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Inequality in nature and society (pnas.org)
145 points by wallflower 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 111 comments

"Most societies" is a meaningless term. Measuring "most" is impossible and any metric is more or less going to come out of a value judgment to begin with. Some human societies have a lot of equality and some have a lot inequality.

The only useful point is that inequality can easily arise by chance but appear as "meritocracy" after the fact, being self justifying.

Anyway, the main question is "what level of inequality or equality do we want?" That is, for some value of "we" able to make it's choice come to fruition. Maybe that "we" is the elite, that small number of people at the top already. Indeed, at points in America's history, the elite actually saw considerable value in some level of equality but that seems well in the past. Maybe that we is a larger group (the voters, "the working class", "angry people", who knows). That larger group would need to be able to do something more than be unhappy, of course.

> "Most societies" is a meaningless term. Measuring "most" is impossible and any metric is more or less going to come out of a value judgment to begin with. Some human societies have a lot of equality and some have a lot inequality.

I would bet there are true (though perhaps simple or obvious) claims which can be made in sociology and/or anthropology about "most societies." Such, as, perhaps, burying the dead.

Are you a sociologist or anthropologist? Or, do you have some other claim to expertise in this domain? If so, forgive my critique.

Fine, I should perhaps say "in this context, 'most societies' is a meaningless term." - though I would hope that contextualizing is obvious.

As far as expertise goes, I think all one needs is moderate acquaintance with statistics to learn the "most" is a slippery generalization whenever one gets to get complex phenomena in wide-ranging contexts. And human societies and their interrelations are some of the most complex and slippery of them.

I think you're reading their phrasing in an ungenerous way. Please consider the Hacker News guideline: "Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith."

The article authors lead a paragraph by saying "most societies", but they go on to characterize what they mean with greater specificity and provide citations to further research on the topic:

> Several societies have seen as little as 1% of their population own approximately 50% of the total wealth. This was the case in many Western countries around 1900, including Britain, France, and Sweden, and some claim that at present, roughly 1% of the population owns 50% of total wealth at the global level (1, 2).

> We focus on wealth and not income distribution, which is much less unequal and—perhaps surprisingly—poorly correlated with wealth inequalities across countries (SI Appendix, section 2). As a first illustration of the similarities of patterns in nature and society, consider the wealth distribution of the world’s richest individuals compared with the abundance distribution of the Amazon’s most common trees (Fig. 1 A and B). The patterns are almost indistinguishable from one another.

> For a more systematic comparison, we also analyzed the Gini indices of a wide range of natural communities and societies (Fig. 1 C and D) [emphasis mine]. The Gini index is an indicator of inequality that ranges from 0 for entirely equal distributions to 1 for the most unequal situation. [...] Surprisingly, Gini indices for our natural communities are quite similar to the Gini indices for wealth distributions of 181 countries (data sources listed in SI Appendix, section 1).

If you want to critique their argument, please consider examining the societies that they included in the analysis described above. They appear to be examining societies that are countries, probably because economic data is available aggregated at the country level.

Those opening generalities are addressed in the paper and supplementary information. I really don't care for this derailment.

The authors could have chosen a much more neutral title and opener, like "Trends toward inequality in human society can occur through processes akin to evolutionary dynamics" and then they wouldn't have had to dial back anything.

(This is a slightly modified but highly relevant excerpt from a piece I wrote last year: Confusing Math with Morality[1].)

In What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources[2], Ronald Dworkin makes a distinction between justified inequality of resources and unjustified inequality of resources. Dworkin borrows from Rawls, but the gist of his sentiment is summarized by SEP[3]: “Unequal distribution of resources is considered fair only when it results from the decisions and intentional actions of those concerned.” Conversely, provisions, gifts, bribes, and pure luck are conducive to an unfair (or unjust) inequality of resources.

For example, a state lottery is unequal — and creates an unjust inequality of resources — because it’s random. It’s trivial to come up with a social policy that always converges wealth to a uniform distribution[4], but the problem is that unless this convergence is driven by what Dworkin calls ‘ambition-sensitive’ forces, this social policy is profoundly unfair — even though it might seem to be fair.

[1] https://dvt.name/2017/07/10/confusing-math-with-morality/

[2] http://homepage.univie.ac.at/herbert.preiss/files/Dworkin_Wh...

[3] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/equality/#EquofRes

[4] https://www.gaussianwaves.com/gaussianwaves/wp-content/uploa...

I'd argue that this argument is invalid for practical uses. Saying that luck is unfair is in my opinion a useless and even evil idea, it can be used to justify terrible acts.

Everything is luck, or did you choose what family you'd be born in? Did you choose your physical attributes?

Inequality is inevitable, it is natural, and its fair, everyone got a dice roll, no one had control over it, no one can.

In spite of these starting points, which are not the only luck based you will encounter, people can rise where others won't.

If you agree with Dworkin's distinction between "justified inequality of resources" and "unjustified inequality of resources" -- which I think is the only nontrivial part of this equation -- then the argument follows without too much difficulty.

So to argue that the argument is invalid, you'd have to show why you think there's no such thing as "(un)justified inequality of resources." The fact that inequality is inevitable or natural doesn't have bearing on the justification of distribution (or non-distribution) of wealth any more than the eventual heat death of the universe has on getting a tetanus shot after you stepped on a rusty nail.

