Friday, November 30, 2007

"Too much" inequality? Yes!

How much inequality is too much? The range of income and wealth inequalities in the US has increased sharply in the past 20 years. The share of income flowing to the top 10% and 1% has increased significantly. And the level of income for the bottom 40% has slightly declined during these years. But to say whether that's a bad thing, we need first to think clearly about what inequality means for our society -- for the quality of life for people at the bottom end, for the strands of community that knit a society together, and for the idea that every member of society is equally worthy of respect and consideration. And we need to think about the mechanisms through which these inequalities are created in our economy -- and through which these inequalities have increased so sharply.

First, the effects. It appears also to be a fact that the symptoms of poverty are more extensive today than they were twenty years ago. The demands on food banks have increased; homelessness appears to be more extensive in many major cities; and of course the problem of lack of access to health insurance and affordable health care appears to be even more pressing. So it would appear that the increase in income inequality in the past 20 years has had a depressing effect on the lives of the least-well-off in our society. At least the economic processes that have improved the incomes to the rich and the super-rich have not also improved the incomes of the middle-income groups and the poor. So the philosophers' argument -- inequalities are not inherently bad if the bottom end is pretty well off -- doesn't apply to today's circumstances.

Second, there is some evidence that the social distance between the very-well-off and the not-well-off has increased, with fewer points of contact between social groups. This is sometimes described as the "disappearance of the middle class." The substantial transformation of the American economy that has occurred in manufacturing and the auto industry is emblematic: the jobs that created the possibility of a blue-collar, middle class life in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois are disappearing, and the next generation of manufacturing jobs are creating incomes that are perhaps only 60% of the levels of the previous generation. So rising inequality is manifest, in part, in the loss of well-paying jobs in the middle -- producing a greater degree of social separation.

This brings us to respect and equality. It isn't too much of a stretch to infer that in a society increasingly separating into "affluent" and "poor", the idea of basic democratic equality -- that everyone is in the same boat; that everyone has an equally worthy life; that we all depend on each other; and that everyone is equally worthy of respect -- has less and less social reality. These widely separated groups have less and less lived experience that reinforces these ideas of connection and equality among all citizens.

So there are ample reasons for judging that the rising material inequality in America is a very bad thing. It is bad because of the consequences it has for people on the lower end of the spectrum; it is bad for the corrosive effects it has on basic democratic values of fundamental human equality; and ultimately it has to be bad for the civic values that undergird a peaceful and harmonious society. How much inequality can a community absorb before it begins to pull apart into mutually antagonistic groups? How many more gated communities will this society need if we continue to fail to achieve the kind of material fairness that allows every citizen to look the other in the eye and say, I respect you and I know that all our benefits depend upon our mutual contributions to society?

If our economy continues to separate our society into rich and poor -- if our largest cities continue to intensify the inequalities of access, opportunity, and quality of life between the urban poor and the suburban affluent -- then surely we have some seismic social conflicts brewing.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

What is the value of democracy?

What is involved in the value of democracy? Why is this an important social value? And why should we think that democracy is a good thing for poor people?

Consider first the fundamentals. Why is there a role for democracy in any circumstances? Democracy is a type of political institution -- a form of group decision-making. Political institutions are needed in circumstances in which decisions are needed that affect all members of a group. Each member of a group has his or her own set of preferences about choices that affect the group; so there needs to be a process for arriving at a set of social preferences -- a social choice function. Democracy requires designing a set of arrangements through which each person's preferences will have equal weight in determining the ultimate decision. Otherwise we would have a system in which one person decides (dictatorship) or a minority decides (oligarchy). So democracy represents a set of decision-making institutions that embody respect for the equal worth of all citizens. And the fact that otherwise powerless people can express their preferences through democratic means is a substantial form of potential influence for non-privileged groups.

In addition to the aggregation of individual preferences, democratic values consider as well the circumstances under which the members of a group form their beliefs and preferences. Narrow democratic theory takes individual preferences as exogenous. But broader versions of democratic theory attempt to bring democratic values into the social processes through which beliefs and preferences are formed. The theory of deliberative democracy emphasizes in particular the features of civility, mutual respect, and open-mindedness through which debate and critical examination of issues leads to a fuller understanding of issues and a more reflective set of preferences. This aspect of democracy is valuable because it corresponds to a society in which open and uncensored debate leads to the formation of individual and collective preferences and embodies the ideas of democratic equality among citizens. And less-privileged groups can exercise their voices in these forums to attempt to influence other citizens to support more just policies and choices.

(See Ian Shapiro, The State of Democratic Theory and Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?.)

