The arc of justice

It has been over a month since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The horror, brutality, and relentless cruelty of George Floyd’s death moves everyone who thinks about it. But George Floyd is, of course, not alone. Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police in the same year. The Washington Post has created a database of police shootings since 2015 (link), which includes shootings but not other causes of death. According to the data reported there for more than 5,000 deaths recorded in 2015-2020, black individuals are 2.38 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals, and Hispanic individuals are 1.77 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals. During the past five years, persons shot and killed by police included 2,479 white individuals (13 per million), 1,298 black individuals (31 per million), 904 Hispanic individuals (23 per million), and 219 “other” individuals (4 per million). Plainly there are severe racial disparities in these data. Black and brown people are much more likely to be shot by police than white people. Plainly these data demonstrate beyond argument the very clear arithmetic that black men and women are treated very differently from their white counterparts when it comes to police behavior.

Thanks to the availability of video evidence, a small number of these deaths at the hands of police have provoked widespread public outrage and protest. The Black Lives Matter movement has demanded that policing must change, and that police officers and superiors must be held accountable for unjustified use of force. But it is evident from the Washington Post data that most cases do not gain much public recognition or concern; and even worse, nothing much has changed in the five years since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death in terms of the frequency of police killings. There has not been a sea change in the use of deadly force against young men of color by police across the country. According to the WP data, there were an average of more than 250 shooting deaths per year of black individuals, and only a few of these received national attention.

What change can we observe since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death? The Black Lives Matter movement has been a persistent and courageous effort to demand we put racism and racist oppression aside. The public reaction to George Floyd’s murder in the past month has been massive, sustained, and powerful. The persistent demonstrations that have occurred across the country — with broad support across all racial groups — seem to give some hope that American society is finally waking up to the deadly, crushing realities of racism in our country — and is coming to realize that we must change. We must change our thinking, our acceptance of racial disparities, our toleration of hateful rhetoric and white supremacy, and our social and legal institutions. Is it possible that much of white America has at last emerged from centuries of psychosis and blindness on the subject of race, and is ready to demand change? Can we finally make a different America? In the words of Langston Hughes, “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”

Michael Brown was killed at about the time of the 2014 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. A small group of sociologists undertook to write a letter — a manifesto, really — concerning the pervasiveness and impact of racism and racial disparities in America. Sociologist Neda Maghbouleh organized a small group of sociologists in attendance to draft the letter during the ASA conference in San Francisco, and over 1800 sociologists signed the letter. Nicki Lisa Cole contributed to writing the letter and summarizes its main points and recommendations here, and the text of the document can be found here. It is a powerful statement, both fact-based and normatively insistent. The whole document demands our attention, but here are two paragraphs that are especially important in today’s climate of outrage about violent and unjustified use of force by police:

The relationship between African Americans and law enforcement is fraught with a long history of injustice, state violence and abuse of power. This history is compounded by a string of recent police actions that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Mo.), Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, Calif.), Eric Garner (Staten Island, N.Y.), John Crawford (Beavercreek, Ohio), Oscar Grant (Oakland, Calif.), and the beating of Marlene Pinnock (Los Angeles, Calif.) by a California Highway Patrol officer. These events reflect a pattern of racialized policing, and will continue to occur in the absence of a national, long-term strategy that considers the role of historic social processes that have institutionalized racism within police departments and the criminal justice system more broadly.

Law enforcement’s hyper-surveillance of black and brown youth has created a climate of suspicion of people of color among police departments and within communities. The disrespect and targeting of black men and women by police departments across the nation creates an antagonistic relationship that undermines community trust and inhibits effective policing. Instead of feeling protected by police, many African Americans are intimidated and live in daily fear that their children will face abuse, arrest and death at the hands of police officers who may be acting on implicit biases or institutional policies based on stereotypes and assumptions of black criminality. Similarly, the police tactics used to intimidate protesters exercising their rights to peaceful assembly in Ferguson are rooted in the history of repression of African American protest movements and attitudes about blacks that often drive contemporary police practices.

These descriptions are not ideological, and they are not statements of political opinion. Rather, they are fact-based observations about racial disparities in our society that any honest observer would agree with. Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is an ethnographic documentation of many of the insights about surveillance, disrespect, and antagonism in Philadelphia (link).

Sociologists, public health experts, historians, and other social scientists have honestly and passionately about the nature of the race regime in America. Michelle Alexander captures the thrust of much of this analysis in her outstanding book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and the phrase “the New Jim Crow” is brilliant as a description of life today for tens of millions of African-Americans. But the current moment demands more than simply analysis and policy recommendations — it demands an ability to listen and a better ability of all of America to understand and feel the life experience that racism has created in our country. It seems that we need to listen to a poetic voice as well as a sociological or political analysis.

One of those voices is Langston Hughes. Here are two of Langston Hughes’ incredibly powerful poems from the 1930s that speak to our times, “The Kids Who Die” and “Let America Be America Again”.

The Kids Who Die

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.

Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Organizing sharecroppers
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Organizing workers
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.

Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together

Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.

Let America be America again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Gross inequalities in a time of pandemic

Here is a stunning juxtaposition in the April 2 print edition of the New York Times. Take a close look. The top panel updates readers on the fact that the city and the region are enduring unimaginable suffering and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 63,300 victims and 2,624 deaths (as of April 4) — and with hundreds of thousands facing immediate, existential financial crisis because of the economic shutdown. And only eight miles away, as the Sotheby’s “Prominent Properties” half-page advertisement proclaims, home buyers can find secluded luxury, relaxation, and safety, for residential estates priced at $32.9 million and $21.5 million. In case the reader missed the exclusiveness of these properties, the advertisement mentions that they are “located in one of the nation’s wealthiest zip codes”. And, lest the prospective buyer be concerned about maintaining social isolation in these difficult times, the ad reminds prospective buyers that these are gated estates — in fact, the $33M property is located on “the only guard gated street in Alpine”.

Could Friedrich Engels have found a more compelling illustration of the fundamental inhumanity of the inequalities that exist in twenty-first century capitalism in the United States? And there is no need for rhetorical exaggeration — here it is in black and white in the nation’s “newspaper of record”.

There are many compelling reasons that supported Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax. But here is one more: it is morally appalling, even gut-churning, to realize that $33 million for a home for one’s family (35,000 square feet, tennis court and indoor basketball court) is a reasonable “ask” for the super-wealthy in our country, the one-tenth of one percent who have ridden the crest of surging stock markets and finance and investment firms to a level of wealth that is literally unimaginable to at least 95% of the rest of the country.

