Posts Tagged ‘equality’

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Is it any surprise, as Christina Starman, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom argue, that fairness is not the same thing as equality?

There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness.

Still, I think, many people today are bothered by both—economic unfairness and grotesque levels of economic inequality.

Let me explain. As I have written before, I’m not particularly convinced of the idea being promoted by Starman et al. and by other evolutionary psychologists that fairness is part of humans’ biological inheritance. Instead, I’m more inclined to look in the direction of history and society.

Fairness is, I think, a concept that is part of bourgeois society, which is created and disseminated in a wide variety of discourses and sites, including economics. (To be clear, there may be other notions of fairness in human history, outside and beyond bourgeois society. My point is only that capitalism has its own particular notions of fairness, and they’re the ones that motivate our current “fairness instinct.”)

Fairness is an important part of the self-justification of bourgeois society. For example, market outcomes are considered fair because sovereign individuals are free to engage in voluntary transactions, which result in equal exchanges. That’s an idea that is created and reproduced throughout contemporary society, especially in mainstream economics.

So, yes, individuals within contemporary capitalism are constituted, at least in part, by certain notions of fairness, which they express in a wide variety of contexts, from participating in the ultimatum game to making a distinction between “takers” and “makers.”

By the same token, it’s not particularly shocking that those same individuals agree there should be some degree of inequality in economic outcomes. That’s also part of capitalism’s self-justification, that “fair” processes will produce unequal results. So, people seem to agree, not everyone can or should receive the same income or have the same wealth. We have different abilities, needs, desires, and circumstances, so the discourse goes, resulting in—perhaps even requiring—different amounts of income and wealth.

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But then, of course, income inequalities have become so obscene—so unjustified by any conceivable differences in abilities, needs, desires, and circumstances—that, in the name of fairness, people demand more equality.

That’s how I think we need to reconcile the ideas of fairness and equality—not, as Starman et al. would have it, that people are bothered by fairness but not by inequality, but instead that bourgeois notions of fairness are so challenged and disrupted by existing levels of inequality people demand perhaps not perfect but certainly much more equality than exists today.

The real question is not whether there’s a “universal moral concern with fairness.” Instead, it’s whether the existing system can deliver on its promise to create fair (and, with them, more equal) outcomes—or, alternatively, whether it’s necessary to imagine and create a different set of economic and social institutions, which will actually fulfill that promise of fairness and at the same time deliver much more equality than exists in the United States today.

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Inequality

Mainstream economists have gotten much better estimating the obscene levels of inequality that exist today. But imagining equality? They still find that almost impossible.

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Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman, and Thomas Piketty have been at the forefront of estimating the extraordinary growth of inequality that has taken place since the late-1970s and early-1980s in the United States—when incomes for the top 10 percent grew about three times as fast as those of the bottom 90 percent, thus reversing the trend of more than three decades of the postwar period when they grew at roughly the same rate.

But then, when the BBC asked mainstream economists about the effect inequality has on growth and prosperity, well, they just can’t get themselves to imagine an equal or even a substantially less unequal distribution of income.

Deirdre McCloskey, of course, is very relaxed about inequality “as long as it’s not force or fraud that caused it.” Jared Bernstein, for his part, just wants a better balance between productivity and incomes for middle-class families. And then there’s Jonathan Ostry, who is worried about opportunity and not inequality, and Branko Milanovic, who think we need inequality to provide incentives.

And there, in one package, we have all the ways mainstream economists demonstrate their long-held justification of inequality and their profound inability to imagine an equal distribution of income. Basically, for them, inequality is not a problem and equality is not the goal—because capitalism alone is capable of producing growth (McCloskey); even the levels of inequality we saw in the late-1970s (when the top 1 percent captured about 10 percent of all income) are too high a goal (Bernstein); inequality is not a problem as long as there are “adequate opportunities for the less well-off in society” (Ostry); and, finally, because inequality has always existed (Milanovic).

Milanovic, at least, imagines there might be problems down the road:

“If the gaps keep on increasing as they’ve increased in the last 20 years, you would end up with two types of societies within a single country. If there is no sufficient middle class and if the poor really are very far from the rich, then you really cannot speak of a single society.

“We could end up with a kind of a global plutocracy, this global one per cent or even half a per cent that are very similar among themselves, but really belong to different nations.”

But, basically, all of them, along with most other mainstream economists, take the world as it is—based on capitalist commodity production—as normal, such that inequality is either benign (it’s what we get in exchange for more stuff) or necessary (as the condition for getting people to work).

And they simply can’t imagine anything like what the rest of us envision: a world in which we have eliminated the obscene levels of inequality that current economic arrangements are creating.

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