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Inequality and The Common Good

Joe Pettit asked an important question on a thread below: Do social and economic inequality matter? If so, which candidate offers the best chance of addressing the problem appropriately?Here is his question:"Entrenched and deep inequality, not just economic, but racial as well. We are increasingly become a nation where the gap is widening greatly between the very wealthy and everyone else. Location of birth is more and more influencing ones outcome in life, no matter how much effort one applies. My problem is not inequality as such, but rather what happens to a society marked by deep and persistent inequality.Part of the difficulty on this one is that I am not sure we know how to think about it. The standard leftist response is still deeply influenced by Marx, who I have now decided is a nightmare for economic issues. The tell tale marxist sign is a labor theory of economic value, not a market theory of value, and I really think the labor theory is hopeless (who decides how much labor is worth?).A second part of the difficulty is that we do not realize just how much the demographics are trending toward the situation getting even worse in the U.S. (I actually think it will get better globally). The boomers are starting to retire and they do not have nearly enough money invested on which to retire.Finally, our debt economy is just going to take a long time to work its way out and the consequences for purchasing power are dismal for years to come."

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Frankly, I do not see the doom and gloom as much as Joe does. For one thing, Boomers as a whole have added unprecedented wealth to this country by their earning power. That has been documented in economic studies. Just recently I read something to the effect that 70% of the wealth of the country is in the hands of boomers. That may have contributed to a debtor economy by their own affluence run amuck, and the younger generation spending what they don't have. Affirmative action has worked exceedingly well. Fifty percent of the news people are Black, when Blacks account for only 13% of the population. We as a nation are trying very hard to get it right. We have social programs that are functioning well. My mother would not be able to go to the doctor as many times as she does without medicare. Instead of criticizing ourselves to the nth degree, we just need to put ourselves in the fray and work as hard as we can improving our society in our own lille way. What we have is still trying to be emulated by China and the rest of the world!

Cathy (and Joe, by one degree of separation): Forgive me for not addressing your very good questions directly--hopefully others will--but let me give a thought about the problem of substantial questions like yours versus the appeal of columns and discussions such as Eric posted below, and in which Maureen Dowd excels. I think that in the country generally, and among posters and most commenters on this blog specifically, there is really no debate about the issues and injustices you refer to, and who would be the better candidate for the country. While many may harbor doubts (or worse) about Obama, the vast majority feel the country is "headed in the wrong direction," and that contributes to what I believe is the inarguable point that McCain and four more years of Bush-style governance, or even Bush Lite with some sort of enlightened GOP, would not be acceptable. The moral bankruptcy of the Bush years, in terms of the Iraq War and the rest of "the dark side" (Jane Mayer's phrase--see Alan Brinkley's review in yesterday's NYTBR: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/books/review/Brinkley-t.html?ref=books) is also indisputable, though some die-hards will continue to dispute that point. What this reckoning I think leads to, even more than in previous election cycles, is a tendency to focus on personalities and piffle, or uglier intimations of "messianism" or "black power" takeovers about Obama. (See Bob Herbert's column, "Running while Black" http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/02/opinion/02herbert.html). I'm all for exploring the personalities and psychology of candidates or church leaders for that matter; it often tells us much about what they really mean, or will really do once the shouting is over and governing begins. But Dowd's ultra-lite psychologizing and the insidious attacks of the McCain camp I think are the almost inevitable result of having too much time on our hands until the election. The debate is over; the GOP has lost. That doesn't mean Obama will win by any stretch. But if he loses it will likely be due to things other than policy issues. The debate over those policy issues is at this point an internal Democratic debate: How will a Democratic president and party achieve certain goals? The real GOP debate is also internal, and it is about what the party and conservatism will be about in the future. (viz. Goerge Packer's New Yorker piece: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/05/26/080526fa_fact_packer). Perhaps the two goals will learn from each other by sparring with each other in the coming weeks; that would be to the good. But it may be more palatable to pass the time by making Jane Austen allusions. Better to read Austen, I think. Pardon this digression. Back to the topic at hand.

Guess I'm a die-hard, David, but this talk about "the Dark Side" is really rather childish. Guess what--America gave smallpox-infected blankets to Indians in the 19th century and wiped out entire Indian families, warriors, women, and children ... American soldiers used waterboarding against "insurgents" in the Philippines who didn't like the fact that we occupied those islands after the Spanish-American War ... In WW2, GIs sometimes got so fed up with the intransigence of captured SS officers that we simply shot them, pint blanl, without trial ... during Vietnam, a very effective way to get a Viet Cong guerrilla to talk was to take 2 guerrillas up in aHuey helicopter and then toss one of them out the open door ... so grow up! Gitmo and Abu Graibh are hardly unique or even all that awful in the context of American or world history ... it's happened before, it'll happen again--yet the Republic has somehow survived and the Constitution remains in effect ... you can still vote (and the party out of power can win, as evidence by 2006), you can still criticize the government with impunity (as the book you cite proves), you can freely assemble, petititon for the redress fo wrongs, etc., etc., etc.And as far as the current thread goes, things were a lot more unequal in the past as well, yet we survived. We'll survive this, as well.

Re: SS: shot them, point blank

Robert,Our survival is not really the question. The moral obscenity of the episodes you mention does nothing to justify the abuses of power in the last seven years, and it is curious that you consider acceptance of those episodes as evidence of maturity ("so grow up!"): grownups know that war and settlement are a dirty business, and only children complain about torture or genocide. Or have I misunderstood you?

