Tag Archives: Doug Masson

Rawls And Masson Are Right

Doug Masson can always be counted upon for thoughtful observations about policy proposals, whether those are at the state or federal level. In a recent post,  he took a look at the GOP’s tax bill, and made a point that is often missed–or misunderstood.

After criticizing Orrin Hatch’s nonsensical justification for a provision that would widen the gap between the rich and poor, Masson writes

I always get grief from my conservative friends when I say stuff like this, but reducing wealth disparities in the country isn’t just a matter of bleeding-heart, feel-good liberal mumbo jumbo like fairness and equality. Concentration of large amounts of wealth in a few hands distorts markets and democratic processes. The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down.

The most common defense of Masson’s position–a defense that is entirely accurate, albeit incomplete–is historical. Most countries that have experienced persistent large-scale inequalities have eventually been destabilized by revolt or revolution. This country is already seeing signs of citizen unrest; continued Congressional theft from the poor in order to bestow even more goodies on the rich will be met with anger and resistance, and it won’t be pretty.

Economists also support Masson’s thesis. They point out (as I’ve done several times on this site) that 70% of American economic activity is dependent upon consumption, and when large numbers of Americans have little or no disposable income with which to consume–when they are barely able to afford necessities–the economy can’t grow. When demand is weak, employers don’t increase production–which means they don’t create new jobs.

Those practical arguments are persuasive, but we shouldn’t ignore the fairness argument, because it goes to the heart of what makes a just society.

John Rawls was the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th Century, and his book Justice as Fairness established a framework within which political philosophers still argue. Rawls believed that all social primary goods–by which he meant liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and what he termed “the bases of self-respect”–should be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these is to the advantage of the least favored. 

Inequality, in other words, can be justified, but only if that inequality is necessary to the improvement of the lives of the least fortunate.

When Masson writes “The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down,” I read that as another way of making Rawls’ point.

When markets work–when we have genuine capitalism, not the corporatism that characterizes the United States today–they usually meet Rawls’ criteria. Invent that better mousetrap, and everyone’s mouse-catching is improved. The money earned by the inventor provides an incentive to other ambitious folks, prompting them to invent something else that will improve life for many people, including  poor people. A rising tide really does lift all the boats–we just have to be careful to define what constitutes a “rising tide.”

The fact that our mousetrap inventor has more money than someone else is thus a permissible inequality, because he has earned it in a way that improves–in some way, to some extent– the lives of the less fortunate.

This definition of justifiable inequality doesn’t reflect the inequities in today’s America. As Masson points out, money acquired isn’t necessarily the same thing as money earned; there’s a difference between that inventor/entrepreneur and those whose wealth was inherited or acquired as a reward for  “gaming the system” or helping others to do so. Bigly.

Our gilded age inequality fails all three tests: history, economics and fairness.

We need to fix it.

Talking About What We Understand

One of the bloggers I follow is Doug Masson, a thoughtful and impressively erudite observer of the circus that is current American politics. I was especially struck by his recent post on the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and mainland American preoccupations.

Puerto Rico is suffering. Like a lot. 3.4 million Americans have been without power for 5 days and the prospect of getting the electric grid up and running seems to be distant. 90% of the distribution system may have been destroyed. 91% of cellphone sites are also out of service, according to the FCC.

Despite this crisis, I’ve been hearing more about whether football players will stand or kneel during a game. Judging from the emotional energy spent online during the past couple of days, the manner in which sports professionals choose to observe the national anthem and conduct their protest is more alarming than the prospect of 3.4 million Americans facing a humanitarian crisis. Hell, I’m guilty of knowing and talking more about Kaepernick than what’s going on in San Juan which is, by the way, the only Puerto Rican city I can name without looking at a map.

