What is Poverty? (6): Absolute or Relative Deprivation?

Is poverty a lack of basic resources, or instead the unequal distribution of resources? Is it the absolute income or wealth of people that matters, or the fact that other people are richer and can afford more luxuries? Intuitively, one would go with the former of those options: people are poor when they are starving or homeless or when they lack some other basic necessity. People can have enough of all basic necessities and still be a lot worse of than some group of ultra-rich. One the other hand, what counts as a basic necessity is not always obvious, and people may form their ideas about necessities in light of the lifestyle of the average member of their society at the current moment in history.

This is another way of expressing the difference between absolute and relative poverty. In the US, it’s common to defend and use an absolute definition of poverty (as does the World Bank), whereas in Europe the focus is on relative poverty. The difference is an important one, because the use of one or the other definition of poverty determines who counts as poor or not. Hence, it also determines who gets government assistance.

Now, something strange is going on here. Intuitively most people favor an absolute definition of poverty – that’s what my own intuition and an unscientific sample of friends tells me –  and yet, if you ask people what one needs to get by in life, the amounts they give you are far above commonly used absolute poverty thresholds. In fact, these amounts are closer to median income. And as median income rises, the amounts supposedly necessary in order to get by also rise. This tells us that people actually use a relative notion of poverty. And this is true even for the country that is supposedly most naturally in favor of an absolute notion of poverty, namely the US.

I made a similar point here. More posts in this series are here.

Discrimination (13): Is Disability Just a Case of Bad Luck or Is It Discrimination?

When people think about disability they usually don’t see it as a moral issue. A disabled person supposedly suffers from bad luck, and the problems she encounters while living her life with a disability don’t result from the decisions or actions of her fellow citizens. They are instead caused by ill health or by biological and anatomical inadequacies, things for which no one is to blame. Brute misfortune, that is all.

Of course, a disability can be caused by someone else’s misconduct, for example industrial pollution or paralysis following an accident caused by someone else. However, let’s focus on blameless disability, the kind that is not anyone’s fault.

There’s a problem with the view that this kind of disability is no more than misfortune. The threshold level of normal human functioning that determines the difference between disability and non-disability isn’t just determined by biological facts, but also by social practices and the artificial social environment. For example, imagine a society that has developed technologically up to a point where people don’t have to use their hands anymore. No more computer keyboards, steering wheels in cars, remote controls etc. Let’s assume that everything that needs to be done can be done by programming and brain power (not a far-fetched assumption). A person who loses her hands in an accident will not be considered “disabled” in such a society. This accident will not push her below the threshold level of normal human functioning. In fact, most likely it won’t even be viewed as an accident, but rather a small nuisance, depending on the level of pain involved. Much like we in our existing societies react to a bee sting. It’s usually not disabling.

Now, when we take the same example of a person losing her hands, but situate her in a country such as the U.S. today, then we would say that she is disabled and that she has fallen below the threshold level of normal human functioning. But the reason we say this isn’t simply a biological or anatomical one, otherwise she would also have to be disabled in the imaginary society described a moment ago. The reason we say that she is disabled depends on the social circumstances and the social system in which she finds herself after losing her hands. Because U.S. society has been designed in such a way that people need to use their hands a lot of the time, we say that someone without hands is disabled. The decision to count someone as disabled has less to do with biology and anatomy than with the social practices and the artificial social environment we live in. The level of functioning a person can achieve depends less on her biological or anatomical abilities than on the artificial social environment in which she finds herself.

Hence, disability isn’t just something that happens to people; it’s something that we as a society have decided should happen to people. There’s nothing about our society that necessarily relegates people without hands to the category of the disabled. On the contrary, we have willingly designed our society in such a way that people without hands are disabled. We could just as well design our society in another way. Technology permitting, of course, but technology is also – up to a point – a choice: we just simply decided to develop technologies and the wider social environment in such a way that they don’t really take into account the needs of people without hands.

The fact that we designed our society in the way we did seems to indicate that we don’t care a lot about the disabled, at least not enough to do something for them. And such an absence of care can be viewed as a type of discrimination. After all, until some decades ago, men didn’t much care about the education of women, even though society was quite able to give women the same kind of education as men. The relative lack of education of women wasn’t a necessary fact of life but a choice. And that choice was a symptom of discrimination.

Of course, the analogy is shaky because gender discrimination was and is often a conscious choice, whereas the disabled are only rarely consciously disadvantaged. However, as I’ve stated before, the fact that discrimination is unconscious doesn’t automatically excuse it.

More on luck. More posts in this series.

Migration and Human Rights (45): Open Borders, Luck Egalitarianism, and the Common Ownership of the Earth

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that argues in favor of interventions in people’s lives aimed at eliminating as far as possible the impact of luck. If you have the bad luck of being born into a poor family, your prospects in life should not be harmed by this and society should intervene in order to correct for it.

I’m not going to endorse luck egalitarianism because it’s a theory that suffers from some serious defects. However, the basic intuition seems sound to me and can be used to argue against immigration restrictions. Your country of birth is also a matter of luck, good luck or bad luck, depending on the country. It’s either good luck or bad luck because the place where you are born has a profound impact on your life prospects. The mere fact of having been born in Bolivia rather than the U.S. makes it statistically more likely that you will be poor, uneducated and unhealthy. Since no one chooses to be born somewhere, no one can be said to deserve the advantages or disadvantages that come with being born somewhere.

Hence, if Americans for example are just lucky to have been born in the U.S. and didn’t do anything to deserve being born there, what right do they have closing their borders and allowing access only to a chosen few selected according to criteria that they have unilaterally decided and that mainly serve their own interests? None whatsoever. In claiming that right they make it impossible for others to do something about the misfortune of having been born in a poor country. Hence, they double other people’s disadvantage.

As Joseph Carens has put it, immigration restrictions are the modern equivalent of feudal privilege, inherited status, birthrights and class rule. In our current, so-called modern and Enlightened societies, the good luck of being born in a wealthy country supposedly gives you the right to exclude others, just as in the olden days the fact of having been born in the class of nobles or aristocrats gave you the right to condemn others to the class of paupers. The lottery of birth yields unfair advantages in both cases.