There is a final reason for cheering democracy: it is possible that democracy is more likely to protect the rights of the relatively powerless in society; democratic institutions can function as a bulwark against the arbitrary power of elites of all kinds. If the powerless have political voice, they then have an ability to advocate for, and democratically support, the policies that favor their perspectives and interests. (This political power is offset, of course, by the political power and influence wielded by elite minorities in most societies.)

(See Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America.)

The most fundamental reasons, then, to value democracy are its correspondence to the value of the moral equality of all persons and the capacity it creates for non-elite groups' struggles for justice. Democratic institutions honor the equality of all persons in the fact that each person has an equal voice in deliberating upon and deciding collective policies. A democracy is morally preferable because it best embodies the more basic moral value of fundamental human equality and dignity and it provides a feasible mechanism for pursuing social justice.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why affirmative action?

Since the Supreme Court's Bakke decision in 1978, universities that practice affirmative action in admissions have premised their case on the educational benefits that accrue to all students from a diverse student body. This is the heart of the successful University of Michigan defense of affirmative action in the Supreme Court in 2003. What has been largely lost in this debate is any explicit effort to assert that there are fundamental reasons of social justice that should require American social institutions to practice some form of affirmative action. And yet those reasons are if anything more immediate, more fact-driven, and more compelling than the "indirect educational benefits" justification.

Three arguments based on social justice are particularly important. First is the history of slavery and racial discrimination in this country, a history that has persistent consequences up to the present day. Consider the premise that current educational and economic disadvantages for African Americans as a population derive chiefly from these historical facts about slavery and past discrimination -- facts that are manifestly unjust. Is it not then apparent that justice requires concrete social actions and policies today that have the effect of reducing and eliminating current-day disadvantages that derive fairly obviously from past injustice? And given that those historical disadvantages create exactly the current educational deficits that make further educational progress more difficult, is it not clear that there need to be processes in universities to assist in increasing the percentage of African American students who have benefited from high-quality university education? This line of thought creates a positive obligation for current institutions to "affirmatively" work to overcome current inequalities created by past injustice. The tool of affirmative action is one such tool, and justice requires that it be used.

Second, the broad conception of equality of opportunity discussed in a prior posting has special relevance to the case for affirmative action. If various sub-populations in a society have less than full access to current opportunities because of substantial structural inequalities of access to critical resources in the past, then it is very convincing that society needs to find tools for leveling out these opportunities. Access to excellent higher education is fundamental to achieving decent life prospects. Again, affirmative action is such a tool and should be available.

Finally, these two arguments converge when we consider that the current educational disadvantages suffered by young African American students themselves derive from current social arrangements that are deeply discriminatory. The fact that current racial structures impose very different life prospects on different groups gives rise to a pressing non-historical reason for "affirmatively" addressing these inequalities. Unjust racial inequality of outcome is not simply a fact about the past; it is a fact about the present. The racism associated with the fact that inner-city (largely minority) schools are underfunded and substantially inferior to suburban (majority white) schools in providing educational opportunities to the children they serve, indicates a powerful basis for concluding that affirmative action programs need to be available as a tool. Affirmative action can help redress current injustice along racial lines.

So there are powerful reasons based in facts about historical injustice, equality of opportunity, and the injustice of the current distribution of educational resources, that all lead to the conclusion that affirmative action policies should be lawful and available to large social institutions, especially in education and employment. The fact that the terms of debate have been limited in such a way as to simply exclude these considerations of past and present racial injustice is itself an obstacle to our society's successfully addressing these injustices.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Real equality of opportunity

Let's say that our basic moral commitment is the idea that every human being ought to have real equality of opportunity as he/she pursues a life plan. What does this mean, in detail, and what implications does it have for social justice?

Equality of opportunity can be construed in broader or more narrow ways. Narrowly, we might say that persons have equality of opportunity if they are considered for positions, benefits, and burdens without respect to "personal" characteristics -- their family origin, race, age, ethnicity, health status, etc. Only the objective and person-independent features that are relevant to performance ought to be considered in selecting people for opportunities. (This is how equality of opportunity is construed in employment.) Does this narrow construction really capture the moral value of equality of opportunity, however? Evidently it does not, because it ignores the history of how various individuals came to have the objective characteristics and talents they possess today. If two candidates for firefighter are compared on the basis of their current physical fitness, but one had a childhood of normal nutrition and the second was chronically malnourished, then we would be reluctant to say that they are currently enjoying equality of opportunity. The choice between them today depends on objective differences of fitness for the job; but the differences that currently exist were not themselves created through a fair process.

