Friday, October 6, 2017

Gun Control

I am a bit unusual among folks on the left insofar as I actually have a lot of personal experience with guns. I grew up hunting dove, squirrels, and deer, and I think I killed my first deer when I was 8. That experience has led me to think a lot of things folks say about gun regulation is misguided. The push to outlaw assault weapons, for example, has long struck me as driven by an ignorant aversion to something that looks scary on the part of people who don't actually know anything about the relevant weapons. Generally speaking, so-called "assault weapons" are not different from semi-automatic weapons generally in ways that anyone should care about, at least as far as I know (happy to be corrected on this point). Other proposed measures, like outlawing high-capacity magazines, seem to me to go in the right direction but not nearly far enough. 

For my part, I favor outlawing semi-automatic weapons, which 
make it much easier to kill more people in a given period of time and were used in both of the two worst mass shootings in the US in the last fifty years--in Orlando and Las Vegas.

So far as I can see, there is no good reason private citizens should be able to own these weapons. You certainly don't need them for hunting. If you need more than one shot to kill an animal, what you're doing is inhumane, and you should quit hunting, go to the range, and work on your shooting until you can hunt humanely. If the concern is self-defense, I fail to see why a shotgun used at close range isn't the most effective choice anyway. And if the idea is that we need guns so that we can form militias and, in that way, protect ourselves from government overreach--well, I think anyone who thinks that this is possible with semi-automatic weapons but not without is seriously underestimating the power of the US military. And besides, it seems to me clear that the public health benefits of a ban on semi-automatic weapons obviously outweigh whatever vanishingly small chance there is that a private militia with semi-automatic weapons would be more likely to succeed in its attempts to resist government overreach than one without. Honestly, the only reason I can think of to oppose such a ban is the irrational attachment to negative liberty that infects our public discourse generally.

However, there is good reason to go in for such a ban. There's robust evidence that regulations like this reduce gun-related deaths, and it's not hard to see why. Even if a ban didn't make it impossible to get hold of these, it would make doing so harder. It would accordingly keep many people from getting hold of these more lethal weapons, and that by itself would significantly reduce the number of deaths, even if mass shootings and other forms of gun violence still took place.

It's not clear whether or not banning these weapons would require revising the second amendment. (This piece, at least, suggests that it wouldn't.) If it would, though, I say so much the worse for the amendment.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Some Very Rough Numbers on a Green New Deal

A couple of recent developments got me thinking again about the possibility of a green new deal.

The first was the “Marshall Plan for the United States” developed by the Center for American Progress (CAP). Observing that wages are lower and unemployment is higher among Americans without college degrees, they propose a jobs guarantee aimed at putting these Americans back to work at well-paying jobs in education, healthcare, and various forms of care work. For, they note,

There are not nearly enough home care workers to aid the aged and disabled. Many working families with children under the age of 5 need access to affordable child care. Schools need teachers’ aides, and cities need EMTs.

They suggest, too, that in addition to jobs, the government ought to fund infrastructure projects and apprenticeship programs to train people for jobs for which they are not currently qualified.

The other was the Democrats’ “Better Deal” initiative, which also advocates job training and infrastructure investment.

All of this seems great. A jobs guarantee empowers labor by reducing the power of the sack, and because, on the CAP plan, these jobs would be relatively well-paid at $15/hour or $36,000/year after Medicare and Social Security taxes, they would have the welcome effect of putting upward pressure on wages throughout the economy. Moreover, jobs like these that help us to sustain and improve our lives are precisely the sorts of jobs we need more of as we seek to build a low-carbon economy.

The reason all this got me thinking about a green new deal is that, their appeal notwithstanding, these plans leave out a kind of work that is absolutely crucial to building a better world: the construction and maintenance of green infrastructure, including not just grid improvements and solar panel and wind turbine construction but also the infrastructure necessary to expand opportunities for low-carbon leisure. Not only is this work necessary; it is very well-suited for exactly the population the CAP analysis is concerned with: you don’t need a college degree to do construction work or to be a solar panel or wind turbine technician, though the latter do require some training.

Maybe the reason for this omission is that we can only fund so many jobs and so have to choose which types of jobs to fund. But it is hardly obvious that green jobs are less important than the kinds of jobs on which the CAP proposal focuses, and besides, we may not have to choose: care work and educational jobs could be funded from one source, green jobs from another. In particular, green jobs might be funded using the revenue generated by a carbon tax and the $20.5 billion we currently spend every year subsidizing the fossil fuel industry.

