Will Wilkinson on discussing inequality with those who won’t define it

I really like this rant by Will Wilkinson, it reminds me of the sort of thing I wish I could write when I’m annoyed.

I’ll be honest, a lot of people out there talking about “let’s tackle inequality” aren’t actually interested in social justice, policy, the poor, or anything that matters – they are interested in looking cool to their friends and fitting into their “in-group”.  Running into these people and trying to discuss policy trade-offs is about as much fun as when, after breaking my leg, my teacher at primary school kept lifting me up to try to get me to stand because “it didn’t look broken” (Note:  She was a lovely teacher, it was just a particularly sore experience).  Here is the opener of his piece:

I’m tired of arguing about inequality. It’s frustrating. It’s unproductive. Nobody is really interested in the analytical arbitrariness and moral insidiousness of measuring intra-national economic inequality. Nobody is really interested in the fact that multiple mechanisms–some good, same bad, some neutral–can produce the same level of measured inequality, rendering the level of inequality, taken in isolation, completely useless as a barometer of social or economic justice. Nobody really cares. Because many different combinations of causes can produce the same level of inequality, it’s not so clear that high inequality, as such, can reliably cause anything. The consequences of inequality depend on the mechanisms driving inequality. Nobody cares.

Now, there is some disagreement from me here.  It is not nobody.  Most people do care.  Most people are interested in justice and fairness, but do not have the time or inclination to spend thousands of hours learning about definitions and subtleties in these things.  Will (and myself) mainly hear from people who actually don’t care – and just want attention, or want to be a future politician or unbearable rock star, but a significant majority of the public do care and want it described to them in a way they can trust.

This is why I agree with my own tweet:

In this way, we aren’t trying to convince the narrow minded, self righteous, egotists that they are misrepresenting matters – that is a fool’s errand.  Often we are solely making these arguments, and publicly describing these ideas and data, in order to help inform (and maybe persuade) the large number of individuals who are interested in how these measures and representations of reality confirm to their own view of social justice – it is about how we communicate these ideas for public consumption and critique.

I have talked to a myriad of people who, once you explain why statistical measures of “inequality” are not the same as the human concept of “inequality as injustice” nod and agree that this is sensible, and that we should really be targeting “need” and “opportunity” rather than “outcomes”.  It can be hard, as politicians and their fans have co-opted words like inequality, need, and opportunity and turned them into things they are not.  This saddens me, but also makes me realise that – in my tiny little corner of the internet I should make sure I define these terms (and test myself by making sure I actually can) and leave them open to scrutiny.

This is what Will does with blogging, this is what I attempt to do with blogging, and it is what I hope even more social scientists out there will do with blogging.

3 replies
  1. Kimble
    Kimble says:

    I have said it a number of times on this blog: the only way economists will gain traction against the egotists is to ridicule them into shamed obscurity.

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      Indeed I know this is your view, and there are appropriate times and arguments for that.

      However, sometimes people have excessive certainty but still mean well – if they are willing to listen, it is best to try and engage.

      I try to balance it with my comments policy when someone comes on and is being rude to me. I’ll be nice the first time but ask them to tone it back, if they do a second one I will strongly warn them, if they then do a third time I’ll tear into them – tis all about balance 🙂

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