Rawls, Cohen and the Laffer hypothesis

by John Quiggin on March 30, 2009

I’ve just been at a fascinating conference on Evidence, Science And Public Policy. It was worth the trip just to hear John Worrall on evidence-based medicine point out this paper on remote retroactive intercessory prayer[1]. Assuming, as appears to be the case, that the study was totally legit (no data mining etc), the obvious question for me was why anyone would think it worthwhile (ex ante) to test this out.

But that’s not the subject of this post.

In discussion at the conference, some reference was made to Rawls, Cohen and incentives, the subject of quite a bit of discussion here at CT. Rawls and Cohen (and those of us following them) spend a lot of time on the question of whether it is just/desirable to adopt policies that increase the income of the well-off relative to that of the poor, assuming that the result is a Pareto-improvement (everyone is better off, even if the rich gain more). That’s an important question if you want to think about an ideal social order, or to clarify concepts of justice, but there’s a big risk (evident in some of the discussion at the conference) of sliding into the assumption that this question is politically relevant right now. To put it another way, this question is politically relevant only if you accept something very clsoe the Laffer Hypothesis[2], that a reduction in tax rates will, under current circumstances, produce an increase in revenue. Chris made much the same point in relation to the banking crisis a while back. The term “trickle-down economics” describes the general form of the claim.

There’s very little reason to believe the Laffer hypothesis or equivalent claims about the banks. The reason tax rates aren’t higher and bankers are getting bailed out on hugely generous terms isn’t because Rawlsians have outvoted Cohenites behind the veil of ignorance, or even because lots of economists believe the Laffer hypothesis. It’s because the rich and powerful are, well, rich and powerful. Not only can they promote ideas, however dubious, that serve their cause, they can bring powerful force to bear against any government or political movement that threatens their interest. All of this is obvious enough, but after thirty years in which any mention of these facts has been shouted down as the “politics of envy” or “class hatred”, it may be necessary to restate the obvious.

Again, that’s not a reason not to talk about whether Pareto improvements are (necessarily) desirable and just. I only want to remind everyone to mention, from time to time, that we’ve got a long way to go before we need to worry about this in practice. At the moment, the relevant version of the question is how the left can regain some of the ground lost over the last thirty years, now that the trickle-down theory has failed so spectacularly and obviously.

fn1. Paywalled, sorry. The authors of the study took records of people who had been treated for blood infections some years previously, randomly assigned them to two groups and got a volunteer to read a brief, non-specific prayer for the recovery of the test group, while holding the list of names. It turned out that the prayed-for group had had significantly better outcomes. Roy Belmont in comments is very upset about this study, though I can’t tell why for sure. John Worrall presented it as an data point against believing in randomised trials as the gold standard of evidence based medicine. As I said, my main puzzle is, assuming that the results were just a 100-1 fluke, why the authors thought of doing this in the first place, given the low probability of a publishable result.

fn2. Laffer didn’t invent the curve to which his name is commonly attached, but he can reasonably claim responsibility for the hypothesis that the US in the 1980s was on the declining part of the curve.

{ 64 comments }

1

roy belmont 03.30.09 at 6:13 am

It is not my intention to provoke argument or even further discussion about this, which you’ve already tossed aside as not the subject of this post. Merely to register a complaint.
On PubMed, from the BMJ, with a publish date of 22.12.01, there is an article by Leonard Leibovici with the title

Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial

From the abstract:
Main outcome measures
Mortality in hospital, length of stay in hospital, and duration of fever.
Results
Mortality was 28.1% (475/1691) in the intervention group and 30.2% (514/1702) in the control group (P for difference=0.4). Length of stay in hospital and duration of fever were significantly shorter in the intervention group than in the control group (P=0.01 and P=0.04, respectively).”

It’s not my area of expertise, neither is it an area of great interest to me, but the arrogance of logical positivism and its orphans in the contemporary world of letters is not amusing to me anymore, given the state of the world and given that the damage to the world which has created that state is a direct outcome of that arrogance and its consequenct myopia, which sees what it sees and sees naught else, nor will admit even the possibility of truths which threaten its dominance, until forced into acceptance by irrefutable proof. Which Professor Liebovici may or may not be offering.
For all I know he’s a religious lunatic with tenure. Though he has been published at the Lancet as well.
Still even the presence of religious lunatics doesn’t justify arrogance and dismissal of things that assault the contemporary paradigm anymore than the presence of bloodthirsty savages among them justified the extinction of whole tribes of indigenous men women and children.
I draw this parallel because the attitude is the same, merely continued, with the focus of its disdain recast onto currently permissible targets .
Disdain is no longer a justifiable human response to anything.

2

Tom Mathews 03.30.09 at 6:46 am

My understanding is that Rawls himself doesn’t support Pareto improvements in every circumstance – he says that society must also maintain free and equal opportunity, which might preclude some otherwise Pareto-efficient results. Say a policy improved the wealth of the rich by $1m and the poor by $1, presumably this could seriously advantage the children of the rich with respect to those of the poor. So it seems not an unreasonable reading of Rawls to say that he wouldn’t support such a policy.

I didn’t first get that from reading Rawls admittedly, but the case is made in Samuel Freeman’s book on him.

I am just an undergrad however, so I am very interested to see what others have to say on this.

3

John Quiggin 03.30.09 at 6:55 am

At the risk of derailing the thread, I’m not at all clear what you’re complaining about. Are you saying that belief in the efficacy of retroactive prayer is an important challenge to logical positivism?

4

JoB 03.30.09 at 8:12 am

John Q, of the off chance that you don’t want to spend too much time in defending either prayer or logical positivism, let’s throw Geithner/Obama/Krugman into your equation ;-)

You’re right of course on the main: the rich and powerful rig have rigged the new consensus in a way that has isolated it from due criticism (through sophisticated versions of “if you’re not with us, you’re against everybody” or ” maybe we don’t know whether He exists but if He does, He is going to get ya”). This rigging is however a Rawlsian theme. There is much undue focusing on 1 of his principles taken in isolation over here, something Rawls himself resisted. If the press and access to political office were less prone to rigging by the rich and powerful we’d at least be a lot more lucid in present-day public discussion (Krugman deserves all the praise for being a poster-boy of intellectual independence).

But you’re wrong in an important respect – even if the difference principle isn’t directly at stake now; the pragmatism of its reasoning can still be used to justify what Obama/Geithner try to do, although obviously only future can tell whether it is the right thing to be done. What’s to be done now is getting the show on the road again within the systemic limitations, imposed by the rich and powerful indeed. Only when the show is on the road again, the cast can be altered. I do not even think this is unjust: pragmatism vs. correctism is a false dochotomy. At least there’s a change of words from the administration: a change of words is a lot, it means more than this or that way of deciding on practical issues.

(the worrying part is that Obama is overstretching on words, presumably in Cohen’s direction – the appeal to ‘personal responsibilities’ presents a clear (but not yet present) danger to personal liberties)

5

Zamfir 03.30.09 at 8:41 am

JoB, I fear that what you describe is a ratchet mechanism: when the system fails, you have to wait to change it, but in the good times again, you won’t find support for change because everything goes well.

6

Stuart 03.30.09 at 8:42 am

Didn’t Sweden rather convincingly find that the Laffer Curve peaks around 70-80% of GDP taken in taxes (may vary a bit by culture, but broadly in that area), and the general form of the curve which goes down to 0% at 100% tax seems to be fairly solidly disproven by any communist government not having 0 productivity. So the US (for example) could probably double taxation and still be on the upward part of the slope, and certainly it shouldn’t really even be part of the discussion at this point in time there.

7

magistra 03.30.09 at 8:57 am

Was there any discussion at the conference of the results of academics like Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett who are claiming that inequality is one cause of most form of social problem? If that empirical evidence holds up (and I don’t know how robust it is) that is a strong argument against Pareto improvements in itself.

