Do We Live in a Simulation, Or Are We Already Dead in the Real World?

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Some say that we live in a computer simulation, and that we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps God-like creatures, on another planet somewhere, have colonised us and put us in Matrix-style liquid-filled pods, our brains attached to a computer and fed with fake experiences. Proponents of the simulation hypothesis rightly point out that it may be wrong to call such experiences “fake”. We do have them after all, and whether these experiences come from a real world interacting with us or from a computer program pretending to be a world doesn’t make a lot of difference as long as we don’t know the truth of the matter. “Truth” may be a similarly slippery concept. (Nozick’s experience machine is a whole different case, because in that thought experiment the point is whether we would choose to live in such a machine. Here we assume that we don’t have such a choice).

Elon Musk has recently popularised the simulation hypothesis, although it’s centuries old. Descartes’ “dieu trompeur” is a famous example: an evil demon presenting a complete illusion of an external world to our senses, or maybe directly to our minds, or mind in the singular.

Also, rather than Matrix-style pods, we may simply be brains in a vat, or even less: emulations of brains “living” in a computer.

Whatever the merits of this hypothesis, I think they pale in comparison to another one: we are, in fact, already dead. The latter is, in my opinion, much more likely and fits better with the available evidence. Let me have a go.

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The simulation hypothesis can indeed explain all the evidence – since all evidence is facts and all facts can conceivably be simulated by some or other entity. The problem however is precisely this entity. Who or what could it be? The most likely explanation is that the simulating entity is part of humanity itself, perhaps a future generation. But why? Why on earth (or elsewhere) would they enslave physical human bodies, put them to sleep, immerse them in vats and connect them to computers in order to feed them sensations of a non-existing world? Why would they remove their brains or emulate their brains? I don’t see the point. The Matrix plot – humans as a power source – is obviously ridiculous. Emulated brains as instruments of computing power is a similarly weak rationale for the simulation hypothesis (when it becomes technologically possible to emulate brains, there won’t be a reason to fool them; just use their computing power if you don’t have better, non-brain based computing machines, which seems unlikely to me). The same lack of rationale applies to the possibility of aliens or Gods as simulating entities. It seems likely that they as well, just like future humans, would have better things to do.

Whomever is the simulating entity, it must have a reason for its actions. Even the fun of it or outright sadism could not support the simulation hypothesis: it wouldn’t be much fun to the simulators, not even if they’re sadists: our possibly simulated world is often awful but not awful enough to be the product of a sadist entity seeking to enjoy itself at our expense.

So the evidence seems to be against the simulation hypothesis. What about my alternative? Let’s call it the Cotard hypothesis after the well-known Cotard delusion: a mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that he or she is already dead. Although of course in this case we’re not dealing with a delusion. The delusion would be that we’re still alive.

Think about unrequited love, the glances in the subway that went unnoticed, the promotion that you failed to get, the times that your husband ignored what you were saying… Often trivial and banal occurrences, but taken together they may have some weight. Perhaps more weight than the simulation hypothesis. Countervailing evidence can also be explained. The times when you weren’t ignored may have been wishful thinking. After all, it’s easier to believe that you are alive than that you are dead, and so your mind may fabricate “evidence” to convince you that you are in fact alive. Such fabrications are not unheard of: there’s the just world fallacy, we have adaptive preferences and suffer from confirmation bias. And a lot of these biases are unconscious.

Think also about the sadness of some of the memories of early childhood. Good memories maybe, but also sad at the same time because that world is gone, that life is gone. Your life is gone. This fits also nicely with the increasingly popular notion that there is no such thing as en enduring personal identity. We “die” every moment.

(An interesting fictional treatment of the Cotard delusion is the TV-series Talking to the Dead – forget the IMDB ranking, it’s BS. And there’s of course The Sixth Sense).

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Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.

Let’s Get Rid of Wage Labor

I’m serious: make it illegal. But not before we have a universal basic income. A UBI will encourage self-employed or cooperative ventures freely chosen by those who engage in it. In the absence of a UBI, many of us have a job not because the activities associated with the job allow us to pursue our goals, but because the job comes with a salary and because this salary can buy the necessities of life. We then either pursue our goals during our leisure time, or convince ourselves that the goals of our jobs are somehow also our own goals (the burger-flipper telling himself that “making kids happy is all I want”).

A UBI has to cover the costs of the necessities of life: a decent place to live, sufficient food, clothing, basic healthcare (catastrophic healthcare costs would be paid for by a fund for which people are forced to buy insurance), transportation and some appliances, machines or utilities (a car, a washing machine, a fridge, a cell phone etc.). Because it covers the costs of necessities, a UBI liberates us to pursue the goals we set for our lives, goals which all too often get pushed aside by the urgencies of the daily struggle to survive, to have a decent house and to have some savings for when times get bad.

Would a UBI not be sufficient to allow people to pursue their goals? Why also prohibit wage labor? A UBI indeed loosens us from the system of wage labor – it provides a financial cushion that removes the risks inherent in abandoning a job and pursuing our “true destiny” – but it doesn’t go far enough. It gives us the freedom to turn down unattractive work but the pursuit of life’s goals often requires cooperation. Only the prohibition on wage labor makes cooperative ventures more common. A UBI by itself only pushes us towards more satisfying jobs and leaves some of the drawbacks of wage labor intact:

  • Wage labor means that the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of a minority. It’s this minority that determines the goals of labor, and they hire workers to achieve these goals. The workers themselves have no say in this and end up pursuing other people’s goals. Control is a distant dream for most if not all wage laborers. The owners have few incentives to organize production on a cooperative basis because cooperative labor would mean that they lose their right to unilaterally decide the goals of their organization; it would also mean sharing the proceeds of the organization with the workers.
  • Wage labor is inherently authoritarian rather than cooperative, not only with regard to the ultimate goals but also on the level of the means. People who generally detest authoritarian political structures nevertheless submit every morning of every working day to the authoritarian rules of their employers.

A prohibition of wage labor might look like a revolutionary proposal. What are some of the risks we take?

  • Do we have to expropriate the owners of the means of production? After all, it’s no use setting people free to engage in cooperative ventures if they can’t freely use the means of production. However, there’s little dispute about the undesirability of large scale expropriation. So what do we do? To some extent, cooperative ventures will produce their own means of production, and in an economy that is increasingly focused on services and the internet, the category of means of production loses some of its meaning. We can also look at how taxes on means of production would set some of them free for communal use.
  • The biggest risk, I think, is a reduction of economic activity. If that happens, we’re not going to have an economic basis large enough for the required level of taxation necessary to fund the UBI. However, I’m tempted to assume that people will want to be economically active and that the UBI combined with the end of wage income will set loose a lot of initiative and ambition, but all that is hard to predict. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. The “entrepreneurial” spirit in the common man may be lacking, or may have been destroyed by ages of wage dependence. Maybe most people just want to work for an income, no matter which kind of work, as long as they don’t have to take responsibility for their own freedom. Or maybe many of us will use the opportunity to do what we always wanted to do when we can no longer work for a wage and when we have the cushion of a UBI. The additional advantage that we can share the proceeds of cooperative ventures – proceeds which now go to the owners of the means of production – will make it even more exciting to do something.
  • If people can’t work for a wage, many of the “dirty jobs” may not get done anymore. I can list many activities – toilet cleaning, waste disposal, mining etc. – which probably won’t be organized in voluntary cooperative ventures if there’s no longer a possibility to pay people a wage to do them. But then perhaps we’ll be forced to clean up after ourselves. And perhaps automation will help as well. In any case, every rule has exceptions.

Indeed, we may have to settle for policies that discourage rather than prohibit wage labor, one sector at a time. However, if even this is deemed unrealistic or undesirable, then at least let us agree to make work more democratic. If privately owned large corporations continue to exist and dominate the market, and if therefore wage labor persists, then the employees should be given a larger say in how these corporations are run and what their ultimate purposes should be. Corporate democracy, combined with a UBI that allows people to change jobs easily, can make it more likely that people are able to pursue their goals. Which is what all this is about, after all.

More here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (31): Automation and the Hollowing Out of the Labor Market

Conventional wisdom has it that automation comes at the expense of low-skilled jobs and aggravates income inequality because of labor displacement at the bottom of the income distribution. It turns out that this is a bit too conventional, and not only because it runs afoul of the lump of labor fallacy (machines need to be built and people can go on and do other things). Mid-level jobs are also hit by automation, and perhaps even more than jobs at the bottom of the skill continuum. This has been called the “hollowing out” of the labor market. This hollowing out, caused in part by automation, in turns causes an increase in income inequality. This is mere arithmetic: if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Ryan Avent puts it well:

Work published in 2006 by David Autor, Lawrence Katz, and Melissa Kearney argued that employment and wage growth in America have “polarised” in recent decades, a conclusion that has been reinforced by subsequent research. Employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs. The resulting employment distribution generates a distribution of wages that is similarly polarised and more unequal than that which prevailed prior to this period. (source)

Why does technological automation focus mainly on middle skill levels?

Daron Acemoglu and Mr Autor pioneered a “task approach” to labour markets. Tasks can be completed by either labour or capital. The more routine a task is, the more susceptible it is to automation. But whether or not a task is automated depends upon the relative supply—and the real wage—of workers of various skill levels. Subsequent work has shown that automation and trade are responsible for displacement of routine tasks previously done by middle-skill workers, in both manufacturing and clerical or service activities, leading to polarisation of local and national labour markets.  (source)

Technological automation focuses mainly on middle skill levels because it’s relatively easy at that level, easier sometimes than at the extremes of high and low skilled tasks. “Easier” here means both technologically easier and more cost effective. Highly skilled tasks, such as teaching a philosophy course, are difficult for machines to do because they are complex (although we do sometimes see high-skilled jobs being automated, such as legal research for example). In the case of low-skilled tasks, some of these are surprisingly hard to automate, as in the case of truck driving or toilet cleaning. Even low-skilled jobs that aren’t technically hard to automate aren’t always automated because the pay-off may be too low – people doing those jobs are poorly paid so developing expensive machines to do it for them isn’t worth the trouble.

And then there’s the added worry that displacement of many low-skilled workers would create a permanent underclass unable to participate in the economy – unable, in other words, to buy the goods and services produced by machines. There’s a famous anecdote about Henry Ford mocking a labor union president in one of his factories, saying it wouldn’t be easy to get the robots to pay their union dues. To which the union president responded that Ford wasn’t going to get the robots to buy his cars.

The hollowing out of the labor market, driven by mid-level automation, has therefore a direct effect on income inequality, but it also a few indirect effects. For example, automation means lower production costs, and the savings or the added value go primarily to shareholders through capital gains and stock appreciation. Since stock ownership and capital income are concentrated among those already better off, income inequality is further increased.

If technology decreases the relative importance of human labor in a particular production process, the owners of capital equipment will be able to capture a bigger share of income from the goods and services produced. (source)

Another indirect effect: increasing automation of manufacturing jobs pushes unionization rates down, which in turn decreases bargaining power among low-skilled workers. This, in the end, aggravates inequality yet again.

More posts in this series are here.

We Need to Start Working Differently

Unemployment, starvation, war and unrequited love are probably more important and more urgent concerns, but the almost complete lack of serious thinking about the nature of work never ceases to amaze me. Most of us work and we spend a considerable portion of our lives doing our work, and yet how many of us do a job only because we need the paycheck? Far too often, work is a toil, not always a physical toil for us Westerners but a psychological one, because we work in systems we don’t understand, let alone control, or because we contribute an insignificant, boring, detailed part of a larger process we don’t really care about. We go to work, not to produce, be creative or self-develop, but simply to make a living, to have some cash, and in a few cases to have prestige, status, power or some other good external to the production process in which we engage or the product to which we contribute.

Work is not connected to who we are or wish to become. Who does not dream of another life? The statistics about job satisfaction and job motivation are depressing.

Work should be about creativity, excellence, development and self-expression rather than wages, survival and status. How do we get there? That will be tough, but giving workers more control of their factories or businesses and increasing automation of the uninteresting parts of work would be a good start. Even if many of us – in the West at least – are no longer machine appendices in the style of Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, we’re often still tied to routine jobs that are part of a system the purpose of which is obscure to us or leaves us indifferent. Our contribution is not insignificant – or we wouldn’t get paid – and yet we are replaceable. The larger purpose of it all escapes us or doesn’t matter.

We shouldn’t forget that the division of labor into fragmented tasks in a highly hierarchical organization – and “organization” here also means markets (a taxi cab’s ride is just as much his boss) – is probably not so much a requirement of modern markets or production technologies but rather the consequence of a very specific way of viewing work relationships, namely relationships between highly qualified “managers” and simple executors. Other ways of working are possible and should be promoted.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (29): The Declining Share of National Income Going to Labor

What I want to do here is look at a possible cause of increasing income inequality, namely the relative shares of labor and capital income. Your labor income is your wage, your pension, your bonus, your company health insurance etc. Most people have a labor income. You only have capital income if you receive dividend payments, capital gains, interest payments on savings etc.

During the last decades, the share of labor compensation in total national income has declined, and this has been a global phenomenon, occurring in most countries.

Can we blame this decline for the increase in income inequality during the same period? Only in part, I think, because there has also been a divergence within labor in the sense that some people, mostly high earners, have seen their labor income rise much faster than others. Income inequality is indeed, to some extent, wage inequality. The growth of the finance sector, where people are well-paid, is part of the explanation for the increasing wage inequality, at least in some countries. Tax policy, declining bargaining power among the low earners and wage competition from poorer countries – again affecting mainly low-end workers – may be other explanations for rising wage inequality, also depending on the country (unionization rates, for example, haven’t evolved in the same manner everywhere).

But I guess it’s true that not all of income inequality is wage inequality and that incomes from capital, such as profits, dividends, stock options etc. also explain something. Capital income is, compared to labor income, unevenly distributed across a population, and concentrated among the wealthy.

If capital income is more concentrated among the wealthy then a rise in capital income leads to a rise in income inequality. Part of this is just arithmetical: the flip-side of a lower share of national income coming from labor is a higher share of income coming from capital. Capital income needn’t be higher in absolute terms in order to get a larger share. If there’s widespread wage stagnation – perhaps due to international wage competition, trade and outsourcing – then capital income may rise relatively, if not absolutely. However, in some countries such as the US we also see an absolute rise of capital income.

More on capital gains here. More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

I’m going to try to list the most common arguments against immigration, and show how they are devoid of any basis in facts. Since I’m talking facts, I’ll include some handy references to scientific evidence debunking the arguments. (The references will sometimes be found in older blogposts, so you may have to click through a few times. If you feel that I’m shamelessly overlooking some seminal papers, please tell me in comments).

1. The labor cost argument

Claim:

Immigrants are willing to work for low wages, especially the illegal ones. The result is unfair wage competition with natives who will see their wages drop as a result, or who may even be priced out of the labor market altogether. The welfare of native workers requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Immigration actually increases native wages because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. Low skilled immigrants also make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. The wage competition claim can also be refuted by pointing to the fact that native workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations.

Not only is there a positive wage effect of immigration (with perhaps a small exception for native high school drop outs), but immigration also creates or saves jobs. The easier it is to find cheap immigrant labor at home the less likely that production will relocate offshore. More here.

2. The social safety net argument

Claim:

Immigrants come over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits, since the income of even the relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to the welfare benefits in rich countries. This is unsustainable, since welfare benefits have to be financed, and working native populations often have a hard time producing enough tax revenue in order to support native welfare beneficiaries. Allowing immigrants to come but then excluding them from welfare benefits seems harsh and unjust. Hence it’s better not to allow them to come in the first place.

Facts:

Immigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. The labor force participation rate for illegal immigrants in the US is higher than that of the native-born. In the UK, immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits.

3. The “importing poverty” argument

Claim:

Immigrants are less well off than natives. That’s precisely why they want to migrate. Allowing them in reduces the average wealth of the destination country.

Facts:

Many immigrants are indeed less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re often less skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration may push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case.

4. The crime argument

Claim:

Immigrants cause an increase in the crime rate. They often come from countries with dysfunctional states and bad enforcement institutions. Hence, they have grown to be more tolerant of violations of the law. The poverty of their countries of origin also pushes them towards more crime. Less crime is a good thing, hence less immigration is also a good thing.

Facts:

Immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.

5. The lack of integration argument

Claim:

Immigrants, especially those from other cultures (and that would be most immigrants, since it’s the poor who want to migrate and the poor are almost by definition from outside the West), find it hard to fit in. As a result, there will be frictions between the immigrant population and the original inhabitants. These frictions benefit nobody, hence we should restrict immigration.

Facts:

Natives are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior like bullying, dropping out of school, domestic violence, harassment, vandalism etc. The evidence is here.

6. The cultural argument

Claim:

The local culture will not be able to survive a large influx of high fertility immigrants from completely different cultures. People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity. Hence immigration should be restricted.

Facts:

A cultural identity is obviously a valuable good. However, it’s not at all clear that immigration threatens the cultures of destinations countries. Those destination countries are multicultural to begin with. Most immigrants are also  willing and able to adapt (see previous point). Moreover, cultural change is not by definition a bad thing, both for those arriving and for those already there. And finally, cultural change is not always likely to happen anyway: throughout history, even those minority cultures living in highly hostile environments where the majority controls the state have been able to survive and flourish. Often a threat to a culture is the cause of increased cultural awareness.

7. The educational argument

Claim:

Immigrant children push down the quality of schools and therefore harm the education of native children. Immigrant children have different types of disadvantages: they speak the local language less well, they have cultural burdens inhibiting education, and perhaps even IQ burdens. The welfare of native children requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Higher rates of immigration encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.

