The poverty of psychology

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2017

Political philosophers have been arguing about equality for a very long time. We’ve argued about whether equality is a fundamental value or whether what matters is better captured by a focus on priority or sufficiency. We’ve argued about whether egalitarians should focus on securing equal amounts of something or on assuring people that they stand in relationships of equality of status toward one another. We’ve argued about the currency of egalitarian justice, and whether we should assess equality in terms of welfare, resources, opportunity for welfare or “advantage”. Luck egalitarians have argued that people should be rendered equal with respect to their unchosen circumstances but that inequalities that result from choices people freely are ok. All of these are arguments within the egalitarian camp.

So it is frustrating to read a paper in Nature, written by some psychologists from the Pinker/Haidt school of public pontificating that claims that people don’t care about equality but about “fairness”, where the inequalities that people tolerate turn out to be (a) inequalities in money and (b) inequalities that result from choices people make. Nobody working in poltical philosophy thinks that inequalities in money matter fundamentally, and lots of people think that the value of equality, properly understood, not only allows but requires differences in outcome that result from choice. There’s one reference to Rawls in the paper (simply to mention the veil of ignorance) and one of Frankfurt’s sufficiency view, but Dworkin, Cohen, Sen, Anderson, Arneson et al are entirely absent. Perhaps Nature needs to pick its peer reviewers from a wider pool.

{ 116 comments }

1

Val 04.09.17 at 4:18 pm

” Nobody working in poltical philosophy thinks that inequalities in money matter fundamentally …”

Is that right? Very strange. Having just attended a large public health conference, I think I can say that ‘everyone’ (or a lot of people) in public health thinks that inequalities in money matter a lot, though there is a lack of clarity on what we should do about it.

2

Chris Bertram 04.09.17 at 4:26 pm

Yes, something can matter “a lot” without mattering fundamentally.

3

GG 04.09.17 at 4:35 pm

The “fundamentally” lends a lot of ambiguity. IIRC, Cohen (as paraphrased by Brennan) wouldn’t tolerate a difference of $50 between citizens. Maybe that’s because he believes that the difference is indicative of fundamental failings, but on its face it looks a lot like a concern with money directly.

4

Chris Bertram 04.09.17 at 4:44 pm

Since Cohen believes that equality might require someone to get $50 more to compensate them for the intrinsic arduousness of their job, your claim is mistaken GG.

5

engels 04.09.17 at 5:27 pm

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding but is your objection that the authors are using the term ‘equality’ to mean ‘income equality’ when for political philosophers it can refer to anything from luck egalitarianism to the difference principle? That seems… less than devastating.

6

Lee A. Arnold 04.09.17 at 5:42 pm

The authors of the Nature study write, “when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies,” and the footnote sends us to Norton & Ariely (2011). But Norton & Ariely do not appear to make that claim:

http://www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/norton%20ariely.pdf

7

engels 04.09.17 at 5:42 pm

Maybe there’s a question about what the average person or pundit is referring to in the current public debate about ‘inequality’. Is it equality in the sense of the fundamental value that political philosophy aims to illuminate, or is it just income inequality?

8

engels 04.09.17 at 5:48 pm

Sorry—obviously some people, eg Piketty, are talking about wealth inequality. But it’s not clear to me that most people in the media or public have anything deeper or more abstract in mind.

9

P O'Neill 04.09.17 at 5:55 pm

From the article

However, in various other societies across the world and across history (for example, when faced with the communist ideals of the former USSR), concerns about fairness lead to anger about too much equality.

Do people really think that anger at the system in the USSR was driven by “too much equality” as opposed to plain old inequality, with corruption, crime and one-party cronyism determining preferential access to resources?

10

JRLRC 04.09.17 at 6:00 pm

The (“ev”) psychology of poverty, the poverty of psychology.

11

ozma 04.09.17 at 6:02 pm

This is so amazing. They created a lab environment that can strip research subjects of their socially-acquired beliefs. Nothing will ever be the same.

12

smintheus 04.09.17 at 6:26 pm

The Nature paper isn’t credible on its own terms. First the authors argue away the clear preference of children for absolute equality in distribution of desirable things. Then they assume that the willingness of adults to accept slight inequality in wealth between rich and poor is a sign that adults don’t value equality, rather than simply that adults acknowledge that a much higher degree of inequality is the reality we live with. Those same adults aren’t all that keen on embracing the reality, as shown by their ridiculous underestimation of the actual degree of inequality in the US. You’d have thought that even a pair of cossetted Yalies couldn’t get around the fact that people think the poorest 40% of the public should have about 25 times as much wealth as that group actually possesses.

13

harry b 04.09.17 at 6:49 pm

I skimmed it a bit, but am I right that they don’t even bother to define fairness?
Rule of thumb would be to talk to some experts before writing about something you don’t know much about. I agree with you that someone at Nature should have gotten input from a philosopher, but before that so should the authors.

14

Yan 04.09.17 at 6:57 pm

Going to look up similar articles in 1800’s era “Nature” to learn about what kinds of equalities people tolerated then. Love too solve moral problems by mass intuition.

15

Cian 04.09.17 at 7:41 pm

I think this is unfair on psychology. Plenty of psychologists have contempt for EvPsych.

16

J. Mc 04.09.17 at 9:20 pm

I haven’t read the Nature paper in question, but Mr. Bertram’s summary suggests that the psychologists/pontificators who wrote it base their thinking on some sort of survey data. It doesn’t surprise me that lots of people accept inequality. If I had to guess, people make a rough calculation about their abilities, aptitudes etc and act accordingly. People don’t in general like unfairness, but overall they accept that the world sort of works that way.
One commentator above noted that children are big believers in equality and fairness. So am I. If I have a cake and you don’t, I am going to offer you half, but that doesn’t mean that society should be organized on the basis of equality.
Why is academic argument privileged in this regard?

17

Moz of Yarramulla 04.09.17 at 10:10 pm

Wow, hard to read – there’s so much that makes me scream “that’s nonsense”. The lack of clarity in their definitions and summaries makes it really hard to evaluate their claims. Which makes it surprising when their talk about inequality varies from requiring a careful reading (what they say makes perfect sense IMO) to their conclusion needing much stronger evidence than they have provided. I’d like to see them rule out equality of opportunity and equal rewards much more explicitly than they have done.

Some of the arrant nonsense they slip in makes the arguments that rest on it less credible. How can they claim “we believe that there is no evidence so far that children or adults possess any general aversion to inequality” after introducing their paper with clear evidence of aversion to inequality?

Also, what smintheus @12 said.

18

Moz of Yarramulla 04.09.17 at 10:15 pm

contemporary political discourse often blurs together various concerns that should be thought of as distinct. Worries about inequality are conflated with worries about poverty, an erosion of basic rights, and—as we have focused on here—unfairness. If it’s true that inequality in itself isn’t really what is bothering people, then we might be better off by more carefully pulling apart these concerns, and shifting the focus to the problems that matter to us more.

The authors should get out more. Intersectionality is very specifically a response to that desire to “focus [on] the problems that matter to us more” by pointing out that “us” has a wide range of concerns and that focussing on the concerns of the important people first has not worked for the rest of us.

Also is there some reason every single post of mine gets flagged for moderation? I am complying with the “real email” requirement but ever since I started doing that I get dumped into moderation and my post appear days after the conversation has moved on. How can I fix that?

19

Tabasco 04.09.17 at 11:22 pm

May it’s a bad paper – don’t know, don’t care – but what makes the way political philosophers think about equality objectively better than the way psychologists think about it? (Or economists or any other social scientists, for that matter?)

Generalising, it is realistic to expect that someone working in field x will take account of the literature in field y when writing on the same subject? Is it even desirable?

20

Yankee 04.09.17 at 11:44 pm

Matthew 20:1-13, the parable of the workers who all got paid the same. The complaint is specifically that although some worked all day (“hard”), they were not paid more than those that came late (“slackers”), but the Master of the Vineyard denies the claim.

The exact argument is prominent on facebook, against medicare for all, universal basic income, etc. I always thought, compared with having a useful and secure job, standing on the curb at Home Depot is much the “harder” work.

21

harry b 04.10.17 at 12:55 am

Tabasco — I think the problem here is that the authors haven’t actually thought about equality at all. Or fairness. And if they had turned to a simple textbook on political philosophy — or just consulted a few undergraduates who had taken some philosophy courses — their research would be better because they would have made some simple distinctions that, from my reading (and Moz’s and smintheus’s) they seem unaware of. At the very least they’d have defined some key terms, without definition of which it is very hard to know what they think they have discovered.

22

Val 04.10.17 at 1:17 am

Chris Bertram @ 2
“Yes, something can matter “a lot” without mattering fundamentally.”

Think that poses a bit of a dilemma. In public health, though there is some argument, it is widely accepted that inequalities of both income and wealth matter “fundamentally” – that there is a direct causative relationship between financial inequality and state of health (at individual and societal level).

I don’t understand how a philosopher could say that that is not a “fundamental” matter.

23

Val 04.10.17 at 1:25 am

Following up on my #22, if I may be excused self-promotion, I actually have a discussion relevant to this question on my blog at present http://fairgreenplanet.blogspot.com.au/2017/03/reflections-on-health-promotion.html

24

Tabasco 04.10.17 at 1:39 am

Harry b

If they have not defined what they mean by equality that is obviously bad. But my reading of the OP is that Chris is peeved that a pair of psychologists have wandered into the turf that is owned by political philosophers without getting permission from political philosophers.

The problem is, the turf doesn’t belong to political philosophers. Extending the metaphor, the turf is a commons and a lot of different animals graze there usually without bothering each other.

If these psychologists had attempted some amateurish political philosophising that would have also been problematic. But they have not (as far I can tell from comments).

25

faustusnotes 04.10.17 at 2:38 am

Funny you should say that Harry B, since in the abstract the authors state that

Both psychological research and decisions by policymakers would benefit from more clearly distinguishing inequality from unfairness.

I would like to suggest that Chris take the few minutes of time required to write a letter in response to the article, pointing out its core flaws.

26

Harry 04.10.17 at 3:20 am

Tabasco — that’s not my read of CB’s post at all. He’s irritated that people haven’t done some basic thinking, and haven’t even bothered to ask some advice from colleagues whom they probably see from time to time at committee meetings or the like. Particularly irritating maybe to philosophers like him and me who work on issues where the evidence matters and expect (and hope) to be held to high standards when it comes to reading the economic, sociological, historical, psychological, etc, evidence.

Val — its because ‘fundamental’ here is being used in different ways. When you say inequalities of income and wealth are fundamental you mean they play a vital role in the actual causal analysis. CB agrees (as does Jerry Cohen). When they say that inequalities of income and wealth are not, morally, fundamental they mean that we have no particular reason to care about them morally, independently of their (very important) causal role in producing other inequalities that, really, morally, do matter (very roughly, and to misrepresent Cohen very slightly, inequalities in the quality of people’s lives). I hazard that you agree with that; whereas I hazard that you believe that inequalities of health and health states (and longevity) do matter morally fundamentally — they, in themselves, constitute inequalities in the quality of people’s lives (which, I hazard, CB agrees with and Jerry agreed with).

So no disagreement, just different usage which comes from different foci of research.

27

Harry 04.10.17 at 3:21 am

And I’d like to second Faustusnotes’s suggestion.

28

J-D 04.10.17 at 4:36 am

‘A puzzle arises, however, when we consider a largely separate body of research in political psychology and behavioural economics: it turns out that when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies.’

Is there really a body of research devoted to this question in which nobody has suggested considering the possibility that the question is gibberish? If a researcher asked me what I thought would be an ideal distribution of wealth in my country, my response would be ‘What makes you think that question makes sense?’ A body of research devoted to a damnfool question can only produce a body of damnfool answers.

29

engels 04.10.17 at 5:50 am

Perhaps an alternative interpretation is that egalitarian political philosophers use ‘equality’ to encompass all kinds of states of affairs that are to lay people clearly unequal.

it is very hard to know what they think they have discovered

That most people don’t care about ‘inequality’ (of outcome, conceived in financial terms) provided it is not ‘unfair’ (perhaps not surprisingly, per Ozma #11…)?

30

Chris Bertram 04.10.17 at 6:53 am

@engels you’d have a point if the philosophers were only using “equality” in ways that are highly theory-dependent, but in fact, the equality-of-financial-outcome conception is one that (as a conception of equality) doesn’t survive the first five or six lines of Socratic dialogue, e.g when we consider whether equality requires those doing unusually unpleasant jobs should get more money to compensate them for the unpleasantness.

31

Val 04.10.17 at 7:47 am

Harry @ 26
I think I sort of see what you mean but I’m not quite sure. It seems that rests on the basis of money only means something when it’s translated into ‘real’ things that make a difference – but if you think of money, power and eg Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, just having money actually makes a difference to how people experience themselves and the world. The reductionist epidemiological relationship makes it seem as if there is one thing – money – that translates into a separate thing – health – but in fact it’s a process that occurs at a lived, embodied level.

32

Loki 04.10.17 at 8:00 am

I think that the poverty described extends well beyond psychology.

I’ve recently read tens if not hundreds of articles from criminology, political science and economics on the relationship between inequality and violence. I don’t recall any that seriously engaged with political philosophy (save a cursory reference to Rawls or suchlike in the introduction). Instead authors often just do things like load GINI coefficient into STATA with a few other variables and write up the conclusions. (I actually included a page long discussion on the nature of the state in a criminology article and got told by an editor to remove it as it was irrelevant).

I expect that the lack of interest in political philosophy is partly due to time. No one has the space to be able to spend a few weeks reading up on work in a separate field; and even after that it would be difficult for an outsider to tell the difference between brilliance and eloquent bullshit.

More importantly, fields have developed their own common understandings of concepts, independently of philosophers. They don’t perceive a need to interrogate concepts like ‘inequality’ because the people working in the field already agree upon what it means. The existence of a wider literature in philosophy or elsewhere isn’t relevant to the much more pressing task of impressing a journal editor and reviewers (who are usually mostly concerned with data sources, methods and what has already been published within the field).

Though I’ll add in my experience a lack of interest in other fields also extends to philosophy. There are many times that I’ve read ‘real world’ examples used by philosophers that are out of date or just plain wrong, the authors having ignored large amounts of work carried out by more empirically minded researchers.