Senators Whitehouse and Schatz recently proposed a carbon tax that would generate $2 trillion in revenue over 10 years (details here), and that proposal seems to be gaining some traction. Like many such proposals, theirs is revenue-neutral, meaning that the revenue from this tax supplants revenue that would otherwise have been collected by other means, such as the corporate income tax. But a carbon tax needn’t be revenue-neutral. A carbon tax might be structured in such a way that the revenue it generates does not supplant but supplements other sources of revenue, and we might use that new revenue to fund a WPA-style green jobs and infrastructure program.

A WPA worker receives a paycheck, January 1939. Source: National Archives.

Now, as is well-known, carbon taxes are regressive, so some of the revenue from the tax would need to be used to offset price spikes for lower-income people. Fortunately, this might be accomplished using only a small portion of the revenue generated. Estimates as to how much of the revenue generated would be necessary for this purpose appear to range from 10-25% (details here). Just to be safe, we can be conservative in our estimates here and go with the highest estimates. This would still leave 75% of the annual proceeds for other things.

Now it is worth saying that even this number may be too high. We might also want to reserve some of the revenue collected via a carbon tax to seed a rainy day fund for Americans forced to relocate as a result of climate change and for others adversely affected thereby. But even if we used another 25% of the revenue collected for that purpose, we would still collect about $100 billion per year for 10 years. Using the numbers in the CAP proposal as a guide, that should be enough to fund about 2.8 million jobs at an after-tax wage of $15/hr. Were we to also use the $20.5 billion/year we currently spend in fossil fuel subsidies for this purpose, we could create about 570,000 more such jobs, making for a total of 3.37 million jobs. And remember, that’s using the most conservative figures around to make sure that tax isn’t regressive and using an enormous amount of money to help people adversely affected by climate change.

This is, of course, a highly ambitious proposal, one unlikely to get anywhere in the current political climate. Nevertheless it deserves serious consideration for several reasons. Not only is it exactly the kind of bold vision needed to correct the impression that the Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything. Not only does it have the same advantages as the CAP proposal with respect to the empowerment of labor and economy-wide upward pressure on wages. In addition to all this, it has a distinct advantage over many other carbon tax proposals. Even if this is not exactly the aim, the likely if not inevitable effect of instituting a carbon tax high enough to ensure that the prices of fossil fuels reflect their true cost to society is to end our reliance on such fuels. It is for that reason a bad idea to use the revenues generated thereby to fund anything we expect to continue to need funds after we are no longer using carbon-intensive fuels: otherwise, we set ourselves up for funding shortfalls in the future. The advantage of using revenues from a carbon tax to fund a WPA-style green jobs program is that many such jobs will become unnecessary around the same time we stop using fossil fuels, and not just coincidentally. For these are precisely the jobs that bring into existence the infrastructure we need in order to wean ourselves off of gas, oil, and coal. As soon as they’re done, there will be nothing left to tax.

Notably, this aspect of the proposal also gives to it something of a poetic character: for the proposal is, in effect, to build the new world on the back of the old.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

In Defense of Safety Nets

With the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and much of the rest of America's already-inadequate safety net on the chopping block, it seemed to me fitting to write a short defense of safety nets, one that emphasizes the moral and philosophical position underlying my view here rather than getting lost in the weeds, as so many discussions of safety net programs seem to.

My view here is grounded in the one of the oldest and most widely accepted moral views, the so-called Golden Rule: we ought to do to others as we would prefer that they do to us were our circumstances relevantly similar to theirs. It is also grounded in the view that one of the government's most basic functions is to protect its citizens from danger, one form of which is the vicissitudes of fortune (
illness, unexpected expenses, damage to or loss of property, etc.). Both these thoughts are captured nicely by the following thought experiment, developed by the American political philosopher John Rawls in the early '70s

Try to imagine that you are in a situation where you don't know anything about what kind of person you are and are trying to imagine what a country should be like. So: you don't know if you're a man or a woman; what color your skin is; if you're able-bodied; if you're Christian, Muslim, non-religious, Jewish, or something else; if you're gay, bisexual,or straight; if you're cis- or transgender; if you're poor or rich or somewhere in between; if you have a family and friends you can rely or in hard times or if you don't; and so on. In short, all you know is that you live in some country. Now consider: if that were your situation, and if you could decide what the country you lived in would be like, how would you want it to be?

