Tag Archives: Morton Marcus

Fundamental Questions

Maybe it’s old age, or–even more likely– my growing concern that I may be watching human civilization disintegrate around me, but I increasingly find myself mulling over what i call the “fundamental questions.” How should humans live together? What sorts of institutional and governmental arrangements are fairest? What sort of society is most likely to facilitate human flourishing? What sort of economic system might ensure the subsistence of all members of a society without depressing innovation and productivity?

These aren’t new questions. But for those of us with grandchildren who will have to navigate this increasingly chaotic and angry world, they are critical.

Aristotle described the good society as one that encouraged and facilitated human flourishing. It’s been awhile, so I no longer recall how–or whether–he defined “flourishing,” but I can’t imagine people flourishing (however defined) under a system that ignored the requisites of what we call the common good.

I favor John Rawls’ approach to questions of the common good. Rawls–the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th Century–begins by insisting upon a “veil of ignorance.” The veil of ignorance is a scenario in which  individuals are placed behind a metaphorical veil that strips them of knowledge about who they will be and where they will live; they cannot know whether they’ll be rich or poor, talented or not, brilliant or mentally disabled, healthy or sickly, etc. From behind that veil of ignorance, the individual must design a society that they  would consider to be a just one no matter where they landed and no matter what their personal attributes.

The goal of the veil device, rather obviously, is to encourage respondents to think deeply about the structure of society, and to ignore to the extent possible the influence of his/her actual attributes and situation.

If Rawls is a bit too theoretical for you, several years ago my friend Morton Marcus penned a more accessible but no less important set of questions. Morton distilled the study of economics and economic systems into the question “Who Gets What?” In that essay, he pointed out that social and material goods are allocated in a more complicated fashion than most of us recognize. Depending upon the good being accessed, it might be allocated on a “first come, first served basis” or via the force/authority exerted by one’s government or family. The allocation might or might not be tied to merit–or at least, what society at a given time regards as merit.

Morton’s exposition was lengthy, but its major contribution consists of the reminder that “who gets what?” is a question that permeates our social and legal relationships and involves multiple decisions by government and the private sector.

Humans have a habit of thinking that the culture into which they’ve been socialized is “natural”–it’s “the way things are.” When “the way things are” is challenged– by technology, displacement, social change, whatever–most people will dig in, defending our world-views and beliefs about the way things should be. Typically, we believe they should be the way we think they’ve always been–the familiar cultural touchstones to which we’ve become accustomed and with which we’re comfortable.

What if we used these scary, unsettled times to consider what human flourishing entails, and to think about the kinds of systematic and social supports that would encourage that individual flourishing?

What if we responded to the uncertainty and chaos in Washington, D.C. and around the globe by purposefully retreating behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and trying to envision the outlines of a better, more just society?

What if we didn’t respond to uncertainty and fear by clinging more tightly to what we know, to our fears and prejudices and ideas about what constitutes merit, and instead pictured different ways of allocating goods, of answering the question “Who gets what?”

What if?

 

 

Women And Politics

“Housekeeping” note: My husband and I are departing today for a two-month cruise to Australia and New Zealand. I will have internet and plan to continue blogging, but I’m not sure when items will post, as time zones will change and we’ll cross the international date line a couple of times, so please bear with me!

Last week, a chapter of the Indianapolis Kiwanis invited me to discuss the book that Morton Marcus and I recently published. This is what I told them (sorry for the length…)

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As I know you are all aware, Morton Marcus and I recently co-authored “From Property to Partner: Women’s Progress and Political Resistance.” When we began working on it, neither of us expected the political tsunami that would be ushered in by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson.

Morton and I have been friends for some 30+ years, and he initially approached me about collaborating on a book that would identify and document the scientific and technological changes that had facilitated women’s progress. Morton absolutely bathes in data, and he was determined to share reams of evidence about the effect of things like railroads, bikes, and household appliances on women’s emancipation.

We both understood that genuine biological differences between men and women had shaped human cultures for thousands of years; and we both wanted to track how science and technology had minimized the social impact of those differences—how changes in the job market made physical strength less important and how various inventions reduced the time needed for housework, which is still considered “women’s work.” That sort of thing.

Morton did agree with me that the most important advances, by far, were the ones that allowed women—for the first time in history– to plan, defer or abstain from procreation without the necessity of remaining celibate. Birth control—especially the pill– allowed women to pursue educational and career choices that had formerly been available only to males.

Control of reproduction allowed women to participate fully in economic, civic and political life.  No other advance has been nearly that consequential.

But control of reproduction ran headlong into fundamentalist and paternalistic religious beliefs that continue to influence America’s politics and culture. Although religions and denominations within them vary considerably with respect to birth control, abortion and the role of women, fundamentalist theologies support a patriarchy that is deeply rooted in history, politics and privilege. In the book, we explored the teachings of different religious traditions about women—the very different beliefs held by different religions about women’s roles in general, and the very dramatic differences about decisions to terminate a pregnancy.

