A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Liberal Eugenics of Vilfredo Pareto

Warning: this is based upon a single book chapter. I have not read Pareto's original work, hence this post should not be regarded as being in any way scholarly or authoritative.

Vilfredo Pareto is nowadays famous primarily fir his work in economics, but in his day he was a notable authority on eugenics. This field of study has a rather poor reputation nowadays, largely because of the racist and authoritarian ways in which it was put into practice by a wide variety of supposedly civilised governments.

Despite his flirtation in later years with what was to become Mussolini's dictatorship, Pareto cannot be seen as at fault for this. Indeed, his work - as presented in Fransesco Cassata's Building the New Man: Eugenics, Racial Science and Genetics in Twentieth-Century Italy displays a remarkably modern viewpoint. In contrast with the many eugenicists who associated dysgenics with the mixing of the races, Pareto argued that the concept of race, as other eugenicists were using it, lacked any kind of scientific rigour. There might indeed be groups with certain superior qualities - but these groups would be unified by biological processes, rather than through ethnic or linguistic similarities. So accounts of a superior "Latin" or "Germanic" race were unfounded.

Moreover, "that there exist in society men who possess certain qualities in higher measures and saying that there exists a class of men absolutely better than the rest of the population is not the same thing." Variation between humans is undeniable, but this does not imply that the concept of race will turn out to be useful in discussing this even when made properly rigorous.

Pareto further this critique with the observation that perhaps the most obvious manifestations of race come through outward physical characteristics - hair colour, cranial shape, etc. But if race were truly a useful marker, then eugenics would easily be resolved. We may perhaps read into his words the idea that sexual selection would achieve eugenic purposes without any need for deliberate social action.

One of Pareto's most celebrated observations in economics is that, across societies, the distribution of income and wealth tends to follow power laws. In particular he observed that in the Italy of his day, 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. (Land ownership is nowadays a poor proxy for wealth, since there is so much more industrial and human capital, but based upon Thomas Piketty's work we might make similar observations about present society). The fact this inequality is natural does not, however, make it desirable.

Indeed, Pareto suggests that this has serious negative consequences for both rich and poor. The working class suffer from a "higher death rate, particularly for infants," while the rich escape this at the price of allowing dysgenics. The babies of the working class who survived would be the more vigorous ones; the upper class would have no such selection.

What was the answer to this? Certainly not compulsory sterilisation of those deemed unfit, which Pareto correctly predicted would lead to horrific abuses (and, incidentally, claimed to be the natural consequence and hence reductio ad absurdam of state socialism). He was in favour of individuals exercising discretion if they feared their children would suffer in life due to hereditary conditions, but was not willing to authorise the state to enforce it. Nor would it help for the élite to have more children - if anything, this would increase the dysgenic processes they were subject to.

Instead, the solution was "circulation of the élite" - social mobility. There are people who can be great in every class: the key was to bring these people into the new élite with every generation. Further to this, Pareto had a theory - though I am uncertain as to how he justified it, and it seems on its face rather strange - that "the fact that the rural classes develop their muscles and rest their brains has precisely the effect of producing individuals who are able to rest their muscles and excessively rest their brains."

This line of argument led him to be fiercely critical of rigid class and caste systems: in particular that of India, which be believed was the cause of their repeated subjugation by a long line of conquerors, of whom the British were only the most recent. This, then, was a eugenics which was firmly within the tradition of liberal individualism, which affirmed the right of every person to be judged by their own ability and virtue rather than that of their group or leader. If only his ideological bedfellows had had the same respect for human dignity, perhaps this would be a topic of genuine debate rather than a shibboleth of the alt-right.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Some Thoughts on Cohen and Rawls

Political Philosophy is the study of ethics as it applies to political action. This means it asks questions about which political institutions ought to exist and how they ought to act, but also about how individuals ought to act under political institutions. One important question of the latter kind is how far the force of egalitarianism, which is typically taken to bind state actions, should influence the actions of individuals.

