Remember what good things you hoped awaited you within a future job when you were very young and still preparing for one. And have you ever been unemployed long-term, worried that you’d not find work in the near future? Remember why this was distressing (if it was). Here I’ll talk about the things we can, and should, get out of work – and argue that these goods are so important that we ought to reorganise employment.
Category: Distribution (Page 2 of 3)
It’s over 20 years since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force. According to Article 3(1) of the Convention, Parties would “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities”. It was recognised that this meant that “the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change”.
Despite this recognition that equity and differential responsibility and capacity were important factors to consider in global efforts to address climate change, agreement on what exactly this would entail for sharing the burdens of mitigation proved hard to come by. 2015 saw something of a change of tack, here, with Parties to the UNFCCC now invited to present an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the Convention objective of stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous climate change.
The move to nationally determined contributions has been lauded by some for its potential to facilitate cooperation. One of the ways in which it appears to do this is by bypassing any need for an international agreement on what exactly a fair distribution of the burdens of mitigation would look like. Instead, each Party is invited (though not required) to explain how it considers its INDC to be “fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances”. So, roughly speaking at least, rather than starting with an established emissions budget and trying to come to an agreement on how to share it fairly, Parties are now permitted to adopt any number of different conceptions of fairness in defence of their own INDC, with no guarantee that the resulting ‘fair’ shares will remain within the budget.
When we analyse the justifiability of different education policies as well as various governmental interventions in the job market, we typically do so on the assumption that there is something bad about unemployment – indeed, there are many things bad about unemployment. Whilst this assumption is no doubt correct, I suspect that it is often helpful to be more precise about what exactly is bad about unemployment. This is because each of these bads may admit of very different solutions.
It is common to begin by noting that unemployment can be stigmatising, such that individuals who are unemployed are subject to others’ negative attitudes. This can be experienced as disrespectful and damaging to one’s self-confidence. It is significant that proponents of these attitudes typically defend their views on moralistic grounds: “The unemployed should be stigmatised because they are sponging off of the state – off of others’ efforts!”
There has been much talk about effective altruism recently (see e.g. here or here) – the idea that you should try to do as much good as you can, using the most effective means. It reads a bit like an update of good old Jeremy Bentham and “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” by a McKinsey consultant. It is easy to ridicule, and ridicule is indeed a frequent reaction because humour eases the tension that one can feel when confronted with these ideas. For there seems to be more than a grain of truth in effective altruists’ claim that we could do so much more to help those who were less fortunate in the “natural lottery” of where and when they were born. One thing that speaks in their favor, after all, is that effective altruists ask serious questions about what it means to be a moral agent in today’s world. What I here want to pick out from the debate is their picture the social world and of human institutions, which I take to be flawed. It is an illustration of why moral philosophy should not neglect the world we live in and the institutions that structure it.
Sacrificed for hope?
Economic transition and intergenerational justice
« Poverty and oppression are here, and they will not
be alleviated by the possibility of a better future.”
Suppose you believe that the nationalization of the means of production is necessary for the achievement of justice. Suppose, besides, that your political party enjoys enough popular support (an absolute majority) for this radical reform. Yet you know from experiences in other countries that such radical reforms engender an economic crisis, with higher unemployment and lower incomes. What you do not know is how the economy is going to fare in the future and how long the crisis can last.
These are a lot of assumptions, certainly, but please accept them for the sake of the argument. What I am asking you is to put yourselves into the shoes of western European socialist leaders from the first half of the 20th century. They faced both a strategic and an ethical dilemma.
That said, we note that a utilitarian appraoch might also support a policy of dispersion if we take into consideration the following two reasons. First, the negative impact of noise pollution is non-linear (the nuisance of two planes is higher than twice the nuisance of one). This means that concentration does not necessarily minimize aggregate suffering. Second, a policy of maximal dispersion might be highly effective in making a substantial number of citizens aware of the nuisance and dangers of airplane noise which could ultimately lead to more effective lobbying to reduce air traddic and find radical alternative solutions.
But, does this mean that the sharing economy is also changing capitalism from within? Are we all witnessing a switch to a “camping-trip” type of economic organization? Is the Web 2.0 really fostering an egalitarian ethos in our societies? Or is the sharing economy just the hi-tech version of the invisible hand?
