Land of the free—and unequal

All you readers who can’t resist going after Sam Harris—back off a tick.  He has a nice new piece on HufPo: “A new year’s resolution for the rich,” which highlights the growing financial inequality between Americans. (That, of course, also means inequality of health care and many other benefits.)  Harris calls for a fairer tax code, one in which the wealthy—as they did historically—pay a higher proportion of their incomes, and for wealthier Americans to sacrifice some of their fortunes on education and clean energy.

. . . throughout the 1950’s–a decade for which American conservatives pretend to feel a harrowing sense of nostalgia–the marginal tax rate for the wealthy was over 90 percent. In fact, prior to the 1980’s it never dipped below 70 percent. Since 1982, however, it has come down by half. In the meantime, the average net worth of the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled (to $18.5 million), while that of the poorest 40 percent has fallen by 63 percent (to $2,200). Thirty years ago, top U.S. executives made about 50 times the salary of their average employees. In 2007, the average worker would have had to toil for 1,100 years to earn what his CEO brought home between Christmas in Aspen and Christmas on St. Barthes. . . . But I can’t imagine that anyone seriously believes that the current level of wealth inequality in the United States is good and worth maintaining, or that our government’s first priority should be to spare a privileged person like myself the slightest hardship as this once great nation falls into ruin. . .

. . . The combined wealth of the men and women on the Forbes 400 list is $1.37 trillion. By some estimates, there are at least another 1,500 billionaires in the United States. Something tells me that anyone with a billion dollars could safely part with 25 percent of his or her wealth–without being forced to sell any boats, planes, vacation homes, or art. As of 2009, there were 980,000 families with a net worth exceeding $5 million (not including their primary residence). Would a one-time donation of 5 percent really be too much to ask to rescue our society from the maw of history?

Lovely sentiments.  Given the political climate of our country, none of this will happen, of course.  The Republicans couldn’t even sacrifice their goal of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, a huge loss of money for the government whose retention by the wealthy will do nothing for the country.  Screw health care for the poor, but let the rich get their tax breaks.  This is government, as Francis Fukuyama says below, not only by the wealthy, but for them.

Face it: we’re becoming a plutocracy.  Here are some graphs produced by Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez (courtesy of Foad Mardukhi), showing the huge rise in income inequality in America that has taken place since the late 1930s (download his article here).  This one shows the proportion of total income shared by the wealthiest 10% of Americans (click to enlarge):

But it’s worse: you can decompose the top 10% into three groups: the share of total income garnered by those making the top 1% (about 21%!), the top 1%-5%, and the top 5%-10%.  The topmost bracket has shown the greatest increase since 1980:

The latest issue of The American Interest Online deals with the reality and ramifications of this inequality.  From an essay by ex-conservative Francis Fukuyama, “Left Out“:

This is not, however, what this issue of The American Interest means by plutocracy. We mean not just rule by the rich, but rule by and for the rich. We mean, in other words, a state of affairs in which the rich influence government in such a way as to protect and expand their own wealth and influence, often at the expense of others. As the introductory essay to this issue shows, this influence may be exercised in four basic ways: lobbying to shift regulatory costs and other burdens away from corporations and onto the public at large; lobbying to affect the tax code so that the wealthy pay less; lobbying to allow the fullest possible use of corporate money in political campaigns; and, above all, lobbying to enable lobbying to go on with the fewest restrictions. Of these, the second has perhaps the deepest historical legacy.

146 Comments

  1. Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Pure Malthusian operating systems make for egregious social software. What works for cheetahs should not be applied to economics. Ergo Goldman Sachs.

  2. still learning
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    This is becoming the Re-Gilded Age. No nation does well when the wealth disparity is so dramatic. I fear for our country.

  3. Michieux
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Since 2004, when I was “retrenched” for the second time in my life, I’ve had to make do with whatever I could earn as a freelance proofreader. Next month is my 61st birthday and it looks like the days of full-time employment are over for me.

    Despite this dismal outlook, and in spite of my meager income, I manage to set aside a good portion of that income and donate it to causes which tug at my heart. Call me an “easy touch,” if you like. I may have many faults, but selfishness isn’t one of them.

    My wife and I decided 25 years ago not to bring new life into the world, because both of us recognized that a) we weren’t suitable “parent material,” and b) overpopulation is probably the major cause of the planet’s problems.

    The net effect of our decisions will most likely be zilch. We feel very much alone, as we watch almost everyone around us — our generation, the one that preceded us, and the next generation — carry on as if their actions have no consequences.

    We do what we can; but there are only two of us.

    • Helen Wise
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Thoughtful people of conscience who are doing all they can are enough. Consider: the aggregate of thoughtful individuals may be a tipping point.

    • AT
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Dear Michieux:

      Not only you doing great and made the right choices for mankind – you are not alone.

      I’d like to contact you directly about some specific material and a posible solicitation for your reading/writing talent that may bring you some work.

      We need help from people like you.

      Please e-mail me atodorov at gmail dot com or live a comment with the e-mail i can reach you at

      thanks,

      alex

    • Posted December 31, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      Overpopulation would be a minor problem if it were not for inequality and inefficiencies.

      (but in the long term exponential growth cannot continue, nonetheless)

      Blaming overpopulation as the ultimate cause can lead to absurd conclusions (“maybe it is not so bad if people die? or if people die earlier? why extend healthy life span by developing new drugs, etc.”) so we should not do it.

      • Posted January 1, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        (Kismet): “Overpopulation would be a minor problem if it were not for inequality and inefficiencies.”

        Please visit pharyngula with your libertarian tripe. Could be fun!

        You resort to insults (“tripe”) without provocation. Please reconsider.

        On the population issue you take the libertarian position (“not a problem”) when, obviously (seems to me), the Earth’s human population cannot grow without limit and will not stop growing until “vice, misery, or moral restraint” intervenes. Since “moral restraint” cannot work (we can go into this if you wish) that leaves vice (compulsory limits on reproduction) or misery (war, famine, epidemic disease, genocide).

        How’s it feel to take the libertarian position, against common sense?

        • Posted January 1, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          “Tripe” is not an insult if it is an accurate description and if used jokingly it is at worst mildly offensive.

          And I did not take on any libertarian position:

          It is a simple fact that overpopulation right now would be a minor problem if it were not for inefficiencies and inequality (and irrationality). This is a statement of fact, not ideology.

          I said population growth can’t continue. This is also a mathematical fact, not a statement of ideology.

          You must be confusing what I said about current vs. future population issues.

          Also, I think you are wrong about the solution. I fear it will take both “moral restraint” and some form of (mild) compulsion to stop long term growth.

          • Posted January 1, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            That was commedably civil. My point was this: your agreement with the libertarian position on one issue (population is not a problem) does not make you either a libertarian nor a Libertarian. Furthermore, if someone presents an argument without insults, why come back with insults? You might look into yourself.

            I get that a lot. Very few people can accept that, barring a cometary impact or another Maunder Minimum, the world will come around to the Chinese solution or something like it, eventually.

  4. Helen Wise
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Firstly, and most importantly, happy birthday, Dr. Coyne. Wishing you all the best this year.

    And secondly, huh? There are readers here who go after Dr. Harris? (Yes, of course there are, but I meant readers of the non-religious persuasion.)

    • JS1685
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Some people really can’t abide Sam’s idea that science can and eventually will explain many things that currently fall under the aegis: subjective.

      But many do agree with Sam (I am one). The biggest problem I have with Sam is his skeptical blind spot when it comes to Eastern mystic-type stuff. But otherwise, I find myself in almost total agreement with him almost all of the time. In debates, I think he does perhaps the best job of rebutting whatever nonsense his opponent has vomited forth.

