Tag Archives: Economic system

Corruption, Gravity & Litter

English: Littering in Stockholm

The Daily Show recently featured an interesting interview with Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey. One part of the interview that I found especially interesting was Macey’s “defense” of capital firms like Bain in terms of what seemed to be the necessity (in the logical sense) of corruption. Macey made the fascinating claim that social scientists regard corruption as on par with gravity-something that they simply must include in their analysis and something to be presumably treated as a natural force.

While I was on my morning run, I mulled over this idea in the context of my own classes and wondered about a key question: is corruption like gravity in this regard? Further reflection led me to consider what I take to be a better analogy, namely Thoreau’s analogy to the friction of a machine.

Thoreau notes that “all machines have their friction-possibly it does enough good to balance the evil. ” In this case, Thoreau’s machine is the government and the friction is the inefficiency and corruption of this government. As such, this seems to nicely match the point being made by Macey, namely that corruption seems to be a constant presence.

Both Thoreau and Macey seem to be correct: it seems  as difficult to imagine a large political and economic system free of corruption as it is to conceive of a frictionless machine. That said, there is still a rather interesting matter to address, namely whether or not the analogy truly holds.

It is rather tempting to simply accept that corruption is unavoidable, mainly because that seems to be the case. As I ran and thought about this matter, I saw litter on the streets, sidewalks and even the running trails (I picked up as much as I could carry). As might be imagined, I made the obvious comparison between corruption and litter: both seem to always be present and unavoidable. That said, there is still the matter of the nature of this alleged inevitability.

In the case of a literal machine, fiction seems to be unavoidable because of the nature of matter and motion. As such, a machine cannot help but have friction (unless, of course, truly frictionless machines are possible). After all, its friction is not a matter of its choice or decisions on its part. This might not, however, hold true in the case of corruption.

If the corruption of the political and economic system is comparable to the friction of a machine, then it would seem that being critical of the corruption and even blaming people for it would be as absurd as blaming an engineer because the engine she designed is not frictionless. The corruption, it would seem, would be something we must simply accept. The same would thus be true of litter-it is simply something that must be there.

As might be suspected, my comparison between litter and corruption is quite intentional. Litter is, obviously enough, the result of decisions on the part of the folks who littered. It is not the case that litter just appears or that people are compelled to engage in littering by the laws of litter. While some people will, it seems, always decide to litter it does make sense to say that they could, in fact, have chosen to do otherwise.  For example, I saw someone open his window and throw a fast food bag onto the side of the road. He was, presumably, not compelled to do this by some sort of litter law that ensures that the correct percentage of litter is on the ground. In contrast, the friction that slowed and stopped the bag was under the dominion of the relevant physical laws-the bag had no choice. As such, there could actually be a world without litter-if everyone decided not not litter, then there would be no (intentional) litter. This is unlikely, but it is not because it cannot be done-rather it will not happen because people will elect not to make it happen.

The same would seem to be true of corruption. The corruption in politics and economics exists because of what people elect to do (or not do). As such, there could be a system without corruption-if people decided to not act in corrupt ways. This, like a litter free world, is incredibly unlikely. But this is not because it cannot be done. It is unlikely because people will chose not to create such a system.

It might be replied that the system is beyond the control of people. After all, the political and economic systems involve millions (billions worldwide) and trying to fight corruption would  fighting a force of nature, like a tsunami. As such, corruption is a necessary part of the system.

Thoreau has an interesting reply to this sort of reasoning. He notes that he “has relations to the millions as men, and not mere brute or inanimate things, so appeal is possible.” It is also the case that although these systems are vast and complicated, they are created by people. As such,  any corruption (or litter) must be put there by people-the corruption (like litter) does not just appear it must be intentionally placed. If humans are capable of free choice, then they would presumably be capable of choosing not to have corruption-just as they would presumably be capable of choosing not to litter.

I suspect that people tolerate litter and corruption on a similar basis, namely the mistaken belief that it is inevitable and beyond our control. However, just as each bit of litter is the result of some person’s choice, each bit of corruption is also the result of choice. As such, the defense that corruption is part of the system is no better a defense for corruption that claiming that litter is just part of the system.

However, even if it is accepted that the machine of society  must have  the friction of corruption, then Thoreau’s words would still seem to apply: “when the friction has its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, let us not have the machine. ” As such, while we might no more be able to be rid of corruption than litter, this is not a reason to tolerate it or to allow it to dominate. Just as I can refuse to litter I can refuse to be corrupt. Just as I can fight the filthy messes of litter created by the lazy and immoral, I can also fight the corruption of the wicked. At the very least, I should not contribute or tolerate the misdeeds of either.

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Can Everyone be Wealthy?

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (the tattoo, not the person)/

It is sometimes asked whether or not everyone can be wealthy. This depends, obviously enough, on what is meant by “wealthy.” Determining what “wealthy” means requires sorting out the nature of wealth.

