Sunday, February 16, 2014

Greg Mankiw, just deserts, the vilification of the 1%, income inequality, collective resource allocation, outsourcing and more!

I know I haven't blogged much recently, but I promise that's about to change. I'm working on big things! I'm actually writing piecemeal on 6 or 7 different blog entries at once, so be ready in case I hit you with them all in quick succession.

In the meantime, I am currently embroiled in an interesting Facebook debate on far reaching economic and philosophic issues, so I thought I'd post a transcript. I suspect I'll be doing more and more of this type of post in the future, for two reasons. First, pragmatically, I enter into lots of discussions on sites like Facebook, Reddit, (though thankfully not Twitter!), the JHU Newsletter and the comment chains of other political websites, both because I enjoy it and because I sometimes can't help myself. Once it's already written, it's very easy to paste here. Second, idealistically, I think readers will get a more complete and nuanced view of the issues if what they witness is a clash of ideas between people who disagree, instead of just a list of ideas from one dude's opinion. This is sort of in line with the new title of the blog - The Thought That Counts - which as I'll explain in future posts was not just a consequence of my no longer being an "Underage Thinker." But that can be explained another time: for now, just enjoy the crossfire.


Bayly - A fact that’s lost in the inequality debate: The top 1 percent of wage earners often accomplish extraordinary things, and at great risk.
N. Gregory Mankiw: professor of economics at Harvard - New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/business/yes-the-wealthy-can-be-deserving.html?hp&_r=0

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Charlie - no
no
no
no
no
no
no
no
http://www.demos.org/blog/just-deserts-do-1-percent-deserve-their-wealth
no
http://unlearningeconomics.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/mankiw-to-the-rescue-of-the-1/
also the idea that the 1% "accomplish things at great risk" is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard--they are literally the richest and most powerful people in the world! Nothing they do is at ANY personal risk because the consequences of failure actually can't actually hurt them! and even when those failures *do* happen at levels catastrophic levels to potentially harm them, as in the financial crisis in 2008, the government steps in and bails them out by funneling billions of dollars directly into their failed businesses AND personal bank accounts, effectively forcing taxpayers to pay insane multi-hundred million dollar bonuses to executives for *failing* to do their jobs!

Look, a soldier on a battlefield takes great risks. An uninsured single parent quitting their minimum wage job to pursue education or a better career takes great risks. But a CEO who bankrupts their company by committing the most widespread economic fraud in the history of the world because they have the implicit and explicit backing of a government that not only will it keep their COMPANY afloat when the bubble bursts, but will pay their exorbitant salaries as well, are not taking any fucking risks, and nor are they accomplishing anything other than enriching themselves at the expense of the society they are profiting off of through extortion, fraud, rents, and arbitrage.

It's bullshit, desert theory is bullshit, and a simple comparison between the US and nations with drastically less economic inequality (such as the more social democratic Scandinavian states) shows that by pretty much every metric the people of the latter are substantially better off.
+ Gregory Mankiw's economic "arguments" are so facile and distorted that it feels almost deliberate. Considering that he was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W Bush, the president who oversaw and helped engineer the housing bubble/crash that caused the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession we are still attempting to recover from today, I would he say that on a scale of 1 to 10 Mankiw's credibility on the subject sits somewhere between "ridiculously wrong about everything" and "purposely spreading misinformation in order to maintain the status quo." It does not surprise me to see that students have walked out of his Harvard class in protest
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Andrew (me) - So wait, does Charlie like the 1%, or not?
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Bayly - I'm not necessarily endorsing his theory, but I think that vilifying the 1% collectively to such a degree is poor form and such generalizations are pretty silly. Not everyone in the 1% is a dishonest capitalist pig with the desire to rip others off.
And I think the guy who founds a Fortune 500 firm usually does so at sizable personal risk.
Don't punish someone just for being in the 1%, consider how they got there and what their ethical track record is. Let's calm down with the populist bashing of a pretty diverse group of very successful people.
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Charlie – posting an article and painfully inaccurate quote without further commentary generally implies endorsement, but ok

Look, I get it, some rich people have made their fortunes in ways that mean some people such as yourself believe they should be allowed by society to keep them. First of all, you might want to actually look at who is in the top 1%: (as well a the top 0.1%, which, as many have commented, might be more of what people are actually talking about when they refer to the 1%). I dunno if you actually read any of the articles I linked, but again, the amount of 1%ers who are in entertainment/sports/art is like, three, which is half that of the amount who are "not working/deceased" ie trust fund babies.

