Inequality, Freedom, and Dignity

Note: This post is a belated entry to our League Symposium on inequality. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

If you’re reading this blog, or blogging at it, chances are you’re doing okay financially.

Chances are you’ve received or are working on a college degree. At your job you probably work at a computer, and can sneak a few minutes here and there to comment at The League or a handful of other blogs you may enjoy. Or play Solitaire. You have both the time, money, and wherewithal to engage in conversation about politics and watch silly YouTube videos. Whether or not you fall on the left or right of the dividing line here, and regardless of your take on economic inequality, it’s unlikely that you suffer from the myriad small indignities that people whose jobs and lives prevent them from reading blogs face.

I used to work in a food manufacturing plant. When I started there, I worked on the plant floor. It was a good working class job. We worked four twelve-hour shifts one week and three the next. This meant I had four-day weekends every other week. It also mean that every few weeks I’d switch to midnight shifts, and my whole world would go upside down. Working from 7PM to 7AM is much more difficult than the other way around, and even after only three nights of this, the next couple days are spent simply readjusting your schedule again to days. And then, just as you’ve reoriented yourself, it’s back to night shifts.

Other positions in the plant worked regular 8-hour shifts, five days a week. These people would shift between day, afternoon, and midnight shifts, sometimes within the same week or two. Often they wouldn’t have two days off in a row. These people worked in warehouse jobs, or on packing lines. Some of them were college kids, but mostly they were working class people without much in the way of an education, or immigrants.

When I worked on the plant floor I rarely read anything online. I was physically and mentally drained at the end of each day, and during work I had no access to an internet connection (and, indeed, could not leave the plant at any time.) On my days off I did things with family, or watched TV, or read books, or played video games. Blogging was a thing I had only a passing familiarity with.

Later, when I moved into an office position within the company my left transformed to a 9 to 5 existence. Suddenly, I had autonomy, a flexible work schedule. I had access to the internet, to blogs – a whole new window into what work life could be like, connected to the web, cozied away in my own office.

I actually didn’t make any more money at all (at least at first) but everything changed.

When we talk about inequality we often talk about the gap between the super rich and the super poor or the middle class. We crutch on the stupid 1% vs. the 99% meme. But we ought to talk about the many mundane ways that truly make inequality matter, or rather the nature of things when nothing is done to take the sting out of the inevitability of economic inequality.

Sure, people in the lower classes these days can afford iPhones, but they will often face disciplinary action at work if they use their iPhones on the clock. Up the ladder a ways, you’ll never need to worry about using your smartphone. The types and quantity of indignities people face as they move up in the world diminish, and increase as they move down.

Managers do face a different kind of stress and responsibility, but this is more than made up for (typically) by increases in pay, autonomy, power, and self-satisfaction. Meanwhile, those at the bottom rungs have little access to small perks like checking in on their RSS reader, taking personal calls, or setting their own hours (or, sometimes, even being able to leave work for lunch.)These may seem like small things, but then again, how much do you value your access to the internet at work? How much do you take it for granted? And how do you suppose these small indignities and miniature restrictions to your autonomy add up?

I suspect that the real problem with inequality is not so much the gap between the very rich and very poor, or really the gap at all. Rather, all the small ways that being poor impacts your life and community add up to create widespread stress – stress that affects entire communities, and even whole regions. Lower class people in America suffer from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems while at the same time having poorer access to healthcare, and often worse healthcare providers. Access to good jobs, good education, fitness facilities, safe environments, and any other innumerable service is often severely restricted. The things many people in the middle class simply take for granted are not present in many poorer communities, including value sets that place priorities on things like a college education.

The problem with inequality isn’t the gap between rich and poor, even though the word “inequality” suggests as much. The real problem with economic inequality is that we’ve created a system that’s structurally rigged against economic mobility. Of course, not everyone can be helped, and there’s truth to the “teach a man to fish” parable, but plenty of other countries have done a better job at improving economic mobility through more robust safety nets and better universal access to dignity-increasing-services, while maintaining market economies and hewing to basic market principles.

Inequality cannot be extinguished, and even in countries like Sweden with very large welfare states, inequality is still a glaring reality. The rich still have a great deal more than the poor. The trick is finding ways to ensure a better baseline. Better labor standards, increased access to healthcare, education, the internet, and a reasonable work week.

Countries like Australia have done a good job at ensuring that wealth transfers move from the rich to the poor rather than the other way around, and have done so without huge tax burdens.

Meanwhile, in the US we’ve compounded our inequality by creating a system that transfers wealth upwards through corporate subsidies, a severely bloated defense budget, and The War on Drugs – a cleverly named atrocity which may as well be called The War on the Poor and Minorities. People complain about welfare, but the real scandal is that so much money is spent to maintain a shameful status quo. Part of this is a problem with our government, and part of it is a problem with our culture.

Inequality is not just about how much money we make, it’s about how we’re treated in society. Our prisons are not filled with young, middle-class men. White college kids who get busted for pot rarely do time in jail. This honor is reserved for the poor. Our system is structurally rigged against the least among us in ways that go far beyond our paychecks. We talk about freedom a great deal in our political discourse, and spend far too little time on human dignity.

Whether we’re talking about access to the internet at work, or the right to pursue happiness in a neighborhood destroyed by our drug war, inequality is a problem that can’t be solved by focusing on the income gap. But it can be solved if we agree to certain baselines of human dignity. Indeed, although some may see a more robust welfare state as anathema to freedom, I see the trade-off as more than reasonable. If we can toss in an end to the war on drugs, corporate subsidies, and the wasteful, destructive trillion-dollar defense budget, I think liberty will have been served.

Tyranny takes many shapes, whether in the workplace or the state. The worst tyranny almost certainly occurs in the family. Creating a society in which the weakest among us have freedom to exit these small tyrannies is something worth working toward, because freedom to exit tyranny and poverty isn’t done for its own sake: it’s done to increase levels of human dignity and to reduce the stress and weight of life for the many among us with no time to read blogs.

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476 thoughts on “Inequality, Freedom, and Dignity

  1. “But it can be solved if we agree to certain baselines of human dignity”

    This.

    I find in discussions on the internet and with my libertarian Fiancee (a Leftie here) that “let the market work” is a default with no examination of what the market can or won’t do. I want to live in a free society and sympathize with a lot of the libertarian agenda but what turns me off is the lack of concern for our fellow human beings. A totally free society let the market work sounds great if everyone has the same obstacles and restrictions but that is not the real world in my experience.

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    • Indeed. The problem with total freedom is that we all start from different points to begin with. Because guns and violence exist with or without a government monopoly on violence. Because sometimes the choice is not between freedom and tyranny, but between kinds of freedom and kinds of dignity. I don’t know. I’m sympathetic to many libertarian arguments, and think many work in tandem with liberal goals, but I find ideological purity leads to as much blindness as anything.

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    • Does anyone know what these “baselines” actually are? Who decides what they are? I ask b/c baselines seem to change all the time. It used to be that all poor folks needed from gov’t was room and board but now we are told that gov’t has to pay for phones and internet so they can have fulfilling lives.

      Maybe the answer isn’t more gov’t. Maybe the answer is stay in school so you get an education and don’t have to work in a plant. Maybe the answer is don’t use drugs or commit crime. There are things gov’t can do but lots of things gov’t can’t do. Sadly the things gov’t can’t do are the last ones you ever her liberals talking about.

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      • I seen two of these complaints over and over. Of course our standard of a baseline changes. Of. Course. Its called progress, its called standards and values change. Flogging would have been considered decidedly non-cruel and usual, now it wouldn’t be. Things change.

        I’ve seen the claim the gov has to pay for phones and Internet before…where the heck does it come from. I don’t that myself.

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        • I’ve seen the claim the gov has to pay for phones and Internet before…where the heck does it come from. I don’t that myself.

          I would. Try to do a job search without either of those things. They have become fundaments of living a modern life.

          If you want public policy to support widespread opportunity (as opposed to “equality of result”), the ability to engage with society seems pretty basic.

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          • We are well on the way to making sure that everybody who wants a computer can have one and, from what I understand, dial-up internet rides piggyback on previous efforts to make sure that every house is connected to a telephone.

            We are fairly close to the day where Heritage will point out the sheer percentage of people who have a computer and that can be waved away the way we wave away the fact that most people have refrigerators.

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          • I’m for wi-fi as a public utility type things myself. I was asking scott where this claim that the gov is supposed to pay for our phone and Internet comes from. I’ve seen people on the right say it. Making Internet like a public utility is not that at all. I know of programs, hell i helped some of my clients get hooked up in them, that offer 1$ cell phones to poor people, but that isn’t some grand plan to have the gov pay for all our phones. Its a frickin obvious measure to take to help someone get out of poverty.

            Note to self: read reply before sending to make sure all words are present.

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              • Our library was truly a life-saver when we first moved here. It took 3-4 weeks for the cable company to get the Internet to our house. Going to a coffee-shop or even McDonald’s every time we needed to access something would have made it really expensive really quickly. Going to the library was a hassle, but it was at least an immediate option.

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        • There are governments (local, usually) where there is free wifi throughout an area, like a city. It is generally weak, and therefore not a threat to paid-for systems that most people use. But it is payed for by the government, and is most used by the poor that cannot afford cable contracts, and is often opposed for the very reasons that Scott brings up. I have also seen opposition to free wifi in government buildings, such as libraries and court houses.

          The phone program is probably referring to the Lifeline program, which is a program designed to give free minutes (usually a couple hundred a month) to people slow a certain income level, with preference given to those that are isolated or infirm that have no phone service, for he case of emergencies – though others can qualify as well.

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      • The more I think about this comment, them more I think it is indicative of why I so dislike the modern conservative movement in America.

        I think of myself as a supporter of the idea that the government – any government – should be fiscally restrained. You would think then, that I would be more supportive of fiscal conservatisms goals than I am. And I think your comment, Scott, highlighted the reasons for why I’m not rather perfectly. When faced with the argument that perhaps the poor should not be treated with indignity, your response is:

        “Maybe the answer is don’t use drugs or commit crime.”

