You Split. I Choose.

commusings Sep 18, 2020

You are hosting a big party. Not right now obviously. But in the future. You must be extremely popular because heaps more people than expected are showing up. And now you’re out of 7-layer bean dip, only remnant crumbs of tortilla chips litter the bottoms of bowls, and someone is licking the thin paste of remaining ranch dip off the veggie platter. You can sense a fomenting “hanger” and spring into action.

You call your local pizza joint and order the world’s largest-ever pie. Fifteen minutes later, four stoned dudes (including a guy you dated in high school) show up with a twenty-foot radius pizza. They carry it in like a chuppah and drop it on your front patio. You open the box and behold a chef d’oeuvre of oozing mozzarella, fresh arugula, crisped pancetta and perfectly thin crust.

Immediately though you notice something amiss. The pizza is not sliced. And here’s where this light-hearted romp becomes a philosophical conundrum. 

You must cut up the pizza. But you don’t know what piece you will end up with. So, how do you slice it up?

This admittedly trivial-seeming thought experiment transforms even Milton Friedman into a Marxist. Everyone, except an unrepentant slots player, converges on the same answer. They slice up the pie in equal denominations such that all party-goers are treated fairly. Let’s not think the motivation is completely altruistic. People cut up the pizza equally to protect their own self-interest. Who wants to end up with a measly corner piece that’s all crust (except my dad)?

In last week’s screed, I prattled on extensively about how humanity will create moral frameworks in an increasingly secular society. How will we distribute wealth and power? How do we define justice and equality? 

In his 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, political theorist John Rawls introduces a technique known as “The Veil of Ignorance” as a means of exploring these very concepts of morality and ethics.

In the pizza instance, you are “ignorant” as to the slice you will end up with. The simplest application of the veil of ignorance technique may be the playground ritual of sharing a candy bar: You split. I choose.

When you consider societal issues more consequential than pizza or a Snickers from behind “the veil of ignorance,” you don’t know your class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, education and other attributes that may provide you with privilege or lack thereof. From this vantage point, one can arguably make the most unbiased and clearest determinations about justice and its application.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

If there was a chance that you would be a homeless person, how would that shape your position on how we should treat the homeless? You can continue to extrapolate this concept in myriad ways. If there was a chance you might be a refugee, what would be your viewpoint on a just immigration policy? If there was a chance you might be gay, how would that impact your views on LGBTQ rights?

Humanity can ethically withstand some inequity of outcomes. For instance, someone may want to spend every breathing moment becoming a tech billionaire and someone else might prefer to seclude in the woods and pen novels. I know my predilection. But unless the world of letters becomes miraculously more lucrative, this would clearly result in financial inequity. However, this imbalance seems quite morally acceptable because the opportunity to make the decision that leads to the outcome is equally provided. 

It follows then that the goal of an equitable society should be the ability to provide tantamount access to opportunity for all its citizens. And, if you accept this notion, then should it not also be the moral obligation of society to provide its members with a basic level of subsistence: shelter, food, health care, and education?

Essentially, everyone should enter life with approximately the same-sized wedge of pizza, a slice that represents one’s basic needs. No true meritocracy can exist without the provision of a rudimentary level of stability from which one’s well-being can flourish. In essence, a just society calibrates for arbitrary luck, compensating for the mere chance that one is born into some form of hardship or disadvantaged circumstance. And, indeed, this is what many societies endeavor to do, with varying results.

The United Nations World Happiness Reports show that the happiest people are concentrated in Northern Europe. The Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) ranked highest on the metrics of real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption.

The Nordic model is a snuggly form of capitalism characterized by competitive free markets tempered by an elaborate social safety net which provides free education, universal health care and public pensions. There is significant public spending, hovering around 50% of GDP, and a large percentage of the population is employed by the public sector.

To Americans, the Nordic model reeks of democratic “socialism” – a word one dare not whisper without the risk of being all caps excoriated. Still, many of us in the United States recognize that the sharper edges of capitalism need dulling. Medicare, Medicaid, social security, unemployment benefits, worker’s compensation; these sacred cow programs are part of a social contract that recognizes the ethical necessity of public assistance. Further, while Americans treasure their rugged individualism and cut-throat capitalism, there is growing antipathy across party lines for escalating levels of income inequality. The combined wealth of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett is greater than the aggregate wealth of the bottom 50% of Americans. 

The American argument, one largely supported by Rawls, maintains that free-market capitalism can bake such a big pizza that even the smallest piece should provide subsistence, if not prosperity.

Much of equality and fairness can be seen through the lens of distributive justice, how we disperse what Rawls dubs our primary social goods. When humans work cooperatively together, they generate surplus. For example, Amazon is the second largest employer in the United States. They own Ring, Twitch, Whole Foods, Audible and IMDb. This mammoth staff of over 1,000,000 people works together to create surplus value in the form of corporate profits and stock value. How is this excess is divvied up?

Business Insider put a microscope to Jeff Bezos’ annual earnings spanning a twelve-month period between October 2017 and 2018. Per hour, Bezos made a whopping $8,961,187 ($149,353 per minute!), roughly 315 times Amazon's $28,466 median annual worker pay. One might justify Bezos’ wealth if it were leveraged for the overall benefit of society. The idea that inequality can be just if it benefits the aggregate is known at the “difference principle.” In other words, if Bezos was utilizing his mass fortune to address deforestation in the real Amazon then we might ethically assent to such lopsided wealth distribution, but there is little indication that he is doing so.

The stratification of wealth in America is so pronounced that it led Yale Law professor, Daniel Markovitz, to point out that French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s obscenely upscale bistro, and Taco Bell, the ubiquitous fast-Mexican dive, do not share a single common ingredient on their menu. Not even the salt.

Despite this universally despised asymmetry, America cannot manage to muster an intellectually honest conversation about income inequality. Any sincere attempt elicits cries of communism from conservatives and whimpers of ambivalence from centrist democrats. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both now fundamentally specks in the rearview mirror, were not agitating for nationalization of private assets or collective ownership of businesses.  Their core message centered around adopting many of the compassionate capitalistic governing principles of the Nordic countries with the goal of creating greater equality of opportunity.

In 2009, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson published The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. The book highlights the pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries. It doesn’t take a social scientist to map these crises squarely onto American life.

One of the most difficult concepts for people to grok is the notion that self-interest and collective good are generally one and the same thing. But one must look no further than the happiness metrics of the Nordic countries for an affirmation of this confluence. 

If we care about distributive justice and instantiating a fair society then there is a lot of common ground to be found in tackling wealth inequality. Increasingly, a smaller number of people are hoarding colossal pizzas while the rest scrap for crusts. This is the real Pizzagate.

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