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[Fernando Tesón (guest-blogging), December 12, 2006 at 9:32am] Trackbacks
Moral Deliberation:

Thank you for the many excellent commments.

I would like to address one theme in particular. Some have suggested that public deliberation can still be successful because many political issues are moral in nature, so ignorance about social theory (e.g., economics) doesn't matter as much as I claim it does. This is a very popular view among political philosophers such as Rawls and Gutmann-Thompson, for whom the main political disagreements are moral in nature.

This view is also wrong, I believe, and we devote a chapter in the book to show why. Most (but not all) social disagreements are empirical, not moral. In fact, a major form of discourse failure is the attempt to overmoralize politics. Many people, especially politicians, try to take the high moral ground in order to conceal the fact that their proposal is counterproductive. For example, when you point to supporters of the minimum wage that it causes umemployment, they reply that the minimum wage is required for moral reasons (say, to avoid exploitation).

Similarly, someone who publicly defends protectionism often treats it as a moral matter: "we must save the jobs of our workers," thus concealing the fact that millions of consumers and poor foreign producers will be hurt. Unfortunately, scholars are not above this either. We call this move The Moral Turn, and it is a major form of discourse failure. It is Kantianism gone awry. It is also lazy, because the supposed morality of the position exempts the speaker from complex causal inquiry.

Yet some political disagreements are genuinely moral (abortion for example.) We propose The Display Test: a position is genuinely moral when the speaker can accept, without embarrassment, its bad consequences. For example, I am prepared to publicly accept, without embarrassment, that criminal defendants should have a number of rights, even if someone shows me that implementing those rights increases crime. If the speaker cannot concede without embarrassment the bad consequences of her proposal, then she is perpetrating discourse failure.

James R Dillon (mail):
I'm not sure that The Display Test is as objective a guide as you seem to think it is. For example, proponents of minimum wage could well accept that it causes unemployment, but nevertheless argue that minimum wage is necessary to avoid widespread exploitation, and that other forms of social welfare should be implemented to provide for the larger number of unemployed workers created as the result of that policy. One might or might not agree with that assessment, but the point is that whether one should be "embarrassed" by the bad outcomes associated with one's policy preferences is itself a subjective question.
12.12.2006 10:38am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
This suggests that the moral or empirical basis of the argument is not inherent in the argument, but in the motivation of the speaker. I agree with that, but is it a consequence you intend?

I would also point out, in a similar vein to previous commenters, that our subconscious mind can have a great store of information which shapes our opinion, but which we cannot quite put our finger on. As a lawyer, I've watched many lawyer argue at length with non-lawyers, until the non-lawyer is just worn down and cannot for the life of them come up with any more counter arguments, so the lawyer "wins" the argument. But as we all know, that doesn't mean he was right. Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to say "that's just not right", even if you can't yet articulate quite why.

Also, I would point out that a number of studies suggest that humans have an "irrational" devotion to "fairness". For example, in one study, one individual is offered $10 while another individual is offered $90. If he accepts the $10, the other guy gets the $90; if he refuse the $10, the other guy also gets nothing. Free money, no strings attached, but an inequitable division between the two. Several studies have confirmed that the general human tendency is to refuse to accept the $10. This is, in an isolated incident, "irrational". The $10 guy is not actually losing anything to the $90 guy. He would leave the game with more money than he started with, so why should he care about the other guy getting even more. The phenomenon is found in food-sharing studies with other primates, so it appears to be a genetically-encoded instinct to promote "fairness", which might occasionally seem "irrational".
12.12.2006 10:46am
AK (mail):

Most (but not all) social disagreements are empirical, not moral. In fact, a major form of discourse failure is the attempt to overmoralize politics... Similarly, someone who publicly defends protectionism often treats it as a moral matter: "we must save the jobs of our workers," thus concealing the fact that millions of consumers and poor foreign producers will be hurt. We call this move The Moral Turn, and it is a major form of discourse failure. It is Kantianism gone awry.

For something to be the most moral choice, it does not have to have zero negative consequences, nor must it not impose costs on others. Protectionist trade policies cause inefficiencies and higher prices for consumer goods. That doesn't make them immoral per se. Slightly higher prices for consumer goods may be the cost of ensuring a basic standard of living for everone. A trade policy that results in plasma televisions costing one dollar more may indeed be the moral choice if it means that no one will live in poverty. It's a wealth transfer from rich to poor. It might be bad free market economics, but so what? Wealth transfers aren't intrinsically immoral.

Similarly choosing to help workers in America over workers in Taiwan can be a moral choice, especially if you believe there's a special obligation to assist those in your community first.

This whole discussion reeks of baptising economic theory with a preferred form of ersatz consequentialism to forclose dissent. That's a mistake. Don't confuse the numbers with right and wrong.
12.12.2006 10:56am
Robert Lutton:
You seem like a very young person.

So people who disagree with you are just wrong? Many economists would disagree with the blanket statement that the minimum wage causes unemployement.

Perhaps you mean that applying a high minimum wage to a labor market (that did not previously have a minimum wage) at equilbrium will cause unemplayment...but that is a very different statement.

Perhaps you need to give all of this a little more thought...
12.12.2006 11:00am
Jake (Guest):

We call this move The Moral Turn, and it is a major form of discourse failure. It is Kantianism gone awry. It is also lazy, because the supposed morality of the position exempts the speaker from complex causal inquiry.

Perhaps others think that attempting to decide all questions of public policy with economic arguments should be called The Numbers Turn, and is a major form of discourse failure. They might further feel that it is also lazy, because the supposedly infallible cost-benefit analysis supporting the position exempts the speaker from complex moral inquiry.

Labeling arguments that start from different premises than you do as irrational is (like sarcasm) not persuasive.
12.12.2006 11:02am
CJColucci:
Let me suggest a simpler test. An issue is a moral issue if the advocate says that, to him or her, it is. Maybe people would have different moral views if they had different factual notions -- hardly a surprise -- but until they change their minds about facts and then, in consequence, change their moral views, they are still expressing moral views. And after they change their minds about facts, they'll still be expressing moral views, just different ones.
12.12.2006 11:05am
BVBigBro (mail):
Labeling some proposals as "counterproductive" and having "bad consequences" makes the enormous assumptions that there is an empirical definition of a best outcome, that some smaller group of experts can determine with great confidence that outcome, that the smaller group is more capable of making that determination without the input of thr general public and that the result of this would be a "better" outcome for society. You have thus far convinced me of none of these.

Additionally, you have the problem of the record of past social institutions operating without the input of public discourse. It isn't as if we have a great record of social utopias created in the absence of public deliberation.

Finally, you have the problem of believing that most social disagreements are empirical, not moral, in nature and that there is no inherent moral problem in limiting public discourse. Is it not also "lazy" for the person believing the supposed empirical advantages of their position to to be exempt from complex moral inquiry?
12.12.2006 11:06am
another anonVCfan:

You seem like a very young person.
...
Perhaps you need to give all of this a little more thought...