One may claim that none of this necessarily argues in favor of open borders. The fortunate of this earth could compensate for their good luck by other means. For example, they could have a duty, not to open their borders, but to transfer money and resources to those who have had the bad luck of being born in the wrong country.

Obviously, assistance is a moral duty, but I fail to see how the fulfillment of this duty could grant you the right to close your borders. Those who argue that assistance is enough often use a domestic analogy. Consider Hugh Hefner, for example. The point is not that he probably wouldn’t have had the wealth he has now if he hadn’t been born in a country (or granted access to a country) where the average citizen is wealthy enough to spend large amounts of money on soft porn. The point is that there are millions of other people in the U.S. who, through no fault of their own, are burdened with bad luck, a lack of talent or a lack of education opportunities making it difficult or impossible for them to collect a Hefnerian amount of wealth, or even just a fraction of it. These people don’t deserve their lack of talent etc., just as poor Zimbabweans don’t deserve to have been born in Zimbabwe. Should Hefner therefore open the doors of Playboy Mansion? Or is it enough that he pays taxes to fund the welfare state? Most would choose the latter option.

What’s the difference between this domestic situation and the international one? If Hefner doesn’t have to welcome thousands of unfortunate U.S. citizens to his Playboy Mansion, why should the whole of the U.S. citizenry have to welcome millions of immigrants onto their territory? Well, because it’s not their territory, at least not in the way Playboy Mansion is Hefner’s property. People don’t have property rights to a part of the surface of the earth like they may have property rights to things. I have a long argument here in favor of the common ownership of the earth, and I invite you to click the link and read it. It’s too long to repeat it here, but suffice it to say that it leads to a strong presumption in favor of open borders without destroying the possibility of having borders and states in the first place.

More on open borders here.

Racism (26): Racism in Criminal Justice

African Americans get, on average, a raw deal from the criminal justice system in the US. They get arrested more often, in part because of racial profiling; when they end up in court, they face racially biased juries; and when it’s time to sentence them, they receive harsher penalties and join an already overrepresented group in the prison system (African Americans are more likely to spend time in jail and when they do they spend more time in jail). Some more evidence:

Biased juries

Here’s a study showing that the racial composition of juries affects trial outcomes and conviction rates:

This article examines the impact of jury racial composition on trial outcomes using a data set of felony trials in Florida between 2000 and 2010. We use a research design that exploits day-to-day variation in the composition of the jury pool to isolate quasi-random variation in the composition of the seated jury, finding evidence that (i) juries formed from all-white jury pools convict black defendants significantly (16 percentage points) more often than white defendants, and (ii) this gap in conviction rates is entirely eliminated when the jury pool includes at least one black member. The impact of jury race is much greater than what a simple correlation of the race of the seated jury and conviction rates would suggest. These findings imply that the application of justice is highly uneven and raise obvious concerns about the fairness of trials in jurisdictions with a small proportion of blacks in the jury pool. (source)

Whether or not someone is convicted has a lot to do with the luck of the draw or with the success of prosecutors or defendants wishing to remove people from juries. This raises obvious concerns about the fairness of criminal justice.

Biased prosecutors

African Americans receive longer sentences because prosecutors are, on average, more likely to charge them with crimes that require minimum sentences:

This study provides robust evidence that black arrestees in the federal system—particularly black men—experience moderately but significantly worse case outcomes than do white defendants arrested for the same crimes and with the same criminal history. Most of that disparity appears to be introduced at the initial charging stage …  [C]ompared to white men, black men face charges that are on average about seven to ten percent more severe on various severity scales, and are more than twice as likely to face charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences.  These disparities persist after charge bargaining and, ultimately, are a major contributor to the large black-white disparities in prison sentence length. (source)

Biased police

An example of racial profiling: a study of New York City’s stop-and-frisk program has revealed that

out of all ethnicities stopped, white people had the highest chance of having committed a crime, despite being proportionally the least searched. (source)

Human Rights Promotion (8): Human Rights in the U.S.A.

The United States is far from the worst violator of human rights, but neither is it the Shining City on the Hill that many take it to be. See what you make if this:

  • America, where people get into a frenzy about personal freedom when someone wants to limit the maximum size of soda cups, and yet consistently accept world record incarceration rates.
  • America, where felons can more quickly recover their right to bear arms than their right to vote.
  • America, where white people with a criminal record are more likely to get a callback after a job interview than black people without a criminal record.
  • America, where the depiction of naked people making love is less a matter of free speech than the depiction of people killing each other.
  • America, where the right to life of the unborn is more important than the right to life of the living.
  • America, where the courts express themselves on issues such as the appropriate hotness of coffee but remain strangely silent about the extra-judicial execution or torture of U.S. citizens.
  • America, the “land of opportunity”, has less social mobility than many of the so-called “socialist” countries of Europe.
  • America, where the Supreme Court has decided that anyone can be strip-searched upon arrest for any offence whatsoever – this is the same Supreme Court that doesn’t allow its proceedings to be televized.
  • Etc.

And then remember that a large majority of countries is even worse than this. Have a nice day.

Economic Human Rights (42): Some Facts About Welfare in the U.S.

Welfare – meaning the provision by the government of a minimum level of material wellbeing and social support for all citizens – is a strange thing in the U.S.: it’s not directed mainly at the poor, it’s underfunded, it seems to be compatible with a high poverty rate, and it’s not colorblind – at least not in its effects.

Take a look at the following facts (source):

  • In 2010, nearly half of Americans lived in a household that received direct government benefits. That’s up from 37.7% in 1998.
  • At the same time, government revenues have been declining: adjusted for inflation, federal tax revenue was the same in 2009 as it was 1997, even though the U.S. population grew by 37 million during that period. In 2011, the federal government took in $2.3 trillion in tax revenue, and spent the exact same amount on military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone.
  • The share of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare going to the bottom fifth of households (based on income) has fallen from 54% in 1979 to 36% in 2007.
  • The result of all of this: nearly 1 in 6 Americans – and more than 1 in 4 blacks – still live in poverty. The unemployment rate in 2009 was around 10% – for young, uneducated African-American males it was even 48.5%.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that the U.S. welfare system is completely dysfunctional – unemployment insurance, for instance, has rescued millions of Americans from poverty during the last recession. What it should lead to is serious consideration of the possibility and desirability of a completely new system.

