Cato on inequality

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2006

Will Wilkinson emails me to push a Cato Institute forum on When Inequality Matters . I see that he’s also emailed Glenn Reynolds to promote the same. The paper being discussed is by David Schmidtz. Schmidtz is a serious philosopher whose writings I’ve read with profit and interest in the past. Nevertheless, I have to greet his opening sentence with some skepticism:

Everyone cares about inequality.

I care about inequality. But I suspect that many of the people associated with Cato and many of its backers don’t. And I’m pretty damn sure that Glenn Reynolds doesn’t give a damn about inequality. Since they are part of “everyone” Schmidtz’s initial statement is false.

(Generally, one wonders about the function of Cato seminars like this. Are they there for genuine intellectual engagement? Or do they exist so that Cato fans and backers can reassure themselves about the answer to William Graham Sumner’s famous question?)

As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust. I’d also say that inequality in some dimensions matters instrumentally because of its effects on others: material inequality can undermine political equality. But having given the quick, dirty and underspecified answer to Schmidtz’s general question, I’d like to pick at him on one specific.

He deals fantastically briskly (not as briskly as my last para, but still) with the whole issue of positional goods and the way in which relative disadvantage can translate into absolute disadvantage.

Schmidtz:

A final thought about equality as liberation. Brian Barry discusses positional goods, where “what matters is not how much you have but how much you have compared to other people.”[7] Capitalism’s critics once scoffed at the cliché suburban goal of “keeping up with the Joneses,” but Barry laments that, “The cost of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ thus rises in line with the standard of material prosperity.”[8] He says, “Social mobility has thus become a zero-sum game; working class children can rise only if an equal number of middle-class children fall.”[9] But this cannot matter, for it follows tautologically from the fact that income shares necessarily add up to 100%. Barry says “has become” as if he were discussing an empirical development. Not so. What Barry is lamenting is a property of arithmetic rather than of a faulty political system….

He continues:

In a race, equal opportunity matters. In a race, people need to start on an equal footing. Why? Because a race’s purpose is to measure relative performance. Measuring relative performance, though, is not a society’s purpose. We form societies with the Joneses so that we may do well, period, not so that we may do well relative to the Joneses. To do well, period, people need a good footing, not an equal footing. No one needs to win, so no one needs a fair chance to win. No one needs to keep up with the Joneses, so no one needs a fair chance to keep up with the Joneses. No one needs to put the Joneses in their place or to stop them from pulling ahead. The Joneses are neighbors, not competitors.

Schmidtz’s earlier paragraph certainly needs his later one. But even with its complement, it really won’t do. Some positional goods are the result of natural scarcity but many of them are not. Whether there are many positions in a social hierarchy, or few, and, crucially, what the rewards associated with such positions are, is not “a property of arithmetic”. Schmidtz suggest that doing well enough is what should matter, rather than doing as well as the Joneses. Sometimes I feel sympathetic to thoughts like that. Doing well enough is what matters to me rather than doing as well as David Schmidtz, to whom I wish prosperity and happiness. But taken together his two paragraphs suggest that he feels no qualms that the real ex ante chances of some children at achieving the nth position in society are much less than the real ex ante chances of others, through no fault of their own. That nth position is likely to be (contingently) associated with reward, with the possibility of comparatively pleasant and stimulating labour, with social prestige and with longer life expectancy and lower risk of disease. And, of course, much of that shortfall in opportunity to compete for that position is systematically correlated with a child’s class membership or racial background. And that inequality matters, and it matters because it is unjust.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Crooked Timber » » Against Schmidtz — for equality
03.10.06 at 10:53 am
אנקדוטות » לחשוב על הדברים קצת אחרת
03.11.06 at 7:25 pm

{ 110 comments }

1

Barry 03.06.06 at 4:01 pm

Nice. I’d also add that, IMHO, the more unequal the wealth and income in society, the more unequal the policies. We’ve seen government policies change to favor the rich and scr*w the poor over the past few decades; increasing inequality will accelerate itself that way.

Barry

PS – just to get rid of the inevitable libertarian arguments, (1) the rich won’t give up their power to get what they want through power; (2) the reforms needed to accomplish a truly libertarian society are, IMHO far more unlikely than a return to New Deal or Great Society liberalism.

2

rilkefan 03.06.06 at 4:04 pm

One has to look at the variance, but also at the mean. I take it conservatives claim that a wider variance allows a higher mean and hence a smaller population at the bad end of the spectrum. So they would in fact care about inequality and the unfortunate, just in a second-order way, which if it’s right is right.

3

mpowell 03.06.06 at 4:08 pm

I’d like to hear you elaborate further on your last claim. Do you really think its unjust that the children of the rich are better advantaged than the rest of us? I think that it is in many ways unfair, but not much more so than the fact that being really tall makes it a lot easier to make loads of money playing basketball. Specifically, it seems to me that correcting that inequality frequently requires compromising other more important political values. On a practical level, correcting for it completely is probably not only impossible, but might make everyone overall worse off as well. So I ask, when you say that inequality is unjust, do you mean that any political system that allows it to exist is unjust or that it is one factor among many to be weighed when considering what constitutes a just political system?

4

John Emerson 03.06.06 at 4:12 pm

“Everyone cares about inequality.”

What this means is that, in our political discourse, concern for equality has been institutionalized. In order to participate in political life, you must in some sense favor equality. Those who believe in a stratified society of the Indian, feudal European, or Old South type have to conceal their real opinions. (George Will is interesting ion this respect, because he doesn’t always try too hard).

Equality thus become an “essentially-contested concept” — you just argue about what the word really means, while agreeing that it’s a very good thing.

“Upward mobility” is a common proxy for equality. Logically, it can’t be a solution to the problem of inequality — if everyone moves up, relative positions are the same, but if only the bottom half moves up, that leaves no one to drive trucks and work in warehouses and mills. (Solution: immigrants.)

And everyone wants either fairness or affirmative action for those down below, but very few of those with any resources are willing to throw their children out on their own resources, with the same chance as the average person. (And of course, for there to be upward mobility, you really need maximum parental support to their kids’ success.)

5

Henry 03.06.06 at 4:25 pm

By a funny coincidence I’m just back from a lunchtime meeting at Cato where I was respondent to Glenn Reynolds who was presenting his new book, and upbraiding him for his lack of interest in inequality.

6

Will Wilkinson 03.06.06 at 4:37 pm

Hi Chris, Thanks for the link, and thanks for jumping into the conversation. Which is, by the way the point of Cato Unbound — to provoke conversation, and thereby promote better understanding, about important, potentially controversial topics such as, say, inequality. We’re glad you advanced our goal by registering your objections to some of Dave’s points.

Substantively, let me jump in. You say:

taken together his two paragraphs suggest that he feels no qualms that the real ex ante chances of some children at achieving the nth position in society are much less than the real ex ante chances of others, through no fault of their own. That nth position is likely to be (contingently) associated with reward, with the possibility of comparatively pleasant and stimulating labour, with social prestige and with longer life expectancy and lower risk of disease. And, of course, much of that shortfall in opportunity to compete for that position is systematically correlated with a child’s class membership or racial background. And that inequality matters, and it matters because it is unjust.

I think you’ll really find Dave’s new book challenging and worthwhile. I think he addresses a lot of what you’re getting at here.

I don’t understand the motivation for pounding the table and insisting, despite what Dave has argued, on the idea of “competing” for the nth position. Do you disagree with Dave’s contention that society is not a race, a but a cooperative productive endeavor?

If some people are unable to participate fully in that joint endeavor, they will likely end up with less than people who can participate fully. But the problem isn’t getting less (falling short of the nth position), it’s the inability to contribute fully and get enough. We need to help those people get a solid footing, so that they can have a good life. Right? If their footing is so unsure that they will suffer ennervating work, bad health, etc., then it is not good enough. But the problem then is not inequality.

Or is your contention that inquality in position, as such, is an evil, such that, for example, if the middle of the bottom income decile was a million per year, and the middle of the top was a trillion, then the harm and indignity of the millionaires at the bottom flowing simply from the fact of the giant gap would itself count as an injustice? Are you saying that there simply is no “good enough” bottom as long as the distance from the top is too big?

7

a different chris 03.06.06 at 4:40 pm

>I think that it is in many ways unfair, but not much more so than the fact that being really tall makes it a lot easier to make loads of money playing basketball.

I don’t see the connection. Having an inherent genetic gift for something means your involvement raises the “level of play” in that particular field. Being there because you have rich parents does not.

There’s a new documentary out that oughta throw conservatives into a Moebius strip-style loop. Apparently there is a school that takes inner-city kids from Baltimore to somewhere in Africa, where they are subjected to some serious, if not discipline then let’s say high standards.

So one kid who was on a straight course for a major in gang-banging and a graduate degree in doing time came out of that and promptly grabbed the highest score in Maryland’s statewide math test.

So for conservatives who admittedly could fairly cheer about this “privatized” education they better think about how much it really costs to get this kind of result – it’s being cancelled because of exactly that. For conservatives that think the normal carrot/stick is how you should handle everything – well, this kid wasn’t responding. It took again, the type of face-to-fact that only $$$$ can provide.

Finally, to the subject at hand: how many kids like this do we lose while the George W. Bush’s of the world stink up Andover and the Ivy League? And what is our long-term competitive prospects when we do that?

Think about the quality of basketball if only rich white kids got exposed to it.

8

a different chris 03.06.06 at 4:51 pm

Re will at #6 which we crossposted – this is why I support a full-blown effort to bring quality nutrition, health care, and schooling to every damn kid in the US (preferably the entire planet) regardless of their parents income, location, even if that income is drug-dealing and their location is usually in jail. It ain’t the kids fault, and there are some real gems out there that we’re missing.

Once they reach adulthood they should also have basic healthcare available, safe streets and plenty of public transportation so that nobody needs to take on the albatross of the auto to make a living. Oh yeah, and they don’t have to live next to a toxic-fume spewing monstrosity.

But that’s euro-weeny-socialism, and we can’t have that. So I suspect this whole thing is going to be “let them eat cake” rather than actually sitting down and giving a definition of “equality” that the public sector can truly work with and communicate to the voters, a definition that doesn’t care who has the plasma TV and the jacuzzi and who doesn’t.

Because anything that really would make sense will require taxpayer money, and nobody at Cato will ever accept that.

Worse, it’s goes against neo-liberalism that you can measure anything in any other way than money, so the Blairist-style “left” won’t be able to get it, either.

9

P O'Neill 03.06.06 at 4:52 pm

Is education a positional good? Certain behaviours amongst the middle classes really only make sense if it is, or at least has some significant positional component.