8

John Quiggin 03.30.09 at 9:20 am

JoB, I was trying to get at your point in the post. For the same kind of reasons as I’m opposed to war and revolution in the absence of a near-guarantee of success, I agree that in political action, we must focus on consequences rather than virtue. To the extent that we can’t eliminate the power of the banks and the rich in general, we have to treat it as a constraint. But I think, at the moment, they are being treated like the Wizard of Oz.

Hmm, I don’t know if that was any better, but I’ll keep trying.

9

JoB 03.30.09 at 9:48 am

Zamfir, I’m personally convinced that the economy post-70s is a huge pyramid game and that the basic truth we see revealed today is the bleeding obvious: losses of ‘the’ economy are, and by necessity, always nationalized. But I don’t believe that once a quick fix is in place, it will be business as usual again. Public speech internationally has turned Scandinavian, and there’s no reversibility in that ;-)

John Q, thanks – I sympathize: as long as anybody that has spoken uncritically at the neoliberal Davos World Summit has anything whatsoever to say in public affairs we’re in a bad shape. But I’d rather tax the hell out of them once things are tranquil than do it now when Bermuda & likes still exist. So, let’s agree on this slogan: “Down with the Wizards of Davoz!”

Seriously though, to keep the war/revolution analogy, I don’t see an exit strategy. Yes, there is need of international fiscal oversight. Yes, the snowball of richness needs to be melted before it consumes all of us. But, no, that’s not all of the issue. Companies need to be restricted in size: as long as we can have private administrations that dwarf the public administration of any medium sized European economy; we will get into this shit – because that is where the rich get their own excessive power from. Yep, that’s a bit of Marx, and I’m not going to apologize ;-).

10

salient 03.30.09 at 12:52 pm

That’s an important question if you want to think about an ideal social order, or to clarify concepts of justice, but there’s a big risk (evident in some of the discussion at the conference) of sliding into the assumption that this question is politically relevant right now.

To the contrary, from the intuitionist perspective there’s never been a better time to rigorously bury, in the public’s mind, the notion that we should be satisfied with inequalities in our society provided that they seem to make everyone better off. There’s never been a better time to investigate critically the premises about human nature that lie at the root of that claim.

I thought Cohen’s book very well-timed, insofar as his arguments about whether one is genuinely committed to justice currently have immaculate real-world parallels in banking. I think we’re right now living through the events that will become anecdotes to be used to bolster and defend intuitionist frameworks in the next generation, once the stories have congealed and suitable minds have taken up the analysis.

(Of course, I’m a layperson who comes to understand philosophy indirectly through what’s surely the rather warping lens of literature, so maybe I’m too invested in the idea that politically persuasive philosophy benefits from compelling stories as much as it does rigorous supporting theory. If not more so. Clearly my statements carry political intent in mind; my approach to philosophy is unfortunately analogous to an engineer’s approach to mathematics: what various good things can this be used for?)

The reason tax rates aren’t higher and bankers are getting bailed out on hugely generous terms isn’t because Rawlsians have outvoted Cohenites behind the veil of ignorance, or even because lots of economists believe the Laffer hypothesis. It’s because the rich and powerful are, well, rich and powerful.

But isn’t this a good opportunity to investigate whether these properties are inherent? Whether in any society in which inequalities are tolerated for the betterment of all, the folks who benefit from this inequality will naturally tend to act against society’s interests for the sake of maintaining their advantages?

If we’re going to make changes to our social or economic structure, even changes as basic as modifications to regulation, it seems we should apply the best theory we have available to guide what changes we support and advocate for. It’s a very important question to ask, whether a Rawlsian reasonably-just system will still inherently tend to produce outcomes like the one we’re experiencing.

Maybe Rawlsian philosophy, despite Rawls’ insistence that all theory must be grounded in the essential nature of human experience, suffers from a failure to recognize how self-interest manifests itself in rational beings, subject to chance. Perhaps (for example), behind a veil of ignorance, rational people will tend to agree to systems with unnecessary inequality hoping they will happen to come out ahead. Perhaps this is rational behavior: I, for one, don’t believe I’ve encountered a good characterization of the interactions of pure rationality with pure chance. (I will appreciate recommendations.)

So, hypothetically, it’s possible that a veil-of-ignorance approach will not lead to a system we’d want to call optimal. The interaction of rationality (wanting to defend my self-interest) with chance (not knowing into what role I shall be cast) may lead me to prefer systems in which I have a chance of getting ahead. Maybe a state with its population split 50/49/1, half with $20 / 49% with $100 / 1% with $4100, is inherently rationally preferred to a society in which every person has $100.

In other words, maybe Rawls was wrong about veil-of-ignorance inherently supporting a maximization of the least well-off persons, because a characterization of rationality that would prefer that maximization may not match up very well with the kind of rationality that is grounded in essential facts about human nature.

All of this is obvious enough, but after thirty years in which any mention of these facts has been shouted down as the “politics of envy” or “class hatred”, it may be necessary to restate the obvious.

It’s always necessary to restate the obvious.

Any parents on the thread who care to disagree? :-)

11

Slocum 03.30.09 at 1:40 pm

The reason tax rates aren’t higher and bankers are getting bailed out on hugely generous terms isn’t because Rawlsians have outvoted Cohenites behind the veil of ignorance, or even because lots of economists believe the Laffer hypothesis. It’s because the rich and powerful are, well, rich and powerful.

No. Tax rates aren’t higher because of the widespread belief among U.S. voters that high tax rates are harmful to economic growth. In places and eras where those beliefs were less prevalent, tax rates are higher (despite the fact that those eras and places also have their own rich and powerful). That charges of ‘class warfare’ and ‘the politics of envy’ are effective is a result of those general beliefs. In other places and eras, class struggle was seen as a positive by enough voters, for it to be a vote-getter rather than the reverse.

As for the bailouts — does Brad Delong’s clear support for the latest Geitner bailout plan indicate he’s one of the self-serving rich and powerful (or is being paid to serve their interests, or suffers from false consciousness)? Or is it possible that the main motivation for the bailouts comes from the fact that those in charge are scared shitless (justifiably or not) about the potential for general collapse if the banks are not bailed out?

Lastly, what all y’all Rawls fans will never seem to grasp is the declining returns of high income in an increasingly wealthy society. Because of that, the lives of the rich and poor have been converging (pretty dramatically) in material ways — gini indexes notwithstanding. In the 19th century, the lower classes were physically smaller because they were malnourished. 40 years ago when I was a kid, the middle classes had clotheslines instead of dryers, black and white TVs, window fans instead of air-conditioning, rarely ate in restaurants, and most had never traveled on an airplane. Living in bog standard suburbia not rural Appalachia, I knew kids whose families who always drank powdered milk rather than fresh to economize.

But what kinds of material possessions do the wealthy in the U.S. now have that the lower classes do not? It’s hard to come up with much–yes, the rich have fancier versions and more prestigious brands, but that’s mostly it. Despite the name, Sub Zero refrigerators don’t keep your beer any colder. Material differences in living conditions have been reduced pretty dramatically even as nominal dollar inequality has grown, and they’ve been reduced by increasing societal wealth overall, not redistribution.

On the other hand, I have some relatives about my who live on wages that are, say, 1 1/2 to 2x minimum wage. You could double their wages, and they couldn’t live my lifestyle, whereas you could cut my wages to their level and I could (and did so for many years as grad student). In my late 40s, I enjoy the same vigorous activities I did in my 20s, and those cost very little (hiking, backpacking, biking, canoeing). Pandora, Project Gutenberg, and my $8.99 NetFlix subscription keep me well supplied with entertainment. They, on the other hand, are overweight smokers, don’t eat well, get little exercise, and so are developing the typical chronic health problems — the years have taken much more of a toll. They’re also not good at deferred gratification, tend to be impulsive shoppers, and so always have credit card debt problems. You get the picture. In other words, those differences that remain — and they’re not trivial — are not ones that could be readily ameliorated by transfer payments. Most of the difference that matter would persist. As societies get wealthier, it is increasingly the case that the quality of your life depends on who you are rather than how much money you have — what would Rawls say about that?

