Link of the Day: Wilkinson on Measuring Inequality

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Will Wilkinson, not just the link!

Image is of Will Wilkinson

Will Wilkinon has recently published a paper on inequality which looks at the difficulties of working out how much inequality there is and how much it changes over time. It’s produced a lot of online reaction, and Wilkinson is getting ready for a comprehensive series of replies on his blog.

How does inequality in income relate to inequality in consumption of goods and services?

How do changing prices in different kinds of goods and services at different price levels affect inequality over time?

How much advantage is there in having the most expensive car or refrigerator compared with having a cheap one which coves the basic functions just as well?

How does economic inequality relate to inequality in person welfare or well-being or happiness?

How much inequality comes from immigrants who accept low paid employment because it makes them better of than working in their country of origin?

What effects does economic inequality have on equal justice, equality before the law and equality in the political process.

Should we worry about inequality if the poorest are better off compared with the poorest in the recent past?

The other thing to add is that Wilkinson writes from a free market libertarian position, and not surprisingly his answers minimise the negative effects of inequality. His position is that economic inequality is very high in America, but this is not a bad thing because it does not effect happiness equality of justice equality. He posted the paper at the Cato Institute where he is a fellow and which is a libertarian free-market foundation, where he is a fellow. I don’t think that makes his paper less interesting for the left inclined, or only if they are unable to deal with reading anything where they might find areas of disagreement. Wilkinson is a moderate libertarian, who thinks the state should be involved in delivering public goods and reducing poverty. Like egalitarian or left liberals, such as the political philosopher John Rawls about whom I have posted several times, he thinks protecting a minimum level for the poorest in society is an important political goal. Even those who do not find this convincing from a left point of view would benefit from reading the paper and thinking about what it is they accept and don’t accept and why. Certainly his discussion of how to define inequality should of interest to anyone who is interested in inequality and equality.

Here’s few points Wilkinson did not cover with regard to defining inequality, but which seem to me to be very much in the spirit of what he writes

The impact of changing incomes and investment values over time. The rich are the mostly likely to suffer a very big drop in either or both, when the economy declines. If we look at economic inequality over time, it is likely to be reduced by this consideration. A relatively free market economy, like that in America may be more prone to such fluctuations.

How much do higher income people consume instead of investing? This sort of comes into what Wilkinson says about the difference about income and consumption, but is not completely explicit.

How much is income inequality exaggerated by the low income university students have before getting well paid jobs? Similar concerns apply to the unemployed who may be between quite well paid jobs.

How much is consumption inequality affected by immigrant sending money to family members in home countries, which spreads income from rich to poor countries?


Reading Clausewitz, On War

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Clausewitz, not just the link!

Clausewitz is pictured above.

I’m continuing my reading of Carl von Clausewitz’ On War (I last posted on this n 12th July), certainly one of the greatest books written about military strategy, in a style of interaction between part and whole (a dialectical approach), which matches the constant unstable interaction between tactics and strategy which Clausewitz refers to as a characteristic of war. Cluausewitz famously refers to war as the continuation of politics, and like Michel Foucault we might to want to turn that back and understand politics as a form of war.

Clausewitz surprisingly emphasises something that appears absurdly obvious, that is the importance of numbers in war, that it is important for an army to have more soldiers than the opposing army, Clausewitz recognises that this might seem to be a truism, but assures the reader that until quite recently in history, right into the Eighteenth Century, that this issues was ignored. Earlier accounts of war fail to mention numbers or pay little attention to the idea of using superior numbers as an advantage against the enemy. Looking at the background to Clausewitz’ remark, we can remember that a lot of cultured references to war go back to the Ancient Greeks, and the defeat of a vast Persian army, including the resistance of just 300 Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae known through The Histories of Herodotus. Expanding on that, we might also note that the history of war used to be the history of heroes, reflecting an attitude that monarchs and aristocrats were the only memorable people in war, or any other aspect of history.

