Crazy Pills

Much Ado About Nothing? by A Milder Despot
July 30, 2009, 4:19 pm
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A great deal of social science is devoted to measuring inequality and its discontents. Much of this is dishonestly distilled into platitudes about “the rich getting richer” and the way in which inequality inherently speaks to a societal injustice. These by-products of legitimate social science need to stop if we’re to have a serious discussion about inequality.

It is well-established that there has been a widening gap in income inequality over the past few decades. But Will Wilkinson makes a new intriguing case that this is overly pessimistic and represents an outdated and oversimplified way of thinking about inequality.

His recent Cato Policy Paper makes the case that if we want to seriously redress inequality in society we have to think of it in its actual terms. A compelling case is made that income inequality is severely lacking in presenting a picture of inequality in society at large. Consumption needs to be given more weight. This may present a clearer and more optimistic picture of inequality in society.

Though I’m not sure that Wilkinson is able to fully refute the popularized theory that real inequality is widening, he helps illuminate some of the rethinking that is occurring in inequality studies.

The definition of inequality must first be clearly defined Starting from the assumption that the rich are getting richer in real terms, we have to think in terms of, relatively, what is happening to the greater populace of “the poor.”

How are the poor doing in terms of overall material well-being (welfare)? Are the same elements of our political economy that cause widening disparities in or welfare the same elements that more rapidly help the poor improve their welfare?

If the poor, in absolute terms of welfare, are gaining at an unprecedented rate, do we think that there must be something inherently unjust about the system if the rich are gaining even faster? This raises further questions about inequality. In a discussion where the majority of debate is focused on the disparity between the rich and poor, the rate of welfare increase that the poorest segments of society are experiencing is too often neglected.

This makes us think about the laboratory of the mind. The rate at which the poor are improving their welfare must be considered along with the disparity between the poorest and richest, the rate of improvement of the richest, and the improvement of the vast middle ground. A society can be imagined in which the poorest improve at an astonishing rate, with rapidly dropping rates of how we traditionally measure poverty (starvation, nutrition, disease rates, and others), yet the richest are gaining faster. This may not necessarily be unjust. And it may be preferable to a society in which the welfare gap is narrowing but the rate at which society both rich and poor is advancing is stunted. It may not be possible for all these theoretical societies to exist but one must take into account what is possible, what is preferable, and what society should work toward.

As Wilkinson notes, financial and technological innovation are making so-called “luxury items” a thing of the past. While certain goods will always have a luxury component to them (owning a yacht), “luxury goods” are now considered certain kinds of widely-available goods. Wilkinson argues that the functional difference between someone owning, say, a Jaguar XJ8 and a Hyundai Elantra is not as great as the difference between owning an Elantra and not owning a car at all. “Luxury goods” have become less functional additions to someone’s life as an unnecessary piece of style over substance.

This is not to pretend to be an apology for the wealthy or a cold unsympathetic analysis of what it means to be poor in America. Inequality exists to the point of being a problem. It’s simply more difficult to think about than the common “income inequality” indicator.

Additionally, thinking about inequality in more sophisticated ways will hopefully dissuade harmful policy. It’s a false choice that we can only “remedy” inequality by simply taking away the income of the wealthy or that we can’t remedy it at all. But the most commonly-bought policies amount to little more than this.

To think about inequality in this way is to think about how welfare is distributed throughout society. There may not be something inherently unjust about a system in which the median welfare is low compared with the average welfare, implying a class of super-rich skewing overall average indicators upward while allowing the majority to be bunched together in an underclass. It may not be preferable to have welfare distribution exist as an extreme bell curve wherein every member of society is very equal in welfare (think low Gini coefficients). What matters is where, on an absolute level, the median welfare line is.

Inequality is a problem in the United States not because there is a great disparity of incomes (or due to most of the pop culture theories about inequality). Wilkinson makes a convincing case that inequality in the United States is a far different problem than has been conceptualized. The easy criticism to make is that Wilkinson doesn’t offer constructive solutions.

Humanizing the Holocaust? by fluffly
February 20, 2009, 4:57 pm
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When I first saw the preview for The Reader awhile back, I was intrigued and a little confused.  I had never read or heard of the book, but it appeared from the preview that this was a movie telling the Holocaust from the perspective of an SS prison guard.  I was a little disturbed by that becuase there is no way to tell a story from one person’s perspective without creating some sort of empathy for them or making an attempt to explain away their motives.

