Monthly Archives: March 2014

Why Does Income Inequality Persist? Fairness and Trust

So I have spent some time on fairness and some on trust.  I now want to put them together to show how fairness simply doesn’t work the way we would want it to if its goal were to provide some compensation for structural vulnerabilities.  Today will be conceptual.  Tomorrow, I’ll tell some true stories to illustrate the point.  I hope you’ll bear with me because today’s post is a bit dense.  I promise to reward your patience tomorrow.

Again, I must start with a qualification – a very big qualification.  I am not going to point fingers, blame anybody, or come up with a big conspiracy to keep the disadvantaged down.  Blame may be – certainly is – due in some cases.  There might even be conspiracies.  But these are not important.  The truly important point is that the kinds of unfairness I will be discussing are intrinsic to American ideology – ideology that we more or less all accept.  This ideology is, in fact, our secular religion, and is the (rather weak) glue that binds us together as a nation.

The ideology simply is American liberalism.  I don’t mean political liberalism, with a big “L”, contrasted with conservatism.  What I mean is the philosophical liberalism that is the core of our Constitution and our political and legal institutions, liberalism that Hume and Smith would have recognized as the fundamental Enlightenment ideals.  The twin underpinnings of this liberalism are the familiar liberty and equality.

Now everybody knows that, at least in practice, neither liberty nor equality is absolute.  Liberty exists for each of us only to the extent that, in our exercise of it, we don’t interfere with the liberty of others, at least too much.  And equality – well, equality itself is simply a kind of comparative word.  To say that two non-numeric things are equal is, without more, meaningless.  We have to ask in what ways they are equal.  In liberal philosophy at its most threadbare, we mean that people have equal liberty, the equal opportunity to exercise their autonomy.  It is, of course, precisely this equality that limits liberty, for at some point our unrestricted exercise of our liberty would impede that of others.

I suppose, keeping with the great American philosopher John Rawls, as well as my own conclusions, one can see liberty and equality as consisting of a kind of political fairness.  (Rawls actually uses his understanding of fairness to get to these principles which themselves come to instantiate fairness.)  But Rawls’s notion of equality is a little richer than the threadbare liberal view I presented above, and so is mine (although mine is richer than Rawls’s).  Without getting into it for the moment, I suspect most of you would also think of equality as consisting of a bit more than I’ve stated, if for no other reason than that, simply by looking around you, you can see people who are unable to exercise their liberties because of significant inequalities.  Even those who believe that our understanding of civic and political equality should be nothing more than equal opportunities to take advantage of the world around us should see that disadvantage – vulnerability – may impede the abilities of others to do so.

One of the most important things that binds our society together is our trust in the fairness of our system.  That is now to say, our trust that our society provides us with the equal opportunity to enjoy our liberty.  It is that trust in our system that allows us to believe in the myth of the American Dream that I wrote of several weeks ago, the myth that anybody can rise in station simply by dint of talent and hard work.  It is our trust in this fairness that keeps us living in peace.

But we trust too much.  The liberal philosophical notion of liberty and equality as fairness leads to political and social institutions that are formally and structurally fair but in fact can lead to unfairness by perpetuating the status quo.  Formal and structural fairness takes no account of permanent and structural vulnerability.  Even when we try to shape our laws and norms to be fair in substance, we ultimately fail by reverting to formal and structural fairness.  I will illustrate these points tomorrow.

Lawrence Mitchell




Why Does Income Inequality Persist? Two Kinds of Trust

I have been at some pains to demonstrate that vulnerability is a universal condition, at once personal and societal.   The mere recognition of the latter fact should be enough to paralyze every one of us who spends a moment in thought.  The simple act of getting out of bed in the morning subjects you to danger from others, if in fact you are even safe in bed.  Making coffee requires trust that your coffee maker won’t explode, your water is drinkable, and your coffee is, in fact, coffee.  Yet people, whom, to us, are nameless and faceless, provide all of these things.  How do we function?  How do we survive in a complex society in which we must trust those we cannot know and who do not know us, those to whom we are vulnerable but are unlikely to care about us as individuals?

