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What we stand for: Quasi-Rawlsian ethics

by Cyrille Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 09:17:02 AM EST

Recently, in a diary called Paris by Sven Triloqvist, poemless made the point that some people come to ET and struggle to understand what It is about. Why I find that this patchwork tendency also has an endearing feel to it, I must admit that I have struggled to get people to read ET regularly. And we may sometimes not even explicitly mention some points that we take for granted within our community -but which may be lost on a new reader.

So, I thought I would try to find and word some major tendencies that shape ET. I realize that the "we" in the title can seem presumptuous -after all, it is only I who write. But there are two reasons for it. First, I endeavour to identify common lines of thought -ones that, while we can find an individual frequent contributor who disagrees about any one of them, would probably be each be shared by the great majority of us, and a majority of them should be shared by any one of us. Second, I hope that ensuing discussions will make it that eventually it will be "we" writing.
I was initially going to have all topics into one diary, but quickly saw that it would be way too long -besides, I probably am not settled on the list yet.

So here goes with a first instalment: Quasi-Rawlsian ethics

for your weekend reading - Nomad


It may be odd to start with ethics as it is not something discussed here with any frequency, yet the infrequent discussions may precisely come from there being very limited disagreements about it, because we tend to take it for granted. It is, anyway, a meta-subject, one that permeates our views of many an area of public life and world affairs.

I chose to describe our ethics as quasi-Rawlsian. For those who did not read Rawls, or for those who read more than me and wonder what in his writings I refer to, here is a brief explanation:
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to reach justice as fairness, based on simple principles. He first proposes that our definition of justice must be the one that we would chose were we to know nothing of our position in society. This is of course impossible to achieve, but Rawls suggests that we force ourselves behind a "veil of ignorance" before discussing ethics -not ignorance of the ways of the world, but of our position in it.
Rawls reckons that, behind that veil, we would choose the system maximising the condition of the worst-off, and from there that inequalities can be considered ethical provided that they are consistent with the best possible situation for the worst-off in the society (not the worst-off as an individual. Improving his situation by making another's even worse than his was is not an ethical change by this definition).

This should be nothing new "one should judge a society by how it treats its most miserly" -nor should the concept of veil of ignorance, which to me seems like a tautological requirement for discussing ethics. Yet both seem to be, in practice at least, quite controversial.
Rawls' intuition that we would choose that very set of ethics should be more debatable. Certainly it would be the choice of a group of people who are infinitely risk-averse. Humans tend to be risk-averse, but probably not infinitely so. More likely, we would go for something that gives a great weight to the situation of the less fortunate, while maybe not completely ignoring that of all the others. In practical purpose, though, it would probably differ very little and it is of course far simpler to think in terms of maximising one outcome.

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Interestingly, utilitarians considered Rawls one of them (to which he disagreed). One reason was that Rawls did use the idea of "utility" in his views of Justice -as opposed, for example, of asking ethics to meet certain axiomatic principles. We are probably quite akin to both in that, as ET is very liberal in its values, and usually holds little for sacred.
Utilitarians also argued that their outcome (maximising the aggregate utility) would always be the same as Rawls', reaching it from the target of maximising that of the worst-off, except in artificial constructs that bore no resemblance to the real life. This is where I think we differ, in two ways.

First, while it may be true that the Rawlsian outcome is also the utilitarian optimum, this is not the argument made in most media. There is quite a significant body of data indicating that a more equal society (more than most of the ones we see in the West - we don't really have any data on how a fully equal society would behave, but I guess that it probably would not quite be optimal) tends to have a bigger growth, yet many articles in the Economic media justify the strong inequality of societies as making them more dynamic and creating bigger growth. Let's leave aside for a moment the glaring imperfection of GDP as an indicator of a society's success - in essence, they are justifying a departure from the Rawlsian target on utilitarian grounds. As a group, I believe ET is on the other side of such arguments, and that we refute the claims that the maximum aggregate outcome will be the best for the least fortunate necessarily.
Second, in ethics the process matters at least as much as the conclusion. Even assuming that Rawls and utilitarians would lead to a similar optimal society, Rawls would get there with the aggregate outcome only considered as a tie-breaker, whereas utilitarians would not take the level of equality into consideration at all. As is probably clear to you, I strongly think that our process is the former rather than the later. Were a billionaire to come across a hobo, we reckon that the shame, if any, should be the billionaire's. This is far from a default position in today's world.

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So, why did I call us quasi-Rawlsian? Well, we do have some minor departures, which is only to be expected when real life is matched to an intellectual construction.
To start with, I suggested before that maximising the condition of the least favoured only may not be the exact chosen target, and I think this applies to us. Much as we strive for more equality, we are not solely focused on the destitute.
A more complex departure from the Rawlsian ideal is one where the intellectual construct could not really answer anyway: the world is more than one society after all.

I believe that most of us trend towards wanting a more Rawlsian society in our countries. But most of us probably would not support invading a country, even if we could be quite certain that its worst off inhabitants would be better off afterwards (which would be an extraordinarily difficult claim to make of course. To start with, you'd have to save more lives than the invasion would cost). I am not claiming that Rawls would support the invasion, of course (though utilitarists claim for invasions are often made, even when the benefits, such as they are, would be shared by very few). But an unbounded quest for maximising the condition of the worst-off in the world would have extraordinary implications, some of which most ETers would not support.
Similarly, while most of us would welcome more international aid and support, I have never seen anyone advocate that 75% of the most developed countries' production be redirected to the poorer ones.

There is also the question of uncertainty of outcome. The argument has been made that the current generation should feel free to consume whatever they want, disregarding the environmental impact in the distant futures because the then generations will have such a higher standard of living that even a huge reduction of it would still leave them better off than we are. ET, as a group, would strongly disagree. Hurting future generations on the basis of current claims (even leaving aside how dubious such claims are) about what their lives will be like would be considered here as selfish pseudo-justification.

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While we cannot describe the whole dynamics of our views on ethics with the word "Rawls", I reckon that having that framework in mind would approach it fairly well. And it seems to me to be worthy of identification as a distinctive trait because, as far as I can gather, it is not a majority view (certainly not a consensual one anyway) in today's world.

Display:
I welcome this diary. We have struggled to find a unifying purpose the like of which energises our USian counterparts, so we have become a cheerleader for an as-yet-undefined philosophy.

and if we don't know what we stand for, it's no surprise that everyone else is confused.

Anyway, I had a bit of a go once myself. not sure I agree with it all anymore, but this seems to be similar to where you're at.