Solidarity without reciprocity? Often the egalitarian character of collaborative consumption is justified by drawing a comparison with economic systems like the gift-economies. What they have in common is that they are solidarity-producing or enhancing practices. But there is a crucial difference. In gift economies the act of gift giving was meant to be reciprocated: it created obligations to respond in kind and these mutual obligations were the ties that bound society together. Collaborative consumption does not seem to work like that: benefitting from what is shared through the Internet does not create an obligation to reciprocate, and the increasing involvement of capital in the sharing economy (e.g. airbnb has now raised more than $300M in investments) is rapidly substituting reciprocity-driven initiatives with entrepreneurial ones.
People across the political spectrum care a lot about social mobility. For instance, a recent BBC documentary entitled ‘Who Gets the Best Jobs?’, about how little upwards mobility there is in the British society today, seems to have hit a nerve – judging form the large number of views on youtube but also form the large number of passionate comments from the public:
And there are people who would equate perfect social mobility with justice, and who therefore deplore its absence as the most worrisome form of injustice today.
Access to affordable housing is widely recognized as a basic right or, at the very least, an important moral interest. At the same time, residents of many major cities are faced with spiralling housing costs. London provides a particularly striking example. During the last year alone, average rents in London rose by more than 10 percent. Since this figure describes an aggregate trend, rent increases faced by individual tenants are often significantly higher. (When the last flat that I lived in changed its owner, the rent went up by 30 percent, notably without any changes to the condition of the property.) In light of this situation, it is no surprise that calls to address the problem of rising rents have become louder.
One straightforward way of addressing the problem would consist of policies that place legal limits on the extent to which rents may be increased. Yet, the idea of rent control faces outspoken opposition. Opponents often defend their view by pointing out that rising rents have an underlying cause in the shortage of supply of housing in a given area. Constraining rents, they argue, does nothing to alter the shortage of supply or, worse, exacerbates it by reducing the returns on investment for property developers, thus undermining the economic incentives for an increase in supply. This line of argument, however, appears unconvincing.
Shortages of supply in housing cannot easily be solved in the short term and are partly determined by geographical factors that cannot be altered at all. To the extent to which rent control policies fail to address the underlying problem of supply without worsening it, why should they not be considered as an interim measure? It is, of course, easy to conceive of policies that would further exacerbate the problem, for example if they took the shape of absolute rent ceilings that would make it impossible for developers to recoup their investment. There are, however, obvious policy alternatives that would place limits on rents and rent increases while being flexible enough to ensure a sufficient return on investment. In fact, if policies were structured such that returns on investment in new developments are higher than returns on investment in existing properties, they could create additional incentives for the construction of new homes, rather than undermining them. The very lack of rent controls, in turn, can be seen as compounding the imbalance between supply and demand in that it creates demand for existing properties on the part of speculative investors that would not exist if rent controls limited the returns on speculative investment.
A further prominent argument against rent controls, even if understood as second-best or interim measures, relies on the appeal of free markets as a mechanism for the allocation of scarce goods. If a good is in short supply and prices are left to move freely, they will rise up to the point at which an equilibrium is reached between the amount of goods available and the amount demanded at the price in question. From the point of view of economic theory, this process is often considered to be attractive on the basis that it ensures that scarce goods are allocated to those who value the good most highly. If the price was artificially kept low, in contrast, the allocation of goods would be determined by factors that may be less normatively appealing or left to pure chance. Applied to the present context, if there is a shortage of housing in a given location, would it not be a morally attractive outcome if tenants with the strongest preference for the location would get to live there?
Maybe it would. As an objection to the regulation of real-world housing markets, however, the argument is fundamentally flawed. The claim that equilibrium prices allocate goods to those who value the good most highly is plausible only in conjunction with the idealised assumption that the bidding parties are roughly equal in their ability to pay. In a real-world context in which potential tenants differ significantly in their wealth and thus their ability to pay, differences in willingness to pay rent cannot be taken as a direct reflection of the subjective value that a give property has to them. Since the absence of rent control measures does nothing to ensure that housing is allocated according to strength of preference, the appeal to this allocative ideal cannot serve as an objection against rent controls.
In the absence of other arguments, the controversy about rent controls appears to boil down to a conflict between the interest in affordable housing on the one hand, and the interest of property investors on the other. It seems clear to me that the interest in affordable housing is the morally weightier one. This is not meant to deny that investments made under existing rules may give rise to legitimate expectations. Honouring such expectations, however, should not prevent us from changing rules that apply to future investments.