Yeah, just look at the kid.
12.12.2006 11:09am
CaDan (mail):
"Turn"?

Is the OP an old debater? "Turn" is good ol' debate-speak and the reasoning presented so far is the rather primitive utilitarianism of a 2AR weighing impacts.
12.12.2006 11:15am
Steve:
I can't get over the pomposity of arguing that political discourse is dishonest if it doesn't weigh the interests of "poor foreign producers" over moral considerations. I simply don't agree that the existence of economic arguments automatically makes moral arguments illegitimate.

I also think the "Display Test" breaks down when one considers that the negative effects of a policy are often of no consequence to the speaker. For example, I believe as an empirical matter that a minimum wage increase has a very small impact on unemployment; but nonetheless, at the margin, it seems indisputable that some job, somewhere, will be cut. Nevertheless, so what if I can say, without embarassment, that the positive effects of a minimum wage increase outweigh the loss of those jobs at the margin"? I genuinely believe it, and I'm not embarassed in the slightest, but since I'm not the one losing the job it's awfully easy for me to say!

This test only makes sense if one applies it from some sort of Rawlsian original position.
12.12.2006 11:22am
byomtov (mail):
Most (but not all) social disagreements are empirical, not moral. In fact, a major form of discourse failure is the attempt to overmoralize politics. Many people, especially politicians, try to take the high moral ground in order to conceal the fact that their proposal is counterproductive. For example, when you point to supporters of the minimum wage that it causes umemployment, they reply that the minimum wage is required for moral reasons (say, to avoid exploitation).

Bad example.

First of all, the employment consequences of the minimum wage are somewhat controversial.

Second, even if you think it absolutely clear that it increases unemployment, it is also clear that there are some beneficiaries. It is a matter of judgment as to whether the gain to the beneficiaries outweighs the cost to the newly unemployed.

It is an empirical fact that a large number of people who are well familiar with both theoretical and empirical work in this area do not think the minimum wage is "counterproductive."
12.12.2006 11:29am
anonVCfan:
You seem to make a solid point with tendentious examples. Is step 2 of your argument that liberals are the ones screwing all of this up? The minimum wage example is good, but there are those who respond that the minimum wage opponents exaggerate the effects on unemployment, and that the benefits will outweigh the costs.


Also, I don't think that your protectionism example proves your point very well. I think that most advocates of protectionism are aware that it comes at the expense of foreigners. That fact is only "concealed" from complete idiots. Implicit in an argument for protectionism is the argument that the decisionmakers have a greater responsibility to American workers than to foreigners. I don't think that it's anything of a trump card to respond to a protectionist argument by asking the protectionist if he is also against outsourcing.
The argument would pass the "Display Test," I'd expect.
12.12.2006 11:34am
Elliot Reed:
Yet some political disagreements are genuinely moral (abortion for example.) We propose The Display Test: a position is genuinely moral when the speaker can accept, without embarrassment, its bad consequences. For example, I am prepared to publicly accept, without embarrassment, that criminal defendants should have a number of rights, even if someone shows me that implementing those rights increases crime. If the speaker cannot concede without embarrassment the bad consequences of her proposal, then she is perpetrating discourse failure.
Let's try reversing the Display Test: a position is genuinely empirical if someone can accept, without embarrassment, that the policy that produces the best consequences is nonetheless immoral. This happens about as often as the moral Display Test is passed: i.e., almost never.

I suspect that most policy disputes are jointly moral-factual. People have an intuition that X is right, so this leads them to want to believe it has good consequences so they can avoid cognitive dissonance. Then they look for reasons to believe that X has good consequences and reasons to disbelieve arguments that it has bad consequences. These conclusions about the consequences in turn reinforce the belief that X is the morally right policy, and round and round we go.

There's a moral dispute and a factual dispute, and it's a mistake to think of them as unlinked. Rather, people's beliefs about morality change what they want to believe about the facts, which changes what they actually do believe about the facts.
12.12.2006 11:50am
TomHynes (mail):
Arguments in science and engineering are empirical. You argue a bit, do the experiments, then everybody moves on. Science is the ability to make assertions that can be proven wrong.

Social disagreements aren't emperical. You can't get 90% of the population to agree on anything, you can't even get 90% of academics to agree on anything.
12.12.2006 11:53am
Elliot Reed:
Similarly, someone who publicly defends protectionism often treats it as a moral matter: "we must save the jobs of our workers," thus concealing the fact that millions of consumers and poor foreign producers will be hurt. Unfortunately, scholars are not above this either. We call this move The Moral Turn, and it is a major form of discourse failure. It is Kantianism gone awry. It is also lazy, because the supposed morality of the position exempts the speaker from complex causal inquiry.
There's real discourse failure going on here, but not of the type you suggest. Rather, the discourse failure is that the interested parties that drive the political debate (multinational corporations, politicians, labor unions, local business facing foreign competition, etc.) are resorting to what purport to be principled arguments to support positions that are really driven by self-interest. The institutions that stand to benefit from free trade make economic arguments but ignore the fact that there will be no Pareto improvement: Econ 101 says there could be, but that would decrease the amount of available surplus that goes to them. So they treat the Kaldor-Hicks criterion as though it were uniquely scientific. Conversely, labor unions etc. stand to benefit from free trade, so they make "moral" arguments that are based on papering over or ignoring harms to even weaker parties.
12.12.2006 12:04pm
Elliot Reed:
Unions stand to benefit from protectionism, I mean.
12.12.2006 12:05pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
"embarrassment" doesn't seem to be a useful qualifier.

To merely admit that there are negative consequences would suffice, even if the party admitting was clearly conflicted and upset.

The problem is not that proponents of one course or another aren't embarrassed by the inevitable negative consquences. The problem is that they usually insist there are none at all.

We can get the negatives on the table and then worry about whether embarrassment or its absence will be useful.
Getting the negatives on the table will be hard enough.

From time to time, we do have negatives admitted, but the victims are smeared (affirmative action is opposed by those who enjoy "white privilege"). So the negatives are not all that negative. They might even be a form of justice.

As a variation of that, some courses oppose two groups. The higher minimum wage will cost entry-level minority young men some opportunity. On the other hand, since the bulk of minimum wage and near-minimum wage jobs are held by middle-class teens living with their families, this is a program to benefit the middle class at the expense of the lower class and minorities.
However, increasing the minimum wage appeals to those who will benefit, to those who love to do good with other people's money, and who all vote.
How to square this morally? Simply insist there are no negative consequences.
12.12.2006 12:16pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"They might further feel that it is also lazy, because the supposedly infallible cost-benefit analysis supporting the position exempts the speaker from complex moral inquiry. "

But the point is that the moral argument (e.g. its better for poor people) depends on the numerical analysis. So, its irrational to keep playing the moral card if the policy that you support won't bring about the desired moral end.

On the other hand, if the person arguing that this is not the end that will be brought about holds the same moral position (e.g. he also wants to help poor people) then there is no reason to convince him to increase his use of moral inquiry.

