David R. Henderson  

I Agree with Barbara Ehrenreich

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On a flight home from Las Vegas last night, I found the April 14 issue of Time magazine. I hadn't read it in years. On the last page was a feature called "10 Questions." They were 10 questions to "activist, atheist and best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich." Interestingly, they left out any mention, in their adjectives, of her political views. She's quite far left.

So, given that I'm a big believer in economic freedom, you might think that I would disagree with her about her answer in income inequality, right? WRONG. I TOTALLY agreed with her.

Here was the question: "If I could give you one power, one wish, what would you do to lessen income inequality?"

Before I give her answer, stop and think what you would expect it to be. Guaranteed annual income financed by an increase in the top marginal federal income tax rate to 60 percent or higher? More welfare programs?

Seriously, think about it before you read her actual answer.


Here's her actual answer:

Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor. I mean, you can just spiral down so fast into poverty. You have a broken headlight, you get stopped. That fine is going to be greater than the cost of a new headlight. You don't have money to pay the fine, you're looking at an arrest warrant--and down you go.

Think about that: the one most-important step Barbara Ehrenreich would take to lesson income inequality is to have the government stop hassling poor people.

I agree.


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Becky Hargrove writes:

Government harasses poor people for small amounts of money that mean nothing to government but everything to the people involved, because day in and day out it's so easy to get away with it. Even though much more money can be had by harassing someone more important, that's invariably what hits the news instead.

I knew that Barbara Ehrenreich had also figured out the consumption aspects of inequality as well by her quote on the front of Barry C. Lynn's Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and The Economics of Destruction -

"...Cornered has changed my view of what's gone wrong with American capitalism." That book was written in 2010.

Sieben writes:

To be fair, this probably isn't the #1 policy change she'd make. The reason she gave this answer to the question probably has a lot to do with social desirability bias.

"Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor"...

NO WAY, I disagree!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Sieben,
To be fair, this probably isn't the #1 policy change she'd make. The reason she gave this answer to the question probably has a lot to do with social desirability bias.
Huh? I don’t get it.
And SHE is the one who said “Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor” and so there’s no issue of her agreeing or disagreeing with that statement. She is the one who made the statement.

Emily writes:

That's not terribly imaginative or ambitious. If you get a power or a wish to lessen income inequality, why pick a policy change? I'd lessen inequality of human capital (by lifting up the bottom, not depressing the top.)

Of course, the genie (or whatever wish/power-granting being we're imagining) could implement that in less-than-appealing ways, so you'd also want to specify some implementation rules as well. Maybe get a lawyer involved.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Emily,

That's not terribly imaginative or ambitious.
I don’t judge policies by the imagination or ambition behind them. I judge them according to whether they are pro- or anti-freedom and whether they would do much good. By those standards, this is a very good proposal. Actually, though, even though I don’t judge policies by how ambitious they are, getting cops to back off, given their incentives, is incredibly ambitious.

If you get a power or a wish to lessen income inequality, why pick a policy change? I'd lessen inequality of human capital (by lifting up the bottom, not depressing the top.)
And you would increase the human capital of the bottom how, given that you have foresworn policy changes?

Jon Murphy writes:

I always like to say: if people actually looked at what we stand for, as opposed to what they think they we stand for, you'd find a lot of common ground.

At the most basic level, there isn't much difference between a libertarian and a progressive/conservative. We all want justice. We all want to help out those who are worse off. We all want better lives. Ultimately, it is just the method that differs (although not so much in this particular case).

St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote "How can we live in harmony? First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God." I think the same thing applies here: how can we live in harmony with the progressives/conservatives? We must first realize we are all madly in love with the same people.

Charlie writes:

My first thought was similar to Emily's. I would endow lower income folks with more ability from birth. Ability gaps are one of the largest drivers of inequality and everyone wins if we just raise the abilities of some people. There'd be less inequality and higher growth. That'd be my one wish. I think that would have a much, much greater effect than any policy decision.