Perhaps we could examine things that HAVE worked and whether they provide models we can build on.Denise cites affirmative action.David says that demanding more focus on substance than fluff (and, I would add the opinion poll horse race) might lead to better proposed solutions.I'd say that inequal access to prescription meds is a problem that sends ripples into everybody's purse. Pharmaceutical companies have programs to provide meds to some low income people (my mother-in-law got Tamoxifen from a pharma for a year, but when she re-applied the next year, they'd lowered the income cut-off), and Medicare has taken stabs at providing more med coverage. But these are currently inadequate. Taking meds regularly keeps people out of ERs, hospitals and ICUs, and contributes to lower default on expensive care that drives up costs for others.

I have to run to work, otherwise I would provide lot's of numbers to back up the claims regarding inequality and a gloomy future outlook. Here is one quote that really worries me from Robert Kuttner's The Squandering of America:

The average American has just $27,000 in IRA, Keogh, and 401(k) savings, according to the Federal Reserves Survey of Consumer Finances, as tabulated by [Alicia] Munnell. She calculates the for heads of households in their primer earning years -- between forty-five and fifity-four-- the median balance of IRA accounts and 401(k)s combined is just $37,000. By contrast, the capital accumulated in a traditional pension fund actuarially adequate to cover anticipated retirement payouts of a median-income worker is sereral hundred thousand dollars. Even Americans nearing retirement, aged sixty to sixty-four, Munnell and Sunden report, have median IRA and 401(k) savings of only $59,000, enough for perhaps two to three years of decent retirement supplimented by Social Security...A 2006 study by Munnell and Sunden on retirement insecurity calculates the combined effect of all these factors income adequacy for the elderly. They find that 35 percent of 'early boomers," those born between 1946 and 1954, will be at serious risk of not having enough income when the begin retiring late this decade. For "late boomers," born between 1955 and 1964, the proportion at risk rises to 44 percent. And for "Generation X," born between 1965 and 1972, the number is 49 percent."

Denise: I think the numbers are pretty clear that massive racial inequality continues in our country. For now, I recommend the executive summaries of the State of Black America for both 2007 and 2008, published by the Urban League (Obama did the forward to the 2007 report). The executive summaries can be found here:http://www.nul.org/thestateofblackamerica.htmlRobert: We got out of our previous experience of massive inequality with massive Federal Investment and financing changes. Things like the GI Bill and insured 30 FHA loans ended up pumping more wealth into this country than we spent on the Marshall Plan. I just do not see such a bailout on the horizon. In addition, we had a lot more "breathing space" in the form of cheap suburban land, land that was more or less denied to African Americans, but which became the single greatest source of white wealth over the last four decades.Bill: If you are correct in your analysis, then that is all the more reason why Obama supporters would try to keep everyone's eyes on the issues ball and away from the weird personal analysis ball. That is probably why the Austen piece got me frustrated.

Matthew,No, I am not condoning those very actions. But I am asking the we put the current administration in some historical context. Bush is hardly "evil" or the "antichrist" or "another Hitler" ... like Winston Churchill--who fired on the French Fleet, his recent allies, rather than let it fall into German hands--or Abraham Lincoln--who suspended habeas corpus and jailed the Maryland legislature rather than let them secede--Bush has done what he felt was necessary to defend the US from our current enemies. I am no fan of how he handled the war (like McCain, I feel we should have used far more troops, far sooner) but I do find it childish to pretend that this is the worst thing we have ever done ... liewise, it is grownup to accept that what has happened recently is not quite as horrific as Moveon.org and its ilk would have us believe. Killing indians with contaminated blankets was a "moral obscenity" ... waterboarding Sheik Khalid Muhammed, the 'mastermind' of 9-11, was not, and unless someone is willing to recongize the difference, that person is being childish and naive and has little understanding of the real world.

That's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, of course (though the thought of turning him inside out--rather than just his name--is also appealing)

Joe: re: retirement savings and income - truly a scary scenario. So ... what's the solution?When the GOP was confident and energetic following Dubya's re-election, they pushed the policy of investing 1/3 of social security "savings" in the financial markets. Given the state of the markets, that idea has lost its sparkle. What's a better idea?

"Do social and economic inequality matter?"Joe P.,Great question. Let's look at the language first to see if there are semantic problems. What does "inequality" mean here? I dare say its not simply the mathmatical meaning. To be equal two things must be of the same kind -- no adding apples and oranges, and no equating apples and oranges either. So we really are using the word "equality" as a metaphor, are we not? True, insofar as we're human beings, we are equal in our basic humanity. However, If we were all equal in every way, i.e., exactly alike, we'd have to be living in something like George Orwell's 1984 world which at its best that would be horribly boring. We *require* "inequality", differences. So is "inequality" the real problem? Obviously, not literally. Where, then, does the problem lie? I think our de facto problem lies in the lack of *opportunity* for all individuals to flourish. But what does "flourish" mean here? The natural law tradition (the wisest one, I think) says it means actualizing at least some of our individual potentials (which differ widely) so that in realizing some of our potentials we become happy and contribute to the common good. I say realize only *some* of each person's potentials because the saying "Be everything you can be" is ridiculous. The paradox of human nature is that we *can't* be everything we *can* be. We must choose which of our potentials we'll actualize. You cannot be an NFL quarterback and a great jazz pianist even if you have the potentials. We will always long for the road not travelled, and very probably we will envy those who took those other roads. The conclusion is that if we are to be happy individuals there will be no equality among us except equality of opportunity to realize some of our potentials. Fulfilling them will not be automatic, and envy will also be there at the end. Utopia is impossible.It seems to me we need a better metaphor that "equality" to discuss the subject of social and economic inequality.

