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March 11, 2014

Sacre Bleu! Why Were We Not Informed of This???

Just in case any of you missed it the other day, this must-read article from the WSJ makes two points:

1. Contra the Left, worker's incomes have kept pace with gains in productivity. This is a particularly important argument as arguments to the contrary are a key justification for viewing income inequality as "unfair" (and for confiscating and redistributing the supposedly ill-gotten profits of employers):

Many pundits, politicians and economists claim that wages have fallen behind productivity gains over the last generation. This "decoupling" explains allegedly stagnant (or in some versions of the story, declining) middle-class incomes and is held out as a crisis of the market economy.

This story, though, is built on an illusion. There is no great decoupling of worker pay from productivity. Nor have workers' incomes stagnated over the past four decades.

The illusion is the result of two mistakes that are routinely made when pay is compared with productivity. First, the value of fringe benefits—such as health insurance and pension contributions—is often excluded from calculations of worker pay. Because fringe benefits today make up a larger share of the typical employee's pay than they did 40 years ago (about 19% today compared with 10% back then), excluding them fosters the illusion that the workers' slice of the (bigger) pie is shrinking.

The second mistake is to use the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to adjust workers' pay for inflation while using a different measure—for example the GDP deflator, which converts the current prices of all domestically produced final goods and services into constant dollars—to adjust the value of economic output for inflation. But as Harvard's Martin Feldstein noted in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper in 2008, it is misleading to use different deflators.

Different inflation adjustments give conflicting estimates of just how much the dollar's purchasing power has fallen. So to accurately compare the real (that is, inflation-adjusted) value of output to the real value of worker pay requires that these values both be calculated using the same price index.

2. Where has so-called "vanishing middle class" disappeared to? Turns out most have moved into higher income brackets:

The claim that ordinary Americans are stagnating economically while only "the rich" are gaining is also incorrect. True enough, membership in the middle class seems to be declining—but this is because more American households are moving up.

The Census Bureau in 2012 compiled data on the percentage of U.S. households earning annual incomes, measured in 2009 dollars, in different income categories (for example, annual incomes between $25,000 and $35,000). These data reveal that between 1975 and 2009, the percentage of households in the low- and middle-income categories fell. The only two categories that saw an increase were households earning between $75,000 and $100,000 annually, and households earning more than $100,000 annually. Remarkably, the share of American households earning annual incomes in excess of $100,000 went to 20.1% in 2009 from 8.4% in 1975. Over these same years, households earning annual incomes of $50,000 or less fell to 50.1% from 58.4%.

So to recap, upward mobility is alive and well in America and if you include total compensation (benefits that mostly didn't exist in our parents' time, plus wages), worker pay is not stagnant. Perhaps our President will learn this good news the way he learns what's happening in his own administration: by reading a newspaper.

A Blog Princess can dream...

Posted by Cassandra at March 11, 2014 07:25 AM

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How unfair to count benefits as part of wages! They're a birthright or something, like practically everything else.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 11, 2014 10:13 AM

This is another field where I think both sides of the argument (here, liberal and conservative) are wrong about important aspects of the debate. So, part of the middle class may have risen in standards of living (and kinds of benefits received); and that's a problem for the general liberal argument on inequality.

On the other hand, the squeeze on the lower part of the middle class, as well as the lower-middle class or working class, is real enough. Of course, a huge part of the squeeze has to do with the fact that liberal reforms are causing businesses to adjust procedures in a way that hurts these people most. (E.g., cutting hours and workforce sizes to avoid Obamacare requirements; not hiring or opening new businesses due to regulatory uncertainty; etc.)

I would like to see some thought given to how to make the American economy a little better for the little guy. I don't by that mean that I endorse minimum wage increases or other left-leaning ideas: but I do mean that there's a real problem, even if the general 'inequality' argument is not a true or accurate picture.

Posted by: Grim at March 11, 2014 11:39 AM

I would like to see some thought given to how to make the American economy a little better for the little guy.

I don't disagree, but you got a couple of problems, there: Globalization and perspective.

The Chinese factory worker making $2/hour is thankful because his other option is starve to death. Meanwhile, he looks at our "little guy" and see a fat man complaining about a lack of food.

I would like to see many of those reforms repealed because, like you, I think they hurt the very people they purport to be helping (I also think this is done intentionally to preserve a voting bloc). But many in that segment that you say are being squeezed are *still* better off than they were 40 years ago. Their absolute position has improved, it is their relative position to *our own* rich that has declined. Their relative position to the world's poor has improved.

I've got a couple of Indian (not Native American)co-workers who laugh at us when we lose power for a couple of hours after bad weather. In their hometowns in India they lose power for hours several times a day every day.

Our poor are only poor by *our* standards.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 11, 2014 12:44 PM

Maybe, but they're our poor. That's my perspective: it ought to matter, when we set out to make a law, whether it hurts Americans more than others.

We on the Right have fallen into treating America as a binding patriotic union when conducting foreign policy, but a completely unimportant accidental relationship when thinking about the market. On the Right, we don't ask, "How can we help our fellow citizens who are poor?" We say, "Just be glad you weren't born in China (where, by the way, all these 'American' companies have sent your jobs)."

But when it comes time to fight, we say, "You're an American -- you'd better not side with those foreigners."

Globalization is a choice too, just like high levels of immigration (the other way in which corporate-friendly policies artificially suppress the price of the labor of the poorer Americans). The Left tends to oppose globalization in theory (while in practice supporting NAFTA, etc) but is in favor of mass immigration for political reasons. The Right tends to support globalization for market reasons, while opposing mass immigration only rhetorically.

Neither side is really doing anything to help the American working man. The Left wants to put him on food stamps and government health care, while bringing in more and more immigrants to dilute his vote and depress his wage (and take his job). They end up winning his vote because they at least appear to be on his side, though in fact they're making his situation worse.

But the Right doesn't seem to have anything to say for him at all. It doesn't have to be that way. It's a choice.

Posted by: Grim at March 11, 2014 02:00 PM

That's my perspective: it ought to matter, when we set out to make a law, whether it hurts Americans more than others.

I agree. That said, I think globalization helps our poor and protectionism hurts them. The last thing our poor need are higher prices for basic goods. The population that are truly unemployed due to globalization are small (most find employment in other fields just like they did with the advent of mechanization and later automation). The artificially higher wages help on that tiny margin but hurt the entirety of the poor.

And those who rail at "The Rich" for not giving up a part of their share to help "The Little Guy" need to keep in mind that to someone else, they are "The Rich". That argument works just as well against themselves.

And changing from people to States doesn't change anything. China would see any sort of protectionism by the US the same as a poor person looking at the rich trying to hoard their wealth.

You want to hurt young, poor/middle class families? Get in a trade war with China and double the price of diapers.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 11, 2014 02:43 PM

The Left tends to oppose globalization in theory .

The politicians do because "Yay American Labor". The left of center "The Economist" has some rather nasty things to say about protectionism and largely because it does hurt the poor disproportionately.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 11, 2014 02:48 PM

The Left I was thinking of was more the Occupy Left, which is not "Yay American Labor!" so much as "Boo Capitalism spreading its evil tendrils through the Third World!" But there is a more sensible Leftist critique of protectionism.

