Friday, December 27, 2013

Redistribute wealth? No, redistribute respect.

"It is said that heaven does not create one person above or below another person."
- Yukichi Fukuzawa

I've always been a communist revolutionary at heart. Inequalities between human beings have always annoyed me, and I have the strong desire to see them eliminated. In American society, we generally discuss three kinds of "equality": 1) "equality of outcome", usually meaning equality of wealth or income, 2) "equality of opportunity", and 3) "equal rights" under the law. The first is typically supported by true communists and socialists, and some liberals; the second by centrist liberals; and the third by libertarians and conservatives. The arguments between proponents of the three types of equality are voluminous and endless. And I think all three are important.

But I find that there is something missing from this list. I've come to realize that there is another important dimension of equality that I care about. Maybe more than any of the others. It's equality of respect.

I had this realization (as with so many others) while living in Japan. I first noticed it when I was sitting in a "kaiten-zushi" restaurant, watching some cooks chop fish. It was robotic, repetitive work, about as difficult - and about as well-paid - as flipping burgers. But my Japanese friend referred to one of those cooks as "sushi-ya-san", meaning "Mr. Sushi Chef". She used the honorific reflexively, not patronizingly or sarcastically. The respect for this low-paid, low-skilled worker was reflexive, automatic. I suddenly wondered if we could get Americans to start calling burger-flippers "sir". The thought made me laugh.

There are other ways in which the customs of Japanese society work to encourage equal respect. Japan is not a particularly "equal" country in terms of income; its Gini coefficient is higher than that of most European countries'. But conspicuous displays of wealth are rare. Rich people live in secluded apartments and houses concealed by high stone walls, instead of in the palatial mansions preferred by wealthy Americans. No one discusses how much money anyone makes. Flashy cars exist, but are rare, and are more likely to be sported by yakuza gangsters than corporate lawyers or young investment bankers. People insist (wrongly, but tellingly) that "there is no poverty in Japan". Displays of wealth are a major taboo, as are displays of poverty; begging is extremely rare).

Now, this may change over time. Japanese culture is not static and immutable, as many wrongly believe; the country's relatively high inequality is only a couple of decades old, and many Japanese people fret about their country turning into a "society of winners and losers". But Japan taught me that respect doesn't have to be all about money.

I feel like the America I grew up in could learn a thing or two from Japan in this regard. I don't know if the word "loser" was a common insult before the 1980s, but in recent decades it has become ubiquitous. People who work in the service industry almost always seem ashamed when they tell me what they do for a living. Low-skilled workers are treated in a peremptory way, constantly reminded that they are "losers". Americans wear T-shirts that say "Second place is the first loser", and "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

I have the vague sense that things used to be different in America. We've never called fry cooks "-san", but (as someone pointed out to me on Twitter the other day) we have an even more egalitarian tradition: calling everyone by their first names. The American style of respect is to treat everyone like "one of the guys" (including women), no matter how rich or poor they are. In the 1920 novel Main Street, which I read recently, this attitude of deliberate informal egalitarianism is referred to as "democracy". Nor does this usage seem tongue-in-cheek; when Andrew Jackson opened the White House lawn to the common people for an inauguration party in 1828, it was hailed as the beginning of a new era of "Jacksonian democracy".

Today when we think of "democracy", we think of formal institutions like elections, constitutions, and rights under the law. But it seems that our forebears also conceived of "democracy" as an attitude of equal respect for all people regardless of social station. Equal respect could thus be seen as one of America's "founding virtues". And it's not hard to imagine that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence wrote that "all men are created equal" - that cryptic, endlessly-debated phrase - what they meant was not equality of ability, but as deserving of equal respect by society.

I have little hard evidence that America has taken a turn away from this founding virtue. But I definitely have that feeling.

It's tempting to blame conservatives, libertarians, and the business community for the erosion of equality of respect; in the 1980s, Americans were told that our economic dominance could only be maintained by becoming a "hypercompetitive society". There was definitely an attitude that only the threat of becoming "losers" would motivate Americans to work hard. Liberals who advocate cooperation over competition are, of course, derided by the Right. And libertarians were the biggest cheerleaders for the wave of deregulation and globalization that widened inequality of wealth and income for the American middle class, and sent the share of the top 1% soaring into the stratosphere.

But I think American liberals have also made the mistake of focusing too much on income and wealth as the measures of success. Every chart and graph we see about America's increase in "inequality" is about either money, or the likelihood of getting money. Sure, disparities of wealth are distasteful. Sure, money is one thing that confers social status. But by focusing on it obsessively, I think liberals are helping to cement its paramount importance as the end-all and be-all of social outcomes.

This is bad because it cements an American attitude of crass materialism, but it's also bad because it ignores achievable types of social equality while questing after the unattainable. Societies can be more or less equal in terms of wealth and income, but only to a degree; as Vilfredo Pareto observed, and as studies have later confirmed, every society on Earth has wealth and income distributions that follow some kind of power law, where a small fraction earn and command much more money than the vast majority. You can make the cure flatter, but never close to flat.

Whether we're questing after a narrow money-based vision of equality or callously celebrating the "competitiveness" created by material inequality, we Americans seem to have mostly forgotten about equality of respect. This is bad not just because I personally dislike it, but because in a developed country like ours, respect is a big part of what makes people happy. In fact, I suspect that our turn away from egalitarianism is one factor behind our bifurcation into a class society.

I want this to change. I want to move back toward a society where the hard work of an unskilled laborer is considered worthwhile in social interactions, regardless of how many dollars it brings home. I want to move back toward a society where being a good parent or a friendly neighbor earns as much respect as making a hundred million dollars on Wall Street.

In other words, I want our "democracy" back. We need to redistribute respect.


  1. Andrew L.5:07 PM

    Too bad respect and dignity can't be used to pay student loans, medical bills, or rent.

    1. Too bad paying student loans, medical bills, and rent doesn't earn you respect.

    2. Doing laundry does

    3. Anonymous8:23 PM

      Speaking for myself, the biggest problem with not being able to pay student loan bills, medical bills, and rent is that it so often means loneliness. You can't afford to go out with friends. You can't afford to date. I don't see how re-distributing respect improves that situation.

      If I'm honest about my frustration with inequality it isn't, for me, because I can't have a bunch of nice things which I basically don't care about. It's because I can't have a lifestyle that lets me reliably be with someone...even if I have a few nice dates i'm terrified what they will think of my financial situation, because the pain of knowing you can't be with someone because of that is so raw. As is the pain of perpetual loneliness.

      I don't see how redistributing respect would help that.

    4. Ruth Ben-Or12:32 PM

      If your date respected you s/he wouldn't think that.

    5. Anonymous1:36 PM

      I didn't take this article as substituting respect for money or lack of it. I took it to mean that we need to respect everyone regardless of their job or income. You're correct that respect doesn't pay students loans, bills, etc., but we need the respect in addition to the money. Those who have money don't need to flaunt it at those who don't. I know lots of people who have money.....some want everyone to know it, some never talk about it. Having money is like religion, if you have it, everyone knows, you don't have to shout it from the rooftops. I'm getting off the subject.....respect shouldn't be a substitute for anything. We should just have respect for all.

    6. "Too bad paying student loans, medical bills, and rent doesn't earn you respect."

      They do. the problem is that too many people can't. It's that simple. You're barking up a tree (culture) that 1) has economic roots, and 2) you can't change without treating it the way you treat a tree dying of malnourishment: give its roots what they need to grow the tree healthy leaves and tall branches every year. If you can get the economy to where people are in good shape materially, the culture will start to take care of itself. If you can't, you won't be able to change the culture, however much wishing you do. In our current circumstances, wealth redistribution might be something htat's needed or helpful in improving people's economic circumstances. You should treat that more directly, not wave it away because it's an uncomfprtable topic in your discipline with fantasies about redistributing the way epople think about each other. The government can't get its hands on that: it can get its hands on the country's money. If you want to have a conversation about active redistribution, then make it be about redistributing something that can actually be actively redistributed. If you don't, then just say so - don't pretend to engage the topic of redistribution with idle chatter about kinds of redistribution that can only occur passively, and in fact really can't occur at all.

  2. Anonymous5:08 PM

    "I suddenly wondered if we could get Americans to start calling burger-flippers 'sir'."

    What a great experiment to try! The next time I'm out and about, I'm going to imagine that each person who serves me in some way (be it a server, salesperson, etc.) as a sir (or ma'am). I might not say it out loud, but I bet that it will change the dynamic of our interaction.

    1. Its probably best if you don't say it out loud. They will think you are messing with them.

    2. You don't necessarily have to use "sir" or "mam" to indicate respect. It's all in how you project yourself. The results of practicing this in my life have undeniably contributed to my financial wealth, but I don't do it for that. I do it because interacting with people who feel respected by me is enjoyable and fulfilling.

    3. Anonymous10:15 AM

      I think your idea has merit, though it has to be something that occurs voluntarily. The moment there is coercion, it loses any value. It's been a personal policy of mine to treat all people as social equals, even though I am very FAR from a communist.

      Many years ago when I was young, the local McDonalds had all the employees refer to each other as "Mr. ***" (there were only guys there at the time). It was an interesting experience.

    4. Anonymous1:57 PM

      I say sir and ma'am to all the people who are providing service to me regardless if its at a retail store, restaurant, dr's office, etc. People don't seem to think I am messing with them, it was just how I was raised. We said sir or ma'am to all adults and it just carried over as a natural extension. I don't call them by their first names, even thought they may pass along that information or have it on a name tag, because I feel that it is wrong since they have not indicated I should use their first name. I don't mean to say it is wrong for all people to do so, only that it feels wrong to me. Calling people sir and ma'am makes me feel like a decent human being and also reminds me to treat others as such.

    5. I'm relieved I'm not the only one!

    6. "I suddenly wondered if we could get Americans to start calling burger-flippers 'sir'."
      Why wonder? Do it!
      Has something changed in America? Youbetcha. When we threw off the chains of aristocracy in the 18th century, the new Americans did not stop using 'Sir', they started using 'Sir' for everyone. When I was young (20th not 18th century) I was taught, and learned, that I grew up in a world where everyone, reguardless of station in life, was due respect. You could lose it through dishonesty or disrespect, but not based on how much you made or how you earned it.
      I believe that we have very largely lost this, and all in the name of democracy.
      I would also have to point out that your assumptions about libertarians being champions of disrespecting losers shows a significant degree of disrespect. I and other libertarians I know strongly feel that all honest work is due respect. Dishonest work, not so much. Riches without work, not so much. Highest respect for those who achieve much through hard work, compassion for those unable to work, and the leftover for those who don't care so much for work. All with the understanding that it is hard (wrong?) to judge.