33

faustusnotes 04.10.17 at 9:32 am

I think Loki is right. Also in my field (public health and epidemiology) there is a strong bias towards “practical” policy-focused output, so long discursions on the nature of the state are not a popular addition to the literature. When we discuss inequality it has to be something that we can identify, adapt to and ideally change or mitigate – so for example I was involved in a paper on inequality in mortality in Japan that focused on changes in patterns of suicide mortality amongst certain types of worker, and attempted to identify possible ameliorable reasons (work stress, etc), rather than discussing their relationship to the state or their perception of unfairness (or whatever the authors in the OP were talking about). Also in public health we have a very limited word count – typically 2-2500 words – and we don’t have time for eloquent descriptions of philosophical debates about equality vs. fairness.

Also, even if I took a few weeks to read the related material in another field, who’s to say that I’ve got the intellectual background to handle it? Far better that I collaborate with someone who has!

34

Chris Bertram 04.10.17 at 10:09 am

@Loki’s point about philosophers’ lack of engagement is well-taken. I’ve been working on justice and migration in recent years, and I’ve done my best to find out what sociologists, political scientists, economists etc have to say on the subject. But I can’t say that there aren’t examples of philosophers who just steam in and think they can spin a theory without learning from other disciplines.

And there are good reasons for social scientists to focus on data on economic inequality. The data is available, the phenomenon is measurable, and it is a useful empirical proxy for what really matters. (Not having money is bad for you, having less money than others can leave you vulnerable to being dominated by them.)

But what the psychologists did here was to present their findings as a debunking of an allegedly widely-held view, namely that people think economic equality is bad in itself, in favour of another view, namely that what people really care about is fairness. But anyone who thinks about equality for more than, I don’t know, 30 seconds, can work out that treating people equally isn’t usually going to involve giving them exactly equal amounts of money and that if equality matters fundamentally, then it will translate into policies that take account of differences in need, choice etc. For reasons explored by Parfit and others, it may be that equality isn’t, in the end, what matters fundamentally, but the psychologists here haven’t got beyond specifying something that is only equality-with-its-brain-switched-on and calling that “fairness”.

35

engels 04.10.17 at 10:34 am

Even if the idea of people having equal amounts of money (or wealth, lifespans, educational achievements, etc) is loopy (personally I don’t think it necessarily is) it isn’t loopy to hold that’s what ‘equality’ means and to believe it’s one ideal policymakers should aim for alongside others. My vague impression is that’s just how most people outside of philosophy, including academics in other disciplines, use the word (when they’re talking about society getting more unequal).

36

Yan 04.10.17 at 11:03 am

As a philosopher, I share some of the OP’s frustration here, but as someone interested in contemporary ethical and political philosophy and aware of their failings, I have some sympathy with those questioning it.

One way to put the “fundamental” distinction is this: equality isn’t the fundamental *moral* issue. Inequality isn’t *wrong* by itself, but insofar as it’s unfair–that is, if it’s undeserved or brings about undeserved benefit or harm.

But the nature article isn’t really about normativity (about claims about what’s morally or politically right). It’s descriptive: about what people mind, not what they ought to.

In almost every sense but moral, equality is of course fundamental to understanding politics–namely, it is causally fundamental to many things. But political philosophy isn’t interested in causal priority but that of moral principle: what are the core ought and ought nots of politics.

This is the gist of my earlier “love too solve moral problems joke”. The problem of contemporary ethics is that it often grounds moral claims on intuitions. It reasons, “in this situation everyone would do or say x, therefore x is a criterion of morality or for testing or refuting any theoretical moral claim.”

For many moral philosophers, the fact that people collectively and intuitively endorse certain inequalities (or, rather, that they believe there is such a thing as moral desert, that some people do deserve more, that equality is sometimes unfair) makes it so. That is both bad science and bad philosophy. (The more cynical think this is because a “fundamental” function of the discipline is to justify not reveal moral prejudices.)

That people care more about fairness than equality, that these are conceptually different, proves nothing about whether they ought to. Strangely, it doesn’t even prove anything about what they *in practice* do! People tolerate very high degrees of normal luck, inequalities that are pure chance rather than deserved, and in general “those doing unusually unpleasant jobs” do not, in fact, “get more money to compensate them for the unpleasantness.”

So, while the Nature article is misguided, in the big picture this puts them on par with political philosophy in many ways.

37

engels 04.10.17 at 12:07 pm

Also it’s a looong time since I read any of this stuff but didn’t Joseph Carens defend a version of absolute income inequality? I thought that was influential on Cohen.

38

Chris Bertram 04.10.17 at 12:11 pm

Carens showed how (in theory) you could divorce the the allocative and distributive features of the market and combine equality of income with the Hayekian use of markets. He’s using equality of income as a kind of baseline there, not asserting that it is of fundamental importance as such.

39

Harry 04.10.17 at 12:58 pm

There was no need for them to discuss, or even cite, the political philosophers Chris mentions. They just refrain from making basic distinctions that are essential for their own project. They’d have made those distinctions if they had read the philosophers we are talking about , or even a good intro text (Swift’s book, for example, the chapter on Equality, or even if, as I suggested, they had chatted for a bit with an attentive undergraduate philosophy major).

The general point that most disciplines are narrow and parochial — yes, that’s the point of Chris’s headline.

40

Trader Joe 04.10.17 at 1:37 pm

I’m struggling still with this “unfair” vs. “unequal” distinction. Let me propose an example.

Two guys standing under a bridge looking for work. The boss in the F-150 rolls by and says I’ll pay $5 an hour to dig holes and shovel manure on my farm. Guy A says hell no, that’s an exploitative wage. Guy B says, what the heck, jumps in the back of the truck.

This happens every day for a couple weeks and finally Guy A decides he’s sufficiently hungry, so he decides to get in the truck too. Boss says, Guys with no experience get $5, but tells Guy B he’s experienced now so he’ll give him $7.

After several more weeks Guy A also gets the raise to $7, but Guy B is made crew foreman and is given $9/hr. Said differently, Guy B makes more than 25% more than Guy A despite only a couple weeks difference in work experience.

By the end of this parable, I would say that Guy A and Guy B have both been treated equally and fairly (in the context of exploitative wages) yet there is also income inequality between the two. If I understand the paper correctly, most people would ignore this difference. The difference they would not ignore is if the boss man’s son was hired for $20/hr with no experience and was immediately made foreman. That would be deemed both unequal and unfair.

Is that the crux of the argument? Where am I off.

41

MisterMr 04.10.17 at 2:19 pm

It seems to me that the problem lies in the term “fair”, that is inherently a valutative term, whereas the term “equal” isn’t.

For example, if I say “ice cream from brand X is considered good, whereas Y is considerd bad. What do you prefer?” you might well prefer brand Y, even if others prefer X.
But if I just say “there is a better icecream and a worse icecream, what do you prefer” you will allways answer “the better one”, because the question is tautological: “what do you prefer” more or less literally means “what do you think is better”.

So asking questions of preference with valutative terms is sort of tautological: if I ask “do you prefer an equal but unfair society or an unequal but fair one” I’m already tilting the answers in one direction, unless I define very clearly what I mean by “fair”, wich might well be very different from what other people think is “fair”.

For example if I say “people should be rewarded for their hard work”, probably most people agree, but maybe I mean that I should be paid twice as you because I work so much harder than you, whereas you think that you should be paid twice as much as me because you work so much harder than me.

But in reality most people seem to perceive unequal societies as “unfair” and equal ones as “fair”, unless you get to a definition of “equal society” that is so strict and unrealistic that it is obvious that it would be unfair, such as “everyone will have exactly the same income regardless of whatever other consideration”.

42

Yan 04.10.17 at 3:16 pm

Trader Joe,

This brings in a new distinction among different kinds of equality (different answers to the question, “Equality of what?”): your example is of equal opportunity and/or equal application of rules, in contrast to equality of results (equal income). I think this discussion has been focused on contrasting fairness to results-equality only.

Your example is a good case of why equality might be morally less foundation. Both workers are treated equally some respects, but not because equality is always a good thing, but because certain kinds of equality can preserve fairness.

In this case, the element of fairness has to do with deservingness: each is free to choose to work or not to, each is responsible for whether they did and how long they did. The other worker could have, through free choices, earned the same wage, and so the inequality is deserved–a product of the other’s merit and good decisions.

Another way to think of it is in the old game metaphor: guaranteeing an equal level playing field is fair, but guaranteeing an equal score is not. Thus, equality is not fundamental, since something else (and more fundamental) determines the appropriateness of the two kinds of equality.

(Intuitively appealing, but my own view is that this moralistic, score-keeping, meritocratic, game-metaphor picture of justice is a deeply mistaken way of approaching politics.)

43

Yankee 04.10.17 at 3:57 pm

@Trader Joe, Guy B was rewarded for being a scab. That is how the world works (except for the frequent raises) but what’s fair about it?

44

Roger 04.10.17 at 7:14 pm

Finally! I have been waiting for academics to point out that inequality and unfairness are completely different concepts and that inequality is simply a mathematical relationship but that we are strongly wired to reject unfairness.

Let me elaborate. Inequality is simply a value neutral relationship between any two dimensions. We are unequal in height, distance to Omaha, lightness of house color, or whatever. But nobody cares in the slightest. What we care about is unfairness and privilege (see Boehm for the evolutionary origins and anthropological support), with privilege defined as different rules (private law).

When evaluating equality we always must ask equality of what? There are multiple ways to define it and here are some of the most common:

1). Equal outcomes regardless of effort or contribution (raw income inequality)
2). Outcomes equal or proportional to contributions (commission sales) or effort (hours worked)
3). Outcomes equal or proportionate to role or position served (pay grades in business, or simply the way pirates would give double shares of booty to the elected captain and quartermaster)
4). Outcomes equal or proportionate to need (Marxism or family).
5). Outcomes proportionate to the rules of the game (rule egalitarianism) such as seen in a sport where games can be both wildly lopsided in outcome yet totally fair.

The problem is that these definitions can and do often contradict. Thus it is vacuous to claim INEQUALITY as we can often just use an alternative definition and argue that no, this is actually more equal or proportionate using this alternative measure of fairness.

Thus we are arguing the merits of which standard of equality or fairness is used at that point in time. And I think we can all come up with examples of when we would prefer to use each, and where it would clearly be pragmatic to prefer one over another (sports where we get equality of outcomes regardless of contribution is usually pretty absurd for example).

So, as per Boehm, we are very, very concerned with fairness, and for good reasons. However, the definition of fairness depends upon how we decide institutionally to operate and which definitions and rules will be applied.

The focus on income inequality usually completely misses this. In the US, it is easy to verify that most bottom quintile families don’t work at all, and less than a fifth work full time. This is certainly “inequality regardless of effort or contribution,” but it may (or may not) be completely fair in terms of rule egalitarianism or rewards commensurate with effort or contribution.

Those wishing to pretend that inequality is unfairness simply have not thought about the issue hard enough.

45

Val 04.10.17 at 10:00 pm

I’m looking directly at this issue in my research so sorry if this gets a bit long. The WHO uses the terms ‘equality/inequality’ for the same/difference issue and ‘equity/inequity’ for the fairness/unfairness issue, although people in public health don’t stick to that by any means (and some social workers I talked to were using the terms the other way round when talking about gender equality/equity!).

One of the recommendations of my research is that we do, in health promotion and public health, need a clearer definition of equity (in the WHO meaning). This discussion hasn’t convinced me that philosophers have all the answers though. I did read a lot when I started my project (though that’s a long time ago now so I need to brush up) and I found Amartya Sen useful, though not ‘the last word’ so to speak. I didn’t find psychologists very helpful, on the whole.

The problem with the usage that’s being discussed here (not nec by philosophers here, but in some of the comments at least) is that it already accepts the assumptions of an unequal, hierarchical and gendered society. One example the idea that it’s ‘fair’ that someone should get paid more for doing more, better or more unpleasant work illustrates this (and in fact the last is usually empirically wrong as someone above pointed out – garbage collectors don’t get paid more than professors of philosophy!).

There is no ‘fundamental’ connection between the work you do and how much you get paid – that’s an assumption of hierarchical (and usually capitalist) societies. This is one of the assumptions that was explicitly questioned by participants in my study (and one that I will reject). Participants critically used the term ‘entitlement’ to describe this – the idea that some people should own more or get more income (or eg pollute the environment more by owning and driving a big four wheel drive vehicle) because they have ‘worked for it’ and they ‘deserve it’.

As I suggest, there is no logical connection between the work you do and the money you earn (an insight that Marx et al had a long time ago, I think!). You might be ‘entitled to’ or ‘deserve’ all sorts of things for doing a good job – praise, respect, esteem of your fellow workers, more authority, etc – and it might be ‘fair’ if you get them, but there’s no reason you should be able to consume more of the earth’s resources, which money signifies.

To give a practical example (which I think philosophers like?), say I had two children and one was very good and helped me with all the tidying up, and the other refused and threw things about. I might give the first one all sorts of praise and rewards, but I wouldn’t give them more food than the other, because the amount of food they need is related to age and size and hunger, etc, not whether they have worked well or pleased me (the implicit boss in this scenario). (This also touches on gender and unpaid work, which is relevant to the discussion, but I won’t go into it now.)

Paying people more, whatever the reason, is like saying ‘you’re entitled to more food than other people’ (or to use more of the earth’s resources, or emit more carbon emissions, etc, in practice). It is ‘fundamentally’ unfair.

46

Roger 04.10.17 at 11:36 pm

Val,

“As I suggest, there is no logical connection between the work you do and the money you earn (an insight that Marx et al had a long time ago, I think!). You might be ‘entitled to’ or ‘deserve’ all sorts of things for doing a good job – praise, respect, esteem of your fellow workers, more authority, etc – and it might be ‘fair’ if you get them, but there’s no reason you should be able to consume more of the earth’s resources, which money signifies.”

You are adopting a zero sum framework and assuming that solutions to human problems just magically appear on our equally magical dinner table, sitting on a magical clean wooden floor in a magical house.

In reality, solving problems and creating useful products and services requires work, patience, effort, creativity, thought, sweat, risk, delayed gratification and a constant attentiveness to what others like, need and value. Absent these and other investments in creating goods and services, they are likely not produced at all and certainly not produced efficiently.

“Paying people more, whatever the reason, is like saying ‘you’re entitled to more food than other people’ (or to use more of the earth’s resources, or emit more carbon emissions, etc, in practice). It is ‘fundamentally’ unfair.”