But regardless, you're missing the point: the whole 99% vs 1% thing is a just catchy phrase to point out that the staggering economic inequality is the root cause of many, if not most of the issues we currently face as a society, such as widespread unemployment, poverty, and drastically slowed economic growth. A tiny group of financial and corporate elite (again, maybe closer to the 0.1%) basically control the policy of the country. When 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth, 10% control 75 of it, and political campaigns are run almost entirely by the funding of people with a lot of money, politicians are going to be beholden to that small segment. I mean, we have the fucking democratic president talking about how we need to social security because it won't be able to pay benefits in like 20 years, when simply lifting the payroll tax cap so that someone making seven billion dollars a year would pay more into social security, probably the most effective anti-poverty program in the country than someone making $108,000. But as it is currently politically impossible to do anything that causes the wealthy to make even slightly less money, we are fucking over the elderly poor by cutting the benefits they need to eat properly instead.

That inequality is only increasing--1% wealth share went up almost 5% in the last five year, precisely because they are able to keep shaping policy in ways that redistribute wealth up.

Like, I guess I *understand* "let's not just punish everyone who happens to be in the 1%" argument, but I don't understand is why anyone would take the time to actually make it. "Punish" them? How? By structuring society to give them 20 million dollars a year instead of 50? By *not* handing them a blank check from the government to systematically cripple the economy by outsourcing, scamming poor families on illegal robo-signed mortgages and eradicating the private wealth of a vast percentage of the country (who for the most part emphatically did *not* receive any sort of bailout and are now languishing in debt and unemployment and poverty instead)? Do you really think you are fighting for a more just society when you spend your energy defending the domination of a tiny group of people that essentially runs the world?

Let's make a deal: how 'bout, we can start worrying about whether we're being a little to mean to the richest and most powerful segment of society after we address the 20% of children who live in poverty in the supposed richest and most powerful nation on earth. I mean, the US just cut unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people. That's going to cost the economy 300,000 jobs and lower economic growth by .4% (http://www.governing.com/.../How-Unemployment-Benefit...), in addition to the massive amount of suffering its going to cause to those million. You know how much it would cost to continue benefits? 6 billion.

We could literally just take 6 billion dollars from the Koch Brothers and a million more people might be able to eat, and the Koch Brothers would STILL have tens of billions left over to buy politicians! Or we could adjust the capital gains tax so that Mitt Romney's wealth isn't taxed at a lower percentage than his secretary's, and use that for any number of social programs that could help alleviate poverty. Or do a billion other things. But we don't do that, because our society is captured by the interest of its most privileged few. That is what the 1% thing is about, and that is the status quo you are defending.
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PS: if you don't want to read all my rambling but are interested in the actual causes and effects of income inequality, the 1%, etc. I really highly recommend this ebook (its free!) by one of the few economists who actually predicted the economic crisis we're in (in 2002 even). Even just the intro/first chapter is really informative on the ways the US economy is manipulated by the rich to redistribute wealth upwards:
http://deanbaker.net:8080/books/the-end-of-loser-liberalism.htm

Or if you like pretty moving pictures, the documentary Inside Job is also a really good telling of the story of the financial crisis that sparked all this stuff and uses Peter Gabriel's Big Time as it's opening credit song which makes it automatically the best documentary ever (here is a sketchyish free version!)

