Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Government is Unfair

Here is my old friend from my days as a Minnesotan, Danny Shapiro, talking about his critique of the welfare state (sadly, this video is not embeddable). His thesis: just about every welfare state policy is inferior to some alternative, even by the standards of those who advocate such policies, including the standard sometimes known distributive justice (or "fairness").

A glaring example, possibly different from the sort he cites, just popped up in a Madison WI newspaper.

First, a word of explanation. One way to grasp the idea of distributive justice is to think of the phrase from The Communist Manifesto, "to each according to his ____." How you fill in the blank varies -- according to his moral virtue, talent, contribution to society, effort, or maybe (Marx and Engels' favorite) need -- but the basic idea is that your wealth, income, or whatever, ideally ought to be part of an ordered response to characteristics people have which indicate that they "deserve" the income, etc. Discussions of distributive justice commonly take place with the following sort of background assumptions: There is little chance that free markets will conform to any of these ordered patterns. If distributive justice makes sense, then the government should step in and fix the situation. The question is whether it does make sense and if so which form is the best (to each according to his ... what?). That is how Robert Nozick discusses it in his classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).

People seldom ask whether government itself is distributively just. Take a look at this list of the 20 highest paid municipal employees in Madison WI last year:

John Nelson, Bus driver, $159,258

Dean Brasser, Comptroller, $151,551

Noble Wray, Police chief, $143,585

Michael May, City attorney, $143,434

Carolyn Hogg, Assistant city attorney, $138,084

Mark Olinger, Planning and Development director, $136,787

Randy Gaber, Assistant police chief, $136,248

Debra Amesqua, Fire chief, $136,163

John Davenport, Assistant police chief, $134,382

James Keiken, Assistant fire chief, $133,589

Michael Dirienzo, Assistant fire chief, $133,144

Paul Bloom, Assistant fire chief, $132,873

David Dryer, Traffic engineer/parking manager, $130,831

Tom Carto, Overture Center president, $129,566

Carl Gloede, Police Captain, $128,750

Katherine Noonan, Assistant city attorney, $126,709

James Hess, Monona Terrace director, $126,593

Roger Allen, Assistant city attorney, $126,592

Brad Murphy, Planning unit director, $126,363

Greg Tatman, Bus driver, $125,598

Note that two of them, #20 and, astoundingly, #1 are ordinary city bus drivers. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz did not earn enough to make it on to this list. Now, I'm not anti-bus-driver (my grandfather drove a bus in Detroit MI all his working life) but surely there is no sane version of the distributive justice idea that can justify this arrangement.

The above-linked article, by the way, explains why this odd distribution of income happened: Bus drivers, unlike mayors, are unionized, and the Teamsters got the municipal bus drivers a contract with lavish pay for overtime, and apparently no limits on how much overtime any one employee can accumulate. The article also mentions that this situation last came to John Q. Public's attention in1998, when it caused a bit of a flap. Obviously, the resulting public ire had absolutely no effect on the situation during the twelve long years that have crept by since then.

I draw two conclusions:

1. Government can be distributively unjust, even absurdly so.

2. It can be very, very difficult for John and Jane Public to do a damn thing about it.

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