Conclusion

All of these claims about immigration are based on supposed harms to the population of the destination country. (There’s one argument I didn’t mention, namely the brain drain argument, that focuses on the effects of migration on origin countries, but that one is just as flawed as the rest). Not only is this a very selfish mode of argument, ignoring the clear benefits for (potential) immigrants, but – as it turns out – also a very misguided one, based on factual errors. However, even if it were the case that immigration imposes some form of financial costs on host countries, then that wouldn’t necessarily be the final argument against immigration, since these cost can be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice.

More posts in this series are here.

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (9): Child Labor Legislation

According to a famous model by Kaushik Basu, if governments ban child labor but fail to enforce those bans – governments in countries where child labor is prevalent often have weak law enforcement in general – then they create the wrong incentives for employers and for the families of child laborers. Employers react by continuing the practice of child labor because they can often get away with it, but at the same time they lower the wages of child workers because they except to get caught at some point and be fined. They anticipate and compensate these fines by lowering wages. (Children usually don’t have the power to resist wage reductions). The families of the children in turn react by forcing more of their children to work as a way to compensate for the lost income. There’s some evidence here that this effect does indeed occur.

Perhaps we should kick the habit of relying only and automatically on legislation in order to enforce human rights. This may be a good strategy in countries that have well-functioning enforcement systems, but in developing countries it may do more harm than good. (Perhaps this is a symptom of the much criticized shortsightedness of western international development efforts). After all, it’s not as if there aren’t any nonlegislative means to promote human rights.

Here‘s another example of human rights legislation that actually leads to diminished respect for human rights. More on the difficult relationship between human rights and the law is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (72): How Unemployment and the Incentive Theory Aggravate Poverty

Not all poor people are unemployed. Even in developed countries some of the poor are “working poor“, i.e. people who have an income that is below the poverty line. Hence, if some who work for a living can’t make ends meet, it’s obvious that the unemployed are even more at risk of being poor. At best, the latter only have a temporary replacement income in the form of unemployment benefits. This income is often lower than even the lowest wage income, and in most countries it’s also limited in time. Hence, poverty is the likely result of unemployment, even in wealthy countries.

To some extent, this result is intentional: governments want to “incentivize” people and “nudge” them into the labor market. High unemployment benefits that aren’t limited in time – combined with the fact that many jobs don’t pay enough to avoid poverty – may trap some people in unemployment. Low and limited unemployment benefits, on the other hand, invoke the horror of poverty which in turn may force people to look for work.

It’s obvious why many unemployed people are poor – their incomes are just too low, and intentionally so. But why are poor people unemployed? The incentive theory tells us that poor people shouldn’t be unemployed. The horror of poverty should drive them out of unemployment. While some people are probably “incentivized” in this way, this is not something that will work for all the unemployed poor. It will only work for all the unemployed poor if jobs are abundant, and indeed that’s what the incentive theory assumes. Of course, this assumption is wrong. There’s something called the natural rate of unemployment. Even in the best of economic circumstances, there’s always some level of involuntary unemployment, and during recessions, this level is higher than normal. During a recession (starting from 2008 in this case) more poor people than normal indicate that their unemployment is due to their “inability to find a job”.

So, there are no conceivable incentives that will push all unemployed poor into the workforce, not even at the best of times.

Notice how the inability to find a job is just one reason among many, and definitely not the most important reason why poor people don’t work. Choice (“home or family reasons”) is another reason. And that’s one which can sometimes be influenced by incentives. However, the reason that’s cited most frequently, namely “sickness or disability” cannot. The horror of poverty will not force you into employment if you can’t work for health reasons. Hence, even if we assume, unrealistically, that there is an abundance of jobs and no natural rate of unemployment, it’s unrealistic to assume that all poor unemployed people will one day join the workforce.

This has implications for the incentive theory. If you put too much emphasis on incentives, you’re likely to put unemployment benefits at a very low level with a strict time limit. After all, the closer the horizon of poverty, the more likely that people will act and look for a job. However, if there are not enough jobs or if people have other reasons why they won’t work, then they won’t work. And if unemployment benefits are stingy, then these people will become poor. Incentives don’t always work as intended. Sometimes they may even cause poverty.

Now, I do agree that work is important and that we should therefore try to get as many people in jobs as we can (and, by the way, improve the quality of those jobs; that’s also in the book). Not only because working people normally – although not always – are less at risk of being poor, but also because work is important in human flourishing. I also agree that incentives can play a role in getting people to find work, and that the specter of poverty can be used as an incentive. However, we should be careful with this particular incentive. It may work sometimes, but often it doesn’t.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Surplus-Value?

It’s a concept from Marxist theory that may still have some relevance today. According to Marxism, a worker creates more value in a day than he gets paid. This extra or surplus-value is taken by the capitalist. Or, in other words: “the wages of the laborer had a smaller exchange-value than the exchange value of the object he produced” (D. McLellan, “Marx”). The object is sold by the capitalist, who buys labor and pockets the difference. “[T]he workers would produce values that exceeded the reimbursement of their labor” (ibidem).

The capitalist forces the worker to work more than the hours necessary to embody in his product the value of his labor power. For example, if the value of labor power, i.e. the wage, is $50 a day, and a worker produces a good (or goods) which is worth $100 during a full day of work, then the second half of the day would yield surplus-value, in this case another $50.

This is theft, according to Marx, because the capitalist takes something which he hasn’t produced or bought. He takes the unpaid labor and products of someone else and lives on the back of someone else, simply because he has the privilege of owning the means of production. The workers have to accept this because they depend on the capitalist. They have to sell their labor power in order to survive because they do not own means of production and hence cannot produce without the consent of the capitalists. As the workers’ energy is not depleted after their own reproduction is guaranteed – through the payment of a wage – capitalists can use it to produce more.

Moreover, the capitalist continuously tries to maximize his surplus-value. He uses technology and science to increase productivity and diminish the necessary labor time per unit of production. Machines allow him to produce more with less labor. If wages stay constant and productivity goes up, then surplus-value goes up.

But wages, says Marx, do not stay constant. The capitalist also tries to make labor as cheap as possible and the working day as long as possible, at least within the boundaries set by labor law. 

If labor law does not permit extensions of the working day and wage reductions, then the capitalist uses the so-called “industrial reserve army“. This is a relatively large group, constantly available but not necessarily made up of the same people. They are unemployed, desperate to work (especially when the social safety net is absent or insufficient), ready to replace the employed and ready to accept a lower wage and a longer working day. This reserve army is a millstone around the neck of the workers, a regulator keeping wages at a low level.

Why do capitalists try to maximize surplus-value? In order to survive the competition with other capitalists.

[T]he wage-worker has permission to work for his own subsistence, that is, to live, only in so far as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence also for the latter’s co-consumers of surplus-value); … the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labor by extending the working day or by developing the productivity, that is, increasing the intensity of labor power, etc. (K. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program”)

The capitalist accumulates surplus-value and wealth, and the worker accumulates misery, Marx predicts. “[P]overty and destitution develop among the workers, and wealth and culture among the non-workers. This is the law of all history hitherto” (ibidem). The “immiserization” (“Verelendung”) of the proletariat is something relative:

Marx was usually wary of claiming that the proletariat would become immiserized in any absolute sense. Such an idea would not have harmonized well with his view of all human needs as mediated through society. What he did claim was that the gap in resources between those who owned the means of production and those who did not would widen. (D. McLellan, “Marx”)

Everywhere the great mass of the working classes were sinking down to a lower depth, at the same rate at least, that those above them were rising in the social scale. In all countries of Europe it has now become a truth demonstrable to every unprejudiced mind, and only denied by those, whose interest it is to hedge other people in a fool’s paradise, that no improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no emigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses; but that, on the present false base, every fresh development of the productive powers of labor must tend to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms. (K. Marx, “Inaugural Address of the Working Men’s International Association”)

The maximization of surplus-value deepens social divisions, brings despair to the workers, and hence will contribute to the collapse of capitalism, at least that’s how Marx saw it.

What use is the concept of surplus-value for us today? Wage aren’t going down, although they are stagnating; and social divisions caused by competition and the maximization of surplus value haven’t brought down capitalism. However, inequality has increased, in part because of wage stagnation, deunionization, and tax policy favoring the “productive” and local companies facing international competition. Competitiveness and productivity have become a fetish in policy circles. Labor laws, as a result, have been somewhat eroded. Blaming all this on surplus-value maximization driven by competitiveness is surely simplistic, but not completely wrong.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (26): The Length of Your First Name

Incredible:

On average, the shorter your first name, the more you will earn. In fact, the data show each extra letter “costs” you about $3,600 in annual salary. (source)

Online job matching site TheLadders has six million members … and a lot of salary data. For Mothers’ Day, the company decided to sort and analyze its information to see whether what our parents call us impacts our earning potential. (source)

More, and I think more serious posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (47): Globalization

Human history is often viewed as a widening circle of moral concern. In the olden days, the claim goes, people cared only about their siblings and tribe. Then they started to care about their class, their nation, their religious community, their civilization, and ultimately their shared humanity. Cosmopolitanism, or the equal respect for all human beings whatever their affiliation or location, is then the end-state of morality (although some want to go further and include animals or even inanimate objects in the circle of moral concern). This end-state dovetails with human rights concerns because human rights are also the rights of all humans, whatever country, class or culture they belong to.

The widening of moral concern – if it indeed occurred as described – went in tandem with other and more familiar globalization processes, such as increased international trade, integration of different economies, the development of international law, increased communication through the internet, easier transportation, intercultural dialogue, migration etc. And all these different processes interact: communication and transportation foster trade, trade fosters communication, communication widens the circle of moral concern etc.

This story implies that globalization – of any kind – is always or unequivocally beneficial from the point of view of human rights. However, that may not be true. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of different types of globalization.

Pros

  • Increased migration is almost without exception beneficial to the prosperity and freedom of all parties involved, although the migrants obviously benefit most.
  • Intercultural dialogue promotes tolerance and agreement on human rights, and this dialogue is not only fostered by new technologies but also by international trade. Better communication as well makes people care more about what happens in the world and makes it more difficult for oppressive regimes to hide their oppression. In this sense, communication and trade drive the widening circle of moral concern.
  • Economic interdependence between countries creates a self-interested incentive for governments to promote rights and democracy elsewhere in the world and makes it more likely that international law can impose itself over concerns about national sovereignty. Global economic collaboration requires international regulation, and economic regulation can open the door for other types of regulation, including rights regulation. Countries that depend economically on an international institutional and regulatory system, will have a much harder time invoking their sovereignty when faced with accusations of rights violations, since they already lost a huge chunk of their sovereignty due to economic integration.
  • The increasing importance of multinational companies makes it easier for consumers in one part of the world to lobby for corporate responsibility elsewhere in the world.

Cons

  • Outsourcing, a commonly cited aspect of globalization, can result in people losing their jobs, and the threat of outsourcing can force people to accept lower wages or inferior labor conditions. And work is a human right.
  • The threat of cheap foreign labor and cheap foreign products can lead to protectionism and immigration restrictions, two major causes of poverty in developing countries.
  • Globalization may erode the welfare state because a large part of the tax base – corporations, financial intermediaries and skilled workers – become internationally mobile and can thereby avoid to pay the taxes that governments need to finance their welfare systems. The tax base can also decrease because governments cut taxes in an effort to maintain the competitiveness of local businesses.
  • The previous three phenomena – outsourcing, labor and product competition and pressure on the welfare state – may not only lead to restrictions on international trade and migration, but can also counteract the widening circle of moral concern: politicians and local businesses can and often do use these threats to stir up xenophobia. A xenophobic public is more likely to vote in favor of trade and immigrations restrictions. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that people’s circle of moral concern is wider in countries that are more affected by globalization.
  • Globalization implies a certain degree of power deflation: states lose power vis-à-vis the market, multinationals, international institutions and each other. This in turn means that decisions affecting the well-being of people are taken by outside forces. Democratic self-government – which is a human right – is then threatened.
  • The interconnectedness of international financial markets increases the likelihood that a local financial or economic crisis spreads to the rest of the world.
  • A higher number of increasingly globalized multinational companies also means a higher risk that some of those threaten indigenous cultures, exploit poor workers etc.

On balance, however, I believe that globalization is good for human rights, even though I can’t quantify the pros and cons.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (25): Globalization, Ctd.

Globalization is the usual suspect when people discuss the causes of contemporary increases in income inequality in many Western nations. As a result of easier transportation, trade and communication, low skilled workers in those nations now face ever tougher competition from cheap workers in developing countries, and this competition drives down wages at the poor end of Western income distributions: workers have to swallow wage reductions under the threat of outsourcing. Increased immigration – another facet of globalization – has the same effect.

At the top end of the income distribution, the reverse is happening: the job of a CEO is now more complicated in our globalized world, and hence his pay is higher. The threat of relocation also has an effect on income inequality through the channel of the welfare state: companies threaten to relocate, not just because of labor costs, but also because of tax rates. Taxes in Western countries tend to be relatively high because social security tends to be relatively generous. The threat of relocation convinces governments to reduce tax rates, but the price to pay is often a less generous welfare state. This as well puts pressure on the income distribution.

All this sounds convincing, but I’m afraid it’s too simple. The effects of globalization on inequality starts to look more complicated when we take consumption into account. Globalization tends to lower the consumption prizes of a lot of goods, and cheaper consumption can counteract downward pressures on wages and social security. If you can buy more and better stuff with your paycheck, your unemployment benefit or your disability check, then perhaps you’re not worse off.

There’s an interesting paper here by Broda and Romalis in which they look at

the compositional differences in the basket of goods consumed by the poor and the rich in America. Using household data on non-durable consumption between 1994 and 2005 we document that much of the rise of income inequality has been offset by a relative decline in the price index of the poor. By relaxing the standard assumptions underlying the representative agent framework we find that inflation for households in the lowest tenth percentile of income has been 6 percentage points smaller than inflation for the upper tenth percentile over this period. The lower inflation at low income levels can be explained by three factors: 1) The poor consume a higher share of non-durable goods —whose prices have fallen relative to services over this period; 2) the prices of the set of non-durable goods consumed by the poor has fallen relative to that of the rich; and 3) a higher proportion of the new goods are purchased by the poor. We examine the role played by Chinese exports in explaining the lower inflation of the poor. Since Chinese exports are concentrated in low-quality non-durable products that are heavily purchased by poorer Americans, we find that about one third of the relative price drops faced by the poor are associated with rising Chinese imports.

When measuring income inequality, we should correct for the different prices of goods and services consumed by people in different income groups. This doesn’t mean that we should be happy about the fact that poor people live on cheap stuff; it simply means that some of the rising income inequality is compensated by cheaper stuff. And we have cheaper stuff because of globalization. Turning globalization into some sort of bogey man is therefore rather too simple. Income inequality has many causes, and it’s not clear that globalization is, everything considered, an important one.

Finally, a word about the supposed wage pressures of increased immigration: they are indeed no more than supposed.

More posts in this series.

Limiting Free Speech (51): Speech That Intends to Get Someone Fired

What if someone tells an embarrassing or potentially harmful truth about someone else to his or her employer, with the intention of convincing the employer to fire this person? Are we allowed to limit the speech rights of the speaker in question (for example, by way of the imposition of a fine, the payment of damages to the person fired or an order to remove internet pages)? And does it matter if the speaker addresses only the employer or the public at large (perhaps in the former case we’re not really dealing with free speech)?

Take this example:

Appellant Derek Schramm is a parent of children enrolled in a Roman Catholic grade school in Minneapolis. Respondent Zachary Faricy is a teacher at the school. In November 2001, Schramm sent a letter to the school principal and the parish pastor informing them of his suspicion that Faricy “might be a homosexual.” (source)

Let’s assume that we’re not dealing here with incitement to commit illegal acts. Discrimination of homosexuals is often illegal, but many religious institutions are exempt from such a rule. (Whether or not that’s a good thing is another matter, briefly discussed here). Hence if silencing this particular speaker is indeed a warranted exception to free speech then it must be one that’s different from the established exception regarding speech that incites illegal activity.

Let’s also assume that we’re not dealing with libel. Perhaps the target in this particular case is indeed a homosexual and has therefore good reason to fear that his Catholic employer will fire him if this fact about him becomes known. Libel is usually defined as a false claim intended to harm someone’s image and reputation, and so that’s not what our example is about. The intended harm is dismissal of the teacher. Like incitement to commit illegal acts, libel is an established exception to free speech rights, and one that I also want to exclude from the current discussion. What I want to do here is see whether speech that intends to get someone fired and that is neither libel nor incitement to commit illegal acts, should always be protected.

Now, speech that incites employers to fire people does impose certain demonstrable harms: the target’s right to privacy is violated, as is his or her right to a decent standard of living (in the case in which the target may not find another job in the short term). So, a priori we could have an argument here in favor of prohibiting speech that incites employers to fire people. Normally, limits to free speech can be acceptable if they are necessary in order to avoid greater harm to other human rights.

However, if we want to allow limits on speech that incites employers to fire people, would we not also be forced to accept the prohibition of public protest aimed at getting a racist or sexist radio host fired? That seems to go very far. Maybe we can limit the free speech exception as follows: in the Catholic school case the speech was directed at a single person – the employer – whereas in the case of public protest the audience is much larger. Still, that’s not a very promising route. The inciter in the Catholic school case may drum up support among other parents or write to the local Catholic newspaper if a private letter to the employer doesn’t do the job.

It’s true that the nature of the audience and the circumstances in which speech occurs can make a difference – hate speech in an obscure periodical should not necessarily be forbidden, but hate speech in front of an excited mob about to attack someone is different. But the same difference doesn’t apply here I think.