      • Posted December 30, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        It’s not that we can’t abide it, it’s that there are problems with it. Not bogus problems, not problems for the sake of being tiresome or superior or contrarian or hostile, but real problems.

        • Helen Wise
          Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          I’d be most interested to learn what you think those real problems are, Ms. Benson. (Not making an argument–I really want to know.)

          I have some difficulty with Dr. Harris’ ideas about torture; additionally, I’m troubled a bit about his suggestion that we might prosecute people proactively for their beliefs, rather than for their actions. Perhaps these are areas that are bothersome to you, as well?

          • JS1685
            Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

            Ooh. I know he’s adamant that an individual’s actions really do result from an individual’s beliefs, but I wasn’t aware of his stance on thoughtcrime. If that’s true, I’ll have to add it to my list of disagreements.

          • Nick B.
            Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

            You’re talking about that one line in The End of Faith right? Something like “it may even be ethical to kill people for believing things”. I think there he is trying to drive home just how consequential beliefs can be for peoples behavior (in his view). I think it is safe to say that he doesn’t think we need some new law right now or anytime in the foreseeable future.

            And as far as the torture thing goes, he made an ethical argument in The End of Faith. I have heard many people condemn him for what he wrote but I have never seen anyone answer his argument. This is not to say I agree with him. Just an observation.

            • Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

              The torture argument in The End of Faith was something like, “Wouldn’t it be ethical to torture someone if it saved lives?”

              IF torture yielded reliable information that did save lives, we’d have an ethical dilemma. However, in fact torture does not yield reliable information, and therefore there is no dilemma. Torture is just wrong, period.

              • Helen Wise
                Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                Torture IS wrong.

                And every time I make this pronouncement, I have to wander through a decision thicket involving my daughter. You all know it. And where I get to is, yes, I’d do torture in a picosecond if it would save her, etc. (although I’m feeling slightly less this way since her emphatic conversion to Christianity.

              • Peter
                Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

                To be precise, I think Harris’s conclusion was that torture wasn’t more wrong than collateral damage. But yes, the major flaw in the argument was that he assumed torture could elicit reliable information that couldn’t be obtained through other, non-torture methods. There are good, empirical reasons to doubt that. Mostly that torture isn’t good at getting reliable information at all.

              • sasqwatch
                Posted December 30, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

                Sam’s rebuttals to torture/collateral damage (he finds torture to be worse, always). He also discusses the “thought experiment”, which involves idealized, unrealistic cases (he admits). He goes further to argue that the scenario of getting good information through torture, even though unrealistic, does not remove the dilemma. And that people who maintain that torture is ALWAYS wrong, are refusing to look at the dilemma along with a few other hard facts. SOMETIMES the mere threat of torture works. (he provides an example.)

                http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/

                He also talks about the selective quoting surrounding “killing people for what they believe” in the above passage. He’s not being an advocate for either torture or prosecuting thoughtcrime. And he’s anti-death penalty to boot.

                He’s showing what dilemmas arise when dangerous non-evidenced ideas affect the behavior of jihadists – and also when such beliefs put them beyond any peaceful means of persuasion. Happens all the time, by the way.

              • Peter
                Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

                Correction, in the piece linked to, Harris says that collateral damage is always worse than torture.

                Also, Harris claims that he is not “pro-torture”, but it may be ethically necessary in some circumstances. I’m going to go ahead and say that he’s being pro-torture with that position. And therefore we should maybe allow it some times, maybe even allow for a legal warrant for torture or something. In this case, he’s neglecting to consider that since the actual circumstances when we know that torture has a small chance of working better than other methods are very rare, the torture warrant (or whatever) would most likely be abused more than it would ever be useful. For instance, right now, we don’t have a legitimate channel to torture people, but we do anyway, fruitlessly. So putting in a legal channel is just inviting more abuse, surely. Also, if the public knows that we have a legal channel to perform torture, won’t that send the message that we think it works, and maybe it’ll work for your personal problems, too?

                His pro-torture argument seems to be a bit retributionist: there are some people (like Osama bin Laden) who are so bad they don’t deserve not to be tortured. Now, I know that for the most part, Harris does not believe in retributive punishment. But it looks like to me like some retributionist intuition snuck into his argument there.

                Now, I will say that I can imagine, and agree with, a president choosing to pardon someone who is guilty of torture in some extreme circumstances. I mean, I think torture is always a mistake, but I can imagine that sometimes it’s an understandable mistake to make. But it definitely shouldn’t be institutionalized.

                Re: his position on nuking the islamists, I don’t think his attempt to clarify that his position isn’t as insane as some have accused him of being, is very reasonable. I think his critics read him right there, too.

              • sasqwatch
                Posted December 30, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

                Thank you, Peter for fixing my garbling.

          • Nick B.
            Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            Helen, you are aware you completely ignored what I said, right? What on earth makes you think it is even worth the time to type “torture IS wrong”? Pointless.

            • Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

              My point was the Harris’ “torture” argument used a false dilemma that does not in fact exist.

              Surely someone besides me has pointed that out before now?

              • sasqwatch
                Posted December 30, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

                There would be no dilemma if torture never, ever worked, ever. Fact is, though, on rare occasion it does. Sometime the mere threat works. So in an extreme situation, even a very low probability and horrendous tactic might seem to be the most ethical one.

                Ergo, dilemma remains, according to Sam. I think I have to agree, as vile as these ruminations are.

            • Helen Wise
              Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

              Thank you.

              We were having a small discussion about Dr. Harris’ thoughts about torture, and a few people were contributing. Responding to Mr. Moscow, I said, “torture IS wrong”. I was not ignoring what you said–only thinking about it in the totality of the conversation thread.

              I apologize if what I wrote strikes you as “pointless”, but perhaps there are others in this thread whom you feel are making more meaty comments, and you could respond to them instead of me?

          • Posted January 1, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

            “I’m troubled a bit about his suggestion that we might prosecute people proactively for their beliefs, rather than for their actions.”

            Belief is a matter of inference. Inevitably, we prosecute people for actions. What you call a prosecution “for belief” is a prosecution for actions indicative of belief which might incline the believer to harmful action.

            Do you oppose prosecution for drunk driving, when no one has (yet) been harmed by this particular driver? How ’bout carrying firearms without a license (I have not shot anyone yet)? How ’bout importing venomous snakes to Hawaii? I mean, if this particular green mamba hasn’t escaped yet, it’s “no harm, no foul”, right?

        • Nick B.
          Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          I found it interesting that at the panel discussion of The Great Debate (thesciencenetwork.org) when two professional philosophers had their chance to publicly give Sam his licks they essentially got smacked-down. I invite you to watch the video. Sam dealt with the objections of Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn and though there was ample time and opportunity they did not come back at Harris. Harris rebutted their objections and they stood down. As if they didn’t have an answer to his arguments. I’m watching this from a layman’s perspective and thinking ‘maybe Sam is right about moral philosophy’.

        • JS1685
          Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          I agree that there are problems. Problems we currently perceive. Doesn’t it seem likely that as we apply the scientific method to more and more lines of inquiry, we’ll be able to darken or lighten some of those shades of gray?

          • JS1685
            Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

            Italics should’ve stopped after ‘currently’.

            • JS1685
              Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

              IDK what’s going on w my phone!

          • Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

            This is an attempt to close out the italics….

            b&

  5. jay
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I am reminded of HL Mencken: ‘a wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband’–jealousy is a thriving human value.

    There is some misleading info here as well as co-mixing of two very different things: taxation and back channel influence.

    The majority of individuals (including rich ones) but from corporate tax. For example Exxon, paying 27B per year over the last few years (that’s 41% tax rate) alone equaled the 27B of the entire lower 50% of the population individual income tax. Stretch that across the fortune 500, and the taxable income from individuals, even extremely rich individuals, fades into detail.

