Matthew Arnold On Inequality

In his 1879 essay ‘Equality,’ Matthew Arnold wrote about inequality too:

What the middle class sees is that splendid piece of materialism, the aristocratic class, with a wealth and luxury utterly out of their reach, with a standard of social life and manners, the offspring of that wealth and luxury , seeming out utterly out of their reach also. And thus they are thrown back upon themselves–upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilization, such as it is, even infinitely more of out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

And the greater the inequality the more marked is its bad action upon the middle and lower classes….

[O]ur aristocracy…is for the imagination a singularly modern and uninteresting one. Its splendor of station, its wealth, show, and luxury, is then what the other classes really admire in it; and this is not an elevating admiration. Such an admiration will never lift us out of our vulgarity and brutality, if we chance to be vulgar and brutal to start with; it will rather feed them and be fed by them….our love of inequality is really the vulgarity in us, and the brutality, admiring and worshipping the splendid materiality.

[Matthew Arnold: Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Noel Annan, Oxford University Press, 1964]

Arnold does not speak here of rage, outward or inward directed, but he might as well have. For there is a black envy here, in his mention of an ‘admiration’ that is not ‘elevating’ but that instead ‘feeds’ and is ‘fed’ by ‘vulgarity’ and ‘brutality.’ This corrosion of sensibilities that inequality produces–all the more acute as the inequality grows more pronounced–cannot be anything but a destabilizing force, one that may not restrained too long.

In some cultures it is said staring at someone eating brings bad luck to the person eating. The watcher is urged to show some manners; the eater turns away to consume in peace. A pair of hungry eyes looking at sustenance denied them cannot but ruin the appetite of those conscious of their gaze. Matters, no doubt, are infinitely worse when the food on the plate has been stolen from those watching, when they have been forced to serve it up with their own hands.

The converse, of course, of such a superstition, is that the ostentatious consumer of food denied others reminds others of their misfortune, rubs their faces in it. He runs the risk too, of having his plate snatched out of his hands.

Nicholas Kristof is Gullible, Very Gullible

Nicholas Kristof thinks conservatives are–like a broken clock–right at least some of the time. Kristof, unfortunately, is just wrong throughout his latest limp Op-Ed. To borrow a line from Steven Soderbergh‘s plainspoken Limey they are right precisely the ‘square root of sweet FA‘ number of times – a vanishingly small number.

What are the conservatives right about? Or at least, what ‘ideas’ are they supposed to be credited with?

First:

STRONG FAMILIES Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right.

Except that they don’t care about family. War–a favorite preoccupation of conservatives–is not family-friendly, and neither is unrelenting hostility to family-planning, maternity leave, paternity leave, and flexible work-schedules. Heck, hostility to women doesn’t seem particularly family-friendly.

Second:

JOB CREATION President Reagan was right when he said that the best social program is a job. Good jobs also strengthen families.

But conservatives don’t care about  job creation. Their interest in exacerbating income inequality doesn’t show an interest in job creation; their enthrallment by corporate ideals doesn’t either. Come to think of it, the wholesale enthusiasm for trade treaties that result in a net loss of jobs doesn’t seem to indicate an interest in job creation either.

Third,

SCHOOL REFORM Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem.

This makes me want to throw up. In fact, I think I just did. Remember war and its budgets? Or taxes on the rich? Or, income inequality and attendant poverty in the  inner city? Or racism? A lack of interest in ameliorating the effects of these doesn’t seem to indicate an interest in school reform. Kristof, bizarrely enough, seems ignorant enough to believe that conservative ‘concern’ about school systems has nothing to do with hostility to the idea of organized labor.

When conservatives espouse the ideas that Kristof so misguidedly praises them for, they are merely using them as stepping-stones to reach other targets. Concern for the family seeks to demonize working women, to restrict sexual and reproductive choice;concern for job creation is a ploy to secure tax breaks, to further protect the economic privileges of their class; concern for schools is a ruse to push through their anti-union agenda (and now, increasingly to reward their fat-cat friends in the testing and charter school industry).

Kristof imagines that somehow, in each case, he can separate out the holding of an ‘idea’ or ‘belief’ and the prescriptions that are intended to achieve its aims. But you can’t do that. Your prescriptions for the ‘problem’ reveal, quite clearly, whether you actually hold that belief or not. We reveal our beliefs by our actions; Kristof should know that much.

Kristof’s biggest problem is quite simple and represents an acute intellectual failure: he confuses mere lip-service with an actual intellectual standpoint. He does not want to look past the posturing; he is content with sound bites and insincerity. This is gullibility of the highest order.

Winners and Losers, All Together

On Thursday night, after a brief foray into New Jersey, I returned to New York City by train, arriving a little after midnight at Penn Station. I walked upstairs into the arrival hall, turned toward the Seventh Avenue exit, and emerged  in front of Madison Square Garden before walking east on 33rd Street toward the subway station from where I would take the Q train downtown into Brooklyn. As I walked down 33rd Street, still wet and glistening from the rain earlier that evening, still lashed by the leftover winds from that downpour, I noticed the homeless: on the sidewalk, pushed up against the buildings, laying on cardboard sheets made from boxes, their belongings–sometimes in bags, sometimes lying around loose–stuffed into corners, sometimes doubling as pillows. Some talked to each other, yet others had already turned in for the night, curled up tightly and efficiently into bodyheat-conserving positions. They formed a somber and ragged guard for my walk to the train that would take me back home, a grim reminder of the co-existence of their desperate situation with the wealth and power of this great city.