There is a dilbert strip were the CEO tells the Intern that he got where he is because he was smart not by luck.

The intern then asked how did he choose his IQ pre birth.

So you really believe that even though inequality is a constant, it's everywhere, it's unstoppable. Even then there is still space to try to fix it?

It's not a bug it's a feature. (Software dev here :))

I heard someone calling it cosmic justice, which seems to fit pretty well.

Inequality is a must, this idea that its bad is based solely on a philosophy of evil.

Everyone ended poorer as a consequence of trying to fix this, thinking everyone has a right to have something is evil.

> Inequality is a must, this idea that its bad is based solely on a philosophy of evil.

Inequality might be bad for a variety of reasons, and not solely based on some notion of evil. A common reason cited is the lack of efficiency it can create in a market. A dominant player might suck the money velocity out of the system (i.e. take everyone's money) without some sort of redistribution mechanism. The market could lose it's vibrancy as players go into a simple sustenance mode or be destroyed.

I think dvt points to the injustice side too, you can have inequality due to unjust actions. For example, if you use your dominant position to tilt the playing field in your favor with to the detriment of the system as a whole. An example might be to pay lawmakers to make a tax loophole for yourself, or worse, be given some sort of grant for being dominant, just because you can.

I agree with you that the market allows for it to me somewhat manipulated, one could argue that's how it works.

But that's where I think there may be a better solution, (again a personal option), but I also think it could be a feature, someone with power can control it, but to what extent is the real question.

There is a lot of talk around how the rich are powerful, I have checked, and the richest around don't have that much money.

The US spends trillions a year, that's a lot of money, there isn't a single trillionaire, there isn't a corporation valued at a trillion dollars (yet, almost there though).

If you round up the rich's money, it won't last that long. and now you destroyed the system.

They don't control everything, they may control the market but the market is huge compared to them, and the rich do not have an alliance to control it, making them weaker.

And you just accepted that the state (lawmakers) are corrupt, as people tend to be. So the redistribution of wealth would use these corrupt people to make the world a better place, the idea is flawed in that sense, you would need to speculate on a new righteous system excluding the corrupt, for redistribution of wealth to even have a chance work (people actually getting the money), and then speculate on how this would be beneficial.

Death is a constant, it's everywhere, it's unstoppable, and yet people still take medicine, get vaccinated, and go to the doctor.

I'm not sure I understand your argument.

The point was that it's too complicated, trying to fix is pointless, my point is that it is not fixable, if you accept that is a problem, even in a perfect wealth redistribution system, there will be luck involved.

But I also make the point that it is not a problem to begin with, I think inequality makes sense, me having more that my peers when I went where they wouldn't seems fair.

"Everyone ended poorer as a consequence of trying to fix this"

Software dev here too? Provide data on this, please. Otherwise you are just appealing to emotion or worse, authority.

You are right, sorry for that, but this would really long comment.

We could point out socialist/communist countries, they are/were not better off trying to implant cosmic justice, they ended up worse.

The difference now seems to be that rich countries can afford it, which is weird, since they can afford by using a capitalist system to begin with.

I think this position is incredibly susceptible to collapse from its own argument.

> "people can rise where others won't"

Why do they rise? Are they in control over these reasons at all, or is that luck too? This brings up central questions of free will and influence of external sources. As a hard determinist, I'd argue it's all entirely luck to the core.

You're going to have a hard time drawing a line between luck and free will that people will ever agree on for the foreseeable future.

> "Inequality is inevitable, it is natural, and its fair"

Inevitable? I'd agree. Natural? In so much that it is the way of nature, yes. But nature isn't inherently good, it simply is.

Fair? Doesn't seem like it is at all to me. Now we have to go neck deep into a discussion on the definition of fairness (please let's not actually here).

> "Saying that luck is unfair is in my opinion a useless and even evil idea, it can be used to justify terrible acts."

What acts are you referring to? I suspect that these terrible acts rely on far more interpretation beyond "luck is unfair". Those interpretations having flaws does not make this particular idea evil.

They do not have a aristocratic caste holding back- lots of innovation in ancient greek for example happened, because entrapeneurs escaped with boats to different shores and founded colonys.

Look at the valley today, its a Hacker culture gone sour. Hacking today means, ripping a preexisting value cycle from the old elite, and with the lowest possible effort turn it into - the same cycle with you in control. Those "Making the world a better place" (for themselves) laugh about those actually contributing by obsessing over tech (the usefool toolfools).

The true motto of this party is "noblesse oblige" and you can hear it in every subtle comment on how the commoners chose your app, your system and would have opted out if it was that horrible. Those people of different neuronal colour - they need our help and guidance.

Its stagnation at the worst possible moment, and the best you can do against that is disrupt the taking over of old value cycles with laws.

Which is again problematic, because another, older Tinkerculture gone sour (called lawyers) hijacked the legislative process. The extrem inequality of aristocratic societys usually comes down when natures limits are reached- and cant be breached due to a lack of innovative tools and methods.

If you do not invest in chemistry - the castle will burn- if you do the castle will be blown to smitherens with fertilizer- so you dont until the hunger games start.

I found myself lacking to fully understand this.