https://vimeo.com/26224948
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Chris - Charlie's modus operandi- burying his opponents with a useless pedantic collection of articles and rambling until a thorough and reasonable response becomes impossible. Mankiw is widely considered a brilliant economist. There are certainly other brilliant economists who disagree with him, but that doesn't negate his argument. Many people in the 1% take extraordinary personal risk, and in doing so create industries and drive growth. Working hard in school. Risk. Acquiring human capital. Risk Starting a business from scratch and taking all the responsibility. Risk. Spending countless hours away from family to run a business. Risk and sacrifice. Vilifying people with populist anger for making choices that we as a society should reward is just silly and unproductive. There are certainly bad actors among the top. Just as there are bad actors among the bottom of the social rung. People who exploit welfare programs and state funds. But silly anti-liberal populism is ultimately destructive. And just honestly scary. Bullying and vilifying people is never a good, or democratic, method. I love when people with no economic background whatsoever, trained in a field and by professors with no expertise in the subject, suddenly make themselves out to be economic experts and moral crusaders. Side note- did you seriously use an article Demos to back up your point? It's spelled "desserts," by the way.

It's also interesting to note that Scandanavian countries (not to mention other places with high taxes and social spending) tend to rely on technology that is innovated abroad, particularly in the US and Britain. Which means that Americans take greater risks in developing new businesses and ideas, and other countries are able to free ride on this innovation.- By the way- outsourcing production and services is a collective good. Not only does it provide higher wage jobs in the developing world, but it ultimately allows the US economy to run more efficiently, driving higher wage jobs here.
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Bayly – Political campaign funding and tax laws are definitely quite problematic, true. And I do like Inside Job. I'd just rather not be a "little too mean" to anyone in this ganging-up fashion.
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Andrew (me) - The following three things are bullshit:

1. Bailouts
2. The notion of “just desserts”
3.  The far left’s vilifying caricature of the rich


Both Charlie and OWS seem to understand the first two. I wish they’d treat the third with a little more nuance and a little less vitriol.

Charlie’s first comment, refuting the idea that the 1% take risks, is a prime example. He says this idea is “ludicrous” and later “painfully inaccurate.” Why is this? Well, mostly because they only profit through “extortion, fraud, rents, and arbitrage” and then get bailed out. As much as we can agree the bailouts were nonsense, they don’t always happen, and certainly don’t happen in sectors which the government deems inessential or small enough to fail. Does anybody have any actual information (I’m genuinely curious) about reverse income mobility rates? Anecdotally I know many famous celebrities got rich and then lost everything or almost everything by being reckless and unwise (Michael Jackson, Burt Reynolds, Wayne Newton, famous boxers like Joe Louis, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, etc.). A quick Google search on the subject revealed historic examples of some of the wealthiest businessmen of their day who did the same (William Randolph Hearst, John Z. DeLorean, more in this article). I also know lottery winners are notorious for being poor again in remarkably short periods of time. Wealth management is a skill with which very, very many people are not endowed. It’d be interesting to see how prevalent it is statistically, but either way, it’s silly to just prematurely dismiss the idea that investment carries risk out of some emotional animosity towards rich investors, and I think it’s exactly that knee-jerk reaction that Bayly’s article was trying to diffuse.
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Charlie (posted very soon after mine, so more in response to Chris’ comment than my own): lol I'm sorry if citing sources and utilizing research done by other people somehow seems pedantic to you, but as you say, I have not a professional who has been trained in a field by professors with expertise in the subject and so have done no original research to draw from. I am totally open to reading what you have to say about my economic data/analysis, but it seems like you'd rather personally attack me for not having an economics degree, which seems rather silly.

Anyway, I'm sorry, maybe I am phrasing this badly. We're overcomplicating this. I am *not* saying that entrepreneurs don't take risks. People who "start a business from scratch" certainly take huge risks! But, like, someone who has to sell their home and has kids to support in order to start, say, a store that has to compete against Walmart takes a much greater risk than a multibillionaire starting another consulting firm. I mean.. just... is this that hard to understand? The consequences are of failure for that person are just completely different! And often the 1% don't even *have* any consequences for failure! Do you really, truly, honestly not see why this makes the millions of people who got no government help when the actions of the 1% caused them to lose their jobs, or had the value of their home destroyed, or get illegally foreclosed on, mad? Do you really think that they are being unreasonable? Like... really?