No, it recognizes the obvious truth that solving human needs requires work, effort and constant attentiveness to what other desire and its relative value. By incentivizing production –and more importantly — valuable, efficient productivity, it rewards people proportionately to their contributions to others. In places like the US, highest income quintile families work five or six times as many hours as the lowest quintile, and are similarly much more likely to have invested in education. The majority of lowest quintile families don’t work at all. Zero hours per year serving others for an income.

Communism, such as was practiced in China, was a complete disaster at producing much of anything above marginal subsistence, with even this lacking in the lean years. And this despite the ability to draft off frontier capitalist economies which actually invented things and processes and effective institutions during this period. Absent incentives to work, incentives to take risk, to attend to the needs of strangers, to specialize, to discover efficiency, to solve new problems, equal pay regardless of effort and contribution is one of if not the “daffyist” ideas in all history.

Do you actually think millions of people would cooperate to invest, design and build 2017 Honda Accords, and IPhone 7s absent incentives to take risks, delay gratification, and coordinate activities efficiently? You think the occasional “attaboy” and an annual participation trophy is going to help coordinate this activity?

I am almost tempted to see your comment as a lampoon of Marxism, planted for effect.

47

Moz of Yarramulla 04.10.17 at 11:58 pm

I’m looking directly at this issue in my research so sorry if this gets a bit long

I found it interesting, and I like your examples of “worse jobs don’t get paid more”, it’s an interesting counter to the economic theorists. Of course, if you were a psychology researcher you would conclude “PEOPLE DON”T CARE HOW AWFUL THE WORK IS” :)

48

J-D 04.11.17 at 12:39 am

For example if I say “people should be rewarded for their hard work”, probably most people agree

The statement ‘People should be rewarded for their hard work’ is practically meaningless without additional contextual information.

The reason people don’t treat it as meaningless is that they are making tacit assumptions about a default context. This is unproblematic if everybody involved is conscious of it. Usually that’s not the case.

Val’s practical example provides some of the kind of additional contextual information which could make the question meaningful.

Socrates: So you don’t always agree that people should be rewarded for their hard work?
Interlocutor: We weren’t talking about feeding your children!
Socrates: You weren’t talking about feeding children, but what if somebody was?
Interlocutor: People don’t do that! Everybody knows that when they talk about rewarding people for their hard work they’re not talking about feeding children?
Socrates: How do we know what everybody knows?
Interlocutor: Look, this is obvious! You know it too, you’re just being difficult! When we talk about rewarding people for their hard work, we’re not talking about feeding children, and everybody understands that!!
Socrates: Isn’t it possible that not everybody shares the same understanding? Shouldn’t we check before we decide that what seems obvious to us is obvious to everybody? What precisely does it mean when we talk about people being rewarded for their hard work?
Interlocutor: Look, just drink this hemlock and shut up!!

49

J-D 04.11.17 at 3:50 am

Roger

The majority of lowest quintile families don’t work at all. Zero hours per year serving others for an income.

The proposition that people who are not being paid are doing no work should be demonstrated, not just assumed. Many people who are being paid for doing work are nevertheless solving problems and creating useful products and services. For most of the existence of the human species, money did not exist, and yet people solved problems and created useful products and services without being paid.

No, it [paying people more] recognizes the obvious truth that solving human needs requires work, effort and constant attentiveness to what other desire and its relative value. By incentivizing production –and more importantly — valuable, efficient productivity, it rewards people proportionately to their contributions to others.

The proposition that people who are paid more are producing more; or that people are encouraged to produce more by higher pay; or that paying people more is the only way to encourage them to produce more; or that paying people more is the best way to encourage them to produce more — whichever it is — should be demonstrated, not just assumed.

50

GrueBleen 04.11.17 at 7:33 am

J-D @ 28: ” A body of research devoted to a damnfool question can only produce a body of damnfool answers.”

FWIW, I’ve gotta agree with you completely, there J-D.

How the cycle-riding going ?

51

Peter Dorman 04.11.17 at 7:45 am

Since the issue has come up several times, let me chime in on the *empirical* question of whether workers whose jobs are dangerous or unpleasant receive extra monetary compensation. This is a less obvious matter than it may appear, since in order to give an answer you have to compare apples to apples, controlling for the the different labor market opportunities faced by different workers. That gets into regression analysis as employed by people like Kip Viscusi. So it happens that I wrote a book on this topic over 20 years ago, Markets and Mortality: Economics, Dangerous Work and the Value of Human Life. A lot has evolved since then, especially me, and if I were to go back I’d make a number changes. Nevertheless, the argument I made is largely correct, I think, and has stood the test of time. Bottom line: there is indeed wage compensation for physical risk on the job, but (1) only a minority of workers (unionized) get it, and (2) there are reasons to suspect that it is not fully compensating, and (3) the question is somewhat misconceived because it abstracts from the interaction between workers and employers in the determination and interpretation of risk. There are also psychological issues to consider, especially the role of cognitive dissonance (denial). This comment is in the spirit of the OP, that rather than just assuming that our suppositions are correct, we should consult the relevant literature.

As for the Nature article, that’s a big “duh” to me. *Of course* it’s all about fairness. But fairness is hard to measure, so we proxy it with inequality as a practical matter. The political discourse about inequality is *all* about various interpretations of fairness, whether it’s couched in discrimination (unfair!), rewards to risk-taking (fair!), what shouldn’t happen if people “play by the rules” (unfair!), Marxian exploitation theory (unfair!), return to human capital (fair!). This seems so obvious I wonder what cell the Nature authors were stowed away in.

52

Val 04.11.17 at 8:37 am

Roger @ 46
Actually Roger I’m not a Marxist (though I believe Marx had important insights) so it would be weird to take my remarks that way. Yours however … Like some Dickensian character (who was that guy?) who equates wealth absolutely with worth. Sorry but there’s masses of evidence that disproves your theory. There are many factors that influence income and wealth, and the ‘inherent value’ of work (a very hard thing to measure because there is usually a large subjective element to it) is only one of them.

Even very, very mainstream economists don’t agree with you. For example in Australia, economists estimate that the monetary value of unpaid work equals more than half of the current GDP. What does that do to your theory?

53

Val 04.11.17 at 10:52 am

Roger @ 46 (again)
“You are adopting a zero sum framework and assuming that solutions to human problems just magically appear on our equally magical dinner table, sitting on a magical clean wooden floor in a magical house.”

You need to produce some evidence to support this claim (as several of our esteemed fellow commenters have said – thank you all!) because as far as I can see there’s nothing in what I said that supports it.

54

Val 04.11.17 at 10:58 am

Sorry for yet more posting, but in response to Roger’s claims about “magical” cleaning, I was quite clearly saying the opposite – cleaning is not magical, someone has to do it. So yes, weird, but certainly not the first time a man on the internet has told me I’m wrong about everything.

55

nastywoman 04.11.17 at 11:23 am

– very confusing – as I once had to do a paper about:
‘Why once society worked so well in small Italian Hilltowns and it doesn’t work that well in Manhattan’.

And – Yes – Society ‘worked’ pretty well in small Italian Hilltown – even as there was (moderate) inequality and the local ‘Craftsmen’ got payed -(or recognized?) unequally – BE-cause – somehow – most of the townspeople where able to recognize – that a very good Furniture – or Pasta-Maker deserved to get more money -(or recognition) than for example a ‘money-changer’.

… and they lived ‘Happily Ever After’…
-(or not – when some much more ‘ambitious’ Scaligers ‘sacked’ the town)

But in peaceful times most of the Townspeople agreed – that it was ‘fair’ to pay more for the better ‘craftmansship’ -(or ‘work’ – or whatever you want to call it?) – even if it led to a (moderate) unequal society.
But now let’s take ‘Manhattan’ – where inequality and unfairness is so obvious – that almost everybody recognizes, that paying some banker 1000 times more – than the baker who makes some exquisite croissants is not only ‘unfair’ but it also leads to a society which doesn’t ‘work’ anymore.

And isn’t that the issue?

56

Trader Joe 04.11.17 at 12:11 pm

Val @45
A couple of points related to you comment.

First, there is a substantially different relationship of responsibility between a mother feeding her children and an employer providing wages for employees. I might wish for a world where employers were more maternal, but in fact its not so and isn’t likely to be so anytime soon.

A mom can’t/won’t sack her kids for ‘throwing things about’ instead of helping – an employer can and I’d argue has a responsibility to the other employees to do just that. It would be great to have a world where everyone perfectly fit their job and enjoyed it, that also isn’t realistic. An employers job is to find people who can do their job correctly and hopefully efficiently, not feed every hungry mouth. Again, it might be nice and as a society perhaps a government should do that, but even a socialist construct doesn’t make that an employers responsibility.

Second, I fully agree its hard to compare the value difference between quite a lot of jobs. A mechanic vs. a teacher, a baker vs. a painter these aren’t value distinctions easily made. That said, there are relative differences between some skills. A surgeon is more valuable to society than a dishwasher on the basis of substitutability alone whether the surgeon should earn 2x, 20x or 200x the dishwasher is an imminently fair question, but I think few would deny that the one skill is more valuable than the other even if both people performing their tasks are doing nothing more than giving 100% of their potential.

If I’m reading you correctly, I see your position on relative value of work as an argument for some sort of Basic Income, more than as an argument for equality/inequality. Thanks for the thoughtful perspective on equality and fairness.

57

Peter T 04.11.17 at 12:55 pm

The Nature authors were not just in a cell. They have also apparently never read anything written before 1850 (or anything Indian or Chinese or Japanese). Dickens or Dumas or Trollope, never mind Austen or Adam Smith would show a world where fairness hinged not on effort or risk-taking but on correspondence to social position or religious purity or Confucian merit or other things entirely. Viewed historically, fairness is so obviously a social construct that no weight can be placed at all in some sample of modern western opinion as anything other than just that – a snapshot of a moment in social time.

58

MisterMr 04.11.17 at 1:04 pm

@J-D 48

“The statement ‘People should be rewarded for their hard work’ is practically meaningless without additional contextual information.”

I totally agree with this (and also I don’t think that equality/fairness has anything to do with rewards to hard work, it’s more a hyerarchy thing as others have pointed out, “reward to hard work” is more or less an ideological catchphrase, I should have been clearer).

My point is that, in absence of a clear context, the use of valutative concepts like “fairness” tilts the answer in favor of “fairness” VS “equality”, because linguistically “fairness” implies a positive thing, whereas “equality” doesn’t.

If more context is given, the answer may change because the interlocutor might realize that what I call “fairness” isn’t fair from his/her point of view. In Val’s example, I (and I think most others) would qualify giving less/worse food to an unruly kid as “unfair”.

My point is that what is presented as a philosophical/psychological/ethical question is really just a form of bad use of language.

If I say, “what is the most beautiful dog, the beautiful one or the ugly one” without showing a picture of the two dogs, the answer is necessariously “the beautiful one”, but this isn’t a matter of philosophy/phsychology/esthetics, it’s just a case of bad use of language.

The contextual information (pictures of the dogs) may change things, but only because the interlocutor may realize that I’m using terms incorrectly, and answer on substance instead than on words and thus giving an answer that is apparently logically incorrect (“the ugly dog is the most beautiful one”).

59

reason 04.11.17 at 1:36 pm

I wrote a comment related to this paper in other blog http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2017/04/why-people-prefer-unequal-societies.html#comment-6a00d83451b33869e201bb098ef247970d
where the last sentence summarises neatly I think the gist (and the point you were making).

Treating things as binary choices, that are really trade-offs is an old and dastardly political trick.

60

engels 04.11.17 at 2:01 pm

A mom can’t/won’t sack her kids for ‘throwing things about’ instead of helping

Give neoliberalism a few more years…

61

nastywoman 04.11.17 at 2:37 pm

– and perhaps psychological it has a lot to do with the way inequality is exhibit?

It’s like saying ‘the inequality doesn’t bother me as much in Europe as in the teh homeland – because in Europe it isn’t presented in such a Trumplike way?
It’s like this very old neighbor I have here and I know he probably is far ‘richer’ than the Clownstick – but he still lives a very moderate life which is comparable to my life and the life of most people around us – which makes one think that ‘inequality’ – if not as obviously visible as in places like Manhattan wouldn’t bring up this question of Fairness?

62

MisterMr 04.11.17 at 3:14 pm

@Trader Joe 56

“An employers job is to find people who can do their job correctly and hopefully efficiently, not feed every hungry mouth.”

Since I’m on a semantic-nazi trip:

– The employee job is X, which is what he signed for in his/her contract;
– The employer’s “obligations” are what he signed in his contract with the employee, plus other implict obligations affirmed by consuetude or by law;
– The employer’s PURPOSE is generally that of making money, and as such he or she will generally try to employ people who work well enough to pay for their own wages plus employer’s profit.

But the last one isn’t a “job”, meaning that it isn’t an obligation the employer has with someone.

The idea that the emplyer has a “job” is the same of the idea that “the job of the king is to enforce justice in the realm”: it has some basis in reality, but is also largely an ideological depiction.

63

Tom Hurka 04.11.17 at 3:20 pm

From my skimming of the paper I took them to mean by “fairness” something close “desert,” which can be for hard work, moral virtue, economic contribution, or whatever. And a desert-based view isn’t, fundamentally, an egalitarian one. It’s an alternative to the egalitarianism whose variant forms have been the focus of the debates mentioned in the OP’s first paragraph. I think most people’s — not most political philosophers’, but most non-philosophers’ — view of justice is desert-based. Hasn’t David Miller been citing evidence of that for years? I take the Nature paper to be giving more evidence along that line, though the paper isn’t as clear as a philosopher would be that by fairness it means something connected to desert.

64

Cian 04.11.17 at 6:52 pm

Trader Joe @56: This of course presupposes that there’s anything, or natural, about an employer.

A surgeon’s rareness in the US is to do with deliberate rationing (access to medical schools is limited by the AMA) and cartels. There are some skills that are comparatively rare and compensation for them tends not have a lot to do with their usefulness to society. What people are paid tends to relate to political power and social prestige. Of course in a different society the prestige that came with being a surgeon might be enough in and of itself.

65

Cian 04.11.17 at 7:12 pm

Roger @47:

Your post is filled with assumptions that are easily disproven. First of all, creative people love to build stuff and will working on meaningful projects for the love of it. Engineers take pay cuts because the project is meaningful. Programmers work on open source projects because it’s cool. Want to make an engineer’s face light up? Tell them you used something they worked on and you liked it. Money is not the strongest motivator for most people who build things.