There is also a Right-leaning critique of globalization, though, which is patriotic in character. It's about preferring American jobs because American jobs mean American wealth, which means American power. China is swinging its weight around as much as it is these days chiefly because of the move of labor jobs there.

It turns out it really makes a big difference to the structure of the world whether the leading producer of energy is Russia, or Saudi Arabia, or the USA. The rich/poor thing may go all the way down, but the shared-values and shared-culture thing doesn't. It's a stable place to root an argument.

Diapers may go up in price, but maybe that's not such a big deal if people have paychecks instead of food stamps for buying them.

Of course, diapers can be washed, too. Not the cheap kind the Chinese make for us, but the cloth kind that we could be making for ourselves.

(Or we could adopt the Chinese standard... but that might be too great a violation of those shared values!)

Posted by: Grim at March 11, 2014 04:00 PM

but the shared-values and shared-culture thing doesn't

I don't know. There's not a lot of shared-values/culture between me and OccupyYourOwnMindBecauseItsVacant.

Diapers may go up in price, but maybe that's not such a big deal if people have paychecks instead of food stamps for buying them.

The problem is that you increase the paychecks for 0.5% of the population, but you increase the price for 100%. The rich can afford it, but the poor (which is a lot more than 0.5%) can't.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 11, 2014 04:29 PM

I don't know about those numbers. Anyway, by 100% you'd have to mean "for 100% of the diaper-buying population," which is not anywhere close to 100% of Americans (at least not at any given time).

In any case, I'd like to see the Right thinking about ways to structure their proposed laws and policy suggestions to work on these issues. I would certainly think immigration would be an easy one, given the voting trends, but apparently it isn't.

There's not a lot of shared-values/culture between me and OccupyYourOwnMindBecauseItsVacant.

There's more than you might think. I talk with people on that side of the spectrum a lot, and while I don't agree with them five-by-five, sometimes I do on a one-for-five basis. That would create room for an occasional cooperative position.

Presumably working together to solve the problems we agree on might increase trust and understanding, which could help address some of the other problems, too. Maybe not, of course. Still, it wouldn't hurt.

Posted by: Grim at March 11, 2014 04:40 PM

It's a dilemma. How do you convince an American company to not globalize when it is what is in the best interests of its customers and investors? Historically, two things have been tried. Incentives to stay at home, and punishments for going abroad. And neither have worked.

The incentives tend to take the form of the much decried "corporate welfare" where an otherwise solvent company is payed what is (in effect) a bribe to keep a certain amount of their production stateside. And I will tell you, this stinks. A business that has weighed its options and chooses to take the money does so because the amount outweighs (or tacks closely to) what it would save the company to move production or services overseas. If it did not, then they would not. It is not something I blame them for doing; after all, I expect a business to act in its best interest. But I think it stinks to take money from every taxpayer in order to do so.

The punishments are generally worse though. First off, it's interference in the free market (beyond that which is necessary for health and safety), and companies that do not wish to accept the punishments will generally find ways around them. Ceasing to be a US-based company is a popular method. Change your corporate HQ to be overseas, and suddenly, all those punishments for taking production offshore no longer apply to you. Furthermore, you reduce your tax burden in the process. How does this end up helping?

In general, I'd rather stick to the adage that one of the scariest phrases possible is "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." I'd prefer they leave well enough alone. Any solution created in a government committee is likely to be worse than the original problem.

Posted by: MikeD at March 11, 2014 04:55 PM

I would like to see some thought given to how to make the American economy a little better for the little guy. I don't by that mean that I endorse minimum wage increases or other left-leaning ideas: but I do mean that there's a real problem, even if the general 'inequality' argument is not a true or accurate picture.

What is the exact nature of this problem, Grim? What are it's symptoms?

What is it that you want to change?

Posted by: Cassandra at March 11, 2014 06:27 PM

Companies HAVE TO globalize, because markets for many products are all over. If you don't grow (and globalize your products) you will be crushed by somebody who does and sells more of what you make at a lower price.
The economic imperative is either grow, be taken over or die out.

You grow by expanding your market (worldwide) or grow by aquiring other companies to get into markets you are not into yet (globalize).

If you don't grow, yet your company has some value, someone will want to buy you. And you still get globalization.

This is how it is, everyday. This is the new reality, like it or not.

Where the US makes it's biggest mistakes is
1) high corporate taxes (driving out corporate expansion/ production in the US)
2) punishing the repatriation of dollars/currency earned overseas to the US (which would be spent in the US on wages, dividends, investments, etc)

The government claims to be doing this to "help the little guy" or "protect American businesses", but that's hogwash. They are doing this to protect particular favored companies, which is how the tax code got so frickin' huge.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 11, 2014 06:28 PM


I don't buy any argument of the form, 'We're helpless against this! It's just the way of the world.' That's just a way of trying to dodge our responsibility. We make changes, we pass laws, these have effects.

We're quick to praise Texas versus Detroit, which means we believe that changes can be effective. What I'd like to see is Right solutions that aren't just about making 'the economy' better, but making the lives of the American people better.


I don't know just what ought to be changed. I'd like to see people on the Right thinking explicitly about the question, though.

I'll give you a good illustration of what bothers me. Take a look at this map of most miserable states. The ten most miserable are geographically contiguous. Except for Ohio they're pretty reliable Red states most years.

So why are the people there miserable? Gallup is measuring a broad range of variables, but clearly something isn't adding up.

Look at the map again. There's only one state in the top quintile on either coast. Big money states like Texas, Georgia, New York, California -- they're not the places where people are happy.

The economy is a means to a huge set of ends. We have some measures for it -- GDP, big corporations locating here or not locating there, tax revenues. But the real set of ends are the ends of all the people participating in it.

What I want is an America where people flourish. That doesn't mean that we all get rich, because of course we can't all be 'rich.' It does mean something about happiness, though. Neither the big Left states nor the big Right states seem to have it. The places that are on the top of the list: what do they have going for them?

That might be an interesting place to start asking the question. What does it mean to live a happy life? What's making these people happy in these states, which are very different politically, but which seem to have something going for them.

Posted by: Grim at March 11, 2014 09:57 PM

I don't buy any argument of the form, 'We're helpless against this! It's just the way of the world.' That's just a way of trying to dodge our responsibility. We make changes, we pass laws, these have effects.

OK, I'm really confused now. What do laws have to do with Don's comment about businesses needing to globalize to stay competitive in today's markets?

We can't pass laws to change supply and demand, or somehow make it possible for business owners not to pay attention to what their competitors are doing and still stay in business. I guess we could enact stiff tariffs and then turn around and tell American companies they can't charge any more for their products than overseas companies that don't pay decent wages or provide benefits. They'll be perfectly free to operate at a loss here at home, and go out of business.

How does that help? What possible reason would there be for thinking Congress understands how to run a business? They single-handedly rendered the US Postal Service unprofitable.

I am willing to listen to and discuss any ideas about what's wrong (process wise) or even outcome wise, but the outcome argument is fraught with problems. You can't legislate outcomes without taking away personal freedom.

Tell me what's unfair about the process. Simply saying you wish everyone were flourishing is an outcome that I can neither describe nor think of a remedy for. You can't order people to value the things you or I value. You can't order them to get (and stay) married, be good parents, go to church, and volunteer in the community. These are the things that tend to make people happy in the long run.