As might be imagined, there is a fair amount of debate about the true nature of  personal wealth.  While this oversimplifies things, a fairly standard view of wealth is that it consists of the net economic value of a person’s assets minus their liabilities. To be a bit more specific, these assets typically include possessions (cars, guns, art, computers, books, appliances, and so on), monetary resources (cash, for example) and capital resources. Not everyone buys into the stock view, of course. For example, Emma Goldman claimed that “real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in. But if man is doomed to wind cotton around a spool, or dig coal, or build roads for thirty years of his life, there can be no talk of wealth.” As another example, some thinkers include non-economic goods (such as knowledge) within the realm of wealth. To keep thing simple and within our current economic system, I will limit the discussion to the “stock” account of wealth (that is, economic assets).

In our current economic system, it is obviously not the case that everyone is wealthy. When this fact is brought up, some folks like to claim that even the poor of today are wealthier than the wealthy of the past. In some ways, this is true. After all, the typically poor person in North America or the United Kingdom has possessions that not even the greatest pharaoh or Caesar possessed (such as a microwave oven). In many other ways, this is not true. After all, a wealthy noble of the past would have land, structures, gold, art, and so on that would make him a wealthy man even today. Also, there is the obvious fact that there are poor people today who are as poor as the poorest people in human history in that they possess just the tatters on their backs and just enough food to not die (at least for the moment). In any case, the fact that the sum total of wealth of humanity is greater now than in the past (even taking into account that there are so many more of us) does not tell us much beyond that (such as whether the current distribution is just or whether we can all be wealthy or not).

Getting back to the main subject, what needs to be determined is what is meant by “wealthy.” As noted above, I am limiting my discussion to economic wealth, but a bit more needs to be said.

In some ways, wealth can be seen as being analogous to height. A person has height if they have any vertical measurement at all. Likewise, a person has wealth if she has any economic assets in excess of her liabilities. This could be as little as a single penny or as much as billions of dollars. Obviously, everyone could (in theory) have wealth, just as everyone can have height. But, of course, a person is not wealthy just because s/he has wealth, no more than a person is tall simply because s/he has height. On the other side, lacking wealth is described as being destitute and lacking height is described as being short.

Continuing the analogy, being wealthy or wealthier  can be seen as analogous to being tall or taller. Being tall means having more height than average  and being taller than another means having more height than that person. Likewise being wealthy would seem to mean having more wealth than average and being wealthier than another means having more wealth than that person. If this view is correct, then we cannot all be wealthy anymore than we can all be tall. Obviously, we could all have the same height or the same wealth, but the terms “tall” and “wealthy” would have no application in these cases. As such, we cannot all be wealthy-if we had the same amount of wealth, then no one would be wealthy.

It could be contended that being wealthy is not a matter of comparison to the wealth of other people, but rather a matter of having economic assets that meet a specified level. Depending on how that level was specified, then everyone could (in theory) be wealthy. Of course, the question of whether or not such a level should be considered wealthy or not would be a matter of debate.

It might be contended that focusing on whether or not everyone can be wealthy is not as important (or interesting) as the question of whether or not everyone can be well-off in the sense of having adequate resources for a healthy and meaningful existence. This is, of course, a subject for another time.

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Sterilizing the Poor

Specially sterilized for you..

Image by ebertek via Flickr

On Wednesday a student in my ethics class asked me whether or not sterilizing the poor would end poverty. Interestingly, I was not asked whether this would be morally acceptable.  I gave a fairly concise answer in class, but thought I would expand on it a bit here.

On the face of it, it does make some sense that preventing the poor from reproducing would reduce poverty. After all, poverty is often an inherited condition and having no (or far fewer) children born to poor people would reduce the number of people inheriting poverty. It could also provide people with yet another incentive to avoid being poor (although it might be wondered whether people need more incentives beyond the existing ones). Also, children are expensive and if the sterilization rules took this into account, people who would become poor because of the cost of raising kids would be prevented from doing so, thus they would not become poor. None of this, obviously, directly addresses the ethics of the matter.

In the course of the discussion, the subject of whether or not poverty has a genetic link was brought up. On the one hand, it was argued that the traits that could incline people to poverty could be linked to various genes and sterilizing the poor would presumably reduced the number of people carrying these genes.  To use an analogy, not allowing blonde haired people to reproduce would certainly reduce the number of blonde haired people in the world. On the other hand, it was also argued that there seems to be little basis for assuming a genetic cause to poverty. If so, sterilization of the poor would not have the effect of a genetic culling of the population that would reduce poverty.

One point that is well worth considering is that poverty is not created by the specific people that happen to be poor (except insofar as they serve in the role of being the poor). Rather, poverty is created by factors (mainly people) in the social system and these factors would be in effect regardless of whether the current poor were sterilized or not. On this view, sterilizing the current poor would merely have the effect of changing, to a degree, the makeup of the next generation of the poor. To use an analogy, sterilizing politicians would not eliminate this social role.  Rather, it would just mean that the people who became politicians would be the children of non-politicians. Given the way the current system works, the children the poor would have had would be replaced in the ranks of the poor by other people-either those citizens who would become poor by the way the economic system works or those who enter the country to do the poverty level work that helps sustain this system.

My considered view is that sterilizing the poor would not eliminate poverty because it fails to address the main causes of poverty, namely the aspects of the economic system that creates and relies on poverty. I do, of course, admit that sterilizing the poor would reduce the number of poor people but this reduction would be at the cost of what certainly appears to be a morally wrong method. It would seem morally preferable to address the other causes of poverty rather than engaging in this sort of economic eugenics (“ecogenics”, perhaps?).

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