Monday, September 27, 2010

Distributive Justice and Taxes

This week we are moving to the examination of normative theories on the distribution of social goods and the allocation of social burdens. I am posting this op-ed by Economics Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, which appeared last week in the New York Times, just in case we do not have time to discuss it in class. Enjoy it! And remember to integrate the facts of the matter with what we learn in class!

NYT - September 19, 2010
The Angry Rich

"Anger is sweeping America. True, this white-hot rage is a minority phenomenon, not something that characterizes most of our fellow citizens. But the angry minority is angry indeed, consisting of people who feel that things to which they are entitled are being taken away. And they’re out for revenge.

No, I’m not talking about the Tea Partiers. I’m talking about the rich.

These are terrible times for many people in this country. Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again.

Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.

The rage of the rich has been building ever since Mr. Obama took office. At first, however, it was largely confined to Wall Street. Thus when New York magazine published an article titled “The Wail Of the 1%,” it was talking about financial wheeler-dealers whose firms had been bailed out with taxpayer funds, but were furious at suggestions that the price of these bailouts should include temporary limits on bonuses. When the billionaire Stephen Schwarzman compared an Obama proposal to the Nazi invasion of Poland, the proposal in question would have closed a tax loophole that specifically benefits fund managers like him.

Now, however, as decision time looms for the fate of the Bush tax cuts — will top tax rates go back to Clinton-era levels? — the rage of the rich has broadened, and also in some ways changed its character.

For one thing, craziness has gone mainstream. It’s one thing when a billionaire rants at a dinner event. It’s another when Forbes magazine runs a cover story alleging that the president of the United States is deliberately trying to bring America down as part of his Kenyan, “anticolonialist” agenda, that “the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” When it comes to defending the interests of the rich, it seems, the normal rules of civilized (and rational) discourse no longer apply.

At the same time, self-pity among the privileged has become acceptable, even fashionable.

Tax-cut advocates used to pretend that they were mainly concerned about helping typical American families. Even tax breaks for the rich were justified in terms of trickle-down economics, the claim that lower taxes at the top would make the economy stronger for everyone.

These days, however, tax-cutters are hardly even trying to make the trickle-down case. Yes, Republicans are pushing the line that raising taxes at the top would hurt small businesses, but their hearts don’t really seem in it. Instead, it has become common to hear vehement denials that people making $400,000 or $500,000 a year are rich. I mean, look at the expenses of people in that income class — the property taxes they have to pay on their expensive houses, the cost of sending their kids to elite private schools, and so on. Why, they can barely make ends meet.

And among the undeniably rich, a belligerent sense of entitlement has taken hold: it’s their money, and they have the right to keep it. “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes — but that was a long time ago.

The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.

And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices.

But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people."

(you can find a link to the original piece here... with 1319 comments in response!)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ashtiani and Lewis: Is there any difference?

Last week, we examined the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian woman convicted for adultery and sentenced to execution by stoning. Tonight, at 9 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, Teresa Lewis is scheduled to die by injection. Lewis, 41, was condemned to death for plotting the 2002 killings of Julian Lewis and his son, Charles “C.J.” Lewis, to collect insurance money. Her two conspirators, the men who fired the deadly shots, were sentenced to life terms. The U.S. Supreme Court and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) both have declined to halt the execution.
Lewis is, apparently, borderline mentally retarded and his defender argues that was manipulated by a smarter conspirator.
Lewis's case has generated as much international attention as Sakineh Ashtiani's case. The European Union asked this month to governor McDonnell to commute her sentence to life, citing Lewis' mental capacity.
Furthermore, Iranian President Ahmadinejad have accused Western media of having a double standard in reporting Lewis execution, compared to the coverage of Sakineh Ashtiani.
Is there any difference between the two after all?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Morality of Hardball