Andrew - To answer your question Charlie, I can certainly understand why people were mad about the bailouts, particularly those who suffered most severely from the crisis. But justified anger on one policy decision does not a reasonable economic platform make, and yes, I think much of what you've written here is unreasonable. Like, really.

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Charlie - Andrew Doris hey, I am genuinely curious, what part of what I am saying do you think is vilification or caricature or unreasonable? I'm really not trying to have that effect.

Again, when I, and, I think most people refer to the 1%, we are generally referring to the financial industry, heads of multinational corporations, managers, etc. and not Lebron James. The 99% vs 1% opposition is meant to be representative of how the corporate interests of a few have hijacked the democratic process in our country. Maybe the term is reductive, but it has clearly been the most effective way anyone has come up with to get the message out so far, and I don't think negative effects of some people getting a little more resentful of Robert Downey Jr. having a lot of money come close to outweighing the positive effects of a rhetorical device that has finally brought economic inequality into the national conversation.

And I'm not sure what you mean by wealth management, but I am pretty confident that it's not a skill the people who ran the financial industry into the ground in 2008 possess.

Andrew (me) - Glad you’re interested, and look forward to a productive discussion. I’ll make a list:

1. Your comment on Mankiw, suggesting that because he was a chief economic advisor on during the Bush years nothing he says has any credibility. No matter which theory you ascribe to about what actually caused the housing bubble crash (and you make yours clear), most agree those trends started before Bush took over. More importantly, tracing causation for various economic outcomes is extremely difficult, controversial, and complicated, such that the mere fact Mankiw was in an advisory position at a certain point of time is not really evidence he contributed to X outcome at that time, much less that his credibility is shot on every economic opinion he professes. Mankiw is controversial, but highly respected, and your comment gave the impression you just think all conservative minded economists are “ridiculously wrong about everything.”

2. You ask Baily “Do you really think you are fighting for a more just society when you spend your energy defending the domination of a tiny group of people that essentially runs the world?” Leaving aside that Bayly never asserted he was fighting for anything whatsoever, I think you’re terribly naïve if you think streaming the wealthy’s money through the government – a government you admit the wealthy control – is going to lessen the domination of those who run the world. I suppose this is a larger dispute than one Facebook thread’s comments can contain, but the whole idea that government is both the problem and the solution is overly optimistic in my mind.

3. The unemployment benefits thing. First, the stats you gave on the macro impact of that are highly disputed (here’s a reasonably unbiased article overviewing the debate on unemployment benefits and their impact on unemployment rates.) But more importantly, you lament the “massive amount of suffering it’s going to cause.” Even if we assume that most of the unemployed in this country are massively suffering, philosophically, is the failure to give money to a poor person really the same as “causing” their suffering? There are far more suffering people in Africa than there are in the US. Most of us don’t give much money to them. Are we morally culpable for their pain? Or is there a difference between inflicting injury and declining to alleviate it?

4. This one is the real essence of my objection to your posts on a moral level, so forgive me if I get a bit rhetorical in my rebuttal. You asks Bayly to justify why rich people “should be allowed by society” to keep their fortunes. Allowed by society? When exactly did the PERMISSION to be rich become subject to society’s approval? Why is wealth allocation a majoritarian prerogative? When did NOT taking what other people have become viewed as some benevolent favor? You later advocate “structuring society to give [the rich] 20 million dollars a year instead of 50.” Is it just me, or does this sound like a euphemism for stealing 30 million dollars from somebody?

Income is not something which society bequeaths upon you. The net quantity of money, wealth, and valuable things in the world is not just some pool of resources which fickle majorities within arbitrarily drawn borders get to divvy amongst themselves. If I build a hammock in my backyard, the townspeople of the nearby village do not get to observe this fact and say “Look! Comrade Doris has contributed a hammock to our society! How shall we allocate the time spent lying in it?” What property rights and individual liberty mean is that I get to tell those people to get lost: it’s my hammock, I built it, and I will be lying in it for so long as I so please.