The problem that I have with people who use moral arguments is that often (not always) we already agree on the moral issues. If there is moral disagreement, then it is important to introduce a moral inquiry. However, if we both want to help poor people already, then the debate is only fruitful if we focus on the economic analysis.
12.12.2006 12:16pm
memphian (mail):
Aren't these sorts of issues exactly the reason to prefer a republic over a democracy?
12.12.2006 12:32pm
Taeyoung (mail):
For example, when you point to supporters of the minimum wage that it causes umemployment, they reply that the minimum wage is required for moral reasons (say, to avoid exploitation).
I happen to disagree with the argument that minimum wage is needed for "moral reasons," -- but is that really an unserious argument? It seems like a perfectly legitimate argument to me, and one that many people genuinely believe.

Similarly, someone who publicly defends protectionism often treats it as a moral matter: "we must save the jobs of our workers," thus concealing the fact that millions of consumers and poor foreign producers will be hurt.
Similarly, here, I don't see why this is not a perfectly legitimate argument, even if it happens to be one with which I disagree. Saying "we must save the jobs of our workers" is a natural thing to say -- they're our workers, after all, and foreign workers aren't. If we can redistribute wealth within our country by encouraging citizens to buy from other citzens (e.g. by jacking up the price of foreign goods with tariffs, etc.) there's a moral judgment involved (we may be poorer overall, but the wealth we have will probably be spread around more evenly), it's a judgment made up-front and openly, and it's a judgment that many people, in fact, make.

Frankly, under your "Display Test," I think that, while people (naturally) want to downplay the bad effects of policies they support. It happens on all sides -- for example, free trade/offshore outsourcing/gloablisation is not all fun and games for everyone, but globalisation advocates typically focus on the abstract benefit of greater aggregate wealth, rather than assuaging more concrete fears of dislocation -- "what happens to me when Indians will do my job cheaper than I can afford to given our higher cost of living?" Similarly, advocates of the two policies you pick out here would surely downplay the "bad" side effects of their policies, but, on balance, I think an awful lot of them would come out openly and acknowledge them.

Agreeing on the facts underlying the dispute, and on the models for predicting the likely effects of this or that policy would certainly be useful. But I am not convinced at all that it would actually help resolve many disputes -- there really are meaningful moral disagreements about, e.g. how important equality is to our society, how much of an obligation we have to the poor in our country vs. in the world as a whole, and all those other things. And I think most people understand, on some level, that you never get anything for free -- there's always a cost somewhere, whether it's in wrenching economic dislocation or more expensive vegetables and fast food.
12.12.2006 12:34pm
HBD:
"a position is genuinely moral when the speaker can accept, without embarrassment, its bad consequences."

I'm sorry, are you proposing a test whereby politicians can accept outcomes without embarrassment? Are these not the same politicians that you argue are fundamentally dishonest in their discourse? Given the folks who get into politics, wouldn't this exclude something on the order of no issues at all?

I'm very sympathetic to your broad thesis here, but I think you need a better test of which issues are genuinely moral vs. which are not.
12.12.2006 12:43pm
liberty (mail) (www):
I happen to disagree with the argument that minimum wage is needed for "moral reasons," -- but is that really an unserious argument?

The point is that they say "the minimum wage is important for moral reasons - we must help the poor"

You say "but it doesn't help the poor, it makes the poor unemployed"

They say "But it would be immoral to not pass a minimum wage - we have to help the poor!"

and so on.

This is obviously over-simplified, but the problem is that the moral argument only tells you what you want to achieve, not what is possible.
12.12.2006 12:48pm
byomtov (mail):
the bulk of minimum wage and near-minimum wage jobs are held by middle-class teens living with their families,

In fact, only about 26% of minimum wage workers are in the 16-19 age group, and presumably not all of those are middle-class and live with their parents.

See this site for details.

This seems to support Prof. Teson's claim in his first post that:

In public deliberation, people will say things that are traceable to truth-insensitive cognitive processes.
12.12.2006 12:50pm
markm (mail):
AK:

For something to be the most moral choice, it does not have to have zero negative consequences, nor must it not impose costs on others.

Agreed, but is it still the most moral choice when the negative consequences far outweigh the good? Or when the expected negative consequences fall most heavily on those the policy is alleged to help?

It seems to me that politicians on the right, left, and center all quite often holler about morality instead of considering the actual results of their policies, which are quite often quite the opposite of what's claimed. Some examples:

1. (From the center and darn near everyone else) The War on Some Drugs is ineffective. Advocates claim they are protecting addicts, and their families and neighborhoods. Throwing an addict in jail is no way to help him! Busting down their doors in the middle of the night certainly isn't good for the addict's family, and the neighbors are terrorized both by criminals seeking the high profits resulting from Prohibition II, and by the cops themselves.

2. (Left) Minimum wage

3. (Far right and far left) Protectionism

4. (Right) Policies that protect bad cops and slant trials against defendants.

5. (Religious Right, but only those that try to legislate morality rather than those that remember that God, not man, is supposed to punish victimless immorality.) Our current vice laws, and a whole lot of even worse ideas that fortunately they can't get passed!
12.12.2006 12:51pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"In fact, only about 26% of minimum wage workers are in the 16-19 age group, and presumably not all of those are middle-class and live with their parents. "

But 53.3% are below age 25. Also note that tips don't count (so waitresses from NY earning $200/night are included in these stats)

"About three-fifths of all workers paid at or below the Federal minimum wage were employed in this industry, primarily in the food services and drinking places component. For many of these workers, tips and commissions supplement the hourly wages received."

See also:
http://www.bls.gov/cps/minwage2005.htm
12.12.2006 1:33pm
great unknown (mail):
This discussion begs the question: how does one quantify consequences? This is relevant not only to the magnitude aspect (very, moderately, slightly...) but to the direction aspect (good, bad, indifferent).
In a relativistic discussion, one person's negative consequence is another person's freedom fighter.
Consider as a simple example James Taranto's "Roe Effect", wherein abortion reduces the population - and hence the voting power - of pro-abortion groups. Positive or negative?
12.12.2006 1:41pm
AK (mail):
markm

is it still the most moral choice when the negative consequences far outweigh the good?

The answer to that is pretty obviously "no." This is a vast oversimplification, but if you're a deontologist like yours truly, your moral inquiry has two basic steps:
(1) Ignoring the consequences, is the act intrinsically evil?
(2) Do the good consequences strongly outweigh any negative consequences?

If we're discussing trade policy or the minimum wage, what we're really pondering are wealth transfers. They might not look like it at first, but any economist will tell you that we're reallocating wealth in a way that the market would not. I don't think there's anything intrinsically evil about that, and it would take a pretty hardcore Randian or Libertard to disagree.

Next, of course, we have to deal with the consequences. I honestly don't know how good the empirical data is on exactly how much protectionism causes prices of consumer goods to increase. I don't know if anyone really knows how many jobs are protected or how much wealth is transferred per x% increase in tariffs. I think there's a lot of room for people of good faith to disagree.

