False Questions, False Debates

False Questions, False Debates
discoveryii
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Posted Jul 30, 2011 - 12:03 PM:
Subject: False Questions, False Debates
In modern political debate, the question often asked is, "What would work best?" but few would ask first, "What would be just?" Yet this is a curious state of affairs, for what is just is what is best, at least insofar as political questions are concerned. If the question of justice is answered, then the question of efficiency can be correctly answered.

For, in any discussion involving the interaction of groups within the realm of economic and civil distribution, we should first be clear on what the function of the thing in question is (or should be). With government, it is a specific kind of justice, and that is the economic and civil form of justice. The economic question, at least as it pertains to government, is the most pressing concern today. Many a battle for civil rights have been won, and they were won precisely because there wasn't as much to lose, but more to gain, by those that were denying them. As Gavin Wright observed, when it came to the owners of Southern textile mills, in his presentation The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution:
Gavin Wright wrote:
One mill executive wrote in 1968 that the Civil Rights bill was “a blessing in disguise for us,” because it allowed them to blame the federal government in justifying integration to resistant white workers. Timothy Minchin quotes the personnel manager of another firm: “The government gave us a nice way to facilitate it and if anybody wanted to complain about it, white people who would say ‘hey why are you hiring all of these black people,’ you’d say ‘because the government forces us to do this,’ you could place the blame on the government.”

The benefit to the owners, of course, was to gain lower wage workers that come as a result of racism that was attached to the now-more-free blacks, as well as increased competition among laborers for work.

But three important observations can be extrapolated from the civil rights revolution. The first is that social change comes faster if the economic conditions are right. The second is that, even for something as, on the surface, uneconomical as civil rights, there is a necessary economic incentive; justice is made possible as the productive forces evolve. And finally, it is far easier to organize for civil rights than it is for economic justice. This is because, though not exlusively, civil rights, and the justice that comes from that, is more easily comprehended than the just distribution of economic goods. The notion of civil rights is far more simple, the fairness involved is more easily understood, and the justice requires fewer steps of derivation from more basic principles. Furthermore, the implications of such rights are not immediately recognized by those that support it, as it pertains to their personal material goods, and the success in obscuring the economic implications was a brilliant move on the part of the organizers.

But the perrenial battle, be it two thousand years ago, or today, has always been for economic justice. No other act sparks up more aversion, more hostility, more class antagonism, than the demand for economic justice. The primary barriers to almost all battles for justice have been economic. This is, to simplify the matter, because there is a direct effect on all people, both the capitalists and the proletariat (propertyless class). Naturally, when material reasons are concerned, the fervor of resistance rises, and, because of legal barriers, the winner of battles are those with the means of production. And here also lies the reason for debates on the efficiency of programs, and the origin of the prioritized question "What would be best?" over "What would be just?"

Consider, for instance, what is considered when weighing the efficiency of the government programs. What is first considered, always, are the economic effects of certain programs and how they are supposed to achieve certain pre-defined goals. Yet, these pre-defined goals are made based on past, researched assumptions of generally established rules of economics within a capitalist framework. But the flaw is that the goal of these programs, implicitly, should be a the just distribution of societal goods, and not mere economic efficiency.

Some may be curious about why I am so averse to economic efficiency as a standard for programs, and why I place primacy on justice. After all, wouldn't an inefficient program, by virtue of its being inefficient, not "work", and therefore not achieve my supposed goal of justice? It might cost too much, not be sustainable, and eventually there will be worse problems to be dealt with.

My objection is, precisely, that there is an inherent bias that stems from considering efficiency to be primary over justice. When considering past economic rules, we are disregarding any philosophical assumptions, and focusing only on economic assumptions. Raising the minimum wage, for example, can lead to a loss of jobs, as well as, perhaps, a higher price of goods if the capitalist decides not to shed jobs. But the irony is that there is still a profit by the capitalist. Justice demands these profits be used to keep the jobs, while holding prices stagnant, and therefore, an overall improvement in the living conditions of everyone. In considering efficiency to be primary over justice, the debate focuses on the capitalist at the expense of the general well-being of the propertyless class. It places the capitalist's interests over the interests of the proletariat. The question "What would be best?", then, has a longer form: "What would be the best way to attempt to satisfy egalitarian principles while not angering the capitalist?", which, in turn, becomes "What would be the best way to appease the capitalist?"

And so, in modern debate, for example when there is a debate between tax cuts for the wealthy and raising taxes for redistribution, the latter still has the stronger case even if tax cuts lead to higher job growth. The purpose of the tax cuts is to provide an incentive for investment, to give the capitalist a reason to expand. Yet, the irony here is that we are relying on whether the capitalist would, according to his own standards of acceptable profit, be willing to invest. But more importantly, in applying such efficiency standards, the propertyless class are giving up benefits that they would gain if they were to use a different argument: that justice demands the capitalist invest, and it also demands a redistribution of societal goods.

