Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: Distribution (Page 2 of 3)

On what we should get out of work (other than money!)

bruegel_peasants

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.

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Fairness(es) and the INDCs

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.

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What’s bad about unemployment and what should we do about it?

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!”

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(One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s), or: why moral theory needs institutional theory

Blick aus dem Bürofenster kleinThere 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.

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Sacrificed for hope?

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.”

Adam Przeworski

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.

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Equal Suffering: for a just distribution of airplane flight routes

There is a long-standing debate in Belgium over the choice of flight routes around the national airport located northeast of the capital, Brussels. A plan last year that reorganized departure routes, routing the majority over densely populate areas of the capital, was met with strong protest from Brussels residents who now had to endure noise nuisance they didn’t have under the previous routes. Noise nuisance from airplanes is, according to recent studies, linked to an important increased risk (10-20% higher likelihood) of stroke, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, and death. Assuming 1) that there is an unavoidable amount of flights above populated areas and 2) that it is impossible to fully deaden the noises thereby engendered, what would constitute a just distribution of flight routes? In other words, what is a just distribution of suffering and risks caused by plane nuisance? In this post we present three possible answers and defend one of them.
 
 
 
 
1.      Fair distribution of costs and benefits through the market
 
One answer to the question is to say that the market already fairly allocates the benefits and burdens associated with living under established flight routes. Rents and property prices reflect the distribution of preferences that people have when it comes to the trade-off between noise pollution and money. This approach would favour policies that maintain the status quo and reject introducing any changes in flight routes given that choices were made and expectations were built around a stability of flight routes. We see two problems with this approach. Firstly, we do not think that the choices made by some individuals to live under the flight routes are genuine choices that reflect their preferences. On the one hand, information about the health costs of airplane nuisance was not available till recently (2013). On the other hand, there is the worry that many individuals have no option but to take up residence under flight routes thereby sacrificing or risking their health not because of a preference for money but because properties in those areas are the only ones they can afford. Secondly, even if we were to be certain that choices of all individuals were genuine or to disregardvoluntariness, a problem remains with regards to the consequences those choices have on third parties, in this case the children of those who opt for health risks in exchange for cheaper rent.
 
2.      Minimization of total suffering
 
A second answer says a just distribution is one that minimizes total suffering. The argument that flight routes should be organized such that airplane nuisance affects the least number of people is popular and intuitive. It favours policies that concentrate flights over the least populated areas. This approach relies on utilitarian reasoning, and although electorally attractive, it suffers from the classical objection to utilitarianism: it sacrifices the welfare of part of the population for the aggregate welfare.
 
One could argue, however, that offering compensation to the victims (those who live under the flight routes) can address this objection. By compensating the victims we show concern for their suffering and balance out the loss in wellbeing incurred by the noise pollution. The compensation can take the form of an offer for relocation or monetary compensation. Yet, we think this response suffers from the same problems as the first answer which relies on compensation through the market. The worry is that some might opt for monetary compensation and hence nuisance and health risks because they are economically disadvantaged and that their choice at any rate unfairly impacts their children. We recognize that forced relocations could be one way to counter this worry. Nevertheless, we think it is problematic as it imposes the burdens of relocation on only part of the population making it open once more to the initial objection of sacrificing the welfare of some for the aggregate welfare.
 
3.      Equalizing suffering and risk
 
The answer we favour to the question of just distribution of nuisance and health risks is one that advocates an equal sharing of the burden because it considers it unjust to ask some to endure suffering or risk their health for the aggregate welfare. The policy favoured by this approach would be maximal dispersion of flights. Of course, maximal dispersion is only a proxy for equal distribution of burdens for there will be inevitable inequalities. Equalizing risk is impossible; those living close to the airport will be more affected than those living farther. Maximal dispersion can be complemented by forced relocation (for those areas where the risk is highest) and compensation (although the same concerns about compensation above apply)The principle of equalizing suffering and risk might strike many as counterintuitive. Don’t we by maximal dispoersion simply subject a higher number of people to nuisance and risk than would have been the case under concentration policies? We stand by this principle, however, because we think it is the only one that treats everyone as equal and expresses equal concern/respect to each. Unlike the utilitarian argument, it can be justifiable to each individual. And, we think that justifiability to all trumps efficiency considerations. 

