Archive for the ‘Distributive Justice’ Category

Megan McArdle writes disapprovingly of the minimum wage:

Both at Crooked Timber, and in my own beloved comment threads, the suggestion has been made that the minimum wage is really swell because it gets rid of low-productivity jobs that only pay the minimum wage.

This sounds lovely–if you are the kind of person who has the skills to get one of the higher productivity jobs. Not so great if you’re a high-school dropout with no appreciable credentials. In effect what you’re talking about is a massive transfer from the weakest members of society.

Let’s say raising the minimum wage makes them unemployable, while creating new, higher skilled jobs making and maintaining the equipment that replaces them. Good for skilled workers. Possibly good for society in some sense, though raising unemployment is rarely a net boon. Definitely awful for the lowest skilled workers, who now can’t get a legal job.

Helping the moderately paid worker by forcing the least skilled out of the legal job market is a very, very bad policy. Whether or not you think that the government ought to be in the business of transferring wealth from one segment of society to another, I hope we can all agree that at least the transfers oughtn’t to go upwards.

This is a crucial but often overlooked point. In fact, it played an important role in my own political formation. The Democratic party, which bills itself as looking out for the “little guy,” increasingly stands for upward transfers—”updrafts,” let’s call them—rather than the downward transfers their rhetoric advocates. The minimum wage transfers from the least advantaged to the not-quite-least-advantaged workers. Support for unions transfers from less-advantaged nonunion workers (often minorities) to more-advantaged union workers. Restrictions on trade transfer from foreign workers and domestic workers lacking political clout to domestic workers with political clout. Support for the arts and humanities, to take something closer to me, takes from the average taxpayer and gives to professionals with advanced degrees and impressive academic affiliations. The current housing bailout takes from the average taxpayer and transfers to people who made risky investments in housing (mostly in California and Florida) and in mortgage-backed securities. And so on. The “heartless” budget cuts proposed by conservatives of yore mostly affected these updrafts, and could have been defended on distributive grounds alone.

I sometimes think that conservatives should base more of their arguments on Rawlsian premises. Conservative policies are better for the least advantaged, giving them pathways to greater advantage, while liberal policies too often take from the least advantaged to give to the politically well-placed while taking away those pathways.


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I wrote earlier about Pew research findings that Republicans are happier than Democrats, and, generally, conservatives are happier than liberals. Here was my explanation:

I think it’s likely that happy people are more likely to be Republicans, while unhappy people are more likely to be Democrats, for unhappiness gives one an incentive to seek change, and happiness an incentive to resist it. But the causal link goes in the other direction as well, for Republicans stress freedom and individual responsibility, which lead people to feel in control and take action that changes their lives for the better, while Democrats assign blame to institutions, which makes people feel powerless and discourages them from undertaking ameliorative courses of action.

Now we get a new explanation:

Conservatives rationalize social and economic inequalities.

Regardless of marital status, income or church attendance, right-wing individuals reported greater life satisfaction and well-being than left-wingers, the new study found. Conservatives also scored highest on measures of rationalization, which gauge a person’s tendency to justify, or explain away, inequalities.

Oh, really? And how did they measure ‘rationalization’?

The rationalization measure included statements such as: “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,” and “This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are.”

In other words, conservatives placed less value on equality than liberals. That’s not surprising, but it has nothing to do with rationalization.

And how do conservatives “rationalize” inequality?

To justify economic inequalities, a person could support the idea of meritocracy, in which people supposedly move up their economic status in society based on hard work and good performance. In that way, one’s social class attainment, whether upper, middle or lower, would be perceived as totally fair and justified.

Hard work? Good performance? Why is this “rationalization” rather than the adoption of an Aristotelian theory of distributive justice? Moreover, the researchers confuse descriptive and normative issues. Do conservatives think that hard work and good performance are rewarded (which doesn’t seem controversial to me) or that they should be rewarded (which, again, doesn’t seem controversial to me)? Which are the researchers denying by calling this rationalization?

Ann Althouse makes an additional point:

They [liberals] especially lack the rationalization powers that would allow them to frame conservatives as anything but ***holes. These liberals must starkly confront the brutal reality that conservatives are too heartless, stupid, greedy, or cowardly to perceive. At least that’s the way the liberals like to frame it.

