Democratic equality and the difference principle

difference-principleIn her seminal paper, “What is the Point of Equality?”, Elizabeth Anderson writes:

Would democratic equality support a wage-squeezing policy as demanding as Rawls’s difference principle? This would forbid all income inequalities that do not improve the incomes of the worst off. In giving absolute priority to the worst off, the difference principle might require considerable sacrifices in the lower middle ranks for trifling gains at the lowest levels. Democratic equality would urge a less demanding form of reciprocity. Once all citizens enjoy a decent set of freedoms, sufficient for functioning as an equal in society, income inequalities beyond that point do not seem so troubling in themselves. (p. 326)

Is this really an accurate representation of the difference principle? The vanilla version of the difference principle states that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.” But in his discussion of chain connection (p. 80-83 of the original edition of A Theory of Justice), Rawls sets out “a more general principle” which he terms the lexical difference principle:

…in a basic structure with n relevant representatives, first maximize the welfare of the worst off representative man; second, for equal welfare of the worst-off representative, maximize the welfare of the second worst-off representative man, and so on until the last case which is, for equal welfare of all the preceding n-1 representatives, maximize the welfare of the best-off representative man. (p. 83)

The lexical difference principle clearly permits inequalities that do not improve the incomes of the worst off, as long as the incomes of the worst off as already as high as they can be and are not reduced by further gains to the best-off. But there is some ambiguity as to whether this lexicality should be read into the difference principle as it is normally formulated. Rawls says that he assumes that the incomes of different groups always affect each other (“close-knittedness”) “in order to simplify the statement of the difference principle”; in cases where the assumption of close-knittedness doesn’t hold, the difference principle must be expressed in the lexical form. I think Rawls is strongly implying that a precise statement of the difference principle would take the lexical form, but because (he thinks) close-knittedness is the rule, the vanilla difference principle and the lexical difference principle are practically equivalent. And because the vanilla difference principle is so much shorter and clearer, he prefers to use express the principle in its vanilla form.

However, the issue isn’t so cut and dried. As G. A. Cohen points out in Rescuing Justice and Equality (p. 156-158), Rawls elsewhere — before and after introducing the lexical difference principle — discusses the difference principle in terms that explicitly rule out inequalities that do not benefit the least advantaged, even if the least advantaged are already as well off as they can be and are made no worse off by gains further up the distribution. Cohen thinks that there are really two distinct difference principles in Rawls’s work, both of which are sometimes expressed in the vanilla form, but one of which should actually be interpreted as including the lexicality condition. Attempts to identify which one is the “real” difference principle are pointless; for there to be even one determinate difference principle, there have to be at least two.

Regardless of which difference principle we apply, however, Rawls already has an answer for Anderson’s complaint that “the difference principle might require considerable sacrifices in the lower middle ranks for trifling gains at the lowest levels.” The response is roughly that although this kind of situation is conceivable, it is not likely. We can expect that when gains at the top of the distribution maximize incomes at the bottom, gains will also be made in all social positions between them. The same is likely to hold for gains by those in the middle class; if these gains to the middle are also maximally advantageous to the poor, the lower middle class probably stands to benefit as well. Rawls calls this phenomenon “chain connection.” (p. 80)

Later in A Theory of Justice, Rawls takes up the question again:

I want to conclude this section by taking up an objection which is likely to be made against the difference principle and which leads into an important question. The objection is that since we are to maximize (subject to the usual constraints) the long-term prospects of the least advantaged, it seems that the justice of large increases or decreases in the expectations of the more advantaged may depend upon small changes in the prospects of those worst off. To illustrate: the most extreme disparities in wealth and income are allowed provided that the expectations of the least fortunate are raised in the slightest degree. But at the same time similar inequalities favoring the more advantaged are forbidden when those in the worst position lose by the least amount. Yet it seems extraordinary that the justice of increasing the expectations of the better placed by a billion dollars, say, should turn on whether the prospects of the least favored increase or decrease by a penny….