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.
 
 
Siba Harb and Pierre Etienne Vandamme

Taxing FIFA: Asides from having their board room modelled on the war room from doctor strangelove, are there any other reasons as to why FIFA should be taxed?

Some have called it the best football World Cup ever. And it has indeed been incredibly exciting.[1]Yet the circumstances which brought us the event (and will bring us future ones) are very troubling. For a year now, there has been widespread anti-World Cup protests and riots in Brazil crying against the high cost of the event for Brazilian citizens. Investigationshave revealed the slave conditions migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup infrastructure are subject to in Qatar. At the same time, there has been renewed criticism directed at FIFA, football’s international governing body. There are corruption scandals, FIFA’s dismissive attitude to the Brazil riots, their inaction on the Qatar front, and then there is the tax issue.
FIFA demands from any country who wishes to bid for hosting the world cup full tax exemptions for itself and its subsidiaries and tax breaks for its official sponsors. Estimates are that tax exemptions in Brazil, for instance, will cost up to half a billion dollars.  To many this sounds outrageous (see video).  And so it does to me.
John Oliver on Last Week Tonight tells us perfectly why we should hate FIFA
But why exactly is it outrageous?
Some, including FIFA and the Brazilian government, have argued that the country hosting the World Cup stands to greatly benefit economically from the infrastructure investments and tourism, a benefit that surpasses the amount of tax exemption in question.  Whether such forecasts about the benefits to the host country are correct is highly contestedas these rosy forecasts do not take into consideration many indirect social and economic costs (worker deaths, security costs, crowding out other tourists, etc…)An indication that hosting events such as the World Cup is unattractive even to the richer countries is the fact that only three European countries bid to host to the European Championship in 2020.

But is the issue only a question of mutual benefit? Surely we don’t expect countries to provide corporations or investors with full scale tax exemptions on the account that they generate net benefits to the economy. Countries are perhaps often forced to provide incentives for investors and corporations due to tax competition but this is reason to call for more global tax harmonization. And whereas companies and investors competing against one another may, in at least some way, be justified to seek conditions that render them competitive FIFA has no competitor. It is the sole body responsible for organizing the World Cup. And, it is a non-profit organisation.
Perhaps it being a non-profit organization can actually justify the tax exemption. After all , it is common, and we often think laudable, to exempt non-profit organization from taxes. The fact that FIFA actually makes a lot of profit (in 2012 it was $ 89 million)  often raises eyebrows, but I don’t think this is in itself the issue. What makes an organization non-profit is not that it doesn’t make profit but that it does not distribute its profits or dividends to shareholders and instead uses its profits to further achieve or promote its goals.

We definitely have some good reasons to exempt some non-profit organizations from taxes irrespective of the profit they make or the net economic benefit that accrues from their activities. We do, for example, want to have organizations that track human rights abuses. Evidence that they make huge profit or that their net financial benefit locally or internationally is negative is not reason against exempting them from taxes as long as we know that their profits are being invested to pursue their aims. To the contrary, the more profit they make the better!
Protecting and tracking human rights abuses is an aim we want to pursue even at a large financial cost. Yet, it is not clear that this applies to the variety of aims pursued by the variety of non-profit organisations. It is certainly not clear when it comes to FIFA whose aim is to promote sports and football. Yes, there are the commitments to anti-racism and anti-discrimination, but there is little done to prove them more than slogans. Perhaps if serious effort were being done to promote those aims; if FIFA for instance were to be a driver for labor law reforms in countries like Qatar; or if it were successful in promoting other humans rights (say the right of children in poor countries to play in safe environments) then this could be good reason to exempt them from taxes. That said, even if such were the case, the tax burden ought not to fall on the hosting country but be fairly distributed on the international community.
Absent such aims, the question of whether promoting football is a ‘worthy’ pursuit, perhaps like the question of promoting some forms of art, ought to be settled democratically. This would exclude non-democratic countries from bidding for the world cup, but that doesn’t strike me as an outrageous conclusion.


