Everybody knows the fight was fixed, 7

19 08 2014

Pay-to-play, celebrity version!

It’s only fair, of course: the NFL is a non-profit organization.

And, this being America, nothing like police abuse to juice the market.

Finally, why so much talk about inequality? Why, commoners today live better than kings yesterday!

(Shhhh, just don’t talk about how kings live today.)


h/ts: Erik Loomis, Lawyers, Guns & Money—3 times!


Everybody knows the dice are loaded, 2

22 07 2014

Ariella Cohen, on “poor doors”:

Extell, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side asked the city to approve a plan for a 33-story luxury condo with a separate entry for the tenants residing in the publicly subsidized rent-stabilized units, which will be segregated from the rest of the building into a section facing the street while the luxury units will face the Hudson River.

This address isn’t the only one with citizen-subsidized egress segregation, but the overall numbers remain low, if only because, as Cohen notes, it’s hard to retrofit old buildings with separate-because-unequal entrances.

Still, one gets the sense that if it were possible, it would be more popular among the penthouse set. David Von Spreckelsen, a poor-door developer, defends the tender sensibilities of the wealthy living in tax-subsidized mixed-income housing:

I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.

Take it away, Jean-Jacques:

[I]f one sees a handful of powerful and rich men at the height of greatness and fortune while the mob grovels in obscurity and misery, it is because the former prize the things they enjoy only to the extent that the others are deprived of them, and because, without changing their position, they would cease to be happy, if the people ceased to be miserable.


It’s tempting to end on Rousseau, but Cohen makes an important point in her ending: such segregation is not inevitable. It was enabled by policy, and can be undone by policy.

Hang the rich

17 06 2013

Economists should just butt the fuck out of politics. Jesus.

I know, I know: As a good social scientist I’m supposed to say nice things about econometrics and all of the EXCITING! PROVOCATIVE! insights they have to offer the study of politics, but, y’know, I’m not a particularly good social scientist so why not go with that?

Er. . . anyway. Gregory Mankiw, late of the Bush administration, has made publicly and freely available (good for him) a paper entitled ‘Defending the One Percent‘.

Yeah, I know. Still, inequality is a political issue and as such, may be debated on all sides. After a brief (worthless) fable about perfect equality and iPods and Harry Potter, Mankiw goes on to note that his following discussion of inequality is inescapably political:

At the outset, it is worth noting that addressing the issue of rising inequality necessarily involves not just economics but also a healthy dose of political philosophy. We economists must recognize not only the limits of what we know about inequality’s causes, but also the limits on the ability of our discipline to prescribe policy responses. Economists who discuss policy responses to increasing inequality are often playing the role of amateur political philosopher (and, admittedly, I will do so in this essay). Given the topic, that is perhaps inevitable. But it is useful to keep in mind when we are writing as economists and when we are venturing beyond the boundaries of our professional expertise. (pp. 2-3)

Yes, yes you should, Professor Mankiw. And yet you went ahead anyway.

So onward he goes, into familiar tales about efficiency and utility and disutility and productivity and consumption, and, unfortunately, into the increasingly-familiar tales about genetics and intelligence (and productivity, natch) and then, oops, he gets confused and in the end says it doesn’t much matter after all, so, okay.

And then we get the charming personal anecdote:

By contrast, the educational and career opportunities available to children of the top 1 percent are, I believe, not very different from those available to the middle class. My view here is shaped by personal experience. I was raised in a middle-class family; neither of my parents were college graduates. My own children are being raised by parents with both more money and more education. Yet I do not see my children as having significantly better opportunities than I had at their age. (pp. 8-9)

Yes, because everything was great back then and is exactly the same now.

Then Okun and Mirrlees and utilitarianism, a feint toward neuroscience, a jab at redistributionists (‘if you’re not willing to do it globally, you shouldn’t do it nationally’), and then a discussion of the role of factors such as height in compensation—tall folks earn more—but that totally doesn’t mean anything ha ha forget it.