  3. What about murderers? Should they get equality of respect? Rapists?

    Why is it OK to judge some behaviors and not others? That's what respect is, after all. Somebody in a low-paying job has not taken the time to develop a skill that is beneficial to others. Why should that particular failing be off-limits from our judgments?

    1. What about murderers? Should they get equality of respect? Rapists?

      Of course not.

    2. I love how you automatically jump to the assumption that if someone is in a low-paying job, it's because they haven't taken the time to develop a skill to make more money.

      What if they don't have the time to do that? They might not have the luxury in their youth of indulgent parents who will pay for their education or at least help them out, something that's become even more important with the rise of all those unpaid internships.

    3. Anonymous7:53 PM

      Rapists, murderers and white collar robbers, among others, have lost the right to be respected. Burger flippers respectful of the law deserve much more respect than Bernie Madoff, still many people would show them less respect than to that ___________ (put your favorite slur here).

      My father in law studied at Harvard, was a professor in Mexico, a visiting scholar, among many places at MIT, and he did flip burgers at some time in his life. Was he less deserving of respect when flipping burgers than as a professor? Not in principle, but by disrespecting the flipping burger young you would disrespect the professor. Unless they prove you wrong, you should treat everyone with a basic respect.

    4. KPres has done us the favor of demonstrating the attitude that Noah describes.

    5. "Somebody in a low-paying job has not taken the time to develop a skill that is beneficial to others."

      What makes you think that low-paying, low-skill jobs don't benefit others? Name some.

      What makes you believe high-paying, high-skill jobs are necessarily so beneficial? Their benefits might be a lot more equivocal than you realize.

      And has it occurred to you that some people might choose to develop skills such as sincerity, honesty, tolerance, self-awareness, parenting, love, etc., in a non-self-aggrandizing way, without a particular interest in maximizing material gain? Are you okay dissing them?

      In judging others we all need to be careful.

    6. Anonymous4:07 PM

      " Somebody in a low-paying job has not taken the time to develop a skill that is beneficial to others."

      What an ignorant, condescending statement. That person who is flipping burgers, mopping floors, etc. is doing something for you, that you are not doing. That is inherently beneficial to others, you just don't value their contribution and take it for granted.

      I laughed when I heard a commercial on the radio about some financial wizards touting an amazing "8% after fees" return from their portfolio. I could do better by investing in an S&P index fund and ignoring it for 20 years. Those people are highly paid for a skill that ISN'T beneficial to others, and yet you look down on the person who gives you food and makes sure that the place where you get it is clean.

      Egad, it is soooo hard right now to resist calling names.

    7. Anonymous8:46 PM

      I can think of a ton of ways that janitors, fast food workers, public transportation workers, garbage men, and service industry workers in general have directly and materially made my life easier.

      I seek in vain for what valuable service hedge fund managers, CEOs, and other similarly-paid individuals provide.

    8. Anonymous8:48 AM

      I think you are being unfair to KPres. Consider two burger-flippers: one who was never given the chance to go to college, who just needs to support his family, and works really hard doing that. Seems unfair to judge him. On the other hand, what if our burger-flipper was born rich and given an excellent education, and just partied through college and couldn't get another job afterwards? Seems fine to respect him less than the girl who worked her ass off to get a higher-skill job.

      Inasmuch as we buy that our society is _at all_ a meritocracy, harder work and greater talent are _generally_ needed to get jobs of higher skill. Obviously this isn't always true, but it still seems a bit deluded to argue that the average burger flipper has as much ability, and has worked as hard to get their job, as the average university professor. Perhaps you could argue that it's still unfair to respect a given burger flipper less on the basis of an average that may not apply to them.

      I do like the points made above about how there are many things more important than skill -- like whether you are contributing to the world. I respect a burger flipper more than a high frequency trader.

  4. One of the great things about Americans is that we value money, not respect. Respect is something they have in aristocratic societies. An impoverished count outranks a wealthy merchant. In the US, one's money is as good as anyone else's. It doesn't matter who your family was or what you do for a living or the color of your skin or your religion or what not. Trying to improve the lot of a minimum wage worker, stuck with a 25 hour week and a bad schedule, by calling him "sir" reeks of the corporate "we don't have employees; we have associates" garbage. Calling someone an associate as opposed to a flunky just makes the irony worse.

    Maybe I'm a flaky liberal here, but, after a Smith and Wesson, the US dollar is the great equalizer. After all, as every economist knows, money is just the ability to command goods and services.

    1. Given the universality of the Pareto distribution of wealth and income, tying respect to money seems like it dooms our prospects for equality of respect.

    2. Anonymous8:03 PM

      Money as well as nobility titles can be inherited. Money can be earned in an illegal way. While income can be a good proxy for preparation, hard work and intelligence, it's not for everyone. In a society in which the best public schools are located in the wealthiest neighbourhoods (inequlity of opportunities), wealth as likely to signal past performance of your family than aristocracy.

    3. I agree that it's good that money can be shipped around, (and we should in fact do more of that) but I think "egalitarian respect" is importantly different than the sort you're describing, since the problem Noah's talking about is more about how we respect people with lots of money (or at least honor them in some vague way) than it is any overt tradeoff between respect and money.

      The problem is that we're still picking out special segments of population and respecting them more than the rest, it's just that we're attaching that respect to cash instead of more old-fashioned categories of class. If we can respect people equally, that would be better.

    4. Anonymous8:52 PM

      I can certainly imagine forms of respect that are based on neither aristocratic nor monetary premises.

  5. You may want a broader term than respect: dignity. An excellent recent book on the subject is Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks.

    1. Maybe an even broader term: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Mathew 22:36-40. These ideas are not new, but seem to never get old.

  6. There's usually been some shame attached to service work, although it depended on what the definition of "service work" was. Being a servant in someone's household was usually considered to be fairly degrading work for a man or woman in late 19th century America unless you were the equivalent of a butler. The framers of the US constitution also did the whole "restrict the vote to property-owners" in part because people working in service to others were seen as somehow less responsible and more beheld than farmers and property-owners.

    It does seem stronger in the US, though. There's this sense that if you aren't well-off, then it's somehow your fault. Stuff like that happens with the Fundamental Attribution Error in psychology for everyone, but in the US there's much more of a tendency to embrace it.

  7. Anonymous5:53 PM

    Very interesting and compelling post. I agree that respect is what many people seek, and that money is often only a currency for achieving this goal. But I also believe that money is not always the currency of respect. I’m fortunate enough to coexist in several subcultures, most of which that place value in things other than money. These include members of the duck club I belong to, businessmen I know, amateur athletes and parents. The guy who works a blue collar job who is a great shot is accorded more respect at the duck club than Mr. Money Bags who comes back to the clubhouse empty handed. I suppose that in various largely defined cultures (e.g., countries) there tend to be certain attributes that tend to command respect, and money is certainly one of these in the U.S. These attributes do seem to vary over time, and it would indeed be nice if the range of respect defining attributes were more diverse. On the other hand, I like the situation where respect is somewhat narrowly defined, because it allows me to more easily determine who my true friends are. Shed the outward manifestations of success and see who sticks around.

  8. Simon6:22 PM

    Hi Noah, you might also be interested in reading this:

    I believe this is quite an old topic among political philosophers.

    1. Anonymous4:56 PM

      Thanks very much for the interesting article. I would echo Simon's point that it might be worth digging into the political philosophy etc underlying these ideas. From memory, Ronald Dworkin has argued that equality of respect underpins concern for equality more generally. I think many liberal political philosophers would argue that some degree of equality of outcome is necessary in order to achieve equality of respect. By contrast, Michael Walzer's argument in Spheres of Justice would suggest that inequality in one sphere (e.g. economic resources) only matter when it spills over into other spheres (e.g. political influence, or love).

      The sociologist Richard Sennett has a recent (2003) book very much along the lines of what you discuss in your article. It's an interestingly different take from the political philosophy stuff since he explores the idea of respect (and self-respect) in some depth. He specifically looks at how some approaches to the welfare state can undermine recipients' self-respect even when they are trying to help.

  9. Unfortunately, money and respect/dignity are inextricably entwined in our society. How much dignity is there in having your unemployment benefits run out, and facing the prospect of being homeless and penniless?

    You can try to depoliticize this, but the Republicans are intent on making American society as unequal as they possibly can. And it's been working for 30 years.

    I want to move back toward a society where . . .
    I very seriously doubt that such a society ever existed here.

    The Japanese customs you mention are so different - in fact 180 degrees away from American customs. We can learn some things from them; but the society you long for is flatly unattainable on this side of the ocean.

    lo siento,

  10. Anonymous6:44 PM

    This is an interesting perspective, but money and respect aren't independent. If we had respect for low-income people, we wouldn't be abandoning the social safety net in the midst of a prolonged slump. I suppose you could say that you want them to become independent (from positively correlated), but that strikes me as harder--and less likely--than reducing economic inequality and strengthening the safety net.

  11. I'm hesitant to intervene, having benefited from a native, "everyone is born equal" primary education. You are raising a most delicate subject, so I thought I'd throw in a phrase from Aristotle's Politics, the Ellis, 1776 translation, part of a more famous paragraph most people are probably more familiar with in the horrendous Jowett 1885 version. What a difference a century of industrialization made!

    And the better those are who are governed the better also is the government, as for instance of man, rather than the brute creation: for the more excellent the materials are with which the work is finished, the more excellent certainly is the work; and wherever there is a governor and a governed, there certainly is some work produced; for whatsoever is composed of many parts, which jointly become one, whether conjunct or separate, evidently show the marks of governing and governed

  12. John S8:02 PM

    We could greatly lessen the tendency to sort people into "winners" and "losers" by eliminating grades in primary and secondary school. What do grades accomplish besides making the "good" students feel superior and the "bad" students feel like trash? After the test, the good students forget 90% of the material anyway.