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 Problem With the Libertarian View on Human Rights, in a Nutshell

A few days ago, we were treated, once again, to a typical sexist rant by the awful Rush Limbaugh. This time, it seems that he’s provoked some kind of boycott. Some advertisers and listeners are turning their backs to the radio host, voting with their feet and their wallets. In a sense, this is a typical libertarian response:

[V]iolating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC‘s arcane and arbitrary decency laws. Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. (source)

I agree that this right of consumers and advertisers to shop where they want and pay for what they want is an important one, although probably not as important as libertarians have it. I have no beef with that. What worries me more and what brings out libertarians’ flawed understanding of human rights is the peculiar opinion on free speech that is evident from the quote above. It’s an opinion that libertarians apply to all human rights, namely that violations of human rights only and always  result from government actions. Actions by fellow citizens – such as boycotts of radio talk show hosts – can never, according to libertarianism, result in rights violations.

The problem with libertarians is that they take cases such as the one we’re discussing now – and which indeed do not involve violations of free speech – and then extrapolate this in order to argue that there are never any similar cases in which citizens’ actions do result in violations of free speech. In the case under review, Limbaugh’s freedom of speech is evidently secure: the government hasn’t intervened, fortunately, and the action of listeners and advertisers don’t make it harder or impossible for Limbaugh to express himself. No one’s freedom of speech presupposes other people’s duty to listen or a duty to support speech through advertising money. Limbaugh’s freedom of speech would be secure even if the boycott were large enough for him to lose his radio pulpit. People don’t need to be a talk show host in order to have freedom of speech.

However, in other cases, it is possible that non-governmental actions – actions by fellow citizens in other words – result in violations of one’s freedom of speech. Some examples: the heckler’s veto, the silencing of critics of Islam by way of threats of violence, the chilling effect of political correctness etc. The same is true for all other human rights: it’s not the government that engages in FGM, that flies planes into the WTC buildings, that attacks gay couples on the street etc.

The central libertarian teaching about human rights as expressed in the quote above (“violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action”) is therefore an error of fact. The error is probably unavoidable given libertarianism’s focus on the evils of government. This is all the more regrettable given the fact that libertarianism is, in theory, a philosophical school that should be very friendly to human rights. (Robert Nozick, perhaps the most famous libertarian philosopher, starts his magnum opus with the words: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them without violating their rights”).

My argument here may be lacking in nuance and may not do justice to one or other subtype of the admittedly very large and diverse family of libertarianisms. If so, please feel free to correct me in comments.

More on the related topic of dimensions of human rights is here. More on libertarianism.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (23): Capital Gains

It’s hard to investigate the causes of income inequality without looking at the sources of income. In turns out that, in the U.S. at least but probably also in other developed countries, the majority of a population gets almost all of its income from wages, while people at the top of the income distribution get most of it from capital gains and dividends.

Dividends are payments made by a corporation to its shareholder members, usually a portion of corporate profits. Capital gains are profits that result from investments into a capital asset, such as stocks, bonds or real estate, which exceeds the purchase price. A capital gain is the difference between a higher selling price and a lower purchase price, resulting in a financial gain for the investor.

Given these differences in the sources of income, income inequality will rise if incomes from capital gains and dividends rise more rapidly than wage incomes, perhaps because taxes on the former are cut. And indeed, most of the recent increase in the Gini score for the US (higher Gini numbers imply a less equal distribution) comes from higher capital gains and dividends and from lower taxes for high earners (lower taxes not only on capital gains, by the way; many taxes have become less progressive in the U.S.).

This cause of income inequality suggest a problem that goes deeper than inequality:

I think a lot of people sense that there’s something unsettling about this shift from labor income to capital incomes. It seems endemic of a society that devalues work while providing outsized rewards for speculation and asset accumulation. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (22): Non-Progressive Taxation and Weak Transfers

This post applies to the U.S., but I guess the same conclusion are valid for a number of other countries as well. In the case of the U.S., very high levels of income inequality could, in theory, be reduced in several ways:

Unfortunately, very little of this is happening. Let’s focus on the last two options. The tax system in the U.S. is not progressive at all. As you can see from this graph, taxation in the U.S. hardly influences income shares.

The poor only get a little bit more thanks to taxes, and the rich only lose a little bit. This is all the more regrettable given the fact that the rich have done very well over the last decades.

Higher tax rates for the wealthy and other more progressive taxes such as a higher inheritance tax, a higher capital gains tax, a Tobin tax etc. are politically impossible it seems.

Increased benefits for the poor are equally unrealistic given the fiscal situation and the predominant ideology. Although the poor in the U.S. do profit from the existing benefit system in absolute terms (unemployment insurance for example saves millions from absolute poverty), income inequality barely moves because of it. Income shares after benefits are hardly less unequal than before. This graph shows the influence on income shares of the sum of taxes and transfers, but you get the picture.

Taxes and transfers result in the poor having a bit more and the rich having a bit less, but fundamentally they don’t change the distribution of income.

More posts in this series are here.

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (6): The Social Effects of Incarceration

[T]he effects of [the] change in the imprisonment rate [in the U.S.] … have been concentrated among those most likely to form fragile families: poor and minority men with little schooling. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. … Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and so negatively affects them, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may increase future racial and class inequality — and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any benefits of the prison boom. U.S. crime policy has thus, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and reduced the life chances of their children. (source, source)

This is an example of a self-defeating human rights policy: in an attempt to improve the protection of security rights and property rights of a population, a policy of increased incarceration rates has an adverse effect on the rights of the incarcerated, their families and children, and possibly even society at large (as increased inequality resulting from high incarceration rates among society’s most vulnerable groups will perhaps lead to more crime – although we can’t assume that increasing poverty and inequality will automatically provoke those who are impoverished because of incarceration to resort to crime).

