Thursday, August 16, 2007

On wealth

Julian Baggini asks an interesting question: Is it immoral to enjoy luxury when others are in poverty?
Many consequentialist arguments tell us we are morally wrong to spend money on luxuries, or even comparative luxuries, while people are dying because of a lack of basic needs. It may be unrealistic to expect people to actually give away all their “excess” wealth, but really, it is immoral not to.
The question is interesting because I think it it's the wrong question in a fundamentally interesting way.

The implied premise is that one enjoys luxury at the direct expense of others, that economics is a zero-sum game. But above a certain level, luxury and poverty are relative, not absolute; the question in this sense reduces to: Should some have more while others have less? The answer to this question is not quite so obvious.

There is, of course, a level below which poverty is absolute (not relative to the wealth of others): The level at which basic physical needs—food, shelter, cleanliness, medical care—are not met. Any humanist will quickly answer that this level of poverty for even a single person is ethically intolerable. But we must ask the empirical, causal question: Does the consumption of some luxury—even (the smug, self-righteous tone notwithstanding) a commenter's Ducati motorcycle—actually cause others to live in this sort of absolute poverty?

For about twenty years now, our primary economic problem has been overproduction: We have too much wealth. The price of this material wealth has fallen below its cost. At least in monetary terms. But what does this money represent? Money fundamentally represents the value of human labor and, for much of humanity, the value of their labor has, in terms of the ability to produce material wealth, become negligible or entirely nonexistent because of automation and productive efficiency.

If ten million people can produce enough food for a nation of three hundred million, but a hundred million cannot produce anything of value to that ten million, then ethically neutral economics would have those hundred million starve. To feed those "bottom" hundred million requires setting the price of food to zero for everyone, entailing that the ten million receive nothing of value from anyone; why should they labor mightily to feed a nation and receive nothing in return?

There is no economic solution to this problem. Even if—obvious ethical considerations aside—we were to literally harvest their organs and use them for medical experiments, there's simply no way to extract enough value from the bottom hundred million to save more than a few tens of millions.

The problem is not that those consuming luxuries are taking away wealth or resources from those in desperate need. The fundamental problem is that we are so efficient that our current economic system, geared as it is to allocating human time, has "efficiently" allocated a third of the human race to starvation, as not worth the effort and expense of feeding.

The solution must be political, but even there our options are constrained by reality. We cannot simply let them starve: A hundred million starving people will arm themselves with sharpened sticks and overwhelm the rest. Iraq, a nation of ten million strangers, is fighting the U.S. Army to a standstill; what chance does the Army have against ten times as many, and those their friends, neighbors and family? Even the most brutal, authoritarian Soviet-style repression can last only so long, two or three generations, before it collapses of its own inefficiency. On the other hand, no one wants to end up with The Marching Morons.

To solve this problem, we're going to have to make changes not only to our fundamental economic system, but our political and ethical systems as well.

17 comments:

  1. You say our primary poblem is overproduction; we have too much wealth. A recent UN report states that less than 1% of the world's population owns more than 40% of global wealth, and that 50% of the world's population owns less than 1% of total wealth. This is obscene. Whether or not overproduction is a problem - which I question in the light of these figures - maldistribution most certainly is. Money is a method of accounting and a mechanism of exchange. It should be humanity's servant - not our master.

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  2. One has to be careful, though - because wealth is not a zero-sum game, as he pointed out.

    While there are clear inequities out there, one way to amass 40% of the wealth is to create wealth - not just to take it from others. Sort of like if you pick up a worthless stick and carve it into an intricate piece of art worth $10,000 - you have created wealth, and that did not cost anyone else anything. To use an absurd example, if there was only $90,000 in the whole nation of a million people and this guy carves up this stick worth $10,000, now you have one person, 0.0001% of the population, owning 10% of the wealth - and yet he took nothing from anyone else.

    The ultimate solution would seem to be to try and help everyone create their own wealth - sort of the proverbial "teach how to fish" instead of just giving fish, which only can be taken from someone else who had to put in the effort to take the fish.

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  3. Is it immoral to enjoy luxury when others are in poverty?

    No. This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

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  4. a commenter's Ducati motorcycle

    Well, in this case, it's immoral because the commenter got ripped off. Ducatis are crap.