I imagine DH interpreted the question much differently than we did. I see in his response to Emily that he has emphasized "policies" and "policy changes." The question specifies "one power" or "one wish."

Emily writes:

Through the magic of whatever being is granting that power or wish (and specifically in something like the way Charlie describes).

There are probably some important ethical issues here, but it seems like they're of the same kind (although of a different degree) that generating a policy change via your new power/wish.

A broader point I'm interested in here is that policy changes are inherently limited in terms of the good things they can get us. Even very good policy changes generally have pretty small effect sizes for whatever it is we're trying to do. It's valuable to think about the larger determinants of whatever's going on.

ThomasH writes:

I don't know what a "progressive conservative is;" not like a "compassionate conservative" that starts terrible wars, I hope. But I don't see much difference between libertarians and liberals on real policy preferences; more on what is actually feasible.

MingoV writes:

That's an easy question to answer: Turn everyone into libertarians.

Thomas Lee writes:

We're a group of jail activists in Monterey County CA who are following Barbara's and David's advice. We're working to stop the nickel and diming (updated for inflation) of people who are caught up the criminal justice system. One of the ploys of the jail system is to charge minor offenders huge, unaffordable bail amounts, sending them into jail sometimes months before their cases are heard. They usually lose their jobs. Their families suffer. The taxpayers pay. The system shrugs.

Dan writes:

David, could you expand on this in a blog post? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the specific things the government could do to stop taking money from the poor. If it matters, I'm asking a reader from the Left. I'm hoping to find some cross-ideological solutions to income inequality and this seems promising.

Kurtis writes:
You have a broken headlight, you get stopped. That fine is going to be greater than the cost of a new headlight. You don't have money to pay the fine, you're looking at an arrest warrant--and down you go.

I'm not sure what she is really suggesting here. Does this not create a unique tier in society for poor people. "Sorry, you have a broken headlight. Oh, you are poor, I didn't know, please go on your way so that I can find someone who has the means to pay for these violations."

If the violation is a form of harassment, then why is it better, or preferable to inflict it only on those who can afford to pay? And please don't think it is ONLY a form of harassment because poor people don't have the money.

Pajser writes:

From given excerpt, I am not sure that Ehrenreich tried to say "Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor used by state" instead of "Stop all the ways that money is being taken from the poor generally." If she limited herself on the "used by state" then she is not much of the leftist.

"I judge them according to whether they are pro- or anti-freedom and whether they would do much good."
My impression is that libertarians should discuss whether their basic ideas are really pro-freedom more.
Hazel Meade writes:

Someone should ask he what she thinks of occupational licensing.

Colin K writes:

@Kurtis

Playing devil's advocate with the broken headlight example, the guy struggling to put food on the table might really want to fix his headlight, but be playing the odds of getting busted because he needs the $20 more for something else. I can't blame a guy if he spends that $20 to pay for gas to get to work or pay the way past due electric bill. To slap him with a $50 fine on top is just kicking a man when he's down. I'd give a ticket but with the option to waive the fine by mailing it back with a receipt for a replacement light within a week or so.

Now, a guy like me, with plenty of disposable income, when I don't fix a light it's because I'm lazy or careless, QED.

There are limits to this too. Moving violations are a choice, not a circumstance like a busted light. But there are a lot of non moving violation type offenses on the books that nickel and dime people.

[url is broken. --Econlib Ed.]

Jay writes:

@Pajser

"My impression is that libertarians should discuss whether their basic ideas are really pro-freedom more."

Uhh, what?

Jay writes:

@Colin K

Those are still 2 different (even slightly) punishments for different classes of people. You would almost certainly get an Equal Protection court case out of this system.

Jeff writes:

Now if she and other liberals would just apply that thought to things like agricultural price supports and quotas, or the EPA, or Obamacare's mandated coverages that raise costs, or like Hazel says, occupational licensing.

I won't be holding my breath.