As some of us are old enough to remember, before the advent of reliable birth control, every sexual encounter carried the risk of pregnancy, and pregnancy generally meant the end of a woman’s economic independence. A pregnant woman was almost always unemployable; for that matter, a married woman in her childbearing years was similarly unemployable, since there was always the possibility of pregnancy and the resulting need to care for offspring, seen as a uniquely female responsibility.

Most women were therefore economically dependent upon the men to whom they were married. (Refusing to marry was no panacea: unmarried women were routinely labeled “old maids,” and were objects of pity.) If her marriage was unhappy, or worse, violent, a woman with children was literally enslaved; given the barriers she faced to participation in the workforce and her resulting inability to support herself and her offspring, she usually couldn’t leave. Absent charitable intervention or inherited wealth—or friends or relatives willing to house and feed her and her children—she was totally dependent on her husband’s earnings.

That reality is why access to reliable contraception –and in situations where that contraception failed, abortion—was thus absolutely essential to women’s independence. If women could plan when to procreate, they could also plan when not to procreate. They could choose to schedule or defer motherhood in order to pursue education and career opportunities. The availability of the birth control pill didn’t just liberate millions of women,  its availability and widespread use triggered enormous changes in social attitudes—some of which opened the door to legislation that advanced both females’ economic independence and their ability to more fully participate in the civic life of the nation.

The Dobbs decision, over-ruling Roe v Wade, came down when we had just begun our research for the book; it changed our focus and presented us with an obvious question: how would American women respond? What political consequences would we see to a decision that allowed states to deny women access to adequate healthcare during pregnancy– and also threatened to return them to second-class citizenship?

We knew we were about to see what happens when the dog finally catches the car…and you can probably guess our conclusion from the title of our final chapter: “When Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy.”

So much for our book. I want to conclude with a point that is not widely understood. As politically consequential as the Dobbs decision has turned out to be, most non-lawyers really don’t understand how fundamentally it undermined constitutional rights that have absolutely nothing to do with abortion or the status of women.

For the past fifty years, Americans have relied upon a constitutional doctrine known as substantive due process, often called the “right to privacy.” That doctrine confirmed the American principle that certain “intimate” individual decisions—including one’s choice of sexual partners or the decision to use contraception– are none of government’s business.

Most constitutional scholars would argue that the right to personal autonomy has always been inherent in the Bill of Rights, but it was explicitly recognized in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut. The Connecticut legislature had passed a law prohibiting the use of birth control by married couples. The law prohibited doctors from prescribing contraceptives and prohibiting pharmacists from filling those prescriptions.

The Supreme Court struck down the law, holding that whether a couple used contraceptives was not a decision government is entitled to make. The majority recognized that a right to personal autonomy—the right to self-government—was necessary to the enforcement of other provisions of the Bill of Rights, which would be difficult or impossible to respect without the recognition of such an underlying right.  Justices White and Harlan found explicit confirmation of it in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—which is where the title “substantive due process” comes from. Wherever it resided–in a “penumbra” or the 14th Amendment—the Justices agreed on both its presence and importance.

As I’m sure you all know, procedural due process protects Americans’ right to a fair process—a fair trial or other government proceeding. Substantive due process distinguishes between decisions that government has the legitimate authority to make, and decisions which, in our system, must be left up to the individual. I used to tell my students that the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to decide: what books you read, what opinions you form, what prayers you say (or don’t)—such matters are outside the legitimate role of government. The issue isn’t whether that book is dangerous or inappropriate, or that religion is false, or whether you should marry someone of the same sex, or whether you should procreate: the issue is who should get to make that decision.

Substantive due process draws a line between decisions government should make and those that must be made by the individual involved. Aside from its other logical and historical defects, the Dobbs decision ignored 50 years of precedents confirming that principle.

Dobbs also changed the focus of our little book, which became much more political than we had originally intended. That said, we had fun collaborating on it—and if you haven’t already bought it, I hope you will!!

 

 

Shameless Promotion

Okay–I previously warned readers of this blog that yet another book was in process. This time, it’s a co-authored effort with Morton Marcus, who occasionally comments here. The book is titled: From Property to Partner: Women’s Progress and Political Resistance, and it’s available as either an e-book (6.50) or a paperback (15.00).

Bargains, I tell you……

Morton and I have been friends for 30+ years, and–while we don’t always agree–our disagreements tend to be both minor and civil, and both of us think women are people and equal rights are a good thing.

