Some ingenious “kurieren an Symptomen”:
Some would argue that the same amount of ingenuity and funding could have been directed towards help for the homelessness rather than help for those annoyed by the homeless. Apparently, the latter are not entirely satisfied with the solution, since sitting on these benches is said to be just as uncomfortable as sleeping on them.
Globalization is the usual suspect when people discuss the causes of contemporary increases in income inequality in many Western nations. As a result of easier transportation, trade and communication, low skilled workers in those nations now face ever tougher competition from cheap workers in developing countries, and this competition drives down wages at the poor end of Western income distributions: workers have to swallow wage reductions under the threat of outsourcing. Increased immigration – another facet of globalization – has the same effect.
At the top end of the income distribution, the reverse is happening: the job of a CEO is now more complicated in our globalized world, and hence his pay is higher. The threat of relocation also has an effect on income inequality through the channel of the welfare state: companies threaten to relocate, not just because of labor costs, but also because of tax rates. Taxes in Western countries tend to be relatively high because social security tends to be relatively generous. The threat of relocation convinces governments to reduce tax rates, but the price to pay is often a less generous welfare state. This as well puts pressure on the income distribution.
All this sounds convincing, but I’m afraid it’s too simple. The effects of globalization on inequality starts to look more complicated when we take consumption into account. Globalization tends to lower the consumption prizes of a lot of goods, and cheaper consumption can counteract downward pressures on wages and social security. If you can buy more and better stuff with your paycheck, your unemployment benefit or your disability check, then perhaos you’re not worse off.
There’s an interesting paper here by Broda and Romalis in which they look at
the compositional differences in the basket of goods consumed by the poor and the rich in America. Using household data on non-durable consumption between 1994 and 2005 we document that much of the rise of income inequality has been offset by a relative decline in the price index of the poor. By relaxing the standard assumptions underlying the representative agent framework we find that inflation for households in the lowest tenth percentile of income has been 6 percentage points smaller than inflation for the upper tenth percentile over this period. The lower inflation at low income levels can be explained by three factors: 1) The poor consume a higher share of non-durable goods —whose prices have fallen relative to services over this period; 2) the prices of the set of non-durable goods consumed by the poor has fallen relative to that of the rich; and 3) a higher proportion of the new goods are purchased by the poor. We examine the role played by Chinese exports in explaining the lower inflation of the poor. Since Chinese exports are concentrated in low-quality non-durable products that are heavily purchased by poorer Americans, we find that about one third of the relative price drops faced by the poor are associated with rising Chinese imports.
When measuring income inequality, we should correct for the different prices of goods and services consumed by people in different income groups. This doesn’t mean that we should be happy about the fact that poor people live on cheap stuff; it simply means that some of the rising income inequality is compensated by cheaper stuff. And we have cheaper stuff because of globalization. Turning globalization into some sort of bogey man is therefore rather too simple. Income inequality has many causes, and it’s not clear that globalization is, everything considered, an important one.
Finally, a word about the supposed wage pressures of increased immigration: they are indeed no more than supposed.
The theory of path dependence refers to the way in which our current sets of possible decisions are limited by the decisions we have made in the past. The classic example is the QWERTY layout of typewriters and computer keyboards. QWERTY was originally designed to avoid the “hammers” of typewriters interlocking when people type very fast. There’s no reason why computers should still use QWERTY keyboards rather than other layouts that permit easier and more ergonomic typing with less finger movement and less long term health effects, and yet they do. When typewriter users started to get used to QWERTY, switching costs and the cost of learning other systems went up. Consequently, the keyboard became more common, and the more common it became the more useful it became to learn to use it. When more people learned and used it, it became more profitable to sell this keyboard instead of competitors. Office managers worked with people trained in QWERTY and were therefore encouraged to buy QWERTY machines. And so on.
What does this have to do with human rights? Well, it seems to be the case that path dependence is the cause of a number of human rights violations. In an older post, I mentioned a study arguing that present-day poverty can be explained in part by the lingering effects of the slave trade (slavery fostered ethnic fractionalization in Africa and undermined the development of effective government institutions).
Acemoglu and Robinson make a similar claim about colonialism:
[T]he organization of colonial states, though it typically built on absolutist structures, often intensified these structures. … [T]he “Gate-Keeper” state … was designed for extraction and order but not for development or the provision of public goods. All of these ideas rest on some form of path dependence linking the institutional and political strategies of colonialism with those of post-colonial states. Second, the arbitrary way in which the European colonial powers put together very different ethnic groups into the same polities created countries which would be difficult to govern and very conflict prone after independence. Colonialism itself probably intensified notions of ethnicity and made them more rigid. (source)
The path dependence in this case is evident from the reluctance of post-colonial rulers to modify colonial borders even when those borders defy ethnic realities. It’s also evident from the way in which an authoritarian style of government was maintained after independence.
In fact, once you start thinking about it, you see path dependence everywhere. Take for example my native country, Belgium. It’s hardly the worst place in the world for human rights, but it is systematically governed in a bad way, making a mockery of political rights. Demographic minorities and minority interest groups weigh heavily on policies and legislation. The levels of taxation are much higher than justifiable, with negative effects on property rights and incentives. Linguistic minorities are not oppressed but they are often harassed. And I could go on. Add to that the dismal climate and the general ugliness of the country, and you can be forgiven for asking why people still live there. After all, within the European Union, it’s very easy to move to a nicer country. The answer, of course, is path dependence: people know the language, and switching to another language is difficult for many; people’s ancestors are buried there; they have friends and family, and often a good job. That’s alright as far as it goes, but we need to be more vigilant in those areas where path dependence causes significant harm. Of course, the word “dependence” means that it’s often difficult to do something about this harm. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible.