10

mpowell 03.06.06 at 4:53 pm

-a different chris,

When you differentiate b/w the rich kid and the basketball player by talking about raising level of play, you’re using an ends-justified analysis. But this doesn’t point to a fundamental injustice in inequality.

So if we could improve outcomes for inner-city kids, but only by spending large amounts of money, what has been shown? If your argument is ends-based then you still have to go the extra step to show that the benefit outweighs the cost. On the other hand, I think there is a fundamental value to equality, but it does compete with other political values.

John Emerson- you bring up an interesting point about immigration. And I’m curious, how would you feel about a society that sustained itself on low-income immigrant labor with substantial inter-generational mobility out of the lowest income class? Not that the United States is a good example, but is that a bad thing to aspire to? And if not, what about in particular is objectionable about it?

11

Jim 03.06.06 at 5:05 pm

Chris – I’d be interested in hearing you explain your theory of why inequality is unjust at some greater length. “It matters because it’s unjust” isn’t much more explanatory than “it’s wrong because it’s wrong.”

12

JR 03.06.06 at 5:13 pm

Inequality is not primarily about consumption, it is about power. The main thing a rich person does with his money is to control other people- directly, as employees, or indirectly, through his purchasing power. If you think a society of fawning servants scraping obsequieously before a handful of smug plutocrats is a great way to live, then inequality doesn’t matter.

The present state of inequality was presided over by Clinton, who did not care about inequality as long as the rising tide lifted all boats. His legacy was an entrenched elite that cares only about itself and controls all the levers of power in our society – the press, the political parties, the courts. It is now impossible for Americans to learn the truth about what is happening in the country, because all the avenues of information are controlled by people in thrall to wealth- either directly, by virtue of working for corporate interests, or indirectly, by being under the control of the political party that is controlled by those interests. Look at New Orleans and tell yourself inequality doesn’t matter.

13

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.06.06 at 5:26 pm

Some positional goods are the result of natural scarcity but many of them are not. Whether there are many positions in a social hierarchy, or few, and, crucially, what the rewards associated with such positions are, is not “a property of arithmetic”. Schmidtz suggest that doing well enough is what should matter, rather than doing as well as the Joneses.

I feel like I must be missing something here. I’m not an economist so maybe I am misunderstanding “positional goods” but my understanding is that they are by definition measured against what other people have and thus are by definition zero-sum. It would seem to me that talking about whether or not they are “the result of natural scarcity” is non-sensical. Some are physical goods. Some are non-physical status goods. But all positional goods are measured in “how much of the whole do I have compared to that of my neighbor” units. Measuring things like that creates a “natural scarcity” because the sum of the percentages of a whole must equal 100.

I’m sure if I’m wrong people will jump all over me about that, but rather than wait I’ll assume I’m right and deal with my possible misunderstanding of the terms later.

By that definition I really don’t care much about relative inequality compared to absolute wealth.

Simplified thought problem:

Generation A is composed of 10,000 individuals who happen to fall neatly into 10 wealth groupings measured in hypothetical monetary units (hypos). They are distributed 1,2,2,5,5,10,10,15,15,20,30. The total wealth of the society is therefore 100 and the percentage of the total wealth is exactly equal to the number of hypos held.

Generation B is composed of the direct descendants of Generation A (they neatly replaced each other exactly). The society created lots of wealth between the generations. The total wealth is now 1000 inflation adjusted hypos. It is distributed 9,18,19,45,49,75,110,125,140,190,360. Exactly one middle class and one upper class group gained positional share. Does that bother me? No. Everyone else is doing about nine times better than the previous generation. That is great. That is wonderful. I’m not bothered by the fact that the top ten percent is up about 12 times the last generation while everyone else is ‘only’ up about nine times.

My take on the economy of modern Western civilizations is that they work very well for about 90%-95% of the population. The top 2% and the bottom 2% bother us with certain things–the inter-generational very poor strike us with pity and some of the idle rich bother our sense of fairness, but the prime concern when talking about that is not screwing up the system which creates vast wealth for everyone and works pretty darn well for a huge percentage of the population. (By works pretty darn well I mean that if you are willing to work hard from wherever you start in life you can do well in a vast majority of the cases and for many who don’t want to work hard you can often do just fine.)

This formulation holds for the vast majority of the people in modern Western civilization. Some rich people seem ‘unfairly’ to have wealth and some people have been ridiculously unfortunate and can’t get out of poverty. But they really are the marginal cases. The conservative point of view, which is mine, is that you ought not deform the whole working system because of things which trouble you on the extreme margins. And if you want to try to deal with some of the things on the extreme margins you should never do so without paying very close attention to how it changes the way the huge working part of the system operates.

14

abb1 03.06.06 at 5:30 pm

Equality is a red herring, equality is not the issue here. The issue is thievery.

In the capitalist system there are workers and capitalists. Capitalists are needed to drive up productivity of labor, that’s their only function. Productivity goes up, additional stuff gets produced, workers get more stuff and capitalists get more stuff, everyone is relatively happy – inequality is a flaw, but not the fatal flaw. That’s the theory.

Well, in practice during the past 30 years the capitalists have ripped off all 100% of all the additional stuff produced – or very close to it. That’s thievery, pure and simple. Why should the workers agree to play this game? They won’t; the system will have to change or collapse.

15

Slocum 03.06.06 at 5:35 pm

And I’m pretty damn sure that Glenn Reynolds doesn’t give a damn about inequality.

That strikes me as a bizarre. Reynolds is promoting a book that, I understand, is very much about equality — namely the potential for modern communications to create a more equal distribution of power between the ‘Davids’ on the one hand and elites and their institutions on the other. Whatever you think of his thesis and arguments, this is clearly a main concern.

Or is ‘income inequality’ the only form of inequality that deserves the name? And is there no relationship between inequality in income and power?

16

John Emerson 03.06.06 at 5:35 pm

Mpowell: Past American immigration was a good thing, but the most recent wave of immigrants, mostly “illegals”, has coincided with a degradation of the status of labor generally, and there are a multitude of reasons why the descendants of the immigrants (now coming in at the bottom) will stay at the bottom:

weakening public support for education at all levels, a weakening minimum wage, weakening labor protections, fewer full-time permanent jobs and more part-time temp jobs, various anti-immigrant legal proposals, certain pro-immigrant proposals awarding second-class status, and finally the unofficial toleration of illegal workers **just because** they don’t have any rights.

17

FL 03.06.06 at 5:58 pm

I put a quick post up about this. It seems that Schmidtz is assuming that worries about positional goods can be dismissed easily because, hey, no one needs them. If, as I think is true, positional goods do a lot to affect [perceived] quality of life, it’s not enough to say that “doing well” is what matters, since doing well depends at least in part on doing *relatively* well.

I wish I could remember what Rawls says about envy. Anyway, is there more in the paper to address this? It seems like a pretty obvious point.

18

djw 03.06.06 at 5:58 pm

While I’m more or less on board with the positon Chris sketches here, I’ll second Will w/r/t Schmidtz’s new book on justice which (about half way through) is wonderfully articulate, clear and rich (not to mention maddening).

19

derrida derider 03.06.06 at 6:07 pm

As Amartya Sen pointed out, that opening statement would be close to the truth if it said “everyone cares about inequality of something” – whether that something is income, material goods broadly defined, opportunity or just legal process. The only exception I can think of is true fascists, who hold the welfare and/or rights of some groups to be worth nothing.

However I believe in the Golden Rule – that is, “he who has the gold makes the rules” (Marx’s subtle and insightful exploration of that insight is far the most valuable thing in his system). So I don’t believe you can sustainably reduce inequality of other things (opportunity, legal process) if you tolerate gross inequalities of outcomes.

20

Seth Finkelstein 03.06.06 at 6:08 pm

Quick question, to those more familiar with the nuances of philosophical literature than I am: Have any of the Cato-mites ever dealt straightforwardly with the simple proofs that e.g. racial or sexual discrimination can produce persistent, economically rational, inequality? The trivial argument that discrimination is supposedly economically irrational, therefore [fill in the blank], is seen in many popular discussions. I was surprised to see Lawrence Summers making it in his infamous remarks. But is it taken seriously at the more “academic” levels of these sorts of forums?

21

harry b 03.06.06 at 6:14 pm

Dare I point people to my and Adam Swift’s paper on this topic, “Equality, Priority, and Positional Goods”, forthcoming in Ethics, which elaborates on Chris’s theme at painstaking length?:
http://mora.rente.nhh.no/projects/EqualityExchange/Portals/0/articles/brighouse2.pdf

22

Chris Bertram 03.06.06 at 6:17 pm

Off to bed now (different timezone to most of you folks) so I’ll respond (where I think it appropriate) in the morning. But meanwhile I commend Harry and Adam’s paper (see Harry’s comment).

23

asg 03.06.06 at 6:30 pm

Have any of the Cato-mites ever dealt straightforwardly with the simple proofs that e.g. racial or sexual discrimination can produce persistent, economically rational, inequality?

Any helpful links on these simple proofs? I am aware of the point that discrimination is only economically irrational under perfect competition; I assume you are referring to something more substantial than that.

24

Dale 03.06.06 at 6:30 pm

Has anyone read Michael Marmot’s book, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity?

He says that inequalities, even subtle inequalities, of many different kinds-income, education, social standing, etc. all have real, measurable effects.

If this is true, then it seems to present us with fundamental questions about the kind of social world we want to construct.

25

Seth Finkelstein 03.06.06 at 7:18 pm

asg: From a very quick search, e.g. here http://sociweb.tamu.edu/faculty/fossett/courses/s317/discrim3_market.pdf
“Some Reasons Why Prejudice-Based Discrimination Can Easily Persist in “Real World” Labor Markets”

This is pretty basic stuff (which, again, is why it’s troubling that Lawrence Summers gave a version which wouldn’t be out of place from the level of typical net discussion). So, I’m curious if/how Planet Cato considers it at an allegedly higher level.

26

harry b 03.06.06 at 7:26 pm

Dale,
we make use of the Marmot findings in our paper, though I notice that Chris Jencks is giving a talk in Madison in a couple months wit a title that suggests he disagrees with Marmot. Too little time now, but if you search “Michael Marmot” on this site you’ll turn up a couple of discussions.

Glen Loury’s The Anatomy of Racial Inequality is very good on the issues about discrimination and eminently readable. I just finished it, and half-promise a little post on it soon.

27

LogicGuru 03.06.06 at 7:47 pm

Here’s why I’d like to see more equality: I don’t like lower class people. They bore me, make me uncomfortable and in some cases scare me. I don’t want to deal with them–I don’t want them around.

