If only Harvard had a philosopher who could tell it how to distribute resources justly…

by Corey Robin on October 6, 2016

Harvard in Theory:

“Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are…to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged….an excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, §46)

Harvard in Practice:
When dining hall workers ask a university with $36 billion in savings to pay them $35,000 a year plus health benefits, they’re forced out on strike.

 

{ 48 comments }

1

R.Porrofatto 10.06.16 at 1:03 pm

Lefties have no sense of the tyrannical consequences of simple arithmetic. According to the WP article, the 750 food service workers are asking for roughly a $1200 annual increase. That would cost the university $900,000 per year. At that rate, its $36 billion endowment would be totally wiped out in as little as 40,000 years!

UPDATE: The WP says Harvard’s endowment is actually $37 billion. That extra billion isn’t as much as you might think. It would only fund the food service employees’ greed for another 1,111 years.

2

ccc 10.06.16 at 1:42 pm

In other Harvard news: Mankiw’s course assigns $132 Mankiw textbook designed to block the second hand market. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/9/20/mankiw-praises-online-textbook/

3

engels 10.06.16 at 1:56 pm

To paraphrase Mr Biswas: ‘Egalitarianism, like charity, should begin at home.’

4

mds 10.06.16 at 2:06 pm

R. Porrofatto @ 1:

That would cost the university $900,000 per year. At that rate, its $36 billion endowment would be totally wiped out in as little as 40,000 years!

I’m disappointed, Porrofatto. This is not really a fair characterization of the situation. The endowment would probably generate income at some point druing those 40,000 years.

5

Lynne 10.06.16 at 2:20 pm

Beautiful juxtaposition, Corey.

6

michael braverman 10.06.16 at 2:23 pm

Robin went to Yale. This is obviously envy talking.

7

cassander 10.06.16 at 2:59 pm

By this logic, do we then condemn the dining center workers should they fail to turn around and give their salaries to the unemployed?

8

Chris Bertram 10.06.16 at 3:24 pm

But Corey, the logic of the difference principle is that if Harvard tried to give them more, they’d end up with less ….

9

map maker 10.06.16 at 3:32 pm

The least advantaged do not live in Cambridge Massachusetts

10

Plucky Underdog 10.06.16 at 3:41 pm

cassander@2:59 — expect them to contribute to the common welfare by paying income and other taxes, yes. In Other News: Sheesh, give it rest for once, whydoncha?

11

mds 10.06.16 at 4:37 pm

The least advantaged do not live in Cambridge Massachusetts

Hmm, and yet we are talking about workers who currently make less than $35000 a year. So either (1) they’re rich dilettantes doing this for fun; (2) there are in fact still poor people living in Cambridge; or (3) there are people who commute to work in expensive urban areas from less-expensive places. It’s a real head-scratcher.

12

bruce wilder 10.06.16 at 5:52 pm

Cambridge is very densely populated, with a total population of over 100,000. Population and incomes have been growing over the last 20 years. Over 15,000 residents are students living in dormitories. Median household income for Cambridge Massachusetts is around $75,000 and average per capita, $47,000; the average household is 2 persons. So, no, a cafeteria worker would not be pushing up the average, but two cafeteria workers living together might be a fairly typical household. The average annual wage in Cambridge is over $100,000. Rent on an available one-bedroom apartment is likely north of $2000 a month. About 15% of residents have household incomes below the official poverty line.

13

LFC 10.06.16 at 5:54 pm

C Bertram @8
I realize this comment is a joke, but it’s not all that funny, esp since some people might take it seriously.

14

LFC 10.06.16 at 6:00 pm

@b wilder
My guess is that the large majority of dining hall workers do not live in Cambridge.

15

Brett 10.06.16 at 7:24 pm

@2 ccc

I had a professor who did that. You had to buy a “package” including an online textbook version and a notebook, and the campus bookstore was the only place where you could get the package (did I mention it cost more than $150?).

@7 Cassander

I just think it’s a dumb thing to get into a strike over. It’s a relatively minor raise that only applies to workers who make themselves available for the limited work available during the summer.

I do agree that generosity’s got nothing to do with it. It’s adversarial bargaining – this is how things are supposed to play out if nothing can be agreed upon at the table.