    What actually happens to the money these rich people make? Maybe they spend a lot on crazy rich people stuff; goodness! that actually helps employ people; when they buy really high end stuff in preserves certain skilled crafts that would have disappeared otherwise.

    Or perhaps they invest it. Gee that helps employ people too. The one thing they DON’T do is stick it in a mattress where it doesn’t accomplish anything.

    The vindictive alternative it seems is to have the government confiscate it… and we all know how wise the government is with money (two pointless, expensive wars driving us further and further into debt squandering all hope of a balanced budget).

    The matter of back channel influence is a truly significant problem, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with taxes or income envy. Even restoring a punitive tax structure will do nothing at all about that problem. That needs to be addressed in changing the entire government mindset, not likely to happen any time soon regardless of whether R or D is in power.

    • Michieux
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Is “the government” something other than a nation’s people?

      I am reminded of the old saying, “A country gets the government it deserves,” or something along those lines.

      In answer to your last sentence, isn’t it the “mindset” of the entire nation that needs changing?

      • AT
        Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Dear Michieux:

        I posted above a request to contact you.

        Please let me know.

        as to your comment – you are right – the people get the government they deserve but there is more to it

        human condition is not proprly understood by most – people infuse their judgements and easily mix opinions with science

        hard science has the answers to all questions including the one of “how it all came to be this way and where it all is going?”

        i’d like to e-mail you some material to read and see if you’d be interested

        regards,

        alex

      • Posted January 1, 2011 at 5:05 am | Permalink

        “Is “the government” something other than a nation’s people?”

        Yes. The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality. Unless you are a government employee you are no more “the government” than someone who lives on the same block as a McDonalds “is McDonalds”.

        “A country gets the government it deserves”.

        To say this is to say that victims deserve to get mugged or raped. Did the Cambodian people, under Pol Pol, get the government they deserved? Did German Jews, under Hitler, Soviet kulaks, under Stalin, or the Cherokee, under Jackson, get the government they deserved?

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      That thing about re-investing or spending on bling is a tired old lie; it doesn’t happen to a great enough extent to be significant. When “re-investing” means playing the stock market then there is no good at all done. Nor would I consider “investment in the art market” (a favorite of many of my old friends) as a good thing. I don’t promote higher taxes though, simply more equitable wages. We also need to put an end to any and all bonus systems of payment; they simply don’t work as claimed and promote bad habits.

      • Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        It’s all about the economic objectives of the private sector. Corporate tyranny dictates what a person’s worth, values, and goals should be — despite the social consequences and the fact that statistics are always in favor of the oligarchy. America is run by a select number of industry reps, lobbyists, bankers, and attorneys. It’s like Larry Ellison working for the Discovery Institute (hence John Templeton’s legacy).

        • Posted January 1, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

          Sectors do not have objectives; people do. The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality. Every law is a threat to kidnap (arrest), assault (subdue), and to forcibly infect with HIV (imprison) someone, under some specified circumstance. People do not become more intelligent, more altruistic, better-informed, or more capable (except in their enhanced access to the tools of violence) when they enter the State’s employ. Quite the contrary; guns attract thugs.

      • jay
        Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Investment in the market is valuable in a couple of ways.

        While the direct payment to capital investment occurs in the initial purchase, a fluid stock market makes much more money available to such investment. Just like the used car market makes purchasing a new car much mor feasible (you know you can get a signigicant chunk of your investment back when your needs chang), the fact that stocks can be readily re-sold means that much cash that could not otherwise be tied up for many years is available to companies going public.

        Much of our pension funds, insurance policies and other financial benefits rely on the market as well to reduce the costs of capital.

        • Peter
          Posted December 31, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          a) roughly: investment by the rich helps people provided there is a shortage of supply. If there is a shortage of demand, more investment doesn’t do much good. And the super rich invest a larger portion of their money than the middle class or the poor

          b) an individual or organization choosing investments carefully based on how well they think the organization they’re investing in will be able to make money is helpful to the economy. A computer program choosing investments by analyzing market fluctuations to predict what will be hot for the next few seconds is not helpful to the economy. It is probably true that some exotic financial products, and fast trading, helps lubricate the economy, but that sort of finance doesn’t actually generate wealth in an economy.

    • Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      ExxonMobil probably wasn’t the best example of a heavy federal taxpayer: http://thinkprogress.org/2010/04/06/exxon-tax/

    • jay
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Interestingly according to these links (with supporting info linked)

      in 2007 the top 1% of personal income tax payers payed 40% of the total of th personal income taxes collected.

      http://www.taxfoundation.org/blog/show/24944.html

      http://www.taxfoundation.org/publications/show/250.html

  6. Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    It really amazes me how the super rich have conned working-class people (often unemployed!) into supporting their causes that further empoverish them.

    Many of these people are not entirely stupid. I suppose when (actually if) they realise how they’ve been conned, there will be hell to pay. Until then, we’re pretty much screwed.

    • jay
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Again, “what’s the matter with Kansas” redux.

      These people have not been conned. What they have is a certain sense of fairness that what people acquire legitimately (within the rules–nobody sheds a tear for Madoff) should be entitled to keep. Not really hard to understand.

      It has been the left’s mindset that they could turn the lower/middle classes against the rich through the jealousy angle (and they seem genuinely puzzled when it doesn’t happen) and provoke class war. But interestingly people’s sense of fairness gets n the way

      • Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        “Within the rules.” Well, there’s your problem. Just ask Alan Greenspan how he manufactured those “rules.” Anyone who knows the history of deregulation in America can see how the casino has been rigged and how so many have suffered because of the entitlement of arrogant assholes and “creative financing”(credit default swaps, futures speculation, bogus residential mortgage backed securities, tax-free derivatives, hedge funds immune to SEC oversight). For every outlier there exists someone who was substantially disenfranchised to create that leverage. Wall Street thrives on fear, greed, and overvalued corporations concerned with profit over economic sustainability. The last thing the world needs is a Lloyd Blankfein apologist.

      • Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        Harris: “For instance, while most Americans have no chance of earning or inheriting significant wealth, 68 percent want the estate tax eliminated (and 31 percent consider it to be the “worst” and “least fair” tax levied by the federal government). Most believe that limiting this tax, which affects only 0.2 percent of the population, should be the top priority of the current Congress.”
        This is an example of the con — to trick working-class people into supporting policies that benefit only the very rich.

        It looks like you’ve been conned yourself, Jay — or maybe you’re one the con artists.

        • nichole
          Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          I am truly puzzled as to why money is taxed when it changes hands, and people are okay with that unless it changes hands from a deceased person to their heirs, in which case they cry foul.

          Reminds me of that train thought experiment, I forget exactly how it went but basically it was that given the choice between pulling a lever to save three people’s lives while sacrificing one person’s life was morally acceptable to people, but pushing one person to their death to save three people’s lives was unacceptable. All it took to change people’s minds is for them to be closer to the sacrifice. Since people can relate to having loved ones die, their sense of empathy goes haywire and overrides the logic behind the fact that they themselves, as well as everyone they know, will almost definitely never be subject to the estate tax.

          Perhaps, like the inverse square law of gravity, empathy is a function of proximity and rich people (and the lobbyists they employ) are successfully exploiting this.

  7. Utakata
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    This why I come to Dr. Coyne’s blog. Not only to learn about science, skepticism and reason…but also learn about the importants of social and economic justice. Without any of which a country isn’t entirely free even if it claims to be.