I sort of got the idea that you are fond with freedom with the greek story.

But then I sense a little disregard for the free market with the > "commoners chose your app", and how there is a circle trying to be privileged at expense of others.

Do you mean the state (with laws) should fix this circle?

That's what I meant, trying to figure it out what's luck and whats isn't is impossible, as you put it

> all entirely luck to the core

But now how can you, or anyone else have a say in what is equal?

It's all so complicated, trying to do anything about it is pointless, it feels to me as arrogant to think you can find a solution to all this.

I think you are right, we should focus on the problem itself, instead of what's fair.

Everything is luck, you have no control over your starting point. It's all random, to try to say you understand this is the same as saying you understand quantum mechanics:

"If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics." -Feynman

Now to say we can fix it with a system of redistribution of wealth is wishful thinking.

I'd argue that this system will be unequal, and worse.

Reminds me of my SO's siblings, they say my SO is successful because she had a father (showed up after she was 10 btw), or her mother liked her more, or some other reason, which sure has an effect.

They had a pretty equal starting point, the are broke because they are losers, to say my wife must share her wealth with them is evil.

I always hear the inequality card as "The losers want to be winners". Of course they want, now the question is it fair?

To your examples, I think your interpretation of inequality is a misconception people have on many sides (politically speaking) that perverts the definition, or rather misuses and does not consider justice within the context of equality. Obviously, your SO not directly sharing her wealth with others seems just, at least with the minimal details presented. But this implies that there is something that is fair. How do we determine that?

You also bake in within your language a level of assigned responsibility to your SO's siblings.

> "But now how can you, or anyone else have a say in what is equal?"

I'd argue we all do. It's a philosophical question that may very well have an empirical answer. Perhaps a subjective one. Perhaps many subjective ones that share common traits. But the properties of equality in reference to fairness / justice are important things. The problem is we're still sorting out those properties, if any exist.


With all that said, I would highly recommend reading some Rawls and playing around with his ideas. I think he presents some really interesting approaches to the problem. Even if you disagree with the conclusions, there is much progress made there in his work I think.

While many attempts to correct the randomness (unfairness) of life can indeed make it worse, there are things that can work, and we shouldn't give up the pursuit entirely. There is such a thing as degrees of fairness, and for every problem nature's degree of fairness is just that - random. Some we can't realistically expect to beat, and others are things I would argue we should focus on.

While I don't want the definition of fairness to be a focus of the post, I do think time spent there is well worth it generally. This post is more getting at why the definition is important though, as "what is fairness" is a huge can of worms.

Yes, it's a complex matter, I do not think I know the answers and I'm curious on what the future holds. And I might read more into it.

My gut says we have seen what works, I'd argue that freedom has shown as the best approach to poverty, the only approach I personally have seen so far (keep in mind I am not a researcher in this).

"Socialist" ideas have been tried and even when it "works" it's not clear that it did. Where freedom (read capitalism) is crystal clear (like it or not).

Whatever degree of freedom is given to socialist/communist societies we clearly see improvements. (off tangent much, sry)

But to be concrete, every wealthy country I know of used freedom to get where it is.

I'm from Brazil, I see how these inequality ideas are sold there, how wealth distribution is holding us back.

Enabling people to do what they want is proven to work, allow them to enjoy the spoils of it is proven too, some things will look unfair, that's the way nature is.

Putting our fate in the hands of other is not an idea I see of value, the state is controlled by people, and these people are, like ourselves deeply flawed.

The problem with "freedom" as the strategy is that it calls into question where one exactly has the autonomy to really make a difference. In the US, the cycle of poverty is clear to many, and thus certain types of equality seem needed. The homelessness problems of most major US cities is a big thing even still often ignored.

> "Socialist" ideas have been tried and even when it "works" it's not clear that it did. Where freedom (read capitalism) is crystal clear (like it or not).

I think capitalism is often just as muddy as socialism and communism when it comes to judging results. I have noticed that generally, my friends from South America are much more capitalist than I am, which I suspect is a bit of us all seeing the flaws in what we see closest. I'm am somewhat capitalist, but I would best like something highly regulated with actually functioning basic levels of humanity such as basic housing, health care, and perhaps in the far future some form of UBI. I think the key to any successful UBI is to avoid the explicit taxation for redistribution, something that removes that motivator of capitalism, which would need to be kept in place.

What capitalism does indeed get right is the motivating part. However, capitalism cannot mediate between many other injustices and usually exacerbates problems. It also relies on proper (or at least close) alignment between what is profitable and what is good for society.

More or less, I would side with the following statement:

Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the other ones.

People always view Marx as the antithesis to capitalism, but I'd consider this (via Wikipedia for saving time):

"Despite Marx's stress on critique of capitalism and discussion of the new communist society that should replace it, his explicit critique of capitalism is guarded, as he saw it as an improved society compared to the past ones."

> But to be concrete, every wealthy country I know of used freedom to get where it is.

I think it's easy to say that looking at the current configuration, but history tells a much different story. I would argue wealth of most developed nations can be traced back to exploitation of others, and the governance model may have less effect than you think. If anything, I would argue that a country founded and funded on the exploitation of others being capitalist is only logical. It's a question of causation, not correlation. I would say that it's very well possible that the method of wealth acquisition lends itself to countries who prefer capitalism.