More posts in this series are here.
Here are the Google search volumes for a set of 4 terms (via Google Insights):
This speaks volumes about the things people care about, and don’t care about. A couple of caveats, however:
- While it’s true that a large number of searches for a term is a strong indication of public interest in a topic, the opposite is not necessarily true. You can care a lot about poverty or human rights without feeling the need to search the web and expand your knowledge on the topic. Instead you can help one day a week in a soup kitchen and never google the topic, and this probably shows that you care more about the poor than someone who’s writing his PhD about poverty and googles it daily.
- Second, while a search for terms like “Kim Kardashian” or “Justin Bieber” makes sense and provides immediately useable results, a search for terms like “poverty” and “human rights” does not. People searching the web in order to learn about those topics will probably do other, more complex searches, such as “poverty in the US“, “human rights violations in China” etc. However, I did compare searches for “Kim Kardashian”, “Justin Bieber”, “poverty in” and “human rights violations in” as well as a number of other variations, and the results are always the same (try it yourself).
More in the annals of heartlessness here.
Ikenna, a 28-year old construction worker, went to deposit a $8,463.21 Chase cashier’s check at his local Chase branch, only for the teller to decide that neither he nor his check looked right and he got tossed in jail for forgery … The next day, a Friday, the bank realized its mistake and left a message with the detective. But it was her day off, so he spent the entire weekend in jail.
By the time he got out, he had been fired from his job for not showing up to work. His car had been towed as well. It ended up getting sold off at auction because he couldn’t afford to get it out of the pound. He had been relying on that cashier’s check for his money but it was taken as evidence and by the time he got it back it was auctioned off.
All this while the cashier’s check had been issued by the very bank he was trying to cash it at. …
[M]iddle-class people enjoy all sorts of protections against misfortune. For poor people, a single thing going wrong can lead to a life-altering spiral — they lack the social and financial resources to overcome one problem, so a flat tire become a late day at work which becomes a lost job, an overcharge fee busts a checking account, which in turn becomes a ruined credit rating. (source, source, source)
Note that Ikenna is black, which was probably not completely irrelevant when his trustworthiness was questioned.
People who have enjoyed a relatively high level of education tend to have higher wages. They are more likely to be employed. And their marketable skills give them a competitive advantage. It would seem to follow from this that countries with low percentages of the population having completed some specified level of education (say secondary education) should also be countries that have relatively high levels of income inequality. However, that’s not really the case:
(source, the correlation is obviously weak if it’s there at all)
It’s also true that educational attainment levels have risen in countries where income inequality has risen. All this would suggest that it’s not insufficient education that causes income inequality and that it’s futile to try to reduce income inequality by way of broadening the levels of education in a country.
However, that statement may go a bit too far. Education probably helps, but its effects are swamped by the effects of other factors that go the other way and aggravate income inequality. For instance, wage premiums aren’t the simple product of one’s education level. The type of education also matters (engineers will probably always earn more than philosophers), as do some noncognitive traits that are fostered by education but that are also more difficult if not impossible to equalize through education (such as discipline and intelligence). Add to this all the other elements that determine the levels of income in a society – the nature of one’s parents, peers and neighborhood, the social selection of desirable skills, international wage competition, regulation, corporate governance, taxation etc. – and it becomes clear that education alone can’t possibly produce a lot more income equality.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t help or that it shouldn’t be promoted for other reasons. Education is a good in itself, regardless of its effects on inequality. Furthermore, education promotes social mobility (the correlation between parents’ earnings and children’s earnings):
(source, a much stronger correlation, especially without the US)
More posts in this series are here.
- The Causes of Wealth Inequality (13): Deliberate Policy? (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
- The Causes of Wealth Inequality (14): Wage Stagnation at the Bottom of the Income Distribution (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
- The Causes of Wealth Inequality (15): Slavery (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
- Would income inequality result in higher mortality rates for the poor? (ekonometrics.blogspot.com)
If people tend to live, work, eat or go to school together with other members of their group – race, gender etc. – then we shouldn’t automatically assume that this is caused by discrimination, forced separation, restrictions on movement or choice of residence, or other kinds of human rights violations. It can be their free choice. However, if it’s not, then we usually call it segregation and we believe it’s a moral wrong that should be corrected. People have a right to live where they want, go to school where they want, and move freely about (with some restrictions necessary to protect the property rights and the freedom of association of others). If they are prohibited from doing so, either by law (e.g. Jim Crow) or by social pressure (e.g. discrimination by landlords or employers), then government policy and legislation should step in in order to better protect people’s rights. Forced desegregation is then an option, and this can take various forms, such as anti-discrimination legislation in employment and rent, forced integration of schools, busing, zoning laws, subsidized housing etc.
There’s also some room for intervention when segregation is not the result of conscious, unconscious, legal or social discrimination. For example, poor people tend to be segregated in poor districts, not because other people make it impossible for them to live elsewhere but because their poverty condemns them to certain residential areas. The same is true for schooling. In order to avoid poverty traps or membership poverty, it’s better to do something about that as well.
In all such cases, the solution should not necessarily be found in physical desegregation, i.e. forcibly moving people about. Perhaps the underlying causes of segregation, rather than segregation itself, should be tackled. For example, rather than moving poor children to better schools or poor families to better, subsidized housing, perhaps we should focus on their poverty directly.