As you know, I was born and raised in South America. So, no baseball there. I know nothing about baseball. But maybe we can use the ethics of baseball to talk about the morality of business.
First, the facts. Last Wednesday night in a game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Derek Jeter, the Yankee shortstop and generally perceived as a nice guy, a guy who has good character traits, feigned being hit by a pitch. He pretended that the ball had ricocheted off his hand. But as stop-action replay made evident, it actually hit the knob of his bat. Still, his charade fooled the umpire and he was awarded first base. The following batter, Curtis Granderson, homered, putting the Yankees in front.
Rays fans chanted the convenient rhyme “Jeter, Cheater.” Sports blogs and talk radio were congested with upright indignation.
Two days after, Jeter remained befuddled at the reaction to it: “You’re all acting like this is the first time this has happened,” he said. “You think that’s the first time it’s happened? Anybody? I really don’t see what the big deal is.” In addition, he says, "“It seems like people think I turned around and told him that the ball hit me.” Jeter said. “What am I supposed to do? Say, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but it didn’t hit me. Please let me continue to hit?’ I mean, really!”
Yankees Manager Joe Girardi suggests that fans hold Jeter to some different standard of purity than they hold other players. Because of the kind of guy he is. “I think if it wasn’t Derek Jeter, and it wasn’t that series, I don’t think people would talk about it,” Girardi said. “This happens all the time (...) I think because of who it is it’s become a big deal.”
On the other hand, Joe Maddon, the manager of the Rays, was ejected from the game for arguing over the Jeter call. He said: “If our guys did it, I would have applauded that, too. It’s a great performance on his part.”
Now, besides the ESPN clip discussing Jeter's behavior, there is an op-ed by Bruce Weber in the New York Times today that is worth reading (link here). Let me summarize his argument but I strongly recommend you read the whole piece (it is short!):
- "Can we please just call a halt to the professional-sport-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing? Morality is complicated and context-based, isn’t it? The difference between right and wrong is not automatically transferable from one arena (so to speak) to another, from the context in which an actual score is kept and the idea is to win, to the larger context, in which duping other people has actual, potentially harmful consequences or undermines the purpose of effort."
- "About the morality of sport generally and baseball particularly. To begin with, deception is inherent to competition and it is fundamental to games of all types, including hide and seek and chess."
- "That one player or one team might be interested in putting one over on an opponent is one reason, a big reason, that organized sports have officials — who have no expectation, by the way, that the players are guided by the honor system. Indeed, I’d argue that a prime function of officials is to relieve players of the burden of honor. After all, on a bang-bang play at first base, when the runner is called safe but knows in his heart he was out, he does not feel compelled to correct the umpire’s misimpression."
As you post comment on this post, I would suggest you integrate what you have already learned in this class. Specifically, we discussed how to do ethics in a descriptive and a normative way. The former refers to character attributions and experiments in social psychology about character and situations. The latter about the morality of roles and the analogy of business with sports and games.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Person or Situation?

I did not know this documentary was available online. It is a Brazilian movie released in 2002, which was met with universal critical acclaim. It was voted as one of the ten best films of the year by The New York Times. And it won over 23 prizes worldwide, including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Cultural & Artistic Programming and the Amnesty Award in the Netherlands.
We do not have time to watch it in class. But I strongly recommend that you watch it here. To think about the power of the situation and how societies provide opportunities for the proliferation of certain situations (but not others). I look forward to your comments!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ethics, Morality, and Death by Stoning

Sakineh Ashtiani is an Azerbaijani-Iranian woman who has been convicted of adultery. She has been on death row in Iran since 2006. Her controversial case became recently known after high profile reports that she was convicted for the crime of adultery and sentenced to execution by stoning. The Iranian embassy in London responded these accusations by denying Ashtiani will be stoned to death. Sakineh's children promoted an international campaign to gain support in overturning her sentence. After protests in London and Washington, D.C., Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch petitioned her release. On July 2010, the president of Brazil offered Mohammadi Ashtiani asylum, which was refused by the Iranian government. Concerning Ashtiani's case, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens in an official statement last month. When Carla Bruni, French President Sarkozy's wife, condemned the stoning sentence against Ashtiani in late August, the Iranian newspaper Kayhan called her a "prostitute who deserved death".
Yesterday, Iranian authorities announced they have suspended the execution by stoning of Ashtiani, after weeks of condemnation from around the world, but has also indicated Ashtiani could be hanged for her conviction of playing a role in her husband's 2005 murder. Ambassador Ali Akbar Naseri stressed though that Ashtiani had "had illicit relations with numerous men" and had been involved in the killing of her husband. "Her guilt has been demonstrated," he said. The European Union presidency said today that Iran's suspension of the stoning sentence is not enough and demands it be completely overturned.
While reading about this case, I thought about the distinction between Ethics and Morality that will be discussed in class next week. Feel free to post your comments/reactions about this case.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Milgram revisited

Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority still attracts the attention of scholars and the media. Its results provide important hints on the relative contributions of situational and personality factors to explain and predict behavior. Recently, Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, conducted a partial replication of the Milgram’s studies that allows for comparisons with the original investigations (while protecting the well-being of participants, because those studies were prohibited until now, given the extreme pressures that the subjects of the experiment had to suffer). Seventy adults participated in the study up to the point where they first heard the learner’s verbal complaints (150 volts). The obedience rates were only slightly lower than those obtained by Milgram 40 years earlier. One important finding of this replication of the study is that – contrary to our reasonable expectations – the presence of a defiant confederate failed to significantly reduce obedience rates. The good news with this research is that it opens the door to behavioral aspects of obedience in the lab that were locked for several decades for ethical reasons. The bad news is that by removing the stressful circumstances of the original experiments, Burger’s replication is not as interesting as the Milgram results in terms of its applicability to obedience in the real world (besides technical problems of comparability). For those interested in this replication, there is a new issue of American Psychologists in which Burger debate with two psychologists the results of the study. This research was featured in January 2007 in ABC News’ Primetime. Here you have a short summary of that broadcast (try with the following link if the video does not work: Feel free to post your comments on the video and the results of the experiments.