Rawls thought that the principles of justice should apply to "the basic institutions of society", and was always slightly ambiguous about what this meant. Was it intended to mean coercive institutions - such as the state and particular distributions of property rights - or rule-giving institutions in general, such as marriage and religious authorities? The basic intuition in favour of the former view is that we usually want to avoid placing especially demanding political duties upon people beyond compliance with the basic laws and rules of society. If someone pays their taxes, drives on the correct side of the road, and avoids trespassing on the Royal Navy's battleships, then isn't that enough?

On the other hand, this seems to deny that considerations of justice might apply within the family. A hundred years ago this might have been seen as a virtue of the theory, but now that more-or-less everyone accepts that second-wave feminism was basically correct this view is hard to sustain. So if justice applies to individual actions in the context of family, why shouldn't it apply in a whole range of contexts?

One way of thinking about this is to consider what the origin of our moral duties is. (NB This need not be the same for all duties). I would broadly categorise the theories as such:

  1. Moral duties are pre-institutional. Political institutions, insofar as they are justified at all, exist as a mechanism to enforce the carrying out of these duties. Nozick can be seen as a paradigm case of this view, although it is consistent with a stronger conception of distributive justice: for example, I assume that Peter Singer would hold a view of this kind.
  2. Moral duties in some sense exist prior to institutions, but only become binding upon individuals when there exists a political community. Thomas Nagel holds a view of this sort, suggesting that it is unreasonable to expect individuals to deliberate as though their own interests are no more important than those of other people but that politics can act to achieve some form of equal consideration of interests.
  3. Moral duties come into existence only when there exists a political community. Hobbes would be the classical advocate of this view.
I would venture to suggest that (2) represents the mainstream view among political philosophers, at least with regard to issues of distributive justice. It has the advantage compared to (1) of explaining the particularity of our political obligations - of why individuals are attached to particular political institutions and not others. If you take (1) to be the case, it is hard to see how one can legitimise redistribution of income and wealth within the community without also legitimising global redistribution on the same scale - an implication that citizens of rich countries, including most political philosophers, are keen to avoid.

The disadvantage of (3) is that it is hard to explain why there are principles that all political institutions must follow. Whereas (2) suggests that political community simply activates pre-existing principles, (3) implies that the principles to be followed by a community are made anew each time a political community comes into being. This view fell out of fashion as communitarianism became less popular.

Nevertheless, all three views are somewhat popular within the discipline.

If you accept a view of type (1), then you will presumably think that the failure of a state to enforce a duty has no bearing upon whether or not one is morally obliged to comply with the duty. To take a duty where I think the truth of (1) is uncontroversial: one is obliged not to murder others, and this holds whether or not one will be punished for doing so.

If you accept a version of (3), then there is simply no way to say, outside of a particular context, what the duties of individuals are. This is not to say that there is no answer; rather, it means that this answer is one to be answered not through philosophical reflection upon the nature of morality, but through interpretation of a particular culture's practices.

But what about (2)? In this case we still do not know what the duties of individuals are, but in a different way from in (3). If (3) is true then it may be the case that members of a particular community have extensive moral duties, but this has little to no bearing upon what the duties of people in different societies are. If (2) is true, however, then people's duties should be more-or-less the same regardless of which society they inhabit.

This doesn't really answer the question, but I think it has helped to clarify my thinking on the topic. In particular, I am now aware of a couple of tensions in my beliefs. Firstly, I am attracted simultaneously to the views that there are limits to our duties, that there are some (admittedly small - I'm a sufficientarian, not an egalitarian) requirements of distributive justice, and the type (1) theory - that states should exist only to enforce pre-existing duties, and cannot create new duties. The joint coherence of these views is doubtful.

Second, in a part of this essay which I have deleted, I suggested that this might have to do with whether or not we conceive of justice as a substantive property or merely as the absence of injustice. I tend to believe the latter view, since surely injustice requires an actual victim rather than merely the potential to create victims? I thought that this might have some effect on which duties we still ought to respond to as individuals, but it is now not at all clear to me that this is the case.

