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I've seen a lot of material complaining that members of the "1%" are not paying their fair share toward the costs of running our country. While I'm pretty sure that they are not paying enough, "fair share" seems to be a rather nebulous notion; the obvious response to a complaint based on this meme is a demand for a quantitative set of distribution rules that would be "fair" or unverifiable assertions that the current situation is "fair". Unfortunately, nobody has convincingly proposed a way to determine the correct number. Analogous situations occur all around us; they are difficult to engineer, but they seem to arise quite naturally as the result of evolutionary processes.

What is the "fair share" of the blood supply in a human body for each of the organs that sustain life? It should balance the needs of each organ against those of all of the others to produce a smoothly functioning whole. This balancing is a more or less automatic result of an evolutionary process in bodies. It is very hard to calculate as an engineering exercise. It is easier to recognize when distortions occur that result in disease or failure of the organism.

What happens if some cells in a body decide to grow without limit, and use all of the blood that they can get? This is the situation in various types of cancer. These growths survive and prosper for a time, until their voracious consumption of resources overtaxes the body and death ensues. The analogous situation in our economy is the development of the 1% who take an increasing proportion of all of the money in the country for their use. If the analogy to biological systems holds, this imbalance is not so much "unfair" as it is lethal to the country if not corrected.

Seen in this light, "fair share" is a linguistic device that represents a person's sense of the balanced circulation of money that should supply to each person what is needed to serve the good of the whole country. Elaborating this sense into quantitative rules governing each individual's monetary compensation would be enormously complex, although not more so than trying to determine the ideal circulation of blood within the human body. Casting the argument in terms of "fair shares" is easier, but less compelling. Perhaps the only solution to this problem is a Darwinian process that will lead to our discovering what works by killing societies that don't choose the right distribution when they follow the wrong rules long enough. It would be more desirable (at least from the viewpoints of those societies and individuals who must die in the working of the Darwinian process) to develop, validate, and implement a "theory of distribution" that would enable us to engineer life-supporting policies.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This sounds an awful lot like (3+ / 0-)

    right-wing framing, carefully couched in terms meant to obfuscate the intent. Social Darwinism? No possible way to make wealth distribution more fair?

    Do you think people are asking for the government to determine how wealth is distributed, diarist? My take is that people just want regulations that prevent the big guys from taking all the pie. Workers and corporations formerly enjoyed similar rises in wealth as the GDP rose; this ended with Reagan, and continues to get worse, as the 1% accrues more of a stranglehold over our government.

    'canter' is a horse's gait - 'cantor' is a horse's ass. - GayIthacan

    by qannabbos on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 02:40:11 PM PST

    •  I think the diarist agrees with you: (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Karl Rover, Chi, jguzman17
      What happens if some cells in a body decide to grow without limit, and use all of the blood that they can get? This is the situation in various types of cancer. These growths survive and prosper for a time, until their voracious consumption of resources overtaxes the body and death ensues. The analogous situation in our economy is the development of the 1% who take an increasing proportion of all of the money in the country for their use. If the analogy to biological systems holds, this imbalance is not so much "unfair" as it is lethal to the country if not corrected.

      It's pretty clear, the diarist sees the 1% sucking up the nation's resources for itself as not just unfair, but lethal, in the same way a cancer sucks up all of the body's resources.

      "On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps...of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again."

      by middleagedhousewife on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 02:55:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The diarists intent… (3+ / 0-)

      …is not right-wing.  I'm rather struck by the difficulty of translating the discussions of the fairness of income distribution into concrete proposals for doing something useful about the problems that the authors generally seem to sense.  I think that it may be possible to recast the argument in terms that are less fuzzy, and more amenable to quantitative treatment.  While people of right-wing persuasion may not be more amenable to such treatment, at least the argument may be more definite.

      Middleagedhousewife, interprets my remarks accurately.

      Old man—waiting…

      by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 04:21:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  But you sadly overestimate the intelligence of (0+ / 0-)

        the right wing conservatives.  See: Study Connects Low IQ with Conservatives.

        While people of right-wing persuasion may not be more amenable to such treatment, at least the argument may be more definite.

        Not only would they not be amenable to such treatment, they wouldn't have any idea of what you are talking about.  Hence, the use of the word "fair."

        Although it appears from some of these comments that even those on the left can have trouble with words that exceed two syllables.  (Or was that your intent?)