        When discussing the poor in this country, you equate them with criminals and drug addicts. They’re worse than simply lazy; they’re immoral wastes that don’t deserve even the most basic amount of human dignity.

        This pretty much mirrors what I hear on conservative talk shows, from hosts and callers alike. And it certainly mirrors what I saw John Stossell say on FOX when I made the mistake of watching it sober. So while you’re just one commenter, Scott, I think you do a nice job of hitting the basic conservative talking points.

        This is why I so dislike today’s movement conservatism.

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        • Tod:

          I brought up crime and drugs b/c of Eric’s silly comment in the OP that, “The War on Drugs – a cleverly named atrocity which may as well be called The War on the Poor and Minorities.”

          No one makes you take drugs or become a criminal. This is purely an area of choice, self control and responsibility, things liberals refuse to recognize or take into account the power they have.

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          • I think a part of the “conservative” (or at least Scott’s) outlook is to view everything through a moralistic lens.

            When I was in college, I would bet that less than 15% of the student body made it through drug free. It was just that, as college students, we could afford higher-quality, more entertaining drugs.

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            • I’ve noticed that when we talk about drugs in our society, we rarely really talk about drugs. Instead, drugs act as a markers for amplified versions of the stereotypes we have of different groups of people.

              When we talk of drugs and the poor, we talk of non-white criminals and ne’er do wells, choosing immorality and laziness over success and decency. When we talk of drugs and college students, we talk of zany experimentation, funny anecdotes, and (quite often) sex with non-monogamous partners. When we talk of drugs and the very rich, we talk of huge amounts of expensive drugs that act as accessories made to accent excessive and opulent lifestyles, and the things like starlets and supermodels the those drugs in enough quantities can buy. When we talk of drugs and politics, we talk of jackbooted fascists breaking into our homes and shooting our dogs.

              And when we talk of drugs and ourselves, we talk of this thing we did when we were young, and who we were back then.

              But we rarely talk about drugs themselves.

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              • White people/men/straights folks/privileged people succeed as a group and fail as individuals.
                People of color/women/gays/marginalized people succeed as individuals and fail as a group.

                When a white person named Bob fucks up, we say Bob is a fuck up.
                When a black person named Bob fucks up, we say black people are fuck ups.
                When a white person named George wins the Presidency, we view it as an affirmation of white people.
                When a black person named Barack wins the Presidency, we view it as an affirmation of Barack (if even that).

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                • When a white person named Bob fucks up, we say Bob is a fuck up.
                  When a black person named Bob fucks up, we say black people are fuck ups.

                  Who is “we,” kemosabe?

                  When a white person named George wins the Presidency, we view it as an affirmation of white people.
                  When a black person named Barack wins the Presidency, we view it as an affirmation of Barack (if even that).

                  IIRC, Obama’s election was very much touted as a victory for black people. And this is quite possibly the first time anyone has ever suggested that George W. Bush might be perceived as a credit to his race.

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                  • Berg-

                    “We” as in the general sense.

                    While folks touted Obama as a victory for black people, how many folks suddenly looked more favorably upon the average black person? That is what I mean. Not what people write articles about. But what actually happens about our perception of those involved. And had Obama lost, you don’t think some folks would have said (and perhaps rightfully so), “This means a black guy can’t win the Presidency”? Because I sure as hell didn’t see a single article about the end of white folks winning the Presidency when McCain lost.

                    Do we ever have conversations about white culture or country music or stuff like that when a group of white people does something criminal or stupid or terrible? Because we often seem to talk about black culture and rap music and stuff like that when a group of black people does something criminal or stupid or terrible?

                    Some of this is natural. We are generally better able to see individuals as individuals when we can identify with them. We tend to identify with people who are familiar to us. As a country that has a majority of white people, and with most folks living in largely homogenous areas, white people tend to be familiar with other whites. Coupled with white folks dominating the faces we see on television and in government and elsewhere and it is easier for us to see white folks as individuals who not wholly representative of white people in general than it is to do the same for black folks. It is why also we tend to identify as black folks as black folks far more often than white folks as white folks, who we tend just to see as folks.

                    This is not uniquely American phenomenon and is not necessarily evidence of some insidious explicit racism. But it certainly happens and denying it means we’re sticking our head in the sand.

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                    • I did find it interesting that a black man was President before a white woman–and, moreover, that America specifically had to choose which of those it wanted.

                      “Do we ever have conversations about white culture or country music or stuff like that when a group of white people does something criminal or stupid or terrible?”

                      Are you seriously asking that question, or is this some kind of rhetorical flourish?

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                    • Oprah’s support of a black man over [a putatively better-qualified] white woman may have been her Waterloo:

                      Jan 2008–

                      http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=4167650&page=1#.T-jXKbX2aul

                      “I cannot believe that women all over this country are not up in arms over Oprah’s backing of Obama,” wrote austaz68 on Oprah.com, in a message thread titled “Oprah is a Traitor!!!” “For the first time in history we actually have a host at putting a woman in the white house and Oprah backs the black MAN. She’s choosing her race over her gender – hypocrisy [sic] at it’s finest!! Oprah – you should be ashamed of yourself!!!!!”

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                    • Do we ever have conversations about white culture or country music or stuff like that when a group of white people does something criminal or stupid or terrible?

                      So they cling to guns and religion

                      I’m not sure we even wait for something criminal. ;)

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                    • James-

                      Was that part of a broad conversation explicitly about white people and how the criminal actions of individuals are indicative of widespread shortcomings in the musical preferences or culture of white people? To the extent that generalizing was going on, I’d actually argue that that supports my point, in that an often marginalized subgroup was being chastised by “elites”. This time, it was “ivory tower liberals” going after “red necks”.

                      The next time I hear a major media member point to country music or white culture when some white guy goes whacko (absent an actual direct link between said whacko and a particular musician or aspect of white culture) will be the first.

                      White psychos are lone wolves. Brown psychos are terrorists or Muslim fanatics gangbangers. How quick was everyone to distance that Norwegian guy from any religious or nationalist agenda? How quick are we to deem every Muslim murderer a member of Al-Queda terrorist?

                      It’s not always and never, but I’d be shocked if anyone could point to evidence that the trends aren’t as I describe them, both in terms of broader conversation and internalized responses.

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                    • Kazzy, it was just a joke. I’m pretty much in line with you on this one. Certain elements of white culture sometimes come in for criticism, those parts that the East Coast media don’t understand*, but not white culture generally, and the careful distinction isn’t made for the different elements of black culture.
                      ______________
                      * Look, when NYC gets 4 inches of snow, the rest of the country doesn’t fishing care! Tell your national anchors and morning talk show folks to stop pretending it’s an unprecedented armageddon that the rest of the world needs to hear about. I remember one time when I was digging out from a two foot snow storm and they were going on and on, all in a breathless fluster, unable to unwad their panties, about how New York was all shut down by 6 or 8 inches, or something like that. All of that both before and after they did their obligatory talk to the tourists on the street…I guess the tourists got to the studio before the storm and got stuck overnight or something. They looked pretty chipper, though. Probably Minnesotans enjoying the light snow flurries.

                      OK, sorry, I just had to get that off my chest. I know it’s not your fault.

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                    • JH-

                      Sorry, I didn’t pick up on the sarcasm, since there seemed enough legitimacy in the point. Even when you jest, you have a point.

                      More seriously though… it snows in other parts of the country? How does anyone even know that? Wouldn’t people need to live in those places and have access to phones or something for that type of thing to be known?

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                    • You didn’t pick up on the sarcasm? Now I know you’re not from the northeast. I bet you really live in San Francisco.

                      And who needs phones? We stomped a big “help us, it’s a blizzard,” in the snow just in time for the weekly ice cream drop plane to see it. Well, maybe. They might not have been able to see it through the blizzard. Still, you think they might have mentioned having a hard time finding the drop zone.

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                    • James, that’s not half as irritating as when it’s 85 in The City, and all of our local stations go on about how glorious the warm sunshine is, as if they couldn’t read their own weather maps and didn’t know that most of their audience is suffering though 100+.

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                    • Mike,

                      And that’s not half as irritating as the fact that the Chron always capitalizes “The City.”

                      Here in the Midwest we just have to deal with idiot weatherpeople who say, “It’s going to be a beautiful day, with a high of 95 degrees.” From my perspective, nothing above 75 is wonderful, but I don’t know anyone who likes 95.

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                    • It’s a proper noun.

                      I’m curious how many places are known locally as “The City”. San Francisco, Manhattan, Istanbul (from the Greek for “in the city”), the financial center of London, etc.

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                    • Medina, perhaps, since the word literally means city, but I don’t know enough Arabic to know if the colloquial sense of the usage matches up.

                      But I disagree about the proper noun business. Manhattan is called the city because it’s the urban core. Same with London. San Francisco’s use just strikes me as pretentious. Of course just about everything about San Francisco struck me as pretentious, except the older native San Franciscans, who I always found to be remarkably nice and down to earth. I think they had a nice town once, and all the people who moved there because they thought it was the hip place have ruined it.

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                    • Every generation that moves in ruins the former great status of a city according to some people. :)

                      I’m sure you could people in the 40’s bitching about the “older native” San Fransciscans who were just moving in.

                      In other words, the only thing worse than hipsters are old people bitching about hipsters. :)

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          • When white, middle-class college kids caught with weed or coke go to the same jails and wind up with the same prison records as black lower-class kids, we can talk about how poverty comes from irresponsibility. (Likewise, much as I love dogs, I wouldn’t mind just once reading about a cop storming into a 1%-er’s mansion and shooting his champion Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.)

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            • If we ended the drug war, I foresee two things happening fairly quickly:

              1) Much of the political class talking about how we need to impose more paternalism on the drug-using lower classes.

              2) Libertarians will be called heartless because they don’t particularly care if people spend their free time ruining their own lives.

