Proud Member of the Electro-Museum of Darkness Beyond Time

Glen Whitman has created a button that members of the reality-based community can proudly display on their weblogs and personal interweb pages. But I must register my protest, as black marble and san-serif cyan letters evoke nothing so much as a hyperspace mausoleum, which, if you asks me, rather smacks of unreality. Maybe it's just me. Better would be a picture of a foot kicking a stone.

  • mk

    I’ll continue to maintain that being born into a rotten material situation is an unfairness of life (i.e. an example where advantages/disadvantages come fully undeserved to people) that merits some remediation via redistribution or a safety net.

  • mk, I agree. Poverty is bad, whether or not it has been caused or reinforced by an injustice. And the badness of poverty is sufficient to want to do something about it. A just society is one in which everyone in it has reason to endorse it, but people who don’t have sufficient chance to do well in life don’t have reason to endorse it. I think some redistribution is justified for this reason. But I don’t see what it has to do with income inequality.

  • If redistribution is justified, it has to be redistributed from somewhere. Most people look at income inequality and say, “hey — these people make so much more than everyone else, how about them? They’ll barely notice!” Combined with the vague suspicion (which you support 1/3 of) that there’s something fishy going on, and the inequality/redistribution equation is pretty simple.

    Inequality doesn’t need to be bad for taxing the rich to be morally appealing.

  • mk

    Will — I’m just describing a mechanism that explains some income inequality. It’s an argument from justice and not just from the “badness” of poverty.

    In some cases, poor people would have been richer if they’d had better opportunities early in life. But young people (babies, small children) are not blameable for the presence or lack of opportunity in their lives. They are thrust into their situation. Their status later in life is partly determined by the “lottery” of being born into a rich or poor family. The lottery is not fair. We can’t change this lottery, but we can ameliorate some of its unfairness by giving more opportunity to the lottery’s “losers”. One way to give them more opportunity is to give them more money. That’s the justice-based argument for some redistribution.

    Another way to give them more opportunity is to target the precise mechanisms of opportunity — let’s give poor kids vouchers for expensive schools, let’s make sure they have the right nutrition to grow big brains, let’s make sure they have good health care. Those are all good things but it’s actually a more ambitious project because it assumes that planners understand and can quantify the mechanisms of opportunity.

    The real point is deeper than this, though. The “lottery” will always be there, with its unfairness, and fully eliminating its unfairness is impossible because it requires placing every baby in the exact same situation. It is unwise to strive for this ideal, but we should appreciate the force of the unfairness, as we weigh remedying it against other worthy goals (like self-determination or total well-being).

    In that sense, income inequality actually literally is an unfairness (in fact, to varying degrees, all human difference affecting baby-raising environments is an unfairness) but fixing it shouldn’t trump all competing values.

    • Renato Drumond

      “we can ameliorate some of its unfairness by giving more opportunity to the lottery’s “losers”. ”

      mk, the problem with this is that giving more opportunity doesn’t guarantee that the final result will be more equal than before. If some individuals make extradordinary gains with this opportunities and the others stay quite the same, the result will probably be a greater inequality.

      And I think it will be difficult to encounter anyone that, by firmly defending more equality on all situations, to oppose more opportunity based on the probability(or, just to illustrate, by some evidence) that the result will rise inequality.

  • Jonathan

    mk –

    Do you believe in equalising / compensating for all random results of birth – appearance, say?

    • mk

      Jonathan – Sort of! According to what I’m saying, these random results are all instances of unfairness. But they may not have “enough force” to compel us to significantly redistribute along these lines.

      To take a different example, which makes the idea seem more natural: some children are unlucky to be born with bad diseases. We should redistribute money to them as a matter of justice, to help give them a shot at a somewhat normal life.

  • Luis_Enrique

    Do you really see no link between the unfairness of some people being born in to a rotten situation in life, while others are born into very favorable situations, and income inequality?

    If there was no income inequality, the scope for being born into a rotten situation would surely be reduced. Is there no connection between the extent of income inequality and the degree of how unfavorable a situation being born at the bottom of the pile is? Life is full of areas where your relative position matters, and how much better or worse you are, in whatever respect, than the next person matters.

    The recent discussion over relative price trend in the consumption baskets of the poor & rich showed that while deflation in ‘cheap goods’ bought by the poor has raised the real income of the poor (moved them closer to the rich) the inflation of ‘expensive goods’ bought by the rich has moved the life style of the rich even further away from the grasp of the poor – things like a good education, healthcare and housing in a good neighbourhood.