PS: Thanks for your perspective, I appreciate when good comments threads develop here in good spirit. Despite my often direct critiques of posts, it's not meant in a mean-spirited manner, just an academic argument type one.

You can divide the world's wealth into wealth that was created by human hands and wealth which was 'created' by the planet (land, mineral/ore/oil deposits, etc.).

I don't see why it isn't fair to people keep the wealth they create and just divide up the wealth created by the planet equally.

Say everybody has ten acres of land, because we've taken all the land and divided it out among the world's population. Let's leave aside, for a moment, that's pretty much impossible, since everybody will want beachfront property in Hawaii, say, and not a patch of desert in BFE.

Now say I have fifteen children, and you have one. In the next reallocation, do we really divide out the land such that my family ends up with fifteen times the land your family has? Think about the incentives that kind of scheme creates.

Furthermore, there's a tragedy of the commons problem. If we all own the land, or it gets re-divided every generation, I have no reason to improve it. I'll get rich turning my land into a toxic wasted dump, because I don't have any interest in maintaining its value.

In the end, that's why we have property ownership. People don't take care of things they don't own.

You don't have to give everybody 10 acres of land, and in any case, not every 10 acres is as valuable as every other.

You can let everybody rent their land, according to its value from the state and distribute the income equally. That way the land will be used efficiently.

The incentives that creates are better than the incentives we have right now. Either you pay eye watering rents to the state to live in a house on the immensely valuable land of downtown San Francisco or you yield the land to a property developer who will build high rises that will match the massive demand there is for people to live there.

There are more (and better) solutions to the tragedy of the commons than just privatizing everything and, as we can see, people don't necessarily take care of the things they do own. Anti-dumping laws exist for a reason.

This argument assumes its conclusion, as well as relying on some extreme edge cases (how many people have 15 children in real life? Hardly anyone). Also, I'll take that patch of desert, not least because I like my solitude.

But you wouldn't literally divide natural asserts evenly, you would structure society arround not having rent seekers be a parasite on your right to a good, water, and shelter.

That's a noble goal albeit completely unattainable in practice.

That claim is closer to an urban legend than to a fact.

This seems like a meaningful distinction. Notably, ownership of land (by extension, resources) was historically decided by brute force, not by free economic transactions. Contenders killed each other until one got tired of the killing and acknowledged the claim of the winner.

The article (and the recent Piketty book) is trying to explain exactly why it isn't fair for people to keep the wealth that they create: because it enables them and their offspring to stay wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Once you have wealth, there is no mechanism that removes it. And, this process occurs both in human society and in nature.

I don't think that's true, and I don't think Piketty actually did say that.

Where people manage to enable themselves and their offspring to grow their wealth geometrically at the expense of everybody else they always do so by using (legal) means of siphoning off both natural wealth and wealth created by others.

If you inherited a chunk of stock which your parents bought which grew in value and paid out dividends since they died, for instance, that increase in value is real but it wasn't created by them or by you. Who did create that wealth is context dependent (most of the time it's going to be employees working for the corporation), but the fact remains that it wasn't you or your parents.

The same applies if you inherit a bond portfolio (the wealth is created by the people paying you interest) or land titles (in, e.g. a large city, that wealth is created by the people who live and work surrounding that land).

That's largely what is driving the inequality Piketty is measuring. 90% of the 0.1% siphoned all their wealth from others (e.g. alice walton types) and created none themselves and, IMHO, all of them siphoned most of the wealth they hold - even the ones that are dubiously considered 'self made'.

I think by aiming to create a system where the people get to keep the wealth they create and share the wealth nobody created (and the wealth created that isn't so easy to attribute), inequality will naturally decrease to a more sustainable level that people will consider fair.

In practical terms this means legislators should be encouraged to raise taxes on the very wealthy who very obviously siphoned wealth money first (e.g. the Duke of Westminster) before going after the wealthy where it isn't clear how much they created and how much was siphoned (e.g. the estate of Steve Jobs) and developing better ways of separating 'created' from 'siphoned' so that they can be treated differently.

What about future generations, how much should be allocated to them?

Ideally, allocate all of the natural wealth as equally as possible among all of the world's inhabitants all of the time. New person gets born -> they get the same (now slightly smaller) share as everybody else.

Why, do you not think that's fair?

How many slices can you get from one pie?


>The difference between keeping slaves and having employees is one of degree, not of essential quality.

No. It is one of essential quality, because your employees are working for you by mutual assent and your slaves aren't. Employees can quit and work for someone else if they decide it's in their interest, whereas slaves are stuck with you no matter how you treat them.

I see no difference. Surely your slaves may refuse to work if they decide that it's in their own interest; refuse to eat, perhaps, and spurn threats of torture and death, until you have no choice but to be done with them. I think it merely a matter of the strength of their conviction, that their interest lies not in survival, but in the refusal of subjugation.

By your logic, the employee is only ever free when possessed of the freedom to serve some other, instead, at their own discretion; insofar as doubt, a paucity of jobs, the risk of losing health coverage and the like might erode their confidence in this ability, you would regard them as being in chains. Thus it must be that it is with the risks presented by the unknown, that they find their interest lies; elsewise, none of them would ever be free without a job offer in hand.