[1] Until the last of three teams I supported returned home, that is.

What’s Mine Is Yours, or Is It?

In the past few years we have all become familiar with the idea of the ‘sharing economy’ and this is true even in the absence of a clear-cut definition of it. If I asked you to name some examples of the ‘sharing economy’, your list would probably include Wikipedia, Spotify, Linux, airbnb, ebay, Mendeley. This, I believe, has to do with the fact that there is nothing much new about the logic that grounds it: we have all experienced practices of renting, lending, swapping, bartering, gifting and we have all shared spaces, meals, textbooks, opinions, skills, knowledge, etc. with others. We engage in such practices for various reasons: sometimes it is because we simply cannot afford to buy, and access, rather than ownership, is a more viable option. Sometimes we prefer to re-use unwanted items than to throw them away because, in this way, we reduce the production of waste and, with it, our carbon footprint– all of which seems like a good idea in a world of scarse resources and increasing levels of pollution. Some other times sharing is just more enjoyable; it creates or fosters relationships with other people, and often it leads to new uses and innovative ideas. So, what is different now? Why do we come across a number of articles and blog-posts talking about the rise of the “sharing economy”? And what has turned ‘sharing’ into an ‘economy’ proper?
 
Digital technology, and the advent of Web 2.0 in particular, appears to be the main driver of this transformation. It’s not just that ‘sharing’ seems to be the fundamental and constitutive activity of the Web 2.0, and especially of social networks (John 2013); the Internet is also changing the way in which we engage in the ‘old’ practices of sharing. This is evident if you consider how easy access to the Web 2.0 scales-up the pool of potential ‘sharers’, and the amount of information about them, thus decreasing the high transaction costs associated with more traditional forms of sharing. In other words, the Web 2.0 allows the creation of systems of organized sharing both in the production (i.e. commons-based peer production)and consumption mode (i.e. collaborative consumption).
 
By leveraging information technology and the empowerment opportunities it makes available, the ‘sharing economy’ would seem to advance a new socio-economic model, where the production, exchange and consumption of goods and services is based on horizontal networks and distributed power within communities, rather than on the competition between hierarchical organizations. This seems like a valuable characteristic. And, indeed we find that much of the enthusiasmabout the sharing economy is generally expressed through the egalitarian language of cooperatives and civic groups. It invokes values like the dispersion of power, sustainability, community-level connectedness and solidarity, the opposition to hierarchical and rigid regulatory regimes in favour of peer-to-peer (P2P) schemes (e.g. “What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption“). 

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?
These are of course big questions and answering them requires more empirical evidence and critical reflection than I can provide here. That said, I would like to offer one critical insight, precisely about the appropriateness of describing the ‘sharing economy’ as an egalitarian practice. To do so, I will focus on the consumption side of it and the reason is that I find the egalitarian narrative surrounding collaborative consumption more troubling than that of commons-based production.

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.
Indeed, the more collaborative consumption goes mainstream, the more it becomes just a new business model for large companies. Even when the language and rhetoric of sharing is maintained, what characterized platforms like airbnb and Lyft is the profit-seeking of shareholders, rather than the egalitarian solidarity of more traditional forms of sharing, such as gift giving. With this I am not suggesting that the idea is to be abandoned altogether, but that we should be more prudent in welcoming it as a practice that fosters our egalitarian inclinations. It also means that we should be more attentive to the quick developments that the ‘sharing economy’ is undergoing: indeed, there is very little egalitarianism in tactics like those of “surge pricing” (rising the price of a ride in busy times or during bad weather conditions in order to attract more drivers on the road) that Lyft and Uber have adopted recently.

What is the value of (even fair) equality of opportunity in an unjust society?

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.

