Mobility vs. Movement

Point of conceptual clarification. As far as I can tell, income mobility studies don't actually study mobility in the sense of the ability to move. They study actual movement in incomes. Mobility is a dispositional term. If I have been immobilized, I am prevented from moving. If I am immobile, but not immobilized, then I could have moved, but didn't. If I sit in my chair all day, my measured physical movement for the day will be low, but I may also be a spectacularly mobile person, able to run marathons, climb sheer rock faces, swim channels, etc. What we are interested in normatively from economic measures of mobility is whether there are structural barriers to upward movement, especially for the less wealthy, not the average deviation from parents' earnings. Can people earn more if they try? Once the average income reaches a certain threshold of material comfort, we should expect people's labor market choices to reflect preferences for many things other than income. So relatively low measured mobility (generation 2's income highly correlated to generation 1's) could indicate that people are fairly well satisfied with their parents' level of income and are optimizing on other margins. The better off people become materially, the less you ought to expect actual measured intergenerational movement in average income to reliably indicate the opportunity to move. 

I have an extraordinarily interesting job that probably pays about 1/3 of what I could get on the labor market doing (for me) much more boring things, and so here I am happily foregoing twice what I actually make not to be bored(So: what are my really real wages?) It turns out that this choice keeps my income in the neighborhood of my Dad's at my age, I'm guessing. (I, however, don't have a wife and three kids to support!) I am incredibly grateful to be at liberty, both economically and socio-culturally, to make this kind of tradeoff between income and satisfaction.  And I'm sure I'm not alone. 

The opportunity to make this kind of tradeoff in the labor market is largely a function of education. I think our current system of public schooling does create a structural barrier to upward movement for many of the least well-off, which is why we should scrap that system and replace it with a market in education as a matter of justice. But that's a matter of particular barriers to upward movement, which are what we should focus on, not some meaningless-by-itself average.

Killing or Letting Die… With Kindness

Via Leiter, Jeffrey Brand-Ballard's review of Frances Kamm's Intricate Ethics is a gorgeous example of killing (letting die?) with kindness. This is, I think, a brutally dispositive review, effectively tearing to shreds the brand of autobiographical moral phenomenology in which Kamm deals. But it's so nice in between slicings and dicings, which makes it hurt all the more. Here are some good bits:

Kamm does not claim otherwise, but she sometimes seems to slide from the observed near-universality of some deontological intuitions to the conclusion that everyone would share her intuitions about the complicated cases she invents, if only he would reflect upon them as carefully as she has.

Of course, one should not begrudge a philosopher a few appeals to her own intuitions, but Kamm makes these appeals with a vengeance.  This is especially worrisome because she so often draws moral distinctions between cases that others might see as morally indistinguishable.  Her intuitions are exquisitely sensitive to the specific physical properties of trolleys, bombs, bridges, pills, knives, doctors, transplanted organs, sore throats, headaches, bathtubs, Lazy Susans, life-support machines, snow shovels, islands, yachts, et cetera. 


Kamm is exceptionally good at inventing hypothetical cases that isolate the factors that interest her, and she has a similarly prodigious talent for identifying and characterizing those factors in general terms.  She has yet to discover in herself an intuition for which she cannot formulate a covering principle.  However, I am not sure why anyone with Kamm's level of confidence in her own moral intuitions about difficult cases would need to contemplate general moral principles in the first place.


Kamm uses her formidable imagination to consider outrageously unrealistic hypothetical scenarios, but she does not consider what her intuitions might be if she had lived in other possible worlds.  I am not sure her indifference to such counterfactual intuitions comports with her ambition to identify ultimate, universal moral principles, rather than derivative, local ones.


I can also imagine the social and natural sciences supplying persuasive “debunking explanations” for the deontic intuitions to which Kamm appeals.  For example, some of my deontic intuitions may be explicable as heuristics that are highly adaptive in statistically normal situations, but that misfire in unusual situations, as when pushing one man in front of the trolley is necessary to save five.  Kamm does not, apparently, take principled objection to the project of offering an error theory to account for recalcitrant moral intuitions (pp. 188n92, 379-85).  She is merely unimpressed with all such efforts to date. 