You had to stretch so far for that it's meaningless. You can't equate physical restraint, corporal punishment, and complete lack of self determination in your personal life with... the risk of losing your health coverage.

That's not a difference in degree at all. It's a difference in kind, and the distinction isn't even close.

There's lots of examples of historical slavery in quite decent conditions compared to your worst-case scenario, and likewise many examples of employment that looks OK on the surface but is actually awful. There is a qualitative difference, but also a considerable degree of practical overlap.

The risk of losing one's health coverage is a burden of varying severity. For a person with an chronic disease, it seems insurmountable. For a person whose child has an incurable illness, who hopes at least that that child will not die untreated and in pain, it is worse. Do not weigh it lightly in such cases. Few people, after all, are slaves. We do not therefore dismiss their lack of freedom.

I feel that you have let me down somewhat with your previous explanation of the difference between the employee and the slave, because it is clear then that you do not at all abide by the difference you set out. It is not, after all, the employee's ability to pursue his own self-interest that makes him free rather than a slave.

>It is not, after all, the employee's ability to pursue his own self-interest that makes him free rather than a slave.

Actually, yes it is. I'm sorry you feel let down, but your side of this discussion is frankly indefensible.

Perhaps so. It's difficult to argue from the contrary, and I lacked the skill to follow on convincingly from my starting point. I had meant to highlight the deficiencies of your assurance that the ability to (in theory) choose alternate employment meant that employees were free of coercion.

I think that when you introduce the supplemental notion of the qualitative difference, you take some steps back from a stock libertarian talking point that you might or might not have intended to support. At least, a proper response would require some elaboration of the notion of employee liberty.

I can sympathize if you don't have time or energy for that, and I'm happy to let the matter rest inconclusively. For what its worth, I'd actually be rather interested in whatever ideas you developed to articulate your position, as they would be a more useful reference point than I currently possess the next time I encounter someone making a reference to employee liberty I feel deserves to be tested.

whereas slaves are stuck with you no matter how you treat them.

I'm pretty sure I had to read about a few slave revolts for history class when I was a kid. And the underground railroad.

It really is just a difference of degree. But there's that saying, sufficient quantity has a quality all it's own.

A random distribution of resources is not unfair, in fact it is the most fair way to distribute resources assuming each participant has an equal chance of gaining resources. A state lottery is not an unjust inequality, it is a justified inequality, because it's outcome is truly random.

Unjust as in not justified on a rational economic basis.

Lotteries may be "fair" as you describe them but they would be an irrational way to distribute resources on a broad scale.

For instance, if your salary each month were a random amount taken out of a general pool distributed by your employer you would only want to stay in your job if you were a really low productivity worker with no other opportunities and would be desperately seeking alternative employment otherwise.

Lotteries can be a very rational way to distribute resources broadly. In an emergency situation where several people need a resource but there is only a limited amount available randomly distributing the resource is the fairest and the most rational way to get it to those in need in order to prevent other activities such as hoarding, scalping and favoritism.

A trivial counterexample is an organ transplant. It doesn't make sense to flip a coin when deciding whether to give a healthy liver to an octogenarian or a 3-month-old.

There are different forces at play here (not 'ambition-sensitive' ones), but it's a case where randomness fails miserably. Obviously, the 3-month-old should get it -- indeed, this is how scarce organs are actually distributed.

My grandmother has earned it. She did a great job raising a family of 7, all of whom will miss her when she dies. She does not have a criminal record and is very unlikely to get one.

The 3-month-old has done nothing of value. Most likely, he will be just typical. There is a good chance that he will be a loss for society. His parents can probably just make another kid, and that kid would be a lot less sickly.

I think the conclusion is obvious. The octogenarian should get the organ.

Your first-year-philosophy-student contrarian argument is cute, but it's pretty obvious that the grandmother can only gain 10-15 years out of the liver, whereas a newborn can gain an entire lifetime. Getting a transplant is about extending life. Choosing someone where longevity is maximized makes the most sense from a medical standpoint.

Obviously it's also chosen based on moral "merit" where cases are less clear-cut -- say a 40-year-old rapist on death row vs. a 40-year-old family man and pastor. Again though, it's pretty obvious that a coin-flip isn't any good. Most people would choose the latter over the former.

You're choosing the goal when I thought the question here is how to set the goal in the first place.

You can say to use a utilitarian standard, but that simply begs the question of whose utility, as these can be in direct conflict and in practice, people choose their own or their in group's utility.

Also, even when we set up some political system to enforce this inequality, we often have ended up making a different concentration of power in the positions that actually run that system, destroying the very equality that was supposed to be created. Money is just one form of power and different kinds of power are generally convertible.

Your mistake is to treat a year of person X's life as equal to a year of person Y's life.

Her 10 or 15 years is worth more, because we can already know that she is a good person. The young person could haunt us for decades.

Also, why should we extend life? Well, some people are worthy of it. So again, my grandmother wins.

I see no benefit the maximizing the value of random abstract people. Merely maximizing total longevity fails to distinguish desirable people from undesirable people. This is partly why death row exists; in that case we certainly aren't maximizing longevity, and we are declining the obvious choice to extend life.

If maximizing life were really the goal, we could ban birth control or even force people to become pregnant.