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  5. anticant: A skewed, even highly skewed, distribution is not evidence of shortage. It's not even evidence that the 1% of wealth owned by 50% of the population is insufficient to ward off physical suffering.

    What is obscene to me is not the
    skew of the distribution, but rather that a billion people are literally starving or living in physical misery when we have the physical means to alleviate their suffering, but choose not to do so because it would be "inefficient".

    DBB: I don't care how one creates his wealth nearly as much as I care that people are living in misery which could in practice be alleviated. Even if one were to gain one's wealth in the most moral and unimpeachable manner, it would still be a moral crime to allow others to actually suffer.

    James: Sounds more like poetic justice than actual immorality. '-)

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  6. The right question has been raised. The answers are very close to the truth. And as the writer admits, the solution has not been found. I have a solution. www.theperfectworld.org

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  7. BB, I agree it is unfortunate that people are starving when there is food available to feed them. But I think the problem in the end isn't about resources so much as f'd up governments.

    It is true we easily could afford to feed everyone in the world if all the wealthy nations chipped in to do so. The problem is, when the food actually gets sent to where the starving people are, local warlords confiscate it and just give it to their private armies and the people still starve. In fact, local warlords are probably the reason many are starving in the first place. We can't police the world. Those nations need to get their own internal acts together before we should send them anything. Food send goes to troops, money sent goes into the pocket of government officials. And there's really nothing we can do from the outside, though it would probably help if we stopped using oil, depriving most of those regimes of their income.

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  8. DBB: Sorry to be late in responding.

    But I think the problem in the end isn't about resources so much as f'd up governments.

    This consideration is a distraction. Yes, it's a severe technical issue, but it's not the fundamental problem, it's not the "problem in the end".

    (And, BTW, you can say "fuck" here.)

    First of all, I'm less concerned with the problems of other countries than I am with our own society. Not only are we unable to be the world's police, it's presumptuous and immoral to take the role. Because, of course, it is not really the role of "police" that would be required, but rather the role of rulers; not just enforcement of the law, but its creation and administration as well.

    As a member of one culture, one society, I'm willing to offer help, but I'm unwilling to impose my values on others at the point of a gun, however benign I or anyone else might think the effort might be.

    But, like I said, the problems of the rest of the world are a distraction. (It might, however, be the case that the same economic dogma of "efficiency" might be its own obstacle to the solution of other countries' problems.) The problem I cite in the post is a problem that is looming in our own society, masked in recent times only by the unsustainable growth in our economy. We already have tens of millions with no opportunity or capability of being of immediate economic value to the efficiently productive, and this number is growing.

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  9. BB - I try to avoid using the word "fuck" and other four letter words because they can sometimes be a distraction.

    I'm sorry, I somehow automatically think we're talking about giving food to other countries when I see talk of feeding the poor, perhaps because of all those TV commercials for it, and also perhaps because hunger isn't as big a problem for the poor in the US as it is in other nations. Also, there was much talk in the comments about world population and world wealth, so I was thinking globally.

    I agree that other nations are a distraction - I really don't think we should be in the business of meddling with other nation's affairs - it is both arrogant and stupid - change comes from within. I certainly don't want to see us police the world.

    Looking internally, I wonder what the solution could be - I don't much trust government solutions and I think welfare is a bad idea simply because it breeds dependency. People need to learn how to fish, not just how to wait in line to get a free fish.

    What, really, is the best way to help the poor do better without welfare?

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  10. DBB: I try to avoid using the word "fuck" and other four letter words because they can sometimes be a distraction.

    Use them or not, as you please; I do think, however, it's silly to use them and then bowlderize them.

    I don't much trust government solutions...

    Why not? Or, rather, why should you single out government for lack of trust. It's not like IBM or Pfizer have any great claim to our trust.

    I think welfare is a bad idea simply because it breeds dependency.

    What's wrong with dependency? Specialization breeds dependency: Unless you're completely self-sufficient, you're dependent on farmers, construction workers, doctors, computer programmers, lawyers, etc.

    People need to learn how to fish, not just how to wait in line to get a free fish.

    This is pure Libertarian bullshit propaganda. The problem is not that people don't know how to fish, it's that it's more efficient to let some big corporation own all the fish so they can efficiently harvest them.