    The cats are nice too. Happy B-day! <3

  8. Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    In the same article Sam Harris states the obvious about the rich and powerful: that they are simply lucky in their bio-psycho-social circumstances, that nothing about them (or the rest of us) is ultimately self-created:

    “There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. Consequently, no one is responsible for his intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work. If you have struggled to make the most of what Nature gave you, you must still admit that Nature also gave you the ability and inclination to struggle.”

    This is a great example of progressive naturalism. Exploding the myth of the self-made man undercuts a central justification for economic inequality: that any of us could be rich if we simply applied ourselves, and that choice is ultimately independent of our circumstances. Good for Sam for putting the lie to this.

    • Posted December 30, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Now if only he could get out of the habit of invariably using the default male pronoun.

      • Posted December 30, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        That and supposing that science can solve moral dilemmas. But since he’s going public with the denial of free will (see The Moral Landscape pp. 102-110) and drawing out the progressive implications, something no other prominent atheist I know of is doing, such foibles are forgivable, imo.

      • Tim Martin
        Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Harris needs to man up and use singular they in his writing.

        • Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          I hate the singular they. And I can’t recall the last time I came across its usage that there wasn’t a better alternative.

          The two examples given at the top of that Wikipedia article are perfect examples. Rather than, “Anyone who thinks they have been affected should contact their doctor,” write, “People who think they have been affected should contact their doctors.” And, instead of, “One student failed their exam,” write, “One student failed the exam.”

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Tim Martin
            Posted December 30, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

            “I can’t recall the last time I came across its usage that there wasn’t a better alternative.”

            Really? I don’t think you’ve been paying enough attention. What are the better alternatives for these?

            1: Either the husband or the wife has perjured themselves.

            2: Was it your father or your mother who broke their leg on the ski trip?

            3: Every applicant should indicate their preference by checking one of the boxes.

            4. Each child in the class will think they are the best in the class.

            Or we can dip into Shakespeare, Austen, Twain, and Shaw, respectively:

            A: Arise; one knocks. Hark, how they knock!

            B: I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.

            C: That’s always your way, Maim — always sailing in to help somebody before they’re hurt.

            D: Caesar: “No, Cleopatra. No man goes to battle to be killed.” Cleopatra: “But they do get killed”

            You don’t find it funny that the greatest writers of the English language have found singular they to be the better alternative, when you do not?

            • Posted December 30, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

              I’m a massive proponent of the singular “they”. The only reason it’s not “Standard English” is some draconian prescriptivists say it violates some sacred law grammarians made up.

              It’s 1. In usage, and 2. Readily understood. There is no rational reason to bar it from “Standard English.”

              Plenty of languages (including English) have pronouns that do double, triple, or quadruple duty. Using “they” as an ungendered singular pronoun is completely acceptable and anyone who says it isn’t doesn’t understand how language works. (ie, they’re probably an English teacher.)

            • J.J.E.
              Posted December 30, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

              Excellent compilation!

            • Posted December 30, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

              1. Either the husband or the wife has committed perjury.

              2. Was it your father or your mother who broke a leg on the ski trip?

              3. All applicants should indicate their preferences by checking one of the boxes.

              4. All children think they are the best in the class.

              A: I won’t touch Shakespeare.

              B: Everybody who can marry properly aught to do so.

              C: …to help people before they’re hurt.

              D: As-is; Cleopatra’s response is a plural they.

              The singular they, by definition, results in subject / verb disagreement.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted December 30, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                The singular they, by definition, results in subject / verb disagreement.

                No, it doesn’t. By definition, it results in subject/verb agreement, because it is a singular “they”.

              • Posted December 30, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

                Okay technically it can result in “are” being used for a singular subject:

                If someone falls down, they are likely to get hurt.

                I admit this does seem to break the “rule” that “to be” shares the pluralization marking of the subject. I can even find a scenario where the form of the verb is essential to the sentence’s meaning:

                The deer are running.
                The deer is running.

                But I think we primarily understand pluralness from the subject’s marking. Using “are” on a singular subject does not seem to introduce any ambiguity.

                But above all that, this construct is *used*. Therefore, it is proper language. We have to change our understanding of English syntax to explain it’s existence, not banish it.

              • Tim Martin
                Posted January 2, 2011 at 2:14 am | Permalink

                D: As-is; Cleopatra’s response is a plural they.

                You’re correct in that it is ambiguous – it could be either. So I’ll replace one Shaw quote with another- this one from Candida: “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.”

                Now I asked you to give me more natural phrasings for the above uses of singular they, since you apparently find something wrong with them. You gave me your rephrasings, except you’ve omitted any reason why they would be more natural. What, exactly, makes your re-writing of Austen better than the original?

                In several cases, I find the new version definitely less natural than the old. Take example #2: How often do you think it would be someone’s first inclination to say “Was it your dad who broke a leg on the ski trip?” I find the phrase that rolls off my tongue every time to be “Was it your dad who broke his leg on the ski trip?” I don’t have a sample of data to confirm this, but I submit to your intuition that using a possessive instead of “a” in that sentence is the most natural phrasing. By eliminating, “their,” you have made it less so.

                If you still disagree, a matter such as this would be difficult to settle without further research… but we are still left with the all-important question that you haven’t answered: Do you not find it funny that the greatest writers in English history, going back at least as far as 600 years (Chaucer used singular they in the Canterbury Tales), have found it to be the best way to phrase their writing, multiple times throughout multiple works? If you’re so confident in your corrections of the work of Austen or Twain or Shaw, why can’t you tell me what’s better about your phrasing than theirs? What do you know that they didn’t?

                The singular they, by definition, results in subject / verb disagreement.

                Clearly you have the wrong definition then. You have arbitrarily defined “they” as a pronoun that can only be plural, in order to support your argument that “they” can only be plural. Do you have a non-question begging response?

              • Michieux
                Posted January 2, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

                Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes:

                “Although *everyone* and *everybody* carry the strongest suggestion of plurality, the other indefinite pronouns are almost as natural as antecedents with *they* and *them.*

                That’s because *they* has increasingly moved toward singular senses. Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they’re irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them.” (p 644)

                On page 718 he writes, “Though the masculine singular personal pronoun may survive awhile longer as a generic term, it will probably be displaced ultimately by *they*, which is coming to be used alternatively as singular or plural. This usage is becoming common…” Garner gives several examples.

                I do some freelance proofreading for a publisher of educational materials, and they have adopted the usage referred to above in all their publications.

      • Nick B.
        Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Right. Because it’s so goddamn offensive to use the word ‘he’. Could you be any more politically correct? Jesus Christ.

        And for you information, he doesn’t invariably use the “default male pronoun”. If you had read/listened to him a little you would know that.

        • Helen Wise
          Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          Well then.

          You are seeming to me as a bit cross, so perhaps you need more fiber in your diet.

          Perhaps you could have as a new year’s resolution that you will try not to be so cranky. And good luck with it, too.

          • Nick B.
            Posted December 30, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

            Thanks mom.

            • Helen Wise
              Posted December 30, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

              You’re welcome.

              mwah. mwah. mwah.

        • nichole
          Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          ‘Politically correct’ is only an insult on right-winger blogs.

          Do us all a favor and crawl back under that rock, k?

          • Posted January 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

            Consider what this means: only “right wingers” disdain party-line thinking.

      • R Smith
        Posted December 30, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t taken the time to read Sam’s article yet but if here he is saying that none of the richest people in the U.S. chose their genome, country, etc… then I think the “his” is justified.

        If there were a monosyllabic word that specifically indicated “white” males, it may actually be closer to the mark.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m baffled by fairness arguments, life isn’t fair and it isn’t supposed to be or culture would likely stagnate.

    US has a huge advantage over Sweden in having wealth investing in businesses. Here we can do startups but have a historical problem of growing larger companies that employs people, and the usual explanation is said to be the absence of wealth.