People have a right to own property which is exclusively theirs, which is the product of their time and energies and which nobody has a claim to except them. They also have the right to exchange this property with others, and to amass more of it through a series of exchanges. These rights are not only naturally inherent in all human beings, but absolutely essential to a free and happy society. John Locke understood this. The framers understood this. Too many on the left do not.
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Charlie (posted while I was writing the above) - and Chris, sorry, I don't want to derail the central discussion here but.. what technologies being "piggybacked" are you talking about? How does outsourcing low wage jobs bring higher wage jobs into the US exactly? From what I have read, making non college-educated American workers in sectors like manufacturing compete with foreign workers willing to their jobs for a fraction of the cost drives those Americans wages down and is destroying their industries, while at the same various laws and trade agreements shield higher paid, college-educated professionals like doctors and lawyers from *their* foreign, cheaper counterparts, which forces those same lower wage working Americans to pay way above actual market price for their services. (detailed in the Baker book). So is there some other, separate benefit that outweighs this I am missing? It is really frustrating for me when you make these big statements without sharing any data or explanation as I actually would like to better understand how the economy works.
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Andrew (me) - I can also help answer your question about outsourcing. There is widespread consensus in the economic community that free trade between nations is beneficial to all involved. Outsourcing labor to countries which can do it more efficiently not only makes people in those countries better off (which has helped rise over a billion people out of poverty since 1970 in China alone), it also lowers prices on a vast and interconnected array of goods, making them more accessible to consumers and increasing standards of living here at home too. Two economists from George Mason wrote a letter not so long ago to those complaining about job outsourcing, which I think is relevant here:

http://cafehayek.com/2013/06/fair-trade.html

You're correct, however, that a wide array of government regulations and trade agreements get in the way of this process in the attempt to shield domestic workers from foreign competition, both in this country and others, and that this has pernicious effects on the poor in particular.
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Charlie - Andrew, I appreciate you taking the time to respond and I'll read and think over all the stuff you've linked. Def want to take some time away from this before writing more after this one.

I just want to address one thing. I am guessing you ascribe to some form of libertarianism? It's probably clear don't, which I think is the root of a major disagreement we have, so let me try to at least explain the main issue that keeps me skeptical of libertarianism, and how it effects this case (people not into political philosophy RUN AWAY NOW!!!!!) (seriously run).

Libertarians, IME, tend to rely on making these hidden normative claims about distributive institutions. For example, you say "I think you’re terribly naïve if you think streaming the wealthy’s money through the government ... is going to lessen the domination of those who run the world." But what kind of state *doesn't* direct the streams of money between people? Even the most minimal libertarian society is ultimately using the the threat of state violence to enforce a certain method of distributing wealth and resources. The entire purpose of a state is to create and facilitate distributive institutions. And I don't just mean something like welfare--everything from a tax that pays law enforcement salaries, to something as simple as property law, is constructed by the state to facilitate certain distributive outcomes.

You say:

"Is it just me, or does ['structuring society to give [the rich] 20 million dollars a year instead of 50.'] sound like a euphemism for stealing 30 million dollars from somebody?"

Well, actually, I believe the opposite. The claim that restructuring distribution so that RDJ gets 20 mil instead of 50, and instead hundreds thousands of others get 30 mil spread among them sounds like, uhh, for "stealing." 

I do not see how using the state to enforce a distribution of resources in which 30 currently homeless people are now allowed to live in 4 of John Kerry's five multimillion dollar houses is any more or less of a "theft" than using the state to enforce a distribution of resources in which those 30 people are homeless and John Kerry owns 5 multimillion dollar homes. They are simply *different* distributions (jeez sorry I keep using this word).

I am sure you disagree with most of this, but I figured it'd help you understand what I mean. I am getting most of it from John Rawls, Amartya Sen, and stuff like that. Ultimately, those schools of thought believe that the market is a state constructed government institution like any other. We clearly agree that as it stands, the state that governs that that market has been hijacked by the interests of a few. But the ability of those few (let's call them 1% for simplicity's sake, please?) to run the market is enabled by a state whose policies are set up so that they receive a massive share of wealth, which in turn enables them to affect policy so that they receive even MORE wealth, and gain MORE power, in a vicious cycle that leaves the vast majority of Americans with too small a share of the wealth to exercise any kind of proportional democratic control.