Terrorism and Human Rights (32): What is Torture?

This question has to be answered, and not just because answering it is intellectually satisfying. Those who engage or want to engage in torture are constantly trying to redefine the word downwards. Nobody wants to be a torturer, but many want to use force during interrogations. because they think they have to, because they believe it helps, or simply because they’re insane and evil.

Hence, if one can manage to exclude certain forms of interrogation from the concept of “torture” by way of some definitional acrobatics, those forms become somewhat more acceptable. An example is the infamous torture definition proposed by John Yoo and the Justice Department (who, I believe, belong to the “we have to” camp):

Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture (under U.S. law), it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years. (source)

On the other hand, we don’t want the concept to cover too much. There are some cases in which the deliberate infliction of pain is justified and shouldn’t be called torture. Sadomasochistic relationships between consenting adults should not be prohibited. And some forms of criminal punishment cause pain – typically mental pain – and yet are commonly accepted. Likewise, we wouldn’t want to outlaw all types of war, no matter how intensely we yearn for peace.

So, let’s propose the following definition, based loosely on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lemma on torture: torture is

  • the intentional and non-accidental infliction of severe physical – and in some cases mental – pain or suffering (mental suffering can be a mock execution for example)
  • by one person on another, non-consenting and defenseless person who may or may not be guilty of a crime (the torturer may or may not be a government official or someone employed by a government official)
  • while assuming complete control over the victim’s body and autonomy
  • with the purpose of:
  • extracting information (forward-looking)
  • extracting a confession (backward-looking)
  • punishing the victim
  • degrading the victim
  • coercing the victim to act in a certain way or believe certain things
  • terrorizing, intimidating, pacifying or oppressing the victim, or
  • terrorizing, intimidating, pacifying or oppressing the wider society.

This definition is compatible with, although somewhat wider than, the definition offered in the United Nations Convention Against Torture:

Torture is any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a male or female person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions. (source)

This UN definition has the advantage of explicitly including second-order torture, namely torturing a person – for example a relative – in order to get a confession, information etc. from another person.

Both these definitions exclude, correctly I believe, acts of self-defense, masochism or other types of consensual violence, as well as violent acts between combatants and “collateral damage” (accidental injuries to civilians) in the course of war. However, it’s not because these actions are excluded from the definition of torture, that they are necessarily morally right.

More on torture here.

Capital Punishment (35): The Cost

Taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment in California since it was reinstated in 1978, or about $308 million for each of the 13 executions carried out since then. (source)

Compared to other types of criminal punishment, that’s a lot:

A 2003 legislative audit in Kansas found that the estimated cost of a death penalty case was 70% more than the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case. Death penalty case costs were counted through to execution (median cost $1.26 million). Non-death penalty case costs were counted through to the end of incarceration (median cost $740,000). (source)

OK, you may say, but what if we just shoot the bastards immediately? Wouldn’t that drive down the cost? We could then avoid the lengthy appeals. Indeed, we could avoid the appeals, but the cost would not drop significantly:

The greatest costs associated with the death penalty occur prior to and during trial, not in post-conviction proceedings. Even if all post-conviction proceedings (appeals) were abolished, the death penalty would still be more expensive than alternative sentences. (source)

Not surprisingly, our current recession has had at least the benefit that some cash-strapped governments are reconsidering the death penalty. That is, until the economy recovers, I’m afraid.

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 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.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (15): Slavery

Income inequality doesn’t have the same causes everywhere, as is evident from this study which points to the fact that slavery in the U.S., which was abolished almost 150 years ago, still has nefarious effects today.

Within the US, the institution of slavery has historically been associated more heavily with specific areas – primarily the South. This geographic differentiation allows us to identify the link between past slavery and current outcomes. We start by reviewing, over a cross section of counties, the effect of the intensity of slavery in 1870 on the current level of income per capita. For the year 2000, we find no evidence that those counties that employed slave labour more heavily are poorer than those that did so to a lesser extent or not at all (even though a negative relationship between slavery and income was still present until 1970).

Next we turn to the impact of slavery on current income disparities and we find that it is indeed associated with a higher degree of income inequality. In other words, former slave counties are more unequal in the present day. They also show a higher poverty rate and a higher degree of racial inequality. Moreover, the data say that the impact of slavery on economic inequality and poverty runs through its impact on racial inequality, and not vice versa. (source)

How exactly does slavery lead to long turn income inequality? If slavery is seen as a symptom of feelings of racial superiority, then it’s not far-fetched to assume that those feelings didn’t die with slavery and continued to affect blacks by way of discriminatory policies and practices, including in wage determination and other areas that influence economic inequality, such as the provision of education.

This, by the way, also makes the case for reparations a bit stronger. More posts in 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 Wealth Inequality (12): Immigration

Immigrants are usually somewhat poorer than natives, mainly

  • because they come from poorer countries,
  • because they are less well educated and less skilled (on average) and
  • because they are sometimes more at risk of being unemployed.

So it’s tempting to use data on increasing immigration flows – such as those that occurred in the U.S. during the last decades – in order to explain rising income inequality. Inequality is then viewed, not as the result of an unjust economic system, but as the mechanical result of demographic changes.

The timing is hard to ignore. During the Great Compression, the long and prosperous mid-20th-century idyll when income inequality shrank or held steady, immigration was held in check by quotas first imposed during the 1920s. The Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Samuelson saw a connection. “By keeping labor supply down,” … a restrictive immigration policy “tends to keep wages high.” After the 1965 immigration law reopened the spigot, the income trend reversed itself and income inequality grew. (source)

However, there’s little evidence that immigration keeps wages low at the bottom end of the native income distribution (except for high-school dropouts and to a limited extent), which is where immigration’s effect on inequality is supposed to occur. See here for a discussion of the evidence. One can even make the case that immigration benefits the poorest sections of the native population. See this post. So, immigration can’t explain rising income inequality. But perhaps the sheer number of poor immigrants can account for rising inequality? Maybe immigration doesn’t produce inequality by pushing down native wages but simply by changing the demographic: more poor people (in this case immigrants) means higher inequality.