    If the motivation is to lower religion and to increase public and environmental health, it is here the resources should go. Obviously you can increase taxation for the richest, having such a large share (here it would be much less advantageous, I think their share is a few percent). But the main effect, and perhaps best choice (see above), would be to go after the rest.

    • Utakata
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Life isn’t fair…but we don’t have to emulate that. Instead we have the intelligence and creativity to go beyond that. And try to make it as fair as we can.

      As for cultural stganation if society where to implement economic justice…where did that strawman come from? That’s a new one to me…and unlikely true. Even if it where true…I rather live in a society that people don’t have to go hungry. Though I very much doubt we lack the imagination to become stagnent, either way. Just saying…

      • Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        Let’s call in the Handicapper General to ensure equality… was a naive concept.

        • CW
          Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:44 am | Permalink

          You have confused “fair” and “equal”.

          • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:20 am | Permalink

            Life isn’t fair. And the post title and post content is obviously drawing a connection between equality and fairness. Wait a second, you’re trolling me. Nice. Took me a second. Well done!

            • CW
              Posted December 31, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

              Yes, there is a connection between unfairness and inequality but that doesn’t make them the same thing.

              If I work twice as hard and accomplish twice as much as my co-worker then paying us both the same wage would be equal but unfair treatment. Paying me twice as much as that co-worker would not be equal but it would be fair. Paying me eleven hundred times as much as that co-worker is neither fair nor equal.

              • Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

                I didn’t say there *was* a connection between fairness and equality, I said the article implied it. Don’t put words in my mouth. If you’re not happy with your status in life do something about it. Don’t expect people to give it to you and certainly don’t you dare demand it.

              • Utakata
                Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                In reality Apphacker, it doesn’t work like that. Many…I would even argue the majority of people who have tried to change their status in life for the better never get better. And likely in many cases worse off for it.

                Ad PS: I demand it. Sorry if that offends you. /shrug

              • Posted December 31, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                That is a defeatist attitude. All you can do is try and in trying there is a noble and courageous spirit. In demanding for handouts there is only squalor and pity.

              • CW
                Posted December 31, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

                @Apphacker. I am perfectly happy with my life. I am not asking for a handout. Neither am I asking that anyone else receive a handout. A call for a fair tax code is a request that those who have the least be allowed to keep what little they have while those who have the most, those who have benefited the most from the national infrastructure, pay the most to maintain and improve that infrastructure.

                Fairness.

  10. Simon
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I might be missing something not having read all the posts but didn’t the American colonies revolt against British rule over taxation?
    I also add this quote from Roosevelt:
    “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
    Franklin D Roosevelt.

    Maybe that is the plan for the religious right – when every body apart from a select minority are starving & powerless, then they can remake the US into a theocracy ruled by & for themselves. But wait, didn’t that happen already in Russia in 1917?

    • sasqwatch
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      No. That the revolt was simply over taxation is an oft-repeated half-truth. The revolt was over taxation without representation in the British Parliament. Anti-tax nuts tend to leave off the last bit.

  11. Posted December 30, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Sam Harris DOES have a heart!

    My parents seem to be getting more and more economically conservative, and it’s deeply troubling me. My step-dad especially has the “poor people are poor because they’re lazy, taxes are theft” etc Randian/Tea Party outlook. I don’t really have much to counter with, except “If you don’t want the government stealing your money, move to Somalia and see how well “hard work” pays off.

  12. Posted December 30, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    The true motivation for the rich conservatives.

    throughout the 1950′s–a decade for which American conservatives pretend to feel a harrowing sense of nostalgia–the marginal tax rate for the wealthy was over 90 percent.

    They want the US to be like the 1950’s, but only better

    The USA is in a bad way for a lot of people, what with wars that should not be fought, and infrastructure that should be built. Each citizen is asked, in times of national stress, to sacrifice for the good of the nation. If the rich and powerful are not prepared to sacrifice their sons and daughters in wars, they could, at least, shoulder a greater part of the burden for financing them.

    I am reminded of a the proposed policies of Joseph II of Austria in the 18th century, where he stated he would impoverish the grandees and the nobility as they had nothing to offer the state by way of skills or talent, and that there is nothing more useless than a non-productive nobleman whose only value is a piece of paper inherited from his father that states how great he is.

    Given the benefits that the wealthy gain more from a productive and healthy society, it is only right that they should pay some more too.

  13. Posted December 30, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Harris is right: science will resolve all moral questions. When you think about it, how could it possibly be otherwise? Is morality a feature of the real, objective, physical universe? If so, then it necessarily falls under the domain of science. If not, then who cares? Science won’t resolve whether Gandalf or Dumbledore is the greater magician, either.

    Not going to comment on the pronoun issue – you have to choose your battles, and this one isn’t worth it.

    As for his Eastern mysticism, I thought he had dialed that back a bit? If not, of course, he’s in for a bit of a surprise when science makes a mash of it.

    • JS1685
      Posted December 30, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes! On a Harris-related thread a few months ago I wondered this about the is/ought problem:

      All there IS is “is”! How can anything be determined if not as a result from investigation into the “is” that is our universe?

  14. Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    To pick a nit:
    “Since 1982…the average net worth of the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled (to $18.5 million)”

    This is inflation adjusted right? Because everything has (at least) doubled in price since 1982.

  15. Hempenstein
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Just a test.

  16. Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Inequality is no reason to take property forcefully from another. Providing a saftey net, health care, creating oppurtunity, etc I think make sense. Saying Joe has more than Bob so lets do something about is bullshit however. You are not entitled to nice things, go create value, invent, engineer and create wealth. Don’t demand it, that is unreasonable.

    • nichole
      Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Good thing no one’s doing that or proposing that that be done.

    • R Smith
      Posted January 1, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      “…go create value, invent, engineer and create wealth.”

      Great idea!

      Now if only I had a large sum of money to launch an ad campaign to “create value” for something. Or a bottomless trust fund to support my family and I and pay for my cutting edge education so I can “invent, engineer” a new marvel.

      But why even bother when I can just “create wealth” at will!

  17. Posted December 30, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Atheist populists, what a weird combo. You’d think most of us would be libertarians.

    • CW
      Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:38 am | Permalink

      There is no god therefore Libertarianism?

      If it was an Olympic event you could non sequitur for America.

      • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:17 am | Permalink

        Populism is demagogue appeal to emotion bullshit. Inequality? So what if there’s inequality? Of course there’s inequality. Talking about how rich the rich are is absolutely fallacious from start to finish. People who’ve rejected religious teaching are apparently not using the same rational logic to apply to social issues. Kind of like when scientists at NASA ‘compartmentalize’ and continue to believe in Zombie Jesus.

        Yeah, it’s weird. Sorry you haven’t had the capacity to make the connection. We can’t all be smart.

        • J.J.E.
          Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink

          Bullshit. This unreflective illogical conclusion (inequality is inevitable, therefore the observed level of inequality is acceptable) is a non sequitur as well as a straw man. Nobody in this discussion claims that everyone should be forced to have the same outcomes. And social policies DO have outcomes that influence equality, whether you like it or not. It is wrong for you to claim to be equality agnostic. Certain policies unequivocally will lead to greater equality and some to less. To ignore this is to ignore the data. Finally, you seem to be projecting about the emotional demagoguery. There are plenty of rationally motivated reasons to encourage economic equality, including increasing the consumer base to enhance domestic consumption, for example. Poorly argued and shrill assertions of dogma followed by insults directed at the intelligence of your interlocutors is a poor way for you to establish the validity of your opinions, especially when those opinions include accusations of dogmatic thinking.

          • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

            “And social policies DO have outcomes that influence equality”

            This is correct, when you have a monopoly over the use of force, as the government has, you can take whatever you want from people who have and give it who don’t have. This is also called stealing sometimes.

            If you are referring to policies other than taxation I think focusing on inequality is not the right way to measure success. I believe it would be better to think about improving those worst of without worrying about how unequal their lives are compared to others.

            Finally, maybe encouraging some individual responsibility while creating opportunity could also be positive.

            • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

              Basically I don’t have a problem if improving equality is accomplished at the expensive of making the more equal less so.

              Sort of like not cutting everyone’s arm off so we all can be equal with people with only one arm but finding a way to put a second arm on the people with one arm. Makes sense yes?

              • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                I meant “is not accomplished”

              • nichole
                Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                Obvious troll is obvious.
                Still a shit-head, but obvious at least.
                FYI, your kind says ‘Problem?’ Not ‘Makes sense yes?’

        • Matt Penfold
          Posted December 31, 2010 at 4:07 am | Permalink

          There is overwhelming evidence that societies that have greater equality of income perform better on all manner of other measures.

          They tend to have lower infant mortality, better healthcare outcomes, better education etc.

          Clearly these things are unimportant to you.

          • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

            Ok. Maybe if you explained the evidence a little more then maybe we can talk about it.

        • CW
          Posted December 31, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          Atheism is not a political party. That neither of us believes in gods does not automatically require us to agree on how to handle property rights, the importance of social justice, the role of the state in a liberal society or the supremacy of pirates over ninjas.

          When you grow up you will find that rational, intelligent people can disagree with each other.

    • Posted December 31, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      It is very difficult if not impossible to solve unjustified inequality through personal liberty.

      Unjustified inequality would be person A working twice as hard (or twice as “well”) as person B, but being paid hundreds of times more.

      Please visit pharyngula with your libertarian tripe. Could be fun!

      • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        I’m not saying that ‘unjustified’ inequality needs solving. I’ll check pharyngula out though. Thanks.

        • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          I suppose that is why most people on these blogs kind of hate libertarian ideas, isn’t it?

          You are saying that person B simply has bad luck. Tough for them, no need to change wages to more realistically represent their contribution to society, right?

          Naturally, this attitude is sarcastically summed up as “I have got mine, so fuck you”.

          However, there are many other issues with a hard-core libertarian system. Some of them raised in pharyngula comment threads.

          • nichole
            Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            Libertarians: always the haves, never the have-nots. Coincidence, I’m sure.

            Like the coincidence that they always have stinky attitudes.

        • Posted January 1, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

          “I’ll check pharyngula out though. Thanks.”
          Don’t bother. When Myers strays from his area of expertise, he relies on hostile theatre. You won’t learn anything and, unless you’re into hostile theatre (name calling) you won’t be entertained.

      • nichole
        Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        Fishing for future dungeon denizens, Kismet? ;)

  18. Jeff D
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    In my “day job,” I am a tax and estate planning lawyer, with an economics degree and a long-time interest in tax policy.

    I’ve seen the source statistical info (the IRS Statistics of Income and Census data), and Sam H. accurately describes the growth in inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. over the past 20-30 years, even after adjusting for inflation. And he’s right that it poses serious, serious problems for the long-term health and productivity of American civil society.

    It’s also true, of course, that Americans in the top 5% / 10% / 20% of all income-earners pay most of the federal income taxes, even under the crazy and needlessly complicated income tax law that we have . . . because that’s where the money is.

    After closely monitoring (every 1 to 3 days) the dissembling, posturing, and general inaction by the Congress and the Obama Administration for about a year (December 2009 to December 2010), I was shocked — like others in my line of work — at how quickly the tax deal between Pres. Obama and the GOP Senators came together, and how meager and ineffective the resistance was about the estate and gift tax elements of the package, specifically the increase in the lifetime exclusion amount to $5 million and the decrease in the top rate to 35%. Although this is technically only for 2 years (2011-2012), no Congress has ever decreased the exclusion/exemption amount or increased the estate/gift tax rate after decreasing it.

    I could show how these federal taxes on inherited and gifted wealth generate a relatively small (and now, even smaller) share of total federal tax revenue, and at a relatively high administrative cost. But a combination of spectacular cowardice and tactical stupidity by Democrats in Congress has produced a real windfall to the wealthy (especially the decrease in the top estate / gift tax rate to 35%, the lowest it has been in more than 60 years), and has set the stage for another push (in 2012) for complete repeal of the federal estate tax or for making the 2011-2012 reforms permanent.

    The prospects for creating a more sensibly progressive, fairer, simpler, and more efficient federal tax system do not look good. And when one considers the number of millionaires and multi-millionaires in the U.S. Congress, why should this be surprising?

    • Tim
      Posted December 31, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      You mean you don’t buy the either-or fallacious posturing we’re hearing from libertarian types here? Don’t you see, your complaints about our slide into corporatist plutocracy prove that you favor government by Pol Pot. There are no other choices, damnit!

  19. Posted December 31, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I’m disappointed that so many people who believe in evolutionary biology advocate Intelligent Design economics (State planning). Maybe that’s natural, given that most professional proponents of Evolutionary Biology (= college professors) are State (government, generally) employees.

    “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment (numerous local policy regimes or a competitive market in goods and services) can answer.

    Fruit flies are your distant cousins. Do you weep that you will outlive the average fruit fly? If you must slit someone’s wrists to address this inequality, please start with your own. If material inequality bothers you, you are entirely free to give away your own money and time. I find the combination of 1) ostentatious expressions of concrn for material inequality from $80,000/year State-university faculty and 2) the proposed remedy, that taxpayers surrender resources to the State (the professor’s employer), hard to swallow.

    • Posted December 31, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Please, provide said evidence. Extraordinary claims…

      Also:
      Please visit pharyngula with your libertarian tripe. Could be fun!

      • Posted December 31, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        (Kismet): “Please, provide said evidence. Extraordinary claims…”
        What “said evidence”? What “extraordinary claims”? “Fruit flies are your distant cousins”? I did not expect to have to defend that claim here. You one of those folk who believess that the Earth is 6000 years old, too?

        (Kismet): “Please visit pharyngula with your libertarian tripe. Could be fun!”
        Myers is dogmatic and rude. We have crossed tracks over the issue of the relation between school district size, per pupil costs, and overall system performance. He opines without evidence and gets nasty when you contradict him.
        I’m neither a libertarian nor a Libertarian. Strange how many people jump to that conclusion on scant evidence.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted December 31, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Well if we take things like educational achievement, low infant mortality, good healthcare outcomes, low levels of crime and many other such measures then the evidence is clear.

      Countries that have polices in place to reduce income inequality do better. They also tend to do better on surveys that measure how happy people are.

      The evidence on this is now so clear it really is not very honest to continue to pretend otherwise. Those that do seem to have some kind of political agenda that means they ignore evidence that contradicts their position.

      • Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        Matt, I agree complely with what you wrote. We disagree on what constitutes “polices…to reduce income inequality”. To me, these would be: private property, contract law, freedom of association, freedom of contract, repeal of government-funded entitlements, and privatization of social services (education, welfare, etc.)

        (Matt): “The evidence on this is now so clear it really is not very honest to continue to pretend otherwise. Those that do seem to have some kind of political agenda that means they ignore evidence that contradicts their position.”

        100% agreement. Russia, post-1918, China, post 1949, Cuba, post-1959, and Cambodia, post-1975.

        • Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          Excuse me, but what else would that be if not libertarian policy?
          Otherwise, I apologize for any rudeness, but you *did* sound like a regular & boring libertroll.

          You still did not provide evidence. Do you think the status quo leans *too* much towards social democracy? Burden of proof is on the positive claim…

          What is up with your examples? (and ex. of what?) Murderous dictatorships, so?