Monday, 22 February 2016

On #FreeKesha: Why You Can't Skip Due Process

NB: This article was written as an attempt to persuade social-justice types. As such, while there is nothing here that I actually disagree with, the emphasis on certain issues is different. This notice may be removed if I become happy enough with the state of the article to publicise it at all. Currently I feel that it needs more feminist shibboleths. It could perhaps do with an actual defence of the presumption of innocence rather than merely its assertion, but I'm wary to include that since the way that I think about this (roughly: how much sense does it even make to speak of this once you accept a Bayesian epistemology, in which all beliefs are probability distributions?) is so radically different from the way in which most people, including most intelligent people, do.


Currently in the news: pop singer Kesha (formerly Ke$ha) has attempted to get her contract revoked by court. The contract obliged her to work with producer Dr. Luke, who she alleges raped her on several occasions. The court, however, found that she is still bound by the contract which has predictably resulted in great uproar across the social justice movement under the hashtag #FreeKesha.

If you accept the claim that she was raped, this is entirely appropriate. If he is a rapist, then Dr. Luke ought to be in prison and the contract torn up entirely. But there's a large problem with this, in the form of a thing called "the presumption of innocence". We can't just assume he is guilty of rape - and in this case, that means we have to assume that any alleged intercourse between the pair was consensual, or at least in a sufficiently grey area that Dr. Luke cannot be held legally culpable. This is hard to do, but in the case of every crime except rape the presumption of innocence is held to be a fundamental part of living in an enlightened, civilised society.

Time for a musical break!


Let's clarify exactly what is at stake. #FreeKesha is not about a woman being forced to work with her rapist, it is about money.

One of the basic legal limitations on contracts is that while a party may be entitled to compensation, they cannot be entitled to specific performance. That is to say, if Ana agrees to pay Bob £50 in exchange for Bob mowing Ana's lawn, she pays him the £50 and he then decides that he really doesn't want to mow the lawn (for whatever reason): Ana will usually be entitled to get her £50 back, often with extra money on top since she has lost out by not knowing that she would need to employ someone else to mow her lawn. What she is not entitled to, however, is to force Bob to actually mow the lawn.

So while the question of whether Dr. Luke raped her is about whether he ought to go to prison, the question of whether the contract should be rescinded is really about money: it is about whether or not Kesha should have to pay compensation in order to be free of the contract, or whether Sony and Dr. Luke should be obliged to release her for free.

This isn't to say that money is unimportant. Is Kesha was raped, there's no reason why she should have to pay her rapist in order to be released from the contract. But it's important to be clear about exactly what the issue is.


Now it's obvious how the presumption of innocence applies to the question of whether or not Dr. Luke raped her. While we ought to express sympathy for every person who claims to have been raped, this does not mean we should skip the procedure of going through a fair trial before we declare the accused party guilty and imprison them. Imprisoning someone merely on the basis of an accusation is a clear breach of their basic civil rights - indeed, their basic human rights - but merely having a contract rescinded? What harm can that do?

In this individual case, not much. As I have already said, all this is about is the matter of a few million dollars. If we rescind the contract without a court case Kesha is a bit richer, if we maintain the sanctity of the contract until Dr. Luke is proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in front of a jury of his peers, he and Sony are a bit richer. Unless there's some inherent reason why one of them deserves the money more - a topic about which there will be a thousand and one arguments, all of them awful - there's no way to answer the question of which ought to get it without first answering the question of whether Dr. Luke did indeed rape Kesha. Which takes us back to the presumption of innocence.

To be honest I'm not really familiar with Kesha's music, so here's a
cover of one of her songs by one of my actual favourite bands.