Part of the answer is that the difference principle is not intended to apply to such abstract possibilities. As I have said, the problem of social justice is not that of allocating ad libitum various amounts of something, whether it be money, or property, or whatever, among given individuals. Nor is there some substance of which expectations are made that can be shuffled from one representative man to another in all possible combinations. The possibilities which the objection envisages cannot arise in real cases; the feasible set is so restricted that they are excluded. The reason for this is that the two principles are tied together as one conception of justice which applies to the basic structure of society as a whole. The operation of the principles of equal liberty and open positions prevents these contingencies from occurring. For as we raise the expectations of the more advantaged the situation of the worst off is continuously improved. Each such increase is in the latter’s interest, up to a certain point anyway. For the greater expectations of the more favored presumably cover the costs of ·training and encourage better performance thereby contributing to the general advantage. While nothing guarantees that inequalities will not be significant, there is a persistent tendency for them to be leveled down by the increasing availability of educated talent and ever widening opportunities. (p. 157-158)

And against the complaint that his response makes the content of justice too dependent on contingent natural facts, Rawls has a rejoinder that I imagine the pragmatist Anderson would strongly sympathize with:

Some philosophers have thought that ethical first principles should be independent of all contingent assumptions, that they should take for granted no truths except those of logic and others that follow from these by an analysis of concepts. Moral conceptions should hold for all possible worlds. Now this view makes moral philosophy the study of the ethics of creation: an examination of the reflections an omnipotent deity might entertain in determining which is the best of all possible worlds. Even the general facts of nature are to be chosen. Certainly we have a natural religious interest in the ethics of creation. But it would appear to outrun human comprehension. From the point of view of contract theory it amounts to supposing that the persons in the original position know nothing at all about themselves or their world. How, then, can they possibly make a decision? A problem of choice is well defined only if the alternatives are suitably restricted by natural laws and other constraints, and those deciding already have certain inclinations to choose among them. Without a definite structure of this kind the question posed is indeterminate. For this reason we need have no hesitation in making the choice of the principles of justice presuppose a certain theory of social institutions. (p. 159-160)

So Rawls anticipated objections of the sort Anderson raises, and I think he effectively knocked them down. This doesn’t suffice to show that those committed to the doctrine Anderson calls democratic equality should endorse the difference principle. But at least it neutralizes the negative case against the difference principle as a requirement of democratic equality.

Labour parties and the basis of policy-making authority


Another passage from Epstein’s Political Parties in Western Democracies:

Because the working-class party, labor or social-democratic, viewed itself as the representative (and the only true representative) of a presumed majority of the population, its organization of that majority seemed to provide the legitimate policy-making agency. The important thing was to maintain democracy in intra-party deliberations. A conference or congress fairly elected by party members could be the policy-maker for the working class. The party’s parliamentary delegation, on the other hand, was merely to carry out the policy. Its responsibility to the organized membership did not conflict with any electoral responsibility since the membership itself was assumed to embody the will of the majority of the electorate — that is, of the working class that comprised the majority.

It is only an assumption of this kind that can lend democratic credibility to an organized membership’s claim to policy-making authority. Otherwise, its credentials seem much less legitimate than those of public office-holders whose policies are tailored to the electorate. The membership must itself be conceived as representing the majority of the population before it can be regarded as any more than another interest group seeking to fashion policy.

Insofar as this conception derives only from the traditions of the working-class movement, it is likely that it will lose its force as those traditions change. In particular, as labor and social democratic parties in Western nations become less class conscious, broadening their appeals beyond industrial workers, their organized members could become more like members of non-labor parties — having neither a special mission nor a special majoritarian basis for one. In thus coming to resemble others more closely, the labor and social democratic parties should also be able to avoid the difficulties, so well illustrated in the British case, of reconciling organizational policy-making claims with the responsibilities of public office-holders to their electors. (p. 314)

The final paragraph is ironic in light of British Labour’s current challenges. For some time, it seemed as though Epstein’s prediction had come true for the Labour Party as well. But the party’s ranks have swollen since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, and although the makeup of the party is neither demographically nor ideologically representative of the broader electorate, Corbyn’s supporters have nevertheless claimed supremacy over the party as a whole. This allows Corbyn, in turn, to claim unaccountable authority over the parliamentary party by virtue of having been selected by the general membership, despite overwhelming opposition from the Labour benches. And given this view on the legitimate distribution of power in the party, continuing opposition to Corbyn’s leadership among the parliamentary party just further delegitimizes them as a source of criticism in the eyes of Corbyn’s supporters. So the current leadership appears to have settled on reconciling the extraparliamentary party’s policy-making claims with the responsibilities of public officeholders by simply shutting out the officeholders. In the long run, I think Labour will revert to the norm or else collapse altogether; I can’t imagine how an office-seeking party can long survive while disregarding officeholders’ role in directing the party.