Masson is certainly not alone in pointing out the difference in what I might call the “emotional investment” in these two issues. He is, however, the only one to point out a disquieting reason for that difference: something he identifies as the “bike shedding effect.” That is a term I had not previously encountered (and I’m not entirely clear on its derivation even after reading his post). Masson shares an illustration:

He provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

This example really hit home, because it was reminiscent of an experience my husband shared with me some twenty years ago. He was the architect for a new school building, and he was presenting the preliminary plans at a school board meeting. He anticipated a number of significant questions about the design–everything from room sizes to emergency exits to features affecting pedagogy–but the only discussion the board engaged in centered on the size of the elevator for handicapped individuals, and whether it should be large enough to accommodate one wheel chair or two.

The Board spent over an hour on that issue. No other was raised.

My husband was dumbfounded. On his way out of the meeting, he ran into a friend and shared his befuddlement; the friend–who was pretty savvy–just smiled and said, “You know, people talk about what they can understand.”

As Masson goes on to explain in his post, it’s relatively simple to form an opinion about what respect for the flag entails (and whether and how people of color should complain when the country doesn’t live up to its ideals). Whether those attitudes are knee-jerk or considered, they’re relatively straightforward.

Puerto Rico is another matter. Significant numbers of mainland Americans aren’t even aware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I have my doubts whether Trump knew that before the hurricane–after all, they’re brown people). Relatively few of us have traveled there, have relatives there, know much about it, or know what FEMA is or should be doing in the face of massive devastation.

So we talk about what we (think we) understand. That’s rather obviously what Trump is doing with his diatribes against the NFL.

The problem is, as America’s problems mount, it becomes very clear that there are so many pressing, important issues that most of us don’t understand. (Guess what! Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing…) But rather than informing ourselves about them–we focus on  recent TV shows, or an outrageous celebrity, or “those people” who disagree with us.

And then we wonder why democracy doesn’t work.

One-Handed Lawyers

You’ve probably heard the old joke about the one-armed man who couldn’t be a lawyer, because lawyers all have to say “on one hand….but on the other hand…”

What made me think of it was an excellent post by Doug Masson this morning, which I encourage everyone to read. Doug was commenting on the unseemly effort by local media outlets and others to find someone–anyone–to blame for the tragedy at the State Fair. (Okay, anyone with money.) Now, perhaps when all the facts come out, there will be evidence that the stage collapse was the result of negligence, but given what is now known, it is more likely that this should be filed under “shit happens.” It’s probably human nature to want someone to blame when bad things happen, but sometimes an accident is simply an accident.

On the other hand (you knew this was coming, right?) some lawsuits that seem frivolous aren’t just examples of our amply documented American litigiousness. One example is the widely mocked and misunderstood “McDonald’s coffee” case. An elderly woman spilled her coffee on her lap, and was so severely burned she had to be hospitalized. When a jury awarded her several hundred thousand dollars,  the “tort reform” chorus took to the airwaves to demand limits on lawsuits, and the case became a rallying point for those who want to make it more difficult for injured people to sue.

What most of the media didn’t report was that McDonalds had been sued numerous times before over injuries caused by their practice of brewing unreasonably hot coffee (apparently, you get more coffee from the same amount of beans if it is really, really hot).  In this case, the elderly woman’s suit initially asked only for payment of her hospital bills, and McDonalds had refused to pay anything.  It’s likely that the size of the verdict was a product of jury outrage, in the nature of punitive damages.

Not long after I was married, I went with my husband to a convention of architects. When one of the other attendees found out that I was a lawyer, he cornered me and lectured on the evils of frivolous litigation. I finally asked him what he would suggest as a remedy. “Why, just outlaw frivolous lawsuits!” he responded, with an inflection suggesting that only an idiot would ask such a question. He didn’t take it kindly when I pointed out that you can’t identify “frivolous” cases until they’ve been litigated.

On one hand, I’d love to be able to weed out suits brought by the greedy and unscrupulous, or just by people looking for a scapegoat.

On the other hand, justice isn’t served by rules that make it difficult or impossible to litigate legitimate grievances.