Past accomplishments count. My grandma has earned the organ.

There is no need for relentless condescension when all you’re trying to say is what people consider “fair” should not actually be fair at all, but rather skewed to favor whatever world view they subscribe to.

The coin flip is no good if you believe wicked people should not be held in equal regard to those who have done nothing wrong. But it is perfectly fine if you believe the only thing that matters is a truly fair outcome.

IT's a trivial counterexample because it's so easy to see the ramifications int aht case. In many cases foresight is quite limited and people wildly overestimate their predictive powers.

But what if the octogenarian really wants to live? It may be justified to give it to the 3 month old, but that is not fair to the octogenarian and incredibly ageist.

This argument is terrible and has been put to rest by Nozick in 1974. Look up the utility monster.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with being ageist. This is a good example why.

Then again the octogenarian already lived all those years and the child obviously had no such opportunity.

How is giving to somebody who had something and used it and not giving it to somebody who hadn't had the same opportunity fair?

For a moment in time, the octogenarian and the 3 month old are both in a competition for the same resource, if they both have the same chance of getting it, and the octogenarian happens to get it, the outcome is still fair within this context. It could just as easily have gone to the 3 month old.

It is not fair to count the octogenarian's past good fortune against them in what should be a fair contest. But we do it, because when handing out organs we don't care about fairness, we care about viable lifetime remaining.

When searching for fairness a lot of people seem to believe that good luck in the past means it should be harder for you to have good luck in the future. Ironically, this is very unfair.

"Fair" does not mean "increases entropy" in this context. We can split hairs about what exactly "fair" is supposed to be, it's probably central to this whole nebulous disagreement, but a lowest common denominator would be something like "has higher value than opportunity cost". This may even increase entropy in aggregate. A fair die does not make a fair game.

Half the problem is that, in practice, 'fair' often ends up defined as "in favor of my and my in-group's interests" by choosing a principle that coincides with those interests to maximize.

It matters whose costs we're measuring here and it matters how we measure that. See what responses you get when, e.g., you change the problem to be deciding who gets the liver among two twins who are identical except that one is, say, a Republican and the other a Democrat, or some other situation where the only difference in utility is which of two opposed groups would be aided by their survival.

Then compare the responses you get to how much that person approves or disapproves of the respective beliefs.

It is not fair because the octogenarian really wants it, perhaps more than the 3-month old?

Does the octogenarian want to live more or less than the 3 month old?

> Obviously, the 3-month-old should get it.

Octogenarian Einstein/Tesla vs random 3-month-old? Is it still obvious?

If there's $100 to distribute among 10 people, and everyone has an equal chance of winning, but the winner takes the full $100, then no, of course that is not a just outcome merely because it's random. Come on.

A state lottery is something you freely enter by choice. That's different from other kinds of randomness.

If random distribution is fair, and if souls are randomly assigned to bodies, then there can be no unfairness in the world. I don't think there'd be a difference in unfairness if souls were in fact allocated to bodies by some sort of deterministic process or by the whims of a maniacal god.

You're free to diagree with Dworkin (and Rawls), but keep in mind they are some of the most preeminent minds of the past century. Your argument has to be a bit more thought out than merely explaining how randomness works. You would have to tackle the concept of "ambition-sensitivity" and its relationship to fairness, among other things.

An appeal to authority is no way to justify your argument. The fact is, a truly random distribution is fair, and no eminent mind in this century or any other will ever disprove that. Whether it’s perceived as fair, is a different story. It seems that the lower one’s chance of winning, the more unfair they perceive the lottery. That does not mean it’s unfair, it means they don’t understand fairness.

Why is a random distribution fair? Is a normal distribution fair too? A poisson distribution? Are in your mind any distributions that are unfair? What is your definition of fair?

An appeal to authority is entirely appropriate if that authority is indeed an authority on the topic discussed.

The logical flaw you allude to only fits if dvt would have said e.g. "I'm right because Lady Gaga said the same argument." While Lady Gaga is an authority, she isn't on the theory of justice.

You refuse explain what you mean by fair. Regardless of whether he is appealing to authority or not you need to dispute his(their) arguments with conterpoints

Honestly, you're just being obtuse and incredibly disrespectful. These people literally dedicated their lives to studying fairness, economics, and social theory.

You can dedicate your entire life and more to something, and still be wrong.

There are fundamental causes for inequality that can't be fixed once-and-for-all. The Pareto principle and other similar dynamics provide a glimpse into this. We see this everywhere in nature (distribution of mass in a star system, distribution of energy in an ecosystem, etc).

That being said, there are significant anachronistic, unjust human causes for inequality. Corruption, cultural/racial bias, skewed market incentives, externalities, etc.

That is where we should focus our energy. There is much good that can and should be done there.

And we can work to broadly lift the floor of human experience for all, even if such endeavors don't eliminate all relative inequality.

A perfectly equal system would be static, unchanging, fixed in place. There would be no vibrance or life. Dynamic processes that bring about change do not provide the same result to all pieces of a system, and require non-uniformity to continue occurring. Think of the heat death of the universe -- everything everywhere is the same temperature, and no interesting changes can ever happen again.

But this is certainly no excuse to not make the valuable and necessary improvements that we are capable of doing.