In the case of speech that incites employers to fire people – whether it’s private speech or public speech – I would prefer not to impose limits on speech but rather change the law so that it is illegal to fire people for their beliefs, words or lifestyle. And yes, that may include revoking religious exemptions to employment discrimination. After all, how exactly does it harm someone’s religious freedom if his or her children are educated by a homosexual teacher?

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (39): Human Rights and Human Duties

For some people, there’s too much talk about human rights. They see human rights as a symptom of a typically modern type of moral decay, of a culture of self-importance and egoism, and of an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We want more and more of society and the state, and at the same time we are less willing to contribute. Instead of rights talk, they say, we should promote a sense of duty. Instead of rights declarations and rights in constitutions and treaties, we should have lists of duties and responsibilities, and have the state enforce those duties rather than rights.

You often hear this duty talk when the topic is crime (defendants have “too many rights”) or anti-social behavior (whatever that means), but it seems to be focused mainly on economic human rights. Rather than a right to unemployment benefits people have a duty to work and to support themselves. Rather than a right to very expensive healthcare for everyone, people have a duty to live a healthy life. And so on.

My point here is not to deny the importance of the duties mentioned above, or of a lot of other duties. And neither do I want to claim that human rights talk can’t be frivolous. I merely want to mention a couple of risks that come with duty talk. First of all, there’s the danger of rights becoming dependent on duties. If duties are given too much importance, people will be tempted to claim that your rights can only come after you have proven to be a responsible person. That would be wrong. Rights are unconditional. People have rights, end of story. They don’t have rights because they are responsible citizens respecting their social duties. Even irresponsible citizens, and even criminals have rights.

In addition, duty talk is somewhat superfluous. Duties are inherent in rights. Someone’s rights are everyone else’s duties. (It’s wrong to view respect for rights as the duty of the state only). I don’t have a right to violate your right; I have a duty to respect it. Rights would be meaningless words without such duties. So what’s the added value of emphasizing duties?

More posts in this series are here.

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

Migration and Human Rights (43): The Impact of Immigration on the Educational Attainment of Natives

Those opposed to immigration – or better to high or increased levels of immigration – often, but wrongly, argue that a large scale presence of immigrants forces down the wages of natives and drives expensive native workers, especially the low-skilled, out of the job market. Or that it ruins social security systemsdestroys the native culture and leads to higher crime rates.

There’s also a less common and a priori sensible argument regarding education. When there are many or rising numbers of immigrant children, then these children compete for schooling resources with native children. One can’t assume that those resources go up at the same rate as the total number of children. Immigrants are generally poorer than the average citizens and hence pays less in taxes. It’s therefore not silly to assume that higher rates of immigration put a strain on education resources. If that is the case, then the quality of education may go down, including for native children.

That is a potentially strong argument against an open borders policy or against relaxed immigration restrictions. Yet, surprisingly, you hardly ever hear it. Maybe that’s because it’s not as strong as it looks. After all, there can also be an opposite effect: higher rates of immigration may encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.

Fortunately, there’s a paper here (possibly gated) that looks at those two competing effects, and finds that

both channels are operative and that the net effect is positive, particularly for native-born blacks, though not for native-born Hispanics. An increase of one percentage point in the share of immigrants in the population aged 11-64 increases the probability that natives aged 11-17 eventually complete 12 years of schooling by 0.3 percentage points, and increases the probability for native-born blacks by 0.4 percentage points.

More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (27): What’s Wrong With It? No Moral Justification

The standard “no problem” explanation of income inequality goes as follows: people have different incomes because they have different levels of human capital and productive abilities. Some earn more because they contribute more – to their employers but also to society. They simply deserve, in a moral sense of the word, their higher incomes because of the level and nature of their contributions. Increasing differences in income levels are then simply the reflection of an increasing gap in productivity and human capital between some groups in society.

However, there’s something wrong with this story: it hints at one important element but fails to draw the necessary conclusion from it. Some people contribute more in a quantitative sense of the word, in which case higher returns are probably morally justifiable. If you work more, few would begrudge you your higher income. However, that’s not the type of income inequality that is most common. Usually, people are believed to contribute more in a qualitative sense of the word and get paid more as a result (or vice versa, because they get paid more, they are assumed to have contributed more in a qualitative sense). No one claims that the salary of a CEO should be higher than that of a taxi driver doing two other jobs on the side because the former works more than the latter. He probably doesn’t. The justification people give for a higher salary for the CEO is almost always about quality. (See also here).

Now, how does a society decide which types of contributions are of a higher quality and are therefore more deserving of higher remuneration? In part, the “market” decides: skills and contributions that are highly valued by consumers will earn you a higher income. But biases, prejudices and market manipulation are also factors that determine which contributions are valued higher. For example, there’s a widespread bias in favor of people with a university degree even though their objective skills may not always be higher than those of less educated people; advertisement and popular culture instill the perception that beautiful people are more deserving; stars in sport and music are believed to deserve a very high income, higher than that of the “stars” in science for example. And then there’s the perfectly circular reasoning that some contributions are more deserving because they yield higher earnings.

Many of these social decisions about desert are arbitrary, biased, irrational and unjustifiable. And in no case is there an attempt to justify them on moral grounds. Hence, you cannot conclude that more productive contributions are a moral justification for higher income levels if you first fail to justify which types of productive contributions are morally superior and more deserving.

You could counter this by saying that all skills and contributions, no matter in what field, are in and of themselves sufficient to warrant higher pay. But then you admit that all skillful and productive people across different fields should earn similar incomes, and that is plainly not the case. 

So, even if income inequality could be justified on a moral basis – by first deciding in a rational and unbiased way which skills and contributions are morally superior and then paying more to those people who have been identified as having more of those skills and contributions – that is not how it’s done in practice. And I doubt that it can be done, because there will never be agreement on the choice of morally superior skills and contributions.

Of course, the absence and, presumably, impossibility of a desert based argument for income inequality doesn’t mean that there can’t be other, more successful justifications of income inequality. The most common one is based on incentives rather than desert. We want people to do good, worthwhile and valuable things, and generous rewards for the skillful and productive is one way of having these things. Again, there’s the problem of deciding in an unbiased and rational way which things are indeed valuable, but we may assume that the market offers a close approximation: what people want to buy and consume will often be valuable to them. Perhaps not always valuable in the sense of “valuable after rational reflection free of biases”, but that sense may be unrealistic anyway. So let’s accept – grudgingly in my case – that we don’t have to decide what exactly needs to be incentivized and what is worth incentivizing.

However, even if we assume that value and desert equal market success, there’s a problem with the incentive based argument for income inequality. It’s not right to force morality through the payment of incentives. Ideally there should be good will, and people have to do things of value for their own sake, not because they are incentivized to do it (as G.A. Cohen has argued numerous times).

The conclusion is that income inequality as it is now structured in all societies is not justified and probably not justifiable from a moral point of view. And that this is the only point of view from which it should and could be justified. Of course, the lack of a justification is only one thing that’s wrong with income inequality. More on what’s wrong with it is here, here, here and here.

Migration and Human Rights (42): The Labor Cost Argument Against Open Borders

I’ve argued many times before against the popular view that increased immigration is detrimental to native employment and income. The simple argument about an increase in supply of cheap labor driving down wages and forcing expensive native workers out of the job market is just that: simple, too simple. There’s even evidence that the opposite is true: immigration increases native wages (because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale). But even if immigration did impose a cost on the host country, that wouldn’t be the final argument against immigration, since such a cost could be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice: improving the lot of the poorest of the world surely justifies imposing a burden on those who have more wealth and who had the good fortune of being born in the “right” part of the world. True, this burden shouldn’t fall on the poorest members of the “right” countries, but if it does that can be corrected by national redistribution.

Still, let’s return to the labor cost argument against immigration. Here’s another piece of evidence that tips the scales yet a bit further against the view that the extremely low cost of immigrant labor results in displacement of low-level native labor. The evidence I want to cite is about internal migration in China, but it’s perfectly possible to use it against arguments favoring restrictions on international migration:

Hundreds of millions of rural migrants have moved into Chinese cities since the early 1990s contributing greatly to economic growth, yet, they are often blamed for reducing urban ‘native’ workers’ employment opportunities, suppressing their wages and increasing pressure on infrastructure and other public facilities. This paper examines the causal relationship between rural-urban migration and urban native workers’ labour market outcomes in Chinese cities. After controlling for the endogeneity problem our results show that rural migrants in urban China have modest positive or zero effects on the average employment and insignificant impact on earnings of urban workers. When we examine the impact on unskilled labours we once again find it to be positive and insignificant. We conjecture that the reason for the lack of adverse effects is due partially to the labour market segregation between the migrants and urban natives, and partially due to the complementarities between the two groups of workers. Further investigation reveals that the increase in migrant inflow is related to the demand expansion and that if the economic growth continues, elimination of labour market segregation may not necessarily lead to an adverse impact of migration on urban native labour market outcomes. (source, source)

More posts about arguments against open borders are here, here and here. More posts in this blog series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (60): Early and/or Single Motherhood?

The “culture of poverty” narrative claims that people are poor because they have the wrong values and habits and therefore make the wrong choices: they tend to be unable to resist drugs, violence and crime, they drop out of school, have a problem with punctuality and discipline etc. I’ve already made my own views about this narrative abundantly clear in previous posts. However, I failed to give sufficient attention to one subset of values, namely those related to marriage, family structure and early childbearing. So I’ll briefly have a look at those now.

As is often the case with explanations of poverty based on values and habits, there’s a certain superficial persuasiveness about the claim that early marriage, early childbearing and, most importantly, early out-of-wedlock childbearing result in a lifelong loss of income. Young mothers in general and young single mothers in particular have a relatively hard time finishing their education and finding a well-paying job because the combination of motherhood and work/education is a tough deal.

However, we may be wrong about the direction of causation here. Rather than poverty being the result of bad choices – in this case the choice of becoming a young and/or single mother – it may be the cause of those choices. There’s for example this study which finds that teenage pregnancy rates are indeed higher in U.S. States that have high rates of poverty, but which also postulates that high levels of income inequality cause high teenage pregnancy rates, not vice versa. When young people believe that their society is rigged against people like them, they abandon traditional norms; conversely, people will work hard when they feel that there’s a chance of success. When young women see that their chances of future economic success are slim, then early motherhood may even look appealing: it may give direction and a purpose to their lives, a purpose that would be difficult to find in an economy stacked against them.

“[B]eing on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and … poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory” (source)

In a sense, this is a discouraging finding because it means that the promotion of abstinence or contraceptive use won’t reduce early and/or single motherhood; only poverty reduction and realistic economic opportunities will do that, and that’s a lot more difficult and expensive. And, make no mistake about it, we would want to reduce early and/or single motherhood, because the causation goes in both directions and it’s very implausible to deny that early and/or single motherhood has any effect on income. What you do want to deny is that the “culture of poverty” narrative has an important explanatory value in all of this.

One final remark: while I focus here on mothers, many of the same remarks would be valid for young and/or single fathers as well.

More on poverty and family structure here. More posts in this series here.

Migration and Human Rights (41): What Will Happen When We Open Our Borders?

Regular readers know that I often advocate an open border policy on this blog. I do so because most of the arguments in favor of immigration restrictions don’t survive a confrontation with the data, but also, more positively, because I think there are four important reasons to favor open borders:

  1. Allowing immigration means respecting certain human rights, such as the right to free movement and the right of free association (most people migrate because they want to associate with employers elsewhere). Closed borders on the other hand result in various rights violations: illegal immigrants incur physical risks while traveling, and exploitation upon arrival (because they have diminished bargaining power and because they live with the constant fear of apprehension). Furthermore, they are almost permanently separated from their families and friends back home etc. That’s a heavy burden of rights violations.
  2. Immigration reduces poverty. Strictly speaking this is not conceptually different from the previous reason, since poverty is a human rights violation, but it’s worth mentioning separately because many fail to see this point.
  3. Third, allowing immigration is a matter of justice because monopolizing a piece of the earth goes against the principle of the common ownership of the earth, and because nobody deserves to be born in a certain place.
  4. Fourth, immigration restrictions are inefficient because they require resources that can better be spent elsewhere, and because efficient economic activity requires a high degree of freedom of movement for workers as well as goods. Moreover, aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going.

I agree that these arguments don’t necessarily establish the soundness of an open border policy. They do, however, make it harder to argue in favor of restrictions and they put the burden of proof on those arguing in favor of restrictions.

I can imagine that many of those people aren’t convinced by the rather abstract arguments given above. Hence it may be useful to try to estimate the consequences of a significantly higher number of immigrants in wealthy countries. I’ll assume that this increase won’t be sudden, because restrictions can be removed gradually. Hence we can discount the “shock” of increased migration as a possible negative consequence.

Wouldn’t massive immigration strain the domestic economy and possibly destroy it? I never quite understood that argument. For one thing, if that would happen, I guess the immigrants would decide to just go back home; immigrants are drawn to economic opportunity and typically return when opportunities become rare. But it won’t happen, because immigrants produce and consume. The “destruction argument” sounds ridiculously zero-sum, as if the presence of immigrants in a country is similar to leeches draining the blood from a healthy body. Immigrants generally come to work, to produce and to consume. Some of them may be a net loss for the native economy, but it’s silly to claim that most of them are or will be. In fact, in the U.S. most immigrants currently use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. Even if massive immigration brings in a lot more slackers their numbers will be swamped by the even larger number of productive immigrants.

So I don’t think we should compensate an open borders policy with a denial of welfare for immigrants. Most immigrant won’t come for welfare, and if you allow a whole lot of new immigrants, most of those will work and pay taxes (also because they won’t be illegal) and will thereby contribute to the funding of the welfare system rather than be a drain on it.

Perhaps the arrival of a lot of immigrants won’t destroy the destination economy or the welfare state, but maybe it will hurt certain groups of people, for example low-skilled native workers with whom the immigrants will compete for jobs. Again, that’s too much of a zero-sum focus. Immigrants are usually complementary to native workers and don’t necessarily have to replace native workers. And when they are not complementary, they can allow the latter to move to different and often better paying occupations.

To the extent that massive immigration will drive down wages in some sectors and skill levels, I would ask the following: if an immigrant is willing to work for a lower wage, why should the rights of relatively more wealthy native workers (“relatively more wealthy” because they earn a higher wage) trump the rights of the immigrant? If rights have any meaning it is that they protect the weaker against the stronger, not vice versa. From a cosmopolitan point of view it’s more important to help poorest people find a better job than to protect the jobs of the relatively less poor.

What about higher rents and house prices? Surely massive immigration would price almost everyone out of the housing market. And then what? I would guess that this will be self-correcting: huge housing prices will reduce the inflow of immigrants or increase the supply of houses. In the latter case, demand for labor – including native labor – would increase. Again, let’s drop the zero-sum thinking: why should we assume a constant supply of housing with an increasing demand for it?

What about security issues? Will open borders policies flood us with criminal immigrants? Immigrants with contagious diseases? What about the smuggling of drugs? Or terrorists moving freely into the country? Well, open borders as it’s understood here means free immigration, not the absence of borders or border controls. Allowing massive immigration doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep track of who or what is coming in and is going out. And we have domestic criminals, whom we don’t systematically banish. Let us also not forget that immigrants are on average less likely to be involved in crime (see here and here).

The fact that open borders doesn’t equal “no borders” should also calm certain fears about sovereignty, “nationhood”, national culture, community and national solidarity.

The same is true for the fact that an open borders policy doesn’t equal “free citizenship“. Obviously access to citizenship would not be possible for all immigrants at the moment of arrival, otherwise an open border policy would undermine the very notion of citizenship. That restriction includes voting rights.

What about the consequences for the origin countries which will lose a lot of highly skilled professionals? That’s difficult to tell but if we extrapolate from the current state of affairs, this might not be a problem. There’s already a huge brain drain going on from developing countries to developed ones, but the pernicious effects of this brain drain are heavily overstated, and compensated by the gains from remittances. Of course, this compensation effect depends on the number of people involved. Drastically higher numbers of migrants may provide a different outcome, or maybe not. And there’s also some evidence of other beneficial effects of the brain drain, unrelated to remittances.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (40): The Economic Efficiency Argument for Open Borders

Immigration restrictions are often defended on the basis of economic arguments. I’ve repeated often enough why these arguments won’t work (see here and here for example). What I want to do now is spell out one of the strongest economic arguments against immigration restrictions and in favor of open borders, and I mean completely open borders (which doesn’t mean that completely open borders are necessarily the right thing to do; there may be other arguments against completely open borders that override the economic ones in favor).

Restraining the movement of people between national territories creates the same inefficiencies as restraining the movement of goods and services. Free international trade in goods and services increases overall wealth and prosperity, as I’ve argued here and here. Trade enhances specialization and the use of comparative advantage. It’s easier to grow bananas in the tropics and then trade them, than to make every country grow its own bananas. Similarly, free movement of people makes it possible to make better use of people’s talents. Just as it was an inefficient waste to relegate women to the household – not to mention a gross violation of their rights – we are now depriving the world of good workers in all fields of life because of immigration restrictions. Potential immigrants have a hard time going to other countries in order to develop their talents, and can’t move freely around the world to use their talents. Those of you who worry about the effects of a so-called brain drain should read this.

More on open borders is here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (24): Self-Confidence

A lot of income inequality is hereditary: wealthy parents can offer their children better education, connections, support and other resources that help to advance their prospects in life. Hence, these children will also be comparatively wealthy, on average. An initially unequal wealth distribution results in a self-perpetuating and perhaps even self-enhancing cycle of income inequality. It’s therefore unlikely that a socially mobile and meritocratic society arises automatically.