Here is the heart of Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax (link):

Rates and Revenue

  • Zero additional tax on any household with a net worth of less than $50 million (99.9% of American households)
  • 2% annual tax on household net worth between $50 million and $1 billion
  • 4% annual Billionaire Surtax (6% tax overall) on household net worth above $1 billion
  • 10-Year revenue total of $3.75 trillion

Are we all in this together, or not? If we are, let’s share the wealth. Let’s all pay our fair share. Let’s pay for the costs of fighting the pandemic and saving tens of millions of our fellow citizens from financial ruin, eviction, malnutrition, and family crisis with a wealth tax on billionaires. They can afford it. The “65′ saltwater gunite pool” is not a life necessity. The revenue estimate of the Warren proposal is roughly proportionate to the current estimate of what it will cost the US economy to overcome the pandemic, protect the vulnerable, and restart the economy — $3.75 trillion. Both equity and the current crisis support such a plan.

Here is some background on the rising wealth inequalities we have witnessed in recent decades in the United States. Leiserson, McGrew, and Kopparam provide an excellent and data-rich survey of the system of wealth inequalities in the United States in “The distribution of wealth in the United States and implications for a net worth tax” (link). Since 1989 the increase in wealth inequality is dramatic. The top 10% owned about 67% of all wealth in 1989; by 2016 this had risen to 77%.

The second graph is a snapshot for 2016 (link). Both income and wealth are severely unequal, but wealth is substantially more so. The top quintile owns almost 90% of the wealth in the United States, with the top 1% owning about 40% of all wealth.

The website provides an historical look at the growth of inequalities of wealth in the US (link). Consider this graph of the wealth shares over a century of the top 1%, .1%, and .01% of the US population; it is eye-popping. Beginning in roughly 1978 the shares of the very top segments of the US population began to rise, and the trend continued through 2012 — with no end in sight. The top 1% in 2012 owned 41% of all wealth; the top 0.1% owned 21%; and the top 0.01% owned 11%.

We need a wealth tax, and Elizabeth Warren put together a pretty convincing and rational plan. This is not a question of “soaking the rich”. It is a question of basic fairness. Our economy and society have functioned as an express elevator for ever-greater fortunes for the few, with essentially no improvement for 60-80% of the rest of America. An economy is a system of social cooperation, requiring the efforts of all members of society. But the benefits of our economic system have gone ever-more disproportionately to the rich and the ultra-rich. That is fundamentally unfair. Now is the time to bring equity back into our society and politics. If Mr. Moneybags can afford a $33M home in New Jersey, he or she can afford to pay a small tax on his wealth.

It is interesting to note that social scientists and anthropologists are beginning to study the super-rich as a distinctive group. A fascinating source is Iain Hay and Jonathan Beaverstock, eds., Handbook on Wealth and the Super-Rich. Especially relevant is Chris Paris’s contribution, “The residential spaces of the super-rich”. Paris writes:

Prime residential real estate remains a key element in super-­rich investment portfolios, both for private use through luxury consumption and as investment items with anticipated long-­ term capital gain, often untaxed as properties are owned by companies rather than individuals. Most of the homes of the super-­rich are purchased using cash, specialized financial instruments and/or through companies, and ‘the higher the price of the property, the less likely buyers were to arrange traditional mortgage financing for the home acquisition. Whether buyers are foreign or domestic, cash transactions predominate at the higher end of the market’ (Christie’s, 2013, p. 14). Such transactions, therefore, never enter ‘national’ housing accounting systems and play no part in many accounts of aggregate ‘national’ house price trends. For example, the analysis of house price trends in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation UK Housing Review is based on data relating to transactions using mortgages or loans, and EU and OECD comparisons between countries are based on the same kinds of data (Paris, 2013b).

Also fascinating in the volume is Emma Spence’s study of the super-rich when at sea in their super-yachts, “Performing wealth and status: observing super-­yachts and the super-­rich in Monaco”:

In this chapter I focus upon the super-­yacht as a key tool for exploring how performances of wealth are made visible in Monaco. A super-­yacht is a privately owned and professionally crewed luxury vessel over 30 metres in length. An average super-­ yacht, at approximately 47 metres in length, costs around €30 million to buy new, operates with a permanent crew of ten, and costs around €1.8 million per year to run. Larger super-­yachts such as Motor Yacht (M/Y) Madame Gu (99 metres in length), or the current largest super-­yacht in the world M/Y Azzam (180 metres in length) cost substantially more to build and to run. The price to charter (rent) a super-­yacht also varies considerably with size, age and reputation of the shipyard in which it was built. For example, a typical 47-­metre yacht can range between €100 000 to €600 000 per week to charter, plus costs. At the most exclusive end of the super-­yacht charter industry costs are much higher. M/Y Solange, for example, is an 85-­metre newly built yacht (2013) from reputable German shipyard Lürssen, which operates with 29 full-­time crew, and is priced at €1 million plus costs to charter per week.  The super-­yacht industry is worth an estimated €24 billion globally (Rutherford, 2014, p. 51).

A sense of injustice in China?


Quite a few years ago Barrington Moore explored in his book Injustice the idea that a sense of justice sometimes plays an important role in history. Here is how he put his central question:

This is a book about why people so often put up with being the victims of their societies and why at other times they become very angry and try with passion and forcefulness to do something about their situation. For the most part, the book focuses on people at or near the bottom of the social order: those with little or no property, income, education, power, authority, or prestige. (xiii)

Moore is interested in a particular moment in history, the moment when …

… people come to believe that a new and different set of criteria ought to go into effect for the choice of those in authority and the manner of its exercise, for the division of labor, and for the allocation of goods and services… In this chapter we are looking for general processes that occur at the level of culture, social structure, and individual personality, as groups of people cease to take their social surroundings for granted and come to reject or actively to oppose them. (81)

We might summarize this idea in these terms:

  • A sense of justice is a broadly shared set of factual and normative beliefs about how existing society works when it comes to fair and equitable treatment of individuals by institutions and groups.
  • People are likely to mobilize in an effort to change the social order when their sense of justice is profoundly offended.

Moore offers examples of how offenses to a prevalent sense of justice can influence collective behavior, mostly drawn from German working class history. But for other examples we can also turn to E.P. Thompson’s concept of the moral economy of the crowd (link; also included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture) and James Scott’s application of this concept to the situation of rebellion and mobilization in SE Asia (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance).

This set of ideas raises two different sets of questions. First, can we confirm the idea that the motivations that arise from the experience of justice and injustice are in fact important in influencing the outcomes of specific cases of social life? Or is the sense of justice simply an epiphenomenon? And second, can we empirically investigate the particulars of the sense of justice and injustice of a particular people at a point in time? Is the sense of justice itself a social fact that can be investigated and mapped?

