Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

The Rich Have More

There is an article in the New York Times Magazine by an American expat living in Holland about how having the government take more than half your paycheck isn’t as bad as it seems. It’s a pretty good article, and if America is headed in a more social democratic direction (as I fear we may be) then we would do well to look more towards the sensible policies of some more socially democratic countries, rather than the sort of populist demagoguery that is sometimes popular on the American left.

Anyway, what caught my eye in this piece in particular was the following bit:

The Dutch are free-marketers, but they also have a keen sense of fairness. As Hoogervorst noted, “The average Dutch person finds it completely unacceptable that people with more money would get better health care.” The solution to balancing these opposing tendencies was to have one guaranteed base level of coverage in the new health scheme, to which people can add supplemental coverage that they pay extra for.

Note that the third sentence contradicts the second. The Dutch find it totally unacceptable that the rich should get better health care than everyone else; that’s why they designed their system so that the rich could get better health care than everyone else. Continue reading

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Economy, Equality, Government, Health Care | Leave a comment

More on Krugman, Status, and Equality

A Slate column from twelve years ago probably doesn’t warrant a second response post (even if it is by Vox Nova’s favorite Nobel laureate), but I’m going to do it anyway. In his article, The CPI and the Rat Race, Paul Krugman claims that increases in the material standard of living in the U.S. over the last few decades are not all they are cracked up to be, as what matters to people is not so much their absolute condition as their condition relative to others:

I know quite a few academics who have nice houses, two cars, and enviable working conditions, yet are disappointed and bitter men–because they have never received an offer from Harvard and will probably not get a Nobel Prize. They live very well in material terms, but they judge themselves relative to their reference group, and so they feel deprived.

What matters to people, says Krugman, is not so much material possessions as status, and status, unlike economic resources, really is a zero sum game. Krugman ends by saying that:

If one follows this line of thought one might well be led to some extremely radical ideas about economic policy, ideas that are completely at odds with all current orthodoxies. But I won’t try to come to grips with such ideas in this column. Frankly, I don’t have the time. I have to get back to my research–otherwise, somebody else might get that Nobel.

Now that Krugman has won his Nobel, perhaps he will return to the subject.* If he does, he might want to start by revisiting an assumption that is implicit in his analysis, namely that the best way to decrease status inequality is by redistributing income. Continue reading

October 23, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Equality | Leave a comment

Krugman on Equality

Since his Nobel prize was announced last week, I have been (re)reading some of Paul Krugman’s old columns for Slate magazine. I find the columns to be thoroughly engrossing, which is to say not that I think everything Krugman says in them is right, but that even where he is wrong he is wrong in an interesting way or for interesting reasons.

Case in point: in a column entitled The CPI and the Rat Race, Krugman argues that it is inequality, rather than poverty, that is the more important social problem. Krugman begins the column by conceding (as he must) that, materially speaking, life has gotten a lot better for Americans over recent decades:

In 1950 some 35 percent of dwellings lacked full indoor plumbing. Many families still did not have telephones or cars. And of course very few people had televisions. A modern American family at the 12th percentile (that is, right at the poverty line) surely has a flushing toilet, a working shower, and a telephone with direct-dial long-distance service; probably has a color television; and may well even have a car. Take into account improvements in the quality of many other products, and it does not seem at all absurd to say that the material standard of living of that poverty-level family in 1996 is as good as or better than that of the median family in 1950.

Continue reading

October 20, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Equality, Poverty | Leave a comment

When More Equality Means More Differences

When men and women take personality tests, some of the old Mars-Venus stereotypes keep reappearing. On average, women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive. Men tend to be more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat. Clear differences appear in early childhood and never disappear.

What’s not clear is the origin of these differences. Evolutionary psychologists contend that these are innate traits inherited from ancient hunters and gatherers. Another school of psychologists asserts that both sexes’ personalities have been shaped by traditional social roles, and that personality differences will shrink as women spend less time nurturing children and more time in jobs outside the home.