Gary Burtless [notes] that immigrants “accounted for one-third of the U.S. population growth between 1980 and 2007”. [E]ven if they failed to exert heavy downward pressure on the incomes of most native-born Americans, the roughly 900,000 immigrants who arrive in the United States each year were sufficient in number to skew the national income distribution by their mere presence. [However,] [h]ad there been no immigration after 1979, he calculated, average annual wages for all workers “may have risen by an additional 2.3 percent”. (source)

And that number would have been hardly sufficient to stop the actual increase in income inequality. So even if there had been no immigration, inequality would have increased. There must therefore be other causes and explanations.

Maybe you’re wondering what the problem is, in which case you can go here. More on immigration is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (11): Family Structure

In the U.S., and probably in other countries as well, there’s been an increase in the number of single parent families. Most of the time, that means a single mother, divorced or unmarried, or with a husband in prison, and raising one or several children on her own. As a result:

The percentage of children living with one parent has doubled since 1970, from 12 percent to more than 26 percent in 2004. (source)

There are about 13.7 million single parents in the United States today, and those parents are responsible for raising 21.8 million children. 84% of those single parents are mothers.

Single mothers often earn relatively lows wages, partly because they can’t afford to work long hours. Combine that with the fact that they have higher per person expenses (heating a house costs just as much for a two parent family as for a single parent family) and the fact that women in general have lower wages, and you have a recipe for inequality.

However, the growth in the number of single parent families in the U.S. flattened when income inequality continued to increase. So, family structure may be a good although partial explanation of poverty levels, but not necessarily of inequality. There must be other causes, some of which are discussed here.

Income Inequality (23): U.S. Public Opinion on Income Inequality

Despite what foreigners usually believe about the U.S., and despite the confused ramblings of a tiny group of anti-“socialist” loudmouths high on tea, U.S. public opinion is actually very egalitarian:

Americans are in broad agreement on the need for a more equal distribution of wealth. … that’s what a forthcoming study by two psychologists, Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, has concluded. First, Ariely and Norton asked thousands of Americans what they thought the nation’s actual wealth distribution looks like: how much is owned by the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, the next-wealthiest 20 percent, and on down. The researchers then asked people what, in an ideal world, they would like the nation’s wealth distribution to be.

Ariely and Norton found that Americans think they live in a far more equal country than they in fact do. On average, those surveyed estimated that the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans own 59 percent of the nation’s wealth; in reality the top quintile owns around 84 percent. The respondents further estimated that the poorest 20 percent own 3.7 percent, when in reality they own 0.1 percent.

And when asked to give their ideal distribution, they described, on average, a nation where the wealth distribution looks not like the U.S. but like Sweden, only more so—the wealthiest quintile would control just 32 percent of the wealth, the poorest just over 10 percent. “People dramatically underestimated the extent of wealth inequality in the U.S.,” says Ariely. “And they wanted it to be even more equal.” (source)

Migration and Human Rights (36): The Social Security Argument Against Open Borders

If there’s one Milton Friedman quote that’s repeated far too often it’s the following: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”. The income of relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to what the poor, unemployed, sick, young and elderly in rich countries get from welfare and social security transfers. Hence, the argument goes, opening borders and eliminating immigration restrictions would cause massive flows of people to those rich countries. Perhaps some of these people would come in the hope of finding a good job, but at the same time they have the certainty that, if they fail, they will enjoy generous social protection. And all the rest will come just for the benefits.

The problem, some say, is that rich countries can’t afford large increases in the numbers of welfare beneficiaries, and that they therefore must limit immigration. Open borders are only feasible when global poverty has been solved and income levels are more or less comparable across countries. Or, when rich countries would decide, unrealistically, to eliminate their welfare systems or at least coldheartedly decide to exclude all immigrants from welfare.

However, immigrants in the U.S. use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. In the U.K., immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits (source).

Anyway, even if we assume that open borders will be a net negative for western welfare systems, there’s no need to limit the options to the stark choice between welfare and open borders. We could, for example, give immigrants access to labor markets but only limited access to unemployment benefits, or we could delay their benefits, demanding that they first contribute to the system during a number of years (something which might actually strengthen the system). However, we’d have to be careful and not create inequality, discrimination and a class society.

Or we could decide to grant immigrants full access to welfare because we believe that global inequality should be reduced. Access to welfare would then be a kind a development aid.

And, finally, it’s possible to view matters from an entirely different angle. Large chunks of welfare transfers go to the elderly. Given the demographic evolutions in many rich countries, it may be that immigration will be the only way for aging countries to sustain their welfare states.

Migration and Human Rights (35): The Economic Benefits of Immigration, Ctd.

Immigration is supposed to be bad for the economic wellbeing of (parts of) the native population (a claim that’s based on fears about unfair labor competition pushing down wages or pushing natives out of work, and about burdens on social safety nets resulting from so-called “welfare tourism”).

More open borders would be a good thing for the wellbeing of potential immigrants. But it would also be a good thing for the natives of the destination countries: it’s not just that immigration fails to harm the native population, but it actually provides some benefits. And those benefits exist even when we don’t limit immigration to high-skill immigration. That means that immigration restrictions can hurt the destination country.

How does immigration benefit the host country?

  • First, low skilled immigrants allow relatively low-skilled native workers to move to higher skilled or more specialized positions, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. And those positions yield higher incomes.
  • Secondly, low skilled immigrants 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. And even if they don’t (choose to) increase their income they probably increase their wellbeing.
  • Thirdly, immigrants produce tax revenues which contribute to social safety nets that benefit everyone.
  • And finally, immigrants consume, which creates higher economic growth which in turn benefits everyone. And when we legalize immigrants, they are likely to earn more, pay more taxes and invest, which will increase the productivity of the host economy, again to everyone’s benefit.

There’s some additional evidence in favor of these claims here. In short, this is what it says:

The effects of immigration on the total output and income of the U.S. economy can be studied by comparing output per worker and employment in states that have had large immigrant inflows with data from states that have few new foreign-born workers. Statistical analysis of state-level data shows that immigrants expand the economy’s productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization. This produces efficiency gains and boosts income per worker. At the same time, evidence is scant that immigrants diminish the employment opportunities of U.S.-born workers.

