Category Archives: Philosophy

The stories we tell and the truths we hide: fairness, mobility, and inequality

Nature just published an article by Paul Bloom, Christina Starmans, and Mark Sheshkin.

Their argument: people care more about fairness than inequality, and policy makers and pundits too often ignore the difference between these two concepts.

In their own words:

Our own argument against a focus on inequality is a psychological one… people don’t care about reducing inequality per se. Rather, people have an aversion toward unfairness, and under certain special circumstances this leads them to reject unequal distributions. In other conditions, including those involving real-world distributions of wealth, it leads them to favour unequal distributions. In the current economic environment in the United States and other wealthy nations, concerns about fairness happen to lead to a preference for reducing the current level of inequality. However, in various other societies across the world and across history (for example, when faced with the communist ideals of the former USSR), concerns about fairness lead to anger about too much equality. To understand these opposite drives, one needs to focus not on whether the system results in a relatively equal or unequal distribution of wealth, but whether it is viewed as fair.

The authors might be right that humans care more about fairness than inequality, but I think people’s reasons for caring about fairness are wrong.

Here’s my current thinking on fairness – the related concept of mobility – and inequality:

Fairness is a fantasy.

I don’t believe that fairness is achievable. We don’t choose our genes, our environment, and we might not even have free will – so how is anything really fair?

Obama’s “you didn’t build this” line remains one of the most philosophically honest statements that a president has uttered since I’ve been following politics.

And an even more honest statement would have been: “you didn’t build you.”

I suppose you could redefine a “fair” society as one where people are able to live out the full potential of their genes and environment, but this hardly captures the totality of what people think about when they say they desire fairness.

In a perfectly fair world there would be little mobility. 

People often use mobility as a measure of fairness. The more rags to riches stories there are, the fairer a society must be. I think this is backwards. In a perfectly fair society, there would little mobility, as genes and environment would drive so much of outcomes. We’d be stagnantly sorted save for random shocks or to the extent that technological change affected what genes and environments were valuable.

The desirability of mobility is predicated on the idea that people justly move up or down a society’s rungs based on their own volition – and this is a fantasy.


People should care about inequality!

I’m open to the idea that people don’t care about inequality as much as liberal pundits think they do. But I think people are foolish not to care! When the inputs (genes and environment) are randomly sprinkled across humanity, inequality of outcomes should be a concern for us all, because, in the truest sense of the word, these outcomes are unfair.

Our are fantasies of use?

Perhaps. People desiring fairness as an outcome – and using mobility as a proxy for fairness – may help avoid things like free loading, distrust, and government tyranny. These myths might also increase hard work and entrepreneurship. I grant that these myths have survived many rounds of social evolution, and in this sense should warrant some respect.

But believing these myths comes at a great cost in that we falsely blame people for their bad outcomes and tolerate insanely brutal amounts of inequality to maintain the artifice.

It might just be better to live in a world where we say: “we know the world is terribly unfair and it’s no one’s fault so we are willing to push marginal tax rates and transfers as high as possible until we near the part of the curve where disincentives to work are  greatly hampering economic growth and screwing us all.”

Or perhaps society would function poorly in the face of us all admitting this reality.

I don’t really know.

Either way, our myths of fairness and mobility blind us to the reality the world is unjustly unequal.

Here’s how much I gave to charity this year


Every year I write a blog post about how much I gave to charity. I do this with the hopes of (ever slightly) increasing a culture of giving.

This year, I gave 8% of my gross income.

Some reflections below.

How much does it cost to save a life?

GiveWell makes rough estimates that the most effective charities save a life for around $1,000-$3,000.

That means most readers of this blog could save the lives of multiple people this year.

I hope you do so.

Where did I give? Why? 

I gave my money to GiveWell and told them they could allocate it across any of their preferred charities, save for Give Directly.

My giving is based on the following:

(1) I understand that peace, economic growth, technological advancement is what really matters most over the long-haul.

(2) I have no idea how to donate to charity in a manner that helps the above.

(3) There are many people who face acute suffering right now.

(4) I have some modest hopes that charities can help with this acute suffering.

(5) Giving internationally is the most effective way to ease the most acute suffering per donation.

The reason I do not give to Give Directly (direct cash transfers to poor people) is not that I think it’s a bad idea; rather I just don’t think we have enough evidence to prove that it alleviates suffering as well as GiveWell’s others recommend charities.

What worries me the most about my giving strategy?

I am open to the idea that making high-risk bets on existential issues (war, climate change, A.I., pandemics, etc.) will have more long-term utility than lower-risk bets that ameliorate current human suffering.

But I don’t trust myself to evaluate how to give to these causes, nor have I found experts that I fully trust that could guide my giving on these causes.

GiveWell is trying to mature this space with its Open Philanthropy initiative, but I don’t yet have enough confidence in their analysis to shift my giving.

Given the current turmoil in our country, why didn’t I give domestically?

I do think that the United States could do incredible global harm by starting an ill-advised war, radically reducing its commitment to climate change efforts, or erecting massive trade barriers that severely slow the global economy.

Because of this, I made political donations throughout the year (which I did not include in my charitable giving).

However, right now, I’m not really sure how to donate in a manner that would lower the risks of our government making any of the aforementioned grave errors.

If there is a way to do so, I will consider giving to these causes next year.

Should you calculate your giving rate based on pre or post tax income? 

I go back and forth in how one should figure taxes into this.

On one hand, about 10-20% of taxes go to the poor (I think, it’s very hard to get clear answers on this), which feels like charitable giving of some sort.

On the other hand, charitable giving is also tax deductible; moreover, I surely reap the fruits of living in a functioning country, and, in modern times, some form of welfare state is part of what creates domestic stability.

So I’m not sure that pre-tax is exactly the right baseline for calculation.

But I’ll stick to the hard line and calculate pre-tax: so 8% it is.

Are Millennials the First Utilitarian Generation?

While it may appear that I love to blast out NOLA education research on twitter all day, I actually do not. But I think it’s important, so I do it.

On to other topics.

Scott Sumner just had an interesting post on the rise of utilitarianism. He writes:

If I might be allowed a bit of armchair philosophical speculation, it seems to me that the advance of technology and utilitarianism are two of the most relentless trends in world history. The growing importance of technology is easy to see, while utilitarianism requires a bit more explanation…

Do read the whole post.

I think Scott may be right: utilitarianism does appear to be on the rise, especially amongst the elite. I see this in two ways: (1) viewing all people of equal worth and (2) a willingness to transfer wealth to those with less.

Gay rights is an example of the first. Trends in philanthropy (Give Well, Give Directly, etc.); bipartisan support for the EITC, and the growing Open Borders movement are all examples of the second.

Scott discusses much of the above in his post.

I view this as an incredibly important trend, one may that dwarf most other social trends, as it has the potential to greatly affect government policy.

While any philosophy breaks down if you ask “why?” enough times, versions of utilitarianism hold up longer than most, and their widespread adoption would likely increase the ability of more people to lead good lives.

So I do hope that Millennials are the first utilitarian generation. From a doing good perspective, this may make them the greatest generation to date.

As for the generation after the Millennials, perhaps they will be the generation of scientific truth. One of my friends works at a high status private sector company. Somehow or another, the topic of free will came up, and a 22 year old analyst said something along the lines of: “Of course we don’t have free will. None of my friends believe in that nonsense.”

Which of course begs the question: can you be a utilitarian if you don’t have free will?