From a purely selfish standpoint, I think free trade is great. I don't work in a sector that has foreign competition, and I want to pay as little as possible for my consumer goods. Then again, if we can keep unemployment low and improve the lot of the working poor, and it costs me pennies per day, I'm definity for it. The question is just one of cost.

And that brings me back to my initial point: a choice can be a moral one even if it has negative consequences. Everything has costs. We just have to keep them in check.
12.12.2006 1:57pm
JosephSlater (mail):
The effects of minimum wage laws on employment are very much in dispute among economists that study the matter. See the document here:
http://www.epi.org/minwage/epi_minimum_wage_2006.pdf

for the statement of 650 economists, including some Nobel prize winners, that claim that a modest increase in the minimum wage would have little or no adverse impact on employment but would have positive effects in a variety of ways.

I am not claiming that these folks are necessarily correct. And I do believe that facts are more important than passion in creating policy and in engaging in political debates. But the fact is -- as others have pointed out -- the minimum wage issue is a poor example of this broader point, because there are lots of facts, data, and smart people on both sides.
12.12.2006 1:58pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: liberty

The point is that they say "the minimum wage is important for moral reasons - we must help the poor"

You say "but it doesn't help the poor, it makes the poor unemployed"

They say "But it would be immoral to not pass a minimum wage - we have to help the poor!"

and so on.

This is obviously over-simplified, but the problem is that the moral argument only tells you what you want to achieve, not what is possible.
I think the problem here is that you're simplifying the argument beyond recognition -- even Prof. Teson fills in the content a little, by suggesting that concern about "exploitation" may underpin minimum wage laws. That is, there may be concern to ensure that people who actually end up employed in the labour market receive a "living wage" for their work, rather than ending up forced into an exploitative "race to the bottom," in order to attract work in, say, a cyclical or structural unemployment situation.

In addition, setting a flat wage-floor (unlike, say, the EITC, which targets low-wage earners' incomes somewhat more effectively) improves labour market participants' one-on-one bargaining positions, by providing a floor below which they cannot be negotiated (this is comparable with the contract of adhesion situation in contract law, although there, the contract is rescinded post hoc).

Lastly, many people also simply believe that, morally, there is an intrinsic value to labour, and that labour shouldn't be provided below that value -- i.e. that it is "exploitative" to use your superior bargaining position to get the counterparty to provide his labour at below that value. It's a moral judgment, of course, not an economic judgment, and it's one that many people hold to very strongly -- it's right there in peoples' intuitions of "that's not fair!"

On the flip side, I doubt that people who support the minimum wage are particularly bothered by the marginal increase in unemployment empirically associated with it -- they generally support unemployment benefits and welfare, anyhow, and empirically, the actual increase in unemployment (at least from incremental fiddling with the actual minimum wage) doesn't seem particularly large. It might be larger if we abolished the minimum wage entirely. This last bit is, of course, a numbers issue, like Prof. Teson suggests the entire issue is. But I think the numbers may actually give minimum wage supporters a fair bit of comfort.

There.

Someone who actually supports the minimum wage can take over here with actual arguments not concocted on the fly -- although I don't know how many of them read the Volokh Conspiracy.
12.12.2006 2:02pm
Parvenu:
I would perhaps propose this test:

A political issue or position is rooted in morality when the person or entity proposing it implicitly (or explicitly) believes that its benefits (though perhaps not its costs) must be at least in large part measured in intangible terms. This is, in my mind, at least a necessary condition for describing an issue as moral, though it's possible that I'm overlooking something that would keep it from being sufficient.

Thus, it is not irrational for people to espouse positions that militate against their own material self-interest if they believe that there are overriding imperatives that yield unquantifiable benefits, those attendant living in a "more perfect union." For example, while there is actually a strong utilitarian argument to be made for the proscription of theft, we nevertheless would not say "do not steal, because this reduces the wealth of all by undermining the value of property rights;" we say "do not steal, because it's wrong and we don't want people who do such things in our community."

An alternative rule, somewhat more syllogistic, might be to say that a moral proposition is one where there is only a single step between the motivating first principle and the policy prescription:

- Abortion is wrong.
- Thou shalt not perform abortions.

At some level, everyone has first principles, fundamental assumptions about the way the world works and about the nature of right and wrong. The more directly that a policy prescription flows from such an axiom, perhaps the more likely it is to be appropriately characterized as moral in nature.

(I completely came up with these on the spot, so I'm seriously just starting with my own solar system and trying to reason my way back to the Big Bang.)
12.12.2006 2:09pm
Rich B. (mail):
Shorter Teson:

"Conservatives frequently take moral positions. Liberals and populists only pretend to, and we have to call them on it."
12.12.2006 2:27pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Taeyoung,

What you say is very interesting however it doesn't contradict what I said. If indeed those people arguing morality were willing to discuss empirical evidence about whether the increase in unemployment is small, about the evidence of the unintended consequences of adding unemployment benefits and EITC into the mix, and so forth, then nobody would complain that they are basing their arguments on morality alone.

Simply arguing that its immoral not to increase the minimum wage - for whatever reason, exploitation or something else, is the problem.

If the argument is that A) low wages created in a free market exploit workers and B) the unintended consequences of a minimum wage law and the policies used to combat those unintended consequences are a small price to pay in order to end this exploitation (and evidence is presented and agreed upon), then this is perfectly rational. Assuming there is no evidence that a minimum wage law actually causes more low wage exploitation of the target group, then the argument is valid and supported.

However, if the argument is only part A) and the evidence about the effects of the policy are ignored, then that is where the complaint comes in.
12.12.2006 2:44pm
byomtov (mail):
But 53.3% are below age 25. Also note that tips don't count (so waitresses from NY earning $200/night are included in these stats)

Do 20-24 year-olds meet your definition of "middle-class teen-agers living at home?"

How many NYC waitresses and waiters are there distorting these figures? Well, about 12.3% of minimum wage workers are in the Middle Atlantic states. Suppose, absurdly, none are teenagers, and all make well over the minimum wage when tips are included. Then 16-19 year olds make up about 30% of the rest, up from 26%.

"Vast bulk?"
12.12.2006 2:45pm
abb3w:
I believe this, like almost any public deliberation in ethics and related areas, presumes too much on the essential nature of morality; that is, the nature of what is "right" and "wrong". I dismiss persistant anecdotal reports of definitions from a voice in the clouds as less than completely convincing. I thus will now make a public fool of myself by attempting to roughly frame that nature, guided by base scientific and mathematical principles. =)

To begin with, entropy is an observed fact. Given a sufficient timescale, it will win out. You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't quit the game. Some hypothetically might consider this "good", and seek to speed the process. I reject such an idea, and would encourage them to seek to immediately maximize their own personal entropy as quickly as possible; jumping into an open magma pool would probably be a good first pass. Alternately, some might seek to try and delay the process as much as possible as being "good". I will (less vigorously) reject this also, and suggest proponents go for a swim in liquid helium instead. While I admit absolute stasis and utter annihilation would potentially be foundations for alternative moralities, I (and most others) would reject them.