    The acts of learning and evaluation should be separate. If circumstances require one to demonstrate one's competence (e.g. driving a car), an appropriate test can be set up to be taken at the convenience of the applicant. Nobody is required to show how many times they failed their driving test or the scores they got; the license is enough. Why not extend this approach to other fields, like accounting or computer programming? (The CPA requires one to have taken X amt of credits in accounting; WHY? Isn't the test enough?) This seems more sensible than ramming a pre-set curriculum down everyone's throats and then branding them for life according to aptitude for regurgitation.

    Modern schooling instills the framework of "winners" and "losers" in every student. It doesn't have to be this way:

    1. Anonymous10:29 PM

      "(The CPA requires one to have taken X amt of credits in accounting; WHY? Isn't the test enough?)"

      I agree with the general attitude of your comment, but there's a reason for this requirement. People can cram for a test and pass with flying colors while still lacking competency in the thing they're being tested on. Take, for example, the many Asian college students who get perfect scores on the GRE verbal section but have great difficulty in normal conversation. The difference here is who's doing the evaluating. For the CPA exams, or the GRE, the evaluator is far removed from the student. The instructor, I think, is ex ante a more reliable source. This is true even moreso for things like programming that require a measure of creativity--you really want to know that someone has evaluated the student's ability at a deeper level.

    2. Anonymous11:11 AM

      I think we need grades to establish strengths and weaknesses. Part of the problem is that we've gone from A,B,C,D,E,F to A,B,C which tells us a lot less. In many fields we have also moved from the average of a lot of tests to the results of a single test, which – as anonymous above points out – can be skewed for a number of reasons. Another part of the problem is the social weight and stigma attached to grades. If a bad grade represented an opportunity, rather than a failure – that would be a better path.

    3. It may also be political. Satisfy your own criteria.

    4. John S6:48 AM

      People can cram for a test and pass with flying colors while still lacking competency

      It depends on how the test is designed. I don't think anyone can cram-jam the full series of actuarial exams. Similarly, I don't think it's possible to pass Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test w/o a strong knowledge of Japanese (well maybe, if you're Korean or Chinese). Language exams could include recorded conversational sections, like the AP Spanish exam (I believe TOEFL has moved in this direction). Creativity-related competence can be displayed via portfolios or during an internship or apprenticeship.

      The instructor, I think, is ex ante a more reliable source.

      Again, this depends. Most college students go to mega universities where profs often don't even take attendance in intro courses. Perhaps there's more interaction in upper level courses (I went to a small college, so I don't know). Compared to an A, B, or C, a reference letter from an internship or apprenticeship supervisor would be a lot more informative, I think.

      Anonymous, you may be interested in Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society," which examines these issues of learning and competence in more detail. I also learned a lot from John Holt's "Instead of Education."

      Deschooling Society:

  13. Phil Koop8:09 PM

    This is an awesome post.

    It is an interesting fact that emotions, while they are supported by a physiological substrate, are perceived variously in different times and places. While any emotion in isolation may be approximated by some English word, the salience of each and the degree of distinction between what we would regard as similar words cannot be so easily conveyed.

    When I first read Robert Kaster's "Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome", I was struck by how much of the Roman gamut was occupied by emotions relating to respect or dignity (verecundia, pudor, integritas) or its antithesis (paenitentia, invidia, fastidium.) Kaster begins his introduction by recounting a Roman "lost paradise" myth: "... after the principle of equality was stripped away, and ambition and force strode about in place of restraint and shame, forms of lordly power arose, and they remained, among many nations, forever." As Kaster puts it, "the ancients once knew paradise, and they threw it away for the sake of trash. Or so went the story ..." So this social problem you describe is a very old one.

    1. The "paleo" myth suited the facts some time ago; and remains anthropometrically descriptive. Knowledge is building too quickly for such generalities. In Comptes Rendu Palevol (see 2006, v.5, 395-404, for example) and other journals, a history is building, not something most economists will countenance. Perhaps less relevantly, biological evolution didn't stop either; and we know neither what subtle changes there have been, nor their importance. Looking forward is probably a more important direction, if mostly invisible

  14. America has always taken pride in materialism, though I am unsure there was ever equality as you seek except in faulty memories. Religion did have more influence earlier, and 90% marginal tax rates did promote much social spending. The American pyramid is sociopaths presiding over the clueless over the losers. The sociopaths refer to themselves as makers and everyone else as takers. They feel entitled to respect by their position rather than their acts. Gratitude is something others should have for them.

    1. Anonymous7:03 PM

      ^I see what you did there, Lord. Showing no respect to anyone is one way to reduce respect inequality.

  15. On a slightly different topic, I would be interested if you would comment on John Angle, the Econophysicist's 'inequality process'. Identifying the wealth distribution as the gamma distribution (with a variance inexorably that is to say parametrically tied to its mean), results in a *stretching* of the distribution, precisely because the median or mean of it is lifted by poverty programs.

    Perhaps one practical way for Americans to regain respect among the classes is to understand a mechanism that gives a mutual role to the poor, the middle class, and the 0.1%, in creating the conditions of society.

    To put it provocatively, our current inequality exists *precisely* because the programme of the Great Society was successful. Should not both John Galt and RFK celebrate this fact?

  16. Repeat after me: It isn't about money, it's about status.

    Do you really imagine that if tommorrow wealth was equally distributed amongst Americans, there wouldn't be a million ways in which people would continue to measure themselves as winners and losers? Going to the right schools, knowing the right people, playing the right sports, being tall, being pretty, you name it

  17. Anonymous3:25 AM

    Lack of self-respect is a major spur to myopic wealth-seeking.

  18. Anonymous8:44 AM

    Libertarian response caricature: "I agree with Noah that we shouldn't engage in ANY income redistribution."

  19. Anonymous9:42 AM


    Maybe there is a difference between respect and courtesy? In Shakespeare's plays, we see an Elizabethan and Jacobean world with extremely pronounced social distinctions and much status consciousness. Everyone is required to show the prescribed signs of deference to their social superiors. But there are also norms of courtesy that - at least among the well-mannered - restrain superiors from demeaning inferiors. But treating people courteously is not the same as respecting them equally. The gentleman knight has much more respect for the noble king he serves than the groom who prepares his horse - even if he treats the groom courteously.

    The French also practice forms of politesse. Is calling a baker "Monsieur le boulangiere" similar to the Japanese addition of "-san"?

    In the field of courtesy, one of the most notable changes in social norms during my lifetime has been the alteration in norms of sportsmanship. Bragging, ridicule and excess celebration were formerly much frowned upon. Now they are celebrated and encouraged.

    I have often had the feeling that the unifying national experience of the Second World War did much to spread a feeling of democratic equality, comradeship and mutual respect among Americans of the wartime generation, and that those attitudes endured for a few decades afterward but then decayed. Think of a film like "The Best Years of Our Lives." One of the things dramatized in that film is the way in which the military ranks of the three central characters do not correspond to their ranks in the civilian economic order. For people who have gone through such experiences, treating people with respect is not just courtesy. It is an expression of the awareness of an underlying solidarity and commonality of purpose. It is also an expression of the awareness that the person who occupies a lower station than you in the present field of interaction might be your superior in other important fields.

    For me, one of the most disturbing contemporary trends is the way in which "reality" shows have turned every sphere of our social lives into a battlefield for gross and unattractive competition. The worst are the cooking shows. The contestants on these shows seem to be primed by the directors to indulge in aggressive and vainglorious boasting - it often comes off as very insincere, since the people often look nicer than they are encouraged to act. Cooking is one of the arts of civilization, and it seems to me that the art of cooking should be conveyed along with habits of grace, patience, conviviality and leisurely relish. But instead, we have turned it into a savage competition among hustling entrepreneurs to achieve access to the palates of gluttonous foodies.

    These considerations aside, savage inequalities in economic outcome cannot be papered over by improvements in courtesy. There are deeper challenges to justice and even basic rationality in incentives that are raised by our current perverse and disruptive system of rewards. For one thing, many people these days seem to be over-incentivized to perform jobs that they would perform anyway - because they are better and more fulfilling jobs. Also the highest economic incentives of all are given to those who have perfected the advanced arts of socially wasteful extraction and rent-seeking.

    1. Terrific. Your description of cooking archetypal, but could add that through the cool medium we too are able to exercise our palates, just the couch potato's participant sport (and archetypal for a few others, as is your description of the business).
      However, though a quiet demeanor simply doesn't sell, a lot more is going on than is displayed for the consumers. The best of those competitive shows give the chefs time, days, to obtain and deploy compatible ingredients so nutritiously expensive as to be completely out of reach to the population, and equally expensive preparation equipment.
      Though consumption of meals like that can do as much for the spirit as driving a Lamborghini, the meals’ effects are more long lasting. Food is our medium for sustenance and physical well-being, and along with the socioeconomic gradient of health, and other living conditions, deserves more than courtesy.

  20. Anonymous10:29 AM

    I must mention that this problem of respect also and most importantly includes self-respect. I have been appalled over the past couple of decades at the turnaround of the American approach to knowledge, learning and expertise in others and in themselves. I suppose there have always been Americans who consider ignorance and knee-jerk judgmentalism as virtues, the easy-bake version of frontier wisdom. But it has become so endemic, so widespread, that it poisons all discourse and makes reasoned discussion and proofs almost impossible.

    Why is this a problem? If nothing else, it cripples the people who suffer most from our current economic system. If they cannot piece together proofs and arguments, how can they arrive at an awareness of the bonds that keep them flipping burgers?

    The archetype of the poor but wise scholar, sweeping the sidewalks by day and probing the wisdom of the ages by candlelight at night, has pretty well disappeared from the popular imagination. But there lies a path to respect, a path that needs to be reopened.

    Noni Mausa

  21. I like how the author reflexively assumes that flipping burgers or making sushi don't require skill because they involve things like chopping. Perhaps he should examine his own biases before he diagnoses.

  22. Anonymous12:22 PM

    This is why I love Uber.

    Both the driver and the riders get treated with much more respect than is typical of a cab ride. They get an increase in status for the same service.

    Would be nice to have more businesses like that.

    1. Anonymous11:54 AM

      Interesting. It may be the way that I treat cab drivers, but I very rarely get one who treats me disrespectfully. Uber, on the other hand, allows people to essentially drive cabs without complying with the licensing and other regulations that cab drivers have to deal with, thus placing cab drivers at a competitive disadvantage and undercutting their ability to make a living. I never use Uber for that reason.

  23. Anonymous12:30 PM

    This is almost exactly the same thesis that Mickey Kaus wrote a whole book about 20 years ago, "The End Of Equality", arguing in favor of 'social equality' as opposed to the Quixotic effort towards material leveling.