The answer is trust.  Now I know this sounds peculiar.  Most people give trust only gradually, if not grudgingly, and only to people they know.  But two kinds of trust are at play here and it is the latter without which we could not survive.  The first kind of trust, the trust we place in those we know and whom we have reason to believe care about us, is what I shall call interpersonal trust.  The second kind of trust, the trust that lubricates all social interaction, I shall call institutional trust.

 I’m not going to spend any time talking about interpersonal trust.  We all intuitively understand that attitude.  More interesting, because it’s more complex, is institutional trust.  You see, we don’t actually trust the CEO of our bank or its employees any more than we trust the pharmacist behind the counter at our favorite chain drugstore or even the woman who inspects the chicken we’re going to eat tonight.  We can’t trust them because we don’t even know who they are.  We only know that such people exist.  What we trust instead is the institutions that create the incentives and safeguards to ensure that they behave in a trustworthy manner.

What are these institutions?  Well, social norms are one. If you become a pharmacist, you know you have a role to play.  You know that people are relying on your judgment and caution.  You have a set of professional norms to which you are acculturated in your education and which are amplified by your professional association.  You take pride in these norms and your compliance with them validates you as a member of your profession.  To some degree or other, all of us are subject to the norms surrounding the various roles we fill, whether professionally or in personal relationships.  These norms – the violation of which might subject you to formal sanction (as is true, for example, with lawyers and doctors) or might at the least subject you to criticism and perhaps ostracization – create very powerful incentives to behave as you would if you were in fact trusted.  (I have also made the argument that the very fact that you know you are trusted stimulates trustworthy behavior.)

Another important institution is the law.  At its best, the law provides incentives for you to act as you would were you entrusted by someone you knew.  Some of you might immediately disagree.  Our laws, you might say, don’t generally require the caring and thoughtful behavior that personal relationships of trust require.  Quite true.  The obligations imposed by law are generally rather minimal.  But they are enough to keep us safe from those upon whom we rely.  Take simple traffic laws.  You might rely on peoples’ self-interest to keep them from running stop signs.  Nobody wants to die in an automobile accident.  But, pace Hume and Smith, sometimes people misperceive their self-interest.  (I’d rather take the risk of an accident than be late for a job interview.)  Or, if you think that my parenthetical simply expresses a rational view of self-interest, then their self-interest diverges from the common good.  (I will take the risk of an accident, which also imposes risks on others, because it is more important to me at this moment that I not be late and I really don’t care much about those others anyway.)  Perhaps.  But you are (for most of us most of the time) brought back to the world of careful drivers because you don’t want to get a ticket for running the stop sign.

You can play with many different examples.  Much of the time, perhaps all of the time, your compliance with these social norms and laws comes down to self-interest.  But – most of the time (and that’s an important qualification I’ll get to in future posts) –the rest of us don’t care why you behave as you do.  We only care that you behave in a manner that protects us all.  When social norms and laws are functioning, institutional trust can flourish and society can prosper.  And yes, institutional trust has a huge economic function.  Just imagine the costs you’d have to incur to protect yourself if we didn’t have this infrastructure of incentives.  We’d never make it out of our caves.

I hope this is enough to illustrate an important reason why, despite universal social vulnerability, we manage to get by.  The role of trust in the context of income inequality is an important one, and multifaceted.  I will begin that discussion tomorrow.

Lawrence Mitchell

Why Does Income Inequality Persist? Vulnerability is a Social Disease

The examples I’ve given of vulnerability so far are fairly specific – youth, illness, poverty, etc.  Yet I’ve been talking about vulnerability as a universal condition.  Today I’d like to be more specific about what I mean.  Simply put, vulnerability is an inescapable social condition.

First let’s take an extreme case of life in isolation, off the grid, self-reliant and self-sufficient.  Are you invulnerable?  Of course not.  As a simple natural matter, you remain vulnerable to disease, weather, animals, and the like.  And, if you assume other people in the world, you remain vulnerable to them as well, if only remotely, because you don’t know whether and when others might covet your possessions.  (I am very careful to use the word “possessions” rather than property.  The latter is a legal concept, designed to protect you precisely from such intrusions.  The only reason you can claim something as your property is because the state says you can and is willing to enforce your right to claim it.)