These ideas seem especially relevant to the case of China since the Revolution. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Revolution depended upon a set of values that couched social justice in terms of equality across classes. On the other hand, China’s economy and society have witnessed an explosion of inequalities of income and influence since the 1980s. It is natural to ask, then, whether people who came to adulthood in the 1930s and 1940s in China acquired an egalitarian sense of justice and injustice; and whether they and their children experience today’s inequalities as being unjust. And in fact, some observers believe that rising inequalities in China are contributing to dangerously high levels of dissatisfaction and outrage among ordinary citizens. Or in other words, China is ripe for the kind of morally induced protest and resistance that Barrington Moore described. China is a “social volcano” in the early stage of venting and steaming, with an eruption to follow.

Martin Whyte’s recent study of this question leads to surprising findings (for me, anyway). In Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China Whyte sets out to use the tools of survey research to assess and measure the contours of the assumptions about justice and inequality that are shared by several generations of Chinese men and women. He and research colleagues (including Shen Mingming and Yang Ming) conducted a national survey in 2004 aimed at probing Chinese attitudes towards inequalities. The survey involved responses from about 4,344 individuals, stratified in terms of region and rural/urban status.

Here is Whyte’s assessment of the survey data (chapter 3):

How can we summarize Chinese citizens’ feelings about issues of inequality and distributive justice? Which aspects of current inequalities in China do they accept and view as fair, and which do they see as basically unjust? In general, our survey results indicate that the majority of respondents accept and view as fair most aspects of the unequal, market-based society in which they now live. There is little sign in our results of strong feelings of distributive injustice, of active rejection of the current system, or of nostalgia for the distributional policies of the planned socialist era. (kl 1191)

In fact, Whyte describes a set of attitudes that place China squarely within what we might call the values of social democracy, favoring a social safety net and a market society that provides widespread opportunities for advancement. Here is a particularly relevant chart (figure 3.3):

The results in this chart display an intriguing blend of liberal and socialist commitments. Equal distribution (the Mao principle) receives 29.1% support, significantly lower than the 44.7% who oppose the principle. But another anti-liberal principle, government guarantee of jobs, receives higher positive than negative support (57.3% in support, 23.9% against). And there is overwhelming support for the idea of a government guarantee of a minimum living standard (80.8%).

Whyte singles out a number of principles of legitimacy and justice that he discerns in the survey findings (quoting from chapter 3, kl 1191 ff.):

  • There should be government-sponsored efforts to provide job and income guarantees to the poor …
  • There should be abundant opportunities for individuals and families to improve their livelihoods …
  • There should be equality of opportunity …
  • Material advancement and success should be determined by merit factors …
  • The pronounced social cleavage between China’s rural and urban citizens … are unfair
  • Since individuals and families vary in their talents, diligence, and cultivation and deployment of merit-based strategies for success, society will have a considerable amount of inequality …
  • Upper limits should not be set on incomes …
  • It is acceptable for the rich to use their advantages to provide better lives for their families
  • People in positions of political power should not be entitled to special privileges …

It is the generally optimistic character of these findings that leads Whyte to doubt that China is a “social volcano”. He finds that the bulk of the Chinese population possesses a conception of justice and economic expectation that aligns fairly well with China’s current social and economic realities. He does not find a rising sense of injustice and resentment that might fuel anti-regime mobilization. So China is not approaching a social eruption driven by a deepening sense of injustice among ordinary people; or at least this is how Whyte reads the data.

But it seems possible to read the data in another way as well. The principle of equal distribution — the Maoist principle — does actually correspond to the moral sense of a very large number of Chinese men and women in the survey (29.1%). (This number falls to 11.3% if it is specified that inequalities derive from a system of equal opportunity; figure 3.5.) How strongly does this minority hold this egalitarian view? Who are they? Is there a generational split on this question? And how about perceptions of conflict? Figure 3.7 presents opinions about the severity of conflict between various groups in Chinese society; there we find that 38.5% of respondents find large or very large conflicts between poor and wealthy people. Is this a large number or a small number?

In fact, there is an alternative reading of Whyte’s data that comes to a somewhat darker conclusion. It is true that there is a large majority in Chinese society who are optimistic about the direction of change China is undergoing, and who are optimistic about their futures and those of their children. But there also seems to be a meaningful percentage of China’s population who do not share these attitudes and beliefs. And perhaps this group is large enough to portend the kind of social conflict that Whyte is so skeptical about. When it comes to the likelihood of social unrest, perhaps it is not the modal individual but the disadvantaged minority who is most salient. So maybe a Moore-ian crisis is brewing in China after all.

How much inequality?


How much inequality is too much?  Answers range from Gracchus Babeuf (all inequalities are unjust) to Ayn Rand (there is no moral limit on the extent of inequalities a society can embody). Is there any reasoned basis for answering the question?  What kinds of criteria might we use to try to answer this kind of question?

John Rawls offered a fairly simple criterion of the extent of inequalities that a just society can tolerate in A Theory of Justice.  His background assumption is that the wealth of a society is a joint product of all members of society.  The rules of distribution create more or less inequality among citizens.  Citizens are concerned to “protect” their interests in case they wind up being in the worst-off positions in society.  So justice requires that institutions should create the least degree of inequalities subject to maximizing the position of the least-well-off position in society.  (He also stipulated an equality of opportunity principle: positions need to be open to all through a fair system of competition.)  If the empirical theory is true that economic inequalities sometimes create more wealth (through incentive effects), then it is just to increase inequalities up to the point where any further increase would leave the position of the least-well-off member of society unchanged.  This is the least system of inequalities subject to maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  Rawls justifies this principle (the difference principle) on the ground that it expresses an important sense of fairness: everyone is fairly treated when higher incomes are assigned to some individuals only when doing so benefits all individuals.

By this principle, current inequalities in the United States and Great Britain are demonstrably unjust: it would obviously be possible to lower the incomes of the 1 percent without lowering the income of the bottom forty percent.  So current inequalities are plainly more extensive than they need to be for the purpose of increasing overall output and improving the condition of the least-well-off.

Joseph Stiglitz offers a different kind of theory of inequality in his recent The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. (Here is the anchor essay as it appeared in Vanity Fairlink.) His argument is a pragmatic one based on a theory of social stability.  Essentially he argues that when inequalities become too extreme in a given society they breed social conflict and instability. This happens perhaps because of raw deprivation — the bottom 40% really do have pretty desperate lives — but more because of what Stiglitz identifies as erosion of the social contract.  Here is how he puts the point in the Vanity Fair article:

Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.

So for Stiglitz, inequality is not simply a moral issue, but is also an issue of social stability and cohesion.