Freedom means people will do things that hurt themselves. They will do things that limit their own prosperity. And none of us are born equal; there will always be people who, for whatever reason, do less well than other people (or are unhappy for some reason). I really want to understand your argument, but I'm having trouble.

I don't want a paternalistic govt. that studies happiness and then tries to mold my life into their version of an ideal one. I want the freedom to pursue my own ends, take care of my own family and friends, do the things *I* want to do (and deal with the tradeoffs involved).

I don't think it's government's business to micromanage my life, raise my kids for me, feed them, give me a job, etc.

Here's what I would consider: some large public works type projects that employed workers willing to relocate and accept a fair and uninflated wage. I suspect there wouldn't be many takers, though.

And that thought depresses me more than I can say.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 12, 2014 08:54 AM

As I said, I don't have solutions. I don't even have desirable outcomes in any sort of fixed way. What I see are problems, and an absence of discussion about what the scope of those problems might be or how to solve them.

Why are all these reliable Red states the most miserable places in America? Why are the happiest places not reliably Red (some of them are -- Montana -- but some of them are just the opposite, like Vermont)? That's a question, not an answer. It strikes me as important that the coasts, which are the most prosperous regions, only have one of the green states (Washington). The richest states of all are not in the top quintile.

What Republicans tend to talk about is macroeconomics. Yet macroeconomics isn't sufficient for happiness, obviously, or the richest states would be happier. The most economically active states would tend to be the happiest.

Yet the most reliably Republican regions of the country are the places where people are most miserable. People who live in Mississippi and Alabama and Oklahoma go to church, as much as most people or more. They're still miserable. Why is this? What's to be done about it?

I don't hear any answers to that question. In fact, I don't even hear people on the Right asking the question as if it were important that reliable Republican voters are miserable. I hear a lot of arguments against 'soaking the rich,' or 'class warfare,' but I'm not interested in soaking the rich or waging a class war.

Just the opposite: I want people on the Right, regardless of class, to show some solidarity with their fellow conservatives -- those Americans who do share their values, and vote with them, and are suffering. What are their problems? What would be appropriate responses, whether at the state or the Federal level? What kinds of solutions do conservatives have to offer to the problems -- problems we haven't even really identified?

Posted by: Grim at March 12, 2014 11:51 AM

I think you are inferring way too much from mere correlation (and from one study, too). There's an amusing study out there that progressives trot out every now and then that shows something really dumb like a correlation between infant mortality and Republican presidents.

What does that even mean?

States can't be happy or unhappy. Individuals are happy or unhappy, and frankly it matters a LOT how the question is phrased. IMO, conservatives are dinged all the time for what I view as *good* traits: recognition of real risk ("fearfulness", to a progressive), or seeing the value of roles, authority, or social hierarchies ("rigidity/authoritarianism"). My sterling character trait is a pathology to a progressive.

Why does "happiness" include things like being obese or smoking??? Maybe the problem is that for this study, "happiness" is not correctly defined. I looked at the study but frankly there wasn't enough information for me to see what's going on.

Finally, how is North Dakota is #1 this year, but was #19 only one year prior? Must've been one helluva year!

Posted by: Cassandra at March 12, 2014 12:42 PM

Yet the most reliably Republican regions of the country are the places where people are most miserable. People who live in Mississippi and Alabama and Oklahoma go to church, as much as most people or more. They're still miserable. Why is this? What's to be done about it?

This may sound callous, but why does anyone have to do anything about it?

I don't expect other people to make me happy. I never have.

If I'm unhappy, I need to figure out why and fix it. That's not anyone else's job - not my husband's, not my parents', not my neighbors' and certainly not the DNC, RNC, or federal government!

People need to take responsibility for their own happiness in life. Each of us has maximum power over ourselves and minimal power over anyone else's state of mind.

Frankly, I've always thought of happiness as a decision.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 12, 2014 12:45 PM

This is a good start. What is the right way to determine misery? Is Gallup asking the right questions? That's part of it.

As for the role of personal responsibility, that's always struck me as one of the most beneficial parts of the conservative message. It really is very helpful to people to know that, in the final analysis, they're the only ones who can fix things for themselves.

It helps, though, if we figure out whether there are artificial problems being put in their way. A lot of these Left-leaning "solutions" actually make things worse, because even the guy willing to work two or three jobs (a) can't always find even one job, (b) which is now more likely to be part time, (c) at a lower wage because of mass immigration diluting the value of his labor.

Maybe there are other things, too. I think a lot of regulations make it hard to start very traditional businesses -- the kind of business that a poor person without the best education would know how to start. Used to be lots of folks raised cattle and sold a little milk, or fresh eggs. Now you can get in big trouble doing that.

So maybe conservatives could start a conversation about identifying places where the system is preventing people from doing what the common man, with a common education, used to do to make ends meet. We can at least stop making it harder for people who are struggling.

And maybe, along the way, we'll come up with some positive things we could do too. Maybe! It depends on what the issues finally prove to be, and on what we decide is appropriate.

But for now, we aren't really even talking about it on the Right. We get about as far as, "This may sound callous, but..." and walk away.

Well, if you need a pragmatic reason to help, it'll be easier to win working class votes if you can show that you understand their problems and you can help them work through them. But it might be enough to say that these are good people having a hard time, our neighbors and fellow citizens, and maybe we should think about what's making it so hard for them. Red states are freer, less heavily taxed, and friendlier to traditional culture and religion. They should be happy places by nature.

So if they aren't, why aren't they? They should be.

Posted by: Grim at March 12, 2014 01:43 PM

But people on the Right *ARE* saying that it's too hard to start businesses and have been saying that for as long as I can remember.

That's why I'm confused - this is standard conservative fare. And we have been saying that ObamaCare is cutting hours for people who can least afford it.

I guess I'm confused. We're already saying the things you seem to want us to talk about. I don't see any lack of thinking about these problems. Maybe it's a matter of tone - that's certainly true with women. We just had another moron blathering about battered women on Facebook, and I think we sometimes are not terribly respectful towards people who are struggling economically.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 12, 2014 02:09 PM

Nobody on the right seems to have anything to say for the working man, except to adopt policies that will ensure he has lots and lots of jobs to choose from, so that he'll have tons of bargaining power in setting the wages and conditions of his work, and the ability to save and control his future, as a result of which he'll have the best shot of anyone in the world to enjoy upward mobility for himself and his descendants, as well as the liberty and privacy to enjoy all these blessings in.

Dang cold-hearted conservatives.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 12, 2014 04:02 PM

The government can't manage outcomes, and shouldn't try. Much of the political heartache (in this country) of the last 50 - plus years is an attempt to do so. We are in the throes of yet another mis-guided attempt to manage outcomes.

Free people can make bad choices. That's part of the responsibility of being "free". How do we measure 'happiness' or any other type of satisfaction? Our company does "customer satisfaction" with a whole set of metrics, yet how do you measure how happy people are in Brooklyn versus Pryor, Oklahoma? Their ideas of a satisfying life are different.