Instead, consider that there are local reversions in the current, caused by life and living organisms. From the standpoint of information theory, information (such as an encoding of DNA) increases the chance of the continuation of itself by making copies. In the event of the destruction of one, another copy survives. Let me suggest then that the basis of morality is the survival of information. "Good" increases the long-term probability of more information continuing into the future; "evil" reduces it. As a trivial example, consider "thou shalt not kill". Generally speaking, killing reduces a complex information construct (a human) to where it will lose most of the informatino content in short order. Thus, killing is generally bad.

Is killing always bad? Of course not. A trivial example would be a fortuitiously well-armed sharpshooter observing a known homicidal maniac escaped off of death row carrying his extensive acquisitions out of a gun shop into a large crowd. In this (hopefully) unlikely scenario, the sharpshooter killing the maniac would be the "right" thing. (Although I believe the law might disagree unless the sharpshooters' has an immediate family member in the crowd, I doubt a DA could find any jury that would.)

The problem here is that most rules of ethical conduct are simple finite approximations in a complex and infinite universe. I suspect (jumping over intermediate steps) that such rules constitute Approximation Algorithms to ethical questions. (I note in passing on one of the original questions posed above that because of the thermodynamic considerations earlier, every alternative has drawbacks, howsoever minor. If I eat bread to live, a wheat plant will die.) While better answers may exist, the "cost" of finding them (or in some cases even demonstrating computationally that they are better) is larger than the cost of using an approximation. This imperfection is more widely true of any human conceptualization of the universe; the map is not the territory... but it may be good enough to point you to where you want to be going.

Such ethical algorithms are themselves information, carried as gene-encoded instinct (as demonstrated by most species preference under normal conditions for any ready food source alternative to cannibalism) and learned behavior. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawking coined the term "meme", analagous to "gene", to describe (in Wikipedia's words) "a unit of cultural information transferable from one mind to another". Memes, like genes, can reproduce, change, and increase or decrease survival probabilities of carriers. They are thus subjected to evolutionary pressures.

It may be worth noting that a meme need not be "true" to spread. If it is easily spread, and provides more survival benefit than harm, then it will be carried on. EG: "If you eat other people, invisible sky-wizard torture you forever after you die" may not be accurate, but probably reduces the chance of Thog knocking off Grud's kids for extra rations, and vice versa... generally increasing the chances of their genes continuing. What we call "rights" such as of freedom of speech (facilitating the spread of good ideas, and allowing for testing their merit against other ideas in debate), of freedom of religion (which in the US seems to have reduced the expenditure wasted on inconclusive religious warfare), and of property (left as an exercise for the argumentative), are memes which seem to have tested as beneficial in the social ecology.

Evolution is not as simple as the predator-prey relationship "social darwinists" have portrayed. There are nuances of parasitism, symbiosis, and other less direct relationships possible. Larry Niven mentioned in one of his short stories ("Fly By Night", Man-Kzin Wars IX) that his alien Kzinti refer to evolution as "The Longest War". I find this particularly apt; sheer overwhelming brute force may not be enough to win. The nuances of alliance, deceptive tactics, feint and counterfeint, and the ambiguous distinction between war and politics provide parallels to the subtle evolutionary possibilities that close observation of nature hints at.

Thus, in brief: "good" memes are those which increase the probabilities of their own very long-term survival... which is dependent on survival of a society to carry them, and in turn the survival of humans (or other intelligences?) to carry the society.

In conclusion, to tie this back to public deliberation of policy: if you can't convince the peasant mob somehow that the decisions are made for their overall benefit instead of some ruling class, they're much more likely to riot in the streets... which isn't good for long-term survival of the carrier society. Transparent and public deliberation is an easy way to help that. However, like any finite ethical strategy, it may not be the best approach in all cases.

(If anyone feels inclined to call me a horse's ass at more length than possible without utterly hijacking the Volokh blog, feel free to comment at length on my Livejournal, where I've copied these remarks.)
12.12.2006 2:48pm
liberty (mail) (www):
The reason - if it isn't obvious - is that there is a moral argument to be made that ending exploitation by introducing a policy that, for example, starves the people in question is wrong.

You cannot just say that "X is wrong and so its moral to end X by passing a law or introducing a policy that aims to end it."

You must also show that A) passing the law or introducing the policy will indeed end it (see most poverty programs ever introduced: they tended to increase poverty not decrease it) and B) the law or policy won't hurt those very same people more than it helps them in any other way.

So, those using a moral argument must still show that the policies they support achieve the intended ends and don't create some other moral wrong in the process.
12.12.2006 2:48pm
Jake (Guest):

But the point is that the moral argument (e.g. its better for poor people) depends on the numerical analysis. So, its irrational to keep playing the moral card if the policy that you support won't bring about the desired moral end.

When you are considering a policy, there are (I think) two different things to consider:

1. What will the policy do?
2. Is what the policy does a good thing?

The claim that moral arguments always depend primarily on results assumes that everybody will apply the same test in step 2. This is a huge stolen base in Teson's argument, as he seems to imply that everybody will apply a Kaldor-Hicks efficiency test to step 2, when that just isn't the case (some commenters look to take a similar step when they simplify the results of step 1 to simply encompass binary good/bad results ["help the poor"/"hurt the poor"] instead of describing the results precisely "raise unemployment somewhat but also raise wages somewhat among those who are employed").

Obviously the results of a policy will feed into your moral judgment, but just as obviously the moral test that you apply can vary considerably from a purely economic worldview without being irrational.
12.12.2006 2:56pm
liberty (mail) (www):
How many NYC waitresses and waiters are there distorting these figures?

According to the BLS there are about 100,000 bartenders/waiters/waitresses/barstaff in the NY metropolitan area. That is over 5% of the under 2 million Americans earning minimum wage or less. Once you add in waitressess and bartenders for L.A., Chicago, Reno, Las Vegas, and whatever other cities tend to have decent tips earned at restaurants and bars, I'd guess that its not totally insignifant.
12.12.2006 3:00pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Obviously the results of a policy will feed into your moral judgment

If only they did! That's the point. If people using a moral argument would say "I recognize that the minimum wage, according to the data you are showing me, is going to increase unemployment - that it will cost the jobs of some of the workers that I am aiming to help - yet I still think that it is moral to pass the law because it means evil nasty businessmen can't exploit the workers." then I would say: okay, they are being rational. I may disagree but they are looking at the data and making a judgement.

However, they tend to ignore the data instead and stick only to making their moral point.
12.12.2006 3:04pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
byomotov.

You're right, but not for the right reasons.

Many of what are called, generically, "minimum wage jobs" pay more than minimum wage. So a nineteen year old, living at home in the summer and at college during the rest of the year works at some job which LOOKS like a minimum wage job but makes, say $7/hr contradicts my statement.