16

Hey Skipper 10.06.16 at 8:53 pm

Hmmm. I wonder when anyone here paid anything more than they had to in order to obtain the good or service they wanted.

17

Manta 10.06.16 at 9:11 pm

I don’t understand what Harvard policy towards his worker has to do with what a Harvard professor say about that topic.
(It seems snark, but I am serious: academic freedom implies that what a professor says about justice reflects in no way the university opinion on it; and conversely, what the administrator think about policy should have no influence about what a scholar think about it).

18

bruce wilder 10.06.16 at 9:23 pm

Hey Skipper @ 16

In the U.S., probably nearly everyone quite frequently, since tipping is customary, not to mention all the instances in which one chooses convenience or a more reputable merchant or service provider. A lot of people try to be consciously ethical in the purchase of items like coffee or clothing, when they have the option. Not everyone is an ahole.

19

Howard Frant 10.06.16 at 9:45 pm

I always thought the Difference Principle was the weakest part of TJ.

By this logic, why Rawls and not Nozick?

20

LFC 10.06.16 at 10:45 pm

Manta @17
You’re right, but you need to take the OP in the somewhat darkly humorous vein in which I think it was intended. (You also need to know at least a little bit about Rawls’s career and his long connection w Harvard to ‘get’ the OP fully.)

p.s. Was going to say more, but the more one explains humor the less funny it gets.

21

Tom Hurka 10.07.16 at 3:05 am

As we all know, Rawls’s Difference Principle applies only to the basic structure of society and not to individual transactions within that structure. So if what the DP requires is a market economy with some redistributive taxation, and Harvard is in that kind of economy and is paying the market wage, then however much it could pay it’s doing nothing wrong. Who said Rawls wasn’t a Harvard professor?

22

bruce wilder 10.07.16 at 3:27 am

Harvard is in that kind of economy and is paying the market wage

Where is this market? I’d like to take a gander.

If Harvard agrees to a union contract wage, where does the market go?

23

Anarcissie 10.07.16 at 4:27 am

cassander 10.06.16 at 2:59 pm @ 7 —
Indeed, there is no just distribution but a communist distribution: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. But until the Revolution arrives, we must expect bourgeois institutions to behave like bourgeois institutions, that is, keep the money for things their leaders like. And so we must also expect the necessity for unions, union agitation, strikes, and so on — the interests of the workers pursued through the good old pure liberal freedoms of association, assembly, expression, and contract. Enjoy it while you can.

24

ccc 10.07.16 at 12:03 pm

@Tom Hurka 21: … and the difference principle also applies only when teamed up with the other principles of justice. But the rawlsian fair equality of opportunity principle and equal basic liberties principle are clearly not yet implemented in the country where Harvard operates.

25

LFC 10.07.16 at 12:25 pm

@THurka
So if what the DP requires is a market economy with some redistributive taxation
the DP, in conjunction w the other principles, doesn’t *require* particular economic institutions but rather whichever ones come closest to fulfilling in practice the broad outcomes it requires. The basic structure has to generate just outcomes as defined by R’s principles, and the particular economic institutions matter less than the outcomes.

and Harvard is in that kind of economy and is paying the market wage
This is irrelevant, b/c: (1) the US ‘basic structure’ is currently unjust according to Rawlsian criteria, and therefore (2) any wage bargains that can be adjusted in a direction that would more compatible with a just basic structure should be so adjusted. Therefore Harvard should meet the dining workers’ demands.

26

LFC 10.07.16 at 12:26 pm

correction:
would be more compatible

27

Tom Hurka 10.07.16 at 2:33 pm

If the current US economy isn’t just by Rawlsian standards (and I never said it is), then what Harvard should do is pay its dining workers as little as possible and use the money saved to campaign for large-scale political reforms that move the US closer to justice. Or, at least, in deciding how much to pay its workers it shouldn’t ask what applying the Difference Principle in this little local situation would require. It should ask what wage would most advance larger-scale social justice. That might be a higher wage for the local workers, but I don’t see why it should be.