When the question becomes "What would be just?", we rid ourselves of false assumptions and change the entire false debate to one where the issue at focus does not depend upon the whim of the few at the expense of the many. By merely changing the standards to ones based on justice, the entire debate changes. The term "uneconomical" and the phrase "bad for business" are changed and redirected, where the former only applies to programs that are unsustainable after standards for justice are met, and the latter no longer considers the capitalist's interests to be one and the same as the interests of the proletariat.
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Posted Jul 30, 2011 - 12:14 PM:

The first argument is about what your goals are or should be.
The second argument is about what policies best acheive that goal.
The chairman of the federal reserve for instance is given two conflicting goals (to control inflation and to maximize employment and then given limited means for acheiving them).
What is a just distribution of wealth?
Many people feel the best the government can do is to try to achieve equality of opportunity (civil rights). For the government to try to assure equal results (economic parity) requires so much interference with property and with incomes as to make the benefits of free individuals engaging in open markets non existent. Freedom and economic equality may themselves be confliciting goals?
If you want to say that the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a few individuals and a few corporations is a problem for a democratic society, I agree with you.

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Posted Jul 30, 2011 - 4:00 PM:

discoveryii, I love what you have written here, it is a simple yet very important concept, I applaud your insight... when I read it I think OK I know all this, but then I am aghast that I have never actually thought it out clearly enough to see the simple and true logic, it is I think a genuine voice being raised here, and an important one.

I would like to see you develop this further, to reduce and condense what you have, because in a sense i think you have discovered the political program of our times.

"The second is that, even for something as, on the surface, uneconomical as civil rights, there is a necessary economic incentive; justice is made possible as the productive forces evolve"

This seems most important as it is the beginnings of a kind-of economic platform.

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Posted Jul 30, 2011 - 6:28 PM:

discoveryii wrote:


But three important observations can be extrapolated from the civil rights revolution. The first is that social change comes faster if the economic conditions are right. The second is that, even for something as, on the surface, uneconomical as civil rights, there is a necessary economic incentive; justice is made possible as the productive forces evolve. And finally, it is far easier to organize for civil rights than it is for economic justice. This is because, though not exlusively, civil rights, and the justice that comes from that, is more easily comprehended than the just distribution of economic goods. The notion of civil rights is far more simple, the fairness involved is more easily understood, and the justice requires fewer steps of derivation from more basic principles. Furthermore, the implications of such rights are not immediately recognized by those that support it, as it pertains to their personal material goods, and the success in obscuring the economic implications was a brilliant move on the part of the organizers.


I wouldn't oversell the economic implications of the Civil Rights Movement. There were many factors, one of them being Cold War foreign policy. Another was the social upheaval brought about by WWII. Prior to the war, southern movements seeking social justice abounded. They included socialist, communist, progressive, and populist movements. They all tended to be stifled, not by racism, but by the rigid establishment which would forgo economic advancement in order to maintain the status quo which meant keeping both blacks and poor whites down.

There was a "War on Poverty" that coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. The Johnson administration championed both. It did achieve some goals such as food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. And prior to WWII those promoting social justice had numerous victories including federal child labor laws and protection of unions.

As for taxes to redistribute wealth, it seems obvious to me that a federal property tax would serve both practical concerns and justice. But instead of laws dictating corporate investment, I would like to see government support of business generation in inner cities. I was really hopeful for the programs of that kind that did exist prior to their abolition by the Clinton administration.
discoveryii
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Posted Jul 31, 2011 - 12:22 PM:

Kelvin wrote:

I wouldn't oversell the economic implications of the Civil Rights Movement. There were many factors, one of them being Cold War foreign policy. Another was the social upheaval brought about by WWII. Prior to the war, southern movements seeking social justice abounded. They included socialist, communist, progressive, and populist movements. They all tended to be stifled, not by racism, but by the rigid establishment which would forgo economic advancement in order to maintain the status quo which meant keeping both blacks and poor whites down.

There was a "War on Poverty" that coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. The Johnson administration championed both. It did achieve some goals such as food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. And prior to WWII those promoting social justice had numerous victories including federal child labor laws and protection of unions.

As for taxes to redistribute wealth, it seems obvious to me that a federal property tax would serve both practical concerns and justice. But instead of laws dictating corporate investment, I would like to see government support of business generation in inner cities. I was really hopeful for the programs of that kind that did exist prior to their abolition by the Clinton administration.

I definitely am not saying that it was solely the economic implications that led to the "success" of the civil rights movement, but I am saying that without the economic consequences it would far less probable that it would be successful.

For example, after each of the World Wars, there was a much higher demand for workers due to an expansion in the economy that wasn't predicted, and this also set the ground for more demands by black folks during the era.

My point is that, with most large movements, the economics behind it is central to the possible demands to be made. It was meant to illustrate the fact that this entire mentality is a distortion of the true issue of economic justice that is harder to demand precisely because of two things: the bias in the questions asked and the resistance met when demands for economic justice are made.
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Posted Jul 31, 2011 - 12:43 PM:

 I  think "modern political debate" to the extent it is practiced by politicians and pundits is laced with reference to right and wrong, which would seem to include justice--to what purportedly is or is not moral.  Sanctimony is prevalent, and I suspect always has been, in political discourse, particularly in these United States.
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Posted Jul 31, 2011 - 1:15 PM:

ciceronianus wrote:
 I  think "modern political debate" to the extent it is practiced by politicians and pundits is laced with reference to right and wrong, which would seem to include justice--to what purportedly is or is not moral.  Sanctimony is prevalent, and I suspect always has been, in political discourse, particularly in these United States.