I live in one of the three states which had a horrid economic 2005. Two were hit by hurricanes and one is Michigan. Even part-time hamburgerflippers are getting more than minimum wage and gas station/convenience stores are taking applications and talking about benefits and 401k.
But they're not paying minimum wage, so I guess you're right.
12.12.2006 3:33pm
byomtov (mail):
According to the BLS there are about 100,000 bartenders/waiters/waitresses/barstaff in the NY metropolitan area. That is over 5% of the under 2 million Americans earning minimum wage or less. Once you add in waitressess and bartenders for L.A., Chicago, Reno, Las Vegas, and whatever other cities tend to have decent tips earned at restaurants and bars, I'd guess that its not totally insignifant.

No. Not insignificant. But the calculation I did above assumed that the total number of reported minimum wage workers was high by 232,000, and that none of these were teenagers. I suspect that covers the workers you refer to, especially since not all are minimum wage earners.
12.12.2006 3:44pm
byomtov (mail):
Richard Aubrey,

I don't understand your point. Are you saying that there are many "near-minimum" jobs that you were referring to? But then why assume that the holders of those jobs have a higher percentage of teenagers than actual minimum wage jobs.

I don't want to turn this into a discussion of minimum wage statistics. I just wanted to point out that your belief, even though held in good faith, was significantly inaccurate, yet affected your view of the debate.
12.12.2006 3:52pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
byomtov

The minimum wage job and near-minimum wage issue presumes--planted axiom--that the earners are trying to support a family of twelve or something like that.
The reality is that very few are anything but part-time workers. That includes near-minimum wage workers.
Before things got as bad as they are in my state, Burger King had posters on phone poles offering $8+/hr. In other words, you had to be pretty slick to get a job paying minimum wage. If you weren't careful, you'd be earning half again minimum wage. It took some planning.

The crummy job, entry-level job, unskilled job frequently pays considerably more than minimum wage and so does not, precisely, figure into this discussion.
It does, however, bring up the point of why anybody is earning minimum wage. One can speculate about that question and the various conclusions drawn--it's in an area so bad that only the chanciest folks are available to work, for example--lead one to further conclude that a raise in minimum wage means the job goes away.
We had a situation requring Merry Maids to make several visits. Amazing. If they keep half the charge, they make a pretty good wage. And they just clean house. Better than me, of course, but, jeez.
I'd be interested in whether somebody making minimum wage while in college away from home counts as "living with parents" or not. Presuming those folks are making minimum wage, it would be silly to count them as not living with parents, and the extended adolescence that college imposes means that, even if they're twenty-one, they are, for practical purposes, teenagers.
My son made minimum wage working in a sorority house, for which most guys would pay, and as a bouncer in a bar. In the first case, he could eat free, and in the second, he did well with tips from waitresses who enjoyed not being hassled by the customers.
So, questions:
Was he a teenager? Yes, for practical purposes although it would not show in the BLS stats. He was dependent on his parents.
Was he living with us? Several months a year, actually, and the rest of the year he was living on us. Normal, but probably not showing as living with his parents.
Was he making minimum wage? Statistically, yes, but the value of his free meals at the KAT house was substantial because the campus meal ticket cost...I forget, but it was pretty stiff, and he didn't have to buy groceries.
At the bar? Yes, according to tax returns, but I believe the tips were unreported.
With the exception of the glamor of his jobs, his situation was normal for most kids who have "gone away" to college.
In the summers, he worked at a country club where he made minimum wage and so much in tips that when I made deposits for him in the ATM, I had to use two deposit envelopes to avoid jamming the machine.
I draw from this example--and a good many others I know of--that the minimum wage figures do not represent reality.
The $8/hr Arby worker probably won't be affected by the minimum wage increase, except that her buying power in places employing real minimum wage people will drop slightly.
So perhaps I'm wrong. A minimum wage increase won't affect most part-time, entry-level, unskilled, burgerflipper folks. It will just hurt the minority entry-level people.
Great.
No positive outcome at all. All negative.

But at least some of us feel virtuous.

IMO, if there are really minimum-wage jobs where the minimum wage is all there is--not a probationary wage for two months or something--then we would be better off targeting the individuals working those jobs for individual improvement.

At one point, my son worked for a moving company as a driver, $9/hr plus @15 hrs at $13.50 overtime per week. The assistants, and any loser could get that job, started at $8/hr.

It would be better to get minimum wage people into better jobs.

Keeping in mind the depressing reality that some people are, for various reasons, not capable of work more valuable than the current minimum wage and who will be unemployed when it goes up.

Sorry to be so prolix, but the point is that stats obscure reality in some cases, minimum wage issue being one of them.
12.12.2006 4:36pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Jake wrote: Perhaps others think that attempting to decide all questions of public policy with economic arguments should be called The Numbers Turn, and is a major form of discourse failure. They might further feel that it is also lazy, because the supposedly infallible cost-benefit analysis supporting the position exempts the speaker from complex moral inquiry.

No. Before you can even start talking about whether raising the minimum wage is moral or immoral, you have to have some idea of what will happen if you raise the minimum wage!

Complex moral inquiry still takes place. In fact, better moral inquiry takes place—because you can't have a real inquiry if you don't know what the hell you're talking about, and to know that, you have to look to economics.

Your comments have perfectly illustrated exactly why Teson is correct: you want to avoid any discussion of what will actually happen, and simply substitute moral pomposity.

Labeling arguments that start from different premises than you do as irrational is (like sarcasm) not persuasive.

It's true he's starting from the position that your way of thinking is wrong. That's his entire point. If you aren't convinced, oh well . . . but he isn't losing out on convincing you of anything else by taking that stance.
12.12.2006 5:28pm
Ragerz (mail):
Mr. Teson's idea that most disagreement are empirical and not moral is obviously wrong.

First of all, it is completely binary. Either a disagreement is moral or empirical. But, obviously, many disagreements are both moral and empirical. Mr. Teson writes: "Most (but not all) social disagreements are empirical, not moral." Apparently, Mr. Teson has a very impoverished and narrow definition of moral. How else would he be able to eliminate morality from the majority of social disagreement? Second, this clearly illustrates the simplistic binary nature of Mr. Teson's thinking. Social disagreements are empirical, not moral. If empirical is 1, then moral must be 0. If empirical is 0, moral must be 1. Usually, but not always, binary thinking is bad thinking. I am sorry, but you don't really have a right to challenge a genius like John Rawls with this sort of thinking.

Generally speaking, we obviously face tradeoffs when making different social decisions. To understand better what those tradeoffs are is often an empirical question. To understand the significance and relative importance of those tradeoffs is always a moral question. Thus, perhaps higher safty standards in the construction of highways save the lives of construction workers, but at the same time increase the cost of building roads. The question of how much such safety measures are going to cost is an empirical question. The question of whether and how we should compare that increased cost to saved lives is a moral question. Is it morally permissable to assign a monetary value to the life a construction worker? That is surely a moral question.

Minimum wage is obviously a moral issue as well. First, one should ask whether it is appropriate for the government to abrogate freedom of contract and prevent two individuals from forming a contract based on any terms available. Second, one should ask whether one should allow a more powerful individual, the employer, to exploit a less powerful individual, the employee by using the competition among poorly situated individuals to drive wages down to mere subsistence levels.