What about the wider effects, though? Rescinding the contract without a full trial would send a clear and public message that if you're in a contract which you want to get out of, rape accusations - whether true or not - will do that for you. False rape accusations are not something we should want to encourage, since quite apart from the effects on those who are falsely accused (overwhelmingly, by the way, men from ethnic minorities) their stories, when they fall apart, cause actual rape victims to be taken less seriously. Anti-feminist articles like "13 women who lied about being raped" are short on genuine statistics about the low incidence of false rape accusations, but nevertheless they are only made possible by the fact these incidents do happen.

Might such accusations become common? I don't know enough about the music industry to know if this might happen more widely, and there aren't that many other industries where a single individual is likely to be bound by a contract for years on end. But you can think of other cases. A woman wants to move out of her rented apartment at a single day's notice, contrary to a contract requiring her to let the landlord know a month before so her can sort out the next tenant. Most women would never even think of making a rape accusation here. But, as much as we may dislike this fact, there are some who will. And if we decide to support every alleged rape victim, we will end up supporting these people among them.


What can we do then? Play whist from the side while Kesha has to endure a painful trial to obtain justice? Well, first I think we should be conscious of how little most of us can do in this one case. The fact that there's no way to short-cut the legal process in this particular case doesn't mean that there aren't a whole load of other good causes that we absolutely know the right side of: FGM, implicit bias and racial prejudice, and Islamophobia, to name just three. These are causes which we absolutely can and should protest about loudly, where there simply aren't the same contentious legal cases which have to resolved before we know exactly what we should advocate.

Secondly, if you feel so strongly about Kesha's situation, I daresay you could help crowdfund her to buy out of her contract. Presumably (NB: I am not an expert!) this would be returned to her if Dr. Luke were indeed found guilty, and then it could be returned to the crowdfunders. Maybe Kesha could put her first independent album on Kickstarter, with proceeds being used to buy her independence and contributors receiving advance copies of the album as a reward. This is what the internet is for.

The key point I hope I've made is this: you can't circumvent the need for legal process. Taking the presumption of innocence seriously means making hard choices - the urge to advocate for Kesha is the urge for justice, the very noblest urge of all - but it is a cost we have to bear for being a civil society.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Fury and Raging

This is disgusting. Apparently the secession to the legitimate throne of Austria-Hungary excludes women. There's the minor matter of how sexist this is, but vastly more important is that it removes a golden opportunity for me to get my descendants onto a royal throne.

Consider this: marrying into the British throne is currently difficult if not impossible for a 21-year-old male, since the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge are both married and straight. The next in line after this is the young Prince George, who may not turn out to be straight but is undoubtedly male. Even if (a) he did turn out to be gay, (b) I were willing to overlook my own straightness, it's far from obvious how that leads to my own biological descendants getting onto the throne. So the British throne is more-or-less out, at least until I have children who could marry the next generation of royals. The best I might be able to do is marrying Princess Beatrice, currently 7th in line, but (a) she'll move further down if/when Will and Kate have more kids and when Prince Harry, Prince George and Princess Catherine starting having children of their own, (b) would you really want to marry someone who wears a hat like this?

What other major monarchies are there? The obvious choice would be the monarchy of the country where I actually now live, i.e. Austria-Hungary. The Hapsburg family has been decimated by a variety of causes - primarily incest - but the line of Lorraine-Hapsburg still exists, though they have officially speaking renounced their claims to the throne. But get me in there and we'll change all that.

The youngest generation of Hapsburgs is very convenient: the eldest daughter of the current head of the House is but a month older than I am. She's not first-in-line of course, that would be her younger brother. But he's a racing driver, which is of course an awfully dangerous occupation - if you know what I mean. So the path is clear: contrive a way to meet "Jelena Maria del Pilar Iona Lorraine-Hapsburg", marry her, and then arrange an unfortunate accident for her younger brother. (Unless he looks like having children, obviously I shouldn't assassinate him until the secession of my children is guaranteed - creating the collateral damage to your schemes while failing to reap the benefits is immoral. This is why I found Raskalnikov so utterly unlikeable in Crime and Punishment, he murders the old pawnbroker but fails to steal her possessions. It's like, what was the point of it all?).