However, before deciding what to do about segregation, we have to know its extent. Is it a big problem, or a minor one? How does it evolve? Is it getting better? How segregated are residential areas, schools, workplaces etc.? And to what extent is this segregation involuntary? The latter question is a hard one, but the others can be answered. There are several methods for measuring different kinds of segregation. The most popular measure of residential segregation is undoubtedly the so-called index of dissimilarity. If you have a city, for example, that is divide into N districts (or sections, census tracts or whatever), the dissimilarity index measures the percentage of a group’s population that would have to change districts for each district to have the same percentage of that group as the whole city. Formally:
Where bi is the number of blacks in district i, B is the number of blacks in the city as a whole, wi is the number of whites in district i, and W is the number of whites in the city as a whole. This formula gives you a number between 0 and 1, 0 for no segregation and 1 for complete segregation (similar to the Gini coefficient).
The dissimilarity index is not perfect, mainly because it depends on the sometimes arbitrary way in which cities are divided into districts or sections. Which means that modifying city partitions can influence levels of “segregation”, which is not something we want. Take this extreme example:
The image shows the same city twice, with two different partitions, A and B situation. No one has moved residency between situations A and B, but the district boundaries have been altered radically. In situation A with the districts drawn vertically, there is no segregation (dissimilarity index of 0). But in situation B, with the districts drawn horizontally, there is complete segregation (index = 1), although no one has physically moved. That’s why other, complementary measures are probably necessary for correct information about levels of segregation. Some of those measures are proposed here and here.
On the “home front”, 2010 was a good year. In our third year of blogging (we started this blog in April 2008), we had more than 1,8 million pageviews (up from 1 million in 2009 and 193.000 in 2008). That’s an average of 5000 a day. The most popular posts in 2010 were:
- The Anti-Democrat’s Paradox
- Human Rights Quote (68): Aids Disaster
- Invasion of Privacy, A Collection of Images (must have had something to do with the new airport security measures)
- Human Rights Facts (5b): Poverty, Types, Causes and Measurement, and
- Statistics on Capital Punishment
We also, finally, finished tinkering with the blog’s layout, something which may lower frustration levels here and there. (If there’s still something bothering you, about the layout or anything else, tell us). Perhaps you’ve also noticed the little “satisfaction survey” we have at the bottom of each page (maybe you’ve even voted, in which case, thanks). We’ll keep it there, since there’s a steady stream of new readers who may also want to express their satisfaction/dissatisfaction/opinions. The current state of opinion regarding this blog is as follows:
Pretty positive, I would say. Of course, we should add all of those who believe the blog is so bad that it’s really not worth scrolling all the way down in order to vote. Personally, I blame the relatively high number of votes for “this blog sucks” not on the general suckiness of the blog but on juvenile excitement about finding some bloggers who actually allow you to say that they suck. But I may be wrong. The “other” category yielded answers such as: “biased”, “informative”, “fucking sucks” (sic), “offensive”, “much appreciated”, “too long”, “useful”, “well written but incorrect” etc.
Also good in 2010 was the publication of my latest book.
However, looking at the world beyond this blog, it’s pretty hard to say whether or not it’s been a good year. If we limit ourselves to the topic we’re dealing with here, it’s a disgrace that we still can’t say if respect for human rights has increased or not compared to 2009. We’ll keep asking for progress in human rights measurement.
Looking at individual human rights, the record is mixed. There has been progress in the fight against capital punishment, poverty, government secrecy and discrimination, for instance. But in other areas, things have probably gotten worse: immigration, torture, privacy, hunger, criminal justice etc. You do your own math. And while I know it’s useless to make other people’s new year’s resolutions for them, I would suggest that there’s probably some inspiration to be found in human rights.
(source, click image to enlarge)
I discussed the so-called Omitted Variable Bias before on this blog (here and here). So I suppose I can mention this other example: guess what is the correlation, on a country level, between per capita smoking rates and life expectancy rates? High smoking rates equal low life expectancy rates, right? And vice versa?
Actually, and surprisingly, the correlation goes the other way: the higher smoking rates – the more people smoke in a certain country – the longer the citizens of that country live, on average.
Why is that the case? Smoking is unhealthy and should therefore make life shorter, on average. However, people in rich countries smoke more; in poor countries they can’t afford it. And people in rich countries live longer. But they obviously don’t live longer because they smoke more but because of the simple fact they have the good luck to live in a rich country, which tends to be a country with better healthcare and the lot. If they would smoke less they would live even longer.
Why is this important? Not because I’m particularly interested in smoking rates (although I am interested in life expectancy). It’s important because it shows how easily we are fooled by simple correlations, how we imagine what correlations should be like, and how we can’t see beyond the two elements of a correlation when we’re confronted with one that goes against our intuitions. We usually assume that, in a correlation, one element should cause the other. And apart from the common mistake of switching the direction of the causation, we often forget that there can be a third element causing the two elements in the correlation (in this example, the prosperity of a country causing both high smoking rates and high life expectancy), rather than one element in the correlation causing the other.
More posts in this series are here.
If there’s one Milton Friedman quote that’s repeated far too often it’s the following: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”. The income of relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to what the poor, unemployed, sick, young and elderly in rich countries get from welfare and social security transfers. Hence, the argument goes, opening borders and eliminating immigration restrictions would cause massive flows of people to those rich countries. Perhaps some of these people would come in the hope of finding a good job, but at the same time they have the certainty that, if they fail, they will enjoy generous social protection. And all the rest will come just for the benefits.