Now, you might say — well, if you don’t really need as much money as you make, then we should raise taxes on higher earners and redistribute the proceeds. But the problem is that because higher incomes bring diminishing returns, higher tax rates will have more of a discouragement effect than they would otherwise. Even at my existing marginal rates of ~50% (when you figure fed, FICA, state and local), more leisure looks pretty attractive. So I’d argue that the poor are better off if you keep marginal rates low enough that the wealthy keep working hard rather than kicking back and relaxing more. But if increasing tax rates make it more normal for people like me to demand additional leisure rather than additional income, that would be OK, too. Societally, I think it would be a mistake, but for me personally it’d really be OK — I can adapt.

12

tristero 03.30.09 at 1:47 pm

The “intercessory prayer” study has long been debunked. Here’s pz’s take on it: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/02/im_sure_theres_a_paradox_in_he.php
and he gives links to others. I’m rather amazed that such a con is still being regularly discussed in apparently legitimate circles.

Furthermore, what this silly, fraudulent study has to say about logical positivism pro or con is unclear to me. As to whether Logical Positivism is good or bad, I’m sure it has done just as much harm to the world, and as much good, as alternate worldviews, including deity-centered ones.

13

engels 03.30.09 at 1:54 pm

In my late 40s, I enjoy the same vigorous activities I did in my 20s, and those cost very little (hiking, backpacking, biking, canoeing). Pandora, Project Gutenberg, and my $8.99 NetFlix subscription keep me well supplied with entertainment. They, on the other hand, are overweight smokers, don’t eat well, get little exercise, and so are developing the typical chronic health problems —the years have taken much more of a toll. They’re also not good at deferred gratification, tend to be impulsive shoppers, and so always have credit card debt problems. You get the picture

Indeed.

14

JoB 03.30.09 at 2:06 pm

salient, as parent I can’t disagree with the last thing you say but I can with the rest of it ;-) But let me quote slocum for that:

As societies get wealthier, it is increasingly the case that the quality of your life depends on who you are rather than how much money you have—what would Rawls say about that?

I guess he’d say it’s a good thing. He steered well clear of what persons ought or ought not to do (which is apparently the major beef this Cohen huy has with him) whether aspiring to blingbling or what do with the blingbling once one has it. A lot of the pessimism that is part of 10, 11 (and the optimism of 11 is refreshing, I have to say in passing) is cultural, it seems to me. That quality of life might trump having loads of money is something only the educated & reasonably well off get to realize – which is why it’s only fair to ensure everybody gets a minimum education and the minimum income allowing them not to worry about others having more.

It’s a bit like holding people in a dark prison with not enough food & then setting them free once in a while to an all-in holiday resort in Phuket. Obviously they will go into a feeding frenzy & the last thing on their minds will be to work their arses off to get a better deal (because they’d never have been able to conceive of better deals). But that’s not an argument contra Rawls conception or even thought experiment (he never people should be behind the VoI uneducated & starved – rather the contrary, that’s his first principle) – bounded rationality & all that is not a problem for it because if you have a. time to reflect & b. a 1 in 2 chance to starve then c. you won’t opt for an option where b is true (and the point is not whether the difference between lowest and highest is a factor of 200/2000 or even 2 Million, it is that however high the factor is it isn’t so high that it is without benefit to the lowest incomes).

(By the way, slocum, why is additional income societally better than additional leisure. I think a point like this (and it’s surface acceptability) is precisely what is wrong here & now).

15

salient 03.30.09 at 2:11 pm

As to whether Logical Positivism is good or bad, I’m sure it has done just as much harm to the world, and as much good, as alternate worldviews, including deity-centered ones.

It’s hard to see how this could be the case, just on the grounds that (1) Logical Positivism is a fairly recent development and so hasn’t had the time to do much good or harm, and (2) the quantity of adherents isn’t large proportionally, so it doesn’t have the numbers to do much good or harm with, even potentially. But a neutrally dismissive response is probably, overall, the right approach…

16

tristero 03.30.09 at 2:28 pm

salient,

You’re right. My point is that logical positivism is not intrinisically evil while some other worldview is intrinsically good. And neither is LP intrinsically good while some other worldview is intrinsically evil.

My larger point is: what the hell is that fraudelent study doing in an ostensibly serious conference?

17

salient 03.30.09 at 2:30 pm

JoB, one of my responses would be, there’s a span between the first rung of Maslow’s hierarchy (starvation vs. physical needs met) and the pinnacle of self-actualization. I agree with what you’ve said, but I don’t see it as arguing against what I intended to say.

Suppose in my example that $20 buys one sufficient goods to satisfactorily meet one’s physical needs and physical needs for nonworking children, assuming prudent spending and avoidance of all luxury goods. Whereas $100 allows for $80 of money to spend on leisure, etc.

That avoids the extreme example of starvation, but forces us to consider whether we want to call unequal Situation A or egalitarian Situation B more just. We can assume half the population in Situation A is in “moderately but tolerably stressful” straits (hardly any resources to spend on fun) whereas everyone in Situation B is in “low-stress” straits (at five times sustenance levels, they have plenty of resources to have fun with).

Which situation would rational persons behind a veil of ignorance naturally tend to support? Would they choose to maximize the well-being of the least advantaged (essentially pessimistic, assuming they’ll end up in the worst rung)? Or would they choose to ensure the least advantaged are in tolerable straits, and then maximize other groups (essentially optimistic from self-interest POV, hoping they’ll end up in the best rung).

I think these are questions about human nature, and about what rationality is, that Rawls assumes away. That’s no slight against Rawls, I hope: just an indication that there is further thinking to be accomplished here. I also believe that this thinking to be accomplished has direct applications to how we respond to the current crisis.

18

salient 03.30.09 at 2:45 pm

To answer John Q’s question, and tristero’s question, with a question: Why did medical researchers attempt to determine whether guaifenesin treats fibromyalgia symptoms?

The Oregon Health and Science University professor from Portland posed the following question at the opening of his speech: “Why on earth would someone choose to study an expectorant for the treatment of fibromyalgia?” Bennett says: “The answer lies in the realm of popular demand.”

The entire article linked above, while kind of tangential to the thread’s tangent, is a worthwhile read. I suspect prayer-healing to be analogous. And I suspect the authors of the study John linked above bear some analogous relationship to Dr. St. Amand.

19

tristero 03.30.09 at 2:56 pm

salient,

Yes and no. The expectorant study seems to be based on some kind of urban legend. The “intercessory prayer” fraud was part of a deliberate effort to wedge religious doctrines and dogma into science. The former is a bizarre aberration, the latter part of a well-organized political/cultural initiative. See Barbara Forrest’s and Paul Gross’s Creationism’s Trojan Horse for an idea of what is going on. http://www.amazon.com/Creationisms-Trojan-Horse-Intelligent-Design/dp/0195319737/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1238424889&sr=8-1

20

JoB 03.30.09 at 2:57 pm

salient, probably I was unclear. Situation A is NOK if it just provides sustenance because only if it also provides education and an equal shot at getting in high income section – if that’s what you wind up wanting – it meets the minimum requirements.

So, let’s assume your Situation A is suitably modified – i.e. much more than sustenance-only – is there still a Situation B to compare to? Once Situation A is realized – it is up to the individuals to do as they individually want with their lifes. They can opt for higher income depending on their human nature. Some may want to do things some others might disapprove of but as long as it is their choice, well, it’s their choice. But all of that is post-VoI. Trying to legislate more than this is – and although I tend to disagree with a lot of Rawls’ reasoning I think this part of it is really a crucial tenet of morality – is amoral. It’s amoral because it would prescribe to individuals, fully in possession of the means to make their own decisions, which decisions are better . It’s unfortunate I do not have the time for it, because I fear this is precisely where Cohen fails and I do agree it is directly relevant currently because we need not strive for egalitarianism, but for a little bit more sophistication where individuals remain in charge of their own choices (even if it is one of chasing the money or laying flat on their backs watching the latest porn).

