Tuesday, May 23, 2006

BENEFITS OF WEALTH

"Though, now that I think of it, arranged marriage has been a popular tradition in a lot of times and places -- maybe it just seems like a fundamental right because I'm used to it."

Having more money is undeniably an advantage in this world over having less money. Since money is little more than a representation of power and influence, this should not be particularly surprising, but for some this situation is improper and unfair. It is wrong, some argue, that those with wealth have benefits and advantages that those with less wealth lack. Eugene Volokh examines one portion of that argument in an article about the idea of genetic engineering of babies which, should it come about, would be available to wealthy due to it's cost would not to poorer parents.

I've often heard the argument (buttressed sometimes by citations to the movie Gattaca) that letting parents use genetic technology to boost their babies' intelligence, athletic prowess, or musical ability would make it easier for rich people to improve their kids' genes, which will increase social stratification, as descendants of the poorer people will find it harder to compete. I profoundly disagree with this argument. (I set aside the quite different arguments that certain techniques, especially in their early stages, may have problems that increase the risk of serious genetic defects, and that certain genetic traits help kids at the expense of others -- imagine a gene that makes people resistant to some contagious disease but increases the chance that they'd be asymptomatic carriers.)

He points out that if you make this argument, then you have to make the same argument for private education of children, that technologies tend to start out expensive (I remember my brother getting his first calculator for graduating high school in 1976. The calculator was more than thirty dollars and had only four functions - add, subtract, multiply, and divide - and a memory) but become cheaper over time. Volokh makes the argument:

So if you're concerned that only the top 5% will ever afford getting higher IQ for their kids, that seems highly unlikely. And if you're concerned that only the top 70% will afford it, and oppose the technology because of the bottom 30%, then I think you have the wrong set of priorities. Work on ways to eventually make the technology accessible even to the bottom 30%, rather than denying it to the top 70%.

And finishes up with a great Soviet-era Russian joke I highly recommend reading for it's appropriate point. I agree, don't be the guy in the third cauldron.

Commenters crawled out of their cauldrons and said:
As I pointed out in Orin Kerr's post about using consultants to gain an advantage in college admissions, if you're serious about eliminating these kinds of social inequalities (which don't disturb me), you should abolish the family or have arranged marriages.

I suppose that a Rawlsian egalitarian might accept such inequalities insofar as they eventually benefit the worst off or at least the majority (Prof. Volokh's 2nd &3rd arguments), who could receive even more of the benefits of genetic engineering via hefty redistributive taxes.
-by Perseus


I think there's quite a difference between worrying about a new technology increasing inequality and "being serious about eliminating these kinds of social inequalities."

Also, let's suppose that the social equality benefits of prohibiting a new technology are similar to the social equality benefits of prohibiting selective breeding. I think the costs are a lot lower - the right to use a new technology is less fundamental than the right to decide whom to raise a family with.

Though, now that I think of it, arranged marriage has been a popular tradition in a lot of times and places -- maybe it just seems like a fundamental right because I'm used to it.
-by Steven Jens


This is as good as any, a time to ask this question - or at least as good a time as I will get. I fundamentally fail to grasp, why is social inequality considered to be per se a bad thing? Suppose A makes $25k, and B makes $100k. After, say, some new technological advances, B increases his annual income to $150k, but A remains at $25k. If by virtue of B's increase, A is actually no worse off - he still has his $25k - then what's the problem? In law school, it feels like everyone has a problem with this dynamic except for 3 people in any given class? Am I just missing the moral nexus in my brain that's supposed to make me feel bad when someone who is poor ends up being even *more* poor than the rich, by virtue of the rich outpacing him economically?
-by MikeBUSL07

Am I just missing the moral nexus in my brain that's supposed to make me feel bad when someone who is poor ends up being even *more* poor than the rich, by virtue of the rich outpacing him economically?
Imagine everyone gets richer, save the one guy who stays poor. Relatively speaking, he is more poor than he used to be. Additionally, if everyone has more money, inflation has probably chewed away the poor guy's spending power, so he is actually more poor in real terms than he used to be, even though he makes just as much as he used to.

Now, you personally may not feel bad about this situation, but make no mistake about it - through no "fault" of his own, the poor man has become poorer when the rich become richer.
-by John Castiglione

Relatively speaking, he is more poor than he used to be.... the poor man has become poorer when the rich become richer.
Only if you accept the notion of poverty being relative at all, which is far from uncontroversial. (Would you switch places with Charlemagne?)
-by AmandaG


I think Vorn is missing an important part of the "$50 million party." That $50 million did not goe from the celebrity's pocket into some black hole. It when into a lot of pockets (presumably less endowed). Hundreds, if not thousands of people saw their incomes increase through that act of "extravagance".

That helped at least some of them close the gap between their situation and that of the celebrity.

Was it wasteful? Probably. There are certainly more efficient methods of redistributing wealth. But within the constraints of personal liberties, there's no law or moral obligation to behave in the most efficient method possible.
-by John Burgess


John Burgess,

Good point. I think there are two kinds of resources expended on a $50 million dollar party. One is real resources which are truly consumed, like the time of the people involved. Another, are imaginary resources, like the time of a chef that charges $250,000 for one meal. Clearly, the use of that chef versus another does not consumer a huge amount of "real" resources, and so a good portion of that $250,000 is not harmful to anyone, but simply represents a transfer payment from the celebrity to the chef. To this, I entirely agree with your sentiment that this is a "who cares" sort of issue.

On the other hand, such a party is likely to consume real resources. Say it is held on some remote island, and private jets are utilized. These jets in turn consume the talents of many people to build and maintain. That represents a consumption of real resources that in turn effects the supply of basic goods and services for those with lower incomes.