This is the 11th book I’ve written–and only the second with a co-author. Most have been published by academic and trade presses that did absolutely nothing to market them. (Granted, three or four of them were barely interesting to other academics, but there was no effort at marketing even those that I fondly believed merited a broader distribution.) Morton’s experience with publishing houses has been similar, so we’ve published this book on Amazon–keeping the price reasonable and access broadly available. Hint, hint.

This time, we’re marketing!

Our book–with individual chapters by each of us– considers the progress women have made over the last 100 or so years—from a status that essentially made females the “property” of their fathers or husbands, to today’s almost-equal legal parity with men. It outlines the bases upon which that progress rests, and the very real threat posed by the Rightwing culture warriors who see women’s progress as an existential threat to their continued patriarchal dominance.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the “Afterword,” to give you a taste of the contents:

We began this book as an exercise in social history. The decision in Dobbs was handed down a couple of months after we began researching the path women had taken—the path we’ve dubbed “from property to partner”—and it changed our focus for this effort. Dobbs was a frontal assault on human liberty. Yes, it was a “shot over the bow” of women’s right to self-determination, but it was much, much more. It represents a profoundly anti-liberty worldview that poses a danger to fundamental American constitutional values….

In order to look forward and to act with vigor, we need to understand the technologies and cultural changes that have empowered women over the past years. Now, women (and men of good will) must enlist the technological and cultural opportunities of our times to issue a call to arms. This effort, this manifesto if you will, is intended to assist in a marshaling of building blocks for the critically-necessary program to stem the tide of reaction, to regain what we have already lost, and to prevent the further erosion of women’s personal autonomy. It is the time for all of us to ask, “What else we are at risk of losing?”

So–here’s my shameless plea, and my “elevator speech.”

If you are a regular reader of this blog and feel that its contribution to the current national discourse is worthwhile–buy this book!

If–like Morton–you believe that data “tells the tale” and that an analysis of credible and accurate facts and figures confirms and documents both persistent problems and progress to date–buy this book!

If–like yours truly–you are deeply worried about the culture warriors’ efforts to return women to a subservient status, and interested in the religious and historical roots of their paternalistic backlash–buy this book!

If you want to feel better about the prospects for women’s continued emancipation –buy this book!

And if you do buy it, and after reading it decide that you like it–tell your friends!

We’ll really appreciate it!

I will now return this blog to its usual whining and ranting…..

 

Average/Median–Or Lying With Statistics

I have previously mentioned–and sometimes quoted–my friend Morton Marcus. Marcus   is an economist; he is retired from Indiana University, where for many years he headed up the Kelly School’s business research center. Morton and I have been friends for a long time, and have just co-authored a book on the women’s movement. (More on that when it’s published.)

Morton also writes a weekly column on economic data  called “Eye on the Pie,” explaining in relatively simple language what various data points tell us about Indiana. That column runs in a number of the remaining small newspapers around the state. In a recent column, he made a point that I think is so important I feel compelled to share it.

Morton fashioned his column as “A note to Gov. Holcomb,” and began by saying that normally, he doesn’t write to the Governor.

But this week is different. A few days ago, you gave your “State of the State” address to the General Assembly. It was a nice talk and very well presented.
You had some good ideas for our state, but, and this is awkward for me to say, you don’t have a staff that keeps you from making the same mistake time-after-time. You’re not the only Governor who makes this mistake. I’ve known them all from Gov. Whitcomb onwards and they all make the same mistake.

And what was that mistake? (I must admit, it’s an error I have often made too.) Let Morton explain:

Almost always the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC – bless their hearts) tells us the average wage going to be paid by a firm they have arranged (lured, bribed) to open or expand in Indiana.

Most of the media (bless their hearts) regurgitate the press release because they don’t have the time or energy to remember that the average is the mean of a set of numbers. It can be heavily influenced by extreme (high or low) values.

The median, however, tells a different, more meaningful story (if you’ll excuse a little pun there). The median is the wage above which half of the employees will get paid and below which the other half of the workers will be paid.

Let’s say the top gun gets paid $150,000 per year. The #2 gets $75,000, the other eight get $30,000 each. That’s a total payroll of $465,000 for ten employees or an average (mean) annual wage of $46,500. Yet the median pay is $30,000. That’s $16,500 (35%) below the IEDC-advertised average.

From what I hear, Governor, you’re not the type who intentionally misleads or lies to the people of Indiana. But by using the average (mean), rather than the median figure, you’ve been passing on some real whoppers over the years.

If I might have just a bit more of your attention, let me note the average (mean) annual pay for all occupations in Indiana in 2021 was $50,440 (37th in the nation) or $12,110 (32%) above the median Hoosier pay of $38,330 (39th among the 50 states).

With just two years left in your term of office, you said you were going to work harder than ever for all Hoosiers. Maybe you could get IEDC and your staff to give you the most accurate, realistic numbers. Then the people of Indiana would not continue to be misled by excess enthusiasm and just plain ignorance.