The problem, some say, is that rich countries can’t afford large increases in the numbers of welfare beneficiaries, and that they therefore must limit immigration. Open borders are only feasible when global poverty has been solved and income levels are more or less comparable across countries. Or, when rich countries would decide, unrealistically, to eliminate their welfare systems or at least coldheartedly decide to exclude all immigrants from welfare.
However, as I’ve stated before, immigrants in the U.S. use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. In the U.K., immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits (source).
Anyway, even if we assume that open borders will be a net negative for western welfare systems, there’s no need to limit the options to the stark choice between welfare and open borders. We could, for example, give immigrants access to labor markets but only limited access to unemployment benefits, or we could delay their benefits, demanding that they first contribute to the system during a number of years (something which might actually strengthen the system). However, we’d have to be careful and not create inequality, discrimination and a class society.
Or we could decide to grant immigrants full access to welfare because we believe that global inequality should be reduced. Access to welfare would then be a kind a development aid.
And, finally, it’s possible to view matters from an entirely different angle. Large chunks of welfare transfers go to the elderly. Given the demographic evolutions in many rich countries, it may be that immigration will be the only way for aging countries to sustain their welfare states.
- Immigrants — Good or Bad? (realclearpolitics.com)
- Should the U.S. Restrict Immigration? (psychologytoday.com)
- Who is Eligible for Welfare in the United States? (brainz.org)
- The Aging, Crisis-Prone Welfare State Must Confront The Problem Of Welfare Migration (businessinsider.com)
In an effort to convince you that my new $19.95 book is actually worth a lot more than that, I’m blogging some excerpts. (I blogged the introduction when the book came out). Today, how do the different parts of the substructure and superstructure determine each other?
Marx is usually understood as arguing that the substructure (the material world) determines the superstructure. But that’s only part of his argument. The creation and propagation of ideology is an important activity of the ruling class. The members of this class usually do not work but appropriate the fruits of the labor of other classes, and hence they have the necessary leisure time to engage in intellectual “work” and to construct and promote ideologies that they can use to serve their interests, consciously or unconsciously. Those with material power also have intellectual power. They can influence what others think, and they will be most successful if they themselves believe the ideologies that they want to force on others.
This clearly shows that the substructure does not only determine the legal and political parts of the superstructure, but thinking as well. The prevailing ideas are the ideas of the prevailing class.
[T]he class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. K. Marx, The German Ideology
But there is a kind of feedback action at work here. The substructure determines ideas, but these ideas in turn help to maintain a particular economic substructure. Not everything goes up from the material to the intellectual. Something comes down as well, but only after it went up first.
This can be expressed in the left half of the following drawing:
In this drawing, an arrow means “determination”. All ideas, not only political and legal ones, are both the expression (arrow 2) and the safeguard (arrow 3) of the economic structure of society. (The bottom-left half, arrow 1, represents the previously mentioned relationship between means of production and relations of production).
But there is also a right half in this drawing: the fact that ideas, in a kind of feedback mode, help to determine a particular economic structure, does not always have to be negative or aimed at the status quo. The poor, when they shed their false consciousness imposed by ideology, become conscious of their real situation, and this consciousness will help to start the revolution which will modify class relations and hence the substructure. This is represented by arrow 6.
Ideally, arrow 6 would have to pass through the box containing “politics” since the revolutionary proletariat will take over the state when attempting to modify the relations of production.
However, as we will see later [in the book], this awakening is bound to certain material preconditions, in particular the presence of certain very specific forces of production, namely large-scale industrial production with mass labor (arrow 4) and the strain imposed by existing class relations (arrow 5). It cannot, therefore, take place in every setting. Ultimately, all consciousness, real and false, is determined by the substructure. The order of determinations is fixed and follows the numerical order in the drawing. …
This is a follow up from some previous posts (here, here and here) claiming that poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, at least not usually, and another one (here) claiming that rights violations are a better predictor (and, conversely, respect for human rights predict reduced terrorism). I’ve found this paper (gated unfortunately) supporting those claims.
The empirical results reported here show that terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once the effects of other country-specific characteristics, such as the level of political freedom, are taken into account. … lack of political freedom is shown to explain terrorism, and it does so in a nonmonotonic way. Countries with intermediate levels of political freedom are shown to be more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes. …
On the one hand, the repressive practices commonly adopted by autocratic regimes to eliminate political dissent may help keep terrorism at bay. On the other hand, intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions, when governments are weak, and political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism. (source)
Income inequality is a human rights issue (if you’re not convinced, go here or here first). Here are a few maps about income inequality in the U.S., in addition to some older posts on the same subject (see here, here, and here).
(source, click on the image to enlarge; a higher Gini value means more inequality)
You can clearly see the maps becoming darker over time, and also the shifting of inequality across the country.
However, if you take the global view and move away from the U.S., income inequality has actually gone down over time. See here. More maps on income inequality are here. Something on the related concept of relative poverty is here. And more human rights maps are here.
A vacuum salesman appeared at the door of an old lady’s cottage and, without allowing the woman to speak, rushed into the living room and threw a large bag of dirt all over her clean carpet. He said, “If this new vacuum doesn’t pick up every bit of dirt then I’ll eat all the dirt.”
The woman, who by this time was losing her patience, said, “Sir, if I had enough money to buy that thing, I would have paid my electricity bill before they cut it off. Now, what would you prefer, a spoon or a knife and fork?”
A man, down on his luck, went into a church which catered to the “uppity”. Spotting the man’s dirty clothes a deacon, worried about the churches image, went to the man and asked him if he needed help. The man said, “I was praying and the Lord told me to come to this church.”