Except... that wouldn't put dear Jelena onto the throne; instead, the next-in-line is the Archduke George, brother of the present ruler Karl von Hapsburg. It seems that women are utterly excluded - not merely placed behind males of the same generation, as was the case with the UK monarchy until shortly before the birth of Prince George, but utterly excluded. What bullshit. I guess I'll have to create my own dynasty.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Virtues of Inequality

In The Myth of Ownership, Murphy and Nagel recognise that one can indeed put intrinsic positive moral value on markets. They suggest one might the market as "a mechanism that makes each of us as economic actors responsible for the allocation of effort and resources in our own lives, and that makes the benefits we derive from those choices systematically dependent on their costs and benefits to others". (Murphy & Nagel, 2002, p.68). Despite this, they conclude that markets cannot be inherently justified, at least as the sole locus of the distribution of income in society, because people have unequal starting points in terms of their upbringings and abilities. This, they suggest, means that some amount of redistribution is also needed in order to correct for the initial iniquity.

I wonder if one might take a different tack: one focused on virtue ethics. The idea is something like this: one thing we might want out of our situation in life is the capacity to develop specific virtues. Moreover, the virtues we wish to develop will vary from person to person. Courage is an important virtue in some contexts, but for the average citizen in a liberal democracy it is going to be of little to no use. Integrity is one of the most important virtues of a statesman, but has little relevance to most people's everyday life. Generosity becomes a more important virtue as one obtains more to give away - if one is poor enough then it generosity may in fact be a self-destructive vice.

In particular, there are a number of virtues which are most relevant to those who suffer or have suffered. Being forgiving is perhaps the most obvious of these.

With this, then, we may be in a position to argue that havng a disadvantaged upbringing allows one to cultivate certain virtues which would not be open to oneself otherwise.

There are a lot of problems with this view as it stands. First, there's the sheer unpleasantness of the suggestion that people should suffer in order to "be better people" afterwards. Second, presumably by having the disadvantaged upbringing one loses the ability to develop other virtues which are most available to those with advantaged upbringings.

Perhaps this argument can be given legs, perhaps it can't. I think most likely the latter, though I'd be interested to see attempts at developing it.

A related - and in my view much stronger - argument is inspired by an article in Ethics last year arguing that the "shape" of a life has moral value. In short, it is better to start off badly and end up well than to start off well and go downhill. Combine this with the empirical fact that, for a variety of reasons, people tend to get richer as they get older, and you could have a very solid defence of economic inequality.

Notes on a Conversation with Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka is Professor of Philosophy and Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen's University and Kingston, Visiting Professor of Nationalism Studies at Central European University (CEU), and the world's leading theorist of multiculturalism. He is currently teaching a course at CEU entitled "The Global Diffusion of Minority Rights"; this morning I was able to have a conversation with him relating to issues raised in that course and in the study of multiculturalism more generally. These are my notes on the conversation, so as to keep a permanent record in a readable format. The answers attributed to Professor Kymlicka are almost entirely summaries rather than direct quotations. My questions are in bold, Kymlicka's answers are in normal type, and my thoughts are in italics. Since (a) this was an offhand conversation, not a published article, (b) while I am trying to reproduce what he said faithfully but my memory is not perfect, and (c) this is just a blogpost which for all you know I might entirely be making up, Professor Kymlicka should of course not be held responsible for anything I attribute to him here.

ATP: In your discussion of multiculturalism in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, you note that in the early days of multicultural theory people drew a lot of associations between multiculturalism and communitarianism. But multiculturalism started to be practiced around 1967-73, whereas communitarianism didn't appear until the 1980s. How does this fit together?

