Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How to actually redistribute respect

A while ago, I wrote a blog post called "Redistribute wealth? No, redistribute respect." That could have been the title of a speech Paul Ryan gave recently. I especially liked this part:
There was a time when I would talk about a difference between “makers” and “takers” in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. “Takers” wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point. So I stopped thinking about it that way—and talking about it that way.
This is a hugely important step toward increasing American society's respect for the poor and the working class. Language matters, of course - Ryan's speech is almost certainly a rebuke to Kevin Williamson's disgustingly elitist article in National Review. But much more importantly, Ryan is actually starting to go and look up close at poor and working class people, talk to them, see how they live, and understand their problems. Good for Ryan.

But that is only a first step toward really respecting the poor and the working class. What are the next steps toward a respectful society?

Words are important, but they need to be backed up with beliefs. Truly respecting poor and working class people means believing that they are mostly taking government assistance for reasons that most of us would find respectable - to support their kids and parents, to help themselves through what they think are temporary difficulties, to keep up their health, to get an education and a good job, etc. It also means believing that poor people are basically rational - not totally rational, because no one is, but not substantially less rational than middle-class and rich people.

If you believe these things, you will be more likely to support a social safety net. That doesn't mean we should stop worrying about the work disincentives created by high implicit rates of income taxation for poor people. But it does mean we should drop any and all attempts to paint the poor as undeserving due to bad morals, laziness, or stupidity. And all else equal, it should make us more likely to support things like food stamps, child care tax credits, public housing, health assistance, etc. - and the taxes to pay for them. In other words, the opposite of the economic plans that Paul Ryan is pushing right now.

Beyond the social safety net, there are many important ways that Americans could turn our country into a more respectful one.

For one thing, upper class people could stop trying to segregate themselves from the working class. Gated communities? Development restrictions that stop cheap housing from being built in high-income areas? Private schools? How about less of that stuff.

Even more importantly (in my opinion), we could start respecting people of different races, genders, sexualities, etc. Institutional unfairness, bigotry, stereotypes and harassment are all manifestations of deep disrespect for whole swathes of Americans.

Racist jokes at the Oscars? Cut that out. Hiring people based on having white-looking resumes? Make a conscious effort not to do that. Sexual harassment of women in science? No more of that. Aggressive online harassment of women? Just hit yourself in the head with a brick every time you get the urge to do that. Etc. etc. To say nothing of the racism of the police and the justice system, which is a huge manifestation of deep societal disrespect for black Americans.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz? No American who is genuinely respectful of other Americans has any business voting for those jerks.

The above is mostly aimed at people on the right, but the left could do some things as well. How about not writing posts about "America's white male problem"? How about respecting freedom of speech on campus, even the views of Trump supporters? How about not echoing Kevin Williamson's elitist tripe in the pages of Salon? I'm not trying to draw an equivalence here between the left and the right, but everyone should do their part in creating a more respectful society.

See? There are lots of things we can do. I stand by my statement that respect is a bigger problem in America than raw economic inequality. Imagine a country where the rich are willing to send their kids to school with the kids of the poor, where poor people can walk past the houses of the rich without being escorted out by a security guard, where the wealthy are happy to have the government use some of their income to buy food for the poor. A country where black people can get a job as easily as white people of the same qualifications, where women don't get harassed by men all day, where black people don't get persecuted by police or treated unfairly by juries, where Asians get promoted just as easily as whites. A country where income, wealth, race, gender, education level, etc. don't affect your social status one bit.

Let's create that country, and then let's have a debate about redistributing wealth. I bet if we lived in that classless, fair society, pressure for socialism would essentially vanish. But there's only one way to find out.


  1. Anonymous7:32 PM

    "Gated communities? Development restrictions that stop cheap housing from being built in high-income areas? Private schools? How about less of that stuff."

    Bring back bussing.

  2. Maybe we can all sit in a circle, holding hands, smoking weed, and singing kumbaya too, huh Noah? You have a Coexist bumper sticker on your Prius don't you?