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              • The soft paternalism you describe is a real possibility, and it will/would be condescending and not a little bad. But it’ll / ‘d probably be better than the hard paternalism of incarceration. (I say “probably” because a lot of mischief can be done in the name of “helping” people when “helping” implies a non-adversarial process.)

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              • I’m sorry if I seem to be picking fights, today, Jaybird, but I do care if people spend their free time ruining their own life. Particularly if we understand that many aspects of what we do to ruin our own lives are so bound up in our genetic code, and evolutionary legacy, and human nature that they are outside of the leverage of rational intervention.

                As an example, our reward centers are designed to light up when we eat things that were good for us as hunter-gatherers, but bad for us in industrial abundance: sugar, salt and fat. Despite all the moralizing about good and bad choices, we are learning–to an ever-increasing degree–that many of our drives and behaviors simply overwhelm our cerebral cortex (see recent books by Daniel Gilbert or Jonathan Haidt).

                We used to have strong cultural pressure that helped counter some of these more destructive human impulses–restrictions on sexual mores, and public behaviors, and ethics–that helped us counter the less rational parts of our nature. But most of these strictures have dissolved, and I don’t think anyone wants to go back to them (e.g. taboos about homosexuality, single women, and social rank).

                But as our culture fragments, and commercial interests become the primary instruments of common culture, through media, branding, advertising and the like, combined with a culture that celebrates “individualism,” personal choice: what is to constrain us? The libertarian answer seems to be “enlightened self interest.” And, to the degree that people can make truly free, informed, and willful choices, I’m all with that.

                When I go to the market, I’m probably confronted with 100 breakfast cereals. If I were to make a truly free, informed and willful choice, I’d probably be there for five hours reading nutrition labels, maybe followed by another 80 hours of internet research on the corporate behavior of each of the manufacturers, their business practices, safety, labor practices, and food safety records.

                And I haven’t even gotten to the dairy isle, yet.

                All I’m saying, is that it would be considerably more frictionless for all parties if there were minimum nutritional, food safety, and labor standards; and if food labeling was standardized. We can then re-point our efforts towards making decisions that would be more rewarding productive.

                Like jams.

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                • Snarky, take this for what it’s worth, but you’re not gonna make any headway here. JB isn’t arguing anything in particular. He’s expressing a sentiment: that government interference is a bad bad thing. And that’s a fine sentiment to hold, I suppose. But given that it’s only a sentiment, you will chase yourself in ever expanding circles trying to get him to see the logical or evidential point you’re making. He won’t.

                  Or won’t admit to it anyway.

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                • I don’t see how I would have the right to tell you what to eat, or tell you what *NOT* to eat. You’re not my child. You’re not my spouse. You’re not my pet cat.

                  What you put in your mouth is none of my business. For that matter, what you put in any of your orifices is none of my business.

                  Here’s what I’d like to know: let’s say that you’re right… that such things *ARE* my business and, more than that, that I should have a say in making sure that you don’t do the wrong thing.

                  Why should I listen to you, Snarky, instead of Doctor Dobson (who, may I point out, is telling me similar things)?

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                  • There’s a certain tension between two different tides that I’ve been trying to point out. Thus far, you seem to be ignoring this.

                    I understand that you don’t like the government telling anybody what to do: I really do. But that doesn’t make that basic tension go away.

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                    • Thus far, you seem to be ignoring this.

                      It’s more that I’m just not seeing it. If I cannot see where I have the right to tell you to not eat a burger, then I am going to need you to explain to me how you have the right to tell someone else that they shouldn’t eat a burger.

                      Or whatever.

                      If we were talking about hypotheticals where one of us shot the other, I could see you explaining “if you broke into my house and came at me with a knife, I would have the right to shoot you” and me saying “well, even if I didn’t agree with that, I see how *SOMEONE* could agree with that.”

                      When it comes to hamburgers (or whatever), I’m not seeing the circumstance where I’d have the right to take the burger out of your hand. (Though, for the record, if someone argued that you’d have the right to shoot me for trying to do so, I’d see how someone could agree with that.)

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                    • I’ll give this one last shot, and let it go…

                      When it comes to hamburgers (or whatever), I’m not seeing the circumstance where I’d have the right to take the burger out of your hand…

                      I’m not comfortable with your example, and no one is advocating burgers out of anyone’s hand. Let me modify your example, as follows:

                      I’d like to sell a ground beef and worms and bacteria paste, and sell it as a “hamburger.” If the state says I’m not allowed to call that a “hamburger”, that’s an infringement of my freedom. And if it makes me reveal all the ingredients, that’s an infringement, as well. After all, I’m engaged in a free exchange with another person, and it’s none of the state’s business.

                      I know that we’ll never agree on this: but I consider commerce to be a privileged realm (much like driving), in which we are all better off if we can assume some common ground rules. And those would primarily be of the type that ensure safety, and transparency, and fully-informed choice. All of these ground rules would be restrictions on somebody’s liberty, but would increase the aggregate pool of common welfare.

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                    • All of these ground rules would be restrictions on somebody’s liberty, but would increase the aggregate pool of common welfare.

                      And that, Snarky, is where true libertarianism conflicts with the fake, FYIGM-style libertarianism mostly advocated on this blog.

                      Work with the actions and see if they increase liberty for ALL concerned, rather than assuming as a religious tenet “well nobody should ever have X liberty restricted” even if the result of the powerful rich using X liberty is the continued harm and decrease in both liberty and dignity for the poor.

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                    • This is a strawman, Snarky. There are certain baseline expectations people have about a product called hamburger. One is that it be made of ground beef. Another is that it not contain worms or dangerous levels of pathogenic bacteria. To sell something that doesn’t meet those expectations and call it “hamburger” without further qualification is fraud. No serious libertarian thinker would argue otherwise.

                      What we part company with the left is that we don’t think that products should be banned outright. Consider casu marzu, a traditional Sardinian cheese infested with maggots. This is an actual product that some people willingly and knowingly eat. It’s also illegal in the US, even if you slap a big “WARNING: MAGGOTS UP IN HERE” sticker on it.

                      Or consider the FDA’s policy on experimental drugs and medical prodecures. You can’t legally obtain medication or undergo medical procedures that haven’t yet completed the years-long process of demonstrating safety and effecticacy to the FDA’s satisfaction. Even if you have a an end-stage terminal illness. Drug safety laws kill.

                      There’s an easy solution to this: Relegate the FDA to an advisory role. It gives its stamp of approval to foods and drugs, and consumers may choose to heed that or disregard it at their own risk, but it won’t have the power to ban products outright.

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                    • BB – To take it into a more challenging area of the sale of foods…

                      Where then, would a libertarian come down on food manufacturers having to list ingredients on packaging, or nutritional content?

                      When those things have come up historically my memory was that libertarians were against, but I recognize that I’m remembering guys that have talk radio shows that use the word “libertarian” without really meaning it, so I don’t really know where a libertarian would fall in these situations.

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                    • I think food labeling is a great idea. I even LOVE the calorie counts in all the restaurants in California. It totally affects my choices, though research seems to suggest I am the only one.

                      I am sure libertarians would be able to come up with a voluntary system that did the same thing, but as far as regulations go, these tend to do more good than harm in my opinion.

                      I would recommend labeling for much of what is licensed or regulated today.

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                    • I’m not a big fan of minimum labeling requirements, though obviously I do agree that any information provided should be required to be accurate.

                      My reasoning is that if more detailed labeling is something that consumers demand, food manufacturers will provide it. First one will do so to get a competitive edge, then another will do it to nullify that edge, and pretty soon not having nutrition information is like not having a high school diploma.

                      To save one of the usual subjects the embarrassment of having to walk back some snark about how libertarians love their theoretical models but don’t understand how the real world works, I’ll give some examples.

                      Milk is one good example. There’s no requirement that use of rBGH or prophylactic antibiotics be disclosed, but all the brands that don’t advertise it on the label, so you know that the others do. Similarly, if the cows are fed exclusively on pasture, that’s on the label.

                      I have a canister of whey protein that gives the amino acid profile. That’s not required, but enough consumers care about it, so it’s there.

                      I believe that nutrition labeling was optional in the US prior to 1990, but most manufacturers chose to provide it. Even today, many labels contain more than the minimum required information.

                      Many fast food restaurants provided brochures with nutritional information upon request years before there was any talk of requiring them to post calorie counts. I’m actually not 100% sure that this wasn’t required, but I don’t believe it was.

                      All that said, I don’t really see this as a battle worth fighting. There’s no real harm done. But let’s not trumpet this as some great victory for big government—they were just mandating something that was fairly standard practice already.

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                    • Where then, would a libertarian come down on food manufacturers having to list ingredients on packaging, or nutritional content?

                      I think lots, perhaps a sizable majority, of libertarians would come down on Brandon’s side.

                      My perspective, though, is that imperfect information is a cause of market failure. Often people don’t have the expertise to even know what kind of information they really need, because it’s pretty specialized knowledge. So I’m actually cool with labeling laws whose purpose is to give people more information.

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        • “The more I think about this comment, them more I think it is indicative of why I so dislike the modern conservative movement in America.”

          Well yeah, that’s a mistake.

          “I think of myself as a supporter of the idea that the government – any government – should be fiscally restrained. You would think then, that I would be more supportive of fiscal conservatisms goals than I am. And I think your comment, Scott, highlighted the reasons for why I’m not rather perfectly.”

          Though to some extent I disagree with Scott’s comment. Oddly enough, it gives libs too much credit. Specifically, he posits and alternative answer to what we might collectively tell the poor. But before that, we have to take inventory of what our resources and make some intelligent conclusions for what we are capable of.

          These are considerations that politically active libs will make a sustained effort to avoid dwelling on, as I have learned from personal experience.

          The benefits of fiscal conservatism go significantly beyond accounting. Among other things, they are an attempt to rationalize our priorities to our means. Until libs can come up with a coherent answer for these things are supposed to relate (and given the track record for libs in our lifetimes), we can safely ignore all their theories for treating the working poor with greater dignity.