I spent a couple of days on a worksite in Brooklyn in 1998, and although the New Yorkers there were OK and friendly, there was a real undercurrent of misery about the place. The life in the City was all they knew, and they accepted it. What is the measure of happiness there? Cheaper bus fares, lower taxi rate, less crime? I'm not mocking them, but what they would define as happiness might not be the same as Albequerque, NM, or somewhere else.

The market is truly driven by the invisible hand. Not Obama or anyone else can really move the markets to their own beck and call. Government interference is a miserable illusion, in that all it usually produces is misery.

I only spoke about "globalizing" because that is the present answer to growth for any company. If you make a desirable product, you WANT to globalize your sales to maximize your profit. it works. It has nothing to do with desired social or other personal outcomes, because...you can't manage that. All a 'for profit' company can ever do is maintain or improve the profitability of the company. You can't put "social outcomes" of any sort in the bank or issue that as a dividend to stockholders.

That has been the wish of the "Occupy" crowd, and collectivists of all sorts for most of history.

You can't always "do what you love", but you can learn to like what you do, and be good at it. Get the satisfaction of doing your job well and knowing that you do it well. It has taken 35 years of adult working to reach that point in my head, and I still rebel from it from time to time.

There is no other real alternative, no matter how we might wish to be otherwise. This is the way the world really is.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 12, 2014 04:37 PM

In Grim's defense, let me say that I often think some of our laws offer more freedom than most people can handle.

I'm uncomfortable with absolutes ('I MUST HAVE ALL FREEDOMS! or 'PEOPLE MUST BE PROTECTED FROM ALL POSSIBLE BAD CHOICES!' seem equally thoughtless to me.) There's probably some natural balance between freedom and license that maximized both individual and societal welfare, and I really am not convinced that freedom can't/shouldn't be limited at all unless we can *prove* that Armageddon will result from a failure to do so.

But that's why I'm not a Libertarian. For most of human history, societies have banned all sorts of things for various reasons and a lot of those bans weren't particularly horrific. I'm not ready to legalize prostitution, for instance. Or hard drugs. Yes, people should be free to make mistakes but we should also consider the good old-fashioned notion that some things erode character, willpower, even humanity.

I'm growing increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that broadcasting really sick/perverse/evil images into people's homes is a good idea. I was watching TV last week and was struck by the volume of really perverse torture/serial killer themes. That sort of thing is supposed to make us shrink back in horror, but now we view it as entertainment fit for prime time.

We seem to have lost respect for the power of evil. People look at you like you're lost your mind when you say something like that, but our grandparents (and I would even say our parents) wouldn't have reacted the same way.

There is a dark side in most people and it's covered up by an increasingly thin veneer of civilization. I shudder to think what will happen when we've discarded even that small protection.

Not directed at you, Don. Just random musing :p

Posted by: Cassandra at March 12, 2014 05:39 PM

People can choose to be virtuous in what they do. Some people choose not to be virtuous in any way. And some men just want to watch the world burn.

That is a personal choice. That's all it ever can be. I shudder at what is purveyed in popular entertainment. It is largely garbage.

I understand Grim's larger idea that he has expounded before about inculcating virtue in people, to improve society. We can choose to be ethical in our business dealings, "honesty is the best policy", and that is good business and a good way to conduct a company and build trust and success. What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?

But the government cannot manage how people conduct their lives. They cannot make you virtuous, generous, benevolent or anything else. Even patriotic.

Is an all-volunteer military better than a conscript military? Can you instill in people a public virtue to serve something larger than self by drafting them and running them through boot camp? You may build a fire from the spark of personal virtue if it exists, but the person lacking that moral value of having a public virtue of service will not learn it by being a soldier, and will resent the government and society all the more because of "forced" service.

Harry Browne, noted Libertarian, once wrote a book called "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World". How much freedom do any of us really have? Can I stand on a street corner and shout vile insults at public elected officials, such as our President for example, and get away with that for long?

What Browne meant in his book was that freedom exists in your mind. You can be free in your thoughts and the way the you see the world, unshackled from what you are expected to think and how you live. This does not make you more or less moral, but free. Being truly free does not mean being immoral, but being free to decide on your own life, to pursue your own ideas of what is happiness. Morality puts a color on your thoughts, a restraint on what you allow yourself to think and do. Morality and freedom are not antagonists, but exist together because without values, then our lives become purposeless excercises, and we are only economic animals. As Calvin Coolidge once said,"The business of America is business, but the purpose of America is ideas."

Being free and wealthy enough to have spare time allowed people to pursue the things they valued above and beyond earning their daily bread.

One of the things I notice about many places on the internet is the amount of WRATH that people are filled with; liberal or conservative, left or right. People are filled with wrath, and that is disturbing and by some judgement, immoral.

I personally have decided to limit or restrain my wrath to the degree that I write or speak about this, because it is ultimately wrong. Part of being truly free is living comfortably in your own mind, knowing that your life, thoughts and actions have a purpose of their own, and you are not beholden to what others think and judge about you. Being conformist in your "wrath" (all conservatives are supposed to hate Obama, or something like that) is just that, something to limit your own freedom by conforming to what others expect of you.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 12, 2014 06:22 PM

Thank you, Cass.

On the issue of tone I tried to start with easy examples, things conservatives do believe in, not to show that conservatives are already right, but to show that it's possible to start thinking about these things without abandoning conservative ideas.

Tone is certainly part of it, and the analogy to the problems women have with Republicans may be an apt way of exploring that. So, when one of these "tone" issues comes up, the reason it's so hard on Republicans is the sense that the tone produces that maybe there's more than just tone at work.

Frankly, I think that's right at least some of the time. Now the right way to solve it -- so I have argued -- is to go ahead and have the conversation, not worrying about tone, so we can find out where we differ on principles. Then we can explore why we differ. There may be good reasons!

In the case of men and women, I think the worlds we encounter are so different that it's almost impossible even to understand where and how they are different. (I've given you the example of my wife's vision, and mine; and the many and subtle ways hormones like testosterone influence our understanding of the world we are moving in.) There are social constructs too, which women encounter but men don't, or don't in the same way, and vice versa.

The same is very much true (I believe) for those working class folks that I'm talking about. They're coming from a different world than the one that produces the Republican leadership.

So when there's an offensive tone directed downward at those on the bottom, maybe some of it is 'just tone.' But maybe some of it is really a lack of understanding. What are their real options? What's stopping them from doing better?

Posted by: Grim at March 12, 2014 06:22 PM

Here's an example. One of the bits of advice I've heard floated is that people should move to North Dakota. ND is booming! Lots of work! Of all kinds!

I've been looking into this a bit myself, because I am also looking for work, and I'm willing to move if necessary. Turns out there are a few problems.

1) Most of the jobs require several certifications. This isn't necessarily an unreasonable government intrusion at all, because there is a certain amount of hazard involved in natural gas. But if you are an unemployed member of the working classes, you may not be able to front either the time (if you are working two part-time jobs, which is difficult to schedule) or the money (if these jobs are poorly paid, as they probably are if you're working more than one) to obtain the certifications.

2) There's nowhere for them to live. In the summertime, camping is an option, but there is a severe housing shortage. Job sites warn you not to move, even if you get a job, until you have sorted out where you will live. People are going anyway, living out of their cars, but there are limits on that (especially this very cold winter!).