I don’t want to have to grit my teeth and ignore beggers at the supermarket entrance. I don’t want to have to deal with uneducated people when I have to make occasional forays into the Real World.

It is feasible with the available resources to eliminate the lower classes, to organize things so that everyone is substantively (not positionally) upper middle class–educated, comfortably off economically, liberal, able to make coherent conversation and not about to hit me up for money. I’d be happy, for selfish reasons, to pay for that state of affairs with my tax money.

28

paul 03.06.06 at 7:50 pm

rilkefan (#2) wrote: One has to look at the variance, but also at the mean. I take it conservatives claim that a wider variance allows a higher mean and hence a smaller population at the bad end of the spectrum.

For this view to make sense, I think you have to focus on the median or some other quantile, not the mean. It’s easy to imagine 2 distributions with the same median but onw having a higher variance than the other. For example, start with a typical bell curve, not a good description of income or wealth distribution, but one that most are familiar with. With your left hand, grab it right at the top. With your right hand, grab the right tail. Now, hold tight with your left hand, so that what you are about to do with your right hand does not have any impact on the lower half of the distribution. With your right hand, pull the right tail further and further to the right.

You have just increased the variance, and the mean, without having any effect on (those in) the left hand side of the distribution. The only impact has been to make the rich even richer than they were. They can now lord it over the rest of society even more than before, so despite the increase in the mean, one could plausibly argue that at least half are worse off than before, certainly relatively if not absolutely. It depends on whether you think that there are things in society other than absolute wealth that influence well-being, for instance relative influence and power.

What’s happened in the US in the last generation has been more akin to starting with an already asymmetric distribution, grasping it with the left hand at roughly the 90th percentile and with the right at the right tail, and conducting the exercise described above.

29

M. 03.06.06 at 7:53 pm

The simplest demonstration of where inequality matters is the courtroom: money affects the quality of your legal representation, so whether you win depends not on how much absolute money you have, but on how much you have compared to your opponent (including cases where your opponent is the state).

30

francis 03.06.06 at 7:56 pm

SH makes an interesting point above; an important measure of equality is temporal equality.

Before we all condemn the current american regulatory capitalist state, it’s worth recognizing that middle class ($40K /yr?) are far wealthier, in many respects, than any prior generation. They have access to unadulterated healthy food, clean water, health care and recreational opportunties, from travel to DVDs, that no middle class has ever had before.

That said, it certainly appears to me that a major change for the middle class in recent years, not shared by those above, is the increase in instability. Freedom from fear is an important freedom. Yet job losses, pension losses, and loss of access to health care are all on the rise for the middle class.

I’m an attorney, not a statistician. Perhaps my perception of stability for the post-war middle class is just a perception, not supported by the data. But it certainly appears to me that one of the great inequalities in our society is the degree to which the very rich have captured the vast majority of new wealth our society is creating, and thereby insulating themselves from the lack of certainty and stability that the rest of us have.

31

Tracy W 03.06.06 at 8:14 pm

The main thing a rich person does with his money is to control other people- directly, as employees, or indirectly, through his purchasing power. If you think a society of fawning servants scraping obsequieously before a handful of smug plutocrats is a great way to live, then inequality doesn’t matter.

Didn’t this only happen when the vast bulk of the population was/is really, really poor, or in a legally dangerous situation?

The various accounts I have read of NZ 19th century history and British early 20th century history is that when poor people had other options to get lots of food most of them stopped scraping obsequieously. (Some you want to grab hold of and yell “For heaven’s sake, your employer is lying her head off. Go get a nice job in the factory, trust me, she’ll survive a couple of weeks without a maid.”)

Once the stomach is full, and there’s a warm place to sleep, one’s attention can turn to things like working conditions. Including not having to scrape obsequieously.

32

Baal_Shem_Ra 03.06.06 at 8:17 pm

As someone mentionned above, whenever one speaks of equality, one must specify equality of what (and also how much equality is sufficient, as opposed to a very vague “more equality”).

But, if the goal realtes to “the real ex ante chances of some children at achieving the nth position in society” then I would expect people in favour of equality to want the vast majority of equality promoting programmes to be concentrated in the early years (which could most broadly extend to 20 years) with comparatively few adult life compensation for the imperfect effectiveness of early life equality programmes.

But I very seldom hear such proposals. Instead, it seems like equality of opportunity is so broadly defined that it’s really a fig leaf for equality of outcome.

33

Baal_Shem_Ra 03.06.06 at 8:21 pm

Sorry about the double post. Different direction anyway.

Abb1: What is the fatal flaw of capitalism?

“They won’t; the system will have to change or collapse.”
What policies would “change” imply? When you say collapse, are you talking about a revolution, another Great Depression, what? Care to make a prediction?

34

Tracy W 03.06.06 at 8:29 pm

7 – a different chris. You state that being successful because you are a rich kid adds nothing to the level of play. Surely that depends on how the rick kids get to be successful?

Let’s consider the military. In 18th century UK, a rich man could simply buy his son a high rank in the army. This obviously does not raise the level of play.

Nowadays, if a rich man was for some reason determined to get his son a high rank in the army, the way would be to hire physical trainers for the son, hire tutors in reading, writing, arithmetic, military strategy, logistics, personal skills, martial arts, set up situations where the son can learn leadership skills, etc. Consequently the Army would have a higher probabiltiy of getting a good officer.

The same approach applies if rich parents are getting their children into top colleges because they spend large amounts on extra tuition, developing leadership skills, etc. If I have a top-notch mechanic because her father collected sports and classic cars so she had far more opportunity to play around with engines, then I am better off.

35

John Emerson 03.06.06 at 8:41 pm

Tracy W: If there’s a cost barrier to entry, even if the cost is spent on raising the skill level of participants, as in sports, the level of play is not as high as if entry were available to all.

The winter Olympics are a pretty good example. Events like luge, bobsled, etc. are dominated by the very few people who have the time, money, and facilities access to train. If hundreds of thousands of people participated, the present champions would almost certainly fall back in the rankings.

36

liberal 03.06.06 at 8:52 pm

abb1 wrote, In the capitalist system there are workers and capitalists.

Nope. There are workers, capitalists, and landowners.

Well, in practice during the past 30 years the capitalists have ripped off all 100% of all the additional stuff produced – or very close to it.

Nah. The big thieves are the landowners.

37

Z 03.06.06 at 8:53 pm

I have the impression that the topic of inequality is vast, maybe even ill-defined, that is reflecting more psychological traits than real external phenomenon. But I do believe inequality matters and for a very simple reason. It seems to me there is good evidence that if people living together have widely different life experience (even if most are reasonnably well off) then sooner or later they will cease to identify themselves as part of the same society. This feeling might be a necessary precondition to a functionning democracy (democracy not in the sense “we have elections every other year”).

but the prime concern when talking about that is not screwing up the system which creates vast wealth for everyone and works pretty darn well for a huge percentage of the population.

A respectable position, wihout doubts. Are you sure you would still hold it were you in the bottom 2%? If not, would you agree that it cannot be a fair one? As for working darn well for a huge percentage, well a kind of huge percentage disagrees, according to this opinion poll.

38

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.06.06 at 9:44 pm

“Are you sure you would still hold it were you in the bottom 2%? If not, would you agree that it cannot be a fair one?”

Am I SURE? No. But I think the veil of ignorance doesn’t prove as much as people think. It is not at all obvious that a theoretical system which works very well for 90%+ should be screwed up to (hopefully) make things ‘better’ for the bottom 2%. And not even better, but ‘better’ in the sense of more equal. That is especially true if they are having material needs met which would be the envy of many poor in the world today or even the middle class of 200 years ago.

39

a 03.06.06 at 10:34 pm

As other people have mentioned two very important positional goods are: political power and access to the judicial system. Political power: politicians will give greater favor to those who can donate most. Access to the judicial system: e.g. buying better lawyers than the mean (presumably) helps one wins one’s case.

Sebastien: is this what you would consider an “extreme margin”? It’s seems me more a perfect recipe for creating a self-perpetuating oligarchy, with disasterous results for society as a whole in a couple of generations.

40

Jim S 03.06.06 at 11:01 pm

Of course the problem is that it IS NOT 2% that the system fails. The number is larger than that. Or have you missed the numbers on how many live below the poverty line in the U.S.? Keep in mind that the Cato Institute, where this thread started, thinks that they should live there without any government aid.

As far as Glen Reynolds’ book proving something about his opinion on inequality, his Davids have to have the bucks for decent internet access, the education to take advantage of it and the belief that they can make a difference in society don’t they? That’s a floor of which all too many fall between the cracks. Heck, it’s virtual canyons, not cracks if you look at the real numbers.

41

Bruce Baugh 03.06.06 at 11:10 pm

A system which has declining real wages for large swaths of the population, for decades on end, punctuated by a very few years of a single administration, seems like it’s not making things better for lots of folks. Likewise one with increasing wage uncertainty, right at the same time necessary costs like health care are rising way beyond inflation, let alone real wages. And the more that folks are told they should be grateful and that of course nobody’s ever entitled to better, the worse the eventual showdowns will be.

42

Sailorcurt 03.06.06 at 11:16 pm

I don’t see the connection. Having an inherent genetic gift for something means your involvement raises the “level of play” in that particular field. Being there because you have rich parents does not.

So inheriting genetic traits from your parents is “fair” but inheriting money is not? The connection is that some people are lucky enough to be born into advantageous circumstances…whether genetically or financially is irrelevant.

And you are, of course, assuming that any genetic traits that may have enabled the parents to become rich have not been passed on to the child.

There’s a new documentary out that oughta throw conservatives into a Moebius strip-style loop. Apparently there is a school that takes inner-city kids from Baltimore to somewhere in Africa, where they are subjected to some serious, if not discipline then let’s say high standards.

And why exactly is it that schools cannot impose high standards in Baltimore? Why does imposing high standards involve shipping the kids off to Africa? Oh…I bet the NEA doesn’t hold sway over education in Africa does it? I guess I answered my own question. When a school system can’t even hold teachers to minimal standards without being sued by the union, why would anyone expect to be able to hold students to standards?

43

Dave B. 03.06.06 at 11:20 pm

The scope of this conversation, apparently accepted by both sides, appears to be limited to developed societies, which constitute a relatively wealthy minority of the world’s population. As the most extreme examples of inequality exist between developed societies and developing ones, this would seem to be a serious oversight. The system does not work very well for 90% + of the global population when 1 billion live on $1/day or less and millions die every year of sheer poverty.

