[Plura-list] Inequality and luck and risk and merit

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Sat Oct 3 13:45:55 EDT 2020


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Today's links

* Inequality and luck and risk and merit: Heads they win, tails we lose.

* This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🦐 Inequality and luck and risk and merit

Political scientist John Quiggin ("Economics in Two Lessons") is working
on a new book, "Economic Consequences of the Pandemic," and he's been
serializing the first part, on the role of luck in inequality on Crooked
Timber starting here:


I've been following the series with interest, but I wasn't motivated to
write about it until today's instalment, "Risk and reward."


In capitalist doctrine, inequality is beneficial because it encourages
risk-taking. The rich are rich because they made audacious bets that
paid off, and those bets were on new products, services and methods that
made us all more prosperous.

All of that only makes sense if you assume that wealth isn't the result
of luck: how wealthy your parents are, whether there's a recession when
you enter the workforce, etc.

We see this most starkly in the pandemic: whether you live or die has to
do with whether you can do your job at home, whether you have the
bargaining power to force your employer to provide a safe workplace if
you have to do your job in person...

Whether you have health insurance NOW, and whether you had sufficient
insurance BEFORE to care for chronic illnesses and to head of
deterioration from acute illnesses, and thus stave off higher risk.

Also whether you live in a housing arrangement that facilitates
distancing, whether you have housemates who themselves weren't
adequately insured and/or have to work in unsafe conditions.

Opponents of the wealth-is-luck hypothesis will point to merit, arguing
that markets are a system that automatically puts control over capital
into the hands of people who can put it to use to make us all better off.


Quiggin's work on merit counters this: "The massive growth in the number
and incomes of lawyers and finance professionals over the past 40 years
has not been matched by any obvious improvement in justice, financial
security or the rational investment of capital."

And: "Many workers who make a vital contribution receive far less
payment or recognition. The pandemic has reminded us how much we depend
on workers we may never see and who work in difficult and sometimes
dangerous conditions."

The capitalist archduke (and war criminal) Friedrich Hayek tried to
finesse this, arguing that "what should be rewarded is the value people
create for each other, regardless of whether that value is the result of
merit or luck."

Quiggin translates this claim: "a free market economy rewards luck as
well as merit, so, if we want to maintain the free market economy, we
must accept that income will not, in general, reflect merit."

Which brings me to today's instalment, on risk. So what if capitalism
makes you rich because you got lucky? We need people to take big risks
and the way we do that is by rewarding lucky bets.

But most rich people were born rich. And despite the innumerable bad
bets rich people have made over the past two decades - bad bets that
repeatedly crashed the global economy - they've stayed pretty fucking rich.

Where's the risk-taking come in, exactly?

It's among poor working people: In "any given year since 1996 the level
of volatility among the bottom 10% was 81% higher than the volatility
among the top 1%, and this level nearly doubled since 1981."

"Once someone has made it to the top of the income distribution, they
will never become poor as a result of bad luck or business mistakes."

* Does your large business fail? Restructure with a bankruptcy.

* Are you a failed CEO? Here's a multimillion-dollar exit package.

* Are you a rich person with a lot of debt? Your bankruptcy comes with
homeowner exemptions and your irrevocable trusts and well-timed gifts
mean you keep nearly everything

"The poor take more voluntary risks because any chance of escaping the
bottom of the distribution in a highly unequal society is worth a shot.
And freely chosen risks seem less worrying when you are subject to so
much risk that is out of your control anyway."

"[Trump,] having gambled with his own safety and that of anyone who
listens to him, he is guaranteed the best medical care money can buy,
while thousands of less fortunate victims of the pandemic die every week."


🦐 This day in history

#15yrsago Upcoming.org acquired by Yahoo

#10yrsago Firefighters watch as house burns to the ground: owner had not
paid annual firefighting fees

#1yrago Even if you pay off your student loan, be prepared to spend
decades trying to get bottom-feeding debt-buyers to acknowledge it

#1yrago Consumer Reports documents the deceptive cable industry
practices used to hike real prices 24% over advertised ones

#1yrago Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang bring Paper Girls in for a
perfect landing

#1yrago “Martian Chronicles”: Escape Pod releases a reading of my YA
story about rich sociopaths colonizing Mars


🦐 Colophon

Today's top sources:

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 516 words (68593 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 16)

Upcoming appearances:

* Library Leaders Forum, Oct 6

* 3 Big Ideas To Fix the Internet, Oct 7,

* Wired Nextfest Italia, Oct 10,

* The Attack Surface Lectures: 8 nights of bookstore-hosted events in
which I and a massive group of entertaining and knowledgeable experts
discourse on my latest novel's themes, Oct 13-22

Recent appearances:

* If Big Tech Is Toxic, How Do We Build Something Better? (panel)

* On ‘Attack Surface’ and WiFi Fridges (What a Hell of a Way to Die

* Little Brother vs. Big Audiobook (Techdirt podcast):

Latest book:

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet
analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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