Paul L. Caron

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Stephen Carter, Louis C.K., And Monkeys On Inequality

On InequalityStephen Carter (Yale), Inequality Debate Looks in Wrong Direction (reviewing  Harry Frankfurt (Princeton), On Inequality (Princeton University Press, 2015)):

Inequality is on everybody’s lips these days -- everybody on the left, anyway, and a lot of people in the center and on the right as well. But what if everybody’s wrong?

That’s the contention of On Inequality, a small, smart new volume by Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt. At the very beginning, he states a simple but powerful thesis: “Our most fundamental challenge is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is, rather, the fact that too many of our people are poor.” Progressives, in other words, are shooting at the wrong target. The moral problem posed by the distribution of wealth isn’t inequality. It’s poverty.

These might seem like the same issue, but Frankfurt shows us with elan that they are not. Suppose, he says, there is a resource that will keep a person alive, but only if that person has five units of it. There are 10 people, and there are 40 units of the resource. If the resource is distributed equally, everybody gets four units -- and everybody dies. To insist on equality in that case, he argues, “would be morally grotesque.” ...

Frankfurt suggests that the instinct that leads many to complain about inequality isn’t about equality at all: “What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable ... is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.”

He is on strong ground here. There is a tendency on the left to think of inequality principally as a problem of the rich having too much. Although not indifferent to that concern, Frankfurt contends that this worry is a distraction from the far more important goal of making sure that everyone has enough.

This reminds me of two of my favorite posts on "fairness":

From capuchin monkeys:

From comedian Louis C.K.:

The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough.
You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them.

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The meaningful difference isn't income equality, it's consumption inequality, and based on Maslow's hierachy of needs, the inequality of consumption inequality gets lower every decade, and is currently the lowest in history.

But the real focus should be on production inequality, which has grown enormously because It's now possible for twenty-somethings to create hundreds of billions of dollars in value.

Why are the poor so unproductive, and what can we do to make them more productive? Those are the questions whose answers will raise living standards.

Posted by: TallDave | Oct 23, 2015 1:41:28 PM

We have completely reversed the Declaration of Independence's meaning. Rather than being equal before the law, we are unequal before the law in order to even out the incomes of the citizens. Used to was that we worked on that individually, getting skills and education that increased our earnings. Might still work.

Posted by: Jim B | Oct 23, 2015 1:45:30 PM

My favorite clip on "fairness" and "greed" is of Milton Friedman on the Phil Donahue Show:

Posted by: Darren | Oct 23, 2015 2:49:03 PM

Wow, TallDave, your post is the most intelligent I have read about the "inequality debate." Moreover, you are 1000% on point. Question: What was the single biggest in-migration in US history? If you answered Okies and the Dust Bowl, you flunk. No, the biggest was the movement of black sharecroppers and white hillbillies to Detroit after WWII. Talk about closing the inequality gap. Here, you had poor people go from living one step removed from starvation to being thriving members of the middle class.

The key learning point is understanding how the auto manufactures where able to pay higher wages than southern land owners. The answer: increased productivity; or, said another way, the most bang for the least buck. Those migrants didn't need a college degree to work on the assembly lines; they didn't even need a high school diploma. They just had to have the desire to better their lives.

Compare this to the Baby Boomers. Instead of learning a trade, most of us were pushed into going to college (the draft also had something to do with this) even when we didn't have a clue why. Even worse, we did the same thing to our kids.

Fast forward to today: roughly one-third of the work force has a college degree, before WWII it was less than one-fifth. Consequently, after paying $50k to $150k for a college degree (forget about law school), many of these graduates are making little more than minimum wage. Clearly, sending one-third of the work force to college isn’t a productive idea.

Meanwhile, refrigeration mechanic, electrician, welding, plumbing and so on jobs go begging.

Even worse, the solution offered by those on the Commanding Heights is to send even more clueless people to college.

Cue up that stupid song about, “Where have the flowers gone.” I fear we have lost the capacity to learn.

Posted by: Dale Spradling | Oct 24, 2015 9:40:16 AM