When I was younger and first fell in love with The Godfather, my friends and I would debate over who the protagonist actually was, Michael or Vito.  We found ourselves rooting against the malicious Tattaglias and thought that Carlo got what was coming to him.  The Corleones, however, were more human.  They had motives and were forced into this situation by a corrupt police captain and the Walt-like realism of an untrusting system.  Looking at it from the Corleone lens means that Barzini and Solazzo are actually the bad guys, and you can forget for a moment that they’re all murderers and thugs.  It is a powerful movie that can make you feel what its characters feel, and that is what I feared coming from The Reader.  Would this movie, so powerfully acted by the great Kate Winslet, lead the viewer to empathize with the human side of a Nazi prison guard?

Ron Rosenbaum has an article in Slate asking Hollywood to not give an Oscar to The Reader for just this reason.  The preview alone devotes half of its clips to scenes of love, Winslet’s legs, sex, and her relationship with a boy.  That she is a Nazi appears just to be the thing that makes this particular love story difficult.  Worse yet, the tagline is “Behind the mystery lies a truth that will make you question everything you believe.”  What is it that we are supposed to be questioning?  Assuming the mystery is what could bring a person to act like this towards other human beings, will this movie expose to us a deeper truth that should allow us to see Winslet as a victim of circumstance?   In Rosenbaum’s opinion, that is exactly what this movie tries to do.

…that’s what The Reader is about: the supposedly difficult struggle with this slowly dawning postwar awareness. As Cynthia Ozick put it in her essay: “After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator [‘Michael Berg’] acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.”

So the story comes back to her motives, her human-ness.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (since apparently we’re supposed to stay anonymous on here) and I were discussing this at a bar.  It wasn’t just a coincidence that this many people with a desire to kill others got together in Europe at one time.  There was clearly something that led to the corruption of otherwise good people, like Winslet’s character.  But while it is important to understand what it is and was that can arouse in us this propensity towards evil, this movie doesn’t seem to have as its goal an exploration of that.  Instead, according to Rosenbaum, what this movie intends to do is not claim that the Germans of this time made some conscious decision towards evil, but that Kate Winslet’s illiterate character is “a stand-in for the German people and their supposed inability to “read” the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens.”  What do we gain from that?

The Holocaust was not perpetrated because others were blind to what was going on around them.  The Holocaust was perpetrated because millions bought into hate.  I know that this is a blog on politics, but more generally, we discuss human behavior as a whole.  As my friend from the bar and I agreed, it is fascinating to think about what it was that led so many people to commit such crimes.  Humans no different from any of us, but they succumbed to their inner demons.  A movie exploring that is certainly worthy of merit, but to compartmentalize those actions as an anomoly and instead try to focus on them as “regular” people is not just wrong but irresponsible.

Winslet’s character was responsible for locking 300 people in a burning church, but, according to the director,

the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.

By all means, let us explore the motives of those who supported or bought into the Nazi ideology, but avoid the trap of empathy.  A victim of spousal abuse may defend her husband as an otherwise good person except for when he loses his temper, but those acts of violence cannot be separated from the person’s character.  As I eventually saw that there was no glory or “good guys” in The Godfather, I hope that Holocaust movies can inspire drama or thought, without seeking to make you sympathize with the characters.

A better stick for our carrot by fluffly
February 18, 2009, 12:59 pm
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Secretary of State Clinton (it feels good typing that) said that we may have to revisit our approach to Burma.  Apparently,

“…the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” [Clinton] said, adding that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either.”

So, my question is, how useful of a ‘stick’ are sanctions?  Not to make the argument that sanctions in every instance act the same or are intended to have the same effect on the recieiving country, but the sanctions against Burma have not changed the policies of the junta, the sanctions against Cuba and Iraq only denied the people food or medicine while benefitting the black markets and government officials in on the smuggling, Hamas is still in power in Gaza, and while it is too early to really tell with Iran, they appear not to have retarded their quest for nuclear weapons.  Nor have they helped us conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given us clairvoyance enough to find the rebels’ hidden fortress.

I’m sure that there are examples of sanctions regimes that have been successful, but I just can’t think of them right now (Stanley, I’m looking at you to correct me).  But in light of Clinton’s statement, it is clear that in some instances, sanctions just don’t do much.  Their appeal is strong.  In the face of such terrible goverments, the idea of trading with them and thus helping to continue their existence is a nonstarter.  So what are our options?  Thoughts?

There have been some suggestions, specifically in Gaza, of maintaining the sanctions against the Hamas government, but working with NGOs or other groups and countries to bring aid in directly to the people, thus cutting the government out of the equation, avoiding corruption, and hopefully undercutting them.  In Burma, the ICG has  said that “bans on Burmese garments, agriculture and fishery products and restrictions on tourism should be lifted.”  This would have the benefit of allowing the people to get back to work and hopefully stem a humanitarian crisis.  But how do we balance a desire to punish malicious governments, while seeking to avoid punishing their people?