Here is another way of answering the question: perhaps extreme inequalities are actually bad for a population’s health.  There is one sense in which this is obviously true: extremely poor people have worse health outcomes than affluent people.  But maybe the simple fact of inequalities is itself a toxic influence on public health, for poor and rich alike.  This is the argument that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.  Their argument is a complex one that suggests several causal explanations for why this might be the case; but their core idea is that great inequalities create widespread “stress” that is harmful to each individual’s health.  Wilkinson and Pickett are public health experts and their argument is a cross-national statistical one.

So we might adapt their analysis into an answer to the question posed above: inequalities should be reduced until there is no measurable harm to public health.  (These arguments are considered in earlier posts; link, link.)

There is even a utilitarian argument for greater equality of income.  If we accept the plausible point that income makes a diminishing marginal contribution to happiness as income rises (perhaps after some inflection point), then under many realistic circumstances a more equal society with lower GNP will have a higher level of happiness than a more unequal society with higher GNP.  Lower-income people have more to gain from an additional $1000 of income than higher-income people.  So if we think it is a good thing to maximize happiness, then we ought to regulate inequalities accordingly.  Benjamin Page makes some of these arguments in an Institute for Research on Poverty position paper, “Utilitarian Arguments for Equality” (link).

Are we forced to choose among these frameworks in order to conclude that our economy has generated vastly too wide a set of inequalities of wealth and income?  No, we aren’t, because these arguments are mutually supportive.  A system of greater equality, regulated by a tax system designed for that purpose, would be more fair, more supportive of equality of opportunity, more harmonious, likely healthier, and likely happier.  We have lots of good reasons for preferring greater equality of wealth and income and lots of good reasons to reject the “anything goes” philosophy that currently drives much of the political discourse on the right.

Rawls on a property-owning democracy

John Rawls’s critique of capitalism was deeper than has been commonly recognized — this is a central thrust of quite a bit of important recent work on Rawls’s theory of justice. Much of this recent discussion focuses on Rawls’s idea of a “property-owning democracy” as an alternative to both laissez-faire and welfare-state capitalism. This more disruptive reading of Rawls is especially important today, forty years later, given the great degree to which wealth stratification has increased and the political influence of wealth has mushroomed. (I’ve addressed this set of issues in prior posts; linklink.) Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson’s recent volume, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond, provides an excellent and detailed discussion of the many dimensions of this idea and its relevance to the capitalism we experience in 2012. It includes contributions by a number of important younger political philosophers. 

O’Neill and Williamson make the point in their introduction that this issue is not merely of interest within academic philosophy. It also provides a powerful conceptual and normative system that might serve as a basis for a more successful version of progressive politics in North America and the UK. Politicians on the left have found themselves locked into a defensive battle trying to preserve some of the features of welfare state capitalism — usually unsuccessfully. The arguments underlying the idea of a property owning democracy have the potential for resetting practical policy and political debates on more defensible terrain.

The core idea is that Rawls believes that his first principle establishing the priority of liberty has significant implications for the extent of wealth inequality that can be tolerated in a just society. The requirement of the equal worth of political and personal liberties implies that extreme inequalities of wealth are unjust, because they provide a fundamentally unequal base to different groups of people for the exercise of their political and democratic liberties. As O’Neill and Williamson put it in their introduction, “Capitalist interests and the rich will have vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens, a condition which violates the requirement of equal political liberties” (3).  A welfare capitalist state that succeeds in maintaining a tax system that compensates the worse-off in terms of income will satisfy the second principle, the difference principle. But in the striking recent interpretations of Rawls’s thinking about a POD, a welfare state cannot satisfy the first principle. (It would appear that Rawls should also have had doubts about the sustainability of a welfare state within the circumstances of extreme inequality of wealth: wealth holders will have extensive political power and will be able to effectively oppose the tax policies that are necessary for the extensive income redistribution required by a just welfare capitalist state.) Instead, Rawls favors a form of society that he describes as a property-owning democracy, in which strong policies of wealth redistribution guarantee a broad distribution of wealth across society. Here is how Rawls puts it in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement:

Property-owning democracy avoids this, not by the redistribution of income to those with less at the end of each period, so to speak, but rather by ensuring the widespread ownership of assets and human capital (that is, education and trained skills) at the beginning of each period, all this against a background of fair equality of opportunity. The intent is not simply to assist those who lose out through accident or misfortune (although that must be done), but rather to put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degree of social and economic equality. (139)

O’Neill and Williamson draw out the implications of this view of a just society by contrast with the realities of 2012:

The concentration of capital and the emergence of finance as a driving sector of capitalism has generated not only instability and crisis; it also has led to extraordinary political power for private financial interests, with banking interests taking a leading role in shaping not only policies immediately affecting that sector but economic (and thereby social) policy in general…. The United States is now further than ever from realizing what Rawls termed the “fair value of the political liberties” — that is, the core value of political equality. (5)

How would the wide dispersal of wealth be achieved and maintained?  Evidently this can only be achieved through taxation, including heavy estate taxes designed to prevent the “large-scale private concentrations of capital from coming to have a dominant role in economic and political life” (5).

It seems apparent that progressives lack powerful visions of what a just modern democracy could look like. The issues and principles that are being developed within this new discussion of Rawls have the potential for creating such a vision, as compelling in our times as the original idea of justice as fairness was in the 1970s.  It is, in the words of O’Neill and Williamson, “a political economy based on wide dispersal of capital with the political capacity to block the very rich and corporate elites from dominating the economy and relevant public policies” (4).  And it is a society that comes closer to the ideas of liberty and equality that underlie our core conception of democracy than we have yet achieved.

(Williamson and O’Neill provided an excellent exposition of the idea and some of the foundational questions that need to be explored in 2009 in “Property-Owning Democracy and the Demands of Justice” (link).  The concept of a property-owning democracy originates in writings by James Meade, including his 1965 Efficiency, Equality and the Ownership of Property.)r

Rawls and exploitation

image: Karl Marx by David Levine

It is interesting to consider whether the principles of justice that Rawls describes in A Theory of Justice would in fact permit economic exploitation in Marx’s sense of the term. Do Rawls’s two principles of justice permit what Marx would call systemic exploitation of one group of individuals by another?  A very interesting post by Will Wilkinson in BigThink suggests that Rawls was a more radical critic of capitalism than we thought, and the reasoning he puts forward is very relevant to the question of justice and exploitation.

First, the basics.  Marx believed that the greatest accomplishment of his economic theory in Capital (link) was its ability to explain how exploitation could occur within a system of free and unforced exchanges among equals, including employers of labor and sellers of labor time.  The exploitation of the serf by the lord within feudalism depends on forcible extraction and coercion. But how could exploitation take place in a system of free exchange?

