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Inequality, the Landed Gentry, the Middle Class, and Capitalism

Kevin Erdmann, writing one of the blogosphere’s innumerable critiques of Piketty, writes

Classes of elites living off of returns (“r”) are hardly the invention of modern capitalism… Pre-Victorian landed elites earned “r” well before Adam Smith was kicking around. Capitalism extended their ownership rights to the peasant class. …

I have linked to this Robin Hanson post before. He points out how selective we are about which kinds of inequality we concern ourselves with. One point he makes is that inequality between siblings accounts for 3/4 of inequality within a modern nation. I suspect it is fairly common for most Americans to survey their siblings and cousins and find nearly the full range of American economic distribution. Think about that…Pre-capitalist economic station was almost completely predetermined by family. …

So, 3/4 of the inequality of modern capitalist societies has indeed been created by capitalism. This inequality now dwarfs all the forms of inequality that existed before. This is an inequality otherwise known as economic mobility.

And, thinking further about our problems with inequality, the most profound problem it creates is the unlevel field of opportunities available to the members of a particular generation. The complaint is that the rich can invest so much into the human capital of their children that the differences in opportunities between children become grotesque, and this leads to an intergenerational persistence of income inequality, because children of the rich capture a choice education in the high paying professions.

But, again, I say, step back a minute and think about what we are taking for granted here. The idea that the rich would concern themselves with helping their children be productive is also result of capitalism. As Deirdre McCloskey outlines, along with the ideas that individuals could accumulate capital and that the legal defense of capital wouldn’t be limited to a small group of people, came the idea that productivity was tolerable. This has become such a fundamental part of the Western point of view that we have to remind ourselves that it is unusual. Again, thinking of Jane Austen characters, or even of people in many pre-capitalist societies today, for peasants, human capital would be largely unattainable or pointless. For the landed elite, it would be insulting. Traders and commercial innovators – producers – became tolerable, and capitalism was the result.

Because of the capitalist revolution, not only is being personally productive tolerated today, but we would find it incomprehensible to imagine it another way. In fact, we are concerned about it! We say: It’s not fair that rich kids get the opportunity to be more productive! Today, high income workers work longer hours than low income workers. Imagine the look of confusion you might get from a pre-capitalist gentleman if you told him that in your society, the poor work fewer hours than the rich and the government is implementing school lunch programs to make sure poor kids don’t ingest too many calories. He wouldn’t just have a hard time understanding how that could be. Those words literally could not form that sentence. You might as well speak martian to him. Don’t even try to explain to him that you’re outraged by how the richest kids have an advantage in attaining productive employment. He’ll think you’re crazy before you even get to that.

Scott Sumner thinks we can all relax and take a deep breath

Here’s what I read yesterday morning:

U.S. jobs pay an average 23% less today than they did before the 2008 recession, according to a new report released on Monday by the United States Conference of Mayors.

So I decided to check the actual data. Average hourly earnings have risen from $21.63 in July 2008 to $24.44 today, that’s up 13%. And PCE price index has risen from 219.016 in July 2008 to 237.693 today. That’s up 8.5%. Everyone needs to take a deep breath; the “American middle class” will be fine.

Also,

Some on the left mock the “technology” argument for improved living standards. “Let them eat cell phones.” But that’s exactly the point—revealed preference. Peasants in low income countries will buy cell phones before they can afford TVs, or indoor plumbing, or even “health insurance.”

I’ve always found the mockery of “oh, they can afford cell phones, but not health insurance,” callow. Treating cell ohines as insignificant actually denigrates people who want them. Without intending to, it implicitly criticizes their economic decision-making. It also ignores the real value cell phones have for personal engagement.

Self-annointed cultural critics like to sneer at electronic interaction, in contrast to face-to-face interaction. But my wife’s family, for example, is spread between the Netherlands, Texas, California and Alaska. That electronic communication, even when it’s just Facebook updates, is humanly important.

I was struck in Dubai by the ubiquity of cell phones among hand truck cargo haulers. These are low end jobs, held by immigrant laborers. They’re busiest in early morning and late afternoon, and in mid-day they spend a lot of time napping on their carts, chatting…and on their cell phones, which were more sophisticated than what I had at the time. Bully for them. Treating cell phones as insignificant and destructive of personal connection is a first-world problem.

And let’s not forget the medical value of cell phones. In the 1980s if you had a car accident, someome had to go find a phone. That could be miles away. Now it’s in your pocket.

And where are we getting the videos from Ferguson, Missouri? And most of the other videos of abusive police? Poor minorities are finally starting to wake white middle class America up to the realities of living in a police state, thanks to cell phones. I’d argue this, among other things, a public health issue that may be alleviated in part by what some white middle class liberals dismiss as little more than toys or an annoying job requirement.

But that’s all some people can afford, while the rich have Park Avenue penthouses. Well, maybe. But it’s always been thus, and more importantly, it’s probably not getting worse, according to John Nye.

Dollar measures of income inequality always exaggerate differences because what matters to people is what they can buy for their money and how much value they derive from what they have purchased. …

The data on consumption, derived from the government’s Consumer Expenditure Surveys, shows that consumption inequality has not matched the rise in income inequality over the last two to three decades.

Moreover, even consumption, as measured by dollars spent, overstates inequality. Thus if I spent $400 a month on food and you spent $200 per month, my food consumption is double yours even if we bought exactly the same things at different prices. Measures of consumption expenditure ignore differences in the prices of what we consume. ..,

There is an even deeper problem that causes us to exaggerate differences in consumption between the rich and the poor: changes in the quality of goods are not properly accounted. The march of technology means the good becomes commonplace and the best is often only incrementally better, but usually costs a lot more money.

Doubling the price of an item doesn’t give you twice as much. As technology progresses, the price differences between low-end and high-end goods conceal relatively small differences in functionality. To take a simple example: If a good 25-inch cathode ray tube color TV cost $500 in 1990 and a larger flat screen TV cost about $2,000 in the same year, would you think that someone buying a TV today would get as much of a jump in quality for the equivalent price difference? For $500 today, you could get a flat screen TV not that much worse and only somewhat smaller than you could buy for $2,000. Some of the differences, such as 3-D capability, might not even matter to most consumers. Yet in both cases, statisticians treat the higher spending person as having consumed four times as much as the one buying the cheaper TV.

Or think of coffee. That one person spends less than a dollar a day on coffee and another spends $5 may reflect differences in quantity or the fact that one brews at home and the other goes to Starbucks. That’s not the kind of difference that would have been felt much earlier in the 20th century, when having regular coffee of any grade was itself a small luxury.

“Technology has turned many luxuries into commodities and made it much harder for the rich to distinguish what they consume from the cheaper but functionally similar products used by the average person.” …

That the poor and the rich are not living so differently is perhaps more readily seen in the convergence in mortality rates between the rich and the poor and the fact that the largest parts of the remaining differences are heavily driven by behavior (smoking, obesity, accidents) and from having intact families — and not by lack of access to basic health care. …

I expect these trends will continue, if perhaps in futs and starts, rather than in a smooth progression. But good news doesn’t sell, nor does it feed our apparent need for moral outrage.

Let the condemnation begin. ;)

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350 thoughts on “Inequality, the Landed Gentry, the Middle Class, and Capitalism

  1. This seems paper-thin.

    Yes, we have cheap cell phones. We also have an underclass that is sicker, and fatter, and at greater risk of medical and financial disaster than any other time in living memory.

    I too think very little of the “how could they possibly be poor–they have flat-screen TVs” line of argumentation. But Pickety has (quite possibly) identified a structural underpinning of growing inequality, and that’s a worthy thing.it

    The way our economy works has changed in the last 30 years, and it’s worth confronting in a serious ways. The rising tide genuinely did lift all boats. Now, it’s lifting the boats of the top 0.1%, while the median income has gone up less than 10% in the last forty years (as opposed to 500% for the tippy-top).

    It’s not just that mobile phones and computers are nice. It’s about how you want your society to work.

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      • There actually have been some drops in life expectancy among less educated whites in the last years.
        http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/us/life-expectancy-for-less-educated-whites-in-us-is-shrinking.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/03/05/study-shows-declining-life-span-for-some-us-women/

        And of course poor folk have had much worse stats on things like infant mortality which has been a reason for implementing some sort of UniHC.

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      • Well, yes it has (for the poor, at least):

        Between 1996 and 2006, life expectancy at age 25 increased for men and women with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, while remaining unchanged for
        those with less than a Bachelor’s degree (2). In 1996, on average, 25 year-old men with less than a high school education could expect to live 7.4 years less than those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher. That gap increased to 9.3 years in 2006 due to a 2-year increase in life expectancy among the most educated men and no increase among the least educated. Similarly, 25 year-old women with no high school diploma in 1996 could expect to live on average 5.8 years less than those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher. By 2006, that gap had grown to 8.6 years due to a decrease in the life xpectancy of the least educated women and an increase in life expectancy for the most educated women.
        CDC

        Beyond that (medical science advances), the portion of the population that is morbidly obese has increased by 70% in the last decade., and rates of diabetes have more than doubled since 1980 (and, no, better technologies for management of diabetes does not make it a wash).

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      • Well a quick google on the phrase “has life expectancy gone down” turned up this from the New York Times.

        Researchers have long documented that the most educated Americans were making the biggest gains in life expectancy, but now they say mortality data show that life spans for some of the least educated Americans are actually contracting.

        I’d need to look at the studies they cite to make any more detailed comment but the claim is at least being made that life expectancy is going down for some populations.

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      • The NYT article is actually pretty interesting when it gets into the “why” this is happening. Even as life expectancy is going up for pretty much everybody else, it’s going down for the least educated… and it’s not just because the least educated used to be a larger, more robust, group of people (though that’s a lot of it). It seems to be related to issues of class and culture (smoking, prescription drug abuse, single motherhood).

        But, among this class, life expectancy for men has dropped from 70 to 67.5 from 1990 to today and from 78ish to 74ish for women.

        (According to my quick googling research, it’s stayed static or gone up among other groups.)

        Which makes me wonder what the numbers would look like if we included the group of people who used to be included in this group… but aren’t anymore.

        We used to have 22% of the population in the least educated group. Now we have 12%. Off the top of my head, this is going to move the people who used to be on the rightish side of the curve to a different chart altogether while leaving the people in the middle and the left side of the curve to make up the group… which is going to wreak havoc on the chart.

        That said, when I originally asked my question, I was assuming that life expectancy was static or increasing across the board… and it’s not.

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      • The reasons for the drop in LE are a bit of puzzle. I’m not sure how much is or could be due the general idea of inequality. More likely it is tied to our health care delivery system and other cultural issues that will be hard to tease out. However it the kind thing that might be linked to significant inequality or class and needs to be understood better. Rates of chronic diseases are increasing and serious so this problem isn’t likely to just go away.

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      • Jaybird I would like to see life expectancy stats corrected for murders and mayhem. The poor are getting killed as children in Chicago every week and that doesn’t even make the Chicago tribune anymore. Kill enough kids and you can skew a lot of stats. They aren’t exactly dying of old age in those neighborhoods.

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      • The murder rate like all other crime rates is a lot lower today than it was in 1990. Even if you correct the life expectancy rates for murder, it should have negligent effects because the murder rate is down.

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      • I’d still like to see that murder report refined further to Who is getting murdered. What if it is highly and disproportionately falling on lower income demographics as I suspect it is? Following @jaybird’s numbers , now only 12% rather than the 22% it was thirty years or so ago?

        Not just murder but critical injuries that don’t show in those stats. After all, Brady just died 30 yrs after he was shot and the ME called it homicide (admittedly political grandstanding but the underlying logic is correct). If you are poor and got shot but didn’t die, what is your life expectancy now?

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      • @wardsmith:

        The decline in life expectancy is for non-Hispanic whites without high school degrees. Life expectancy for blacks and Hispanics without high school degrees slightly increased during the same time period. Only 10% of homicide victims in Chicago are white.

        Also, the homicide rate is down 50% since 1990. Yes, it falls disproportionately on the lower classes, but that was true in 1990. There would have had to have been a radical shift in the distribution of homicides for this to be consistent with an increase in low-SES homicides.

        Homicide does explain a significant portion of the black/white life expectancy gap, but it doesn’t explain the decline in life expectancy for whites without a high school diploma, which is the specific issue in question here.

        Fun fact: Black women have a longer life expectancy for white men. But for some reason, no one seems nearly as interested in exploring the ways female privilege contributes to this as in exploring the ways white privilege contributes to the black/white life expectancy gap.

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      • There really aren’t that many murders per year, and while they disproportionately fall on the poor, there’s also a *lot* more poor people than rich ones, so I doubt the correction would make much of a meaningful difference in the numbers.

        What might make a much bigger difference is the relative incarceration rate, because I’m pretty sure “being in prison for a while” negatively impacts your long term health, for a whole slew of proximate reasons (less access to health care and employment after you get out of the hoosegow, for just a couple). And the poor are disproportionately incarcerated, but there’s enough poor in prison relative to the overall population to probably have a measurable effect.

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      • Brandon,
        Lies. I think it’s the hormonal balance — estrogen and stuff, as far as “female privilege.” But it’s a very very active area of research. consult pubmed for actual science.

        In terms of medical treatment, there have been very active work in the past few years to actually have equal numbers of men and women in trials, because medicine can affect the sexes differently. (hey! it’s an easy to distinguish genotype! let’s study it!)

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      • “We used to have 22% of the population in the least educated group. Now we have 12%. Off the top of my head, this is going to move the people who used to be on the rightish side of the curve to a different chart altogether while leaving the people in the middle and the left side of the curve to make up the group… which is going to wreak havoc on the chart.”

        Jaybird has hit the nail on the head. Life expectancy hasn’t necessarily decreased for actual individuals as much as the make ups of the group are now quite different. A better comparison would be the bottom 12% then vs now, not the bottom 22% then to the bottom 12% today.

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  2. No outrage from me. I was persuaded (after a bit of muddled pushback) by the arguments you presented – what was it? three years ago? And speaking more personally about all this stuff (rather than ideologically or politically, ya know?) I think Americans attachment to the middle class is based on the idea that you work hard during your productive years in order to retire at a youngish age on a pension. Well, maybe that’s not precisely what people are thinking, but something close to that. From my pov, the idea of sacrificing your most active years in order to not work in your fading years is an incredibly misguided way to live a life. I won’t get into why and all that, but I think hanging onto the desirability of that model is a big problem and one we’re all better off letting go of.

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    • I largely agree, although perhaps not for the same reasons (or perhaps for the same reasons, I guess it depends on what your reasons are).

      [rant]
      I’m also wary of the way people use “middle class” as something self-evidently obvious. Sometimes I feel like pedant, but the term just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’m not saying we have to adopt a Marxist definition. But I’d like some definition that isn’t reducible to “everyone knows it” or, worse, “everyone except the undeserving rich and the undeserving poor, where ‘undeserving’ is defined as that with which the speaker cannot empathize.”
      [/rant]

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      • Yeah, I agree with the rant. A long time ago James posted a bunch of numbers in a series of columns showing income distributions over time (statistics, I think they’re called) trying to give some indication of what the middle class comprises. In other words, to provide a semantic value for that term. I found it pretty persuasive – statistics don’t lie!

        I’m pretty sure that a lot of the confusion we all experience when talking about this stuff derives from differing conceptions of what the words mean. That, and how to accurately measure changes over time that don’t beg the question.

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      • I suspect that the reason middle class is so hard to define is that there are social, cultural, and psychological reasons why people want to be seen as middle class.

        The United States is very steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic. We see work as being good as a tautology and axiom except for a small minority. I often think of work being important for the sake of work. Or as I say, work gives leisure more value and meaning.

        My own theory is that American culture sees the most “virtuous” class as being the middle to upper-middle class. These are people who live comfortably to very well but they do so on their own income and not from amassed wealth created generations ago. These are still people who somewhat “make their own way” and need to work to support their lifestyles instead of being able to do what they want because they come from enough inherited wealth that the necessities of life are not concerned. In the book “Paying for the Party: How College Promotes Inequality”, the sociologists said that upper-middle class kids still understood that money was a finite resource but the upper-class kids did not and did not need to. The upper-middle class kids might need to decide between spending 400 dollars on a cocktail dress for sorority rush (the authors studied women only) or saving the money for a spring break trip. The upper-class kids could do both easily and more.

        I have my own anecdotal experiences with this. I grew up upper-middle class and had a small but decent amount of spending money each month at college. My small college had 1.5 dining options and the food was rather terrible most of the time. Every now and then I would go off-campus to eat at a cheap Chinese joint or a burger place. We are talking 5 dollars for two days worth of chicken and broccoli cheap Chinese food. I once asked some people if they wanted to go to the Chinese place instead of the dining hall. There was a young woman who ripped my head off for this suggestion because she grew up very working class/lower middle class and was on a lot of financial aid/scholarship. She could only afford to eat through the dining plan.

        And I was able to think of myself as being merely middle-class instead of upper-middle class because I knew a lot of people who came from huge family fortunes of tens of millions of dollars if not more. Though many (but not all) of those kids really tried hard to keep their family fortunes under-wraps and present themselves as being normal middle-class Americans for a variety of reasons.

        This once again manifested in grad school when a classmate told me that I wear the kind of clothing that is nice but looks like it costs above average but our really rich classmate wore the kind of clothing that is really expensive but looked cheap/ordinary/distressed.

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      • As much as I resist the idea of a “Protestant Work Ethic,”* there is probably something to it and it probably does play a role in how US-Americans think of the “middle class.” The anti-American-exceptionalist in me suspects the phenomenon is not uniquely American and that a successful, non-rentier social class is likely to claim a special virtue by the work it does. But if the phenomenon is not uniquely American, then perhaps its pervasiveness in the culture might be. (Or maybe we can expand it to the Anglo-Sphere + the BENELUX countries + the four little tigers + specified entrepreneurial ethnic groups.)

        My experience in college, at least my first year when I didn’t work, was probably somewhat like yours. I could afford occasionally to go out to Subway or Taco Bell. (However, I actually liked the food in the dorms.) But it was an occasional thing, and I never did the “spring break in Mexico/Florida” thing.