So when asked what we are for my feeling is that we are more than a mere coming together of like-minded people.  Perhaps it is pretentious to say that we are somehow part of a larger phenomenon that is building a new politics that understands old ideas surrounding cheap energy & globalised corporate capitalism simply cannot continue as they have. That we need new new perspectives, that the observance of rights and dignities are important in building the just societies we hope to preserve in the decades to come. Or perhaps it is simply a recognition that the way we do things now doesn't work for the majority of people any more.


keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 01:54:06 PM EST
Another important strand of ET thought is that we're not productivists: There is a level of economic activity that would satisfy us, and it is for most of us somewhat below the current level of economic activity in The WestTM - or at least not greatly beyond it. Contrast this with the prevalent productivist ideologies that form the accepted political spectrum - the mainstream Left is just as insistent in its cries for MORE! as the Right, although it couches its voracity in somewhat softer tones.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 03:51:36 PM EST
This is one of the next installments I was planning -I was going to talk about sustainability.
Although by that I understood not only with regards to natural resources but also avoiding systemic failures (such as unchecked compound interest).

Not being productivists is clearly a major common factor in ET.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 05:24:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cyrille:
Not being productivists

slackers inc.

hey, trying to stay abreast of current events is hard work!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 05:45:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"trying to stay abreast of current events is..." is largely an unpaid civic duty not included in GDP or GNP. That duty, like the raising and socialization of children, is crucial to the survival of a democratic society, but is an externality from the point of view of Classical or Neo-Classical Economics. But then business is the staunchest bastion of autocratic rule in our society and is often defended on grounds of economic efficiency, regardless of the facts and business has often enough been quite happy in the embrace of authoritarians and fascists.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 08:06:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... if the material life and material opportunities facing the worst off is, in some sense, good enough, then there are other things to pursue: there is no single measuring stick that can be used to weight and measure all things that make of quality of life.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 11:36:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Although, thinking  about it, our not being productivist is not only because of our desire for sustainability, but also derives from our doubts about GDP as an indicator of the success of a society.

We tend to be qualitativists ;-)

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 05:41:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Quotations from Berlin
Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance - these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible.

ET in a nutshell...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 05:59:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed.

It comes down to  the quality, rather than the quantity, of production and hence to the denominator of GDP.

£, $ and € just don't cut it IMHO as a unit of measure: an energy unit, on the other hand, just might.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 06:08:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sustainability is part of it, and having deconstructed the standard metrics of GrowthTM is part of it. But I also sense a deeper undercurrent of dissent from the mantra that having more toys makes your playtime better. And an understanding that, in The WestTM at least, GrowthTM is in the business of producing more toys, not a better coverage of the necessaries of life.

We do not applaud the efforts of the squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own efforts.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 07:48:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, you've won, I think I'll make it the next chapter, before even going into details about sustainability.

We take it for granted in those parts that GDP is a broken metric, yet a new reader would probably come with the idea that it's the natural target for any society. This is therefore an important distinctive trait.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 02:18:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A rarely seen question is "How much of your own happiness are you ready to share with people who are less happy - assuming that any 'happiness' you give away is deducted from your own?"

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 04:47:14 PM EST
i think we ask ourselves that question subconsciously all the time.
true happiness doesn't want to be hoarded, it likes to multiply between friends.
too much self sacrifice, you have nothing left to give any more.

it's like that old saw: 'the best thing you can do for the poor is not become one of them'

and that can be interpreted more than one way...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 04:55:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well said, melo!
by sgr2 on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 07:48:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, laughter can be pretty infectious.....and no deductions are involved there....

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 06:05:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why would you assume that the happiness the doer gives away is 'deducted,' rather than being returned to the doer triple-fold?

At least as respects volunteering, I always got way more back in return for the value of the time spent. Why would it be any different with happiness?

by sgr2 on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 07:58:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes of course that is often the case, but I wanted to point out that there can be an exchange of 'happiness' that is deducted - for instance, one can easily give 10€ to charity, but what if you gave a 1000 or 10000 €, and your monthly salary is 3000. At some point there is a deduction.

When you decide on an amount to give, it is usually below that which feels like a deduction. And that 'amount' can be money, possessions, time and/or skills. I'm interested in how people find that point. How do you decide on the amount of time you put into volunteering? Is 40 hours a week too much? Is 10 hours too much? Because you are definitely making a decision, drawing a line.


You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 08:49:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hmm, okay, that's an interesting point. In deciding upon how much time to give, I approach my volunteer projects just the same as I would any other task; putting in as much time as it takes to get the job done to the best of my ability.

I would say how much time most people give away is totally dependent on their other responsibilities at the time and how much of their personality is geared to giving. If you're a giving person by nature, it's easy to give until you meet a point of diminishing returns.

by sgr2 on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 10:48:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you've put your finger on the really sore spot.
One of the worlds that ARGeezer spoke about in his recent post on the Utopians. In fact the world we all try to come to grips with is the one in which we live, in which the gift of happiness is widely seen as diminishing your own, as if happiness is like nuts squirreled away for the winter. An apt if sad metaphor for a consumer society.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:30:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I should say it's a sad metaphor. Shouldn't happiness be viewed from the same perspective as wealth in the sense that it's meant to be spread around? What's the use of squirreling it away? Happiness doesn't come from having things, but from doing things that we believe to be of value, either to ourselves or others, no?
by sgr2 on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:51:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There's probably a diary that could attach here about the meaning of freedom, and how somehow the meaning of freedom has come to be narrowly culturally defined as  a freedom to spend money. I think this places freedom definition is much broader than that.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Sep 29th, 2010 at 08:18:45 PM EST
I think this places freedom definition is much broader than that.

darn right.

money buys outer freedom, often its real price is inner chains.

freedom to spend money, and freedom to get off the hamster wheel, are heady brews, but the real elixir of inner freedom cannot be bought with money, or rich people would be saints!

some get there despite their riches, but they are statistically invisible.

the word 'freedom' needs as much deconstruction as the word 'growth'.

too much of anything morphs into its opposite, oriental wisdom postulates...

growth is Good when it's getting some poor sod in africa a fridge and some vaccines, or putting in a rail system, or flat roads for bicycles, or microloans, but it's bad when it gets too big for its boots footprint....bhopal...BP....

freedom is Great when you can say and think what you want in a society and not have to pull 20 years in the work kamps for the privilege... not so much when it's the freedom to pillage, purvey lies-as-truth, pollute the aquis, load up future generations with nuclear waste and debt millstones.

it seems simple enough for a fairly bright 5 year old to comprehend, i wonder why grown adults in power positions have such a hard time grokking it?

we keep foolishly seeking absolution through absolutes, absolute freedom, absolute growth. this is about as useful as buttering limgams, and a lot less fun.

...absolution from having to take on board the job ahead of us, by incantating to shibboleths, moving air around to little end.

no easy answers to complex questions, unfortunately.

simple ones, yes... simple ain't easy. simplistic thinking is.

i remember reading about a suicide note which (simply) read:

'I couldn't simplify enough'

we even call mentally challenged people 'simple', to add insult to injury!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 03:31:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Money also buys inner freedom - if you have no inner.

