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The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
by Michael Shermer
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Challenging Emancipatory Vision, January 24, 2015
Is science leading to social emancipation or to our enslavement by technologically sophisticated masters? This question has been the perennial subject of learned disquisitions. It is relatively new that they are now asked by behavioral scientists using scientific evidence. Science historian Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc is a brilliant contributions to this contemporary branch of sociopolitical discourse.

Applying scientific principles to human society is hard. Society is a perfect example of a complex dynamical adaptive nonlinear system. Moreover, it is non-ergodic: rapid technical change, increased population density and globalization mean that we cannot reliably predict the future from the past. Even human nature, forged in the remote Pleistocene, turns out to be stunningly plastic.

Wilson’s question is: does altruism, or actions mainly benefiting unrelated others at personal cost, exist? How could anyone doubt it? We give to charity, vote for public education even when we have no children, volunteer to fight and die in war. People regularly conform to social norms even when no one is looking, and sanction the anti-social behavior of others even when it is costly to do so. Yet for decades a countervailing theory has held in biology and economics.

Shermer’s The Moral Arc, while grounded in recent advances in behavioral game theory and social psychology, is a challengingly speculative book. He offers a rallying defense of science and reason as emancipatory tools in the face of bigotry, pseudoscience and faith. He too argues that humans are basically moral and cooperative, but adds that they are extremely parochial, willing to fight for and contribute to their community. When this community is threatened, people turn compassion for kith and kin into hatred for outsiders. This propensity, Shermer observes, is part of our evolved human nature and arguably always will be so.

Shermer’s central point is that even evil people are generally morally motivated. Violence perpetrated against outsiders is the application of justice in the perpetrators’ minds. This justification requires that the enemy be morally inferior and the cause of a community’s problems — an excuse historically manipulated by Machiavellian leaders to gather support for their ambitions, as when the Nazis blamed the Jewish people for Germany’s economic woes. Here is where science, technology and reason come into play, Shermer argues: the growth of our global information and communications networks has rendered it increasingly difficult to perpetrate the falsehoods authoritarian leaders demand to maintain their rule. In Shermer’s view, an increasingly educated populace with access to information technology tends to undermine parochialism and pseudoscience, allowing people to judge for themselves. The role of cell phones and social media in fueling the recent Arab Spring uprisings is a case in point.

This is a curious and welcome turn-around from The Believing Brain (2011), in which Shermer argues the rather nihilistic postmodern position that “beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow”. That would imply, for example, that people who believe autism is caused by vaccines would only listen to supporters of that belief. But in The Moral Arc Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, adheres to classical Enlightenment thought. The subtitle, How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, evokes the call to arms of eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant in What is Enlightenment?: “Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Some of Shermer’s positions ¬would have surprised Enlightenment writers. Kant, for instance, believed that the oppressive state and authoritarian church were the sole impediments to truth and justice. We know now that even people with access to the ballot box and a modicum of free expression can embrace intolerant and obscurantist doctrines. Moreover, Voltaire and others believed that the uneducated lacked a capability for applying reason to the affairs of life. Shermer, by contrast, is a vigorous proponent of political democracy and equal rights.

Shermer’s is an exciting, emancipatory vision, but he is mistaken in thinking that truth, freedom and justice are the inevitable byproducts of scientific advance. Modern liberal democracy is indeed the product of masses of people collectively throwing off the yoke of authoritarian states. But the power of popular action was made possible by a new military technology, the handgun: this displaced elite cavalry and required nations to cede the vote to peasants and citizens, who became the lifeblood of national military defense. Despite an awesome array of modern military technology, the foot soldier with portable fire power remains the bedrock of military power. Even the United States, with its formidable drones and missiles, cannot win a war without “troops on the ground”.

We cannot predict the future of technology, but we must be on constant guard against new instruments of information control, persecution and death that could once again render secular and religious totalitarianism a viable social alternative. Constant vigilance by rationalists such as Michael Shermer may in the end win the day.


Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science)
Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science)
by David Sloan Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Introduction to Human Prosociality, January 24, 2015
Are humans basically selfish yet browbeaten by society into curbing their instincts, or are they basically altruistic yet corrupted by unjust societies? This question has been the perennial subject of learned disquisitions. It is relatively new that they are now asked by behavioural scientists using scientific evidence. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson's Does Altruism Exist? is a brilliant contribution to this contemporary branch of sociopolitical discourse.

Applying scientific principles to human society is hard. Society is a perfect example of a complex dynamical adaptive nonlinear system. Moreover, it is non-ergodic: rapid technical change, increased population density and globalization mean that we cannot reliably predict the future from the past. Even human nature, forged in the remote Pleistocene, turns out to be stunningly plastic.

Wilson's question is: does altruism, or actions mainly benefiting unrelated others at personal cost, exist? How could anyone doubt it? We give to charity, vote for public education even when we have no children, volunteer to fight and die in war. People regularly conform to social norms even when no one is looking, and sanction the anti-social behavior of others even when it is costly to do so. Yet for decades a countervailing theory has held in biology and economics.

Richard Dawkins, in his wildly popular The Selfish Gene, reflects the current opinion among biologists in 1976: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish." Some 45 years later, in a letter to Nature, 134 prominent evolutionary biologists petitioned that "natural selection leads organisms to become adapted as if to maximize their inclusive fitness" -- meaning that even in the most highly social species, individuals limit helping others as much as possible to genetic relatives. In fact, natural selection does nothing of the kind. Inclusive fitness maximization is a pious wish of many population biologists that has never been validated in theory or fact.

Wilson has struggled for decades against this received wisdom. His basic principle, delivered in a joint 2007 paper with Edward O. Wilson, is the group selection credo: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." So within each social group, selfish individuals will do better than their altruistic counterparts, but groups with many altruists can outcompete groups with few. As Darwin noted in Descent of Man (Murray, 1871), a hunter-gatherer band with many brave, altruistic soldiers will triumph over a group with mostly selfish cowards, even though the best thing of all for an individual is to be a coward surrounded by brave compatriots. The mathematics supports this scenario.

It is fashionable to question this view, but the difficult theoretical issues have been resolved for decades. I go through the details in my article "Inclusive Fitness and the Sociobiology of the Genome," Biology & Philosophy 29,4 (2014):477-515. Groups do not mate or produce offspring, and hence do not have biological fitness. Rather, the particular social organization of a species, its mating patterns and social groupings, is inscribed in the genomes of members of the species. Groups with more successful social organization tend to enhance the fitness of their members, whose genomes code for this social organization. Altruism can evolve in such groups provided altruists tend to be grouped preferentially with other altruists, in which case their biological fitness can on average be at least as high as that of selfish types.

As Wilson shows, another important source of our success as a species is that human cultures stress cooperation within the group, and so punish antagonistic individuals. This has led to humans "domesticating themselves", favoring a human nature that is relatively docile and dependent upon the company of and approval of others. You can find the details in Ann Gibbons, "How we Tamed Ourselves-and Became Modern," Science 346,6208 (2014):405-406. But Wilson's book stands alone as a great introduction to the subject of human cooperation and prosociality.
Moreover, humans have evolved to be collaborative, coordinating their behaviour through each member of a team "reading the minds" of the others and identifying with common goals. This is described well in Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard University Press, 2014).


Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics: Collected Papers on Quantum Philosophy
Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics: Collected Papers on Quantum Philosophy
by J. S. Bell
Edition: Paperback
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3.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Read for the Curious, January 16, 2015
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It is worth reading this book simply because Bell is such an important figure in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. I found his (other than Bell's Inequality) ideas interesting, but rather spotty.


The Multiple Self (Studies in Rationality and Social Change)
The Multiple Self (Studies in Rationality and Social Change)
by Jon Elster
Edition: Paperback
Price: $55.14
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3.0 out of 5 stars Of Historical Interest Only, January 16, 2015
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The idea of multiple selves is an interesting one, although modern neurosciences is pretty strong on the unity of the mental processes of decision-making. This book is a bunch of ruminations by interesting people, but primarily of historical interest. No one seems to know what to make of the idea in any analytical sense. This book came out before the era of behavioral game theory and experimental study of choice behavior. It would be good to see if these techniques could revive the idea of multiple selves.