But few of us live like that.  Most of us live among others, in society, whether that society consists of family, village, city, state or country.  (I know I’m using political subdivisions here, which don’t necessarily correlate with society, but bear with me – it’s just for ease of reference.)  Life in any sort of society makes you vulnerable simply because others around you might cause you harm.  This, too, is a fairly primitive level of vulnerability, but it’s real.  But life in society creates far more complex vulnerabilities.  Each of us is dependent upon others for our food, our shelter, and ultimately our survival.

Take the example of one of my favorite T.V. shows, Gilligan’s Island.  Each of the castaways had their own role in ensuring the welfare of all.  The Professor figured out how to design shelter, create the tools needed in everyday life and, from time to time, the inevitably unsuccessful means of escape.  The Skipper and Gilligan provided the “muscle,” exploring the island, finding food, etc.  Mary Ann cooked.  I’m not quite sure what the Howells and Ginger did, but you get the idea.

So it is in our society.  Each of us relies on so many others.  But our reliance is more challenging than that of the characters in Gilligan’s Island.  Unlike them, we don’t know most of the people on whom we rely.  We don’t know the people who grow and package our food, who produce our medicines, our clothes, and our cars.  We don’t know the people who design and build our bridges, or fly our airplanes.  We don’t know the people who are charged with protecting our money in banks or our pensions in the stock market. But we are vulnerable to all of them still, perhaps even more vulnerable because we lack the close connections that would give them an emotional desire to care for us and to ameliorate our vulnerabilities.

Social vulnerability is pretty scary when you stop to think about it.  You might even wonder whether it is safe to get out of bed in the morning.  But you do.  And you do rely on others in every dimension of your life, you do accept the vulnerabilities of social life, mostly without even thinking about it.

Why do you do this? You do, because you have no choice.  Few of us would choose to leave modern society and live off the grid. But you do, as well, for another important reason.  The cure to the social disease of vulnerability is the salve of trust.  We accept our social vulnerabilities, and do so without the kinds of self-protective behaviors that our vulnerability would justify, because we have developed sufficient trust in our institutions – including the institution of law – that we feel reasonably safe.

I’ll talk about trust tomorrow. It is terribly important as a social lubricant.  At the same time, trust can be dangerous if it is misplaced.  I will argue that, at least in the context of the broad issues of social justice I have been addressing – income inequality in particular – trust is misplaced.

Lawrence Mitchell


Why Does Income Inequality Persist? Blind Justice

In this and the next several posts, I’m going to talk about the ways in which two perversions of moral psychology blind us to the vulnerabilities of others whom we choose not to help, or resent helping, because they are “undeserving.” (The notion of the undeserving poor often reminds me of Alfie Doolittle’s wonderful argument to Henry Higgins that, as a member of that category, he actually needed more than the deserving poor.)  These perversions, producing blindness, find their way into our laws, laws that are supposed to help.

These (related) perversions are (i) we (the currently wealthy and powerful) fail to understand the degree of our own vulnerabilities (with the flip side of failing to understand the role of luck) so that we fail to see the vulnerabilities of others; and (ii) we see only the vulnerabilities of those who are not like us, at least in the sense that they are obviously and painfully vulnerable.  We help the people in the much smaller category (ii) (which includes the sick and the young and the old), but not the people in category (i), who may also be deeply needy.

Let’s turn to an example, or really a thought experiment. Say you are walking through a crowded shopping mall during the Christmas season, and come upon a young child, alone, crying, and bewildered, who tells you he can’t find his mom.  What do you do?  Now let’s say you are approached by a middle-aged man, clean-cut and in a nice suit, who tells you that he last saw his wife in Neiman Marcus but now he can’t find her and would you please help him.  What would you do?

Chances are pretty good that you’d immediately help the child, at least by taking her to the security desk and waiting while they paged her mother.  Chances are, I think, equally good that you’d turn away from the middle-aged man as fast as you could.  Why?  The child is obviously vulnerable, really almost helpless.  The man looks perfectly capable and there is something creepy about his request, such that you suspect an ulterior motive.