    And my experience in Japan was very different from yours, I suppose. Politeness and etiquette at levels most Westerners (and some Japanese themselves) would find 'suffocating' is indeed ubiquitous. And sure, there is a cultural pressure towards conformity and against ostentatiousness (like in Germanic countries), but there is a very definite understanding of and emphasis upon 'social rank' that is quite distinct from the that in American society, and I would argue more, not less, important in their regular interactions.

    1. there is a very definite understanding of and emphasis upon 'social rank' that is quite distinct from the that in American society, and I would argue more, not less, important in their regular interactions

      Yep, and I don't like that! I like that money is less important to them as a determinant of status, but I want to eliminate all status hierarchies (easy peasey, right?).

    2. Anonymous3:17 PM

      Not easy peasey! I'd say impossible given human nature. I think evolutionary psychology and anthropology are pretty clear about that.

      So, several questions to you then.

      1. What is the origin of your inpulse? Why does it strike you as so compelling?
      2. What if it's impossible to do away with spontaneous statusing without Harrison Bergeron levels of coercion?
      3. What about the benefits of status hierarchy.

      For examples as to 3 - several large organizations, such as the military, and some societies, I would argue Japan and Israel are definite examples, have ways of officially dispensing social rank instead of money as a way to reward and motivate people towards socially preferable goals.

      So, for example, in Japan, certain high level bureaucrats (for example within the finance ministry) are not paid very much at all by Western standards, and even within their own marketplace, could easily acquire much more lucrative employment elsewhere. In the West, we have to pay some of our bureaucrats much more, and also tolerate the corrupting influence of revolving-door hiring policies (just look at what happens at Treasury!) But in Japan, these people are able to go around town with something equivalent to a government-issued title of nobility like "general" or "baron" or "duke" attached to their name. They can call up a random tony restaurant that's been overbooked for months and ask, "Do you have four spaces for Duke Ishikawa in about an hour" and they get those spaces.

      The same kind of thing happens in Israel with regards to recruiting for the Mossad and the Talpiot and elite-fighter-jet-pilot programs. Since everybody has to do military service and stays in the Reserves until 40, everybody in Israeli society carries around their normal status but also their shadow-status in the form of their military rank.

      Unlike in the contemporary West with its very low rates of military participation and isolated social-networks which segregate the elites from the armed forces, in Israel, military ranks have an immediate and salient effect throughout the population. It definitely plays into the status-component of sexual-partner selection and preference (mostly for women, which, again, is human nature).

      So, despite not getting that much more pay, getting into one of those elite programs, especially the Mossad, can mean an automatic promotion to Captain or even up to Colonel. When a young guy walks into a bar, perhaps in uniform, and people see he's a Colonel, even much older men know they had better be on the best behavior, and the girls bat their eyes at someone they know has to be very hot stuff (though it's indiscreet to ask ask why, like asking someone's income in the US).

      So, the point is, these governments are able to ride the wave of the natural human tendency towards seeing the other members of society in terms of status hierarchies by formalizing status and rewarding it to those who perform special kinds of valuable public service.

      If you level all the status-hierarchies (again, I don't think it's possible beyond a very common and high-level of common courtesy), then you are deliberately sacrificing some of the good that can be done with them. It's an incentive like any other, and the trick, of course, is to try to align individual incentives with societal outcomes.

  24. Anonymous12:54 PM

    welcome back Noah,

    great post

    consider this situation:

    One person is a septic tank cleaner, married to a wife and has one 5 year old child. The second person is an [insert a fancy and ridiculously over-paid job right about here], with no wife and no kids.

    Those two guys are old schoolmates and they also participate in a market relation, namely the first guy is hired by the second guy to clean the septic tank at his vacation house.

    Now, assume that they are both equally respected members of their respective communities and what's more each one recognizes the other as 'equal' i.e. they respect each other.

    To put the wheels in motion, assume that the younger child of the septic tank cleaner falls seriously ill and his parents lose a fortune in medical bills. His father, having stopped performing his chosen profession in order to take care of his family, finds himself in a very difficult spot financially-wise. After visiting his 'friend' and requesting for a hefty loan, he is faced with the following choice.

    Since the well-off [whatever]-er is single, he is considering to have an affair with the wife of the septic tank cleaner. He is requesting the permission of his 'friend'-out of respect-to sleep with his wife and in return he promises that he will cover the medical bills and even throw something in for the lady. Obviously, the father-in-need takes the issue up with his better half and they both reach the rational conclusion that it would be in the better interest of all parties involved for her to consent to this-peculiar-affair (she might even not dislike the other guy).

    After all the bills are paid, the child is restored in health, the affair is over and the financial predicament of the septic tank cleaner is overcome, let's take a look at the stock of respect in this community. My intuition is that despite everyone got what they aimed for, their feelings of respect for who they are as individuals are somewhat-if not by a lot-diminished.

    Because what actually happened is that a guy pimped his wife to a friend in order to pay for his kid's medical bills and everybody knows about it.

    Where's the respect in all this foul business?

    Therefore it seems that wealth/income inequality has the potential to mess with a person's sense of value-as-a-person vis-a-vie other persons i.e. it affects morality.

    Another take on that could be that the morality that is embedded in the prevailing mode of doing things just asserts itself through the inequality i.e. the world in not only unequal but-maybe equally if not more so-immoral.

  25. Anonymous1:45 PM

    I work at McDonald's in Texas. I do have customers that call me sir.

    1. One of those customers might be me! When I'm home for the holidays, that is. :-)

    2. Anonymous11:31 PM

      Also, how can respect be redistributed? It wasn't distributed in the first place.

    3. Anonymous12:08 AM

      I'm from TX as well. Our family moved to Arlington, Virginia when I was in the 3rd grade. My new teacher introduced me to the class, then asked "You moved here from Texas, right?" I answered "Yes, Ma'am." She jumped at me with "Now, don't you get smart with me, young lady!"

  26. Noah,

    I disagree with your claim that people in Japan do not care what people make. Indeed, something I have observed all over East Asia, including Japan, is how readily someone will ask you what you make monetarily not long after being introduced to you. This is considered completely polite and OK, whereas such a thing would be highly frowned upon in the US. Indeed, I tell students about this so that they will not be shocked and screw up socially if they have professional dealings in East Asia.

    The funny thing is that I think this fits with your basic story somehow. They like to know what people make, but ultimately it is not that big of a deal and everybody deserves respect. Here in the US, where it is a very big deal, we get all secretive about it. We will call people by their first names even if they have not been introduced to us and will feel free to ask them all sorts of personal matters such as their views about religion, politics, and their sexual preferences before we would dare to ask them how much they make or how much they are "worth."

    And regarding the matter of names, I also disagree that this matter of calling everybody by their first name is a good thing. Maybe it is "equalizing," but it is so in a way that is universally degrading, atlhough saying that shows what an old fart fuddy duddy I am. Frankly, I prefer what continues still in parts of the South as noted by Anonymous just above who flips burgers and gets called "Sir," (and women get called "Ma'am"). Also, what used to be done and is still done in the South is to address someone as "Mr. So and So" or "Ms. So and So" until they become friends or know each other better. These are expressions that show respect, or at least that was how I was taught and still feel.

    My view on that may be heightened by the fact that I am one of those people who has always gone by his middle name ("Barkley"), as did my late father, and seriously dislikes his first name ("John"). But increasingly I have people whom I have never met who see my name on some computerized form that lists me as "John B. Rosser, (Jr.)" and they call me "John." I get this when I call up the computer help desk at my university or when I am at the doctor's or at the hospital. In the case of the latter it is loudly called out. When and why did all these people decide that it was more respectful to call people by their first names rather than "Mr. So and So" or "Ms. So and So."? I do not remotely consider this to be an improvement, although it may be sort of equalizing, but we were already equalized with the former appellations without pretending that we are great friends, not to mention outright insulting people like me who outright hate their first names? (Once when I complained about this at a hospital I had a staff person tell me that if I did not like it, I could go get my name legally changed, Gag!)

    J. Barkley Rosser, Jr.

    1. Oh, and just to add insult to injury, my university's computer email system insists on identifying us by our first names, so that when I communicate by email with people who do not know me well, and even after I sign my name as "Barkley Rosser," I have lots of them addressing me as "Dear John" in reply because my email identifier has me as "JohnBRosser," which makes me feel like somebody about to be dumped by a lover or maybe the client of a hooker.


    2. Nathanael11:34 AM

      Oh, you're the *son* of my Dad's friend! Got it.

  27. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Interesting post given that in it you disrespect food service workers by describing their work as "'robotic, repetitive work, about as difficult ... as flipping burgers." In other words, not difficult and thus, not worthy of respect. I fine troublesome the unstated virtue that difficult work is only complicated, arcane or abstract (see economics). People are not robots. Doing work suited for a robot is difficult -- because it is not challenging intellectually, and instead, repetitive.

    I'd also reference another interesting post below "America is separating into peasants and scholar-gentry" that seems to go further in disrespecting those of lesser means by suggesting that if they just lived life like scholar-gentry all the worlds problems would melt away... including America's peasants.

    If you want more respect for the lesser classes than try empathy -- it appears absent in most of these calculator-club discussions.

    1. In other words, not difficult and thus, not worthy of respect.

      No, it is deserving of respect.

    2. Hi, Noah.
      You need to think this through. Work is not worthy of respect. People are worthy of respect, no matter what they do. And this has to begin at home, with each of us and how we think about others, if we're going to "redistribute respect".

    3. Lots of things are worthy of respect.

    4. I think Anonymous' point was that flipping burgers is incredibly difficult because of its repetitive, robotic nature.

  28. Graham Peterson3:20 PM

    If you don't have hard evidence, what suggestive evidence do you have that Americans are showing less deference to lower class occupations than before? Most of what you've discussed involves Japan, with only a thought-experiment comparison to America.

  29. Bill Ellis4:02 PM

    Thank you for this post.
    I hope this topic becomes a common theme in discussions about our inequity predicament. I have long lamented the demise of respect for hard work in America. It strikes me as very un-American.

    It think it comes from a concurrence of two things--- the rise of Randian/libertarian morality along with the end of the cold war and the threat of Communism.

  30. 1. Your desire for "equality of respect" reminds me a lot of Mickey Kaus in his "End of Equality" (1992, 2/e 1995).