In the Eighteenth Century, Giambattista Vico noted in The New Science the mythical aspects of historical writing about ancient wars, in what must have been a battle between large armies is sometimes reduced to the story of battle between a few heroes. What Vico says can be seen as part of an Enlightenment shift towards a greater interest in the equal status of all humans, so that war can be taken as essentially a conflict between masses of men in which the vulgar issue of numerical supremacy may be more important that the leadership of aristocratic generals.

In his usual dialectical style, Clausewitz suggests that surprise as a means of gaining an advantage in war must be in a trade off with the general efficiency of military action. Surprise can only be achieved by doing something that is costly in terms of time and organisation and which loses some kinds of military advantage. The point of a surprise is to do something costly and inefficient because that is what the enemy does not expect. Surprise becomes generally less useful the higher the level of war, so surprise may often work as an improvised tact at a low level in the military command in the heat of battle, it is much less likely to have success at the general or commander-in-chief level in planning strategy for a whole battle or a whole campaign. Surprise therefore belongs more to tactics than strategy, though if it does work at a higher level there could be enormous benefits.

Despite his great respect for Napoleon Bonaparte, Clausewtiz is very critical of claims that Napolean used surprise with great success. Where he did have success it was early in his wars, when it the opposing generals and monarchs became very demoralised by defeat in one battle, where Bonaparte used strategy that was new to them. The early reaction of opposing countries (Prussia, Austria and Russia being the most important) was to agree to a peace favourable to Napoleon after losing an apparently major battle. Later on opposing powers kept fighting after losing a battle and found they could wear down Bonaparte’s armies and particularly after they were able to join forces. This partly relates to Clausewitz’ remark that war is the continuation of politics by other means and also suggests that a dramatic victory involving surprise may not be a truly strategic victory. Clausewitz suggests that the brilliant use of surprise attributed to Napoleon’s victories in his first great campaign, in Italy, overlooks what might have been achieved if Napoleon had done something else; and overlooks the tendency of the Habsburg Empire to withdraw and give in to easily which may explain what look like the brilliant victories of an emergent genius. He also suggests that Napoleon’s genius as he fought off the opposing coalition in 1813 may have been exaggerated. His battle plans of that period have often been praised for genius though he inevitably lost to such a huge and strong opposing coalition. Clausewitz, suggests that what looks like military genius as Napoleon moved his armies rapidly between the armies of different powers, so that he could defeat them in isolation, was an error since Napoleon was exhausting his resources through such manoeuvres and that preparation for a decisive battle with the coalition would have been better. So in general Clausewitz is sceptical of the value of surprise and suggests that the value of Napoleon’s surprise strategies has been greatly exaggerated.

Clausewitz’ remarks in surprise are remarks about trade-offs cost and benefits, hidden costs. The significance of this and its relations with dialectic in Clausewitz is something I will deal with in tomorrow’s post.

Link of the Day: Philosophy Bites Podcast on Pascal

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Pascal, not just a link!

Blaise Pascal pictured above.

Nigel Warburton interviews Ben Rogers on Blaise Pascal in the Philosophy Bites series of short podcasts (29th July). A good introduction, in Warburton’s normal relaxed style with apparently naive questions well pitched to get the interviewee to explain the issues in accessible terms.

The interview starts with reference to the most famous idea in Pascal’s Pensées (which means ‘Thoughts’ in English, but all the translations keep the French title), ‘Pascal’s Wager’. This is a famous argument for the existence of God, which on its own is not very strong, but as Rogers explained it belongs in a longer argumentative strategy of accumulating reasons and habits for faith in Christian God as defined by Pascal. The Wager is the argument that if we have faith in God, we will live a good life so we will still gain even if God does not exists, while if we do not have faith in God our life lacks the pleasure of faith even if Gd does not exists, and we will go to Hell if God does exist.