21

Uncle Kvetch 03.30.09 at 3:06 pm

They’re also not good at deferred gratification, tend to be impulsive shoppers, and so always have credit card debt problems. You get the picture.

They could learn a thing or two from the wealthy. Maybe Paris Hilton can start offering life-coaching classes.

22

Ahistoricality 03.30.09 at 3:19 pm

Were there supposed to be footnotes attached to “[1]” and “[2]”?

23

Ahistoricality 03.30.09 at 3:20 pm

I’m sorry, I see them now. I was looking for similar notation when I scanned down….

24

salient 03.30.09 at 3:34 pm

Once Situation A is realized – it is up to the individuals to do as they individually want with their lifes.

I guess I disagree completely with the notion that Situation A would not inherently become corrupted over time (I think this notion is implicit in support of the situation as just). In other words, even if one were to achieve Situation A as suitably modified, I believe the conditions of Situation A are sufficient to ensure that those whose advantages confer power would choose to corrupt and dismantle the system. Therefore, even suitably modified, I don’t see Situation A as just.

This is also why I’m dissatisfied with the veil of ignorance as a model for determining appropriate social conditions: it doesn’t take into account what happens to a system over time, and therefore approves of initial conditions as just that (to me) don’t seem to stand much chance of holding up over time, and would under reasonable assumptions devolve into unjust conditions.

Trying to legislate more than this is – and although I tend to disagree with a lot of Rawls’ reasoning I think this part of it is really a crucial tenet of morality – is amoral.

I disagree completely, for the reason outlined just above, but thank you for this characterization — I think it clarifies in my mind what bothered me about the dominant role of liberty in Rawls’ theory (intuitively, the proposal to serially order liberty over other values makes sense).

25

salient 03.30.09 at 3:37 pm

The former is a bizarre aberration, the latter part of a well-organized political/cultural initiative.

No disagreement with your characterization of the latter, but I’d completely disagree with your characterization of the former. This probably isn’t the thread to go into detail about it, but I’ve found several entire branches of alternative medicine to be very problematic, and part of what I’d call a loosely-organized profit initiative that relies upon convincing large numbers of people that absurd things are true. Taking on my characterization of the former, surely the parallels I see become more clear.

26

JoB 03.30.09 at 4:32 pm

salient,

Surprisingly maybe, I agree with your first disagreement. The static nature of Rawls’ is a weakness. In his defense – he did spend loads of time on press, campaign funding, and other conditions required to avoid your entirely reasonable evolution to the unjust but he didn’t deal with it systematically afaik because his static theory doesn’t have a place for it (which is not to say he didn’t see the dynamics of it).

But as to your second disagreement, I continue to disagree wholeheartedly. If one is to improve on Rawals (and one has to, obviously, if he’s not Divine) there can be a variety of ways to do it. One of them, at face value, would be to ‘legislate more’ or to call on the personal morals of egalitarianism. But this only holds at face value because it conflicts, in the most basic way, with that part of Rawls that was argued less innovatively by him, but is much stronger: the first principle of political liberty.

Given a Situation A & B where the first is Rawlsian and the second such that everybody has a larger ability to spend but has no freedom of speech (to name just one thing): is it so that you’d prefer Situation B? If so, I think you fair worse on the evolutionary scale for it is entirely most reasonable to assume that Situation B would deteriorate faster, & with far more injustice than Situation A ever would (because in Situation A at least that type of public opinion would be available to counteract gross injustice by the few & the constraints on taking personal advantage by the few would be consequently far more).

27

JoB 03.30.09 at 4:33 pm

I should not have said “a larger ability to spend” but “a higher average buying power & with less normalized distribution” or something in that vein.

28

dsquared 03.30.09 at 4:50 pm

Assuming, as appears to be the case, that the study was totally legit (no data mining etc), the obvious question for me was why anyone would think it worthwhile (ex ante) to test this out.

IIRC, there was a bit of quite innocentish data mining involved, and the original purpose was to fire a salvo in the evidence-based medicine wars by showing that it was possible to gin up quite decent looking randomised blinded evidence for all sorts of stuff if you knew what you were looking for, as people carrying out trials of expensive patented pharmaceuticals always do.

29

Yarrow 03.30.09 at 5:18 pm

Assuming, as appears to be the case, that the study was totally legit (no data mining etc), the obvious question for me was why anyone would think it worthwhile (ex ante) to test this out.

The study author’s answer essentially repudiates the possibility of the study making sense, stating that its purpose was To deny from the beginning that empirical methods can be applied to questions that are completely outside the scientific model of the physical world. Or in a more formal way, if the pre-trial probability is infinitesimally low, the results of the trial will not really change it, and the trial should not be performed. This, to my mind, turns the article into a non-study, although the details provided in the publication (randomisation done only once, statement of a wish, analysis, etc) are correct.

It may, as tristero says, be a silly, fraudulent study. Certainly it was intended to be silly: Leibovici had published an article two years earlier than the study cited (1629 BMJ V 319 18-25 Dec 1999) in which he compares alternative medicine to a cuckoo, stealing nourishment from legitimate scientific medicine.

30

Sebastian 03.30.09 at 5:29 pm

People tend to find discussions with reference to Maslow’s pyramid either really useful, or completely useless. But since it has been mentioned, I’ll dive in.

If you discuss things in Maslow’s framework, I wonder if part of the problem between honest liberals and honest conservatives is just a disagreement about what government is good doing.

I think we can all agree to the Rawlsian framework for society/government actions at the physiological needs level. Government can just hand that stuff out if it needs to. We can mostly agree on the safety needs level. Government can provide that though there may be some difficulty on which tactics are best.

We get into trouble on the social needs level. It seems to me that a lot of the discussion ends up revolving around social needs that are not convincingly well fixed by government intervention. Positional goods disputes seem to arise in most societies, no matter what the Gini differential. (Don’t even get me started on Europeans and watches…)

On the esteem needs level the government looks even less suited to care for the less well off (in the sense of those who aren’t getting their esteem needs met).

And self actualization is almost certainly an area in which the government doesn’t provide much help except in the sense that it might help with the bottom two rungs.

Part of the problem is that as you go up the pyramid, people are much more individual in their needs which makes it much harder for the government to serve them.

I think Rawls himself was pretty aware of the fact that his analysis worked best for physiological and saftey needs with some of the social needs. But the whole discussion seems to get murky as we go higher up the pyramid.

31

Ralph Hitchens 03.30.09 at 5:36 pm

Re. RRIP, if the study was more legitimate than dsquared implies, it generates food for thought. I regularly attend a United Methodist Church, but have a wife who is blatantly nonreligious — gleefully professing, with many of our closest friends and relatives, a belief in a deity known as the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” But when a friend or relative is facing surgery or a cancer diagnosis, she never fails to have me request intercessory prayer for that person — which in our church is commonly done out loud during the service, in addition to putting names on an e-mail “prayer chain.” Hedging bets, I suppose.

Despite my religious faith I find the summarized results of the study to be counterintuitive.

32

tristero 03.30.09 at 5:41 pm

“if the study was more legitimate than dsquared implies, “

But it’s not. Please follow the link I posted above.

33

Fitz 03.30.09 at 6:29 pm

It would seem to me the point of empirical research on the power of intercessory prayer would be of a greater benefit to the logical positivist than to the Religious believer.

Indeed, by the strict empiricists own methodology he would (in his mind) be able to disprove religious belief in the power of such prayer and therefore gain the upper hand. As for it “place in as serious seminar” – the freedom of scientific inquiry or general curiosity would suffice as rationales. One could even go beyond that and insist on the debunking or validation of age old “superstitions”.

Now (as you would suspect) the religious believer is quite unaffected either way by the outcome of such studies. Having subscribed to a omnipotent and omnipresent God, both affirming and disaffirming evidence can be seen as “putting the Lord thy God to the test”.