        But money got tighter and I realized I had to work, so starting my second year, there was a paradox. I had to work more and could afford to eat out more, but valued my money more. (For the record, I worked in high school, but had been able to save enough to live off of for my freshman year, although I worked during winter break. That was very valuable to have that non-working experience my first year of college.)

        *By the way, when I actually read Weber, I was surprised that his argument focused more on Calvinism’s role in encouraging the reinvestment of one’s profits and less (or at least less than I had expected) on Calvinism’s supposed valorization of work for its own sake.

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      • For me, by the way, grad school was where I really felt class differences. I met people who had had maids while they were growing up, or whose parents were Harvard professors, or who went to a “SMALL LIBERAL ARTS SCHOOL” and had a surprisingly strong loyalty to it, or who said as a matter of course that they would never listen to “popular music,” or who talked about how provincial Coloradans were, or how much fun it was to go to whatever other part of the country to visit friends there. In one case, I knew someone whose parents just bought her a house in the town. After all, it was cheaper than having to pay rent.

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      • You are probably right that it is not very American. I think you have an issue in many other countries where most people also like to describe themselves as middle-class and this includes a too big range of people and lifestyles.

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      • I’d also interestingly take out England/Britain because that is the most class conscious country I have ever seen.

        I’ve known a lot of Brits who went to university and work upper-middle class jobs but they were born into the working class and still see themselves as old Labor socialists and are dismissive of being part of the middle class/management.

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      • I suspect that the reason middle class is so hard to define is that there are social, cultural, and psychological reasons why people want to be seen as middle class.

        I’m inclined to agree that’s a sizable chunk of the problem. If I remember correctly, something like 80% of Americans consider themselves middle class. I’d guess the two things are related, but it does highlight the potential uselessness of the category.

        Maybe for my purposes here I’d roughly put it as those folks who aren’t worried about either hunger or homelessness, but who would if they took a few months off work?

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      • Most Americans refer to themselves as middle class because Americans always had a queasy relationship with the entire idea of class. It goes all the way back to the Constitution outlawing titles of nobility, at the time the clearest class marker in the Western world. During the later half of the 19th century, we almost tore ourselves up because of the growing class and wealth distinctions in American society. This repeated itself to a lesser extent during the New Deal. By classifying most people as a variety of middle classer even if its patently absurd to do so because they are very poor or incredibly rich, we dodge the issue.

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      • @saul-degraw :
        It might not be unique to America, technically speaking, but our class structure is very distinctive compared to other parts of the world, including the parts of the world where the terminology we use for class originated.

        Our lack of landed gentry means we have no easily definable upper class, while the post WW2 manufacturing economy had a huge positive impact on the wages of a number of people who would traditionally be defined as working class.

        The result of this, is that vast swathes of people think of themselves as middle class in the US, and believe that the others that they interact with in their day-to-day lives are also middle class. I remember that when I worked in a grocery store, making a few bucks an hour above minimum wage, that one of my customers (a man in a suit) naively referred to my job as being middle class. I wanted to point out how wrong his definition was, but that wasn’t the sort of privilege accorded to someone in my non-middle-class job.

        It’s a really terrible view to have, because it allows us to maintain a lot of blind spots about how the people around us live their lives.

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      • My experience on this topic is different. It might be the case that we all call ourselves “middle class” for various reasons, but Americans (at least, the ones I’m surrounded by in my current geography) are incredibly class conscious. I mean, people seem embarassed that they own a four bedroom in South Boulder because it’s not a 5000 sq foot mansion on Mapleton Hill. There may not be words to distinguish the perceptions and judgments folks are making of others, but they are very real. Overtly real.

        But, they’re all just middle class folks!

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      • That makes sense. I do think that in a capitalist society, however, a rentier class can develop (aka, trust funders and their babies) that while not the equivalent of old-style landed aristocracy, is very similar. Also, certain regions, e.g., southern plantations or perhaps large western ranches/farms/mining lands under the ownership of a few might represent something approaching a landed class. But even then, they are/were involved in market relations and the commercial economy in a way that the landed aristocracy of legend supposedly was not.

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      • Alan Scott,

        Wouldn’t the plantation owners of the South, both before and after the Civil War, count as a landed gentry in all but name? They might have been more business-oriented than their European counterparts but they also placed a lot of value in being large land owners and tried to create an American version of England’s gentry culture. Even the Industralists and Financiers tried to set up an urban version of it during the hey day of WASP society complete with exclusive private schools and a society season.

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    • It depends a lot on how you view your job and working in general. If you have a job or job prospects that
      you dislike, or just do not like the idea of spending your life in labor for someone else; then working for retirement makes a lot more sense.

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  3. The revealed preference argument would be good if people are actively making a choice. If a poor person can afford to buy a phone but can’t afford HI or can’t get it at all, then their choice of a phone isn’t showing a preference. It’s entirely possibly they would like to buy both if they could nor does it affect the argument that HI is better provided by through some sort of Uni government led mechanism.

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    • I think there’s a bit of confusion in that, greg. I think everyone – even the richest person alive – is faced with tradeoffs regarding what they choose to spend their money on. The case your talking about is different in that a poor person is quite likely financially incapable of paying for two (let’s call em) necessities. But that isn’t an argument against James thesis here (that the middle class is doing just fine and all that). What it does suggest – to me anyway – is that poor people need access to additional monies to cover the costs of some of those necessities. And we do that thru political machinery, yes? I don’t think James is making the argument that markets and capitalism all on their own suffice for poor people to live decent lives. I mean, he’s been pretty clear that he’s in favor of welfare support for the most in need. So I think those are two distinct issues.

      My two cents, anyway.

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    • If you can’t afford health insurance, it wouldn’t be stupid to put away that cell phone money each month in case you need to go to the doctor.

      I would assume people have actually made a choice to use that money for a cell phone instead, and that their choice reveals a preference.

      Then again, I am inclined to think even poor people exhibit agency, rather than being purely determined by social forces, and I don’t think that’s a unanimous view.

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      • Everybody has agency. People from all sides will disparage the agency of others at times unfortunately. The most common example i hear, which i’m not suggesting you share, is that minorities especially blacks only vote for D’s because they are kept on the Dem plantation.

        If someone has to choose between a cell phone and HI they are is a crappy situation. That cell phone might be very important to getting and keeping a job. If they put aside for HI that may make it much harder to keep work. And of course a fancy cell phone might not even cover one month of HI premiums without subsides of some sort.

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      • While I think your overall point about consumer preferences have a lot of merit, I think cell phones are actually a pretty horrible example, since they fall into that category of goods and services with intentionally confusing price structures. (See also, cable TV and airline tickets).

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      • “cell phones are actually a pretty horrible example, since they fall into that category of goods and services with intentionally confusing price structures.”

        I look forward to a lengthy explanation of how medical services paid for by insurance are not “goods and services with intentionally confusing price structures”.

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      • If you can’t afford health insurance, it wouldn’t be stupid to put away that cell phone money each month in case you need to go to the doctor.

        No. It is stupid.

        ‘Going to the doctor’ is really not the medical condition that health insurance is for, for poor people. Poor people without insurance usually don’t consider going to doctors in the first place. (Heck, I didn’t generally go to doctors when I didn’t have insurance, and I wasn’t even poor.) Health insurance is for medical disasters. And in the case of a disaster, having stored up $500 by not having a cell phone for a year is going to accomplish *nothing at all*.’

        And making that trade-off for a *cell phone* is incredibly stupid. Cell phones are necessities that pay for themselves. Having a functioning telephone is required to operate in this society, especially for lower-end jobs where scheduling can change randomly, and cell phones are, at this point, just as cheap or even cheaper than land lines, and much more useful. Just missing one phone call to come in to work a shift would more than counteract the savings of the entire month of not having a phone.

        If I ran across a poor person who had made the deliberate choice to not have a phone, and saved the money instead to pay for hypothetical doctor visits, yes, I would call that stupid.

        Then again, I am inclined to think even poor people exhibit agency, rather than being purely determined by social forces, and I don’t think that’s a unanimous view.

        Yes. You’re touching on a general idea I see on the right a lot: The idea that poor people should basically do *nothing* with their lives, saving every penny of their money, just in case a disaster happens.

        This idea is, uh, really idiotic. It completely ignores the fact that, 95% of the time, if a disaster happens, the poor person is completely screwed *anyway*.

        It doesn’t matter if they saved up money. Yes, there are *some* tiny disasters that they might be able to deal with if they had saved that $500, but those, in general, are dwarfed by the huge disasters.

        And, of course, if there is a tiny disaster where they actually do need $500 and just $500, they can often figure out a way to get it. Borrowing from friends and family, pawning car titles, even (ugh) payday loans. Being short $500 is not the problem. Being short $5000, or being short $500 for the fourth month in a row because they got laid off, and getting evicted, is.

        Poor people are not making incorrect choices there. Choosing luxuries(1) is entirely rational, because it makes them better off in almost every possible outcome. If they’re going to get hit by a disaster, they’re going wiped out by that disaster, period, and they might as well have a damn big screen TV or whatever until then.

        This isn’t some immoral choice, or some irrational choice because they don’t know better. It’s a perfectly rational choice. Seriously, someone should make a board game or something about this, where you have the choice to do things that have utility with your tokens, or save them in case you land on the board’s ‘disaster’ square and need to recover…but having saved tokens will only help you 1/20 times, and the rest of the time, you’re toast anyway. Yeah, no one’s going to save their damn tokens. (Although, if they can afford it, they’ll buy disaster insurance.)

        If we want to stop poor people from taking that intelligent choice, a clever way might be to make it where poor people *don’t get wiped out by large disasters*. At which point, calculations start changing. If they can be assured they won’t fall far, or at least won’t fall all the way, it would become more rational to save money…not necessarily for disasters, but for a new car, or buying a washer and dryer, or whatever.

        1) Not that there’s a clear line between ‘luxuries’ and ‘necessities’, or that some people don’t complain about necessities too. (re: Cell phones.) And often ‘luxuries’ are often absurdly trivial things. My God, a TV! That’s three hundred dollars, and they buy a new one every five years! Why, that must have cost an average of…spending $5 a month. How dare they!

        The funniest I ever saw was, I think, a list that included ‘central air’ on that. Uh, what? Even assuming central air is a luxury, which is dubious in certain parts of the country, poor people usually didn’t build the damn house they’re living in. It *came with* central air. They can’t, like, take it out and get the money back. Especially if they’re renters.

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      • , you’re absolutely right about health insurance, in that regard. Which means that extrapolating about consumer choices in the marked based on the purchase of cell phones vs. the purchase of health insurance is a bad idea in both directions.

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      • “‘Going to the doctor’ is really not the medical condition that health insurance is for, for poor people. Poor people without insurance usually don’t consider going to doctors in the first place. (Heck, I didn’t generally go to doctors when I didn’t have insurance, and I wasn’t even poor.) Health insurance is for medical disasters.”

        Per the ACA, “health insurance for disasters” is illegal.

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      • Per the ACA, “health insurance for disasters” is not illegal. (And neither is ‘health insurance for just disasters’, which is what I suspect you meant by that.) Almost no sort of health insurance is ‘illegal’.

        However, people over 30 who only have catastrophic insurance will be fined for not having real health insurance. People under 30 can still use it for fulfilling that requirement.

        The reason it doesn’t count for people over 30, and why it’s not allowed to be used with subsidies, is that just dealing with medical disasters is actually a piss-poor way to have medical care for society. It causes poor people who have it to behave like people with no medical insurance, i.e, not see a doctor when they need to.

        However, perhaps your point was ‘poor people didn’t have to be wiped out by medical disaster, because that existed’. Except no, that’s not true before the ACA.

        First, as an individual plan, it was actually pretty hard for anyone who had any sort of medical condition (The people most likely to have that explode into a disaster) to get such insurance. Second, insurance companies dislike any customers who cost them money and will attempt to remove them from being customers. Thirdly, the plans would move and change every once in a while, just to make sure that people who had had some sort of (now preexisting) condition would be moved off.

        So, basically, before the ACA, poor people got exactly ‘one medical disaster’ their entire life, hopefully over fairly quickly before the insurance company rescinded their policy, and then it was entirely likely that they’d end up with their plan cancelled and unable to find another one. (And this ‘one medical disaster’ could be something like being born with a mild heart murmur.)

        The ACA basically fixed all those problems for catastrophic care plans, and it still allows people under 30 to use them to fulfill their insurance requirement.

        As a side note, part of the reason we don’t let it work for people over 30 is apparently that insurance companies really don’t want to sell catastrophic plans to people over 30…and they’re no longer allowed to *not* sell certain people insurance, or to rescind insurance, or have more than a triple multiplier for age. They want to be able to sell to a 25 year old at X, without also having to sell to a 50 year old at 3X, because if they had to do that, they’d end up having to raise X fairly high. It would be higher than the cost of non-catastrophic insurance.

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      • I’m not sure what that wall-o-text was about because you didn’t actually counter my statement that “health insurance for disasters” (your words, by the way, not mine) is not something that the ACA allows to exist.

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      • I’m not sure what that wall-o-text was about because you didn’t actually counter my statement that “health insurance for disasters” (your words, by the way, not mine) is not something that the ACA allows to exist.

        You were being incredibly inexact in your wording, Jim. You claimed it was ‘illegal’, and instead of ‘countering’ your wrong claim in my response, I explained the *actual* situation, where catastrophic plans only are allowed to count as acceptable insurance plans under the ACA if someone is under 30.

        But as that apparently was not an acceptable ‘counter’ to you, I will instead point out that you are factually incorrect in the literal meaning of the words ‘illegal’ and ‘allowed to exist’.

        There is absolutely no law barring people purchasing, or insurance companies from selling, catastrophic health insurance.

        If you assert there are such laws, you’re a) going to have to point to such a law, and b) explain why *the marketplace itself offers those plans* to people under 30:

        https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/catastrophic-health-plan/

        Note to self: When Jim says wrong things, apparently the desired response is to just say ‘No it’s not, and you’re wrong’, instead of explaining the actual situation.

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      • I consistently think your ideas could hardly be more wrong, and you evidently share the same view of mine.

        You know, I was just going to let this lie, but rereading *my* comment, I find myself baffled as to what you could possibly disagree with.

        You said that you assume that people actually have a choice to use money for a cell phone instead of insurance, and that presumably their choice reflects their preferences.

        I…didn’t disagree with that. In fact, I agreed with that.

        So at that point, there was somewhat of a logical gap, economically speaking. People, in theory, should do one thing, but they were doing something else.

        So I then explained *why* they had that preference, or at least why I thought they did: Namely, that cell phones are now a necessity. (and I’m not sure why everyone’s still pretending it’s 2002 where they are this crazy expensive luxury, instead of 2014 where you can get them cheaper than land lines.) And meanwhile the poor saving small amounts of money for disasters is not very useful.

        Do you disagree that that is the reason they have that preference? Do you disagree they have that preference at all? Do you think they should have some other preference? What, exactly, are you disagreeing with?

        I think you might object to the idea that saving small amounts of money for disasters is not very useful, but I’m done guessing what you think.

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      • Really? You critiqued my position (going so far as to use the word “idiotic”), and yet wonder how I could possibly disagree with anything you said?

        Without going into detail, every point in which you disagreed with or critiqued me, I disagree with you. No worries, no recriminations. It just seems to me that our past discussions have foundered on us having deeply conflicting perspectives, and I anticipate any future discussions to founder the same way. And I only have so much energy and so much time in the day, far too much of which I already put to no good purpose here anyway.

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      • Really? You critiqued my position (going so far as to use the word “idiotic”), and yet wonder how I could possibly disagree with anything you said?

        Sorry. I was assuming that you *weren’t* one of the people who believed that, because you had just finished saying talking about how you believed poor people were actually revealing their preferences by their choice, doing what made the most sense for them. That you thought that poor people were not some sort of fools who couldn’t determine what their preferences are, that they are making mostly rational decisions. (At least to the extent that everyone makes them.)

        Hence me saying ‘Yes’, and agreeing with your statement, and further pointing out what I saw as their reasoning for not saving money, namely, that saving some money did not notably improve their odds of surviving a disaster, especially not a medical disaster.

        The only thing I thought I was disagreeing with was a hypothetical phone vs. insurance choice, and I was assuming you had just not completely thought that out, or that you literally meant that you wouldn’t someone’s poor choice ‘stupid’. (I mean, I wouldn’t literally wander around calling poor people’s bad choices stupid either.)

        I didn’t realize you were occupying some ground I had not considered existing, that you agree that poor people are making the choice that best reflects their preferences, but also that they should ignore their preference and deliberately choose to be less happy…because…something. I can’t even imagine how to finish that sentence, so won’t try. (If you were anyone else I’d assume that you didn’t know what ‘preference’ means, but you do.)

        Now I don’t understand your position, but at least I understand what you disagree with. It’s not actually that important. However, I apologize for calling a position that I did not realize you held ‘really idiotic’ to your face. If I had realized you held it, I would have just called it ‘wrong’.

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      • James,
        oh, hell yes it would. If you go to the doctor, you die. If you have $500, if you have $5000, they take it all. Doesn’t matter. And then you don’t have enough money to feed yourself, and you die.
        /real life sucks, doesn’t it?

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    • “If a poor person can afford to buy a phone but can’t afford HI or can’t get it at all, then their choice of a phone isn’t showing a preference. ”

      Note that (a) the cheapest phone I’ve seen is for $9.99; (b) if you get it from a friend or family member as a hand-down, it might be free, and (c) HI might run you several hundred dollars/month. Lots of people can scrounge/buy a phone, but not afford HI.

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  4. So how are wealth and poverty to be measured? Both comparisons amongst economic strata and objective measures of access to defined lists of goods and services seem inadequate, because shifting cultural expectations alter our notion of what it means to be “rich” and “poor” over time. Can we quantify quality of housing and ease of access to communication? Do we factor in vulnerability to property crime?

    I think the best we can do is define what we think it means to be “poor” based on contemporary norms, and try to improve things from there. Saying “no one starves today because social welfare and cheap food” doesn’t mean “the war on poverty has been won yay us.”

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      • Well, there was a time when slavery wasn’t viewed as immoral, and then cultural expectations changed. By the same token, there was a time when inability to access healthcare wasn’t viewed as immoral, now it increasingly is.