In particular, what kinds of resources would you like to have available to you if you fell on hard times? For example, would you want it to be the case that, if you needed help, the only place to turn would be the church and charities? Remember: because these are private organizations run by private citizens, there is no guarantee there will be any of them at all and, if there are, no guarantee that there will be enough of them or that they will be able to provide the help you need. Moreover, even if there are enough and they can help, they might not. Maybe you're gay and they don't like gay people. Maybe you're black and they don't like black folks. Maybe you're Jewish and they don't like Jews. And so on.

I don't think that's right or fair; in my view a society cannot call itself decent if it is willing to take the chance that people it might have helped die on the street. I accordingly think the government should be willing to extend a hand to anyone who needs it--to give them food to eat, a roof over their heads, and clothes to wear, whatever their color, creed, sexual orientation, etc. That way, even if I don't know anything about myself other than that I'm a citizen or perhaps even just a resident, I know that, if I'm in trouble, I can count on someone offering it to me, whatever else might turn out to be true about me. I don't just have to hope that someone might have decided to start a charity or a church that will be willing to help me: I can count on it.

A lot people have concerns about the kinds of government programs I'm advocating, and it would be impossible to address all of them without making this far too long. So I just want touch at least briefly on those I hear most often.

Perhaps the concern about safety net programs I hear expressed most frequently is that they enable free riders or moochers by giving them something for nothing. I think the fundamental thought behind this objection is that our society should be such that, the harder a person works and the higher the quality of their work, the better they do. Safety nets irritate people who press this objection because, they think, they stand in the way of the realization of this ideal by rewarding laziness. This strikes them as unfair to people who are willing to do their part.

In principle, I don't see anything wrong with this meritocratic ideal. In general, it seems to me a good thing to reward people for working hard at helpful tasks. Nevertheless I think this is a very bad objection to safety nets for a couple of reasons.

First, I just do not think our society is anywhere close to being meritocratic in this sense. On the one hand, people born into rich or powerful families often do quite well for themselves despite not being especially capable. Sometimes this is because their families have connections and influence that enable them to do things they wouldn't otherwise be able to; for example, this appear to be what explains the admission to Harvard of Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law and according to his high-school teachers a "less than stellar" student (details here). Other times it is just because such people come into the world with a kind of support system or fail-safe people born into less fortunate circumstances do not: if they ever end up in a tight spot, they can rely on their family's wealth and connections to get them out of it. On the other, our society often throws up arbitrary barriers to advancement that make it much harder for some people to do well for themselves in the first place. These obstacles often take the form of class-, race-, gender-, sexual orientation-, or gender identity-based prejudice and structural barriers. I support safety nets in part because I think they go some way toward rectifying that defect by removing these arbitrary obstacles to advancement by making available to everyone the kind of support system only the rich would otherwise have.

But--second--even if our society were perfectly meritocratic--even if everybody's level of well-being were perfectly correlated with how talented or capable they are and how hard they are willing to work--we would still need a robust safety net. For the mere fact that someone is not particularly capable or useful should not mean that they lose their house, that they die because they can't afford healthcare, or that they go hungry. We should not punish those with mental illness or with physical or mental disabilities for being the way they are; instead, recognizing our common humanity and the vulnerability that is a basic fact of all our lives, we should take care of them. The opposite view is just callous indifference.

Someone might grant me all this but still worry that people who don't really need them will take advantage of these programs. Again I agree that it is a bad thing for people to be lazy and take advantage of programs intended to help people get back on their feet: the public coffers are not bottomless, so we would do well not to waste money on people who don't really need it. But this belief leads me to different conclusions than it does those who press this objection because I care more about ensuring that people do not go hungry, end up homeless, lose limbs from untreated diabetes, etc. than I do about the possibility that someone might take advantage of safety net programs. For this reason, my response to learning that people are taking advantage of safety net programs is to think that, if anything, we need to alter the programs they’re taking advantage of to make it harder and less appealing for them to do that, not abolish the programs. But even this, it bears saying, is a dangerous path. For once we start down it, there is a tendency to increase the number of hoops people have to jump through in order to benefit from the program in question. Not only does this increase the likelihood that people who need those benefits won't get them--a possibility that, to my mind, is far worse than some getting them even though they don't need them--it also often increases the cost of the program. That in turn may decrease public support for it and lead, in time, to its elimination. So there are sometimes significant costs to implementing measures designed to restrict access to safety net programs, dangers anyone attempting to eliminate free riders would do well to keep in mind. Though not ideal, it is far better for someone to get a benefit they don't need than for them to need a benefit they can't get.