        "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

        by Susan Grigsby on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 04:30:09 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You are probably right. (0+ / 0-)
          Not only would they not be amenable to such treatment, they wouldn't have any idea of what you are talking about.  Hence, the use of the word "fair."
          You got the point about my problem with the word as motivation for action perfectly.  It means whatever the speaker thinks it means to him, and probably means something completely different to most of the listeners with whom he debates.

          I do find it difficult to discuss complicated subjects in Basic English.

          Old man—waiting…

          by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 05:07:53 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  equitable (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koNko

    Income distribution seems pretty nebulous, you're right.

    Do you think it's a worthy goal to distribute the cost of government services in a manner so that those who have more wealth or income pay a greater share than those with less wealth or income? Would that be fair?

    I think that's a worthy goal.

    •  I think… (0+ / 0-)

      …that either we have to find a way (through government policy or clever manipulation of markets by the Warren Buffets of the world) to accomplish an appropriate distribution or prepare to accept the judgment of evolution, with the discomfort that this will bring.  I don't know how to interpret "fair".

      Old man—waiting…

      by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 04:27:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hey gramps...you got yourself a case of... (0+ / 0-)

    of either "Troll Diary of the Month," or a serious case of "diarrhea of the mouth."

    Let me help you out there...go grab a Websters Dictionary and look up the word "greed."

  •  Well, most cells are going to need roughly the (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ontheleftcoast, skohayes, koNko

    same amount of blood, oxygen, energy, so you're advocating for a communistic redistributive society, then?

    •  Actually he's going just the opposite way (0+ / 0-)

      There are cells, bone cells for instance, that require very little energy. Fat cells, on the other hand, suck up huge amounts of it. What disturbs me the most is his belief that some form of social Darwinism would be appropriate to solve the problem. That's a favorite talking point of the laissez-faire school of economics, a darling of the paleocons.

      However, the diarist does seem to realize that a form of cancer does exist in our current system and he calls it out as such and seems to wish to solve the problem. But there are so many fails in the analogy beyond that that I can't make sense of the diary.

      "What profit a man, if he gain the world, but has to pay taxes on it?" Paul 8:36

      From the Gospel of St. Ron Paul in the Teachings and Misunderstandings of the Words of Adam Smith

      by ontheleftcoast on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 03:28:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I used "organs" rather than "cells"… (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      middleagedhousewife

      …because they seem more analogous to the organizations of individual people who compose societies.  I'm not advocating for anything yet, except that we need to find a way to solve a distorted flow distribution problem and "fairness" doesn't seem to be a good place to start the necessary social engineering.

      I certainly am not advocating a "communistic redistributive society", whatever you mean by this.

      Old man—waiting…

      by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 04:36:06 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Heh. (0+ / 0-)

        I was poking you to see if you'd respond.  We sometimes get people who just post diaries and never interact in the comments.

        'Fairness' is a typical rhetorical flourish - politicians have to sway masses of people, and, like it or not, most people are more easily engaged by emotions than intellect.  'Fair' is a word that most people will respond positively towards, even, as you point out, though they actually all attach their own personal meanings to the word.

        I think the best way to address the imbalance is simply to empower labor rights again.  I tends toward a more socialist society myself, along the the lines of the Scandinavian countries.  Where I think the government is maybe missing that it could be more helpful is in organizing a sort of super warehouse for matching job applicants and jobs needing filled.  

        Right now, we have a number of visa programs based around the premise, for instance, that employers simply 'cannot find' domestic talent who can do the job, and therefore need to bring in foreign workers.  But what really does the government do to prove or disprove such claims?  What if the government required any company that wanted to claim they had such needs but were unable to fill such jobs actually post job descriptions on a government site, and potential employees could post resumes to the same site - if domestic applicants are available whose skills match the job descriptions, the company is denied the visas to hire foreign workers, but if no domestic workers post, the visas are approved.  

        Our trade policies could likewise be revisited to to require 'fair trade' rather than 'free trade'.  Chances are, if you require foreign manufactured items to be produced in similarly strict health and safety environments in which workers are well paid, that the US manufacture of such items domestically becomes much more competetive again.

        Domestic job losses are directly tied to outsourcing of jobs and trade imbalances, with capital having been given unfettered access to exploitative access to foreign labor that they are denied domestically.  If they want access to American markets, they should be required to manufacture at American standards.

        •  Thanks for your comments. (2+ / 0-)
          I think the best way to address the imbalance is simply to empower labor rights again…
          This seems like a good method to achieve a balanced distribution; it worked well in the past.  However, it is at a lower level of abstraction than I was trying to address.  It seems more a method than a policy.  Fairness is content-free, so is at the motivational level.  I'd like to have something in between.