Perhaps the assumption is that the arguments work more or less the same whether applied within a country or on a global scale. But the boundaries between countries–cultural, legal, and (less importantly) physical–are sufficiently nonporous to weaken this assumption in the real world. Wealthy countries stay wealthy and poor ones stay poor, relative to each other. Things have gotten better for many people around the planet, but the problem of the massive number (1-3 billion, depending where you draw the poverty line) of people for whom things have not gotten better deserves more attention than it has received here.

44

Z 03.06.06 at 11:23 pm

@Sebastian,
I am not summoning an abstract veil of ignorance, I am considering a very well-known situation. I, for one, wouldn’t want to live the life of the bottom 2% (or probably even bottom 15-20%) of the US (where I reckon you live) or France (my home country). Now it might be true that I would still be richer than the majority of the world population but I believe that this is absolutely not an argument. Presumably, you are in favor of freedom of speech. Suppose suddenly your government should say “starting today, free speech is ok except when it comes to the national economy.” Well, you would still be having much more freedom of speech than the majority of the world population and yet I suspect you would not be too happy. Besides, an important hypothesis in your argument seems to be that the “system works very well for 90%” of the population. Well, as I have pointed out earlier, this is not what 90% of the population seems to think (in the case of the US, but other countries would probaby yield comparable figures).

But back on topic. Do you Sebastian agree with the idea that members of an exaggeratedly unequal society are liable to cease to see themselves as part of the same society (please note than I am note restricting myself to income inequalities, cultural ones, as in say access to education, are part of my rationale)? Do you agree that considering oneself part of a common society is an important condition for a functioning democracy? I am not saying that these are obvious ideas, I am just wondering if you would agree with them.

45

abb1 03.07.06 at 3:06 am

What is the fatal flaw of capitalism?

I don’t think there is a fatal flaw. Assuming democratic political system and organized workforce it should eventually evolve into some kind of scandinavian-style workers’ paradise.

The US model has obvious flaws: the workforce is not unionized, political power is concentrated in the hands of capitalists (or “owners”, whatever). So, the capitalists receive all the benefits of the economic system, like I said. So, many workers in the bottom have no incentive to participate. So, what you get is the highest rate of incarceration in the world; something like 2% of the workforce; repression.

This can go on for a long time if the softer wing of the capitalist party (“the Democrats”) prevail; they use appeasement. The other wing (“the Republicans”) use repression and intensify the robbery. If they prevail, the system will eventially collapse; how – I don’t know.

46

dave heasman 03.07.06 at 4:09 am

I googled “William Graham Sumner’s famous question” and came up with nowt. Could you amplify please..

47

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 4:12 am

#43 Makes the most important point in this discussion imho, concerning the scope and extent of global inequality.

#3 Do you really think its unjust that the children of the rich are better advantaged than the rest of us? I think that it is in many ways unfair, but not much more so than the fact that being really tall makes it a lot easier to make loads of money playing basketball. Specifically, it seems to me that correcting that inequality frequently requires compromising other more important political values.

I take it that when you say that such inequalities are unfair you are thereby saying that they are also unjust. But your point about other political values is an important one. I agree that giving scope to those values (and to personal prerogatives) will limit what we can do to correct for natural and social inequalities. Talk about justice and inequality has been somewhat confused, I think, by Rawlsian and post-Rawlsian discussion, so that “justice” is sometimes taken to refer to the optimal combination of values in a political system rather than to a distinct value. I take it, though, that one reason we ought to care about inequality is if we buy into the Rawlsian intuition that it is unfair that distributive shares be determined by factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. Under what is, I think, the correct interpretation of Rawls (rather than view about justice), that intuition bears not on real-world distributions but rather on considerations of design for the original position with the upshot that society gets “designed” so that no-one is entitled to get more just because they do better on some morally arbitrary dimension but that some people end up doing better because their advantage on such a dimension can be harnessed to help the least advantaged. I’m skeptical about how far that part of the the Rawlsian program can be made to work and how far we can design things so that acceptably just outcomes can issue from procedures. Partly because of that skepticism, I think a direct concern with the underlying motivating Rawlsian intuition must play an important role both in actual judgements of whether societies are just and even in thinking about the best possible society. In that society, other considerations (such as personal liberty and democratic equality) are of very great importance, but where we allow them to override considerations of fairness I take it that we do so with some regret, and that regret is a mark of the fact that we care about unchosen disadvantage as unjust.

Will Wilkinson:

Do you disagree with Dave’s contention that society is not a race, a but a cooperative productive endeavor? If some people are unable to participate fully in that joint endeavor, they will likely end up with less than people who can participate fully.

The issue here is surely whether people have a fair opportunity to participate fully and a fair chance of securing the most desirable positions within that cooperative productive endeavour, whether or not we draw on metaphors of “races”. No doubt it is true, given some plausible facts, that those who are unable to participate fully will end up with less. Where this consequence is a matter of genuine inability, then their having less ought to be a matter of some regret, even if we can’t fix it. How much less they end up with is also not a fixed matter but rather a contingent one, as a survey of different societies would show.

Sebastian Holoclaw:

I think confusion about positional goods is understandable given that the term is used is more than one way in the literature. Sometimes it is used to refer to the good queued for, sometimes it is used to refer to the position in the queue or what gives rise to position in the queue. Where there are goods whose very nature means that we cannot supply more of them (the last house on the peninsular, the top ten jobs in the country) there is indeed a zero-sum element, and I take it that is what Schmidtz is referring to when he writes about arithmetic. But that doesn’t mean that the fairness issues just go away since even for such goods there are questions to be raised about the distribution of opportunities to compete, and there also questions about the payoffs associated with the position in question (how great they are). There’s also the issue that Schmidtz in his article (and Will Wilkinson in his comment) don’t mention the fact that there is more than one dimension of position (as it were — and c.f Walzer). If some good is essentially positional in nature then it doesn’t make much sense to deplore the mere fact that some people have a higher location than others. But if the same people occupy the high locations for a whole range of positional goods that might be deplorable.

Those people who have doubted my contention that Glenn Reynolds (and others) don’t care about inequality.

I certainly wasn’t counting the sense in which they might care about it for purely prudential reasons — “the unwashed and excluded might mug or murder us”. I take it the sense at issue here is whether people care morally. The primary sense in which someone might care morally is, I think, under the aspect of justice. Many is the time I’ve hear economists say that justice or fairness don’t matter (or are just rhetorical hot air) and that what matters is efficiency. I take it that someone who utters a thought like that doesn’t care about inequality as such (unless they are self-deceived about what they care about). As for Reynolds: go to Instapundit, “read the whole thing” (if you are so inclined). If you agree with my judgement fine, if not, not.

48

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 4:12 am

#46 “What Do the Social Classes Owe to One Another?”

49

soru 03.07.06 at 7:12 am

If people would stop fiddling around with global population statistics and do a proper analysis of a society in terms of objectively-defined economic classes, and the movement of individuals within and between those classes, it might be possible to have a conversation on this topic that wasn’t iredeemably confused.

50

Barry 03.07.06 at 7:16 am

Sebastian:

“And if you want to try to deal with some of the things on the extreme margins you should never do so without paying very close attention to how it changes the way the huge working part of the system operates.”

As has been pointed out above, the current system has given declining/stagnant real wages for the bottom *half* of the work force (with the exception of a few years during our Long Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity under Clinton). That’s not the ‘extreme margin’. And the liberal PoV sees that things can be changed to help that, without screwing things up (see ‘Great Keynsian Boom, 1945-1973, the height of liberalism in the USA).

51

Steve 03.07.06 at 8:14 am

“As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust.”

Nope.

Steve

52

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 8:31 am

Steve, you either give reasons for your opinions in this thread or you get deleted.

Trolling verboten / Defense de troller.

53

John Emerson 03.07.06 at 10:05 am

“Nope” is the winger idea of a zinger.

54

Functional 03.07.06 at 10:34 am

As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust.

With due respect, Mr. Bertram, you didn’t give any reasons for this judgment in the first place. In order to give reasons, you would have to define “inequality” and “unjust,” to begin with.

I.e., do you mean that all differences in material equality are unjust? That can’t possibly be right. It’s unjust for the 60-year-old who has saved regularly for the past 40 years to have more money than the 25-year-old who just started working after graduate school?
That conclusion would be absurd.

So one has to modify your simplistic assertion that “inequality = unjust” by referring “inequality as between people who are otherwise equally situated in life.” Or something like that. But there’s the rub: What counts as “equally situated”? Is it unjust that one person who works hard ends up making more money than a person who deliberately chooses a lower-paying career (in order to have more time with his family)? Is it unjust that the diligent often (mirabile dictu) earn more money than the lazy? Unjust how?

And are you talking about equality of outcome here? There will never be equality of outcome no matter how much you jigger the system. Even if you could magically redistribute all of society’s resources today — such that all people had exactly the same resources in every respect — society would become inequal within a week’s time. Some people would have already blown all the money on gambling or stupid investments or travel or whatnot. And over time, the inequality would increase: some people work harder than others; some people save and invest while others spend all their money on alcohol and flashy cars; some people choose to go to become heart surgeons while others choose lower-paying careers.

Sure, inequality CAN be unjust — and it no doubt is in many situations. But the opposite is true as well: Absolute equality would be unjust as well, because it could not conceivably be achieved without regularly and forcibly taking money away from people who legitimately deserve it and giving it to others.

Or are you referring to equality of opportunity? I.e., that any child born anywhere should have an equal shot at [fill in the blank here]. If so, then a lot of this inequality isn’t even imaginably a matter of justice or injustice. For one thing, people are born with different genetic endowments. To take an extreme example, is it unjust that a given person is born with Down’s Syndrome? Bad luck, sure, but unjust?

55

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 10:46 am

“As has been pointed out above, the current system has given declining/stagnant real wages for the bottom half of the work force (with the exception of a few years during our Long Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity under Clinton). That’s not the ‘extreme margin’.”

The current system has had increasing ownership of just about everything one might normally consider important. House ownership has been up on average for decades. Car ownership the same. Food prices have been down for decades at the exact same time as access to variety of foods has dramatically increased (compare supermarkets of the 1970s to now). Ownership of time-saving devices has skyrocketed among the poor–see dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, microwave, cell phone and automobile. The prices for all of the items has gone down, allowing almost everyone to have one and gain the time value of having them. Luxury items which were once unobtainable are now commonplace among the poor–see DVD, Color TV, CD Stereo systems. Even in more troublesome areas like health care you would rather be a super-poor child with leukemia getting treatment for free from a charity research hospital like St. Jude’s today than a super-rich child with leukemia with paid access to the best hospitals in 1960, or 1970, or 1980. You would rather be a poor person with emergency room access in 2006 than a middle-class person with insurance in 1965 for a host of common medical problems. Who would trade crappy Medicare or Medicaid of 2006 for the top-flight medical insurance of 1980? No one with the slightest chance of using it. Future life expectancy at almost all moments from birth has gone up–even for the poorest of people and especially for the oldest people.