        ANd by saying that I’m not trying to change your mind (lawd knows you and I have been round and round on this issue). I’m only expressing my disagreement with your comment.

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      • I’ve grown warier of moral arguments over time, largely thanks to reading you, James, and others. I’ve also accordingly grown wary of the “we owe an obligation” type arguments when used, say, to address how much welfare we are obligated to supply “as a society” (a phrase I don’t like very much).

        All that said, if it’s not a moral issue when we’re talking about anything other than bare survival (say, by counting the bare minimum of calories one can survive on and ensuring the recipient gets only that), then what is it? I don’t intend that as a rhetorical question, but I will give my answer:

        I’ll posit two types of moral issues: hard moral and soft moral. Hard moral would be something like what to provide to assure a base level of survival, such as, say, a minimum of food, clothing, shelter, maybe running water, and maybe access to (but perhaps not subsidization of) at least basic emergency health care. Soft moral could be something a little more, something we (by which I suppose I mean “I” and some likeminded other people) would like people to have access to that goes beyond bare, minimal survival.

        The soft moral issues are particularly vulnerable to the type of critique you and James often provide when someone “goes moral,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions involved that might properly be called “moral” and yet are still legitimate. Funding for primary, secondary, and higher ed, for libraries, perhaps some universal health care provision, mass transit to ensure people can get to their jobs (or subsidizing cars by road construction and maintenance): whether it’s desirable or right to take from others to provide these things is open for legitimate debate, but I have a hard time not seeing how a language of morality or obligation has no legitimate place to play in that discussion.

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      • I’m pretty sure that the arguments against slavery did not have “hey, times change” as a foundation.

        I’m pretty sure that, if asked, you wouldn’t shrug about slavery as it existed in the 1700s and early 1800’s and say “hey, it was a different culture and I can’t condemn slavery because, obviously, the culture didn’t see anything wrong with it.” I’d rather expect that you’d point to the people at the time who were condemning the institution using language that is familiar even today.

        Anyway, it seems to me that having the foundation of the argument be shifting cultural expectations (rather than some appeal to some principle) is to build one’s argument on sand. God only knows what the society might find an appropriate expectation tomorrow.

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      • As I’ve said many times in the past, If X is required today to participate in the workforce, it’s a necessity. If you get notified what shifts you’re working via text messages, then your cell phone is not a luxury and does not ipso facto make you wealthier than Louis XIV.

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      • I’m not sure I understand your argument, JB.

        Unless you’re conventionally religious (and I know that you’re not), “morality” is a social construct (built atop an inborn set of notions of fairness and harm, I think).

        Slavery is treated without condemnation in the bible. As is the sanctioned killing of adulterers and homosexuals. Times do change, and with it the fundaments of what we consider to be fair and unfair, or moral and immoral.

        It is blessedly true that the current American definition of poverty no longer includes starvation and under-nutrition. But I think the “Rule of Mike,” above has some good sense to it, and I’d even extend it a little: if you need X to participate in the society, then X is a necessity, for those reasonably willing to take care of themselves as best they can (i.e. work, obey laws, etc.)

        Spoiler: I am not a libertarian.

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      • Just because the average person today has different material expectations from the average person in the Middle Ages or other time periods does not mean that poverty isn’t an issue. We still have plenty of people with no or inadequate shelter even though the average poor person has a better dwelling than poor people in other time periods.

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      • As I’ve said many times in the past, If X is required today to participate in the workforce, it’s a necessity. If you get notified what shifts you’re working via text messages, then your cell phone is not a luxury and does not ipso facto make you wealthier than Louis XIV.

        I think there’s a lot of truth to that and it’s probably a good workaday standard. Here’s an anecdatum to support it:

        My wife and I occasionally order out for delivery. The doorbell to our apartment doesn’t work, so we ask them to call when they get here. It’s always assumed by us–and probably by the restaurant(s) we call–that the driver would have a cell phone.

        I’m not quite ready to say that example or your example means cell phones are a “necessity” that society has an obligation to supply. But I think those examples put cell phones at play as something that it would be good to have and perhaps good to ensure others have. (My hesitancy is that it’s kind of easy to go from the necessity route to something that in practice functions like subsidization of cell phone companies. Rent seeking happens.)

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      • I don’t think that the two choices are “conventionally religious” vs. “morality is a social construct”. (Personally, I think that if there is an underlying morality to the universe, it’d be available to people no matter whether they be howling barbarians or cosmopolitan sophisticates and, for that matter, be time independent.)

        But if morality does turn out to be a social construct, I don’t see why I should care about different visions of morality any more than I should care about different visions of gender or of race unless I am being threatened for disagreeing or being offered a nice reward for agreeing.

        if you need X to participate in the society, then X is a necessity, for those reasonably willing to take care of themselves as best they can

        I don’t understand where my obligation to provide X comes from. The other person’s need for X?

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    • Of course we can quantify quality of housing. Quantifying “ease of access to communication” first requires we quantify communication (putting a dollar value on the internet! fun fun! How much is pornography worth?), tougher, but doable.

      I’d put it like this:
      Someone who isn’t retired (or close to it) and is debt-free is probably rich.
      Someone who is indebted significantly on mostly leveraged assets (mortgages, naturally) is middle class.
      Someone who is indebted on depreciating assets or is constantly accumulating mounds of debt (credit cards) is lower class. I suppose I could put “can’t deal with 2 weeks without a paycheck” in there.

      More people are lower class than we think.

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  5. I’m a liberal and not a radical but I am also a capitalist-skeptic and critic and don’t think it economics is the silver bullet cure-all that some to many libertarians think it is. I also think that there are very good moral arguments that capitalism should not be used for certain industries like the civil and criminal justice systems (anarcho-capitalists who want to privatize the justice system are immoralists in my view).

    And you know I am a committed anti-lochernist and don’t believe in the idea of “freedom of contract”

    I think only the most committed radicals would argue and dream of a world where there is not differences in income and housing and purchasing power and such. And I partially agree that the “Let them eat cellphones” argument is bunk.

    I think the big divide between libertarians and liberals seems to be about the idea of choice. This came up in the Market Basket thread when I was debating about whether rational self-interest should be done on subjective or objective measures. It seems to me that the libertarian argument is always to look at the decisions people made and say “X made a choice. Hey! The system is working!” As a liberal, I want to look at whether X really had a choice, did he or she merely pick among the least bad of a bunch of really horrible options, and then debate about whether this is a just and moral system.

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/08/13/us/starbucks-workers-scheduling-hours.html?smid=pl-share&_r=0&_ga=1.109776833.514578143.1408292253

    This article from the NY Times is a good example. The really short version is that computer programs help retailers and restaurants optimize their schedules for maximum profit. Great! The problem is that many workers find themselves not knowing their schedule until 2 or 3 days in advance and for parents of minimum income and potentially support structure, this could mean scrambling and sometimes failing to find child support/care during that time. These schedules can also involve the dreaded “clopen” which requires closing at 10 or 11 and then coming back at 4 in the morning to open.

    Now Starbucks is a company that is sensitive to this kind of press so they announced they would now strive for “stability and consistency” in scheduling and remove the dreaded “clopen”.

    The Lochner argument would be that the worker always has the right to tell his or her employer that they can’t do a clopen and the employer has a right to find someone who can and would. I would consider this to be an asymmetrical power relationship, and I think this is where unions are helpful for fighting such abuses and equalizing the playing field.

    I’ve seen many people argue that the cure to economic distressed areas or lack of opportunity is to encourage labor mobility and offer moving assistance to people. Do you move their support structures as well? If there is no affordable childcare, how can a person move if they have to live their parents and siblings behind for these people did provide childcare while they worked? Or should they be forced to choose to have their children stay behind? This happens but should it?

    Sometimes social goods need to triumph over economic ones.

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    • Concerning Lochnerism, I realize you’re talking about the courts reading into “shall not deny life, liberty or property without due process of law” a prohibition against certain kinds of economic regulations just because they interfere with a presumed freedom to make certain types of contracts.* But I strongly suspect you’re not against all “freedom of contract” or would deny that freedom to people.

      Now this

      The Lochner argument would be that the worker always has the right to tell his or her employer that they can’t do a clopen and the employer has a right to find someone who can and would. I would consider this to be an asymmetrical power relationship, and I think this is where unions are helpful for fighting such abuses and equalizing the playing field.

      is not quite the Lochner argument as I understand it.** As I understand the argument, the state cannot forbid the “clopen” because doing so intrudes upon the employee’s right to negotiate those conditions. What I’m stressing if “forbid.” And while likeyou I’m not board with the courts having the power to invalidate a law forbidding “clopens,”*** I’m also not on board with forbidding the practice as a policy matter.

      Also, I’m with you on the asymmetry of power, and I take away the same point about unions you do. I also take away, however, what is probably the fact that outlawing the “clopen” reduces opportunities for a given worker who really need the hours to work the two shifts. That sounds like conservatarian double-speak, but sometimes people want to work the more hours, and outlawing that choice does indeed intrude on those particular people’s prerogative to negotiate their labor contract. Maybe there is a point at which that particular cost/trade-off is worth it for the greater good that comes from the regulation, but in this case I would err on the side of no regulation rather than on the side of pro-regulation.

      Finally, I don’t quite see how your comment really answers the point James was making. He wasn’t arguing for Lochner-style Liberty of Contract jurisprudence, nor was he arguing for privatizing prisons. He wasn’t saying economics was the solution to all our problems, although he was pointing out that economics can give us insights that we often ignore too easily.

      *But if that gets used to prohibit certain state actions that affect other kinds of civil rights, I suspect you’re more on board.

      **I’ll leave aside the question of whether there was really an era that can truly be called “THE LOCHNER ERA.” There’s at least some debate on that point.

      ***It’s unclear to me how often the “clopen” is assigned to employees. However, I did not read the linked-to article, so maybe it’s a lot.

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      • Yes I get that sometimes or often people want the extra money. I’ve taken on moonlighting assignments because I want the extra experience, money, and contacts.

        But I am also concerned about people who feel compelled to take on clopen even though they don’t want to because it is take on cloopen or be fired. And I bet a good number of people are in this category.

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      • Sometimes you need to prevent some people from doing what they want in order to make life bearable for everybody else. There are probably people with no kids and little responsibilities outside of work that would jump at clopen opportunities so they could notice and potentially raises and promotions. However, the willingness of some employees to clopen can create pressure for other employees to clopen or other undesirable time slots when they really don’t have the time to do this because of kids or something. Laws preventing stores from having clopen shifts prevent this sort of fairness. There are plenty of other opportunities to be seen so very little harm is done by barring it.

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      • How much does the historical/cultural context of these types of laws enter into our thinking? Seems to me that a large part of our intuitions regarding laws preventing clopens (as an example) are based on a model of employment and a cultural context that perhaps doesn’t exist anymore. Seems to me that there was a point in time when employers had so much leverage over employees, due to lack of employment opportunities for workers, that the legislative restrictions on employer demands made quite a bit of sense. But as the labor market began to expand, and workers had more choice regarding where (or even if) they wanted to work, thereby reducing the amount of leverage any particular employer has over any particular employee, the purpose of those laws is subverted a bit.

        Perhaps in my effort to peal back some mythologies I’m succumbing to a bit of mythologizing myself, but I think the intuition justifying certain types of labor laws is perhaps, in some applications, misplaced. At least with respect to the intended goal of that type of legislation. Is it intended to protect the employee from chronic, perhaps systemic, exploitative managerial decisionmaking? Is a clopen really exploitative? Or just undesireable?

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      • I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. If it gets to be a systematic problem in a specific industry and if that problem affects in an obvious way, say, the health and safety of the workers and/or the public, then I might reconsider my view. But I’d want any such outlawing to be as narrowly tailored as possible to the demonstrable harm involved.

        To use the historical example on which this sub-thread is based, I’m not sure what I think of the NY law that scotus overturned in 1905. (I am, however, suspicious of its decision to overturn the law at all and the grounds on which it did so.) From what little I know, from skimming two books on Lochner (Kens’s and Bernsteins’s, as well as Kens’s review of Bernstein), it seems to me that that law was probably on balance a good thing as a policy decision. I also think that the law upheld in Holden v. Hardy (1896?) that set an 8-hour day for mine and smelter workers in Utah was also well-conceived and one I’m inclined to support.*

        *By the way, one reason I don’t think the “Lochner era” idea is wholly a myth is because it seems to have represented a stream of “liberty of contract” jurisprudence even if the court and commentators didn’t identify it as such at the time. Back to Holden v. Hardy, Colorado two years later passed a similar law modeled on the Utah example, and the Colorado Supreme Court struck it down on liberty of contract grounds, but through the state, not federal constitution. So striking down laws on such grounds was a thing, whether or not we can say it constituted a self-identified and self-conscious “era.”

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      • @gabriel-conroy

        I largely use Lochner as a short-hand for “Liberty of Contract” and like many liberals I am suspicious about whether “Liberty of Contract” is freedom at all or just a way of coming up with a nice gloss and spin on asymmetrical power relationships.

        I think that there are a few professions and people who have more power to negotiate freely like doctors and engineers and also the graduates of top law and business schools. Also people in hot professions like coding. Even well-paid people can find that their employers are not giving them market wages through non-poaching agreements like the recent case against the tech industries. BTW, the judge in the case rejected the settlement because she thought the evidence against the tech companies was too high and 324 million was a pittance considering their profits.

        I think many liberals would argue that we are seeing a return to the gilded age and automation and many people including educated people do not have a choice in how they work. We seem to live in an age of extreme specialization. I see this all the time in law classifieds. Firms want people who have a large amount of experience in one field so they don’t have to do any training. They don’t want to say X looks smart and we can train him or her to do the job.

        As for clopen, I think it is largely undesirable but undesirable enough that we should legislate against it. It is undesirable because it leaves people scrambling to find childcare at the last minute as the times article shows. People in educated fields usually get a lot of leeway over their schedules in ways that blue-collar people do not. I have been freelancing as a lawyer for the past 2.5 years. This means I don’t get health insurance or PTO. At every one of my jobs, I have always been able to come in late without question if I had a medical appointment or emergency or even work from home sometimes. I have also been able to take off a day or two to do fun things and make up the time or work from another office when I needed to be in New York for two weeks instead of SF.

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      • My biggest concern is the incidental effects banning certain practices will have. I don’t relish the fact that people feel obliged to do clopen, and I imagine that even those who appreciate the hours might also appreciate more time off. I don’t like scheduling systems in which people don’t know very far in advance what their schedule is (that’s not a new thing, by the way). I am more favorably disposed to PT freelancing like you describe, but the trend is disconcerting and is a recipe for economic insecurity.

        All that said….I do sincerely worry about the approach of “there’s this bad practice that people engage in for good (for their bottom line) reasons we all agree affects a lot of people negatively, therefore we should ban it,” especially when it might provoke employers to offer fewer jobs or invest in even more automation. That’s why I adopt a view that probably seems heartless, but I sincerely fear the alternative is potentially worse.

        Maybe I’m wrong. The economy seems to survive with overtime regulations and minimum wage laws (which I’m also ambivalent about) and I hope it survives with the ACA employer mandate (which I support because I support the ACA but not intrinsically because I support employer mandates).

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      • I’ve seen people make the “If we banned X, maybe employers would offer fewer jobs” argument before but it is merely speculating. No one has provided any evidence that banning X or requiring Y would cause employers to offer fewer jobs. So I look at said arguments as being fear-mongering and very Jay Gould. I.e. setting one half of the working class against the other.

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      • I admit I don’t have any evidence. I’ll say that outfront (and I havenn’t get a chance to click on Jim Heffman’s link). I find it hard to believe that no one has ever studied it and found evidence one way or another. But if you say no one has, I guess I have to go back to my admission I don’t have any evidence other than anecdote. (Anecdotes: I’ve heard that even Krugman has admitted an increase in the minimum wage would lead to at least a small reduction in jobs; I’ve heard from what I see as credible sources that adjuncts are allowed to take fewer classes because their schools don’t want to pay the insurance that “full time” employment would require them to pay (again, I support the ACA, but it’s wrong to hide one’s head in the sand against some of its bad effects).)

        I really don’t see what I’m doing as fear-mongering,* and frankly I’m not fond of the suggestion that that’s what I’m doing. I admit that it’s possible that I’m mistaken. I admitted that in my comment above, too. And I’ll repeat what I thought was clear from my earlier comment: I don’t think it’s a good thing that some people have to work the “clopen” shift, or that they have to wait a day before to know their schedule, or that people who’d rather have the security of full-time employment are instead stuck with PT freelance jobs. And further, my job, similar to yours, is at the moment in a pretty precarious situation because of factors beyond my control. And while–also similar to you–I have resources to fall back on, it’s not a fun prospect. So it’s not as if I’m completely separated from those concerns.

        *By “fear mongering,” I presume you mean something more than, “I’m afraid bad result Y would happen.” I presume you mean something like playing on people’s fears to cynically achieve some end. If that’s not what you meant, then I apologize and I overinterpreted what you said.

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      • @gabriel-conroy

        is not quite the Lochner argument as I understand it.

        What Saul seems to argue against is an unlimited freedom of contract under the name from the Lochner case. This is fine, but it isn’t Lochner at all. Frankly, I don’t understand why Lochner gets the ridicule it does (or the defense it gets from some people). The case could have gone either way and the decision hinged on the underlying facts, not broad libertarian principles.

        You would think that if people read the research put forth by David Bernstein on the case itself as well as the books by Howard Gillman and Barry Cushman, books that did a fine job casting light on the pre-New Deal constitutional jurisprudence, I think people would shrug their shoulders at the case.

        Both the majority and dissent (I’m ignoring Holmes pathetic dissent) recognized the freedom of contract but not as an unfettered right shielded from the police power of the state. Hell, if there was one reason that Joseph Lochner didn’t expect to win, it was because a maximum hours law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1898’s Holden v Hardy. The way the court distinguished the two was because Holden dealt with miners (dangerous occupations).

        Also, I’m with you on the asymmetry of power…

        And so was the Supreme Court for a majority of the time during the so-called “Lochner era”. Granted, there did seem to be some hostility to organized labor based on my reading of Coppage v Kansas, but the court on a number of occasions upheld regulations seeking to address imbalance of private power. If I recall, a state passed a law prohibiting employers from forcing workers to accept as a condition of employment a maximum worker’s compensation payment in the event of an injury.