There is also a strong literature that rewarding people directly for their contributions is often counter-productive.

No, it recognizes the obvious truth that solving human needs requires work, effort and constant attentiveness to what other desire and its relative value. By incentivizing production –and more importantly — valuable, efficient productivity, it rewards people proportionately to their contributions to others.

In places like the US, highest income quintile families work five or six times as many hours as the lowest quintile

This is simply not true.

and are similarly much more likely to have invested in education.

It is much easier to buy your kid a place at Harvard if you earn six figures than if you earn less than $20,000. So yes, if you’re rich you do have the resources to buy your children access to better jobs and a wealthier future. As to fairness…

The majority of lowest quintile families don’t work at all. Zero hours per year serving others for an income.

In most of the US it is almost impossible to get by without a job, particularly if you have a family. People on minimum wage typically work very long hours in conditions that the top quintile literally couldn’t imagine.

Communism, such as was practiced in China, was a complete disaster at producing much of anything above marginal subsistence, with even this lacking in the lean years.

Not that I’m a proponent of Maoism, but China actually had pretty significant growth under Maoism. Even allowing for the insanity of the cultural revolution.

And this despite the ability to draft off frontier capitalist economies which actually invented things and processes and effective institutions during this period.

Much of the west’s ability to grow was built upon access to stolen resources through colonialism, slavery and the ability to destroy competitors (India, Turkey, China). Other factors would include access to cheap energy (Britain), and a set of social/cultural practices that had little to do with capitalism (e.g. the enlightenment). Capitalism contributed, but it was on of many factors.

Absent incentives to work, incentives to take risk, to attend to the needs of strangers, to specialize, to discover efficiency, to solve new problems, equal pay regardless of effort and contribution is one of if not the “daffyist” ideas in all history.

Because?

Do you actually think millions of people would cooperate to invest, design and build 2017 Honda Accords, and IPhone 7s absent incentives to take risks, delay gratification, and coordinate activities efficiently? You think the occasional “attaboy” and an annual participation trophy is going to help coordinate this activity?

Sure, if they didn’t have to worry about eating, supporting their families, paying for a roof over their heads. Now building it in factories, maybe not. But given how little factory workers are paid that hardly helps your argument.

66

Roger 04.11.17 at 7:20 pm

Reason,

‘I think some of the basic concepts are mixed up here (as other people have hinted at). Firstly, what do you even mean by “equality”. If people can accumulate or spend, then overtime even with 100% equal income some wealth inequality will develop. Secondly, I think there are almost no people who think that 100% marginal tax rates are a good idea (hence the point about people preferring “fairness” – if I work I get rewarded – to equality – “zero differences”).”

Your third sentence of course supports the reasoning of the paper. People are different in values, time preferences and skills, so any FAIR system is going to result in wealth inequality, thus fairness trumps an arbitrary standard of equality. Equal is a mathematical relationship with no intrinsic value whatsoever.

If we agree to a process where those catching the fish get to eat the fish, then if one person catches lots of fish and the other doesn’t fish at all and catches nothing then the system is equal according to the rules (this is called rule egalitarianism) even as it is as unequal as can be in terms of that highlighted outcome. If you are suggesting we should change the agreed rules, then you need to base your argument on utility or fairness or whatever, but again inequality by itself means nothing. Perhaps the person hates fish. Perhaps they prefer leisure. Perhaps they would rather sing sea chanteys. Perhaps they did all their fishing last year and are living off the surplus. If so, then inequality of outcome is totally irrelevant to utility or fairness.

“But this doesn’t mean that people are indifferent to any degree of inequality, nor that they are insensitive to living in an extremely unequal society. Treating things as binary choices, that are really trade-offs is an old and dastardly political trick.”

You seem to confuse reason with rhetoric. Another political trick, even more dastardly, is pretending that an abstract mathematical relationship between two elements proves something is wrong. As my original comment clarified, there are at least five common ways to measure equality, proportionate to outcomes among agents, proportionate to contribution, proportionate to the rules of the game, proportionate to need, and proportionate to position or role.

What this means is that since these five types of inequality often contradict, that just about everything is unequal, depending upon how it is measured. Societies use all five measures where appropriate. A system extremely equal on one can be extremely unequal on one or more of the others. Thus inequality tells us little. What is important is utility or value or fairness of the system.

Using inequality because of its multiple definitions is a self negating standard of value. Fairness matters a lot to people. Equality matters in how it feeds into fairness and other human values, but getting more equality on one dimension often leads to more inequality on another.

67

Roger 04.11.17 at 7:23 pm

Val,

I didn’t say you were a Marxist, I suggested your comment looked almost like an exaggerated lampoon of Marxism. If this was the case, then you would be mocking Marxism, and therefore unlikely to be one.

The zero sum fallacy is related to your various comments about “no reason you should be able to consume more of the earth’s resources, which money signifies.” The point of my remark and my various examples on dinner and Accords, and IPhones is that they are not simply limited resources to be picked up off the ground. These are created and produced and that creation process increases the number, quality, variety and efficiency of these products and services. Resources need to be captured, gathered, processed, converted, combined and so on, and the processes and potential to do so needs to be discovered or created.

When we were Nomadic Foragers, most estimates put the human carrying capacity of the earth in the tens of millions. When we discovered and then put effort and work into changing the earth with domestication and agriculture, this increased the effective resources available to man by one or two orders of magnitude. The IR and large scale manufacturing and technology further increased it by another order of magnitude or two.

The point is where products and services need to be CREATED and PRODUCED then it is not unfair to incentivize the producers and creators with a share of what they produce and create. This is a POSITIVE SUM process, and it is good not just for the creator/producer, but for consumers (and we are all consumers). This is why living standards have gone up by a factor of ten globally even as lifespan, health and population have risen. It explains the escape from the Malthusian curse and with even a slight amount of introspection reveals why it would be suicide (actually genocide) to undermine this system.

“Yours however … Like some Dickensian character (who was that guy?) who equates wealth absolutely with worth.”

Sorry, but again you misunderstand. I am not equating income with worth, let alone the “inherent value of work”. I don’t even know what that is. Work is a cost, not a benefit. I am equating income with value created according to others in a decentralized market system adjusted for supply and demand. The latter is not the same as the former. There is no inherent value in work. The value is in what is or is not created, and again even this value is not intrinsic.

“Even very, very mainstream economists don’t agree with you. For example in Australia, economists estimate that the monetary value of unpaid work equals more than half of the current GDP. What does that do to your theory?”

You so misunderstand my position that here you are accidentally arguing for it! I certainly agree that there is all kinds of non market work and non market benefits. But this just points out the limitations of INCOME INEQUALITY measured in market terms. To the extent work and benefits are outside the market, then income inequality as a measure will may exaggerate inequality of outcomes. If the poor produce or trade a greater than average share of non market goods and services, then their real standard of living is higher and thus less unequal and thus adjusting for this measure reveals less unfairness.

Nothing in my comment violates economic theory, properly understood.

68

Roger 04.11.17 at 7:27 pm

JD @49

I wrote: “The majority of lowest quintile families don’t work at all. Zero hours per year serving others for an income.”

JD: “The proposition that people who are not being paid are doing no work should be demonstrated, not just assumed. Many people who are being paid for doing work are nevertheless solving problems and creating useful products and services. For most of the existence of the human species, money did not exist, and yet people solved problems and created useful products and services without being paid.”

Agreed. See my comment to Val. The part of my sentence you are overlooking is “FOR AN INCOME”. Now why, may one ask, is this important in a discussion on income inequality? Because I am not castigating the poor (many of whom are students, retired living off assets or between jobs), I am pointing out how using a barometer of INCOME inequality is not a good measure of unfairness, and unfairness is what is important. To some extent, it is a measure of whether one is or is not at that time involved in the measured market.

No, it [paying people more] recognizes the obvious truth that solving human needs requires work, effort and constant attentiveness to what other desire and its relative value. By incentivizing production –and more importantly — valuable, efficient productivity, it rewards people proportionately to their contributions to others.

“The proposition that people who are paid more are producing more; or that people are encouraged to produce more by higher pay; or that paying people more is the only way to encourage them to produce more; or that paying people more is the best way to encourage them to produce more — whichever it is — should be demonstrated, not just assumed.”

First, I never wrote or implied it was the only way. Second, I am pretty sure it is NOT always the best way. Third, remember the faux pas above of those using income as the measure of unfairness. To the extent that value is created or enjoyed by work outside of the market, then this undermines arguments that INCOME inequality reflects unfairness.

I am sure I could easily prove that incentives work at increasing production. I could do so by linking to several hundred books in economics, several hundred books and articles of economic history, several thousand experiments in business, social sciences and economics. But a better question is does anybody believe they don’t? I am not going to waste my time to demonstrate that the world isn’t flat.

A price is a signal and an incentive. If selling mud pies results in zero “sales” even when giving them away, and selling apple pies results in making a profit of $10k, then the market is telling us something about the value of work to produce apple pies compared to doing nothing and the absurdity of putting any time, investment or energy into baking with mud. Granted economics is complicated, and income and profit are by no means a perfect measure of within market value added, but they are still extremely useful. But doing so requires we embrace the inequality –for the sake of fairness and general prosperity.

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John Quiggin 04.11.17 at 7:45 pm

I’ve been meaning to write something similar on the Haidt school of political psychology, starting with the obvious point that, since most peoples’ beliefs are shared with their social groups, the question of why individuals adhere to false beliefs in the case of contrary evidence must be explained in social not psychological terms.

70

Z 04.11.17 at 7:48 pm

starting with the obvious point that, since most peoples’ beliefs are shared with their social groups, the question of why individuals adhere to false beliefs in the case of contrary evidence must be explained in social not psychological terms.

This, a thousand times this.

71

nastywoman 04.11.17 at 8:24 pm

@Roger

– so ‘incentives’ are a good thing and ‘work’ is a good thing but inequality -(especially if it’s overdone) – is hopefully a bad thing?

Right?

72

Trader Joe 04.11.17 at 8:36 pm

@64 Cian
I agree with respect to surgeons being rationed/function of access and privledge in the present set up. That said, even if they threw the doors open to everyone I’d suggest that not everyone could do the job of being a surgeon whether due to aptitude or fortitude, while certainly anyone can still wash a dish. The point remains the same – surgeons would command more pay, but maybe not 20x what a dishwasher makes.

@62 MisterMr….uh, thanks? It was sort of a vast simplification of what an employer might be tasked with. Thanks for fleshing it out in case anyone didn’t get that.

73

engels 04.11.17 at 9:23 pm

Right can not be higher than the economic structure

74

Val 04.11.17 at 9:56 pm

Roger @ 67

Unfortunately you seem to be one of those people who, when challenged on a point, say ‘I didn’t say that, I said something else’ – which makes it difficult to have a meaningful conversation.

You did in fact specifically refer to work in your comment #46:

“No, it [paying people more] recognizes the obvious truth that solving human needs requires work, effort and constant attentiveness to what other desire and its relative value. By incentivizing production –and more importantly — valuable, efficient productivity, it rewards people proportionately to their contributions to others”

Whether you call it “work” or “production” doesn’t alter the point. You also clearly suggested that if people didn’t get paid more than others, they wouldn’t produce “useful products and services”.

I’m not going to go through your comment and point out all the things you said and later denied, to me and others, but it’s disappointing that you can’t argue your case without doing that.

I would be interested to know what you meant about the magical clean house though. I suspect what you meant is that the mother in my example, doing her unpaid work of looking after her children, is so dumb she doesn’t even realise that a clever male capitalist built her house and her floor and her table, she thinks they got there by magic! And I also strongly suspect that you are never going to admit that. So probably not worth continuing the conversation.

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MisterMr 04.11.17 at 10:39 pm

@Trader Joe 72

Sorry, I suspect that we mostly agree about what is the role of employers in the world, but you said at 56:

“A mom can’t/won’t sack her kids for ‘throwing things about’ instead of helping – an employer can and I’d argue has a responsibility to the other employees to do just that. It would be great to have a world where everyone perfectly fit their job and enjoyed it, that also isn’t realistic. An employers job is to find people who can do their job correctly and hopefully efficiently, not feed every hungry mouth.”

You said that the emplolyer has “a responsibility to the other employees” and that this is “his job”.
In pratice you literally said that the employer has to sack people as a duty yo other employees. I on the other hand said:

“– The employer’s PURPOSE is generally that of making money, and as such he or she will generally try to employ people who work well enough to pay for their own wages plus employer’s profit.”

So sacking unproductive employees isn’t a duty, and it isn’t a responsibility to other employees, but rather an action in his/her own interest.

Your description is full of morally laden terms that tend to show the employer as someone who is sacrificing him/herself for the others (“job”,”responsibility”), so again full of valutative terms that tell in advance who is right and who is wrong.

We actually said two very different, almost opposite things, but I suppose you also fundamentally agree that the employer is in for the money.

So why did you use your rather different description?

My bet is unconscious ideology, aka “false consciousness”.

76

GrueBleen 04.11.17 at 11:33 pm

John Quiggin @ 69

“since most peoples’ beliefs are shared with their social groups,”

You have some evidence to back this assertion up, I trust, other than just your own propensity to want to believe it.

When I was somewhat younger, the ‘social rule’ was “Never discuss religion or politics” which was the way that ‘social groups’ insulated their members from each other. So you maintain this is no longer the case but that ‘social groups’ now share their beliefs around – or is it that ‘social groups’ somehow form out of collections of people who just happen to have “shared beliefs” ?

77

Pavel 04.12.17 at 6:13 am

@Roger

“I am sure I could easily prove that [monetary?] incentives work at increasing production.”

I guess you could try, except you would find that many recent studies indicate that anything outside of the most rote, non-intellectual labor is more likely to be driven by a desire for “mastery, autonomy and purpose”. i.e. internal motivation makes a more compelling case for productivity in non-rote fields than carrot/stick external motivation.

The idea that people who are paid more are therefore more productive, or that there is any positive correlation whatsoever in terms of pay grade and productivity for non-rote tasks is basically a dead one.

Here is a compelling tl;dr ten-minute video about theories in motivation, in case reading isn’t your thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&ab_channel=TheRSA

“then the market is telling us something about the value of work to produce apple pies compared to doing nothing and the absurdity of putting any time, investment or energy into baking with mud”

The market is only telling us about the relative value of its own internal biases. It is not pointing us to any form of socially-objective truth about the value of apple or mud pies, only that under the current social circumstances apples are perceived to have more value than mud (this may change when global warming has induced desertification in most of the world).