Another common objection to safety net programs is that, although it is certainly a good thing to feed the hungry, house the homeless, tend the sick, and so on, the associated costs to our liberty far outweigh the benefits of governmental programs designed to do this. This is the objection to the ACA I've heard more often than any other: people hate being coerced into buying healthcare. Against this, however, two points. First, liberty is without a doubt a valuable thing, but this objection suggests a perverse fetishization of liberty, a blind zeal for non-interference that fails to distinguish those freedoms that are worth caring about from those that are not. For supposing that we are talking about offering these programs in a relatively wealthy society and financing them primarily by taxing its wealthiest citizens--as we undeniably are in the United States--the freedom in question is that of people who have more than they need to hoard their wealth and deny to those who lack it the minimum necessary for a decent life. I cannot see a society that values that particularly liberty over meeting people's basic needs as anything but cruel and selfish. Moreover, it must be said that that safety net programs that ensure that all people have access to housing, enough food and clothing, and healthcare are themselves in an important sense liberating: by putting in place a kind of ground floor below which people are not allowed to fall, they insulate people from the whims of fate and, in that way, go some way toward liberating them from oppressive forces to which all of us are subject to at least some extent.

The fundamental point underlying all this is a simple moral one. The vicissitudes of fortune are a kind of danger that haunts even those of us who manage to escape its cruelest blows. And sometimes, when disaster does strike, people end up in situations with which they can't or don't know how to cope--often through no fault of their own. In those moments people need a helping hand. Being a decent society means recognizing this and doing what we can to help those who fall on hard times, not turning our backs on the needy to punish the takers, all the while singing paeans to liberty and caught up in absurd, Randian fever dreams about self-made men. The hard truth is that none of us knows when we might need a hand; decency demands that we be willing to offer ours.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Banning Muslims and Regulating Guns

Many people oppose stricter gun regulations because, they say, regulation will not stop malicious actors from getting guns (as prohibition did not stop people from obtaining alcohol). Many of the same people, I assume, support Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the country. Question: why not think Trump’s plan is problematic in the same way? If the thought is that government regulations are too blunt an instrument to solve the problems in the one case, why not in the other? Is it so hard to imagine that jihadis could find ways around a ban on Muslims entering the country?

The answer cannot be that while such a ban would surely not stop everyone we don’t want here from getting into the country, it would stop some, since proponents of gun regulation can take the same line: while regulations will not completely stop malicious actors from obtaining weapons, they will stop some, and so they’ll make us safer overall. For consistency’s sake, we should take the same line in both cases.

Admittedly, the argument cuts both ways: supporters of Trump’s plan might criticize those proponents of gun regulation who oppose it on the grounds that they are opposing a plan that would make us safer overall (even if it wouldn’t eliminate terrorist attacks entirely). (Whether or not such a ban would in fact make us safer is less clear in this case--not least because it would not be surprising if implementing a ban like this were to fan the flames of radicalism--but I won’t worry about this.) The answer for proponents of gun regulation seems straightforward here: even if it would make us safer, such a ban would be incompatible with some of our deepest values, tolerance of religious and other forms of diversity and opposition to arbitrary discrimination.

Opponents of regulation might of course reply that, again, the argument cuts both ways, since regulation violates their right to bear arms. But it is hardly clear that citizens have a right to relatively unrestricted access to lethal weapons; at the very least, that claim seems much harder to defend than does tolerance of harmless forms of diversity and opposition to arbitrary discrimination.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Trump, China, and the Paris Climate Agreement

In a May 17th interview with Reuters, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee known simply as "the Donald" had quite a bit to say about the landmark climate agreement reached this past December in Paris, and he was so wrong about so much that I felt I had to say something.

Consider first Trump’s claim that he intends to renegotiate the Paris agreement: “I will be looking at that very, very seriously, and at a minimum I will be renegotiating those agreements, at a minimum. And at a maximum I may do something else.” “Something else,” we can only assume, means withdrawing from the agreement entirely.