As Rogers rightly points out, Pascal’s arguments do not exist in isolation, they interact with each other and aim to influence habits as much as pure reflective thought. Rogers points out that Pascal establishes his position by presenting two opposing views,m such as dogmatism and scepticism. Pascal aims to avoid the extremes of dogmatic rationalism and sceptical rejection of knowledge. I certainly support Roger’s suggestion that Pascal should be better known to Anglophone philosophers.

Just two criticisms I can think of. Rogers says that Pascal is not just an ‘aphorist’ as Nietzsche is. This is a misunderstanding as Nietzsche’s ‘aphorisms’ (including passages which go on for a few pages) confront and interact with each other in order to draw the reader into a position, much as Pascal does, and Nietzsche greatly admired Pascal. Rogers could have said more important aspects of Pascal such as: ‘reasons of the heart’, which is less subjectivist than it sounds as it is concerned with those principles we need for knowledge before we can justify or test them; the combination of force and mysticism Pascal sees behind any rationalisation of law and political institutions. However, it is likely that some content will be lost in a short podcast and that may be a necessary sacrifice to accessibility.

As Rogers says, Pensées is a great philosophical and literary classic, full of references to all aspects of knowledge, formed Pascal’s own considerable achievements in science and stylist religious polemic, and possessed of great cultural and historical breadth. Pascal maybe belongs with Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as a writer who combined philosophy with literature.

Cervantes, author of Don Quixote of Jewish origin?

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Cervantes, not just the link!

Picture of Migeul de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote above)

This is not news for people in Cervantes studies, but I was surprised earlier today to find that it is widely believed to be from converso stock, that is from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity in the late Medieval Spain due to Christianisation of a new unified kingdom under Catholic monarchs. Spain had been very mixed between Christians, Jews and Muslims but a new strong monarchy thought it appropriate to repress religious variety. The preceding period was not one of tolerance and equal rights as we understand it, but did allow some pluralism.

Jews and Muslims were forced to covert or go into exile, and those who converted were still treated with suspicion and even cruelty. In the end even Muslim converts were expelled. Those who converted often wish to continue their old religion in secret, This reality intensified persecution by the Inquisition.

There is now a widespread belief that Cervantes, on his mother’s side. was from a Jewish family which had outwardly converted but who continued to practise the Jewish faith in secret. Reasons for this include the region of Spain his mother came from and what look like references to Judaism in Don Quixote. This includes a judgement given by Sancho Panza during his period as a semi-serious governor, the judgement appears to be a translation from the Talmud (book of commentary on Jewish laws, ethics and customs). The miserable meal the Don eats at the beginning of the book is named with a phrase which refers to Jewish mourning, including the sorrow of Jews exiled from Spain. Rather more esoteric discussions exist of what elements of Don Quixote might refer to in Jewish mystical tradition.

The whole idea that Cervantes was Jewish is inevitably speculative, he was not going to advertise this fact, if it is a fact, and no one was going to leave records, When discussion comes up of mystical meanings in his writings, then inevitably we are arriving at another level of inference and speculation. Nevertheless, the fact that such links can be found between Don Quixiote and Jewish texts, and practices, is of great interest, even if it was to emerge that Cervantes had found and incorporated such material for reasons other than being Jewish. It would certainly suggest strong sympathy for the persecuted Jews of Iberia.

It was already well established that Cervantes obliquely comments on the devastation and loss caused to Spain by the expulsions. The time after 1609, when the Moriscos (Muslim converts) were expelled is a time of decline for Spain, which became poorer and lost its status as premier European power to France. The expulsions are not the only reason, but it all fits a pattern of a state trying to dominate and control everything in religion, the economy and so on. Cervantes even hints at sympathy for Moriscos in the story of a girl returning to Spain in Don Quixite, though there is a lot of rhetoric justifying the expulsion in general to accompany the mercy shown in this case by the authorities. The Second Part of Don Quixote suggests that parts of the text comes from Moorish Arabic writers, which introduces the issue of reliability and deceit, but maybe also obliquely points out that varied sources of Spanish literary culture, and the culture in general.