 

What is just and fair is a matter of historical balance -- what is accepted at one point changes with history. However, they can also get severely out of kilter, which is the case today. Then people feel that the the status quo is neither just nor fair and that the balance needs a shift in an opposite direction.

So while neither justice nor fairness are absolutes, they are the correct general expression of the problem and that is their strength. In Greece and Spain those protesting have called themselves "the indignant ones" which is to say those reclaiming their dignity by demanding justice and fairness -- a demand for a major realignment of values if you like.

I believe this to be philosophically and politically the correct ground.
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Posted Jul 31, 2011 - 5:40 PM:

discoveryii wrote:

My point is that, with most large movements, the economics behind it is central to the possible demands to be made. It was meant to illustrate the fact that this entire mentality is a distortion of the true issue of economic justice that is harder to demand precisely because of two things: the bias in the questions asked and the resistance met when demands for economic justice are made.

If I understand you correctly, it's that we act like we're a bunch of animals out on the Serengeti and we just can't manage to take care of each other. Knowing full well this assumption serves those in power and perpetuates things we're ashamed of, we don't fix it. It takes a pretty broad view to see it.

This is no Russian mir we live in. Why isn't it? Does it matter why it isn't? Yea, I think it matters because without any explanation, the answer to that question is apt to fall into the big bin labeled: because we're vile and stupid. The thing is: if we're truly irreconcilably vile and stupid, then what's the point of complaining about it? Believing that things can be different hinges on having faith in ourselves.

Anyway, as for realizing that justice is the main issue: put me down for "Of course!"
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Posted Jul 31, 2011 - 6:18 PM:

When the prophet Amos (5:24) talks about getting it right, he says "let justice roll down as waters" not "let economic efficiency roll down..." 

I am a little perplexed about which should take precedence, justice of one sort or justice of another sort.  Effectively denying black people free access to the ballot was clearly unjust in a civil context.  The suffrage to which they were entitled was first an issue of civil justice, maybe secondly an issue of civil justice, even third, fourth or fifth an issue of civil justice.  But that is not always the case.  Denying workers (any color) the right to freely organize or join a union may be first an issue of civil justice (free speech, free assembly, etc.) but very close on its heels - or maybe first in line it is an economic issue, since unionization is the only or primary means by which workers can protect their livelihood, something that is at once an economic and civil right.  Lack of suffrage will hobble a people's ability to address civil wrong (no access to unions) with heavy and immediate economic implications. 

Under the principle of "equal pay for equal work" employers should not distinguish between the domestic needs of workers, as did my first employer (the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul).  Married men were paid more than single men, and of course married men were paid more than married women, even if the woman was the sole bread winner -- this within the same type of job classification -- say, assistant professor or librarian or clerk.  This is more obviously an issue of economic justice, but it also crosses into the territory of one's rights as a person -- a clearly civil issue. 

One's rights and validity as a person animated the gay rights movement, and to a greater extent the more radical gay liberation movement.  Here, in this primarily civil justice issue, one's right to be a full person, engage the world as a fully accredited person, not be arrested for what one was, or for what one was doing as a direct outcome of what one was -- all this was almost entirely civil in nature.  Economic interests really have not figured into this discussion prominently until the case of benefits and marriage became viable as a civil justice issue.  Even now, in the states where one can exercise the right, it seems much, much more civil than economic. 

Economic efficiency, I agree, is not a very compelling issue for a movement, except maybe among accountants or something.  But economic justice is jussst as hot an area as civil justice and is usually fungible.   A pound of civil rights is worth a pound of economic rights in many a battle.  The Wisconsin legislature (Republican controlled) and the Republican governor stripped state employees and teachers of the right to collectively bargain.  You can call it a civil issue, or an economic issue, because one leads to the other.  Denied the right to protect one's economic interests further erodes one civil presence, and a declining civil presence further erodes one's economic interest. 

Yes, the current political system, aided and abetted by voters with and without a stake in the outcome, decidedly favors the interests of the rich, who have been wielding their economic power for generations to define what are worthwhile civil issues and what are everyone's waste of time.  So, a redistribution of wealth is a waste of everyone's time, but tax benefits for rich investors is in everybody's best interest.  Bullshit!

Let's just talk about justice:  economic or civil, it boils down to the same thing:  the rich have got way too much, the poor have way to little, and there aren't that many in the middle. 
discoveryii
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Posted Aug 15, 2011 - 11:20 PM:

ciceronianus wrote:
 I  think "modern political debate" to the extent it is practiced by politicians and pundits is laced with reference to right and wrong, which would seem to include justice--to what purportedly is or is not moral.  Sanctimony is prevalent, and I suspect always has been, in political discourse, particularly in these United States.

Yet there is no debate about it. I don't see Congress spending an entire month debating what they should agree "justice" to be. Nor do I think that most of Congress is capable of holding the concept in their heads and being honest about acting according to what is just.
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