So here are some roadblocks. Now conservatives may very well want to see our gas industry bloom, even for foreign policy reasons like undercutting Russia. So it's not even out of our way to want to help the working man get what he needs to get out there on the gas fields.

What he needs is help getting certified, and a place to live. Now, there are conservative critiques of providing those things as straight-out "Let the Government Do It!" solutions. That's fine. But what can we do? It sounds like there ought to be a solution here.

Posted by: Grim at March 12, 2014 06:38 PM

..you are an unemployed member of the working classes, you may not be able to front either the time (if you are working two part-time jobs...

Sorry: conflicting edits made that incoherent. If you are unemployed, obviously you aren't working two jobs.

I meant to say that if you are a member of the working class, you may face these problems. If you are unemployed, you very likely have no money for retraining or pursuing certifications. But even if you are employed, you may not be able to front the money; or, possibly you could manage the money, but not the time.

Still, it seems like there's an answer to be found here, if we can find the way to answer the problem that is coherent with good principles.

Posted by: Grim at March 12, 2014 08:14 PM

I don't know about those numbers.

The numbers were simply meant to be illustrative. Bringing those jobs back and paying the higher wages help those few who get jobs (and then only marginally over what they were making at other jobs), but higher prices are borne by a much larger class. Again, the rich can absorb those prices (though opportunity costs are not 0). The poor cannot. There are a lot more poor than just those whose jobs have been offshored. So the pain is disproportionately felt by the poor, not the rich. It functions as a regressive tax.

There's more than you might think
Well, we might share the same taste in music, but those are hardly the ties that bind. Sure, he might agree intellectually that one should make decisions that are more concerned with improving the lives of our children more than others (just as we agree that we should make policy decisions that are more concerned with improving the lives of our countrymen more than others), but somehow when I actually *do that* I'm a scum sucking bastard who's hoarding wealth for the benefit of me and mine at the expense of everyone else.

Huh, that's the same sentiment that poor countries (and their citizens) have about the US.

I've got no problem telling China to go get bent over that.

What he needs is help getting certified, and a place to live. Now, there are conservative critiques of providing those things as straight-out "Let the Government Do It!" solutions. That's fine. But what can we do? It sounds like there ought to be a solution here.

The actual solution is time. Some enterprising company will start up (if it's allowed to) to conduct the training and possibly do it under an agreement to be paid by the employer like a finder's fee. Some other one will build housing.

But it's not going to happen overnight.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 13, 2014 01:29 PM

That's right, if nothing else happens time cures all wounds (except bleeding ones).

So when the guy trapped in Alabama because he can't afford to pursue certifications -- which, if he had them, would help us expand our natural gas industry in a way that would advance our foreign policy goals with Russia -- when it comes time for him to vote, here's what he will hear:

Left: "Labor like yours is honored and valuable, but the Republicans have wrecked the economy. We can't fix it because they won't let us spend enough to put you to work, but we will provide you with food stamps and mortgage relief so you don't starve or lose your house. Eventually, time will cure the wounds."

Right: "Possibly at some point in the future, if our friends on the Left will allow it, someone might start a company to help you. If they do, we'll totally be on their side in trying to ease regulations so their company can get started and become profitable. In the meantime, we need to cut food stamps and eliminate mortgage relief. It's true that this may mean that you have trouble feeding your kids, or that you lose your house, but in time -- again, if someone starts the right kind of company, someone with capital, whom we would be happy to support -- things should get better."

Now, in terms of policy, both of these answers are unhelpful to the guy in Alabama. They're bad in different ways, but neither one really addresses the problem the guy is facing (i.e., he wants a job and jobs are available, but needs retraining and certification because the economy has changed and, as a poorer worker, he doesn't have the right combination of time and capital to buy it).

From a tone perspective, the first answer is going to draw his vote. The second answer sounds as though the Republican party cares about people with capital who want to start businesses, but views him and his problems as entirely negligible. If someone with money wants to start a business that might have the effect of helping him, they'd support that. But only if it were a side effect of helping someone with capital to achieve their own goals.

Meanwhile, natural gas production lags because the market is glutted with construction workers in Alabama, but starved of certified gas workers in ND. Whatever foreign policy goals we have wait on the market to figure that out.

So the question is partially one of tone, as Cass suggests. But there's also an issue of substance: is there really nothing, in line with conservative principles, that can be done to help citizens whom we have (lots of!) reasons to want to see retrained and put to work, on a project we already support for foreign policy reasons?

Posted by: Grim at March 13, 2014 02:43 PM

I have to admit I skipped much of the discussion once I found out that the only place the word "miserable" appears in the study is in the journalist's headline. The study was of what the author of the study thought of as indicia of "well being", not happiness or unmiserableness. For example, Colorado gets bonus points for having a low obesity rate. Other states get points for having fewer smokers. Not a study on happiness or miserablness at all.

Posted by: Rex at March 13, 2014 02:52 PM

The problem is that to affect the kind of things that would help "the little guy" in Alabama, say expanded housing construction, requires one to step on "the little guy" somewhere else.

How exactly do you plan on conscipting construction workers to build all these houses? They've already decided that chasing profit there isn't worthwhile. At least not enough of them have.

Or are you back to soaking the rich to pay [strike]bribes[/strike] increase the profit margins more?

And that's the crux of the two visions. Is taking things from one group against their will and giving it to a more favored group an appropriate act or not?

Democrats think it's expediant for votes to do so. Republicans think that causes more harm than good. But you are right: buying votes with other people's money does get more votes.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 13, 2014 05:46 PM

I didn't say we should do anything in particular. I said we should think about what we can do to help that lies within our principles.

You can imagine the "tone" problem that would come if a woman asked a Republican a question about how his policies helped women, and he said that studies showed that being married was good for both partners, so his policies to help men would help her too if only she was patient, found the right guy, and did her part for the marriage.

In a way, of course, it's true! Marriage is good for both partners, usually; and that would be a wise plan, all else being equal.

In another way, it's going to cement her opinion that the Republican is interested in helping men, and thinks of the effects on women as of secondary interest (or of negligible interest).

So too the little guy who asks a question about his situation, and is told that what he needs is to form a relationship with someone who has money, and the Republican will be happy to help that guy with money achieve his own ends. Incidentally, of course, your ends may also be advanced -- but clearly, the Republican is representing himself as the party for people with money. People who have money to spend, capital to invest, these are the ones who deserve political attention. You will have to wait.

So my question is -- is there anything that your principles would allow you to do? Maybe it's really the case that the Republican party views the working guy as having no recourse to political solutions. The working guy should vote for the Republicans so they can help people with money, and maybe some of that will trickle down to them.

Don't be surprised, though, if you don't win 'Reagan Democrats' with that approach. A whole lot of the white working class vote sat out the last two Presidential elections, and they may well give up on the political system if it really has nothing to say to them.

Posted by: Grim at March 13, 2014 06:24 PM

There must be something really wrong with me, but I would never ask how anyone's policies helped my demographic.

...my question is -- is there anything that your principles would allow you to do? Maybe it's really the case that the Republican party views the working guy as having no recourse to political solutions. The working guy should vote for the Republicans so they can help people with money, and maybe some of that will trickle down to them.

It's not the government's job to help people earn a living, Grim. This is the disconnect.