To test these hypotheses, a series of research teams have repeatedly analyzed personality tests taken by men and women in more than 60 countries around the world. For evolutionary psychologists, the bad news is that the size of the gender gap in personality varies among cultures. For social-role psychologists, the bad news is that the variation is going in the wrong direction. It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.


September 16, 2008 Posted by | Equality, Men and Women | Leave a comment

Boys are Better (and Worse) at Math Than Girls

Girls and boys have roughly the same average scores on state math tests, but boys more often excelled or failed, researchers reported.

The fresh research adds to the debate about gender difference in aptitude for mathematics, including efforts to explain the relative scarcity of women among professors of science, math and engineering.

In the 1970s and 1980s, studies regularly found that high- school boys tended to outperform girls. But a number of recent studies have found little difference.

The latest study, in this week’s journal Science, examined scores from seven million students who took statewide mathematics tests from grades two through 11 in 10 states between 2005 and 2007.

The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, didn’t find a significant overall difference between girls’ and boys’ scores. But the study also found that boys’ scores were more variable than those of girls. More boys scored extremely well — or extremely poorly — than girls, who were more likely to earn scores closer to the average for all students.

Continue reading

July 30, 2008 Posted by | Education, Equality, Media, Statistics | Leave a comment

What is Racism?

Sections 1934 and 1935 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church read as follows:

1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.

1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.

One might well conclude from this that racism consists in the denial of this equal dignity, and/or the fundamental rights that flow from it. And certainly to deny such rights to members of a certain race based on their race and/or claim that the members of certain races lack this equal dignity would seem to be a paradigm case of racism. But if this is all racism consists of, then a great many things typically regarded as racist would turn out – at least potentially – not to be so.

The fact that all human beings have equal dignity is not inconsistent with there being certain groups of people who have lower levels of certain skills, talents, or positive qualities such as intelligence than others (as in the case of individuals with down syndrome), or who have higher rates of all sorts of negative traits or behaviors (as in the case of alcoholics, or for that matter people who have been to prison). Nor is it inconsistent with believing that these differences have a genetic origin (as in the case of down syndrome). If racism consists solely in a denial of equal dignity, then there need not be anything necessarily racist about making parallel claims about a particular racial group (I want to be clear that I’m not endorsing any such factual claims, only noting that they are not, of themselves, inconsistent with the idea that all human beings have equal dignity).

Likewise, the fact that all human beings have an equal dignity does not preclude treating different people in vastly different ways and to do otherwise is not so much as conceivable. It doesn’t preclude, for example, treating the innocent differently than the guilty or treating one’s children differently than other people’s children. So again, if all it is to be racist is to deny the equal dignity of all human beings on account of race, then there need not be anything necessarily racist about preferring the well being and happiness of members of one’s own racial group to the well being of members of different racial groups.

Nor can such implications be avoided by noting that the equal dignity of human beings entails an equality of fundamental rights, and that therefore it is racist to deny people their fundamental rights on the basis of race, even if this is not done explicitly on the grounds that certain races lack equal dignity. Whatever fundamental rights human beings have, if they flow from the equal dignity of all humanity then they must be such as can apply equally to the tiniest infant and the hardest criminal. Any such rights will have to leave a lot of wiggle room for people to be treated very differently depending on the circumstances, and any claim that membership in a particular racial group is never or almost never a relevant circumstance will be question begging, as there is nothing in the concept of equal dignity itself that entails this. If racism is to be more than an empty formalism, therefore, one must rely on some principle beyond notions of equal dignity to given the concept some real application.

There is an obvious candidate for such a principle: the principle of colorblindness. In my next post, I propose to examine that principle more closely, and to show why that principle is not up to the task.