The problem is that Trump is unlikely to be able to do any of this. Given that the process involved getting representatives of nearly 200 nations together in one place and took two weeks (not to mention months of planning), he certainly would not be able to convince the parties to the agreement to renegotiate it, and as Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin brought out in a recent article for the Washington Post, there is also a good chance that he would not be able to pull out of the agreement. This is so for two reasons: first, many countries--including the US and China--are currently making a concerted effort to ensure that the agreement goes into effect before President Obama leaves office next January, and second, no nation can pull out until at least three years after it goes into effect, and any withdrawals made then will take a year to go into effect. 

Unfortunately, Mooney and Eilperin also make clear, the agreement is weak enough that by itself the fact that the next president may well be unable to withdraw hardly guarantees that the US under a President Trump would take meaningful climate action. Even if bound by the Paris agreement as it stands, a President Trump could (among other things) still nix President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a crucial part of the US’s emissions reduction strategy.  He could also abandon attempts to secure funding for the Green Climate Fund, an international mechanism meant to help poor countries reduce their emissions and take steps to protect themselves from the myriad adverse effects of climate change. Mooney and Eilperin suggest that, aside from international censure, this sort of thing would not result in any penalties for a Trump administration.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Also noteworthy are Trump’s claims that the agreement is “one-sided” and that he does not believe China will adhere to the emissions reduction pledge it made ahead of Paris (its so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC). The implication here is clearly that China is not pulling its weight. 

There are several problems with these claims.

First, it is not clear what if any reason there is supposed to be to doubt that China will fulfill its pledge to the international community. According to this analysis, China is on track to meet the goals set out in its INDC. And as Joe Romm over at Climate Progress was quick to point out, China in fact appears to be ahead of the game, with its emissions now apparently having plateaued a full fifteen years ahead of schedule!

All of this is possible because, Trump’s indication to the contrary notwithstanding, China is actually doing a ton to fight climate change. To mention just a few things the country is up to, China
  • Plans to launch a nationwide cap and trade program in 2017 (source); 
  • Is rapidly expanding nuclear power generation capacity (source); 
  • Is expected to derive 50% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 (source); 
  • Aims to decrease coal consumption by 160 million tonnes in the next five years (source); and 
  • Is currently constructing a nationwide network of high-voltage, direct current power lines (source), a move that, the authors of this study found, would allow the US to reduce its emissions to 80% below 1990 levels if implemented here.

And as for whether or not China is pulling its weight, a couple of points are worth making.

First, the Climate Action Tracker, “an independent scientific analysis produced by four research organisations tracking climate action and global efforts towards the globally agreed aim of holding warming below 2°C,” ranks China ahead of the US on climate action! (See the chart on the left on this page.)  I argued as much myself here.

Moreover, if any country is not pulling its weight, it is the US. For one thing, the US’s INDC is much less ambitious than it ought to be, as I argued here. And to make matters worse, one recent analysis found that currently the US is not even on track to achieve the relatively modest emissions reduction goals laid out in its INDC!

Together with his long history of climate change denial, the utter obliviousness to all this Trump displayed in this interview with Reuters suggests suggest that a Trump presidency would be very bad news for the climate. But hey--at least he’s not as bad as hemorrhoids!

UPDATE (5/27/16):  Yesterday Trump made a speech about energy and the environment, and it was even worse than I had expected.  He made clear his intentions not just to back out of the Paris agreement--which, as I've indicated, he may well be unable to do--abut also to do two terrible things that--I also said--he actually could do and that I expressed concern about:  nix the Clean Power Plan and end adaptation funding for vulnerable communities across the globe.  And as if this weren't enough, he also espoused a whole bunch of other really bad ideas I won't bother to get into.  If you're interested, you can read more about it and watch the whole thing here.

I might also mention that, while doing research for this related blog post, I came across this UN page showing progress toward ratification of the Paris agreement.  If you're as worried about what might happen with US climate policy if Trump becomes president as I am, you'll find this helpful.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why does Wittgenstein Emphasize that Following a Rule is a Practice?

The piece below is a very slightly modified version of the essay I submitted as part of my application for last year's edition of the summer school put on every year by the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society.  (While my application was accepted, I was unfortunately unable to attend.)  This post is a bit different from my usual posts insofar as it does not attempt to be accessible to those unacquainted with Wittgenstein.  But it seemed to me like something that, while not groundbreaking enough to merit publication in a peer-reviewed journal, deserved to see the light of day.