        One point about the private power imbalance in Lochner – it wasn’t between workers and the owners. It was between the commercial bakeries operated with union labor (Germans) and the non-union tenement bakeries typically owned by Jews and immigrants. Both the commercial bakeries AND the unions supported the law (the unions were already working those shifts).

        **I’ll leave aside the question of whether there was really an era that can truly be called “THE LOCHNER ERA.” There’s at least some debate on that point.

        The so-called Lochner Era allegedly came to an end via the 1937 decision West Coast Hotel v Parrish. However, Lochner itself had been overturned sub-silentio 20 years before that in Bunting v Oregon.

        A lot happened between the end of the Civil War and the New Deal and I’m not denying that there weren’t constitutional conflicts. There were. However, boiling it down to some kind of anti-Lochnerism as some people have misses what really happened. It was less about economics and more about reshaping American federalism.

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      • Anytime. It’s one of the areas of constitutional law/history I find most fascinating. That and nullification, secession, the Webster-Hayne debate, etc.

        I thought Bernstein’s book on Lochner was not only excellent but really presented the case in a fair light. I don’t recall if he made a strong defense for the ruling, but I appreciated his takedown of Holmes’ dissent.

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  6. This post looks like the sort that gets written by a liberal, even if its conclusions are different. Its unquestionably true that we are richer, by any measure, than at some point in the past- if not 10 years, then maybe 20 years, maybe 50, or 100, or 500 years ago.

    But then the question is why are we so unhappy?

    What explains the dissatisfaction with the direction of our society?

    I’ve written a bit here how I do believe that we- those in the political world- fixate too much on material consumption, substituting consumption for justice, as if the tilting distribution of material goods towards the lower end of the wealth spectrum is the sum total goal of our policy.

    So reminding people that we live relatively comfortable lives isn’t wrong. It just misses the point.

    (Surprising absolutely no one) I think it can be said that there is a universal desire for much much more out of this society that we construct. Things like solidarity, belonging, and identity are essential, and I believe that is what is really driving this resentment.

    The idea that there is an aristocracy that drives policy, a priviledged class that has broken communion with us, a transnational group that makes a mockery of patriotism and national identity is infuriating to people, and rightly so.

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      • Man cannot live by economics alone

        I’ve yet to meet an economist who would disagree. Except maybe the post-Soviet Russian on my dissertation committee–having grown up under communism, he was pretty hard core neo-classical. But among American economists? Not a one I’ve met. You should read one of Tyler Cowen’s books on economics and culture–they’re much more than economics alone.

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      • With respect, I’d say the evidence is that humans have always responded to incentives and engaged in rational decision making.

        The core nature of humans, I would argue, is simultaneously and inextricably social, economic and political. I would also go so far as to argue that economists are more likely to understand that better than most others, many of those others being of the opinion that economic man is purely a social construct.

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    • Good comment.

      I must admit though that I bristile at the anti-consumerist and anti-materialist argument and might need to write a post about why.

      I’ve seen people argue about why we don’t have a fifteen hour week or a four hour day and the argument always ends up promoting that there is an evil conspiracy that promotes material goods over free time. This always raises questions for me:

      1. Why is free time more important than material goods and who gets to decide this?

      2. Why is it better to have 25 camping weekends a year instead of one or two international vacations at nice hotels a year?

      Keynes was writing with all the prejudices of the British upper-class when he wrote about the 15 hour workweek. He was also writing with the British upper-class that had all the material things in the world. He was not writing from the prospective of a Welsh coal miner who survived on bread and dripping in a house with running cold water (not hot water) at best.

      I think it is probably possible to live as a median 1930s Brit on 15-18 hours of work a week. I doubt anyone here would really want to considering that many places in Britain did not get running hot water in homes until the 1950s and from what I understand Cold Water flats were still fairly common after the 1950s.

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    • considering a good deal of the governments we’d describe as “nightmarish” were and are heavily concerned with the spiritual fulfillment of their populations, i think i’m ok with a cold dead world of sin and cell phones.

      let north korea worry about the spirit, imma go microwave some food and not get shot in the head.

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      • Yeah, this. Except for providing for mental healthcare along with other healthcare and traditional social services like CPA, the emotional and spiritual happiness of the citizenry should be outside a government’s bailiwick. Its almost impossible to measure because what makes one person emotionally happy will make another person miserable. You have the same problem with material happiness but its safe to assume that most people want adequate healthcare, housing, food, clothing, some discretionary spending money, and adequate leisure time. Its a lot easier to provide those things than emotional and social happiness.

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      • We value material welfare and economic growth because we see it as a proxy for happiness. And, when we had a subsistence, or production, economy that was probably a fair assumption.

        In point of fact, the point of government is the safety and welfare (of which happiness is substantial constituent) of its citizens.

        No one is advocating for government prescribing ways of living, or believing, or worshiping. But policies which are mindful of–and in alignment with–human nature could do much to help make the lot of most people greater. That is the point of such traditional policies as public education, subsidization of higher culture (e.g. concerts, museums), zoning and community design, parks, etc. In these cases, the government is providing the raw materials by which most of us construct our own happiness.

        But in elevating GNP and economic growth to primacy in constructing policy, we are ignoring vast parts of human welfare and human nature. Our system of agricultural incentives and subsidies, for example, has resulted in an abundance of crappy, unhealthy food. If something as abstract as “quality-of-life” were elevated in priority, the system would look pretty different.

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      • I think there are people who are advocating for what you say they are not advocating for.

        I don’t disagree with your statements about what we are ignoring but I think there is a strong neo-Platonist and Marcusian streak in the anti-consumerist set and they do have very specific ideas about how people should live and how much and what people should consume.

        As I’ve mentioned on my open thread post, the self-described anti-materialist and anti-consumerist people I know tend to be on the hippie-side or on the geeky side. They do generally make very naive statements about “How everything would be better if everyone just wanted to wear REI gear or geeky t-shirts and chucks instead of anything else?” Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to wear REI gear and geeky t-shirts but it doesn’t make you better than someone who cares and likes fashion. The anti-materialists also tend to not like the city-life and prefer hiking to cultural activities like going to theatre, museums, or even a music festival like Outside Lands or Treasure Islands.

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      • , I see these things as being more related to material happiness that emotional or spiritual happiness in that your still dealing with physical, tangible things rather than something like emotions or souls.

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      • Is it actually possible for the government to be neutral with regard to how its citizens seek emotional and spiritual happiness? I’m pessimistic on this score. Even your prescription, that the government stick to traditional “public goods” and basics like food and housing, trucks in a lot of assumptions about happiness. If I want to live in a place with a lot of fruit trees, but the government has decided that falling fruit is too much of a pain for car drivers, and that fossil-fuel-based transport is a more important good for the government to provide than tree-scrubbed air and abundant fruit, then the government’s supposed neutrality on the drivers of happiness isn’t doing me much good.

        It seems to me that governments’ supposed attempts to steer clear of central questions about happiness usually just truck in highly questionable assumptions about the proper aims of life, and that these assumptions tend to be the ones shared by managerial elites to the detriment of everyone else.

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      • “That is the point of such traditional policies as public education, subsidization of higher culture (e.g. concerts, museums), zoning and community design, parks, etc. In these cases, the government is providing the raw materials by which most of us construct our own happiness.”

        i feel the phrase “higher culture” is a giveaway to how narrowly confined many of these projects are to the concerns of small special interest groups, but #pigdestroyerkennedycenterspecial and all that.

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      • Doesn’t the notion that we all possess rights, and these must be respected contain within it the moral assumption about human nature?

        Or other notions like the prohibition of torture, find their grounding in the concept of the sacred nature of the human person?

        Oftentimes concepts like individual liberty are so axiomatic, that we forget that there did exist a different point of view, and we forget the argument that brought these into being was a moral argument.

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      • “i feel the phrase “higher culture” is a giveaway to how narrowly confined many of these projects are to the concerns of small special interest groups, but #pigdestroyerkennedycenterspecial and all that.”

        This debate is tricky and seems to always be around. The most recent example I can think of is A.O. Scott from The New York Times vs. Tyler Cowen.

        A.O. Scott has been going on about the “cultural devaluation of maturity” for a while by which he means how everything now has to be a super spectacular, special effects driven comic book inspired franchise and smaller movies aimed at adults seem to be a thing of the past.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/arts/a-resurgence-in-inequality-and-its-effects-on-culture.html?_r=0

        He also takes aim at highbrow snobs like Woolf and Dwight McDonald.

        Cowen potentially disagreed by arguing the death of middlebrow culture is really about there being more choices.

        Culture is a tricky thing. We want it to be more neutral than it really is probably. I’ve know many video game and horror movie fans who get very defensive when people suggest that playing too many violent video games might not be the best thing for a person to do. Same with trying to find more and more gorey horror movies.

        But we saw the video Balko posted to the Washington Post. The cops did use really nihilistic and thrashing music for their promotional video. I think it would be impossible to suggest that music did not influence their worldview and/or actions as SWAT people.

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      • , complete neutralness to how citizens seek emotional and spiritual happiness is an impossibility if only because there are always going to be some citizens who are psychopaths that receive their emotional happiness by inflicting pain on others. Abusing other people should obviously be against the law even if it means that some people are going to be denied a source of emotional happiness. There are lots of things that give some people happiness that shouldn’t be allowed by any decent government.

        We can come close. It wasn’t so long ago that the United States government attempted to enforce traditional sexual morality between consenting young adults. According to Roger Ebert’s autobiography, when he was in college cops would routinely go to motels and take down license plates numbers. If the license plate number corresponded to a young adult at a local college or university than the cops would inform the school that a student was having sex at a motel. Most universities and police departments don’t bother with interfering with consensual sex between students these days.

        The real tricky issue is what to do with sources of pleasure and happiness that are public health risks like the obesity epidemic from over eating and recreational drug use. These are public health issues rather than criminal ones and the morality is murkier than barring assault or cruelty to animals. The war on drugs has its problems but a lot of drugs do wreck havoc on people’s bodies, minds, and lives even if legal. Rampant alcoholism caused a lot of problems before Prohibition and still caused harm after repeal.

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      • Hi Lee, thanks for your comments. I don’t see an argument against my position, really. You acknowledge that perfect government neutrality is impossible, but that’s not really all I’m trying to get you to say. My position is more encompassing: that government “neutrality” is inherently partisan in key respects — it favors industrialization and often centralization to other values, and because it is closely allied with elite interests, it tends to cleave to their social mores as well. This is especially the case with social issues and the judiciary — jurisprudence on these matters tracks the consensus of elites remarkably closely (with a time lag, of course).

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      • , in a democratic system any government decision is inherently partisan because the winners of the election gets to determine government priorities. The American system works against this to an extent but its rather difficult to avoid partisan behavior by government in a democracy.

        Since elites have traditionally favored government enforcement of popular morality as a form of social control, you can argue that government’s retreat from this area is a victory for the masses.

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      • , Tyler Cowen’s response to A.O. Scott’s article on Middle Brow culture really confused me. We might look at the media choice in-between the birth of television and the birth of cable/VHS players as limited but the post-World War II era actually represented an explosive growth of media. People had more media entertainment at their disposal than ever before in the Western World. Multiple television and radio stations in most countries, magazines and newspapers for every taste, popular and artistic cinema, and books galore thanks to the emergence of the paperback. There were plenty of “low brown” and “high brow” options available for people that didn’t want middle brow culture. That suggests that there was a genuine interest in middle brow culture for many of the post-War years until recently.

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      • Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to wear REI gear and geeky t-shirts but it doesn’t make you better than someone who cares and likes fashion.

        Dude, there you go again. You look down on those people, Saul. Why do you get upset at the prospect that they might look down on you in return?

        Plus, to say that consciously wearing REI gear and geeky t-shirts isn’t a form of fashion is a huge mistake. It is! Insofar as folks are consciously choosing to wear those items they’re signalling a certain type of status. Just as much as you are. Why do give a rats ass if they’re consciously rejecting yoursignalling devices?

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      • “Doesn’t the notion that we all possess rights, and these must be respected contain within it the moral assumption about human nature?”

        for some people, probably. for others, hardly – after all, what counts as a person works on a sliding scale. no one in america, perhaps even the world, would say “i don’t respect the rights of other people”.

        what they mean when they think of “rights”, and “other people” is the rub.

        i mean, rights are fictional as all heck. obviously invented, clearly a kind of logomancy designed to make people act a certain way. and for the most part i think that’s a good thing. but one can never forget that rights exist on a sliding scale, as they are the result of a ceaseless war between interest groups.

        which, i mean, i like the noble lie of rights. i like it a lot. i hope everyone believes in rights, like, forever, and not just for free breakfast burritos or straight a’s but the right not to get shot down like a dog by racist cops and stuff like that, too.

        i try to play just the right amount of violent video games, so i cannot speak to imbalances arranged as such.

        “The cops did use really nihilistic and thrashing music for their promotional video. I think it would be impossible to suggest that music did not influence their worldview and/or actions as SWAT people.”

        as much as i would like to blame swat overreach on nu metal – and i would really like to do so – i think you’re making that mistake that lead millions of ridiculous parents to buy baby einstein cds. “rich people listen to classical music; therefore i will make my baby rich by playing classical music”.

        as i mentioned here or elsewhere there’s not a whole lot of aggressive but still cop-friendly music out there. the video editor (or his nephew maybe) did the best he could with the tools he was given, which were quite meager.

        i’m not entire sure what nihilistic music would sound like. i’ve heard a lot of stuff described as such – mostly bedroom black metal or folk like watain – but i’d wager the only truly nihilistic song is love shack by the b52s.

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      • Country seems to do a very good balancing act at valorizing both outlawness and law and order at the same time.

        You are probably right on nu-metal. What is interesting about certain genres of rock, namely the sub-cultures of punk and metal is that they seem to have both the most-left wing and right-wing fancultures I have ever met. A lot of punks I’ve known have been drawn to political extremes in either ideological tilt.

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      • ” there’s not a whole lot of aggressive but still cop-friendly music out there. ”

        I think what we’re asking is “why do pro-police videos need aggressive music?”

        There’s all sorts of dramatic orchestral music, if stirring themes are what’s asked for. Movie soundtracks are chock-a-block with it.

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      • Saul,
        One might get a bit more mileage out of explaining the virtues of subtlety and titillation in media… irrespective of the medium.

        Also… “build UP the suspense…” (sorry, too much Russel T. Davies).

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      • Saul,
        Some of those “geeky t-shirts” are featured in some of those “high art” movies you’re talking about. Yes, I should write a review (maybe after Beverley Hills Cops).
        Stillwater,
        I really don’t think Saul looks down on other people for their fashion choices. At least I hope he’s better than that. I do find it kind of sad that I can’t actually discuss fashion with him, but that’s because of other neuroses.

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    • But then the question is why are we so unhappy?

      Who’s “we?” I am, by strict monetary metrics, less well off than the majority of the US population. (Although not by much.) Yet I can provide for myself and my family, and indulge in a few side interests as well. I don’t think I could be more content. What’s more, I do not look beyond my famliy-and-close-friend network for this spiritual fulfillment and validation.

      I can see, and concede for the sake of argument, that society has an obligation to meet it’s members’ material needs. On what principle to you expand this duty for society to meet it’s members’ spiritual needs as well?

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  7. inequality between siblings accounts for 3/4 of inequality within a modern nation.

    I’m dubious: I doubt there are many families where one sibling is in the 1% and the other is making minimum wage, or that the difference between the graduating class of Andover and the largely non-graduating class of an inner-city high school is dwarfed by the differences within them. In trying to investigate that :

    First, click on the link. It’s a blog post by someone named Robin Hanson who starts out by wondering why we focus on the small inequalities between different people rather than the large inequalities between different species. Once my eyes have stopped rolling and can focus, I click on the next link in the chain, this time to a book sold on Amazon. The “3/4” is quoted in the Publishers Weekly review, but not further explained or supported.

    So, after reasonable due diligence I still no idea what “3/4” means or how it’s measured.

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    • Mike, I found that statistic weird as well, in part because I don’t have any idea what contribution the word “account” makes except as a response to the idea that inherited wealth accounts for more than 25% of inequality or somesuch. But even then…

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    • Agreed. That number doesn’t pass my smell test either. There may be a way of defining things where it’s a valid statistic–but for that matter, there’s a way of defining it for the dark-ages economy that it supposedly proves we’ve escaped:

      It was, after all, a society of strict primogeniture. The wealth discrepancy between firstborn sons and everyone else was gigantic, from kings down to peasantry.

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    • “Someone named Robin Hanson”

      An economist at GMU.

      But I’ll see if I can track down more info on his argument. I read it, because of Erdman’s commentary, as broader family, which would be more readily believable. Siblings does stretch credulity, so I agree more evidene/argument is needed,

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    • “or that the difference between the graduating class of Andover and the largely non-graduating class of an inner-city high school is dwarfed by the differences within them.”

      I can actually see why this would be true based on my experiences with people from schools like Andover. At a school like Andover you can have the children of the mega-wealthy and people who stand to inherit tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars (or more) and you can have people who are really poor families and maybe just some ordinary upper-middle class people.

      Most Vassar students (60 percent or so) did attend public school. The other 40 percent did not and among those 40 percent you get a lot of people who attended the most exclusive prep schools in the country like Philips Exeter, Andover, Choate Rosemary, and exclusive day schools like St. Albans and Urban.

      I know people who grew up in among poorest sections of the poorest cities in the United States but spent their entire K-12 career attending exclusive private schools because someone saw them as being very bright and acted like a guardian angel to give them tuition, etc from a very young age. I also know people who are set to inherit huge fortunes if they don’t already have access to said fortunes. Then there were just ordinary upper-middle class people whose parents decided to send them to private school for whatever reason.

      The careers are also divergent. Some people will always live in luxury and comfort because of family wealth, others will enter the highest levels of corporate management and banking, and others will go into the arts or a field like nursing. A woman I know from undergrad went to Philips Exeter for High School. She spent a few years in corporate America and then went back to school for nursing. Likewise, a few superstars from a poor rural or inner-city school can cause huge differences in income.