Then he gets into the left critique of inequality. After noting that, “It is, I believe, hard to square the rhetoric of the left with the economist’s standard framework”, he suggests that

Someone favoring greater redistribution along the lines of Okun and Mirrlees would argue as follows. “The rich earn higher incomes because they contribute more to society than others do. However, because of diminishing marginal utility, they don’t get much value from their last few dollars of consumption. So we should take some of their income away and give it to less productive members of society. While this policy would cause the most productive members to work less, shrinking the size of the economic pie, that is a cost we should bear, to some degree, to increase utility for society’s less productive citizens.” (p. 15)

Mankiw then admits this would “surely not animate the Occupy crowd!”  But instead of dealing with the political arguments of ‘the Occupy crowd’, he detours into tax policy.

Now, tax policy is clearly political, and it clearly has economic effects, so you might think I should cut Mankiw a break and say, Hey, this is an area in which his economic expertise is relevant.

I will not so cut, because by detouring into tax policy he is eliding the central political claims of said Occupy crowd and sundry other leftists. They—we—are less concerned with tax policy per se than with basic claims of fairness and representation. Economics in general and tax experts in particular can offer useful models and information about how best to achieve this or that goal of fairness (not so much about representation), but in terms of adjudicating fairness itself, that is a political matter.

(n.b. I’m all hepped up on this stuff because I’ve been teaching Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics, wherein he notes, among other things, that treating citizens as if they were simply so many productive cogs in a socioeconomic machine is to erase politics altogether. Which is bad. Very bad.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah, another personal observation from Mankiw:

The key issue is the extent to which the high incomes of the top 1 percent reflect high productivity rather than some market imperfection. This question is one of positive economics, but unfortunately not one that is easily answered. My own reading of the evidence is that most of the very wealthy get that way by making substantial economic contributions, not by gaming the system or taking advantage of some market failure or the political process. (p. 17)

Uh huh, well that settles it then.

Then on to President Obama’s you-didn’t-make-it-on-your-own claim—again, one which could be taken as an economic claim but which, in context, is clearly political—and we’re off to a discussion on infrastructure and margins and transfer payments and ta da:

In the end, the left’s arguments for increased redistribution are valid in principle but dubious in practice. (p. 19)


I happen not to groove to this particular political argument, but I accept that it is a political argument and thus may claim a role in the political arena. What I do not accept is that this is some kind of neutral economic argument which by nature of it neutral economic-ness ought trump in the political arena.

I’m going to spare all of us his discussion of the veil of ignorance and a market in kidneys (Christ!) and his notion of ‘just desserts’ fiscal policy (another political argument) to get to this beaut:

My disagreement with the left lies not in the nature of their arguments, but rather in the factual basis of their conclusions. (p. 21)

Well, I guess the first part of that statement is true, insofar as he didn’t truly engage those arguments.

And then he comes to a conclusion with which (cue angelic music) I can agree:

Economists can turn to empirical methods to estimate key parameters, but no amount of applied econometrics can bridge this philosophical divide. (p. 22)

That’s called politics, baby, and no amount of econometric hand-waving can wave away those basic disputes about fairness, representation, and the purpose and worth of government.

Economics has its place, even in politics, but it is no substitute for politics: If you want to make a political argument, then make the political argument, and don’t pretend otherwise.

h/t Mark Gongloff, HuffPo

Just like everybody else does

2 06 2011

Were slaves humans to those who enslaved them? Were Jews and the Roma and Slavs human to Nazis?

Yes. And no.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s interests and mine once again intersect, this time on the question of who is human. TNC has posted a number of pieces in which he notes that the slaves-weren’t-human-to-slavemasters trope really doesn’t hold up; in his most recent post on the topic, he notes that

But throughout the South there were (poorly enforced) laws against the murder of slaves. Enslaved people were often encouraged to embrace Jesus, and ministered to by white preachers–treatment that mules and dogs were generally spared. Slave populations were filled with the progeny of white people who had sex with slaves–again treatment which most mules and dogs (as far as we know) were spared. It is surely true that blacks were seen as biologically inferior, but they were nevertheless generally recognized as human.