NCE is Frankenstein's monster for people with inners, and God's Own Country for people without.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 07:14:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
that's a bit oblique for me...

money serves to cushion pain, but very little to make it go away completely.

people, unempowered, have their decisions made for them by sympathetic resonance to others' consensus, and the media is up to its toupee in this.

people can take back the power to successfully redirect their lives to go more where they need, but only first if they take more authorship of their own thoughts. that's the front line...

right now so many are thinking thoughts decided for them by interests to whom they signify little, and the thoughts, force majeure, sink to that level, and they try to sort of think they are in control, but then there's the ghastly ache for authenticity, to fill that part of the void that the status toys and second hand opinions don't get to reach.

cue jokers of all hues...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 11:18:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A criticism of Rawls I have seen is that he sees (I have not read his books) society as something that should be governed by abstract rule ; the counter argument being that human judgements of decency are indispensable and important (and for example can mean, no war)

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 12:15:40 AM EST
Obama, John Rawls, and a Defense of the Unreasonable by Nonpartisan, dated June 13, '09 contains an interesting discussion of Rawls' thought.

I think it suffers from the same flaw as all Utopian systems. Rawls starts by trying to decide what a group of people who had to create a society from scratch would want. This approach is unhelpful and only serves to further the disembodiment of theory from the actual functioning of society. I have studied many of these attempts, including all of the various fictive utopias attempted by H.G. Wells.

Instead, I believe we have to look at what actual societies have done before they were taken over by mad utopians such as the Classical Economists and their even madder successors, the Neo-Classical Economists. Such utopian projects seem always to end up being projections of the prejudices of their creators. I do not believe that moving from a living, organic society into one constructed by analysis and theory can produce anything but disaster, be it The Terror, The Bolshevik Revolution, The Great Leap Forward, Globalization or the equally utopian project of creating an autonomous, self governing economic system as attempted by the Classical and Neo-Classical Economists.

By removing the society from a living, evolved culture and thrusting it into a rationally created system we seem doomed to leave our feelings behind and to end up creating a monstrosity. Our current problems are directly the result of our two century failed utopian experiment in creating an economy that is supposed to be independent and autonomous of the culture in which it is based. I believe all such projects are inhuman and inherently doomed.    

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 12:55:44 AM EST
Ethics derived from utopian reasoning also tends to be ethics fit for the rulers of said utopia, or at least rulers striving to make their society into said utopia. Most of us not being rulers, it tends to lead to impractical conclusions with respect to what should be done - ie conclusions that ignore what I/you/we can do from our actual positions of agency and (small) power.

It is similar to the tendency of identifying with the rich (more obvious in the US, but clearly existing on this side of the pond to).

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 04:08:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A swedish kind of death:
Ethics derived from utopian reasoning also tends to be ethics fit for the rulers of said utopia,

Maybe one of the characteristics of a Utopia is that while it may (discuss...) have rules, it has no 'rulers'?

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 08:44:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Or, in the frame of self-organization, a flock of birds can be seen to have no leaders or be full of leaders, or that leadership is not 'owned' but, like the talking stick, is passed along to share temporary 'ownership'.

I think that the self-organizing model in which all are potential leaders requires some kind of 'talking stick' method for the rotation of leadership.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 08:59:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ethics derived from utopian reasoning also tends to be ethics fit for the rulers of said utopia,

Starting with Plato's Republic, perhaps.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 10:13:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which is actually a quite dystopian work. Not very tightly reasoned either, unless the translation I read did it a disservice.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 05:50:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I doubt it was the translation. Authoritarians love Plato.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 06:13:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"This approach is unhelpful and only serves to further the disembodiment of theory from the actual functioning of society."

I have not read everything that Rawls wrote, but from what I read this is an unfair comment.

Rawls does not want to start everything from scratch. He wants to see what can be considered ethical (and bear in mind that when he wrote, there was a significant chunk of the population arguing that ANY inequality would always be unethical).
He posited that to determine that, we should free ourselves from knowing where we would be in society. This is a very fair request. Otherwise, knowing that I'll be a slave owner, I could find reasons to make slavery ethical...

Neither did he reckon that he would find societies completely meeting his criterion. But with this yardstick, we could at least attempt to differentiate between unethical outcomes that we should be trying to curb, and ones that could be considered not only a feature of our society, but a desirable one.

We keep reading the tautology that the ultra-rich wealth is theirs to keep because, well, they deserve it since it is a market outcome. Then the ultra-rich make sure (with money) that this particular market (there are many other ways to organise markets) is maintained, and that "market outcome" continue to be equated with fairness in the media.

Well, if one wants to keep the "actual functioning of society", then that situation will be considered ethical. In Rawls' view, it would not. I know where I stand on that particular matter ;-)

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 04:58:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem is more about getting the Rawlsian view accepted as correct than about whether or not it's a valid ethical system.

The issue is that it does nothing to solve inequality unless it's a narrative that everyone grows up with and which is somehow built into policy.

How likely is it that it could be installed in that way?

Without political guns and butter it's just an interesting idea. I can understand the appeal because it has a certain neatness to it, but I think it makes one significant mistake, which is to assume that given a rational choice, everyone will decide that inequality is bad.

I don't think this is true. The reality seems to be more that a small minority of the population believe that inequality is a good and excellent thing, and can't get enough of it - without limit. If they were the ones owning 99% of the resources and everyone else was starving they not only wouldn't care, they'd celebrate. And they'd want even more.

Without those people collective decisions would be far more intelligent. So any useful ethical system has to be able to deal with them firmly and realistically.

So I think you can use Rawls in debates with reasonable people, but not as a tool to persuade the unreasonable ones.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 05:31:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A lot of people will always feel that inequality is good. This is a natural part of humanity, just as are rape, murder and theft.

The problem, in terms of public policy, comes when inequality becomes acceptable as a political discourse. This is paradoxical, in that it only ever benefits a small minority. The political audience for inequality is composed of two groups : those who are  instinctively obedient to their betters, and the wannabes.

As long as democracy is public and transparent, the inegalitarian discourse should really never gain the upper hand, because collectively, peçople are generally egalitarian. If it becçomes legitimate and normal to vote in one's individual best interests, then the inegalitarian thesis will triumph.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 03:57:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem is that once inequality creates political advantage, you have a political system which is inherently unstable. There's a feedback loop which promotes the influence of selfish sociopaths and narcissists at the expense of everyone else. Any system that does this will fall over, for the same reason that you can't balance a pencil on its tip.

You can't solve this with Rawlsian argumentation. You can only solve it by building policy around some other set of feedback loops - ones which promote stability and collective rather than individual progress.

If you want to see how democratic a system is, don't waste time on rhetoric about votes, democracy or ethics. Look at the feedback loops. Use them to see which behaviours and attitudes are promoted and rewarded, and which are punished.

You can then see that (e.g.) NCE is inherently disastrous because although it's surrounded by a fog of rhetoric about freedom, choice, democracy, and the rest, and although it pretends to promote stability, it's based on feedback loops which explicitly reward greed and selfishness.