* * *

In some of the best-known and most written-about parts of Investigations §§185-242, Wittgenstein appears to be concerned to emphasize that following a rule is a usage, a custom, an institution, or a practice (he seems to use these terms interchangeably):
198.  “So is whatever I do compatible with the rule?” -- Let me ask this:  what has the expression of a rule -- say a signpost -- got to do with my actions?  What sort of connection obtains here? -- Well, this one, for example:  I have been trained to react in a particular way to this sign, and now I do so react to it. But with this you have pointed out only a causal connection; only explained how it has come about that we now go by the signpost; not explained what this following-the-sign really consists in.  Not so; I have further indicated that a person goes by a signpost only in so far as there is an established usage, a custom. [1]
199.  Is what we call “following a rule” something that it would be possible for only one person, only once in a lifetime, to do? -- And this is, of course, a gloss on the grammar of the expression “to follow a rule”. 
It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which only one person followed a rule.  It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood, and so on. -- To follow a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (usages, institutions).  
202.  … ‘following a rule’ is a practice.
I have long wondered why it is that Wittgenstein is concerned to emphasize this point. Since I think I have finally gotten a bit of clarity here, I'd like to explain my idea.

Hilary Putnam has suggested, helpfully, that in §199, Wittgenstein’s point is fairly simple.  According to Putnam, he means only to note that it does not even make sense to speak of someone’s following a rule, making a report, giving or understanding an order, or doing all sorts of other things in certain circumstances, namely those in which they cannot be said to be taking part in some established practice. [2] That is why Wittgenstein says in §199 that following a rule is not “something that it would be possible for only one person, only once in a lifetime, to do.”  If, for example, mankind had never done any mathematics, and if someone were to write out the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16..., it would make no sense to say he or she was applying the rule we write as xn = 2x(n-1) (cf. §204).  As things are, where people have done mathematics for thousands of years and it is as ubiquitous as anything could be, that would be a fine way to describe someone who had been taught basic mathematics and did the same thing, but it would be a mistake to describe the actions of the person in my example this way.

Though Putnam does not say so, the same thought also seems to explain why in §200 he indicates that it would be inappropriate to say of the people he describes there that they are playing a game:  since there is in the relevant tribe supposed to be no practice or custom in which they might thereby be said to be taking part--that is, no game they might be playing--it makes no sense to say that they are playing one.  And he makes a similar point with his rhetorical question at §204:  “would the following be possible…:  mankind has never played any games; once though, someone invented a game--which, however, was never played?”  Wittgenstein makes clear that this is supposed to be a grammatical or conceptual point about the concepts of following a rule, giving an order, playing a game, etc., precisely the sort of mundane and uncontroversial reminder in the provision of which Wittgenstein tells us in §127 the philosopher’s work consists.

Putnam’s reading certainly helps to make clearer the sense of these remarks, but it does not solve all of the relevant interpretive problems.  For, we may still ask, why does Wittgenstein consider this grammatical point an important one to make?  In particular, how is this point related to the one he seems to be making in §198, where he first indicates that rule-following is a practice?

Before we can answer those questions, we need to understand §198.  That passage opens with a re-articulation of the question at the heart of this whole discussion:  “But how,” he has an interlocutor ask, “can a rule teach me what I have to do at this point?  After all, whatever I do can, on some interpretation, be made compatible with the rule.”  Unsatisfied with this way of putting the problem, Wittgenstein suggests an alternative formulation:  “No, that’s not what one should say.  Rather, this:  every interpretation hangs in the air together with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support.  Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.”  Wittgenstein’s point would seem to be that--at least given the way that his interlocutor understands the problem--it will not do for the interlocutor to answer his own question--“how can a rule teach me what I have to do at this point?”--by saying simply that the rule will do so as soon as it is interpreted.  For interpretations themselves admit of various interpretations, as do the interpretations of those interpretations, and so on.  The interlocutor of course realizes this, and that is why he is distressed:  interpretation seemed like the best candidate for solving his problem, and now that he sees it cannot help him, the problem seems to him insoluble.  He recognizes that rules give clear instructions in ordinary life, but he cannot understand how this is possible.  