Earlier that evening, I had driven my good friend’s borrowed Mercedes back to his  suburban home in Central New Jersey. I had driven it over the magnificent Verrazano Narrows Bridge, its engineering marvels the perfect stage to showcase the powerful, ready-to-supply-oodles-of-horsepower precision-engineered engine of my vehicle. I drove on broad, multi-lane highways, equipped with scanning devices that read off electronic charges for tolls from a card attached to the windshield of my car, past other expensive vehicles–Audis, BMWs, Lexuses–carrying well-heeled professionals back to their undoubtedly comfortable residences. I was guided unerringly to my destination by a global positioning device that had efficiently and quickly calculated the shortest and fastest route and pointed me along it with a combination of crystal clear graphics and peremptory commands (‘Turn left on Newman Springs Road!’). I arrived in time for dinner, drank several glasses of a smooth Pinot Noir and a bold Cabernet Sauvignon, all the while chatting with my friend’s teenaged children while they did their homeworks suitably complemented with occasional consultation of their iPads. After our sumptuous meal with the wine flowing throughout, I was driven to the station to catch my train back to New York City. On the way back, I leisurely stretched out on the large seats in my air-conditioned coach and read several articles from an old issue of the New York Review of Books to while away the seventy-minute ride over and through track and tunnel into the subterranean depths of Manhattan.

It was an evening where I was surrounded by technological accomplishment and power, by personal success and comfort, by the trappings of the good and leisurely life, by the ingenious accomplishments of our civilization. My arrival in New York City filled out the picture: it brought me face to face with the sharp contrasts in fortune that lie uneasily alongside each other, a reminder of this world’s sweepstakes, conducted daily with their winners and losers.

Oscar Wilde on Kidney Markets

Reader Austin Donisan has a long comment worth reading in response to my post on why kidney markets might offend me. I’m not going to engage with every single point Donisan makes, because in doing so I would be repeating myself (please read the post which started this discussion). But let me make a few responses in any case.

First, Donisan suggests I have “an a priori opinion on the matter of paid organ donation.” Well, yes, I do. As I stated in my last post, I have a strong, instinctive revulsion to the possibility of poor folks in this country, in these times, selling their kidneys for pittances; my revulsion is not directed toward paid organ donations per se. Call it a preference if you like; no worries. But do indicate what my preference is for in more specific terms.

Second, Donisan is too keen to convince me in economic terms; that is not going to work in this situation. You are asking me to make commensurate two scales: one, which measures markets in terms of efficiency; the second, which reacts to markets in less tangible terms like distaste. We might be talking past each other.

Third, Donisan says:

The ability to donate a kidney may be poor’s biggest comparative advantage, and comparative advantage is the only way to get ahead in the world.

So, presumably, the best way to help the poor would be to encourage them to sell their kidneys. This doesn’t sound right to me; I can think of many other strategies that would enhance the “comparative advantage” of the poor, which do not require them to sell their vital organs.

I’d like to evaluate kidney markets in a broader context and Donisan wants to make the context narrower; it will enable a market-based argument to go through, but it does so at the cost of making the argument uninteresting to me. A poor man selling a kidney in the US today is just an abstract agent seeking comparative advantage for Donisan; not so for me.

Anyway, I’d like to stop repeating myself and let Oscar Wilde have the last word. So, from Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3:

CECIL GRAHAM. What is a cynic?

LORD DARLINGTON. A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

CECIL GRAHAM. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.

Why Kidney Markets Might Offend Me

Over at the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan notes my response to Alexander Berger’s NYT Op-Ed advocating the creation of organ markets, and provides a counter-response from Roger McShane:

[D]onors…see only the slightest increase in their risk of dying from kidney disease…their altruism is likely to lead to more than a decade of improved and prolonged life for the recipient. Donations are…cost-effective….such systems do fill the needs of the ill.

Let us grant all those points, all compatible with my original misgiving (Sullivan omits my final sentence where I say that organ markets might still work if there are not too many desperate entrants; incidentally, Frank Pasquale noted that in Pakistan, kidneys sell for $2000; that tweeted link points to an article by Pasquale that is worth reading in this context).

Let us now rewrite McShane (I have omitted McShane’s final sentence about Iran, which appears in Sullivan’s post):

Poor impoverished people that sell their kidneys see only the slightest increase in their risk of dying from kidney disease. Their altruism is likely to lead to more than a decade of improved and prolonged life for the recipient. Their donations are cost-effective….[a system which relies on purchases of kidneys from the poor and impoverished] fills the needs of the ill.

Fair enough? McShane’s words read a little differently now for me. The situation they describe strikes me as offensive; the society that is described by this picture is lacking in some vital quality. And that is because I did not render my original objection in the abstract; it was very much in the here and now, in this America, in this society, with its massive income inequalities, one that builds itself up on the backs of the poor, via the labor of those of whose attempts to organize themselves into collectivities is frowned upon, where Government and Corporation are indistinguishable.

I am not exclusively concerned with the efficiency of the market in being able to arrive at “optimal outcomes;” rather I am merely complaining, in perhaps a “unscientific”, “irrational” way, that the situation that might result from organ markets in the US–a society with gross income inequality whose poorest line up to sell their organs so that those who can afford organ transplants within the constraints of a grossly inefficient healthcare system can live longer–is likely to cause me to hold my nose. Perhaps it is because I suspect this same society will do nothing to improve the health of those who will find themselves selling their organs. I do not find an organ market, in the abstract, to be inherently offensive; in this society, I do.

Update: Fixed a grammatical typo; changed “non-scientific” to “unscientific”; changed “non-rational” to “irrational.”