On absolute measures that is a society that is doing damn well–even for the very poor. The poor have access to many of the physical positional goods of the recent past.

In some theoretical society could inequality be a big problem? Absolutely. But in US society you have to point to the super-rich (0.1%) and super-poor (2%) to get me to worry very much. That is a society that is functioning pretty well for 97.99% of the population. You want to focus on purely ameliorative programs for the super-poor? Ok. You want to change the system in the hope (historically vain) that will make the super-poor disappear? I’m not so sure that is a good idea at all. Especially since most such programs don’t pay much attention to the rest of the system. You want to revamp the whole economic system because you are offended by Paris Hilton? I’m offended by Paris Hilton too, but she is an extreme outlier. It isn’t worth wrecking the whole system just to get rid of people like her. And frankly I’ve met a few obnoxious and spoiled rich European women. I’m not as convinced as many that you are going to be getting rid of her.

56

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 11:03 am

functional:

I hope that you find some of your points addressed at the first long para of my comment #47.

Your final para:

Or are you referring to equality of opportunity? I.e., that any child born anywhere should have an equal shot at [fill in the blank here]. If so, then a lot of this inequality isn’t even imaginably a matter of justice or injustice. For one thing, people are born with different genetic endowments. To take an extreme example, is it unjust that a given person is born with Down’s Syndrome? Bad luck, sure, but unjust?

No, it isn’t unjust that some people are born with worse genetic outcomes than others, but how society responds to those differences can be unjust or just. Take people who are disabled from birth and require wheelchairs. We can tax the abled to provide them with chairs (or funds to buy them) and legislate to make shops and public buildings wheelchair accessible, or we can leave them unaided.

57

harry b 03.07.06 at 11:06 am

Sebastian,

Chris has not made any policy proposals here. We might want to just live with what we regard as injustice on the grounds that change is not feasible right now, or because we fear unexpected and undesirable consequences.

But you are just wrong about the historical vanity about attempting change. In the past 30 years the right has successfully changed the level of inequality in the US through conscious and deliberate policy reform, to make it much more unequal and unjust than it was 30 years ago. Well done! In the post war period several European countries successfully pursued policy reforms deliberately aimed at reducing the level of inequality. Some were more successful and lasting than others (The Swedes did much much better than the Brits, for example). And these reforms were achieved withou impinging on basic human rights, or even basic liberties more broadly conceived.

Its interesting, Chris, how many people on this thread simply assume that their objections haven’t been thought about or answered (eg functional’s comments), when there’s a whole sub-industry in political philosophy which has answered them all many times over. Shows how incredibly bad we’ve been at communicating beyond ourselves. I think Schmidtz is a top-notch philosopher, but I found his essay surprisingly light. Maybe because I’ve had my head in all this stuff in the past couple of years. Will Cato offer to carry a serious left wing parallel to David’s article, Will?

58

harry b 03.07.06 at 11:08 am

Sebastian, can we dub the final argument in your comment the “Paris Hilton” argument? I’d love to use it as a starting point sometime, and promise to attribute accurately (unless you’d prefer to remain anonymous!). :)

59

Steve 03.07.06 at 11:10 am

“As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust. I’d also say that inequality in some dimensions matters instrumentally because of its effects on others: material inequality can undermine political equality. But having given the quick, dirty and underspecified answer to Schmidtz’s general question, I’d like to pick at him on one specific.”

Chris-
The entire paragraph in which you describe your own beliefs (inequality is unjust) is listed above. Which reasons did you list for your own belief? (Note in the conversation above, you suggest an ‘instrumental’ reason for opposing inequality. I see no ‘moral/ethical’ justification for your statement ‘inequality is unjust’). Since listing reasons for a belief is required for me to avoid being banned from the conversation, I’d behappy to emulate your own example, if you can outline it for me.

Steve

60

Steve 03.07.06 at 11:11 am

A similarly structured argument:

Person A: George Bush is a fool.

Person B: George Bush is not a fool.

Person A: Prove it!

Steve

61

Steve 03.07.06 at 11:17 am

One more thing, Chris:
J’utilize le meme methode que vous, n’est pas?
Ich verwende die gleiche Methode fur meine Gesprache, nicht wahr?

Steve

62

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 11:22 am

No Steve. I gave 2 reasons why inequality might be bad. Reason (1) because some inequalities are unjust; reason (2) because some inequalities have further bad consequences. The bad consequence I listed under (2) was one involving the effects of economic inequality on political equality, which is also, more mediately, a matter of justice. All moral reasons so far then. I didn’t give further moral reasons to support the moral reasons I gave, though you could find some in my extended comment above if you cared to look at my remarks about Rawls. No doubt those reasons also stand in need of supporting reasons … but I think I did better than “Nope”.

63

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 11:25 am

Will Cato offer to carry a serious left wing parallel to David’s article, Will?

I think they have Peter Singer replying.

64

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 11:26 am

“Sebastian, can we dub the final argument in your comment the “Paris Hilton” argument? I’d love to use it as a starting point sometime, and promise to attribute accurately (unless you’d prefer to remain anonymous!).”

Sure and if I regret it later that will only encourage me to be more careful about writing. :)

65

Functional 03.07.06 at 11:34 am

Mr. Bertram:

No, it isn’t unjust that some people are born with worse genetic outcomes than others, but how society responds to those differences can be unjust or just. Take people who are disabled from birth and require wheelchairs. We can tax the abled to provide them with chairs (or funds to buy them) and legislate to make shops and public buildings wheelchair accessible, or we can leave them unaided.

Right, but that is quite a bit different from saying “inequality is unjust,” as if this were completely a matter of black-and-white judgment. We can make buildings wheelchair-accessible, but the person who is unable to walk is still going to lack equality of opportunity (or outcome) in a wide variety of areas: playing sports, climbing mountains, obtaining jobs that absolutely require the full use of one’s limbs (many manual labor jobs), etc., etc. Again, you concede that this is not a matter of justice. Hence, the original statement that “inequality is unjust” was too simplistic.

You refer to comment 47, the gist of which (I take it) is that inequality is unjust if it results from some “morally arbitrary dimension.” Again, define your terms. It seems morally arbitrary to me that Luciano Pavarotti was born with the sort of voice that (with a bit of training) can sign high Cs, whereas the vast majority of us could never do that in our wildest dreams. Is it therefore unjust that people paid to hear him sing, resulting in his having more money than the singer who occasionally sings at a local coffeehouse? How so?

66

Functional 03.07.06 at 11:35 am

SING high Cs.

67

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 11:46 am

functional:

(1) I didn’t just say “inequality is unjust”. Saying that would have been nonsensical because making people equal on one dimension often makes them unequal on others. I said that one reason to care about inequalities on some dimensions is that they are unjust. I might have said that one reason to care about some inequalities is that they are unjust.

(2) I didn’t “concede” anything.

(3) Your Pavarotti example is essentially Robert Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain problem on which there is an extensive literature.

(4) I’m off out the house ….

68

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 11:49 am

“But you are just wrong about the historical vanity about attempting change. In the past 30 years the right has successfully changed the level of inequality in the US through conscious and deliberate policy reform, to make it much more unequal and unjust than it was 30 years ago.”

That isn’t what I said. I said: “You want to focus on purely ameliorative programs for the super-poor? Ok. You want to change the system in the hope (historically vain) that will make the super-poor disappear? I’m not so sure that is a good idea at all.”

The (probably) vain hope is that you can get rid of the super-poor through government social programs or by revamping the system in any currently imaginable way. The chronically super-poor exist in the UK, in France and in Germany. They share many of the same economic characteristics with their counterparts in the US. And especially in France I would suggest that a larger percentage of the pretty-darn poor (say bottom 10%) end up with fewer chances for advancement than the pretty-darn poor in the US. Maybe in very small countries you can get rid of the super-poor, though even Sweden and (differently) Denmark have been having trouble with the immigrant poor in recent times. France’s problems with the immigrant poor are of course famous.

69

Steve 03.07.06 at 11:49 am

“Reason (1) because some inequalities are unjust;”

Chris:
Perhaps you did give reasons why inequality is bad. But that’s not the issue: the point is, you didn’t give reasons why inequality is unjust. (after all, my own sin was to say “Inequality is unjust. Nope” I made no mention about whether “inequality is bad. Nope”). Furthermore, you have already changed your argument, from

“Inequality is unjust.”
to
“Reason (1) because some inequalities are unjust;”

Very sneaky-but I caught you !!! ;)

So, you make argument A:
Inequality is unjust.
I make argument A1″
Inequality is unjust. Nope.
You say A1 is invalid, and justify it by stating that you never made argument A (which is self-evidently incorrect-just look at your own post), and instead made argument B:
Inequality is bad.
which, of course, A1 has nothing to do with.
Finally, you restate your own argument A (inequality is unjust) with significant changes:
Some inequalities are unjust
which I don’t even disagree with! (and nor does my argument A1).

Tell me again: which one of us is a philosopher?

Steve

Note: I’m not really blaming you. Our little discussion reminds me of Rawls.
Q: What is justice?
A: Justice is fairness. (Brilliant! says the academic community).
Q: So what is fairness?
A: Uhm…..didn’t you hear me? Read my big book with big words. Justice is fairness! (repeat for 25 years).

Rawls; the source of all evil.

Steve

70

Steve 03.07.06 at 11:52 am

“As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust.” -Chris Bertram, original post

“(1) I didn’t just say “inequality is unjust”. Saying that would have been nonsensical because making people equal on one dimension often makes them unequal on others.”-Chris Bertram, post 67.

Good lord. Just erase the entire conversation and start over.

Steve

71

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 12:01 pm

“I didn’t just say “inequality is unjust”. Saying that would have been nonsensical because making people equal on one dimension often makes them unequal on others.”

Ok, so wouldn’t it be much more correct to say that people like Glenn Reynolds pay attention to inequality in dimensions that you don’t think are important in favor of the ones that you think are important?

The simplistic formulation is typically (though unfairly to both conservatives and liberals) that liberals are preoccupied with equality of outcome while ignoring personal choices that lead to outcomes while conservatives are preoccupied with equality of opportunity while ignoring societal factors which limit the ability to exercise the personal choices that conservatives find so important.