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      • Scott, “stay in school” is an unsatisfying answer, especially when many people have access to such horrible schools. And when I worked in the plant, I had a four-year degree, but jobs were scarce. Of course, all your “solutions” are actually symptoms, which is why none of them are plausible.

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        • Scott, “stay in school” is an unsatisfying answer, especially when many people have access to such horrible schools.

          First, let’s not forget that those horrible schools are a part of the welfare state.

          Second, it doesn’t really matter. The value of a high school diploma is that it shows employers that you’re not the kind of person who drops out of high school.

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          • Adding on to Brandon,

            If staying in school, which is required by law, is not a plausible solution, then we must have radically different views of the word “plausible”.

            Are we saying poor people should no longer be expected to graduate high school, look for a job or avoid having kids prior to getting married? ( the third of the conservative recommendations for path out of poverty).

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  2. Another big factor in the constrained options available to the working poor is that we, as a society, have been pushing risk back down to the individual level; and the poor are living so marginally that a big life event–a lost job, an accident, an illness–can often be enough to begin a death spiral from which it can be very, very difficult to recover.

    On a recent thread, I recently talked about a period of my life–thankfully short–in which I was poor. That was the bleakest period of my life: my financial “mobility” were constrained by lack of resources, lack of transportation, and lack of opportunities. I ultimately had to move back in with family for a spell, and more or less re-start my professional life from the bottom rung, but I still did that from a much stronger baseline–I was a college graduate, and the published author of a business / technical book–than the typical working poor today.

    I like to think of the rise of two influential economic entities in two very different political eras: the credit card, and managed medical care (which really didn’t come into being until midway into the Nixon Administration). The credit card came into being in a liberal age, and the legal structure built around it (the Fair Credit Reporting Act) was designed to place most of the risk at the top of the food chain: maximum liability for a stolen credit card was set at a nominal $50, and there were very specific rules and constraints on maximum rates, the way that interest was calculated (billing grace periods). As a result, the ability of consumer credit to wreak catastrophe was pretty severely limited. Because they credit card issuers bear the brunt of liability for credit fraud and theft, the issuers developed elaborate and effective systems for controlling risk (including sophisticated fraud detection).

    In our post-Reagan, post-regulatory age, medical care is much less regulated. We contract with insurance companies, but there are much fewer constraints on their behavior and incentives, and–predictably–the care provider pushes as much risk as possible down to the consumer. Without the control, sophistication, or resources of large managed care providers, the consequences of medical catastrophe to an individual are consequently significantly more, well, catastrophic. Claims can be denied with little guidance or justification, and insurance companies are incented to dump patients whose medical costs are significantly higher than average. Cost control is virtually absent from the system, and the inflation rate of medical care has been roughly double that of the economy in general since the shift from individual / catastrophic insurance to “managed care.”

    And the consequences of a large medical event on the life of a poor–or even middle-class–person can be huge. I haven’t seen any studies that seem rigorous enough for me to feel comfortable with, but it is clear that a really significant portion of personal bankruptcies–20-50%–involve the expenses related to a significant medical problem–an accident, a surgery, cancer.

    And the economics of the health care have evolved around the incentives created around the legal structures created. The relative income of physicians has about doubled in the last 30 years, and the portion of medical expenditure that goes towards lab work, specialists, patented medicines and the like have skyrocketed. Care providers limit their liability by overuse of medical testing, by promulgating take-it-or-leave-it arbitration agreements, and by seeking limitations to tort remedies.

    I’ve used managed care only as a representative example of a larger trend. In almost every domain in our economic lives, consequences of risk are being pushed down to the individual consumer. To some degree this does make sense: it can result in more aware, rational consumer behavior. But where the consumer is not as able to manage their own risk–because of lack of knowledge, resources, information and understanding–we end up with more stressful, constrained lives.

    Banks make most of their income now from late fees. And, predictably, they have structured their business models to increase the late fees they correct: Citibank chose the location for their credit card payment center because some smart analyst determined that Nebraska would have the longest average mailing times. Until the recent update in credit card regulation, they would re-order transactions for overdrawn accounts in the way that resulted in the most NSF fees.

    I know that from my own experience that when one’s options are severely constrained, the ability to transcend life’s circumstances is radically diminished. Much as Erik’s experience when he was a factory worker, the energy and resources to optimize opportunity and transcend one’s own circumstances evaporate.

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    • I agree with all of this but there is a very troublesome dynamic at work that I don’t know how to deal with.

      Let’s say that one of our main goals is to protect consumers from being wrecked by a credit card. We wish to protect people from themselves (and others, of course). Something like a “credit rating” schema is established and we know that people with “bad credit” should not be given as much rope with which to hang themselves as people with “good credit”. (Would we be in agreement about the importance of setting something like that up?)

      Would this be likely to correlate with demographics that would look, very, very bad if reported a particular way?

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      • One of the problems I have with the fundamentalist libertarian outlook is that it assumes that people have the time, intellect, information and resources to make optimal decisions in all portions of their life. So, for example, if you don’t like your banks fees, go to a bank with more reasonable fees.

        To do this, of course, would require a pretty complex analysis, and a pretty objective assessment of one’s own likelihood to run low on funds, predict clearing times for checks, and the like. So I am comfortable with a regime in which some baseline rules for fairness and decency in commercial transactions can be set: advertisements may not lie or mislead, and business models may not be built around human cognitive errors or ignorance, or gross asymmetriies in power or knowledge.

        Of course, my ideology is much closer to that of a traditional (say, FDR) liberal than yours. But I would very much like to see a society in which we can all presume higher baselines of ethics, fairness, and opportunity. That way, we can point our efforts and intellects towards creating richer, more fruitful lives, than avoiding exploitation by the less scrupulous.

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        • One of the problems I have with the fundamentalist libertarian outlook is that it assumes that people have the time, intellect, information and resources to make optimal decisions in all portions of their life.

          That’s an excellent point.

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          • It is, and yet I keep running into a wall: How often should I lose the ability to do something else because somebody else can’t handle it? Or, if we give me opportunities that we don’t give them, because my credit history suggests I can handle it and so on, how do we discriminate in a way that’s going to be acceptable?

            I am very, very sympathetic to the notion that a lot of people cannot be relied on to make the right decisions in light of someone with a financial interest in them making the wrong decisions. But I don’t want to be protected from making the wrong decisions myself, and I have trouble saying that they should and I shouldn’t be held back from making decisions that are, in the aggregate, disproportionately likely to be wrong but in many cases likely to be right.

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              • Personally? Probably not. I have a lot of issues with the way that “overdraft protection” was handled by the banks, including the automatic opt-in (I supported the new law). But they gave people the option of opting out, and most people didn’t last I heard. So maybe there are circumstances in which I would consider it.

                I do recall having once accidentally mismanaged my accounts and knowing that suddenly my rent check wasn’t going to go through. I called my credit card company and immediately got an extension on my line of credit, where I could then get a cash advance and smooth that buffer. Because of my good credit, I was able to do that. Absent being able to do that, I would probably rather have overdraft protection than a bounced rent check, even with some fees incurred.

                Extended lines of credit and cash advances with high interest rates are all things that can get people in a lot of trouble.

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                • Absent being able to do that, I would probably rather have overdraft protection than a bounced rent check, even with some fees incurred.

                  Or you’d do what most of the poor do; go to a payday loan or title loan place, get into hock, and the revolving fees and high interest rates would never let you out.

                  You’re assuming of course that you had a checking account. Many of the poor don’t. They cash their paychecks somewhere that charges them fees for it. If they’re short on money for the month, a $34 NSF fee might be worth it, but there’s a minimum amount of credit needed or base monetary input needed even to open a checking account that you can’t manage if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

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                  • MA:

                    If folks don’t want a checking account that is their choice. My wife was a manager a large hospital in ATL and couldn’t believe the number of her hourly employees that chose not to have a checking account b/c they didn’t trust banks. Most were black and it seemed to be a cultural thing. The hospital wanted to go to direct deposit and folks screamed about it.

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                    • If folks don’t want a checking account that is their choice.

                      You’re confusing not wanting one with not being able to get one in true, dishonest conservative fashion.

                      Have you actually looked at the requirements for a checking account at your local bank lately? $1500 minimum balance, reducible to $750 if you have direct deposit – and that itself is a perk only available once you’re making a certain amount. If you don’t meet minimum balance requirements there’s a fee to open the account as well as a monthly fee for “managing” the account.

                      That’s what I am talking about here. The poor have trouble even getting a checking account. I can’t blame them for not trusting banks when their only experience with banks is fee fee fee fee fee fee fee, nor can I blame them for not wanting to waste money on those banking fees just to store the meager money they may have on hand in a given month.

                      The poor also have less access to banks, at least to reputable banks. The neighborhood corner store may have an ATM, but not a bank. The ghetto grocery store may not have a bank in it either.

                      couldn’t believe the number of her hourly employees that chose not to have a checking account b/c they didn’t trust banks. Most were black and it seemed to be a cultural thing. The hospital wanted to go to direct deposit and folks screamed about it.

                      As for blacks – blacks tend not to trust the police for good reason. Lower-income blacks also tend not to trust banks, for good reason too. Long histories of discrimination, redlining, and worse practices are not easily forgotten.

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                    • Not to take anything away from the main thrust of this comment, but I’m not aware of anywhere in the country where you can’t get a local bank to open an account for you without keeping a minimum balance of $1500. You may not get certain “free/value added” services at certain banks, but you don’t need $1500 to open a bank account.

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                    • Ahem.

                      You may not get certain “free/value added” services at certain banks, but you don’t need $1500 to open a bank account

                      Did I say they “couldn’t” open an account without $1500? No. I said they can’t do it without monthly fees.

                      An account eating up $10/month in “maintenance fees” when you’re only making $250-300 a week is probably something not worth the cost, for their calculations.

                      An account that then has an attached “debit card” with a yearly fee, ever-rising minimum balances -and keep in mind banks in poorer areas will require a higher minimum, not lower – fees for using ATMs, and increasingly tiny interest rates if you do hold a balance in your checking account.