Quantum Mechanics and Experience
Quantum Mechanics and Experience
by David Z. Albert
Edition: Paperback
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Deep and Important Contribution to the Understanding of Quantum Mechanics, January 16, 2015
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Albert goes to great lengths to present all the mathematics that is needed to reveal the problems in interpreting quantum mechanics. I think he does a great job. The idea that one can understand the problems of interpretation without the math is simply silly. I cannot be done. If you want to find out why physicists might possibly believe in the many worlds interpretation of QM, read this book. The many worlds interpretation is bizarre and unbelievable, but the problem in defining a "measurement" without become subjective and anthropomorphic seems impossible.

I will probably read this book a couple of more times, as well as reading some of the papers in the bibliography (I read a few and found them enlightening, although rather difficult for a non-physicist.


Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think
Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think
by E. Winter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.88
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de Force of Science and Humanities, January 16, 2015
This book is a synthesis of the humanistic study of human emotions, the economic theory of rational choice, the experimental evidence on human choice behavior, and Darwinian evolutionary theory. It is a deeply insightful, sensitive, and revealing book that completely justifies the notion that the humanities and the science each grows with the proper association with the other. This is not a self-help book, but if you are an aspiring artist or writer, you will learn much about human nature from this book.

Feeling Smart brought to mind for me one of Yeats’ most poignant yet enigmatic poems, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Here is how it goes:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
…..
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

We are told that we should make rational, deliberate choices, and the emotionality is the enemy of good choices. Make a list of pros and cons---balance all, bring all to mind. We are also told to follow our heart, to go for our dreams---Faint heart neuer wonne faire Lady. There is, in fact, a deep Aristotelian truth in the notion that wise choices result from an intimately intertwining of reason and emotion---which is why the young are all too often incapable of making wise choices, while the old are incapable of implementing wise choices.

Winter makes excellent use of laboratory game theory, which is a development of the past few decades that links the rational actor model to behavioral game theory in an effort to tease out the varieties of human preferences, reasoning patterns, and systematic strengths and weaknesses. But Winter always relates the results of experiments back to his personal experience and the larger humanist tradition. He also makes it clear that our emotions are the product of evolution. Some of our emotions are quite primitive, including fear and anger, while others, such at shame, guilt, and embarrassment are probably purely human.

As Winter shows us, anger can serve as a mechanism for creating credible commitment, enabling us to improve our strategic positions in interactions with others. … However, although anger is intended to benefit us from an evolutionary perspective, often it also harms us—not only because of the mental suffering that anger can cause, but also because of the implications it can have on our relationships with those toward whom we express our anger. We are often limited in our ability to control our anger in situations in which it does not serve us or even harms us.

Also, Winter shows us how in some cases, the evolutionary advantage of certain emotions can be overwhelmed by their disadvantages in the modern world. Blushing provides a very interesting example. Regret, which has very clear evolutionary advantages, is also an emotional reaction that can have negative effects, sometimes leading us to make suboptimal decisions. If we never felt regret for any of our actions, we would doubtless be quite miserable, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Winter concludes that the border delineating the twin spheres of emotional and rational systems is very thin and convoluted. In most of the occasions in which we are called upon to make decisions, whether those are monumental life-changing decisions or the most mundane, that border is liable to become so blurred that it may disappear entirely. The two systems become intertwined around each other so tightly that they become inseparable. In many cases our emotions are there to enable us to arrive at rapid and nearly automatic decisions, but in other cases, especially when weighty issues are at stake, our emotions challenge our rational thought processes.


The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars An Illogical Muddle Perpetrated Upon the Reader, January 10, 2015
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I would give this book three stars for the amount of information conveyed if the book were not so compromised by the author's arrogance and lack of the capacity for logical thought.