          I like your idea of a practical way to measure whether visa exceptions should be permitted.  The difficulty (and it is only a difficulty), is that measuring the suitability of an applicant for a job is in itself a daunting task.  It is similar to measuring the achievement of students in school, a task that we are finding more fraught with complexities than many involved in it admit.  At one time, I recall someone in management saying that the job descriptions we used could not adequately define what we were really looking for; we just got the resumes in to decide whom to talk with, and the conversation would let us decide whom we wanted to hire.

          I'm in favor of what I think you mean by "fair trade" vs. "free trade".  At the same time, I just heard about Apple's evaluation of Foxconn's ability to apply resources to a difficult problem much faster, and with higher-quality results, than any American competitor (of course, this simply enabled Steve Jobs to act arbitrarily).  Once again, the policy I would like to see should cover all of the myriad issues and interactions that are essential components of such a difficult problem.  My question is, "How should we think about the problem?"  If we can get this right, then the implementation details can be worked out.

          Finally, early in my life I had some unfortunate experiences with domestic cars (mine and relatives').  It wasn't until the Japanese demonstrated that Deming's quality management ideas actually worked that Detroit began to produce high-quality vehicles in response to sales losses.  They also fought tooth and nail to counter the pressures that the government placed on them to improve safety, mileage, and general quality.

          Old man—waiting…

          by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 07:24:36 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  What would be wrong with that? (0+ / 0-)

        From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

        The principle can be applied in many ways in free market systems vis a vis taxation.

        The problem with the current system is it has a cancer, you have that right.

        We cannot legislate away greed, but we can taxation, and the amount required will not kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Back in the days such eggs were produced, the system worked fine with more progressive tax rates.

        Suggest you study historical tax rates, income distribution, national debt, etc., and that will make it all a lot less nebulous.

        What about my Daughter's future?

        by koNko on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 07:29:37 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  you commenters should read the diary.. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chi, middleagedhousewife
    What is the "fair share" of the blood supply in a human body for each of the organs that sustain life? It should balance the needs of each organ against those of all of the others to produce a smoothly functioning whole. This balancing is a more or less automatic result of an evolutionary process in bodies. It is very hard to calculate as an engineering exercise. It is easier to recognize when distortions occur that result in disease or failure of the organism.

    The stomach and the gut don't get to keep all the food and starve the rest of the body, including the brain. It's not that hard to get his point.

    A man, a plan, a canal, Panama

    by Karl Rover on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 03:54:29 PM PST

    •  The analogies go in several odd directions (0+ / 0-)

      I mostly like that part. Then it degrades in to calls for social Darwinism. Really? That's a favorite meme of the right wing, the "dog eat dog" school of solving problems. I'm not calling the diarist a troll, but they need some help in the "making my point" department.

      "What profit a man, if he gain the world, but has to pay taxes on it?" Paul 8:36

      From the Gospel of St. Ron Paul in the Teachings and Misunderstandings of the Words of Adam Smith

      by ontheleftcoast on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 04:10:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm not calling for social Darwinism. (0+ / 0-)

        I'm concerned that if we don't find some way to solve the problem of out-of-control distribution disparities we will experience the fate of species that evolution casts aside for their failure to adapt to reality.  We may be able to devise a solution to the problem that works better than what we have now; if we don't, we are likely IMHO to wind up in a very unpleasant situation.  For reasons that have showed up in this thread, discussions based on fairness are unlikely to lead to effective solutions to the problem.  A different approach to thinking about the problem (and I have suggested nutrient flows, as in circulatory systems, as one place to start) may help to avoid evolutionary disaster.

        Old man—waiting…

        by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 05:20:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  As I said, you need help in the "making my point" (0+ / 0-)

          department. Your own words

          Perhaps the only solution to this problem is a Darwinian process that will lead to our discovering what works by killing societies that don't choose the right distribution when they follow the wrong rules long enough

          That is an almost textbook description of social Darwinism and you seem to be advocating for it.

          Also, your metaphor for the body's method of distribution of food isn't very effective. You do have a good point on the "cancer" of run away capitalism but I think you've stretched the metaphor too far.

          You're trying to make the point that talking about "fairness" isn't working. Yet we see the narrative changing in this country since the 99% has been demanding fairness. I think that's an indication it's working but it's going to take time to undo 30+ years of the politics of greed.