    1. Sounds like fun! Sign me up!

    2. @Cesium, from the looks of your avatar, I'd say you already signed up.

  3. Ryan (a Catholic) seems to have listened to a bit of the message of Pope Francis. We can only hope he has taken it to heart.

  4. Anonymous8:55 PM

    "A country where income, wealth, race, gender, education level, etc. don't affect your social status one bit."

    I'm with you generally but doesn't this last sentence over simplify things a bit? In a country as diverse as ours and with our unique history, is it okay for example for a black person to hold a fellow black person, all else equal, in higher esteem than a fellow white person? Just because he may feel a deeper bond not because he hates the white guy so much?

  5. I think these goals are good ones and furthermore they can be achieved... by mandatory brain surgery on infants to cut out the unpleasant bits. Yes, yes, I can hear the anti-modernity progress-hating Luddites now... whining and moaning... And sure, we may not know precisely where to snip yet, but we'll soon get the hang of it. How are we supposed to get better without practice?

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  6. You are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. For all the good intentions, or money, you cannot have a peaceful society at the same time this society is multi-racial or multi-cultural.

    This is the hard fact: Which are the most peaceful societies today? The ones that are more racially homogeneous. It's the difference between Japan or Korea in one hand, and The Balkans in the other.

    The traditional bi-national Belgian population can barely stand each other. And they decided to include muslims in the mix. Look how fine that has worked out.

    The same thing with the U.S. It was difficult enough to manage relations between blacks and whites. Now you import a whole Latino population, with their own problems and difficulties, creating a whole class of new girevances that must be addressed.

    This is patently insane: it's a social experiment that, like the destruction of marriage, has gone hooribly wrong.

    1. You're a bit of a racist, eh? Have you ever been to the San Francisco Bay Area and seen the melting pot in action? A lot of people want to reproduce Silicon Valley. And one of the defining characteristics of that Valley is Diversity.

    2. The most respectful society I've seen is not Japan, it's Canada. Japan has more respect than America does for lower-class people but much less for women.

    3. Cesium, you are a bit of a thug. And a coward, for hurling insults under a pseudonim. And re: Sillicon Valley, a swallow does not a summer make. For each Sillicon Valley, we have a mountain of French Baneullies, Balkan states, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, etc. Where tensions are permanent.

      Saying that different ethnic groups have difficulty living together is not a sign of racism. It's actually been proved to be the case by social science. It is actually a sign of realism. And trying to impose a policy of open borders on the deluded idea that we cann al come togehter later is completely nonsense.

      Noah: that can be surely the case for Canada, another country contiunually on the vege of splitting, even after the titanic efforts of everybody to be nice to each other and the often comic lenghts they go for billingualism. Japan might not be Number 1 but it surely something to look as an example.

    4. If your contention is true we're in serious trouble since the world is becoming increasingly homogeneous every day and it ain't about to stop. People are moving around the earth in increasing numbers. So, expect more difficulties.

      Fortunately, there are some good reasons to believe your view is fundamentally misguided. While preferring "in group" humans over "foreign" humans definitely appears to be evolutionarily wired in, the whole process is mediated by culture and familiarity. Where culture expects people to get along and people have become familiar with each others' looks and ways, the out group effect disappears. This clearly happens in a lot of places. It's certainly been my experience living in some incredibly ethnically mixed environments. My high school had kids of 80+ nationalities.

      On the downside, stress, poverty, and low levels of education tend to increase the out group effect - though not always, it's complicated - so these need to be alleviated too, which is happening albeit not as fast and continuously as we would generally wish.

      Of course there will be groups and individuals who resist this process but it's clear they are on the losing side of history. Human history contains myriad individual events but a clear persistent feature is the increasing homogenisation of cultures, and of people. You only have to look back a few decades in your own area to see how powerful this affect is - even more so in the internet age - but on the scale of centuries or millennia it is profound.

