Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Will the Pandemic Cure us of Inequality?

According to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, the current pandemic offers a way to overcome our economic and social inequalities. 

Ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau denounced it in the mid eighteenth century, serious thinkers have been complaining about inequality. And they have been promoting more and more draconian schemes to overcome it. None have really worked, but don't tell them.

Among the schemes, affirmative action and diversity quotas. Thus, Harvard admits many scions of the American elite while also admitting many underprivileged and underperforming students… in the name of diversity. 

Sandel describes it all thusly:

But as an answer to inequality, the rhetoric of rising — the promise that the talented will be able to climb the ladder of success — has a dark side. Part of the problem is that we fail to live up to the meritocratic principles we proclaim. For example, most students at highly selective colleges and universities come from affluent families. At many elite colleges, including Yale and Princeton, there are more students from the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent of the country.

There is also a deeper problem: Even a perfect meritocracy, in which opportunities for advancement were truly equal, would corrode solidarity. Focusing on helping the talented clamber up the ladder of success can keep us from noticing that the rungs on the ladder are growing further and further apart.

In effect,  Harvard discriminates against Asian students. It admits the children of the wealthy in order to fill up its endowment coffers. And yet, the children of the wealthy are only marginally less competent than the students who are admitted on the grounds of high GPAs and high test scores. The children of the underprivileged are significantly less capable.

This creates an institution where there is, effectively, no middle between the rich, easily identifiable, the overachievers, also easily identifiable, and the diversity candidates-- you know who they are.

Admitting different students according to different standards produces gross inequalities. 

Besides, the notion that opportunities for advancement must be equal is absurd, on its face. Not everyone has the same opportunities. Not everyone is brought up in the same home or the same culture. Asian students tend to come from low income families, but their parents place the greatest importance on academic performance. Thus, they overachieve. Other children from different cultures place less importance on academics. 

The notion of meritocratic advancement, especially in the matter of qualifying exams, comes to us from China. Invented about a thousand years ago, it provides equal opportunity for all. And it does not provide special privileges for the children of the elites. And yet, intellectuals who denounce inequality will never allow such a system to prevail in America, because the outcomes would not look like America.

At a time when America is producing more lawyers and social justice warriors than engineers and scientists, one reason might be that it is filling the ranks of major universities with too many students who cannot do the work required to excel in STEM subjects. Isn’t Stanford University offering a course in social justice physics for those students who cannot succeed at physics? 

So, the argument against inequality ought to recognize that universities are making the situation worse with their diversity programs. And they are making things worse for minority students. As Shelby Steele pointed out some two decades ago, the mere existence of affirmative action programs makes it that all minority students are assumed to have been judged by different standards, and that they did not really earn their place. Elitist intellectuals justify the practice by saying that those who have succeeded did not earn their successes either.

When everyone takes the same test and is judged according to the same standards we have fairness. If not, we do not.

Sandel continues to denounce the inequalities that seem to be built into our current system. Apparently, the government has failed to make life better for workers. Now, there is some truth to this. But Sandel fails to remark that labor unions have caused companies to move manufacturing off shore, thus drying up the opportunities for lower income workers. And it fails to remark that government bureaucrats often tie companies up in red tape, making it more difficult for them to manufacture products at competitive prices. 

Sandel writes:

In recent decades, governing elites have done little to make life better for the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not have a college degree. And they have failed to confront what should be one of the central questions of our politics: How can we ensure that Americans who do not inhabit the privileged ranks of the professional classes find dignified work that enables them to support a family, contribute to their community and win social esteem?

When Sandel attacks globalization he ought to notice that companies shift jobs out of the country because policy makes it far more profitable. And this means, to be excessively clear, that prices at Walmart are lower and that the people who Sandel pretends to be defending will have a better standard of life.

It is well and good to move production back to America, but that assumes that American factories can be as effective as Chinese factories at producing goods that American workers will be able to afford. What would happen if the prices at Walmart suddenly double or triple-- how would Harvard’s professors react to that? We can guess how the general public will react.

But, Wall Street is the real enemy of the left. And this is so even though the Western world has tended to denounce greedy bankers for being of a certain ethnic persuasion. Sandel should be more careful about trafficking in stealth stereotypes.

