Tuesday, September 08, 2015

My Fellow Americans (Stuart)

Guest Post: Stuart Torr

Stuart is the single individual who has had the biggest impact on my world view. We definitely don't agree on everything. Far from it, but I consider that a good thing. He is incredibly well read, and through asking questions and pointing to books, has chipped away at some of the inconsistencies in my thinking. We met at University, which was a great place to give each other rubbish about our bizarre views. We had time to sit, drink tea, eat toast, and make up scenarios or 'thought experiments' to think about how we would react. Stuart now lectures Maths at the University of Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter

My Fellow Americans
by Stuart Torr

"My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"

I don’t actually like this quote, but it does suggest that there are different ways of looking at the morality of different systems of government. One way we can judge a system is by how it treats us. But if we care personally about doing good, we might have different criteria for whether a system is good or not.

One of the problems with capitalism is that so many worthy jobs are relatively poorly paid. Nurses, teachers and social workers just don’t seem to get what they should. This feeling often applies to things like difficult manual labour and maybe poets etc. too.

A lot of these jobs really are worthy of praise, but sometimes, the low pay is a signal that nobody wants whatever it is that you’re selling. The fact that something requires a lot of skill or is difficult or unpleasant isn’t a good reason on its own for it to be well compensated. It might be a sign that you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. In a complex (rich) economy, deciding if a job or worthy is not always easy and markets are a powerful tool for finding out.

One example of this was the coal miners in England in the 1980s. Coal mining was (still is) an awful job. It was unbelievably demanding physically, dangerous and had terrible long term health consequences. But coal was in demand so people were willing to spend a lot of money paying people to dig it up and the pay was pretty good (relative to other options). In the absence of the demand it would have been insane to set up a coal mine. But this is sort of what miners were trying to do in the 80s. The economy had changed and money from the coal dug up couldn’t pay those salaries anymore. What they were doing was no longer as useful. The job wasn’t less difficult so our intuitions say something like, “Look at how hard these guys work to feed their families, you can’t seriously tell me they haven’t earned the X pounds they’re asking for.”

But it really *was* less worthy. It does actually matter if what you’re producing is more or less what you’re getting paid. If we care about doing something worthwhile, we should care about this. Using taxpayer’s money to keep them employed in terrible jobs seems like a terrible lose-lose to me.

The miners should have been better taken care of. Just giving them a bunch of money would have made more sense. But if they cared about making a positive impact on society they lost the moral high ground by insisting that uneconomic mines stay open and resisting wage restraint. The difficulty of the job should not be equated with moral worth.

It’s not the end of the story, but if you want to do something worthwhile then earning the market rate for a job that you can be fired from (or you can go out of business without being bailed out) is a really good sign that you’re doing something worthwhile. 
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