I’ll freely admit that I think (within certain limits which the US easily falls into) questions of relative equality of purchasing power should be subordinated to questions of absloute purchasing power. See my simplistic hypothetical on comment #13.

Not only are questions of equality subject to multiple dimensions, but I also don’t believe that equality of purchasing power is the preeminent social factor worth weighing. I wouldn’t, for instance, be interested in creating a system where we give poor people $20,000 more in income taken directly from the hand of Donald Trump in exchange for their right to vote.

72

Functional 03.07.06 at 12:06 pm

You didn’t concede anything? What did you mean by writing, “No, it isn’t unjust that some people are born with worse genetic outcomes than others . . . .” I take that to be a concession that it isn’t unjust that some people are born with worse genetic outcomes than others. (This is different from your original, extremely broad claim that “inequality is unjust,” without taking into account any non-unjust factors that affect equality in quite substantial ways).

73

abb1 03.07.06 at 12:27 pm

But in US society you have to point to the super-rich (0.1%) and super-poor (2%) to get me to worry very much.

Why, even looking at nearly ten-fold difference between incomes of low-wage workers and professionals/middle-management one clearly gets the impression that something has gone terribly wrong here. Cashier at your local supermarket is definitely getting screwed by the system for the benefit of (in part) the fella typing useless VB code all day.

If you could disregard “market forces” for a moment and consider it from the humanistic perspective, you’d see it too.

74

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 12:42 pm

Functional, I think we have a question of audience here. (I find myself in the strange position of defending Chris here, I’ll try not to make a habit of it since it could cause the world to get sucked into a black hole). Chris is using terms and arguments with implications from his specialized field. CrookedTimber is a mixed audience of philosophical specialists and lots of other people. He doesn’t see it as a concession because to philosophical specialists it would be obvious that he isn’t (for instance) just ignoring all the post-Rawls literature on the difference between genetically predisposed outcomes and other outcomes in extreme cases. He is working in a narrow parameter of equality.

The problem here is that the political audience is different from the philosophical audience. Would your average Democratic Senator be able to address the problem of innate talent and what to do about it in the framework of economic equality issues? Doubtful. Since they couldn’t, they aren’t likely to take of those concerns in mind when writing laws. When your average politican talks about equality, he is talking about a much broader set and with much less understanding and though I haven’t seen Chris’ proposals yet I’m hoping that they are better than the typical politician’s.

Flip side, could your average Republican Senator address the issue well? Ha. I’m not even a philosopher and I’m pretty sure I covered the high points off the top of my head better than most Republican Senators could.

So here, you are interpreting the discussion about equality in its political context instead of its philosophical context. It isn’t wrong of you to do so, since the original post uses multiple frames too (references to Reynolds suggest a more political frame for instance). However Chris isn’t going to think you are right about a “gotcha” because of his background assumptions. In this instance he isn’t changing his mind. He is clarifying things that would have been obvious to his philosophical audience even if they weren’t obvious to the rest of us.

75

MQ 03.07.06 at 2:38 pm

The structure of Sebastian’s argument is I think that of most “common-sense” economic conservatives. The two characteristic flaws of this argument are:

1) The percent of people the system fails is much higher than 2% (although much lower than the 50%+ some liberals would argue). In 2004 6.2% of people working full-time, full-year jobs earned less than $15,000 per year. That is failure. This leaves out all the people who were unemployed at any time during the year, who were in prison, worked part time at any point, etc. etc. Over 13% of full time, full year workers earned less than $20,000 annually.

2) Attempts to soften the system and interfere with the market to redistribute income haven’t even come close to being catastrophic. Social democracy is highly compatible with capitalism. In *all* advanced Western countries, over all substantial periods since WWII, the great majority of children haved lived better than their parents due to economic growth and technological advance. This is true regardless of where the government stands on a spectrum from contemporary U.S. Republican laissez-faire to say, Swedish socialism. One can argue about just how rapid the improvement has been under different systems, but it has been pretty rapid everywhere. One needs to move to full-on communist dictatorship to generate catastrophe of the kind Sebastian is invoking.

76

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 5:17 pm

“In 2004 6.2% of people working full-time, full-year jobs earned less than $15,000 per year.”

How many of them were earning less than $15,000 the next year? How many of those exact same people were earning less than $20,000 the year after? How many will be earning less than $25,000 two years from now?

I submit that the answer to those questions is “very few”. Most people work at entry level jobs as entry level jobs. It isn’t a failure of the economic system that some people work at entry level jobs. It is an almost certain fact considering that when you enter the workforce you don’t have experience.

“In all advanced Western countries, over all substantial periods since WWII, the great majority of children haved lived better than their parents due to economic growth and technological advance. This is true regardless of where the government stands on a spectrum from contemporary U.S. Republican laissez-faire to say, Swedish socialism. One can argue about just how rapid the improvement has been under different systems, but it has been pretty rapid everywhere.”

This is a bit off topic, so I’m hesitant to address it. If I had vast amounts of time I would flesh out an argument sort of like this: on some issues, the US cannot emulate the Swedish-style models because its dynamic capitalism subsidies those models. There is no dynamic market country that the US can free ride off of for medical advances, technological advances, or military might. If Germany or France(neither as socialistic as Sweden) had to maintain enough of a military to be able to deal with things in Kosovo or be able to do something about Saddam invading Kuwait, they would be even worse off than they are now. If Europe had one medical research center as dynamic as Boston, San Diego, or Pennsylvania (they may have a rival to second-tier bio-research locations like Seattle or the Silicon Valley) we could talk about it. There are certain strategies which depend on the existance of a market like the US for their continued growth in technology. The US can’t fully emulate those strategies because the US can’t count on someone else to make the technological innovations at the same pace that we do now. This is not to say that Europe does not contribute technologically. It is to say that the rate of improvement would be much less without some country like the US around. There is a reason why Texas Instruments and then IBM and then Apple and then Microsoft all came out of the US. There is a reason why almost all of the major ‘European’ bio-research firms have a huge percentage of their operations in San Diego, Boston, and Pennsylvania. That reason has to do with the economic system and the dynamism it allows. Sweden Population–about 9,000,000. Massachusetts Population–about 6,000,000. San Diego Population–about 2,000,000. Sweden doesn’t have 4 times the advancements that come out of San Diego alone. I would be surprised if you even get parity on a non per-capita basis. (By the way, yes I am aware that Sweden is one of the bigger GDP spenders on medical research. That is why I think it is very fair to make the comparison. I’m not comparing San Diego to Nashville.)

77

Chris Bertram 03.07.06 at 6:41 pm

Hmm, something depressing about the way this thread is going ….

My initial statement:

As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust.

Perhaps I should have phrased things differently, though I’m not sure how, but the parenthetical phrase was supposed to be a substantial restriction and qualification of the unrestricted sentence, and I thought people would take it as such. So, “functional” I didn’t take myself to have made a concession because I never thought of myself as having made the unrestricted claim that I would have needed to retreat from in order to make a concession.

(As for Steve ….)

78

MQ 03.07.06 at 7:28 pm

“I submit that the answer to those questions is “very few”.”

And I submit that you are wrong Sebastian, and also that you just assumed your answer without knowing much about low-wage labor markets. Try reading Andersson/Holzer/Lane’s book “Moving Up or Moving On”, which tracks low earners and find that when tracked over a five year period the majority of them stayed low earners, even though this period was in the boom years of the late 90s. The sample is not completely comparable to the one I was using but it is close enough. What is going on here is that jobs with career potential — where there is a major upward earnings track — start at a higher wage than $15,000 per year. Since you are a college grad yourself, career-type earnings mobility is a fact of life for you and your friends. You probably have very little contact with the kinds of low-skill jobs that don’t have an attached promotion path or much if any possibility of wage growth. But they are out there. This is why one has to do research instead of just assume stuff.

As for the “Europe free rides” argument, this is another case where I think just making up the answer doesn’t really cut it. What you are saying might be true, it might not. One needs to look at patent rates and so forth. Certainly my cell phone contains a lot of European technology. Also, I would argue that any U.S. tech edge on Europe has a great deal to do with our heavily subsidized and government regulated higher ed sector, in particular the superiority of our research universities. These are not capitalist institutions (although they are competitive ones, which is good). For medical research in particular, you are looking at the most socialized area of U.S. technological development.

79

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 8:21 pm

“For medical research in particular, you are looking at the most socialized area of U.S. technological development.”

May I suggest Derek Lowe on this topic? He has a number of excellent articles which you should read under the sub-sections entitled: “‘Me Too Drugs’”, “Academia (vs. Industry)”, “Patents and IP”, and “Business and Markets”. I would look at them from the bottom up after you click on the Category section. They go into vast detail about the interactions between government, the academic world, and industrial pharmacuetical research.

Personally my vote for most subsidized technological area over the past 30 years or so would go to flight and/or space systems.

What a coincidence, I’ve read “Moving Up or Moving On”. They look at the very low-levels (under $12,000). They find that more than 2/3 have moved out of the low earner category within six years. Over half had pierced the poverty level. 27% had done so on a multi-year basis. Their most important finding is that increased earning is easier to obtain by changing jobs (moving on) rather than trying to for promotion within a job (moving up). The policy implications from that aren’t super-clear. They suggest an increased minimum wage, which doesn’t exactly follow from the changing jobs finding. They suggest that lack of information about job alternatives and lack of transportation can both cause people to stick with a job that isn’t increasing their pay much. Those might be areas where policy could do some good. They also have mixed to positive reviews of temp agencies in obtaining the work skills to “move on”. There is other literature which suggests that having children before gaining first or second step work experience can be a huge problem for future earnings. That is a very different can of worms so I’m not going to try to analyze how one might best deal with that right now.

80

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.07.06 at 8:29 pm

“Since you are a college grad yourself, career-type earnings mobility is a fact of life for you and your friends. You probably have very little contact with the kinds of low-skill jobs that don’t have an attached promotion path or much if any possibility of wage growth. But they are out there. This is why one has to do research instead of just assume stuff.”

Actually no. I have had lots of contact with people with low-skill jobs, in college I was engaged with a program to teach the children of immigrants (often illegal) English and Math skills. This intersects with the findings of “Moving Up” because many immigrants are reluctant to change jobs–stunting their income growth. Illegal immigrants of course have difficulty changing jobs (a whole different topic). Their children on the other hand have great prospects if they learn to read and write and can avoid joining gangs (no small feat I’ll admit). But while all of these problems change how ideas of equality play out, none of them are best addressed through an “equality” lens or analysis.