On the other hand, our government and our central bankers-- the ones who are most responsible for the mess-- have happily decided that the best way to solve a financial crisis is to print money. And then, given the unsustainably high level of debt, they want to solve the debt problem by inflating the currency.

While Sandel seems blissfully ignorant of the role of monetary policy in the excessive profits garnered by those who deal in debt, the truth remains that our government has chosen to prop up the economy by doing the one thing that will guarantee Wall Street profits-- it has flooded the markets with liquidity, or better, it has spent a ton of money that it does not have. We did the same thing in 2008. Naturally, in time of prosperity we do not pay off the debt. We increase it.

Sandel explains:

As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsize rewards on hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers, the esteem accorded to traditional work has become fragile and uncertain. At a time when finance has claimed a greater share of corporate profits, many who labor in the real economy, producing useful goods and services, have not only endured stagnant wages and uncertain job prospects; they have also come to feel that society accords less respect to the kind of work they do.

Since Sandel does not seem to see the role that monetary and fiscal policy is playing in the production of inequality, he seems to imagine that the current pandemic is going to produce a shift in the national consciousness. This is too optimistic and too idealistic by a lot, but still, we allow him his say:

The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly forced us to reconsider what social and economic roles matter most.

Many of the essential workers during this crisis are performing jobs that do not require college degrees; they are truckers, warehouse workers, delivery workers, police officers, fire fighters, utility maintenance workers, sanitation workers, supermarket cashiers, stock clerks, nurse assistants, hospital orderlies and home care providers. They lack the luxury of working from the safety of their homes and holding meetings on Zoom. They, along with the doctors and nurses caring for the afflicted in overcrowded hospitals, are the ones who are putting their health at risk so the rest of us can seek refuge from contagion. Beyond thanking them for their service, we should reconfigure our economy and society to accord such workers the compensation and recognition that reflects the true value of their contributions — not only in an emergency but in our everyday lives.

Surely, we ought to show more respect for nurses and hospital orderlies. And yet, should the government then be charged with taking over the health care system, and perhaps even the economy in its entirety? When was the last time that such socio-economic engineering worked effectively? 

And then, Sandel echoes a concept that Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren have trafficked-- you didn’t build that. The notion is that those who have prospered through globalization and money printing did not earn what they have. They have, by implication, stolen it from the poor and disadvantaged. Thus, we end up with an oppression narrative, one that sets the rich against the rest. And that diminishes the achievements of some in order to enhance the self-esteem of underachievers. And that blots out the American middle class.

By now we should understand that high self-esteem ends up making people into self-important mediocrities, no more and no less.

As for the “meritocratic hubris” that Sandel finds so offensive, the children who do best on standardized tests are invariably Asian. Most often they do not come from wealth or privilege. 

These attitudes accompanied the market-driven globalization of the last 40 years. Those who reaped the bounty of outsourcing, free-trade agreements, new technologies and the deregulation of finance came to believe that they had done it all on their own, that their winnings were therefore their due.

Meritocratic hubris and the resentment it provokes are at the heart of the populist backlash against elites. They are also potent sources of social and political polarization. One of the deepest political divides in politics today is between those with and those without a four-year college degree.


UbuMaccabee said...

I think Voltaire should have a say in this matter, just as he did when that lunatic, Rousseau, sent him a copy of the "Discourse of the Origin of Inequality."

"I have received, sir, your new book against the human race, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society--from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations--have never been painted in more striking colors: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go about all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I. Nor can I set sail to discover the aborigines of Canada, in the first place because my ill-health ties me to the side of the greatest doctor [1] in Europe, and I should not find the same professional assistance among the Missouris: and secondly because war is going on in that country, and the example of the civilized nations has made the barbarians almost as wicked as we are ourselves. I must confine myself to being a peaceful savage in the retreat I have chosen--close to your country, where you yourself should be."

Voltaire > Rousseau
Civilization > Barbarism

Sam L. said...

"Think about it: she is following Plato, as it happens, in recommending that children be taken from their mothers so that their mothers can have better career opportunities. If you imagine that women would ever stand for this, you need to think again. As for the flagrant misogyny that is lurking in the proposal, the truth is, that radical feminism is stealth misogyny." Some women would. Women who like Lewis's ideas.