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      • OK, I can set that if brother 1 gets a scholarship to Andover and brother 2 goes to bad local schools, their lives are likely to diverge. But I don’t think that’s a frequent enough case to cause the “3/4” figure.

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  8. I think some of the push back on the liberal focus on inequality is sensible. While i’m skeptical of how much the revealed preference idea that people are just choosing what they want if they buy a cell phone instead of HI makes sense. There is something to the idea. People may choose to buy different things and that is fine, although , like i said above, people still have to be able to have that choice.

    But none of the libertarian/ conservative critiques have ever really solved what is for me the heart of the problem with inequality. It seems like from all the data a very small number of people , less than one percent, are getting an increasing share of the pie (income, wealth, filthy lucre). Most everybody else, teh lowerr 99% has seen flat growth.

    Even if we agree that new shiny tech is a good and if people choose to spend there money on that than other things or the tech is so good it is giving great inequality reducing value ( like the intertoobz possibly) that doesn’t mitigate a system where one tiny powerful group is getting more of the ability to buy that stuff and everybody else isn’t getting that same growth. The newest high tech cell phone or hula hoop is nice and as much as better tech makes that available to people with less money to spend that is great. But beyond tech there are a lot things that increasing tech doesn’t really touch even if it is good. Having a stable retirement fund, a little money saved for emergencies, the ability ot move or get advanced Ed are more about having money of your own. But the way our growth has gone most people aren’t seeing gains which would give them these options.

    I know Roger would say this is assuming a fixed pie so that gains by one are taken from another. That is not quite true. The pie isn’t fixed, but there is only so much money out there and if one group is getting huge gains it certainly might mean there is less for everybody. Especially if the gains are coming from favorable tax laws. Favoring capital gain income mean may lead to richer people getting richer solely from having laws written to benefit them and also have negative affects on the budget.

    I feel like i’m rambling now, so i’ll stop. It is too early on a sunday for thinking. I guess that is why people go to church on sundays.

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    • “Most everybody else, teh lowerr 99% has seen flat growth. ”

      As late as 2006, a smartphone was something that only rich businessmen had.

      In 2014, I can have a smartphone for less than it cost me to have a regular cellphone in 2006.

      Maybe I saw “flat growth” in dollars-in-the-bank but that doesn’t mean my life has not materially improved.

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    • I would also say that in a global system it is essential to frame the problem holistically. That was my argument on worldwide vs national inequality a few weeks ago.

      It simply is not true that only the one percent are gaining (nor are the one percent always the same people any more than Super Bowl champs are always the same people).

      The past generation has seen more growth in the 99%’s standard of living than any era ever before. It is simply incorrect to frame the problem with only a national snapshot. It is a global trend.

      I assume everyone remembers the chart on the amazing and historically unprecedented income gains worldwide of the past thirty years. The side effect is that the entrance of a billion new workers has suppressed gains for the previously privileged first world worker, while increasing both the size of the overall pie and the living standards of the billion. To frame this issue as a zero sum struggle between capital and labor within national borders is a framing error. It misses the dynamic.

      Global inequality and global poverty are down dramatically. The slower relative rates of gain of first world workers is greatly a byproduct of the gains of new entrants into global markets. Further, the profit opportunities of capitalizing on these new workers and markets has enriched some in a positive sum manner (they supplied the ingenuity, risk, ideas and capital to bring the new workers successfully into the system)

      Unfortunately framing the problem this way does not play as well politically.

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    • I don’t’ disagree there have been gains made by all sorts of very poor people around the world. That is a good thing. But it doesn’t directly address what has happened to most people in the US. Where i would disagree is that we can’t have positive growth for poor people around the world and more equitable growth here. Those two things aren’t exclusive. We can have both. If we have a set up where we either have growth for really poor people in the third world or growth for most people here then, as you suggest, people here will vote for what is best for us. I’m not even saying that is bad per se. We are a self-governing nation state; we only can vote on our own policies so i don’t really blame people who vote for policies that are good for us.

      I think we can have better growth for us, without hobbling growth for the really poor, by improved laws here; less corporate welfare, tax changes, etc. Heck we would probably even agree on some of the changes we would all benefit from.

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      • Why in specific is this a question of equitable growth and not just a question of objective growth?

        Your comment makes the exact sort of assumption for which you are dinging . You are implying that the best way to make less-well off Americans better is to make sure that the wealthy get less. That implies a zero-sum economy, which is not the case, or some causal link between the wealthy getting more and the middle class getting less, of which I have seen no real proof.

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      • How about if i think one reason the wealthy have been getting so wealthy is because they have to much power and influenced the system to their specific advantage? Does that change the equation? It is isn’t a zero sum game but that doesn’t mean the pie grows for everybody all the time. If one group has worked the system for favorable laws that does imply those laws aren’t favorable for others.

        I’ll google around in a little while to find those graphs showing huge income/wealth gains by the .1% and pretty much flat growth for everybody else. That data has been around for a while. It isn’t new.

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      • I am sure we could agree on tactics to reduce theft, cronyism and rent seeking. These may indeed have the secondary effects of reducing inequality, but let’s focus on the disease. Indeed, if addressing these somehow led to substantially more inequality, I would still support doing so, wouldn’t you?

        As to your first paragraph, I do disagree. The prosperity gains of third world billion have come in part at the expense (in terms of income gain rate) of the first world laborer. Supply and demand suggests that the short term introduction of a billion new workers into a market will reduce the demand for the incumbent workers. Theory matches reality perfectly.

        My understanding of economics also leads me to believe that it is the profits of the “one percent” which enable fixing this imbalance. The potential productivity of the workers presents an economic problem which entrepreneurs and capitalists can solve in order to achieve a profit. Profit is thus to a great extent the score card of them figuring out how to get everyone to be more productive in the eyes of consumers.

        To the extent the above is true, inequality is part of the solution to stagnant wages, not the problem.

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      • “I’ll google around in a little while to find those graphs showing huge income/wealth gains by the .1% and pretty much flat growth for everybody else. That data has been around for a while. It isn’t new.”

        Again, this contradicts my primary argument. The data, which is empirically available and has been repeatedly presented into these debates is that prosperity gains WORLDWIDE are increasing dramatically in most deciles with the exception of two groups: those not entering the global market and those workers in first world economies now competing with the billion people who recently entered.

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      • I am willing to forget about the rest of the world for a moment and focus solely on rising wealth and stagnating incomes in the United States alone. And I am also in agreement with you that the improving plight of individuals in the lesser-developed world is no reason not to do what we can to help those stagnating here.

        However, I have to point out that data showing the existence of two trends is not proof that one trend is responsible for another. My contention is simple: these two trends are both facets of some rather significant structural changes that we ought to address head-on. Further, the extent to which we spend time and energy trying to make the wealthiest less well-off, we are wasting time and energy that we could spend helping the less well-off better.

        Of course, if I were convinced that this is not the case and that this really is a zero-sum situation in which the rich are getting richer by drinking everyone else’s milkshake, then I would agree action directed specifically against inequality.

        So my question is this: is it the case that we largely have an empirical disagreement? Or is there something specific about income inequality that, even if it isn’t causing a stagnating middle class, warrants action?

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      • jr,
        I always appreciate your considered opinions — they’re well thought out.
        I think there are a few things to say here:
        1) Yes, I do think that a large portion of the rich getting richer is zerosum (I do know someone who does research on this sort of thing…). Not all of it, not by a long shot. The positive sum game, if you look closely, turns out to be mainly social mobility. It’s people pushing into the rich, with great ideas (Wozniak wasn’t exactly rich, neither was Gates).
        2) I do think it is really, really easy to address some of the systemic problems in our society while incentivizing positive sum games.
        3) A large part of the problem with “wealth inequality” is lack of risk taking, and the idea that the measure of one’s worth is not “what have you done” but “how much wealth do you have?” This causes people to agitate against public education and veterans benefits, and public funding for roads… because, after all, they don’t need them.
        4)The conservative argument against inequality is that our society is separating. The rich no longer talk to the poor, no longer interact with them — and they were already people lacking in empathy!

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  9. “I’ve always found the mockery of “oh, they can afford cell phones, but not health insurance,” callow.”

    Why? What if it’s not mockery but pointing out a critical failure in the operation of that society? What kind of government are people picking (assuming, of course, that they are in fact picking that government) that allocates access to medical care based on ability to pay?

    Looking at the comment another way, how easy is it for a cell phone company to size its network to carry traffic by both the middle class and the poor, as compared to a government financing health care for the poor by taxing the middle class? Maybe the cost-shifting in phone service is easier than direct taxation?

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  10. As I’m sure you’re aware, much of the liberal alarm about rising inequality concerns its effect on our politics; i.e., rent seeking becomes easier as one becomes richer. You might try addressing that criticism. Because characterizing liberal criticism as “[t]reating cell phones as insignificant” is just ridiculous and gets us nowhere.

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  11. “by what some white middle class liberals dismiss as little more than toys or an annoying job requirement.”

    I’m curious about this. Why would you call out “white middle class liberals” when you’re most likely to hear “oh, they can afford cell phones, but not health insurance” from someone on the conservative/libertarian right?

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  12. Before i go to the gym let me pose a question that has occurred to me before.

    Libertarians and conservatives are certainly not averse to thinking people with power will use their influence to their own benefit. If powerful people ( rich people is what they are often called) and big corporations ( who are run by rich people) have successfully captured regulatory agencies, got favorable tax laws, lenient application of laws that apply to them and are insulated, by policy, from many of their biggest mistakes (ie: big finance and the great recession) what would that lead to?

    Would it lead to inequality where the top . 1% are seeing their share of the gains made grow fast while everybody else is flat?
    What would we expect to see in regards to different classes making gains?
    Would we see corporate profits going very well? Would workers be making the same pace of gains?

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    • My short answer to that would be to simply point out that just because you see the occurrence of two different phenomena, it doesn’t mean that one of those is causing the other. With regards to income inequality and increasing amounts of money flowing into the political process, it is more likely that both of these are being caused by a separate set of factors.

      I see a lot of hand wringing about inequality leading to the capture of the government by elites and yet, I don’t know of any time in the history of the world where the government was not captured by the elite. In the United States, 1960 was the first year that presidential primaries meant anything. When was this golden age of participatory democracy that we are supposed to be losing?

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    • To your first point, the more rational conservatives will use this argument against “big government”.
      If government were not able to control those factors, then it would not be corrupted by money.

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  13. Hi James, a couple of points.

    First, I don’t think that people oppose greater productivity in the abstract. But if your whole argument is to simply point to high wages as the prime indicator of productivity, and then claim that hey, rich people just work harder for their money, then you’ve made assumptions that a lot of anti-inequality people would disagree with. How many of those wealthy people are actually contributing to greater well-being, and how many are simply extracting rents? You can’t say, and so you can’t accurately conclude that higher wages actually means higher productivity (in the most important sense of the word for the purposes of this argument). In other words, you can’t rule out that we simply have a new gentry, same as the old gentry, that is only different because it extracts undeserved privilege in more complex ways than the simple land-based systems of yore.

    Second, the claim that 3/4 of the difference in wealth between individuals can be accounted for by differences between siblings is surprising enough that you’ll have to do more to convince us than link to a 7-year-old blog post linking to a not-very-well-reviewed book to which we have no access. Frankly, this supposed statistic flies in the face of my life experience living among several different social classes, and before I throw out all those data points I’ll need to see something a lot more compelling. Which isn’t to say that the statistic is wrong, just that if you’re trying to convince people who have very good reason to doubt it, you’ll need to do a little more legwork in explaining how it’s true.

    But even if your sibling-wealth statistic is true, that doesn’t mean that inequality isn’t still a huge problem. We know that families tend to share resources within themselves, meaning wealth comparisons between individuals who are likely to share resources will give at best a fuzzy picture of the situation. For example, two brothers may functionally live similar lives even if one makes $20,000 working as an artist while the other makes $120,000 as a lawyer, with the understanding that the lawyer is the one who will help Mom pay off her house, while the artist has a more flexible schedule so he can check up on her more. I think a fair intuition is that scenarios like these are the norm rather than the exception, but Robin Hansen’s alleged statistic doesn’t appear to account for this.

    Another highly dubious claim is John Nye’s assumption that increased technology makes low-grade goods better, and so rising inequality shouldn’t worry us. There is an entire literature on how the most important goods we buy — our foodstuffs — have in many respects declined nutritionallyas a result of increased agricultural technology. We may make more calories of corn and soy, but the crops are lower in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. The same obtains for virtually every major crop, with the exception of herbs used for flavor. We also have more technology with which to process food, but this processing makes for food that is not only less healthy but is actually poisonous, as can be seen with the spike in “lifestyle diseases” like diabetes and heart disease in regions where American-style diets have been newly adopted. 500 years ago, poor people usually had the option of gleaning fully-wholesome food from nearby fields, while now they are largely relegated to urban areas where processed gunk is the cheapest option (thanks to capture of food and farm regulators by the elite class), which is peddled to them by multinational corporations that spend tens of millions of dollars on psychological research to induce them to buy unhealthy food. It’s pretty grotesque to blame the poor for divergent health outcomes when the rich became that way in part by having a heavy hand in shaping their choices.

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    • t if your whole argument is to simply point to high wages as the prime indicator of productivity, and then claim that hey, rich people just work harder for their money,

      Not even in the ballpark.

      . There is an entire literature on how the most important goods we buy — our foodstuffs — have in many respects declined nutritionallyas a result of increased agricultural technolog

      My pet hobbyhorse is the rare example that doesn’t fit the general model, so the general model is bunk is not a strong argument.

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      • IF that’s true about food, it doesn’t seem right to me to say that it’s just one “rare” example among many contrary examples. If our food is getting crappier, to me that would seem like a basis to pretty seriously question an insistence that our stuff should be seen as in general getting so much better, even if the number of examples that it is is pretty overwhelming. Among any set of indicators some are going to be more important than others. food seems like one you’d want on your side if you’re going to insist on the view that everything’s getting better.

        That said, for 99% percent of people, over a timescale of centuries, food obviously is getting better, so I think that’s moot.

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      • To clarify, James, I meant that Erdmann seemed to be relying on that argument. I was using “your” here in the sense it often has in subjunctive statements: “someone’s”.

        If you aren’t swayed by my point about the declining quality of food (I admit I think about that topic more than most), then take your pick of any other modern ill: pollution, decline of family networks, declining reported happiness, etc. The point is that you can’t win this argument simply by saying that we’re getter richer as a whole and technology is sorting out all the apparent problems of inequality. There are actual costs to increased industrialization and the commodification of human life that are borne by actual people, and to handwave that all away is just a kind of crass Panglossianism.

        Have you read James Kalb’s “The Tyranny of Liberalism”? Despite the Fox News-y title, it’s actually a pretty sophisticated critique of the technocratic state that would mesh well with the anarchist elements of your libertarianism. But because the author is a conservative, it also features what I think are some compelling arguments against the growing economization of human life and the attendant changes in how intellectuals think of social organization.

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      • I don’t think we can conclude yet that it’s moot. A hundred years ago, Ontario produced over a thousand different varieties of apples. Now only perhaps a dozen are widely available, and each of those varieties has fewer dramatically fewer nutrients, because we’ve selected for profit-related characteristics like color and shelf life. The mineral content of grain crops as a percentage of the crop has declined substantially since the early 20th century. The typical cut of fish or beef has less omega-3s than a hundred years ago, because we’ve become rich in part by cutting costs on agricultural inputs, including feeding our animals corn and soy instead of the grass or fish they’d live off in the wild. It may not be from the beneficence of the butcher or the baker that we get our meat and bread, but the nutrition of our foods has taken a hit since we’ve accepted a more attenuated relationship with our sustenance in exchange for a higher GDP. We’d do well to revisit that supposed bargain.

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      • Food’s important, obviously. And it’s a very intriguing problem. But it’s an outlier as far as technology goes,* so as an example it doesn’t generalize.

        * And not wholly do, because the green revolution was a real thing that saved millions of real lives of real poor people.

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      • I disagree that food is the only realm in which technological “progress” is potentially harmful. Environmental pollution is another major example: How many more people have asthma or cancer as a necessary result of our having a higher GDP? How do we value the decrease in happiness of people who can no longer see the mountains? Are these things that can even be easily measured, or treated as fungible with what we’ve supposedly gained? Economics still has a long way to go on that score, and until it makes more progress, it’s sensible to resist its asserted sovereignty — especially when the profession of economics is so vulnerable to capture by managerial and government interests. When the government and the private sector are both hugely influential, is it any wonder that the main opposing viewpoints within economics are Krugman-esque fulminations toward technocracy, and Randian worship of individual avarice? Maybe the profession would benefit by applying its public choice frames of analysis back upon itself.

        I bet that given any particular sector, I could tell a plausible story of how increased economic wealth is counteracted by a decreased quality of life along some orthogonal metric. It seems to me that the only thing economists can do in the face of these concerns is reassert the primacy of economic values to all others, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

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      • I disagree that food is the only realm in which technological “progress” is potentially harmful.

        But that’s not what the argument was, so you’re moving the goalposts quite a long ways.

        the main opposing viewpoints within economics are Krugman-esque fulminations toward technocracy, and Randian worship of individual avarice?

        It’s hard to call that anything but nonsense, Robert; an outsider perspective that too obviously reveals its outsider (e.g., uninformed) status.

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      • Okay, I’ll amend that sentence to say “I disagree that food is the only realm in which technological “progress” is *demonstrably* harmful.” But I don’t expect you to have much better luck with that one.

        I don’t have an advanced degree in economics, true, but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve more than dabbled in the field, even if you’re only considering my formal education and not any extracurricular interest. Maybe my language was intemperate, but that doesn’t excuse mainstream economics from its biases and blindspots — which the field should even predict it would have, if its tools of analysis were applied consistently to itself.

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      • Robert,

        Of course those from other fields who critique economics, have their own biases and blindspots, some of which are corrected by economics.

        All that really comes down to is “field X doesn’t see the world as field Y does, and I prefer field Y,” which of course is true for everyone, with different fields plugged into X and Y.

        In short, it’s the argument I make about sociology, and why sociologists ignore me. It’s boring.

