Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reflections on my Discussion with Kevin Allen and Fr. John

I, along with Fr. John Whiteford, was recently a guest on Ancient Faith Radio’s Illumined Heart podcast. The episode revisited the subject of capitalism’s compatibility with Eastern Orthodoxy (click here for the essay which prompted the invitation to appear on the show). In this short essay, I share some reflections on what was a very lively discussion. As one who is sympathetic to social democracy, I knew that I would regularly be at odds with Fr. John, a conservative. I must confess that I almost wish Fr. John was less pleasant than he is, since it would be much easier to continue disagreeing with him, as I do below.


Fr. John argued that the problem of poverty in the U.S. is not as severe as the Left suggests, and he points to America’s obesity rate as evidence. Rising obesity, it is assumed, necessarily means that people have more money to increase their food consumption. However, obesity does not merely indicate the quantity of food that is consumed, but also its quality. While conservatives often over-emphasize individual choices in explaining poor diets (and, to be fair, many on the Left are vulnerable to the charge of overstating structural factors), the reality is that the quality of one’s diet is significantly determined by income (along with genetics and other factors). As one writer put it, “…when a head of broccoli costs three times as much as a McDonald’s double cheeseburger, the whole notion of consumer ‘choice’ becomes suspect.” It is, therefore, no coincidence that the urban poor are disproportionately represented among the obese in our country.

Quantifying the Working Poor

After citing a statistic on the number of Americans from working class families who were living in poverty, I was asked whether that figure included the number of illegal immigrants. Even at present, I’m still not quite sure (I’ve yet to receive a response from the Working Poor Families Project, which furnished the data). Yet I’m also unsure as to whether that even matters. Working poor is working poor - “alien” or otherwise. If illegal immigration were as economically burdensome as many claim, then the government should do more than pay lip service to the need to protect our borders, as well as to punish those businesses whose willingness to recruit undocumented workers incentivizes those living across our borders to enter our country illegally.

Even if we exclude illegal immigrants from this estimate (as if sub-living wages for them are somehow more acceptable), the number would still be intolerably high. Yet as far as I’m concerned, even if one persuasively argues to the contrary, he would actually be undermining the conservative perspective. After all, the smaller this figure becomes, the more difficult it is to convincingly argue that mitigating this problem is impractical. It would do more to support my case if one were to discover that the true number of impoverished Americans from working class families is 22 thousand, rather than 22 million.

Alternative Explanations

I sampled recent scholarly research on the positive effects of social democracy on several measures of subjective and objective well-being. However, at least three factors were offered to downplay social democracy’s role in enhancing living standards. I address each of these below.

Oil and Inequality

Using the Gini coefficient as a gauge, I presented solid evidence that social democratic welfare countries (SDWCs) produce lower levels of inequality than do the more capitalistic ones. In response, it was countered that Norway’s large oil revenues (and not its welfare system) explain its lower GINI score. The obvious rebuttal, however, is that oil fails to explain the much lower Gini scores in Denmark (24.7), Sweden (25), France (32.7), to name but three countries whose welfare spending is often targeted for criticism.

According to the familiar population argument, the U.S. can’t be compared with SDWCs because the latter are much smaller in population, and thus have fewer people on whom to spend welfare (let’s ignore, for the sake of argument, that conservatives are often eager to embrace findings from comparative research that support their conclusions). One basic flaw in this argument is that it focuses on the total number of welfare recipients, rather than their share of the total population. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the number of welfare recipients in the U.S. is 30 million. Moreover, let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that they, themselves, don’t contribute - even in the smallest of ways - to America’s welfare apparatus. In one sense, 30 million is a large number (it’s roughly the size of Afghanistan). In a country like France, where an impoverished population of 30 million would constitute almost half of its total population, it doesn’t appear remotely possible that an effective welfare state could be sustained. However, as a share of America’s population, that would amount to approximately 10%, which means that there would be a much larger 277 million people among whom the financial burden of sustaining the welfare system would be divided (I entertain no delusion that all would end up sharing the burden equally, of course).

Hence, we are left without a proper explanation as to why population should matter. We may discover that Norwegians consume more cheese than Americans (I have no data on cheese consumption, mind you), though we wouldn’t entertain the possibility that cheese consumption is responsible for their different levels of inequality. This is because there is no theory accounting for why cheese consumption should matter. It seems to me that, as an explanatory factor, population is more credible than cheese consumption mostly for superficial reasons – it is merely because population is an important correlate of many things that interest social scientists that some people take it seriously, even if they can’t explain why its related to welfare spending.

Finally, what exactly is the threshold beyond which a country’s population is “too large”? While having less than half of America’s population, Japan is still quite large compared to most other countries (with over 127 million people, it’s the world’s 10th largest country). Nevertheless, its Gini score (24.9) is among the world’s lowest. So, is 127 million the cut-off point?

Ethnic Heterogeneity

SDWCs are more egalitarian than the U.S., it was suggested, because they are more ethnically homogenous. This is the only argument I’ve heard that appears to have any empirical support. There is, indeed, evidence for the claim that heterogeneity and welfare spending are inversely related (although this argument is certainly not without its critics). But what does this really say? Does this mean that heterogeneity affects the capability of sustaining the welfare spending? Or, does it simply reflect ethnocentrism, whereby the majority ethnic group is unwilling to include minority groups among welfare recipients, as many claim (perhaps it is due to my ignorance that I consider this an open question)?

Trade Unions

By and large, workers have demonstrably benefited from trade union membership; here, again, empirical research is on my side. Moreover, survey evidence reveals that a majority of Americans have over the years supported trade unions. Yet in spite of unions’ proven benefits and democratic appeal, many conservatives insist that they are a force for evil, and often point to cases in which workers are coerced into joining them. But are we to generalize from what appear to be isolated (and perhaps exaggerated) cases of abuse, and simply ignore the evidence in favor of unions? We must understand that the argument is not whether trade unions are perfect (as I pointed out, so long as we remain fallible, our institutions will always be fallible). The argument is whether a system in which unions flourish is less imperfect than one in which they do not.

The Religious Criterion in Evaluating Welfare States

In response to the parallel I pointed out between the social democratic welfare and Byzantine states, it was remarked that (a) the Byzantine Empire was Christian, whereas SDWCs are not; and (b) that this distinction somehow matters. Here, I point out two basic problems with this argument.

First, far from devaluing social democracy, it implicitly provides justification for a specifically American version of it. The inference drawn from this distinction is that the welfare state is not viewed, in and of itself, as morally problematic. It becomes an evil when the society in which it is embedded no longer practices the Christian faith. But once we reconcile this idea with the belief that Christianity is alive and well in the U.S., a conclusion that ought to trouble conservatives seems to follow: the U.S. is an especially fitting place in which to establish a social democracy, given its continued attachment to the Christian faith.

Second, one’s freedom to pursue happiness is restricted once it is conditioned upon the religious beliefs and practices of his fellow citizens. To be sure, I could not consider myself a true Christian unless I genuinely wished that everyone embraced the Christian faith. However, as far as economic justice is concerned, I could care less about the religious climate of my society. Is the worker really to be told that he may not be paid a decent wage because his compatriots are no longer Christian?