    The problem is that self-sufficiency is not economically efficient; that's why all civilized societies specialize. We actually prevent people from being self-sufficient, and then whine that they're "dependent".

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  11. I consider f'd a happy compromise between using "fuck" and not using it at all. Or perhaps just a stupid compromise. But hey, we all have our quirks.

    I don't trust large corporations, either. Large corporations have all of the problems large governments have. That's why I'm all for very stringent accounting standards and transparency, at the very least. I'm also for scaling back some of the legal protections given to corporations - I think we need to have better ways of criminal accountability there.

    When I talk about dependency, I mean dependency on getting money for basically doing nothing but sitting on your ass. That's welfare. Hell, I'd love to sit at home and play video games all day and get paid to sit on my ass. Where do I sign up?

    If you really insist on giving money to everyone via taxing and redistributing it, at least make the recipients earn it - there are all sorts of things that need doing - why not make welfare require you to do a job - and train you to do it if you don't know how - then from there, you can take that experience and get a better job, or stay on "welfare" for probably less pay than you would in the private sector, but at least you would be paid a living wage and you would be a productive member of society.

    I'm a little unclear how "specializing" means there is a lot of poor people who need government handouts, since I thought specialization was at the core of capitalism and also, by extension, libertarianism.

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  12. When I talk about dependency, I mean dependency on getting money for basically doing nothing but sitting on your ass. That's welfare.

    That's a crock of, please pardon the expletive, shit.

    If you really insist on giving money to everyone via taxing and redistributing it, at least make the recipients earn it... why not make welfare require you to do a job - and train you to do it if you don't know how - then from there, you can take that experience and get a better job, or stay on "welfare" ...

    If you know of a welfare program that doesn't work like this that isn't SSI/SSDI, I'd love to know just where the hell it is. As far as I know -- and I interact with entitlement and welfare systems for a living -- you just described how welfare works. Or were you not paying attention during the Clinton Administration?

    Might be time for a post...

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  13. Perhaps we need a redefinition of terms, then, because for me, "Welfare" = you get paid for doing nothing.

    Working, even if for the government, even on a make-work job, isn't welfare - it is working for wages.

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  14. I almost always use descriptive terms in the physical sense: We are dependent on another when we physically depend on them to do something.

    Before the Industrial Revolution, self-sufficiency was a meaningful, available option. It is no longer an option. No longer can we live simply by extracting our living from reality; we must now extract our living from each other. That has changed economics from a scientific endeavor to an ethical endeavor: It's now about who we choose to allow to live.

    The original post is not about the details of welfare. It's about our fundamental economic assumptions.

    For tens of thousands of years, there was not a sufficient surplus from the labor of the few to feed the many; "welfare" or anything like it was physically impossible. Therefore our ethical systems justly discouraged it. Either you could run a farm and feed yourself, or you starved. The resources were not available for any meaningful choice.

    However, today, the equation has reversed itself. Even if you can and want to you can't be a subsistence farmer: Subsistence farming is such a terribly inefficient use of land that we cannot permit it.

    You're a nice guy, DBB, liberal-minded and very much not an asshole, but it's precisely outdated attitudes such as yours that I'm looking to change.

    The notion that we should force people to engage in some useless activity (make-work) to "earn" their keep is inane. To insist on wasting their time (and ours, "supervising" them) is just to enforce an outdated deontic ethic when the underlying consequential justification has disappeared. This is the same sort of reasoning that leads to much of the stupidity of religion.

    Of course you would accept welfare if you could, and why shouldn't you? Why shouldn't you be economically free? It's not a necessarily absurd concept, nor is it today physically untenable. You might as well have asked 200 years ago, "Well, sure, I'd like to govern myself without a king." And here you are.

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  15. I just read a very interesting book on this very theme: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress, which explores the tension between Libertarianism and Communitarianism.

    Another interesting science fiction book is Mike Resnick's Paradise, a thinly veiled allegory of European colonialism in Africa (especially Kenya). Resnick also wrote Kirinyaga, the story of a 22nd century Kikiyu utopia.

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  16. BB - I see what you are saying and I understand what you are getting at. But I think it is a bit of an overstatement to say that one can't eke out a living on one's own now or that one could have done so in the past.

    We are social animals. We are dependent on others of our species for survival - we always have been. That's why we are social - so we can work together as opposed to just killing each other (or ignoring each other).