Indeed, the Lord could reveal himself to each and everyone of us in such a tangible and irrefutable way as to remove all doubt of his existence even to the most staunch materialist. This type of God would certainly not allow himself to be subject to “proof” by such human ingenuity as simple random and double blind testing. God is not random or blind you see. He anticipates mortal escapades and has the power to reveal or not reveal his existence in any manner he see’s fit.

All quite frustrating to the materialist, but rather mundane to your average believer.

34

Perezoso 03.30.09 at 6:30 pm

Rawls more or less updated Proudhonian dreams with some “decision theory”. A somewhat admirable aspiration, and about as applicable as romantic poesy

Marxy Marx …. or Freddy “Hit Man” Nietzsche……… had a better grasp of political reality

35

QuantumTaco 03.30.09 at 6:45 pm

this question is politically relevant only if you accept something very close the Laffer Hypothesis[2], that a reduction in tax rates will, under current circumstances, produce an increase in revenue

I do not follow this logical step. This seems to be equivalent to asserting that a Rawlsian would always put tax rates at the peak of the Laffer curve (at least for the highest earners, or maybe for all but the lowest earners).

Couldn’t be in a regime where increasing taxes decreases wealth creation by the highest earners, but does not decrease revenue. Then the gain to the worst off from positive externalities of wealth creation could be greater than their loss in direct redistribution from government revenues.

I dont know how plausible that last condition is to you. I doubt you think we are in that regime now. There are a list of factors that make it more plausible to me: the massive returns to innovation, the small fraction of redistribution that goes to worst off, etc… But I think that this is the Rawlsian argument against increasing taxes, rather than just the Laffer Curve.

(I apologize in advance, if I have misconstrued your post)

36

salient 03.30.09 at 8:12 pm

But the whole discussion seems to get murky as we go higher up the pyramid.

The pyramid itself gets murky… the definition of self-actualization in particular seems to me to be a vague attempt to characterize Famous Great Persons of History.

But when a friend or relative is facing surgery or a cancer diagnosis, she never fails to have me request intercessory prayer for that person

That’s probably because it’s a social function. “This person in the community is suffering — offer what help you can” is strongly implied (perhaps more or less strongly depending on the congregation). ‘Round here, an announcement in such a service is practically guaranteed to generate large numbers of casseroles for the relevant family, to help take a load off any caretakers. Which is consistently helpful and appreciated, so far as I’ve seen. These are the “blessings” in which anyone can believe, though they’d be otherwise called ordinary acts of human compassion, sympathy, or aid. And there are people, in many churches, who live for the opportunity to perform these acts of kindness. So the “request for prayer” may be not a hedge, but a kind of aid alert.

37

Slocum 03.30.09 at 8:31 pm

JoB: That quality of life might trump having loads of money is something only the educated & reasonably well off get to realize – which is why it’s only fair to ensure everybody gets a minimum education and the minimum income allowing them not to worry about others having more.

Well, yes, but the problem is that many people are limited in their education not because it was unavailable or unaffordable, but because they didn’t like school, weren’t good at it, and generally couldn’t wait to get out. And the incomes they have already would support a richer life if…if they were savers and avoided consumer debt and silly impulse purchases (new Margaritaville now with salsa dispenser!) The problem is that many of the characteristics that tend make people end up poorer are the same ones that make it difficult for them to live without worry on the income they do have. Check out the the Marshmallow Test.

By the way, slocum, why is additional income societally better than additional leisure. I think a point like this (and it’s surface acceptability) is precisely what is wrong here & now.

Because it’s much better for the lower classes–even though some rich people might have preferred the good old days 50 years ago, when the distinctions of rank and wealth were much clearer. When, for example, you could fly off for a week in the Caribbean in the winter and just know you wouldn’t meet any of those people there. Hell, you could just board a plane and know that none of them would be there.

38

John Quiggin 03.30.09 at 11:28 pm

Slocum @11, DeLong’s support for the Geithner plan is premised on the assumption that nothing requiring new expenditure (such as nationalisation/receivership) could get past a Republican filibuster, so he’s a data point for my side of the argument.

On your more general claims, I’d be hesitant about claiming modernity for them. George Orwell was knocking down very similar arguments back in the 1930s

http://www.theorwellprize.co.uk/the-award/works/orwellessaywiganpierfood.aspx

39

John Quiggin 03.30.09 at 11:32 pm

#35 The claim that wealth acquisition (“creation” begs the question) generates positive (net) externalities for society as a whole is, in essence, the “trickle down” hypothesis. Looking at the 40 per cent of corporate profits, and the large share of salary income generated in the financial sector, I’d suggest that net negative externalities are more plausible, a point supported by the aggregate data on income distribution over the last 30 years.

40

Anthony 03.30.09 at 11:59 pm

#39 – there’s a difference between wealth acquisition and wealth creation – the latter gets much less media coverage, but does actually provide substantial benefit to people other than those doing most of the wealth acquisition.

#11

No. Tax rates aren’t higher because of the widespread belief among U.S. voters that high tax rates are harmful to economic growth. In places and eras where those beliefs were less prevalent, tax rates are higher (despite the fact that those eras and places also have their own rich and powerful). That charges of ‘class warfare’ and ‘the politics of envy’ are effective is a result of those general beliefs. In other places and eras, class struggle was seen as a positive by enough voters, for it to be a vote-getter rather than the reverse.

The truly rich and powerful mind high tax rates less than the upper middle classes, as it’s much easier for someone living on investments to arrange their finances to significantly reduce their own tax burden.

41

vivian 03.31.09 at 1:05 am

Not paywalled – free registration or institutional subscription .
required .

The BMJ has a tradition of putting tongue-in-cheek articles in their Christmas week issue. Which is where this one appeared. Immediately following it was a photo of a pap smear that looked remarkably like a flying reindeer. If I recall correctly, they published a data table, and their correlation was driven by one large outlier and one small. So I assumed the motivation was the fun of publishing it just in case, and that the amount of work involved would be basically nil (for the researchers) if there were no correlation. Especially if they were already searching that population for some more legitimate reason.

The comments/letters following it are the best part, especially the one noting that when a treatment is shown to be effective, it is offered to the control group; if this experiment were true, it would show that this hadn’t happened and never will.

42

John Quiggin 03.31.09 at 1:07 am

“t’s much easier for someone living on investments to arrange their finances to significantly reduce their own tax burden”

True, but getting significantly harder as a result of the (partial) capitulation of the main tax havens to demands for transparency, one of the few unambiguously positive things to come out of the GFC so far.

43

John Gordon 03.31.09 at 3:10 am

As others have pointed out the prayer studies didn’t pan out.

Larger f/u studies had negative results; or unexpected positive results (people prayed for did worse).

In retrospect (always easier) the initial positive results were consistent with publication bias. Lots of people did these experiments, but only the positive results were published, and since studies were small you can get misleading published papers.

Too bad. If it had shown a real effect there would have a rich area of experimental theology to explore.

44

JoB 03.31.09 at 9:23 am

slocum-37,

Well, yes, but the problem is that many people are limited in their education not because it was unavailable or unaffordable, but because they didn’t like school, weren’t good at it, and generally couldn’t wait to get out.

Cultural pessimism all right. I don’t think so (but I’m not versed in any field to support what I’m about to say with empirical material): for sure there are school drop-outs & far from everybody goes on to higher education, maybe there is even a pathological minority – that is necessarily as you describe – but on the main I think the problem with non-education of children is mainly the problem of parental non-education. This is why education should be compulsory – which is not to say higher education should be such, I don’t consider a plumber uneducated and I do not see why ‘educated’ should be restricted to those inclined ot read Ulysses – and free of charge. There are more people getting a decent education now than there ever were and that wouldn’t be so if there was a main element that resisted education).