Even readers who do not share her intuitions will come away from the book inspired to formulate principles that capture their own, and she will have provided them with dozens of new philosophical resources for doing so.  Professor Kamm is in a class by herself. 

 I hope never to receive such praise.

Justice, Passport Lotteries, Liberal Population Sinks, etc.

Some embryonic thoughts on justice, citizenship, and the distribution of passports…

Political philosophers sometimes completely confuse justice for something else, like some kind of disposition of stuff among people. It's confusing and confused when they talk about “distribution” because it evokes the idea that all this stuff is just out there and that the fundamental institutions and rules of game (the “basic structure”) somehow distribute the preexisting stuff in this way or that. If the distribution isn't fair, then someone can just redistribute it until it is fair.

This is, of course, massively confused. The deep objection to this way of thinking is that different basic structures don't so much determine how stuff is distributed, but determine whether or not there is stuff at all, and how much. You don't need to justify to anyone why they have less than someone else; you have to justify to them why they have less than their counterpart in some feasible, alternative set of institutions. Because wealth is created and not just moved around, and more wealth is created under certain institutional schemes than others, the question isn't so much one of distribution as production or creation. The question of whether people live under institutions in which they can realize their capacities and reliably acquire the necessary means to successfully enact their life-plans is mainly a question of what might be called productive justice.  One of the things a morally legitimate government ensures are the institutions of production that make the achievement of good lives possible and even probable. People are owed such institutions — they have 'em coming — in virtue of being people.

Maddeningly, most people on Earth don't have these institutions — the institutions of liberal capitalism. This isn't primarily the fault of the rich people who do have them; it is a pathetically common form of intellectual deformation to think other people are poor because we are rich. It is primarily the fault of political elites who control poor countries for failing to set up and secure the institutions of productive justice. One thing the citizens of rich countries owe the world's poor people is to not give money to the corrupt elites that rule them.

Anyway, corrupt rulers aside, what the world's less fortunate most need isn't a chunk of our wealth, but the capacity to produce their own. There are two ways to achieve this. First, install liberal capitalism where the people are. Second, let the people come to where liberal capitalism is.

Strangely, there appears to be next to nothing in the mainstream political philosophy literature (though maybe I'm missing something), that drives home the arbitrary distribution of citizenship. It's funny, because citizenship, unlike wealth, can be created out of thin air, and is distributed according to a few largely arbitrary principles.

So here's my idea. Individuals and families in countries below a certain threshold of average wealth can register at the Embassies of, say, OECD countries to take part in a citizenship lottery. Each of the participating countries pledges to create a certain number of new citizenships (say 1/2 percent of their current population per year — in the U.S. that would be 1.5 million). The lottery randomly picks individual/families and randomly assigns them to passports. You don't have to move anywhere. You're now just a family of Zimbabweans who are also Dutch citizens. Now, I don't think this is politically feasible, but it makes more sense than Pogge's “global resources dividend,” which completely misunderstands the nature of the problem.

Another possibility: coalitions of successful liberal capitalist countries simply buy huge chunks of territory from illiberal leaders, and start new countries in each major geographic region. Current residents get double citizenship, and all property claims are formalized. Set up liberal institutions through a kind of multilateral colonial rule.  Start handing out a regulated flow of passports to people from around the region, which can ramp up in numbers as the economic institutions are entrenched, and democratic institutions are developed. The idea is to both secure rights and justice for people who wouldn't otherwise enjoy them, while at the same time creating regional population drain in a way that stimulates jurisdictional competition, increasing the probability that nearby nations will finally get around to implementing the institutions of justice.

Less dramatically, we should plump for ever-broadening common regional labor markets that allow people to cross borders to work in nations with better institutions and opportunities than they have in their home countries.

Why isn't there more discussion and development of ideas like these? Could be that they're idiotic ideas. But my guess is that if you're obsessed with the idea that justice primarily concerns the disposition of material holdings among everyone who happens to have a passport issued by the same jurisdictional public goods provider (Basic Income Grants now!), then you're not going to welcome the added complexity that comes from justifying not giving passports to people who would benefit massively from them. Or something like that…

Anyway, the general question: If handing out new passports doesn't cost those of us who already have them anything (on average), then shouldn't we, as a matter of justice, give out as many as we can until it does cost us? Shouldn't we think a lot harder about where that limit is?