It is here, in remarks clearly intended to help Wittgenstein’s interlocutor see his way out of these difficulties, that Wittgenstein first emphasizes that following a rule is a “usage, a custom.”  (In fact in §198 he is speaking about following a signpost, but the idea is that a signpost is the expression of a rule of some sort.)  Perhaps, then, we can make some headway by asking how the claim that following a rule is a practice might be thought to constitute or point the way to a solution of the “paradox” Wittgenstein articulates at §198.

It will help us to do that if we consider Wittgenstein’s more explicit statement of his favored solution (or dissolution, if you like) in §201:

That there is a misunderstanding here [i.e., in the interlocutor’s thought that a regress of interpretations is unavoidable] is shown by the mere fact that in this chain of reasoning we place one interpretation behind another, as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another lying behind it.  For what we thereby show is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which, from case to case of application, is exhibited in what we call “following the rule” and “going against it”.

As many commentators have said, the point here would seem to be that the interlocutor’s mistake was to think that, as Wittgenstein puts it, “every interpretation hangs in the air together with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support,” or in other words, that every rule not only admits of but requires interpretation in order for it to have any clear meaning. [3] This assumption, Wittgenstein means to indicate, is confused:  in a large portion of real life cases, rules neither need nor even so much as admit of interpretation.  They simply leave no question as to how they are to be followed, and when they do, it is just false that their interpretations always leave room for further interpretation.  Now let us ask:  how might Wittgenstein’s remark in §198 that “a person goes by a signpost only in so far as there is an established usage, a custom” be meant to help us see this?

I want to suggest that these remarks are supposed to help us to appreciate that the interlocutor’s assumption is mistaken by prompting us to reflect on what it is really like to participate in the relevant practices, customs, etc.  In §194, Wittgenstein writes that “when we do philosophy, we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the way in which civilized people talk, put a false interpretation on it, and then draw the oddest conclusions from this.”  By emphasizing that following a rule is a practice, he means to get us to see how we have done this in the present case.  Once we remember what it is really like to take part in the relevant practice, we will recognize the mistaken assumption he points out in §201 and see how it makes us think we need to solve the rule-following “paradox.”  We will see how it can be the case, as Wittgenstein says it is, that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation.” [4]

What, then, of §§199-200?  Why is the grammatical point Wittgenstein makes there worth making?

Here is an idea.  Wittgenstein’s interlocutor is distressed because he has found himself unable to identify some method an individual might use to determine what a rule requires in a given case.  He had hoped that interpretation might do the job, but now he sees it cannot.  At other places in Wittgenstein’s text, we see the interlocutor get his hopes up at the prospect that intuition might do the same thing (e.g., §213).  I want to suggest that the point of §§199-200 is to show Wittgenstein’s interlocutors that this whole approach is mistaken.  The interlocutors think that questions about what a rule requires are to be decided by considering psychological facts about individuals, facts about their intuitions or the way they interpret the rule.  But--Wittgenstein explains in §199--this just cannot work.  For if it could, it would be possible for there to be “only one occasion on which only one person followed a rule.”  They would only need to interpret it rightly or intuit its sense.  But, he here reminds us, that is not possible!  Rule-following and all the other activities he mentions are practices, and so they cannot occur in the absence of the whole “whirl of organism” that sustains them as practices. [5]

These passages are thus intended to help to disabuse Wittgenstein’s interlocutors of the thought that they must answer the question at issue in these hopeless ways.  Wittgenstein’s hope would then have been that, having seen that their approach to these questions cannot but fail, these interlocutors would be more open to and so more able to understand the solution to which Wittgenstein points the way in §198 and articulates more explicitly at §201.


[1] Throughout I use the translations in the 4th edition of the Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, (Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

[2] See Putnam’s “Was Wittgenstein Really an Anti-realist about Mathematics?” in Wittgenstein in America, ed. McCarthy and Stidd (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2001), pp. 143-149.

[3] See, for instance, David H. Finkelstein, “Wittgenstein on Rules and Platonism” in The New Wittgenstein, ed. Alice Crary and Rupert Read, (London:  Routledge, 2000), pp. 53-73.

[4] John McDowell makes basically this point at “Wittgenstein on Following a Rule,” in Mind, Value, and Reality (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 238.

[5] I take this by-now famous phrase from Stanley Cavell.  See Must We Mean What We Say?, (Charles Scribner’s Sons:  New York, 1969), p. 52.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Why does Economic Inequality Matter?