      Of course, this changing world may not be for you, but best of luck trying to convince everyone else. Take care to not becoming the boring guy at the party, only able to talk to specific dreary people, always on the same subjects.

    5. The glory of the US is that it has managed the difference quite successfully by integrating waves of very different cultures. That does not make a wholesale import of one large ethnic group (Mexicans) any more sensible of course. The total stop to immigration in the twenties clearly promoted integration (through intermarriage and social mobility). The current open border strategy is very dangerous.

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    7. Jorge Fallas, save everybody time and just burn a cross on your lawn.

      There's no market for what you're peddling here.

    8. Anonymous3:39 AM

      "Japan has more respect than America does for lower-class people but much less for women."

      There is a concept in Japan about "sekinin" (responsibility). But it depends on whether you are in the group or not. Burrakumin and Koreans aren't - although it is not as bad as it used to be. Having said that it means you must conform - I don't know whether you knew any Brazilians over there, but they can tell you what that really means. White Americans are not really likely to get the whole picture re Japan. But having said that, I do not intend to sound overly negative, and I do broadly agree with you.

  7. I don't get it.

    Both saltwater vs freshwater economists seem to agree that higher inflation targets at least temporarily, would solve a large part of the problems.

    I'm no economist but the arguments seem damn convincing to me. It might require government fiscal help, a fact that freshwater types tend to deny and it seems like without the higher inflation targets central banks could tighten too quickly and undo any fiscal efforts (which the saltwater types tend to under-emphasize). But there is a common ground! Higher inflation targets would solve a huge part of the problems.

    We have the solution. It would cost nothing. It would have a huge, economy wide returns. It requires no real effort, just a commitment from the central banks of the world.

    Why the hell are economists not forcefully advocating for this?

    Most economists will say that, oh yeah, models predict this would help but then mutter somethings nonsensical about affecting central bank credibility or menu costs, as if constantly aiming in the wrong direction doesn't hurt credibility and as if in the digital age, menus are still written by scribes. Krugman will come out and say it would help but contradict himself by calling it "promising to be irresponsible" or says it is politically unrealistic.

    Once you realize that accumulation of idle cash does not add value to the aggregate, it seems obvious that savings need to be invested. Keeping money too attractive as a store of value blocks the flow of investment to economic activities that involve the economic extremities: the rural, the inexperienced, the changing sectors that require retraining or the otherwise disadvantaged.

    People are suffering. Millennials' careers are being permanently scarred. In places like Greece or Spain, people are going without basic necessities, without medication or proper health care. Minorities are disproportionately affected.

    Of course white males are affected too, especially those in rural regions. For many people, there is no end in sight. Even those wiling to work hard do not have access to the proper tools without an investment market that is functional up to the margins. At these margins, investment incentives are distorted by the zero lower bound or rendered dysfunctional by negative rates.

    This means that the buildings and the tools that potential workers need to work efficiently do not exist. When businesses and banks are rewarded with above market returns for keeping idle cash, why would they fund tools?

    Is there any way to overcome this but to have higher inflation targets?

    People were betrayed. Promises that these problems would be fixed were broken. It has gotten to a point where they want retribution, they want justice, maybe more than they want a fix! They need someone to pay for the abuse they've suffered. Lack of understanding of the real source of these problems seems to lead the blame towards random innocent groups. How can you have respect, when there is justifiable suspicion that something is badly wrong and fear that it is caused by others?

  8. Jerry Brown11:55 PM

    Thanks for writing this. Urging people to be good is, well, good. And having a reasonable person point out that reasonable people can think there are issues that we might not be doing so good on is also good. Part of the problem is that so many think that there is no problem.

  9. Ashley Montagu, the anthropologist, argued that American feminists were misguided. Women needed more respect, not better jobs, more money, better healthcare, and the like. He was partly right, more respect would have been nice, but the US already has a unit for measuring respect, the dollar. It's actually a pretty good unit compared with the countless others used in other societies. I think one Roman emperor remarked that money doesn't stink.

