Sunday, April 10, 2011

Where Can We Argue?

The recent essay about economic inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz is not the Nobel laureate's first contribution to Vanity Fair, that forum of Chardonnay sipping liberals (that I enjoy so well). Nor is Stiglitz's piece the first attempt to call attention to the issue of economic inequality. 


What makes the essay remarkable is its place in the larger debate about the escalating economic inequality in the US. 


Stiglitz provides a nice a primer on the issue, goes on to show just how intractable the issue has become, and then he demonstrates how problematic the consequences of growing economic inequality are. According to his essay, even the ultra-wealthy ought to be concerned. His evidence is based in clear historical examples and sound economic theory. It's a great essay.


Here's the problem: It's by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and it's in Vanity Fair.


One of the big writing challenges my composition students are working on this quarter is squaring rhetorical purpose and audience expectations. Last week the students decided that all of their essays this quarter will be focused on their investigation into the social and cultural impact of the internet. Two of their concerns going forward are 1) What do they want to say and 2) Who do they want to say it to.


I'm very impressed with the work my students are doing. 


For an issue as divisive as economic inequality, I'm a bit concerned about the ability of anyone - even a Nobel prize winning economist - to marshal evidence effectively enough to bring both sides of the debate to a constructive place.

I think the message of Stiglitz's essay is critically important, but I also belong to the group who agrees with him. Our side believes that economic inequality is a pressing issue, and the right is actively engaged in class warfare: limiting union rights, blaming the social safety net for state budget shortfalls, cutting the education budgets for at risk kids, moving jobs overseas, mechanizing manufacturing, holding onto corporate tax breaks, and keeping capital gains taxes out of the public coffers.

The wealthy have been working hard not to pay taxes, but now that budgets are short, they have decided that it's outrageous that we pay for teacher health care and provide lunch to poor school children.

And yeah, it is time to do something about it, but people reading the Stiglitz article in Vanity Fair already knew that.

Worse yet, if I want to change the mind of a person who, for example, supports cuts to public education, citing either Vanity Fair or Stiglitz isn't going to get me very far.

I was involved in an email exchange with some conservative thinkers recently. One person argued the following: It is less than fair that a wealthy parent who sends their children to private school must pay into the public school system. My reaction is that the benefits of public education are distributed across the social spectrum. But the person doesn't see those merits, or else they don't think they are substantial enough to maintain an equatable education system.

I tried to present my views, but imagine if I had replied, "But have you read Stiglitz essay in Vanity Fair?"

If you are unfamiliar with conservative thinkers, you might not anticipate the following, "Yes, I read it, and I am not surprised that the liberal media give that crackpot a voice."

You see, the people who agree with Stiglitz are happy to read such a nice article that confirms their worldview. Meanwhile, the people who disagree will be outraged when they read the article, and that will confirm their world view.

The same article in a different place would have been much more effective, but where is that other place? Dora and I were talking today, and we're pretty sure there isn't an outlet where people with different opinions can engage in a healthy debate about important issues. Maybe you know of one. A little help?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

When examining an argument, if the claim depends on the acceptance of two conflicting beliefs, there is a fundamental problem with the argument.  

On April Fool's Day the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed about union activities in Wisconsin. The piece suggested that "unions are now getting out the steel pipes for those who don't step lively to their cause."

As I read on, I found something wrong with that op-ed.

It opens with the claim that unions are threatening a boycott that endangers the livelihood of small business owners.
Then
the piece says that union numbers are on the decline and don't have the clout they once had.

Putting both points into one op-ed exposes the problem with the current opposition to union rights.
Point A) Unions are strong, because they have numbers.
Point B) Unions are obsolete and weak, because workers no longer support them - no numbers.

No matter your stance on union rights, if you accept one of those scenarios, you must reject the other.
If you oppose union rights because you accept Point A and believe unions are too powerful, then you have to accept that you are challenging a large number of people who can vote, protest, and boycott to some effect.
If you oppose union rights because you believe Point B is true, then you don't have anything to worry about. Your opposition is weak.

Judging by the rhetoric in Wisconsin, many who oppose union rights accept point A. And they are understandably frustrated that the group they oppose is organized and powerful. But last time I checked, organizing people with similar interests was acceptable behavior. I think there's something in the Constitution protecting the rights of people who do just that.

If steel pipes do come out, that's a problem. But boycotts are a far cry from violence. There is nothing illegal or immoral when a group of people stop patronizing businesses because of a political belief.

I'm not saying that people should blindly accept union demands. Opposing unions is different than opposing union rights.  Unions are an interest group. Unions have an agenda: to get workers the most money the labor market will provide. And unions are pushy. Employers have to push back. In today's labor market, employers have the upper hand. So even if unions are strong, competent employers should be able to cut a nice deal.

Instead of entering a negotiation in which he had the upper hand, however, Governor Walker has tried, and to a certain extent succeeded in portraying union members as a drain on the system - the way Regan portrayed "welfare queens."
The problem is that union workers earn wages that were negotiated in the public sphere. We can object to how well they made out in those negotiations. We can investigate any shady dealings. We can be upset that the unions used connections and bargaining power so effectively.

But we shouldn't resort to passing laws that deny groups a voice at the table.

Bottom line: When the Wisconsin Republicans used the legislative process to limit citizens' rights to organize and act as a group, they violated one of their party's core principles. "Small Government" is not just about budgets; it's also about how laws affect lives.

You don't have to like unions. Hell, you can seek to undermine their influence, but if you use the government to cripple them because their interests are not in line with yours, you have failed to understand how a democracy functions.

And that is why we should examine our arguments for cognitive dissonance.