Recently I read through Harry Frankfurt's new book, On Inequality, the two main theses of which are that inequality as such (whether income, wealth, or of some other sort) is, in itself, morally irrelevant, and that what really matters is that everyone have enough.  Not surprisingly, the book is carefully argued, yet I remain unconvinced, and I want to take a minute to think about why.

I won't summarize the argument of the book.  Suffice it to mention just one consideration Frankfurt puts forward over and over again.  Suppose that I have enough money that, while I can't have everything I want, I am comfortable and never want for anything important, like food or healthcare or money to pay for my children's education, and suppose you have twice as much.  In this and like cases, Frankfurt points out, it is not clear that the mere fact that you have more money than I do entails that there is anything amiss here.

This argument seems plausible, so far as it goes.  I think Frankfurt is right to say that inequality is morally irrelevant in this case and others relevantly like it.  But I am not sure that it shows that there is nothing amiss in the staggering levels of economic inequality we observe today in America and globally.  (If the word "staggering" seems excessive to you, take a look at thisthis (from which I pulled the chart below), this, and the first chart in this article.)  It seems to me and, apparently, also to many others, that something rankles in the fact so few have so much in a country and a world where so many have so little.  But if Frankfurt is right--as he seems to be--that inequality as such is morally irrelevant at least in cases like the one I mentioned in the last paragraph, what is it that rankles?   Why exactly does economic inequality matter?

Wealth inequality in the US.  Notice that the top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined.  Likewise for the top 5% versus the bottom 95%.

Of course, increases in inequality may well have effects worth worrying about.  For instance, income inequality appears to be strongly correlated with the increasing politic polarization we've seen in the US in recent years, and there even appears to be some reason to think the increase in inequality we've seen during the same period played a part in bringing about the increases in polarization (source).  That is really interesting, but--to be clear--I don't want to focus on that here.  Instead, like Frankfurt I want to ask:  is there anything wrong with economic inequality just by itself, whatever its effects?

Near the end of the book, Frankfurt suggests inequality might be of concern in some cases because it signals a lack of respect (pp. 76-77).  I think that's plausible, but the suggestion needs further elaboration Frankfurt doesn't give it.  What reason might those with relatively low incomes or relatively little wealth have to feel disrespected?

Perhaps it is the fact that they are struggling to meet their basic needs even as others have many times what they need even to live very satisfying lives.  Frankfurt is right that, in general, it is a terrible thing when people don't have enough to live reasonably satisfying lives, of course.  But what he seems to miss is that the fact that some people have so much less than they need is made worse than terrible by the fact that their neighbors could so easily help but don't.  When that happens, a situation that was already terrible becomes appalling, and those who are struggling might reasonably feel that they are not being given the respect they deserve merely in virtue of the fact that they are human beings.  That is, I am suggesting, if one person is struggling to meet her basic needs, and another has vastly more than he needs by any reasonable measure, the first is entitled to some of what the second has, and the fact that they are not getting it might reasonably be taken as a sign of disrespect.

That is one possible answer, anyway; here's another.  It seems clear that a human being can only work so hard--at some point, you have to eat and sleep, at least.  So consider a situation in which two people are each working as hard as a human being can possibly work but are earning different amounts of money.  What could justify this?  Perhaps the value of the work they're doing.  If one is working to create an even higher-definition TV and the other is trying to cure cancer, for example, it seems appropriate that the latter earn more than the former.  But there are limits here.  For one thing, it is not plausible that any jobs employers are actually willing to hire people to do are so useless that the people who do them don't deserve to make enough to get by. Moreover, it is hard to see how any kind of work could be so valuable that people who do it deserve to make 300 times what people doing some other kind of work make.  And yet this is precisely what is happening in the US.  Today many full-time workers struggle to get by (for instance, adjunct professors who have to rely on food stamps), and some American CEO's make over 300 times what the average worker does, up from about 20 times in 1965 (source).  And so, it can seem, people's incomes are not in sync with the value of the work for which they are paid.  This state of affairs offends meritocratic sensibilities and does so, moreover, precisely because of the magnitude of the inequalities in play.  (Of course, things are even worse if we look at the broader global picture, in which 2.8 billion people live on less than $2/day.)

What do others think?  Have I put my finger on the problems with economic inequality?  Have I missed something?  I'm genuinely asking here:  I'm not sure myself whether or not I buy all this, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.