    2. Lack of respect for common people can come from money-obsessed rightists. But it also comes from school-obsessed leftists. Perhaps because of where I live, I find the latter more common and more annoying.

    3. A lot of American mansions are indeed behind walls or hedges, or in rich neighborhoods away from main roads where the less wealthy never see them.

  31. Anonymous5:18 PM

    "2) "equality of opportunity", and 3) "equal rights" under the law. "
    and I read this in Today's new york times

    and I wonder, why do you separate 2 and 3 ?

    as for your knowledge of Japanese society...I assume in the long comments thread, someone else has already mentioned , eg,, which suggests that you don't know a heck of alot about japan

    1. Of course I know about the Burakumin.

  32. Anonymous5:39 PM

    Wonderful post and comments. I'd add that the interaction between respect and dignity and basic social safety nets - broadly defined - is important. Someone gets respect if they don't have to beg for sustenance or assistance - even if they experience bad luck - an illness or accident, for example. In some societies, the only way to have insurance against such degradation was to be extremely wealthy, or to be linked by strong social obligation to others who are wealthy. If those ties are doubtful, humiliation lurks - the theme of many a Jane Austen novel, and a real prospect to many present-day Americans (many of whom do not even realize how vulnerable they are, and whose "I've got mine, Jack, s#rew you" attitudes may amount to whistling past a graveyard).

  33. Bill Ellis5:47 PM

    I would take issue with your head line. I like this one better--- Redistribute wealth? YES, and redistribute respect.

    I am not sure if you meant it this way, but the way you put it makes it seem like you are saying that respect is a substitute for wealth. Or that inequity is not a real problem.
    Do you mean it that way ?

    I am older than you, (turned 52 today) And I definitely remember Americans valuing hard work when I was young...But there was a big difference in what working full time got you back in the sixties.

    Back then a Man could work full time at just about any job and provide housing, food, education and medical care for his family. Back then we had a De facto living wage. And it only took ONE income. ( I specifically used the male gender because it was not so true for women because of wage discrimination )

    Our middle class neighborhood was populated with dads who were barbers, cooks factory workers, teachers, grocery store clerks, car mechanics, small business owners. etc.. My dad owned a beer and shot type bar. He never really made much but it was enough-- most of the time. My Mom never had to work.
    My Father-in law delivered potato chips to grocery stores, and was able to raise TEN kids.

    I love and agree with your summation... "I want to move back toward a society where the hard work of an unskilled laborer is considered worthwhile in social interactions, regardless of how many dollars it brings home.
    But respect does not only come from the outside, it comes from inside ourselves too.

    So when you meet People who work in the service industry and they almost always seem ashamed when they tell you what they do for a living... Maybe you should consider that when a person can not provide for their families that they will have a hard time respecting themselves, no matter how much people might respect them just for working.

    No Noah Smith... Social conventions for showing respect are no substitute for a living wage for hard work.

    1. Redistribute wealth? YES, and redistribute respect.

      I want to redistribute enough wealth to save people from deprivation. And if wealth redistribution is a way to gain equality of respect, then I'd be for that too (though I am skeptical that this works).

      But I don't care all that much about wealth inequality per se.

    2. Bill Ellis9:10 PM

      I don't care about wealth inequality in itself either. But I do not believe that our problems of too much wealth inequality are limited to causing a lack of basic material necessities for hard working people. They also extend into the realm of pure power.
      The best intentions of any system's legal codes will not be able to maintain an equity of rights when there is too large an inequity of wealth. It is certain that right now we have one legal system for the wealthy and one for the rest of us.

    3. Nathanael11:36 AM

      "I want to redistribute enough wealth to save people from deprivation."

      You need to redistribute a lot of wealth to do that. Google "living wage" and you'll start realizing how much.

      Also, what Bill Ellis said. I believe we need to chop off the top of the income distribution. We cannot afford to have people who are powerful enough to buy Congress.

      Being rich enough to buy Congress needs to be banned, and becoming that rich even after it's been banned needs to be punished by execution, since it's a form of TREASON -- an attempt to take over the government by undemocratic means.

  34. Great post. However, I think there is a sliding scale from courtesy to respect. Courtesy costs nothing, and people can be courteous but very disrespectful in a deeper way (as somebody mentioned). (I define respect as "worthy of attention and consideration").

    Being polite (in whatever way is appropriate in your culture) is the most basic form of respect, and I suppose if you lose that (in a country, or an organisation) you have really lost the plot. I have been in the US only twice, and found everybody really nice and really polite. But the general disrespect that I hear from American news is astonishing to me.

    As above: Is a murderer worthy of respect? Of course. That may be an outstanding person in some other way. The murdering part maybe not (remember that soldiers are trained killers, and they are worthy of respect), but in all likelihood that person is also *more than just a murderer. We should always strive to listen to the argument, and treat people with roughly the same amount of respect.

    But, some people have a real thing for deference (sp? Submission?) Some actually pay to get it.

    A shortage of respect in a workplace is quite probably bad for productivity. Hours and energy squandered in suboptimal organisation, because *s/he* could not possibly be worth listening to. S/he probably is just here to skive off, lazy sod. Any suggestions must be more expensive, so I'm not opening that discussion.

    So, some people are actually paying to disrespect... I may be called a little naive, but I have not seen or heard anything that makes me doubt that treating others as you wish to be treated generally is a good policy - and one that gets good solid work done to a high standard.

  35. Late one evening many years ago I was walking alone in the business district of Washington DC and passed a homeless woman standing against a store window. We were the only people on the street so I nodded and said hello. She asked if I could spare some money to help her get a meal. I think that I gave her a dollar and said I hoped that would help. As I started to walk away she said, "You know, you are the only person today that has looked at me and talked to me like I was a real person too."

    Now I am no saint. I am sometimes rushed, my temper sometimes flares and I dislike a lot of interruptions. But I've not forgotten what that homeless woman said to me and I do try to treat everyone I come in contact with like they are a real person too (which, of course, they are). I don't think of that as a show of respect as much as one of humanity.

  36. Anonymous12:46 AM

    This is an interesting post. I've learned a lot, as well, from the comments.

    A contract employee based in India screwed something up big-time for my former employer. Lower management, at a loss for how to deal with the situation, presented the facts of the case to our VP. She allegedly responded "Well, fire him! He's just meat!"

    That really got to me. Much as I loathed the outsourcing of well-paying American technical jobs to less-skilled, less dedicated workers in other countries, it shocked me to hear this woman refer to the contract worker as "just meat." I began to realize that she must also have thought of my co-workers and me here in the USA as "just meat." She was disrespectful, demeaning.

    We (non-management) had build the infrastructure upon which the company made its mark. We (the tech people) had moved the company to a position of dominance in our market. Yet the VP chose to view that one guy -- and apparently the rest of us -- as "just meat." That stung. So I quit. To hell with the corporate goals or whatever they were hoping to accomplish that year or in subsequent years. May they each experience a "just meat" epiphany.

  37. In a better world, we would not have individuals such as Noah Smith praising themselves for their courage in being, at heart, part of an ideological cult whose proponents have murdered, starved, or otherwise destroyed over 100 million human beings; far more than the Nazis.

    See, e.g., this:

    Communists always had better press agents than the Nazis, however.

    1. Is vs. ought. L2 distinguish. In a more perfect world we wouldn't have derpy comments like yours.

    2. Nathanael11:40 AM

      Capitalist ideological cultists have killed far more than 100 million, so what's your point?

  38. I disagree on part of Noah's angle or pitch. To me, it seems like the Japanese rich hiding their wealth is more of the line of 98 percent of Americans wanting to believe they're middle class, than anything else.

    I also don't want to redistribute respect without redistributing wealth; per one other commenter with his Wiki link, and other commenters elsewhere, Noah either has a superficial knowledge of Japan or else is setting up an idealized two-dimensional Japan as predecessor to setting up a straw man about here in America. I'll pass.

    1. That all said, Noah's a neoliberal wonk at the Atlantic. It shouldn't be surprising that he doesn't care about income redistribution per se, or that, on the sociological side, he offers up a fairly shallow paean for equality of respect without truly digging behind that.

  39. I'm assuming this "low skilled" person is a sushi chef. They're the only people I've ever seen cutting fish at a sushi restaurant. If so, then this is not an unskilled or low paid person in Japan. They are a skilled culinary specialist.

    But, none of this detracts from your overall point about worker respect.

    1. Thank you for your point. I thought to make it as well as this has long been my perception based on what I have seen in Japan, although it occurs to me that there may be a hierarchy in some restaurants where there are more than one person behind the bar, with perhaps one being the "chef" and some of the others being mere assistants.

  40. One of the things I have always found profound about the idea of comparative advantage is that *everyone* has a comparative advantage at *something.* That is, everyone can do something relatively better than I can. And recognizing this means recognizing their worth, and respecting them for what they can do. (This has personal application in my own life, in that I married a woman who was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, let along go to college, let alone get a doctorate--which she did. But her father could do things at which I was utterly incompetent, as could her mother, and her uncles and aunts and cousins...And they knew that I respected them for their ability to do things I could not. Made it a lot easier to get along with them, because otherwise they'd probably have felt I was an over-educated twit.)

  41. Anonymous2:45 PM

    I'd like to hear more about this "revolutionary communist at heart" business.

    1. Some people are fine seeing inequalities and hierarchies. Some are bothered by it. I don't know why those two kinds of people are how they are.

    2. There's probably a whole psychological literature on egalitarianism.

    3. I just wanted to confirm and add a little to what Noah said.

      I have noticed, quite concretely, that at least anecdotally, there does appear to be [at least] two "types" of people regarding "redistribution". I wonder if this is purely from upbringing or if it's possibly genetic in nature.

      On a related note, my experience is drawn, surprisingly and primarily, from gaming. Namely, in Dota and Dota 2. If you don't know what those are, now's not the time to explain. It should suffice to say that both are competitive, online, multiplayer "battle-arena" games that require intense cooperation (and therefore, in a sense, redistribution) to be continuously successful.

      I could write a lot here, and I've often thought that this game could serve as a platform for some serious behavioral research. The games furthermore generate a ton of statistical information on the game and each player.

      Anyways, ensuring that each player is allowed to collect certain base amount of resources is absolutely essential to winning. But on the other hand, the allocation of resources should never be equal; one person is expected to get the majority, and that is usually necessary to win. You furthermore should never trash talk your team because it almost always results in a loss...but it still happens all the time!