Let’s use a short thought experiment. Imagine a group of people who believe in a sort of bodily homogeneity are living in a community. An unscrupulous real estate agent wants to be able to acquire their property on the cheap, and spreads a rumour that another group of people (who are deemed by the first group to not be homogenous enough) are about to move in. In a panic, the first group flees and sells off their property at significantly below market value. Prices plummet, the real estate agent is able to purchase it and resell it to the second group at a significant markup.

This practice was known as blockbusting (my blockbuster card would take on a whole new meaning, if I still had one), and the only thing the price signal told us is that racist whites were so scared of minorities moving into their neighbourhoods that they would willingly sell at a much lower cost. The only thing we know from this exchange is that the market is reflecting internal bias and cultural attitudes. It is not, by any means, reflecting any rational state of affairs, or somehow working to correct itself towards a less internally biased state (blockbusting came about as a result of deregulation after WWII and was defeated by the reinstatement of regulation in the late 1980’s). Perception drives prices. Rationality does not in any way drive perception.

78

reason 04.12.17 at 8:20 am

Roger,
Your argument is full of holes. It goes bad from the start:
“If we agree to a process where those catching the fish get to eat the fish”

(WHAT????) As though equipment, access etc are all even (not to mention even capacity – somepeople allways get seasick). So people who don’t catch any fish should starve? Are you serious?

79

J-D 04.12.17 at 10:07 am

Roger

I am sure I could easily prove that incentives work at increasing production.

Is that your proposition? That incentives work at increasing production? But that’s a tautology, true by definition. If something works at increasing production (or whatever other behaviour it is that you’re trying to increase), then by definition it’s an incentive for production (or whatever other behaviour is under discussion). If it doesn’t work to increase the behaviour, then it is by definition not an incentive for that behaviour.

Or if that’s not your proposition, how is your definition different from that?

80

J-D 04.12.17 at 11:59 am

Sorry, I meant:

“Or if that’s not your proposition, how is your proposition different from that?’

81

Trader Joe 04.12.17 at 1:00 pm

@75MisterMr.
I understand your point and I agree the role of a corporation is to make profits but I think you’ve narrowly focused only on companies and not on the full spectrum of employer/employee tasks. In Val’s example she focused on a mom and kids helping her – that has little to do with a profit motivation and all to do with performing whatever tasks were being undertaken.

Beyond that, in most organizations rather few people are engaged in direct earnings driven tasks – support and line functions are by volume a much greater number of workers and managers. Additionally a substantial portion of people are employed by governments, non-profits or in other tasks where a profit motive doesn’t exist in the sense you mean it. If I hire a guy to cut my grass there isn’t a profit motive in my employing him but if he does a crap job he gets fired nonetheless.

That’s why I would assert that most bosses that are responsible for employees and have the power to sack them are more interested in competency and efficiency (which lead to profits as appropriate).

If you’d like to do a full Porter’s – Five-Forces analysis of all the competing interests that a corporation and its managers must balance in decision making knock yourself out. I thought for a two sentence comment I covered a reasonable amount of ground and in the context of the discussion that was being had.

I by no means disavow making money/profits as a motivator of many managers and corporations (as a former commission employee I get it) – but as others have pointed out, if simply making money isn’t a unique motivator for the individual, its unlikely to be the sole motivator for managers in the aggregate either.

82

Roger 04.12.17 at 4:42 pm

Val and Nasty and Reason,

You are right of course, I was just testing you to see it you were faithful to the cause. You all passed with flying colors. Your arguments were impeccable.

JD and Pavel,

Well said. As above I was just testing you. Everybody knows that monetary incentives are virtually useless and that nobody goes to work for money, or works hard for tips, promotions or commissions, and that for-profit organizations are just pretending to seek profit, and that investors, entrepreneurs and small business owners are just doing it out “false class consciousness” and completely impartial to whether they actually make or lose money.

Cian,

Good catch on the hours worked data which I got from that dastardly Census Bureau. You are of course correct that they are just making it all up to push their neoliberal agenda. It is sad to imagine all the right wing extremists out there who actually believe the Census Bureau propaganda that the lowest quintile tend to be in the life stages of retired, students or unemployed.

Good job across the board for fighting the good fight! Keep it up team!

83

b9n10nt 04.12.17 at 7:09 pm

Roger,

If, empirically, “people are currently responding to monetary incentives” = people naturally (read: unavoidably) respond to monetary incentives = $ inequality is necessary/good/just.

Then also, empirically, “people are currently NOT responding to monetary incentives”* = people naturallly/unavoidably do NOT respond to monetary incentives = $ inequality is unnecessary/bad/unjust.

There’s no doubt that both empirical findings exist. So why the snarky confidence that the former argument holds, and the latter does not?

My view: Today, paying surgeons more than janitors is good/necessary/just. But 2 caveats: First, whether this necessity is evidence of “natural” human inclinations or socially conditioned acculturation is unresolved. Second, that surgeons should make more than janitors does not address the degree of $ inequality that is optimal (should the income ratio be 2:1, 10:1 ?). To the degree that the janitor has equal access to certain goods that are more rights than priveleges (medicine, law, political representation, education, clean air/water, etc…) , more inequality of $ should be tolerated.

84

J-D 04.12.17 at 8:50 pm

Roger

Well said. As above I was just testing you. Everybody knows that monetary incentives are virtually useless and that nobody goes to work for money, or works hard for tips, promotions or commissions, and that for-profit organizations are just pretending to seek profit, and that investors, entrepreneurs and small business owners are just doing it out “false class consciousness” and completely impartial to whether they actually make or lose money.

I made no such assertions.

What I did do was ask you to clarify the precise nature of the proposition you were advancing, which I see you have failed to do. Your sarcasm makes your literal meaning less clear; I do not know whether this is, as they say, a bug or a feature.

85

Cian 04.12.17 at 9:00 pm

Roger, you wrote: The majority of lowest quintile families don’t work at all. Zero hours per year serving others for an income.

So you’re arguing that families includes students and the retired. To call your argument incoherent seems too kind.

86

Pavel 04.13.17 at 12:10 am

@Roger

“Everybody knows that monetary incentives are virtually useless and that nobody goes to work for money, or works hard for tips, promotions or commissions, and that for-profit organizations are just pretending to seek profit, and that investors, entrepreneurs and small business owners are just doing it out “false class consciousness” and completely impartial to whether they actually make or lose money.”

That’s exactly the argument I made! I’m glad you got it in one. People trying to survive by earning tips is exactly the same thing as entrepreneurs trying to shake up an industry is exactly the same as corporations exploiting workers with no “market value”.

Please ignore any distinctions regarding how this is an argument about the relationship between the scaling of financial reward and individual productivity, and not whether people want money in general or will do things for money. The intellectual honesty just exudes from you…

87

Sebastian H 04.13.17 at 3:28 am

This looks more like a terminology fight than a substantive one.

They suggest that people don’t care as much about equality, they worry more about fairness.

You say “Nobody working in poltical philosophy thinks that inequalities in money matter fundamentally, and lots of people think that the value of equality, properly understood, not only allows but requires differences in outcome that result from choice.

The bolded part sounds like the kernel of a discussion about fairness.

In any case it sounds to me like they are responding to more popular ideas about inequality, and trying to distinguish key parts of them. Engaging with academic philosophy on the issue wouldn’t reflect much about popular ideas about inequality.

88

Jerry Vinokurov 04.13.17 at 3:36 am

In Roger’s world the current state of things is exogenously given from on high and certainly not the product of history or policy. Yawn.

89

Jerry Vinokurov 04.13.17 at 7:15 am

Anyway, this seems to be merely the latest iteration in a certain genre of work. The way it goes is like this: people say that they prefer/are concerned about X. But! We put them in a lab and asked them some questions and it turns out that they actually prefer Y! (Implication: the rubes don’t know what they want). Therefore anyone complaining about X is either stupid or confused but under no circumstances should be taken seriously, because Science!

I mean, here’s Starmans, Sheskin, and Bloom:

A puzzle arises, however, when we consider a largely separate body of research in political psychology and behavioural economics: it turns out that when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies11.

Hmm, ok, reference 11 links to… this paper (PDF) by Ariely and Norton. Let’s see what they have to say:

Overall, these results demonstrate two primary messages. First, a large nationally representative sample of Americans seems to prefer to live in a country more like Sweden than like the United States. Americans also construct ideal distributions that are far more equal than they estimated the United States to be—estimates which themselves were far more equal than the actual level of inequality.

According to Norton and Ariely’s own figures, the preferences between Sweden/egalitarian/actual US distributions of income are 47%, 43%, and 10% respectively. You could infer a few things from that, but not “people actually prefer unequal societies.” SSB justify this claim by saying that people still end up with unequal distributions when asked to put together their ideal distributions but a) this clearly isn’t true for everyone, and b) such determinations are not made free of ideological preferences. The subjects of the experiment presumably are all anchored to some degree or other to particular figures; they are not choosing in a vacuum. One might imagine that if they started from an initial level of far greater equality, they might end up with a more equal distribution still.

I don’t know whether a lack of philosophical training is responsible, but the kernel of the problem lies here:

We argue here that these two sets of findings can be reconciled through a surprising empirical claim: when the data are examined closely, it turns out that there is no evidence that people are actually concerned with economic inequality at all. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness.

This maps onto the bizarre claim made by Roger above that people don’t care whether two numbers are the same or not. True, at a sufficiently high level of abstraction, but in fact we care about inequality not because we like comparing numbers, but because we think that the fact of the inequality proxies for something important, namely, fairness. In fact people suspect, rightly so, that the inequality is not just some natural state of things handed down by the gods of capitalism but is actually explicitly engineered into the system by the people who stand to benefit from it. So in fact, concerns about inequality map quite well onto fairness concerns and the confusion disappears.

SSB go on to discuss a large number of lab-based experiments, but I don’t see the point. First, I think the ecological validity of such experiments is questionable; what people will do in a lab might tell us something about what they’ll do outside of it, but the circumstances are pretty artificial and the conclusions that can be drawn limited. For example, the stakes for what happens in the lab (receiving an extra eraser) are totally trivial, while in the real world, the stakes of inequality are literally life and death. But more importantly, by failing to understand properly the proxy relationship between inequality and fairness, SSB boil down their whole conclusion into the deeply uninteresting point that the numerical relationship between two real numbers does not in and of itself hold any normative force. Congratulations and bravo.

I strongly doubt that this sort of artificial lab psychology can tell us anything useful about the social problems of inequality. That might be a job for sociology or anthropology or really any discipline concerned with actually trying to figure out what people believe by listening to them. This stuff here is just a kind of “dumb rubes don’t know their own minds,” type of thing, when in fact the people who don’t know minds are the researchers.

90

reason 04.13.17 at 8:47 am

Roger,
as far as I can see you have tried to pull a Trumpian rhetorical trick by avoiding my main point:
“Treating things as binary choices, that are really trade-offs is an old and dastardly political trick.”
and trying to make the main issue that inequality is difficult to define and measure. Yes, but that doesn’t mean it DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL, which is what you seem to be arguing – whereas I think the concentration should be on how much it matters. After all, if it didn’t matter at all there would never be revolutions, and there are. Unfairness is always with us to some degree or another (and is also inevitable, just as is the case with inequality).

91

MisterMr 04.13.17 at 12:33 pm

@Sebastian H 87

“This looks more like a terminology fight than a substantive one.”

While I totally agree with this, I’ll poin out that:

1) In “social sciences” the terminology problem is essential: if we are speaking about the working class, but A defines the working class as “people with an income below X”, B as “people without a degree”, and C as “all employees”, then A, B and C are speaking of different things and it becomes impossible or very difficult to confront the various theories (this is Thomas Kuhn’s main point I think);
2) In addition to this general problem the authors of the study apparently confronted an inherently valutative term, “fairness” with a term that isn’t inherently valutative, “equality”, so in my view they basically cheated.

@ Trader Joe 81
Well’ I won’t go on in detail on this because I think that it’s quite OT, but my problem on what you said is mostly linguistic, not on the substance.
However I think that these “linguistic” problems are very important, and often what looks like disagreement or agreement on substance is a linguistic illusion.

92

Roger 04.13.17 at 4:53 pm

Jerry @89

“This maps onto the bizarre claim made by Roger above that people don’t care whether two numbers are the same or not. True, at a sufficiently high level of abstraction…”

I was indeed making it at a high level of abstraction, and so I guess this makes my claim both true and bizarre.

“..but in fact we care about inequality not because we like comparing numbers, but because we think that the fact of the inequality proxies for something important, namely, fairness.”

BINGO! Jerry almost gets it. Now add this to the undisputed truth that there are multiple ways to measure which vary based upon what we are comparing.

1). We can compare outcomes/rewards between participants (regardless of contribution)
2). We can compare outcomes/rewards to contributions (a slightly more abstract concept per Fiske*)
3). We can compare outcome/reward to need
4). We can compare outcome/reward to position
5). We can compare outcome/reward to procedural observance (playing according to the rules).

The blind spot of progressive thought (actually probably an intended deception) is to downplay the importance of these four other ways of comparison and to elevate #1 up to the level of exalted status.

In a system where we agree to divide outcomes regardless of contribution, then uneven distribution (our abstract comparison) would be unfair. If, however we agree to reward based upon position, or contribution, or need, or based upon following the prescribed rules, then we would perceive it as unfair if we over-rode the agreed upon system to force greater equality of outcome.

The take away is that there are at least five ways to establish fairness. These can and do often conflict. A football game can be both fair and wildly lopsided in outcome. And calling it a tie after the lopsided outcome game was played fairly would be unfair and unjust. Similarly, suggesting it was unfair just because the outcome was lopsided is disingenuous.

It is fairness which matters not inequality, because measures of equality depend upon which factors we are comparing.

“In fact people suspect, rightly so, that the inequality is not just some natural state of things handed down by the gods of capitalism but is actually explicitly engineered into the system by the people who stand to benefit from it. So in fact, concerns about inequality map quite well onto fairness concerns and the confusion disappears.”