But is Epstein right to say that only the assumption that the membership is representative of the electorate can legitimize an extraparliamentary party organization’s claim to policy-making authority? The degree of authority traditionally claimed on behalf of the members of social democratic and labour parties was probably never justified, and Epstein provides ample evidence that this claim was in practice almost never honoured. But I think there are other grounds on which a more limited degree of policymaking authority could be justified and feasibly honoured, and this will be the subject of a future post.

Leon Epstein on two-party competition

Fun fact: in the old days (around mid-century), reformers wanted to replace proportional electoral systems with single member districts because they thought single member districts produced a two-party system, and a two party system gave the electorate a clearer choice between prospective governments and was thus obviously superior from a democratic perspective.

This fun fact comes from Leon Epstein’s classic comparative study, Political Parties in Western Democracies, which I’ve been revisiting for a personal project. It’s out of date in some respects (it was published exactly fifty years ago) but still useful, and some of Epstein’s tentative predictions have turned out well. For example, when Epstein was writing, a lot of political scientists (Epstein cites the particular influence of Robert Michels and Maurice Duverger on this line of thought) still thought that the development of socialist mass parties (e.g. the British Labour Party and the German Social Democratic Party) would continue to drive the evolution of party systems across the free world — encouraging nonsocialist opponents to develop large participatory membership organizations, etc. Epstein thought it was more likely that socialist mass parties were just one possible political expression of the industrial working class’ enfranchisement, there were various tendencies that could block or reverse their influence on party systems across the political spectrum, and they were probably a historically transient phenomenon rather than a persistent feature of advanced democracies with universal suffrage. All of that turned out to be correct, and I think he pretty much nailed the normative and practical considerations driving the transformation of socialist mass parties into de facto catch-all parties too.

There’s a lot of great stuff in this book, and I’ll try to post some more interesting bits in the weeks ahead. For now, enjoy this passage from which the fun fact above was taken:

The second reason for regarding two-party competition as a norm lies in the belief that it is the simplest and likeliest way to have effective democratic government. Partly this is a matter of thinking that voters should have a clear-cut choice between prospective governing groups and that this is possible only when there are but two parties, one or other of which regularly emerges as a majority to be held accountable for managing the government. There is also the point that the government itself might be more stable when majority party support is almost automatically provided by two-party competition — particularly in a parliamentary system requiring continuous majority support in the legislature to sustain the executive in office. So strong is the belief in the usefulness of two-party competition in this situation that changes in parliamentary election systems, usually from proportional representation to single-member districts, have been advocated in order to try to substitute two parties for several existing parties. Whether such an engineered change is practical or even desirable without other more fundamental socio-political changes is open to doubt.

…Whether or not two-party competition is natural, or more natural than multi-party competition, the believers in its desirability want to engineer its establishment. The existence of issue-dualism is not necessary as a foundation for their position. Instead, they may seek to manufacture this dualism by creating two-party competition. Within limits, this is perhaps possible, as may be seen in the way that the two American national parties manage to channel the opinions of a large and diverse nation. The limits are that the two parties must be loose and accommodating rather than strictly doctrinal on every issue. Thus, with each party containing many adherents who on certain issues agree with the other party, the parties are unlikely to present clear-cut policy alternatives. But this is not at all what advocates of two-party competition want. Part of their argument for two-party competition as a desirable norm is that it provides a clear-cut choice between groups standing for opposing policies. Certainly, this is what the responsible party school is talking about. And it makes a good deal of sense. Without each of two parties representing definite policies, much of the advantage of two-party competition is lost. Two-party competition might still be more desirable than the multi-party variety, simply by providing a choice between two potentially governing parties rather than between several parties none of which could secure a majority to govern alone. This advantage is sufficient for those, like the author, who believe that elections are democratically meaningful even if simply between competing candidates, or groups of candidates, but it is not enough for those who insist that each group of candidates, as the representatives of a party, must stand for clearly distinguishable policies. It might be impossible in a diverse nation like the United States to secure this result and still have only two parties. (p.56-58)

Associative freedom and asymmetric globalization

5D3_5836_e_1140.jpgThe Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the UN Palace of Nations in Geneva. The chamber’s extraordinary dome was created by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló.

In the international relations courses I took at Capilano, we talked a lot about asymmetric globalization — some economic sectors liberalizing while others remain protected or tightly regulated, the permeability of borders for capital relative to labour, members of a bloc of countries increasing interaction and integration between themselves while erecting barriers to outsiders, etc. This factsheet from the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association alerted me to a dimension of asymmetry I wasn’t aware of:


The Special Rapporteur’s full report on differential enabling environments for associations and businesses includes more examples of restrictions to freedom of association across borders increasing in tandem with international capital flows:

The Russian Federation requires associations receiving foreign funds and engaging in vaguely defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents”, which carries the connotation that they are spies. Yet as recently as 2013, one United Nations study ranked the Russian Federation as the world’s third most successful country in attracting foreign capital.