The deacon suggested that the man go pray some more and possibly he might get a different answer. The next Sunday the man returned. The deacon asked, “Did you get a different answer?”
The man replied, “Yes I did. I told the Lord that they don’t want me in that church and the Lord said, ‘Don’t worry about it son; I’ve been trying to get into that church for years and haven’t made it yet’.”
The U.S. population is about 300,000,000. Whites represent about 80%, or roughly 240,000,000. If you check the numbers of executions in the U.S., you’ll see that there were about 1,000 in the period from 1977 to 2005. 584 of those executions were of whites. That’s about 20 executions per year on average, meaning that whites have a chance of 1 in 12,000,000 of being executed.
There are about 40,000,000 African Americans, representing roughly 13 % of the U.S. population. 339 executions in the 1977-2005 period were of African Americans. That’s about 12 a year, meaning that blacks have a chance of 1 in 3,300,000 of being executed.
A black person in the U.S. is therefore almost 4 times more likely to be executed. Even if we assume that this higher probability of being executed correctly reflects a higher probability of being involved in crime that comes with capital punishment – and that’s something we shouldn’t assume, because it’s likely that there are injustices involved, e.g. inadequate legal representation and such – that shouldn’t put our minds at ease. We then still have to ask the question: why are blacks more likely to be involved in capital offences? Surely not because of their race. Something happens in society that leads to this outcome, and it’s likely that there are injustices involved: for example, inadequate education, poverty levels, discrimination etc.
I’ve discussed the negative effects of the current economic recession on human rights several times before on this blog. I’ve focused on the right not to suffer poverty, because that’s obviously one human right that is particularly affected by the recession, but I also mentioned other rights (see here, here and here for instance). (I even found an example of how the recession can be beneficial for human rights; see here. Unfortunately, that’s the exception and not the rule).
Coming back to poverty: remittances – money sent home by migrant workers – are an important part of many people’s income in developing countries. (In some countries, the total amount of remittances received even surpasses the amount of official development aid received). It’s no surprise that remittances are going down because of the recession. What is surprising is the phenomenon of reverse remittances. From the NYT:
MIAHUATLÁN, Mexico — During the best of the times, Miguel Salcedo’s son, an illegal immigrant in San Diego, would be sending home hundreds of dollars a month to support his struggling family in Mexico. But at times like these, with the American economy out of whack and his son out of work, Mr. Salcedo finds himself doing what he never imagined he would have to do: wiring pesos north. …
With nearly half its population living in poverty, Mexico is not well placed to prop up struggling citizens abroad. … Still, poverty is a relative concept. It is easier to get by on little in Mexico, especially in rural areas, allowing the poor to help the even more precarious. … In other cases, the migrants are returning home, as the many passengers who hop off the bus that runs regularly from northern California to a gas station in Miahuatlán make clear. “There’s nothing up there,” said a young man with an overflowing suitcase who returned one recent night. (source)
In already mentioned in my previous, theoretical post on assisted suicide and euthanasia, that class discrimination is one of the problems arising from the policies of many countries: by outlawing the practice of assisted suicide, against sound moral arguments, they force people to go abroad to find an expensive solution in more liberal countries (such as Switzerland). Poor people wanting to exercise their right to self-determination, are stuck with the “cheap and dirty” solutions or with no solution at all if they are incapacitated and can’t take matters into their own hands.
The UK government seems particularly eager to deny people the right to decide on their own lives. Here’s a story highlighting the absurdity of UK policies regarding assisted suicide (although most other countries aren’t performing any better):
Dr Michael Irwin, 78, a former GP said today he hoped to be prosecuted for helping a terminally ill man to have an assisted suicide. … He wanted to highlight the “hypocrisy” of a system where the wealthy could pay to travel to Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic for euthanasia but the poor could not.
He will be questioned by police today after writing a cheque for £1,500 towards the cost of 58-year-old Raymond Cutkelvin‘s procedure at Dignitas. Cutkelvin, of Hackney in east London, was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour of the pancreas in 2006 and died the following year at the clinic. His partner of 28 years, Alan Cutkelvin Rees, 57, accompanied him to Switzerland and has since been arrested on suspicion of aiding a suicide.
Irwin … would welcome a criminal trial. He said: “I’m 78, I’m a humanist, I want to try to make the world a better place and I hope that a trial might make that closer to utopia.” Irwin said he would give police all the details of the role he played in Cutkelvin’s death. “I shall be very open about having helped a man who was dying from advanced cancer of the pancreas, that in February 2007 he and his partner and I and two other people went to Zurich, to Dignitas, at that time.”
He said the couple were struggling financially, and he had paid a third of the total cost of the journey. “I think it is the height of hypocrisy in this country where if you have the money, you are terminally ill and you want to go to Switzerland, you can do so. Those who can’t afford it do not make that journey.” (source)
What next? A fine for British Airways for “aiding and abetting”? And this kind of class discrimination isn’t limited to assisted suicide:
It reminds me of one of the common arguments over abortion laws. Women in countries like Portugal (which has restrictive abortion laws) or states like South Dakota (where virtually no clinics provide the service) often need to travel far distances to obtain the service. Which means the rich are able, and the poor aren’t. (source)
This isn’t a defense of abortion – I’m generally reluctant to accept abortion rights. But I can see the negative consequences of banning abortion. Discrimination of the poor is one result. Health risks for the mother is another (see here and here).
More posts in this series on absurd human rights violations are here.