The argument that voters are irrational as opposed to simply uniformed is never made. The evidence that voters are uniformed takes the form of saying that they disagree with economic theory. What else is new? Voters disagree with global warming and Darwinian evolution.

The argument that voters are uniformed and therefore it is better to leave decisions to experts is not cogent, because experts can be corrupted when they are the sole arbiters of policy. Moreover, the experts may have their own internal dynamics leading them to be wrong in systematic ways.

The notion that voters are irrational because rational agents have no incentive become informed about political and social issues is obviously illogical. Self-interested rational voters will be uninformed, not irrational. But rational self-interested voters will not vote. But people do vote. Even if they are irrational, why should they do that? The whole thing is just a muddle.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 21, 2015 6:34 AM PST


A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy
A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy
by Jonathan Israel
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Investigates the Moderate vs. Radical Enlightenment, January 8, 2015
Jonathan Israel, Revolution of the Mind (PUP, 2010)
In the late sixteenth century in Europe, thinkers began to question church authority and the unquestioned reverence for Aristotelian natural philosophy. Francis Bacon in that period lay down laws for scientific research that remain insightful to this day. Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Descartes lay the basis for a secular epistemology, and Kepler demonstrated the elliptical shape of planetary orbits.

We tend to think of the resulting period of Enlightenment thought as rather a whole cloth, but Jonathan Israel rather convincingly shows that this was not the case. Rather, he argues that the early Enlightenment figures were rather conservative, wanting a reformed state and religious elite to lead the way in social progress. Four out of six of the Enlightenment’s philosophical founding fathers---Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Bayle--- believed that enlightened states and religions could improve the masses understandings of the world and improve society thereby. Spinoza was rather more skeptical of dominant institutions, though, although he to believed extensive structural reform of Christianity could lead the way.

Turgot and Adam Smith first developed coherent theories of social progress, based on the human capacity to learn from experience, innovate technically, and to evaluate evidence rationally. This led to the idea that education and reason were all that was necessary to improve society. Political democracy thus became a possibility for the new Radical Enlightenment thinkers, whereas democracy was anathema to the earlier moderate Enlightenment thinkers.

There was considerable wavering over this key issue. Kant, for instance, supported a pervasive liberalism and qualified support for the French Revolution, but was not anti-aristocratic or anti-religious. Rousseau started out quite radical but became moderate in his old age. Kant, Ferguson, Kames, Smith, Voltaire, Hume, Locke and Turgot considered the basic social order not defective, but needing change. They argued that history has proved the value of basic institutions of church and state.

The radical Enlightenment figures included Paine, d’Holbach, Priestley, Diderot, Godwin, and Bentham, who dropped the reverence for history and tradition in favor of promoting “reason” as the basis for all social, political, and moral decisions. They believed in full individual rights, freedom of expression, democracy.

Israel tells a persuasive story, though I thought for the average reader the job could have been done in about a third of the number of pages.


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
Offered by Macmillan
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Read by a Crusader for Common Sense, December 29, 2014
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Like Shermer's other books and columns, this is a very informative and engaging volume. However, his central thesis is surely wrong, or at least incomplete. Here is his central thesis (p. 5): "We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons ... after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism...Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time."

If this were true, then "reality" could never lead us to change our beliefs. But we do change our beliefs, often in response to new information. The really critical question is when do we change our beliefs in response to reality, and when do we not?

Note that if Shermer's thesis were correct, then he believes it and all of the book is a rationalization of his pre-existing belief. Why should we bother to read his rationalizations? More generally, why ever listen to anyone's arguments about the nature of reality? they are just rationalizations of pre-existing beliefs.

At a minimum, we should add something about the costs of holding incorrect beliefs. For instance, it does not much matter what a non-scientist believes about evolution, so there is no cost to being a Creationist. By contrast, a biologist pays a high cost by believing in Creationism. He might, however, believe in God at very low cost.

Problems arise when people believe in wrong things even when the costs are very high. For instance, parents may doom a child to disability or death by believing in faith cures.

A more difficult problem is why people ever believe in things that are uncomfortable when the belief cannot help them in some way. For instance, a devout religious believer may still reject Creationism simply because the evidence is against it.