Lastly, it is certainly possible that the "natural" dynamics driving inequality are not at ideal levels right now, and that we should enact policy changes or other measures that counteract such dynamics and increase equality (higher taxes, social programs, etc). I think this is likely the case, and support such efforts.

Edit: Getting some downvotes. I hope no one think I'm implying regressive action, as I have no desire for that. I'd love to hear people's take on things. My main reason for posting is that I often see discussions that don't recognize what seem to me certain fundamental dynamics. If my understanding is off, please share how. Thanks.

> That being said, there are significant anachronistic, unjust human causes for inequality.... That is where we should focus our energy.

Yep (and sorry for snipping so heavily). I would add "political capital" to "energy" here.

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis made everyone angry, there's been head-scratching at why the voters more often (but not always!) turned right than left in response. Part of the reason is that voters, to their credit, are more angry about the unjust things people have done to get entrench their wealth than about the wealth itself.

It's always tempting for the left to equate the mere existence of rich people with injustice. But most people don't buy that, and if the right provides some more concrete story of injustice -- even a dodgy Trumpist story -- then that will sway people more.

> It's always tempting for the left to equate the mere existence of rich people with injustice. But most people don't buy that

Right, the Just World Hypothesis seems to be pretty instinctual. (Though that may be because folks who don't believe it might not survive their attempts to "fix" things...)

Good comment. If more people understood the distribution of wealth was largely the result of natural laws of productivity (described by the Pareto Principle), and not just the result of corruption, exploiting externalities, etc, there would be much less resentment and envy towards the top 1%. Perhaps then we could focus on some solutions that don't make the 1% want to flee to a more free country, taking their productivity and wealth with them.

The really tricky part is identifying how much is due to fundamental dynamics and how much is due to unjust anachronisms. For that, I don't have a good answer.

I believe there is plenty of room for us make improvements, and that we have a responsibility to do so.

You may have missed a change I made to my comment, also. We aren't completely beholden to the Pareto principle. We can work against it to a certain degree, if we choose, which would lessen inequality, with tolerable side effects.

I'm not sure it matters what part is due to fundamental dynamics. The goal should be to add a feedback loop from the top to lower levels so as to improve mobility dynamics, which encourages the view that hard work and ingenuity pays off with decent probability.

Well, fundamental dynamics are likely harder to counteract than some of the human factors which may be a bit more arbitrary and anachronistic. Not that this is a show stopper, just something to keep in mind.

Regardless, I like your suggested approach.

I think something like universal basic income might be an example. This gives people a little more security to improve their education or be entrepreneurial. Ultimately, this ought to give them improved probability of upward mobility with less risk of downward mobility.

Getting some downvotes.

Honestly, I'm perplexed at your comment as almost every issue you mention is actually examined carefully in the paper. I mean, I see where you're coming from and had some similar opinions to yours, but this paper addresses those issues in a far more rigorous way.

That's fair. I definitely should have addressed the paper more directly. Thanks for the feedback.

The inequality that the "wealth equalizing" institutions are intended to prevent end up becoming another cause of inequality. One only look as far as the former Soviet Union. They had "wealth equalizing" institutions as well which created a new privileged class of elites. Those elites were those who owned and operated the "wealth equalizing" institutions.

The article's assertion "extreme wealth inequality is inevitable in a globalizing world unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions are installed on a global scale" is wrong. These institutions would end up creating a new layer of inequality.

The article's premise, therefore, should have been: "wealth inequality is inevitable", full stop.

it's inevitably with assets that are multiplicative. Multiplicative is the important detail.

How much?

IMO, The comparison between Nature and Billionaires/wealth is just mind-bogglingly inane.

For starters, the evolution and convergence of the species distributions within an eco-system is a multi-generational game versus a single-generation (or at least single-digit) game for wealth accumulation in most societies.

Secondly, the strategy used within the games are almost completely different (in the case of wealth distribution there is a high degree of choice/variability by individual actors) while in the case of species dominance there is only pseudo-random variability based on genetic code. The variability also does not change within the course of a single generation.

A more fair comparison might be to compare the amount of territory controlled by the average pack of lions versus the most dominant pack of lions. In this case, the games are at least somewhat similar. I would actually be really interested to see this type of analysis, and I think it could be done very well, for many different species.

>> A more fair comparison might be to compare the amount of territory controlled by the average pack of lions versus the most dominant pack of lions.

The article addresses this and notes there is no great difference in this respect:

  Although the surprising similarity between inequality of species   
  abundances and wealth may have the same roots on an abstract level, this 
  does not imply that wealth inequality is “natural.” Indeed, in nature, 
  the amount of resources held by individuals (e.g., territory size) is 
  typically quite equal within a species.

Lions don’t have technological means to control more land (which tend to yield nonlinear benefits), nor would I guess that lions expand their territory just for the thrill (like humans do after meeting their physical needs).

This can be read as a theoretical analysis of a basic income guarantee.

>>> Equalizing Mechanisms. There are essentially two classes of mechanisms that can reduce inequality: suppression of dominance ... or lifting the majority out of the sticky state close to zero .... Starting with the latter, a small additive influx is a powerful antidote to the stickiness effect. ... In society, savings from income represent an additive contribution to wealth. Adding such a flux to our minimal model of wealth allows more households to gain wealth, thus populating the middle class and regularly breaking episodes of dominance by the previously dominant households

Also, full pdf with methods and details: http://www.pnas.org/content/114/50/13154.full.pdf?with-ds=ye...