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      • I believe that has a point about the quality of food and the environmental impact of economic growth. Of course, that just means that we ought to be doing everything we can to increase the pace of economic growth.

        Who eats a healthier diet right now: the wealthy or the poor? Which countries have more environmental issues: the U.S. and Europe or India and China?

        Food is a pretty good example of why this is the case. The problem for most of human history was people getting too few calories. Our current problem is a novelty. Of course there is a period of growth where agricultural producers sacrifice quality for abundance and ease of shipping. There were more and more people demanding access to fresh produce, regardless of the season or local availability, than ever before. As people get richer, however, they start to demand that quality back. My work cafeteria is run by Sodexo, not a company particularly well known for its humanitarianism or commitment to sustainable development. And yet, now when I go to the caferia, I see that they have cage-free eggs. Why? because their consumers are demanding it.

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      • ALong those lines, j r, a while ago (can’t find it now!) I read that food costs comprise about 9% of an average families budget today compared to 19% in the 50s. SOmething like that. Details aside, food has gotten lots cheaper over time. So cheap, in fact, that paying for organic, cage-free, pasture fed, etc food is still cheaper than it was not too long ago.

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      • In my experience sociologists take sociological criticisms of their field pretty seriously. Economics has its internal critics as well, but these are in my experience voices in the wilderness. I don’t really understand why, say, E.F. Schumacher or R.H. Tawney have been all but banished from the academy: Economics doesn’t tend to examine its own assumptions as much as some other fields, and in my estimation could use a lot more navel-gazing.

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      • Eh, you’re being inconsistent. You’re bouncing back and forth between internal and external criticisms.

        And frankly, your argument strikes me as an outside complaint that economists don’t value the particular economists you value. That’s a yawner.

        The fact is, sociologists aren’t very open to economic critiqued of sociology, and the handful of sociologists I’ve liked (folks who used rational choice theory, and its attendant methodological individualism), are about as loved by sociologists as as your faves are by economists.

        So what makes your criticism of economics more meaningful than my criticism of sociology? Nothing (and mutatis mutandis). You think you know something the economists really are missing, and I think I know something the sociologists really are missing. But the general wisdom of the economics discipline is that you don’t really get it, and the general wisdom of the sociology discipline is that I don’t really get it.

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      • Your criticisms here seem better directed at politicians than economists. For one thing mainstream economic theory has had tools to account for negative externalities (such as pollution) since the 1930s, well before the environmental movement as such existed. And GDP was designed to fill a specific purpose, it was never intended to be some universal measure of goodness, and its inventor was well aware of its limitations.

        As for your points on food, I would like to point out that “quality” isn’t some single-dimensional characteristic and that ultimately what counts as high-quality foods depends on consumer preference. Easily-transported food is generally cheaper since it can be grown in places where the land is most amenable, instead of having to be grown more locally. That consumers are choosing price over the things you care about is not evidence of a market failure.

        And even then, the food-related health problems developed countries are having is caused by excess nutrients, not insufficient nutrients. Diabetes is caused by overly nutrient-dense food, not overly nutrient-poor food.

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      • Even externality analysis trucks in a lot of assumptions that traditionally people would find dubious: the natural world is valuable only insofar as it meets current human desires, animals and plants are owed no deference, all good things in life are fungible and thus every kind of harm is theoretically compensable, etc.

        The fact that GDP’s inventor was vocal about its limitations doesn’t say anything about the measure’s current primacy in economic thinking.

        I also think you’re wrong about Western diseases being caused by a surfeit of nutrients and not a glut of them. Basically the only “nutrient” we get more of these days is calories, and you don’t even need to eat excess calories to get diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which are related to processed carbohydrates and an overabundance of omega-6s relative to omega-3s due to our penchant for feeding our livestock grain.

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      • Even externality analysis trucks in a lot of assumptions that traditionally people would find dubious: the natural world is valuable only insofar as it meets current human desires, animals and plants are owed no deference, all good things in life are fungible and thus every kind of harm is theoretically compensable, etc.

        Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

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      • No, no, no, no. Sorry Chris, sorry Robert, but you guys are fundamentally in error here, even though your hearts are in the right place.

        Economics is about human choice, about what humans value. If you ask economists to start adding non-human values (anything not currently valued by humans, that is), you’re asking them to make up numbers out of whole cloth. That is just a very terrible idea.

        But when people do value those things, economists will plug those values into their calculations. And when I say value, I don’t mean they “care” in some spiritual or romantic sense, but I mean that they’re willing to pay some price in support of that value, because if you’re not willing to make some sacrifice for something, then you don’t really value it. (Words are cheap; actions demonstrate real valuation.)

        And that leads us to your critique about economists treating all good things in life as fungible. Yes, absolutely, because the fundamental lesson of economics is that everything involves tradeoffs. No matter how wrong it feels to get explicit about trading off one good thing for another, that is in fact what humans cannot avoid doing. And if people actually value those natural things, they will willingly make those tradeoffs. And economists will happily account for that.

        I’m sorry, Robert and Chris, but I don’t think either of you actually do understand economics well. You don’t really grasp it’s core understanding of the world, so you critique it from a position of misunderstanding, and ultimately you appear to dislike it because it’s not in fact a different discipline; perhaps that it’s not philosophy.

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      • The fact that GDP’s inventor was vocal about its limitations doesn’t say anything about the measure’s current primacy in economic thinking.

        What exactly does that sentence mean? What exactly is economic thinking? You keep criticizing something that have yet to actually define.

        From my perspective, what this comes down to is that people by and large don’t value the things that you think they ought to value and you don’t like the fact that a market economy gives them the freedom to do that. If I’ve got this wrong, please let me know. But please be specific in pointing out what it is about the study of economics that bothers you and how you think it has come to have negative effects in other areas of life.

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      • Re: the GDP’s alleged “current primacy in economic thinking.”

        The econ bloggers regularly critique GDP as a measurement, both how we measure it and what it means. To them it’s a somewhat useful measure because it’s an actual measurement, as opposed to being wholly fuzzy, but only somewhat useful because it doesn’t capture everything that matters. They know that, and they talk about it. For economists, measuring well-being is actually something of a major bugaboo, and it’s a frustration.

        That you don’t seem aware of that ought to give you pause in your confident assertions about what’s wrong with economics.

        In fact the phrase “what’s wrong with economics is…” is something I overwhelmingly hear from people who are far more likely to read non-economists who critique economics than they are to read actual economists. Which is like getting your knowledge about socialism from libertarians, or your understanding of evolution from creationists. You just can’t trust critics to be giving you either an accurate or a complete picture.

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      • ” You don’t really grasp it’s core understanding of the world, so you critique it from a position of misunderstanding”

        The problem is that economic analysis can lead to Bad Things being actually OK, or even preferable, or at the very least a good end for someone to pursue, and that’s a sin that no true Christian–er, I mean, it’s a negative societal effect that no true empathic propopulist bellyfeeler can accept.

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      • What’s more, in virtually every discussion I’ve heard of dealing with negative externalities, one of two remedies have been proposed: regulation and tort. Both end up looking a great deal like what Robert described: influence people’s behavior by placing a negative value on behaving a certain way that is greater than the value associated with the preference for behaving that way. Of course, both regulation and tort law generally fail at doing that, but that’s another conversation (and also consistent with Robert’s point).

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      • “James, how do economists, in general, measure preferences? How do they measure the effects of preferences on other things/people? How do they measure changes in preferences?”

        Price.

        “Both end up looking a great deal like what Robert described: influence people’s behavior by placing a negative value on behaving a certain way that is greater than the value associated with the preference for behaving that way.”

        And what James says is that this is an economic argument, despite Roger’s contention that it is something else.

        Economics means more than “dollars in my pocket”.

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      • I also think you’re wrong about Western diseases being caused by a surfeit of nutrients and not a glut of them. Basically the only “nutrient” we get more of these days is calories, and you don’t even need to eat excess calories to get diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which are related to processed carbohydrates and an overabundance of omega-6s relative to omega-3s due to our penchant for feeding our livestock grain.

        is correct. You seem to view “nutrients” from a micro-nutrient perspective, but what James is referring to is a macro-nutrient perspective. As you probably know, calories are a function of macronutrient content, and there are a lot of processed foods that have not only very dense macronutrient content (especially the foods high in processed carbs or fats) but also can wreak havoc when they hit the digestive system (processed carbs will spike the hell out of insulin levels).

        Figuratively speaking, yes the only thing a 20 oz bottle of Mountain Dew provides someone is empty calories galore, but the 77 grams of high fructose corn syrup that comprises the nearly 300 calories in that bottle will cause a physiological clusterfish that will not only lead to weight gain but to Type 2 diabetes.

        Even if you can academically argue that we don’t need to eat excess calories to get things like Type 2 diabetes (which I don’t agree with anyway), you and I both know the physiological effects of the kinds of simple sugars found in processed foods, or you wouldn’t have used the term “poison”: the fast rise in blood sugar leads to a spike in insulin to address it. The body goes into storage mode, shutting down any ability for the body to burn fat at that point. Blood sugars don’t return to their “normal” levels as a result of this. They drop further leading to more hunger and a desire to eat. The real world effect is that caloric consumption will skyrocket, especially because a lot of processed carbs in the forms of snacks, sodas, sugar, etc. is very cheap to produce.

        Type 2 diabetes is a function of making the body insensitive to insulin, and in order to that, it requires enough caloric consumption of foods that can spike insulin to high levels to make that happen. I don’t think people that drink 8 oz of Coca-Cola every day are at risk of Type 2 diabetes if the rest of the diet is in check.

        With respect to meat, I don’t think the overabundance of Omega 6 is the problem. It’s that people not only don’t get enough protein in their diets but to the extent people consume it, they consume it along with high levels of fats and/or sodium. Your typical serving of ground beef of the non-lean variety can have upwards of 15 grams of feet per 23 grams of protein. For bacon, I’ve seen 1 g/fat per gram of protein. Hot dogs are over 2 grams of fat.

        By comparison, the boneless skinless chicken breast I eat has 2.5 grams of fat per 24 grams of protein.

        500 years ago, poor people usually had the option of gleaning fully-wholesome food from nearby fields, while now they are largely relegated to urban areas where processed gunk is the cheapest option

        That’s interesting because when I read about diets that tend to look back on the eating habits of our ancestors (i.e. – hunting/gathering), it is my impression that the % of calories attributed to those kinds of foods is very very low compared to the calories attributed from protein and fat sources from meats. This is the basis for diets like Paleo, Atkins, Keto, etc.

        Intermittent feasting/fasting comes from this framework because of the belief that it required a lot of effort to hunt and gather those foods so fill up on as much as you can.

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      • “b), on the other hand, provides an account of (what I’m calling) greed such that the inclination of individuals to hoard surplus commodities of value in early human societies apparently didn’t exist as an actual expression of individual desire (let alone the expression of a natural right, I guess) and only emerged as a result of apparently positively rewarded cultural factors. It’s b) that’s the interesting thesis, it seems to me. Very interesting, actually.”

        I tried to argue something very similar to b) in James’ article about GMOs, specifically that our choice of crops changes from fruits to grains once private property rewards hoarding. This is notable because human physiology seems much better suited to eating mostly fruit rather than mostly grain, or meat that’s fed by grain.

        It’s a very plausible thesis that protecting property “rights” skews incentives in potentially undesirable directions, but economists don’t seem to discuss this subject very much, and most times seem to take property rights as a given.

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      • Chris,
        James, how do economists, in general, measure preferences? How do they measure the effects of preferences on other things/people? How do they measure changes in preferences?

        The specific techniques are frequently very technical, and sometimes are only the best approximations we can make (which makes them, still, better than wholly techniqueless claims that “X is priceless”). But in concept, they measure them by what people are willing to give up for them. That could be dollars, and changes in dollars spent from T1 to T2, or it could be the amount of time they are willing to give up, which will generally be translated into dollar terms, not because dollars are actually the measure of everything, but because it gives us a common measurement. For example, in valuing environmental amenities, one of the techniques is to measure how far people travel to get there, and estimate the dollar value of the time and direct travel costs.

        My own environmental economics class was over 20 years ago now, and I remember precious few details of the techniques because I haven’t practiced them since then, but I do remember quite clearly that the instructor emphasized that an important, but very difficult, part of the task was to figure out a good number to pin to those esoteric values that don’t show up directly in markets, but that people actually care about.

        What’s more, in virtually every discussion I’ve heard of dealing with negative externalities, one of two remedies have been proposed: regulation and tort.

        Well, regulation, of course, is precisely what liberal environmentalists like Robert turn to first. In a broader view, of course, regulation can be seen as a stop-gap until people learn to value environmental amenities and put them up high in their preference order. And many economists immediately turn to regulation as well because economists often fail to evaluate regulation as rigorously as they evaluate market failures. That is, many economists (Krugman, cough cough) indulge in the nirvana fallacy in comparing regulation to markets.

        But other economists focus on trying to figure out how to get those values into the markets, so people can express their preferences directly and effectively. For example, in public lands grazing, economists tend to advocate letting environmentalists bid for grazing rights and, if they win, retire them for the length of their time holding them. And while people who aren’t paying attention might call that a pipe dream, it has in fact been done. Unfortunately, at least one state, Montana, iirc, has changed its rules in response to require actually using the grazing rights, but that’s politics, and that’s conservatives who pretend they’re free market oriented demonstrating how much they’re not.

        In other cases, pollution markets have at times reduced the pollution they target more quickly and cost-effectively than regulation.

        But that’s not to say regulation isn’t sometimes called for. And the overwhelming majority of economists do call for it at times. So I’m not sure what your criticism is.

        Both end up looking a great deal like what Robert described: influence people’s behavior by placing a negative value on behaving a certain way that is greater than the value associated with the preference for behaving that way.

        Well, the point is that the negative value is real, and really does outweigh the individual’s preference for behaving in X fashion. But X isn’t actually bearing the full cost of their preference, as they would in a good market, because the negative valuation–the sum of all those whose preferences are in opposition to X’s–don’t have a market outlet in which they can be expressed. So how do we know how big that preference really is? Economic analysis, Chris. It can’t just be asserted without resorting to special pleading.

        I don’t think Robert was trying to argue that it was not an economics argument. I think where he and James differ is on the scope of its implications for society.

        I disagree. I think where we differ is that I think economics should be economics, and Robert thinks it should be philosophy, making incalculable assertions about what’s truly valuable, regardless of whether people actually value those things or not.

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      • Hi Dave, thanks for responding. I think you’re mistaken about the mechanism for metabolic syndrome-related fat storage. You’re right that insulin spikes increase cravings and lead to overeating, but the main reason diabetes makes people obese is because when the liver is confronted with an overload of free sugar, it converts a lot of it into fat to avoid the dangerous deposit of all those sugars into the bloodstream. The fat that results is visceral fat, the kind around your internal organs that’s associated with all kinds of health problems and early mortality. On the other hand, when you’re just eating a lot of “normal” calories, the body’s tendency is to store it as subcutaneous fat in the extremities, which is actually not consistently correlated with adverse health outcomes. So yeah, consuming 400 calories a day of soda a day will probably make you fat and lead to health problems, even if you’re only eating 2000 total. Of course, your insulin will be going crazy so you’ll probably eat a lot more, but if you’re not eating simple carbs then you’re probably only creating subcutaneous fat anyway, which isn’t a problem.

        Your claims about protein are a little unorthodox. Virtually every American gets the RDA of protein, and many if not most nutritionists believe that figure to be about 30-50% too high anyway. Great apes just don’t need that much protein — except for gorillas, who do well for themselves because the leaves they eat are about 2/3 protein measured by calorie. But we’re more closely related to chimps and bonobos anyway, whose diets are typically 95% fruit and nuts with the exception of a few isolated termite-loving cultures.

        As far as hunters and gatherers, the evidence on that score is mixed. The claims about hunter/gatherers eating mostly meat are usually purportedly proven by reference to extant hunter/gatherer societies. But it’s hard to say that these cultures are truly representative of primordial human existence, because they invariably live in areas that are under severe ecological pressure, and the cultures we have reliable data on are the ones that have had the most contact with the rest of humanity. Our closest truly wild relatives eat mostly fruit, and this is consistent with our digestive system, which has changed very little since then.

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      • our choice of crops changes from fruits to grains once private property rewards hoarding.

        Not really in line with the history of food cultivation as we know it.

        Food cultivation began very simply, by providing a bit of extra fertilizer (aka, human crap) for plants that had tasty seeds/leaves/whatever, or clearing out around them so they had less competition and more opportunity to thrive. This happened among hunter-gatherers, often ones who didn’t even have stationary villages. The cultivation wasn’t intensive, it was hit or miss, and folks would stop by later to gather what produce the plants provided them.

        It developed from there, and as cultivation became more intense and plants produced more prolifically, people began to rely on them more, and relying less on the product of hunting and non-cultivated gathering. There were, it appears, physiological costs associated with this, but apparently the relative security of a steady food supply that could be stored was sufficient to shift social patterns of food production.

        But, that did not occur because of private property. Instead, the surpluses were most often commandeered by chiefs, who used them as means of social control. This is strongly associated with the beginnings of formal government.

        Jared Diamond describes this in Guns, Germs and Steel (p.275)

        The most distinctive economic feature of chieftans was their shift from reliance solely on the reciprocal exchanges characteristics of bands and tribes… While continuing reciprocal exchanges and without marketing or money, chiefdoms developed an additional new system termed a redistributive economy. A simple example would involve a chief receiving wheat at harvest time from every farmer in the chiefdom, then throwing a feast for everybody and serving bread or else storing the wheat and gradually giving it out again in the months between harvests. When a large portion of the goods received from commoners was not redistributed to them but was retained and consumed by the chiefly lineages and craftspeople, the redistribution became tribute, a precursor of taxes that made its first appearance in chiefdoms.

        Of course private property in a sense has existed always and everywhere (despite what some romantic anthropologists have thought), but not, typically, as the fundamental basis of the society’s economic system. And it didn’t exist as the fundamental basis in these chiefdoms, either. It did develop later, and the agricultural surpluses were a necessary precursor condition. But the sequence is agricultural surplus -> private property, rather than private property -> agricultural surplus.