The OP suggests that a local fact, about how wealthy Harvard is, affects what, by Rawls’s lights, it should pay its workers. That ignores Rawls’s emphasis on the basic structure and consequent refusal to apply his principles to micro transactions. That aspect of his view has been criticized from both the right (Nozick) and the left (Cohen) as abandoning a more serious egalitarianism. I don’t see how pointing to this or that other principle in his theory meets that, more global criticism.

28

engels 10.07.16 at 3:57 pm

what Harvard should do is pay its dining workers as little as possible and use the money saved to campaign for large-scale political reforms that move the US closer to justice. Or, at least… It should ask what wage would most advance larger-scale social justice

Surely this isn’t self-evident? To me it sounds like it assumes consequentialist or even ‘effective altruist’ ideas about personal ethics that aren’t found in Rawls. Couldn’t Harvard, if they are Rawlsians, feel they ought to aim to behave in their local community life in a way consonant with the spirit of what they wish to see implemented on the utopian large scale? I’d have thought the spirit of the difference principle was that inequalities within communities should serve the interests of the least-advantaged.

29

engels 10.07.16 at 4:04 pm

(Disclaimer: I know even less about Rawls’ views on personal ethics than I do about ToJ etc)

30

Anarcissie 10.07.16 at 5:02 pm

Can someone point me to the empirical basis for the belief that inequality of any kind serves the interests of the least-advantaged ever?

31

LFC 10.07.16 at 5:57 pm

Re T. Hurka @27, how can one tell exactly what wage for the local workers would “most advance” large-scale justice in the US? What would “most advance” social justice in the US in this context might be, say, for Harvard to give half its endowment to community-based movements for social change, but obviously that’s not going to happen.

Two points: 1) the Harvard admin obviously does not want to act as Rawlsians, and (2) because the OP was meant mainly as a mordant joke, bringing up Rawls’s restriction of his principles to the basic structure — which T. Hurka is of course correct about — is like taking the monologue of a stand-up comic and treating it as a piece of completely serious political theory. This same OP at Corey’s blog was entitled “Harvard, in Theory and Practice.” Obvs. he wanted to twit Harvard and make a joke with an edge. That’s fine, but there’s no point in subjecting it to serious analysis on the lines of some of the above comments (e.g. “it ignores R’s focus on the basic structure”).

32

LFC 10.07.16 at 6:08 pm

Anarcissie @30

It would probably not be too hard to construct an empirical argument that certain inequalities in certain contexts help the worst-off, but it wd take more work than I have time or inclination to do right now.

And if did turn out empirically to be the case that inequalities never benefit the worst-off, then the DP would require complete equality.

33

JRLRC 10.07.16 at 6:17 pm

“From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. I agree. And that´s not communist distribution, at least not per se. Think about it.

34

Rich Puchalsky 10.07.16 at 6:22 pm

“from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”

If we’re going to take high productivity seriously then there’s no need for each to contribute according to their abilities. You can either look at this as being better than usual for political slogans or you can say that since it’s pretty short, being half wrong is pretty bad.

35

stevenjohnson 10.07.16 at 6:43 pm

“From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” I forget who originally pointed out this is probably descriptive of decently run families. This aptly captures the “social” in socialism. Still, I prefer production for use and abolition of classes to suggest the goal.

In social abundance, though, “from each according to their abilities” is about self-expression through the exercise of vital powers. If that sounds like it harks back to dreams of the centuries, I can only say socialism is a collective product, the wisdom of the ages, not something dreamed up in a library.

As to the OP, well, yes, strictly the practice of Harvard is to produce theory, but it’s theory that is only put into practice when it furthers the goals of those who matter. The structural function of the marketplace of ideas is to reduce ideas to personal consumption goods. Ideas meant for practice are usually special ordered from policy institutes, endowed chairs and think tanks, but the public at large is not invited into that market.

