G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Riffing on Robert Nozick’s popular essay, Julian Sanchez asks “Why do intellectuals support government solutions?“ Sanchez declines the argument that progressives are more ethical than others or that their support of government solutions rests on superior philosophical arguments. He writes:
It seems equally possible, however, that a post hoc desire to justify the choice of such a career might play a biasing role. A person without extravagant material tastes can live quite comfortably as an academic or writer, and the work itself is highly interesting and intrinsically appealing. But intellectual jobs of this sort tend not to leave one with the resources to devote large amounts of money to charitable causes without significantly curtailing consumption of minor luxuries: meals out, shows, electronics, vacation travel, enrichment classes for the kids, and so on.
In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily.
Twitter is huge with the intellectuals. It provides both status and entertainment. Citations, pingbacks, hat tips, and requests for reprint are currency in which intellectuals like to deal. It also goes untaxed. Progressive intellectuals who operate in other realms earn a monetary income which is taxed, but most of their status – which cash can serve as a proxy for – comes without a W-2 or a 1099. Therefore they’ll focus on the rich paying their “fair share” while underweighting their own “prestige income”.
Reihan Salam jumps in:
Julian’s post reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s concept of “threshold earners,” which we’ve discussed on a few different occasions. And it evokes one of my favorite ideas, namely that our ideological debates flow at least in part from a positional competition over whether society will have greater regard to those who have a preference for nonpecuniary goods (which are harder to tax and redistribute) or for those who have a preference for pecuniary goods (which are relatively easy to tax and redistribute). One of my big frustrations with how we talk about social problems is that we fixate on tractable things that we can easily measure, like income and wealth, while discounting intractable things that are extremely hard to measure, like the robustness and breadth of one’s social network.
It is impossible to tax these things, yet they provide an immense amount of utility for the people who earn them. To rehash what I wrote above, since the government is the entity which levies and collects tax, progressive intellectuals who don’t have to come into full body contact with this arm of the government don’t carry quite the same distaste as does someone whose income comes in taxable monetary form. Theirs is a relatively low effective tax rate because “money is nothing” to them in a very fundamental way.
Matt Yglesias previously wrote on a similar topic and it has stuck in my mind:
The CEO of Darden Restaurants earns over six million dollars a year. But I seriously doubt that there are any tenure-track professors at NYU saying to themselves that they’re desperately eager to change places with Clarence Otis, Jr and move to Orlando to supervise chain restaurants. Certainly for me, it’s not even a close choice. I would much, much, much rather draw a comfortable salary and a subsidized apartment in Manhattan doing interesting work than make “top one percent” money as the CEO of a medium-sized business enterprise in central Florida. And unless I’ve completely misjudged the audience of my blog, I bet most of you would agree with my preferences in this regard.
That’s not to say we need to “soak the professors” rather than “soak the rich.” Taxing the consumption of high-rollers and redistributing it to the less fortunate is a great idea. But a lot of the political dialogue I see online seems to consist of a slightly strange form of class resentment in which intellectuals, nonprofit workers, or public servants express bitterness about the high incomes of businesspeople whose lives they don’t actually envy.
As Cowen wrote in the essay linked above, and as I’ve mentioned at this blog as well, the entire debate over income inequality is farcical in one way: many more people today are embracing a leisurely lifestyle. They opt for a lifestyle which will probably provide them with a low income. They are OK with scraping by; they aren’t scraping because they are forced to scrape by; they are scraping by because they want to earn just enough money to pay their bills and enjoy their free time from work. They’ve spent a lot of time carving out their niche and they’ve also dropped the social pressure to achieve much beyond it. For hipsters and intellectuals – and the OWS crowd – this is their utopia, and it has become more acceptable. “Slumming it” is a status-marker. But along with wearing that marker is a bit of the intellectual-activist spirit wherein they pretend that The Man has forced them to do it and where they lament the success of the rich as if they’d actually want to spend the effort and kiss the asses it would take to become rich. They wouldn’t, and I don’t blame them.