Freed markets are indeed not a natural state, and they are indeed not handed down by gods of any type. They are evolved social institutions which have contributed to the increase in median living standards (10-20X), health, lifespan (2X), subjective well being, education, freedom, opportunity and so on. The gods of capitalism HATE freed markets. Creative destruction, freedom of entry and exit, and competition are their ultimate threats. They are well aware of how precarious membership is in the Fortune 500 in relatively free markets.

It is the median member of society which not only can but has experienced the largest gains in well being, health and lifespan (going from $3 a day, the historic pre market average, to $75 a day (the US median). And these numbers are not adjusted fully for quality of life.

So who is benefitting from it? The living standards and quality of life of people in advanced economies such as seen in Europe, N America, Japan and the Asian Tigers and such (all using local recipes involving the ingredient of freed markets) are historically unprecedented. Anyone dismissing the human welfare benefits of markets to the greater population is either a fool or a liar.

Putting the two halves of this argument together, freed markets clearly place a high institutional value on fairness types 2, 4 and 5. And people are served well on average, over the long haul, compared to societies which do not place values on these types of institutions. People are aware of this and react negatively to institutions which force too much equality of outcome regardless of contribution. This type of fairness has its place, but when elevated to exalted status in a world where products and services must be created via member contributions according to agreed rules, it is destructive.

* Here is the link to Fiske.
http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/fiske/relmodov.htm

93

Roger 04.13.17 at 5:27 pm

Reason @90,

“…you have tried to pull a Trumpian rhetorical trick by avoiding my main point”

No, you are underestimating me. It is a Kochian, Pallinian, Reaganian, Thatcherian, Trumpian rhetorical trick. This is much, much trickier.

“…trying to make the main issue that inequality is difficult to define and measure. Yes, but that doesn’t mean it DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL, which is what you seem to be arguing – whereas I think the concentration should be on how much it matters.”

Nope. You still misunderstand. Let me be more clear. I am not so much arguing it is difficult to define and measure (though i suppose it often is) or that it does not matter at all. My argument is that it can be and is measured in totally conflicting ways. Reread my first post or my response to Jerry immediately above. Rule egalitarianism and rewards commensurate with contribution are substantially more complex ways to measure equality. It is well documented that young children and primates (and unfortunately many progressives) have trouble comprehending more abstract versions of equality. (Google Fiske’s work)

A 10 to zero soccer game is not necessarily unfair. A tie is not necessarily fair. Similarly a high Gini coefficient is not sufficient to prove unfairness and a lower Gini is not necessarily more fair.

94

Roger 04.13.17 at 6:01 pm

B9,

“If, empirically, “people are currently responding to monetary incentives” = people naturally (read: unavoidably) respond to monetary incentives = $ inequality is necessary/good/just. Then also, empirically, “people are currently NOT responding to monetary incentives”* = people naturallly/unavoidably do NOT respond to monetary incentives = $ inequality is unnecessary/bad/unjust.”

Could you clarify please? Income inequality is not in any way necessarily good or just. It depends upon the rules of the game we have established. If we agree to share rewards equally, it would be totally unjust. If we agree to allocate rewards via a market defined system, then the system is just and fair to the extent we used the agreed system regardless of whether results were equal or unequal, just as a game can be fair and end in unequal results.

Certainly there are pros and cons to equality of income. I am in no way suggesting we shouldn’t use this barometer, but it does need to be put in context with other important and clearly sometimes conflicting measures of fairness, and with other goals and values.

“My view: Today, paying surgeons more than janitors is good/necessary/just. But 2 caveats: First, whether this necessity is evidence of “natural” human inclinations or socially conditioned acculturation is unresolved.”

Ok. My understanding is that it builds up from natural human inclinations, adds a strong level of social acculturation and further is based upon thousands of years of cultural/social competition. There are an infinite array of potential institutions and reward systems. The ones that flourish today are the ones which are reasonably in line with our inclinations, and which have evolved with a strong dash of historical contingency and which prove themselves over competing alternatives. This is of course WAY off topic, and not something I would waste time arguing on this site.

“Second, that surgeons should make more than janitors does not address the degree of $ inequality that is optimal (should the income ratio be 2:1, 10:1 ?). To the degree that the janitor has equal access to certain goods that are more rights than priveleges (medicine, law, political representation, education, clean air/water, etc…) , more inequality of $ should be tolerated.”

I agree in spirit, though we might argue in details of the last sentence. But let’s agree and move on. As for your first sentence, remember that we are not optimizing for one dimensional equality of outcome regardless of contribution (which includes not just janitors but retirees and the unemployed). We are optimizing for fairness along all the sometimes contradictory dimensions (one of which I specifically mentioned was results proportionate to needs.). But we are not only trying to optimize society for fairness. Only a fool would do that. We are also optimizing for utility, freedom, opportunity, and whatever else it is humans desire.

Every modern developed state has its particular recipe of institutional solutions to this question. And pretty much all the most successful ones use what some version of the classical liberal Enlightenment three legged stool of relatively freed markets, relatively open access politics, and the scientific method. Sweden differs from Singapore in details, but the similarities of their recipes dwarfs the differences compared to possible (and historic) institutions.

95

J-D 04.13.17 at 8:24 pm

Roger

The blind spot of progressive thought (actually probably an intended deception) …

You are alleging that somebody is (probably) deliberately trying to deceive somebody else, but you have failed to make clear (1) who it is that is the perpetrator of the alleged deception attempt, (2) whom it is that they are (probably) trying to deceive, (3) what you think the (probable) motive is, and (4) what leads you to this general conclusion.

If, for example, you believe that other commenters here are part of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive (among others) you, then it’s hard to see what the point of further discussion would be. If that’s not what you believe, how is what you believe different from that?

96

reason 04.13.17 at 10:47 pm

Roger,
so you are saying you are obfuscating in order to declare that the observed decline of median individual income (and the explosion of very elite incomes) in Western nations is a figment of our collective imaginations, and that “contributions” are at least as hard to determine as outcomes.

97

b9n10nt 04.14.17 at 1:06 am

Yes, Steven Mnuchin’s 100s of millions in net worth compared to the average American’s (~$100k if home equity is included) could, in a theoretical universe under a certain definition of fairness, be fair.

Now is it actually fair? No. Not by definitions 1-4.

Regarding #2: Do higher inequality wealthy states more faithfully reward $ based on contributions than lower inequality ones? No.

It seems like Roger could now begin to:

1) demonstrate that progressives have a “blind spot” towards fairness definitions 2-5. No evidence has been forthcoming yet, so this would be the time, supposedly since the claim has been repeated.

2) Argue that “the 1%” is in fact, nontheoretically, fairly compensated by his definitions 2&3.

Not that repeating baseless criticism against progressives and inspired defenses of Capitalism don’t have hedonic value for Roger. But if the thread’s to deepen….

98

reason 04.14.17 at 4:44 pm

What gets me about Roger’s argument is that he uses incredible bad examples to say what he wants to say.

Fishing is inherently problematic as an example of merit, because it is a potentially zero sum game (in many fisheries we have reached the point of declining yields). So not only is there the issue of material and access advantages to the best fisheries, there is also the possibility that one man’s success implies another’s failure, even more so if we account for environmental damage caused by some fishing techniques. So fishing, tends to be increasingly regulated because it suffers from the “tragedy of the commons” problem, and large externalities.

Then he goes to scores in soccer (a notoriously low scoring game) where small but consistent differences in ability lead to potentially large differences in average scores (and if we equate scores to rewards or income that becomes a problem). Arguably the same average difference in ability in basketball would result in a smaller average score ratio (even if a larger absolute score difference). So we see illustrated the problem that the direction of the score is one issue, but the size of the score difference is another, and is dictated very much by the rules of the game.

In many markets there seems to been an increase in winner take all type situations, and winner-take-all environments that reflect consistant differences in merit are in general degenerate (even where luck plays a significant part). Consider what would happen to tennis is tournaments became winner take all. You would end up with fewer competitors because there would be no way reach the top without large independent resources (either from a sponsor or from inheritance). The problem with competition, is always that someone eventually wins, so you need some process generating new entrants.

99

b9n10nt 04.14.17 at 4:53 pm

Roger @ 94:

My post @ 97 was written before yours at 94.

We are also optimizing for utility, freedom, opportunity, and whatever else it is humans desire.

These seem “baked into” definitions 2-5 to the degree that optimizing for fairness is likely to include these other considerations. Equating need with utility is not much of stretch, I think. And why not consider fairness essentially equivalent to “equality of freedom”?

Could you clarify please?

Yes. Pardon the clunky prose.

And pretty much all the most successful ones use what some version of the classical liberal Enlightenment three legged stool of relatively freed markets, relatively open access politics, and the scientific method. Sweden differs from Singapore in details, but the similarities of their recipes dwarfs the differences compared to possible (and historic) institutions.

The blind spot here is that you’re leaving out another major leg: collectivism (the group will attempt to make choices for all members), a principle function of which is to deny people opportunity to offer and benefit from economic incentives. For example, the bridge was built because people were payed to build it, but it was also built (and built well) because the collective denied the freedom of the builders to use cheaper materials and engineering short-cuts. It was also built because the collective decided to have it built.

There’s no doubt that societies are full of individuals responding to economic incentives. But there’s also no doubt that societies are full of individuals cooperating to deny themselves and others the opportunity to respond to economic incentives. To say or imply that either mode of decision making is more natural is…unresolved.

If we agree to share rewards equally, it would be totally unjust. If we agree to allocate rewards via a market defined system, then the system is just and fair to the extent we used the agreed system regardless of whether results were equal or unequal, just as a game can be fair and end in unequal results.

Why is a market-defined system inherently just and fair? Why is outcome egalitarianism inherently unfair? Let’s say that we figure out how to deliver equally clean food, soil, air, and water to all members of a group without critically damaging our ability to produce a sufficient and dynamic array of goods. Are you saying that we should enforce a criteria that would deprive certain members of these environmental goods so as to increase fairness in society as a whole? How would that work? That would seem more sadism than utilitarianism?

100

Roger 04.14.17 at 7:06 pm

B9, JD, and reason,

“If, for example, you believe that other commenters here are part of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive (among others) you, then it’s hard to see what the point of further discussion would be. If that’s not what you believe, how is what you believe different from that?”

By “probably” I am just using Occam’s Razor to suggest that it is unlikely that all progressives are unaware that there are multiple valid definitions of inequality and unaware that this makes their one dimensional view logically absurd. The likelihood that all progressives are this naive seems to me to be statistically impossible. I could be wrong though. I do not in any way suggest the people arguing the point with me are being disingenuous. Though in this context, that isn’t exactly a compliment.

“Now is it actually fair? No. Not by definitions 1-4.”

Bravo! You almost get it. The point is that it is possible to get comparatively rich fairly according to at least three of the definitions. It is also possible to get rich in ways which violate these definitions.

Let’s go back to sports as it is probably easier for you guys. It is possible to win a football game with a score of forty two to zero. It is possible that they all played by the rules, and that the score was proportionate to the crossing of the ball across the goal line. It is also possible that the winners cheated. It is also possible that the losing team cheated. Knowing the score by itself is insufficient to determine unfairness absent an agreement before hand that the game MUST end in a tie. And I assure you, there is no such agreement in either sports or economics, and making such an agreement would negate the point of the institution.

Do you guys get it yet?

“Do higher inequality wealthy states more faithfully reward $ based on contributions than lower inequality ones? No.”

You guys should probably read up on something called communism. It was a big thing among people who misunderstood human nature, fairness and institutional incentives. If memory serves it was a big thing last century. It didn’t turn out well. Do you need links?

As for developed countries, here is a link on growth, prosperity and inequality regardless of contribution.

http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/barro/files/inequality_growth_1999.pdf

“It seems like Roger could now begin …demonstrate that progressives have a “blind spot” towards fairness definitions 2-5. No evidence has been forthcoming yet, so this would be the time, supposedly since the claim has been repeated.”

The evidence is apparent in these comments.

“Argue that “the 1%” is in fact, nontheoretically, fairly compensated by his definitions 2&3.”

If they earned their money honestly according to the rules of selling goods, services, ideas then they were by (that) definition doing so fairly. If they stole, cheated, or used force to violate the rules then they did so unfairly REGARDLESS of whether they are in the top or bottom percentile.

The tougher case is of course where they used influence to unfairly manipulate the rules so that they achieved income according to the rules. This would be rent or privilege seeking and is commonplace across income quintiles (cronyism, cartels, guilds, minimum wages, regulatory advantages, union closed shops, etc).

“….you are obfuscating in order to declare that the observed decline of median individual income (and the explosion of very elite incomes) in Western nations is a figment of our collective imaginations”

Again, you are factually ignorant. The median per capita income is up over 30 to 40% since 1980 when properly adjusted for inflation and benefits, and this despite the addition of about 40 million immigrants who bring the median way down. (Be careful to not embarrass yourself by using household income, as households have been getting smaller over this period).

The US has a higher median income adjusted for PPP, and a slightly higher growth rate in median income, and a substantially higher growth rate in jobs created over the last generation or so than other large developed nations. This despite the fact that the US is the “frontier” leading edge economy and it is historically empirically easier to catch up than lead.

Here is the the data, but it is really getting tiresome to educate you guys:

http://www.minneapolisfed.org/research/pub_display.cfm?id=4049

I will certainly agree though that growth RATES are down in developed nations (more so outside the US due to their foolish attachment to equality of outcomes regardless of contribution) in part due to the high growth rate in median income of developing nations. Again off topic.

“”contributions” are at least as hard to determine as outcomes.”

The “market” has definitions of how contributions are defined, and the operation of the market is set by rules on property and contracts set by law. But that would again require us getting even further off topic.

I see no further point in the discussion, which is really turning into a one sided education session.

Have a good life, and do some reading.

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engels 04.14.17 at 11:01 pm

Oddly enough I just came across Erik Olin Wright’s seminar on ‘Equality’ (which Harry Brighouse evidently co-taught) which appears (at least from the description) to take ‘equality’ to mean just what Nature article does: equal distribution of some measurable good among a set of people, and distinguishes it from ‘fairness and justice’.