I assume this is so because equality of opportunities of one form or another is a very widely accepted political value today. Why would anyone be against fair chances? For people on the right, the principle of equal opportunities embodies an ideal of meritocracy which in turn promises that desert will be rewarded. Those on the left are keen on a version of the principle designed to condemn as unjust the obstacles that class (and other kinds of social inequalities) pose to individuals’ strive to obtain socially desirable positions. For instance, John Rawls‘ principle of fair equality of opportunities(henceforth FEO) requires this: ‘[s]upposing there is a distribution of native endowments, those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin.’ The rest of this post explores the value of this version of the principle.
One of the most compelling reasons for valuing FEO is the belief that it is unfair when factors such as the level of education or wealth in one’s family of origin determines one’s chances to lead a good life. This reason is either unstable or less compelling than it seems at first glance. If it is interpreted to say that how well someone’s life goes ought not to depend on factors that are outside her control and for which she cannot be held responsible, then the principle is unstable: we are as little responsible for our native talent, and, possibly, for our ambition, as we are for our parents’ money and education. If it is interpreted to say that people deserveto reap and keep the benefits of their talents the principle is contentious precisely because people have no merit in being born with particular native talents.
Here is an illustration: imagine that two children have an equally strong desire to get a job and that occupying it will contribute equally to their overall wellbeing; one is more talented, while the other has more parental support. If we bracket the question of the social utility of that job being occupied by one, rather than the other, person, does it make any moral difference which of the two gets the job? In any case there will be a winner and a loser, and in any case a form of luck will dictate who is who.
You may think that the issue of social utility ought not to be bracketed. A second ground for valuing FEO is that the ideal of meritocracy it embodies makes possible various kinds of excellence that all of us have reason to desire (who does not want to be served by competent doctors or civil engineers?). This reason has more weight when in comes to selection for some occupations than for others, and it may be most often false in an unjust society. There is some reason to want, all other things equal, that the people who are most talented for medicine (amongst those who wish to practice it) become doctors. But with respect to other professions that are sought after, ‘good enough’ will probably do (say, when it comes to who ends up practising civil law.) FEO is not necessary to avoid the social disvalue of incompetent individuals landing jobs where they can do harm. A method of eliminating candidates below a certain threshold of competence will do.
An even more important point here is that people who live in unjust societies have reasons not to want the most talented people to occupy those desired positions that are connected to the exercise of power. The most talented lawyers serving a corrupt legal system are likely to do more damage than more mediocre ones; the most talented conservative politicians will be most efficient at keeping in place unfair institutions; and similar things can be said about the most talented bankers, tax advices and top managers working in unjust societies.
One last thought on why it is not socially useful if the most talented land the best paid social positions in unjust societies: such societies tend to have mechanisms that harness talent in the service of a well-off minority – one such mechanism is, obviously, better pay. To take again an example from medicine, much research talent is currently used to seek cures for trivial conditions that afflict mostly the rich. There is no social utility in the most talented researchers who compete for these positions getting them. Therefore (and other things equal) it is far from clear that FEO in an unjust society contributes to the maximisation of social utility.
Third, FEO can also be instrumental to improving the situation of the worst off. In Rawls’ theory of justice FEO is nested in a more complex principle, demanding FEO to regulate the competition for desirable social positions in a society whose basic institutions are organised to ensure that the worst off members of society are as well off as possible. If the most talented individuals occupy the best rewarded social positions in a well-ordered society, this will supposedly lead to the maximisation of the social product. As a result, everybody, including the worst off members of society, will end up better off than the would if other, less talented individuals were to occupy those positions. This is the meritocratic component of FEO. The best results in this sense will be achieved if individuals can develop their talents equally, unencumbered by their class, gender, race etc. This is the fairness component of FEO. In this justificatory story, the value of FEO is entirely dependent on its operation in an otherwise distributively just society. Rawls himself came to the conclusion that the realisation of the difference principle requires market socialism or property owning democracy. One may dispute this, but few dispute that current societies fail to realise the difference principle. How important is it to make sure that people have fair chances to win unfair competitions?
So it seems a mistake to worry too much about social mobility. We should be a lot more worried about substantive inequalities than about the distribution of chances to end up as a winner rather than as a loser.

Supply, investment, and the allocation of scarce goods: How not to argue against rent control

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.

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