One of those “other resources” is self-confidence. Very confident people tend to earn more. In other words, levels of self-confidence are correlated with socioeconomic status:

University students are … poor at estimating their own test-performance and over-estimate their predicted test score. However, females, white and working class students have less inflated view of themselves. (source)

And self-confidence, like education opportunities and networking, is passed from generation to generation – not necessarily in a genetic sense. Self-confidence is, therefore, one reason – together with other parental resources – why income inequality survives the passing of generations.

What is more, there is a feedback mechanism at work between two hereditary resources, self-confidence and education: self-confidence has a beneficial effect on education. A positive self-perception has a positive impact on the expected probability of educational success:

Even small differences in initial confidence can result in diverging patterns of human capital accumulation between otherwise identical individuals. As long as initial differences in the level of self-confidence are correlated with the socioeconomic background (as a large body of empirical evidence suggests [see also above]), self-confidence turns out to be a channel through which education and earnings inequalities are transmitted across generations. (source)

Self-confidence can even improve human capital if it’s baseless, as it often is; if, in other words, it’s not grounded in superior personal qualities:

Say you have two people of equal cognitive skills, but one is over-confident about his ability and the other under-confident. The over-confident one is more likely to stick with a subject during the early steep phase of the learning curve – believing that “I can master this if only I apply myself” – whereas his under-confident colleague is likely to give up, thinking the material too difficult for him. Alternatively, the over-confident student might choose “difficult” academic subjects at high school, which qualify him for entry to some elite universities, whilst the less confident one would choose less academic subjects which disqualify him. (source)

And self-confidence does not just perpetuate income inequality when it reinforces the education opportunities of those who already have better education opportunities given to them by their parents. Self-confidence is helpful in the labor market as well, and the labor market is, like education, an area in which parental resources tend to skew opportunities (wealthy parents are better connected to possible employers, for example):

Overconfident people might select into occupations where there’s a high pay-off to the lowish probability of success, such as management, law journalism or politics. Less confident folk, under-estimating their chances, might prefer occupations which yield less skewed rewards. People misperceive overconfidence as actual ability. The overconfident job candidate is thus more likely to get the job than the more rational one. Posh white blokes can – perhaps unwittingly – manipulate the social awkwardness of others for their own advantage, and thus progress at work. (source)

Hat tip. More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (41): Unemployment, a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Unemployment is a violation of an individual’s right to work. It stunts her creativity and diminishes her wellbeing, in a material, moral and psychological sense, in many cases even pushing her into poverty, ill health and depression.

For a person with no pre-existing health conditions, losing one’s job increased the chances of reporting a new health problem by 83 percent. Overall, the newly unemployed had a 54 percent chance of reporting fair or poor health. (source, source)

Unemployment is also self-perpetuating because it makes it harder to find a new job – employers prefer candidates who already have a job. In addition, it depresses wage levels, even decades after the end of a spell of unemployment.

Needless to say, these costs don’t affect only the unemployed themselves. Their families and children also suffer:

We find that a parental job loss increases the probability of children’s grade retention by 0.8 percentage points, or around 15 percent. After conditioning on child fixed effects, there is no evidence of significantly increased grade retention prior to the job loss, suggesting a causal link between the parental employment shock and children’s academic difficulties. These effects are concentrated among children whose parents have a high school education or less. (source)

And the ripple effect of unemployment covers the whole of society. Unemployment has a social cost: above and beyond the fiscal pressure – unemployment benefits have to be paid, either through increased taxes or cuts in other public services – it deprives society of valuable input and human ingenuity.

Still, all these costs should not blind us to the real benefits that unemployment can bring. And I’m not talking about those few individuals who are “liberated” from their mind numbing jobs and take the chance offered by unemployment to start a successful business doing something they always wanted to do but never had the chance or guts to do. Neither am I referring to kidults reveling in “funemployment”, staying with their parents well into their twenties or beyond, and taking the opportunity to prolong their childhood. Those are not the majority of the unemployed.

However, some among the majority may also find a silver lining. Maybe unemployment makes them less materialistic and more financially prudent; maybe some of them will use their free time to volunteer and educate themselves; society may become humbler and gentler; maybe concerns for social justice become more prevalent since the unemployed, ex-unemployed and their friends and families have become more conscious of the role of luck in life’s outcomes, as compared to the limited role of desert. Some health indicators may improve:

Interestingly, though high-stress events such as foreclosures and unemployment may hurt the health of those directly impacted, there’s some evidence that recessions have a positive impact on a nation’s health overall. In 2000, Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, found that a 1 percent rise in a state’s unemployment rate led to a 0.6 percent decrease in total mortality, looking at mortality changes in the United States between 1972 and 1991. … economic downturns could improve health through “declines in smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and overeating during recessions as people look for ways to save money.” (source)

Of course, there’s no way these benefits cancel out all of the costs. Unemployment is a scourge and a human rights violation, and capitalism doesn’t do itself any favors by maintaining and temporarily inflating its “industrial reserve army“.

More on the human cost of unemployment is here and here.

Economic Human Rights (40): How Do Poor People Live?

The poor tend to become a number, a statistic, an undifferentiated mass, especially here on this blog. Talk of the “bottom billion” and the one-dollar-a-day people only makes things worse. Of course, it’s important to know the numbers, if only to see how well we are doing in the struggle against poverty. But to actually know what we have to do, we need to know what poverty actually means to poor people. How do these people live? Which problems do they face? Who are they? None of this can be captured in numbers or statistics. Pure quantitative analysis doesn’t help. We need qualitative stories here, and these stories will necessarily differentiate between groups of people because poverty means different things to different people.

Keeping in mind the caveat that poverty is “multidimensional” and that it varies with the circumstances, is it possible to give a more or less general impression of the “lives of the poor”? There’s an interesting attempt here. Banerjee and Duflo analyzed survey data from 13 countries in order to distill a picture of the way people live on less than one dollar a day, of the choices they have and the limits and challenges they face.

The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Timor Leste. Obviously, the lives of the poor are very different in these different countries, and vary even for different groups within each country. Still, some general information can be extracted:

  • The number of adults (i.e. those over 18) living in a family ranges from about 2.5 to about 5, with a median of about 3, which suggests a family structure where it is common for adults to live with people they are not conjugally related to (parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, etc.). When every penny counts, it helps to spread the fixed costs of living (like housing) over a larger number of people. Poverty has consequences for family structure, and vice versa.
  • Poor families have more children living with them. The fact that there are a large number of children in these families does not necessarily imply high levels of fertility, as families often have multiple adult women.
  • The poor of the world are very young on average. Older people tend to be richer simply because they have had more time to accumulate resources.
  • Food typically represents from 56 to 78 percent of consumption expenses among rural households, and 56 to 74 percent in urban areas.
  • The poor consume on average slightly less than 1400 calories a day. This is about half of what the Indian government recommends for a man with moderate activity, or a woman with heavy physical activity. As a result, health is definitely a reason for concern. Among the poor adults in Udaipur, the average “body mass index” (that is, weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) is 17.8. Sixty-five percent of poor adult men and 40 percent of adult women have a body mass index below 18.5, the standard cutoff for being underweight. Eating more would improve their BMI and their health, and yet they choose to spend relatively large amounts on entertainment. Which just shows that the poor have the same desires as anyone else and choose their priorities accordingly.
  • The poor see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food. The typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Indeed, in most of the surveys the share spent on food is about the same for the poor and the extremely poor, suggesting that the extremely poor do not feel the need to purchase more calories. This conclusion echoes an old finding in the literature on nutrition: Even the extremely poor do not seem to be as hungry for additional calories as one might expect.
  • Tap water and electricity are extremely rare among the poor.
  • Many poor households have multiple occupations. They may operate their own one-man business, sometimes more than one, but do so with almost no productive assets. They also have jobs as laborers, often in agriculture. And they cultivate a piece of land they own. Yet, agriculture is not the mainstay of most of these households. Where do they find non-agricultural work? They migrate. The businesses they operate are very small, lacking economies of scale and without employment opportunities for people outside the family. That’s a vicious circle because it means that few people can find a job and are forced to start petty businesses themselves. This circle makes economies of scale very difficult.
  • The poor tend not to become too specialized, which has its costs. As short-term migrants, they have little chance of learning their jobs better, ending up in a job that suits their specific talents or being promoted. Even the non-agricultural businesses that the poor operate typically require relatively little specific skills. The reason for this lack of specialization is probably risk spreading. If the weather is bad and crop yields are low, people can move to another occupation.
  • The poor don’t save a lot, unsurprisingly. Some of it has to do with inadequate access to credit and insurance markets. Banks and insurers are unwilling to give access to the poor and saving at home is hard to do; it’s unsafe and the presence of money at home increases the temptation to spend (that’s true for all of us by the way).
  • In 12 of the 13 countries in the sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. Schooling doesn’t take a large bite from the family budget of the poor because children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee.

Division of Labor, a Forgotten Problem

Perhaps there’s not a lot about Marxism that’s worth remembering, but if one thing is, it’s the critique of division of labor. I don’t understand why this subject is systematically ignored in present-day discussions. After all, it’s not like it’s a problem that has been solved or anything. The Marxist critique goes something like this. Modern capitalism forces workers into a rigid system of division of labor and this system, like the wage system and the private ownership of the means of production, inhibits self-development.

Division of labor is driven in part by technology and the automation of labor, but also by organizational choices that promote specialization. It takes place within an industry or a factory, but also in the economy in general. Both the assembly line and the use of nannies and cleaners are examples of division of labor. Cutting production and work into seperate parts increases productivity, which is positive, but it also has some serious drawbacks that are seldom acknowledged. The worker becomes a detail-worker who executes only parts of a production process, or perhaps even only one part, because all tasks are isolated, taken apart and divided into elementary parts. This is done in the name of productivity – specialization means better and faster work – but sometimes is not really a choice: many production processes have become so complex that one man can no longer master them from start to finish, physically or intellectually.

But because production has been cut into pieces, labor becomes monotonous, mechanical, one-sided and repetitive. The worker does not really produce anything – he or she just adds an often insignificant part. This destroys creativity, self-expression and self-development, values that used to be associated with production. It is the system that produces, and the worker is only a tiny part in this system, often unaware of the nature, composition and overall fabrication process of the final product. Perhaps he doesn’t even know what the people before and after him are doing. He cannot develop his “natural human urge toward spontaneous productive activity”. Rather than his will or his purposefulness, he develops only one tiny ability which in itself is rather meaningless and without a product. He becomes stupid and often even sacrifices his health as a result of monotony and indifference.

Again, this is true for the assembly line, but also for many other production systems that are not necessarily located within one single factory. Marx focused his critique on the assembly line or rather the early versions of it discussed in Adam Smith’s pin factory example, but it can be transposed without much effort to other, more modern economy wide types of division of labor. Here’s Marx on manufacture:

This stunting of man grows in the same measure as the division of labor, which attains its highest development in manufacture. Manufacture splits up each trade into its separate partial operations, allots each of these to an individual laborer as his life calling, and thus chains him for life to a particular detail function and a particular tool. “It converts the laborer into a crippled monstrosity, by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts … The individual himself is made the automatic motor of a fractional operation” (Marx, Capital) – a motor which in many cases is perfected only by literally crippling the laborer physically and mentally. The machinery of modern industry degrades the laborer from a machine to the mere appendage of a machine. “The life-long speciality of handling one and the same tool, now becomes the lifelong speciality of serving one and the same machine. Machinery is put to a wrong use, with the object of transforming the workman, from his very childhood, into a part of a detail-machine” (Marx, Capital). (F. Engels, On the Division of Labor in Production, Anti-Dühring)

And although some of us have moved on from “Modern Times” type excesses, workers in many countries and industries are still little more than replaceable parts of an industrial factory, a meta-machine containing both machines and humans. They are replaceable because their tasks are so detailed and stripped of complexity for the sake of easy and fast processing, that they can be taken over by any other worker or by a new machine. They are like organs in a huge organism and in an age of routine transplants.

And this predicament is not limited to factory worker or sweatshop laborers in far away countries. To some extent, we all suffer even if we’ve never seen a factory from the inside. We all work in a divided labor system. For many of us, this means that we cannot use our work to be creative or to form and express an identity through production. The best we can do is deliver the food necessary for other workers to continue their work, take care of their children for a while, or iron their shorts. The creation of products is an essential part in the creation and expression of identity, but the modern worker often does not create products. The system or organization creates products and the worker only contributes an insignificant part. He may be totally unaware of the final product and of the other parts contributed by his colleagues.

The activity of the worker does not have a goal. It’s merely a means in a larger goal. Because he is often unaware of what came before, what comes after and what is the ultimate product of it all, his activity seems purposeless to him, although in reality it has a small purpose. A man without a purpose and without understanding of what is going on, is not a man. How can the worker see his work as an integral part of his life? Work is therefore something which merely serves survival; life starts after work.

Some forms of division of labor also imply the power of the organizer. That the case for division of labor within the factory. The “capitalist”, the owner of the production system, is the only one who oversees, understands and controls everything. Division of labor requires hierarchical organization, the authoritarian imposition of strict rules that have to be rigorously enforced if the system is to operate. There is no freedom at all. The organizer isn’t free either because technology forces him to impose a strict organization which he is not free to choose. Science and competition impose the most efficient form of organization.

The positive fact of cooperation inherent in the idea of division of labor turns into something negative, namely the isolation of the workers and their separation from the overall production process. Division of labor, automation or organization increase productivity but the workers suffer in the process.

[W]ithin the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labor are brought about at the cost of the individual laborer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labor-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labor-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (K. Marx, Capital)

The Ethics of Human Rights (56): What’s Wrong With Exploitation?

There is no human right to be free from exploitation, but some rights prohibit practices that we normally call exploitative: child labor, unfair wages etc. However, what exactly is exploitation and what is it that makes it wrong? According to Hillel Steiner, exploitation occurs when one party in a voluntary exchange between two (or more) partners gets an unfair price for the goods or services exchanged. Or, in other words, exploitation is the voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value.

Now, what exactly is this unfair price that causes the values of the exchanged things to be unequal? Again according to Steiner, the party transferring the good or service gets a an unfair price when that price is below what she could have had in a fair auction. That’s a convincing argument since you can hardly claim that a fair price is the intrinsic price of something. Nothing has an intrinsic price or value. It’s also convincing because it avoids the extreme and implausible free market position that all voluntarily agreed prices are fair.

I think that this model does indeed cover part of what we usually call exploitation. The voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value is a case of exploitation, but in my view the Steiner model doesn’t really capture the essence of exploitation. But let’s first examine what’s convincing about Steiner’s position:

  • It focuses on voluntary transfers. An involuntary exchange would be theft or slavery rather than exploitation. And we want to keep these concepts separate. Hence we limit exploitation to voluntary exchanges. Involuntary exchanges like theft or slavery are not exploitation. They are different from exploitation even if, like exploitation, an unfair price is involved. (Leaving a $10 dollar bill after having stolen an expensive car is still theft; paying my slave with meals and housing still makes her a slave). And they are, a fortiori, different from exploitation if the price is fair. (Paying my slave a fair wage still makes her a slave. If I employ someone against her will, I’m enslaving her, even if I pay her a wage, fair or unfair. Leaving a check for $50,000 after having stolen a car still makes it theft. But neither slavery nor theft are exploitation).
  • It focuses on relationships where exchanges of goods or services occur. If we’re dealing with relationships where no such exchanges are involved, it’s counterintuitive to talk about exploitation. Take a relationship where no goods or services are exchanged, but where nevertheless some harm is done. The harm done is then better labeled as oppression, abuse, discrimination, rights violations etc., depending on what actually happens. It’s not because there is harm that there is necessarily also exploitation.
  • It focuses on unfairness, specifically unfairness of the price of the goods or services exchanged. That’s coherent with the way we usually talk about exploitation, namely as a case of unfairness or injustice.

In Steiner’s model, these are the three necessary conditions that have to be jointly fulfilled in order to have a case of exploitation. And indeed, the model covers many cases which we normally call exploitative, such as unfair wages, some commodity markets where poor farmers sell their goods at very low prices compared to what they fetch later in the supply chain, child labor etc. However, there’s something missing from the model. It doesn’t describe exploitation in a sufficiently precise way. I’ll argue that there’s a fourth necessary condition missing.

What if someone gets a price that’s merely 20% below the fair price? We wouldn’t necessarily call that exploitation. What about a billionaire not getting a fair price for one of his goods? We don’t call that exploitation either (yet Steiner does; he has to, given his limited model). What about someone not very interested in getting a fair price? Is she exploited?

These questions suggest that the following condition is missing: exploitation only occurs when the party in the exchange that doesn’t get a fair price is already, before the exchange takes place, in a disadvantaged position. Take the example of a family selling its house for an unfair price. Maybe the price is just a tiny bit below the fair price. Maybe the family is very wealthy (the house being just one of many in their possession). Or maybe the family doesn’t care about a fair price (and has decided to go and live in the African jungle and doesn’t need the money). In none of these cases is the sale exploitative.

But maybe the motive for the sale of the house is debt coverage. The urgent need to repay some debts has convinced the family that the best thing to do is to sell the house, even if the price they can get under the circumstances is less than fair. The three elements of Steiner’s model are still present: it’s a voluntary exchange for an unfair price. It’s voluntary since no one is forcing the family to sell and there are some other options left (e.g. sending the kids to public school). Still, the family has decided that selling at an unfair price is better than doing nothing or than any of the other available options. But the exchange is only exploitative if the family comes into the exchange from a disadvantaged position and if someone else takes advantage of – or exploits – their disadvantaged position. And it’s because of this disadvantage that they can’t manage to get a fair price: their disadvantage convinces buyers that they can make a “good deal” since the sellers are in no position to insist on a fair price.