There is clearly more to be said on the subject.


The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future
The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inequality is Not the Problem, October 25, 2014
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Joseph Stiglitz is one of the greatest economists of our time, a Nobel Prize winner, former head of the World Bank and Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. He is also seriously concerned about poverty and inequality in America. I remember well hearing him on NPR radio being interviewed on the day he was informed that he was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics: he spoke passionately and almost exclusively about the need for eradicating poverty in America and around the world.

The economic argument for policies that favor the poor over the rich are very simple, being based on the universally accepted principle of the declining marginal utility of income. What that means is that one dollar is worth a lot more to a person who makes $20,000 a year than it is to a person who makes $200,000 a year. Thus a policy that gives $1 to the poorer and reduces the income of the richer by the same amount will increase general social welfare. Some people have argued that this is a value judgment rather than a fact, but that is just wrong. It is a fact, pure and simple.

The bottom half of the income distribution in America earns only 12% of total income. Why don’t they just vote to take money from the top 1% of earners, who capture about 20% of total income? If voters took away half of the earnings of the top 1% and gave it to the bottom 50%, each recipient household would receive about $14,000, a not insignificant sum.

I do not know why voters do not expropriate the rich (both supporters and opponents in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries certainly expected that to happen upon the advent of democracy with universal suffrage), but there is one strong arguments against expropriating the rich: to the extent that high incomes motivate the talented to acquire and exercise skills and to take risks, excessive taxation will lead to economic stagnation.

In fact, my observation of American politics leads me to a very simple understanding of voter sentiments: people care about injustice but not about inequality. The current wave of anger at the top 1% is not fueled by resentment against inequality, but rather against the injustice of the people at the top gaining while others are losing jobs and houses due to the economic elite’s anti-social and greedy machinations.

There are of course societies where people care about inequality per se. But those are invariably relatively poor, clannish societies. For instance, in hunter-gatherer societies without forms of material wealth, when one family is very successful, others who are less successful will demand sharing the bounty. This of course eliminates the incentive to be successful and entails enduring social poverty of the group. In rich societies such as our own, people are used to congratulating the successful, whether sports stars, movie stars, real estate wheeler-dealers, and other celebrities. People object only when they feel success was based on some form of injustice, or the well-off are behaving uncharitably. Inequality per se is simply not something people think is wrong (except, of course, for a fringe of super-liberals, who are politically irrelevant).
Stiglitz draws precisely on this sentiment in this spirited call to action for income redistribution towards the less well off. Recounting the well-established fact that the very rich have done extremely well in the past few decades while the fortunes of those below the top 10% have stagnated, Stiglitz argues that the good fortune of the winners is indeed unjust, being a reward for their inveterate rent-seeking rather that their contributions to society. Stiglitz writes: “This book is not about the politics of envy: the bottom 99 percent by and large are not jealous of the social contributions that some of those among the 1 percent have made, of their well-deserved incomes. This book is instead about the politics of efficiency and fairness. The central argument is that the model that best describes income determination at the top is not one based on individuals’ contributions to society… Much of the income at the top is instead what we have called rents. These rents have moved dollars from the bottom and middle to the top…In the United States the “Occupy Wall Street” movement echoed the same refrain. The unfairness of a situation in which so many lost their homes and their jobs while the bankers enjoyed large bonuses was grating.”

Stiglitz recognizes that because the increase in inequality is due to rent-seeking rather than inexorable “market forces,” it can be reversed by ending the rent-seeking---in effect by changing tax laws. He writes “while we may be able to do only a little to change the direction of market forces, we can circumscribe rent seeking. Or at least we could, if we managed to get our politics right.” Much of the book consists of suggestions to this end. These include curbing the financial sector, stronger pro-competition and anti-trust laws, limiting the power of CEOs, eliminate “corporate welfare” in the form of subsidies to privileged sectors of the economy, improve access to education, institute comprehensive and universal health care, follow a vigorous full-employment fiscal policy, expand affirmative action for minorities, and restore the power of workers’ unions.