WK: Essentially, we did multicultural practice without having any theory of it for about twenty years. Then, in the early 80s, communitarianism came along. You're too young to remember this, but back then it was massive. When I was an undergrad, the communitarian critique of liberalism was all the rage, the great issue of the day. So people started casting around for other issues which might be illuminated by communitarianism, and noticed multiculturalism. In my view this was a big mistake, getting the justification for multiculturalism entirely wrong, but that's how it happened.

ATP: The perpetual concern when granting minority rights is that these rights will simply allow the suppression of individual liberty. I'd like to suggest that this is far more common than we often think - in particular, that the practice of teaching minority languages in schools represents a limitation of the liberty of schoolchildren. (I had in my notes a comparison to teaching Klingon in schools, which no-one would advocate, but did not use this in our actual conversation). Time and effort spent teaching a minority language represents time spent not teaching things which may actually be useful to the children.

WK: Yes, Thomas Pogge advocated that position in a book chapter for a book I edited, called "Ethnicity and Group Rights". He argued that the teaching of Spanish in American schools violates the rights of pupils. What I would say is that in general, minorities want to teach their own languages alongside the majority language, and, oddly enough, it so happens that empirically people who learn multiple languages end up better at both of them. [This seems somewhat most-convenient possible universe to me, but then again it's not at all obviously wrong. Certainly, as a result of learning German, I understand grammar far better than I would if I only spoke English].

The other thing I would say is that children don't have a right that education be organised to their maximum benefit - the idea that they do is just implausible. So it's not at all clear to me that such a limitation, if it were a limitation, would be a violation of the rights of children.

ATP: Pogge seems to take it rather further than I had in mind - I had in mind the teaching of Welsh, a language which - though beautiful - is utterly useless. Given the advantages of bilingualism, then, the case to be made is not "Welsh & English" versus just English so much as Welsh versus French - a case which seems to be rather easier to make.

WK: Or Spanish, or Mandarin, yes. That points to what I think is an important mistake in the way many people talk abut multiculturalism, which is to confuse multiculturalism with diversity. Originally people would justify minority rights in terms of justice, but nowadays they often try to advocate the same policies with talk of diversity. Because everyone likes diversity, right? But that raises the question of why you favour this particular form of diversity, rather than a completely different culture. No: multiculturalism and diversity are different concerns: multiculturalism is motivated by concerns about justice, whereas diversity is a value all of its own.

It's also worth saying that the kind of argument you're making doesn't just cut against minority rights. In many cases it may also cut against majority rights too. Think about Estonia - would Estonian children be better off learning in English and German rather than Estonian? Quite probably. Do they have a right to be taught in these languages? I don't think so.

ATP: Speaking of Estonia, do you think the history of how a minority came to be matters? Estonia has a significant ethnic Russian minority, as do many states in the Balkans. But whereas the Balkan minorities exist because the ethnic borders between nations overlap but the state borders don't, the Russian minority exists in Estonia because they were moved in by the Russian state when it militarily occupied the Baltic states. Presumably that has some moral relevance?

WK: Yes, it surely does have moral relevance. I would suggest that the ethnic Russians in Estonia should be seen as immigrants rather than a national minority - that means that they should be accorded certain rights, but not to the full group rights which we might think a national minority ought to have. We can't visit the sins of the fathers on their children: the ethnic Russians have to be able to have Estonian citizenship, you can't leave people stateless from birth. But yes, as a group I think they lack many of the rights that we would attribute to most national minorities.

ATP: In the lectures we discussed the issue of secession, and you were rather down on what you called "Vanity Secessions", since you view a multi-ethnic as being entirely compatible with justice. But is there anything actually wrong with vanity secessions? After all, there are plenty of things that democracies do which fail to contribute to justice, but we don't think that makes these policies wrong.