    Societies are always going to rank people and what they do. That's why sociologists can produce things like the Treiman Standard International Occupation Prestige Score. Moving up and down on some abstract respect scale means a lot less to most people, particularly people without a lot of slack in their budgets, than more money.

    If you are talking about the tone of the rhetoric, I don't think that is going to change. The right wing has been very successful with its rhetoric for quite some time now. It isn't going to change. If anything it is going to take its rhetoric to further extremes. Is the problem that the left wing is now starting to reply in kind?

    You are proposing what George Orwell would have called a Charles Dickens solution. Dickens was a fiery liberal in his condemnations of baby farming, the factory system, divorce laws, prisons, poor houses and the like, but the best solution he ever proposed was that people be nicer to each other. It's not a bad solution, but it took the violent Chartist movement and its successors to actually achieve any change.

  10. Anonymous1:07 AM

    I don't buy Ryan's instant reformation. He's still the same Rand following zealot, except now he wants to be crowned presidential nominee and thinks he needs to appeal to broader audience. He hasn't changed, he'll go back to his evil ways as soon as his wish is not granted, and even more fiercely so.

  11. Anonymous4:43 AM

    Huh? Race, gender, etc., sure. But income, wealth, and education level shouldn't affect social status? So deadbeats are every bit as good as those who actually gave a damn and tried to amount to something in life?

    I immigrated from a poor country and worked my way to an elite university. I probably wouldn't have bothered in Noah's "everybody gets a medal" society. After all, sitting on my ass, twidling my thumbs, and collecting a check would've been *a lot* easier.

    1. So, you're saying, in the absence of an economic whip driving you, you'd sit around on the couch rather than learn and create? It sounds like YOU'RE the instinctive deadbeat, not the people struggling to survive.

    2. Anonymous10:03 PM

      Oh, how edgy and cutting. Mountains of data shows that incentives matter, however much the mathematically illiterate may like to ignore it.

  12. Wait... so the racist joke at the Oscars was part of your rant on the right?

    I like your econ views but honestly, I don't think you are being honest when it comes to other issues. Can you source me something that says the black population is receiving a higher proportion of police violence than their share of the violence in the populace?

    You can't live in a society that has 1) affirmative action(common knowledge), 2)Rational firms, 3) firms that don't attempt to filter by race.
    It is obvious that conditioning on CV, the non-affirmative action groups will be of higher quality.

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  14. Anonymous1:14 PM

    Kevin Williamson's article, while not how I would have gone about addressing those particular issues, is at least internally consistent - a movement which spent the last 35 years preaching about the evils of welfare-queens and the need for a culture of "personal responsibility" will eventually have to grapple with the demographic realities of poverty (i.e., mostly white people even though minorities are disproportionately represented).

  15. hey love the post, Noah! Question: What is wrong with the title "America's White Male Problem"? I agree that the Salon article about Trump has a nasty title, but I don't take this one as prima facie scandalous.

    1. Anonymous8:00 AM

      I would scroll down and read Noah's earlier post on "how the left talks about race." Might give you an idea why he wouldn't like such a piece or title.

  16. How about harrassment of everyone online? Men are perhaps more affected by women, although I agree not enough research has been done on this issue.

    Just makes no sense to shelter one and leave the other as an open season.

  17. Nice article. I don't believe for a second that Paul Ryan has changed his mind, it is just so convenient that he said that during an election year. but lets see if his actions become consistent with his words, although I have very low hopes for that happening given that this would be in conflict with the conservative ideology in general.

    On one thing that you said :

    "Let's create that country, and then let's have a debate about redistributing wealth. I bet if we lived in that classless, fair society, pressure for socialism would essentially vanish. But there's only one way to find out."
    As far as I know,achieving a classless and fair society be what socialism is all about. So I don't know what do you mean by socialism in this case.

  18. There is no need for more welfare, but for potentially for more social insurance: big difference. A leg up, not a lifestyle. Programs that promote attachment to the labor market with all its attendant social and psychological benefits.

