As some of you may be aware, the philosophical underpinning of this blog--the core concerns that determine the issues that I blog about and, in some way, what I say about them--is something I have called "democratic egalitarianism". That is a view of the importance of thinking about equality in the context of thinking about what it means to have a sustainable democracy where the people's voice counts, rather than just some people's thinking on the issues.
The year since the financial meltdown and the first nine months of Obama's term as president have been interesting times. We have gone from having a president who clearly cared not a whit about equality or the vulnerable and cared an awful lot about privilege and wealth and accumulation and use of power to a president who eloquently voices our desires for a restoration of community built on inclusion and a toning down of rhetoric about power, replacing it with rhetoric about peace.
But the fact that lobbyists for the wealthy and powerful continue to have access to, and influence over, those in offices of responsibility is disheartening. It suggests that the same old powers exert the same old influence over the laws to shape them in their favor. So the health industry is working behind the scenes to ensure that there is no public option, even though a clear and strong majority of the people want such an option. So multinational corporations are lobbying their favored Senators and Representatives to disregard the Obama proposals for more appropriate taxation of multinationals on their foreign income, and bragging--see today's Wall Street Journal--about their success in putting what seemed like a hot topic ready to be enacted by the new Democratic majority right back on the back burner where it was under the Republican majority.
The Democrats are proving, in other words, that they are about as beholden to the powerful lobbies as the Republicans, that what matters is money, and not the good of the people. That's not democratic egalitarianism at work--instead, it is the corruption of the democratic process through money and power, the same old game of influence peddling and disregard for ordinary citizens that leads to wrong-headed decisions that support redistribution upwards--wealth for the wealthy and continuing declines in standards of living for the rest of us.
Martha Fineman has some interesting thoughts on equality that are worth considering in this context. IN a new paper, titled "Equality: still illusive after all these years" (available on SSRN), she suggests that we've let equality take a back seat to autonomy--treating the two as ideals that are to be balanced with the not surprising outcome, in a gendered environment that has long put the powerful in the driver's seat, of a balance that ultimately furthers the status quo of conceding power to the powerful. (These aren't her words, but mine to describe the gist of the argument she makes.) She notes that geneder equality has been "strangely illusive" in part because the struggle has been "constrained by philosophical and jurisprudential concepts shaped and handed down to us by our forefathers." We need, she says, to talk about dependency and vulnerability, not just formally equal treatment. The latter can simply reinforce the status quo, while the former can lead us to make the needed changes to address genunine equality.
In one sense, she notes, women have attained equality with men. They have ensured political and civil rights and access to opportunity. They "can get an education, practice a profession, earn money, own property, vote, serve on a jury, hold office, and so on, all on a par with men." But this achieved equality is "crude and nondiscerning" since "[m]en also can claim the protection of gender equality...even if they are privileged as an individual or as a member of an advantaged group...and even against a member of a subordinated group." Ultimately, this very foundational vision of equality is problematic--because "it rejects (at least in regard to gender) affirmative governmental measures designed to raise the unequal to a more equal position." "Our equality is weak, its promise largely illusory, because it fails to take into account the existing inequalities of circumstances created both by inevitable and universal vulnerability inherent in the human condition and the societal institutions that have grown up around them, most notably the family and the state."
To address this problem, she suggests understanding (1) the way that equality has been "tamed" by other concepts (such as autonomy) and (2) the need to anchor equality discourse in an understanding of the human condition--that we are all vulnerable, and that we each may be dependent on others at some point.
As to (1), Fineman points out that the relationship between equality and autonomy--the proper balance between the desire to create an inclusive, equal playing field for all and the demands for self-sufficiency and independence and individual freedom of will and action--varies across time. In fact, "[t]he right to determine the nature and weight given to equality in that balancing is the battle for every generation....[and] In recent years, the promise of equality has increasingly been eroded by the ascendancy of a narrow and impoverished understanding of autonomy." further on she provides a description of an overemphasis on autonomy that sounds very much like the "free marketarian" code of the Friedman acolytes at the Chicago School who have held such sway over our legal academies and legal players (judges, legislators) since Reagan's presidiency, when she says:
"Autonomy demands freedom from unnecessary or excessively constraining rules and regulations. These constraints turn out to include almost everything of a positive and progressive regulatory nature. The role of the state, we are told, is to stay out of the way, to facilitate competitiveness in a meritocracy that rewards individual initiative and talent. When there is a distortion, such as arises from discrimination, the state shouild act to correct the problem and then revert to the free market nonintervention stance. If we start from a perspective that values individual autonomy above equality (an individualistic perspective), we take the inequality of the status quo as a given. If however, we start with the objective of enhancing individual equality (a comparative perspective), we may see more of a need for protection from human fragility and failings than abandoning individuals to undefined, crude autonomy might provide."