Soviet Communism was disastrous for different reasons. After Stalin created a monster, the feedback loops promoted conformity, dull political cunning, and lack of imagination.

And so on.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 05:50:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
While offentlighetsprincipen is a cornerstone in Swedish public bureaucracy, making everything that is not secret public. The mere knowledge that anyone can walk in and demand your records makes the bureaucrats much more honest. Thus creating trust, which gives pride, which gives more honesty. Feedback loop.

Not perfect or anything, we have a scandal unfolding in Gothenburg right now regarding embezzlement of public funds. But no single feedback loop should be trusted, rather an intricate web of loops should be woven.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 07:29:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
ThatBritGuy:
but I think it makes one significant mistake, which is to assume that given a rational choice, everyone will decide that inequality is bad.

If I understand correctly, Rawls gets around this by postulating an uncertainty with regard to an individual's status in the society in question. That seems to me to transform the problem into a version of ultimatum game, which makes a certain level of fairness (in this context "equality") advantageous.

I'm not at all sure how useful Rawl's proposition would be as a tool of argumentation, but it does pose the question as to how would one organize a society so as to promote decisions in favor or greater fairness.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt ät gmail dotcom) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 03:50:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the criticism still applies. The Rawlsian argument works for rational people. It won't work on aggressive narcissists because they simply ignore anything that gets in their way.

I'm reminded of stories about industrial owners who literally didn't care when employees were injured or killed in accidents. A normal reaction would be to tend to the injured, but these people were more likely to rage about lost profits.

You can't argue rationally with people like that. You can only try to keep them away from any kind of power and influence.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 05:53:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
TBG
I'm not at all sure how useful Rawl's proposition would be as a tool of argumentation, but it does pose the question as to how would one organize a society so as to promote decisions in favor or greater fairness.

The one mechanism that physical and/or social evolution seems to have provided us for such purposes is compassion, which is uncertain, at best, even within immediate families. The further one moves from the family the less certain one can be that compassion will be forthcoming.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 10:15:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but I do think we have great potential for compassion.

Note the often demonstrated need to dehumanize the other, before violence can be used as means to resolve a conflict. Note also that for a long time a big problem in training soldiers was to get them to actually shoot an enemy soldier they could see (the US army seems to have largely solved this by now). And thirdly note that our compassion often crosses art-boundaries, demanding that we use the proper rituals when killing animals.

If compassion can be suppressed, then it should also be possible to nurture it.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 04:36:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rawlsian consensus from Nonpartisan's diary.

According to Rawls, a large majority of people with different views are able to form what he called an "overlapping consensus" -- a core set of policies and governing principles that are contained within all their comprehensive doctrines.  So long as those people are "reasonable" -- that is, so long as they are rational and willing to work with other reasonable people -- there's no need for them to share the same comprehensive doctrine or agree on fundamental principles.  They can govern just fine without any such philosophical agreement, just by passing laws that all or most of them can agree on for their own different reasons.

This is, of course, exactly how our government works: a bunch of people who disagree on ideas come together and agree on policies.  But Rawls was the first to elevate this practical political solution to the level of a philosophy.  Rawls' great insight was that our political system works precisely because of, not in spite of, the fact that we lack universal philosophical standards of right and wrong.  The reason all previous liberal theories had run afoul of pluralism was that they had divided the world into right (those who agreed with the theory) and wrong (those who disagreed with it).  Rawls replaced this dichotomy with another one: he divided the world into the reasonable (those who were willing to work within the overlapping consensus) and the unreasonable (those who weren't).  Rawls' overlapping consensus was much more inclusive than previous theories, since only people with extreme positions would be unwilling to work with others in the overlapping consensus -- and it also meant that people could only be excluded from the consensus by choice, not for any other reason (deep-seated religious belief for Locke, incorrect beliefs for Kant, ethnic/racial/national origin for Mill).  Anyone was welcome within the overlapping consensus unless they voluntarily absented themselves from it.  And anyone who worked within the overlapping consensus had a voice in shaping what that consensus turned out to be.

I see two problems with the above:

  1. A significant group can frustrate the whole process by rejecting everything the somewhat larger group proposes. Sound familiar? It doesn't matter that they might be labeled "unreasonable". It is about power and not reason, with the purpose of power being to feel powerful.

  2. Any solution that would be adequate to the situation could be outside the (manipulated) consensus -- such as is the case just now.

By accepting that the solution has to come from within the consensus, as Obama has done, instead of attempting to move the consensus via leadership to include viable solutions, the consensus approach tends to a Panglossian reducto ad absurdum of "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

But I will grant Rawls that the problems posed since the deconstruction of positivism, starting in the '60s and '70s is acute. Worse, the fundamental conclusion that social reality is a social construct is much more easily exploited by sociopaths than by those who actually care about anything broader than their own interests. Developing a sense of universal compassion was the response to rampant egoism in settled communities was the response in many cultures starting around 500BC, but it has proved insufficient to the problem.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 10:42:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I may have mischaracterized Rawls, but I remain very leery of an excessive reliance on reason or reasonableness, especially as a guide to radical changes in social organization. To me much of the problem with Obama could be said to be due to him employing a Rawlsian approach.

Again from Nonpartisan's diary:

Looking at the second case, (feeling that one should not have to work with certain kinds of people), we can quickly see that populism is not permitted in the Rawlsian world.  "Throw the bums out," as Ross Perot put it, is a distinctly un-Rawlsian sentiment.  You can't throw the bums out, because the bums want to be there and are willing to work with you.  The only way to get rid of political figures you don't like -- not just to remove them from office, but to prevent them from exercising substantive political influence -- is to wait for them to retire.  Rawls' overlapping consensus is so welcoming, so all-encompassing, that it denies the voting public the right to choose who influences their government.  This is particularly problematic when it comes to powerful corporations and special interests.  Corporate fat cats always want influence and are willing to work with anyone in power, so they can't be removed from a Rawlsian government, even though they usually don't represent the best interests of the people.  Sure, you can vote the party in power out of office, but the corporations will just cosy up to the new party in power, and nothing will change.  There's something profoundly undemocratic about a system where the people have to play Whack-A-Mole with nefarious characters who refuse to stay out of power no matter how many times they're sent packing.

This becomes particularly serious when the people you don't feel you should have to work with are the very ones that have massively disproportionate influence -- as at present with the banksters.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 06:31:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are touching a different subject than the one I had in mind.
Rawlsian consensus is the other main chapter of his body of work -I was writing about ethics and in particular the idea that one's position in society should no be taken into account, and that improving the situation of the least favoured should be a major yardstick.

And yes you have a point with your reserves about the Rawlsian consensus, although in that case I think the main problem is something else: Republicans have thrown out of the debate those who argued that government was not always the problem through 50 years of propaganda. They were not thrown out because they did not want to take part in a reasonable discussion. They certainly did not exclude themselves.

