A brief response to Daniel Zamora on basic income

In Jacobin, Daniel Zamora has an essay criticizing basic income, a topic I’ve written about on this blog a number of times. I found Zamora’s argument unsatisfying, for reasons I outline briefly here:

1. Zamora points out that Guy Standing’s small UBI costs 6.5% of GDP without achieving a large reduction in the poverty rate, whereas the cost of eradicating poverty only amounts to around 1% of GDP. This is very odd, because Zamora is using the same trick as the UBI advocates who like to pretend the program would be cheap. A program that only brings people up to the poverty line is functionally equivalent to a UBI with 100% clawback at the poverty line. It’s not a realistic option, so it’s not a reasonable comparison.

2. Zamora complains that a UBI sufficient for a decent standard of living — the only kind worth considering, in his view — would be too expensive; in France, he figures this would cost about 35% of GDP. But this assumes that the full amount would be paid out to everyone (including children) and none of it would be recovered through a clawback rate or taxes. In other words, he only considers the least efficient implementation you could possibly come up with. This weakens the cost-based argument tremendously. A UBI with more realistic parameters would still be very expensive, but not that expensive; as I’ve discussed here before, it could be fully funded in Canada by raising the GST to roughly the same level as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

3. Zamora complains that proposals for an UBI assume that the unemployed don’t want to work or that cash can compensate for unemployment. This is false. While some advocates of a UBI surely believe one or both of these claims, there is no necessary connection between them. A UBI solves the problem of being cash-poor (not having enough money) without solving the problem of being work-poor (not having valued employment), but so what? There’s no a priori reason why the same program has to address every dimension of poverty. Perhaps it’ll turn out that the best solution to being cash-poor will also solve the problem of being work-poor, but we can’t just assume that this is the case.

4. Early on, Zamora complains that a small UBI will not be sufficient to increase workers’ bargaining power, so the promise of transforming the labour market will remain unfulfilled. But then later on, he seems to forget that he thought a large UBI could increase workers’ bargaining power. If the division of labour in our society sucks and people don’t like it, a large UBI gives workers real leverage to change it. So the idea that a UBI necessarily props up an unacceptable division of labour doesn’t hold water.

5. Finally, maybe I’m just not in the target audience. Close to the very end, Zamora asks:

Isn’t the best way to fight against capitalism to limit the sphere in which it operates? Establishing a base income, by contrast, merely allows everyone to participate in the market.

As a social democrat, I don’t have a problem with capitalism in the minimal sense, i.e. an economy where there is some role for private ownership and market exchange. I just want it to be restricted to certain spheres (e.g. it’s good for candy bars and clothing, but not so good for health care and a just distribution of income and wealth) and everyone has opportunities for participation on fair terms. In other words, I don’t care if the best way to fight against capitalism as such is to indiscriminately limit the sphere in which it operates, because I don’t think capitalism as such is bad. If I did, I might be more sympathetic to Zamora’s argument.

Site C and sunk costs

In recent days, a number of commentators and news outlets have discussed the sunk cost fallacy in connection with the government’s decision to proceed with construction of the Site C hydroelectric project. Without exception, I’ve found the handling of this issue completely unsatisfactory and highly misleading with respect to the meaning of the sunk cost fallacy and/or the reasoning cited in support of the government’s decision. Before getting to the problem, let’s get clear about what this fallacy involves.

Suppose I buy a movie ticket, but I find the film boring, amateurish, aesthetically repellent and morally repugnant. I could walk out and find something more worthwhile to do with my evening, but I stay put. After all, I’ve already paid for my ticket. I can’t bring myself to waste it, so I suffer through the rest of the film. I have just committed the sunk cost fallacy, allowing the unrecoverable costs I incurred in the past to take precedence over expected returns in the future. Assuming my goal is to have a fun evening, those costs are irrelevant; the only thing that’s relevant is whether I will have a fun evening if I stay in my seat.

Some critics of the decision to proceed with Site C claim that this is exactly what’s wrong with the government’s decision. Ministers have pointed out that if the project is abandoned, the government will have spent $4 billion with nothing to show for it; superficially, that does look like the fallacious reasoning in the movie theatre example. But it is not fallacious to consider sunk costs to the extent that these costs actually have some bearing on the future.

The total bill for Site C is expected to be around $11 billion. About $2 billion has been spent. Completing the project should cost about $9 billion. At this point, cancelling the project would cost an additional $2 billion. Therefore, cancelling Site C can only be justified on cost-benefit grounds if there is an alternative power project with equal value to the province but a total bill of only $7 billion or less. In the government’s assessment, there is no such alternative; thus, cost-benefit calculation favours completing the project. So, costs that have already been incurred in the course of the Site C project are cited in support of the decision only because they relate to the amount of money the province will have to spend in the future. That is why the government has not committed the sunk cost fallacy.