This is what I’m talking about.  We help the child because we see the vulnerability.  We don’t know anything about the man; perhaps he has early dementia, or had some minor surgery that morning that left him woozy, or any one of a number of things that might have impaired his ability to find his wife.  But we don’t see it, and we probably don’t even ask.  The child is unlike us, in that she is a child.  Our moral impulse to help works because all of us were children and can empathically connect with her fear, and because she obviously is vulnerable, needs our help, and we are there to give it.  The man, not so much.  He is like us.  We should be able to identify with his frustration.  But he shows no signs of vulnerability.  We thus assume that, like us, he is temporarily invulnerable.  He doesn’t need our help.

In future posts I’ll show how our laws are based on these perversions, how our justice is blind to vulnerability.  As a general matter, we provide formal and procedural help to those who we perceive to be invulnerable, and we provide real substantive help to those we perceive to be vulnerable.  Examples of the former include the due process in administrative law where government benefits are at issue, and our laws of “fairness” in matters of marital law and corporate law.  Examples of the latter include the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Social Security.  The problem is that formal and procedural help generally don’t help all that much.

The examples I’ve given of vulnerability are situational and transitory.  But it is important to understand that vulnerability is intrinsically a social condition.  We rely upon one another to fulfill so many of our needs.  We are, partly as a result of this and partly as the simple condition of living in society, also dangerously exposed to harm from one another.  Tomorrow I shall discuss vulnerability and its correlate, trust, in the context of modern American society.

Lawrence Mitchell

Why Does Income Inequality Persist? Of Vulnerability, Empathy, and Otherness

Today I’d like to focus a bit more on the concepts of vulnerability and empathy, because the way I’m using them (and the way Hume and Smith used “sympathy,” which is more or less how we use empathy), may not be completely obvious.  I’ll also show how empathy and vulnerability, misunderstood, can lead to a dangerous branding of people who really are like us as “other.”

This last point, which is a good place to start since it’s really the whole point of this post, is observable in an extreme example:  European anti-Semitism.  And no example of European anti-Semitism was more extreme than that created by Nazi Germany.

The Nazi propagandists (despite being raised in the land of Kant) understood Hume and Smith quite well.  They knew that human similarities breed intuitive empathy.  In order to effect the removal and extermination of the Jews, they had to destroy this very human link.  They did so by adopting tropes that long had characterized European anti-Semitism , the description of Jews as less than human.  Vermin, rats, even pigs, were labels applied to them (well, us).   This linguistic device was subtle in a special way and, for that subtlety, all the more powerful.  You see, in the Jew-hating trope, Jews weren’t like vermin, or rats, or pigs. That use of simile, while damaging enough, would have conceded the human quality of the victims while tagging them with some characteristics of these animals.  Oh, no.  For the Nazis, as for European anti-Semites preceding them, Jews were vermin, rats, pigs, or whatever.  By describing and, in cartoons and the like, depicting Jews this way, they took away the human characteristics of Jews entirely and, like vermin, rats, and pigs, made them subject to extermination without moral compunction.

Now please understand that I use this example as an extreme case, and only because, like most extreme cases, it provides a very clear and easily understood example.  In no way, shape, or form am I going to accuse anybody (other than Nazis) of behaving like Nazis.  All I mean to do here is to show how terribly vital our human understanding of others is to our identification with them.  And it is that identification which, as Hume and Smith well understood, leads us to caring and thus to moral behavior.

So, let’s step back.  The basic idea is that our moral sense is based on our empathic identification with the pain and sorrow of others.  Do you flinch when you see someone else in pain?  Do you smile in the presence of an exuberantly happy person?  Most of us do, at least from time to time.  We do because we, having experienced pain and pleasure ourselves, empathically identify with the feelings we are observing.  We all react this way, to varying degrees.  We have different sensibilities.  For example, I can’t watch boxing, because my identification with the contestants’ pain is too much.  My eyes still moisten when I hear a recording of Sinatra singing “In the Wee, Small Hours.”  You get the point.

