I must apologize for my negligence these past few weeks. Good old summertime, when the living is easy. And maybe the FIFA Women’s World Cup had a little something to do with it as well. Surprised? So am I. As with I suppose most US citizens of a certain age I don’t normally give soccer a second thought, although perhaps a little more unusually I must admit I don’t normally give any sport at all a second thought. But I suppose like most citizens of anywhere I have a certain low brow nationalistic pride whenever the national team does well at whatever it might be. Fortunately, in this case it wasn’t competitive hot dog eating or tiddlywinks but the reasonably entertaining sport of soccer or football as most of the world calls it. Of course, this year was a bit choppier than average and I almost decided to stop watching after the embarrassingly ugly and oddly disproportionate celebrating of the USA team after every goal they scored in their multi-goal thrashing of the team from Thailand. Gooooooooooal! Hey, look at me everyone! I scored a goal! Let me act the fool for the next five minutes! Let me see how wide I can unhinge my jaw! Let me explore what manner of awkward and clownish gestures I can make! Did they realize that particular game wasn’t for the championship? That it was really just a rather tedious first round rout? A thoroughly unentertaining mismatch? Because the way they were acting I wonder if some of them might have been a little confused. Or maybe they just didn’t have a lot of that quaint old time virtue we used to call sportsmanship. But maybe that’s not entirely fair? Who does these days? No, I suppose these days it’s pretty much blast your own horn at maximum volume every minute of every day from our conservative clown president to the national team on the soccer field. But I didn’t come here to talk about soccer. All things considered it was a mildly entertaining diversion but hardly something I would write a blog post about. I mean, who the hell really cares anyway? No, what I found rather more interesting was the extended public conversation after the tournament on the issue of equal pay for the women’s team relative to the men’s team.
What I found interesting about the aforementioned debate is not the facts or merits of the issue but really that some Americans appeared to be prepared to discuss it at all. This whole issue of fairness or more generally any sort of ethical reasoning as it relates to the labor market or more broadly our distributional system in general is of course central to liberal and leftist ideology, but it’s long been very much a no-go area for conservatives who tend to associate any discussion of distributional issues with what they call “full blown socialism,” despite the fact we have already have a distributional system in place and could hardly have a functioning economic system without one. They’ve apparently convinced themselves the best way to defend the existing distributional system that favors them so extravagantly is not to defend it explicitly but to portray it as no fit subject for polite conversation all relevant issues having already been entirely disposed of by various bewigged slave holding farmers in the eighteenth century, or having fallen down from the heavens in the form of Natural Law, or if they’re really confused or dishonest, after having been established as socially optimal by neoclassical economic theory. They prefer people think of it as a black box. An infallibly ethical black box long past requiring any detailed understanding or defense.
And the notion of the distributional system as unassailable black box seems fine with most Americans at least of the uneducated conservative sort, which seem to predominate just now. The result of course is that if someone isn’t doing as well as he or she supposes he or she should be doing it will never appear to be the result of any deficiencies in our economic system but of someone rigging it or sabotaging it in some way, usually minorities of various sorts, immigrants, foreigners, educated people, and of course anyone who talks plainly and openly about distributional issues like liberals and leftists. Conservative Americans in general hate things like labor unions in which people are seen fighting for what they see as their fair share of the economic pie because they prefer to think these things happen according to some impersonal and ethically infallible system that no ethical person has any business “interfering” with. For some reason, adulation of the rich and powerful I suppose, they don’t seem to mind as much when it involves people at the higher end of the wealth spectrum, for example CEOs negotiating pay packages that allow them to make out like bandits even while the companies they’re running file for bankruptcy. I suppose it’s all in the manner of what one might call a vicious circle of bad reasoning: it’s different when rich people do whatever they can to get as big a slice of the pie as they can since they deserve to be rich because of our impersonal and ethically infallible distributional system. Poor folk aren’t so lucky. So one can well imagine how odd it feels to be an American and hear other Americans suddenly opining on “fair” pay for the women’s soccer team. Since when did fairness enter the issue? Have we all become liberals and leftists?
Fairness is always good of course. That’s not where I’m going with this at all. But if we’re going to start talking about fairness I’m not sure I’d consider millionaire athletes the most pressing or important context in which to bring it up. Our current distributional system is rife with unfairness. Take our system of inheritance for example. That’s obviously a big one if you think fairness implies the distribution of economic power should depend in some way on one’s individual merit. You may recall conservatives and Republicans were in the news recently drastically reducing inheritance taxes or possibly even eliminating them entirely. I’d look it up, but it doesn’t really matter right now. The point is that if we’ve decided we want to be concerned about distributional fairness let’s talk about the fairness of allocating sometimes immense economic power to sometimes lazy, shiftless, amoral, layabouts while allocating negligible economic power to hard working, responsible, ethically upstanding young people who have not had the advantages of birth. Want another one? How about the way we’ve set up our otherwise generally democratic political system such that rich people wield disproportionate influence and can use government to represent their interests to the exclusion of the interests of other people? But then I suppose a conservative would have no problem with that one because they’re rich, right? Well, let’s take the bull by the horns and talk about the labor market. How about the fact that a good deal of the returns one sees on the labor market has precious little to do with any merit on one’s own part? A kid from the right side of the tracks going to a good school, having everything he or she needs in terms of an environment conducive to study, having no financial responsibilities or worries, and aided in every way possible by his or her presumably at least somewhat well off parents will naturally tend to do better on average in our system then a kid from the wrong side of the tracks no matter the relative amount of individual merit the latter might posses. Oh here we go. I’m not saying it can’t be done. One hears the odd anecdote. But certainly not facing the same odds are they? And by the way did you know labor market models that attempt to predict wages based on the sorts of things one might suppose would be relevant typically explain only a small part of the observed differences in wages? That means we don’t even really know what drives a good deal of the difference in results, although one suppose such factors as connections and just being the in the right place at the right time, otherwise known as luck, likely play a role. And if we’re going to push it to the extreme what about the fact that even a system based on individual merit as conventionally conceived would allocate greater economic power to those fortunate enough to be born with various innate characteristics such as intelligence or talent or what have you? I don’t know about you, but anytime you have people being born to any sort of privileged position it doesn’t necessary strike me as particularly fair although it may be defensible along some other dimension. My point is simply if we’re going to take up fairness as it relates to our distributional system I would suggest we have quite a bit of work to do.
So what do you think? Will the conversation relating to fair pay for the US women’s soccer team translate this time to a more general and serious discussion of fairness as it relates to our distributional system in general? Or is what we’re seeing now more a matter of the time honored American tradition of worshipping rich folk and celebrities and once the financial situation of these already very well paid athletes is resolved satisfactorily the issue of fairness for the common folk will inevitably recede once again into the background? Or will the natural inclination of Americans to avoid at all cost honest discussions of distributional issues torpedo even the cause of bigger paychecks for the ladies of the US soccer team? Only time will tell. But by all means as liberals and leftists let’s keep talking about fairness and the distribution of economic power no matter the outcome of this particular tempest in a teapot.