WK: Let me put it this way. I don't think Quebec has a right to secede; I don't think that the rest of Canada has a right to make them stay. It's hard to make the case that Quebec somehow has a duty to stay. This isn't something where I really know what I think. I would suggest that rather than have a theory of what justifies individual secessions, then, we want a theory of what ought to be the procedure for achieving secession. There are a number of dangers relating to these matters. First, if this is seen as a one-off, irreversible decision, then people can be pushed to a choice which they would not otherwise make for fear of the option being closed off to them permanently. The corresponding danger in drawn-out processes is that one part of the country can use the threat of secession to extract concessions on other matters from the rest of the country. So we want to permit secessions, but we want perhaps to channel secession movements down certain paths to ensure that secession is in response to a genuine grievance.

ATP: Couldn't that work as a criticism of democratic decisions in general? Democratic practice falls, even in the best cases, far short of the standards which political philosophers tend to think it should achieve.

WK: Yes, to some extent. The thing to keep in mind is that most democratic decisions are reversable. But I recently read a paper arguing that for certain irreversible decisions, in particular those relating to the environment, we ought to limit or restrict the scope of democracy, and instead find of way of calculating what is owed to future generations. I'm not certain exactly how that would work, but there is definitely a case to be made.

ATP: Thank you for your time.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

What Causes International Differences in CEO-to-worker Wage Ratios?

CEO-to-worker pay ratios vary massively across the developed world. In the US, the average CEO earns 354 times more than the average worker; by comparison, in Germany the figure is 147, in the UK 84, and in Denamrk only 48. This raises a puzzle for those of us who hold, however loosely, to the Efficient Markets Hypothesis: why is the marginal productivity of US CEOs so much higher?

I'm not going to be able to answer that here, but I will set out a few hypotheses and perhaps at some point try to establish which, if any, are correct.

(1) EMH is completely wrong or doesn't apply, and CEO salaries bear no relation to productivity.
This is possible, but fails to actually explain the key puzzle. Instead it just pushes us to the second question of why US investors are so uniquely unable to restrain salaries. (Or, perhaps, why US investors find it so useful to give rewards to CEOs in the form of salary).

(2) Tax distortion. Progressive income taxation may be expected to lead to higher pre-tax income inequality, since the incidence of income tax will almost never fall entirely upon the individual - instead they will on some margin demand higher pre-tax wages to compensate. This seems to make predictions which are opposite to reality, however - the US has relatively low income taxes, while Denmark is highly taxed.

(3) The US is bigger, tends to have correspondingly larger firms, and correspondingly higher payouts for CEOs. We could test this by comparing CEO-to-worker ratios of similar-sized firms across countries.

(4) Perhaps the corporate ladder is a tournament game, where the benefits of massive payouts to the winners (i.e. CEOs) come not from increased productivity by the CEOs, but instead through greater effort by those competing to become CEOs. If the competition to become a CEO is fiercer in the US - something which seems highly plausible (e.g. more competitors since everyone speaks English whereas relatively few people speak Danish, hence the US can import business-people more easily than Denmark) then we would expect to see higher payouts to winners of the US tournament.

(5) Cultural pressures towards income equality. These pressures need not be intrinsically egalitarian: for example, if being a CEO is highly respected, then we would expect to see CEOs receive lower wages than they otherwise would since they are in effect trading income for social status.

(6) Differences in the income of low-earners. I daresay that France would have a rather higher CEO-to-worker earning ratio were it not for its very high minimum wage. An economy in which almost all jobs involve the use of physical capital (e.g. an industrial manufacturing-based economy) would be expected to have higher wages than one based almost entirely around services. Eyeballing the figures I would guess that this plays at least a partial role - Denmark does have an unusually high average worker income, for example - but it cannot be the full story, given that the average US CEO earns almost six times the wage of the average Danish CEO.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Links, February 2016

It's been ages - well over a year possibly more than two - since I last did a links post. But my folder of interesting things on the internet has continued to grow and needs to be partially cleared, so here are a few things which may be of interest. Hopefully, since many of these were accumulated many moons ago, they will not be the same things which float around all the links posts and therefore have already been seen by anyone reading this.

Political cynicism is nothing new. A nineteenth-century painting entitled "Avant et Apres le Vote" (right).