Anyway, cultural pessimism leads to patronizing and condescending (‘better for the poor’). I am very much partisan of the idea that if there is a cultural problem it is with the traditionally rich – watching opera and watching Oprah for many of ’em is not only pronounced the same way ;-)

45

JoB 03.31.09 at 9:33 am

John Q-42, I think 41 nevertheless is right. We focus too much on progressive tax rates whilst we should focus on taxing wealth rather than income. The approach to tax havens is OK but it’s far from significant. I’ll be impressed if the Fortune top 100 (& specifically liberal-as-a-hobby people on there) will be wealth-taxed at 10 or 15%.

Which brings me back to the end game, or lack of it. Nothing in my view in all of the above will materially change as long as we have the current concentrations of capital – even a free market freak would agree with that. Why nobody talks about that? Why is the solution for Chrysler to go together with Fiat whilst I’m sure that if you cut off the small-car unit they’d be giving Fiat a run for the money in no time (hopefully giving it back to Chrysler)? If you split companies, the management will pay the downsizing. & if you consolidate, the average employee always will be the one getting the short end of the shtick (if only to make up in productivity what is lost by the additional layer of management required to synchronize these super-teams).

salient, I’d love to see your response to mine in 26-27 ;-)

46

Alex 03.31.09 at 9:40 am

You get the picture

Yes, I get the picture of smug. The short answer to your question, by the way, would be “health insurance” or perhaps “security” more broadly.

47

salient 03.31.09 at 11:37 am

salient, I’d love to see your response to mine in 26-27 ;-)

Sure. Essentially, I agree with your example with regard to free speech (that is, we both agree over which situation is better in that context). Let me argue my perspective in a narrow context: an estate tax.

Now, perhaps you and I happen to be in agreement about estate tax policy, so I should try this in two parts. First I intend to show that a reasonably compelling Rawlsian argument could be made for the justness of a specific social arrangement in which there is zero estate tax: one has the liberty to control who receives one’s property upon one’s death. Second, I’ll say why I think we ought to consider such an arrangement unjust.

First, the Rawlsian case to be made: It is reasonable for us to assume that many high-flying executive power-broker types pursue greater and greater wealth because they wish to accumulate wealth and pass it on to their heirs. Let’s say these people’s work does add value to the economy, e.g. because it generates business, so everyone is better off economically when the executives work more. Let’s further assume this value does trickle down and somehow positively affects the economic wealth of every sub-population. Let’s also assume that this heir-minded executive has real, hard-to-replace skills applicable to entrepreneurship, so their exit from the market would lower productivity / lower economic wealth. I think all of this is reasonable. Let’s further assume that Rawlsian criteria on education and entry into high-paying jobs are basically well-met in this society.

It seems reasonable, from a Rawlsian perspective, to tolerate the inequality that is generated by a zero estate tax in this scenario (because everyone is better off, economically, as a result of heir-minded executives having strong motivation to accumulate wealth). It seems reasonable to call this a Rawlsian-just society, perhaps not perfectly just, but reasonably satisfactory. The inequality shouldn’t have a significant effect on who has access to a high-paying executive career, because we’re assuming equal education, equal right of entry into the executive jobs, et cetera to meet Rawlsian criteria.

However, I’d say this is unjust. The heirs will enter into society with the advantages which accumulated wealth confers, and they will want to defend and protect those advantages. Furthermore, it seems reasonable that the heir-minded executives will themselves want to defend and protect those advantages, because otherwise there’s not much point in accumulating wealth for one’s heirs. To make a long statement shorter, let me summarize and say I believe this leads to an unstable system in which the Rawlsian criteria will be challenged, weakened, and compromised over time.

Now, if we get people to adopt a Cohen-like view, I think they’ll demand a high estate tax and wealth-gift tax in the name of egalitarianism. A justice-minded person should agree, the accumulation of wealth, in excess of stability and security, should be conferred to social good in the event of one’s death. Equal rights, in pure egalitarianism, demands some reasonable degree of equal access to the net wealth available to society, which is compromised by the lack of estate tax. “You received your wealth from society while you lived; you should return it to society’s benefit when you die” is the kind of principle we should be advocating as commonsensical.

And that brings me back around to arguing with John’s point again: as we fix the real damage, I think it’s important to also fix the damaging principles that conservatives have caused to become conventional wisdom (at least in the US). What alternative principles we advocate, and from what basis or what grounding, is therefore very important, and so this is an especially apt time to be discussing these matters.

48

Uncle Kvetch 03.31.09 at 12:08 pm

Well, yes, but the problem is that many people are limited in their education not because it was unavailable or unaffordable, but because they didn’t like school, weren’t good at it, and generally couldn’t wait to get out.

Unless, of course, they’re privy to the rarified world of “legacy admissions,” in which case they coast on family ties and the “gentleman’s C,” and they get the degrees, and all the advantages that come with them, regardless of whether they like school or are any good at it.

But of course, sooner or later, the meritocracy catches up with people like that–I mean, it’s not like you can coast all the way to the top, right?

49

Slocum 03.31.09 at 12:37 pm

On your more general claims, I’d be hesitant about claiming modernity for them. George Orwell was knocking down very similar arguments back in the 1930s

I assume you mean the bit about the orange juice and the Ryvita biscuits? But the typical poor American is now far richer in material goods than not just the poor in 1930s Britain, but most of British society then. Richer in the size and comfort of their dwellings, in the amount of work hours needed to buy food, in auto ownership, in leisure travel, and certainly in entertainment. We’re much farther along than we were 70 years ago. Which is a very good thing.

As that process continues, the level of material wealth needed to lead rich, interesting, healthy lives becomes universal. But stubborn gaps remain between the life experiences of the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ that cannot be closed by either wealth redistribution or government services.

Suppose ‘Mary’ and “Dave’ work the same hours and earn the same income (and have the same services available), but Mary’s work is intellectually interesting and Dave’s is monotonous. Suppose that Mary is a triathlete and Dave is a couch potato, that Mary is a gourmet cook and Dave usually grabs something through the drive-through window. Suppose that on vacation, that Mary prefers cities and museums or wilderness trips and Dave likes to feed the nickel slots. Does Rawlsian look at this and think that since incomes and services are equal, my work is done here?

Now of course, someone like ‘Mary’ also tends to make more money than someone like ‘Dave’ (though certainly not always — there are many exceptions). But less money (or services) won’t turn a Mary in to a Dave and more money won’t turn a Dave into a Mary. As societies grow richer, important gaps remain between those getting more out of their lives and those getting less — and those gaps are not addressable via redistribution. That’s what I’m arguing.

50

salient 03.31.09 at 1:11 pm

As societies grow richer, important gaps remain between those getting more out of their lives and those getting less—and those gaps are not addressable via redistribution.

With respect to the estate tax, I maintain you are wrong. Though I have no idea what you mean by “those getting more out of their lives” when we’re talking economy: it should be “those getting more than an equal share of the resources.”

51

Slocum 03.31.09 at 2:28 pm

Though I have no idea what you mean by “those getting more out of their lives” when we’re talking economy: it should be “those getting more than an equal share of the resources.”

Surely ‘the veil of ignorance’ should not ultimately be about economics, it should be about the quality of life. But as societies become more affluent, a couple of things happen. First, the overall quality of life improves dramatically, which is great. But second, relationship between money and material goods gets weird. Because of mass production, the most useful technologies are inherently high volume products and, therefore, cannot and do not remain the exclusive province of the rich. Instead, the rich subsidize everyone else by buying ‘gold plated’ versions that cost far more but provide little additional functional utility (think of a $70,000 Lexus as a form of progressive taxation).

So the relationship between money and material goods becomes less direct (unlike the 19th century where food was scarce and expensive, and a low income meant chronic hunger and stunted growth). So greater differences in cash translate into smaller differences in the utility of material goods. So differences in quality of life are less and less a function of getting an equal share of the cash, and more and more a function of one’s personal and social resources.

As a thought experiment, imagine we were living in the world that 1950s futurists used to like to worry about — where machines did all the work and produced all the goods and the problem was leisure. Surely in such a world, there would still be widely diverging results in terms of quality of life. Some people would live wonderful rich, productive, creative lives and others would go off the rails and drink themselves into an early grave (and, of course, everything in between). All based on the same material resources.