Following up from this post, some more information on the water crisis in the world and its implications for human rights. We obviously need water to survive, and no human rights without survival. Inadequate water supplies also cause diseases, violating our right to health. We need water – and clean water - to drink, but also to eat. Or rather, to produce our food. And we need a lot. People drink on average just a few liters a day, but they consume thousands of liters a day if we count the water required to produce their food. And evidently we should count it. Many areas of the world face already now face water shortages (there’s a map here). A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas short of water. A global water crisis waits around the corner, and one likely consequence is famine, another human rights violation.
If we want to do something about the water crisis, we should be aware of the effect of food production on water shortages. Especially the production of meat requires huge amounts of water, compared to the production of grains or even rice. People in the West eat a lot a meat, and therefore contribute substantially to water shortages. As incomes in the developing world increase, people there will consume more meat. Hence, global water consumption will also increase. Combine this future increase with the fact that there are already shortages and that these shortages will get worse with global warming, desertification etc., and you get a real crisis.
What are the solutions? Or how can we prevent things from getting worse?
- Jokingly we could ask people to become vegetarians. That would also be better for greenhouse gas emissions, by the way.
- More seriously, and more realistically: food production, and especially agriculture and farming, represent 70% of global water consumption. That number could be cut down significantly with better irrigation; “more crop per drop”. There’s incredible waste going on there. 70% of irrigation water is lost in the process. One reason: farmers rarely pay their water bills at market prices, hence no incentives to cut waste. Unfortunately, pricing water at market prices would drive up food prices, pushing many consumers into poverty. And many poor farmers already can’t pay for expensive irrigation systems. More expensive water surely wouldn’t help them. Moreover, market prices may mean the privatization of water, and that’s dangerous. You might as well privatize oxygen.
- Other solutions: cut waste in households and industries. Here, everyone can help. Also more recycling efforts are needed. Desalination, although expensive, is an option. As are better water storage facilities, especially for poor families in developing countries. All these efforts will not only reduce the risk of a major global water crisis, but will also improve crop yields, thereby reducing the price of food and hence the risk of poverty and famine.
(source, source, a Make Poverty History ad)
Here is the longer version of the Eisenhower quote. Here is something about the War on Terror, the obvious inspiration of this poster. And here is something on debt relief, the goal for which the now defunct Make Poverty History organization is perhaps best known. I have to say that I fail to see how the metaphor of “war on poverty” is supposed to work. I understand that it’s a call to action, but it’s a bit unsettling to learn that this action requires a war, even if it is only a metaphorical one.
After a first attempt, I kinda got the taste for this. So here are a few more “improved” signs:
(source of the original)
I can understand that for some people the right to life is negated by abortion. And if you really believe that Obama is a Soviet-style “socialist”, then it’s clear he’s the negation of liberty. But welfare the opposite of the pursuit of happiness? Sorry, me no understand. How can the absence of welfare possible contribute to the pursuit of happiness? Is hunger, poverty, lack of healthcare and education part of the pursuit of happiness? And is the effort to do something about these problems the end of happiness?
Here’s another one:
(source of the original)
Some confusion about the meaning of “spreading” here, it seems. And, to be fair to the teabaggers, this next remix (hopefully) shows the conceit inherent in all political protesting, not just the tea-party type:
(source of the original which included the comment: “You have worked hard for you money. Why does the government think they have the right to take your money and bail out failed businesses, mortgages and more???”)
The Economist called it the “unsurprising research finding of the day“, but I think it’s a useful confirmation of an existing intuition: this paper finds that the recession can have a beneficial effect on the health of some people who lose their job because of it, namely those people spending their new leisure time in a healthy way. Other people, however, spend their leisure time cultivating some of their pre-existing unhealthy habits, or find themselves depressed and without employer-provided healthcare (especially in the U.S.). Because their healthcare has become more expensive now that they are unemployed, they decide to go without treatment or tests.
Results showed the body mass of the average laid-off food-lover increasing by the equivalent of more than 7 pounds for a 5-foot, 10-inch man weighing 180 pounds during unemployment. Similarly, frequent drinkers on average doubled their daily alcohol intake after losing their jobs and before finding another one. (source)
Elsewhere in the world, and especially sub-Saharan Africa, it seems that the health consequences of the global recession are more dramatic:
The financial crisis will kill between 28,000 and 50,000 babies in sub-Saharan Africa this year, according to this paper. The reasoning here is straightforward. For people on subsistence incomes, a fall in GDP can be fatal. The paper’s authors, Jed Friedman and Norbert Schady, estimate that a one percentage point fall in per GDP across sub-Saharan Africa is associated with a rise in infant (defined as under-ones) mortality of between 0.34 and 0.62 per 1000. If we multiply this increase by the number of births this year and by the 2.4 percentage point difference between GDP growth this year and last (a reasonableish estimate of the effect of the crisis), we get a figure of between 28,000 and 50,000. … Of course, you can quibble with the numbers. But the general story holds. For the poor, income is a matter of life or death. Which brings me to my question. If one-in-seventeen British babies were to die this year because of the financial crisis, it would be the biggest media story for years and there’d be rioting in the streets until the government did something. So, why the silence? Chris Dillow (source)
Since health and life are human rights, we have another human rights problem thanks to the recession. Previous posts on the (possible) impact of the recession on human rights are
- here (a general overview)
- here and here (on poverty)
- here (on the recession and the death penalty)
- here (on the recession and development aid)
- here (on the recession and antisemitism)
- here (on the recession and unemployment)
- and here (on the recession and crime).