Anyway, it is this very fundamental, almost instinctive, identification with others that allows us to empathize with others’ pain and pleasure.  But it takes more to turn these feelings into thoughtful, moral behavior.  It takes thought.  It takes the use of our imagination to turn these intuitions back into reasons for action. It takes effort.

It takes even more effort with pain than with pleasure.  Smith taught us that we have a greater propensity to feel another’s pain than their joy, but we are more likely to sympathize with their joy than their pain. Why?  Pain hurts. We try our best to avoid it.

Smith put it well:  “Nature, it seems, when she loaded us with our own sorrows, thought that they were enough, and therefore did not command us to take any further share in those of others, than what was necessary to prompt us to relieve them.”

While I generally agree with Smith, I’m going to argue that the deficit in sympathetic pain Nature gave us is, at least in modern American society, insufficient to move us to action.  In my next post, I will discuss our collective failure of imagination.

There’s one last point I’d like to mention before putting this together.  We also tend to empathize more with those closest to us than those more distant.  Those who observed the horrors of 9/11 from the sidewalks of New York had a very different experience than they would have reading about the tsunami on Bali.  Pain, yes.  Deep empathy, yes.  But less deep for the one than for the other.  In a similar vein, just imagine your reactions when your own child is in pain or distress and compare them to reactions when it is a friend’s child, or you read about somebody else’s child in a newspaper.

Now look at what we’re building and why it can be so dangerous.  Dehumanization is the most damaging of all conditions for the health of one’s moral sense.  But take superficial difference (race is a good, but hardly the only, example), pain, and distance and, voila, you start to disconnect strong moral intuitions.

I’ve gone on longer than usual, and I know this is not always easy reading, so I’ll continue tomorrow.  But I will leave you with a story.  Years ago, I had a student who regularly challenged me on points like these, and who belittled my arguments that law and society should be shaped in a manner that attended to the vulnerable.  Several years later, after he graduated, he showed up in my office to ask me a favor.  He told me that his father, a commission salesman, had been fired from his job and his employer was withholding earned commissions.  He complained about the terrible unfairness of this – I agreed – and he asked me what he could do.  Before answering him, I smiled and simply asked: “John, do you now understand what I was getting at in class?”  He looked at me, a bit sheepishly, and nodded.  There you have it.

Lawrence Mitchell

Why Does Income Inequality Persist?: Income and Wealth

In my next post, I will further unpack the concepts of vulnerability and empathy I discussed yesterday, and show how they interact to produce in us a vision of the vulnerable as “other,” a vision that is damaging, if not fatal, to our chances of having a fair society. But today I’d like to make one further point, especially for those of you who may be resisting my argument because you think I have a political agenda.  (Well, you’re right, I do.  It’s going to be education.  I will argue for a massive and equitably distributed national investment in education, and all of the infrastructure (including family help) necessary to support it.  I bet that’s not the political agenda you thought I had.)

That argument is coming in several weeks, after I lay out my entire case. But for now I would ask that you – especially you skeptics — notice that I have not been talking about wealth inequality. Only about income inequality.  This distinction is terribly important.  A focus on wealth inequality almost necessarily would imply some sort of massive redistribution, at least if you think, as I do, that a large part of that inequality is unfair (the selfishness surplus).  But I’m not in favor of massive wealth redistribution.  I would have been in favor, at some mythical starting point in our social development, of a roughly equal distribution of wealth when our hands were first dealt. (The late philosopher, Ronald Dworkin, discusses the merits of this case in a brilliant paper.)  But that point never happened and, if it did, I wasn’t there to make the argument. Now we’ve gone too far to demand massive equalization of wealth through redistribution.  I doubt our society could survive it, and for a lot of reasons we can discuss if you’re interested, it’s probably not even a good idea. (Many philosophers, Adam Smith included, thought that wealth inequalities were inevitable in any society, and so do I.)