          • Posted December 31, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

            1. I do not know how to respond to vague pronouns. What is “that” (“that sounds like libertarian policy”)? “Libertarian” names a political philosophy or orientation. I see less coherence in public policy than most. That is, I see no reason why support for, say, relaxation of drug prohibition should coincide with any position on abortion, immigration, the gold standard, or trade in non-native species.
            “Evidence” of what (“(p)lease provide evidence” “(y)ou still do not provide evidence”)? I asked what assertion as to fact you want supported. You have not answered. For “Fruit flies are distant cousins” I recommend Dawkins, __The Ancestor’s Tale__”.
            2. The governments I named, Russia, China, Cuba, Cambodia, endured avowedly socialist (ostensibly equalitarian) governments, with enormous disparity of living standards as a result. There’s a huge difference between “policies to reduce inequality” and “policies which politicians advance with the claim that these will reduce inequality”.

            • Posted January 1, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

              You were just talking about policies “to reduce income equality” in the above post and I said we’d like to see evidence that your policies work. What is vague about that?

              And are you even aware that naming communist dictatorship as examples of social policies gone wrong opens you up for the Somalia-the-libertarian-paradise argument?

              And, of course, people should agree on abortion, drug legalisation, immigration, etc.

              Even in politics there are solutions that broadly fall into the categories “rational” and “batshit insane”.

              • Posted January 1, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                Review the timeline. Find the sentence in comment #19 (my first on this forum; 2010-12-31-0725) that provoked your (2010-12-31-1156): “Please, provide said evidence. Extraordinary claims…”

                Penford’s (2010-12-31-1120) reply mentioned “to reduce income inequality” and my response to that came at 2010-12-31-1206, which was after your “evidence” request,

                “Are you even aware…Somalia-the-libertarian-paradise argument?

                It does, if people deliberately ignore: “To me, these would be: private property, contract law, freedom of association, freedom of contract, repeal of government-funded entitlements, and privatization of social services (education, welfare, etc.)”

                I prefer to start with the presumption that people may honestly and without malice arrive at policy preferences that differ from mine. I’m willing to change my mind on this.

                “And, of course, people should agree on abortion, drug legalisation, immigration, etc.”

                Why? Federalism offers two advantages: lower levels of compulsion (people may move to a region where their preferred policy prevails) and varied policy regimes provide evidence on what works.

    • Peter
      Posted December 31, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      I always thought this is the classical instance of the is-ought fallacy: because humans evolved through natural selection, it follows that culture/economies ought to be allowed evolve through social darwinism.

      Harris’s discussions of crossing the is-ought divide are more sophisticated, and don’t seem to me to merit the is-ought criticism that they attract. As someone else in this thread said, of course attempts to be moral need to be based on how the world is, or else we shouldn’t care to be moral.

      • Posted January 1, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

        “…(A)ttempts to be moral need to be based on how the world is, or else we shouldn’t care to be moral.”

        Morality is a product of biological and cultural evolution. Waste is immoral. That is, someone could survive, or live better, on resources that go down the drain. Economic efficiency is therefore moral. The market order is efficient. Therefore, the market order (private property, contract law, freedom of association and freedom of contract) is moral.

        That’s the stripped-down argument. “Externalities” names a broad class of qualifications. That these qualifications modify the fundamental argument does not exempt the alternative to a market order, the command economy, from criticism from “efficiency” arguments.

        Inequality is inevitable. Fruit flies are your cousins. The human and canine IQ curves overlap. Parents roll a huge bucket of dice when they put their kids together and some kids come up snake-eyes. Arguments for a State role in remediating inequality rely on “public goods” considerations. The argument for State assumption of responsibility for the provision of public goods contains a logical hole: corporate oversight is a public good and the State itself is a corporation. Therefore, oversight of State functions is a public good which the State itself cannot provide. State assumption for the provision of public goods (welfare, K-12 education, etc) transforms the free rider problem at the root of public goods analysis but does not solve it.

        • Ougaseon
          Posted January 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          This is flatly false. Market efficiency does not in any way map 1 to 1 with moral outcomes, and to claim otherwise is to deliberately ignore reality in service of ideology. Even today ‘efficient’ mass production can result in demonstrable and immoral harms to individuals and societies (see for example Foxconn, slaughterhouses (especially pre-FDA), etc). I’ve never understood how laissez-faire types reconcile their ‘omg government violence!’ attitude with the fact that every one of the ‘rights’ you enumerated are precisely the result of the same system. Why shouldn’t we use the exact same principles to put in place regulatory frameworks that encourage societal benefits from the free market profit motive (eg banking regulations, pollution controls, research or investment subsidies, etc)?

          There are also cases where ‘market efficiency’ is simply not the goal of the institution, such as health care and education. The slavish devotion to ‘private is better at all times’ is not an accurate reflection of reality. Sure looks a great analogy to religion, though!

          • Posted January 1, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            Religion enters when people make claims based on faith. Such as the (implied) claim that altruism motivates State actors who are better-informed about individuals’ preferences that those individuals themselves.

            The modifications to the skeletal laissez faire argument include externalities, information assymetries, and moral hazard (which is more often a modification to government policy recommendations).

            I disagree that efficiency considerations do not apply to the health care or education industries. A “public good” must first of all qualify as a “good”, that is, as something people want. Standard arguments for State provision of health and education services contain serious defects, seems to me.

            • Michieux
              Posted January 1, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

              Would you you care to elaborate on the “serious defects” in the “standard arguments for state provision of health and education services”? That is, could you explain what you take those arguments to be, and provide some evidence not only for those arguments, but also how they are defective?

              Also, and perhaps more importantly, how would you measure a nation’s health?

              • Posted January 1, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

                Okay. This will be the start of another comment thread, below. Otherwise it would take too much space.

  20. Michieux
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Reading the various opinions here — and they seem to be largely opinions — one could be forgiven for readying the bath, sharpening the straight-razor, and spinning some Leonard Cohen disks in the glimmering candlelight.

  21. Michieux
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    All by way of saying, until one is aware of being in a box, one can’t think outside such box.

  22. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Face it: we’re becoming a plutocracy

    Becoming???
    BECOMING?
    The USA has been a plutocracy for hundreds of years!

  23. Posted January 1, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Thank for sharing. Keep writing..

  24. Posted January 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    In response to Michieux.

    I will sketch a skeletal outline. I admit numerous qualifications.

    Why the State cannot make any useful contribution to the medical care industry or the education industry.

    The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition, after Weber). A law is a written threat by a government to kidnap (arrest), assault (subdue), and forcibly infect with HIV (imprison) someone, under specified circumstances. Individual A has a “right” to do X if the government has pomised not to interfere when A attempts to do X and, further, has promised to interfere with individuals B,C, etc. if they attempt to stop A when A attempts to do X. A State grants “title” to a resource X to an individual A when the State reecognizes the right of A to control X which includes the right to transfer control to other individuals B (to sell the resource) on terms mutually agreeable to A and B. Market-oriented policies combine title and contract law. Because barter and commerce benefit both sides of a transaction, markets unite control over resources with the incentive to use resources is socially benefiicial ways.

    A society is free in proportion to the range of behaviors between compelled and forbidden. The advantages of freedom are obvious: how many times should you chew your next bite of apple? Should we conduct a nationwide vote on that? Each individual is the best judge of his own interests.

    Separation of powers, federalism, and markets institutionalize humility on the part of government actors.