If you're competing with someone who's willing to hand out endless goodies (even when that has been shown to actually harm the recipients) you don't compete by promising a different basket of goodies.

The kind of person who wants goodies will go with the basket that requires nothing from them. The only kind of person whose vote you stand a chance of winning is the person who can be convinced that promising goodies for votes is despicable and bad for the rest of the country as well as for the people you're ostensibly trying to help.

And I think that's the truth. How do so many immigrants come to America with nothing and end up prosperous within a generation? Hard work and sacrifice.

We can tell people they shouldn't have to do what we KNOW they DO have to do, to get ahead. Or we can promise them goodies. As Larry Elder once said, "Don't talk down to blacks. Talk *to* them."

Any politician who promises to help women is a politician I will run from. There are some people like that left. The others, we have no chance with. Such talk is insulting per se.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 13, 2014 06:48 PM

Of course you don't want a demagogue, Cass. But if you asked him about a problem that concerned you, you'd expect him to give you an answer in terms of you. If he gave you an answer in terms of your husband, you'd be insulted.

Likewise, this is not about helping people make a living per se. Here we've got a foreign policy problem that happens to align with problems many people are having in their lives, and also with problems that companies in places like North Dakota are having in finding the qualified recruits they need.

In principle, there's no reason the government should not pursue its foreign policy goals -- especially when those goals line up with improving outcomes for American citizens and American corporations as well.

I mean, maybe we don't want the government to build housing units in North Dakota in pursuit of its foreign policy goals. The working man who recently used to be a Marine sergeant will have noticed that we built a lot of housing units in Iraq in pursuit of foreign policy goals. He may wonder why it was OK to spend billions building housing units for Americans to help Iraqis, but not to allow Americans to help themselves and each other.

Maybe there's a good answer for that, which mean that we need another way of addressing the housing shortage. It should be possible to say, "Here's what I'm doing to help address the housing shortage, in line with what I see as the legitimate limits of government." And maybe, thinking about these problems, you'd come up with a creative solution that really might help some American citizens. And American corporations. And America.

Posted by: Grim at March 13, 2014 07:04 PM

I can't speak personally to the job market in North Dakota, though nothing I've read about it suggested that even unskilled people were having trouble getting hired on. I can say that, here in the Texas shale boom, even low-skilled felons on parole can easily stay employed. A boom means overwhelming demand not only for skilled workers but for everyone who does everything, no matter how mundane. Anyone willing to pick up a hammer or even man a desk can get a job. Employers haven't got much choice but to spend time training people into the positions they're desperate to fill.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 13, 2014 08:00 PM

Quite agree w/ you that the lower overall prices from 'globalization' (relatively free trade, and net overall resulting efficiencies) benefit all, perhaps especially those with lower incomes.

BTW, disposable diapers are a domestic product, made primarily from wood pulp. Those manufacturing facilities are located near the source of pulp; softwood forests.

China is *hugely* short of trees, and the transportation costs for a bulky low cost product are prohibitive. Anyway the labor cost is a very small part of net cost.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 13, 2014 10:00 PM

Hi Grim,
That list of happy' states is complete and utter liberal hogwash.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 13, 2014 10:05 PM

Hi Cass,
'I don't expect other people to make me happy. I never have.'

Can't recall the source of these, but I swear by the attitude:
> 'nobody gets to decide how happy I am, except me'
> 'Happiness is a decision made daily'
> Most people wind up about as happy as they choose to be'

>>> I'm up for another Half Full Glass!

Very Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 13, 2014 10:12 PM

Hi again Cass,
You're damn right an all volunteer military is 'better' (more effective & efficient) than a conscript military.
Not sure your hubby is old enough to recall the bad old days; ask him about the quality of forces produced by the draft.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 13, 2014 10:25 PM

CAPT Mike,

It may be, or not. Some of the measures may be highly valid; others not. I think we ought to be open to the question, rather than looking for a reason to shut it down and pretend everything is great.

Maybe it'll be more convincing, for a man with your respect for authority, coming from an authority figure.

"When Americans went to the polls in 2012, the following was true: Work-force participation had sunk to its lowest level in 35 years, wages had fallen below 1999 levels, and 47 million Americans were on food stamps. Yet Mitt Romney, the challenger to the incumbent president, lost lower- and middle-income voters by an astonishing margin. Among voters earning $30,000 to $50,000, he trailed by 15 points, and among voters earning under $30,000 he trailed by 28 points.
And what did the GOP’s brilliant consultant class conclude from this resounding defeat? They declared that the GOP must embrace amnesty."


"Republicans should then outline a detailed agenda animated by the moral goal of easing the burden on workers while helping millions now unemployed transition from joblessness and dependency to work and rising wages...."

So says the junior Senator from Alabama.

Posted by: Grim at March 13, 2014 11:29 PM

Past the paywall:

Posted by: OBloodyHell, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." at March 14, 2014 12:02 AM

This works at the moment:

Posted by: OBloodyHell, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." at March 14, 2014 12:02 AM

To Ferdinand's dismay, he discovered in the middle of the tourney that one of his opponents, taking a leaf from the Official Tonya Harding Playbook, swapped the club's hash brownies for ex-lax brownies.

His already none-too-illustrious career would, unfortunately, never recover.

... the tennis outfit was, of course, a total loss.

Posted by: OBloodyHell, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." at March 14, 2014 12:34 AM

OOP. Wrong window. Sorry.

Posted by: OBloodyHell, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." at March 14, 2014 12:35 AM

I think we ought to be open to the question, rather than looking for a reason to shut it down and pretend everything is great.

Grim, that's needlessly insulting. Simply disagreeing with you doesn't amount to "looking for reasons to shut down debate and pretend everything is great". We are, in fact, taking the time to discuss this with you, so I don't see the need to impugn our motives.

This is where these debates seem to go so wrong - anyone who disagrees is being a mean spirited poopy head. It couldn't possibly be that they have thought out their position (whether it's right or wrong), or that they think some proposed remedy would make things worse, not better. No, they're just looking for reasons to shut down conversation.

I'm sorry, but I really don't think it's the proper role of the federal government to address temporary housing shortages in states.

You asked earlier what I might support that would align with my beliefs. I would support large public works projects that didn't cost 3X or 10X what they cost in other countries to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.

I would NOT support spending a ton of money to smooth every difficulty out of the way for workers, because my experience in life tells me that the majority of people you're trying to help don't take advantage of the program (govt. subsidized health insurance, anyone?), you draw a lot of dirtbags who milk the system, and a lot of the people you most want to help - the ones who are willing to work hard and don't expect a handout - don't sign up, either. And those people tend to succeed in life because they keep trying and don't give up.

I have worked in a few govt. sponsored programs to "help" struggling people in my life. I have not been impressed with the results, frankly. When you're talking about taking money from one person's paycheck to pay for a program, you should have a VERY compelling argument about why that's necessary.

Which applies to building housing in Iraq, by the way. I could ask about all sorts of federal programs, but the existence of one arguably foolish waste of money doesn't justify another to me.

I'm sorry - it just doesn't.