    As to the racial problems, given the catastrophic impact of Great Society on the black community (doubling of crime and illegitimacy between 1965-75), you need to be very careful how you can offer help.

    Actually, you should start by making an effort to see what the real problems are. Using leftists shibboleths, like racist police (with no evidence for it whatsoever), in place of serious analysis is not a good start.

  19. For one thing, upper class people could stop trying to segregate themselves from the working class. Gated communities? Development restrictions that stop cheap housing from being built in high-income areas? Private schools? How about less of that stuff.

    While I agree about repealing development restrictions, you are shooting the messenger here. Gated communities are often (but not always) a reaction to crime and a lack of security. Private schools are often (but not always) a reaction to poor quality public schools.

    Here's the thing, I currently live in a very economically mixed neighborhood (wikipedia calls it "arguably Washington's most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood"), and man, that is probably my least favorite feature of the place. The amount of idiocy I see on a daily basis is amazing. Then there's the quality of life issues, which range from minor irritants such the smell of weed and rampant littering to burglary (my place was broken into 4 years ago and after moving to a new condo building in the same neighborhood two years ago my neighbor's place was robbed) to murder (kid was killed a block away about a year ago). I don't think any of what I'm describing is the doing of K St. lawyers.

    Didn't deal with any of that when I was renting in a group house in Georgetown.

  20. It's kind of weird that so many overt racists read Noah Smith. What accounts for that?

    1. I think it more likely that these are Social Injustice Warriors who make it their business to point out "racial reality" everywhere on the Internet where someone talks about equality.

  21. Anonymous11:28 AM

    It would be nice and maybe work if we were still all in this together. But the Great Recession proves that in terms of policy we're not. If you look at a study of political power you see only the top 10% (or much less) of the population is able to change policy. For the rest of us “the vote” only gives us the privilege of choosing people that will force us into greater economic and political servitude. I think about this a lot. I think about the 1930s union movement and civil rights movement of the 1960s. Someone once mentioned that war is an extreme form of politics so I also think about the conflicts of the past. The battle of Shiloh in the Civil War where union army was almost pushed into the river. The war in Nam where the Viet Cong faced the B-52s and helicopters of the U.S. Army. But mostly I think of Keith the grad student. His group had invented new physics but Keith came along and realized that the new physics was wrong. The old physics of 1950s still worked. Well, a former graduate student (now a tenured professor) came back to grill Keith and prove him wrong. After about 30 minute of the this treatment, Keith said “let's do the experiment.” So they fired up the laser and it went zap!!! It turns out Keith was right. But he had destroyed the work of those who came before and had to start over. It took him 7 years to get his PhD. People in econ claim they know what they’re doing while at the same time claim there are too few natural experiments to be really be sure how the economy works. Maybe it's time to do some experiments. I fall to sleep thinking about all of this.

    Then the DREAM comes and somehow politics becomes warfare. A union soldier says to me “don't be forced into the river or it will be the end of us.” I wonder what the hell he is talking about. Then a man from Vietnam says “you can't fight the powerful using their tactics or the political B-52s will destroy us all.” And Keith says over and over “do the experiment, do the experiment.” A cloud of mind numbing fog surrounds me and a maelstrom of words engulfs me. Then suddenly the path is clear. I attack on the left flank with Sanders. The man from Nam nods approvingly and I know Mao would have done the same. But army of the powerful checks the assault and Sanders bogs down. I know not what to do. The union soldier cries “only a fool would charge up the middle.” I strike again using the Donald on the right flank. He makes headway but army of the powerful shifts people from middle to the right and his attack begins to stall. Out of nowhere a recessional storm rolls in and the army of the powerful begins to waver. The Fed cannot support them with artillery since the interest rates are still at zero. The congress is trapped by it's own ideology and cannot do stimulus. Then the horrors beneath the hill come to our aid. Hatred, anger and despair seep out of the ground and roll over the battlefield. The army of the powerful scatters and we push on towards our objective. Finally, the great towers of the powerful, the rich and the professional classes are in sight. And maybe, just maybe, this time the towers will fall.