Getting back to the actual thread, though: How do you fairly address and redress inequality? How does the government detemrine when simple inequality--one persaon has more than another--is a problem that requires government intervention? Too often the solution (when the Democrats are in power) is simply for the government to take money away from person A (who actually earned it) and redistribute it to persopn B (who did not earn it, but by an amazing coincide just happens to disproportianetly vote Democratic) ...I can agree that CEO slaries are outrages--WHEN the company is failing or the CEO makes money solely by cutting the workfroce or shipping the jobs overseas. But the government's economic crystal ball has never been very good--how can we be certain the company would not have failed outright, throwing everyone out of work, if such cuts had not been made? Perhaps a better approach is to use tax policy to encoruage businesses to stay in the US and to keep employees (by helping with training and education, for instance) rather than simply robbing Peter to pay Paul ...

Robert: I can't recall whether you've identified as Catholic, and that's not necessarily relevant or something you should have to share. But as many Catholics would agree with your position, I wonder how you/they respond to the church's longstanding social justice teachings in general, and Pope Benedict XVI's statements in the particular that the European economic models (always associated here, prejudicially, with Denmark!) are the closest thing to the embodiment of Catholic positions.

If I met Rick Santorum on the street and he said that to me, I'd reply, " You're Conservative something and a bigot."Now that I.ve got that off my chest,-I think our economy is in expletive shape and I join with the Kevin Phillips" a plague on all political houses that we bought into moving our ecomony into finance starting with the Reagan years. I'd add that the Bush years with its deep affectiuon for oil men, buttressed by the Evagelical right, has made matters distinctly worse.-As to race, Stephen L. Cater had an excellen top-ed in trhe Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago on how povert truly straps minorites, especially black.Poverty remains an issue very much.-I harp again on the recent Convention for the Common Good held earlier this month.If ther ewas a genuine (bipartisan) commitment to that goal, I think the issues of health care, social security and maybe immigration might be solved on the government level.The problem of the base view of the economy, debt and the wars however will be in play now for time to come - if we don't kill our planet ideologically.

David,I consider BXVI a European who very much wants to reinvigorate Christinaity in Europe and thus I would not at all be surprised to hear him praise all things European--in other words, I consider his statement entirely political, practical, and secular. Moreover, Catholic social justice teachings that do not recognize the soul-destroying (in the secular sense, again; I won't presume to speak theologically) aspects of European-style welfare states/nanny states are not being honest. The modern, democratic European socialists are bad enough in that they create societies with no hope, no opportunity, no future (hence the falling birth rates among so many European countries, the stagnant economies, the utter sense of helplessness they feel when faced with a truly existential threat such as presented by their growing Muslim populations, which intend to dominate Europe not assimilate to it) but let us not forget how easily such states devolved even farther into the so-called workers' paradises of National Socialist or communist regimes that caused more human misery than anything launched by the capitalists. The Incas, too, provided plenty for all--but at the cost of dehumanizing their people. I'll take Manhattan, and the rest of America, thank you very much!

In discussions about distributive justice, "equality of opportunity" is a dodge, often used, as it is in this thread, to redirect our attention from real economic problems to truisms about the human condition. When we talk about economic inequality, we may not be using the term in its literal sense, but that doesn't mean we're talking only about equality of opportunity (which no set of laws, however fair, could ever insure). We're really talking about the fact that within one community some people don't have enough while others have much more than they need. Who decides what's enough? This brings us back to Joe's earlier question about Marx's labor theory of value: "Who decides how much labor is worth?" Well, we do -- either as consumers and employers, or as a political community. When we allow the market to do its magic, we are deciding one by one, and often unintentionally. When we use the mechanisms of democratic government to adopt, say, a law requiring workers to be paid a living wage, we are deciding together, and deliberately: we are saying that it is unacceptable for a CEO to be paid many millions of dollars while a laborer, skilled or unskilled, doesn't make enough to support his family. You can call this Marxism if you like; I won't be offended. But in fact the idea that work has a value that does not depend entirely on its market value goes back well beyond Marx. I find it strange that so many of those who regularly invoke natural law in every other discussion of ethics are embarrassed by the idea that there might be a natural law regarding the dignity and worth of labor.

Matthew: A living wage is a salary floor. It is not the same thing as determining how much labor is worth. I do not oppose it, but I do think that it remains fixated money rather than on human capital development, which is where the real wealth for households is to be found. Obviously, we all need money, and a living wage is a start, but there are much deeper forces at work in our politics and economics that are marginalizing groups. Regarding the natural law on the worth of labor, remember that I am referring to economic worth, not moral worth. I do not think the two ideas are as easily convertible as dollars and euros.Ann: Very quickly, I agree that equality is not quite as helpful a term as we might think, but I do think one can point to deep levels of inequality as a real problem without having even to commit to the need for equality. What we want to avoid is gaps that are really big, and we want to avoid an economy that works to the advantage of only a small percentage of citizens.Robert: Simple redistribution of existing wealth misses the boat, so the left is wrong to focus on that. What needs to be considered are wealth creating mechanisms, and right now these wealth creating mechanisms (homes, stocks, education) are stacked in favor of too few. Additionally, one of the most recent problems is the creation of purely financial wealth, wealth not connected to productivity of any kind. These mechanisms are making some people really rich, but are also introducing considerable instability in the economy.David: Earlier, for some strange reason, I referred to you as Bill. My apologies.More later.

Jim: The answer to your question will be part of "more later."