So we should broaden the definition of equality of opportunity and require that each individual should have had access to the resources normally necessary for the full development of his/her capacities as a human being. These would include decent nutrition, access to health care, and access to education of comparable quality. And we might even add in an empirical assumption, that there is a range of levels of provisioning of these social goods within which any individual has the possibility of achieving high levels of performance. That is, it might be maintained that there is a (reasonably high) level of provisioning of health care, nutrition, and education that is "good enough" to permit the individual to have a fair chance to compete for opportunities in a " narrow equality of opportunity" environment.

If we take this somewhat broader view of equality of opportunity, then we are immediately forced to consider the workings of basic social institutions and the distributive consequences they have for rich and poor. Do the resources available to the poor exceed the minimum level of provisioning specified above? Or are significant numbers of the poor sufficiently disadvantaged in their current performance by the history of unequal access to resources, that today's competition fails the broader "equality of opportunity" criterion?

In many of the instances we can observe today the answer to the final question is "yes". Children who have attended under-resourced elementary schools and high schools have substantial deficits in terms of high-end cognitive achievement -- so a "neutral" competition between them and better-educated children fails the test. Children whose nutritional status and health status is sufficiently compromised that their cognitive development has been impaired, are equally unfairly treated when subjected to "narrow equality of opportunity" processes. And this has immediate implications for the social inequalities that exist in American society between rich and poor, urban and suburban, white and black, and rural and urban.

When we shift the focus to international inequalities across levels of human development, we come to a similar conclusion: because of gross inequalities in the availability of resources during the process of human development for children and young people, we cannot conclude that contemporary distributions of positions, opportunities, and burdens are the fair result of institutions embodying equality of opportunity. Nutrition, health, and education are factors that are very unequally distributed in the country and the world today; and the bottom end of the distribution falls well below any reasonable standard of "good enough" for full human functioning.

The implication, then, is a strong one: if we think that fair equality of opportunity is a compelling moral principle, then we also must conclude that a very significant reform of some basic social institutions must occur if we are to be able to assert that contemporary society is just.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A progressive majority?

Progressive politics center on a few core commitments -- the value of some kinds of equality (equality of opportunity, equality of access to some central social goods like education and healthcare), a concern for the pattern of rising inequality in income and wealth in the United States since 1980, a commitment to the idea of a social welfare net for all citizens, a concern for international justice, a concern for the global environment, and a concern that our nation should not use military force aggressively or wantonly. These values highlight inequality and injustice as particularly important wrongs, and they support political agendas that would strive to create greater equality and justice in our country and the world.

The question here is, why has it been supremely difficult to create a progressive majority in the United States?

Consider first a material calculation of interests. Let's assume that people choose what party or candidate to support based on the effects that party would have on their own interests, if successful in gaining office. There are tens of millions of Americans who lack access to health insurance. Even larger numbers fall below the level of a family income of $50,000. And increasing millions of young Americans are finding that the rising privatization of the costs of public education are making university attendance impossible. The progressive values mentioned above suggest policy goals that would address all these interests. So why does this constituency not create an electoral majority, based simply on a calculation of material interest? Why has a party not emerged that successfully crafts an agenda capable of mobilizing this majority?

Consider next the workings of a factor that has played such a decisive role in American politics, fundamentalist moral and social values. These are the "social issues" that get the blogosphere going and that motivate some voters so strongly. These values are working against the material interests of the majority just enumerated (because they lead to the success of parties and politicians dedicated to an anti-progressive agenda). So why do these values find a foothold among non-privileged voters in sufficient numbers to swing elections?

One part of the answer to these questions derives from a more realistic understanding of the mechanisms of political choice formation in this country. Parties and candidates are able to influence voters on the basis of their ability to raise campaign moneys and to use these funds to put together marketing campaigns that shape the minds of potential voters. This appears not to be a rational process, but rather one that turns on emotion, misrepresentation, and framing. It is an exercise in applied social psychology rather than rational debate. So if campaign strategists can turn funding into persuasion, then the "material interest" theory above is to some extent neutralized. And therefore we shouldn't expect a majority defined simply in terms of its shared material interests, to turn into an effective electoral majority.

Combined with this point about political funding and marketing is the creation of a substantially greater sophistication when it comes to disaggregating and combining the micro-demography of a particular election. Targeted campaign marketing has turned into a big business and an effective political strategy. The tactics of mobilizing the faithful while depressing the opponents have reached the level of a fairly successful form of social engineering.

What these points amount to is a fairly gloomy assessment of today's democracy. Parties succeed in distracting voters from their real interests and commitments by shaping meaningless ideological debates, framing issues in false or misleading terms, obscuring the real underlying issues, and manipulating election outcomes with micro-electoral information. And so the real interests of a majority of voters may continue to be ignored.