Marx’s concept of exploitation is formulated in the language of labor value and surplus value. The value of a commodity is equal to the quantity of socially necessary labor time involved in its production. The capitalist purchases the worker’s labor time for a wage that is the equivalent of a certain number of labor hours X. The length of the working day is greater than X. The capitalist subtracts the cost of constant capital (machinery depreciation, space, and raw materials), and is left with a positive sum of value in the form of profit. And this fund of surplus value permits accumulation into the next cycle of economic activity.  Marx describes this as extraction of surplus value and as technical exploitation by the capitalist of the worker.

The key question about whether exploitation is just by Rawls’s principles, then, is whether the two principles permit private ownership of the means of production and whether they permit a generalized system of wage labor in which the labor time of the worker is purchased on the basis of a wage set by a competitive labor market. If so, then Marx would conclude that exploitation is compatible with the principles of justice; if not, then we have a basis for thinking that the two principles are powerful enough to rule out exploitation.

Rawls is explicit in holding that laissez-faire capitalism is unjust.  This is because of the difference principle.  The difference principle mandates that the condition of the worker should be better than it would be without this system of capital and labor, which may entail transfer of wealth through taxation to bring the worker’s welfare up to that standard. Laissez-faire capitalism is not just, according to the two principles because it lacks fiscal and legislative means for transferring wealth to improve the condition of the least-well-off (see the discussion of a property-owning democracy in an earlier post). But if just institutions permit ownership of capital and generalized wage labor, then Marx would still regard this as a system of exploitation and surplus extraction.

So the key question is whether the two principles of justice permit private property in the means of production and a system of wage labor.  There are two plausible approaches we can take on this question, leading to different results. 

The answer, it would appear, does not depend on the second principle of justice (the difference principle) but rather the first principle of justice (the liberty principle).  This is Wilkerson’s central point: does the liberty principle include protection of economic rights, including the right to own the means of production and the right to buy and sell labor power? 

It is possible to read the liberty principle as representing a form of Lockean liberalism, with rights of life, liberty, and property to be protected above all else.  And in fact, Rawls explicitly includes the right to hold (personal) property as a right protected by the liberty principle.  It is only a small step to argue that ownership of property extends to all potential things.  On this interpretation, some form of capitalism follows.  If the first principle permits private ownership of property, including property in the means of production, then it is not inherently unjust to derive income from ownership of property and to hire workers to make one’s property “productive”. Further, if the first principle entails the right to use one’s labor as one chooses, then presumably one has the right to sell one’s labor time.  This is the essence of capitalism.  The second principle may moderate the effects of this system; but at best we get welfare capitalism instead of laissez-faire capitalism, and we get exploitation in the technical sense.  A surplus is transferred from the workers who create it to the owners of capital. 

But perhaps the liberty principle doesn’t in fact support these economic rights after all.  This is Wilkerson’s argument, and it is the basis for his claim that Rawls is more radical than we thought.  And it is the view that Sam Freeman explores in greater depth in his book Rawls.  In a nutshell, Freeman gives an extensive argument for concluding that Rawls does not include these economic rights under the liberty principle (the right to own and accumulate capital and the right to buy and sell labor time).  Here is Freeman’s position:

Then again, Rawls resembles Mill in holding that freedom of occupation and choice of careers are protected as a basic freedom of the person, but that neither freedom of the person nor any other basic liberty includes other economic rights prized by classical liberals, such as freedom of trade and economic contract. Rawls says that freedom of the person includes having a right to hold and enjoy personal property. He includes here control over one’s living space and a right to enjoy it without interference by the State or others. The reason for this right to personal property is that, without control over personal possessions and quiet enjoyment of one’s own living space, many of the basic liberties cannot be enjoyed or exercised. (Imagine the effects on your behavior of the high likelihood of unknowing but constant surveillance.) Moreover, having control over personal property is a condition for pursuing most worthwhile ways of life. But the right to personal property does not include a right to its unlimited accumulation. Similarly, Rawls says the first principle does not protect the capitalist freedom to privately own and control the means of production, or conversely the socialist freedom to equally participate in the control of the means of production (TJ, 54 rev.; PL, 338; JF, 114). (Kindle Locations 1239-1248).

Unlike John Locke, then, John Rawls does not accept the fundamental moral rights that give rise to capitalism as basic rights of liberty. If these rights are to be created within a just society, they must be governed by the difference principle.  Or in more contemporary terms: Rawls and Nozick part ways on liberties even more fundamentally than they do on distributive justice (Anarchy, State, and Utopia).

If we accept Freeman’s argument (and Wilkinson’s) — and I am inclined to — then the answer to the question posed above is resolved. The two principles of justice are not apriori committed to the justice of the basic institutions of capitalism; and therefore Rawls’s system is not forced to judge that exploitation is just.  Or more affirmatively: exploitation is unjust.

What is surprising about this conclusion is the fact that it is surprising, now forty years after the original publication of A Theory of Justice.  The first generation of readers of the theory formed a compelling impression that the book was largely centered on liberal welfare market society — perhaps something along the lines of Nordic social democracy.  And yet the passages and ideas that Freeman calls out were there all along.  So it is surprising that the radicalism of Rawls’s critique was not better recognized in the 1970s.

Rawls and classical political economy

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is highly relevant to the ways we think about our economic system.  If we just read the citations, Rawls seems to be primarily influenced by “modern” economics — Samuelson, equilibrium theory, game theory, and marginalist theory.  And so we might suppose that his moral worldview reflects a neoclassical vision of economy and society.  However, his thought actually seems to reflect a recognition of the intellectual tension between classical political economy and “modern economics”.  In some ways his framework for thinking about our contemporary economy seems to be closer intellectually to Mill, Ricardo, and Marx than it is to Pareto and Samuelson.

Classical political economy was premised on the labor theory of value—the idea that there is a concrete, economically meaningful measure of value that guides economic organization. Further, there was the idea that the economic needs that individuals had were also concrete—the consumption goods that permitted life to proceed. These goods included items like food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and perhaps schooling. So economic activity, according to the classical economists, was about something objective.

Neoclassical economy, by contrast, rejected even the idea of utility as a concrete or objective human reality. Instead, modern economics bracketed the reality of needs in favor of a metaphysics of subjective preference.  Economists no longer needed to think about what people needed, but rather simply what they preferred; so the utilities “consumers” ascribed to outcomes could be discovered by the quasi-experiments of “revealed preference.” Welfare was then defined as the extent to which the individual can satisfy the range of subjective preferences he or she happens to have.  So classical and modern economic paradigms differ substantially on what economic activity ought to achieve: satisfaction of material needs, for the classical economists; and satisfaction of subjective preferences, for the modern economists.