Barber at Brookings

Through a weird confluence of events, I will be discussing Benjamin Barber's new book Consumed with Barber and E.J. Dionne at Brookings this afternoon. You may be surprised to discover that I was not impressed with this book. Should be a blast! Come if you have the time. Info is here.

The Moral Calculus of Climate Change

The RealClimate guys report on a conference on the ethics of climate change. Here's their summary of Henry Shue's presentation:

Henry Shue, a Oxford philosopher well known for his work on such issues as the moral implications of torture and pre-emptive war, made the argument that the moral implications of not dealing with climate change should be thought of not only in terms of harm, but in terms of potential harm. Unfortunately for those of us that would like to keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate, Shue argues that uncertainty — the possibility that harm caused to future generations from anthropogenic climate change will be relatively small — does not get us out of our moral obligation to change our behavior. That is, one need only recognize that business as usual will increase the risk of significant harm – a point that almost nobody debates – for it to be clear that business as usual may be unethical.

Maybe this isn't what Shue actually said, and surely he said rather more, but I find this pretty uncompelling as stated.

First, the idea of obligations to distantly future generations strikes me as incoherent. These are people that do not actually exist, and the people who do eventually exist is a function of what we do and don't do now, which is surely a serious complication. Even if we can imagine determinate future persons to whom we might have duties, it remains that we stand outside the Humean circumstances of justice with them, and so don't in fact have duties with respect to them. I can make sense of an “intergenerational chain” conception of obligations to future generations: I have obligations to my children and grandchildren; my children and grandchildren have obligations to their children and grandchildren; etc. I think this can get us a few general principles, like “leave enough and as good for the kids,” but it's unclear how this can undergird any kind of significant sacrifice for indeterminate far-distant beneficiaries.

Second, even if we can find some ground for obligations to far-future generations, we'd need to be established that “business as usual” will in fact be a net harm to future generations. Suppose a small reduction in future warming requires a small reduction in economic growth every year from now to then. The longer the time frame, the greater the harm to future generations from reduced growth rates. At some point, the loss in standard of living will completely swamp the gains from reduced warming. And, of course, the longer the time frame for significant warming, the less likely it will be that dislocations from warming will be serious. Gradual changes in patterns of capital investment, migration, etc. will move many people out of harm's way, and perhaps move many other into areas that will benefit from warming. And, of course, the more rapid the rate of economic growth, the more likely it is that effective technologies that will retard warming, or mitigate its effects, will come on the scene. The allegedly obligatory deviation from “business as usual” may be in the direction of doing more to accelerate economic growth. It is by no means obvious that this isn't the best course. 

Looking at the RealClimate summaries, it seems to me that there is a bit of a bias toward emphasizing the potential harms of warming while de-emphasizing — or even arguing down — anything that might prevent or mitigate those harms. RealClimate's Steig and Schmidt write:

one of the commentators at the conference made the argument that it was an open question whether we had any moral obligation towards future generations for our impact on the climate, since that impact could in principle be averted (for example through carbon dioxide removal via ocean iron fertilization). This is equivalent to saying that we will not have to address the issue of climate change if we address it, an argument that has no bearing whatsoever on whether we have a moral obligation. We were a bit surprised to hear it from a philosopher since it is a tautology (usually anathema to philosophers).

Sounds like the unnamed philosopher may have been saying something close to part of what I was saying above, and it doesn't sound like a tautology to me. It sounds to me like he was saying that if we're thinking about the probability of harm, then we also have to take into account the probability of the emergence of technologies that would prevent that harm because, otherwise, you can't calculate the total probability of harm. Why try to avoid the obvious force of that point? Steig and Schmidt's reply amounts to this, as far as I can tell: If the emergence of this technology is motivated by the recognition of a moral obligation to address the issue, then it weirdly self-defeating to argue that people therefore don't have a moral obligation to address the issue. Sure, but I truly doubt that was the argument. It is confused to talk about whether “we” do or don't address warming. Not everyone invents or even funds new technologies. If someone or other does this in the future, whatever their motivation, and that makes the problem go away, then the problem will have gone away. If the probability of this is high enough, and we know it, then the rest of us non-inventing, non-invention-financing folk, are obviously off the hook right now. Now, I don't know the probabilities of any of these things. And neither does Steig and Schmidt or Henry Shue.