Maybe Rawls theory of justice has nothing to say about differences in quality of life in such a counterfactual world — but if so, it has less and less to say about differences in the world we actually live in (in wealthy societies, that is).

52

JoB 03.31.09 at 3:07 pm

salient-48 (by the way UK-49: LOL),

Yep, we’d tend to agree on estate tax but I get your point of principle – it’s a good point even if it is a bit surprising for me to see the difference principle used in the inverse. It was designed such as to have an upper limit on wealth, not to support the no-limit world. But it can be construed as you do so let me try to give it my best.

First: Whether the zero-estate-tax condition is or isn’t fair is a question of fact, not of principle.

Second: What you seem to assume is that this condition would be economically good over-all &, at the same time, constitutive of a systematic unequality of opportunity. I do not think that this first assumption is very likely to occur but if it does it would still be unallowed on principle if it, in fact, leads to the second assumption because the second assumption conflicts with Rawls’ 1st principle (and does so head-on).

Third: I grant the instability issue of his theory but in defense of Rawls, he has proposed rather strong anti-‘nepotism and the like’ rules (based on the 1st principle, not the difference principle when I have my thoughts straight). It is by the way imaginable that – in a society damaged by an egalitarianism gone wild – a zero-estate tax might be required to restore the liberty of owning an house.

Now to your paraphrase of Cohen:

A justice-minded person should agree, the accumulation of wealth, in excess of stability and security, should be conferred to social good in the event of one’s death. Equal rights, in pure egalitarianism, demands some reasonable degree of equal access to the net wealth available to society, which is compromised by the lack of estate tax. “You received your wealth from society while you lived; you should return it to society’s benefit when you die” is the kind of principle we should be advocating as commonsensical.

That sounds all right and positive and stuff but how do you implement it a. w/o infringing on an elementary set of political liberties & b. that you have an actual economy. In reality, I think, all of the evidence is that the administration of the egalitarian government creates power, in hands of a few individuals, and that power gets abused in a matter of years (not decades). If Rawls has a weak flank evolutionarily, Cohen just has no defense other than his wish for people to be, in a certain comprehensive way he likes, like he wants them to be. I’m all for Marx but I don’t think the solutions of the problems of now is to disregard all of the knowledge that we gathered since he died.

On coming back to John Q, I couldn’t agree more: what’s the end game. I repeat that the issue in my view that is not being tackled is the concentration of power in private hands. The solution is not in taking that out of their hands and putting it in other private hands that speak for all of us, Chavez comes to mind. So whatever we do now, there has to be a discussion of the end game – & I will not make myself popular but if the end game is egalitarianism than I will side with bankers until somebody comes up with a better end game than the one we tried and failed miserably at.

53

Zamfir 03.31.09 at 3:10 pm

Instead, the rich subsidize everyone else by buying ‘gold plated’ versions that cost far more but provide little additional functional utility (think of a $70,000 Lexus as a form of progressive taxation).

But an expensive car does really consume more resources and especially more labor (per vehicle, especially in development) than other cars. Buying a Lexus is not a progressive tax, it is a very complicated way of having other people work for your pleasure. And its utility is exactly that: a car whose point is that it cost a lot of labor to make.

You could as well claim that having a pyramid build for you is a form of progressive tax.

54

salient 03.31.09 at 3:10 pm

So differences in quality of life are less and less a function of getting an equal share of the cash, and more and more a function of one’s personal and social resources.

Perhaps hypothetically, if we eventually achieve the kind of society which we are attempting to work toward, I’ll buy this. At this point in time, no. Getting at least somewhat an equal share is still of primary importance, low unemployment is important, economic stability is important. It’s worth looking at the annual wages of the lowest 20% of earners in each country and considering that one in five people are living on that, etc.

Granted, it’s not the same as having nothing. We can always say, “but there’s someone poorer in the world!” That doesn’t, in my mind, translate into “we ought to not have sympathy for those in poverty among us.” ( And poverty doesn’t translate into lifestyle choices, unless one is the kind of person who quivers with rage at the hallucination of a nation of “welfare mothers.” )

Anyhow, there’s a long way to go before I believe your statement above is true.

Maybe Rawls theory of justice has nothing to say about differences in quality of life in such a counterfactual world—but if so, it has less and less to say about differences in the world we actually live in (in wealthy societies, that is).

That’s a point I’ve been considering: whether, in Rawls, all social goods are cast in terms of liberties and economics, and whether this is of sufficient scope. Yet it’s very difficult to describe justice in terms of quality of life directly, because the notion of “give each person her/his due” is so strongly wrapped up in ideas of (1) personal freedom and (2) fair distribution of resources/opportunities which derive from resources.

55

JoB 03.31.09 at 3:20 pm

Slocum, this time I share your sentiment on the outcome not possibly being equal (& I for one still hope of a world where machines do all the work), simply because people are not equal. As to Rawls: the VoI is neither economical nor about quality of life, it is political. It acknowledges that individual liberty will create differences and it acknowledges that these differences are to be kept ‘reasonable’ for all citizens to accept them – the current crisis clearly is one where the citizens are shouting ‘unfair’, that’s a political fact. Both taken together create some constraints which a fair polticial system needs to respect; other than that, yes, for Rawls it’s happy-go-lucky and if the couch potato wants to be a couch potato knowing he can be something else, he can be a couch potato (and you can despise him for it, and make fun of him but you can’t demand that he be something else or restrict his political rights or be Bill Gates and say the couch potato will not have any of your hard-earned money because he’s a couch potato).

By the way although most couch potatoes are poor, I am regularly a couch potato watching the latest reality-TV (yesterday the local version of Beauty & The Nerd with my kids) and I’m rich. And I tell you: I won’t have no Cohen come in and tell me that I should work for the good of the community – I vote for the good of the community and I don’t tell others what they should do – other than get a basic education and vote – & that’s the extent of what I HAVE to do for the good of the community

56

JoB 03.31.09 at 3:25 pm

Zamfir, your examples will get wilder and wilder but why would having a museum built with the name of the mecenas not be for the good of the community? I’d hope government builds them – but the fact of the matter is that many governments are dominated by religious folk & those are rather critical of ‘some’ art (meaning obviously that they won’t have any of it).

Don’t pin me on my example, please but there ARE positive examples of differences in wealth.

57

salient 03.31.09 at 4:02 pm

What you seem to assume is that this condition would be economically good over-all &, at the same time, constitutive of a systematic unequality of opportunity.

I am saying: the heirs will gunk up the system. Rawls does not provide a mechanism for assessing this, and in fact (I believe) his mechanism selects for conditions in which heirs have the greatest potential to gunk up the system.

I think, in order to be both reasonable and complete, a system of justice shouldn’t have to pull from the future. It should be able to assess, given a set of initial conditions and rules, whether those conditions and rules will result in a stably just society. So I maintain, at least tentatively,

(1) The Rawlsian two-principle serial framework is insufficient to apply to initial-value conditions and determine whether a society is just. In particular, I feel the difference principle will favor systems that will prove to be unstable over time due to the effects of wealth accumulation, and I believe this favoring is insufficiently tempered by the liberty principle.

(2) The Rawlsian assessment of just society is market-oriented (someone suggested I should say state-oriented instead on a previous thread, still considering this; I think the greater specificity of “market” is justifiable). This has interesting implications when we attempt to broaden our definition of justice sufficiently far to recover just behavior between individuals. In particular, I think (very tentatively) that justice generally is ensuring that no person is subjected to more suffering than is his/her due, and that a better model will more directly address the concept of human suffering and address market politics as a corollary.

(3) The idea of the veil of ignorance assumes a pure rationality, and I still haven’t found evidence that the interaction of pure rationality with pure chance (inequality & veil of ignorance) won’t tend to favor merely making the least-well-off position tolerable, in order to maximize the most-well-off — do rational people gamble their own self-interest? Does “rationality” mean that one mentally consigns oneself to the worst of all possible chances when debating behind a veil of ignorance — or does one deliberately take some from the worst well-off to improve the most well-off, up to some tolerance limit, in the hopes of happening to fall in a favored category? (This was my Situation A/B.)