The view that work must be rewarded BY the particular organization benefitting from the work (its a moral responsibility of the employer, not the government via EITC) beyond minimal barely-subsistence levels is a moral view. How we should evaluate any increases in employment is also a moral view. It should be noted, that nothing "objective" or "empirical" can tell us how to compare increases in unemployment among certain individuals with the paying of decent wages to others. One must obviously know what the alternatives facing those unemployed. As advocates of low-miniumum wage love to remind us, many of those who receive such wages are teenagers who may come from households that are not poor. Perhaps such teenagers will feel the unemployment effects of a minimum wage disproportionately. A moral question arises. Should we consider unemployment among teenagers from affluent households as a cost? Maybe we think these students should be spending more time on their studies, instead of working anyway. The decision of whether to include this unemployment in our calculus, and what weight to give it are fundamentally moral questions. There, are in fact, many more moral questions regarding the comparison of unemployment and decent wages that one could think of.

So, surely we cannot deny that identifying the indirect affects of a minimum wage is an empirical question (where the direct effect of higher wages for minimum wage workers is obvious). But, simply identifying affects is not enough to make a decision. After identifying affects of alternative decisions, one must then compare these affects. What affects we decide should count on each side of ledger and what weight we give to them each is fundamentally a moral question.

If you say that a workers life is worth only 1.2 million dollars, that is a moral judgment. It is not normatively neutral. It presupposes that attachment of a monetary value to life is appropriate. (Which is a morally repugnant view). And then it supposes that 1.2 million is an appropriate number, instead of say 5 billion or 7 trillion or whatever. Clearly, your 1.2 million figure will be based on morally contestable assumptions concerning how we should calculate the value of human life.

Overall, Mr. Teson's attempt to bring down John Rawls is nothing more than hubris based on binary thinking. My response conclusively establishes that one can use empirical analysis to say what effects might occur, but that to evaluate and compare those effects, we must resort to moral reasoning.
12.12.2006 5:48pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I see few political questions which have any moral aspect at all. The differences in political questions are in the implementation of means to attain a commonly accepted moral objective.

Three people agree health care is good. One person wants to provide it via taxes and government targeted transfer payments. Another wants to allow the free market to have a free hand in insurance. Another wants health care to be provided by employers. Where is the moral question here? Everyone is trying to accomplish the same moral good: health care. They simply differ on the best means.

Now, if someone thought people should be kept from health care, we might have a moral qustion.

Each proponent will attempt to paint his own solution to the problem as the moral solution, while decrying the other suggested solutions as immoral.

It's simple. When cogent argument and unbiased analysis fail to support a position, or when we simply don't know, just play king of the moral hill. When's the last time we heard someone say, "I don't know?"
12.12.2006 5:52pm
Elliot Reed:
Elliot123 - nice name. But the people in question probably differ on the definition of the end and also on how the in question should be traded off against other ends. For example, a common argument against Clinton's single-payer plan was that it would create long lines for care. Liberals and conservatives might disagree regarding whether long lines are an acceptable price to pay to ensure that nobody is deprived of care they "need" because of inability to pay. Alternatively, people almost certainly disagree about cost - at what point should we simply fail to implement a health care program because it costs too much? It is hard to see these as issues with no moral component.
12.12.2006 6:13pm
Jake (Guest):
Deryl,

Your comments have perfectly illustrated exactly why Teson is correct: you want to avoid any discussion of what will actually happen, and simply substitute moral pomposity.

I enjoy participating in the comments section of this blog because of the relatively level-headed way people discuss (some) philisophical and legal issues. Do we have different moral values, or do we simply have differing empirical views?

Setting aside questions of tone, let's examine your proposed analytical process:

Before you can even start talking about whether raising the minimum wage is moral or immoral, you have to have some idea of what will happen if you raise the minimum wage!

And after you have some idea of what will happen if you raise the minimum wage, what then? Is it your contention, along with Teson, that once people agree on what will happen, they will agree about what should happen? That strikes me as a rather ambitious notion.
12.12.2006 6:44pm
Elliot Reed:
Jake responding to Deryl:
And after you have some idea of what will happen if you raise the minimum wage, what then? Is it your contention, along with Teson, that once people agree on what will happen, they will agree about what should happen?
I'd add that an investigation of what will happen is likely to be informed by a sense of what's morally relevant. For example, if you believe in a strong notion of racial equality of outcome, you'll want to know the impact of the minimum wage on people of different races before deciding what to do. People who are strongly committed to colorblindness wouldn't even investigate that issue.
12.12.2006 7:01pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Re: Minimum Wage-

This is off-topic in that it is focusing on the example of minimum wage rather than the principle of moral deliberations, but:

One thing that often isn't mentioned is the cheating on minimum wage. Since there is an "off the books" labor market as well, this gray or black market plays a part in the minimum wage debate as well, but I rarely see it mentioned. Possibly because it adds a lot of complexity to the argument. But if there is such widespread cheating why have a minimum wage to begin with?

And what's strange is that a lot of the "off the books" wages are set above minimum wage. I guess a lot of this is to avoid paperwork, taxes, contributions to worker compensation funds, etc. But the debate is strange in that I rarely see this mentioned. Anyone have any links on how this relates to the minimum wage debate?

What's interesting is this is exactly how Austrian economics predicts markets will react to price and wage controls - cheating and black/gray markets. And why socialism basically requires totalitarianism to stamp them out.
12.12.2006 7:10pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Ragerz-

Second, one should ask whether one should allow a more powerful individual, the employer, to exploit a less powerful individual, the employee by using the competition among poorly situated individuals to drive wages down to mere subsistence levels.

If there is a free market for labor this will not occur. Other employers will offer more, leaving the employer to raise wages to a competitive rate or close the business. Or, if there is a significant gray market he will employ gray market workers.

One must obviously know what the alternatives facing those unemployed. As advocates of low-miniumum wage love to remind us, many of those who receive such wages are teenagers who may come from households that are not poor. Perhaps such teenagers will feel the unemployment effects of a minimum wage disproportionately. A moral question arises. Should we consider unemployment among teenagers from affluent households as a cost?

How are you going to differentiate teenagers from the affluent families from teenagers from the disadvantaged families? Are you going to require tax returns from the teenager's parents with the application? What about affluent areas - are you going to require that minimum wage workers be bussed in?

You may have some points about there being a moral component to policy decisions, but you admit that often a party to the argument needs to understand the empirical reasoning to get to the moral reasoning. I think in a number of situations parties to the argument either do not understand the empirical arguments or they want to use moral arguments to overcome them, which is appropriate in some instances (slavery, theft, etc.), but inappropriate in other instances (communism, collectivism, etc.). Which is where the libertarian focus on individual and property rights is often very instructive.
12.12.2006 7:32pm
Aleks:
Re; For example, a common argument against Clinton's single-payer plan was that it would create long lines for care.