      Ok, I'll stop here before I nerd out, but I just thought it was interesting that these games require both equality, respect, AND inequality,

  42. Noah, you erred when you stated:

    I want to move back toward a society where the hard work of an unskilled laborer is considered worthwhile in social interactions…

    An unskilled laborer? If one picks up five pound potato bags and stacks at a grocery store, is it unskilled labor? A robot can do that, but we would call it an intelligent, skilled robot! The darn robot has to select potato bag, level it just right and put it on top of other bags that are not any higher than four or six bags… we would employ a dozen engineers to design and build such a thing.

    Japanese society is not as egalitarian as you have made it out to be. There are many reasons why cultures behave in a particular way. Not displaying wealth is a virtue in many cultures, yet, if you explore further, you will find “country estates”. I recall watching Shogun TV shows where there were distinct class structures at many levels, corrupt rich, noble poor, criminal poor, etc. all set in a time before western influx to the country of rising Sun.

    In every economic downturn, wage levels have come down and without pay time at work has increased; in every recovery, most businesses offer intangibles such as a plaque, a pat on the back, so called respect by bestowing titles, none of these make up for lost buying power or an extra piece of bread.

    I would stick to Darwinian forces in all cultures though they may be coded differently.

  43. Anonymous10:26 PM

    Socialism failed to address inequality.
    Communism failed to address inequality.
    Capitalism(Free Market) failed to address inequality.
    Why not we integrate all the three isms?
    We are all born equal, no doubt about that, but as we trek along life's path, we realize that inequality breeds in all aspects of our lives. We come to realize some people are above us, some people are below us. Have we ever realized that we need those people below us as much as we need those people above us? Imagine a world society whose members are all equal in all aspects such as money, education, talent, intelligence, physical capacity, power, wealth to name a few; imagine everybody as kings and queens, who's going to clean the toilet? Who is going to be the policemen? Who's going to be the farmers? Looking into the opposite extreme, let's say everybody is equally poor, who is going to be the leader, who is going to be the capitalist, who is going to be the king and queens? Perry Mehrling expounds on a"theory of money view" and I would like to translate such theory into the social sciences. I tend to view that everything is hierarchical, much like a breathing - expanding and contracting - layered pyramid, wherein the apex represents those privileged few and the base the most under-privileged. When the base expands the apex goes down with it; when the pyramid contracts, the apex is pushed to greater heights. The expansion and contraction is limited; if the expansion is infinite the pyramid will become flatter and flatter and thinner and thinner, and those on top will be sucked down. On the opposite, contraction will also be limited for if it is infinite, the pyramid becomes taller and thinner and loses its balance and fall. Therefore this pyramid must contract and expand to certain limits so that certain stability is achieved. Can we stop the contraction and expansion? I guess not. Can we make THIS PYRAMID stable ENOUGH within its limits? I tend to be positive and I believe RESPECT is one way to achieve stability.

  44. The national rate of obesity seems to be linked to income inequality. I expect there are already papers to that and that it is due to chronic stress from disrespect.

    It would be interesting to derive a measure of respect inequality and see if that correlates even stronger with rates of obesity.

    1. That's interesting, I'd like to see some research on that.

    2. Contrary to conventional wisdom, … the poor have never had a statistically significant higher prevalence of overweight status at any time in the last 35 years. Despite this empirical evidence, the view that the poor are less healthy in terms of excess accumulation of fat persists.
      See more at:

    3. I wrote that in a more inequal country people are (as far as I know) more obese.

      I did not write that the poor are more obese. Your link, by the way, does show that this is the case, you only do not see it in the average body mass index because many poor are also too thin.

      If the libertarian economics blogs are just as unreliable as the libertarian climate blogs, which I can judge better, you are well advised never to trust them without studying the topic yourself in detail. The article I pasted below suggests that conventional wisdom is indeed better than libertarian wisdom, but I will admit that I did not study the topic myself.

      In a more unequal society (almost) everyone has contact with much richer people. Thus not only the poor would notice a lack of respect. And such societies are characterized by a poor social security system. Thus many people would have to fear (unconsciously) to end up on the street.

      I would thus suggest one would have to differences between groups and not individuals with a group.

      Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs
      Author(s): Drewnowski, A (Drewnowski, A); Specter, SE (Specter, SE)
      Source: AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION Volume: 79 Issue: 1 Pages: 6-16 Published: JAN 2004
      Times Cited: 657 (from Web of Science)
      Cited References: 120 [ view related records ] Citation MapCitation Map
      Abstract: Many health disparities in the United States are linked to inequalities in education and income. This review focuses on the relation between obesity and diet quality, dietary energy density, and energy costs. Evidence is provided to support the following points. First, the highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates and the least education. Second, there is an inverse relation between energy density (MJ/kg) and energy cost ($/MJ), such that energy-dense foods composed of refined grains, added sugars, or fats may represent the lowest-cost option to the consumer. Third, the high energy density and palatability of sweets and fats are associated with higher energy intakes, at least in clinical and laboratory studies. Fourth, poverty and food insecurity are associated with lower food expenditures, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and lower-quality diets. A reduction in diet costs in linear programming models leads to high-fat, energy-dense diets that are similar in composition to those consumed by low-income groups. Such diets are more affordable than are prudent diets based on lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit. The association between poverty and obesity may be mediated, in part, by the low cost of energy-dense foods and may be reinforced by the high palatability of sugar and fat. This economic framework provides an explanation for the observed links between socioeconomic variables and obesity when taste, dietary energy density, and diet costs are used as intervening variables. More and more Americans are becoming overweight and obese while consuming more added sugars and fats and spending a lower percentage of their disposable income on food.

  45. Noah,

    Interpersonal respect is important, but let's not neglect intrapersonal respect! Individuals have to get it out of their head that because they flip burgers, they are somehow command less status. Self-worth is not extrinsic. Fundamentally, it [ought to] come, not from wealth, but absence of shame. And there's not enough emphasis on absence of shame in our society.

    1. Bill Ellis12:17 PM

      Jefftopia says: "Self-worth is not extrinsic."

      In practical terms it is extrinsic. If a person can not support a family, most people will find it hard respect themselves. That is something that is hard to transcend.

      I am all for demanding that we respect people that work hard, no matter how much money they make. And I do believe that if we respected hard work that it would make policies that redistribute wealth more politically possible.

      But I think it is a mistake to talk about the need to respect people that work hard without acknowledging that a living wage is necessary for a provider's self-worth.

    2. Well *ideally* self-worth is not extrinsic. I don't mean to contradict what Noah wrote - we certainly should "redistribute" respect. I felt that per this discussion it ought to be said: shame is an important but far too often neglected social concept. :-)

  46. Anonymous12:10 PM

    I actually couldnt disagree more with this article. Bottom line is that people need a living wage. You can neither coerce respect nor can you trade it. These romantic and purely academic notions have no root in reality.

    "Displays of wealth" are also purely subjective. So in Japan it is ok to have a massive wealth gap because the "rich" hide and call burger flippers "sir"? Ridiculous. There will always be wealth gaps because resources are finite and it is impossible to create universally equal ability in people. Even in a *perfectly fair* system (which couldnt exist) in terms of *access*, *ability* would *still* create a gap. People like nice things and with life being a one way trip that you get to do once, I don't think it's reasonable to force everyone to *not* want nice things to assuage the guilt of a few. That is also ridiculous and unnatural.

    All of this hand wringing helps no one. What *can* help is to create a strong system of education and retraining that brings more people into viable jobs and keeps them there. There *does* need to be *actual* redistribution of wealth to ensure that this happens. In addition, there need to be safety nets to minimize the damage on the disenfranchised as progress *does* occur. You cannot stop progress nor can you change human nature (nor is there any real reason to *try* to), but you can strive towards a system that is more humane and protects even the "lowest" among us.

    If I were to fall on hard times and became homeless, but could count on safe shelters, decent food and medical care, and a retraining program to help get me back on my feet, I *really* wouldnt care if Beverly Hills millionaires were having parties in mansions every night if it was their tax dollars that helped create these systems that helped me.

    If they instead hid their money, lived in modest apartments, and said "good day to you sir!" after dropping $1 in my cup, how exactly would that be better?

    1. What *can* help is to create a strong system of education and retraining that brings more people into viable jobs and keeps them there.

      I think that you are expecting way too much from education and retraining.

  47. This comment has been removed by the author.

  48. Concerning fast food workers and other low pay jobs, all work has dignity and is deserving of respect.

  49. BTW this bothers me about John Stewart of the Daily Show fame he disrespects views and kisses buts of high status politicians.

  50. My guess is that other kinds of redistribution would likely follow from redistribution of respect.

  51. I lived for an adjunct for about a decade and basically could not pay my bills. I feel I had enough respect but I did not have enough money - which was humiliating in and of itself. And also led me to live in a chronic state of anxiety.

    I think this is the post of someone who has always had enough money. You are an elitist and a privileged child of the upper middle class and you have no idea what it is like to really not have enough. To fear the next parking ticket with cold sweat.

    This sort of post makes me wish we had re-education camps, for elitists who don't know what they don't know. If economists who have advocated outsourcing would all attend re-education camps in Flint, Michigan, I think our country would be better off.

    In other words: you are not reality based. Shame on you.

  52. I come from a country with a live monarchy, nobility, and gentry. People can inherit titles, and the robes and courtesies that go with them, but for centuries the land has known that some will disgrace the titles they inherit, even unto the very highest, and so we have always understood "noble" and "respectable" to mean different things, never confusing birth with worth.

  53. Noah,

    Have you been watching Downton Abbey?

  54. Hi...

    Same as Google, but with your name in Logo...


  55. The ideology of globalization undermines respect for fellow citizens. If you want Americans to treat their fellow citizens well, then you need an ideal of citizenism:

    1. Tell me, Sailer, how are we going to do that when a loud, obnoxious minority of Americans continually insists that nonwhite Americans are inferior? Eh?

      Get off my lawn.

    2. Nationality likely more economically significant than it is morally. In fact, I've never encountered a persuasive case for why our [arbitrarily] fellow citizens are more deserving of moral treatment than non-citizens. Yet I encounter this opinion constantly. It saddens me.

      "true patriots...are willing to make sacrifices for the overall good of their fellow American citizens rather than...six billion foreigners."