A major thrust of the critique of neoclassical economics arises at just this point. Development organizations like the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and economists like Amartya Sen have put forward fundamentally different ideas about human wellbeing.  The basic needs approach disputed that the goal of economic development in poor countries should be defined in terms of subjective preferences or utilities.  These thinkers argued instead for achieving a decent minimum for whole populations in the satisfaction of basic needs. A 1975 report from the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation to the United Nations (What Now – the 1975 Dag Hammarskjöld Report on Development and International Cooperationlink) is illustrative; it emphasized the idea of basic needs within the discussion of development priorities.

Amartya Sen went a step further, by introducing a more adequate theory of the human person in terms of capabilities and functionings, and argued for a conception of wellbeing that is defined in terms of the ability of individuals and populations to realize their capabilities. Sen advanced these ideas in many places, including On Economic Inequality and Development as Freedom.  (Earlier posts have discussed the capabilities approach; linklink.)  These are objective criteria of wellbeing, not simply summations of subjective preference satisfaction.  And these frameworks of thought present a major challenge to the foundations of modern economic thought.

In light of these observations, it is very interesting to observe that Rawls defined the foundation of his theory of justice, the original position, in terms that are strikingly classical.  In the original position, representative individuals are asked to deliberate behind a veil of ignorance about what principles of justice they would choose to regulate their social cooperation and competition.  Individuals are presumed to be mutually disinterested, and their sole concern is to adopt principles that they can live with in the resulting society.  But what are their interests?  Rawls says that the participants in the OP are interested in a set of primary goods: material resources and liberties, essentially. These are “things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants” (TJ:92).

So Rawls’s definition of the situation of deliberation within the original position is one that focuses on primary goods, not subjective utilities. And this sounds much closer to a classical assumption about economic interests and the human good than it does a modern assumption.  It offers an objective and realistic assumption about what people need in order to live decent lives.

This line of thought is supported by a second feature of Rawls’s philosophical orientation.  The most basic substantive moral position that Rawls takes is his rejection of utilitarianism as a general principle of justice.  Just institutions are not defined as those that “create the greatest good for the greatest number.”  Instead, they are defined as those that can be assured to provide fair circumstances of life for every citizen.  This is established by the unanimity rule.  Choice within the original position must be unanimous; and this means that it needs to support the interests of every participant.  In order to make the idea of the OP an intelligible one, Rawls needs to specify a decision rule for the participants. He argues for the maximin rule over the expected utility rule: the participants will each choose the path that has the least-bad worst outcome.  This choice of decision rule, it should be emphasized, does not reflect an assumption about risk-averse psychology, but rather a compelling reason for choosing this rule.  The stakes are too high to do otherwise. So when participants deliberate among institutional alternatives from the perspective of the maximin rule, they will choose a governing norm like the difference principle. And this too seems to be an implicit rejection of the foundations of modern economics, including the theory of subjective utility and the idea that the only thing that matters from a moral point of view is maximizing “welfare”. Here Rawls draws on Kant, to recognize that the way that social outcomes arise is morally as important as the value of the outcomes themselves.  Rights based on justice can be in tension with overall maximum utility.
So I’m inclined to argue that the greatest contribution Rawls made to contemporary economics is his strong and philosophically convincing case for primary goods and his definition of a good life. His rationale for primary goods is that a person’s ultimate goals are set by his or her conception of the good, and there is no reason to expect there to be a common agreed-upon standard for the conception of the good. It is logical, however, to observe that there are some goods that every individual requires in order to pursue any conception of the good: access to material resources and liberties. This seems like a nod towards the moral worldview of classical political economy.

(See a post on “property-owning democracy” for more discussion of the institutional implications of Rawls’s reasoning.)

Race and American inequalities

Douglas Massey is a leading US social scientist who has worked on issues of inequality in America throughout his career.  His 2008 book (Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System) is a huge contribution to our understanding of the mechanisms producing inequalities in American society, and it amounts to a stunning indictment of racism and anti-poor public policies over a seventy-five year period. And, unlike other interpretations that attribute current racial inequalities topast patterns of overt discrimination, Massey argues that these inequalities can be traced to current discrimination by individuals and institutions alike. (An earlier book, American Apartheid, co-authored with Nancy Denton, is also very important.)

Massey is interested in a specific kind of inequality — what he refers to as “categorical” inequality.  “All human societies have a social structure that divides people into categories based on a combination of achieved and ascribed traits” (1).  The kinds of categories he cites include gender, race, age, and membership in exclusive social organizations.  Categorical inequality, then, is defined as inequalities of income, wealth, or influence that vary systematically with membership in social categories.

How does categorical inequality work?  Massey has a simple answer to this question:

Given socially defined categories and people being distributed among them, inequality is generated and perpetuated by two basic mechanisms: exploitation and opportunity hoarding (Tilly 1998). Exploitationoccus when people in one social group expropriate a resource produced by members of another social group and prefent them from realizing the full value of their effort in producing it. Opportunity hoardingoccurs when one social group restricts access to a scarce resource, either through outright denial or by exercising monopoly control that requires out-group members to pay rent in return for access.  Either way, opportunity hoarding in enabled through a socially defined process of exclusion. (6)

Massey leads off his analysis with a theory of the social psychology of racism and discrimination against poor people. He argues that the stereotyping that is inevitably associated with social cognition leads to a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans, immigrants, women, and poor people that deepens and entrenches their unequal shares in American society. The twin mechanisms of discrimination and opportunity-hoarding both flow on the basis of the categories of discrimination created by these mental constructs – hence “categorical inequality”. (Visit a recent posting for a related argument about the social psychology of prejudice.)

In a very real way, stratification begins psychologically with the creation of cognitive boundaries that allocate people to social categories. Before categorical inequality can be implemented socially, categories must be created cognitively to classify people conceptually based on some set of achieved and ascribed characteristics. The roots of social stratification thus lie ultimately in the cognitive construction of boundaries to make social distinctions, a task that comes naturally to human beings, who are mentally hardwired to engage in categorical thought (Fiske 2004). (8)

People use schemas to evaluate themselves and the social roles, social groups, social events, and individuals they encounter, a process known as social cognition (Fiske 2004). The categories into which they divide up the world may change over time and evolve with experience, but among mature human beings they always exist and people always fall back on them when they interpret objects, events, people, and situations (Fiske 2004). (9)

Massey hypothesizes two dimensions of mental categorization, leading to four gross categories of people in one’s social category scheme: warm-cold (appealing-unappealing) and competent-incompetent. People who are like us are considered “warm” and “competent”. The other three quadrants are categorized as “other”: warm but incompetent (pitied), competent but cold (envied), and incompetent and cold (despised). And he asserts that American racism places African-Americans in the final category. This in turn is used to explain the harshly negative tilt that US legislation has shown across lines of race and poverty.