Nervousness is a problem for many people, and this guy has a solution: Rejection Therapy, in which he goes around asking for odd things with the aim of being rejected for something every single day and so desensitising himself.

I have in the works a long essay about how I see mating patterns going in the future (spoiler: if I'm right, most people probably won't like it). Until then, here's a Vox essay on dating in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Cast yourself back into the dim mists of 2014. The music charts are full of songs from kids' movies, Facebook is dominated by #NekNominate and the Ice Bucket Challenge, and everyone is reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the summation of French economist Thomas Piketty's research into historical income and wealth distributions. Except they're not, as this WSJ article of dubious methodology suggests. Relatedly, here is a review by someone who hadn't read the book.

Let it never be said that you can't apply intelligence and rigour to understanding the Bible. To prove it, here is an exam in Theological Engineering.

Various weird musical instruments. And another.

One of the most interestingly evil business plans I've seen.

People who claim to be the world's fastest guitarist. This guy "only" gets up to 350 beats/minute, but maintains clear musicality. This one claims to reach 2000 BPM, but I'm somewhat sceptical about whether, if you slowed down the recording, you would find him having actually played all the notes. (For one thing, a difference of 7x between some of the world's fastest guitarists hardly seems plausible - surely there just isn't that much variation in how fast people can move their fingers?)

The kind of government that I hope we never lose: five-year-old boy loses his bid for a third term of office as local mayor. That said, the candidates for this mayoralty seem worryingly white and male.

Another portion of North America in desperate need of feminism: the Alaskan outback, where low population density, backward institutions, and a high male-female ratio have combined to give the state a rape frequency three times the US average.

"You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

ISIS wins the Turner Prize.

The Wikipedia page for Daniel Lambert (left), who was slightly shorter than me and five times the weight. He seems to have been a stand-up fellow indeed.

Another interesting person, though rather more recent: RIP Stephen Masty.

Women: is waking up on time a struggle? Worry no more: the vibrator-cum-alarm-clock (pun tolerated though not intended) has arrived!

Monday, 1 February 2016

A Modest Proposal for Upper-House Reform

One perpetual complain in British politics relates to the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords. This House has very considerable power within our supposed democracy, and yet its members are mostly appointees of the Prime Minister. Surely it ought to be reformed so as to genuinely reflect the will of the people?

The counterpoint to this is that the House currently plays an important role of review. Very few current members inherited their positions; rather, they were appointed on account of their expertise in particular topics important to our politics. Making them elected would turn them into simply a body of puppets of the party leaders.

Here's a suggestion for how we might attempt to combine these concerns: make the House of Lords into an epistocracy. Maintain universal suffrage for the House of Commons, but also introduce a test which one must pass in order to gain the right to vote for the membership of the House of Lords. The questions would be a mixture of reading comprehension, numeracy, and factual knowledge about a range of topics (geography, the nature of the British constitution, uncontroversial things from economics - comparative advantage, definitions of various things, the current UK GDP per capita). In order to vote, you would have to achieve a particular score - say, 70%. In order to stand for election to the upper house, you would have to achieve an even tougher score - say, 90%*. Upon taking the test you would be informed if you had passed to a sufficient level to vote or stand for election, and if you had then you would receive a right which would need to be renewed every five years.

Every citizen would be entitled to take this test, free of charge.

* Alternatively, perhaps we might say that in order to vote one would have to be in the highest-scoring 10%, and in order to stand one would have to be in the highest-scoring 2%. I'm not committed to any particular formulation of this idea, I'm just throwing it out there.

On Democracy

(Partly inspired by reading Richard Arneson's "Democratic Rights at the National Level")

Democracy is not magic. It does not make political action virtuous, it has no inherent superiority to other forms of government. The right to vote is not itself a morally important freedom. But given the indelible association in many people's mind between freedom and democracy, democracy is nevertheless an inevitable result of people being made free.