    Unfortunately, my dream is more realistic than your dream. We no longer are trying to promote the greater good for all. Sorry, the future will not be a Star Trek episode. It's US vs THEM and it will play out just like its played out in history many times before.

  22. Anonymous10:06 PM

    I think the problem is economic inequality. Even if poor whites are better off than poor blacks. Both are looked down on and marginalised. Essentially there is too much concentration of wealth - and with it power. Respect is just linked to these power arrangements. A very small political (also linked to an intellectual and cultural) elite are determining what is right for the rest of us. This has been going on for some time. Democracy in this environment is a farce. I don't blame these people for voting for anybody but the establishment at all. And remember, this is not a vote for, it is a vote against...

    I take my hat off though to Piketty and the economics profession. The economic profession during the Great Moderation was one of the worst offenders in propping up the elite through arguments about free trade, capital flows etc. The profession still needs big change, but at least here they are paying attention to what is actually is going on.

  23. Anonymous10:38 PM

    I am not sure you read this,

    but I share some of his concerns re Clinton and the economics establishment. The Inside Job talked about the links between the macroeconomics profession and the financial sector. Laura Tyson has been identified by the creator of that film as an adviser to Goldman Sachs. She is now adviser to Cinton too. I do not want to see another return to the Rubin/Greenspan type of nexus. The financial sector got off very lightly and are a big part of the social inequities we see. In 2008 Hillary Clinton argued that the financial sector should be investigated - and she said that Rubin and Greenspan would be the right ones to lead that investigation!

  24. Anonymous10:12 PM

    Our political system is irrelevant in solving problems. It is outdated.

    Ryan? Somebody else?

    Who is on these sides, and what do they suggest for policy? Clinton ended welfare as we know it, and Ryan seems like a minion of Charles Koch.

    We have accèss to information about the system, we just don't have any control over it. This is like an oligarchy with a parrot press.

    What do we have here? Crap. We have crap!

    And the good guys are nominal. Crap.

  25. "Let's create that country, and then let's have a debate about redistributing wealth. I bet if we lived in that classless, fair society, pressure for socialism would essentially vanish. But there's only one way to find out."

    Actually that "classless, fair society" would *be* socialism, aka utopia (go find a translation from the Latin).

    James Madison, in Federalist #51, wrote a fine rejoinder to the question-begging fatuity of this post:

    "It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

    "Let's all be nice to each other" is not a constitution or even a substitute for debating the distribution of wealth and work. If I could change one thing about the economics profession it would be to ban this reflexive sneering disparagement of (mere, trivial) "distributional issues".

  26. Anonymous3:34 PM

    I think with respect, the ranking is all that matters. There are winners and losers, and when you redistribute, there will be different winners and losers. That's all.

    1. The poor will always be with us (&US). I live in the Philippines now (not a Fil-Am, a Greek-Am) and I see poverty all the time, and I don't mind. The poor here are better behaved than in the USA, with the blacks and latinos. But the poor will always be with us... What makes me sick is the rich who benefit from crony capitalism and bailouts.

  27. Anonymous5:09 PM

    Actions have to match the words. Until I see that I would just BS.

    Also, if he truly wants to have a dialog (good ideas vs bad ideas)ask him about some confirmation about his statement "...And in 1981 the Kemp-Roth bill was signed into law, lowering tax rates, spurring growth, and putting millions of Americans back to work..." I think that will prove my point about it all being BS.

  28. You miss it Noah!

    What I hate is people disparaging work by saying things like: "You will be asking would you like fries with that". McDonald's is honourable, good, hard work. Hollywood does a lot of disparaging of low skill blue-collar work.

    On the other hand Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame (, is good on this subject.

    I have more respect for most McDonald's workers than for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders combined.

    People really work in the Restaurant industry. I worked in that industry for a long time.

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  30. This post is the longest bumper sticker I have ever read

  31. I'm not your fan but this was a good post. Respect.