81

Will Wilkinson 03.07.06 at 11:34 pm

Harry, Peter Singer has replied, but, as you’ll see, he says he largely agrees with Schmidtz, as far as he goes, and talks about equal consideration for animals instead. We have Yale’s Jacob Hacker lined up for next Monday, though he’s not so much a normative theorist as an academic wonk. I’d invite you, Harry, and Chris, and any other Crooked Timberites to write a reply to Schmidtz here at CT. If it’s in the 1000-ish word neighborhood, there is a great chance we’ll reprint it at Cato Unbound as a “Best of the Blogosphere” post (on the plausible assumption that it would in fact be among the best). Part of our goal is to spark conversation outside the “bounds” of our own site, and bring that inside our conversation. So, please, fire away. And any of the rest of y’all with blogs. Go to it.

82

Dan Simon 03.08.06 at 1:33 am

As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust.

So let’s see if I’ve got this straight: ordering society so as to reduce inequality is a matter of fundamental justice. In formulating rules for international trade, too, justice is paramount.

But when it comes to rules for relations among nations, “we need principles that are acceptable not only to democratic states….but also to non-democratic ones.” This is apparently “a matter of practical necessity”, not justice–obviously, since giving dictatorships a veto over rules of international conduct is hardly a recipe for any kind of justice.

I can think of plenty of rather unattractive reasons for this rather striking inconsistency. Is there a defensible one?

83

Chris Bertram 03.08.06 at 3:05 am

I think you’ll have to spell out for me where you think the inconsistency lies Dan, though it may take us off the thread of this topic. It may very well be that there is some inconsistency between my views on different topics, a risk that is heightened by some of those views being unstable (I sometimes change my mind). I suspect, in this case though, that the middle para of Harry’s comment #53 above may address some of the problem. I would note too that the fact that a norm is fundamental in a justificatory sense does not entail that it should be overriding in matters of immediate policy.

84

abb1 03.08.06 at 5:41 am

…giving dictatorships a veto over rules of international conduct is hardly a recipe for any kind of justice.

Some worship “free markets”, others “democracy” – typcal simon-soru silliness.

Giving democracies a veto over rules of international conduct is no more just than giving it to dictatorships. You only have to think about it for two seconds to understand why.

85

Angry yawn 03.08.06 at 8:25 am

Given the material consequences of social inequality – insofar as rich people die in better health while the poor suffer more and die earlier – I find academic discussions deducing justifications for inequality to be worse than academic. These kind of discussions seem to be about taking more rather than just keeping more. And it’s all the more satisfying for participants if there’s a principled rationale for others’ suffering.

It’s not so much that Cato gasbags don’t care about inequality but that they positively relish it and revel in its increase.

86

zdenek 03.08.06 at 9:58 am

Chris– you suggest that a particular life position a person is born into is associated with specific set of rewards ( such as job , education and so on ) so one child may be well off while the other one very badly off. This according to you is a case of inequality that matters. But what is your argument for showing that this is an example of those inequalities that “are ours to arrange” ? As David Schmidtz says there seems to be a prior moral question precisely at this point. ( Nozick has an example of two suitors that would suggest that it is an open question but I have no time to look it up now .)

87

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.08.06 at 10:44 am

“I would note too that the fact that a norm is fundamental in a justificatory sense does not entail that it should be overriding in matters of immediate policy.”

This really opens up the argument. It sounded like you were setting up equality as an overriding value–that is how it usually plays out in political invocations of equality. But if you aren’t, your argument against Reynolds and Cato is vastly weaker. You are now opened to the argument that equality concerns should almost never override economic growth concerns for instance. This would especially seem true so long as the bottom portion of the economic ladder shared in almost any of the overall gains. The funny thing is that I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m not sure what logical/moral framework makes me think so.

88

Chris Bertram 03.08.06 at 11:20 am

Zdenek: I think the most natural way to take your point is as one about personal prerogatives and legitimate partiality. Sure, there’s an issue there and one that will disadvantage some children (those who are unlucky in their parents) compared to others. Still, there will be a lot we can do whilst respecting such constraints to improve the opportunities of the disadvantaged. Someone who (Nozick-style) believes in a strong natural-rights entitlement view is going to think, as you suggest, that the resources available to us to do that are going to be tiny because of other’s prior claims on resources. But most others (such as Rawlsians) who think that property rights/tax structures etc have to be selected with an eye to such things as the consequences for the least advantaged will take a more generous view.

Sebastian: That depends on what you take the argument against Cato/Reynolds to be. Certainly if one of the reasons to care about equality (and here I’m being really sloppy) is the condition of the least advantaged AND Cato-style free market capitalism would be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged THEN some egalitarians would converge with the Catoites on policy prescriptions (though their underlying justifications would differ).

That wasn’t really the point I was making, though. The point I was making was that just because someone thinks equality is of fundamental importantce it doesn’t follow that equality should trump all other values when it comes to policy. One simple reason for that is that we might believe in a plurality of fundamental values. Another (very different) reason why we might not give priority to equality at a policy level might be because of empirical beliefs about whether doing so would actually advance the cause of equality at a particular moment, given the particular facts etc.

89

Dan Simon 03.08.06 at 3:05 pm

I suspect, in this case though, that the middle para of Harry’s comment #53 above may address some of the problem. I would note too that the fact that a norm is fundamental in a justificatory sense does not entail that it should be overriding in matters of immediate policy.

If I understand you and Harry correctly, you’re saying that demanding justice in international trade and domestic wealth distribution is proper because the goal is feasible, whereas demanding justice in international relations in general is pointless because the goal is infeasible, given the presence of monstrous regimes in the world.

Now, I have a lot of trouble making sense of this particular categorization–especially the distinction between international trade and international politics/law. But since this thread is specifically about societal (i.e., domestic) inequality, I will concentrate on the issue of the “feasibility” of equality.

As I’ve mentioned before, when we talk about the justice or injustice of a social outcome, it’s necessary to talk as well about the process by which it’s achieved. That’s doubly so when we factor feasibility into the equation. Suppose, for example, that a particular society rejects, as a matter of consensus, a particular equality-increasing choice, but is still vulnerable to persuasion by some means–say, nuclear blackmail. Does that make the achievement of (greater) material equality in that society “feasible”? Or is “feasible” intended here to mean, “feasible using only just means”? And in a democratic society, are there any just means for pursuing adoption of an equality-increasing choice, other than political persuasion? Does it depend on the level of inequality remedied, the nature of the remedy, and/or the means used to effect its adoption?

To be more concrete, I personally find my sense of justice quite undisturbed by the fact that during the postwar decades the government of Sweden adopted, through the democratic process, a collection of equality-increasing domestic policies that many other societies would consider unacceptably draconian. On the other hand, my sense of justice is also quite undisturbed by the fact that America during the same period adopted far fewer such equality-increasing measures than even the typical democratic society. What would disturb me, however, would be the use of undemocratic means to change either society’s mix of policies.

To put it more succinctly, I consider political equality to be paramount, and political inequality to be profoundly unjust. (For example, I can countenance, say, half a country fighting a civil war with the other half, for the purpose of securing the political equality of an enslaved portion of the other half’s population.) But I consider the tolerability of various levels of material equality to be purely a political matter, to be resolved through (democratic) politics.

Now, to the extent that your assertion that “inequality is unjust” is consistent with my position–that is, to the extent that it is simply an expression of a political preference, and of a desire to persuade others to embrace it–I have no real quarrel with you. (Different strokes, judgment calls, and all that.) But to the extent that you take the injustice of material inequality the way I take the injustice of political inequality–that is, as something that is sometimes worth fighting for–then I have many questions to ask. What level of material inequality justifies action beyond political persuasion? How far would you be willing to go to combat it? And at what point would you be willing to give up and accept further reduction of material inequality as “infeasible”?

90

abb1 03.08.06 at 3:54 pm

Material inequality is fine; it’s thievery that’s unjust. For example, if I own the only factory in town and your choice is between starvation and working for peanuts – then having political equality won’t do you much good. This kinda thing is inherent in capitalist systems where capitalists own means of production; it always exists in one degree or another. That’s one of the essential characteristics of the system. Most people find it troubling. Some even go so far as writing and publishing various manifestos and organizing vanguard parties to do away with the system. Does this really seem so complicated?

91

Sebastian holsclaw 03.08.06 at 4:09 pm

“For example, if I own the only factory in town and your choice is between starvation and working for peanuts – then having political equality won’t do you much good.”

I presume we are positing that moving is impossible?

92

MQ 03.08.06 at 4:14 pm

Sebastian: Well, I stand corrected on your range of reading. Sorry. I guess interpretation of the Moving Up/Moving On results is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Their low earnings limit is about 12,000 in today’s dollars, their “partially low” limit matches my $15,000. They find that among low earners during the years 1993-1995, only 27% earned above $15,000 per year each year from 1999 to 2001. Almost half (46%) continued to earn below $15,000 per year each year 1999-2001. The remainder bounced back and forth between earning less than $15K and more than $15K. Over the 1999-2001 period, mean annual earnings for people who were “low earners” from 1993-1995 were only $15,800.

Sorry, but that seems like a pretty crappy mobility record to me for one of the best, tightest labor markets in the 20th century. Sure, it’s OK in a percentage sense, and earnings of $15K are technically enough to bring a family out of poverty (with our ridiculously low poverty line), but come on…your life in the U.S. is going to suck if you are earning $15K per year. This is not a picture of middle class transition, it’s hanging on to stability by your fingertips.

Also, since his initial low earning category is not limited to FT/FY workers he finds 8% of the population in the initial low earner category, and close to 15% in either persistent low earnings or “partially low” (never making more than $15K over a 3 year period). I do agree with you that the economic system works pretty well for the majority of the population (at least at present, with the Feds pumping fiscal steroids in at the max possible rate), but the minority who are in trouble is larger than you portray it.

I’ll check out the Derek Lowe stuff.

93

Sebastian holsclaw 03.08.06 at 4:17 pm

“This kinda thing is inherent in capitalist systems where capitalists own means of production; it always exists in one degree or another. That’s one of the essential characteristics of the system. Most people find it troubling. Some even go so far as writing and publishing various manifestos and organizing vanguard parties to do away with the system. Does this really seem so complicated?”

This kind of argument is problematic. Heat exists to one degree or another, but the value is very important to functioning systems. Capitalism certainly does tend to involve ownership of things, but “This kind of thing” doesn’t always end up as “working for peanuts”. And of course there is always the troubling fact that some jobs really aren’t worth paying much for. That is why we often mechanize things. That tends to be a very good thing. I don’t think “most people” find ownership troubling. Most people find thievery troubling, but your definition of the word is rather more expansive than “most people” would agree with.