At no time did the Clinton administration propose a single payor health plan. The Clinton healthplan would have relied on a relatively small number of purchasing cooperatives which would be heavily regulated but not actually run by the government, a situation roughly similar to electrical utilities.
12.12.2006 7:36pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Oops, error in my post just above. One could argue that communism and collectivism are always wrong in the long run empirically. But I suppose in some cases they might appear to work in very short time frames empirically. Or more accurately, may work for certain parties in short time frames empirically.
12.12.2006 7:37pm
ReaderY:

This view is also wrong, I believe, and we devote a chapter in the book to show why. Most (but not all) social disagreements are empirical, not moral. In fact, a major form of discourse failure is the attempt to overmoralize politics. Many people, especially politicians, try to take the high moral ground in order to conceal the fact that their proposal is counterproductive.


In other words, you acknowledge that many people disagree with you -- you believe that social issues should be decided on "empirical" grounds while others believe they should be decided on moral grounds -- but you take the view that those who disagree with you shouldn't count for anything, so the only views that count are yours. Henced most diaagrrement are about your issues, not the issues of those who disagree with you;.

If people who disagree with you can be treated as if they simply don't exist, things become much simpler. Monologue requires so much less thought than dialogue.

Socrates
12.12.2006 8:26pm
Lev:

Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to say "that's just not right", even if you can't yet articulate quite why.


Mamie, in Gone With the Wind:


It ain't fitten. It just ain't fitten.
12.12.2006 11:22pm
Lev:

When you are considering a policy, there are (I think) two different things to consider:

1. What will the policy do?
2. Is what the policy does a good thing?


What about the bad things the policy will do? Don't they matter?

-------------------------------


At no time did the Clinton administration propose a single payor health plan. The Clinton healthplan would have relied on a relatively small number of purchasing cooperatives which would be heavily regulated but not actually run by the government, a situation roughly similar to electrical utilities.


Hideously oversimplified. What about, for example, the national healthcare budget.
12.12.2006 11:35pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
"But if there is such widespread cheating why have a minimum wage to begin with?"

Alternatively, why not prosecute the cheating and encourage people to obey the law by paying taxes on a fair wage?


"And what's strange is that a lot of the 'off the books' wages are set above minimum wage."

What does this tell us about the current minimum wage?
12.13.2006 9:50am
Ken Arromdee:
If there is a free market for labor this will not occur. Other employers will offer more, leaving the employer to raise wages to a competitive rate or close the business. Or, if there is a significant gray market he will employ gray market workers.

But there's rarely a perfect free market for anything.

It's true that if one company offers $3 an hour another company can offer $5. On the other hand, the switching cost may be prohibitive; a poor person may not be able to move to the place offering $5 per hour.

In a perfect libertarian society, the poor person should be able to take out a "moving loan" which lets him move and use the extra income after the move to pay the loan back, but there are all sorts of reasons why this might not happen--banks get to cherry-pick which customers they loan to and poor people needing to move are far down the line, poor people who get a loan and don't intend to default must still pay for the higher default rate of other poor people, poor people who take out such loans would be assuming high levels of risk since the $5 company could go out of business tomorrow, the cost of moving is more than just the cost of paying the mover, etc.

(And then if the poor person is worried about assuming risk, he can take out "failed company move insurance" that pays back his loan if the company goes out of business. Of course, since insurance includes profit for the insurer, the poor person comes out (on the average) at more of a disadvantage by doing so even though it does prevent risk.)
12.13.2006 9:50am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Grover-

Alternatively, why not prosecute the cheating and encourage people to obey the law by paying taxes on a fair wage?

Well here we run into the principle that socialism basically requires totalitarianism, because the effort to make sure there is no cheating on wage and price controls generally requires the establishment of a police state - draconian laws and penalties, a network of informants and spies, large amounts of manpower, etc.

What does this tell us about the current minimum wage?

Basically, what I've commented on before - the current minimum wage is basically below the market-clearing rate, so the only benefit to raising it is political. To appear to help the poor while you're actually hurting them.
12.13.2006 10:10am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Ken-

It's true that if one company offers $3 an hour another company can offer $5. On the other hand, the switching cost may be prohibitive; a poor person may not be able to move to the place offering $5 per hour.

Your example assumes a lot of things to hold, some of which are possible, but a little bit of a stretch. There's the possibility that if the labor market were tight enough the other employers would offer relocation expenses as inducements. The person in question could work overtime or a second job to afford the expenses. The person could borrow from friends or relatives, or stay with friends or relatives in a higher wage area, etc.

But the scenario you mentioned could be possible in a rural area. But as I mentioned there are alternatives that would allow a determined individual to take part in the competitive labor market.
12.13.2006 10:26am
Grover Gardner (mail):
"Well here we run into the principle that socialism basically requires totalitarianism, because the effort to make sure there is no cheating on wage and price controls generally requires the establishment of a police state..."

Goodness, that's rather extreme, isn't it? Isn't there an enormous amount of concern about illegal immigrant employment these days? Is that a "totalitarian" concern? Shouldn't employers be encouraged to obey the law and hire people legally? And if they're currently paying illegal employees *more* than the minimum wage, what's wrong with hiring people who work *for* the minimum wage and making sure those people pay their taxes and receive the benfits they're entitled to?

"...the current minimum wage is basically below the market-clearing rate, so the only benefit to raising it is political. To appear to help the poor while you're actually hurting them."

But if the minimum wage is below the market-clearing rate, as you assert, then would it be out of line to assume that it performs some function in *establishing* the market-clearing rate? In other words, if there were no minimum wage, how would I know I was getting for *more* than the minimum wage?

And if that is the case, how does the minimum wage hurt poor people?

In other words, you seem to be contradicting yourself. If we say that a minimum wage is useless because everyone demands more than the minimum wage, then it isn't exactly "useless"--it helps people make more money!
12.13.2006 4:25pm
Aleks:
Re: Hideously oversimplified.

Any blog comment sized description of the Rube Goldberg contraption that was the Clinton healthcare plan is going to be hideously oversimplified. However, describing that plan as single payor is completely erroneous. Indeed, the serious Left at the time was quite upset that Hillary did not go with single payor.
12.13.2006 5:52pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
And after you have some idea of what will happen if you raise the minimum wage, what then? Is it your contention, along with Teson, that once people agree on what will happen, they will agree about what should happen? That strikes me as a rather ambitious notion.

I can't speak for Mr. Teson, but I don't think people have to agree on anything. It's nice when they can at least agree which factual issues are relevant, and debate them in a non-ideological manner.

So if I say, "raising the minimum wage will destroy entry level jobs," you would then say "hmmm, let's look into that."

Maybe we would eventually agree on whether entry-level jobs would be affected, or how many, maybe not—but it takes a lot of the ideological sting out of the issue, and makes it about facts.

Instead of "you [expletive], you hate poor people, why else would you bring up the issue of entry-level jobs!?" (which is basically what passes for debate in a lot of places), both sides would have to debate the facts or they would fail this Display Test. Kind of like Godwin's Law—there's no Godwin's Police to arrest violators, but for people who want a rational debate, having a more objective standard as to who is being rational is a good thing.

I am sorry if I misjudged your comments.
12.15.2006 5:38pm