          "What profit a man, if he gain the world, but has to pay taxes on it?" Paul 8:36

          From the Gospel of St. Ron Paul in the Teachings and Misunderstandings of the Words of Adam Smith

          by ontheleftcoast on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 05:36:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I agree… (0+ / 0-)

            … that I need help, but I think the help I need is more in understanding the problem than in making my point.

            That is an almost textbook description of social Darwinism and you seem to be advocating for it.
            It may be a description of social Darwinism, but I don't see any advocacy.  If anything, I'm pointing out that in the absence of thinking carefully about what we're up to, we will leave ourselves open to the whims of evolution without the advantage, if any, of using our minds to control our destiny.
            Also, your metaphor for the body's method of distribution of food isn't very effective.
            I'm  not clear on what you see as its problems.  I was thinking of the circulatory system, which seems to me very similar in its structure and function to the banking and general financial systems.  It seems to me that cancers grow by coopting the victim's circulatory system so that they can get a disproportionate part of the available energy.  The 1% seem well on their way to getting a disproportionate part of the country's money (available energy), with results analogous to those of cancers.  Would you please enlighten me on my error?
            You're trying to make the point that talking about "fairness" isn't working. Yet we see the narrative changing in this country since the 99% has been demanding fairness.
            I'm less sanguine about the result of the 99%'s activities.  They have called attention to the problem, and I salute their personal commitment to this task.  At the same time, I have not heard them presenting a core analysis and a well-thought policy that can serve as an armature for a new, effective framework for society.

            Old man—waiting…

            by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 07:45:15 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  asdf (0+ / 0-)

              You ask

              It may be a description of social Darwinism, but I don't see any advocacy.

              Going back to your comment

              Perhaps the only solution to this problem is

              Saying something is a solution, perhaps the only solution, is advocating it.

              As for the metaphor, it's complex, way more complex then description of a fair economic system. For example you start needing analogies for fat storage, the reality that not all cells are created equal, etc.

              And we'll have to agree to disagree on the effectiveness of the 99%.

              "What profit a man, if he gain the world, but has to pay taxes on it?" Paul 8:36

              From the Gospel of St. Ron Paul in the Teachings and Misunderstandings of the Words of Adam Smith

              by ontheleftcoast on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 07:59:19 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Not really. (0+ / 0-)
                Saying something is a solution, perhaps the only solution, is advocating it.
                It's simply saying that this is one possibility that may ensue if we don't invent something better.

                We will also have to agree to disagree about the relative complexity of the circulatory and economic systems.

                Old man—waiting…

                by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 09:48:19 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

        •  evolution is reactive, we want proactive (0+ / 0-)

          Evolution adapts to changes and results in success "after the fact". The ones who successfully adapt are survivors and are still around at the end to consider their success. If one is going to speak against "social Darwinism" as a part of reality, then one is speaking against evolution as a part of reality. Note that simply recognizing "social Darwinism" or evolution as existing is not advocating either as the preferred solution.

          We can rely on evolution, or "social Darwinism" to pick the winners. It will work, after a fashion. The successful adapters will survive, and the less successful will die. Nature has perfected this strategy.

          Or we can decide that we don't want to gamble on adaptation after the fact. We can decide that keeping alive a Stephen Hawking is a better thing to do in the long run for our culture and our species. We can do better than just "adapt", we can predict. We can plan. I think that the Karl Balke is saying that predicting and planning are superior (and certainly more empathetic!) than relying on adaptation and "social Darwinism" for solutions to humanity's issues.

          The follow-up discussion would be exactly how to intelligently, successfully, and humanely accomplish such planning.

          Put into emotional terms: "Evolution WILL stomp on you if you're in the way. Smart enough to get out of the way beats fast reflexes."

          Less "WAAAAH!", more progress.

          by IndyGlenn on Sat Jan 28, 2012 at 12:08:40 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  What is a fair share? (0+ / 0-)

    Should the wealthiest pay the same as a middle income person?
    I think they should.
    Take the payroll tax, for example. Currently the income cap tops out at $106,000. I pay 15% of my income (because I make nowhere near $106,000) towards payroll taxes.
    Shouldn't a person who will eventually collect social security pay the same amount as I do, i.e, 15% of their entire income?
    Of course, if they don't need to collect SSI after they retire, then of course we should cap their contribution, perhaps topping out at a million dollar income?
    Just one suggestion.