I must re-read one of my three translations of Don Quixote again, and think about all these issues, which will also need to include some reading of scholarship on the Jewish aspects of Cervantes the person, and Don Quixote the novel. This is maybe the most important novel ever written, and is certainly one of the most important. The discovery of Judaic influences, and possibly a secretly Jewish author is something very important for the history of literature, and for literary studies. Maybe I should post about this again.

Link of the Day: Caracas Chronicles

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, which has graphics!

Caracas Chronicles is a website of news and opinion about Venezuela, edited by Francisco Toro, under Hugo Chavez and his version of ‘21st Century Socialism’, which has replaced ‘Bolivarism’ as Chavez’ main point of reference. The position is very critical but very fair minded as well. There are links to pro-Chavez sites. Today;’s post gives praise to a Chavezista governor who puts into practice what Chavismo preaches in theory, dialogue with an responsiveness to public opinion rather than using election victory to take a top down approach. Some of what the blog refers to is how Chavez did some very good things. This post refers to the constitution, the very admirable parts of the constitution, and how these have been undermined by administrative practices. For example, the constitution guarantees that tenured teachers in state schools will be appointed through a competitive open process. This has benefits in preventing the politicisation of public employment and improving the quality of teachers, or it would if it was implemented. The way that provision is avoided is a very interesting, if disturbing example, of how legal and constitutional provisions can fail. Schools are full of teachers on temporary contracts appointed by an unaccountable administrative procedure. In practice administrators are appointed by the government and appoint ‘temporary’ teachers on very politicised grounds.

Toro takes account of the injustice which preceded Chavez’ rise to power, he refers to the social, economic and cultural rift between political leaders and most voters. He also shows that a reaction to this based on resentment, revenge and unlimited power for some messianic strong man who controls very large petroleum revenues, is no answer. Supporters of Chavez would like to portray his critics as coup mongers and agents of US interventionism, and indeed there is still an element of thinking on the US right which thinks strong men, extra-constitutional action and foreign manipulation are the answer to people like Chavez. There is no support for this from Toro and I became aware of Caracas Chronicles because of an item Toro wrote for New Republic, a left of centre (if very mildly) US magazine.

Nietzsche on Art in The Gay Science, Books I and II

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture not just link.

Image shows original printing of Nietzsche’s second edition of Gay Science

The Gay Science, in its title expresses Nietzsche’s wish for some kind of fusion of art with science (or knowledge, Wissenschaft could be translated as either though science is the most normal). The idea of science is clearly there, and the idea of something aesthetic is hinted at with gay (fröhliche) The idea of the aesthetic is made more clear with the subtitle, la gaya scienza, a Provençal (Occitan i.e. southern dialect of French particularly associated with medieval Troubadour poetry and music) phrase for the poetry of the Troubadours. Unlike Human, All Too Human, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche defined The Gay Science as a ‘yes saying’ book, along with Dawn and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. So these are the books where Nietzsche claims to have put forward a positive philosophy rather than a rejection of other philosophies. This reinforces the sense of a work which is poetic and aesthetic in its conception, and this is finally confirmed by Nietzsche’s addition of poems, narrowly speaking, to the second edition of The Gay Science.