"The modern, democratic European socialists are bad enough in that they create societies with no hope, no opportunity, no future (hence the falling birth rates among so many European countries, the stagnant economies, the utter sense of helplessness they feel when faced with a truly existential threat such as presented by their growing Muslim populations, which intend to dominate Europe not assimilate to it) but let us not forget how easily such states devolved even farther into the so-called workers paradises of National Socialist or communist regimes that caused more human misery than anything launched by the capitalists."This is rather strange, Robert, because absolutely none of what you said here is true. The European societies have very strong economies, which is one reason that the Euro is worth so much against the dollar. The western ones have a higher standard of living than we do. They are buying our assets, not the other way around. Their unemployment rates are falling. Their population rates are falling as happens in all developed countries. (Are you suggesting that the high birth rates in a place like Chad or Niger are based on their people being optimistic about the future?) They don't feel an "utter sense of helplessness" about Muslims, because they are not faced with an existential threat by them. And neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia "devolved" from anything even remotely like the European economies today. And as for the Pope, you claim that he is just pandering to the Europeans as though he was running for president, but if that is the case and he is just lying as you suggest, when what do you think that Benedict thinks is the truth?

Unagidon,I leave you the field of rhetorical battle because my lengthy and detailed response--noting the currently higher European unemployment rates, the connection between Bismarck's welfare state and the socialistic aspects of National Socialism, as well as the connections between 19th century socialist movements and both the communist and fascist movements--disappeared when I hit the wrong key ... and I have no time to repeat.As far as the birthrates in Europe are concerned, you are either deliberately in denial or ignorant of what many writers have warned: that Europeans are giving up on their future and may hand to the Muslims the very victories that were denied them at the gates of Vienna. (And I'm sure you realize that when it comes to why birthrates are rising/falling you cannot compare attitudes in healthy, wealthy western cultures with the basket-case economies of the third world )As for Benedict, you said he was lying, not I. Indeed, I suspect he thinks that way because he doesn't know any better, having grown up under the European nanny state as he did and having chosen to join an equally paternalistic organization--the church--that also spends much of its time in dread fear that people will start thinking for themselves.

I did find one set of notes: US unemployment: 5.7 percent ... Germany 7.3 (a 16 year low, which meant it was much higher before) ... France 7.5 percent ... Spain 10.7 percent, avg for Eurozone: 7.3 percent

I'm glad you found those facts, Robert. Much of what Ann says is very pertinent to this discussion. How much responsibility should the state or country take for the misfortunes of people who continue to live contrary to what would bring them a good outcome? This is a very valid question because we do not go into other people's homes and raise their children. Yes, we can put more into Social Security by raising the income ceiling on it and thus bring in more money for the SS pot pretty quickly. And I think that is going to happen soon. But how far can we really go to help those who somehow can't be helped because of the normal human flaws that Ann outlines very well.

"In discussions about distributive justice, equality of opportunity is a dodge, often used, as it is in this thread, to redirect our attention from real economic problems to truisms about the human condition. When we talk about economic inequality, we may not be using the term in its literal sense, but that doesnt mean were talking only about equality of opportunity (which no set of laws, however fair, could ever insure). Were really talking about the fact that within one community some people dont have enough while others have much more than they need. Who decides whats enough?"Matthew, surely equality of opportunity is one critical component of the just distribution of goods, particularly given the cultural history of the US. So I think you do Ann a disservice by dismissing it as a "dodge". And the fact is, we have a lot of work to do around equality of opportunity, as Joe Petit is pointing out (I think). I realize that saying anything positive about President Bush isn't likely to garner admiration these days, but ... No Child Left Behind, for all its warts, is a practical and pragmatic attempt to address a basic inequality of opportunity. Is it sufficient? Of course not. Is it necessary? Perhaps. "This brings us back to Joes earlier question about Marxs labor theory of value: Who decides how much labor is worth? Well, we do either as consumers and employers, or as a political community."I'm sorry, but ... trying, as a political community, to dictate the price of labor is as futile as trying to dictate the price of gasoline or milk. The problem with regard to labor is that politically, our borders stop as demarcated on the map, but economically, the labor market transcends political borders. "When we allow the market to do its magic, we are deciding one by one, and often unintentionally. When we use the mechanisms of democratic government to adopt, say, a law requiring workers to be paid a living wage, we are deciding together, and deliberately: we are saying that it is unacceptable for a CEO to be paid many millions of dollars while a laborer, skilled or unskilled, doesnt make enough to support his family. You can call this Marxism if you like; I wont be offended."The fact is, we do have a law requiring workers to be paid a living wage. It's called a minimum wage law. If we could limit the number of illegal immigrants in the United States, basic economic theory tells us that the wages will rise for the jobs that are filled by illegal immigrants. Is that a policy that either candidate should explore?I won't call you a Marxist. But the US isn't, doesn't want to be, can't be, and never will be France or Sweden. We don't have the same geography, history, culture, laws, resources or problems. We're different. What works for them (possibly, and for now) probably wouldn't work for us. We have to work with what we have, starting from where we are.What we have are actually some good building blocks. Social security, employer-subsidized medical care, Medicare, Medicaid, free public education, a minimum wage, housing assistance, food stamps - all of these help. All of them can and should be tweaked to greater and lesser extents. There is still a lot more that is needed. Peronally, I'd start with greatly expanded mental health care, housing assistance, and taxes that are slightly more progressive - e.g. ending the ceiling on FICA. Forgive me if all this comes across as adversarial. I'm extremely symathetic regarding those who have no health coverage, inadequate housing, low wages, are digging themselves farther into debt every month, and send their children to ineffective and dangerous schools.

Denise,I couldn't agree more ... and here's a good example of social engineering gone wrong (which comes close to telling people how to raise their children)My wife and i have been making do on one income for the past 11 years so she could stay home with our kids ... meanwhile, during that entire time, my salary has been taxed--making it that much harder to do this--to pay for social programs that enable other people to put their kids in day care and have two-career families (there are tax breaks, for instance, for day care and preschool for the children of working mothers but NOT if the mother stays home)Indeed, if it weren't for those awful Bush tax cuts (that supposedly only benefited the rich but also provided a $1,000 tax credit per child) we might have ben forced to put our kids in day care ... and nobody should pretend that the tax credit is a government "benefit" ... NOT taking away as much in taxes as the government otherwise would is NOT the same thing as actually giving you soemthing .. indeed, I do not begrudge the working mothers their preschool tax break--but why not make it universal?