Egypt has also severely limited associations’ ability to accept foreign funding, banning its receipt without government permission. The failure to secure prior approval may lead to dissolution and criminal penalties, including imprisonment. In 2012 alone, the Government brought charges against more than 40 Egyptian and foreign NGO employees for the use of foreign funds in NGOs without prior approval. By contrast, Egypt recently instituted a wave of reforms aimed at increasing commercial foreign investment, for example by signing bilateral conventions with more than one hundred countries to provide protection and privileges for foreign investors.

Asymmetries in globalization can be harmful or benign. Examples of benign asymmetry would include protection for state control of key public services like health care and education; common examples of harmful asymmetry include agricultural subsidies and tariffs in rich countries and draconian restrictions on economic migrants. The asymmetry between freedom of association across borders for commercial and noncommercial purposes is deeply harmful; it both reflects and feeds back on existing political and economic inequalities within countries by strangling political parties and civil society organizations (including trade unions) through which the poor can advance their legitimate interests and work for an equitable distribution of the gains from trade, while groups with diametrically opposed interests enjoy unprecedented wealth and power. Ironically, this power imbalance can end up entrenching certain barriers to trade, because the segments of the business class may have both the incentive and the means to resist further liberalization measures that would be detrimental to their own interests (a familiar enough phenomenon in the rich countries) even if such measures would be beneficial to the poor majority.

Asymmetry of associative freedom presents a special problem, but it may also present a special opportunity for the political left. Left-wing intervention in the politics of actually existing globalization (as distinct from the ideal) often focuses on the need for internal reform among trading partners, especially measures to protect and enable meaningful exercise of workers’ right to freedom association. While these are certainly appropriate demands, compliance is difficult to monitor and harder to enforce. Domestic action is by far the more reliable means against human rights violations by domestic actors. A more productive avenue for the left may be to take up the call to turn free trade agreements into free association agreements, making increased freedom of association for commercial purposes conditional on increased freedom of association for noncommercial purposes. Improving poor people’s organizations’ access to resources and reducing the government scrutiny to which they are subject would, in the long run, improve their ability to assert and demand enforcement of human rights on their own behalf, and, by extension, effectively pursue their legitimate economic and political interests.

Conditional theistic monism: a possible view

I use the term conditional theistic monism (CTM) for the view that if god exists, only god exists. I’m not sure I can think of a header image for this one. Here’s the argument.

  1. What matters in the survival of a person is Relation R (following Parfit) — strong overlapping chains of strong psychological connectedness between mental states by any reliable cause.
  2. What matters in the survival of a person is all that matters in the existence of a person.
  3. All that matters in the existence of a person is Relation R. (from 1 & 2)
  4. Knowledge of what it is like to have any mental state requires possession of that mental state.
  5. God — an omniscient being — would know what it is like to have all mental states.
  6. God would possess all mental states. (from 4 & 5)
  7. Possession of all mental states entails possession of all psychological connections between those states.
  8. God would be a reliable cause for psychological connectedness between mental states.
  9. God would sustain all instances of Relation R. (from 6, 7 & 8)
  10. God’s existence would be a sufficient condition for everything that matters about the existence of all persons. (from 3 & 9)
  11. All that could matter about the existence of the universe is that it causes persons to exist.
  12. If God exists, the existence of the universe does not matter. (from 10 & 11)
  13. God would never act arbitrarily — that is, without good reasons.
  14. If it doesn’t matter whether the universe exists independently of God, there would be no good reason for God to create the universe.
  15. God would not create the universe. (from 12, 13 and 14)
  16. Therefore if God exists, only God exists. (entailed by 15)

This argument won’t convince many classical theists, but I’m still curious to what extent a classical theistic conception of god as omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and eternal or everlasting could be consistent with CTM.

Astroturf watch: CC4BC


Now that election season almost upon us, I’m getting Facebook ads from a group calling itself “CC4BC”, or “Concerned Citizens for BC”, demanding that John Horgan clarify which portions of the “the NDP’s Leap Manifesto” he agrees with. This is a strange demand to make given that the Leap Manifesto has nothing to do with the NDP. It’s not NDP policy, it wasn’t written by NDP members, and it’s been openly criticized by the BC NDP’s leadership, including Horgan. It would make about as much sense to demand that Horgan clarify his stance on Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election platform. Why would an organization of concerned citizens make such a random request? 