I’m thinking here about section I in Book I, and about most of Book II. It says something about the centrality of art in The Gay Science that it starts with art, in a double way, poetry followed by discussion of art. Nevertheless, there are those who are inclined to see The Gay Science, and all Nietzsche’s work from Human, All Too Human as rejecting art as having a central role in Nietzsche’s philosophy, on the argument that Nietzsche’s naturalism (his rejection of any force or thing outside the natural world) entails a positivistic privileging of science in his philosophy. I think this is just wrong, but I’d rather not contribute to a spirit of bad temper between commentators. It’s not a bad thing to emphasise the role of science, and the study of humans as part of nature, in Nietzsche and it’s certainly no more wrong than only seeing Nietzsche as engaged in an aesthetic philosophical self-reflection, that is only concerned with the possible styles of philosophy. I’m not sure that any major commentator has actually seen Nietzsche that way, and I am sure that it is a mistake to think that Derrida read Nietzsche in that way. Perhaps some people working on ‘post-structuralist’, or ‘post-modern’; or rhetoric or metaphorical or literary approaches to Nietzsche have come too close to that point of view, and I seem to remember getting too close to that in the earliest stages of my postgraduate studies. If people want to work on Nietzsche in a ‘philosophy as style’ mode or they want to work on Nietzsche as an early cognitive psychologist, I don’t see a problem, and the same goes for people who see Nietzsche as a historian, a sociologist or anything else I might have forgotten. I would just prefer everyone concerned to approach this is an inclusive way, but there’ll always be some who find it necessary to attack all approaches other than their own.

We’ve seen in the post of July 27th why some commentators might think Nietzsche is against aestheticism in Human, All Too Human, but as I argued in the post of July 26th, there is already a movement back and forth between knowledge of nature and aesthetics in Birth of Tragedy, and a complicated set of statements about whether art has some value from the point of view of knowledge or is the production of illusion. After my recent (re)reading of The Gay Science I’m very inclined to the view that Nietzsche at all points is trying to articulate the view that art contains knowledge because it refers to experience, that art is the expression of natural forces in the human body, and that art creates illusions but illusions which make us see life in a better way rather than creating a complete deceit.

What Nietzsche suggests in The Gay Science is that poetry begins with the attempt to impress the gods through rhythm and that tragedy makes life bearable (which seems continuous with Birth of Tragedy). That seems to lend itself to the line that Nietzsche rejects art as illusion. I would say that Nietzsche has certainly rejected the view that art could refer to an underlying metaphysical reality, but I would also say that he never completely accepted such a view. There is maybe more of a clear rejection now. I certainly do not see that at is rejected as something that gives us knowledge. Art still is what draws our attention to appearances and then maybe to appearances as the only reality, or that there is no model of reality-in-itself behind appearances and art is part of what helps us get that point, which needs to be experienced not just argued. Nietzsche clearly signals that his book is a way of getting us to experience philosophy as something that comes through the fine and sensitive use of language (unlike what I can manage), including its symbolic possibilities. That does not exclude the existence of knowledge claims within it.

Section 107 at the end of Book II, is I think particularly useful. It’s easy to remember beginning and ending sections which maybe why I’m referring to them, but I think that Nietzshe worked particularly hard in this case on making the first and last sections of books memorable, long and complex, as an appropriate way of giving form to his argument. As Section 107 is long and complex, I won’t quote or even paraphrase it. I’ll just say that it puts forward the view that art creates illusion, but not dishonest or destructive illusions. The illusions of art distract us from the more painful aspects of living, but they also draw our attention to these aspects in giving them enjoyable form. These illusions also allow us to to stand above our claims to knowledge and morality. They allow epistemic and ethical scepticism, by showing situations above customary knowledge and morality in a kind of superior existence. The poetic exaltation of an existence in which we do not follow moral rules or prevalent assumptions about knowledge, does not just narcotise us against suffering, though it does have that role. The narcosis is a relative narcosis and it also provokes the courage to question and reject. In this way art provides beautiful illusions and penetrates illusions. There are different kinds of illusion and they can be used against each other. In the early sections of The Gay Science, Nietzsche also argues that what is useful to life is mostly against morality, though also sometimes might be in line with morality as the Utilitarians believed (they believed that good means what promotes the greatest utility, benefit, for the greatest number). Art is part of this amiguity, in which the artist may help or hinder ‘life’, and could do both with regard to higher and lower forms of life. Art can be a stimulus to a more affirmative abundant life, and if not it is an effective way of exploring a collapsing negative form of life, and it can be difficult to say which. The artists may lie to themselves but still produce a stimulus to life. All views of life, all claims to knowledge are illusory, in the sense that none of them present unchallengeable knowledge. The illusions of art, even the self deception of the artist still provides perspectives which something of reality. All appearances are part of reality and there is no higher reality and art may make us particularly aware of that.