The exploitative sale does make the family better off, and it’s likely that exploitation always makes both parties better off. That could be a fifth necessary condition. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceptualize exploitation where one party is worse off after the exchange; such cases are more likely to be similar to theft, slavery, abuse, oppression etc. and therefore different from exploitation.

A similar example is the case of workers in poor countries accepting to sell their goods or labor power at very low prices (for example to a multinational company). These prices are unfair because the people happen to live in a poor country, which means that they are not able to sell their goods or labor power in a fair auction with different companies bidding. It’s an exchange, and a voluntary one. However, it’s only exploitation because the sellers are in a disadvantaged position, similar to the people selling their house at an unfair price in order to cover their debts, and because this position makes the price unfair and makes the fair auction impossible.

Let’s take a third example that features regularly in writings about exploitation: there’s a sudden blizzard and people scramble to the only hardware shop in town to buy shovels. The owner of the shop reacts in a typical way and decides to charge three times the normal price for the shovels. Is he exploiting his fellow townspeople? No. The price is not even unfair because in an auction, that’s probably the price that people would accept to pay. And in reality as well they do probably accept to pay it. If you want to call this exploitation, all supply and demand pricing is exploitation.

Once you accept all this, you will agree that some of the common definitions of exploitation are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Exploitation can’t simply be the unfair use of others for your own benefit. That would cover slavery, theft and other relationships that are morally wrong but not exploitative. And exploitation can’t simply mean taking unfair advantage of someone, because we don’t want to call taking advantage of a millionaire a case of exploitation.

Are there some types of voluntary exchange that are inherently exploitative, whatever the price, fair or unfair? For example organ sales, or sex work? No, such transactions are exploitative only when the price is unfair and when the further condition of disadvantaged starting positions is also met (people who decide to sell their organs or their sexual services will often be in disadvantaged starting positions, but the price is often not unfair). Of course, it’s not because these exchanges are not exploitative that they can’t be immoral for other reasons (e.g instrumentalization).

This account of exploitation is different from the well-known Marxist account. According to Marxism, workers are exploited because they are forced into employment status (given that they themselves don’t have any means of production and that the capitalists have monopolized those means). Hence, the Marxist notion of exploitation collapses into the notion of slavery, something which I want to avoid.

More on exploitation is here and here.

Income Inequality (26): And Social Mobility

One can argue that high levels of income inequality aren’t much of a problem when social mobility is easy (social mobility being the degree at which people cross into higher or lower income levels than the ones they were born into). Inequality is then the result of skills and effort, the absence of skills and effort, or lifestyle choices. In other words, given easy mobility, inequality is what people deserve or want. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility, people basically choose their position in society: they choose to develop their skills and invest effort, or they don’t.

However, this whitewashing of inequality doesn’t work because the more unequal a society, the less social mobility there is (source).

What is the mechanism here? In part, high levels of income inequality make social mobility more difficult: when income inequality is relatively high, people at the wrong end of inequality can offer comparatively less opportunities to their children than the people at the right end – less quality schooling, less quality healthcare etc. The children of wealthy parents have relatively more advantages compared to poor children then they would have in a less unequal society, and they are therefore more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. I assume that social mobility is a good thing and that people’s income should not be determined by the income of their parents.

So instead of saying that inequality is not a problem because there is mobility, we should instead say that mobility is a problem because there is inequality.

More on social mobility here. More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (33): Something More Than Goals

You can often hear the claim that economic rights such as the right to healthcare, food and work are not really rights but merely desirable goals. A first reply would be that all types of rights, not just economic rights, are also goals. Free speech is just as much a goal as healthcare, food and work. But not all goals are rights, so it’s reasonable to ask if economic rights are really rights. What is a right? It can be different things, but it should, minimally, impose a duty. A duty implies feasibility. Ought implies can. There’s no point imposing duties on people which they are unable to respect.

A typical objection against economic rights is that they impose precisely such duties, duties which are not and will not be feasible in many countries in the world. Imposing a right to healthcare, food and work in Somalia, for instance, is imposing an illusion. It’s just too expensive. Hence, because they impose impossible duties, economic rights can’t really be rights. They are merely goals.

Now, I did argue before that the relative expensiveness of economic rights compared to “freedom” rights is often very much exaggerated. Which is why Somalia and other countries have also failed to secure freedom rights successfully. Part of their lack of success is due to their unwillingness to leave people be – which they could at no expense – but another part is due to their unwillingness and inability to fund the institutions necessary to enforce people’s freedom. Yet, no one claims that these failures turn free speech into a mere goal or aspiration rather than a right.

Furthermore, the international treaties that impose respect for economic rights have taken the cost criticism into account. They often frame economic rights in terms of “progressive realization”. Countries don’t violate the treaties if they can show that they have taken all possible measures to ensure the progressive – as opposed to immediate – realization of economic rights.

If we turn rights into goals, we lose a lot. Goals are a lot weaker in terms of moral force than rights. Those who are without food can no longer demand that something is done, that they are the victims of an injustice, and that they have a right to food. All they can do is ask or beg that a certain social goal, one among probably thousands, is taken a bit more seriously.

Finally, is it really so farcical to impose duties that exceed people’s abilities to comply? Aren’t we doing that all the time? It’s common to view “telling the truth” as a moral duty, a very strong one even. And yet, we all know that this exceeds our abilities to comply. We lie all the time, and if you deny this, you’re lying. The best we can do, morally, is precisely “progressive realization”: trying to lie as little as we can, and less than we’re used to. The same progressive realization rescues economic rights as rights: rather than imposing a duty to realize the goal inherent in the rights, they impose a duty to try to realize that goal.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (30): Language

The effect of language on human rights can be straightforward, as in the case of hate speech. Imagine an individual member of a racial minority living among members of the majority. The latter are constantly hurling insults and hateful bile at this individual, making it almost impossible for her to move about the neighborhood, find employment and do many of the other things she has a right to do. In this case, a particular type of language and a particular use of this language has obvious repercussions on someone’s human rights.

But what I’m interested in here are more subtle effects of language on human rights. Take the example of the gender-exclusive pronoun. In most languages, personal pronouns distinguish male from female, and the male pronoun is the default: when we’re not talking about a specific person, or when we’re talking about a mixed gender group, then we use the male pronoun. (This is similar to the equally common rule that children should get the surname of the father). Attempts to invent and promote gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns haven’t quite succeeded, and the habit of using the female pronoun as the gender-exclusive one is often considered awkward. I also fail to avoid the traditional rule in my writing. In general, this problem is often labeled a fake one, invented by people high on political correctness.

And yet, the problem isn’t fake at all. Compared to other, more extreme uses of language such as hate speech, the harm done by the use of gender-exclusive pronouns may be small, but it’s not negligible. There’s a study here that tries to measure the harm:

Three studies assessed whether a common cultural practice, namely, the use of gender-exclusive language (e.g., using he to indicate he or she), is experienced as ostracism at the group level by women. Women responded to the use of gender-exclusive language (he) during a mock job interview with a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job compared to others exposed to gender-inclusive (he or she) or gender-neutral (one) language (Studies 1 and 2). Moreover, the more emotionally disengaged women became over the course of a job interview upon hearing gender-exclusive language, the less motivation and job identification they subsequently reported (Study 3). Together, these studies show that subtle linguistic cues that may seem trivial at face value can signal group-based ostracism and lead members of the ostracized group to self-select out of important professional environments.

Another study focused on the use of gendered words in job ads, and found that ads signal whether a job is typically held by men or women. As a result of this signaling, women are less likely to apply to certain jobs, and this in turn perpetuates gender inequality in the workplace. Wording differences in ads affect the job’s relative appeal to men and women, independent of the type of job. The use of more masculine wording such as “competitive” makes traditionally female-dominated jobs more appealing to men, and vice versa.

In both these examples – gender-exclusive pronouns and gendered language in job ads – women respond – or are made to respond – in an unconscious way so as to perpetuate gender inequality.

A similar example of language affecting human rights is called stereotype threat: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent through some kind of preliminary “information” or briefing, then you perform worse at that task. For example, if a group of girls about to take a mathematics test, is “reminded” that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it’s likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have done had they not been told. It’s not difficult to imagine cases in which this can be used in order to perpetuate inequality, submission and domination. (More on stereotype threat here and here).

I just mentioned signaling, and signaling in the more strict definition of the term – engaging in speech or activity not necessarily for the sake of this speech or activity but in order to convey relevant information about yourself (for example, people acquire an education and talk about it not only because they want to be educated but also because they want to signal ability to potential employers) – is yet another example of the way in which language affects human rights. Take the case of capital punishment: I strongly believe that this is not about fighting crime, just retribution or desert, or even anger and revenge. Proponents of capital punishment, by expressing their support for it, signal their own moral rectitude. This is especially important for politicians, elected judges etc. In other words, for those who could, if they wanted, end the practice. (More on human rights and signaling is here).

Obviously, language doesn’t always have a negative effect on human rights. It’s easy to find examples of a positive effect: storytelling can promote empathy, and language aimed at shaming people can rid the world of rights violations when reasoning is insufficient.

Discrimination (9): The Beauty Bias

Although someone’s looks and attractiveness aren’t explicitly mentioned in human rights law as prohibited grounds of discrimination, we can safely say that the general prohibition on discrimination does apply to discrimination based on appearance, just like it applies to discrimination of people belonging to a certain race, sex, religion etc. This statement may sound extreme – and some will call it the first step on a slippery slope – but I think it’s a justified statement given the fact that appearance based discrimination can be just as harmful as more traditional types of discrimination.

People generally prefer beautiful individuals and express this preference by giving them certain advantages. One symptom of the beauty bias is the beauty premium: in the U.S., and probably in most other countries, an attractive person earns more: the premium is about $250.000 over the course of a lifetime, compared to the least attractive. Monthly averages point to a difference between 10 and 12%, even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter. Daniel Hamermesh (in “Beauty Pays“) found evidence of differences in promotions, risks of unemployment, credit facilities etc.

A number of role-playing, laboratory studies have demonstrated that more attractive men are more often hired, but the laboratory data for women are less consistent. … more attractive men had higher starting salaries and they continued to earn more over time. For women, there was no effect of attractiveness for starting salaries, but more attractive women earned more later on in their jobs. (source)

There’s no reason to believe that beautiful people deserve this kind of advantage since they generally aren’t more intelligent, productive, etc. (although some disagree about productivity). It’s simply the case that people who decide about employment, pay and career prefer beautiful people. Beauty brings along a degree of self-confidence I guess, which may persuade (possible) employers and makes them believe – correctly or not – that with higher self-confidence comes higher productivity. But that isn’t all that’s happening:

even when the experimenters controlled for self-confidence, they found that employers overestimated the productivity of beautiful people. (source)

So it looks like the beauty bias is just that, a bias, much like the bias against women and blacks.

The beauty bias can be measured because a

common standard of beauty does exist. Based on an attractiveness scale of one to five, most people surveyed will come to near agreement on a test subject’s looks, a finding that holds true across all cultures. (source)

By the way, the beauty bias operates in other areas as well. Beautiful candidates are more successful in democratic elections. And ugly criminals face rough justice:

Stephen Ceci and Justin Gunnell, two researchers at Cornell University, gave students case studies involving real criminal defendants and asked them to come to a verdict and a punishment for each. The students gave unattractive defendants prison sentences that were, on average, 22 months longer than those they gave to attractive defendants. (source)

Also:

11 percent of surveyed couples say they would abort a fetus predisposed toward obesity. College students tell surveyors they’d rather have a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or a shoplifter than one who is obese. (source)

Of course, earning a little less and having a smaller chance of being elected aren’t the world’s gravest human rights violations. It’s not as if we still banish the ugly from the public square:

In the 19th century, many American cities banned public appearances by “unsightly” individuals. A Chicago ordinance was typical: “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting subject … shall not … expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense.” (source)

However, the evidence above suggests that beauty does play an important role in many different areas, making the impact of appearance based discrimination potentially large. Hence the obvious question: should ugly people be protected against discrimination? Should there be a law making it illegal to pay people more simply because of their looks? After all, there seems to be no difference between this form of discrimination and more traditional forms. All forms of discrimination impose a disadvantage on a group of people for no other reason than their group membership.

However, legal protections would require a public determination of beauty and ugliness. And they would require the ugly to step forward and claim damages or benefits. That’s stigmatizing, and open to discussion: there is, as stated, a common standard of beauty, but there can still be disagreement on specific cases, especially along the margins. Beauty is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, and if you’re labeled as ugly by some or even by the majority, there may still be others who think the world of you. Including yourself. De gustibus non est disputandum. The same isn’t true for gender, sexual orientation and race (with some caveats for the latter). When governments sanction a universal scale of attractiveness we’re going down a dangerous route because this can ossify opinions about beauty and lead to even more discrimination. And then there’s the issue of self-esteem: would people be willing to apply for official recognition of their ugliness, even if the money is good?

Gender Discrimination (28): Occupational Sex Segregation as One Cause of the Gender Pay Gap

It’s common knowledge that women tend to earn less that men, even in countries that pride themselves on their respect for gender equality.

One of the causes of this gap is occupational sex segregation, meaning that women and men tend to work in very different occupations. Coincidentally or not, “men’s jobs” are generally better paid than “women’s jobs”.

Now, “segregation” in this context may be too strong a term, since there are no longer a lot of legal restrictions on the employment of women, at least not in the U.S. Women aren’t segregated into very specific occupations, at least not by law. Cultural pressures may still exist, however. Women often feel obliged to choose occupations that mix well with family responsibilities, and those occupations tend to be less profitable. Such a sense of obligation is not a sign of gender equality.

It’s also not clear to what extent women – voluntarily or not – choose jobs that are less well paid, and to what extent employers decide that jobs chosen by women merit less pay.

And finally, let’s not forget that there’s a gender pay gap even within professions. Occupational sex segregation therefore can’t explain the whole pay gap. Hence, the gender pay gap may be an indication of different types of gender discrimination:

  • forcing women into jobs that are less well paid
  • paying less for the types of jobs that women tend to choose
  • paying women less than men within the same types of jobs
  • failing to give women and girls the same opportunities to enter some types of jobs (e.g. because of unequal education, child marriage etc.)

The Causes of Poverty (49): Brain Drain?

People with socially useful skills – such as nurses, doctors and teachers – often desire to leave their poor native countries and migrate to the West. A higher wage and the chance of escaping some of the world’s most dysfunctional societies trumps national and social attachments.

However, some argue that this “brain drain” is detrimental to the prosperity of developing countries: not only do they lose their best and brightest – emigration of skilled citizens makes it more difficult to prepare younger generations for their role in society (teachers leave, and governments faced with the risk of brain drain are less eager to invest in education – and even if they are eager they will have a smaller income from taxes necessary to fund education).

And indeed, the better educated citizens of poor countries are more likely to emigrate. You need some money and know-how to move to the West, and you have to expect some value-added. A poor farmer in Africa doesn’t have the money to leave, and his chances of finding a socially useful role in Europe or America, compared to his fellow-citizens who are doctors or engineers, are small.

However, when assessing the economic impact of the brain drain, one has to take all effects into account. For example, criticism of the brain drain often fails to mention the clear benefits for those who decide to leave their countries. More counter-intuitively, those who stay behind may also gain rather than lose: people who spend time abroad often return home with socially valuable skills and savings, and while they’re abroad they send home remittances. Also, the possibility of leaving a country incites many people to improve their skills and education, even if ultimately they stay home. And when they stay home, their higher education is a net social gain. Governments of developing countries may also benefit: perhaps they’ll lose some money when people leave after finishing their government subsidized education, but they gain money when the families that stayed behind spend their remittances, or when they don’t have to pay unemployment benefits to those who leave – some of those would have been unemployed had they stayed home.

It seems that the brain drain is no more than a catchy phrase, and certainly not an important cause of poverty in developing countries.

More posts in this series are here.

Gender Discrimination (25): The Plough as a Cause of Gender Inequality

Gender inequality means different levels of protection of human rights according to gender. No need to say which of the two gender’s rights are usually violated more or protected less rigorously. Gender inequality occurs in many areas of life:

  • in political representation or participation
  • in income or labor market participation
  • in labor sorting (when women are relegated to certain professions)
  • in family life (when women do not have the same marriage or divorce rights, inheritance rights etc.)
  • in criminal justice (when the testimony of women is considered less valuable) etc.

Too many areas to mention, unfortunately.

When you read about the causes of gender inequality, the usual suspects are religion, patriarchy and all sorts of anti-women prejudice. A different and interesting perspective, focused on inequality in the labor market, is the following:

Ester Boserup … argues that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally. In particular, she identifies important differences between shifting and plough cultivation. The former, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm work. The latter, in contrast, is more capital intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it.

Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women. Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding, a task typically undertaken by women and children. In addition, child-care, a task almost universally performed by women, is most compatible with activities that can be stopped and resumed easily and do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture since large animals are typically used to pull the plough. …

[T]his division of labor then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterized by plough agriculture, and a resulting gender-based division of labor, developed the belief that the natural place for women is within the home. These cultural beliefs tend to persist even if the economy moves out of agriculture, affecting the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, and participation in politics. (source)

And there does seem to be a strong statistical correlation between historical plough use and prejudice against women.

Cooperation and Excellence in Capitalism and Communism

An important and valuable aspect of work which has been lost in many activities is cooperation. The modern industrial production process is characterized by unconscious cooperation. The division of labor – within a factory or within the wider economy – is cooperation, but the workers in a factory or the baker and the butcher buying each other’s products, are unaware of it. The conscious cooperation of individuals producing something together is more valuable, educating and rewarding for the individuals than individual production or unconscious cooperation which, unfortunately, is the predominant type in capitalist production.