"If we factor into the equality-autonomy mix the universality of human vulnerability and the shared possibility of any of us becoming dependent as we age or become ill, for example, it is apparent that the problem the state should address is not always, or even predominantly, that of discriminatory treatment. ... If we were forced to take vulnerability and dependency into account, it would reveal the inadequacies of our conception of equality as not focused on substance, but rather concerned merely with the formality of treatment. ... Substantive equality would require state intervention, een methods for the reallocation of some existing benefits and burdens. To have more equality (for greater numbers--a collective ideal), we would have to sacrifice some adherence to the dictates of individual autonomy."
"Unless confronted with the challenges presented by vulnerability and dependency, equality is nothing more than a measure or standard for opportunity and access. It guarantees the right to strive for self-sufficiency and independence to an abstract individual shorn of limiting human characteristics and potentially debilitating social and historical inequities. Waulity is not now a standard with which to assess contexts and conditions--the circumstnaces under which an individual competes in the markets. Nor is it to be used as a levelling notion, employed to even up the playing field before the games begin--a tool to ensure some degree of equality of opportunity and access. Some argue that this sense of individualized, formal equality that dominates our law and culture is as much as we can expect in our post-Ronald Reagan United States, where we are trapped in scripts that presuppose both a meritocracy and a functioning free market in an ahistoric and context-free articulation of the American dream of the self-made man."
I (Beale speaking now) like this approach, since it coincides with much that I have been saying from a tax- and economics-centric perspective. (And it is perhaps not really that different from what Catherine McKinnon was saying decades ago when she talked about the need for different treatment to achieve equality, rather than same treatment, since the advantaged versus subordinated roles were relevant.) We cannot just look at the status quo and apply horizontal equity rules to ensure consistent treatment of taxpayers in the same position. We need instead to think about how to achieve democratic egalitarianism--how to push towards a genuine equality that will help to sustain our democratic institutions. To do that, in thinking about tax or economic policy, we need to ward off efforts to redistribute upwards (such as tax expenditures that favor some multinational corporations and their managers and owners over individuals--like the active financing exception that favors multinational banking institutions; tax provisions that favor owners of capital over those who must work for a living--like the capital gains preference) and we must favor provisions that permit us to achieve some redistribution of the allocation of resources within society (such as an estate tax that actively cuts off the continuing accumulation of concentrated resources within families by taking a tax bite from an accumulated estate before it passes to heirs who haven't earned it--ideally, a significantly bigger tax bite than the mere 35% after $10 million exemption that the GOP is now pushing).
Links worth noting:
If you've made it this far, you might find the following interesting as well:
Naked Capitalism, on financial services compensation (a good discussion of the way the banks are increasing their risk taking and the mistake of thinking that tamping down pay at a few of them will do anything to prevent the key problem--privatization of gains and socialization of losses--that makes risk-taking so lucrative for them)
Economist's View (Mark Thoma), on Supply Side Economics, may it RIP (a good excerpt from Republican economist Bruce Bartlett's regeneration as a thinker who realizes that the Bush administration and Republicans went haywire when they concluded that tax cuts are always the answer, noting the inconsistency in arguing against spending but supporting tax cuts that are the equivalent of spending for a favored constituent, etc.)
Sustainable Middle Class, Serious Implications, Big Coal gets Big Subsidies (a brief illustration of the tax subsidies for the Coal Industry)
Angry Bear's Ken Houghton,What is a bank, then? (Oct. 6, 2009) (good commentary on the favoritism towards Goldman Sachs in connection with becoming a bank holding company that had access to the Fed tap for funds).