What sort of distribution of wealth/gender should there be? Should we do some stirring?

I think one of the first new expressions I heard on my first trip to Newcastle-upon-Tyne went something like, “O aye, he’s a stirrer that one is.”  So this sober post has a bit of mischief-making behind it. 

According to the abstrat below, many Americans are unaware of how great income inequality in American is.  And even conservatives want something better than what we have got.  The authors say that they wanted to insert the desires of ordinary Americans into debates about optimal income distribution.   But they must realize that the relationship between what people say they want in judging income distribution and what they will vote for are hardly securely connected.

Anyone who has worked on implicit biases knows that people who are, e.g.,  trying very hard to be fair to all their students may nonetheless produce biased grades.  And that’s just one example.  Desire and action can fall apart.   One thing in the political sphere that has interrupted the connection between desire and actual voting behavior in the case of income distribution is the persuasive leadership of conservative factions.  Or, ironically, the desire leads to votes for candidates who think the government’s doing nothing is the best state of affairs.  Let trickle down work; do not indulge the “laziness” of the welfare recipients, and so on.  (Note:  this views are being reported, but are not endorsed!)**

In the political sphere one hope is that we get a leadership who can make vivid the effects of doing nothing, and actually help to change behavior.  We may not have such a leader, as we once thought we did.  But in any case, that raises the question of whether leadership in academia could be more effective.  So far the APA has hardly been a help.  Perhaps we should try to energize deans or department chairs. 

Should we try a petition and a set of action guidelines to be sent around to chairs?  What sort of petition might stir things up?  What sort of guidelines could there be?  Should the guidelines come monthly, with perhaps different areas for different months?

Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time,  by Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely2.

Disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality underlie policy debates ranging from taxation to welfare. We attempt to insert the desires of “regular” Americans into these debates, by asking a nationally representative online panel to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the United States and to “build a better America” by constructing distributions with their ideal level of inequality. First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.

**This may be a chaitable interpretation.  That is, one might be willing to say on a poll that one would prefer a more just society where there’s less violence, for example.  At the same time, one might want one’s privileged life most of all, so the disconnect between desire for equality and voting behavior looks more like plain selfishness.

6 thoughts on “What sort of distribution of wealth/gender should there be? Should we do some stirring?

  1. Despite the possibly informative title, reading this post might be a bit like nibbling at a cupcake with a quite surprising center. I didn’t mean to write about stirring things up in philosophy, and perhaps the whole thing should be rewritten, divided into two, etc.

    However, really blog posts are not supposed to be polished products, at least that’s not necessary. So apologies and an invitation to get what you can from it.

  2. Just anecdotally from classes in “poverty and distributive justice” and such I’ve taught, attitudes I think are characteristic of Americans:

    (1) No worry that there are very, very wealthy people who are doing much better than me. Equality as such is an extrinsic property that doesn’t benefit me. I just want to do as well as I can and the fact that these guys are doing better doesn’t bother me. More power to them! (And of course if I play my cards right I’ll be one of them)

    (2) Any government policies aimed at redistributing wealth in the interests of greater equality will make ME worse off because I am, of course, in all ways above average. Democrats’ rhetoric about taxing the super-rich is baloney–they’re going after ME.

    (3) I’d be happy to share my wealth with down and outs but it has to be voluluntary: charity, not entitlements.


  3. H.E.,

    There’s a fair bit of psychological data that relative wealth matters to many people more than real wealth, even if it doesn’t to you.

  4. Kevin, you are thinking of what? Dan Gilbert has work in this area that I know of.

  5. jj, r.e. data on relative wealth: there is lots of data in the area of the social determinants of health that shows absolute wealth matters to a point in terms of health outcomes (I think it is pretty low, around $10,000 USD per year per family or something like that). But after the threshold, it is relative wealth that makes the difference in health outcomes. Marmot and Wilkinson have done joint work and individual work in that area.

    r.e. the laziness of welfare recipients and the footnote, in the book *A Mind of Its Own* Cordelia Fine surveys psychological studies that demonstrate that (at least those of us who grow up in WEIRD countries) have a tendency to blame people for their misfortune as a way of protecting one’s self from having to admit one’s own vulnerability to tragedy. (I think it might be in Chapter 3: “The Immoral Brain,” although it has been a while since I read that book and I might be misremembering.

  6. I very much agree with H. E. Baber’s implied point that we can teach relevant material in the academy; and Bakka suggests that you could use Fine, for example, along with relevant factual and theoretical material on poverty even in a philosophy of mind class.

    I was teaching Feminist Theory this semester and found Nancy Fraser’s incredibly illuminating analysis of the social welfare system in the U.S. still relevant — prescient even, given that she wrote this 20 years ago in anticipation of the welfare wars. There’s also lots of newer work on women & children and homelessness — pressing issues, including stereotypes and neglect of the most vulnerable, especially in light of disasters such as Katrina and the housing crisis.

    My own students (but this was Feminist Theory) were underinformed but eager to learn more and think of ways to change the system. No small task given the administration’s unfortunate connection to the banking system.

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