The tail of your comment is troubling, but I’ll pretend that you are being sarcastic about your direct allusion to the Communist Party.

94

Sebastian holsclaw 03.08.06 at 4:23 pm

“your life in the U.S. is going to suck if you are earning $15K per year.”

That really depends on where you live. Nowhere is $15,000 a kingly income, but in some areas (those with very little access to better jobs) it isn’t abject poverty either. You aren’t earning $15,000 a year in California unless you have zero skills and no ability to learn–pizza delivery pays better than $7.50 per hour in San Diego. Of course San Diego is more expensive than New Orleans (pre-Katrina). That is one of the reasons these studies are a bit hard to use. I would suggest that someone getting paid $20,000 in San Diego is poorer than someone getting paid $13,000 in Kansas. But that is apparently really hard to measure properly.

95

abb1 03.08.06 at 4:30 pm

You know what I mean. The guy who gives you shovel and takes 40% of what you earn digging – call it what you want: exploitation, thievery, miracle of the market, whatever – it kinda stinks already. But when he later gives you a bulldozer but keeps paying you pretty much the same amount, taking now 80% of what you earned – that’s just plain wicked.

96

Duluth 03.08.06 at 5:01 pm

The clueless like holsclaw should pick-up the phone and call folks doing social service work – better yet those working food banks. Actually, I’d find it a wonderful kind of performance art if a discussion like this took place in a food bank, in front of folks picking up a bag of of the needful.

Perhaps sebby could peruse income distribution tables and determine what proportion of Americans fall into the less than $15k category. Then again, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter how many people have zero skills and no ability to learn. Perhaps they might just die instead of whining and reduce the surplus population.

97

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.08.06 at 7:33 pm

I wonder if Duluth is another charitable-by-government-only liberal. I won’t harp too much on my helping immigrants learn to read or my work with the child dependency division, if you won’t assume that I am driven in a limousine. That type is “limousine liberal”. I’m a conservative and drive my own small hatchback to help people out personally rather than rely on tax dollars and inefficient government programs for it. I would respond to your reasoning, but you haven’t offered any.

98

Z 03.08.06 at 10:31 pm

Well Sebastian, maybe you can offer your opinion on my reasoning then. First, on the fact that the system works superbly for 90% of the population, I have shown evidence that this is not what 90% of the population thinks. It isn’t event what 50% of the population thinks. Are they all mistaken then? Or who is the judge of what is a superbly functionning system? Would you consider the system is functionning superbly were you a black kid born in a household in New York making 6,000$ a year (and lest you tell me this is absurdly low, you would then be above the average income of the lowest 20%, so well amongst the 90% for wich the system allegedly works superbly)? Please also remember that your chance to see your first birthday would then be less than if you were born in Kerala.

Second, though inequalities per say may not be too big a problem, do you concur that inequalities can endanger the democratic basis of a society because people may cease to envision themselves as part of a single social body? If yes, do you take the democratic system seriously enough so as to conclude that inequalities matter? If no, then we have a factual disagreement, and it would be clear to me where our opinions diverge.

99

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.09.06 at 2:18 am

“I have shown evidence that this is not what 90% of the population thinks. It isn’t event what 50% of the population thinks”

Where have you shown this?

“Would you consider the system is functionning superbly were you a black kid born in a household in New York making 6,000$ a year (and lest you tell me this is absurdly low, you would then be above the average income of the lowest 20%, so well amongst the 90% for wich the system allegedly works superbly)?”

$6,000 per year is below minimum wage. It would be three dollars an hour. It wouldn’t even be minimum wage in New York if you only worked 20 hours a week. You are going to have to provide some cites before I can engage you on this one. That is the AVERAGE income of the lowest 3rd? I’m skeptical.

100

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.09.06 at 2:19 am

Lowest 5th I mean.

101

Z 03.09.06 at 4:02 am

Where have you shown this?
I have linked to a pew poll way back in #37. The findings most relevant (I believe) is the assessment of own financial situation. In May 2005, 44% thought it was excellent or good, 55% thought it was only fair or poor. Here it is again. As for my other claim, the source is here, more precisely in the table at the bottom. But if you think these figures are incorrect, maybe I can cite others further to your daily life. In France, one million people (1,6% of the population) live with what is called the RMI. This is a monthly allowance of about 350€. I doubt you would say this is a pretty darn good salary. And only 10% of the French say they are “tout à fait à l’aise” regarding their financial situation.

But suppose you are right and the system is working superbly (I would disagree with you but I accept your point of view). Would you or would you not be troubled by inequalities due to their possible influence on the democratic system (to restate my position one last time, strikingly unequal people may cease to consider themselves as part of the same society, and this possibly could endanger the democratic system)?

102

zdenek 03.09.06 at 7:48 am

regarding inequality– the role of envy in motivating critique of inequality should be explored more. For suppose that it is not the injustice of some people being poorer than others that offends but rather that there are people who have more and deserve it than you which is upseting. Is it not posible that egalitarianism is underwritten by envy.
Is this not a problem for egalitarianism if it is true ? It might be a problem because envy is morally problematic; it is considered to be one of the seven deadly sins and is or seems inherently irrational : it involves experience of distress felt by the good fortune of others.
This is what Kant says about it :
“Envy is a propensity to view
wellbeing of others with distress
even though it does not detract
from ones own ” ( met. of morals )
If it is true that this is what underwrites egalitarianism than the left critique of inequality might be in trouble ?

103

Chris Bertram 03.09.06 at 9:17 am

I see that zdenek is now proposing to replace the examination of the arguments advanced by egalitarians by psychological speculation about their motives. I wonder what the psychological explanation for his comments on CT is?

(No, don’t answer, the question was merely rhetorical.)

104

zdenek 03.09.06 at 10:03 am

Chris- you are quite right of course that one cannot *refute* a belief without disproving its content. So offering a psychological explanation of it seems irrelevant . However although strictly speaking one cannot refute such believes a correct psychological account might be *disillusioning*. To see this consider the following example : suppose my uncle Anthony a succesful investor , gives me a tip on stock X . I go and buy stock X . But then discover that my uncle Anthony got his tip from a swindler Bob. Clearly the discovery would not *prove* that stock X isnt a good investment but it would still make a good sense to sell the stock X , why ? because I have lost only grounds I had for buying it in first place : my confidence in uncle Anthony’s expertise.
The point more generally is that sometimes it is possible to discredit a belief without refuting it. ( also note that D. Dennett is now doing precisely this in his own work see his latest book but with religion : in some way trying to discredit it by offering an evolutionary account of it )

105

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.09.06 at 10:43 am

“The findings most relevant (I believe) is the assessment of own financial situation. In May 2005, 44% thought it was excellent or good, 55% thought it was only fair or poor.”

Note A) on this summary report. It breaks out Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor as 4 separate categories for almost everything else. For the question you cite, it doesn’t. This always attracts my attention. Of “excellent”, “good”, “fair” and “poor” only “poor” has a clearly negative meaning. If you dig into the bowels of the questions you find that only 16% of people rate their personal finances as “poor”. Considering the number of rich people I know who would rate their personal financial situation as fair to poor, I don’t take a 16% poor rate as a failure of the economic system as a whole–especially when the values for March 1994 and February 1995 (the middle and tail end of a huge economic expansion in the US) were 14% and 13%. There are a subset of people (and frankly I would have put it at 20% or more) who are going to report unhappiness no matter what because they are unhappy people. The vast majority (always above 80%) are reporting their personal finances in positive to neutral terms. That with the measurable increase in access to all sorts of technology and time-saving devices paints a picture of economic success.

The Washinton Observor you cite is a Chinese press, I’m not sure where they are getting their numbers. But at such low household income (if correct though it would suggest very little work even at minimum wage), the people are clearly eligible for non-income aid and they are getting it. (See consumer spending for the bottom quintile).

106

harry b 03.09.06 at 11:44 am

Sometimes, in social situations, I listen to people who I know are in the top 1% of income earners in America, and the top .001% of income earners in the history of the world so far, whining about how much they have to pay in taxes. I never accuse them of greed, but argue about policy as if there is no element of moral cretinism in the room.

This is because I believe the “envy” objection to egalitarianism is about as interesting as the “greed” objection to inegalitarianism. zdenek, I can only speak for myself here, but I believe that in a just (egalitarian) society I would be worse off financially. Can I, at least, be excused the envy objection?

107

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.09.06 at 12:18 pm

I would also like to note that according to the survey, the bottom quintile has a 41% homeownership rate–73% of those (30% of the total) without a mortgage! Something is going on here that isn’t immediately obvious. (Is a huge percentage of this quintile retired homeowners? If so, focusing on their income is probably a very bad indicator of whether or not they are really poor in the way we normally think of ‘poor’).

BTW, these surveys are annoying to interpret because they give ‘share’. In order to interpret that you need to know that the number of people in the bottom quintile is just under 59 million and that the expenditures are in millions for the total group. To find the expenditures you have to convert the share into a percentage (11 becomes .11), multiply that by the expenditure and divide by 59. (The millions cancel out and you get a very rough dollar figure).

Interestingly the reported expenditures for Food, Alcohol, Housing, Apparel, Transportation, Health Care and Entertainment are about 170% of the reported post-tax income for the bottom quintile. I suspect this is some combination of mixing in retirees with workers and not adequately tracking public assistance.

108

james 03.09.06 at 1:07 pm

China attempted to force equality of means and this turned out poorly. Historically it’s a failed concept. At some point it requires a state mandated punishment for success.

On philosophical level, I fail to see any difference between an attempt to enforce equality of means and an attempt to enforce genetic sameness. There are always going to be genetic traits that can be converted into increased means (beauty, speed, strength, etc). To punish these individuals or their children seems biologically wrong. Perhaps a better solution is to ensure that the power of the state is not used to transfer wealth to the wealthy. This seems to be where the current forms of capitalism break down. Democracies and Republics should have given the masses of less wealthy the political means to prevent this. Unfortunately the infighting over control of social interaction is superseding economic concerns.

109

Chris Bertram 03.09.06 at 4:33 pm

Just a heads up:

Harry and I have been working on a comprehensive response to the Schmidtz piece and we hope to post it on CT some time tomorrow (Friday). It will be long by blog-post standards.

110

raj 03.10.06 at 10:39 am

Point of order? How much was Cato charging to attend this symposium? It should be evident that these are money making propositions.

That was made clear to me when I was involved in a professional organization that put on such dog-and-pony shows. Their primary interest was not professional, but in making money.

Comments on this entry are closed.