Why couldn’t we reframe the issue as follows? Modern societies are immensely complex. Inequalities arise for many reasons—most of which are justifiable, and a few of which aren’t. Conservatives are capable of understanding complexity, so they recognize that inequality per se is not a good indicator of injustice. Liberals, who cannot understand complexity and, like children, insist on collapsing complex matters into simple categories, misunderstand this and see inequality itself as injustice. Conservatives don’t rationalize inequality; they understand it.

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Michael Goldfarb points out how amazing our current situation is:

What if I told you in 2004 that the Democratic party would run an African American candidate for president in 2008? I tell you National Journal will officially label this candidate the most liberal member of the United States Senate. This candidate will also have served less than three years in that Senate, with no executive, foreign policy, or military experience. Then I tell you that this candidate will lose the party’s primaries in Texas, California, New York, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Oh, and his minister sounds like Louis Farrakhan, and actually pals around and gives awards to Farrakhan.

This is the situation the Democratic party finds itself in, and not only that, but the presumptive Republican nominee has the highest favorability rating of any candidate Gallup’s tracked in the last eight years.

My own take: Obama had the opportunity for a “Sister Souljah” moment.  He almost seized it. Indeed, he came very close, and I thought he was going to do it. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t push Rev. Wright away.

Similarly, he almost transcended traditional discussions of race. He sounded briefly as if he were going to upend the usual pattern by demonstrating a real understanding of the perspective of many urban white voters:

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition.

All this has it exactly right. So, what does Obama have to say to these voters?

Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends.

Wait a minute—didn’t you just imply that fear of crime is real and rational, and not to be dismissed as mere prejudice? So, why are these politicians exploiting fears?

Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Again, hold on—I thought the above concerns were supposed to be legitimate. But the commentators who share them are the ones guilty of dismissing legitimate discussions?

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.

What? These are “the real culprits”? They have something to do with why children are bused long distances to inferior schools? With why some children get into the state university with scholarships while others with much higher grades and SAT scores are turned down, solely because of the color of their skin?

And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

Isn’t that what you’ve just done?

So, what do you want from the white urban voters who are concerned about these issues? What do you have to say to them?

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed.

In other words—t**** s***.

That ought to go over well in Pennsylvania.

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The National Association of Scholars has published a report on schools of social work throughout the country, finding that most are committed to ideological indoctrination rather than unbiased research: “Social work education is a national academic scandal.” Stephen Balch, NAS Director:

Defenders of the American university claim that the seriousness of the problem of political correctness has been greatly exaggerated by critics. There is, however, nothing subtle about political correctness in social work. It is the Jolt Cola of PC.

Social work is a field, perhaps, in which the line between advocacy and academic scholarship is subtle. But the line is nevertheless real. Social work, like medicine and engineering, is a practical field that has as its end not only understanding but doing. Just as medicine has as its goal health, we might expect social work to have as its goal helping people. But many in schools of social work understand what they do in a far more specific and contentious way. Barbara White, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, objected to the report:

“We do not advocate any particular positions and definitely do not force them on our students,” White said. “Our profession is geared toward the issue of people working for justice and equality. And our responsibility is to serve the community.”

Justice and equality, notice, come first, and are the means to serving the community. What’s wrong with justice and equality? Nothing, of course, except that they are political concepts. People with different political ideologies construe them quite differently. There could be, and once upon a time were, courses in schools of social work that examined different conceptions of justice and equality without strong ideological presuppositions or biases. People used to feel responsible for arguing for the ideological positions they took against all comers. (I am thinking, for example, of Richard Lodge, former head of the Council on Social Work Education, whom I knew well.) But those days are long gone.

The Council for Social Work Education publishes a Code of Ethics that almost all schools of social work require their students to adhere to. It stipulates:

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to a knowledge about oppression and cultural, economic and ethnic diversity.

Notice that poverty and unemployment are simply assumed to be forms of injustice. If I quit my job to write the great American novel, hike the Appalachian Trail, or pursue competitive tanning, that’s injustice? Note, too, the use of the loaded term ‘oppression’ and the ritual bowing to diversity.

The Code of Ethics continues:

Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.

So, to be a social worker according to the CSWE, you need to engage in specific kinds of political action. The saddest part of the report discusses particular students who have left or been failed out of social work graduate programs because they opposed abortion, refused to lobby legislators to adopt certain left-wing policies, or analyzed social problems from a conservative point of view.