It's more an Overton window problem, with Obama not willing to try to move it. Actually, Republicans are out of the Rawlsian consensus (they will block ANYTHING so they probably are the antithesis of the Rawlsian consensus), but they occupy most of the Overton window.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 05:03:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's more an Overton window problem, with Obama not willing to try to move it.

If I take Nonpartisan's intent correctly, that may be because Obama sees the banksters as part of the consensus. They are certainly more than willing to work with him, even if that really involves him working for them, in practice.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 03:19:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was writing about ethics...

But ethics are specific to the society. The first three search results for the word "ethics" via google bring up the statement that ethics are synonomous with morality or mores. Mores is, ultimately, the customary behavior of a people.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 08:21:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But that is a mistake.

Just like legality and legitimacy are not the same thing, ethics and morality are not the same thing.

By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 09:29:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But like legitimacy, ethics depend on the society you are in and, particularly, the constraints it faces. It is clearly unethical to leave malformed newborns to die of exposure in a modern industrial state - or even in a premodern state with relatively strong social safety nets. But if you're a subsistence farmer in a premodern state with no support for handling handicapped children, and you're only barely surviving as it is, then it's a lot more of a grey area.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:01:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps I should have elaborated. Just because ethics and morality are often taken as being synonymous does not mean that they are. My point was that, like mores, ethics is specific to the culture, however much some ethicists might want to make them universal.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 11:42:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Systems of social organization that are "autonomous, self-regulating" have eliminated the humans---and are prima facie dehumanized- and dehumanizing.
Duh.
Yet the whole school of neo-classical economists (and a lot of the classical ones) seem blind to this.
Could it be that their institutions self-select for the bright but gullible authoritarian? I think so.

See Bob Altemeyer.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:39:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
gullible authoritarian?

Gullible in the sense that love is often blind? :-)

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 11:45:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Good idea, and I generally agree.  However, I think you are mis-defining just a bit, but perhaps with significant implications, the Rawlsian objective, particularly with respect to the utilitarian view.

If I recall correctly, the Rawlsian problem is not maximizing the welfare of the worst off.  Rather,in its most strict form, it is maximizing the sum of everyone's welfare, such that (1) no one is made worse off and (2) the least well-off see some increase in welfare.  A less restrictive Rawlsian specification relaxes the first condition, but only when there are no possibilities for improving the welfare of the least without reducing the welfare of others.  That is, it's not fair to take from the rich to give to the poor unless it's the only possible way to avoid reducing the well-being of the poor.

This is a bit different from simply maximizing the welfare of the least well off and makes pinning down what we mean by the "quasi" part of your definition a bit more important.

by santiago on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 04:22:22 PM EST
Your target is more of the utilitarian kind (thanks for the tip: it's not utilitarist, that's the French word...).

I guarantee you that Rawls asks for the condition of the worst off to be maximised. I read A Theory of Justice, and you may look it up in the Wikipedia entry if you wish.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 04:46:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're right.  Rawls advocates "maximin" in Theory of Justice, which is the same as advocating complete equality to the extent possible.  What I described was a Rawlsian strategy for  solving utilitarian negotiation problems.
by santiago on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:52:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Paul Krugman recently wrote this, elaborating on the apparent Keynesian suggestion that World Wars are good ways to solve economic depressions:

But maybe this is an opportunity to reiterate a point I try to make now and then: economics is not a morality play. It's not a happy story in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. The market economy is a system for organizing activity -- a pretty good system most of the time, though not always -- with no special moral significance. The rich don't necessarily deserve their wealth, and the poor certainly don't deserve their poverty; nonetheless, we accept a system with considerable inequality because systems without any inequality don't work. And before the trolls jump in to say aha, Krugman concedes the truth of supply-side economics, that's not an argument against progressive taxation and the welfare state; it's just an argument that says that there are limits. Cuba doesn't work; Sweden works pretty well.

And when we're experiencing depression economics, by which I mean a situation in which it's hard to create sufficient demand to achieve full employment -- mainly because short-term interest rates are up against the zero lower bound -- the essentially amoral nature of economics becomes even more acute. As I've said repeatedly, this is a situation in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn't particularly wise.

This made me think: What is the point of economic policy? Where do we spend governing resources? Who gets the most attention and respect? That shows our values. So I am already skeptical that economy has nothing to do with ethics.

So what does the modern society value? Where does it go to big lengths? As Krugman says, equality is not our value - it does not work. So the most needy must not be concerned. What does work?! Petty privelege fights?!

I would say, if some decent standard of equality is a problem for an economic system, to hell with the economic system. If Krugman is happy enough that Japan's depression is dissapointing but not disastrous, wouldn't he change the opinion on Cuba some time?  

by das monde on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 11:27:15 PM EST
Economics since the early 19th century has been about creating a supposed autonomous sphere for the market which supposedly operates according to objective laws that must be obeyed. This absolves the beneficiaries of the system from guilt for the suffering of the victims of the system. Politics is for the rest of reality, uh, except that it has to make sure that the necessary conditions for markets to properly function are maintained.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 12:16:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which is to say, politics must limit itself to endless useless debate on dancing angels, and leave the real stuff to it's bosses.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:43:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For all who drink the Cool Aid, yes. And that Cool Aid is delicious, you know.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 11:48:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What distinguished most of the Classical Economists from the scholastics was that they gave much greater value to observation and calculation. They were, after all, all about business and how it functioned. A major similarity was their use of axiomatic assumptions and over-reliance on deductions therefrom. I suppose that the occasional "not a true Scottsman" helped to lubricate the process.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 11:57:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"As Krugman says, equality is not our value - it does not work."

Well, he only says that about TOTAL equality.
Which, you must admit, is not much of an incentive. If you reach the same situation whatever you do, why would you try very hard?

"I would say, if some decent standard of equality is a problem for an economic system, to hell with the economic system."

Now, this is something else entirely. Of course, there is a problem with the wording -can we call it rather a cap on inequality to some decent standard? I think you will find that Krugman advocates far, far less inequality than what we see in the developed world these days. And it has been demonstrated to work well for the economic system too, as seen in the expansion until the mid-70s, or the fact that even today, societies with a lower gini coefficient tend to do better (per head at least) than similar societies (ie let's not compare Australia and Bangladesh, please) with a higher one.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 03:06:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ok, speaking in total terms, Krugman does give some value to some equality. We know that, but he does not try to formulate that carefully. He says categorically: economics is amoral, equality does not work. Little excuses refer to the libertarian frame - the standard ethics of today. And I try to guess, how much Krugman is really doing to change the inequality standards.
by das monde on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 03:28:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I can think of few people in the world doing more to change the narrative.