Dear Robert,I didn't say that European unemployment rates were lower than ours. I said they were getting lower, and you've just shown that Germany is a case in point. Ours on the other hand is growing.Muslim population explosions in Europe, Russia, Israel; Hispanic population explosions in the US; what's this world coming to?Sorry, it sounded like you were saying that Benedict was lying when you suggested that he was just playing politics. But instead you were saying that you just think he's stupid.You seem to think that Europe MUST be failing because you think that Europe is quasi socialist. It's quasi socialist because the government moves funds towards the workers. The US, on the other hand isn't quasi socialist because the government moves funds towards the capitalists. I don't know. Who has the higher standard of living?Jim and Matthew, the Marxist theory is called "the labor theory of value". The thrust of the theory is that labor creates most value not capital (as the capitalist would claim). The so-called free market may set prices in certain cases, but Marx's point wasn't to predict prices, it was to underline who is creating value in society who and is being exploited. Different thing altogether and the main reason why Marxism hasn't entirely dropped dead since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although it failed as an economic system, like all heresies, there WAS a real underlying issue that it addressed and that issue is still with us.Oh and Robert, no one said that Bush's tax policies ONLY benefitted the rich. They said that they MOSTLY benefitted the rich. But the proles got a few crumbs too. After all, is isn't called trickle down for nothing. Regarding your tax payments, I had to pay for a war that you wanted but I didn't, so count us even.

Unagidon:Thanks for the point of clarification, which is helpful. I didn't meant to suggest that the point of Marx's theory was to predict or fix prices, but I see that my comment was ambiguous about this. I should perhaps add that Marxism and the natural-law tradition to which I also made reference are clearly not the same thing, though they have at least as much in common with each other as either of them does with classical liberal economic theory.Joe:Yes, a living-wage is a salary floor, but that just means that we as a political community say that a person's work is worth at least that much; and this is an ethical judgment with concrete consequences. Call it morality if you like. (The fact that the campaign is for a living wage rather than a living income suggests that it is at least partly about the value of labor, though of course taking care of those who cannot work, or cannot find work, is also important.) The reduction of natural law to morality and of morality to sexual morality involves a serious distortion of the natural-law tradition. The reduction of economics to econometrics involves a similar distortion. Economics is first of all about ethics. Or, to put it in a way Ann might tolerate, it is about the material conditions and consequences of human flourishing. To study these well requires mastery of certain mathematical techniques, but these are always in the service of some theory, and economic theories always begin with nonempircal principles. This is as true of the Chicago school as it is of Marxism. Economists who refuse to talk about distributive justice -- or who confuse such justice with charity -- are simply skipping past the first several stages of their own argument, perhaps in the hope that their mastery of details will distract you from their carelessness about first principles.Jim:Yes, equality of opportunity is one critical component of the just distribution of goods. But it's not the only component (and, as I said before, it's not as easily arranged as many capitalists seem to think). Perhaps someone had the chance to become a lawyer or a doctor much earlier in his life -- or might have had that chance if he had made many decisions that he didn't make. Instead, he ended up working at the factory where his father once worked. Now the question is not whether he was ever free to choose a more lucrative profession but what his job is worth now. Market fundamentalists have only one answer to this question: they say it is worth no more than what someone -- anyone, anywhere -- is willing to do it for. Other people think it is more complicated than that, and not all of us are Marxists.You write that "the US isnt, doesnt want to be, cant be, and never will be France or Sweden. We dont have the same geography, history, culture, laws, resources or problems." Perhaps you can tell me, then, what it is about the geography, history, culture, laws, resources or problems of the US that would keep us from implementing a French- or Swedish-style health-care program. Or a living wage, come to that. You say we already have a living wage; it's called the mininum wage. I hope this is only a bad joke.

Friends: Well, it has happened again. After typing for about 45 minutes, my entire post was deleted when I tried to post it. Unfortunately, I did not follow Jim's advice to make a copy in Word.I am currently so annoyed, I am not sure what will come next, or when. There is much to say, especially regarding ethics and race.

There are some facts that should enter this discussion. For example, Mexicans are acquiring wealth, owning businesses, homes etc. at a quickening rate. They seem to follow intimate immigrants whom most of us have as grandparents or great grandparents. So while we complain about the lack of opportunities to the downtrodden here, many of them will be selling you their goods pretty soon if not already. There are, of course, injustices like the young, crippled Mexican who was deported by a hospital which found that possible and convenient; and hedge fund robbers are going to jail. Not a perfect system, no doubt, but why do we neglect what is good about this land of opportunity? Which people are literally killing themselves to get into.

Joe,It's been my experience that when you spend a long time composing a message here, you time out, and when you press "Submit Comment," you aren't logged in anymore, and the message is irretrievably lost. You can do the following (assuming you are on a PC). Before clicking on "Submit Comment," select all (press Control-A) and copy (press Control-C). Then when the message is lost by the Commonweal software, all you need to do is log back in, go to the box, and paste (press Control-V).

David and Joe,You can also keep a file down in the corner of your screen for drafts, and write out your long posts on it first. It's then a simple matter to copy them to the Leave a Reply box. This eliminates both sending off an unedited post and losing a post because of logging-out automatically. Plus the Holy Spirit sometimes prevails upon me to edit out undue nastiness.