      I invite the question: What is so morally significant about being a "true patriot"? Why ought I be compelled by this branding of "patriotism"? It looks like xenophobia to me, and I'd much rather focus my moral attention (and therefore, economic attention) on nations that are not fat, rich, lazy, and developed.

    3. Bill Ellis8:12 PM

      Steve...that was an incredibly incoherent article. Painful.

      You should educate yourself about Demographic transition. Mexico has been transitioning from stage two to stage three. ( meaning that the pressure to emigrate from Mexico is evaporating. It's not just our bad economy that has stopped it cold.)

      All the money people like you want to spend on "securing the border" is a sad, colossal waste.

      If you want to argue for targeting groups for immigration into the USofA just do so. (how about offering Palestinians the right to move here for giving up their "right of return"? ) You don't have to denigrate other groups to do it--- unless you feel that is the only way to broach the topic to your target audience that have been turning to "The American Conservative" for a pseudo-intellectual basis to justify their bigotry.

  56. Did you know the phrase above by Yukichi Fukuzawa was a citation from the Declaration of Independence? Just FYI

    1. Yes, and also he explicitly followed it up with the assertion that nurture can eliminate any natural inequalities, through education...

  57. Ronan4:24 PM

    Conservatives and libertarians support equal rights ? are you high ?? !! have you ever heard of thr civil rights movement ? rhetorically everyone supports equal rights, its a meaningless catchphrase, tbh

  58. Noah, in Japan no restaurant worker expects a tip, no garbage-collection crew expects a holiday gift, and so on. In the US, money talks, BS walks. Which means that a burger flipper would rather see a dollar in their tips cup than be called sir. It will be harder to convince the providers of services to become more Japanese-like. I have a feeling that the consumers of services would happily pay verbal respect if they receive high-quality service without the expectation to express their appreciation in monetary terms.

    1. In the US, money talks, BS walks.

      BS does not walk in the United States, but I appreciate your idealism. ;-)

  59. Though some of your commenters have noted material elements of impoverishment, I’m afraid your responses to them have been skeptical, except on the spiritual side. I do hope this was not tactical, as this post itself has attracted much respect, or mention in the conservative blogosphere.
    Look, spiritual advancement by the poor is all well and good. We all need a little, “yes we can.” Unfortunately, this, like the confidence fairy, is just not one of those recipes that scales from the micro to macro basis. I’m afraid that lack of ‘respect’ has in all too many cases a material, biological basis, with social concomitants we are now scientifically aware of.
    Heirarchy is endemic across our family of species and others. The Whitehall studies to cite the most famous example, identify status-related gradients of cortisol, a stress hormone; and this gradient is also seen in chimps, by Sapolsky. However, the socioeconomic gradient of health, one of the best-documented relations in the social sciences, has figured only indirectly in recent debates, so explaining many embarrassing comments above.
    Moreover, people are accustomed to evaluating each other on a physical, broadly speaking fitness basis, say other studies. I cannot resist, DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0136 should satisfy. Material conditions are cues. In societies that don’t wash very often, unsanitary clothes are more acceptable (if not among your students, you are missing out on the one of the worst job creating responsibilities of the economics professoriate). Seriously though, take it from a specialist in the anthropometrics microdata, the gradient is pervasive.

    What's changed perhaps, in the present day US, compared with Japan, and other advanced but traditional countries, where social hierarchies are more or less stable, is that here, everybody is believed to start out equal, by divine right. Equal opportunity is not exactly our mother’s milk, (see DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.112.042689 the multiple pools), but certainly is more or less taught to us by indoctrination during latency.

    That cannot help but feed the egotism U.S. students exhibit relative to others' kids in the international testing, and so may be a principal driver of the U.S. "Hunger Games" type of social order you have been perceiving. To impose filters, suppress wages, and generally support social inequalities, the demarcations of status require constant reinforcement.

    Adding to this, U.S. mobility is more frozen than in other countries. So, more of our wealthy have achieved their status on the basis of luck, rather than elements of character. Our elites are both more defensive, and more worthy of attack. Please, hup two.

  60. The problem with this kind of post is that while there is some validity in a few of the comments it falls apart due to the stereotyping. Nobody fits cleanly in one of the 3 categories you espouse. My Faux News junkie friends consider me a Liberal and my Liberal friends see me as a Conservative. I see myself as a mix of all 3 and which depends on what the specific issue is. I know plenty of self proclaimed Liberals who believe strongly in personal responsibility and feel the State should only provide a hand up when necessary to give some one a chance. I also know plenty of self proclaimed Conservative Christians who are the most hateful and selfish human beings I have ever been around and in 5 minutes can tell you why you are the problem. It is pretty much documented that breaking the poverty cycle is difficult but not impossible and maybe we should as a society put resources there and if someone does not take advantage of the opportunity then don't help them any more. We can create a better world than 80% of the citizens of this planet now reside in.

  61. I guess I don't understand what you're trying to say here. Are you saying that respect equality is a replacement for income equality? If so, I have to disagree (respectfully, of course). To the extent that respect has any value, it would seem that this value only matters after some minimum quality-of-life threshold is reached. In that regard, I would view respect is a luxury good, and as proof of this (well, maybe not proof, but more of a smell test) I would point to the fact that, by and large, people don't quit their low-wage jobs because they aren't shown enough respect.

  62. I'm glad you were able to publish this prior to year-end so that you were able to beat the deadline with the most ridiculous post of the year.

    Yeah, nothing like looking to Japan as a model of respect. What you were too naive to notice, Noah, was that your Japanese friend had tremendous respect for the Sushi Chef, but only in relation to you. See, Noah, you are Gaijin and the Sushi Chef is Pure-Blood-Japanese. It don't matter what any Pure-Blood-Japanese comparison to Gaijin, there will always be respect.

    As for the rest of the post---"We should redistribute respect!" What does that even mean? It's nothing but a feel-good, content-free, glittering-generality.

    Hey Noah, here's a couple more for you:

    "We should redistribute Compassion!"
    "We should redistribute Empathy!"

    My God, how good it feels to write those words.

    Seriously, I am surprised anyone takes you seriously when you write such trite, ignorant nonsense:

    "I want to move back toward a society where the hard work of an unskilled laborer is considered worthwhile in social interactions, regardless of how many dollars it brings home. I want to move back toward a society where being a good parent or a friendly neighbor earns as much respect as making a hundred million dollars on Wall Street."

    What society has ever exhibited this kind of "respect" without a corresponding decrease in the respect for other races, religions and women?


    So OK, maybe what you are trying to say is you want to move forward to a society where ALL people, regardless of skill, race, religion or gender are respected equally.

    Good for you, Noah.

    A lot of us do not want this, though, Noah. I hope you respect this. What we want instead is massive amounts of disrespect levied at anyone who is not worth millions. We want to spit in the face of janitors and brick layers.

    Now, before you get mad--have you ever experienced the thrill of heckling a migrant worker? It's magical, Noah. It really is.

    So don't tell me about Equality of Respect, Noah. You are NOT going to take away my my morning ritual, which begins with "Shine my shoes, Bitch."

    In conclusion, here's what I want for the New Year:

    No Negative Emotions. From anyone. No Envy. No Jealousy. No Condescension (that one's going to be especially tough for you, Noah).

    In their place, I want All POSITIVE Emotions: More Peace More Love. More Understanding. What's so funny about that, anyways? That's what I want. But that's just me. I'm unique that way.


    I HATE cancer. I just HATE IT!! And heart disease too. Heart disease sucks.

  63. "I've always been a communist revolutionary at heart."

    I stopped there. Let us remember what communist revolutionaries did in Russia and China, killing hundreds of millions of people, not to mention Cambodia where they slaughtered a third of the poplulation.

    This is a feeling you should discuss with a psychiatrist.

    1. Bill Ellis11:07 PM

      The atrocities you site are not inherent to communism---they are inherent to totalitarianism.
      Open your mind. Ideas are not dangerous.
      People who believe they have "the" right idea...and who are willing to impose their ideas while making the ideas of others taboo ...or crime... are dangerous.

    2. ”Open your mind”... I assure you that people of Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Czech Republich, Slovakia, Eastern Germany, former Yugoslavia are very happy after 60 years of ”open minds”... Special thanks for Winston Churchill, U.K. and U.S.A. allow Soviet Union (and now ”democratic” Russia) to put their ”kind” boots over Eastern Europe... God Bless America Forever !

    3. Bill Ellis11:04 AM

      Characterizing the totalitarian dictatorships of Eastern Europe as "open minds" is insane.
      What were you thinking ?
      Sometimes it seems like the only arguments the right has are straw-men.
      And "Democratic" Russia ? Hahaha. You are a funny person.

    4. Be a little generous - wouldn't you all have joined in during 1917 if job was fairly murderous, family was sick and dying, etc? There's a raft of films. The bureaucrats and despots you worry about are outside this dreamscape. There is a natural tendency to wish wrongs righted. Read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentimants to get some perspective. And, don't cast stones. What were _you_ doing in 1970?

  64. Anonymous8:10 PM

    I don't have a large respect for the -san sort of respect of the Japanese. It is not real.

    It doesn't matter who you are or what you do or what you say, as long as you say it with a -san, it is deemed respectful.

    I do agree we need to redistribute respect, but it needs to be done in a genuine way. And we also need to redistribute wealth.

  65. Noah, I smiled when I opened this article and saw the kaiten sushi-yasan. I lived in Japan for 12 years and recently came back with the same sentiments you express here. How in a service economy like we have created can we have so little respect for those who service us? But also, from the other perspective, why isn't the American bus driver proud of what he does? He's angry at his place in life. Obviously.

    I could write volumes on either side of this equation but what I sorely miss is the pride and craftsmanship in Japan that emanates not only from sole proprietors, but also folks working at chain stores. This is the miracle I think.

    1. Bill Ellis2:14 PM

      Maybe because the bus driver can't support his family? But his dad the bus driver could?

  66. Would the English tradition of school uniforms be something that fits into the idea of redistributing respect? What else could be potential actions?

  67. Bill Ellis12:06 PM

    Chris Dillow says... "I agree. However, I fear that Noah is under-estimating the extent to which inequality of respect is endogenous. It arises out of the forces that generate and sustain inequalities of power and wealth. I'm thinking of inter-related mechanisms here:"

  68. Bang. On.

    One of the people I respect the most around here is actually a butcher at the supermarket. Youngish guy, clearly into it and knows his stuff inside and out, fixes problems when customer tell him, and I keep seeing him run interesting promotions and other innovative activities.