    I share your view that inequality per se need not be a problem, and that the mechanism matters, but I don’t see how you can deny that the nature of the society we live in – the way people feel about it, etc. – changes with the degree of inequality, so in that sense it matters however it has come about. In nerd speak, the social welfare function may contain preferences over income distribution.

  • pintpundit

    Except for its being an easily measurable indicator of seeming inequality, I’m not sure why income is the primary focus of folks who are concerned with inequality. If unequal prices for labor a big problem, what about prices for everything else? Shouldn’t we all be as equally upset that a poor person has to buy the store brand of cereal or shop at a discount store instead of being able to roll into whole foods and pick up some Kashi or gourmet Muesli? Why aren’t there calls to reduce the price inequalities across goods and services? It seems to make just as much sense as calling for a narrower range of incomes.

  • Jim Manzi

    Will:

    I don’t know that I’d call the process of getting a job at Goldman / McKisney / Skadden, and then making partner, a perfect market arrangement as compared to getting a job at GM and then making CEO.

    Here’s a counter-cultural thought: public company CEOs don’t really make that much money as compared to their alternatives on a career lifecycle and odds-adjusted basis. Here’s a post on it: http://theamericanscene.com/2007/12/18/why-are-ceos-so-underpaid

    And here’s a longer article on this point: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Big-time+pay+…+in+a+big-time+economy.-a0160167595

    Here’s an article about , however, the oevrall trend to inequality in the US can be worrisome: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/A+more+equal+capitalism:+preserving+the+free-market+consensus.-a0174638573

    None of this addresses, of course, the overal Rawlsian point about the race going to the strong and swift.

  • kevin

    What about income disparity of the medical profession? This is a complex question as there is disparity within the medical profession e.g. a neurosurgeon may receive $30,000 for a spine case that may take about two hours to perform and a family practioner may receive less than $20 for a follow up patient encounter. One might argue that the neurosurgeon is more highly trained – seven year residency plus or minus fellowship versus two year residency of a family practioner. However, a fellowship trained neurologist can have seven years post-graduate training and is more likely to see the $20 reimbursment and would never approach neurosurgical reimbursement. Is the act of cutting worth more than decision making? Is that amount of disparity worth the skill differences?
    One cannot argue that free market forces are in play in determining reimbursement because there is no free market in medicine when third party payers are involved.

  • What about income disparity of the medical profession? This is a complex question as there is disparity within the medical profession e.g. a neurosurgeon may receive $30,000 for a spine case that may take about two hours to perform and a family practioner may receive less than $20 for a follow up patient encounter. One might argue that the neurosurgeon is more highly trained – seven year residency plus or minus fellowship versus two year residency of a family practioner. However, a fellowship trained neurologist can have seven years post-graduate training and is more likely to see the $20 reimbursment and would never approach neurosurgical reimbursement. Is the act of cutting worth more than decision making? Is that amount of disparity worth the skill differences?
    One cannot argue that free market forces are in play in determining reimbursement because there is no free market in medicine when third party payers are involved.

  • Mike D

    Re: CEOs, it bears repeating that it’s really the shareholders who are being treated unjustly via the principal-agent distortions.

    Unless one wants to take the viewpoint that there’s a 3-way struggle between owners, managers, and rank-and-file workers over the total rents generated by a (oligopolistic?) firm, in which case the fact that the managers have taken more leaves less for the rank-and-file.

  • Richard Yates

    What an odd view: “A high level of income inequality means nothing in itself”. Equally, you could say “living space means nothing in itself”. But if I put you in a confined space with others who insist on staking out larger and larger lots for themselves pushing you into a corner and denying you any space, I think you might sing a different tune.

    Income is a claim on resources. One view is that “if you don’t work, you don’t eat”. Another view is based on property rights and contracts “you are my slave, my property, since I bought you and you will work for me and I will take from you all that you produce for my pleasure and my consumption”. Still another view is “I am my brother’s keeper, that we must share, and especially we must look after the poor, the sick, the very young, and the very old”.

    What is the “right” view? There is no easy answer. It is a little of each. And I can guarantee you there is no right or final answer. As we learn and grow our moral views grow and change.

    But income is not just something I create for myself out of nothing. I use the inheritance of my society and the existing nexus of economic relations to create new value. From that I gain income. But my gains are not in a vacuum. I have a certain right to what I create, but I have an obligation to the larger society for providing me the opportunity to create gains. Exactly what that obligation and how we satisfy it will be subject to debate ad infinitum. But that it is not resolvable does not mean it is not real.