I'm sorry that I haven't had time to devote to this conversation. Difficult week at work, complicated by stupid problems with my knee, my back, and my migraines. But please don't characterize disagreement unfairly.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 14, 2014 05:11 PM

Howdy Cassandra,
I'm deeply offended that you would mock 'poppy heads.'

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 15, 2014 05:15 PM


I wasn't talking to you when I said that, but was responding to CAPT Mike, who seemed to be dismissing the whole idea as hogwash. Indeed, I think that's a direct quote. Yep, it is.

Mike doesn't discuss things, he talks like the O-6 he proclaims himself to be. Now, I've known a lot of O-6s, and they're usually good guys. This is not intended as a slam against high-ranking officers. They do tend to do what they've been trained to do, which is declare rather than discuss. My point was that I was unwilling to accept a flat dismissal of the study, because a few of the factors may not be accurate; nor the problem, which is severe at least where I live and travel.

But we can close the discussion here after all. I think I understand your positions very well now.

Posted by: Grim at March 15, 2014 09:02 PM

And for what it's worth, none of that is intended as a slam on CAPT Mike, not just not high ranking officers. It's just he talks curtly and definitively, so he gets similar responses. I assume that's what he likes.

I addressed the remark to him directly to avoid confusion. It was not aimed more widely, although perhaps the Senator's remarks -- published since we began this discussion -- are worth considering.

Posted by: Grim at March 15, 2014 09:28 PM

Thanks for the clarification, Grim. Sorry if I misunderstood.

I wasn't intending to close the discussion, but rather to explain why I haven't been able to participate (I can tell this is important to you) and make it clear that I wasn't dismissing the question you raised.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 16, 2014 10:17 AM

CAPT Mike often discusses things in terms I find rational, helpful, and pleasant, with a refreshing economy of words.

The "happiness map" was interesting, but it's hard to draw from it many conclusions about what makes people happy, other than that fantastic economic booms do a pretty good job. (The upward trajectory of North and South Dakota was startling. I'd love to see results that broke states down into regions, so we could see how happy people are in slow-growing East Texas, full-on statist People's Republic of Austin, and the Eagle Ford shale area.) Looking at the chart of the six-year trend, I have to wonder what made Connecticut fall off a cliff.

I can't see any evidence that what makes people happy is the government's taking responsibility for their finding a job and a place to live. Nor is wealth alone much of a guide, but we knew that.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 16, 2014 08:46 PM

What makes people happy is the ability to pursue excellence as they define it. That requires resources, honorably earned by work. Sometimes the market fails, yet we can elect to work together in other ways. The overarching mode for working together when our individual household can't handle the problems we face as a community is politics.

If you exclude the poor from political solutions, you won't get their votes. But there are probably better political solutions than taking from the rich and giving to the poor, which is immoral and ineffective. I wish Republicans would think more about what those solutions might be, because Democrats are happy to include the poor in politics, but only in ways that end up being destructive to the poor.

Sen. Sessions seems to have picked up the ball, though, so I'll leave it. My complaint was that Republicans weren't talking about it, except in terms of helping people with money do things that people with money want to do. He's on the right track, in a noted conservative journal, and I wish him luck with his project.

Posted by: Grim at March 16, 2014 09:28 PM

"Sometimes the market fails" is a phrase that packs an astounding quantity of assumptions about what the market is supposed to do. Markets don't hire people or do work; they just provide a framework for setting prices.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 17, 2014 11:39 AM

It's not really a controversial claim. Markets are supposed to help buyers and sellers come together to pursue their own ends. Sometimes, for various reasons, they fail to accomplish this effectively. When that happens, we can still elect to work together via non-market means if we choose.

National Guard disaster relief a great example of a non-market means of working together. There, the market has failed due to a natural disaster. We wouldn't say, "Well, the solution is time -- eventually, companies will come in and sell relief and infrastructure repairs. Of course, the afflicted can't afford them, but perhaps they could trade land or services in exchange for sandbags and clean water."

Rather, we recognize that something has caused the market to fail, and we take action to get it working efficiently again. In the end, this is better for everyone (as well as morally right). The rebuilt market will produce new wealth which, over time, will more than adequately replace the wealth spent making the repairs.

Posted by: Grim at March 17, 2014 12:06 PM

Natural disaster relief isn't a market healing process. It's a gift, in recognition that people in extremity can't adequately provide for each other by trading internally and have nothing immediately useful to offer anyone outside their community. It's like feeding soup to someone prostrated with fever.

In a disaster, the market didn't fail; production did. The National Guard doesn't take action to get the market working again; it feeds people for free until they're strong enough to resume producing valuable goods and services and the roads are clear enough to get the goods and workers in and out. As soon as production and distribution resume, the market will resume on its own, without the expert economic assistance of the National Guard.

That is, it will if the government doesn't actively squelch it. We discourage "price gouging," for instance, which only inhibits the very strong signal that otherwise would irresistibly draw everybody and his brother to pack his station wagon full of food, water, and construction material and dare any danger to get his goods to the disaster zone ASAP. Because we're so kind-hearted!

Prosperity, and jobs, originate from production, not from markets or any other method of setting prices. Markets are more efficient than fiat-pricing at optimizing and distributing production, but the story still has to start with production: useful work that converts resources into forms more valued by other people, who are busy doing the same and want to trade. Without production, government fixes are like trying to use antibiotics to cure an infection in a dead body: completely missing the point of the source of the health and vitality.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 17, 2014 03:32 PM

Natural disaster relief isn't a market healing process. It's a gift...

Or not! Maybe it's a duty.

In other words, the reason we step up and help folks when a hurricane or an earthquake hits is that they're Americans too. In good times, they help pay for the National Guard, and help man the factories or the ports, help build the roads, help pay the taxes. They're comrades, fellows, citizens, with whom we share binding obligations. And if the disaster hits us next time, they're supposed to come and help us too -- not to gouge us for the last heirlooms of grandma's salvaged from the wreck of our lives, in return for a day's clean drinking water.

That's the source of health and vitality I recognize -- mutual loyalty. As far as I can tell, huge market crashes like the ones in 2008 are just a kind of natural disaster that is occasioned by internal contradictions in the market itself. Nobody understands the workings well enough to fully control the market (indeed, that's the very argument against centrally controlled economies), so we let it run free to operate on local information. Most of the time that works well, but sometimes it comes down hard precisely because nobody really understands how to stop that from happening.

Well, sometimes the sea rises and the earth quakes. It's one of those things. When it happens, we pick each other up, and find a way to get things working again.

Posted by: Grim at March 17, 2014 03:45 PM

Obviously. But we're not talking about the same thing.

Yes, mutual loyalty creates a kind of health and vitality, as do art, love, beauty, and a host of other good qualities: a spiritual kind. But spiritual health and vitality don't feed, clothe, and house people all by themselves, which should be obvious from the fact that earthquakes don't devastate love or virtue. They devastate material production. That's why I was talking about the source of the health and vitality of an economy (by analogy to the health of a body). In other words, you're talking about how to spend the wealth, and I'm talking about how to create it in the first place. If you skip the step where we create the wealth to begin with, there's not much point in arguing over how we might best share it.

I think that is the characteristic mistake of the progressive view of the economy and the role of government: it takes the wealth as a given and then tries to glom onto it and distribute it according to an ideological scheme. But 99% of all the wealth we take for granted today didn't even exist until quite recently, when we began to do things a different way. We didn't suddenly get nicer, or less lazy. We learned a better way of signalling each other so that production better matched real needs. That's all it took. It's really amazing.