Re "equal opportunity" as a principle of distributive justice: This principle is applicable to situations in which there are more "qualified" candidates than there are opportunities to be the beneficiary of some PUBLICgood. A public good is one that is made available by some social institution functioning in accordance with established civil law. According to this principle, each candidate who possesses the appropriate "qualifications" is to have an equal chance to gain the benefit. To demand of a candidate some "qualification" that is irrelevant to the sought good is ruled out. Thus no one should be ruled out, or favored, simply by reason of race, etc. (Affirmative action is a principle applicable only to competitions among equally qualified candidates.) Determining what qualifications are required for which benefits is, admittedly, far from easy. But these difficulties concern applications of the principle, not the principle itself. As Aristotle pointed out, there are problems of application with every general principle. These difficulties do not count against the value of the principle.The equal opportunity principle aims to block making some qualified candidates scapegoats for the advantage of other candidates. Surely any sensible version of social justice will endorse such a principle.

Posted by Joe Pettit on August 4th, 2008 at 10:35 amThe solution to this problem, at least for some, has been found: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121761989739205497.html?mod=hps_us_mostp... Tap Pension Plans To Fund Executive Benefits: Little-Known Move Uses Tax Break Meant For Rank and FileAs has been said more than once: (the finance) god(s) help those who help themselves

Its been my experience that when you spend a long time composing a message here, you time out, and when you press Submit Comment, you arent logged in anymore, and the message is irretrievably lost.I have to say, having log-ins time-out EVER (which I've noticed as well) is just bizarre. It's not as if this site is a bank or credit card company, where it is at least conceivable that someone might have been logging in on a public computer (and therefore wouldn't want to stay permanently logged in).

"You write that the US isnt, doesnt want to be, cant be, and never will be France or Sweden. We dont have the same geography, history, culture, laws, resources or problems. Perhaps you can tell me, then, what it is about the geography, history, culture, laws, resources or problems of the US that would keep us from implementing a French- or Swedish-style health-care program. "What about the will of the people, and the ability to pay for it? Aren't those important considerations? That would seem to cover history, culture, resources and problems.Please note that I'm not arguing against (nor for) universal health coverage, I'm just answering your question. As for me, I'd love to see some sort of a fix to a system that clearly is broken. But as with education funding, the anti-Robin Hood principle surely applies, i.e. trying to improve health care or education funding for the lower rungs of society by taking away benefits from the higher rungs won't fly politically nor, quite possibly, morally.

"Perhaps someone had the chance to become a lawyer or a doctor much earlier in his life or might have had that chance if he had made many decisions that he didnt make. Instead, he ended up working at the factory where his father once worked. Now the question is not whether he was ever free to choose a more lucrative profession but what his job is worth now. Market fundamentalists have only one answer to this question: they say it is worth no more than what someone anyone, anywhere is willing to do it for. Other people think it is more complicated than that, and not all of us are Marxists."Perhaps you could refer me to an article that expands on this, because, honestly, it just strikes me as bizarre. If I have the intellectual chops to get through law school, but bypassed the opportunity, and am now earning $12/hour driving a fork lift, then by the measure of the market that is what my labor is worth. The guy who drives the other forklift in my building never finished high school, and he also makes $12/hour. Should I be paid more because apparently I'm more intelligent, or made a less poor decision than he did?Furthermore, I have a wife and children, and bills to pay, so there is no way I could just stop working and go to law school now, at this stage of life. Is that somehow a moral shortcoming of our society?

"Or a living wage, come to that. You say we already have a living wage; its called the mininum wage. I hope this is only a bad joke."Yes, the minimum wage is, in some ways, a bad joke. It's the kind of thing you get, unfortunately, when you try to use politics and government to engineer a solution to a complex social problem. It's one-size-fits-all, it's inadequate for many of its recipients, and standard economic theory says that it also eliminates jobs. It stinks. It's a compromise. Sometimes we have to make them. Could it be raised? Sure. Should it be raised? I'd say, yes. To what level? Now we're getting to the hard questions. I don't know the specific answer. On the other hand, if food stamp programs were more generous, and housing subsidies more plentiful, and public transportation more reliable and widespread, perhaps we wouldn't have to raise the minimum wage, or not raise it as much. It's a complex problem, the solutions will never be perfect, what is optimal may not be politically feasible, and whatever is enacted will probably have all sorts of unforeseen consequences.

Our politics and economics currently enable the very wealthy to get very wealthier. That is a political and economic reality, and it is also massively counterintuitive. If the wealthy would be willing to get wealthier at a slightly slower pace, we could fund a lot of programs. Of all the arguments that might be offered against helping low income households, the one that should not be used is that government has no business transfering money from one group to another. Our governments and our economic systems do it all the time on behalf of the rich.There is much that we could do to reduce economic and racial inequality that we are not doing. Some are straightforward, some are controversial.More childcare support -- we know it worksMore transportation subsidies -- we know they workMore "opportunity based" housing subsidies -- we know they workMore mixed income housing development -- we know it worksMore homelessness prevention funds -- we know it worksMore education programs in prison -- we know they workMore after school and community center programing --we know they workEnding the war in drugs -- we know it doesn't workIf we can help the rich get richer, maybe would could find the political will to make these things happen. Notice, by the way, that none of these would require race-based programs.Unagidon: Regarding labor vs. capital. If I understand marginalist theory, it is not the capital that determines the value, but rather the market's valuation of the capital. I have not found a better system for determining economic value (not moral value). If you have suggestions, I would be most interested.

"If the wealthy would be willing to get wealthier at a slightly slower pace, we could fund a lot of programs. "Joe, you have just summed up a large part of my political viewpoint in a single sentence. Thank you for saying that!