    Think of John Rockerfeller. He is the quintessential exemplar of income inequality in the Gilded Age. How did he gain his wealth. Partly from being the right man in the right place at the right time, partly from having the insight and skills to organize a new industry, and partly from “sharp business practices” where he would offer a competitor a price to sell out at and if the fellow refused then he used coercion and bribery and backroom deals to drive the guy out of business.

    So, was the injustice? No, if you affirm that he was just a lucky guy. No, if you note he was a skilled business who built an empire. Yes, if you note that he used “sharp” business practices. He was all of these things! So the answer is no-and-yes. Like most things in life, the concepts seem crystalline, but nature itself is slippery, slimy, and hard to extract from its context. It is justified and it is unjustified in different contexts. But when weighed in the context of the broader society and under the scrutiny of history, it will be seen as a ghastly mistake, something terribly unjustified, much like the aristocrats frolicking on the eve of the French Revolution.

    Income redistribution is what a parent does with a child. It is what a society does when it educates the future generation. It is what society does with those too sick or mindless to work and earn their own living. Only a fanatic too blinded by concepts can fail to see that income inequality is an issue and that some kind of redistribution is necessary. Sure we can debate over how much and when. That is what moderates do all the time. It is only the fanatics who live in concept-land who argue the cold logic of concepts and can cold-bloodedly announce that we should only look at the concepts and we must “justify” everything before we can act. I sure would like you see your ancestors debate the fine points of whether this lion looked hungry and whether we should only trot or need to really run. Mine ran! And mine scooped up the kids as they ran and didn’t worry about whether we had a contract that required us to pick up little Johnny who was only a first cousin as we ran.

    I fear you suffer the philosopher’s disease. You live in a world of concepts. Yes, a world of fine concepts that can nicely be sliced and diced. A real place of delight for those with a logical flair. But the real world does fit the nice boxes of logic.

    Income inequality isn’t simply the result of winner-take-all. It isn’t because there are increasing returns to skill and education. It isn’t because the wealthy have found a willing puppet in the Republican party to advance their narrow concern of tax cuts, ending the “death tax”, and business-friendly deregulation that has led us all into scandal and business collapse that we will all pay for over many, many years. It is all of the above!

    • Renato Drumond

      “Only a fanatic too blinded by concepts can fail to see that income inequality is an issue and that some kind of redistribution is necessary.”

      To use your words, only a fanatic can fail to see that, to say that some kind of redistribution is necessary and affirm that inequality is an issue isn’t the same.

      Sure, redistribution isn’t possible without affecting inequality. But the point is, if inequality isn’t an issue, it can be altered to achieve certain ends, because what matters are other things, not inequality per se.

      • Richard Yates

        You are being too clever by half in the distinctions you want to make!

        If the social illness of today is the marginalization of the poor as the rich command an ever greater share of the resources, then income inequality and the need for redistribution are in fact the same thing.

        I perceive your attempt to make a distinction as equivalent to doctor to denying that “administering an antibiotic” and “curing of a disease” are not the same thing. Of course they not the same thing. But they have the same effect! The distinction you are trying to sell is to say “sometimes we can cure a patient with a placebo”. Yes, but not all diseases, just the psychosomatic ones.

        I’m claiming that the rich have amassed all the marbles and refuse to play with anybody without marbles. A state of inequality exists. Your point is that people can continue to “play” with bits of rock and cardboard and don’t need marbles. Yes… and Marie Antoinette pointed out to the poor workers of Paris that if they didn’t have bread, they could eat cake!

        You are playing with words. I’m not calling for “income equality”. I’m calling for a social contract in which everybody gets a fair kick at the can. Where some cannot so monopolize the resources that others, no matter how hard they strive, no matter how much talent they have, never get out of the ghetto.

        I don’t expect paradise. I’m not calling for a revaluation of all values. I’m just saying that when the game is “fixed” too much to favour the rich and powerful, it needs to be changed.

        Throughout history the rich don’t “get it”. They don’t understand that if the economic game becomes “too fixed” in their favour, then the question of redistribution moves from an issue of wages and subsidies (education, social services, etc.) to an issue of politics. The French Revolution shows how politics can move into the streets to “solve” an economic issue. Most rational people don’t see that as a reasonable “solution” but if the rich insist on the fine distinctions that you want to make between “inequality” and “redistribution” then cruder hands will take up the issue in a different forum and realize a different solution than you seem to be able to apprehend.