Each creature has its own food. If you want health and vitality in a body, you give it food, water, and air. If you want health and vitality in a soul, you give it love and duty. If you want health and vitality in an economy, you start with work that converts scarce resources into a form more valuable to other people, who do the same with other resources, then trade with you so that you both benefit. You can't go switching the menus around and expect the patients all to thrive.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 17, 2014 05:44 PM

If we're agreed that our duty is obvious, then I'll spot you the rest of it.

Posted by: Grim at March 17, 2014 10:18 PM

Does duty create jobs? You have a strong sense of duty: has it enabled you to fund a payroll this week? If we can't get clear how jobs happen, it makes no more sense to talk about duty than to talk about asking the government to create jobs. It's like trying to improve crop yields by making your poetry scan: a completely misdirected effort combined with an unshakeable sense that people who aren't on board with it "don't care" about the problem, or are inexplicably blind to their duty.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 18, 2014 12:25 AM

Why, yes, duty does create jobs. Someone has to do whatever a duty entails. That may be to the side, though.

We can agree on how jobs are created. We can agree that, when a disaster creates interruptions in that process, we should work together to get that process back on line because wealth comes from it, and wealth makes all this possible.

So maybe, if the disaster is an earthquake, we need to help rebuild the factory and its supporting infrastructure that got smashed up. If it's a disaster like the 2008 crises, we may need to help workers who were routed by very rational market-based decisions into bubble industries retrain for new industries (like natural gas). We can even think that the right tool for this isn't an organization like the National Guard, but taking steps to help private organizations form up to identify the new needs and arrange industry-certified training.

The two things are not incompatible. We can be wise about satisfying our duties. What we can't do is fail to satisfy them. That's what it means to have duties.

Posted by: Grim at March 18, 2014 12:42 AM

We have a duty to use our heads, too. If you're carrying your child to medical help in the wilderness and relying on a bad compass, your duty may lead you to keep walking, but it won't help you to a doctor.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 18, 2014 10:27 AM

At this point I think we're in agreement. Your analogy above is framed this way:


That's obviously wrong, because moral duty is related to the kinds of economic ends that ought to be pursued (it's why, for example, it is fine to pursue profit by selling cattle, but not fine to do it by selling slaves). Economics is about the pursuit of ends by actors in the market, but because the ends must be justified before they can be pursued, clearly economics is subordinate to moral theory. Poetry and crop rearing are unrelated (at least, as far as I know).

Your new example, here is much more correct. We can talk about using a good compass or a bad one, or whether it's better to use the stars, or to follow the river. But do the one thing or do the other, the only acceptable moral end is to help the child. Economics, analogically, is just about whether it's better to help him with a broken compass or a working one.

Posted by: Grim at March 18, 2014 10:52 AM

I used the child in the analogy so we wouldn't get bogged down in discussions about the value of the aim--we certainly agree people should do whatever it takes to care for their children, and I assumed it would be an uncontroversial example for you. Unfortunately, we seem to share no views on whether we should treat all citizens as if they were our children!

Duty is irrelevant to what makes an economy to thrive unless we've drawn correct conclusions about what acts are required to make the economy thrive--only then would we have a duty to pursue those acts (assuming we have a moral duty to make the economy thrive, which would get you an argument, I think, from a surprising number of progressives).

Until we get to that point, talking about duty is empty from the point of view of creating jobs. If it were otherwise, everyone in this country who isn't an employer would be in an untenable moral position. "Don't you care enough to hire?"

Posted by: Texan99 at March 18, 2014 03:32 PM

Duty is irrelevant to what makes an economy to thrive unless we've drawn correct conclusions about what acts are required to make the economy thrive--only then would we have a duty to pursue those acts...

Well, that's the most onerous way of deriving duties. You're trying to derive what ethics calls "positive duties," and there are a lot of problems with trying to derive duties of this sort (in fact, some say it can't be done at all).

Even if you could do it, it would be undesirable because it would enslave everyone: you would be obligated to do whatever was 'best' with your wealth. But an obligation not to enslave other people is relatively easy to prove from the Golden Rule, because none of us wish to be enslaved (the duty not to enslave is a 'negative duty,' a 'thou shalt not' rather than 'thou shalt'). So there is a basic contradiction in trying to approach moral duties as positive duties.

But we can derive some negative duties that are not onerous -- you can't leave the child to die, or treat your fellow citizens in the event of an earthquake as targets for profiteering. You can't leave them in misery.

But, because these are negative duties, you're free to determine how you attend to the ends that duty identifies. So you can be smart, or less smart, without violating duty. Better to be smart.

Posted by: Grim at March 18, 2014 05:38 PM

I confess that, as so often happens, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 19, 2014 03:29 PM

There are different levels of duty to our fellow men/women, I think.

We have a higher duty towards close friends and family, but that duty is balanced out by knowledge of their character and by a greater expectation of reciprocity (if I help you, you'll help me).

Towards complete strangers, our duty is and ought to be far less onerous. There are no bonds of blood or marriage or affection or even - in many cases - common values or culture to bind us.

Where the Democrats consistently go wrong with me is when they try to force me to treat complete strangers the same way I would treat a friend of family member. I might give the key to my house to a relative or close friend. I'm not going to drop copies of my house key over Manhattan, though. Or DC.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 19, 2014 04:11 PM

That's all right. I'll try it again, and perhaps it will be clearer.

When we're talking about "positive and negative duties," it is the same concept that is at work in "positive and negative rights." You know this one well enough, I believe from previous discussions. If you have a positive right to something, it must be provided to you. If you have a negative right, no one can stop you from doing it (though you may choose not to do it). From the perspective of the government, then, a positive duty requires it to do something specific for you. A negative duty requires it to do nothing specific, only to refrain from interfering with your choices.

In deontology, which is the ethics that thinks about duties, a positive duty is an explicit action you are morally obligated to take. A negative duty merely marks out certain forbidden fields of action.

So when you say, "...unless we've drawn correct conclusions about what acts are required to make the economy thrive--only then would we have a duty to pursue those acts..." you're talking about positive duties. You're talking about a duty to pursue specific actions.

I don't think such a duty could exist, even if we could say with certainty that a certain course of action by all of us would make the economy thrive. Such a determination cannot impose a duty to take that specific action on us whether we like it or not, because it would contradict another duty that is relatively easy to prove -- the duty not to enslave each other.

Negative duties shape the field of acceptable actions, but they don't direct or force action. Thus, a system that imposes negative duties can be compatible with the duty not to enslave.

Posted by: Grim at March 19, 2014 04:19 PM


That's right, you have different kinds of duties based on different relationships. Family is one kind of relationship that can impose duties; friendship is another.

We often do impose positive duties in law, but ethics shouldn't. The draft, for example, imposes a positive duty to appear at time X on day Y to serve for as long as necessary. That doesn't mean you are morally obligated to obey; if you had some reason to feel it was immoral, you could morally refuse. That's why civil disobedience can be a moral choice, even though it is never a legal choice.

Posted by: Grim at March 19, 2014 04:32 PM