To some extent (and it is only to some extent), wealth disparities are a product of income disparities.  But really, only to an extent.  (I will later talk more about talent and circumstances of birth as a function of luck.  This is important, and the argument will be that the distribution of these goods – which affects wealth distribution — is morally irrelevant precisely because it is a matter of luck.)   As I said, I’m not going to argue that we should do terribly much about wealth disparities.  What’s done is done.  (I don’t mean this in a flip manner.  I really do think it is best for all of us to look only to the future.)

We can do an awful lot about income disparities.  And, by addressing income disparities, we have the opportunity to shape a future in which either (i) wealth is more equal, or (ii) some morally irrelevant factors that affect wealth distribution but derive from luck (like circumstances of birth) are rendered ineffectual in the life chances of each of us, which might result in more equal wealth distribution.  It also might not, because I’m going to argue that we can’t – or shouldn’t – do much about the random distribution of talent, and that talent should be rewarded for the sake of all of us. But even if some degree of wealth inequality persisted, our combination of greater income equality and the diminished effect of some dimensions of luck would make that distribution far more fair.

Lawrence Mitchell

Why Does Income Inequality Persist?: The Myth of Mobility

The worst kept secret in American life is that Americans have less social mobility than citizens of many other western countries. This is true even though we believe ourselves to be a classless society. We are not a classless society.

From Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, we’ve told ourselves a story that self-reliance, hard work, and discipline pay off.  We still tell ourselves that anybody, no matter how humble or poor, can rise to be rich or famous or powerful. Or all three.

It’s not true. Like so much else in life, we extrapolate from a few examples to create generalities. (If you read about any of the four men I mentioned above, it’s not even true with respect to them. None were truly poor or disadvantaged.) We tell ourselves these stories because that’s what we want to believe. Some conspiracy theorists or die-hard Marxists might tell you that the powerful create these myths to sustain a false consciousness in the population that keeps us quiet and content. That’s not my agenda, but the truth remains that the “bootstrap” mentality is a myth.

Modern research increasingly explodes this myth. On January 4, 2014, The New York Times reported on five such studies. But since the 1980s we’ve had good data detailing the structural disadvantages of the increasingly large proportion of the American population that simply is not well off.

Sociologist Albert Szymanski, writing in the 1980s, looked at American mobility during the twentieth century. He found that the greatest factor in your ultimate success is the wealth and position of your parents. The second most important factor is your education. And what, we might ask, determines your education? The wealth and position of your parents! We have a problem. At least if we care about a fair society. As matters stand now, the game is largely rigged.

Just compare the life chances of the median child in Detroit, who had an income of  $14,213, with the median child in Washington, DC, with an income of $40,797.  Who wins?  Do you really have to ask?

Our myth of mobility helps to make such disparities possible, or at least acceptable. It’s not that we don’t want to help. It’s just that, in order to help, we have to see the need to help. It is that ability to see, to understand, identify, and identify with, vulnerability, that we lack. But that is a subject for tomorrow.

Lawrence Mitchell

Why Income Inequality Persists : Overview — The Empathy Gap and the Selfishness Surplus

Over the next several weeks I’ll be explaining my theory of why income inequality persists in America in spite of our fundamental belief in the classlessness of our society.  I will give a brief overview of the argument here, before tackling the first issue, the myth of social mobility, tomorrow.  (If you want to read the entire argument now, it’s here.)  Bear with me please.  I know it’s a bit dense, but I promise I’ll unpack it over time.

Wealth distribution is a matter of social justice. Social justice can be seen as a matter of fairness.  Fairness is a two way street.  While we may sometimes speak of being fair to ourselves, the issue at the heart of fairness is the distribution of some good – love, money, power.  Our concern with fairness is mainly a matter of balance between the powerful and the vulnerable.

Our notion of fairness as a matter of social justice has two significant problems. The first problem is the empathy gap. Even though vulnerability is a universal condition, those who are rich or powerful (and thus relatively invulnerable), tend to be blind to their own intrinsic vulnerabilities. And so they don’t see the vulnerabilities of those who look like them superficially except for wealth and power – mainly, the working poor (by whom I mean almost anybody we used to call middle class.  The poor are an entirely different matter.  I will discuss them later.) The result is that the rich and powerful blame the disadvantaged for their fate, because they have not suffered the same fate despite superficial similarities.  They don’t treat them as vulnerable.  They lack appropriate empathy.