                      Right or wrong, that’s the calculation they make – that trying to go to a bank and then getting charged fee after fee after fee isn’t worth it. I don’t know that I would do it either, if I thought I had a risk of a NSF popping up due to the bank deducting the monthly fee I’d probably not bother having a checking account either.

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                    • Are checking accounts even really necessary? It seems they are increasingly less so. I can access my savings account through the ATM and write maybe four checks a year. Now, I realize this is not the case for everyone, but will likely be universal some day soon.

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                    • If you didn’t say that, you worded it in a confusing manner. It looked like you were saying you couldn’t open one.

                      And again, I still agree with your larger point.

                      In the situation Scott described, I think it’s entirely possible that many of those people can’t get a checking account, because when you’re poor if you go over balance banks are less forgiving, which can lead to a downward spiral – such as the necessity for check cashing stores that take 10-20% of your very small paycheck just to cash it.

                      I have a hard time saying “they deserved it for going over!” since I have certainly gone over balance with my credit union. I think what happens to the poor when they go over as opposed to what happens to me is comparable to what happens when poor people’s kids get caught with marijuana, as opposed to what happens when a kids from where my kids go to school get caught.

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                    • MA
                      I don’t know which fantasy bank you are talking about. My bank only asks for $100 to open and $500 in monthly direct deposits to avoid fees. You should stick to reality so your arguments sound better.

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                    • and $500 in monthly direct deposits to avoid fees.

                      First problem: where are they going to get “direct deposits” from?

                      Second problem: your bank isn’t a ghetto bank and isn’t representative of their experience. Your experience is on the low end; this bank is about average. Ghetto banks are on the HIGH end.

                      Get it now?

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            • One of the things that got argued back during the foreclosure crisis was how one out of four high-risk folks lost their homes because of the bad mortgages they were given and how they never should have been given this mortgage option in the first place… and I think about the three out of four high-risk folks who have a house.

              Would we have been comfortable telling 4 out of 4 high-risk people that, really, they should be renting?

              That thought makes me wince.

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              • When the mortgage boom years of 2003-2005, I was consulting for AmeriQuest, who really defined the business model of the subprime mortgage industry. And they followed their incentives quite closely.

                One of AmeriQuest’s big competitive advantages is that they became wickedly efficient at securitizing mortgages. From the time they issued a check to a borrower, they had securitized the entire amount–and wiped their hands of any financial risk from the outcome of that mortgage–in less than two weeks.

                And the system they created: large, nominally–secured loans to the riskiest portion of the population, followed by quick securitization, followed by inpenetrable tranching of the securities, followed by abstraction of these tranches into derivative securities–managed to further and further dilute and hide the risk inherent in the mortgages issued.

                This was a system, designed by men, to squeeze money out of our financial system by hiding the true nature of the transactions involved. Each step in the lending and securitization process managed to secret the information that a player would need to make a rational decision.

                But each party was “free exchange,” so hey.

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                    • I find this very strange, from you of all people.

                      If these people have demonstrated through their own behavior and history, that they are poor risks for lending, and you think that they should be able to buy houses, you are necessarily saying that the risk should be put off onto another party. Who? Taxpayers? Defrauded investors?

                      Perhaps your outlook is more nuanced than I thought. But this seems a very un-libertarian outlook.

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                    • I think he’s saying that the risk should be assumed by the borrower via higher interest rates and such. And that, so long as they are willing to accept that risk, they should be allowed to accept whatever risks that you or I can accept. Rather than saying “We should cap interest rates and therefore these people won’t have the option of accepting the risk.”

                      For my own part, I tend to view it as more complicated. Snarky:AmeriQuest::Trumwill:Countrywide. It’s too bad we didn’t get an opportunity to talk about this in Vegas!

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                    • Snarky,

                      part of the “Community Reinvestment Act” goals – especially in the 1995 Clinton revamp – was to get more local ownership of houses in distresed neighborhoods. The hope was that people who “own” their house would be more prideful of appearances and neighborhoods than people who rented from slumlords, and that this would cause neighborhoods to revitalize and crime to decrease.

                      Poverty is still poverty of course, and part of the trouble was getting many of the slumlords to sell at all. People living in the houses often didn’t have the means to do the kind of rebuilding and repair that was originally envisioned.

                      Here’s where we get to the part about inequality again. Without rampant inequality in America, the goals of the CRA might have worked. If more of the people who were targeted by it had been able to put in to do the hoped-for repairs and increased the tone of the neighborhoods, a turnaround might have occurred. As it was, many of them just traded the risk of not being able to pay a slumlord for the risk of being unable to pay a slumlord bank and nothing else changed.

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                    • Oh, I’m fine with telling someone who has a credit score of 720 that they can get a good rate, someone with a credit score of 620 can get a medium rate, and someone with a score of 520 can get a crappy rate.

                      I’m just not fine with telling people that someone who has a credit score of 720 that they can get a good rate, someone with a credit score of 620 can get a medium rate, and someone with a score of 520 should rent.

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                    • Jaybird: “I’m less comfortable telling certain classes of people that, no, they should rent.”

                      Snarky McSnarkSnark: “I find this very strange, from you of all people.”

                      Snarky, why do you think that black people shouldn’t be allowed to own their own homes?

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                  • I would guess that between 25% and 33% of sub-prime borrowers will end up defaulting on their loans (at AmeriQuest, the average credit score was in the 570 range). So, as a matchbook estimate, I would say that it would take a 25% interest rate to reflect the true transparent risk of those loans. Compound that to 30 years, and you’ll have a monthly payment of $448,774 on a $200,000 house.

                    Not so financially viable, I think.

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              • Essentially, what you’re arguing here is that the MBS-caused financial collapse of 2007 was worth it because even tho loans were given to high risk customers who shouldn’t have qualified for them, 75% of them no longer have to rent.

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                • I’m saying that if we want to argue that we should not give these loans to the high-risk customers, we really ought to look at what we’re saying and if we really want to be saying such things.

                  For the record, if we are willing to say that “your own home!” is a good in its own right, I think that the “benefit” side of the “cost/benefit” of giving lots of people mortgages who never would have had one otherwise is just as worth looking at as the “cost” side of it.

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                  • If I understand Snarky, he’s saying that the market would not have supported such high-risk loans if their true risk hadn’t been so thoroughly obfuscated. Assume for the sake of argument that’s true. Does anyone think that hiding risk is a good thing that leads to a more optimal situation than disclosing it? (That’s a different question from “Did anyone benefit from getting a mortgage a more transparent market would have denied him?”)

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                  • Jaybird,

                    part of the issue is how it was all laid out.

                    Nobody ever walked into an office and was told:
                    “Well you’re on the low end. We have government programs related to qualifying, and we have loans that you can qualify for but they are definitely not prime loans. With some of these loans you can have the first couple of years at a low interest rate but then your payments could double or more.

                    You should really go home, look over the paperwork, look over the numbers, check with someone else if you need help understanding it all, and consider that maybe you’re not in the right situation right now to afford buying a house.”

                    That was NEVER the sales pitch given. The sales pitch was always low money down, low monthly payments (with the fine print on ballooning payments after the first couple years not mentioned).

                    If you’re going to have a program where people honestly understand the risks and opt in to making a risky move? Fine by me. If you’re going to have a program where a bunch of liars and shysters convince people it’s not a risky move and then use the underlying bad notes as “security” in a gigantic financial ponzi scheme to get rich? I have a problem with that and so should you.

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                    • M.A.,

                      That’s pretty much exactly what my wife and I were told when we bought our first house with an ARM.

                      Was everyone told that? No, surely not. But probably most had more information than you’re indicating.

                      I love your propensity to make absolute statements, the “always” and “never” kind. Such absolute statements are always easily falsified. (See what I did there?)

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                  • *facepalm*

                    I think it’s pretty obvious. No one would have given out loans on those terms if they’d had to assume the risks. Instead, they masked the risks and sold it.

                    Which yes, does mean that a number of people own homes that they would not have gotten on those terms — or perhaps ANY terms — without the aforementioned “totally lying about the risk and then selling it off”.

                    I would suspect, offhand, that those lucky duckies are probably sitting in underwater houses they’re not going to have much longer as their rates adjust, but hey — let’s assume that’s not the case. Let’s assume 75% of everyone offered loans they ordinarily wouldn’t have qualified for (because of the aforementioned fraud and rapid selling of risk) now has a totally snazzy house they can totally afford! GO THEM!

                    The cost was the entire global financial system melting down and billions or trillions of dollars of bailouts. So, you know, not worth it.

                    At BEST you can assume that because 75% of “never would have gotten a loan under those terms” people managed to hack it, then perhaps banks should take a hard look at their actuarial tables and default assumptions. Great.

                    But you know what they shouldn’t do? Go “Oh, well, only 25% of the people will default! Let’s sell this as triple-AAA and lie about the risk!”

                    It’s kinda pathetic trying to spin the mortgage meltdown as a free-market win.

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            • I understand what you’re saying, but I’m very aware that many of the businesses I have little choice but to deal with (banks, utilities, insurance companies) employ very clever people whose job it is to find new ways to screw me, and there’s only one of me to try to keep up.

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        • There is one conversation that we need to have, eventually (probably not today) about paternalism, how much of it would we really need in order to fix a large number of problems, and what the costs associated with paternalism really are (in the short and long term).

          Even if we, a bunch of vaguely leftish/libertarianish folks leisurely arguing politics on a blog would be comfortable having that conversation (and I don’t know that we’d be able to without *REALLY* pissing each other off), I’m certain that we, as a society, can’t really have this conversation.

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        • Snarky writes: “One of the problems I have with the fundamentalist libertarian outlook is that it assumes that people have the time, intellect, information and resources to make optimal decisions in all portions of their life.”

          The opposite concern is of course assuming that someone other than the individual has the same goals, same values, same tradeoffs, same local knowledge and same feedback. I would suggest the proper balance is better set toward more freedom than less.