The anti-immigration claim that immigrant labor competition harms native workers, especially the low-skilled ones, is easily refuted by the simple fact that

U.S.-born workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations. Among less-educated workers, those born in the United States tend to have jobs in manufacturing or mining, while immigrants tend to have jobs in personal services and agriculture. Among more-educated workers, those born in the United States tend to work as managers, teachers, and nurses, while immigrants tend to work as engineers, scientists, and doctors. Second, within industries and specific businesses, immigrants and U.S.-born workers tend to specialize in different job tasks. Because those born in the United States have relatively better English language skills, they tend to specialize in communication tasks. Immigrants tend to specialize in other tasks. (source)

The role of language provides an example of how immigration allows native workers to move to higher skilled or more specialized positions:

in states where immigration has been heavy, U.S.-born workers with less education … have shifted toward more communication-intensive jobs. Figure 3 [below] shows exactly this. The share of immigrants among the less educated is strongly correlated with the extent of U.S.-born worker specialization in communication tasks. Each point in the graph represents a U.S. state in 2005. In states with a heavy concentration of less-educated immigrants, U.S.-born workers have migrated toward more communication-intensive occupations. Those jobs pay higher wages than manual jobs, so such a mechanism has stimulated the productivity of workers born in the United States and generated new employment opportunities. (source)

Therefore, immigration pushes up the income of native workers.

To better understand this mechanism, it is useful to consider the following hypothetical illustration. As young immigrants with low schooling levels take manually intensive construction jobs, the construction companies that employ them have opportunities to expand. This increases the demand for construction supervisors, coordinators, designers, and so on. Those are occupations with greater communication intensity and are typically staffed by U.S.-born workers who have moved away from manual construction jobs. (source)

Of course, there are bound to be some distribution effects, which means that there will be natives who benefit and other natives who don’t and who may even be harmed by immigration. However, it’s the complete picture that counts.

Racism (14): Race and Consumer Behavior

There’s strong evidence of racist sorting by people looking for a job (white job seekers often avoid working for black managers, and white workers quit their jobs more rapidly when a white manager is replaced with a black manager). A similar phenomenon is race discrimination by buyers.

Do buyers discriminate based on race? This column describes an experiment in the US that advertised iPods online from black and white sellers. Black sellers received fewer offers at lower prices, doing better in markets with competition amongst buyers and worse in high-crime markets. The authors find evidence of both statistical and taste-based discrimination. … [I]t appears that discrimination may not “survive” in the presence of significant competition among buyers. Furthermore, black sellers do worst in the most racially isolated markets and markets with high property crime rates, suggesting a role for statistical discrimination in explaining the disparity. (source)

The important question is indeed to what extent this “sorting” on the part of buyers is motivated by statistical discrimination or by taste-based discrimination:

  • Statistical discrimination means that race is used as a proxy for unobservable negative characteristics, maybe in this case a judgment about the probability that black sellers will be happy with a marginally lower sales price, given their statistically higher rates of poverty. Or perhaps there’s distrust based on unclear statistical judgments about the risk of buying fake or stolen goods, meeting sellers in an inconvenient or dangerous neighborhoods, or dealing with unreliable sellers who might not complete the transaction.
  • Taste-based discrimination occurs when people just don’t like dealing with black people for no particular reason apart from the difference in race.

The study cited above uses a number of clever ways to disentangle these two effects. For instance, the inclusion of white tattooed sellers, who also received fewer and lower purchase offers, suggesting that part of the differences are due to statistical discrimination. Another part, however, is just plain racism. Black sellers are at a significant disadvantage on average, and that’s due to both statistical and taste-based discrimination.

More on statistical discrimination here.

Racism (13b): Race and Employment

In the U.S., and probably elsewhere as well, there’s a large discrepancy between the unemployment rates for people of different races. The easy answer is “racism!”, but that may be a bit too easy. Some of the discrepancy can be explained by education levels. However, perhaps it’s those discrepancies in education levels that are caused by racism and discrimination, at least in part. I personally believe that the discrepancies in unemployment rates have many causes, and that racism is definitely one of them. I’m just not sure about the particular weight we should accord it.

There’s a lot of evidence of racism in the behavior of employers and recruiters. For instance, there’s substantial empirical proof that someone’s race can make it less likely to be called back for a job interview. In fact, black men without a criminal record are less likely to be called back for a job interview than white men with a criminal record. This has to have an impact on employment rates by race, which in turn has an impact on different poverty rates by race.

Some more evidence of discrimination in employment decisions is here:

White, Asian and Hispanic managers tend to hire more whites and fewer blacks than black managers do, according to a new study out of the University of Miami School of Business Administration. Using more than two years of personnel data from a large U.S. retail chain, the study found that when a black manager in a typical store is replaced by a white, Asian or Hispanic manager, the share of newly hired blacks falls from 21 to 17 percent, and the share of whites hired rises from 60 to 64 percent. The effect is even stronger for stores located in the South, where the replacement of a black manager causes the share of newly hired blacks to fall from 29 to 21 percent. … The finding is clear evidence that the race or ethnicity of those who make hiring decisions can have a strong impact in the racial makeup of a company’s workforce. (source)

Given the setup of the study, the racial discrepancies can’t be explained by demographics. You could assume that managers may not be motivated by racism but just anticipate the racism of their customers: they want to hire people of the same race as the majority of their customers because they believe that customers have racial preferences – or are racist – and prefer to be served by people of their own race. However, the customer population of a store doesn’t normally change when there’s a new manager. Hence, the change in recruitment policy by the new managers can’t be explained by customer demographics.