Massey argues that these cognitive mechanisms work at a pre-conscious level, and are operative even in the behavior and choices of people who consciously experience their values as democratic and egalitarian. These patterns of ongoing discrimination reinforce and reproduce social institutions that assign very different outcomes to African-Americans, poor people, and other dis-valued people. This works itself out in employment, advancement in a career, access to healthcare, and public policy and legislation.

A particularly valuable part of the book is the mass of elegant graphs that Massey has assembled. These represent an eye-opening narrative of discriminatory public policy over almost a century of legislation.  Here is a series of graphs of income inequality over parts of the twentieth century:



The crux of Massey’s analysis here is that inequalities of wealth and income are generated by several mechanisms; but that key among these are the forms of discrimination that find their roots in social psychology and become operative through policy and law.  The gap between white and black median household income documented in figure 2.2 begins in the 1970s at about $20,000 and remains roughly that magnitude through 2002.  And these household income inequalities are created, he argues, through a complex of institutions (economic and political) that serve to compound discrimination and the disadvantages experienced by “out” groups. Moreover, these institutions work to the benefit of the privileged as strongly as they work to the harm of the disadvantaged; so the institutions are unlikely to change. “In other words, whether whites care to admit it or not, they have a selfish interest in maintaining the categorical mechanisms that perpetuate racial stratification. As a result, when pushed by the federal government to end overt discriminatory practices, they are likely to innovate new and more subtle ways to maintain their privileged position in society (Massey 2005c)” (54). This is a gloomy conclusion, and one that argues strongly for a passionate and sustained commitment to remedying the stark racial inequalities that exist in our society.

(Massey refers frequently to Susan Fiske’s 2004 book, Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology.  Here is a shortarticle by Mary Wheeler and Susan Fiske that lays out some of their research on racial prejudice.)

Health disparities in the US and China

Health disparities across a population are among the most profound indicators of social inequalities that we can find.  And the fact of significant disparities across groups is a devastating statement about the circumstances of justice under which a society functions.  These disparities translate into shorter lives and lower quality of life for whole groups of people, relative to other groups.

Both the United States and China appear to display significant health disparities across their populations. Here are a couple of studies that draw attention to these facts.

United States

Here is an important new study on the question of health disparities in the United States by public health researchers at Harvard and UCSF.  The study is “Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States”. And the answer the researchers provide to the question above is that the US possesses very significant health disparities across segments of its population. The study is worth reading in detail.

The authors analyze mortality statistics by county, and they break the data down by incorporating racial and demographic characteristics. The data groups fairly well around the eight Americas mentioned in the title:

Here is how they describe their findings:

The gap between the highest and lowest life expectancies for race-county combinations in the United States is over 35 y. We divided the race-county combinations of the US population into eight distinct groups, referred to as the “eight Americas,” to explore the causes of the disparities that can inform specific public health intervention policies and programs.

And here is their conclusion:

Disparities in mortality across the eight Americas, each consisting of millions or tens of millions of Americans, are enormous by all international standards. The observed disparities in life expectancy cannot be explained by race, income, or basic health-care access and utilization alone. Because policies aimed at reducing fundamental socioeconomic inequalities are currently practically absent in the US, health disparities will have to be at least partly addressed through public health strategies that reduce risk factors for chronic diseases and injuries.

For example, their data show that “the life expectancy gap between the 3.4 million high-risk urban black males and the 5.6 million Asian females was 20.7 y in 2001.” This is an enormous difference in longevity for the two groups; and it is a difference that tags fundamental social structures that influence health and risk across these two populations.

Here is a time-series graph of the behavior of longevity for the eight Americas:
So what are the factors that appear to create these extreme differences in mortality across socioeconomic and racial groups in America? They consider health care access and utilization; homicide; accidents; and HIV as primary potential causes of variations in mortality for a group. Most important of all of these factors for the large populations appear to be the health disparities that derive from access and utilization.  And here they offer an important set of recommendations:

Opportunities and interventions to reduce health inequalities include (1) reducing socioeconomic inequalities, which are the distal causes of health inequalities, (2) increasing financial access to health care by decreasing the number of Americans without health plan coverage, (3) removing physical, behavioral, and cultural barriers to health care, (4) reducing disparities in the quality of care, (5) designing public health strategies and interventions to reduce health risks at the level of communities (e.g., changes in urban/neighborhood design to facilitate physical activity and reduce obesity), and (6) designing public health strategies to reduce health risks that target individuals or population subgroups that are not necessarily in the same community (e.g., tobacco taxation or pharmacological interventions for blood pressure and cholesterol).

These findings are squarely relevant to assessing the justice of our society. The country needs to recognize the severity of the “health/mortality equity” issue, and we need to make appropriate policy reforms so that these disparities begin to lessen.


Several research papers address these issues for the case of China.  One is a World Bank working paper by David Dollar called “Poverty, Inequality, and Social Disparities During China’s Economic Reform” (link).  Dollar notes that China has dramatically reduced its poverty rate over the past 25 years, whereas its income inequality measures have increased sharply during the same period. (Albert Park and Sangui Wang review the poverty statistics for this period in China Economic Review; link.)  They conclude that these inequalities between rural and urban populations, and between well educated urban professionals and the urban working class, have also resulted in significant inequalities in health status and outcomes for the various sub-populations.

Shenglan Tank, Qingyue Meng, Lincoln Chen, Henk Bekedam, Tim Evans, and Margaret Whitehead review the current evidence available on health equity in China in “Tackling the challenges to health equity in China” (link).  “Although health gains have continued, concern for the equitable distribution of social benefits of economic progress has grown” (25).  Further:

Disparities in income and wealth between the urban and rural areas, between the eastern and western regions, and between households have widened substantially. In 1990, the richest province had a GDP per person more than seven times larger than the poorest province, but by 2002, the same ratio had grown to 13 times greater.41The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality,42increased for China as a whole from 0·31 in 1978–79 to 0·45 in 2004. The level of income inequality in China is now similar to that in the USA, roughly comparable to that in the most inequitable Asian countries—Philippines and Thailand—and approaching the notoriously inequitable levels in Brazil and Mexico. (29-30)

The authors quote Amartya Sen on health equity (Amartya Sen, Why health equity”; link):

Health equity cannot be concerned only with health in isolation. Rather it must come to grips with the larger issue of fairness and justice in social arrangements, including economic allocations, paying attention to the role of health in human life and freedom.  Health equity is most certainly not just about the distribution of health, not to mention the even narrower focus on the distribution of health care. Indeed, health equity has an enormously wide reach and relevance.

And inequalities in personal income in different provinces lead to highly different levels of ability to fund public amenities in these provinces, with large effects on public health in poor provinces:

Living conditions differ greatly between areas of different affluence. Safe drinking water is available to 96% of the population of large cities but to less than 30% in poor rural areas. Differences in access to effective sanitation are even larger, 90% of residents in large cities have adequate sanitation, compared with less than 10% in poor rural areas (figure 6).