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        • One of the problems I have with the fundamentalist libertarian outlook is that it assumes that people have the time, intellect, information and resources to make optimal decisions in all portions of their life.

          It’s a good thing you pointed that out to me, because I had no idea I was making that assumption.

          It’s also a good thing that we put all these decisions in the hands of capable, honest statesmen elected by people who have the time, intellect, information and resources needed to assess the claims of candidates in order to make optimal voting decisions.

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    • This is a terrific comment, Snarky, and illustrates perfectly all the small ways that the system is structurally rigged to diminish economic and social mobility. It’s a bleak picture, and one largely invisible (save for the despair) to those caught up in it.

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  3. “When we talk about inequality we often talk about the gap between the super rich and the super poor or the middle class. We crutch on the stupid 1% vs. the 99% meme. But we ought to talk about the many mundane ways that truly make inequality matter, or rather the nature of things when nothing is done to take the sting out of the inevitability of economic inequality.”

    This is interesting. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how many petty indignity there are to the usual “dues paying” you have to go through at the bottom- the constantly having to prove your worth to mid-level mediocrities in secure sinecures that they run like mini fiefdoms. It seems endemic to every area of human organization, this low-level bullying by martinets. That wears one down. I was struck by this at a recent party I attended with people who were, my any measure, members of the 1%. It was much easier to talk to them- because since you were there, it was assumed your insights had merit. I’m starting to think the Fabians had a point.

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  4. Erik, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what you’ve said here. but the thing is, we are not talking about inequality anymore. People in poverty would lack dignity regardless of how much less the rich have. But yes: Dignity gives a fairly intuitive and powerful reason for us to care about maximising the wellbeing of the worst off.

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      • That is, their dignity is eroded by a thousand daily indignities, enough so that when a fictional impoverished character displays dignity, we applaud and say “That’s a powerful scene” instead of reflecting that of course dignity and income are unrelated.

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      • People in poverty don’t necessarily lack dignity; they are treated as though they have no dignity.

        This assumes that a self regarding tattitude is all there is to dignity. Presumably all there is to dignity and self respect is wheter one has lived up to one’s own conception of the good. However, if there was some irreducible social dimension, then the mere fact that other people fail to regard you as having dignity means that you don’t have.

        For example, when a grown man jumps up and down on a bed like a small kid, we may think that the person lacks dignity. We are not merely claiming that those of us who care about appearances would lose all dignity if we were to do that and that his dignity lies somewhere else, but that the bed jumper just doesnt care about dignity (or at least that aspect of it)

        But even if dignity was self regarding, other people treating me as though I lack dignity can still erode my own self respect and dignity. Not only is this a natural reaction, it is not unreasonable either. When everyone else or most other people in society treat me as though I lacked dignity, maybe all they are doing is signalling whether I live up to their personal code. After all whether or not live up to my own personal code is something for myself to assess. However, implicit in their condemnation is that my personal code (if it is what I am currently living up to) is beneath contempt. The issue is not just of whether I live up to my personal code, but also whether my personal code is worth adopting.

        If many many many others (who are presumptively my equals in the relevant sense) think my personal code is not worth adopting (putting me in a far minority) this is prima facie evidence that such is indeed the case. Or else, I have to answer the question of how I know that my code is worth adopting even though many people who are presumably as good as me at figuring out what the right way to live is disagree.

        One option is just to think that they are not really as good as me when it comes to such questions. Such a conclusion may in fact be true. Hoever, to a certain extent, there is a certain misanthropy involved in such a view. That doesn’t really provide an objection to viewing others as such, but it is a tension that few people are willing to resolve in the direction ofcomplete disregard for others’ opinions about ther own moral code.

        Incidentally, since claims about the worthiness of moral codes are basically truth claims, this makes dignity as a basis for distributive justice claims problematic.
        Consider the argument: Inequality/poverty is bad because this results in people losing dignity. Therefore we must reduce inequality and poverty in order to increase dignity among the worst off.

        However, managing human dignity would only be an appropriate goal if there was no factive basis on which to make appropriate ascriptions of dignity or the lack thereof. i.e. whether or not any particular person should be said to have dignity depends on whether he has adopted a code worth adopting and how well he has adhered to it. Only if no particular code was any more worth adopting than another would it even begin to make sense of afford each person equal dignity. None of this is to say that actual poor people always fail to live up such codes nor is it to say that the actual norms societies follow are the correct set of norms. All this means is that trying to change how people regard themselves without any regard to whether people should be feeling that wabout themselves is a mistake.

        We can compare this to exortations to not feel bad about how one looks without regard to whether or not one’s body is anything to feel good about.

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        • other people treating me as though I lack dignity can still erode my own self respect and dignity. Not only is this a natural reaction, it is not unreasonable either.

          Agreed. But the key word in the statement is “can.” I would even strengthen that to “has a strong tendency to.” But that’s not the same as “will.” Undoubtedly few have the inner strength to avoid that fate, but some do, and that means there is a difference.

          As I said, a minor quibble. The overall argument doesn’t turn on it.

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    • Well I do think we’re talking about inequality, but we’re not necessarily talking about it in terms of the gap between rich and poor, but rather the shape inequality takes within our system as opposed to others (or rather, the American system as opposed to say, Singapore.)

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      • but we’re not necessarily talking about it in terms of the gap between rich and poor, but rather the shape inequality takes within our system as opposed to others

        That’s the thing right? When cease to talk about the gap between the rich and the poor, we cease to talk about inequality.

        Here is an analogy. John Stuart Mill claimed to be a hedonist and said the only kind of good was pleasure. However, he said that there were higher and lower pleasures. i.e. even though reading shakespear and watching dumb and dumber are both supposed to be peasurable, the more intellectual kinds of pleasures are of a different quality. The problem is that whatever it is that differentiates one kind of pleasure from another is not in and of itself pleasure.

        Similarly, whatever makes inequality in Singapore less harmful than in the US is not inequality per se but some other thing.

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      • Perhaps this is strange, but I think this is the first post in the symposium that’s actually about inequality. If we treat inequality in strictly material terms, we’re basically rigging the game. If we start to look at it as a broader phenomenon, of which differences in wealth and income and mobility, are only pieces, then it becomes possible to engage inequality itself instead of getting bogged down in discussions of things like entrepreneurship and innovation and so on, things that have a lot to do with income gaps or differences in wealth (and for some people may even justify them), and start talking about the actual issues of inequality.

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  5. A related point:

    People who live by selling their labor effectively have their skills as capital. When those skills become devalued via automation or outsourcing, that’s a significant loss of their wealth. That has to be acknowledged more seriously than by cheering “creative destruction!” or snarking about buggy-whip factories.

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    • But isn’t a good deal of the problem is that the ‘working poor’ (or whatever term we want to describe whom we talking about here) is that they lack sufficient skills? Or rather, sufficiently differentiable skills from another billion or so people in China and India around the world? (not to mention the million or so that (used to) arrive in the US every year). Nobody is saying that electricians, plumbers (or lawyers) don’t have long term job prospects. They each have *short* term problems, but those are congruent with the short term problems of the current economy.

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      • People have the skill set that they have, not another one. So I guess my question back to you would be: What constitutes a skill sufficient to maintain employment given offshoring and mechanization? And: Is that skill set attainable for the average worker?

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        • I don’t mean that to sound as confrontational as it might. I just don’t see any skill set as being immune to offshoring and mechanization for the majority of people who work for a living, even supposing they had that skill set.

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          • There are no good answers. In the short term.

            In the long term, ‘offshoring’ is just everyone else in the world finally catching up. There’s an asymptotic limit to the redistribution. Eventually, the differences should be the same as that which exist between any given of the fifty states. (i.e. just because Mississippi has one of the lowest wage rate in the US, Mississippi isn’t the only place in the US with jobs. In fact, it’s one of worst off)

            And I find it odd, now that I think about it, to be fighting *for* the dignity of labor but *against* automation. Automation get people out of scut work jobs, whether it be cleaning chamberpots or digging ditches (or even jobs that shouldn’t be done now like combing through landfills for anything of value. It’s Not Good when third world kids do this, but an important part of waste management if we can get robots to do that)

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            • Automation get people out of scut work jobs, whether it be cleaning chamberpots or digging ditches…

              While I think that was true of the early stages of computerization, in the 70s and 80s, the jobs being computerized now include accounting, legal research, mechanical design and engineering, and the like.

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            • Personally, I think the distinction between automation and offshoring collapses a bit – well, to a great degree – when we consider the purposes of both practices: increase profits by reducing costs. That all on its own isn’t a bad thing, acourse, but what it means to me is that offshoring is justified on the same grounds that mechanization is. So from the pov of the folks making the decision to do one or the other (or neither) they’re indistinguishable.

              The only bonus you mention – that mechanization leads to the elimination of some shitty jobs – is a by product of the rationale for doing it in the first place.

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              • And the above argument, if it’s sound, exposes the conveniently used misapplication of morality to employers who engage in offshoring: that they’re trying to help impoverished third-world workers. From a business perspective, they aren’t, and saying so is a category error. It is only an incidental and indirect side-effect of seeking the lowest wage rate (given other considerations, acourse) that results in impoverished people being offered (and sometimes not even that) a job.

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                • Some two decades of Capitalism (crony or otherwise) has worked better than the previous 50 years of Socialism. (Marxist or otherwise). That seems to be pretty clear to me when talking about third world development.

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                  • What you mean is, two decades of “capitalism” may or may not have worked better than the previous 50 years of harsh despotism. “Socialism” was never the order of the day.

                    The best working societies in the world have strong social safety nets, strong programs to assist the working poor in training for skills necessary for a more middle class existence, and strong programs to ensure the dignity of those in need. Sadly those tend never to last because the despotic right wing comes around screaming “government waste, socialism, tyrrany, undeserving lazy people taking my money” while rummaging through the programs intended to help the poor looking for anything they can strip out of it.