    In a way, I think we can be more indepedent today than we ever could before. Thinking in material terms - think of money. Money is just an abstraction that represents the amount of productive work (as valued by others) that you do. If you do work that, as valued by money, is enough to support yourself, then you really are self-sufficient in the real sense of the term. You have provided sufficient value to others to obtain the food, shelter, and clothing you need based on a free exchange.

    Now, you point out that there is enough of this "work" as abstracted by money to buy enough food, shelter, and clothing for everyone, even those who don't provide any productive value (money) to the system. And I agree, that is true. But would that remain true if we just then gave money to everyone, including those who just sit around?

    I don't think that would be the case, because then you create an incentive to do nothing - as I said, I'd happily sit on my ass instead of being productive if you paid me enough to do so. I'm sure most rational people feel the same way. Why work when you can enjoy liesure time? I know I'd love to spend more time with my daughter and my wife. But then if everyone opts for that, the excess production vanishes becase no one is producing anything anymore, certainly not enough to support the majority of the population that produces nothing.

    I think make work work is stupid, too, but how else would you prevent everyone from just opting out of the workforce if they did not have to work for money? And I would hope that, given the large amount of things that probably need to be done that aren't, that this "make work" really would be "real work" - heck, they could probably employ all the unemployed now just repairing our neglected national infrastructure.

    I try to think in terms of systems that are self-sustaining. The only way you have a surplus of things for the non-productive is if there are people who are super-productive, in the sense that they produce more than they need for just themselves (as abstracted by money). So what system encourages the productive to stay productive even as it totally covers the non-productive? That is what I have trouble with. Would you really pay people who did nothing simply because they did not feel like working?

    Your co-poster had a new post above on this topic - what I wonder is, if you do pay anyone who isn't working, how is it you can make sure that you only pay those who genuinely can't work or who are genuinely are looking for a job? That requires a degree of bureaucracy and government intrusion - and will likely get it wrong, given how such systems work, simply because wily individuals will always be able to outmaneuver bureaucracies.

    In the other thread, I suggested the solution was a minimum, living wage. But really, I don't know what would work for sure. I'm really just thinking out loud here.

    Oh, and thanks - I try my best not to be an asshole. ;)

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  17. DBB: I think it is a bit of an overstatement to say that one can't eke out a living on one's own now or that one could have done so in the past.

    Some cannot: That's manifestly the case. Why should that be an overstatement? There are only so many make-work McJobs we can create; it's far more efficient to simply automate any job that requires only unskilled human labor.

    More importantly, with automation and other physical economic efficiency, and especially given that we are creating wealth much too fast for our existing distribution systems to adapt, who cares anymore whether or not even some large fraction of the population is not immediately productive in social terms?

    Money is just an abstraction that represents the amount of productive work (as valued by others)

    This is the crux of the biscuit. Money used to represent physical quantities: food, houses, land, things, stuff. Now it represents "value to others". It now directly represents submission to others' values. I submit this view is not only immoral, but un-Libertarian.

    Which is of more actual value? A thousand would-be artists struggling to produce one genius? Or someone literally paid to lick Bill Gates anus? In your view, 999 of the former are parasites, whereas the anus-licker is "productive".

    Now, you point out that there is enough of this "work" as abstracted by money to buy enough food, shelter, and clothing for everyone, even those who don't provide any productive value (money) to the system. And I agree, that is true. But would that remain true if we just then gave money to everyone, including those who just sit around?

    Why wouldn't it be true? You're a lawyer, not a ditchdigger. Are you a lawyer only to provide yourself with minimal life support? I think not.

    The whole point is that we can feed, house, clothe and even give everyone a television, a computer and an internet connection just on the crumbs of people who are creating wealth because they enjoy being productive and want to work not for necessities but for luxuries.

    Not only our political systems but our scientific and technological systems exist to free us from all forms of tyranny, not only religious, social and political tyranny but also the tyranny of physical necessity.

    Now it's perhaps an open question whether we have today the ability to free ourselves from the tyranny of physical necessity, but it seems trivially obvious that we'll have the capability tomorrow.

    But you are essentially arguing that submission to the tyranny of physical necessity is a deontic moral obligation. Absent the physical requirements, this is nothing more than a back-door (no pun intended) argument for slavery.

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