Two graphs capture the big picture:


In figure 1 the data demonstrate a strong correlation between life expectancy and average income for China’s provinces and municipalities, from just about 65 years for the poorest regions to 78 years in Shanghai region.  Figure 2 demonstrates major inequalities in child health between rural and urban locations.  The authors further report that infant mortality also varies dramatically across regions: “Rural infant mortality rates are nearly five times higher in the poorest rural counties than in the wealthiest countries — 123 versus 26 per 1000 live births, respectively” (26). One important source of data on these issues that these researchers use is the Chinese National Health Service survey of 1998; link.

The most detailed analysis of health disparities in China I’ve been able to find is a paper published in 2010 by Feinian Chen, Yang Yang, and Guangya Liu, “Social Change and Socioeconomic Disparities in Health over the Life Course in China: A Cohort Analysis” (link).  They make use of the China Health and Nutrition Survey to allow for a longitudinal study of health in several segments of China’s population. (Here is a description of the CHNS.) Their conclusion:

Using data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey, we find significant socioeconomic status (SES) differences in the mean level of health and that these SES differentials generally diverge over the life course. We also find strong cohort variations in SES disparities in the mean levels of health and health trajectories. (126)

It would appear that studies of health status in China disaggregated by population segments are not yet as fully developed as one would wish.  The CHNS appears to have limited data coverage (much more limited than the national census, for example), and none of the studies mentioned in these articles appear to disaggregate down to levels lower than the province.  But the summary findings of all three of these articles point in the same direction: it is probable that there are significant inter-regional and inter-sectoral inequalities in health outcomes for the sub-populations corresponding to these segments.

Can justice be causal?

Is social justice an empirical characteristic of a set of social arrangements? And can social justice be a causal factor in processes of social change or social stability?

Before justice could be considered an empirical feature of a set of social arrangements, we would need to have a more specific understanding of what we mean by the term. And we would need to be able to “operationalize” this complex concept in order to be able to apply it to different social arrangements. But neither of these tasks is insurmountable; certainly not more so than defining and applying the ideas of fascism, liberal democracy, or welfare state to specific societies. 

So let’s begin with a simple, applicable definition of justice. Let’s focus on just three dimensions of a society’s functioning: distribution of access to society’s wealth; the degree of abuse of power and its contrary, reliable legal protections of the person; and the extent of individual freedoms. Injustice involves —

  • exploitation and inequality
  • unwarranted coercion by the state or private organizations
  • the abuse of people’s freedoms.

A society is more just when it involves less of any of these features. And each of these dimensions seems measurable.

But immediately a problem arises. Each of these features requires a key normative judgement. Exploitation is the unfair division of the fruits of productive activity among the participants. The qualifier “unwarranted” requires that we supply a normative theory of the state. And “abuse” of freedom isn’t simply restriction on freedom; it is the unjustified or unequal restriction on freedom. So in order to measure any of these characteristics in a particular social context it isn’t enough to know who gets what or who does what to whom; we need a background set of normative ideas that allow us to judge which kinds of treatment and inequality count as exploitation, coercion, or the abuse of freedom.

This is where Amartya Sen’s ideas about capabilities, realizations, and freedoms are practical and useful. We might substitute “capabilities realization deficit” for exploitation. Here we might argue that a society that leaves a significant portion of its population in material conditions where they cannot fulfill most of their basic human capabilities is for that reason unjust. We might measure the gap in human development between the top quintile and the bottom quintile as an estimate of the degree of exploitation that is prevalent in a given society. We may not know in detail how the system of distribution works, but the severity of the gap gives reason to believe that a portion of the society is being treated unfairly.  The Human Development Index provides a basis for beginning to assess different countries along these lines (link).

Second, we might measure coercion and legality by the estimating the degree to which a society has effectively implemented a working system of law that is applied equally. The World Bank has made some efforts in this direction through its Worldwide Governance Indicators (link; working paper here).  This gives us an empirical measure of the degree of lawlessness and unchecked state power that exists in various societies.

We might measure freedoms by aggregating observable features of democratic participation in various societies.  The Economist has constructed a Democracy Index that was first implemented in 2006 (link). This gives us an empirical way of assessing the rough degree of involvement citizens can have in public decision-making; or in other words, it is a measure of the degree to which it is possible for citizens to exercise their freedoms in a public space.

So we might imagine a “justice index” for a society that aggregates measures like these into an overall assessment of the degree of justice the society currently demonstrates.  It would then be interesting to see how societies differ in this measure, and how other important social characteristics may be correlated with this measure.  I haven’t done this experiment, but here’s what we might expect: higher injustice ratings correspond to greater likelihood of social conflict, lower productivity, and lower community and civic engagement.

What mechanisms might be hypothesized that would originate in these core aspects of a society’s justice profile and its various outcomes?  Here we can identify a couple of factors that would support a causal interpretation.  For example, absolute or relative deprivation can cause people to rebel as they struggle to create social changes that protect their interests.  Further, as Barrington Moore demonstrated in Injustice, the conviction that basic social arrangements are unfair can also move people to activism and resistance — as we seem to be seeing in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  These factors derive from the distributive arrangements of a society: injustice can provoke resistance.  Similar statements can be made about state violence and lawlessness. We have seen in Libya, Syria, and Morocco that state violence against protesters can actually have the effect of strengthening and broadening resistance.

So these aspects of injustice can have effects on mobilization and resistance by a population. Are there other effects that injustice can have?  As noted earlier (link), Pickett and Wilkinson argue in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger that inequalities of income have surprisingly strong associations with a variety of social ills.  This could be developed into an argument that social justice and injustice lead to behaviors that either promote or undermine social welfare.

Finally, it seems plausible to imagine that the intangibles that accompany a harmonious society — a population of people who generally feel that they are fairly treated by their basic institutions and their fellow citizens — will lead to a variety of other social goods, including cooperation, civic engagement, and economic productivity.  Conversely, it is plausible to suppose that a dis-harmonious society would give rise to the negatives of these qualities: less cooperation, less civic involvement, and less economic productivity.

So two things seem true.  First, it does seem possible to “measure” injustice (supported, of course, by a normative theory of why various kinds of inequality are illegitimate).  And second, it does seem plausible that the features of a society that constitute its injustice may also have causal consequences for social unrest, social wellbeing, and social cooperation.  And these are certainly significant social consequences.

(Perhaps there is an analogous set of questions at the individual level: Is “virtue” a specific empirical characteristic of a person’s character? And can virtue be a causal factor in the individual’s life outcomes and level of happiness?)

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