(source, cartoon by Angel Boligan)
Corruption, or “the misuse of public office for private gain”, is not a human rights violation as such (there is no right not to suffer the consequences of corruption), but it is the cause of various rights violations. Notably, it has an impact on economic growth (see here) and hence also on poverty reduction (given the correlation between growth and poverty reduction, see here). Corruption also has an impact on poverty on the level of individuals rather than countries (and there is a right not to suffer poverty). It’s obvious that individuals can make better use of the funds that they (have to) spend on bribes. As depicted in the cartoon, those that are forced to pay bribes are often people who are already vulnerable.
Moreover, corruption eats away at the rule of law. Even in the most corrupt countries, corruption is usually illegal. If illegal activity becomes normal practice, the rule of law is obviously undermined, with possible consequences for judicial protection in general, including protection of human rights. Even more seriously, corruption is associated with political instability since it tends to reduce citizens’ trust and faith in institutions.
“Being poor” meaning having an income below the federal poverty level, which is about $20,000 a year for a family of four. Which is quite stingy:
A poverty line, or poverty threshold, is the minimum level of income deemed necessary to achieve an adequate standard of living in a given country.
Determining the poverty line is usually done by finding the total cost of all the essential resources that an average human adult consumes in one year. This approach is needs-based in that an assessment is made of the minimum expenditure needed to maintain a tolerable life. This was the original basis of the poverty line in the United States, whose poverty threshold has since been raised due to inflation. (source)
More about the U.S. poverty line here.
Here‘s more on homelessness. And here are the lyrics:
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you ?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?
You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but know you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you’d better take your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?
As I’ve mentioned several times before, the current economic recession has several and almost entirely negative consequences for human rights. One of the human rights that is affected most severely is the right not to suffer poverty (or, positively, the right to a certain standard of living). The causal link between the recession and poverty passes through several “channels”. The most obvious one is rising unemployment; a dampening of charitable giving is potentially another one.
However, data from The Economist show that there is (as yet) no such dampening, despite the recession:
Among the 500 British and American individuals with at least $1m of investable assets, … 28% of Americans say they are giving less money compared with 18 months ago, though 26% are giving more.
(source, cartoon by Ares)
(source, cartoon by Olle Johansson)
It’s almost trivial to state that terrorism is caused by poverty. But it’s wrong. I don’t claim that poverty has no role whatsoever, or that no single terrorist is driven, in part, by poverty (his own or that of his family/nation/group). Human motivation is complex and obscure. But it appears that other factors are more important. Read more.
Some more information on the impact of the current recession on global poverty (picking up where this previous post left off). By the way, if you want to know why I believe this is a human rights issue, look here.
From The Economist:
New research by the United Nations’ standing committee on nutrition gives a first estimate of how the crisis has hurt the group of people most affected by the crash: the very poorest.
In 1990-2007, the number of hungry people rose by about 80m, though this was, by and large, a period of rising incomes in developing countries (and a huge increase in population). In 2008 alone, the number rose a further 40m, to 963m – half as much in one year as during the previous 17. In other words, lots more children and pregnant women are not getting the food they need. The report reckons that the number of underweight children will rise from 121m to 125m by 2010, assuming no change in the size of the world economy (in fact, it is expected to shrink 2% this year). The World Bank has already estimated that until 2015 the crisis will lead to between 200,000 and 400,000 more children dying every year.
The poorest face two crises: the world recession and the resumption of food-price rises. Food prices had been falling but even then, the global price fall did not translate into a comparable decline on local markets in most poor countries, so the poor did not benefit much. World prices bottomed out in December 2008 and have since risen 26%. In the poorest countries, a rise of 50% in the price of staples pushes up the family food budget from 50% to 60% of household income.
Trickle Down Economics, also called Reaganomics (due to its association with the policies of Reagan and Thatcher) or supply-side economics, is the theory according to which policies destined to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth are unnecessary and even counterproductive. The rich should be allowed to become even more wealthy, by imposing very low tax rates on high incomes (or a flat tax for example) rather than using the tax system to redistribute wealth. The result will be that their wealth will “trickle down” towards those who are less well off.
When government policies favor the wealthy — for example, via tax cuts for upper-income classes — the increase in wealth flows down to those with lower incomes. That’s because the rich are more likely to spend the additional income, creating more economic activity, which in turn generates jobs and eventually, better paychecks for the less well-off. Michael S. Derby (source)
All boats rise on a rising tide. Redistribution is counterproductive because it will take away the incentives to do well, and hence also take away the possibility of wealth creation and subsequent automatic wealth distribution through “trickling down”. All this is reminiscent of laissez-faire and the invisible hand theory.
Reagan’s trickle down policies in the U.S. can still be felt today:
According to the Tax Policy Center, the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. stood at 70% when Reagan was elected in 1980, falling steadily to 28% by 1989, before it began to rise modestly. The top marginal rate now stands at 35% against a peak of 94% in 1945. (source)
These tax cuts were implemented with the support of the Democrats in the House, which explains why they have been upheld all these years. The result of this was, unsurprisingly, a higher concentration of wealth in fewer hands:
In the period since the economic crisis of the early 1970s, US GDP has grown strongly, and the incomes and wealth of the richest Americans has grown spectacularly. By contrast, the gains to households in the middle of the income distribution have been much more modest. Between 1973 … and 2007, median household income rose from $44 000 to just over $50 000, an annual rate of increase of 0.4 per cent. … For those at the bottom of the income distribution, there have been no gains at all. … incomes accruing to the poorest 10 per cent of Americans have actually fallen over the last 30 years. John Quigging (source)
This is already part of the refutation of the doctrine. Obviously not all boats have risen on the same tide. But if you don’t believe this, there’s a paper here and a blogpost here arguing against the doctrine in a more intelligent way. Maybe “spreading the wealth around” a bit and imposing some tougher taxes on the rich isn’t such a bad idea after all. I mean, the “tricklers” have had decades to prove their point, and failed; maybe now it’s time for the “spreaders” to have a go.