Frederick Douglass, as well, observed in What to a slave is the Fourth of July? that

Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, their will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

The Nazis, too, did recognize that Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs were human, in their prohibitions and punishments, their sterilization campaigns, the theft of their goods, their enslavement, their use as experimental subjects, and, perhaps, above (or below) all, in their willingness to rape Jewish women, Roma women, Polish and Russian and Ukrainian and Serbian women.

Such practical recognition (one which is likely shared by all chauvinistic peoples) must be conceded: the superior knew the inferior to be human.

This concession does not, however, end the debate, for there is also the matter of the ideology of the slaver and the Nazi, one which also drove the practices of enslavement, brutalization, and extermination.

TNC admits to a kind of admiration for Cannibals All! author George Fitzhugh, largely due to Fitzhugh’s willingness to extend the logic of superiors/inferiors to all peoples, such that even many white people could justly be enslaved. Again, I’m not so sure that this consistency deserves any praise, but even more than that, I think a focus on such consistency itself obscures the practical reality of slavery, to wit, that those who were enslaved were both human and not human.

TNC, from the same post:

This posed a philosophical problem for the nascent Confederate intelligentsia. Thomas Jefferson’s notion that “all men are created equal,” particularly rankled. If black people were part of “man,” and all “men” were created equal, how could one justify slavery? Well, one could completely ignore the discrepancy, which is exactly what a lot of Confederates did.

He goes on to consider the “more radical position” that Jefferson was wrong, that the mere fact of humanity did not make one equal.

I happen to agree with this: the liberty and equality we grant to one another is just that, a grant in recognition, and one which could be either extended or withdrawn. (Arendt, too, noted that there was nothing particularly sacred about the “naked human”, and that acknowledgment of humanness is hardly sufficient to guarantee any sort of right.)

But TNC, having opened himself to this radical possibility, gives himself over to those who assert inequality  without also considering that they, too, were engaging in double-talk and legalistic bullshit, that is, that assertions of inequality or inferiority covered up their own discrepancies regarding humanness.

These discrepancies are, frankly, much easier to see in Nazi propaganda, what with their constant references to vermin and bacillus and disease and corruption (in the case of Jews) or weakness and stupidity and beastliness (in the case of Slavs): these people aren’t really people.

What you see, in other words, is that the Nazis had a kind of Platonic Form of humans, namely, the German* (with the asterisk indicating that to be truly German was to be not-Jewish, not leftist, not sick, not mentally ill, not handicapped, not Christian, etc.), and that those who were not-German—that is, those who deviated from the Form—were therefore less human. This dynamic could be seen as well in the belief that some Czechs and Ukrainians and Poles could, perhaps, be “Germanized”, that is, brought closer to  True Human Form.

In short, this is less about equality or inequality than about degrees of humanness: those who are closer to the Form are more human than those further away from it.

The question of the constitution of the form and the determination of relative distances to it is, of course, not a little caught up in questions of power, in particular, in the question of power over. This is where not a few of the discrepancies enter: are more human if you’re on top? if you win? If so, what does loss (as in, say, WWI) mean regarding your humanness? Et cetera. . . .

To bring the point closer to home: We Homo sapiens  use other species; norms and regulations over such use have both varied over time and space and from species to species, a variation dependent upon (among other things) utility and perceived nearness to us. In the US (as in many parts of the world), for example, the Great Apes—our nearest evolutionary relatives—are accorded rather different treatment than mice, rabbits, worms, and flies. And shall we discuss our agricultural and culinary uses of, say, chickens and cows and pigs. . . ?

This brings us back, then, to Fitzhugh, or at least, to the title of his work, Cannibals All! While cannibalism is not unknown among our species, it is an exceptional rather than normal practice—which itself indicates some widespread (if not quite global)  and basic acknowledgement of one another as being of the same kind.

That basic acknowledgement, however, is not quite enough: there is more to being human than, well, being human.