36

Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.07.16 at 8:52 pm

Keeping in mind LFC’s response to Hurka above, I still want to respond to the latter’s comment that “Rawls’s Difference Principle applies only to the basic structure of society and not to individual transactions within that structure,” which is not a charitable reading of the argument (G.A. Cohen appreciated this as well, hence the distinction between ‘lax’ and ‘strict’ readings of the DP). Here I would invoke Samuel Freeman’s treatment, for it notes that Rawls understood the WOS as a just system that would “generate [over time] its own support,” thus it has bearing upon individual motivations, in other words, the “effective desire that brings about a sense of justice among individuals is what causes them to act in accordance with [the] just system’s rules for reasons of justice.” Rawls envisions moral and natural sentiments being awakened and cultivated such that the principles of reciprocity and mutuality essential to (although perhaps not sufficient for forms of) “companionship” among those expressing their moral nature as free and equal persons become meaningfully instantiated such that individuals act in (minimally) with solidarity or (ideally) with fraternity. So, while we can and should acknowledge with Cohen that Rawls was inconsistent if not contradictory in his treatment of questions of motivation and incentives, our most charitable reading of his corpus should conclude with Freeman that Rawls

“assumes that in a WOS of justice as fairness, where the principles of justice are effective and all are motivated by their sense of justice to comply, there will not be ‘high-flying’ ‘buccaneer’ capitalists who seek to exploit people or to game the system so that it maximally benefits people with acquisitive attitudes. For a sense of justice involves [as we noted above] a desire to comply with rules that over time maximally benefit the least advantaged…. Moreover, in accepting a duty of mutual respect, a just person does not try to exploit others’ disadvantage or misfortune, or take advantage of weaknesses of others’ bargaining position. Instead, just persons, being reasonable, ‘take into account the consequences of their actions on others’ well-being.’ One who has a sense of justice recognizes that ‘Mutual respect is shown … in our willingness to see the situation of others from their point of view [empathy] … and in our being prepared to give reasons for our actions whenever the interests of others are materially affected’ [cf. Cohen’s notion of ‘justificatory community’], reasons they can reasonably accept. Finally, in acting on the duty of mutual aid, a just and reasonable person inspires a sense of confidence and trust in other men’s good intentions and the knowledge that they are there if we need them. These and other attributes of reasonable persons with a sense of justice should go a long way towards mitigating the kinds of acquisitive attitudes and lack of concern for others that Cohen suspects Rawls’s difference principle will be prone to. There is an ‘ethos of justice’ shared by members of a well-ordered society of justice as fairness, even if it is not exactly the same ethos advocated by Cohen.”

37

Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.07.16 at 8:53 pm

[It seems I don’t know how to use the HTML tags, as I meant to italicize two words: “reciprocity” and “mutuality.”]

38

engels 10.07.16 at 9:20 pm

Good points, Patrick. I’m sympathetic to the Cohen critique but I think the main issue is slightly different here. Not whether or how the Difference Pronciple should motivate individual ethical behaviour in a just society but how it should influence its presumed theoretical adherents in in our far from just one (which is closer to a question Cohen famously asked in another book come to think of it…)

(Agree with LFC that the post was presumably not intended to be a watertight philosophical refutation of St. Jack…)

39

Patrick S. O'Donnell 10.07.16 at 9:26 pm

That’s fine, as I did not intend to adhere to “the main issue here.”

40

engels 10.07.16 at 9:38 pm

Tetchy much? I meant the issue the post raises… ymmv

41

engels 10.07.16 at 9:41 pm

(And my point was that Cohen’s critique isn’t directly relevant to that not that your post was OT, hence why I said ‘good points’…)

42

cassander 10.07.16 at 11:15 pm

@Anarcissie 10.07.16 at 4:27 am

> Indeed, there is no just distribution but a communist distribution: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.

And who determines needs and abilities? Good work if you can get it, I imagine, and no doubt well rewarded.

> the interests of the workers pursued through the good old pure liberal freedoms of association, assembly, expression, and contract. Enjoy it while you can.

I intend to, and wish the strikers good luck.

43

Anarcissie 10.08.16 at 12:14 am

LFC 10.07.16 at 6:08 pm @ 32 —
I think there might be a problem with the definition of ‘benefit’. A unit of wealth is usually of higher utility to a poor person than a rich one, so if we move the unit from the poor to the rich, thus increasing inequality (in a zero-sum game, anyway) not only is the poor person worse off, but aggregate utility has been lessened. Of course the idea is that by maintaining a wealth gradient, we inspire people to work hard and produce goodies which then trickle down to the lowly. But on the other hand many of the things people do to gain wealth are destructive or at least ambiguous. This is why I’m interested in an empirical treatment of the actual effects of inequality on the poor. Hopefully it would not deal only with their wages and benefits, but also their social and natural environment, and their legal rights and political power.

cassander 10.07.16 at 11:15 pm @ 42:
‘And who determines needs and abilities? Good work if you can get it, I imagine, and no doubt well rewarded.’