I don't see any way out of this other than altering distributive institutions so that at least some degree of wealth (and therefore political power) is transferred out of the hands of the 1% and into the hands of everyone else in a more equal way. The only way to reduce the dominance of a 1% who controls 40% of the countries wealth is to make it so they don't have 40% of the wealth anymore.

Anyway, this is why I am skeptical of the idea that weakening or eradicating the institutions and powers of the state that are able to mitigate against this increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and power will do anything other than remove the 99%'s (or like bottom two or three quintiles if you prefer) ability to reduce the dominance of the 1%. (Unless you are an anarchist or something and want to get rid of ALL state institutions, but I do not think anyone here is advocating that)

I know "majoritarian wealth allocation" doesn't exactly sound sexy, but given that a state of any size is just a big wealth allocating machine, isn't that basically what the ideal of representative democracy is? (libertarian, social democratic, or otherwise?)

(note: I am not necessarily endorsing that ideal but there is no way we want to get into that right now :P)
(also, I am just talking about relations within a state, not between states, which is why I'm not addressing the "other poor countries stuff" here)

EDIT: uhh TL;DR: you're using the distributive outcome of our current state as a normative baseline to compare against other possible outcomes, but this doesn't work because the whole project of a state to is to select those what kind of normative distribution you are going to have in the first place (haha this is the worst tl;dr ever sorry I have been up watching House of Cards for like 7 hours this might not be that well written)

Andrew (me): You’re correct I’m libertarian.

You write:
“what kind of state *doesn't* direct the streams of money between people? Even the most minimal libertarian society is ultimately using the the threat of state violence to enforce a certain method of distributing wealth and resources. The entire purpose of a state is to create and facilitate distributive institutions. And I don't just mean something like welfare--everything from a tax that pays law enforcement salaries, to something as simple as property law, is constructed by the state to facilitate certain distributive outcomes.”

Here you conflate the purpose of a state with the happenstance effects of a state. Yes, all governments must use violence or the threat thereof. Yes, this may distribute resources in a way which is different from the way those resources were before the state took action. But that redistribution is not, and ought not be, the purpose of the state. Policemen are paid salaries with tax dollars collected from other people, and this redistributes money from other people to policemen. But that redistribution is not the purpose of policemen; the purpose of policemen is to protect people from murder and theft and rape and assault and similar crimes. Those things are immoral, and preventing them is morally imperative, which is why the government hires them. That hiring them “facilitates certain distributive outcomes” is merely coincidence.

I think the root of our dispute is that you think ownership is a social construct which can be freely, immediately and amorally altered at the whims of political institutions, whereas I think it’s a concrete natural right that predates government and which nobody, government affiliated or otherwise, has a right to violate once established. This is pretty standard for liberal v. libertarian philosophical debates. As such you are adopting a largely consequentialist moral framework, whereas I am adopting a largely deontological one. It shows most clearly in this quote:

“I do not see how using the state to enforce a distribution of resources in which [outcome A occurs] is any more or less of a "theft" than using the state to enforce a distribution of resources in which [outcome B occurs]. They are simply *different* distributions.”

The reason one is theft and one is not is that only one involves forcibly taking property from somebody who already had it, and the other does not. The reason you were unable to see this is that, as you said, you were comparing the morality of different distributions: different outcomes or consequences of the government’s action. This makes sense to a consequentialist. It does not to a deontologist. Deontologically, the moral outcome is determined by the actual action which was taken by the government, and here you use the same words – “enforce a distribution” – to refer to two very different enforcement acts. The first act involves protecting the property which somebody already owns and possesses and uses. This doesn’t require the use of force, unless somebody else tries to take it from the owner. The second involves kicking the owner off of his property and arbitrarily reassigning it to somebody new, which most certainly does require violence or the threat thereof.

Recall my hammock example: I built something, with my own two hands, and established ownership of it. I came up with the idea, gathered the materials, invested my time and energy and sweat into building the thing, and now I’m lying in it. The local villagers saw it, wanted it, and voted themselves the ability to use it instead of me. Whose hammock is it?