I’ve already debunked this equation before. In short, the “argument”, if you can call it that, goes like this. Investment in better healthcare results in lower mortality rates (especially child mortality rates) and larger populations. If more people have to live from an equal amount of resources, every individual has less resources. Hence there will be more poverty.
This reasoning is typical of Malthusians and others who fret about overpopulation. They forget, however, that high mortality rates and inefficient insufficient healthcare lead to high fertility rates because people decide to have many children in order to offset the risk of mortality. Better healthcare brings down fertility rates because it reduces this risk, but also because it leads to less poverty and hence eliminates another reason to have a lot of children: extra labor force.
Read more about this here.
“Need” now means wanting someone else’s money. “Greed” means wanting to keep your own. “Compassion” is when a politician arranges the transfer. Joseph Sobran
That would be what we call “redistribution” or, in the words of Obama, ”spreading the wealth around“. Regular readers know that I’m a proponent of social justice, but I also believe that this is a priori a citizen responsibility. The state should intervene and forcefully redistribute only when citizens fail to act responsibly towards their fellow-citizens. Charity is proof that people don’t always need to be forced by the government to help the needy, who, by the way, don’t want other people’s money, just a decent life.
Here is a post giving some more detail on the role of citizens and the government with regard to poverty reduction.
Notice the absence of overlap in this Venn diagram, obviously indicating that beggars can’t choose, and that those who can choose are unlikely to be beggars. The primary reason to object to poverty is precisely the lack of choice it implies, or, in other words, the inequality of opportunity. Poor people have less opportunities to choose different life projects because they have to spent too much time and energy on basic needs.
Democracy is a human right. If we want to promote universal respect for this right, we have to know how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones, and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition. Once we know this, we can promote the future emergence of democracies, and we can counteract the breakdown of existing ones.
Unfortunately, this is a very murky area of political science. The only thing that’s clear is that there is no silver bullet. There isn’t one thing we can do to transform societies once and for all into democracies. Things aren’t easy or simple. A huge number of factors have been identified as causes of or obstacles to democratic transitions, and existing democracies need constant nurturing and protection. A few of the factors that have been named as either promoting or inhibiting democracy are:
- economic growth or GDP per capita
- protestant culture versus catholic culture (a catholic culture is believed to be more hierarchical)
- levels of education and literacy
- income or wealth inequality (in very unequal societies, the wealthy have a lot to lose with democracy)
- levels of employment in agriculture versus industry (industrial societies are believed to more more urban and less attached to traditional and authoritarian social relationships)
- the presence/absence of neighboring democracies
- export diversity (countries with one major export product such as oil tend to be “resource cursed“)
- is a country a former U.K. colony or not? (former U.K. colonies are believed to be more sympathetic to democracy given their British colonial heritage)
- is there a large middle class or not?
Statistical analysis to pinpoint which ones of these many variables really determine democracy – and which ones are merely guesses – has yielded contradictory results, not surprisingly given the low numbers of observations (societies or countries don’t change their political systems very often) and the relative lack of long time series (most classifications of regime types haven’t started earlier than a couple of decades ago). One interesting analysis is here.
So don’t expect me to have an opinion here. What I wanted to focus on in this post is the first in the list. There are two radically opposing views on the effect of economic development on democracy. One view, which I’ve defended here, is called modernization theory. Basically, the idea is that as countries develop economically, people will switch to other, higher needs, such as self-government, self-control, and political activity in general (see Maslow’s Scale, for instance). Poverty, on the contrary, forces people to focus on survival and makes democracy seem like a luxury.
However, the opposite view is also persuasive. Countries that do well economically are less likely to become democratic because the population is quite pleased with how things are going and will not revolt. The authoritarian rulers can claim that it’s thanks to them that things are going well. It’s not unlikely that economic collapse rather than success causes authoritarian regimes to break down.
So even if you isolate one of dozens of possible factors causing regime transition, things aren’t very clear. Should we starve dictatorships, or help them develop economically? As a result of this lack of clarity, it’s very difficult to frame foreign policy in such a way that it favors the development of democracies around the world. This may go some way to explain the traditional lack of ambition in diplomatic circles.
I’ve written about charity or caritas many times before. In fact, I see charitable giving to the poor as a way to honor one’s duties arising from the social and economic rights of the poor (more here). In my view, government redistribution on the basis of taxation is only necessary when individuals fail in their duty of charity. (I also believe that this kind of understanding of economic rights can debunk the big state criticism which is often leveled against these rights).
One of the rules governing charity is “ought implies can“: only those who can give have a moral duty to give. Another rule is that “can implies ought“: those who can do more, should do more. Which means that wealthy people are expected to give more, not just “more” in absolute terms, but also in terms of a higher percentage of their wealth. Giving more in absolute and relative terms may still leave them better off than those who engage in charity starting on a lower level of wealth.
Now, it turns out that in real life, the opposite is true: the less wealthy you are, the more you give in relative terms:
This is quite shocking in a sense. And it means that the current recession, which doesn’t only affect Wall Street types but the poor as well, will probably reduce charitable giving substantially.