Interview with John Roemer on Inequality of Opportunity

Interview with John Roemer on Inequality of Opportunity

Timothy Taylor 15/01/2021 1
Interview with John Roemer on Inequality of Opportunity

The editors of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Akshath Jitendranath and Marina Uzunova, have prepared "What Egalitarianism Requires: An Interview with John Roemer" (Winter 2020, 13: 2, pp. 127–176).

As they note in the introduction: "Roemer’s work spans the domains of economics, philosophy, and political science, and, most often, applies the tools of general equilibrium and game theory to problems of political economy and distributive justice—problems often stemming from the discussions among political philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century."

A substantial chunk of the interview covers Roemer's background; how his professor parents left the US to work work in Switzerland and Canada for several years in the early 1950s after the State Department found that they were "disloyal"; how he took almost all math classes as a Harvard undergraduate and originally enrolled at Berkeley for a PhD in mathematics; how he was suspended from Berkeley for occupying an administration building in 1968; how took a job teaching math in a "virtually all-black" San Francisco junior high school for five years; how he returned to Berkeley in the economics PhD program; and how he did not read any Marx until 1976, after he took a job at UC-Davis. 

In about 1980, Roemer became part of the "No-BullShit Marxist Group." "Members included philosophers, economists, sociologists, historians, and political scientists. The common task was to re-state Marxian questions in a modern way, and to study them using the tools of analytical social science and philosophy. The school of ‘analytical Marxism’ was quite influential in the 1980s: it was attacked from the left by traditional Marxists, who believed that using these ‘bourgeois’ tools of analysis would surely infect our conclusions. In reply, we called these critics bible-thumpers. ... I tend not to call myself a Marxist anymore because I do not credit many of the ideas that Marx believed were at the center of his view: the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit, and the claim that dialectical materialism is a special kind of logic."

During this time, Roemer often wrote mathematical expositions of how to define "exploitation" and how exploitation could lead to a defined class structure. But over time, he came to believe that while exploitation was real, it wasn't the central problem of capitalism, and his beliefs shifted to a focus on equality of opportunity. He says: 

I believe that all young adults should begin their productive years with the same amount of wealth. This implies that the inheritance of wealth, and in vivos transfers to the young, must be sharply constrained. If the educational system has succeeded in eliminating inequality of opportunity, and people make different career choices, then differential wealth will emerge during adult lifetimes, and I believe those differences are consistent with justice, as long as there is sufficient income and wealth taxation to prevent income differences from becoming too extreme—so extreme as to threaten solidarity. As I said, Marx’s condemnation of the distribution of capital was based on the history of ‘primitive accumulation’ that he presented. If wealth accumulation is a result of freely chosen labor with equal-opportunity background conditions, I do not believe modest wealth differences are unjust. ... 

Many leftists believe the key to understanding capitalism is to understand the extraction of labor from labor power at the point of production. And indeed, I think Marx sometimes erred in thinking this, as well. My view is that the essence of capitalism is the set of institutions which sanctify and enforce private and unequal ownership of capital—that is, vastly unequal wealth. Now, workers, surely, do face all kinds of oppression at the point of production—bosses who crack the whip, speed up the assembly line, fire workers who organize, etc. There is a constant struggle at work between workers and bosses about the conditions of work.  ... In the last analysis, power comes in the police force that enforces property relations. This is the key locus of power; oppression of workers at the point of production, though perhaps very important in building class consciousness of workers, is relatively small potatoes. Coercion at the point of production was essential in feudalism and slavery, but capitalism has subtler techniques for accumulating wealth.

This approach led Roemer to studies of how much of the current level of inequality in incomes could be accounted for by factors over which a person had no control, including race and gender, but also a range of other factors. He says: 