Bloggingheads with Rosa Brooks

I neglected to link my most recent appearance on Bloggingheads TV with Rosa Brooks. I found Rosa really interesting, and really enjoyed the conversation. I'm sure we disagree about a lot of stuff, but we seem to have found a bunch of topics where we mostly agree. Fun fact: I just discovered this morning that Rosa is Barbara Ehrenreich's daughter, which might have been interesting to know when we were discussing the intergenerational transmission of ideology, though, deracinated liberal individualist that I am, I'm sure I wouldn't have brought it up.  

Ed Glaeser on Utility, Freedom, and Happiness

Harvard's Ed Glaeser essay in this month's Cato Unbound is fresh this morning. He says lots of interesting things, but I thought I'd pick out this bit, which concerns my pet issues:

A belief in the value of liberty flows strongly through mainstream neoclassical economics. Economists frequently speak about an aim of maximizing utility levels, and this is often mistranslated as maximizing happiness. Maximizing freedom would be a better translation. The only way that economists know that utility has increased is if a person has more options to choose from, and that sounds like freedom to me. It is this attachment to liberty that makes neoclassical economists fond of political liberty and making people richer, because more wealth means more choices.

There is a recent wave of scholarship suggesting that the government can help individuals be happy by reducing their choices. While happiness may be a very nice thing, it is neither the obvious central desiderata for private or public decision-making. On a private level, I make decisions all that time that I expect to lower my level of happiness, because I have other objectives. On a public level, I can’t imagine why we would want to privilege this emotion over all other goals. A much better objective for the state is to aim at giving people the biggest range of choices possible, and then let people decide what is best for them.

Excellent. I sometimes call Glaeser's argument, and arguments like it, “the economist's folk theorem for the morality of growth.” You end up with things like the “Easterlin Paradox,” if you get confused about the meaning of “utility” and think bigger choice sets are supposed to entail greater happiness. But Glaeser isn't the least bit confused. I find his version of the economist's folk theorem enormously compelling.

The Evolutionary Psychology of Lou Dobbs

Fly Bottle regulars will probably enjoy this post riffing on Paul Rubin more than the average Economist reader. A taste:

Rather than emphasize our grasp of positive sum interaction, or lack thereof, I think it would be better to say that we do not understand economic growth—the periodic increase in the size of surplus from cooperation. This is, I take it, what Rubin is getting at when he talks about “technological change,” which is generally what drives the productivity increases behind growth. Because we do not find intuitive the idea that the output from a unit of labor, and thus the size of the pool of wealth, can continually increase, we are likely to see total wealth as more or less static, and the division of the fixed pool as a zero sum game. But this is a game that my team plays against your team. We cooperate internally to compete externally over the wealth “commons.”

But how helpful is this in understanding “free trade” and “immigration” policy? I say: sort of. Evolutionary psychology helps illuminate why we have a tendency to in-group/out-group thinking, and why we are unlikely to grasp the nature of an ever-growing surplus from cooperation. But, as far as I can tell, it does little to help us understand why we draw the in-group/out-group boundaries where we do. Trade and immigration, as political issues, embody nationalist assumptions — people and goods going over political boundaries. But the modern nation state is a new idea: there were no nation states in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. …

There are some interesting comments over there, but the registration process is so onerous, I'm amazed anyone bothers.

No Child-Shaped Hole in Hearts of Barren Women

The solipsism of childlessness may be deplorable, but it's not unhappy:

Although they won't receive flowers or candy on Mother's Day, women who have not had children seem to be just as happy in their 50s as those who did go down the family path.

In fact the loneliest, least contented and most vulnerable women were found to be mothers who were single, divorced or widowed in middle age, according to new research. Being healthy and having a partner gave a bigger boost to women's happiness and well-being than being mothers, with education, work and relationships with family and friends also important factors.

“Among this group of women in their 50s the childless women are very similar to the moms in terms of their psychological well-being,” said Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a sociology professor at the University of Florida and the lead author of the study.