    I don't actually know how much this guy makes, but I'm confident that it's under 50k, and suspect that it's well under. Still, I'd switch him with 70%+ of executives making 3 times what he does, and would be willing to bet that results would eventually improve if we did. That's the guy I'll point out to my son and say "I hope you learn from his example - be like that." That, and letting the person in question know, personally, that you appreciate what they do and how.

    Any of us can do this with the people around us, of course, and it's an important basic step toward reclaiming that equality of respect. We don't have to wait for larger forces to change, which is good Bill, because there are a lot of them. Beyond the economic system, think of the cultural materialist/loser messages pervasive in rap videos, as just one of many examples that won't magically disappear. If we wait for them to change, we'll wait forever.

    We'll still have to do something about the Culture of Looting that's endemic in finance, business, and "public service". We'll still have our other fish to fry. But we start by revaluing the terms of respect within our reach.

    As more of us do, we may even find that it's easier to get at some of those larger issues. What a society respects can, and has, changed material foundations.

  69. My father used to tell me not to attach my identity to my job (all too easy to do, especially in the early part of one's life when we don't have the education/skills/connections to get a really well paying job that satisfies our passions and helps the world)... but to see the big picture. He said all work has dignity. It takes all of us to make the world go around. He told me the story of an observer walking through a construction site: one person is skillfully and quickly building a brick wall, laying the bricks, scraping the cement, perfectly laying the wall... the observer asked, what's your job? I'm a mason, the man answered. I'm the craftsman who makes sure the walls are strong and sound and look good. Walking on another man was expertly connecting wires and weaving them through holes in steel girders. What is your job, the observer asked. I am the electrician, the man said. I'll make sure that the lights go on and everything works like it should. Walking on a man was handling large sheets of glass and setting them in place... What's your job? I am the glazier. I select, cut and install all the windows in the building. Like setting lenses in the eyes of the building. The observer saw a man picking up trash, sweeping slag and scrap out from under the glazier and the mason and the electrician - keeping the way clear and safe. What is your job, the observer asked? I'm helping to build the cathedral. Moral: Every job has meaning. Every job has a place in the big machine of this world. We are all helping in our way. It takes us all. Give yourself and others a break, have some respect.

  70. A pleasant thought Noah. One can give away free utils simply by being kind to others.

  71. Anonymous1:20 PM

    ...disparities of wealth are distasteful. You state this as a self-evident axiom, but I think it needs a bit more justification than that. For example, let's ask what's the maximum permissible level of economic inequality in society, expressed as a ratio of the lowest income to the highest income?

    Now defend your choice. Explain how it applies to movie stars, sports figures, and other celebrities. Show all assumptions and steps in your calculations.

    For extra credit, address these points: Does this target ratio ever change? How does society know when it's time to change it, and in which direction, and by how much? Be explicit.

    Get-an-A-for-the-term question: How would society achieve and maintain your income ratio without causing a blood-soaked civil insurrection? Be specific.

    Fuzzy terms such as "fair share" and the like will not be accepted in any answer unless its meaning is exactly specified in numbers.

  72. I share your love for Japan and longing for more respect for many who are now invisible. May I recommend Murray Milner's book, "Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids," which explains his "general theory of status relations" as applied to American high schools. Milner is a sociologist who did his doctoral work in India and Bangladesh, then came back to UVA to teach. Having worked out a theory of why otherwise-rational people would develop a caste system, he went to study the artificial communities we call high schools and found that kids form a natural "status-based society" which follows most of the same rules that Hindu caste systems have developed. For purposes of your post, the most interesting finding was that status is not so much a "fixed pie" that can only be divided so many ways as a "layer cake" that can put people at the "top of the bottom." The unfortunately implication of this for your argument in our society is that we maximize respect by dividing into subgroups--"Duck Dynasty" gets tremendous respect from Redneck-Americans, while Al Sharpton gets respect from some African-Americans.

    What may be difficult is to maximize respect AND social cohesion at the same time.

  73. Noah,
    You've totally confused being respectful and being polite... and that applies to your linguistic analysis as well..... "san" is a polite form of address not an honorific form.

    And BTW, you're whole post is totally off. I've lived in Japan for 30 years in and I've never read such an inaccurate depiction of the place. No flashy cars? Are you kidding me. Have you ever looked inside a condo garage in central Tokyo?

    Japan is one of the most class conscious societies on the planet!

    You also seem to know absolutely nothing about sushi preparation.

  74. Noah, I love many of your posts but this post is at best naïve. The elite and rich have systematically orchestrated policies (China membership WTO, lower personal tax rates, corporate tax arbitrage) that benefit them at the expense of the lower class.

    True respect would be shown in the form of compensation to the losers from globalization by the 1% who gained disproportionately. The historic levels of inequality didn't happened because of God's design or because these individuals lacked character. The game was stacked against them by those more powerful who set the rules.
    Canada just signed a free trade agreement with Europe where the Canadian government has committed to compensating the losers. That's respect.
    And yet without embarrassment, Romney who moves most of his assets to the GC gets to run for President and lectures the lower class on borrowing money from their parents to start a business when they can't find a job. This is how much respect the party of the wealthy has for lower class. By your post -as long as the Koch brother's say a nice word to us as they toss the keys of their Maserati to park - democracy will run along smoothly.

  75. Nice post, lovely even, but meh. Capitalism as it occurs in the West aspires to the ideals, but in the meantime, at a rhetorical level, uses dumbed down Darwinian notions and unthinking meritocratic tropes to legitimise economic inequality; the rich are rich because they deserve to be rich and the poor, well, they just didn't work hard enough, take enough risks, aren't capable etc.,

    When that kind of ideology is hegemonic (as per Gramsci), then a lack of respect and all that entails in terms of how people actually feel about themselves, is unavoidable because its intrinsic to the way things are. Saying it'd be nice if that wasn't the case misses the (underlying) point.

  76. Anonymous12:48 PM

    "Inequalities between human beings have always annoyed me, and I have the strong desire to see them eliminated."

    Considering that human beings are born biologically unequal, both mentally and physically, the notion that "inequalities between human beings" should be "eliminated" is absurd on its face.

    Not surprising that all attempts to "eliminate inequalities between human beings" have failed miserably at best, and resulted in genocide at worst. But apparently that doesn't stop your kind from pushing the same agenda again and again, generation after generation.

  77. Anonymous5:20 PM

    "muh dignity"
    This expression usually indicates a hipster's confusion and lack of understanding. When confronted with something he can not understand, hipsters mumble "muh dignity" or "muh dignity, muthafucka" This is usually followed by long, angry rant about how their life sucks.

  78. Noah: "Too bad paying student loans, medical bills, and rent doesn't earn you respect."

    I know you are, but what am I?

    You didn't address his statement.

  79. Bill Ellis6:49 PM

    Brad Delong adds to the discussion. He echos Dillow.
    I think they both make a mistake. They miss the feedback loop aspect. Inequity is one end of the loop (the most important end IMHO )

    I believe that without altering material inequality we can, in degree, change the norms towards how we see and treat those who work hard yet don't make much money toward the positive. And that in changing those norms it will make it easier to change policies to address inequities in wealth.
    There is an element of a negative feedback loop to this issue and it is better to try and effect change on both ends than to just focus on one.

  80. Bill Ellis6:58 PM

    Ooops ...that is Tim Duy adding to the discussion, not Delong... Someday I will learn to read.

  81. Bill Ellis1:30 PM

    Mark Toma gives Duys' excellent response to your post another spot light.

    Sadly, If the comments are any indication everyone seems to be missing your point.

    There seems to be almost a universal belief that encouraging respect for hard work is impossible or not helpful.
    It smacks of a perverse kind of elitism to me--Definitely an unfounded fatalism. Having said that, you made a big mistake by not acknowledging the unbreakable connection between income and respect.

    But your point is important and it should not be dismissed. Care to fight back? Please?

    To your point...For example...My Personal experience talking politics with the Conservatives on Catholic side of my family has changed markedly since Pope Francis has pointedly admonished them. Social Norms can be changed.
    The New Deal and the Great Society programs were championed by influential Catholics. The Pope of course is not the only moral leader. We need other prominent leaders to emulate him. What if Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert took on this theme ala Will Rogers ? What if our politicians acknowledged it the way FDR did ?

    We are all Moral leaders in our on right. If we take the spirit of your advice, If we demand and show respect for people who work hard, then we can more effectively demand economic compensation for them.

  82. Guillermo2:50 AM

    Inequity aversion does not make you communist, Noah.

  83. Anonymous11:49 PM

    I wonder if you've been exposed to the work of the political theorist William Connolly? His work offers interesting perspectives on the type of link that you're suggesting - the ideational and attitudinal antecedents and encouragements for a constellation of social, economic, and political choices. He is also deeply invested in espousing alternative paradigms, both for personal perspectives and for how to arrive at preferable political outcomes.

    He, and a number of others (of varying quality), write over at

  84. 'every society on Earth has wealth and income distributions that follow some kind of power law'

    This is almost true- replace with 'every society on Earth with private [or quasi private] ownership of the means of production has wealth and income distributions that follow some kind of power law at the very top of the income distribution' and you are about right.

    Inequality was not exceptionally low in 'actually existing socialist' societies in comparison for example to Scandinavia, but top tail inequality was very much lower and the Pareto tail is almost certainly absent. The standard lognormal distribution without a Pareto tail [in fact rather there is likely to be some truncation at the top end] will fit the earnings distribution for these countries quite well.

    The same will apply to for example neolithic societies or even more developed class society where large states are absent [the size of the state sets an upper bound on the amount of wealth that can be accumulated in heritable land rights]. If you want to assign property to kings of small states, then you do get a top tail, but this is more a 'dragon king' regime than a true Pareto top tail. Large pre-capitalist empires with a land owning aristocracy will feature [possible very heavy] Pareto top tails. You need a stable regime of heritable property rights for a Pareto tail to appear.

  85. I wonder if you've been exposed to the work of the political theorist William Connolly? His work offers interesting perspectives on the type of link that you're suggesting - the ideational and attitudinal antecedents and encouragements for a constellation of social, economic, and political choices. He is also deeply invested in espousing alternative paradigms, both for personal perspectives and for how to arrive at preferable political outcomes.