June 3, 2008 Posted by | Equality, Morality, Race | Leave a comment

Wal-Mart vs. Inequality

Wal-Mart is famous for its low prices, but according to a new analysis by a couple of University of Chicago profs, Wal-Marts price cutting has also cut something else (or at least restrained its growth): inequality. Steven Levitt reports:

Inequality is growing in the United States. The data say so. Knowledgeable experts like Ben Bernanke say so. Ask just about any economist and they will agree. (They may or may not think growing inequality is a problem, but they will acknowledge that there has been a sharp increase in inequality.)

According to two of my University of Chicago colleagues, Christian Broda and John Romalis, everyone is wrong.

Their argument could hardly be simpler. How rich you are depends on two things: how much money you have, and how much the stuff you want to buy costs. If your income doubles, but the prices of the things you consume also double, then you are no better off. Continue reading

May 19, 2008 Posted by | Capitalism, Economy, Equality, Food | Leave a comment

Illusions of Inequality

A while back I promised that I would write a post on markets and the universal destination of goods. That post will probably have to wait a while, I’m afraid. But as a down payment, I offer this intriguing two part essay by John Nye, an economics professor at Washington University. Prof. Nye starts by asking us to

[i]magine a system where the efforts of the richest people in the world greatly expand the range and quality of goods and services available to most people—oftentimes at the expense of those groups at or near the top of the income ladder. Imagine a system where wealthy capitalists and ambitious innovators work day and night on projects with little chance of success, all at their own expense. Sometimes, even to the point where even the most successful among them manage to capture only a small part of the benefits while the rest goes to the average man or woman in the street. In their own lives they have the privilege of paying more for goods that they always would have bought, while the poorest get better, more numerous, and more widely available goods at cheaper prices than ever before.

He then goes on to argue that “in the real world, no system would come closer to implementing the most important parts of this scheme than market capitalism.” It’s definitely worth a read.

March 5, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Equality | Leave a comment

Equality of Opportunity No More Desirable Than Equality of Outcome

When people talk about equality, they sometimes distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Equality of outcome, it is said, is neither a possible nor desirable, and ought not be a goal of social policy. Rather, the state ought to focus on creating equality of opportunity, which, unlike equality of outcome, is supposed to be readily attainable without injustice. But if my reflections the other day on the nature of equality are correct, then equality of opportunity is no more desirable as a goal of social policy than is equality of outcome. The reason for this is explained quite eloquently by Theodore Dalrymple:

Equality of opportunity is a thoroughly nasty and totalitarian concept. It is the demand that no one should start (or continue) life with any advantages relative to another. But how could such a condition actually be achieved? Leaving aside genetic differences, which must persist until all hereditary endowments can be made precisely the same, and which for the time being must be accepted even though they are unfair (not unjust, although most people nowadays seem to have difficulty distinguishing between the two), the only way environmental factors affecting opportunities can be made equal is by social engineering on a scale that would make North Korea look like a paradise of laissez-faire. Continue reading

February 24, 2008 Posted by | Equality | Leave a comment

Is Equality Desirable?

At first blush, it may seem obvious that equality ought to be a central goal of social policy, and that insofar as a society contains significant inequalities that society stands revealed as fundamentally unjust. In fact, even many of those who would oppose efforts to decrease inequality admit the desirability of equality as an ideal or goal, and merely contend that these efforts are ineffective or impracticable. Yet upon reflection it is not clear (to me, at any rate) why equality as such should be viewed as having such a central importance in evaluating a society.

To say that two things are equal is to say that they are the same. To say that two plus two equals four is to say that the sum of two and two is the same as four, and to say that two people are equally tall is to say that they have the same height. A completely equal society, therefore, would be a society in which everyone was completely the same. Far from being desirable, such a society can only aptly be described as monstrous – a world devoid of any diversity or individual distinctiveness, in which everyone looked the same, talked the same, thought the same, and acted the same. Even if it were possible to create and maintain such a world, it would hardly be desirable to do so. And if equality is not desirable as a goal, then it is not clear why incremental steps toward that goal should be regarded as on that account being desirable. Continue reading

February 21, 2008 Posted by | Equality | Leave a comment