Another possible explanation is that managers, rather than being racist themselves, recruit in a racially biased way because they anticipate the racism of their existing employees: black managers hire fewer whites because they believe whites may be less willing to work for black managers. Or vice versa. And indeed:

The study found that when a white manager is replaced with a black manager, the rate at which white workers quit their jobs increases by 15 percent. “We interpret this increase in the white quit rate as evidence of discriminatory sorting by white job seekers,” the authors write. “It implies that whites who dislike working for black managers often avoid working for black managers in the first place.” (source)

More on racism is here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (10): Racism

In the U.S., the median annual income for black families is 38 percent lower than for their white counterparts. So, income inequality in the U.S. has a racial component, and some of the explanations or causes of income inequality may have something to do with racism. I say “may” because if income inequality were essentially or mainly a consequence of racism, then there wouldn’t be any white poverty. Moreover, given the growth of total income inequality in the U.S. during the last decades, the income gap between whites and blacks should have grown in the same proportion if racism is the sole cause. And that didn’t happen:

the black/white gap in median family income has stagnated; it’s a mere three percentage points smaller today than it was in 1979. … [D]uring the current economic downturn, the black/white income gap widened somewhat. … [T[he black/white income gap can’t be a contributing factor to the [increase in inequality] if it hasn’t grown over the past three decades. And even if it had grown, there would be a limit to how much impact it could have on the national income-inequality trend, because African-Americans constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population. (source)

The growth of income inequality in the U.S over the last decades can’t be blamed on racism, since inequality has risen across social groups, but perhaps part of the level of income inequality can be blamed on it. I don’t know how large a part, but probably not a very large part, given all the other likely causes of income inequality.

Still, I focus on the U.S. here, and that isn’t by far the only country plagued by inequality. If racism isn’t a particularly good explanation for income inequality in the U.S., maybe it is in other countries, and then I’m thinking in particular about some South American countries.

Migration and Human Rights (33): Immigration = Importing Poverty?

Let’s jump to the conclusion: no, immigration is not “the importation of poverty”, at least not in the U.S. and probably not in other developed countries either.

When talking about “importing poverty” we should make the following distinction.

  • Immigration can affect a country’s total poverty rate. Many immigrants are less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re usually lower skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration will 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 (I focus on economic migrants here, not refugees or displaced persons). They are, on average, poor relative to the native population, but they were, in absolute terms, even poorer before they migrated.
  • Immigration, however, can also affect, not the total poverty rate of the destination country, but the poverty rate of the native population in the destination country. This supposed effect occurs because immigration is said to alter the levels of supply of workers with different skills. These alterations (or “immigration-induced labor supply shocks”) can, theoretically, have an negative impact on wage levels or employment rates of the native population. This impact of immigrant-native labor market competition can in turn affect native (but also immigrant) poverty levels, since poverty is closely linked to wage evolutions.

It’s this second, supposed effect which of course produces the most political heat, spawning xenophobic political parties or a “push to the right” in existing parties. Here‘s a study disproving this effect:

we find little evidence of an impact of immigration on native poverty through immigrant-native labor market competition. Despite adverse wage effects on high school dropouts and small effects on the poverty rates of members of this group, the effects on native poverty rates are negligible. This latter result is largely driven by the fact that even among native-born poor households, most have at least one working adult with at least a high school education.

Apart from distortions in labor competition, there’s possibly a third effect through which immigration could have an impact on native poverty levels: anti-immigrant propaganda often includes statements about “welfare tourism”, immigrants coming over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits. In doing so, the claim goes, they sap the country’s economic efficiency because high welfare spending implies high taxes. And an economy that’s weakened because of high taxes can result in more poverty. However, this as well is basically a myth. For the U.S., we have the following numbers disproving those claims:

Those immigrants aren’t coming here to have babies and they aren’t coming here to abuse social services. … [I]mmigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. I should also add that if your concern is that some immigrants are receiving more in public benefits than they pay in taxes, you should keep in mind that so do 67 percent of Americans. … [T]he labor force participation rate for illegal immigrant males (ages 18 to 64) was 92 percent, compared to a rate of just 83 percent for native-born males. (source)

In the U.S., immigrants are just as likely to be unemployed as native born Americans. However, that’s not the case in all rich countries. In Belgium, for instance, the unemployment rate for immigrants is nearly two and a half times as high as it is for the native-born.

In the U.S., all talk about “welfare tourism” is highly dubious in light of the following:

The contributions by unauthorized immigrants to Social Security … are much larger than previously known… Stephen C. Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration and someone who enjoys bipartisan support for his straightforwardness, said that by 2007, the Social Security trust fund had received a net benefit of somewhere between $120 billion and $240 billion from unauthorized immigrants. The cumulative contribution is surely higher now. Unauthorized immigrants paid a net contribution of $12 billion in 2007 alone… Somebody ought to say thank you. (source, source)

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (9): Merit

In my ongoing exploration of the possible causes of high income inequality in rich countries, I stumbled across this politically incorrect quote:

A reason for the “wealth or income gap”: Smart people keep on doing things that are smart and make them money while stupid people keep on doing things that are stupid and keep them from achieving.

People who get an education, stay off of drugs, apply themselves, and save and wisely invest their earnings do a lot better than people who drop out of school, become substance abusers, and buy fancy cars and houses that they can’t afford, only to lose them.

We don’t have an income gap. We have a stupid gap. (source)

It’s not only politically incorrect, it’s just plainly no-qualifier-needed incorrect. Of course, people’s efforts and wise decisions do make a difference. As well as their different talents (or lack thereof). So there will always be inequality. But society rewards certain talents more than others – or, if you object to the description of society as a moral agent, “we all” reward the talents of our fellow humans differently. And we often do so in a morally arbitrary way: we reward some talents more whereas other talents would perhaps, from a moral point of view, deserve higher rewards. The same is true for efforts: we reward some types of efforts more than others, and this isn’t always just.

So some people, because of their talents and efforts, create better outcomes for themselves, reap more lucrative rewards, and thereby create an income gap. However, this fact doesn’t necessarily imply that the resulting gap is morally right: society – all of us – may have been morally mistaken about the kinds of talents and efforts that we reward. Hence the gap can be immoral. Even if income inequality could be explained entirely by differences in effort and talent – which is implied in the quote but which I think isn’t true – that would not necessarily have any moral significance. Income inequality could still be wrong.