And I reckon you read wrongly his "economics is amoral" statement. Having read everything he wrote since 2000 (OK, I haven't finished his economics textbook, but my wife bought it to learn about the subject and I did go through quite a lot of that too), I am very confident in my understanding that he makes that point to state that the fact that someone is rich does not mean he necessarily deserved it.
He even added (no later than this week) that the poors certainly did not deserve it.

It is formulated pretty clearly in my view. I don't reckon he feels any need to wear any badge of libertarianism, in fact he has pretty much ridiculed libertarianism in hundreds of pages.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 03:36:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but when he says 'Sweden works, Cuba doesn't, therefore free market economies are better' his logic is hard to follow.

Firstly Sweden is more of a social democratic economy than a free market one.

Secondly Cuba's economy has always been strongly limited by trade sanctions from the US.

And finally, what does 'work' mean? Does the US economy, with its vast and increasing inequality, work according to Krugman's definition? Is it hard to imagine that there might be people in Cuba who are better off than people in the US?

The subtext is an obvious and rather naive or unquestioning acceptance of free market exceptionalism compared to the alternatives - when the reality is that in fact free market economies only 'work' in the libertarian sense of increasing inequality, to the point where inequality and autocratic top-down policy are a good effective definition of the political and financial output of a so-called free market.

Free market economies can only work if they're based on an imperial model which steals resources from other countries. Even then they blow up every few years, and they deny most people democratic participation. They're also suicidally bad at long-term planning and prone to outbreaks of corporate banditry and corruption.

That's a strange definition of 'work' - unless you start from the assumption that they're the best of all possible arrangements by definition, and work back from that.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 04:04:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Krugman's fundamental difficulty in understanding the real world is that he believes that most goods and services are traded on spot markets, or in (mathematically) "well-behaved" financial systems, which means financial systems that behave like spot markets.

If real economic used spot markets, a Big Mac would not cost the same in Malmö and Haparanda...

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 05:04:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Yes, but when he says 'Sweden works, Cuba doesn't, therefore free market economies are better' his logic is hard to follow. "

But he does not say that. You are projecting your own prejudice into his quote. Therefore, and the words that follow, are yours.
I agree that Cuba is also restricted and that it plays an important part, so that it's not a clean experiment. I would argue, though, that the burden of the proof is on he who makes the claim that full equality is indeed the system maximising the condition of the worst-off in the long run.
All Krugman is saying is that there are limits to redistribution -in fact, let me quote the very previous sentence: "And before the trolls jump in to say aha, Krugman concedes the truth of supply-side economics, that's not an argument against progressive taxation and the welfare state; it's just an argument that says that there are limits."

Krugman's mention of Cuba and Sweden merely indicates that there is no obvious logical argument to reject even full equality, merely empirical ones. And he very clearly did not pick a particularly neo-liberal country as the working one.

I was going to have one chapter in this series about our embracing evidence-based thought rather than slogans and demands of ideological purity. Are you telling me that this is not a shared trait here and that you reject it? If not, what do you fault him for?

"Is it hard to imagine that there might be people in Cuba who are better off than people in the US? "
Is it hard to notice that this is a shockingly unfair point? Comparing one's maximum to the other's minimum?

"The subtext is an obvious and rather naive or unquestioning acceptance of free market exceptionalism compared to the alternatives"
Really? From someone who keeps singing the praise of social democracy and who picked Sweden as the example of a country that works, Sweden that, as you yourself said, cannot be called a free market economy?

"Free market economies can only work if they're based on an imperial model which steals resources from other countries."
This may be true, but is rather too flippant a statement to be accepted without a convincing demonstration. Otherwise it's just a slogan.

"That's a strange definition of 'work' - unless you start from the assumption that they're the best of all possible arrangements by definition, and work back from that."
Again, Krugman has written hundreds of pages slamming the direction USA were taking. Why do you project the neo-liberal agenda onto him? I can think of no reason other than the idea that anyone who does not concede the whole Marxist doctrine is an opponent to be fought.
Surely that is not your reason -but then I am missing it entirely.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 05:35:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Where am I projecting? Krugman could have used any number of other examples - but he chose Cuba to make a point that 'there are limits'?

Is it hard to notice that this is a shockingly unfair point? Comparing one's maximum to the other's minimum?

This isn't the issue. The issue is that Cuba is in no way a conventional economy. Never mind that it's nominally socialist - it's been aggressively ostracised by its nearest and largest physical trading partner. So saying that Cuba somehow proves the limits of redistribution is a non-point.

But it's a revealing non-point. The fact that Krugman can write this, and - presumably - actually believe it, says a lot about his assumptions and the shallowness of his political insight.

This may be true, but is rather too flippant a statement to be accepted without a convincing demonstration. Otherwise it's just a slogan.

You mean apart from the British Empire, the age of colonialism in the rest of Europe, the East India Company, the oil and resource wars of the 20th century, and the US-sponsored coups throughout Asia and South America in the late 20th century?

Do I need to explain how all of these were contrived, or at least packaged as, the inevitable rational actions of nominally free markets?

You seem entirely too awed by Krugman to accept that in his environment anything to the left of a centrist solution like Sweden's is considered suicidally self-destructive by definition.

It's good that he's not a psycho-Randian like most of the Chicago altar boys, but that doesn't mean he's pushing the Overton window as hard as it needs to be pushed in the US.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 07:24:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the preceeding paragraph Krugman says:

The market economy is a system for organizing activity -- a pretty good system most of the time, though not always -- with no special moral significance. The rich don't necessarily deserve their wealth, and the poor certainly don't deserve their poverty; nonetheless, we accept a system with considerable inequality because systems without any inequality don't work.

Then Krugman says:

Sweden works, Cuba doesn't.

This pretty clearly implies tht the amount of equality in Cuba is too great for the economy to work. And Krugman ignores the massive punitive behavior of Cuba's former trading partner to the north. Krugman also ignores that our economic system deliberately excludes moral considerations while having insisted on remaking the society to serve the needs of the economy. That the way in which this has been done is necessary is an underlying assumption, not a demonstrated fact. Refusing to grant the assumptions of Classical and Neo-Classical Economics has come to constitute an act of opting out of the discussion, in a Rawlsian consensus approach. That is the problem, especially when it has repeatedly been shown that the Classical and Neo-Classical approaches have major problems and little predictive power. The Rawlsian consensus has come to exclude all who do not drink the Cool Aid.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 01:55:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For years I have tried to read between the lines in Krugman's writings- tried to parse out what he says that is needful to say in order for him not to lose that powerful platform over there in New York, a loss that a stronger statement might bring about, and what might be such bull as his Cuba statement.
I honestly think he sees the market model as a basically good one, and is, in the end, a tweaker.
It's just that his tweaks are bigger.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:58:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There's nothing wrong with markets: it's rentier profits that are the problem.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 12:49:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cyrille:
Which, you must admit, is not much of an incentive. If you reach the same situation whatever you do, why would you try very hard?