"Regarding labor vs. capital. If I understand marginalist theory, it is not the capital that determines the value, but rather the markets valuation of the capital. I have not found a better system for determining economic value (not moral value). If you have suggestions, I would be most interested."The short answer is when we talk about the economy in this way we are talking about two things while pretending to talk about one thing. The economic order is a technical way of allocating resources. But it is also a moral order. It is always both at the same time. So even questions of pure efficiency also have a moral component.Marxism spoke of economics as though it were a type of moral order and despite the fact that it did so in a philosophically materialist way. This was more or less true of all the 19th century economists. Nowadays, we tend to talk as though the economy is basically about technique and rationality, even when people are talking about it from the left and suggesting that we overlay some "moral" considerations onto the debate.So economic value in your sense is a palimpset. We need to rephrase the discussion.

Jim,I'll try to take your points in the order in which you made them.You write: "What about the will of the people, and the ability to pay for it? Arent those important considerations? That would seem to cover history, culture, resources and problems." I'm not sure it would. We are, by many measures, the richest country in the world. If we wanted to pay for universal health care, we could; and if we don't want to, that isn't because our history or culture makes it impossible. I thought you might have some Montesquieuan insight to offer about how the unique material or cultural circumstances of the U.S. make something like universal health care impossible here. But I'm afraid "We don't want to" isn't much of an insight. Democracy depends on the will of the people being responsive to rational argument. You seem to be saying here that universal health care of the kind other rich countries provide might be a good idea, but the American people would never accept it. So presumption leads to despair, and we are instructed to settle for another make-shift compromise. I am not opposed to the sort of gradualist meliorism you seem to favor: we must do whatever we now can and not hold out for perfection. I just think you are too quick to conclude that only the most modest reforms of our current system are politically feasible. "Trying to improve health care or education funding for the lower rungs of society by taking away benefits from the higher rungs wont fly politically nor, quite possibly, morally." If by "benefits" you mean money, then, yes, improving health care for those you refer to as the "lower rungs of society" really will require redistributing benefits from the rich to the poor. Any serious reform of our health-care systemany serious improvementwill involve trade-offs. Those who pretend to offer improvements without trade-offs are wasting your time.The point of the story about the factory worker was not that intelligent factory workers who might have done something else with their lives deserve more money than other factory workers. The point was that a discussion of economic justice that gets hung up on the phrase "equality of opportunity" will permit us to ask the wrong questions about factory workersto ask only whether the law prevented or hindered them from doing something that pays better. The more urgent question is what they need and deserve now, but we won't bother to ask this question if we assume that the market has already answered it definitively. If you do accept the need for a minimum wageand especially if you believe it ought to be raisedthat means you do not assume that the market ought to be trusted to answer this question by itself. You have trotted out the libertarian clichs about the clumsiness of any political effort "to engineer complex social questions," but of course the minimum wage, like the living wage, is just such an effortas are the other initiatives you recommend. By the end of your last comment, it is no longer clear whether you think the government is not competent to intervene in the economy, or whether you are simply opposed to any radical intervention that might spook those in the "upper rungs" who don't want to pay higher taxes.

"You write: What about the will of the people, and the ability to pay for it? Arent those important considerations? That would seem to cover history, culture, resources and problems. Im not sure it would. We are, by many measures, the richest country in the world. If we wanted to pay for universal health care, we could; and if we dont want to, that isnt because our history or culture make it impossible. I thought you might have some Montesquieuan insight to offer about how the unique material or cultural circumstances of the U.S. make something like universal health care impossible here. But Im afraid We dont want to isnt much of an insight. Democracy depends on the will of the people being responsive to rational argument. You seem to be saying here that universal health care of the kind other rich countries provide might be a good idea, but the American people would never accept it. So presumption leads to despair, and we are instructed to settle for another make-shift compromise. "There is a lot to unpack in this conversation, so forgive me if I don't hit on everything, even in the bit I quoted above.Re: "we don't want to" - such a response, on the part of the people, could be construed as the American electorate at its inattentive, short-sighted, selfish worst; or at its grounded, most practical and wisest best. For better or for worse (and I think it is better on balance), our system of governance will, or should, ultimately refer back to what a majority of the people want.Fifteen or so years ago the Clintons' plan for universal health care crashed and burned spectacularly. So there is a concrete instance of history exemplifying that "we don't want to". I remember well the debates - rational and otherwise - that surrounded that political fiasco. It seems inarguable that at that time - not really so very long ago - the people were responsive to rational argument. And their response was unequivocal - they rejected socialized medicine.Mrs. Clinton, I believe, slapped a fresh coat of paint on universal health care as one of the centerpieces of her primary campaign. Obviously it didn't attract enough voters in her own party to secure her the nomination.Perhaps by some measures we, as a people, are the wealthiest of all people on earth, but the presumed provider of univeral health care, our Federal government, is, by any reasonable standard of accountancy, immensely, staggeringly, immorally in hock. Our ability to pay for our most recent large-scale entitlement - the prescription drug benefit for seniors - is in serious doubt. Medicaid and Social Security are notoriously underfunded, to an extent that freaks out people who have the stomach to look at the details.Please don't take any of this to mean "we can't". When it comes to offering medical care to those in need - we must. But socialized medicine isn't the only approach. Americans who look at medical care in Canada, France, Great Britain, et al, see some things they like - affordable medical coverage for everyone - and some things they hate and won't accept - e.g. waiting two months or two years for procedures that are available more or less instantly in the American system (for those - the vast majority - who are lucky enough to have coverage).I doubt anything I am saying is Montesquieuan (not a spelling that rolls off the fingers, is it? :-)) But we don't have the luxury of starting from scratch, and I believe that we won't have the luxury (thank goodness) of trying to construct some grand, centrally controlled system of delivering care. Incremental improvement seems, to me, to be the art of the possible. Let's get it done.