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                    • I mean, compare the economies created by Nasser-style socialism, by an Indian-style license Raj, and by more orthodox Maoist and Lenninist movements (including in the home nations of Mao and Lennin) with economies that happened after 1991 when a lot of those models mostly went of style and favor. I mean, yeah, you had some cases of spectacularly imploding corruption, like Russia, and places that really didn’t change, like Egypt, but those places that did make reforms (like India and China) have done much better as measured by GDP. (which to be sure isn’t everything, but it’s a good start)

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                    • And then compare economies created by laissez-faire capitalism.

                      Company towns, slavery, rampant product mislabeling, rampant monopoly trusts, rampant fiscal fraud and all.

                      We repealed Glass-Steagall after 56 years. 20 years before the repeal of Glass-Steagall we started down the road of systematically dismantling every bit of reform that we found it wise to implement following the Great Depression that laissez-faire capitalism handed us.

                      What was our payback? Less than a decade after GLB, all of a sudden we have another Depression on our hands and we have 3 decades of ever-increasing inequality.

                      We don’t need Nasser-style socialism, or an Indian-style license Raj, or Maoist/Leninist movements. But we don’t need Laissez-Faire Corporate Fascism either.

                      The solution is not in extremist bullshit that the libertarians are trying to sell us. The solution is in a strong, tightly regulated capitalist society that prevents abuses and protects the lower classes while preventing, not encouraging, wealth and privilege centralization.

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                    • It’s nice that you conflate the problems that occurred at various different points and in different regions across 150 years of American history into a single sentence that implies a single cause.

                      (oh yeah, ‘slavery’ as the result of laissez-faire capitalism. That’s just funny.)

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                  • Sure. But taking the third world out of poverty isn’t the goal or purpose of capitalism. And it most definitely isn’t the goal of corporate decision-makers either. It’s an ancillary benefit, to be sure, but it also entails a cost (which is the topic of the OP.)

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                    • Stillwater,

                      Sorry that I keep addressing you, but you seem to always make the most interesting points.

                      Your purpose of capitalism comment aligns with the discussion we had on the purpose of society. Obviously systems don’t have intentions, but good institutions are designed (not always top down) to do something. I would say the reason I support Free Enterprise is that it tends to lead to prosperity and human flourishing across the widest scales. Even better, it leads to good widespread results even based upon narrow selfish goals.

                      To me, this is the purpose of Free Enterprise.

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                    • I think we all agree that contrary to Republican Party talking points, the interests of Capitalism and the interests of Corporations (and those who run them) are rarely congruent, at best orthogonal, and often diametrically opposed.

                      Insofar as Capitalism has ‘interests’. That’s actually Capitalism greatest strengths, as the honey badger of economic systems. Capitalism doesn’t care if you’re black or white, Jew or Gentile, Sikh or Muslim. You want to put black people and white people on the same Pullman cars so you don’t have to switch on the New Orleans run every time you hit St Louis? Capitalism doesn’t care – but white southerners did, and thus their governments did. You’re the son of a former president? Capitalism doesn’t care – but Savings and Loan regulators, and the public private partnership that is Major League Baseball does, and thus governments do. You’re an immigrant trying to make a living as a cab driver? Capitalism doesn’t care, but other cab drivers do, and thus governments do.

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                    • Sure. But taking the third world out of poverty isn’t the goal or purpose of capitalism. And it most definitely isn’t the goal of corporate decision-makers either. It’s an ancillary benefit,

                      Everything in capitalism, other than “capitalists make money”, is an ancillary benefit. That’s not a criticism; there are lots of ancillary benefits, and they add up to a lot of money. But one reason it irritates me so much to hear anyone with money described as a “job creator” is that, even for the ones for whom that’s true, it’s a side effect of what they really want, and their real goal is to create the product/service/miscellaneous-thing-of-value by employing as few people at as low wages as possible.

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                    • the honey badger of economic systems.

                      Awesome. And the rest of it was pretty good too.

                      But that gets back to my initial (temporaly!) comment in this thread: that capitalism doesn’t care whether it’s offshoring or mechanizing or whatever. And on the supposition that a healthy middle class is the essential engine of capitalism (disposable income matters, no?), then mechanizing workers into marginally-above-subsistence wages ought to be a worry.

                      But on that score, you’re right: capitalism don’t care.

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                    • You want to put black people and white people on the same Pullman cars so you don’t have to switch on the New Orleans run every time you hit St Louis? Capitalism doesn’t care – but white southerners did, and thus their governments did.

                      You want to exclude one kind of customer from your store to appeal to the other kind, the ones with more money? Capitalism rewards that –but eventually government said “Hell, no”, and now you can’t do that any more.

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                    • Oh no, Kolohe, you don’t get to call that.

                      Apartheid in South Africa was codified into law. Jim Crow may have been eventually codified into some laws regarding buses, but it was mostly the whole “voluntary association” libertarian bullshit; an entire society of slaveowners taking a FYIGM-and-you-can’t-have-any approach to the freed slaves.

                      “Whites only” businesses were justified under “free association”, police called in to enforce “no trespassing.” Sharecropper scams and other methods of creating indentured servitude were the result of predatory systems designed to financially re-enslave those who had been freed. And every time any of it was challenged it was justified under “free association” and “states’ rights” grounds, areas which today’s Libertarians seem hellbent to argue for some reason.

                      Libertarianism gave us Jim Crow.

                      In short, the libertarian philosophy of Rand Paul and the Supreme Court of the 1880s and 1890s gave us almost 100 years of segregation, white supremacy, lynchings, chain gangs, the KKK, and discrimination of African Americans for no other reason except their skin color. The gains made by the former slaves in the years after the Civil War were completely reversed once the Supreme Court effectively prevented the federal government from protecting them. Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn’t work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse.

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                    • If Capitalism had rewarded that, they wouldn’t needed to codify the apartheid cartel into law.

                      I know that’s the classic response, but it’s not true. Segregation appeared in many forms that had the force of custom, not law, behind it.

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      • The West Wing
        Episode 5×19, “Talking Points”

        JOSH
        You knew we were for free trade. You knew it when you endorsed us five
        years ago.

        PARSONS
        Yeah, ’cause you told us we might lose old economy jobs – shoe manufacturing
        – to some dirt-poor country, but if we trained ourselves we’d get better
        jobs. Now they’re being vacuumed out of here, too.

        JOSH
        We’re going to fight for more job training, more transition assistance…

        PARSONS
        I have members on their third and fourth career. What are they supposed to
        train for now, nuclear physics? Cello playing? Or should they just give up
        and bag groceries for minimum wage?

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        • Sure we could go back to protectionism. (Smoot-Hawley II – Electric Bugaloo. Just the thing a fragile world economy needs). But the question one should ask then is why is Germany, with fairly open trade with the rest of the world and probably the freeist trade possible with the rest of Europe, not a basket case?

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          • I think that you’d be making a mistake if you try to draw any simple lessons out of the specific experience of Germany in the current financial mess. The reasons for Germany’s relative propsperity have to do with a lot of things, including:

            Culture / work ethic.
            Low rate of high-risk borrowing during the run-up
            Extremely advanced manufacturing sector
            Its role as the defacto central bank of the European Union
            Industrial policy that positioned it as an export-led economy since WWII
            Its strong tradition of craft unions, combined with a strong safety net

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            • “Culture / work ethic.”

              Which is (used to be?) a quintessentially American thing.

              “Low rate of high-risk borrowing during the run-up”

              I’m not so sure about that; I thought it was just they got bailed out on the first go round, (e.g. Iceland), and now their trying to have their cake and eat it too. Or others should be eating cake. Or something.

              “Extremely advanced manufacturing sector”

              As is ours in the US. The *value* of US manufacturing is near all time highs (even with the recession), though employment has fallen of a cliff.

              “Its role as the defacto central bank of the European Union”

              And the Federal Reserve is the de facto central bank of *the world*’

              “Industrial policy that positioned it as an export-led economy since WWII
              Its strong tradition of craft unions, combined with a strong safety net”

              This is likely the right answer. Have no idea how to get their from here though. (and ‘industrial policy’ probably only works when the system itself has low levels of corruption. It certainly hasn’t really worked in Japan – or at least, as everyone thought is was working in the 80’s)

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              • That’s an excellent point about corruption.

                If you look at the 10 least corrupt countries on earth, you’ll find that–as a group–they are more prosperous, have greater social mobility, and economic adaptability than the rest of the world.

                And that makes sense: it less corrupt countries, there is less economic friction: when you decide to invest time, or money, less of it will be diverted to non-productive resources, and your outcomes are much more likely to be predictable.

                That’s one of my core reasons for worrying about the United States: we are becoming more and more corrupt. Not so much in the “paying off the customers officer” sense, but in the even more dangerous sense that we have incorporated it into our political system, and formalized it, and institutionalized it. I think I read that there are about 25.8 registered lobbyists per congressman in the United States, and dependence of political officeholders on private donations for campaign finance means that they must tend to money more than public policy.

                The average senator has to raise about $60,000 per week for their re-election campaign, if they are to be averagely competitive. Where would your attention be if you had to raise $60,000 a week?

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                    • Seriously.

                      If nothing else, think about your congressperson. I give it slightly better than even odds (given that you’re one of us) that you have his or her name as a piece of trivia available to you.

                      If we went back to 1910 rules, it’d pretty much make your congress person someone who is likely to be known to you or a friend of a friend of yours. And not just you (just because you’re one of us) but for pretty much *EVERYBODY*, that’d be the case.

                      (We’d have the additional bonus of eliminating the gerrymandering problem!)

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                    • Conservatives have aquired a serious bug up their asses about the 17th Amendment.

                      The reasons range from lunacy to just sheer naive foolishness, so my general response is just a massive eyeroll.

                      Because really “The problem here is direct election of Senators, instead of your state Legislature picking them”? REALLY? Changing that’s going to make a whit of difference?

                      Then, you know, massive eyeroll.