Hume and Smith understood this phenomenon well.  They argued that our moral sense comes  from our ability to identify with others – our empathy.  We understand intuitively that, because others are like us, they suffer similar pains and enjoy similar pleasures. So far, so good.  The problem – the disconnect if you will – is that those similarities sometimes are superficial. The working poor may look like the more advantaged – they have jobs, houses, cars, etc.  But the hidden truth is that they live on the margins of financial disaster.  Superficial similarity allows the rich and powerful to think that their success simply is a result of working harder.  The truth, as we will see, is that their success is much more a function of luck. This is true, even if they have worked hard to maximize the benefits of that luck.  By luck I will mostly mean circumstances of birth and natural talents.

In any event, this displaced empathy, this empathy gap, leads to arguments that say that of course the poor can succeed.  They can succeed because they are just like us, only lazier.  In effect, they have freely chosen not to succeed. This, I will argue is, for the most part, untrue.

The second problem is with our laws.   Many of our laws take some idea of fairness as their starting point for, following Aristotle, we see justice as some notion of distributive fairness.  The problem is that, in our multicultural, pluralistic society which privileges our right to pursue happiness as we individually define it, fairness almost has to be a concept devoid of substance.  We can’t, or won’t, say that fairness means a particular economic distribution, or adherence to some collective concept of social purpose, like the glorification of God or the pursuit of football. So we rely on a notion of fairness that is structural and procedural.  Well, as any lawyer or economist can tell you, when you focus on structure or process, the result is typically the status quo.  Thus if we start with inequality, we end with inequality.  Garbage in, garbage out.  We mean well, or so I hope.  But it doesn’t work, at least if social mobility is our goal.

Combine the empathy gap with structural and procedural fairness and you get what I call the selfishness surplus.  That surplus is the excess awarded to the rich and powerful over what they would have gotten if the resources in our society had been distributed more fairly, and if our laws had been more redistributive in terms of fairness. As I will explain in several weeks, this surplus is real and empirically identifiable.

Why do the disadvantaged put up with it?  The American myth of self-reliance.  In my next post, I will explain the myth in terms of social immobility.

Lawrence Mitchell


About a Blog

Blogging is fundamentally an act of ego.  I don’t (necessarily) mean in a bad way.  Rather, using the tools of modern technology to tell the world what you’re thinking presumes at least some notion on the part of the blogger that somebody cares.  Actually, not just anybody.  Not your mom, or your spouse, or your friends.  Somebody you never have met and probably won’t ever identify.

In a way, the act is not qualitatively so different from writing books and publishing papers, something I’ve done for pretty much my whole career. You begin with the presumption that your thoughts are worth sharing with others.  That takes ego. But the scale of blogging is potentially enormous and intimidating.  On the other hand, the Internet has taken away so much of our privacy and given so many people a platform that, once you’ve been knocked around a bit, it doesn’t seem so scary after all. 

 I’m here to talk to you in my voice, and to share with you ideas that I think are important and have made me a successful scholar.  Just for kicks, I’ve attached my cv here, so you can get some sense of my bona fides.

Hum(e)an Moments

I’m here to write about economics, law, business, philosophy, and education.  Primarily.  And the ways in which they intersect.  Hum(e)an Moments is inspired by the philosopher who, along with his student, Adam Smith, most inspires me. I hope that it will address issues of contemporary importance without boundaries.  That is, after all, the way thinkers up until the late nineteenth century approached their thinking.  Everything is related.  Like Hume and Smith, I hope to address these issues from a very human perspective.

I’ll start with a number of posts discussing my views on some of the reasons that income inequality exists and persists.  I’ll draw heavily from my book, Stacked Deck:  A Story of Selfishness in America, and some of my legal, financial, and economic scholarship from the past decade or so.  Of course I’ll also draw on some of the good work I have the privilege of reading.

I hope this blog will be informative but, more important, I hope it will stimulate thought.  For when we stop thinking, we stop caring.