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They have more money. But they don’t really have all that much more stuff:

Looking at a far more direct measure of American families’ economic status — household consumption — indicates that the gap between rich and poor is far less than most assume, and that the abstract, income-based way in which we measure the so-called poverty rate no longer applies to our society.

… if we compare the incomes of the top and bottom fifths, we see a ratio of 15 to 1. If we turn to consumption, the gap declines to around 4 to 1. A similar narrowing takes place throughout all levels of income distribution. The middle 20 percent of families had incomes more than four times the bottom fifth. Yet their edge in consumption fell to about 2 to 1.

Let’s take the adjustments one step further. Richer households are larger — an average of 3.1 people in the top fifth, compared with 2.5 people in the middle fifth and 1.7 in the bottom fifth. If we look at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households falls to just 2.1 to 1. The average person in the middle fifth consumes just 29 percent more than someone living in a bottom-fifth household.

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The Washington Post reports:

Most studies show that wealthy people are marginally happier than poor ones. People with pets or children are no happier than those without. People with active sex lives are — surprise! — happier than those without. No single morsel of happiness data, though, is more intriguing than this: Republicans are happier than Democrats.

A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 45 percent of Republicans describe themselves as “very happy,” compared with only 30 percent of Democrats (and 29 percent of independents). This is a sizable gap and a remarkably consistent one, too. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey, conducted biannually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, began asking about happiness in 1972.

Why are Republicans happier? The Post considers several hypotheses: (1) Wealth: Maybe Republicans are richer. But the effect is robust even controlling for wealth. (2) Power: Republicans have been winning the Presidency. But Republicans are happier even when Democrats are in the White House. (3) Religion: Republicans are more likely to go to church, and church-going correlates strongly with happiness. So, this explains some, but only some, of the effect. (4) Marriage: Republicans are more likely to be married, and marriage correlates strongly with happiness. Again, this explains some but not all of the difference. (5) Ignorance: Maybe Republicans know less, and ignorance is bliss. I don’t know the data, but, in my experience, among PhDs, Republicans are far happier on average than Democrats. So, I conjecture that the difference will remain after controlling for education.

I’ll propose another explanation: I think it’s likely that happy people are more likely to be Republicans, while unhappy people are more likely to be Democrats, for unhappiness gives one an incentive to seek change, and happiness an incentive to resist it. But the causal link goes in the other direction as well, for Republicans stress freedom and individual responsibility, which lead people to feel in control and take action that changes their lives for the better, while Democrats assign blame to institutions, which makes people feel powerless and discourages them from undertaking ameliorative courses of action.

Perhaps the most intriguing point has little to do with explaining Republicans’ greater happiness but much to do with the pointlessness of Democratic policies from a utilitarian perspective:

Once in power, Democrats tend to focus on issues that, according to the science of happiness, have little effect on our contentment — income equality, for instance, and racial diversity. Neither is linked to greater happiness. Countries with large disparities between rich and poor are no less happy than more egalitarian ones, studies have found. And the happiest countries in the world tend to be homogeneous ones, such as Denmark and Iceland, not the ethnic melting pots that liberals celebrate.

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Spain’s Popular Party has proposed that women receive tax breaks for… being women! Since parties to its left are likely to pile on board, Spain will soon have a tax system that discriminates on the basis of gender. There’s a radical feminist argument for this, but there’s also a utilitarian argument based on the Ramsey taxation principle: If the demand or supply of something is more elastic, tax it less. Since women’s labor has greater elasticity than men’s, it should be taxed less. This seems to reflect a profound tension between utilitarianism and equality.

Gilles Saint-Paul:

Now, it turns out that if I am maximising any welfare criterion, I can always do better by discriminating than by not discriminating. This is because non-discrimination is a special case of discrimination, where all groups are treated equally. If different groups have different economic behaviour, then to maximise my welfare function I need to discriminate as much as possible, and I will treat each group differently. So we should have different taxes depending on sex, age, race, marital status, city of residence, state of health, and so on….

It remains true that there is a case for taxing marginal hours at the household level at a lower rate than infra-marginal ones. But this can be achieved by a gender-neutral reduction in the tax rate on the secondary earner’s hours (which could well also apply to the primary earner’s marginal hours such as overtime). And since such a scheme can make the household better-off by supplying more hours without reducing the total taxes they pay to the government, one can actually leave the household free to choose between that and a more traditional tax schedule.

A progressive tax schedule like that in the United States and in most European countries has the effect of taxing the secondary earner more heavily.

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