(4) While I’d rather live in a more Rawlsian-just society, it’s important to discuss the principles that we want to persuade other people to accept, and this requires a system of justice. Thus (I agree with JoB) we do need to discuss “end-game” : what is the ideal society we are working toward? What principles ought to be commonsensical?

58

Barbar 03.31.09 at 5:29 pm

Well, yes, but the problem is that many people are limited in their education not because it was unavailable or unaffordable, but because they didn’t like school, weren’t good at it, and generally couldn’t wait to get out.

This is largely true. I nevertheless disagree with the (unstated) idea that people simply get what they deserve in American society.

1. Families differ wildly in the opportunities and safety nets they can offer children. A rich person, or even the child of professors, will have many more opportunities to find something they are good at, and will have many more opportunities to recover from bad judgment, bad decisions, bad school performance, etc.

2. A lot of life is about who you know. People generally don’t manufacture their social networks from scratch. Labor markets rely heavily on personal networks, for instance. The education system makes things a little more impersonal but hardly eliminates the effect fully — many companies like to hire from particular universities, many universities like to accept students from particular high schools, etc.

3. People’s worth cannot and should not be entirely defined by their personal characteristics as teenagers. It’s true that smart hardworking studious teenagers from poor families are often provided with great opportunities to succeed. But teens from the same family who are intelligent, impulsive, and have a hard time dealing with authority are likely to be shafted by our current system. Traits like impulsiveness are not unchangeable, having a hard time dealing with authority is not even necessarily a negative trait, and people do mature over time. (Our system tends to reward a certain brand of overly mature child.) Nevertheless, someone who screws up in high school is dealt a big blow — they are not in a hopeless situation, but they have to climb out of a hole. (I believe the situation is even tougher in Europe though.)

I do think that transfer payments are an incomplete solution, and that in many ways the poor in America often enjoy a decent amount of material comfort, although I think that Slocum overstates their luxurious conditions (speaking from personal experience, I spent two years as a child with 20/200 vision and no glasses, almost never went to the dentist, etc.)

59

JoB 03.31.09 at 5:31 pm

salient,

I guess we’re alone by now ;-)

1. agreed, but the egalitarian alternative is worse (see above)

2. agreed, but any idea of personal justice is part of a comprehensive doctrine leading to the issues of political liberties that are the starting point of Rawls thinking (in fact – yes, Rawls’ system is open for better models whilst a comprehensive doctrine adopted as the final one is per definition not open for essential improvement) – I admit to being a fan of the free market to regulate the interaction between individuals, evolutionarily it is the only context that allows progressive evolution (obviously the current markets are unchecked in important ways and even worse: not free because the big players are dominating)

3. I disagree, the idea of VoI – artificial and unconvincing as it is – will ensure that there is a 0% chance that the lowest incomes will be such that life is merely tolerable; but it’s really the most minor element of our discussion (I don’t like the VoI for reasons you’re making above)

4. I disagree, my end game is not an ideal society; the end game I’m looking for merely is (to come back to John): accepting we need to reluctantly make short term calls – e.g. the Geithner plan – (because we’re de facto hostage of the rich & powerful), what do we need to do – e.g. when the normality is restored in credit – to avoid being hostage again of the rich & powerful

5. to 4, my proposal: break-up large companies into smaller units (on top of tax haven intn’l regulation and widespread increases in taxing wealth)

3.

60

salient 03.31.09 at 7:11 pm

agreed, but the egalitarian alternative is worse

We’ll have to agree to disagree, I guess.

the end game I’m looking for merely is (to come back to John): accepting we need to reluctantly make short term calls

Well, okay, but “short term” is not an end game by my definition. I guess my point is, probably to your dismay, that this is a sensible time to advocate for sweeping change in conventional wisdom as well as policy, especially an increase in egalitarianism: not just policies, but advocacy for currently low-priority principles and ideas that “ought to be commonsensical.”

what do we need to do – e.g. when the normality is restored in credit – to avoid being hostage again of the rich & powerful

See, I think this is (or should be) an “applied” question for political theory and theory of social justice, and (apparently as opposed to John) I don’t think that Rawlsian perspectives and intuitionist perspectives lead to advocacy for the same policies. In particular, I think we need (A) strong disincentives for the accumulation of wealth derived from investing other people’s money, and (B) a very progressive estate tax that peaks near 100%, perhaps with the upper bound on untaxable inheritance indexed to 1 year’s median U.S. citizen annual earnings {exempting the value of a primary residence up to $1 million}. I suspect the Rawlsians would agree to (A) but not to (B) on the grounds that it would reduce productivity and make everyone worse off.

61

JoB 03.31.09 at 7:31 pm

salient,

Well, I hope not! But for the moment it may be best to quit while we’re ahead.

I’m a bit disappointed that you can’t conceed the egalitarian alternative is worse from a dynamic point of view. This seems so obvious and so supported by the facts.

You misquote me by cutting the quote after ‘short term calls’, there was no full stop for a while in that sentence (but I know my sentences are twisty to say the least). It doesn’t matter because none of my ‘end games’ would be long term seen from your angle. I – on the other hand – would have a principled issue with your type of end game. I believe it’s one of the worst things to target a closed system of rules, I think it’s inhumane.

Sweeping change, yes, but as to the hostage situation I do recommend you read, or you re-read, Rawls: some of the most concrete suggestions he has are on this side. As to the B: if everyone is worse off, even an egalitarian should have issues. That being said, I do not see why Rawlsians would object to (B) in principle (& I think your proposal is quite in the direction of what I at least would find reasonable in current circumstances) but I do see why they would object to (B) being a principled attribute of a liberal democracy.

62

Slocum 03.31.09 at 8:59 pm

Zamfir: But an expensive car does really consume more resources and especially more labor (per vehicle, especially in development) than other cars. Buying a Lexus is not a progressive tax, it is a very complicated way of having other people work for your pleasure.

What you’re missing is that most important, most valuable ingredients are shared between the Lexus and the Corolla — high-tech engine and transmission technology, air-bags, anti-lock brakes, and so on. If you prefer, think of the $2000 laptop as the progressive taxation subsidizing the $500 laptop.

salient: Perhaps hypothetically, if we eventually achieve the kind of society which we are attempting to work toward, I’ll buy this. At this point in time, no.

I think we’re closer than you think we are. Recall the Jack Nicholson bit from ‘As Good As It Gets”:

Some have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that’s their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you’re that pissed that so many others had it good…

But notice that the people in that car weren’t without those pretty stories because of an unequal share of resources. And, on the other hand, great stories involving lakes and boats and friends are within the financial means of a family living on two Walmart associate incomes.

63

Perezoso 03.31.09 at 9:21 pm

Rawls understood that braves needed 40 acres, and a mule, and some supplies, agua, etc. ( and that it’s injust when they lack those necessaries). He didn’t understand they need an obedient and not overly ripe squaw or three as well.

64

Perezoso 04.01.09 at 5:38 pm

For that matter, Rawls-chat may be more about professors putting on appearances than about implementing serious economic or political reforms. Herr Doktor X approves of Rawls’ VoI, OP, DiffPrin, etc, so he’s assumed to be sort of egalitarian–Egalitarianism is yr Aeroplane.

There are obvious Rawlsian sorts of measures that could be brought to the table immediately (or to House or Senate). Not merely higher taxes, but entitlement programs of various sorts, even WPA sorts of programs (making all votes passable by majority instead of 2/3s seems correct, Rawlsian or not). The usual academic however usually either is too preoccupied with teaching/ research, or concerned about tenure (or losing it) so any Applied-Rawls generally depends on Les Miz, though Les Miz generally has no need for procedures or contracts, and the A-R becomes bureaucratic socialism of various sorts. So it goes…………………

Comments on this entry are closed.