And we could still go one step further: even if income inequality could be explained entirely by morally significant differences in effort and talent – in other words, even if only morally worthy efforts and talents were rewarded by society – that would not necessarily exhaust all moral considerations. The moral judgments regarding efforts and talents could be offset by superior moral considerations about inequality.

And anyway, how does the guy from the quote above explain the fact that different countries have different levels of income inequality? Do we really believe that the American population has a higher standard deviation around average intelligence, talent and effort? In other words, does the U.S. have more smart and more stupid people than Sweden? Are the bell curves for intelligence, talent and effort flatter in the U.S.? I don’t think so. And if I’m right, then you need other and more sophisticated answers to the question why inequality is relatively high in the U.S.

Measuring Poverty (6): The Poverty Line in the U.S.

The poverty rate or poverty line in the U.S. is based on a system pioneered by Mollie Orshansky in 1963. In the 1960s, the average US family spend one third of its income on food. The poverty line was calculated by valuing an “emergency food” budget for a family, and then multiplying that number by 3. (Some more data here).

This results in a specific dollar amount that varies by family size but is the same across the U.S. (the amounts are adjusted for inflation annually). To determine who is poor, actual family income is then compared to these amounts. Obviously, if you’re under, you’re poor.

Amazingly, this system hasn’t changed a lot since the 1960s, yet it suffers from a series of measurement problems, resulting in either an over- or underestimation of the number of families living in poverty. The problems are situated both in the calculation of the poverty rates and in the calculation of the income that is subsequently compared to the rates:

  • Obviously, the system should take regional differences in the cost of living, especially in housing, into account. It doesn’t.
  • As already apparent from the image above, a family today spends relatively less on food and more on housing, health care and child care etc. yet the poverty line is still dollars for emergency food times 3. So the question is: should the system take today’s spending patterns into account? We would have to know which it is: 1) Either the increased spending on non-food items has occurred because people can now afford to spend more on such items. 2) Or the increased spending on non-food items has occurred because these items got disproportionately more expensive (housing for instance) or because there wasn’t really any need to buy those items in the old days. Only if 2) is the case should that have an influence on the poverty line. And I think that to some extent it is the case. Child care for instance has become a necessity. In the 1960s, many mothers didn’t go out and work. Now they do, and therefore they have to pay for child care. Those payments should be deducted from income when measuring disposable income and comparing it to the poverty line. The same is true for cars or phones. Today you can’t really have a job without them so they’re no longer luxuries. A society would show very little ambition if it continued to designate the poor as those who have to wash by hand, read with candlelight, and shit in a hole in the floor. In fact, what I’m advocating here is some kind of relative concept of poverty. I’ll come back to that later. All I can tell you now is that this isn’t without complications either.
  • The current poverty measurement doesn’t take into account disproportionate price rises (it merely adjusts for general inflation) and changing needs. An obvious improvement of the U.S. measurement system would be to adjust for exceptional price evolutions (such as for housing) and also to revisit the definitions of basic needs and luxuries. Hence, a better poverty measurement should subtract from income some work-related expenses, child care expenses, and perhaps also some health expenses to the extent that these have become disproportionately more expensive. But that’s not easy:

There is considerable disagreement on the best way to incorporate medical care in a measure of poverty, even though medical costs have great implications for poverty rates. But costs differ greatly depending upon personal health, preferences, and age, and family costs may be very different from year to year, making it hard to determine what exactly should be counted. Subtracting out-of-pocket costs from income is one imperfect approach, but if someone’s expenses are low because they are denied care, then they would usually be considered worse off, not better off. (source)

  • Another problem: the current poverty rate doesn’t take all welfare benefits into account. Income from cash welfare programs counts, but the value of non-cash benefits such as food stamps, school lunches and public housing doesn’t (because such benefits weren’t very common in the 1960s). Those benefits successfully raise the standard of living for poverty stricken individuals. There’s a bit of circular reasoning going on here, because the poverty rate is used, i.a., to decide who gets benefits, so benefits should not be included. But if you want to know how many people are actually poor, you should consider benefits as well because benefits lift many out of poverty.
  • The poverty measure doesn’t include some forms of interests on savings or property such as housing.
  • The poverty measure doesn’t take taxes into account, largely because they didn’t affect the poor very much in the 1960s. Income is counted before subtracting payroll, income, and other taxes, overstating income for some families. On the other hand, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit isn’t counted either, underestimating income for other families.
  • And there’s also a problem counting the effects of cohabitation and co-residency, overestimating poverty because overestimating expenses.

Because the poverty measurement disregards non-cash benefits and certain tax credits, it fails to serve its purpose. Poverty measurement is done in order to measure progress and to look at the effects of anti-poverty policies. Two of those policies – non-cash benefits and certain tax credits – aren’t counted, even though they reduce poverty. So we have a poverty statistic that can’t measure the impact of anti-poverty policy… That’s like measuring road safety without looking at the number of accidents avoided by government investment in safety. Since the 1970s, the U.S. government implemented a number of policies that increased spending for the poor, but the effects of this spending were invisible in the poverty statistics.

This had a perverse effect: certain politicians now found it easy to claim that spending on the poor was ineffective and a waste of money. It’s no coincidence that trickle down economics became so popular in the 1980s. The poverty measurement, rather than helping the government become more effective in its struggle against poverty, has led to policies that reduced benefits. Of course, I’m not saying that poverty reduction is just a matter of government benefits, or that benefits can’t have adverse effects. Read more here.

Fortunately, the US Census Bureau has taking these criticism to heart and has been working on an alternative measure that counts food stamps and other government support as income, while also accounting for child-care costs, geographic difference etc. First results show that the number of poor is higher according to the new measurement system (it adds about 3 million people). For some reason, I think the old system has still some life in it.

Some details of the new measurement:

when you account for the Earned Income Tax Credit the poverty rate goes down by two points. Accounting for SNAP (food stamps) lowers the poverty rate about 1.5 points. … when you account for the rise in Medical Out of Pocket costs, the poverty rate goes up by more than three points. (source)

More posts about problems with poverty measurement are here.