This is not to say that the government is not open to criticism on other grounds. Not committing basic errors of reasoning is a low bar to clear, after all. The government’s critics may wish to argue that the cost of completing the project has been underestimated, or that the costs of alternatives have been overestimated. Or they may argue that cost-benefit considerations should not have been allowed to override property rights, treaty rights, or Indigenous rights. For those who wish to make these arguments, credibility is a precious resource. It would be a mistake to squander this resource on misrepresentations.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the NDP and I opposed continuing the Site C project.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge

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This is what moral philosophy looks like

The moral philosophers who have put in an appearance in this series so far — Elizabeth Anderson, Stephen Darwall, John Rawls, and T. M. Scanlon — are all contractualists. According to contractualism, morality — or at least some particular moral domain (e.g. social justice in Rawls’s case, or interpersonal morality in Scanlon’s) — is based on the idea of an agreement between equals; our obligations derive from principles that no one could reasonably reject, or which all would agree to. Note that this is only an idea of an agreement; contractualists do not suppose that there has ever been (or could be) a real contract specifying the basic principles of morality. Nevertheless, the fact that we would agree to or could not reject these principles should be sufficient for us to recognize them as binding.

Even though the agreement envisioned by contractualists is strictly hypothetical, contractualists tend to agree that we have good reason to pay attention to real agreements and real disagreements in the social world. Neither moral philosophy nor everyday moral reasoning can be a strictly a priori enterprise. This distinguishes morality from other normative domains like logic and mathematics. As Elizabeth Anderson argues:

With respect to mathematics, it is plausible to suppose that the social identities of inquirers are irrelevant to how we think about the subject matter. This idea is harder to credit with respect to moral inquiry. Moral reasoning is supposed to help diverse people live together, come to terms with their differences, and promote peaceful cooperation on fair terms by supplying mutually acceptable principles for adjudicating the conflicting claims they make on each other, and for coordinating our moral sentiments to fit the demands of living together. We should expect that people’s social positions affect the claims they regard as intuitively legitimate, as well as their moral sentiments.

Because of this, Anderson advocates for a more empirical approach to moral philosophizing that goes beyond the armchair, the seminar room, and even the laboratory settings of “experimental philosophy”; moral philosophy must take seriously the real claims that people make on each other in the course of social life. This is especially important in the case of political struggles, where sharply conflicting and often mutually inaccessible moral intuitions are brought to light.

To this end, Anderson has devoted many years to the study of historical egalitarian social movements, especially the abolitionist movement in the United States and Britain. In practice, Anderson finds, strictly a priori methods of moral theorizing were not sufficient to defeat pro-slavery arguments; for every bedrock moral principle the abolitionists invoked to criticize slavery, supporters of slavery seemed to have one of their own at the ready to defend it. Even on the abolitionist side, whites tended to balk at the implications of anti-slavery arguments that presupposed the equality of persons, as it was apparent that a robust principle of equality would call into question hierarchies of class and sex that were widely approved. Today, most people would be inclined to endorse such a principle of equality precisely because it rules out domination based on sex and class as well as race. But at the time, whites were conditioned to regard this as a highly counterintuitive implication of a general egalitarian principle. The reasons that would eventually come to be recognized as the proper grounds for opposing slavery were not articulated until black abolitionists arrived on the scene and produced their own critiques of slavery, rooted in their own experiences.

As Anderson’s study of the abolitionist movement makes clear, moral bias and the limits of our individual experience can lead us into moral error. While cultivating a “philosophical” detachment from moral issues can help us avoid rash judgments, it can also deprive us of indispensable sources of insight. Political struggles in which victimized individuals raise their own voices against oppression can break down the walls that deprive us of the insights necessary for moral progress. If moral philosophy is, in part, concerned with moral truth, and moral progress involves advancing moral knowledge, then the advancement of moral philosophy must depend in part on political struggle.

Note: Anderson presents her view in part as a critique of the method of reflective equilibrium, the subject of the previous post in this series. I do not think this critique is successful (one reason being that it seems to be based on a caricature of the method), but nor does her account of moral progress seem to depend on it. In my view, the two approaches are complementary rather than opposed; I hope to return to this subject in the future.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality
6. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities

Anderson and Rawls on the limits of reflective equilibrium

At least there is likely to be a reflective equilibrium for these possible worlds

In her 2015 Presidential Address, “Moral Bias and Corrective Practices: A Pragmatist Perspective”, Elizabeth Anderson criticizes two dominant approaches to moral and political philosophizing: “the ascent to the a priori” (i.e. searching for fundamental, self-evident truths from which the rest of morality can be derived) and the method of reflective equilibrium. In the latter method, she says,

we move between intuitively appealing general moral principles and intuitions about particular cases. We use each to modify the others until we arrive at a set of principles that accounts for our moral judgments of all particular cases. Carried to its logical conclusion, this method can also lead to moral principles for all possible worlds, as long as we entertain thought experiments about sufficiently bizarre cases to elicit intuitions against which to modify our general principles. (p. 22)

Part of the problem, she argues, is that we have no grounds for confidence in our intuitions about truly bizarre cases. Our moral intuitions about this world are unreliable enough, but at least they can be tested and corrected by experience, whereas intuitions about people seeds, teletransporters, and runaway trolleys don’t even have that going for them.

But here’s Rawls in A Theory of Justice:

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. (p. 159 in the original edition)

This seems like an explicit rejection of the excessive ambition and insensitivity to empirical considerations that Anderson objects to. Those vices are not essential to the method of reflective equilibrium after all; from very beginning, Rawls denied that this method — or indeed any method — could be used to find principles for all possible worlds.