-speaking countries than in other developed countries. Check the stats – you’re truly rock bottom!

And in France they all have healthcare, whether they are above or below cloud 0. As they do in almost every other EU country, for that matter.

France has the best healthcare system in the world, according to the WHO, after very systematic surveys.

The US ranks around 36th best healthcare system in the world.

Why does the US tolerate this? – don’t they care about their people?

80

bill b 11.24.05 at 1:40 pm

hirvi, if you were a North African refugee and you could choose between the U.S. and France,… do you get my drift?

81

hirvi 11.24.05 at 1:49 pm

javier:

“I’m living in Germany right now, so I know what you mean!”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The man might paint the wall, but the woman will tell him what color, and when to paint it.

82

hirvi 11.24.05 at 1:52 pm

Bill b:

“if you were a North African refugee and you could choose between the U.S. and France,… do you get my drift?”

I don’t know what point you want to make, but in that situation I’d take France, of course.

83

engels 11.24.05 at 2:56 pm

Bill B –

China, Malaysia and Croatia all, according to the Gini scale, have a lesser proportion of their populations below the “Poverty Line” than does the US.

Eh? China is almost the same. Malaysia has slightly more inequality and Croatia much less.

But Matt made the same point rather more coherently.

only a fool would rather be poor in [Russia than in the US]

I think the reason people look at inequality, and the Gini coefficient, is that the question you allude to – “where would you rather be poor?” – is of very little practical importance. The Gini coefficient (unlike GDP per capita) is something governments have it in their power to do a lot about, just by changing the tax structure, so that’s it why makes much more sense to ask “why can’t the US be more like Sweden?” than it does to ask “why can’t Ethiopia be more like the US?”.

84

Daniel 11.24.05 at 3:16 pm

if you were a North African refugee and you could choose between the U.S. and France

depends … how black would I be?

85

Javier 11.24.05 at 5:28 pm

Nothing could be further from the truth. The man might paint the wall, but the woman will tell him what color, and when to paint it.

Touché

86

BigMacAttack 11.25.05 at 3:41 pm

‘Since the points have been made using not only income measures but also outcome/functioning ones your comments really are beside the point.’

Well, gee, Chris, if income levels are irrelavent, what exactly was the point of your post?

Denmark ranks 3rd in GINI and behind the US in life expetancy. I am pretty sure regression analysis of life expectancy and GINI amongst OEDC wouldn’t indicate a correlation.

Culture not GINI is what matters for that other criteria.

(Check out the adult literacy scores for the English speaking nations. You immediately think methodology or culture.)

The impact, if any, of income inequality on these other measures is vague and nebulous at best.

When comparing and contrasting the advanced capitalist nations what is striking is not the level of inequality, what is striking is how well they all provide for all their citizens.

Most ordinary people can see this without having to parse through this or that study.

87

engels 11.25.05 at 4:28 pm

The impact, if any, of income inequality on these other measures is vague and nebulous at best.

Bigmacattack – Are you aware that there is a pretty sizable literature on just this issue and it pretty much refutes what you are saying? This argument does not have to proceed by unsupported assertions. The impact of status inequalities on life expectancy is well documented (by eg. Marmot).

88

Javier 11.25.05 at 4:42 pm

Status inequalities may have a negative effect on health, but the role of income inequality is unclear. The two types of inequality do not necessarily track each other perfectly. In fact, recent research on the relationship between income inequality and health indicators has, I think, shown that the corrleations between them are weak at best. Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton, has a comprehensive review of the research here. For the United States at least, race is far more important than income inequality for health outcomes.

89

BigMacAttack 11.25.05 at 4:56 pm

Javier,

The very brief summary the data Engels links to claims as much –

‘The book argues that human hierarchies cannot be eliminated. But since their consequences for health vary vastly from place to place, the differences between those at the top and the bottom can be made smaller. It is possible to reduce the disparity in the lifespan of a boss and his workers. But how? Sir Michael suggests giving people greater autonomy and social cohesion rather than raising their pay or improving their access to medical services. In concrete terms, that might translate into fewer working hours or more flexible working. Those looking for a quick fix, however, will be sorry to find that job-title inflation—from, say, secretary to personal assistant—is unlikely to help.’

Which suggests to me that Engel’s familarity with
‘pretty sizable literature’ on the subject might not be all that great.

I think a much better argument for greater income equality is somehting like, an honest days pay for an honest days work.

Thanks for the lonk looks free. I hope have time to at least skim it.

90

abb1 11.25.05 at 5:04 pm

I think a much better argument for greater income equality is somehting like, an honest days pay for an honest days work.

Oh, wow, who would’ve thunk? I’m in full agreement.

91

BigMacAttack 11.25.05 at 6:27 pm

Engels,

I would also like to point, again, that I am not aguing that inequality doesn’t matter.

Rather, I am arguing, that measuring the difference in impact of US inequality GINI 45 vs French inequality GINI 32.7, on each nation’s poorest citzens is going to be next to impossible. That is what I mean when I say vague and nebulous impact of income inequality.

Again, these nations do a very good job providing for their citizens, I definitely think they can do better, I do not think the US is all that much different in this regard.