To help explain, here’s a little history. “Concerned Citizens for BC” was founded shortly before the 2013 election by former Canfor CEO Jim Shepard, who had just resigned his position as economic advisor to Christy Clark in order to campaign on her behalf at arm’s length from the government and the BC Liberals — mostly by means of attack ads directed at Adrian Dix. Since the 2013 election, the “Concerned Citizens for BC” don’t seem to have found an awful lot to be concerned about. In fact it seems the only thing that ever concerns the “Concerned Citizens for BC” is the person who happens to be leading the NDP at election time. Shepard’s group doesn’t seem to have an awful lot of citizens in it either, and at the moment, the group’s Facebook page has a grand total of 24 likes:


In other words, “Concerned Citizens for BC” is pure astroturf — a shell of an organization created by wealthy special interests for the purpose of appropriating the credence given to authentic grassroots activism. They know you won’t believe the BC Liberals any more, but they think you still trust your neighbours, so that’s who they pretend to be. Don’t let them make a sucker out of you.

The conditions for compromise, then and now


The prime minister continues to provide some very strange explanations for the decision to abandon his electoral reform pledge. Previously, I addressed the argument that first-past-the-post is an effective shield against the influence of extremist political tendencies, and the contradictions that arise from Trudeau’s claim that any form of proportional representation would be bad for the country. Now CBC reports:

Trudeau said proportional representation would undermine Canada’s political tradition of compromise between diverse groups, brokered through the big three political parties that compete in first-past-the-post.

Trudeau is referring to the concept of brokerage parties, a type of political party defined by the goal of assembling broad coalitions by simultaneously appealing to and accommodating as many constituencies as possible. In Canada, brokering regional and ethnolinguistic interests  was heavily mediated through processes of elite accommodation; the ideals of transparent, open and participatory democracy Trudeau claims to hold were entirely foreign to the brokerage system. The system did keep the country together and functioning effectively for a very long time, but perhaps the most that could be said for it was that it worked.

Contrary to Trudeau’s remarks, historically there have only been two brokerage parties, not three: the Liberals and the Conservatives (including the Progressive Conservatives). The NDP is not and has never aspired to be a brokerage party; its roots are mainly in the social democratic wing of the labour movement and the Canadian tradition of regional protest parties. The purpose of the NDP was to articulate and advance the class and regionally based interests of particular groups that were perceived as being shut out of the brokerage system.

It’s also doubtful whether the post-merger Conservative Party, which shares little of the heritage of the old Progressive Conservative Party, counts as a brokerage party. Despite the name and the formal sense in which the Conservative Party of today “merged” with the PCs, the new party is often described — with only a little exaggeration — as a mere rebranding of the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance. And the Reform Party was certainly not a brokerage party. Like the NDP, Reform emerged as an ideologically and regionally based party in response to the system’s perceived failures, breaking the coalition built by the PCs under Mulroney and arguably sounding the death knell of the brokerage system itself.

So this leaves the Liberals as the last of the brokerage parties. That system is over and it’s not coming back. The social and material conditions that made it sustainable are long gone, destroyed by that events that transformed regional power structures and the nature of the country itself, such as the Quiet Revolution, the dramatic growth of the western provinces’ economic and political power, and the increasing diversity of Canadian society. Brokerage politics was dead on its feet long before the clear signs of the system’s collapse became evident.

FPTP is not, in my view, inherently undemocratic; it was suited perfectly well to a political culture that no longer exists. Today, “Canada’s political tradition of compromise” is best preserved by adopting an electoral system through which the interests, values and preferences of diverse groups can be articulated and accommodated. In the past that system was FPTP; today it’s proportional representation.

Olof Palme and the egalitarian deliberative constraint


Pictured: Olof Palme in 1968

A few days ago, I wrote about the basis of the Swedish Social Democrats’ economic and social policy in an ideal of egalitarian social relationships. While I was reading today, another striking illustration of the influence of this conception of equality jumped out at me.