Link of the Day: Left-Libertarian Theory in Steiner

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Download pdf of ‘Left Libertarianism and the Ownership of Natural Resources’

Hillel Steiner in Public Reason: Journal of Political and Moral Philosophy, Volume 1, No 1. February 2009

This paper by Hillel Steiner explains a position which I think needs to be better known: equality can be promoted without a big state and a complex redistributive tax and benefit scheme. The theory is left because it is egalitarian, it is libertarian because if favours a minimum state. It is important to understand that libertarian arguments for a minimal state are not necessarily tied up with inequality, and that libertarianism in politics is not necessarily ‘right wing’ and only concerned with the rights of those who have a lot of property.

The argument in summary builds from a claim that property in natural resources should be equally distributed, which itself derives from a reading of John Locke’s Essay on Civil Government (also known as the Second Treatise on Government or Second Treatise on Civil Government), particularly Chapter V ‘Of Property’. The non-egalitarian reading of of Locke’s argument is that we have an absolute and natural right to our property, beginning from the (pre-)historical point at which we labour on land. In this view there is no limit to how property we can accumulate in land, natural resources of anything else. The egalitarian reading is that Locke only allows for unlimited accumulation of land and natural resources where there is an unlimited amount. Where we approach the limit, we have to divide equally. We are near the limit of the cultivation of land and the use of it to extract natural resources, in the sense of the amount of the Earth’s surface. Therefore Locke’s argument should lead us to distribute land and natural resources equally. This provides a basic form of property equality which avoids the need for complex big state schemes to redistribute income from the rich to the poor through income transfers or public services. Given property equality, there is more possibility for all individuals to be in a position to purchase those kinds of goods and services. Property equality is achieved by equally dividing ownership of land and natural resources; or taxing land and natural resources to finance a minimum income and unavoidable state activity.

Steiner additionally argues for taxing genetic inheritance, that is taxing parents for genetic outcomes in their children which give those children better life chances and make it easier for those children to be raised. This is offered as an alternative to a assistance for the disabled by taxing the non-disabled, which Steiner associates with John Rawls, I do not find this very convincing, but this kind of scheme to help those who might still suffer hardship in an equal distribution of property/natural resources seems typical of left libertarian thinking, as in Libertarianism without Inequality Michael Otsuka, which suggests supporting the disabled through the work of prisoners. I’m not really convinced of the argument in general, but I think it is worth of study and reflection, and certainly I’d like to keep some of the basic impulses behind it, in particular, a limited state combined with a social minimum.

The simplest point I wish to convey is that libertarian thought is not in itself anti-equality or conservative or right wing. The massive complex state machines used to regulate the economy and social risk, and administer tax and benefit schemes, surely create some economic social cost which bears on the poorest, and which spills over into the authoritarian attitude that state agencies always know best and cannot be challenged. Even from a very socialist point of view, it is surely appropriate to be concerned about economic and social resources going into a state bureaucracy which is inevitably hierarchical and seeing for power and privilege. Surely left-liberals, social democrats and socialists should be concerned with limiting state power and expenditure on administration to the smallest level possible.

Even if we look at more ‘right wing’ libertarians like Milton Friedman, we can see support for universal minimum income, which Friedman calls negative income tax. Another major idea of Friedman’s, school vouchers to give everyone a choice of schools funded by public money, is designed to help the poorest who do worst out of uniform no-choice public education. Other ideas of Friedman might be considered more left than right, like opposing military conscription, supporting legalisation of drugs, and supporting unlimited immigration. Friedman’s emphasis on strict control of inflation benefits the poorest the most, since they inevitably suffer the most when high inflation quickly destroys the value of low monthly incomes or small cash savings. One of today’s international left heroes, Lula, the President of Brazil has made that the cornerstone of pro-poor policies.