Tuesday, 2 April 2013

THE RULES OF THE GAME - COMMENTARY ON A KEVIN DRUM POST



I am trying to write two eminently political blog-posts  one describing what a 'progressive' agenda might look like in the USA and the other doing the same for Europe in general and France in particular.

The general idea was to try and put all these macro ideas and theories and 'stuff' into a coherent political program. Ideally, I'd like to believe that it might even have some cross sectional appeal. As I said in my discussions with James, both right and left believe in meritocracy and in "an honest pay for an honest day".

And, as I was trying to put my thoughts into some kind of cogent argument, by some mysterious force, Kevin Drum, over at Mother Jones, published the following post (bouncing off Matt Yglesias): http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/03/rules-game

"Matt's argument is a common one, and I've seen it made dozens of times in various ways. What's more, it's an argument with a lot of force. It really is true that income distribution depends on the rules of the game, and it can favor the rich or the poor depending on who sets up the rules.
Despite having seen this argument made dozens of times, and despite its obvious force, I've never really seen it made in a way that's very persuasive at a gut level. Conservatives have done a very good job of convincing the public that rules which favor the rich really are the most natural ones. Liberals, conversely, haven't done a very good job of convincing the public that a different, less business and wealth-centric set of rules, would be equally natural, and would benefit more people. Why is that?"

On Twitter, I suggested that this might have something to do with the fact that property rights come very early to most of us. We're given a toy and told "it's yours". Once that's done, no sibling is going to be able to come and take it from us easily. And, as Rousseau noted, property rights are the foundation of modern civilization.

I would like to add some other possible reasons I've thought up in the intervening two days.

First, I suspect the "Just-world hypothesis" (Just-world fallacy) has actually more explanatory power than my immediate 'we're used to private property being private' reaction. That is to say that, as people believe that "people eventually get what they deserve", they tend to believe that rich people more or less deserve their wealth and that poor people, especially in ostensibly rich countries, deserve to be poor.

I thought my conservative friend James's reaction to the "we're the 53%" tumblr was particularly revealing. Because they display (at least on tumblr) a lot of resilience and will-power, he expects 'most of them' to get through. Because I believe in statistics, I expect 'most of them' either won't or at best will muddle through, thanks to government support.

Second, I think there is an element of, well, conservatism i.e. lots of rich people tend to dress correctly, wear a tie, shower regularly and basically look like upstanding members of the community. The poor, on the other hand, especially the really poor easily stink or look disheveled and dangerous. And, even when they're not homeless, they sometimes dressed in bizarre ways, especially if they're young (ever been to a G8 protest?).

So rich = respectable looking and poor = weirdos/disgusting. Is it any surprise that most people in the middle don't feel a natural and immediate kinship with the poor?

Finally, as I mentioned in my discussion with James, I think there is a matter of proximity. Most of us know someone poor mooching off the system. Not that many of us have regular exposure to high flying corporate execs sponging off or the working of governmental subsidies and international transfer pricing. Besides, business class tickets, 5 stars hotel, all-expenses-paid conferences in exotic locations, fat bonuses and golden parachutes aren't really mooching, is it? These people work, after all. It's their fair reward. See above for 'Just-world fallacy'...

These are, I think, the main emotional quirks conservatives can use to get gut reactions from low-income people in the defense of a distribution scheme that reward the already-rich.

Could progressive find some equivalent? And if so, what could progressive use?

I won't pretend to have the definitive answer(s) but I think crafting a liberal gut reaction to wealth distribution ought to rely heavily on fairness. "An honest day's work for an honest day's pay" kinda stuff. But also on "level playing field" stuff.

For example, trying to defend a more aggressive inheritance tax scheme. "We all want our children to be well taken care of and to profit from our hard work. But how is it fair that some children start with owning half the wealth? What does that mean for your children? Why did we rebel against aristocracies and birthrights? So that our children, through their own hard work and through their own abilities, could be free to move up into the world. This can't happen if a few mega-rich monopolize all the wealth and hand it over to their children"

I wonder what conservatives would reply?