Also worth looking at section 7 in the supplementary information, and figure S5.

It seems that, without some way to rebalance every few generations, things become anti-competitive very quickly.

But without some way to hold onto one’s gains, what’s the point of winning? Hmmm...

This is so weird. I was literally thinking about this exact thing last night. I was tempted to prove/simulate that even a mild interest generating mechanism (say 5% per anum) is enough to distort the wealth distribution far beyond what hard work and merit would suggest.

I was just going to do a blog post but I guess these people went ahead and published. Dang.

I believe this paper is very full of one-sided ideals of what people think nature and society is.

Free men are not equal; equal men are not free.

Not a meme at all sir. I think it is a good, thoughtful insight that conforms to the Hacker News community standards for what constitutes a "good post" however brief and, according to others, trite it might appear to be.


I guess this too is a meme?

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

> extreme wealth inequality is inevitable in a globalizing world unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions are installed on a global scale.

Yeah, and water is wet; since ever is known that the best tool to make money is... money; so the resource tends to get unevenly distributed and pile up in the hands of a few. And what's worse is that the punishment for not having enough money is... to lose money, obviously overdraft fees are the best example of this, but there are a million ways more.

I did not know what 'overdraft fees' were until I came to live in the US. So for other non-US readers: For bank accounts where you are not allowed to overspend, but you try it anyway, there is a difference in how that is handled in the US vs European banks. If you spend more than your current balance ('overdraft'), US banks allow that, but charge you a hefty fee (my bank charges me $35 per violation). European banks just disallow it altogether.

It even happened that one day I had a withdrawal, and a deposit. Overnight, the bank first processed the withdrawal (account balance became negative), next added the deposit (balance became positive again). Then charged me the $35 fee! They could have done it the other way around and not charge for it....

Not only this, but banks were in the habit of ordering your account activity on a day-by-day basis so as to maximize your fee liability, a practice which cast Bank of America some $400 million a few years back and which Wells Fargo is trying to escape responsibility for at present through some other litigation strategy: https://consumerist.com/2011/07/14/bank-of-america-paying-ou...

To expand on humanity's historical experience, the best known method of reducing wealth inequality seems to be revolutions and world wars - the more devastating and catastrophic, the better.

...sure but, well, we have internet and other advancements since then, there may be a chance of less murderous solutions to work.

you will get a kick reading Nietzsche biography.

I have seen it argued that government intervention leads to wealth concentration, that in a free market competition is supposed counteract this.

This is the homeopathic theory of government intervention: the much-less-government Belle Epoque had greater wealth concentration than a century later because government still intervened some in 1875. The lower the concentration of government, the more potent grows its poison, as libertarians attribute society's problems to this diminished residual. If things aren't better following government reduction, the solution must be to shrink it further, not to reconsider the theory.

People still peddling revolutionary communism have a parallel homeopathic theory about capitalism. Bring up a bunch of empirically observed problems in the former USSR and they'll go "Oh, those 20th century 'communist' societies were state capitalist, not real communists; the problem was that they didn't get rid of capitalism enough. Under Real Communism we'd have all the good stuff and none of the bad."

It's not very convincing.

except it is the exact opposite. and the entire article is about it... sigh.

Sorry for the confusion. I wasn't agreeing with "government intervention leads to wealth concentration" I was stating that people who bring this up do not believe it is a given that "extreme wealth inequality is inevitable in a globalizing world unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions are installed on a global scale". Cutcss was implying this is universally agreed upon but I've seen many people believe the opposite.

"The Anatomy of Inequality" by Per Molander delves into this. It's a pretty good read.

Sadly your comment has been auto-hidden for some reason, perhaps that of expressing an unpopular opinion.

obviously this does not apply to the modern day "serfs". seeing as none of us will take most of the things we hold dear off the planet anytime soon. we inherently share all things. the reason why our current reality does not follow suit is because people have been conditioned for generations to believe and not do anything about the following "the one who has will even take from the one who has not" whether you want to describe business, cutting in line, capitalism, any exchange. they have also been conditioned to believe that they have some right to have things that others do not have rights too. which is a corrosive idea just like the previous one. mix these two ideas with the competitive environment that we are indoctrinated into and then you will have your answer as to why there is inequality. the other part of the puzzle is that they have also been lied to and told that for some reason all the resources on earth cannot be shared and they have to have be exchanged for an intermediary currency which you get by working. if we are all living on one ball in space how can you say we do not own everything that is on it. each one of us. there is absolutely no reason why everyone on earth cannot have equal access to everything. if there is not enough of something then it is not shareable. not one individual can own it. that is where the discussion ends. in the future there will be a time where wanting so much of something that it disrupts the balance of society will be a punishable offense. people will go to rehab centers for it. kinda like modern day hoarding. we are just not there now. we will get there though once the repercussions of someone having a house made out of diamonds contrasts with millions living in tents. i still don't understand how you can justify one person having a yearly salary of hundreds of millions of dollars. you can't, that person is no different than you and me. it just happens to sit at the top of a pyramid supported by many of others who believe its koolaid.

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