Why do indeed some try very hard at jobs where it is obvious it will not earn them more? For example teachers and nurses.

Of the top of my head and in no particular order: Work-ethics, respect of peers, pride in a job well done, the knowledge the others depend on your work.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 04:53:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Why do indeed some try very hard at jobs where it is obvious it will not earn them more?"

An important word in the above sentence is "some" -even if conceding the point that it is obvious that it will not get them (why earn? Did I at any point suggest that it was only about money?) anything, which is not the case in any hospital or school I've ever seen (to take the same examples that you took).

And of course, you are very deliberately choosing jobs that are known to nurture that kind of feeling, for which I have enormous respect, don't get me wrong.

How close exactly to 100% of society made of this kind of people do you think we are, right now?


Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 01:13:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Cuba: sustainability pioneer?

In the fall of 2006, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report found that* Cuba is the only country in the world which meets its criteria for sustainable development*. Cuba alone, according to WWF, manages to achieve certain basic living standards without extracting resources in a way that exceeds nature's ability to renew them. How do we account for these findings and what can we learn from them?

WWF determines a country's sustainable development by comparing its rating on the United Nations' Human Development Index, a measure of human welfare (health, education, poverty, etc.) to its ecological footprint, as largely reflected in its per capita fossil fuel consumption. According to the WWF report, both China and India still have fairly small per capita ecological footprints but neither has achieved minimum development standards. Cuba has. The United States, as expected, is highly developed but with a rate of energy use and consumption eight times higher than the world's capacity to sustain it.



Wind power
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 09:56:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Cuba Exploring Wind Power as Sustainable Energy Alternative
Las Tunas, May 15 (RHC-ACN)-Cuban specialists have begun the installation of equipment to measure wind force on the northern coast of Las Tunas province, an area that has been considered by experts to be among the best for the development of wind farms in Cuba.

The study will take approximately a year and will determine the kind of generators that could give the optimal results, looking at the height at which they should be placed, and their potential to contribute to the national electric grid.

Local officials from the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment (CITMA) told the Cuban News Agency that the locale chosen by the experts has the necessary conditions to set up a wind farm, since it does not represent an obstacle to the development of other programs, nor does it demand costly investments.


'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 03:39:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
das monde:
I would say, if some decent standard of equality is a problem for an economic system, to hell with the economic system.

that's how it feels to see the subsidies for PV come down so fast after so little time.

it is revealing though... who stands to lose has every 'rational' reason to dig their expensive heels in.

scare quotes because this so-called rationality is the fuel for our heading over the climate cliff.

sociopaths are brilliant at appearing rational. what they lack in common sense is abundantly compensated by their persuasive skills.

Mad. Men.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 02:30:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The philosophical problem of equality is that even if everyone agreed, in principle, to an ethic of equality, or Rawls's "maximin" solution, you still have the problem of defining what equality means.  Equality of what?  What dimensions? How can we say that a monk who chooses to live alone on a starvation diet isn't equal to billionaire Warren Buffet in terms of what each one wants to achieve and be in life. Is an otherwise well-to-do woman who freely chooses to have her clitoris circumcised, as many East African immigrant women do, really equal to a European woman of the same economic conditions who chooses to have an abortion, and why or why not?

The dimension problem of equality is why Amartya Sen responds to Rawls by arguing that only by seeking freedom, which includes both individual "freedom from" as well as social "freedom to," can equality really be sought after as a social goal.  For that reason, I think Sen's thesis is more applicable to ET than Rawls's.

by santiago on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 07:15:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Unless you believe in mystical influence, the monk and Mr Buffet have very different abilities to influence others. The monk can't force others to work for his (or her) benefit. Buffet and the rest of his class deprive others of their freedom by dictating how their time is spent - and for whom.

Buffet at least has the decency to occasionally have twinges of conscience about this. Others in his class revel in the contempt they feel for those they inconvenience.

Rawls is arguing against a background where economic theory is the default collective moral standard for society - and his argument is implicitly against the dishonest and false definitions of equality which economic theory promotes and promises.

The fact that other moral systems are possible is an argument for a wider examination of collective economic morality, not an excuse to pretend that personal choices have no influence on others.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 10:07:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not sure what you're talking about.

The whole premise here is that ET is looking for other moral standards than the default economic one of income and growth measurements. Rawls, however, is still mostly just income and growth. Dimensions of well-being like influencing others don't enter into Rawls' picture.  Sen, however, generalizes past things like the standard economic default to what people actually can and want to do with their lives. That seems like a better way to go.

by santiago on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 11:11:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
However, maximising the condition of the least well off in purely economic terms is close enough for corporate work in a society that makes power - and indeed human worth - coterminous with economic wealth.

There are two different but mutually reinforcing projects in play here: The first is to emancipate the powerless, if you'll permit the high-flying expression. The second is to alter the way society allocates power to make it less dependent upon economic considerations.

You're talking about the second of those projects. This diary deals with the first. The second is dealt with here.

These two projects are intimately connected, because you work in the society you have, not the one you might like. Railing against an excessively narrow view of the basis for the allocation of power in society does not diminish one's duty to remedy the observed deficiencies in the allocation on the basis of the institutions that actually exist. Nor should remedying the plight of the afflicted in the present be construed as an excuse for failing to reform the underlying institutions.

Political movements that ignore the institutional basis for the problems they identify rapidly peter out into irrelevance after the first generation of activists. On the other hand, political movements that ignore the plight of the present in favour of building a more glorious future after the revolution tend to obtain poor results - I note in passing the IMF's structural adjustment programmes and the idea of bombing Iraq to democracy, and leave the rest of the laundry list of examples as an exercise to the reader.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 05:44:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The common issue is accepting that in a sane society limiting the freedom of action of a tiny minority who deem themselves worthy of absolute, monarchic freedom to order and interfere in the lives of others can only create wider freedoms, more thoughtful participation, better planning and better decision making for everyone.

Effectively it's an argument against pseudo-monarchy. Which is different to the Anglo concept of freedom and choice which promises that individuals can become pseudo-monarchs through financial acquisition, and as their wealth increases their accountability and the limits on their personal power decrease.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 06:37:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This isn't a new concept at all. The points you raise were those first thought through by Atkinson and his work on how to measure poverty in the 1970's that led to Sen's development of the human poverty index that the World Bank now uses.  But it turns out that even when you look at just the standard economic dimensions of well being, correcting for equality in one dimension causes pretty wide disparities in others - such as how women or other minorities are experience life, for example. How one defines poverty is actually a pretty big exercise of power in itself.  

That's why Sen developed the capacity approach.  Focusing on equality of capacities to achieve and capacities to be is really the only way to achieve a semblance of equality in even the standard economic measures of well being.

by santiago on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 09:13:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sen, however, generalizes past things like the standard economic default to what people actually can and want to do with their lives. That seems like a better way to go.