“At the very center of sociology is the study of inequality along a variety of dimensions, but of course, lurking behind the empirical focus on inequality is a normative ideal of “equality.” We care about inequalities in part because we believe that equality is desirable. But why is equality desirable? What do we mean by it? How is equality related to other morally-infused terms like fairness and justice? These are the preoccupations of philosophical discussions. But philosophers are often inattentive to the underlying sociological mechanisms that generate and reproduce different forms of inequality and which bear on the alternative ways one might imagine trying to realize the philosophical ideals in practice. This seminar explores in a variety of ways the intersection of these two contexts for thinking about equality and inequality.
More specifically the readings and discussions will be organized around two axes. The first concerns the problem of what equality and inequality means depending upon what it is that is unequally distributed. Here are some candidates for discussion:
Political power
Income
Wealth: capital assets, land, etc.
Jobs or occupations (or the relevant qualities of jobs: meaningfulness, stress, status, etc.)
Education
Health
Happiness or well-being or welfare
Legal representation within courts
Access to the media
Housework, childcare, carework
The second concerns the socio-demographic categories of persons with respect to which the above kinds of things might be unequally distributed:”
http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/

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J-D 04.15.17 at 1:10 am

Roger

“If, for example, you believe that other commenters here are part of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive (among others) you, then it’s hard to see what the point of further discussion would be. If that’s not what you believe, how is what you believe different from that?”

By “probably” I am just using Occam’s Razor to suggest that it is unlikely that all progressives are unaware that there are multiple valid definitions of inequality and unaware that this makes their one dimensional view logically absurd. The likelihood that all progressives are this naive seems to me to be statistically impossible. I could be wrong though. I do not in any way suggest the people arguing the point with me are being disingenuous. Though in this context, that isn’t exactly a compliment.

You’ve told me what you are not suggesting, but not what you are suggesting. In the part of my earlier comment that you did not quote, I wrote:

You are alleging that somebody is (probably) deliberately trying to deceive somebody else, but you have failed to make clear (1) who it is that is the perpetrator of the alleged deception attempt, (2) whom it is that they are (probably) trying to deceive, (3) what you think the (probable) motive is, and (4) what leads you to this general conclusion.

That’s four questions, of which you have given an answer to only one, and that a partial and inadequate one. Your answer to (1) is apparently ‘some (but not all) progressives’, but I don’t know what you mean by ‘progressives’. You haven’t answered the other questions at all. Who is that you think (some) progressives are trying to deceive? why (do you think) they would be attempting to perpetrate this deception? and how did you arrive at this conclusion?

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b9n10nt 04.15.17 at 2:50 am

The only one I see on this thread preoccupied with one dimensional definitions of equality is Roger. (Again: yes theoretical inequalities can be fair! No one has challenged Roger on this point because it’s not relevant to actual pervasive inequalities and it’s not a novel concept!) He has again passed up an opportunity to demonstrate that progressives have a blind spot, or that the participants in this discussion don’t understand the simple (and abstract/artificial) distinctions between definitions of fairness.

Jerry V. nailed it upthread: people use inequality as a proxy for unfairness. That rings true, especially given that I’ve never read progressives argue for Roger’s definition 1 as an actual policy.

As for the American football analogy, there were the 49ers in the 80s. They had an owner who consistently invested more $ into players and the team than other owners, creating a dynasty. They won by the rules as they were then constructed, but the outcome wasn’t appealing to the league…so the league introduced rules to essentially ban the ability of one team to vastly outspend the others. Other U.S. sports leagues have acted similarly: salary caps, luxury taxes, a “progressive” draft, mandatory revenue sharing, subsidies for a team’s ability to protect their star players from leaving. The rules created unpalatable outcomes, so the rules were changed. Hmmmmmm.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.15.17 at 6:39 am

I see Roger has bowed out, and I suppose that’s just as well but I just couldn’t help but respond anyway.

1). We can compare outcomes/rewards between participants (regardless of contribution)
2). We can compare outcomes/rewards to contributions (a slightly more abstract concept per Fiske*)
3). We can compare outcome/reward to need
4). We can compare outcome/reward to position
5). We can compare outcome/reward to procedural observance (playing according to the rules).

Roger builds much of his argument around the idea that we should be doing the thing in #2. But even a little bit of thinking will reveal that it is nigh-impossible to assess contributions in this way on a societal scale. Since Roger is so fond of sports analogies, I’ll use one of my own: there are people out there who devote entire careers to analyzing who is making the biggest contribution in NBA defense. This is a very complex task, even though there are only 5 players on the court at any one time and the parameters of legal actions in basketball games are rigidly fixed. Expand that process to any organization of even moderate size and complexity, and the credit assignment problem becomes much less tractable. At the level of society, you might as well forget it; no reliable metric exists, or could exist to assess such a contribution.

Defenders of capitalism like to solve this problem by closing the vicious circle: the contribution is reflected by how much you’re paid, because that’s how much society values your work. But this is question-begging, since what is in question is exactly the grounds on which the identification between wealth and societal contribution rests. So that won’t do. And once you start looking at who is actually raking in the big bucks, it sure isn’t the people who contribute anything to the material well-being of our society: the producers of things, the doctors, the scientists, the teachers, etc. It’s the people who sit at the nexus of the financial system, your Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Dimons. For people like Roger who are clearly invested in a kind of just world story, it is imperative to find justifications for the proposition that such people deserve what they have, because the alternative, which Roger almost gets at with his point #4 above, is that these people have merely figured out how to leverage their positions into power and wealth. It would mean that in fact the Jamie Dimons of the world have not ascended to the top by virtue of their contributions to society, but rather by virtue of manipulating the rules in such a way that it is beneficial to them.

The “market” has definitions of how contributions are defined, and the operation of the market is set by rules on property and contracts set by law. But that would again require us getting even further off topic.

It is to laugh. The rich set the definition of “contributions,” which definitions naturally state that the contribution of the rich is the greatest (rather like the USNWR picking educational quality criteria that ensure that Harvard comes out on top, because that’s the answer you’re supposed to get a priori). Then the “operations of the market” are constructed in such a way as to allow those who already sit at the nexus of power and money to accrue more of both. If these “rules” are challenged (vide some unsophisticated rube intimating that perhaps financial advisors ought not to fleece the people they are advising), see point #1 for justification. Delightfully tidy system.

In truth, of course, no individual contribution to a society of 320 million, much less a world of 7 billion, means anything at all: the cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people. As it is not possible to estimate anything like an individual contribution with any reliability, the just solution is to conclude that we are owed certain things not by virtue of what we contribute but by virtue of our common humanity.

Not content to merely mangle logic and sociology, Roger goes after history too:

Freed markets are indeed not a natural state, and they are indeed not handed down by gods of any type. They are evolved social institutions which have contributed to the increase in median living standards (10-20X), health, lifespan (2X), subjective well being, education, freedom, opportunity and so on. The gods of capitalism HATE freed markets. Creative destruction, freedom of entry and exit, and competition are their ultimate threats. They are well aware of how precarious membership is in the Fortune 500 in relatively free markets.

The word “contributed” is doing a lot of work there. When challenged on the justice of capitalism, its defenders will inevitable retreat into a retrospective defense: all the good things we have are because of markets, all the bad things are merely failure to live up to market ideals, and hence markets cannot fail but only be failed. Now, by examining which things have actually produced improvements in living standards, health, lifespan, and so on, we might naturally assume that the responsibility here lies with such material innovations as publicly available clean drinking water, sanitation, medical research (the bulk of it originating with publicly funded research) and so on. But that’s clearly the dumb materialist take; the truly wise sage knows that the answer is “markets” in each and every case, because for Roger et al the market is already the necessary logical precondition of any good thing happening whatsoever. Nevermind that innovation occurred in pre-capitalist society and that the rate of innovation is far more likely to be dependent on currently available scientific knowledge and material prerequisites, the wise capitalist knows that only the market can achieve miracles. The actual physical thing is merely the instrument, but the market, well, that is the immanent spirit which moves it all. Alas, like all spiritualisms this doctrine suffers from a lack of testability, but what’s mere science when weighed against a matter of faith?

I will note that even if we were to grant that markets made all these things possible in the past, it does not follow that markets are necessary to guarantee future progress. It’s entirely possible that market capitalism was a necessary process of bootstrapping (pun intended) society out of medieval feudalism and, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, can be abandoned once it’s no longer necessary. This isn’t my view necessarily, but it’s worth pointing out that there’s no reason to assume that market capitalism is either necessary, desirable, or just going forward.

There are an infinite array of potential institutions and reward systems. The ones that flourish today are the ones which are reasonably in line with our inclinations, and which have evolved with a strong dash of historical contingency and which prove themselves over competing alternatives.

Every hierarchy needs its foundational myth. The foundational myth of the market is that the market is always fair: if there were abuses, they were in the past, there are no alternatives, we live in the best of all possible worlds, and anyone who disagrees is a dangerous radical who wants to murder you (so you’d better murder them first: turns out “proving yourself against competing alternatives” just means being a lot better at genocide than the other fellow). Or: the injustice didn’t happen, if it happened it wasn’t injustice, and anyway even if it was they deserved it.

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Roger 04.15.17 at 6:26 pm

Jerry,

“Roger builds much of his argument around the idea that we should be doing the thing in #2.”

Not really. My argument was that all five are important in the proper context. If I had to pick one to trump all others it would be rule egalitarianism, which was number 5 above. The reason is that the rules of the game can define how rewards are distributed. Thus 1-4 can be subsumed by 5. In addition, the rules can be applied at the higher level of rule making procedures itself.

“But even a little bit of thinking will reveal that it is nigh-impossible to assess contributions in this way on a societal scale….Expand that process to any organization of even moderate size and complexity, and the credit assignment problem becomes much less tractable. At the level of society, you might as well forget it; no reliable metric exists, or could exist to assess such a contribution.”

Absolutely 100% disagree. You are just falling for the Big Kahuna, top down model or what Zappa would probably call the “Central Scrutinizer.” Markets are decentralized, emergent phenomena. I understand that people (we) have trouble grasping complex, decentralized, emergent feedback systems. But that is a deficiency in us, not in the system.

The rules of markets are themselves not all that complex though, just the emergent order. The rules involve property rights, contract law, freedom of entrance and exit, and freedom of exchange based upon mutual voluntary agreement. From these things such as prices, wages, profits and losses emerge. “Contributions” are assessed in a decentralized fashion based upon demand adjusted for supply.

“Defenders of capitalism like to solve this problem by closing the vicious circle: the contribution is reflected by how much you’re paid, because that’s how much society values your work. But this is question-begging, since what is in question is exactly the grounds on which the identification between wealth and societal contribution rests.”

Absolutely disagree again. The so called question-begging applies to any consistent rule system. In football the score is defined as crossing the goal line, so the score or “contribution” rests on how the rules were defined. The same is true for guilt or innocence in a court of law. In markets the rewards are DEFINED as the decentralized emergent value others are willing to pay adjusted for supply.

Thus the question becomes why would we want to design the rules that way? The reason is obvious. Societies using markets are spectacularly successful at organizing people into constructively cooperate problem solving. I already laid out the evidence for that in prior comments.

You are certainly right that there are infinite ways to define how contributions and rewards are measured in a society. Once we define it — in part — as every large developed nation does (using markets) the justification is in its value compared to other (non market economic systems) systems. Socialism and central command are other ways with spectacularly, even embarrassingly, bad relative outcomes, especially considering that socialism clearly free rode and drafted off the creativity , innovation and institutional development of market based economies (even Marxists agree to this). Care to guess how many of the major tech breakthrough innovations of the 20th C came out communist states?

At the root of the problem, I suggest you are assuming that there is an absolute measure of value and that our rule system needs to discover that. This is a bad assumption. Nobody would suggest that rewards in market based economies like Sweden captures the real absolute worth of an individual. But the market system is extremely effective at encouraging people to attend to the needs and opportunities of others in cooperative ways, and rewarding them to do so adjusted for demand. Most importantly it does so substantially better than alternative systems. That is why true Socialists come across as such idealistic dreamers. They hope to replace a proven effective system which they don’t understand with a system proven to be subpar and parasitic, but which they can understand.

“So that won’t do. And once you start looking at who is actually raking in the big bucks, it sure isn’t the people who contribute anything to the material well-being of our society: the producers of things, the doctors, the scientists, the teachers, etc. It’s the people who sit at the nexus of the financial system”

Quit making things up. In reviews of the one percent in the US, most made their money via entrepreneurial activity or working for entrepreneurs. Most do not come from affluent families, most do not attend Ivy League schools, and only a small and decreasing minority inherited their wealth.

http://www.joshuakennon.com/the-new-elite-a-look-in-the-top-1-percent-of-wealth-in-the-united-states/

If we want to go to the top of the top, 50% of all income and 70% of all wealth of the top .1% comes from self employed business owners (see Raub, Johnson and Newcomb). To spell it out, we are seeing huge rewards go to people like Gates, Jobs, the Waltons and Zuckerberg. These are people who have CREATED massive value for humanity — according to fellow humans as per the established rules — and are being massively rewarded for the creation of said contributions. Science and politics have different reward systems and different rules and measures for different types of contributions.

Nobody would argue that the system is perfect or that some didn’t get there via cronyism or rent seeking, but the evidence shows that the system is based more on contribution and less on cronyism and inheritance in the dynamic US than in Europe or the developing world. Again, references available upon request (as opposed to all the BS you guys are just making up — doesn’t it bother you guys to see me DESTROY every fact you guys make up?)

“Then the “operations of the market” are constructed in such a way as to allow those who already sit at the nexus of power and money to accrue more of both.”

Nobody denies that rent seeking and rule manipulation are real and bad and to be discouraged. But I tell you what, why don’t you show me a society with higher median standards of living than those using markets. You can’t. Market based systems have been central to the creation of prosperity, and the growth in lifespan, freedom, knowledge and subjective well being for the last 250 years (basically the only time since the advent of life on earth that any species has beat the Malthusian curse for a lengthy period).

Jerry. You are not just wrong on every particular point, but spectacularly so.

“In truth, of course, no individual contribution to a society of 320 million, much less a world of 7 billion, means anything at all…”

What a callous and ignorant statement. In truth, society is the cumulative advance of billions of mostly small but sometimes big contributions. Read Henrich’s Secret of Our Success. The value of markets (along with participatory politics and science) is that it channels and rewards making contributions and penalizes creating problems.

“The word “contributed” is doing a lot of work there. When challenged on the justice of capitalism, its defenders will inevitable retreat into a retrospective defense: all the good things we have are because of markets, all the bad things are merely failure to live up to market ideals, and hence markets cannot fail but only be failed. Now, by examining which things have actually produced improvements in living standards, health, lifespan, and so on, we might naturally assume that the responsibility here lies with such material innovations as publicly available clean drinking water, sanitation, medical research (the bulk of it originating with publicly funded research) and so on. But that’s clearly the dumb materialist take; the truly wise sage knows that the answer is “markets” in each and every case, because for Roger et al the market is already the necessary logical precondition of any good thing happening whatsoever.”