    If you can separate sex from procreation, you have given women the ability to participate in society on an equal basis with men. -Gloria Feldt

    by skohayes on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 03:56:30 PM PST

    •  I don't think SSI is relevant… (0+ / 0-)

      …because it is more of an insurance scheme, although participation is mandated by the government rather than freely chosen.  The rationale for this is similar to that for the new health care law that mandates that everybody has to buy health insurance.  It looks like the success of this program (pooling contributions from everybody through taxes to fund an entitlement to income after they are unable to function in society) shows that such plans can be rather useful.

      Old man—waiting…

      by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 04:46:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  IOW, you don't really understand "Fair" (0+ / 0-)

    So have difficulty applying it to real life.

    Fair means, in this context, a distribution of contribution and benefits that enables the basic needs of people in a society to be met, for the common good to maintain the system, which is not the present case.

    And the formula is simple: those who obtain the greatest economic benefit makes the greatest contributions, which, systematically, is not the present case.

    Any more questions?

    What about my Daughter's future?

    by koNko on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 07:21:54 PM PST

    •  If "fair" were easy to understand… (0+ / 0-)

      …the arguments that I read would not take place.  The 1% people (or at least some of them) argue that the current distribution is fair, and yet they elaborate that into something that I'm sure you would not agree with.

      I'm not confident of my understanding of any term that is widely used to justify contradictory prescriptions.

      Old man—waiting…

      by Karl Balke on Fri Jan 27, 2012 at 09:59:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Feedback systems. Biological or social... (0+ / 0-)

    the problems happen when some feedback is suppressed and at the same time some regulatory mechanisms are blunted, negated or shut down.

    When each organ/tissue of society or in a living being has a way of giving and receiving feedback to arrive at a balanced participation the whole thrives... when a body sits too much and the brain is the main activity the rest suffers... when the musculature dominates or the stomach or the pleasure centers... "diet" and activity is structured to favor one or the other part of the body/society over the rest then there is the same problem only with different imbalances...

    The temporary benefits to whichever segment or sub-group or subsystem is able to dictate priorities and preferential rewards at the expense of others do not last. The short-sightedness of humans who do this in society should be more obvious than internal metabolism but in practice it happens in plain sight and often with impunity.

    A conservative might understand a sports analogy or a car maintenance analogy more readily than a medical/biological one but the principle is the same... all parts of a greater system need to be allowed/helped to functions optimally.... a great quarterback who gets all the teams resources to pay for him and has nothing left for building a balanced team... a car with fancy chrome exhausts, a snazzy paint job and overpriced headlights will still stop working if the oil & filter is not changed, belts and hoses and antifreeze attended to...
    And changing one hose when they are all bad... or just the most worn tire but not the other 3 will not forestall more problems in the near future...

    Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

    by IreGyre on Sat Jan 28, 2012 at 04:41:43 AM PST

    •  Systems Analysis (0+ / 0-)
      [T]he problems happen when some feedback is suppressed and at the same time some regulatory mechanisms are blunted, negated or shut down.
      Yes!  That is what worries me.

      Your example of cars is interesting.  We've spent quite a bit of energy on inventing systems for cars that make this kind of feedback obvious to their owners; for example, "Check Engine" lights, raised parts of tire treads that give clear indications of excessive wear, dynamic measurements of tire pressure and oil volume that call the drivers' attention to potential problems…   Even so, there are lots of people who ignore these signals.

      My question is:  What led to the imposition of these measurements and training the population to interpret them?  Applying an idea such as "fairness" requires that measurements be made, and action be taken to correct deviations from optimum in the values that this measurement produces.  The recent statistics on the relative wealth of the 1% and 99% would seem to be usable as indications of impending trouble; however, many of the 1% (who, as you point out, have much power to influence the result) do not agree with the implications of this measure, and it is certainly debatable what ought to be done as a result.  I'd like a cause-and-effect analysis, preferably in detail, demonstrating the consequences of our failure to act on these numbers, and the precise policies that need to be put in place to forestall disaster.  What did we do to put the existing societal feedback controls in place?  What can we do to move the debate toward analysis of the economy as a system and away from emotive, but technically ambiguous words that are interpreted differently by different segments of the population?

      Your final paragraph is an excellent discussion of why we need to consider this problem from a systems viewpoint.  It presents good analogies supporting my concern with the complexity of the economic system and the desirability of explicating its structure and operation as the basis for recommending changes to correct its current imbalance.

      This kind of analysis may be impractical or ineffective for a variety of reasons, but its lack seems to leave us open to serious problems from the consequences of applying policies that destabilize the country, rather than helping us back from the brink.  Thanks for helping me to clarify my thinking!

      Old man—waiting…

      by Karl Balke on Sat Jan 28, 2012 at 01:52:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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