According to Elizabeth Anderson, relational egalitarians reject the “compensatory” justifications for redistribution to which distributive egalitarians appeal. The view that disadvantaged persons need to be compensated is rooted in pity, an attitude which is fundamentally at odds with relationship on a footing of equality. Instead, relational egalitarians justify redistribution by reference to a principle of aid (rooted in compassion and solidarity rather than pity) and the importance of maintaining relations of equality between members of society. What do relations of equality actually involve? One crucial element — the egalitarian deliberative constraint — is summarized by Samuel Scheffler in “The Practice of Equality” :

In a relationship that is conducted on a footing of equality, each person accepts that the other person’s equally important interests — understood broadly to include the person’s needs, values, and preferences — should play an equally significant role in influencing decisions made within the context of the relationship. Moreover, each person has a normally effective disposition to treat the other’s interests accordingly. If you and I have an egalitarian relationship, then I have a standing disposition to treat your strong interests as playing just as significant a role as mine in constraining our decisions and influencing what we will do. And you have a reciprocal disposition with regard to my interests. In addition, both of us normally act on these dispositions. This means that each of our equally important interests constrains our joint decisions to the same extent. We can call this the egalitarian deliberative constraint. It is a distinctively egalitarian element in the complex ideal of an egalitarian relationship.

And now here’s something from The Political Theory of Swedish Social Democracy by Tim Tilton:

Olof Palme, elaborating [the principle of equality] in a speech to the Swedish National Association of the Handicapped in 1985, argued that organizing society so as to minimize the difficulties of the handicapped was not a matter of charity or even of ‘compensating’ the handicapped. Rather, he said, ‘it is a matter of letting their demands and needs be as self-evident for social planning as the needs of other more “established” citizens’. (p. 218)

Palme’s remarks anticipate Scheffler’s formulation of the egalitarian deliberative constraint and its application to matters of distributive justice. He seems to clearly endorse the idea that aid to persons with disabilities at the very least is dictated by the relational conception of equality shaped by the egalitarian deliberative constraint, and not — as distributive egalitarians would have it — by the goal of compensating people for undeserved disadvantages.

More electoral reform puzzles


Always telling the truth means never having to worry about keeping your story straight

According to the prime minister, “Proportional representation in any form would be bad for Canada.” But he promised that 2015 would be the last FPTP election. So he either intended to introduce a reform that would be very bad for Canada, or a non-proportional ranked ballot system. Giving Trudeau the benefit of the doubt probably requires us to rule out the first option, leaving only the second. It follows that when he promised that 2015 would be the last FPTP election, he was actually promising to replace FPTP with a non-proportional ranked ballot system. Why didn’t he say so at the time?

Given that this was the only reform of the electoral system that the government was prepared to contemplate, why was the scope of the national consultation process on electoral reform not narrowed to reflect this? Perhaps a national consultation on replacing FPTP with a preferential single-winner system would have met the requirement for consensus on a clear alternative that Trudeau retroactively imposed on the process. Furthermore, if Trudeau had decided that only a preferential single-winner system was really on the table, how can he avoid the charge of hypocrisy for accusing the NDP of bogging down the process with its single-minded insistence on proportional representation?

Master Ash’s joke

1231349594_1-11.jpgPictured: Severian looks like he could use a good laugh

Let’s take a little break from all the grimness with a bit of levity from “These Are the Jokes” by Gene Wolfe, a series of jokes told by characters from The Book of the New Sun, ostensibly compiled because Wolfe’s son thought his epic of a dying Earth needed “more funny bits.”

Master Ash: Once a man such as I, a man who walks the corridors of time, was approached by a rich woman. “I wish to see the end of the world,” she said. “Show it to me, and I will double your fortune.

“Doubled, my fortune would remain but small,” said the scholar.

“Tripled, if you like,” said the woman.

“It is forbidden to use such powers as mine to satisfy idle curiosity,” said the scholar.

Then the rich woman told him all her riches should do to him and his children if he did not obey her.

“Very well then,” said the scholar. “ Would you see the time when the sun swells and Urth falls thereto like a cinder in a grate?”

“No,” said the rich woman. That is only a larger fire, and I have seen many fires.”

“Then would you see the Grand Gnab, when the universe shall fall into itself?”

“No,” said the rich woman. “For that is not the end of anything, but the beginning of a new universe.”

“Then tell me what I must show you,” said the scholar.

The rich woman took thought with herself, and at last she said, “Show me the end of Life. I would see the last agonies of the last creature to live upon Urth.”

“Very well,” said the scholar; and they stood upon a plain of ice, with the red sun no brighter than the moon.

“Where is the last creature?” said the woman. “That is what I wish to see. Here everything is already dead.” A cold wind scoured the plain, and she drew her furs more tightly around her.

“Why no,” the scholar told her. “You live, and so do I.” Handing her a mirror, he vanished down the corridors of time.