    At this point, I invite critics of market economies to address two questions:
    1. From a State presence in which industries does society benefit, beyond what the State contributes to markets generally (an original assignment of title and enforcement of contract law)? You may imagine either a) two categories: A = likely candidates for State operation or subsidy, and B = unlikely candidates for State operation or subsidy or
    b) a continuum
    (highly unlikely) -1_____._____+1 (highly likely).
    2. What criteria determine an industry’s categorical assignment of position on the continuum?

    Usual welfare-economic arguments for State intervention in an industry involve externalities, economies of scale, and information assymetries between buyers and sellers. In the case of the medical care and education industries, the information assymetry argument applies with greater force to remote State actors than to exchange between doctors and patients. Beyond a very low level, there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education industry as it currently operates. Education only marginally qualifies as a public good as economists use the term and the “public goods” (positive externalities) argument implies subsidy and regulation, at most, not State (government, generally) operation of school. The State cannot subsidize education without a definition of “education” and the State’s definition will then bind students, parents, real classroom teachers, and taxpayers to the State’s definition.

    Similarly, the State cannot subsidize medical care without a definition of “medical care”. The taxpayers of one medium-sized US State could probably afford one band-aid and one aspirin for every person on Earth, but the entire Earth’s GDP is insufficient to keep even one person alive forever. Everyone dies. Barring a fatal accident, most of us will consume medical resources which we will never repay. In an unsubsidized market in medical services, relatives will face the decision: pull the plug on grandma and put braces on the kids, or sell the house, extend grandma’s life another six months, and declare bankruptcy. In a tax-subsidized market or a State-operated medical care industry, some State body will make the decision when to pull the plug (a “death panel”). Aggregation of resources and authority for control over resources into government hands contributes nothing to the performance of the medical care industry.

    The “public goods” argument for subsidization of medical care or education has the logical hole I mentioned earlier, that oversight of corporate functions is a public good and the State itself is a corporation. Therefore, oversight of State functions is a public good which the State itself cannot provide. State assumption of responsibility for the provision of public goods transforms the free rider problem at the root of public goods analysis but does not solve it.

    More later.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 1, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      I think this is enough for a while, since you’ve posted on this thread fifteen times today alone. You have your own website; if you’re gonna write such long disquisitions, do it there, please.

      • Posted January 1, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        Then please abbreviate my last comment to the first two or three words. I copied it and took it home.

        • fangorn
          Posted January 3, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          Man you’re worse than i am.This is a wonderful site dude,but as im sure dr j. realizes the world doesnt revolve around WEIT.I suppose it would be kind of cool if it did tho.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted January 1, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      shorter:

      Oh! Look!

      A teal deer!

      • Ichthyic
        Posted January 1, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        …btw, I glanced at his site.

        many posts of drivel.

        0 comments.

        hmm, I wonder what that could mean…

  25. Posted January 2, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Hullo, I’ve been reading posts here for a bit and just began reading comments on the Harris post. I have not read all 135 comments but since it reminded me of other progressive difficulties I thought I might comment on the conversation regarding Harris’s stance on torture… atheists and progressives more specifically get too hung up on nitpicking each other over details. We do not all have to agree on each detail. He did not write an entire book rationalizing why it was okay to torture nor was he one of the Bush lawyers who maneuvered around international law to absolve the Bush admin of Torture… he just disagrees with you (and I) about it. So what? Get over it. In the long run he is on the right side of most issues and being on the wrong side of this is not going to change anything (since he has no power to do anything about it anyway). Too many times progressives get caught up in their ONE cause and can’t see the bigger picture so the bigger picture is always lost. We have to start working together for the greater good or the good will be lost.

  26. RPS
    Posted January 3, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Harris calls for a fairer tax code, one in which the wealthy — as they did historically — pay a higher proportion of their incomes….

    While I agree that income inequality is a serious problem, I haven’t seen evidence supporting the notion that the problem will be ameliorated simply by raising tax rates on wealthier Americans. As the data demonstrates, even at times of highest marginal tax rates, actual tax receipts have remained essentially constant (“Hauser’s Law”).

    http://politicalcalculations.blogspot.com/2009/12/hausers-law.html

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703514904575602943209741952.html?KEYWORDS=hauser

    • CW
      Posted January 3, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      All you are talking about is total tax receipts as a percentage of the GDP. Even if Hauser’s soi-disant Law was anything more than a scam it would still not address the effect of a fairer tax system on inequality. (You would not have to increase total tax revenues as a percentage of the GDP in order to shift the tax burden.)

      • Posted January 3, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Any State-mandated surrender of resources is a tax, whether or not those resources appear on government income accounts.

        Many people pay hidden taxes. import quotas on sugar, for example, enhance the income of domestic sugar producers at the expense of consumers, and this tax appears on no government balance sheet. Corvee labor is a tax. Compulsory attendance laws compel children to work, unpaid, as window-dressing in a massive employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel. This tax falls most heavily on children of poor and minority parents. The cost of the US K-12 school system includes the opportunity cost to students of the time they spend in school. Progressive income taxes enhance the illusion that poor voters can stick wealthy taxpayers with the cost of wretched social services.

        • CW
          Posted January 3, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          Just calling it an illusion doesn’t make it so any more than calling social services “wretched” makes them of any less actual benefit. Offer evidence, not bombast and ideology.

          • Posted January 3, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

            “Ideological” is an uncomplimentary way to say “systematic” or “principled”, and I try to be systematic. Antonyms are “scatter-brained” and “unscrupulous”.

            I will try to avoid a reproof from our host for an overlong presentation of evidence.

            1. Homeschoolers outperform conventionally schooled students, both academically and in terms of social adjustment.
            2. Across the US and internationally, independent and parochial schools outperform State (government, generally) schools.
            3. US States which maintain numerous small school districts outperform States which maintain large districts. Smaller is better.
            4. US States which compel attendance at age 7 have higher NAEP 4th and 8th grade Reading and Math scores than States which compel attendance at age 6.
            5. In Hawaii, juvenile arrests for assault, robbery, drug possession, and drug promotion fell in summer (when school was not in session), between 1987 1nd 1997. Reported burglaries fell in summer. Juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma fell in summer.

            Clive Harber,
            “Schooling as Violence”
            Educatioinal Review p. 10, V. 54, #1.
            (Quoting) “…It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than to out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a classroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking.”

            • CW
              Posted January 3, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

              I notice that the requested evidence was not produced, instead we had a change of subject. We were discussing inequality and progressive taxation. We were not discussing how public schooling is Teh Evulz!

              • Posted January 4, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink

                I thought we were discussing wretched social services. Furthermore, as I pointed out (above), corvee labor is a tax. The opportunity cost to students of the time they spend in school falls most heavily on students for whom the (lame, inefficient) college-prep orientation of conventional school is least useful. There’s a reason that “academic” has become a synonym for “irrelevant”.

              • CW
                Posted January 4, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

                More bluster and exaggeration. Corvée labour has not been legal in the US since 1900 and while I admit that “academic” certainly appears irrelevant to you, that doesn’t mean much in the greater scheme.

                I don’t see any point in continuing to address this kind of hand waving.

  27. fangorn
    Posted January 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Not to go off topic or anything,but Im reading a book called “Fear of the animal planet-the hidden history of animal resistance”.Also read up on Jainism-its a fascinating,and very sophisticated religion.Animal rights predates peta by centuries.Also,”The Elite Consensus”,by George Draffan.I would also like to recomend two sites-Counterpunch,and Post Carbon(peak oil has arrived people-the long descent has begun-or not-prove us wrong.good luck with that)

  28. J.J.E.
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink


    He and others oppose the freedom to oppose and the right to criticize evolutionary theory, and then whine about economic inequality in America.

    I predict this bit of mendacity qualifies for banning because of undisguised trolling.

  29. Michieux
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    By their trolling ye shall know them.


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