Progressives say the villagers own it, because majority wins and patriotism and poor people and kum-bay-yah. Libertarians say I own it, because rights, and if the villagers try to take if from me it is also my right to shoot them with an assault rifle until they get off my fucking lawn.

I understand that when we’re discussing ownership of, say, stocks, this principle seems less obvious, because the owned thing is abstracted and separated from the owner. But in our day to day lives, I think private ownership of things is pretty morally intuitive to us. When you go over to your friend’s house it is understood that the shit in his house is his shit. He’s been living there for a while, he uses that stuff every day, and he probably worked in order to buy it. If you broke one of his things, you’d feel bad about it – and not just because you broke the law. You’d feel bad even if it wasn’t illegal, because you’d realize you destroyed something of his.

Your TL;DR has two halves, and both are wrong. The first half describes what you think I’m doing: “you're using the distributive outcome of our current state as a normative baseline to compare against other possible outcomes…”. But I’m not comparing outcomes, I’m comparing actions. These actions take place in the present, and as such I am using present circumstances to evaluate their morality. You’re correct I’m using the distributive outcome as a baseline, but not as a normative baseline, just because that’s the way it is. Presently, John Kerry owns 5 mansions. This isn’t a barometer of his virtue of his inherent worth as a person, it’s just an amoral observation of the way things presently are, just as you can safely observe that your friend owns his house and the shit inside it.

The second half reads “…but this doesn't work because the whole project of a state to is to select those what kind of normative distribution you are going to have in the first place.” No. The distributions aren’t normative, they existed “in the first place” before the state came into the picture, and the “project of a state” ought to be to minimize the absolute moral wrong of initiating violent force on other people.

(updates will follow as comments are added)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

ASA Boycott of Israeli academics is unprincipled nonsense

(The following was an editorial I wrote for the JHU Newsletter. It was published in print on January 30th, 2014).

Late last year, the American Studies Association voted to boycott the scholarly works of Israeli academic institutions, by a margin of 66.05% in favor to 30.5% opposed. The ASA boycott was meant as a protest to the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, but has drawn fierce backlash from many in the higher education community. In the aftermath of the decision, Johns Hopkins University was one of the first institutions to publicly denounce the boycott, releasing a public statement with their reasoning to Hopkins students via email just before Christmas. Since then, over 200 additional universities have publicly rejected the boycott as well.

The Editorial Board also rebukes the ASA for its misguided and unethical boycott, and commends the university for taking a stand against it. The political situation in Israel and Palestine is a complicated matter upon which Editorial Board members, like the members of the Hopkins community, have diverse and varied opinions. But those opinions are irrelevant to the principle that academic censorship ought never be enacted as punishment for the political policies of one’s government. Whatever offenses Israel has committed against the Palestinians will be in no way ameliorated by restricting Israeli intellectuals from exchanging their ideas and publishing their research.

Also irrelevant is the Hopkins Students for Justice in Palestine’s argument, in favor of the boycott, that "Israeli educational institutions are not innocent of their government's policies." The Board solemnly recalls that the United States government has also pursued policies in recent years that continue to draw outrage in the international community. In fact, some of these policies – most famously, drone warfare – are directly supported by research done at this very university; many argue Hopkins has some of the blood on its hands. But to hold each and every single professor affiliated with Johns Hopkins accountable for this research, and to ignore the mammoth quantity of scholarly work produced at JHU and all its affiliates, due solely to disagreement – however ardent – with these policies would be a ridiculous affront to the integrity of any serious publication.

One of the primary guiding principles of objective, professional, self-respecting academic journals is to publish works based on the academic merit of their content, without permitting the political opinions of those researchers authoring a study to influence their admittance decisions. Adopting a formal policy to silence those academics of a particular race, religion or political opinion would be viewed as unthinkable in almost any other setting. How much worse, then, is it for the ASA to adopt a policy silencing academics not based on their own behavior, but that of the nation in which they happen to reside, or the university for which they happen to work? As this week’s FIRE report displayed, Hopkins has its own free speech problems, but the Board is very pleased it’s on the right side of this free speech issue.