Cooperation also typically transcends the generations. It is important to build on the achievements of the past. So even when you can work alone in a meaningful way, for example as a craftsperson (which perhaps has become rather unlikely these days), you are not really alone because the past masters of the art are looking over your shoulder and guiding you. And maybe you have a pupil.

And here’s where another important aspect of work has to be rediscovered in our era of deskilled and atomized production: the standards of excellence. Absorbing the history and tradition of a practice makes us better persons and enables us to produce, be creative, express ourselves and develop our personalities. Without abilities taught to us by tradition this is impossible.

Excellence, as conscious cooperation, is often lacking in contemporary capitalist production. The atomization of workers resulting from the division of labor promotes ever more detailed and limited knowledge, rather than insight in and mastery over processes. Workers are also deskilled because of automation. Skill and knowledge are incorporated into machines and computers, and a worker is still, in many cases, a mere machine-appendix with no need to know how the machine works.

Communism has rightly accused capitalism of neglecting the need for conscious cooperation and excellence, but it has failed, even theoretically, to offer an alternative. The alternative for unconscious cooperation is real corporate democracy, something that is only hinted at in communist theory and not likely to follow from the simple abolition of private property. Likewise, the communist solution to the problem of excellence – the end of division of labor – isn’t satisfactory. Excellence or skill require education institutions and encouraging and supporting communities, which are often lacking or underperforming in industrial societies. The days of the atomized workers in anonymous industrial cities and extremely compartmented factories may be gone (in the West at least), but capitalism still isn’t known for its ability to foster supporting communities. And neither is communism. Only with supporting educational institutions and communities can individuals become someone, learn something and transform themselves through the activity of work.

It is obvious that corporate democracy is not enough to achieve this focus on excellence. And neither is the abolition of the division of labor. On the contrary. Excellence and skill require some modicum of division of labor. It is an illusion to believe in a future society where anyone can engage in or change into any activity he or she wishes, like Marx unfortunately did. This kind of variety and polyvalence is incompatible with excellence and skill. People are finite beings with limited time and abilities. One has to choose one’s “trade”, try to become skillful and hopefully lead a life of learning and growth, of productive and creative self-development and of self-expression within this “trade”. Some changes of heart are of course possible and desirable, but not limitless. But the word “trade” implies division of labor. Communism’s hope that automation would reduces the necessity for skills and trades is unrealistic and undesirable as well, given the benefits of excellence (i.e. education, community, belonging, support etc.). But this division between “trades” is rather different from the highly atomized world of divided labor in current industrial processes.

Excellence is not only incompatible with the complete abolition of division of labor. It also requires giving up the demand for total worker equality. The capitalist ideology of managerial expertise is groundless and oppressive. It reduces the workers to executors of the managers’ plans. It is obvious that the knowledge necessary to plan is not acquired through theoretical thinking but rather through working practice. So the division between workers and managers is artificial and will not hold.

But, on the other hand, complete worker equality will not hold either. Achieving standards of excellence leads, by definition, to differences between people, and it requires dependence (often temporary) on teachers, “masters” and tradition. One can see such a relationship as a form of domination to be combated, and it certainly is in many capitalist companies where it is often even undone of its original educational aspects. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be viewed as transformative for the “pupil”. Excellence leads to a good product and to a better producer as well, to someone who can become somebody and who expresses and develops his or her personality through production. This personal transformation through learning and production goes way beyond the transformation of skills. It touches the entire personality.

The Fable of An Randy’s Libertism

Once upon a time, An Randy made her life. She wrote stories and became famous and wealthy. She attributed her success to her talent, effort and intelligence, and to the near total freedom she enjoyed in her beloved country of residence. Her freedom-loving philosophy permeates her writing, inspires her readers, and has become a social movement with a smallish yet enthusiastic following. Called “libertism”, the philosophy champions heroic individualism, productive and creative achievement, and near total liberty and self-centeredness as preconditions for this achievement. It requires a minimal government, minimal taxation, no redistribution and no welfare. Freedom from government is necessary for creative achievement, and redistribution implies theft of resources that are the product of solitary and well-deserved achievement.

Randy did not believe that her success or the success of similarly talented and disciplined creators is dependent on the receptiveness of an audience. The success of the talented depends merely on their talent, not on fashion, audience preferences, cooperation, marketing, being in the right place at the right time etc. Hence, because there’s no luck or cooperation involved in success, the fruits of this success are the product only of talent and effort. An individual therefore deserves his or her success, and should not be forced to share its fruits.

Libertism views success as an individual achievement rather than the product of a combination of individual achievement, talent, luck and social cooperation. In other words, there’s no real division of labor or joint production. The creators are Robinson Crusoes, producing everything by themselves. Libertism denounces the “socialist” vision in which everything is jointly created, in which every creator depends on a large web of support and in which no creator can do anything without a vast army of teachers, parents, food producers, road workers, bus drivers, doctors, police officers, book printers, librarians, internet providers, etc. Libertism believes the members of the creative class produce their work and achievements only by themselves and by their own efforts alone. Division of labor is necessary only for menial production.

The moral of An Randy’s story: were it not for the silly preferences of a part of the general audience, the feverish cooperation of a number of fanatic devotees and a suitable working environment, she would have had no success at all. Double irony: because she proved, unwittingly, that achievement is essentially a cooperative effort, she also showed that the fruits of achievement should be distributed across all participants; hence, that taxation, redistribution and reductions of income inequality are justified.

PS: no prizes for guessing whom this is really about…

The Causes of Poverty (45): Bad Luck

Some of the poor are victims of bad luck. That’s not something which is sufficiently understood. Agreed, others dig their own grave or get their graves dug by crooked capitalists, unfair international rules, overly optimistic financial institutions causing a global economic crisis, heartless politicians etc. However, there are cases in which the link between someone’s actions or intentions – self-regarding or other-regarding – and someone’s poverty is very weak indeed and in which it’s better to say that it’s a good dose of bad luck that drives people over the brink. And I’m not just thinking about the guy losing his job because of illness or accident.

The data are very clear. In essence, if you have the bad luck of being

then you’ll earn less, sometimes a lot less than average, and you’ll run a higher risk of becoming poor.

Maybe you would reply that people with some of these characteristics don’t earn less because they had the bad luck of being born like that – e.g. black, female, short etc. – but because employers are racist or prejudiced against women or short people. True, but not always. Poverty rates among blacks in the U.S. are a lot higher than average, but only part of this gap can be explained by racist employers. Other parts of the explanation, such as education levels, statistical discrimination etc., can’t be linked immediately or exclusively to racial bias.

Or maybe you would reply that some people have themselves to blame for some of their harmful characteristics, e.g. being obese or a single mother. That, in other words, these characteristics are chosen and self-inflicted and not a matter of bad luck. That is also only partly true. Obesity can be genetically determined, and single parenthood can be the result of misguided policies such as the war on drugs.

More posts in this series are here.

Racism (18): Human Rights and Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is a set of policies aimed at improving the representation of women and minorities in education, business, employment and other sectors of society where these groups have traditionally been underrepresented or even completely excluded. Representation is improved by way of preferential selection.

For example, if students are normally selected on the basis of test scores, affirmative action will add other selection criteria such as race, gender, ethnicity, language, religion etc. Maybe in certain cases the initial selection criteria (e.g. test scores) are dumped altogether because it’s assumed that they reflect racial bias or because past discrimination makes it difficult for discriminated groups to achieve good test scores.

As you can see from this description, affirmative action policies are usually internal policies implemented by organizations or institutions (schools, businesses, representative bodies etc.) wishing to become more diverse and more representative of society at large, although they can also be imposed by the government. It’s common – but not necessary – for affirmative action policies to work with quotas, i.e. fixed percentages of selectees from historically disadvantaged groups.

Now, how should we evaluate affirmative action from the perspective of human rights? Some see affirmative action as a means to compensate for past human rights violations and past exclusion. A minority which has been discriminated in the past may still find it difficult today to achieve equality of opportunity today. Affirmative action is then intended to break a self-continuing pattern of exclusion. Combined with other policies such as reparations, welfare, anti-discrimination laws etc., affirmative action will hopefully achieve more equality. According to this view, affirmative action is necessary from a human rights perspective.

However, it’s equally possible to argue that affirmative action doesn’t help or even undermines human rights. An example of the way in which it may not help is given by its application in education. Those African-Americans who are most likely to profit from affirmative action in access to higher education institutions aren’t the most disadvantaged of their group. On the contrary, they are probably among those who already have sufficiently good educational credentials (a requirement to be eligible to higher education in the first place), and they are by definition not the least advantaged. Affirmative action doesn’t seem to serve equality.

The same setting provides another example of the way in which affirmative action fails to help or even harms the cause of human rights. White people who enter education are by definition relatively young and hence least likely to have contributed to past discrimination. Their exclusion from a university resulting from the preferential selection of African-Americans harms their right to equal treatment for no good reason. It looks like discrimination as a means to fight discrimination, racism as a means to fight racism. Affirmative action is then supposed to harm the rights of whites. It’s even possible that a poor white boy, who would profit a lot from acceptance by a highly ranked university, is excluded in order to benefit a rich black boy who will have a decent life even without any education. That seems perverse to many opponents of affirmative action who argue that all racial classifications should be abandoned and all selection policies should be color-blind.

There are a few possible counter-arguments against this position. It’s true that those who are excluded or not selected because of affirmative action programs probably aren’t individually responsible for the historical disadvantages imposed on the beneficiaries of those programs, and therefore shouldn’t “pay” for correcting those disadvantages. However, it may still be true that they benefit from continuing inequality. For example, if women are systematically excluded from some professions, men in general benefit from this exclusion, even if they haven’t excluded women themselves. (That’s an argument made by Mary Anne Warren among others). Also, if African-Americans have traditionally been excluded from higher quality educational institutions, it’s likely that the better test scores presented by whites and required to enter university do not simply represent higher ability. Discrimination has benefited and continues to benefit whites in terms of test scores, even those whites who are not in the least responsible for the substandard basic education received by blacks. Demanding that only test scores be used as a criterion for selection in universities is not the way to avoid discrimination (of whites) but the way to cement discrimination (of blacks).

Moreover, even if it’s true that some whites are unjustly discriminated against by affirmative action programs, one might argue that this is a small price to pay for correcting a much higher number of cases of anti-black discrimination. Although personally I’m weary of sacrificing the rights of some for the benefit of others.

Also, to the extent that it’s true that affirmative action means fighting discrimination with discrimination, we should realize that the two kinds of “discrimination” are not at all the same. The type of discrimination that affirmative action is supposed to correct is a discrimination motivated by racial animus and intended to stigmatize some people as “inferior”. If affirmative action is a kind of discrimination, it’s one that has other motives. Whites who are excluded from a university because of affirmative action programs aren’t excluded because we believe that whites are inferior or because we don’t like them. However, it’s probably cold comfort for whites to know that their discrimination is not motivated by hatred.

And finally, affirmative action can be defended on a number of other consequentialist grounds that have nothing to do with the possible compensation or correction of injustices. For instance, allowing more blacks in law school can bring about a justice system that is seen as more legitimate by black citizens. More blacks in the police force may result in police departments that are more legitimate, more acceptable and more authoritative to black people. More female CEOs or professors may inspire more young women to follow their lead or to be more successful generally. More blacks in medical school may result in better healthcare for communities that are currently not well served. Diversity in school may have some educational advantages: proximity to people from other races may reduce racism and may better prepare students for their future lives in a diverse society. In general, a society that is representative in all fields is much more legitimate in the eyes of all citizens. And, last but not least, diversity improves the functioning of the marketplace of ideas. So, if all of this or some of this is true, affirmative action can yield more overall respect for human rights.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (19): Talent, Effort or Luck?

Talented people usually earn more, especially when their talents are “marketable”, highly valuable and in demand among large groups of consumers or users. Hence, it’s tempting to conclude that income inequality is the natural and necessary result of the given inequality in the distribution of marketable talents. However, that conclusion only holds up when you turn things around: rather than talented people earning more, it has to be true that people who earn more generally have more and better talents, talents moreover which are in demand. I don’t know of any study confirming this claim, but my anecdotal observations in the matter tell me that the claim isn’t true: many rich people don’t have special talents, and many talented people aren’t rich at all.

But then why are some people rich? Perhaps they have some other native endowments, such as a strong will, discipline and a natural willingness to make an effort. Or perhaps they have successfully acquired these characteristics during the course of their upbringing and education. Income inequality is then the product of the natural and/or acquired inequality of effort. But, again, it’s easy to find wealthy people who are neither talented nor strong willed, and many poor people work very hard. As someone has said: hard work is much more common than success.

Maybe luck plays a large part in the creation of wealth: some people have the good fortune of acquiring – perhaps through inheritance – certain means of production. Others are born in a place and family that provides good education, numerous wealth creating opportunities, encouragement etc. Still others find themselves in an economy where demand for their particular contributions is high, or where these contributions are highly valued. Or maybe they find themselves in a political system where discrimination and certain government policies give them an advantage.

Your personal thoughts on the relative importance of talent, effort or luck will determine what you think should be done about income inequality. Those who believe effort is the main cause tend to assume nothing should be done. If wealth distribution is the sole result of differences in effort, then redistribution is not only unfair to those who invest more effort, but also has perverse consequences: it will destroy all future wealth and therefore make all future redistribution impossible, because punishing people for their efforts means taking away their incentives to invest effort.

If you think talent or a native endowment of discipline is the main cause of wealth inequality, then you will probably be more sympathetic to redistribution. Since no one deserves his or her talents or other native endowments, no one deserves the unequal rewards that come with unequal endowments. However, since people still need to use and develop their endowments, you’re likely to reserve at least a small role for effort. Hence, you’re not likely to be a strict egalitarian. Still, you will favor education as a means to foster some people’s lingering talents and underdeveloped sense of discipline, and perhaps you’ll also favor a more equal distribution of the attention society gives to different talents.

If you think income inequality is mainly caused by luck or the lack of it, you will be a strong egalitarian. You view talent and effort, as well as the ability and willingness to use and develop talents and to invest effort, as the products of good fortune: you’re lucky to have the right genes, parents and teachers who encourage you etc. And you also view other types of good fortune as causes of wealth: being in the right place at the right time, inheriting means of production, meeting the right business partners etc. Luck is undeserved, and so are its products. Hence redistribution is morally required.

What Are Human Rights? (27): What Does It Mean To Have Rights?

When thinking about what it means to have a right it’s sometimes useful to replace the word “right” with another and similar word. Let’s review a few of those words and see how far they get us. You’ll notice immediately that those words only describe part of what we usually understand by the word “right”. Hence, they’ll allow us to clarify only part of the meaning of the phrase “to have a right”. Perhaps taken together they’ll provide an overall definition. (Some of the definitions are based on the famous work by Hohfeld).

Rights as privileges

Formally this can be stated as follows:

A has a privilege to do X if A doesn’t have a duty not to do X.
A has a privilege not to do Y if A doesn’t have a duty to do Y.

For example, in the U.S. I have the privilege to speak my mind, because I don’t have a duty to keep silent. Or, I have the privilege not to vote for our Dear Leader because I don’t have a duty to do so.

Rights as permissions

Similarly, one could say that rights are permissions. That sounds somewhat weaker than “privilege” but formally, this way of talking about rights has the same structure as “rights as privileges”:

A has a permission to do X if A doesn’t have a duty not to do X etc.

It’s about what a rights bearer is at liberty to do, not what he has to do or shouldn’t do. Hence, rights as liberties is again another way of saying the same thing. The fact that I have the privilege, the permission or the freedom to speak my mind doesn’t imply that I must speak my mind.

Rights as claims

A more relational understanding of rights focuses on the claims we may have on others. Having a right then means having a claim on someone.

A has a claim that B does X if B has a duty to A to do X.
A has a claim that B doesn’t do Y if B has a duty to A not to do Y.

For example, I have a claim that my employer pays me a fair wage because my employer has a duty to do that (see article 23 of the UDHR). I also have a claim that he doesn’t impose slave-like or dangerous working conditions on me because he has a duty not to do that.

Usually, and at least in the case of human rights, I have such claims vis-à-vis every other human being.

Rights as immunities

This is similar to rights as claims but it’s a bit stronger.

A has an immunity if B doesn’t have the legal, moral or political ability or power to do X to A.

For example, I have immunity against self-incrimination because a judge does not have the power to force me to testify against myself.

Rights as limits

Again, similar if not identical to immunities:

A has a right to X if B doesn’t have the legal, moral or political ability or power to interfere with A doing X.

For example, I have to right to practice my religion because no one else is allowed to interfere with me practicing my religion.

Rights as provisions

Having a right can mean more than the ability to limit interference it can also mean being entitled to the provision of some goods or services.

A has a right to X if B has the legal, moral or political duty to provide A with X.

For example, I have the right to an amount of food that guarantees my decent survival. The state, among others, has a duty to provide this food if I can’t acquire it independently. But also so-called non-interference rights or negative rights fall under this heading: I have a right to be protected by Courts and the police force – to be provided with protection – if people impose a religion on me, harm my bodily integrity etc.

Rights as properties

You could say that all rights are in essence property rights. We have a right to have rights; our rights are our property. In the words of John Stuart Mill:

When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it. … To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. (source)

Formally:

A has a right to X if society has a duty to protect A’s possession of X.

Again, very similar to the formulation of rights as provisions. For example, I have a right to free speech if I can call on judges and Courts to assist me in my struggle against those who want to take this right away from me.