Jerry, you are building a strawman for the simple reason that you know the real man will continue to demolish your argument. Here is the real man.

As I stated above and in prior comments, the role of markets is NECESSARY not sufficient. No reasonable person believes that markets are the source of all things good or that markets are sufficient. In earlier comments I spoke of something called enlightenment liberalism which involves the three legged stool of freed markets, open access political institutions and the scientific method. The argument is that the three legs support, build and self amplify on each other. I can explain it in more detail, but it really is off the topic of fairness. Let me just abbreviate that widespread sanitation, clean water, energy, antibiotics, court systems, transportation networks, schools, infrastructure, defense, welfare safety nets and so forth depend upon the innovation and prosperity generated by markets and that these things contribute back to the effectiveness of markets. Think feedback loops.

And no, prior to 1776 and the moral philosopher’s writings on the Wealth of Nations, no people had wide scale prosperity of the modern variety. Markets were necessary, not sufficient.

“Nevermind that innovation occurred in pre-capitalist society and that the rate of innovation is far more likely to be dependent on currently available scientific knowledge and material prerequisites…”

I have been studying the rate of technological and institutional innovation for more than a decade. Would you like me to link where and when major innovations has occurred (by year and nation)? If not why don’t you google it. You are certainly correct that there are scientific and material prerequisites. I would add political and institutional prerequisites too. Again that is the feedback loop of markets/open access politics/science.

“I will note that even if we were to grant that markets made all these things possible in the past, it does not follow that markets are necessary to guarantee future progress.”

Agreed. It is possible that markets as we know them or that science/open access politics as we know them now will not be necessary in the future. This just points to the need for institutional variety, competition and experimentation. Something I have tended to have as much trouble convincing most so called “progressives” of than even the value of markets. If we discover something better than freed markets then I am all for it. The absolutely last place I would expect to see these ideas coming from is from people who do not understand the system we currently have (as demonstrated by the comments of Val, b9, Reason, JD and you) and who innately tend to reject decentralized, experimental problem solving systems. Though feel free to correct me if you are a fan of decentralized, non coercive problem solving.

“Every hierarchy needs its foundational myth. The foundational myth of the market is that the market is always fair: if there were abuses, they were in the past, there are no alternatives, we live in the best of all possible worlds, and anyone who disagrees is a dangerous radical who wants to murder you…”

Jerry, you are embarrassing yourself and this site with this straw manning garbage. If you ever wonder what it looks like to lose a discussion factually, rhetorically and logically, just save a copy of this exchange. And remember I did it on your turf surrounded by your fellow ideologues.

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Roger 04.15.17 at 6:51 pm

B9@99,

“The blind spot here is that you’re leaving out another major leg: collectivism (the group will attempt to make choices for all members), a principle function of which is to deny people opportunity to offer and benefit from economic incentives.”

I specifically included “politics” as a necessary leg for deciding upon, supplying and in some cases creating public goods. One such public good has tended to be the rules and enforcement mechanisms of markets. So no blind spot.

“To say or imply that either mode of decision making is more natural is…unresolved.”

I am pretty sure I wrote that none of these systems are “natural.” They are emergent from thousands of years of competition and emulation among thousands of societies.

“If we agree to share rewards equally, it would be totally unjust.”

No. If we agreed to distribute them equally it would be just to distribute them equally and unjust not to do so. It would also be unjust to distribute them equally if we agreed to another system (say commission based or piecemeal rewards) and then overrode it after the fact to force equality.

“Why is a market-defined system inherently just and fair?”

It isn’t, unless we agreed to it.

“Why is outcome egalitarianism inherently unfair?”

It isn’t. If we agreed to it, then it is totally fair.

“Are you saying that we should enforce a criteria that would deprive certain members of these environmental goods so as to increase fairness in society as a whole? How would that work? That would seem more sadism than utilitarianism?”

Of course not. If we had a cornucopia machine, we wouldn’t need to incentivize production at all. It would be superfluous

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J-D 04.16.17 at 1:05 am

Roger

But I tell you what, why don’t you show me a society with higher median standards of living than those using markets.

I’m not sure what units you’re using to measure standard of living, or where you’re getting your data about medians, but presumably, however you’re measuring it, different countries have different median standards of living. Can you tell us which countries have the highest median standards of living, and what, if anything, countries with lower median standards of living might learn from them?

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.16.17 at 1:19 am

Absolutely 100% disagree. You are just falling for the Big Kahuna, top down model or what Zappa would probably call the “Central Scrutinizer.” Markets are decentralized, emergent phenomena. I understand that people (we) have trouble grasping complex, decentralized, emergent feedback systems. But that is a deficiency in us, not in the system.

I know a little something about emergent systems, but the problem is that just saying “markets are emergent phenomena” doesn’t get you anything. All social phenomena are emergent; there is no great wisdom in pointing this out.

The rules of markets are themselves not all that complex though, just the emergent order. The rules involve property rights, contract law, freedom of entrance and exit, and freedom of exchange based upon mutual voluntary agreement. From these things such as prices, wages, profits and losses emerge.

Actually, the rules are in fact quite complex, as anyone who has ever actually tried to understand them knows. What constitutes a “property right” or a “contract” or a “mutual voluntary agreement” in modern society depends on a great number of things, including statutes (local, state, and federal), regulations (same), and case law (ditto). Turns out that how those rules are structured makes a great deal of difference.

“Contributions” are assessed in a decentralized fashion based upon demand adjusted for supply.</blockquote

This is just Econ 101 nonsense, empty pronouncements without any insight.

Absolutely disagree again. The so called question-begging applies to any consistent rule system. In football the score is defined as crossing the goal line, so the score or “contribution” rests on how the rules were defined.

This really makes me wonder if you’ve ever watched a football game. Even in a limited game with relatively fixed rules and aims, it is often impossible to disentangle such things as quarterback and receiver performance, never mind more complex stuff like line play. You can’t determine “contribution” by looking merely at such things as yards.

In markets the rewards are DEFINED as the decentralized emergent value others are willing to pay adjusted for supply.

That’s just a thing you say; you haven’t actually given any reason that anyone should believe it’s true. In fact, markets do not encode or define any definition of “reward.” There are only prices, which reflect many things such as the particular structure of the market, the relative bargaining powers of the participants, and so on. The whole notion of “reward” is actually entirely beside the point, which it better be, since markets are not moral agents.

Once we define it — in part — as every large developed nation does (using markets) the justification is in its value compared to other (non market economic systems) systems. Socialism and central command are other ways with spectacularly, even embarrassingly, bad relative outcomes, especially considering that socialism clearly free rode and drafted off the creativity , innovation and institutional development of market based economies (even Marxists agree to this). Care to guess how many of the major tech breakthrough innovations of the 20th C came out communist states?

Considering that most countries that called themselves socialist or communist in the 20th century started the technological race far behind the economies of the industrialized West, it’s hardly surprising that they spent much of that time playing catch-up. But anyway, if you thought I was here to play apologist for the USSR or China, I’m sorry to disappoint you; I have little brief for either of those regimes.

At the root of the problem, I suggest you are assuming that there is an absolute measure of value and that our rule system needs to discover that.

It’s both a biological and physical fact that some products of our labor are more valuable than others, for the simple reason that we need to eat and have homes to live in and not die of diseases. All the repetitions of “markets are emergent” won’t fix that. Of course, once you get into the realm of consumer goods, it becomes impossible to establish such value for most of the things people buy in the stores, and in any case it wouldn’t be particularly valuable if we could.

Quit making things up. In reviews of the one percent in the US, most made their money via entrepreneurial activity or working for entrepreneurs. Most do not come from affluent families, most do not attend Ivy League schools, and only a small and decreasing minority inherited their wealth.

http://www.joshuakennon.com/the-new-elite-a-look-in-the-top-1-percent-of-wealth-in-the-united-states/

Numerically, the upper-middle class is dominated by highly paid salaried professionals and small business people. They are certainly well-to-do, but they are not in the 0.1% or the 0.01%, to whom the wealth generated since the recession has overwhelmingly accrued.

As I stated above and in prior comments, the role of markets is NECESSARY not sufficient.

You say that, but there’s no particular reason to believe this is true.

And no, prior to 1776 and the moral philosopher’s writings on the Wealth of Nations, no people had wide scale prosperity of the modern variety. Markets were necessary, not sufficient.

Ah yes, the complex emergent system is derivable in its entirety from the work of a single person. You’re like a Biblical literalist who thinks the pronouncements of yore suffice to derive the whole of modern society. That prior to Adam Smith wide-scale prosperity was not available might have a little something to do with the level of technological advancement that existed at the time.

I have been studying the rate of technological and institutional innovation for more than a decade. Would you like me to link where and when major innovations has occurred (by year and nation)? If not why don’t you google it. You are certainly correct that there are scientific and material prerequisites. I would add political and institutional prerequisites too. Again that is the feedback loop of markets/open access politics/science.

A whole decade! Goodness me, I am impressed. I’m afraid I’m a lot less impressed with your post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, nor would I be terribly impressed with the links you would no doubt share with me exalting the achievements of Western civilization.

Agreed. It is possible that markets as we know them or that science/open access politics as we know them now will not be necessary in the future. This just points to the need for institutional variety, competition and experimentation. Something I have tended to have as much trouble convincing most so called “progressives” of than even the value of markets. If we discover something better than freed markets then I am all for it. The absolutely last place I would expect to see these ideas coming from is from people who do not understand the system we currently have (as demonstrated by the comments of Val, b9, Reason, JD and you) and who innately tend to reject decentralized, experimental problem solving systems. Though feel free to correct me if you are a fan of decentralized, non coercive problem solving.

Cool, a guy who thinks that markets are non-coercive. Why, I haven’t encountered thought that original since, oh, I don’t know, the libertarians I used to live with in college.

Jerry, you are embarrassing yourself and this site with this straw manning garbage. If you ever wonder what it looks like to lose a discussion factually, rhetorically and logically, just save a copy of this exchange. And remember I did it on your turf surrounded by your fellow ideologues.

Well, I will leave it to others to determine who is embarrassing themselves. I don’t feel any particular embarrassment over anything that I wrote, personally, and I’d also suggest it’s quite bad form to unilaterally declare yourself so impressed with your own verbiage that you have clearly won the debate. Especially when factually, rhetorically, and logically, you have done your best to evade actual challenges by moving the goalposts and arguing from shibboleths.

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.16.17 at 4:40 am

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

Anyway, to circle back to the question of fairness: markets are distributional mechanisms. They don’t encode any inherent notions of fairness whatsoever outside of whatever we think is baked into the rules. Nor are market outcomes guaranteed to be fair in any sense; they may certainly align with previously held notions of fairness but they also might not. Finally, even in the case where a market generates locally optimal outcomes, it is invalid simply as a matter of mathematics to assume that aggregating local optima will produce a global optimum, for however you want to define your utility function. There are plenty of examples of market behaviors which might be locally optimal but generate globally detrimental results; global warming is a great example.

A large and growing body of political science research demonstrates that, at least in the US, politicians are overwhelmingly solicitous of the upper classes, and particularly the ultra-rich, when it comes to making policy. This has the effect of altering market rules to favor the players who already have the most power, who then go on to alter the rules in their favor even more. This phenomenon demonstrates itself across any number of issues, whether it’s the financialization of the economy, environmental degradation, the evisceration of the safety net, the exploding cost of medicine, or what have you. Rising inequality is certainly a symptom, but also a cause (talk about feedback loops) as it translates into inequalities of power. Naturally, people who used to breathe clean air or drink clean water and are now finding themselves drinking toxic waste because the local chemical company found it profitable to dump it in the river, or who lost their homes because of the massive fraud perpetrated by the mortgage industry, might think that this is all a little unfair. All these high-minded discourses on the merits of the market and how everyone deserves what they got aren’t going to matter a whole hell of a lot to people who have been cheated.

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b9n10nt 04.16.17 at 8:18 am

Roger,

rules-based fairness is in fact founded upon democratic consent. Its right there in in your latest response. Essentially, ” If we agreed to it, it would be fair.” Odd focus for a libertarian I guess. But you’ve got the inevitable supremacy of MARKETS in I guess all social-production contexts so no need to fear cognitive dissonance. I reflect that the ballooning of relative wealth and income in finance especially was not the delayer of a populist ground swell.

Anyway…now there’s a chance to come full circle: the relationship of personal belief and personal consent to our social order is not at all clear.

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b9n10nt 04.16.17 at 8:19 am

delayer = result

Betcha didn’t see that coming!

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Dipper 04.16.17 at 8:50 am

I note people far smarter than I are arguing about markets and laws over title, so here’s an old one from Bermondsey in London and its market ouvert

briefly if an item was sold in Bermondsey Market between sunrise and sunset then its provenance could not be questioned. Hence stolen goods were (legally) sold here and title passed to the buyer. This rule was abolished in 1995.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_ouvert

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reason 04.16.17 at 9:36 am

Jerry,
http://crookedtimber.org/2017/04/09/the-poverty-of-psychology/#comment-707168

“But even a little bit of thinking will reveal that it is nigh-impossible to assess contributions in this way on a societal scale.”

I think it is even worse than that, because it evades the very important question “contributions to what”. (Measuring contributions by income is doubly circular because income is gained by producing things for people with money, not by making contributions of value to the population as a whole.)

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reason 04.16.17 at 9:42 am

Roger @105
Having definitely saying that you had given up trying to educate us you rather odd view of what we believe and don’t understand about markets (most of us are not against actually against markets in principle, but most of us want a more egalitarian society – as we indeed used to have before neo-liberalism started working its magic – for the elite), you then proceed to write a magazine length post. I thought we were finally free from your contentless paternalism.

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reason 04.16.17 at 9:47 am

I made an error in tense in the first sentence of my previous post that I hope everyone will forgive (saying = said).

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Jerry Vinokurov 04.16.17 at 3:38 pm

I think it is even worse than that, because it evades the very important question “contributions to what”. (Measuring contributions by income is doubly circular because income is gained by producing things for people with money, not by making contributions of value to the population as a whole.)

For sure. The choice of metric itself is obviously value-laden; I’m just granting that even if we could agree on what we were trying to measure, actually measuring it would be effectively impossible.

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