As for your point about liberty, I think that is completely valid. But that goes to the point of whether we should do anything about the problem of inequality, rather than whether it has negative effects on others. I have not addressed the issue of what, if anything we should do about inequality, but am rather establishing the point that it has negative effects on others. Inequality has costs. It is not free.
-by Vorn


There is both good and bad about relative poverty. Without a significant gap between the top and the bottom, there is little incentive to take the gamble of starting a new business for the possibility of getting rich. The bigger the gap, the bigger the inventive to take the gamble - which is one of the big problems with attempts to redistribute income. The more you redistribute, the less incentive there is to work hard and, probably more importantly, to take the gamble of starting that new company that will sell you the next PC.

On the other hand, as was pointed out, there is the envy factor too. If the rich could just sit on their wealth and be happy with that, it wouldn't be a problem. We could have our incentives to take the gambes required to make all this new technology, etc., and still minimize the envy. But unfortunately, we are human, and one of the reasons to make a lot of money is to fluant it. It is just natural. Think of it as little different from the mating displays of many animals. Besides, the generation earning wealth rarely spends according to its ability to spend. Rather, it is the succeeding generations, those who Freder suggested fell into their wealth, that are going to be the real problem as to envy.

I don't think that many really are overly upset about the house race that Gates and Dell got into awhile back, because the millions they spent on their houses were small percentages of their wealth, and most could appreciate where they got their wealth - with many running Windows and Office on their Dell computers. But a lot would be a lot more upset if their grandchildren got into the same type of race to build the biggest, fanciest house. Luckily, Gates at least, has seen fit to make sure that his progeny won't find themselves in that position. But he is unique there, giving almost all of his wealth away (he is apparently giving less than 1% of his wealth to his kids - which is of course still substantial by most people's standards).
-by Bruce Hayden


There's already a whole lot of eugenics going on here, you just don't see it unless you or your wife is pregnant. What do you think all that pre-natal screening is for. They aren't looking to see if you kid is smart, but whether he will be defective, in which case you will be encouraged to kill him off.

On what basis is it OK to kill off the less than perfect but verboten to help the average?
-by Houston Lawyer

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12 comments:

lance said...

I just finished a term paper on Eugenics and the reality is that it is happening and once everyone accepts it then even more genitic programming will go on. It is only a matter of time and much like education those who are rich will have better access to technology that will allow them to move further ahead of the middle class. Unless God steps in and wipes out the rich or just people like Paris Helton.

Christopher Taylor said...

We can only hope for the entire Hiltonesque "famous for being famous and nekkid" phenomenon will end in fire and chaos.

Martha said...

Am I just missing the moral nexus in my brain that's supposed to make me feel bad when someone who is poor ends up being even *more* poor than the rich, by virtue of the rich outpacing him economically?
-by MikeBUSL07

Yes.

Christopher Taylor said...

I actually disagree with the notion that someone getting richer actually makes people who maintain their level of income poorer. True, by relative measurement they are poorer, but only from the perspective of the richer person.

If inflation does not make your buying power shrink because someone gets richer, then you aren't any poorer. You simply are unchanged while someone else's income changes.

And when a rich person's income grows, they don't pour it all in a huge vault and swim in it like Scrooge McDuck, they buy things with it, hire people invest, etc. All of these things help poorer people by paying wages, buying their goods and services, etc.

Someone getting rich does not hurt anyone else economically unless the method of doing so was at their expense (getting rich by stealing your money, for instance). There is not a fixed, limited sum of money in the economy like the bank in Monopoly that means x person getting wealthier results in y person or persons getting poorer.

Martha said...

And when a rich person's income grows, they.... "invest" etc. All of these things help poorer people by paying wages, buying their goods and services, etc.

Someone getting rich does not hurt anyone else economically unless the method of doing so was at their expense (getting rich by stealing your money, for instance).

When the rice invest, they do nothing for the poor - only for themselves.

Anna Venger said...

you know, if our govt and our crazy legal system didn't place such restrictions on American business, the rich would invest HERE in the US. That really would be a help to the poor.

The whole designer baby thing really makes me angry. We are making it more and more difficult for handicapped people to be valued when we try to design babies (and push euthanasia).

Christopher Taylor said...

I liked the comment that asked why it was ok to kill a baby for being less than average but wrong to use genetics to help the average be superior. I don't know if his point was the same as what mine would be but it's a key point about what Lance brings up above about eugenics.

Martha, when a rich person invests, they do so in business, which takes that money and expands their production, hires new people, opens new branches, etc. It goes to help poorer people have jobs, get paid. In other words, investment does help the poor.

Rich people aren't bad, they're your bosses.

Martha said...

" ...the rich would invest HERE in the US. That really would be a help to the poor."

The rich invest to make more money - money changing hands for money. It does nothing for the poor but keep them in their place.

Martha said...

" ...investment does help the poor.

Rich people aren't bad, they're your bosses.

3:35 PM, May 23, 200"

Not in this lifetime or this society.

Rich people know about acquiring money - they hire people to be a boss.

Christopher Taylor said...

Who do you work for? Are they more wealthy than you?

Martha said...

" Who do you work for? Are they more wealthy than you?"

Irrelevant personal intrusion.

Christopher Taylor said...

The only reason I asked was because you seemed to think that investment in business only helps the rich, and when I pointed out that rich people pay your bills you replied "not in this lifetime or society."

Perhaps I misunderstood, but that seems to indicate you think rich people don't pay you or anyone else less wealthy than themselves.