Rights as sovereignty

Very similar to the notions of rights as claims, immunities, limits and properties is the notion of rights as sovereignty. My right to freedom of opinion or my right to property make me a small scale sovereign over my mind or my possessions, in the sense that others aren’t allowed to interfere, invade, dispossess or modify. All these notions of rights focus on the rights bearer’s ability to control whether others must or must not act in certain ways.

Rights as interests

Conversely, rights as interests focus on what rights do to the rights bearer. Rights serve to further the rights bearer’s interests. People have rights because rights make them better off. What these rights imply for others is of secondary importance. Formally:

A has a right to X if X makes A better off.

Rights as abilities

Another way to focus on the rights bearer rather than the duty bearer is to view rights as abilities. That allows us to see that rights as liberties, privileges or permissions only describe part of what we understand by rights. Indeed, I have a right if I have the freedom, privilege or permission to act in a certain way. And rights as claims, immunities and limits protect me against others who would interfere with my freedom, privilege or permission to act in a certain way. And yet I can be free to do X because 1) I’m free from a duty not to do X and 2) I’m free from the interference of others, but at the same time I may be unable to do X. For example, I may have the permission and freedom to practice whatever religion I choose, and others don’t interfere, but I lack the education or mental capacities to choose and practice a religion. Rights as abilities would then provide me with the necessary education, rather than only the freedom, privilege, permission or limits on interference.

Rights as trumps

Following Ronald Dworkin, we can view rights as trumps. Rights are norms with a special force. They provide particularly weighty reasons to do or not to do something, reasons that are weighty enough to override other reasons or concerns. Rights give reasons to treat people in certain ways or permit them to act in certain ways, even if certain other goals or objectives would be better served by violating their rights. Within the system of rights, it’s possible to give some rights a higher trump value and hence a higher priority than others, perhaps depending on the circumstances (meaning that one right only trumps another when certain conditions are met, and not systematically).

Formally:

A has a right to X if X overrides all other concerns.

Only if we combine all these different definitions of rights can we perhaps have an overall understanding of them.

Discrimination (8): What’s Wrong With Discrimination?

Let me try out a few possible answers to the question in the title of this post:

  1. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons? That can’t be the case, because we treat people differently all of the time: some people earn more than others, have better grades in school, have a lot of friends or none at all, etc. None of those types of differential treatment seem to pose a moral problem per se.
  2. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons based on the mere fact of their membership of a group? That can’t be true either. We don’t allow the blind to drive a car, we don’t allow the mentally ill to run for political office, and we don’t allow inmates to move freely across the country. Again, usually this is done without violating our moral intuitions. Differential treatment based on group membership may be wrong in some cases but it’s not discrimination per se.
  3. Is discrimination wrong because it’s disadvantageous treatment of some relative to others? Again, the answer is no. We certainly impose a disadvantage on inmates when we confine them to a prison building.
  4. Is discrimination wrong because it’s disadvantageous treatment that is morally objectionable? If I, as the sole racist member of a tolerant society, refuse to eat at a restaurant owned by an African American or serve African Americans in my own restaurant, I act in a morally objectionable way, and impose a small disadvantage on some people. And yet these people are not discriminated against in any meaningful sense of the word.
  5. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons based on some of their immutable characteristics, for example their gender or skin color? Again, the answer has to be no. Sometimes it’s justified to treat persons differently based on their immutable characteristics or on characteristics that are beyond their control. We don’t allow one legged basketball players to compete in the NBA. And, conversely, sometimes it’s not justified to treat persons differently based on their self-chosen lifestyle. Forcing vegetarians to eat meat, for example, is wrong.
  6. Is discrimination wrong because it’s differential treatment of persons based on characteristics that are superficial or irrelevant, for example when we refuse to eat somewhere simply because the restaurant owner is black? That can’t be the case either. If I prefer to marry a blond because I believe blond women are better wives, I’m not discriminating against non-blonds. And if I’m the only one refusing to eat in a black man’s restaurant, it’s hard for him to claim that he’s discriminated against.
  7. Is discrimination wrong because it fails to treat people as individuals and relies on inaccurate stereotypes? For example, because I believe African Americans can’t cook properly and I therefore don’t bother to check out the food of an individual African American restaurant owner? Again, discrimination must be something else, for two reasons. First, there are laws against discrimination based on correct stereotypes, so-called statistical discrimination. Employers can’t just refuse to hire young women simply because young women are more likely to have children and hence be absent from work. Second, I may rely on inaccurate stereotypes and not engage in discrimination. For example, if I organize a successful boycott of German classical music based on the erroneous belief that this music is inferior to French classical music, I don’t discriminate orchestras or record labels that produce German classical music.

So then, why is discrimination wrong? Discrimination is wrong because it is a denial of rights. Not all denials of rights are discrimination – for example I imagine that Kim Jong Il denies the rights of all North Koreans consistently without discrimination. But discrimination is a denial of rights, and a denial of a particular type, namely the unequal denial of rights.

But not every case of unequal denial of rights is a case of discrimination. For instance, if some people in police custody are beaten up and others aren’t that’s not necessarily discrimination. Discrimination is the unequal denial of the rights of members of a socially salient group, and for no other reason than their membership of that group. It must be a socially salient group, i.e. a group that is an important and stable distinction in society, not a fleeting and inconsequential identity such as the group of people with blue eyes or people of the age of 40. Those groups aren’t salient and hence won’t be discriminated.

So, discrimination occurs when rights are granted to some and taken away from others, for no other reason than their membership of a socially salient group.

What exactly is a denial of rights? It’s an action (or a law, a custom etc.) that makes it impossible or very difficult to exercise one’s rights. That means that there won’t be discrimination if for example one lonely racist shop owner refuses to service blacks. Those blacks can easily exercise their rights by avoiding the racist shop. Only if the number of such cases is high and those cases occur systematically will there be denial of rights and hence discrimination. The policy of an army to reject homosexuals is discrimination because homosexuals can’t simply go to another army to serve their country. Racial discrimination at the time of Jim Crow and segregation was real discrimination because it substantially reduced the options of blacks who could not exercise their rights elsewhere.

If we revisit some of the examples given above we can see that they are not necessarily cases of discrimination as it is defined here. Giving people low grades or low salaries can be justified if it’s done for good reasons, i.e. not simply because of people’s membership of groups. But even if it’s done because of membership, it’s not discrimination if it’s isolated and if people can easily go elsewhere for their proper grades or salaries. Discrimination isn’t just about unequal treatment but also about options. Not all unequal treatment is discrimination. It’s discrimination when it also takes away the rights of those treated unequally. And their rights are taken away, not when there’s a single instance of unequal treatment based on group membership, but when there are many such instances and people can’t easily exercise their rights elsewhere. Their rights in these examples are the right to education and the right to fair wages. The same is true in the case of the sole racist member of a tolerant society refusing to eat at a restaurant owned by an African American. The restaurant owner isn’t denied his right to sell his food because one guy refuses to eat there.

Limiting Free Speech (43): The Consequences of Hate Speech

Some of the consequences of hate speech are human rights violations; others are not. Only the former are good reasons to criminalize hate speech and carve out an exception to the right to free speech. Rights can only be limited for the sake of other rights or the rights of others (more here). Let’s go over the different possible consequences of hate speech and see whether or not they imply rights violations.

Hate speech lowers self-esteem in the targets. People who are repeatedly subjected to hateful remarks or jokes about their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. tend to develop feelings of inferiority, stress, fear and depression. Of course, there’s no right not to be depressed, fearful, stressed etc. Therefore, we can say that hate speech should be protected speech when its consequences are limited to these. These are harmful and brutal consequences, but not harmful or brutal enough to be rights violations. We should be concerned about them and try to do something, but this “something” doesn’t include limiting free speech rights. However, people who are extremely intimidated and stressed and who have a deeply negative view of themselves tend to isolate themselves. Isolation isn’t a human rights violation, but couldn’t we argue that willfully isolating people means violating some of their rights? Isolated people don’t speak, assemble, associate etc. In that case, we could argue for limits on the rights of hate mongers.

Hate speech often has even more extreme consequences. Targets of hate speech may feel compelled to leave their homes and move elsewhere, to quit their jobs, and to avoid certain parts of town and public areas. This is a direct violation of their freedom of movement, freedom of residence, right to work and possibly even their right to a certain standard of living. It’s obvious that the free speech rights of the haters should in such cases be deemed less important than the many rights of their victims.

Hate speech can also means invasion of privacy, for example in the case of repeated phone calls, hate mail, or stalking.

Violations of property rights are another possible consequence of hate speech. Hate speech sometimes means vandalism, graffiti (sometimes even inside the homes of the targets), cross burning in someone’s front lawn etc. These cases of hate speech already start to resemble hate crime.

The line between hate speech and hate crime is even thinner when speech is not just hateful but an incitement to violence. For example, hate speech can provoke race riots; it can help hate groups with an existing tendency toward violence to attract new recruits etc. (a larger group will feel more confident to engage in hate violence). And what if hate speech allows hate groups to gain control of (local) government? That would probably lead to discriminating policies and laws.

This overview of possible and actual consequences of hate speech should concern those of us who care about more human rights than just freedom of speech, and who know that different human rights aren’t always in harmony with each other. In some circumstances, some rights need to give way in order to protect other rights. That’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the value pluralism inherent in the system of human rights.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (23): Privacy, Justifications and Objections

The right to privacy has become increasingly important and contested. Here are just a few examples of areas in which violations of privacy have become more common over the last decades:

Since it’s always good to cite the Universal Declaration when talking about human rights, here’s the article about privacy (#12):

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Types of privacy

Privacy is what is called a cluster concept: it covers many different things, things which may seem unrelated at first sight. So, before I go on, here’s a short and tentative typology of different kinds of “privacies” (I’ll mention later what they have in common):

  • Domestic privacy. People have a right to remain secluded and alone in their homes, to keep what happens in their homes and houses to themselves, and to repel intrusion. That’s mostly what is protected by the Fourth Amendment in the US. Issues related to obscenity or pornography laws for example also fall under this type of privacy.
  • Personal privacy. People have a right to keep their thoughts, opinions, or feelings to themselves. The secrecy of postal communication for example falls under this type, as does the secret ballot.
  • Physical (or intimate) privacy. People have a right not to expose their bodies, as well as a right to repel physical intrusion into their bodies. Abortion and some security checks belong here.
  • Informational privacy. People have a right to control what happens to information about themselves (or their families), and to limit involuntary distribution or disclosure of such information. Information here means facts, whether embarrassing or not, rather than opinions. The latter are part of libel law. Information about sexual orientation or salaries is an example of informational privacy.
  • Relational privacy. People have a right to keep some of the details about their relationships to themselves. This includes whom they have what type of sexual intercourse with. Sodomy laws violate this kind of privacy, as do laws regulating the use of contraceptives. People also have a right to decide without interference on the type of relationship that suites them best. This covers laws regulating interracial marriages, same-sex marriages etc.

(There’s also the concept of private property, but I think this can be separated from privacy issues, although private property of a home is obviously a necessary condition for domestic privacy, for example).

All these types of privacy have something in common: they are all about independence. Privacy protects an individual’s interest in making independent decisions about her life, family, home, lifestyle, relationships, behavior and communication. All these types of privacy are also about the restriction of access or intrusion. Privacy gives an individual the right to deny access or intrusion by others, more specifically access to or intrusion in her body, her home, her relationships, her mind and certain facts about her life. It’s a right to be let alone.

Justification of privacy

Privacy is justified because it restricts access. Some restrictions of access are necessary for personal identity. There is no “I”, no person, no individual without a border between me and the rest of the world. Such a border is an absolute requirement for the basic human need of personhood and individuality. If people have unlimited access to each other, then there simply won’t be any separate people left. People understood as separate entities require some level of privacy protection. The exact level of privacy and the justified intrusions into people’s private lives are not yet determined by this argument, but the need for some level of privacy and some limitations of intrusions is clear. Other justifications of privacy could be based on the interest people have in intimacy, close personal relationships etc. It’s clear that a world without privacy or even without strong privacy rights would be a horrible world indeed.

Objections to privacy

Some argue that there’s nothing special about privacy and that the concept doesn’t merit an independent existence, let alone legal protection. The many different interests protected by privacy can indeed be protected by other means, such as a right to private property, liberty, bodily security and integrity, or independence.

However, I’m not sure that this is true for all the interests protected by a right to privacy. And an independent notion of privacy gives at least an added protection, partly because of the strong roots of the notion in common language and belief.

Some go even a step further and consider privacy to be detrimental rather than merely superfluous. Marx, for example, viewed privacy as a symptom of an atomized and selfish society, intent on protecting the material self-interest of the haves faced with a possible revolt of the have-nots.

Some feminists as well have forcefully argued that privacy is detrimental to women because of its use as a shield to protect male domination, superiority and abuse. However, it’s not because a right can be abused that it loses all meaning. There wouldn’t be any rights left if that were the case. The challenge is to avoid intrusion in people’s private lives that go too far, while at the same time allowing intrusion that counters abusive private actions. The right to privacy is therefore not an absolute right. But it is a right, and feminists should remember that intrusions into the private sphere can also be detrimental to women (e.g. abortion legislation, forced sterilization etc.).

The Causes of Poverty (41): Racism

There’s a clear discrepancy between poverty rates for blacks and whites in the U.S. (as between races in many other countries). The question is to what extent racism is to blame. I mentioned here, here and here that some of the irrational and self-destructive behavior of a lot of poor people causes many to believe that the poor are themselves to blame for their poverty and that one shouldn’t look for external reasons such as racism.

If you finish high school and keep a job without having children before marriage, you will almost certainly not be poor. Period. I have repeatedly felt the air go out of the room upon putting this to black audiences. No one of any political stripe can deny it. It is human truth on view. In 2004, the poverty rate among blacks who followed that formula was less than 6 percent, as opposed to the overall rate of 24.7 percent. Even after hearing the earnest musings about employers who are less interested in people with names like Tomika, no one can gainsay the simple truth of that advice. Crucially, neither bigotry nor even structural racism can explain why an individual does not live up to it. (source)

Opinions like this are very common. But are they correct? Is it true that “neither bigotry nor even structural racism” can explain why an individual does not make a few simple choices that will drastically improve her life?

At first sight, it does seem that a few simply rational decisions about life will allow you to escape or avoid poverty. But on closer inspection that’s just begging the question: if things are so simple, why don’t people make those choices? Hell, it’s so simple that it should be obvious even to the stupidest among the poor! But if it’s not stupidity that causes people to fail to take the advice of finishing high school and not having children early, and not bigotry or racism, then what?

[The] insistence that the failure of so many blacks to avoid the perils that come with not finishing high school and getting pregnant before marriage cannot be explained by structure or bigotry is too outrageous to let pass with no reply. In fact they can be easily explained by structure. …

The school systems in black neighborhoods are underfunded and undeniably worse on average than those in white neighborhoods.  The quality of the school, its teachers and leadership has a direct influence on graduation rates.  Sex ed and access to contraceptives are also far worse in black communities.  The public health failures come well before this for many black youth.  The failure to provide adequate health care and nutrition to black adolescents has been linked to the behavioral and learning disabilities so prevalent in black schools.  The diagnosis of a learning disability is one of the biggest predictors of eventually dropping out of school, particularly in poor urban schools. (source)

And having more trouble finding a job because you’re name sounds black obviously has an impact on your prosperity, also for your children. And growing up in a poor family has consequences for your adult prosperity. When we look at incarceration rates by race, and assume – wrongly – that there’s no racism in play, what do you think it does to a child having to grow up without a father?

This means that there’s one less parent to earn an income, one less parent to instill the sort of discipline all children need to graduate school and avoid unplanned pregnancies.  Even if the incarceration only lasts briefly, it still means that once the parent is out of jail he or she will find it much harder find employment. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (22): Private Property Rights, Justifications Based Not On Their Origins But On Their Purpose

Property is the set of rules governing people’s access to and control of things. Three types are traditionally distinguished: private property, common property and collective property.

Types of property

1. Private property

In the case of private property, an individual agent (usually persons, but also families, businesses etc.) has a right to private property if he or she has a right to control the object and to regulate access. Control means sole decisional authority: the individual agent is the only one who has a right to decide what should be done with the object or what should happen to it.

This right allows the owner to decide, to some extent, to do things with the object that affect other people. Private property rights include the right to use property in ways that disadvantage other people, as long as these disadvantages do not include violations of the rights of other people. For example, a factory owner can decide to close her factory. A rich person can decide to buy and own a large house even if some other families would benefit more from living there.

However, a factory owner deciding to use his factory in such a way that it harms the health of workers or of neighboring families violates the rights of these people, and her property rights do not include a right to violate the rights of others. In such cases, rights have to be balanced and the more important right (depending on the circumstances) should prevail.

2. Common property

In the case of common property, the purpose is not individual control and exclusive access, but, on the contrary, equal access to all. Common property of a park or a common grazing field, for instance, is meant to stop certain people using it as if it was private property and as if others were precluded from using or accessing it. If farmers are allowed to use a common field for their cattle, common ownership would imply that no farmer overuses the field and brings so many cattle that there’s no grass left for the cattle of other farmers. Farmers who violate this rule of common property act like the field is their private property because they exclude others from using it. (That’s also called the tragedy of the commons, to which I will return below).

3. Collective property

In the case of collective property (sometimes also called joint property), the purpose is not only equal access to all but also equal control and decisional power. The community as a whole determines, through systems of collective decision making, how the resource is to be used. Each individual’s use is subject to a decision process to be concluded to the satisfaction of each of the co-owners – or of a majority, depending on the type of collective decision procedure. Collective ownership of a farm, for instance, means not only that all farmers belonging to the collective have an equal right to access the farm (as in common property), but also that all farmers have an equal say in the management of the farm. The latter is not (always) the case in common ownership: equal access to a commonly owned park does not (necessarily) imply an equal say in the management of the park.