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      • AUnfortunately, at least one state, Montana, iirc, has changed its rules in response to require actually using the grazing rights, but that’s politics, and that’s conservatives who pretend they’re free market oriented demonstrating how much they’re not.

        This makes me think environmentalists should just rent the land and put a single goat on it (I’m sure the law handles this, though).

        But it sort if illustrates Robert’s point, I think: if it’s valuable, spend money on it. It reduces use value, or other forms of value, to exchange value, a process which as I’m sure you know a certain breed of economic thinker has been critiquing for well over a century for what appear to me to be very similar reasons to the ones Robert is using here.

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      • Re: What hunter-gatherers ate.

        Hunter-gatherers lived all around the world, so what they ate was….various. Those who lived near productive waters ate tons of fish. The Native Americans of California’s Central Valley used acorn meal as their staple, enlivened with fish and other vegetables primarily for taste and variety.

        It would probably be hard to make a general statement about hunter-gatherers, as though they all were one group or had nearly identical diets. But it is accurate that many H-G groups did eat more flora than fauna. This seems to in part have been because the gathering was a more reliable and steady business than hunting, and at least in some cases seems to have been in part because the men preferred to hunt large rather than small game, although it was a less certain target, because when successful they had more to distribute, thus boosting their social status, and–not incidentally–gaining more mating opportunities (Kristen Hawkes has written about this).

        But others had meat/meatish proteins as the larger share of their diet. For example northern Pacific Coast Native Americans’ primary staple was salmon, and the Inuit in the Arctic, while eating what precious little vegetation they could get their hands on, subsisted primarily on seal, walrus, fish, caribou, and migratory birds. And they seem to have been quite healthy despite the utter lack of fruits and nuts.

        Whatever one’s favored diet, trying to claim it as the “natural” diet based on HG lifestyles is not really justifiable. But at least neither of you are trying to claim humans are naturally wholly vegetarians, as I’ve heard others do.

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      • It reduces use value, or other forms of value, to exchange value, a process which as I’m sure you know a certain breed of economic thinker has been critiquing for well over a century

        Which has been really influential among non-economists, and remains completely out of the mainstream of economic thought.

        Now why is that? Your and Robert’s theory seems to be that the vast majority of economists are making a fundamental mistake about their own field. In the abstract, not thinking about any particular field of study, but about fields of study in general, how likely is that?

        Or is it more likely that people who aren’t experts in a particular field and don’t like it very much hear about an off-beat person in that field who says what they do want to hear, and they latch onto that as the understanding of what that field should be, without themselves having any deep knowledge of what the field is?

        I get irritated because there’s an implicit level of anti-intellectualism in the criticisms you and Robert level against economics. You assume that you can read a favored subset of economists who tell you things that are amenable to your ear, and that’s sufficient, that you don’t actually have to do intensive study of a field in order to proclaim yourself more knowledgeable about its fundamental flaws than the great majority of people who have done intensive study of it.

        Can we do that with your field? If I read a few outsider critiques, and then find a couple of radical academic psychologists whose views–over the past century–have never been incorporated into the mainstream of psychological thought, but I never give serious study to that mainstream of psychological thought (but I do read the health section of the New York Times), can it be said that I really have serious intellectual standing to critique the mainstream of psychological thought for its failures?

        But that’s what’s going on here with another field. Why is it different in that case?

        If you’re truly knowledgeable about this, please answer two questions for me.
        1. You critique exchange value, so can you explain the relationship between exchange value and fundamental economic theory of scarcity?

        2. You want economists to consider non-exchange values, so can you explain how they can do so rigorously in comparing options among which we must choose?

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      • Well, there are tons of heterodox economists who also think that the majority of economists are thinking about it wrong. This is not surprising given how nebulous much of what they study is, particularly at the macro level.

        Then, of course, there are the behavioral economists, who at one point were saying exactly the same thing: that most of economics was wrong, and it turned out that in some very important senses they were correct.

        But the issue here is actually a very common one in social sciences: a matter of scope. Economists tend to see economics everywhere, just as sociologists see sociology everywhere, and if you have a valid but limited economic theory, and start to see economics everywhere, you’re going to run into problems. What strikes me as interesting is that economists are so sensitive to a critique that pretty much everyone (including plenty of economists) level at virtually every other social science.

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      • ,

        I am just going to become that annoying guy who asks the same questions over and over again, because you refuse to actually give any heft to your arguments about economics, capitalism and markets having some sort of negative affect on human behavior. You are offering platitudes in place of actual evidence.

        It’s a very plausible thesis that protecting property “rights” skews incentives in potentially undesirable directions, but economists don’t seem to discuss this subject very much, and most times seem to take property rights as a given.

        This statement about economists in demonstrably false. Economists, and other social scientists, spend lots of time talking about incentives, about moral and ethical behavior, about what circumstances are most conducive to altruistic and cooperative behavior. And economists do lots of experiments and lots of studies aimed at sussing out what exactly those circumstances are.

        And guess what? Developed, market-oriented societies top non-developed, non-market-oriented societies in just about every measure of well-being and fairness that there is. Go look at rankings of corruption, life expectancy, press freedom, gender equality, etc. and see which countries are at the top and which countries are at the bottom.

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      • Chris,

        We’re not really talking about macroeconomics. We’re talking cost-benefit analysis, which is very much in the micro realm.

        And all, or nearly all, economists (at least those whose focus is micro) are paying attention to behavioral economics. Behavioral econ isn’t really heterodox.

        You were talking about people who critique exchange-value focuses, and Robert was talking about some kind of inherent valuation. If we’re now talking about behavioral economics, I have to wonder if you’ve capitulated on your earlier criticism, because we’re no longer talking about criticism of focusing on exchange value. Much of what the behavioral economists study is how exchange value (subjectively considered) gets re-evaluated in different situations. Or how people have cognitive biases that (depending one one’s view) either pervert or improve upon rational decision-making. But they’re not critiquing economics’ focus on value as exchange value, to the best of my knowledge.

        And that’s because–to answer my first question–exchange value really derives from the concept of economics as being about decision making under scarcity. You have to make choices, so how much of X are you willing to sacrifice for Y? Ultimately it’s about your opportunity costs, and those opportunity costs (along with a little psychological bumbling around with endowment effects and risk aversion/acceptance, etc) determine subjective exchange values. You can’t get away from exchange value because you can’t get away from opportunity cost because you can’t get away from making decisions between alternatives because you can’t get away from scarcity.

        And, friend, in a way economics is about everything. As is political science. As is sociology. As is psychology. All the social sciences are about everything in a sense, because they’re all about humans (see my new post). Each has its limits, sure, and whether you recognize it or not, economists are quite aware that they have limits. That’s why so many economists repeatedly insist that economics does not tell us what we should value or how we should define the good life, and why they take preferences as exogenous (which, ironically, they also sometimes get criticized for).

        Hell, while you’re complaining about economics being hegemonic, I’m left to wonder whether you see behavioral economics as economic hegemony or psych hegemony?

        There are no real boundaries in the social sciences. There are only academic departments.

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      • Just because everything requires tradeoffs doesn’t mean that all goods are fungible, except in the sense that they can be traded for another — not in the more important sense of being actually interchangeable in their ultimate value. Economics arrogates this more important fungibility when it should satisfy itself with the more circumscribed sense of the word.

        Just because people treat many goods as fungible doesn’t mean they are actually so. People’s perceptions of their own well-being are not always accurate. While I grant that many tyrannical regimes have used this finding to excuse tyranny, that doesn’t somehow imply that people can’t be slaves to their passions. Economics has no real answer for this. Even its models of delayed gratification assume static desires from the outset of the time period, and allow for no self-discovery or personal growth. In so doing, it treats people as automatons instead of the moral agents and growing beings they are.

        Economics can describe human behavior well in many respects, but it claims a higher calling for itself than that, by pretending to be a science of human happiness. Economics can say a lot about satisfying individual desires, but this is an incomplete recipe to happiness. Economics can’t accurately describe human development or discernment, where people exhibit awareness over their desires and are able to quench them when they interfere with well-being. So economics generally take people’s desires as a given, and works from there. As such, economics can only solve one half of the equation, which leaves the true answers to its questions totally beyond the reach of any of its inquiries.

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      • @james-hanley Price is a fatally flawed measure even of first-order preference satisfaction. Price is derived in part from demand, which is a function not only of willingness to pay but ability to pay it. Because the ability to pay is in turn a function of inherited inequalities, price will always be a skewed measure of social desires.

        But again, even as a measure of individual preferences, price fails, because people often lack information as to what will make them truly happy. This should not be a prescription for government enforcement of what it determines will make people happy, although I can see that James is already going down that road by assuming that I’m in favor of regulation (I’m really not). It should instead be a recognition that market-based systems of achieving happiness may fail (they often do–the happiest countries actually seem to be the most traditional and not the most market-oriented), and thus allow room for other values to take primacy when markets are inevitably found wanting.

        It’s also important to call out economics on its favorite sleight-of-hand: calling anything that opposes its empire “regulation”, while assuming that its own regime requires no regulation of its own. Even in a minarchist society, the government will need to decide which property “rights” being asserted are actually meritorious, and not the fruits of some theft or externality or unjustified dominion. This question is fantastically complex, and the government responses to it are equally intricate and variegated. Libertarians thus cannot avoid what they most despise: a complex government capable of doling out privileges to favored groups.

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      • Just because everything requires tradeoffs doesn’t mean that all goods are fungible, except in the sense that they can be traded for another — not in the more important sense of being actually interchangeable in their ultimate value. E

        Robert, I’m going to stop you right there. What is “ultimate value,” how do we determine it, and how do we use it in a principled, non-special pleading, way in decision-making?

        That is, convince me that “ultimate value” isn’t just a cheat, cheap talk that can be ramped up as necessary to produce the analytical outcome you want, without anyone having to prove through sacrifice that they really hold that value.

        That is, for all your critique of price, unless you have a functional alternative, not just a sophomoric romantic vision, you have nothing to offer in its place.

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      • I don’t think I need to come up with a comprehensive description of the Good any more than you do. Anarchists can avail themselves of emergent phenomena just as well as libertarians, if not better because they aren’t as supplicant to the use of force.

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      • Robert,

        (Not to speak for Hanley) I think Hanley can come up with a definition of The Good: the maximum level of individual choice constrained by negative externalities. I mean, that seems trivially indefensible to a liberal (or maybe even a conservative), but it’s pretty damn close to what libertarians think of as the good.

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      • Robert,
        I didn’t ask you to come up with a comprehensive definition of the Good. I adked you to demonstrate that “ultimate value” isn’t a nice sounding but meaningless buzzword used as a conversational trump card, but that it actually has applicable meaning in a decision-making context.

        If you can’t tell me what your words mean, then why are you using them?

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      • hits it on the head. Generally, classical liberals and libertarians do not spend much time trying to construct some ideal theory of the Good or describe what True Happiness is. There is a reason that the Declaration of Independence lists “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and not the attainment of happiness. There are limits to what a political and economic system can provide. Even in a perfectly just society you may still contract an incurable disease, you may lack the talent to fulfill your lifelong artistic ambitions, you may fall in love with someone who does not love you back.

        Contrary to the claim that keeps making, economics does not claim purview to every facet of human existence. And if there is somewhere some economist who does, please point him or her out.

        The claim that classical liberal economic and political theory makes is this: there is no perfect system. All of your dreams will not come true. Human beings are creatures of boundless wants trapped in a world of limited resources. The best system for deciding how those resources are to be shared and exploited is one that provides a foundation of common law and private property and then leaves individuals free to barter and exchange their property and labor for other things that they want.

        Beware of people making political and economic claims based on making you happy. They are generally trying to sell you something and it is usually something that is more about their happiness than yours.

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      • @james-hanley Hi Roger, ask and you shall receive.

        j-r, I think you’re mistaking me for a big-government, economic interventionist liberal. I’m not — I’m an anarchist with a traditionalist streak, which means that I share virtually all of the criticisms libertarians would level against big-government types. I don’t need to espouse a unitary conception of the good because I’m not trying to impose it through government policy, and because my ideology looks instead to other sources of behavioral norms.

        But I’m also different from libertarians in that I also recognize the problems of having even a supposedly minimalist government by force. James and j-r have yet to explain how a minarchist government’s choice between competing property claims is not merely another form of regulation that we can expect to have the same undesirable features as their favorite examples of liberal economic intervention. They also have yet to explain why we should favor a system that enshrines first-order desire satisfaction instead of freely allowing for a kind of maturity to develop in symbiosis with the individual’s surroundings, including family, cultural traditions, or the natural world.

        Even if libertarians rarely explicitly claim that economic thinking should lord over all facets of human life, that’s an inevitable consequence of their program. Centralized rulers — economists, lawmakers, and jurists — decide what counts as theft and what counts as property, and this process is largely arbitrary — at least, when it is not being steered in the favor of organized special interests. Favored actions are categorized as “wealth-creating”, bestowing their fruits with the desired label “property”, which is enforced by the organized violence of the state. Private property is neither natural, orderly, nor peaceful.

        In fact, smart conservatives have pointed out that America’s current Kraken of a bureaucracy is a necessary outgrowth of the “minarchist”-style 19th-century government that lots of libertarians harken back to. Read James Kalb’s “The Tyranny of Liberalism” for more on this score.

        “Beware of people making political and economic claims based on making you happy. They are generally trying to sell you something and it is usually something that is more about their happiness than yours.” This applies perfectly to the people who claim to be able to “maximize GDP” if only we enforce their favored property rights regimes, does it not?

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      • ,

        In all honesty, I haven’t pegged you for any particular ideological outlook, because I haven’t really grokked exactly what your complaint is other than a general dissatisfaction with modernity.

        And I’m not sure that I would call myself a minarchist. I don’t run from the term, but I don’t really strongly identify with any ideological category other than classical liberal. In that regard, I share some of your concerns about the ability of free markets to erode, or outright destroy, desirable, evolved social and economic structures. From what I can tell our major point of contention is that you are not recognizing two things.

        One thing is that while markets can destroy the things that we like, they are also pretty instrumental in destroying the things that we don’t like. You simply cannot feed a large population on hunter-gatherer agricultural practices. Yes, I worry about the overall quality of the standard Western diet, but it beats the starvation and malnutrition that occurs in the least-developed countries.

        The other thing is that you are not recognizing history for what it is: a process of development. People need to get to a certain level of satiation in their basic needs before they can start worrying about the environment and whether their meat has enough omega-3s, but eventually they do get there.

        I do hands down disagree with your characterization of property, but I suppose that is a longer conversation.

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      • Like , I would label myself as classical liberal and not a monarchist or full libertarian. I too view property rights quite differently. Allow me to share:

        “Centralized rulers — economists, lawmakers, and jurists — decide what counts as theft and what counts as property, and this process is largely arbitrary — at least, when it is not being steered in the favor of organized special interests. Favored actions are categorized as “wealth-creating”, bestowing their fruits with the desired label “property”, which is enforced by the organized violence of the state. Private property is neither natural, orderly, nor peaceful.”

        In an empire I would tend to agree. That is pretty much what happened in most empires, and empires ruled most of the the world for much of history. Institutions were greatly capricious and self serving for the elite.

        In the competing/cooperating hundreds-of-states environment of such areas as Western Europe in the last 500 years (or to a lesser extent Pre-Alexandrian Greece) this dynamic is not as inevitable. The reason is that the states compete amongst each other on many dimensions, including economically. As such states with property rights, institutions and rules of law which led to more prosperity, more productivity and such tended to thrive relative to their competition. Thus a process of constructive competition for rules and institutions and entrepreneurs which advanced the welfare emerged. Nothing was inevitable, just possible.

        Historical economic trends provide plenty of empirical data in support of this theory. Douglas North is probably the best spokesman advocating this type of evolutionary dynamic and certainly influenced my views.

        And yes, current research supports that property “rights” (first possession or via labor mixed with property) are indeed “natural.”* I just read a journal article to this effect. I can link you if interested. When properly constructed, they also lead to order and peace and encourage innovation and productivity.

        “”Beware of people making political and economic claims based on making you happy. They are generally trying to sell you something and it is usually something that is more about their happiness than yours.” This applies perfectly to the people who claim to be able to “maximize GDP” if only we enforce their favored property rights regimes, does it not?”

        These arguments seem to go around in circles. The same people arguing against GDP are often the first to cry about the plight of the poor not improving in terms of income. I too agree that GDP is an incomplete and increasingly less effective measure. In general, however, it still corresponds with increasing prosperity on a particular dimension and thus is one of the better measures of improving human condition.

        * though natural isn’t necessarily good, of course. Racism and rape are probably natural too

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      • In three decades of business, the only good management book I ever read was written by primatologist Franz de Waal and was titled Chimpanzee Politics.*

        So, consider me a monkeyarchist.

        * the insights on organizational behavior are beyond profound. It is not to be taken as a “how to” manual though

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      • I don’t think your assessment of the causes of modern famines is accurate. Nobelist Amartya Sen argued convincingly that most modern famines are economic: Although the people in a famished area generally grew enough food for themselves, economic conditions led them to have insufficient property claims over the food supply. A common mechanism for modern famines is that wealthy nations subsidize their grain crops and then dump the excess on the global market, depressing prices for Third-World farmers and removing their ability to pay for their own share. This explains why globalizing influences on the food supply actually tend to be correlated with more famines, not less.

        When famines are not economic, they’re almost always related to a failed monoculture crop of grain or other annuals. Forest agriculture avoids this problem by stressing diversity of foliage and an emphasis on trees and shrubs, which are strictly more drought-tolerant than comparable grasses and annuals like potatoes. The most land-efficient fruit crops, like watermelon and oranges, produce 3-4 times as much food per acre as conventional grains. Even adjusting for lowered yields due to sustainable practices, eating more like hunter/gatherers could actually increase the planet’s carrying capacity.

        As pointed out, a forest-based agriculture (I intentionally use that term vaguely because I have a lot of different practices in mind, which are necessary because of different climatic zones) is less amenable to industrialized fossil-fuel based agriculture. We would need to live a lot closer to where we grow our food.