Perhaps Stiglitz’ most ambitious suggestion is his proposal for curbing the inegalitarian effects of globalization. He writes, “Globalization and technology both contribute to the polarization of our labor market, but they are not abstract market forces that just arrive from on high; rather, they are shaped by our policies. We have explained how globalization— especially our asymmetric globalization—is tilted toward putting labor in a disadvantageous bargaining position vis-à-vis capital. While globalization may benefit society as a whole, it has left many behind— not a surprise given that, to a large extent, globalization has been managed by corporate and other special interests for their benefit. Too often, the response to the threat of globalization is to make workers even worse off, not just by cutting their wages but also by lowering social protections. The growth of the antiglobalization movement is, under these circumstances, totally understandable. There are myriad ways in which globalization could be brought back into a better balance.”
It strikes me that Stiglitz’ analysis and his policy recommendations are closely tailored to what progressive Democrats in America are thinking, and to what seasoned politicians believe it is possible to attain politically. However, and while I fully agree with many of his policy recommendations, I disagree with some crucial recommendations, and there are important policy options that he does not discuss.

Most important, I think it is likely that the increase in before-tax inequality that we have experienced in the past few decades is in fact market-driven rather than rent-seeking-driven. This is because there are similar trends in all the advanced market economies, the increases in income accrue to members of high-skilled professions, such as law, medicine, and management, and the most income-skewed sector, finance, as grown exponentially through increased public demand for financial services. I should note that Stiglitz himself admits that his rent-seeking thesis is more or less untenable, and he accepts it for reasons of personal taste. He writes: “It is essentially impossible to single out any one factor’s relative contribution, given how intertwined the various forces shaping inequality are; there can be honest differences of opinion. But… markets don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shaped by our politics, often in ways that benefit those at the top. Moreover, while we may be able to do only a little to change the direction of market forces, we can circumscribe rent seeking. Or at least we could, if we managed to get our politics right.”

This admonition reminds me of the old saw about the economist looking for his lost keys one evening under a lamppost despite the fact that he dropped them in the bushes, explaining that there is more light under the lamppost. More to the point: if the problem isn’t rent-seeking, then you can’t reverse it by curbing rent-seeking! It would be more plausible to say that before-tax income inequality has been caused by market forces, but could be corrected by higher taxes on the rich (think of avoiding taxation as a form of rent-seeking). The problem is that the well-off already pay most of the taxes. The top 5% of the income distribution, who receive 45% of national income, pay 71% of all federal income taxes, while the bottom 50%, who receive 12% of national income, pay only 2% of all federal income taxes. There is not likely much leeway for increasing tax rates on the rich much more without generating very strong tendencies for tax avoidance and reduced economic participation of the economic elite.

Another indication of Stiglitz’ adherence to the agenda of the Democratic Party is his pandering to unions. Public sector unions are especially great contributors to the Democratic Party coffers, but it is not clear that they are in any way a force for the mitigation of inequality. Take for instance the teachers’ unions, which are inveterately hostile to competition in education, and which must be pulled kicking and dragging even to allow the firing of incompetent teachers. Stiglitz repeats several times in the book that teachers are underpaid, but never mentions the fact that incentive pay is virtually impossible without serious educational reform. He does not include charter schools or education voucher plan in his recommendation for progressive policy reform.

I have an alternative vision for progressive reform in America. It is not predicated on redistribution through tax laws, strong unions, or crippling the power of business and banking leaders. It is through what Samuel Bowles and I have called “productivity enhancing redistributions” (PEDs) These are policies that both improve the productivity of the economy and at the same time materially benefit the less-well-off. To the extent that a more competitive educational system contributes to the work skills and attitudes of poor youth, it is a productivity enhancing redistribution. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a productivity enhancing redistribution, as are on-the-job apprenticeship programs, support for some forms of job retraining, and support for community health programs. Probably most such policy endeavors can be implemented without increasing tax rates.

Perhaps the political types are correct in believing that productivity enhancing redistribution are not politically feasible, but I cannot imagine why not.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 31, 2014 8:56 AM PDT


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