Before 1993, almost all measures of unequal opportunity focused upon one circumstance: the rank of the individual’s father in the income/wealth distribution of his generation. What these studies call intergenerational immobility is a special case of opportunity inequality. Societies in which the individual’s rank in the income distribution of his generation was only weakly related to the father’s rank in the income distribution of his generation were ones with relatively equal opportunity. These studies, to be precise, looked at only one circumstance in explaining the child’s income: his father’s income rank. It turns out, using the algorithm that I propose to measure inequality of opportunity, that circumstance (father’s rank) accounts for less than 10% of income inequality in a society. Today, in the plethora of studies measuring inequality of opportunity (IOp), it is not uncommon to explain 30%, even 50% of income inequality, as due to circumstances. Of course, these studies look at many other circumstances in addition to father’s income rank! This shows how the IOp theory has greatly reduced the set of actions for which people are implicitly held responsible. ... If I can show that, in my country, 50% of income inequality is due to factors that anyone would agree individuals should not be held responsible for, whereas the standard conservative view in my country is that everyone should be capable of pulling herself up by her bootstraps, I have a powerful argument to reform tax, educational, and healthcare policy.

These arguments led Roemer in several directions. He argues that if some share of the talents we have are "morally arbitrary"--not the result of our own efforts but rather passed along by family or limited by social constraints--then part of income should be "owned" by the community, too. He says: 

We should not have ...  full ownership of our labor power. If the talents we have are in part morally arbitrary, they should in part be owned by the community. For a person not to be a full self-owner does not mean the community is free to harvest one of his kidneys to transplant into another, but it may well mean that he must pay taxes on his earnings to the state. ...  The libertarian attack on common ownership of talents—that it would expose everyone to possible kidney harnessing—is a non sequitur.

Thinking about equality of opportunity in these broad terms has led Roemer to work outside of utilitarian frameworks: in his view, what matters is not just a welfare level for each individual, but a combination of thinking about the circumstances of people and their effort level.

I extended Sen’s critique of welfarism in the theory of equality of opportunity that I proposed. The language of that theory includes circumstances, effort, and type. These are fundamentals, along with utility. One cannot judge how just a situation is by knowing only the welfare levels of people in it: one must know how hard they tried and what their circumstances were. The equal-opportunity theory is non-welfarist. 

As an economist, Roemer is also well aware of the power of market forces and the perils of government ownership when it comes to achieving efficiency. Thus, he has for some years advocated versions of "market socialism," which would seek to combine market forces--like workers who get paid wages--with a much higher level of equality of opportunity. He says: 

I do not believe there is an inherent injustice in wage labor. If I did believe there were, I could not advocate the use of markets under socialism. And I think that without markets, we would be—at this point, before we discover some other way of allocating resources—condemned to terrible inefficiency and poverty. In my recent work ...  I argue that markets combined with solidaristic optimization by workers and investors, produces much better results than capitalism—in terms of both efficiency and equity. ...

I am saying that the history of the last several centuries can be viewed as one of rectifying the terrible truncation of opportunities of certain peoples, due to certain circumstances—morally arbitrary characteristics of persons, that come to inhibit their chances of leading a fulfilling life. In the middle of the twentieth century, John Rawls provided a general argument that race and sex were only special cases of the morally arbitrary distribution of circumstances whose effects on income and welfare would be eliminated in a just society. Of course, as you say, it will be impossible ever to eliminate completely these effects. Highly talented people will probably always lead lives that are more successful and happier than they deserve. But we proceed incrementally: we do the best we can. The Enlightenment, beginning, let us say, with the French Revolution, is still far from complete. ... My goal is to focus on building solidaristic societies, and I think that the most important barrier to solidarity is the individualistic ethos of capitalist society where the accumulation of private wealth is the guiding force. We are still very much in the era when inequality of income and wealth is the main problem. I speak not only of poverty, but of the way capitalist society distorts human behavior and politics.

Finally, I wanted to pass along one of Roemer's thoughts about academic research: "I find it takes about ten years for my work on a problem to become mature, so be patient. In an intellectual life of forty years, count yourself a success if you can develop to fruition three or four good ideas."

For me, Roemer is one of the answers to the question I sometimes get: "If I wanted to read the work of a serious and well-regarded modern economist coming from the Marxist tradition, where should I start?" Those who want an additional dose of Roemer might begin with the four articles in this issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics that are reviews of Roemer's recent book on "Kantian optimization"--that is, a society where people optimize based on cooperative values rooted in social solidarity rather than on individualistic ones. Roemer also offers a rejoinder. Other accessible starting points for more Roemer include: 

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  • Christopher Fritsch

    Thanks for sharing !

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

   

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