Sen was active in the discussion that led to Arrow's dissertation and his 1951 book, Social Choice and Individual Values. Part of that was social choice theory, which "assumes that we need to extract a preference order on a given set of options". This has been the foundation on which much of welfare economics and development economics has been built, by Sen and others.

It is, perhaps, not accidental that the most characteristic feature of contemporary US political life has come to be the highly constrained choices with which the electorate is presented and the ease with which those constraints has come to enable the resulting process to serve the interests of the dominant players. The rest of social choice theory seems less relevant, given the prevalence of that effect.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 12:29:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
True enough, but Sen didn't win a Nobel Prize for his work on social choice theory. (Although Arrow did.) He won it for his work on poverty, and particularly for showing how you can't really affect outcomes which improve equality without first addressing the institutions which prevent individuals from even being able to define what equality means for themselves.  
by santiago on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 11:34:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I realize that, even with my very limited knowledge of the work of both Arrow and Sen. My point really was that Sen builds partly on social choice theory and that theory seems not to have produced very acceptable results, given the choices the USA has made and the way those choices seem to be made. In fact, it seems to have little bearing on the actual process. If it did the results might be better. I don't know.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Oct 5th, 2010 at 12:15:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To the contrary, I think their work on social choice theory has proven to have a lot of bearing on the actual process.  The work they did showed, contrary to the dominant neoclassical political economy model, that in most cases it's just not mathematically possible for a polity of even the unrealistically free, knowledgeable actors of standard economics to arrive at a socially optimal consensus. In reality there are almost no win-win situations, unlike what we are led to believe through a "market framework" for thinking about society. Instead of mutually beneficial negotiations, people engage in contests over "who gets what" in which there are almost always going to be some losers, so the question is, "Who will society choose to lose?"  This explains why values become so important, because they determine with whom you group to join that fight.
by santiago on Tue Oct 5th, 2010 at 06:04:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great! More reading...

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Oct 6th, 2010 at 12:50:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Suggestions? Preferably pithy overviews that admirably summarize. :-)

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Oct 6th, 2010 at 12:51:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, the wikipedia entry for Arrow's Impossibility Theorem is pretty good, at least for starters.  The key thing with Arrow is not to get tripped up, like a lot of people seem to, in his use of an election game and conclude that he was just talking about a strict case of electoral politics.  

He invented an abstract voting game between three hypothetical electors to determine, mathematically, if it is even possible to conceive of a political economy in neoclassical terms, even given their pretty unrealistic assumptions, and he finds that it is not: The existence of anything like a  social welfare function -- that the well-being of a group of three or more people can be honestly conceived of as a single average or summed function -- is a false proposition.

Regarding Sen, "Freedom as Development," is the non-academic, "popular" book which summarizes his ideas pretty well, like "A Brief History of Time" was for Hawking. (The wikipedia entry for that book, unfortunately, was pretty weak, so I'd go to the source instead.)

by santiago on Wed Oct 6th, 2010 at 05:36:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
santiago:
He [Arrow] invented an abstract voting game between three hypothetical electors to determine, mathematically, if it is even possible to conceive of a political economy in neoclassical terms, even given their pretty unrealistic assumptions, and he finds that it is not:

Well, Condorcet saw it first... ;-)

"Ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience." René Char

by Melanchthon on Mon Oct 11th, 2010 at 11:37:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...that the well-being of a group of three or more people can be honestly conceived of as a single average or summed function -- is a false proposition.

How exceedingly interesting.

That's GNP down the rat hole, for starters.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue Oct 12th, 2010 at 11:48:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, that is exactly what it means, as far as making any grand generalizations about individual well being from GDP figures are concerned.  That was his point, elucidated in further work by Sen -- that we really can't say that "a rising tide lifts all boats" when it comes to economics.

However, GDP, and its cousins GNP and GNI, are still quite useful in summarizing the total amount of market-based economic activity that is going on in an economy, which is their primary function in economics, if not in policy debates. Although many seem to forget their intro macroeconomics by the time they become journalists, it's pretty standard in the field, and in economics instruction, that GDP is useless as a stand alone data point.  It only makes sense in the context of other data to judge well-being, power, or economic activity.

by santiago on Wed Oct 13th, 2010 at 01:11:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Journalists. And policy makers. And economists talking about making policy. Weird, huh?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 13th, 2010 at 01:40:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
All the same thing: blogger wanna-bes -- people who have been liberated to speak in forums where they need not be encumbered with the facts.
by santiago on Wed Oct 13th, 2010 at 02:20:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Although many seem to forget their intro macroeconomics by the time they become journalists,

That is a natural consequence of always and uncritically using GDP or GDP pro capita as the metric for wealth in all economic exposition except these (usually perfunctory) disclaimers.

One cannot exonerate an academic discipline from perpetuating an error solely by noting disclaimers in first-year textbooks when the same discipline ignores those disclaimers essentially from the point they are made and until you graduate. In fact, reading disclaimers about the non-universal applicability of GDP in the discussion section of a first-year national accounting textbook feels a lot like reading a Quack Miranda: "We have to include a disclaimer about not elevating GDP to the One True Proxy in order to cover our asses. This being done, let's get back to elevating GDP to The One True Proxy."

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Oct 14th, 2010 at 05:47:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't quite agree.  It's more than a disclaimer. It does actually represent the way GDP and similar data points are used in the field and in professional advice to policymakers and business people. GDP per capita is a very good way of measuring economic growth, and its use in the field is mostly limited to discussions of economic growth.  It is not a particularly good way to measure economic well-being and usually isn't used as the primary evidence regarding discussions of well-being -- unemployment or other data points are used instead or with GDP. For example, GDP is but one of the frequently published and cited economic leading indicators which are meant to summarize both growth and well-being aspects of the economy.  All of the indicators get reported; not just GDP alone.

However, it cannot be denied that there is a strong association between economic well-being of even the poorest sectors of a society and GDP, regardless of how it is measured, particularly when GDP growth is slow or negative, so it would be dishonest to eliminate discussions of GDP from issues of well-being entirely.

I just don't see many economists doing the things you attribute to them. I do see a lot of other people doing it, and I see economists frequently and publicly correcting them when they do. (I just came from the right of center National Association of Business Economists annual meeting, and entire sessions, as usual, were devoted to precisely the topic of the misuse of GDP in policy debate and how to try to correct it.)  It's just not the field's fault. It really is the journalists here.

by santiago on Thu Oct 14th, 2010 at 10:20:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They were? Which ones?

I can see one there. The others seem marginally less relevant.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Oct 14th, 2010 at 11:26:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Section 23, directly, and 19 and 20 inclusively.

Section 23 presented recent papers on alternative methods to GDP for measuring economic activity and the drawbacks of GDP and the alternatives to it. This has always been a topic of interest in economics, because of the inherent difficulties in the whole project of defining and measuring an economy and what it means for different people.

by santiago on Thu Oct 14th, 2010 at 12:58:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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