" Trying to improve health care or education funding for the lower rungs of society by taking away benefits from the higher rungs wont fly politically nor, quite possibly, morally. If by benefits you mean money, then, yes, improving health care for those you refer to as the lower rungs of society really will require redistributing benefits from the rich to the poor."Why?Btw, I'm not referring to money directly; I'm referring to care. Obviously care costs money. But money can come from a lot of places."Any serious reform of our health-care systemany serious improvementwill involve trade-offs. Those who pretend to offer improvements without trade-offs are wasting your time"Money is fungible; it works just as well paying for doctors and tests as it does for highways, mercenaries in Iraq, and interest on loans from the Chinese government. So I agree that these decisions always involves trade-offs. But unless you're arguing, and can show, that the fortunate many with medical coverage are somehow getting unconscionably surplus care, then I don't really see why care must be diminished for the many in order to provide at least minimal, decent coverage to those in need. Fund it some other way.Apparently it's true that other countries have set a one-size-fits-all standard of mediocre health care coverage for everyone. But because they're doing it doesn't mean we have to settle for the same trade-offs.

"The more urgent question is what they need and deserve now, but we wont bother to ask this question if we assume that the market has already answered it definitively."Oh, absolutely, the market's answer frequently sucks. I guess the whole market/government thing isn't exactly an either-or dichotomy in my book. It's more like this: I trust the market more than I trust political hacks, or even well-meaning wonks, to tweak things exactly right. There is considerable history in the 20th century that bears this out, c.f. the Soviet Union's track record of production and distribution.But I'm not a laissez-faire market fundamentalist, either. Economists make a distinction between the short term and the long term. A lot of human misery and suffering takes place in the time lag in between. We should use the means at our disposal - government programs, community and religious organizations, and individual human decency - to ameliorate that suffering. " If you do accept the need for a minimum wageand especially if you believe it ought to be raisedthat means you do not assume that the market ought to be trusted to answer this question by itself. You have trotted out the libertarian clichs about the clumsiness of any political effort to engineer complex social questions, but of course the minimum wage, like the living wage, is just such an effortas are the other initiatives you recommend."The living wage, as a component of Catholic social teaching, needn't be the equivalent of the minimum wage as a government-imposed wage floor. Catholic teaching in this regard is directed, perhaps to a greater extent than toward governments, toward those - business owners and managers - who set the wages for the firm. The living wage is very much a "micro" concept. I, as a small-business owner (or a parish), have a responsibility to pay my employees a living wage if I can, regardless of what my competitor is doing, what the legally-mandated minimum wage is, or any other "macro"-level market data or external shocks."By the end of your last comment, it is no longer clear whether you think the government is not competent to intervene in the economy, or whether you are simply opposed to any radical intervention that might spook those in the upper rungs who dont want to pay higher taxes."Sorry I'm not easily categorizable :-). When one attends a Jesuit university and studies economics, one emerges with an interesting amalgam of ideas. :-). For the record: I do distrust radical interventions; and I think it's more than okay to ask the "upper rungs" to carry more of the water. (Btw, I received an email in my inbox last week purportedly written by an economist, bashing Obama's plans for adjustments to the capital-gains tax. This stuff is definitely on the table for this election). I thought Joe Petit's post from earlier today said it perfectly. I'm all for reswizzling the tax burden to make it more progressive than it is now.

I have no quarrel with Joe Petit's list of things that could be done to reduce economic and racial inequality. But setting priorities, budgetary and otherwise, for these items will be extraordinarily demanding. Furthermore, how will one determine how much foreign aid for some or all of these items ought to be determined? But perhaps the biggest problem that we face is determining how to respond to the challenges of climate change. Unless one believes that the threat of climate change is really not all that imminent, one has to recognize that governmental regulation of a great deal of economic activity is going to be required if the challenge is to be met in the time frame scientists project.So far as I can see, the way our markets and our laws presently are structured, we are not likely to avoid doing substantial further damage to our global economy. It's also hard to see what, other than religious considerations, could motivate the sacrifices that effective responses to these problems would require.I admit that this web of problems is extraordinarily difficult to address in any obvious way. But we have no responsible alternative to facing up to the staggering dimenions of this knnot of issues.

Sorry. I meant to say "...damage to our global ecology."

"So far as I can see, the way our markets and our laws presently are structured, we are not likely to avoid doing substantial further damage to our global economy. Its also hard to see what, other than religious considerations, could motivate the sacrifices that effective responses to these problems would require."Dear Bernard, if you'll forgive the cynicism on my part - until something cataclysmic happens, nothing will be done.As an aside, or perhaps not an aside, the major players in the industry in which I spend a good deal of my non-dotCommonweal time - high-tech - have concluded that being environmentally responsibile, or at least conveying the impression that they are being environmentally responsible - is good business.

Jim Pauwels, I fear that you may be right that "until something cataclysmic happens, nothing will be done."But even if you are right, we, both as individuals and as members of some group that is part of civil society, has some responsibility to keep learning about the forces that make for what Daniel Callahan has called unsustainability and to keep pushing for action to reduce these forces. As Christians, we all have some responsibility to exercise good stewardship of the earth and its resources. The apparent "hopelessness" of the task does not justify our giving into despair. Deep Christian hope is, in the final analysis, an unconditional hope that is unaffected by evidence that would make it appear futile. This is true both for hope in our ultimate redemption and for hope that our efforts to be good stewards are not foolish.For the record, I do know that some of the ancient Greeks held that hope was folly, that it opened "Pandora's box" of foolishness. Christian hope is not deterred by such concerns. Rather, it is always both courageous and patient in the face of whatever contrary evidence it has to confront.

Amen to Joe, Matthew and Bernard!

[...] of Cathleen Kaveny’s post below regarding crucial social justice issues and their role in the campaign–versus charges [...]