When I read this column, it immediately reminded me of a book I read several years ago, debunking several of the claims that were then being made about the “failures” of the nation’s public schools. The authors noted that much of the data being uncritically reported about “averages” was similar to the rather misleading result one would get when averaging a mouse with an elephant.

If you average my income with that of Bill Gates, you’ll come up with a pretty impressive average…

Actually, Morton’s column does inadvertently highlight a failing of the education system: too many Americans (including, I am sorry to say, the one writing this blog) are innumerate–lacking a basic knowledge of mathematics and arithmetic. That innumeracy encourages the use of statistics to mislead. As the saying goes: statistics don’t lie, but liars (and innumerate folks) do use–or misuse– statistics.

The Governor’s error perpetuates the erroneous belief that Indiana is succeeding with an economic development approach that relies almost entirely on keeping the state’s  taxes low–and ignores the fact that those low tax rates prevent the state from spending tax dollars to achieve a quality of life that would be far more likely to attract the businesses and skilled workers we need.

More on that to come….

 

 

What Is Government’s Role?

Americans love to defend liberty–and oppose government actions that they believe intrude on that liberty. (Granted, all too often they are perfectly willing to have government limit other people’s liberties, especially when those other people don’t espouse the same religious beliefs they hold, but that’s a subject for another day…)

We’re just emerging from one of those periodic, heated debates, triggered by “patriots” offended by government’s effort to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. Again, I’m not spending many pixels on the anti-mask, anti-vaccination folks, because (with very few exceptions) they are so clearly wrong–not just on the science, but on the role of government–not to mention remiss in discharging their most basic obligations to other humans. People who don’t believe public health is a public good that governments are bound to protect are beyond the reach of logic and reason.

In many other areas, we get into various shades of gray. There are plenty of issues that raise legitimate questions about the proper role of the state. I’ll admit to qualms, for example, about things like seat belt laws and similar”nanny state” measures, meant to protect individuals from their own heedless or self-destructive behaviors.

I was recently prompted to think about the proper and improper use of government authority when I read a recent “Eye on the Pie” column written by my friend Morton Marcus. Marcus, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is an economist and former director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University. In this particular column, he defended governmental “intrusion” on the most hallowed of rights: property rights. He argued (I think persuasively) that your house may be private property, but it also has characteristics of a public good.

My house can be seen by anyone driving down my street. Unless I go to great trouble, I can not stop you from seeing my house. I can’t charge you for looking at my house.

But what you see of my house influences your opinion of my block and the price you’d pay to live near me.

Broken windows, leaky roofs, sagging gutters, piles of trash, and abandoned furniture are not inviting signs of habitation. Such a house may be a fire hazard and a danger to its neighbors.

At the same time, if my house has rats or unhealthy conditions, it may pose a health hazard not only to my family, but to yours as well. My children play with your children. I meet you in the grocery. We family may be carriers of disease, my house a public health menace.

Governments have limits on private behavior when public health and safety are at risk. Yet, we’ve seen great resistance to action that infringes on presumed private rights.

We don’t enforce building codes. We allow structural deterioration and abandonment. We don’t insist houses have adequate insulation from the cold of winter and the heat of summer to protect residents from chronic illness..

Our collective neglect is excused because we believe we’re protecting the poor and/or elderly who cannot afford repairs or adequate weatherization.

Yet our housing stock is one of the most vital aspects for the economic development we seek. Our state provides funding to restore abandoned, old movie theaters, but does little to resurrect declining houses.

Our reluctance to infringe on the “rights” of a property owner conflicts with the community’s need to preserve its critical assets.

Morton argues that there are many negative consequences of not treating housing stock as a public good: decay of our central cities, abandonment of our smaller towns,  encouragement of urban sprawl and environmental degradation.  He blames the  “infatuation with the myth of unlimited private property rights.”

Of course, as any lawyer will confirm, there are few if any rights that are “unlimited,” and property rights are no exception.  Laws against nuisance, and minimum upkeep regulations–neither very well enforced, unfortunately–are meant to protect the considerable investments people make in their homes.

Morton’s column raises some thorny issues: does government have an obligation to ensure that people’s homes are humanly habitable? How far does that obligation extend before it becomes an unconstitutional invasion of property rights? What about the rights of homeowners whose properties are adjacent to homes that have been allowed to deteriorate?

If we are talking about property values, it is interesting to note that, in historic areas that are subject to more stringent government regulation, values are not only stable, but tend to be higher.

I’m not entirely sure where I come down on what are often very technical/legal questions of property regulation, but I am sure that these are precisely the sorts of questions our elected officials ought to be debating–rather than worrying about my uterus, Jewish space lasers, or being “replaced.”