Abb1,

Well what is the weather like in hell today? Do you know hell’s zipcode? If you do, we could check with Yahoo.

92

abb1 11.26.05 at 6:12 am

It’s sure freezing here where I am, but that’s because of the damn Bize.

93

engels 11.26.05 at 5:48 pm

Javier – There is a well-established relationship between income and individual health outcomes, especially in the US (“free universal health care is for losers”) of A.

Deaton is disputing a more contentious claim, associated with Wilkinson, that there is a direct link between inequality and societal health outcomes, a contextual effect of inequality on the whole of society. If Deaton is right, his criticisms do not touch the first claim and they also do not settle the issue of whether there is a link (which could be indirect) between income inequality and societal health outcomes. There are other mechanisms through which this could arise, apart from the direct effect which Deaton disputes, for example, non-linearity of the relation at the individual level referred to above.

Bigmacattack –

The very brief summary the data Engels links to claims as much… which suggests to me that Engel’s familarity with ‘pretty sizable literature’ on the subject might not be all that great.

No, it doesn’t: maybe you should read it again. Do you have any arguments, or just vacuous ad hominem insults?

abb1 – Egalitarians do not have to choose between arguments for equality. Health inequalities are to me more obviously unfair than financial inequalities. Financial inequalities translate into health inequalities. This fact is important.

94

Javier 11.27.05 at 3:51 am

Engels, then you are claiming that poverty, not inequality, is the culprit for bad health outcomes? Or is there some other link? It is true that people who earn less income have worse health outcomes. But how to explain this result?

First off, do they have lower incomes because they are less healthy or the other way around?

Second, even if they have poor health because they have low incomes, what is the causal mechanism? It seem obvious that it would be lack of access to health care, but that’s disputable. Health care access has a very small impact on mortality or disability rates across entire populations. This paper reviews a series of studies which find this surprising result.

You might say “it’s status inequalities.” I would probably agree and add it’s also poor nutrition and less exercise. But income inequality in itself has a tenuous connection to these things.

95

abb1 11.27.05 at 7:10 am

But, engels, since you agree that financial inequalities translate into health inequalities, doesn’t it make more sense to treat the cause than the symptom?

96

BigMacAttack 11.28.05 at 12:17 am

Engel’s

The study you link to is about the impact of status not income on health. And the summary of this study concludes that status cannot be re-distributed and instead reccomends more autonomy for those with less status.

I politley suggested you were not totally familiar with the study you claimed irrefutablely demonstrated that income inequality impacts health. No, actually worse, I have made the context perfectly clear –

‘Rather, I am arguing, that measuring the difference in impact of US inequality GINI 45 vs French inequality GINI 32.7, on each nation’s poorest citzens is going to be next to impossible. That is what I mean when I say vague and nebulous impact of income inequality.’

Given that, a suggestion that you are not familiar with the data, is polite. Perhaps ad hominem but polite.

97

Chris Bertram 11.28.05 at 4:03 am

bigmacattack:

[btw: Is it really worth arguing with someone who writes about adult literacy but cannot spell “expectancy” and thinks “criteria” is a singular noun?]

As it happens the nationmaster stats have Denmark and the US tied on life expectancy at birth for whole pop. at 77. Nearly all other developed OECD countries do better than the US both on gini and on life expectancy.

98

engels 11.28.05 at 9:04 am

Javier – I agree that access to health care appears counterintuitively unimportant. Status (as mentioned) and education may be more important to health than income (in itself) in advanced capitalist societies. But egalitarians wish to narrow the distribution of all these goods and they are all very unequally distributed in the US. I think, though, that income is clearly connected to status, especially in the US, and it would be very odd to try to deny this.

Bigmacattack – I know Marmot’s study was about status inequalities and I clearly said it was. The passage you quote does not say that “status can not be redistributed”. Is it too much to ask that you read these things?

99

Javier 11.28.05 at 1:36 pm

I think, though, that income is clearly connected to status, especially in the US, and it would be very odd to try to deny this.

Engels, if this were true–or rather, if there was a clear and established relationship between income inequality and status (and assuming status inequality negatively affects health)–then it would have shown up in the data. But it hasn’t. From Deaton’s paper:

Mellor and Milyo (2001) use data for the 48 continental states from five census years, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, and 1990, and reproduce the strong hazardous effect of the gini coefficient on all cause mortality when only year dummies, the age composition of the state, and median income are included as controls….

The inclusion of controls for the average level of education in each state eliminates the significance of the gini coefficient and, once the authors include controls for the fractions of people in each state who are urbanized and who are black, the gini coefficient attracts a negative sign, though one that is not significantly different from zero…

If we recalculate the gini coefficients so as to measure only inequality among whites, the effects are further reduced, to 0.6 for men, and 0.4 for women, and only the former is (marginally) significantly different from zero. This result means that the effect of inequality on whites comes, not from the inequality of white incomes, but from the inequality between whites and blacks, raising the suspicion that the effect has more to do with race than with income inequality.

This should suggest that there are serious inequalities worth attending to, such as racial inequalities, but income inequality isn’t really one of them, at least insofar as we are concerned only about health. There may of course be other reasons to reduce income inequality.

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