When does property make sense?

In many cases, talk of property only makes sense under conditions of scarcity. In the case of private property, there would be no reason to demand exclusive control over and access to things if these things were so numerous and abundant that no one else would want to control or access what you want to control or access.

And yet, in the case of intellectual property for example, which is by definition, in our age at least, anything but scarce given the means of reproduction, we still talk about private intellectual property in the sense of exclusive control of access. But in general, it makes sense to view private property as meaningful only in circumstances of scarcity. (Perhaps that’s a good reason not to talk about “intellectual property” at all). The same is true of common property: if the whole wide world were a park, there would be no risk of some people excluding others from accessing it, and hence no need to talk about the common property of the “park”. And the same is true for collective property.

What does property require?

First, it requires rules. It only makes sense to view types of ownership as rule based. Property is in essence a rule. You can’t say that something is your property simply because you have it, hold it, exclude others from it etc. You have property because there are social rules granting you property of something and granting you rights to defend it. People should not rely on their own strength or willingness to cooperate in order to defend their holdings.

Because the state intervenes in the enforcement of property rules and rights, it’s important to have a morally sound justification of those rights. Hence, property also requires a justification. We wouldn’t want the state to use its power for immoral or unjustified ends. I’ll focus on the justification of private property in the remainder of this post because that’s arguably the most common type and the one that most often raises moral issues.

Some of those issues are the morality of taxation and eminent domain, the needs of the poor, the justification of redistribution, the property we’re allowed to own (guns?) or sell (organs?), the things we’re allowed to do with our property (shoot our gun at people? suicide?) etc.

Justifications of private property

What is the point of private property? It must have some moral value, otherwise the moral issues just cited wouldn’t arise in the first place and private property wouldn’t receive legal protection. From the discussion above, we know what private property is, which other types of property there are, which rights property entails, when it is likely to make sense, and what it requires. But we don’t yet know why there should be private property. Some would say that there’s no way for property rights to come about or to be justified because if you go back far enough in time – and sometimes that’s not very far – all “property” is in fact the result of theft of commonly owned resources.

John Locke is famous for his attempted justification of private property. My body is my own and my property, and hence I also own the power of my body. Through labor I incorporate the power of my body in the goods I produce. By working on an object, I mix my labor with the object. If someone wants to take this object away from me, he also takes away my labor, which means that he takes away the power of my body. He therefore uses my body, which is incompatible with my right to possess my own body.

However, justifications like these tend to be very shaky. Hence, I think it’s better not to focus too much on the ways in which, historically or theoretically, a right to private property has/can come about in a world that’s originally equally owned by all. We should rather think about what would happen when a right to private property, taken as a given, would disappear, and distill a justification from that (in other words, trying to look for a consequentialist justification).

We can, in fact, without much trouble, list a number of harms that would result from the elimination of a right to private property. Kant defined property as “that with which I am so connected that another’s use of it without my consent would wrong me”. What wrongs would that be? Here’s a tentative list:

  • Private property is a means to protect the private space. Without private property, without your own house or your own place in the world, and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public. Without private property, there is no private world (another example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights).
  • Just as there is no light without darkness, there is nothing common to all people and no public space without private property. So private property protects publicity, commonality etc. Freedom of speech, one of the most public acts, is difficult to imagine without privacy and secrecy, and hence without private property.
  • Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore also freedom, are important values, and these values rely heavily on private property.
  • Private property is also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. You have your own house and your own place in the world, but not in the world in general. You live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community, even if you have to transcend this community now and again. And it’s difficult to imagine a place in a particular community without you own home and hence without private property.
  • Private property is an important tool in the creative design of your personality, especially, but not exclusively, when you are an artist.
  • It is obvious that without private property there can be no help or generosity. Generosity and the absence of egoism are important for the preservation of a community.
  • Private property prevents the tragedy of the commons, referred to above. If everyone has free access to a piece of land for example, then no one has an incentive to avoid over-usage. Every additional cow an individual introduces for grazing brings full benefits to the individual, whereas the costs of overuse resulting from the additional cows are shared among all individual users of the land. Conversely, the benefits of any individual’s self-restraint will accrue to all the other individuals whether or not they also exercise self-restraint. Individual self-restraint is ultimately useless unless all cooperate, which is unlikely because the benefits of self-restraint for each individual are outweighed by the benefits of overuse. Only private property allows people to reap the benefits of self-restraint.
  • The right to private property, and in particular, the right to your own house, is linked to the freedom to choose a residence, which again is linked to the freedom of movement (again another example of the indivisibility of human rights).
  • As already mentioned above, you also own your own body. Your body is part of your private property. It is something that is yours; it is the thing par excellence that is your own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, access it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. You carry prime responsibility over your own body and life.

Property is therefore an instrumental value, one which serves the realization of other values.

All these advantages of private property are advantages for everyone. Hence, everyone should have a right to private property, which may imply the need for some kind of redistribution benefiting those people who don’t have enough private property to realize all the benefits of private property (for example the homeless). Hence, the right to private property can be an argument against redistribution, but also one in favor of redistribution.

Private property as it is described and justified here is of course an ideal. The real existence of private property, and its actual distribution in the real world never matches this ideal, as is the case for all human rights. Property is often used to oppress others, and many people can never reap the full benefits of property. In the words of John Stuart Mill, the laws of property and the actual distribution of property have never yet conformed to the principles on which the justification of property rests.

But even in the ideal world, a right to private property is not absolute, nor is it absolutely beneficial, as I stated in the definition in the beginning of this post. Property can conflict with other values. There’s no way to escape value pluralism.

Measuring Human Rights (14): Numbers of Illegal Immigrants

Calculating a reliable number for a segment of the population that generally wants to hide from officials is very difficult, but it’s politically very important to know more or less how many illegal immigrants there are, and whether their number is increasing or decreasing. There’s a whole lot of populist rhetoric floating around, especially regarding jobs and crime, and passions are often inflamed. Knowing how many illegal immigrants there are – more or less – allows us to quantify the real effects on employment and crime, and to deflate some of the rhetoric.

Immigration is a human rights issue in several respects. Immigration is often a way for people to escape human rights violations (such as poverty or persecution). And upon arrival, immigrants – especially illegal immigrants – often face other human rights violations (invasion of privacy, searches, labor exploitation etc.). The native population may also fear – rightly or wrongly – that the presence of large groups of immigrants will lower their standard of living or threaten their physical security. Illegal immigrants especially are often accused of pulling down wages and labor conditions and of creating native unemployment. If we want to disprove such accusations, we need data on the numbers of immigrants.

So how do we count the number of illegal immigrants? Obviously there’s nothing in census data. The Census Bureau doesn’t ask people about their immigration status, in part because such questions may drive down overall response rates. Maybe in some cases the census data of other countries can help. Other countries may ask their residents how many family members have gone abroad to find a job.

Another possible source are the numbers of births included in hospital data. If you assume a certain number of births per resident, and compare that to the total number of births, you may be able to deduce the number of births among illegal immigrants (disparagingly called “anchor babies“), which in turn may give you an idea about the total number of illegal immigrants.

Fluctuations in the amounts of remittances – money sent back home by immigrants – may also indicate trends in illegal immigration, although remittances are of course sent by both legal and illegal immigrants. Furthermore, it’s not because remittances go down that immigrants leave. It might just be a temporary drop following an economic recession, and immigrants decide to sweat it out (possibly supported by reverse remittances for the time of the recession). Conversely, an increase in remittances may simply reflect technological improvements in international payment systems.

Perhaps a better indicator are the numbers of apprehensions by border-patrol units. However, fluctuations in these numbers may not be due to fluctuations in immigration. Better or worse performance by border-patrol officers or tighter border security may be the real reasons.

So, it’s really not easy to count illegal immigrants, and that means that all rhetoric about illegal immigration – both positive and negative – should be taken with a grain of salt.

More posts on this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (14): Wage Stagnation at the Bottom of the Income Distribution

Income inequality has risen in many countries during the last decades, including the U.S. The causes of this evolution obviously differ from country to country, although some causes may be universal. If we focus on the U.S., one important cause is wage stagnation for middle class and poor families since the 1970s. This stagnation, combined with the fact that the incomes of the wealthy continued along their pre-1970s growth path, caused increasing income inequality. The 1970s are a clear turning point, as you can see here.

The decades before the 1970s were what has been called a time of “shared prosperity”. Maybe trickle down economics really did work back then. Since the 1970s, however, income gains went almost entirely to the very wealthy, without much of the gains trickling down.

If that is why inequality has increased, we still have to answer the question why lower wages have stagnated. Maybe the decline of the minimum wage has something to do with it.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (13): Deliberate Policy?

Some say that the increase in income inequality in countries such as the U.S. has been the result of deliberate government policy. That’s quite an accusation. It’s not controversial to assume that tax policy under right wing governments tends to be less burdensome on the rich, and that social welfare policy under such governments tends to be more stingy. If you look at it like this, it’s not crazy to argue that right wing policies can aggravate income inequality. But it’s quite another thing to claim that right wing governments use these policies in order to deliberately aggravate income inequality. That accusation is incompatible with right wing ideology, which claims that the preferred policies also and ultimately help the poor (trickle down economics etc.), and that left wing policies supposedly favoring the poor are in fact self-destructive (unemployment benefits create labor disincentives, taxes create production disincentives, etc.). However, it’s possible that this ideology is just a smokescreen for anti-poor policies. But I guess that’s somewhat difficult to prove.

If we look at the tax rates, it’s true that the rates for the wealthy tend to go down under Republican presidents:

In 1979, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent (i.e., rich people) was 42.9 percent. … By Reagan’s last year in office it was 32.2 percent. (source)

However, things aren’t as simple as that:

From 1989 to 2005, … as income inequality continued to climb, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent largely held steady; in most years it remained in the low 30s, surging to 41 during Clinton’s first term but falling back during his second, where it remained. The change in the effective tax rate on the bottom 20 percent (i.e., poor and lower-middle-class people) was much more dramatic, but not in a direction that would increase income inequality. Under Clinton, it dropped from 8 percent (about where it had stood since 1979) to 6.4 percent. Under George W. Bush, it fell to 4.3 percent. (source)

The tax rate for the rich dropped somewhat around 2005 following the Bush tax cuts, but all the tax effects over the last decades taken together don’t really make a good case that tax policy is the major cause of rising income inequality. So it’s even more difficult to make the case that tax policy was part of a conscious strategy to aggravate inequality. The increase in inequality has been too big compared to the possible impact of taxation. That’s corroborated by the fact that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. rose faster than after-tax inequality.

What’s interesting, however, is that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. tends to rise much faster under Republican rule. So inequality can still be the result of policy, but policy expressed in other ways than taxation. Other policies that may have contributed – deliberately or not – to rising income inequality are anti-labor union policies, decreases in the minimum wage, etc.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (23): Unconscious Bias

No matter how egalitarian, unbiased and unprejudiced we claim to be and believe to be, underneath it all many of us are quite different.

If you ask people whether men and women should be paid the same for doing the same work, everyone says yes. But if you ask volunteers how much a storekeeper who runs a hardware store ought to earn and how much a storekeeper who sells antique china ought to earn, you will see that the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously believe to be a man is valued more highly than the work of the storekeeper whom volunteers unconsciously assume is a woman. If you ask physicians whether all patients should be treated equally regardless of race, everyone says yes. But if you ask doctors how they will treat patients with chest pains who are named Michael Smith and Tyrone Smith, the doctors tend to be less aggressive in treating the patient with the black-sounding name. Such disparities in treatment are not predicted by the conscious attitudes that doctors profess, but by their unconscious attitudes—their hidden brains. (source)

And even if most of our actions are guided by our conscious beliefs, some will be caused by unconscious prejudice, in which case we’ll have identified a cause of discrimination, a cause that will be very hard to correct.

The Causes of Poverty (40): A Culture of Poverty

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the poor shouldn’t blame “the system” for their poverty, but should look instead at their own values and behavior. Poor people, or at least some of them, show behavior that can be called a “culture of poverty“. They are the “undeserving poor“, the “stupid poor” who are poor because of their self-destructive lifestyle choices, their own stupid decisions, their self-chosen family situation, their involvement in crime, their drug use, their welfare dependency, their lack of effort in school, their lack of general discipline and their inability to plan for the long term.

Of course, we can all imagine some people who are “undeserving” in this sense, and some of us may know (of) some of them, but the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that such undeserving behavior is quite common among the poor and is the reason why the levels of poverty remain quite constant over time, even in some of the most wealthy and generous welfare states.

There are actually two versions of the culture of poverty theory, one more common than the other.

Innate moral deficiencies

Usually, the culture of poverty is believed to be a symptom of innate moral deficiencies among the poor. Or, euphemistically, the poor have a “unique value system”. It’s the depraved morality of the poor, and the self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that result from it, that keep them poor, period. All other possible explanations of poverty – discrimination, the membership theory of poverty, the bee sting theory, economic structures and processes, the business cycle etc. – go on the dump of politically correct academic claptrap.

This version of the culture of poverty theory is in essence a form of classism, akin to racism. Like a racist who claims that the depravation and inferiority of people of another race is entirely the fault of those people and should not be blamed on racism, adherents of this version of the culture of poverty theory claim that the poor are a separate group of people that make their own lives miserable, quite independently of external causes. The theory is also classist in the sense that it assumes one coherent culture among the poor, a culture that they simply “have” and that doesn’t contain major internal differences.

Acquired moral deficiencies

A more moderate but less common form of the theory maintains the moral opprobrium directed at poor people, but also sees some external reasons for their self-destructive values and behavior. The poor are still a separate group of people with a distinct culture, but this culture doesn’t result from some form of innate or genetically determined moral depravation that’s typical of the poor. The moral depravation that the adherents of this second version of the theory witness among the poor isn’t innate but is produced by generations of poverty. The poor classes and their offspring have responded to the ongoing burden of poverty by developing values and attitudes that perpetuate their poverty, and they socialize the next generations into these values and attitudes.

For example, decades of generational or hereditary poverty instill in people feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, victimhood and marginality, and these feelings in turn produce self-destructive values and behavior. They work as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So, according to this second version of the theory, the self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns that are the essence of the culture of poverty aren’t shaped by innate or genetic moral deficiencies. The observed moral deficiencies and the resulting self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns are produced by internalization and socialization following decades of generational poverty.

The opposition to welfare inherent in the culture of poverty theory

Whatever the causes of self-destructive behavior – innate or genetic moral depravation on the one hand, or internalized self-destructive values on the other – the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that it’s only better behavior and values that can help people escape from poverty. The adherents of the “innate depravity” version of the theory will just have some more difficulties explaining how we can change the behavior and values of the poor.

And because it’s only better behavior that can help them, we shouldn’t give poor people money, unemployment benefits, healthcare insurance, child benefits etc. We don’t need a welfare state. Instead, the poor should be more diligent in their pursuit of a good education and a good job, they should lead healthier lives and have less children, especially out of wedlock etc. Some claim that money doesn’t matter for poverty (really!). The poor will do well even without money, as long as they change their value system. So, money doesn’t matter for poverty, like ice doesn’t matter for ice-skating, or something.

The fatalism inherent in the culture of poverty theory

According to the adherents of the culture of poverty theory, the poor aren’t just like all the rest of us minus the money. No, they are completely different, and just throwing money at them won’t change one iota. On the contrary, welfare benefits will just confirm them in their sense of victimhood and inferiority and will therefore perpetuate their destructive value system. However, closing the welfare tap and forcing them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t likely to work either, since they don’t have the discipline and the other values needed for that, and neither do they have the values necessary to get the education necessary to acquire a superior value system (were such an education provided to them).

Hence, even those adherents of the culture of poverty theory who don’t believe in innate moral deficiencies tend to conclude that poverty is permanent and that nothing can be done. Only those among the middle classes who have internalized the right values but for some reason or other become destitute (a widow for example, or a wounded soldier) will have the resources to recover. They might therefore also benefit from some form of welfare support. The generational poor, however, will remain poor even with tons of cash. Maybe the shock of near-starvation will help them, but also that is unlikely given their lack of moral resources and the difficulty of helping them to acquire those resources.

This is why the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that this theory explains the persistence of poverty much better than racism, discrimination, the inadequacies of the welfare state, the “creative destruction” of the business cycle etc.

A self-interested theory?

The culture of poverty theory, because it places the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor themselves, logically entails the claim that if those who are poor had acted differently they would not now be poor. And this entails yet another claim, namely that those who are not poor are so because of the way they acted. Hence, the wealthy deserve their riches. I can agree that they do to the extent that they work hard to earn their wealth. But wealth creation isn’t a solipsistic effort, it depends on cooperation. And it also depends on endowments such as talents, good and wealthy parents etc. and no one deserves any of those endowments. Many people who come into life with few endowments also work hard, and yet don’t achieve wealth.

I have the impression that the culture of poverty theory is just a tool for the wealthy to justify their own wealth and discredit the efforts to redistribute a part of that wealth in order to help the poor. I don’t mean that there are no individuals who are themselves the primary or even sole cause of their poverty, or that there aren’t any “cultural” explanations for poverty (“acting white” comes to mind). Neither do I underestimate the pernicious effects of a negative self-image or of welfare dependency. And I certainly don’t want to dispossess the wealthy simply because they can’t be said to deserve their wealth in any coherent sense of the word “deserve”. What I want to point out here is the tunnel vision of the culture of poverty theory, blocking out all other causes of poverty (mostly of a more structural nature), as well as the classism inherent in the theory, a classism that I believe is motivated by economic self-interest. And, finally, the fatalism of the theory is likely to be self-fulfilling.

More posts in this series are here.