There are schemes for doing this, but if the schemers were rewarded more than anyone else as a result of their scheming, it wouldn’t be communism, and thus it wouldn’t be just (according to my notion of justice).

44

cassander 10.08.16 at 1:04 am

@anarcissie

>There are schemes for doing this, but if the schemers were rewarded more than anyone else as a result of their scheming, it wouldn’t be communism, and thus it wouldn’t be just (according to my notion of justice).

Those schemes have been implemented in many places. everywhere they have resulted in poverty. Not in infrequently, mass killing on a colossal scale. How many more people do your fantasies have to kill?

45

LFC 10.08.16 at 1:40 am

@Anarcissie
The point, to boil it down, is that Rawls is not doing empirical social science and is not making many explicitly empirical claims. His argument about inequality is framed to a large extent in the conditional mode: *if* certain inequalities have effects that can be shown persuasively to work in some way that helps the least advantaged (compared to alternative distributions), those inequalities may be permissible; OTOH, if inequalities harm the least advantaged, e.g. economically or psychologically (in terms of self-respect; admittedly difficult to measure), then they’re impermissible. (If R. were alive now, he wd view the levels of income/wealth and political inequality in the U.S., and various other countries, as grossly unjust.)

Now if you want to forget about Rawls and have a discussion about the question of “the actual effects of inequality on the poor,” that would probably involve (1) choosing the geographical/temporal context, since those effects may not be the same everywhere and at all times, (2) specifying the effects of interest (economic, psychological, overall ‘quality of life’, political power, or what); (3) roping in a literature much or most of which I’m not familiar with and a good chunk of which is probably too technical for me to decipher anyway, and (relatedly) (4) watching, to a large extent uncomprehendingly in my case, methodologically sophisticated social scientists turn somersaults trying to disentangle the effects of inequality from the effects of other phenomena that may often accompany inequality. The alternative is to pile up a whole bunch of interpretive, qualitative studies and to try to draw inferences from them on the question (and again, I don’t know the relevant lit. v. well).

I hope this will be my last post in this thread.

46

Anarcissie 10.08.16 at 1:52 am

cassander 10.08.16 at 1:04 am @ 44 —
Well, one scheme is the voluntary growth of cooperative and communal means of production, distribution, and consumption. There are many thousands of people at work furthering this set of schemes right now, and as far as I know they are not killing anyone directly. Of course, most of them are embedded in liberal capitalist states and have to deal with those systems of production, distribution, and consumption, which certainly kill etc. on a mass scale from time to time, so maybe they are beneficiaries of that killing. One could argue about that at length. In any case, in the present stage of things they don’t have much choice. Assuming the cooperatives and communes continue to grow, they will presumably eventually begin to cohere and form a kind of polity. Hopefully by the time they are noticed and taken seriously by the ruling class they will be too big to squash. Of course many things might happen to forestall their development, so then they would not have to be squashed after all. Also, they might be vulnerable to liberal subversion, and get sucked into the state.

Anyway, off the top of my head I would say the answer to your question might well be ‘Zero’ with a little luck — and a lot more time than we seem to have, but you never know.

47

Anarcissie 10.08.16 at 2:57 am

LFC 10.08.16 at 1:40 am @ 45 —
OK, so apparently there is no empirical evidence that inequality improves the lot of the poor.

48

Yankee 10.08.16 at 5:19 pm

Rawls, like Decartes, set out to create a moral structure out of nothing, but all we got was this large book.

The point is that such service people aren’t underpaid, they are exploited, and we do wish Harvard would have learned (swIdt?) better than that. All American cities are squeezing out the service people, which as social action is just stupid even for the Them. Who will chop wood and carry water when they’re gone? Solution is barracks like Shenzhen, I suppose. Coming soon?

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