        But that’s a feature, not a bug! Trees are fantastic at scrubbing pollutants out of urban air. They moderate temperate both during the summer (leaves are nice shade, and absorb a lot of the sun’s energy for the plants’ own uses) and winter (bare trees reduce wind conditions but still let in most light). Pregnant women who live near greenery have significantly healthier babies. People who live near trees report higher well-being.

        j-r, I think you’re falling prey to another misconception, which is that the conditions of human existence have more or less improved linearly. But the fossil record is inconsistent with your position: Hunter/gatherers were taller and had denser bones than their agricultural descendants.

        In fact, one of the reasons people thought that hunter/gatherers had shorter lifespans than agriculturalists was that the hunter/gatherer remains we’ve found have tended to have the bone density of typical modern 30-year-olds. But we actually can’t conclude that hunter/gatherers tended to die at 30, because the modern grain- and meat-based diet is known to have adverse effects on bone density: These foods produce acidic reactions within the body, and the body leaches free minerals from your bones to compensate. So hunter/gatherers were healthier and very probably lived much longer than is commonly imagined. Your linear characterization of human progress is highly contestable.

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      • Robert,
        Name these “acidification” reactions? Because I’m skeptical.

        I’ve heard that the WHO has a “necessary calcium intake” of about a quarter as much as America does, but that’s because we’re using milk for most of our intake, and greens work much better.

        But greens also interfere with calcium uptake, via oxalic acid. I’m actually not sure what the best way to intake calcium is, but you are not giving a good argument that hunter/gatherers are better.

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      • Hi Kim, I’m glad you brought up oxalates. Greens are highly unpalatable in an uncooked state, which makes sense because the plant doesn’t want you to eat that part of it. (Plants actually generate oxalates in response to being munched on.) But interestingly enough, when plants have finished their life cycles, the oxalates in their leaves are reduced dramatically. The resulting leaves are much more palatable, and as you point out, are more nutritious to boot. Hunter/gatherers would be a lot more likely to eat sweet greens, which are more nutritious, than bitter, oxalate-rich ones. So I think that noting the effects of oxalates actually works in favor of eating like hunter/gatherers.

        (Intriguingly, the paradisal diet prescribed in the book of Genesis seems to account for the oxalates problem: Adam and Eve were given fruit and “the herb bearing seed”, namely plants that have “gone to seed,” reached the end of their life-cycle, and presumably have much lower levels of oxalates.)

        Regarding acid production, these articles feature pretty comprehensive explanations of acid-producing effects in foods and their effects on the human body: http://www.naturaleater.com/science-articles/Dietary-acid-load-preagricultural-Homo-sapiens.pdf http://cjasn.asnjournals.org/content/6/7/1526.long

        I’m compelled to point out that studies conflict over whether acid-producing foods in fact reduce bone mineral density. Some studies have found an effect, while others find that sufficient calcium intake may balance out the calcium-leaching effects. Regardless, an alkaline or pH-neutral diet appears to be optimal for bone mineral density, and so the standard measure for determining hunter-gatherer age is still highly suspect, especially when one considers that hunter/gatherers certainly got more Vitamin D, which is closely associated with bone mineral density, than their modern counterparts.

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      • “I imagine there’s a David Buss title on your bookshelf.”

        This is so weird. I had no idea who David Buss was, so I did not comment earlier. Then rereading this comment I realized I had just today finished rereading a chapter in Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby’s “Adapted Mind” written by none other than David Buss on preferences of women for high status males and the effects of this selective pressure on men.

        Freaky Friday.

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      • globalizing influences on the food supply actually tend to be correlated with more famines, not less.

        Then one would expect the rate of famine deaths to increase as the world globalized. Instead, during the era of greatest globalization and trade increases, famine deaths fell dramatically.

        When famines are not economic, they’re almost always related to a failed monoculture crop of grain or other annuals.

        More accurately, they’re mostly caused by political violence and repression.

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      • Certainly. I’d note, of course, that Buss and Lakoff, or at least Lakoff’s epigones, have generally published in mainstream journals, though, they get talk and poster slots at mainstream conferences, and they get cited by mainstream researchers when relevant.

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      • Roger,
        Relatively little, not surprisingly. Most women didn’t have a choice on whom to marry for most of recorded history.
        Women’s preferences for “winners” (Note: very strongly need not be high status men) did have a heavy influence on primogeniture.

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      • Kim,

        Evolutionary psychology focuses on evolutionary timespans, not historic. IOW, they are more interested in the long term evolutionary effects of mate choice in foragers and even primates than evolutionarily recent events covered in history.

        The article was not very enlightening to say the least. News flash, women prefer intelligent, older, taller, motivated guys with higher status, with as expected influences on male psychology and physiology.

        By the way, obviously I am missing the subtext around Buss. I have no idea who he is or what reading him signifies — though I assume it is bad or nobody would talk about it.

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      • Chris,

        There’s two ways to interpret that, right? 1) Psych is more open and inclusive* or 2) an economist thinking Lakoff is the cat’s pajamas has a better argument than you do for thinking the same about whatever heretical economist you had in mind. ;)
        _________________
        *And there’s two ways to take that. 1) Psych is less closed-minded than economics or psych is still to unformed a discipline to have figured out what it’s really about. ;)

        And now I’m sounding far too much like the opening of Machiavelli’s Discourses, so I’ll stop.

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      • Roger,
        Newsflash: lumping all women together is idiotic.
        A certain subset of the population looks for strength size and violence.
        Other subsets look for other things.

        (Note: I’m assuming we’re still hewing close to the instinctual, rather than societally modified behavior, which necessarily restricts understanding to the young, for whom we tamper with their sexuality the least — as it proves to be less detrimental to society as a whole.)

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      • I am pretty sure you realize the “all else equal, statistically speaking, women are more attracted to these qualities (than men are in women) according to studies in virtually every society studied.” was implied.

        One of the most fascinating discoveries of coming to this site is to find that there are actually bright, very well educated people who believe men and women are the completely the same psychologically. Not only that, but they are offended that anyone actually still thinks differently about it. I guess I knew their was some fringe somewhere that believed that, but to find it was actually mainstream in some academic circles was jaw dropping. Like finding out half the people on the block believe in UFOs.

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      • James, I’m not sure which of those options it is, though I’ll say this: over the years, some of the cognitive linguistic (birthchild of Lakoff and Johnson) insights have made their way into mainstream cognitive psychology (this is significantly less true of evolutionary psychology today, though it was at one point; the reason it is not anymore is because people took it seriously and tested the ideas empirically until it became clear that the Wason Selection Task, for example, wasn’t doing what T&C thought it was).

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      • I’ll add, just so that I’m clear, even though it’s unlikely anyone cares given how far off topic this is:

        Evolutionary Psychology, the Buss-Tooby-Cosmides version, has not had a lot of influence on mainstream psychology. However, one way it has had an influence is in inspiring more mainstream versions of evolutionary psychology: comparative cognitive psychology, evolutionary neuroscience, cognitive anthropology, and evolutionary computational models have all become more common and accepted in the last 10-15 years largely as a reaction to Evolutionary Psychology B-T-C type.

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    • Robert,
      That’s a great point about non-pecuniary family sharing. You’re right that this mitigates intra-familial income variance, and I didn’t address that in my post.

      I wish that I could have found a better source to link to for the 3/4 of inequality being between siblings. I wouldn’t want to get too hung up on the actual number, however. I left it in because I wanted to link to Hanson’s broader point, and also because although I didn’t find a specific link to replace it with, it seems widely accepted that a large portion of inequality is encompassed within families, and that has been my experience among Midwest semi-rural middle class families. Maybe there are subcultures that have a different experience, at least for a generation or two, but I think everyone can agree that there is typically large intra-familial variance, especially if we extend it to cousins. It ecompasses even more variance if we include life-cycle variance.

      My broader point is that, while there were intra-familial rules that created some preliminary hierarchies, pre-capitalist intra-familial sharing rules appear to be much stronger than those we hold in the modern, capitalist West. Another Hanson post that is in my full post describes a hunter-gatherer context, where the norm would simply be to claim any excess that you find among your broader family members. A complicated set of political structures is built to manage this expectation. These sorts of political structures among the other ape species suggests that these norms run very deep. It’s quite a miracle that human society escaped that equilibrium.

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      • Hi Kevin, I appreciate your taking the trouble to reply. That’s an understandable reason not to include the details of a statistic in a post, but I hope you understand that the takeaway from it is very counterintuitive to many people, and so an ability to interrogate the assumptions and data behind the figure would be very useful.

        My impression of the semi-rural Midwest is that there probably isn’t a lot of income variation in the entire universe under observation (especially when the field of view is limited to the middle-class). There just aren’t very many rich people who live in those areas, and the nature of industry out there (agriculture support, light manufacturing) often lends itself to a pretty homogeneous income distribution between classes generally. I lived in rural Ohio for a month doing political campaign work, studying local demographics and neighborhoods, and if that were my frame of reference I’d probably come to the same conclusions you would. But those kinds of places aren’t representative of the country as a whole. I grew up in a town in California that is somewhere between suburban and rural, and as I moved to LA, Chicago, and New York in succession I’ve been shocked at how inequality widens up when you move from the country to the city.

        I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the hunter/gatherer norm. Capitalism and private property have worked (in a sense — the practice obviously has a lot of critics) for a couple hundred years. The pedigree of the hunter/gatherer norm, meanwhile, stretches back hundreds of millions of years. Famines were reportedly very rare in the pre-agricultural context, which makes sense because agricultural practices are usually very taxing on the land and surrounding ecologies, while hunting and gathering can be much more harmonious, especially if done by skilled practitioners.

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      • Kevin,

        I don’t object to your comment here, but what you’re claiming is pretty unorthodox, especially given the context of the broader point you’re making. It actually runs counter to every other view on the general topic I’ve ever read. Personally speaking, I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that greed is a social construct. Very much so, actually. It strikes me as more descriptively accurate than the idea that people are greedy by nature and altruism is “unnatural.”

        ANd just to be clear, I don’t think the substance of your argument – as presented – changes one iota with respect to that issue. For whatever that’s worth.

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      • that has been my experience among Midwest semi-rural middle class families.

        I’m not sure I follow. Are you saying that if you restrict your universe to Midwest semi-rural middle class families, there’s more variation within families than across them? That’s reasonably plausible, but of course you’ve eliminated vast amounts of the country’s inter-family variation when you made that restriction.

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      • Well, Stillwater, maybe I was trying to be too cute with my previous reply, making it unclear. I don’t know if greed itself is a social construct. I think the definition of greed is.

        It looks like your definition of greed is a sort of antonym of altruism. There are other ways to define it.

        We could say that the cousin of the hunter gatherer that walks into the hut and digs around looking for extra meat left from the recent hunt is being greedy. We could also say that the person settling down for a cozy night’s sleep in their mansion, knowing there are homeless people down the road is being greedy. But, I think the term itself muddies the issue more than it clarifies it. I would prefer to use other terms. I, personally, would tend to limit the definition of greed to mean attempts at accumulation or consumption so pathological that they cease to be enlightened self interest. I prefer to use different words to describe other things, because “greed” tends to carry a lot of baggage from our priors.

        And, I think you’re right, it doesn’t have much bearing on my original point. My point was that, whatever terms we use to describe it, the widely distributed cultural and legal right to accumulate individual assets led to a global revolution in broad-based abundance and moral progress that simply defies comparison.

        I would say that people can be greedy and altruistic – sometimes at the same time. I don’t think it has much to do with capitalism as opposed to any other ism.

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      • Mike,

        I’m just saying it’s the experience I have. If I added up the income-years of my cousins and my in-laws, who tend to be scattered across fly-over country, the distribution among the income quintiles seems to be about as broad as it is for the entire nation, which is especially notable since the national statistics include everything from Connecticut to Mississippi. So, the statistic didn’t seem far fetched to me.

        But, others’ experiences may lead them to be more skeptical. Given that, you could certainly argue that my assertion on that specific point was too glib.

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      • Kevin,

        I think there’s a distinction between a) “the widely distributed cultural and legal right to accumulate individual assets” and b) “…a hunter-gatherer context, where the norm would simply be to claim any excess that you find among your broader family members. A complicated set of political structures is built to manage this expectation. These sorts of political structures among the other ape species suggests that these norms run very deep. It’s quite a miracle that human society escaped that equilibrium.”

        Certainly, a) is all you need for your main thesis to go through, and importantly for our discussion, that claim is and can remain silent on the origins of what I (given your fluidity concerning semantics) call “greed”.

        b), on the other hand, provides an account of (what I’m calling) greed such that the inclination of individuals to hoard surplus commodities of value in early human societies apparently didn’t exist as an actual expression of individual desire (let alone the expression of a natural right, I guess) and only emerged as a result of apparently positively rewarded cultural factors. It’s b) that’s the interesting thesis, it seems to me. Very interesting, actually.

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      • “I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the hunter/gatherer norm. Capitalism and private property have worked (in a sense — the practice obviously has a lot of critics) for a couple hundred years. The pedigree of the hunter/gatherer norm, meanwhile, stretches back hundreds of millions of years. Famines were reportedly very rare in the pre-agricultural context, which makes sense because agricultural practices are usually very taxing on the land and surrounding ecologies, while hunting and gathering can be much more harmonious, especially if done by skilled practitioners.”

        I think hunter gathering is indeed less taxing on the environment, and it is probably a lifestyle we are extremely well adapted to — because we did indeed adapt to it for hundreds of thousands of years. That said, it is a solution for about ten million people worldwide. What about the other 99.99% of us?

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      • I think you’d be surprised at the carrying capacity of the Earth as left to its own devices. The mass of human bodies in a given region is usually dwarfed by the weight of animals supportable by the same amount of land. We can support a lot of people on American farmland, but you gotta remember that there used to be an equivalent weight of bison alone on the continent before we so drastically altered its landscapes. And the forest ecologies to which our physiologies are actually better-adapted are even more productive than that.

        But we don’t have to go full-tilt on the hunter-gatherer scale to reap similar benefits. Forest agriculture is in most respects actually more productive on a food-per-acre basis than traditional agriculture, but because our economic and industrial system subsidizes food transport and storage (e.g., the costs of police who guard against grain theft are socialized, while the benefits are individualized, not to mention the efforts our government undertakes to ensure the flow of oil), our choices of food crops and agricultural techniques are distorted. That doesn’t mean that with a different political system, a diet and agricultural system far more consonant with our hunter/gatherer physiology wouldn’t emerge as the best choice.

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      • Forest agriculture is in most respects actually more productive on a food-per-acre basis than traditional agriculture,

        Can you explain what you mean by ‘forest agriculture?’ The concept of food forest, meaning ground story, mid-story, cover story? Or something else? (My yard is a food forest, for what that’s worth; openings for vegetable gardens; edge-habitats of berries, cover story of fruit and nut trees.) It’s labor intensive for large-scale food production; meaning it requires actual people, not just one man and a machine.

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      • I love your comments. Always novel and unexpected.

        You need to help me out here. There is no sense arguing over how many people the earth could sustain in a hunter gatherer lifestyle. I am sure whatever optimistic number we arrive at would be a tiny fraction of the current. Agreed?

        So, am I correct in assuming you are not recommending we move this direction? Or am I missing something? Are you perhaps espousing a conscious and enlightened cultural evolution toward this type of lifestyle?

        As to traditional farming, I have trouble understanding why anyone would idolize it (thus I assume you don’t). The last ten thousand years or so (pre modernity) pretty much sucked for the average person. Malnutrition, short life spans, rampant disease, little or no education, limited freedom (usually serfdom, but often slavery), massive inequality, murder and violence rates several orders of magnitude higher than today, and standards of living which economists would (in their biased framework) measure as the equivalent of three dollars a day or less.

        So again, what are you actually recommending? I am sure it isn’t the above. Do you have some model or end state in mind, or is it more of a journey?

        I also have issues with your comment that property rights and rule of law socializes costs and individualizes benefits. But let’s set that aside now.

        You seem to have something in mind as to where you think humanity needs to go. Where is it?

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      • Hi , thanks for the kind words! I find that creative answers are usually prompted by incisive questioners, like yourself.

        I think your issues and zic’s issues converged, so I’ll refer you to my 9:37 reply to zic and j-r (you can search for “monoculture” — it’s the only result on this page).

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    • You bring up some interesting points. Any system is going to favor production of things that fit that system’s institutions. It seems like an amazing coincidence if the food production that systems based on private property tend to favor just happened to all be detrimental to human health. That’s quite a stroke of bad luck if it’s the case.

      The modern grocery is a miracle. It’s like the proverbial bumble bee that couldn’t possibly fly, but does. To picture that miracle and react by making a list of grievances, you must be one heck of a cup-half-empty kind of guy. When you sat on Santa’s lap as a kid and he asked what you wanted, you must have started by saying, “Wait, buddy. First, I have a real bone to pick with you….”

      I’ve never heard a person from a place with less abundance step into a modern US grocery and say, “Boy, this place is loaded with processed carbs. Your poor people must be getting a real screw job.”

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      • The assumption is that A: obesity is common among lower-income persons and, as it were, increasing; B: this is the result of overconsumption of foods rich in saturated fats and simple sugars; C: people’s preference for these foods over others is learned rather than innate, and D: food companies specifically encourage these preferences because foods rich in simple sugars and fats are cheap to produce and thus return the greatest profit.

        In other words, “we don’t actually *like* ice cream on toast with a Coke, it’s just evil bastard capitalists who got us addicted to the stuff and are hiding behind vague claims of ‘market preference’ when we ask why they make and sell so much of it”.

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      • The evolution of the modern grocery store is pretty interesting, as is the relationship between the profitability of a foodstuff and its ill health effects, and the way these foods are marketed and defended in the public sphere. I recommend “The Industrial Diet” by Anthony Winson, “Hungry City” by Carolyn Steel, “Appetite for Profit” by Michele Simon, and “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel if you’re curious to read perspectives on the modern grocery store different from the one widely held.

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      • Jim,
        you’ve never walked into a grocery store that serves an 90% foodstamp market, have you? It’s basically fully stocked once per foodstamp period, encouraging gluttonry — and having ShinyHappyTasty foods that people can gorge on (at eyecatching heights!), before going back to a bland diet of rice or other foods.

        This is a deliberate pathologicalization of government benefits, done to increase the grocery store’s profit margin.

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