LD Bottorff writes:

Sorry. We would all like the police, Child Protective Services, DEA, occupational licensing departments, school boards and others to behave more reasonably. However, that will not get the vote out.

Pajser writes:
Jay. "My impression is that libertarians should discuss whether their basic ideas are really pro-freedom more." Uhh, what?"
Yes. More basic notions, more discussions what is freedom, property, aggression ... discussions like in D. Friedman's Machinery.
Piedmont writes:

I think some of this is overblown. I have worked for four years as a prosecutor or defense attorney in a dozen jurisdictions in Virginia, and I've never seen someone get fined for something like a broken tail light if they bring in proof they've gotten it fixed.

If they don't have any proof (or more commonly, just don't show up at all), then sure. Otherwise, the courts here have just been concerned with the safety issue and are usually even willing to grant continuances so it can be fixed if someone's short on cash.

I would endow lower income folks with more ability from birth. Ability gaps are one of the largest drivers of inequality and everyone wins if we just raise the abilities of some people.

That won't help if the incentives they face penalize using their ability to help themselves. Somehow I have a hard time believing that Barbara E. is on the same page with Casey Mulligan's argument that the poor often face marginal tax rates over 100%.

Charlie writes:

"...Casey Mulligan's argument that the poor often face marginal tax rates over 100%."

They face high MTRs, because they earn low wages. They earn low wages because they have lower ability and less skills.

Gemma Seymour writes:

The broken headlight is a poor example; broken headlights are a public safety issue. The suggestion of a summons that is reversible upon installation of a new headlight within a limited timeframe is an appropriate compromise. However, a better change is to work to eliminate the need for personal motorised transport.

Personally, I would pick the collection and distribution of Just Rent, but that, I suspect, is a scope that goes far beyond the point of this article.

The suggestion that poor people are poor because they have less ability is an asinine assertion that is easily disprovable. There are millions of people lacking sustenance in this country, and a significant proportion of them are highly skilled and highly able.

I'm a big believer in economic freedom, too, but I'm betting that "economic freedom means something quite different to me than it does to you. I believe in "freedom from", but I also believe in "freedom to".

What I don't believe is that it's taxation when the thing being "taxed" is something to which you have no moral ownership claim. It's not "theft" if you don't own it. What I also do not believe is that "work", in and of itself, constitutes virtue. But I do believe that most people, absent need, will employ themselves usefully.

I believe in equal dignity, equal rights, equal protection, equal voice, equal opportunity, and equal exchange. I believe in positive Liberty as well as negative Liberty. I believe that Justice is impossible without Equality. I believe that division of labor and abstraction of trust are necessities without which no Civilisation can exist. I believe that the gifts and produce of Nature are the rightful property of all the living.

I believe, as did Laozi, in compassion, frugality, and forbearance, which he articulated with the phrase, "Do not dare to be first under Heaven." I follow the words of Jesus, who said, "That which you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do also to me."

The economy is not a zero-sum game. There's more than enough to go around for all to have a satisfying life and still provide riches for those who choose to pursue them. But riches should be earned, not unjustly taken as a result of monopoly power over Nature.

Will writes:

People on the Left absolutely agree in economic freedom. For the consumer. And since EVERYONE is a consumer, focusing on economic freedom for consumers leads to economic freedom overall.

But not everyone is a producer. If you focus on economic freedom for producers, then the government prioritizes them over the consumer, which necessarily leads to inequality and decreased total economic freedom.

Tracy W writes:

seymour:

But I do believe that most people, absent need, will employ themselves usefully.

I don't believe this. I've read a bunch of 19th century literature, and Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Edith Wharton, amongst others, all portrayed worlds where the independently wealthy mostly did not much that was useful. There are of course exceptions, but for every Charles Darwin using inherited wealth to make scientific breakthroughs there appear to have been hordes of Charles Bingleys, doing nothing much with their time, and Charles Bingley was very close to a hero in JA's writing, the only textual criticism of his character was that he lacked confidence in his own judgement.

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