                      I’ve honestly been wondering where the nut is there. It’s possible the “repeal the 17th” just started out of some conspiracy lunatic fringe and went pseudo-mainstream (because we all know the Constitution as written was perfect, then them liberals allowed income taxes and stuff — kinda like the Bible) or if it’s some rich guy’s pet project (In Texas, at least, I bet buying off Leg votes is a lot cheaper than trying to buy a senate seat directly) or if there’s some other hidden outcome there I haven’t noticed.

                      Frankly, 17th Amendment folks just baffle and amuse me. Every time I see them it’s all “Isn’t that cute! You’ve picked the weirdest cause to get all excited about!”

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                    • Morat20,

                      Conservatives have aquired a serious bug up their asses about the 17th Amendment.

                      Through gerrymandering and dumping massive amounts of money at the “right” times (right before decade redistricting) into state races, Conservatives have acquired control of 27 state houses. Despite this, they cannot maintain control of the Senate in a legitimate election because the majority of those states in a statewide popular election are still not with them.

                      The reason they want to rescind normal election of Senators is simple; it’s a numbers gambit. Go back to the “state appointment” scheme and control of 27 states means 54 votes are guaranteed theirs; and it only takes a few more “split” state houses to necessarily split senatorial appointments 1 R, 1 D and give them a filibuster-proof 60 in the Senate.

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                    • Kohole: What are you talking about? The only thing even close would be the filibuster, and you can’t possibly think everyone here is so stupid as to equate “filibuster reform” with “neutering the Senate”.

                      But you keep trying! The liberals have to be as bad! They have to!

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                    • Actually, I don’t think the liberals are bad on this. If the Senate were abolished, I wouldn’t mind overmuch. I don’t like their special privileged position on executive branch appointment advice and consent, and even less their ability to pass treaties, which in this day and age can become law affecting domestic matters without even touching the HoR. (e.g. imagine a global carbon tax treaty).

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                    • I started hearing “Abolish the 17th” from conservatives when Republicans began dominating state legislatures. I began hearing “Every nominee deserves an up-or-down vote” from them in 2001 [*], and stopped hearing it in 2009. I started seeing Very Serious People worry about a Speaker of the opposite party succeeding to the presidency in 2007, but that became moot in 2009 and somehow wasn’t bothersome in 2011. I saw Very Serious Constitutional Scholars insisting that the Emoluments Clause forbade Hillary Clinton from being in the Cabinet even if she refused the pay increase. It must be because they’re so religious that God allows their principles and interests always to align.

                      *Even though they’d been violating it with wild abandon during the previous 8 years. I wonder how they knew the liberal media would never mention that inconsistency?

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          • Germany has a rising poverty class thanks to Agenda 2010. A combination of “trickle down economic” strategies with tax cuts at the very peak, drastic reductions in pension and unemployment benefits. They were buffered mostly by coming in to the Eurozone with a very strong currency and playing that off with renewed trading strength to their Eurozone trading partners. As it stands, German job growth is sitting at pretty much zero for the year and East German states are already looking like the Czechs did in the 1990s again. And the only thing holding buyer confidence together in Germany is Merkel’s government strong-arming of some large employers to increase wages as payback for their tax cuts.

            Germany’s due to crash in about 6 months to a year, tops. They’re out of options. It just stays out of the paper because they had more coasting time inherent in their system as opposed to some of the other Eurozone trading partners.

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            • An interesting and an unorthodox take. You may be right, but Germany did absorb the mess that was East Germany once before. Don’t know if that would mean they could do it again, or would say enough is enough.

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              • Don’t kid yourself about how West Germans saw East Germans. They were generally regarded as a lesser half of Germany and much of the Agenda 2010 “reforms” were sold to the West Germans as ways to “stop the East Germans from mooching.”

                East Germans are treated there like the right wing treats blacks here.

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                • I thought that’s how they treated the Turks? (East Germans seem to be more of what the right wing would call lazy entitled and/or government worker moochers, a la Wisconsin. Or Michigan)

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                    • I can’t tell if you’re being facetious or not, Kolohe, but the comparison’s not far off. Turks (especially Armenians) in Germany are generally regarded by the ethnic Germans as little more than vermin. They had a large and vociferous argument over the bounds of family reunification and immigration due to Turkish families generally arranging mail-order brides from the homeland; they had a large number of the other same arguments the right wing makes about Mexicans today.

                      Merkel less than two years ago declared that multiculturalism “failed utterly” and started playing to xenophobic groups and neo-nazi groups in pushing policies to make the Turks “go home”, very similar to Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation policy” bullshit.

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  6. Back when I worked at the restaurant, I probably worked harder than I ever have since. Wake up at 0’dark-thirty, stumble into the cafe, drink six shots of espresso,have a cigarette and steel yourself to deal with breakfast rush from 6:30ish until 9ish. Clean up everything to get ready for lunch. Deal with lunch rush from 10ish until 3ish. Clean up everything to get ready for tomorrow. Maybe finally be able to sit down and take a break around 4ish. I spent more time walking than standing and more time standing than sitting (sitting? What’s that? Oh, that’s the thing you do at 4:25 or so.)

    Tomorrow is going to be exactly like today was.

    Now I have a job where I spend more time sitting down than on my feet (and when I’m on my feet, it’s probably because I’m walking from “my chair at my desk” to “my chair in the lab”). While there are parts of my job that are difficult (why in the heck is that script giving files that group ownership when we run it? It doesn’t do that when we break up the script into small parts and run each part individually…), I wouldn’t consider any part of my job even half as strenuous as a day full of carrying a tub of dishes hither to yon for four hours.

    It doesn’t seem right that they are doing something that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do anymore (though I was pretty good at it when I was 20) and getting paid a tiny fraction of what I make sitting on my keister… but, other than tipping well and telling them that I know that they’re busting their ass, I don’t know what to do about it.

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    • We should feel guilty about our cushy 1% lives. We all deal with it in different ways: write essays; earnestly discuss the indignity of it all at cocktail parties and cookouts; vote for the right party; blame the faceless “system.”

      Or we can be grateful. The natural state of man is poverty. The hunter/gatherer or the farmer does not punch out at 5, and lives in a perpetual state of exhaustion. Not one in 100 of us would rather farm than work the fry station at Mickey D’s.

      If our starting point, our barometer, is the life of a Western 1%er, then certainly all other lives are unfair. But if you think of how stupid the average person is, half of everybody else is stupider than he is. You can set up the “system” so each person has a chance to realize their potential, but you can’t make a everybody the bank manager and you can’t make the manager at your local 7-Eleven the CEO of Boeing.

      Now, it’s easy to cherry pick the very best outcomes from other countries, the workweek from here, the health system from there, the child care from yet another, but the people of Germany aren’t the same as Americans [and certainly not like the Greeks].

      It would be nice if garbage collectors only had to work 30 hours a week because the job kind of sucks, but it’s just not going to work. And yes, it would be nice if banks treated us nicer or didn’t charge us up the wazoo for overdrawing our accounts, but they’re not a charity, and ’twas we who screwed up, not the bank. And it would be nice if our boss wasn’t a martinet, jerking us around for the sake of jerking us around, but there’s something in our natures that makes us more productive under someone who’s a bit of a jerk.

      This isn’t to deny that life sucks out there for many people and we shouldn’t do what we can. But it’s not our obligation to be miserable about our cushy lives and make everybody else around us miserable too. The secret to Kim Kardashian’s mysterious success and why the plebes don’t begrudge her it is simple—she’s not a drag.

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      • This isn’t to deny that life sucks out there for many people and we shouldn’t do what we can. But it’s not our obligation to be miserable about our cushy lives and make everybody else around us miserable too.

        And who, exactly, was advocating that?

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      • TVD:

        “We should feel guilty about our cushy 1% lives.”

        Sorry, that is BS. I worked hard in HS so I could get into a good college. While in college I worked hard to get into a good law school. Then in law school I worked hard to do well. I could have partied, smoked dope, etc. more at each level but I might not have gotten this far so I sure as hell don’t feel bad about it.

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        • It was tongue-in-cheek, Scott, although there is something to the meme we are not self-made men: we WERE born into a rich and stable country, we DO have advantages most of humanity doesn’t. There exists a real moral duty to the commons, to each other.

          However, I would prefer the progressive’s Rx’s to make things even better not be so dependent on coercive political force and largesse with Other People’s Money.

          And not be a drag.

          And OTOH, you did indeed make the most of the opportunities that came your way and deserve to live better as a result of your self-discipline and good choices. When you dig a little deeper into the Poor Sam anecdotes we’re constantly subjected to as proof “the system” sucks, there are usually bad habits and bad choices under the surface.

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              • No, not quite universal. the northeastern U.S. tends to turn sarcasm up to an almost unbearable pitch. In the midwest, sarcasm is very common, but tends to be less stinging, less sharp than in the NE. The northwestern U.S., at least the Willamette Valley of Oregon, is almost a sarcasm free zone.

                I once dated a girl in San Francisco. Very bright, very pretty, good sense of humor, but she did not get sarcasm at all. Any sarcastic comment she took not as a joke but as a verbal assault.

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                • One thing I enjoy about Faulkner is his characters’ sarcasm. It’s generally the poorer, more rural ones, and their style is an innocent statement or question that’s deadly in context.

                  Whether this was characteristic of the early 20th Century South, I have no idea.

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                  • Different cultures may interpret sarcasm and irony differently, but I’m sure all cultures grok the notion of sarcastic statements. While I can imagine some individuals being unable to tell whether a givenstatement is sarcastic (I can be quite bad at this) I do not think entire cultures lack the concept of sarcasm.

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                    • “You know how double negative makes a positive? Well, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I’m convinced that a double positive never makes a negative.”

                      “Yeah. Sure.”

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                    • I didn’t really mean lacking the concept, but as a cultural norm frowning upon the use of sarcasm, rather than appreciating it. In my culture, the sarcastic person (if they do it well at all, some folks lack the touch) are appreciated. Folks like Mike Schilling for example (really, that wasn’t sarcasm). But I can imagine a culture where those who use it, even well, are viewed as behaving inappropriately. And I wonder if there are cultures that have that latter view, and if so, how widespread or frequent they are.

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