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On Walmart, And Who Bears Responsibility For the Poor

10 Post author: ChrisHallquist 27 November 2013 05:08AM

Note: Originally posted in Discussion, edited to take comments there into account.


Yes, politics, boo hiss. In my defense, the topic of this post cuts across usual tribal affiliations (I write it as a liberal criticizing other liberals), and has a couple strong tie-ins with main LessWrong topics:

  • It's a tidy example of a failure to apply consequentialist / effective altruist-type reasoning. And while it's probably true that the people I'm critiquing aren't consequentialists by any means, it's a case where failing to look at the consequences leads people to say some particularly silly things.
  • I think there's a good chance this is a political issue that will become a lot more important as more and more jobs are replaced by automation. (If the previous sentence sounds obviously stupid to you, the best I can do without writing an entire post on that is vaguely gesturing at gwern on neo-luddism, though I don't agree with all of it.)

The issue is this: recently, I've seen a meme going around to the effect that companies like Walmart that have a large number of employees on government benefits are the "real welfare queens" or somesuch, and with the implied message that all companies have a moral obligation to pay their employees enough that they don't need government benefits. (I say mention Walmart because it's the most frequently mentioned villain in this meme, but others, like McDonalds, get mentioned.)

My initial awareness of this meme came from it being all over my Facebook feed, but when I went to Google to track down examples, I found it coming out of the mouths of some fairly prominent congresscritters. For example Alan Grayson:

In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees. I'm sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart "associate" costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance.

Or Bernie Sanders:

The Walmart family... here's an amazing story. The Walmart family is the wealthiest family in this country, worth about $100 billion. owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people, and yet here's the incredible fact.

Because their wages and benefits are so low, they are the major welfare recipients in America, because many, many of their workers depend on Medicaid, depend on food stamps, depend on government subsidies for housing. So, if the minimum wage went up for Walmart, would be a real cut in their profits, but it would be a real savings by the way for taxpayers, who would not having to subsidize Walmart employees because of their low wages.

Now here's why this is weird: consider Grayson's claim that each Walmart employee costs the taxpayers on average $1,000. In what sense is that true? If Walmart fired those employees, it wouldn't save the taxpayers money: if anything, it would increase the strain on public services. Conversely, it's unlikely that cutting benefits would force Walmart to pay higher wages: if anything, it would make people more desperate and willing to work for low wages. (Cf. this this excellent critique of the anti-Walmart meme).

Or consider Sanders' claim that it would be better to raise the minimum wage and spend less on government benefits. He emphasizes that Walmart could take a hit in profits to pay its employees more. It's unclear to what degree that's true (see again previous link), and unclear if there's a practical way for the government to force Walmart to do that, but ignore those issues, it's worth pointing out that you could also just raise taxes on rich people generally to increase benefits for low-wage workers. The idea seems to be that morally, Walmart employees should be primarily Walmart's moral responsibility, and not so much the moral responsibility of the (the more well-off segment of) the population in general.

But the idea that employing someone gives you a general responsibility for their welfare (beyond, say, not tricking them into working for less pay or under worse conditions than you initially promised) is also very odd. It suggests that if you want to be virtuous, you should avoid hiring people, so as to keep your hands clean and avoid the moral contagion that comes with employing low wage workers. Yet such a policy doesn't actually help the people who might want jobs from you. This is not to deny that, plausibly, wealthy onwers of Walmart stock have a moral responsibility to the poor. What's implausible is that non-Walmart stock owners have significantly less responsibility to the poor.

This meme also worries me because I lean towards thinking that the minimum wage isn't a terrible policy but we'd be better off replacing it with guaranteed basic income (or an otherwise more lavish welfare state). And guaranteed basic income could be a really important policy to have as more and more jobs are replaced by automation (again see gwern if that seems crazy to you). I worry that this anti-Walmart meme could lead to an odd left-wing resistance to GBI/more lavish welfare state, since the policy would be branded as a subsidy to Walmart.

Comments (483)

Comment author: Jack 24 November 2013 12:24:04AM *  30 points [-]

None of the major political ideologies are particularly consequentialist in the way they approach policy. Progressives by and large see the world through the following lens: There are some people who are oppressed and others who oppress them. Government policy ought to focus on emancipating the oppressed and punishing/overthrowing the oppressors. Criminal Justice: white people oppressing brown people. Abortion: Christian men oppressing women. Foreign policy: America oppressing the rest of the world (unless it's America saving some oppressed foreigners from an oppressor). Housing policy: landlords oppressing tenants. Labor: captital oppressing unions. Taxes: the one percent oppressing the 99%. Marriage equality: straight Christians oppressing LGBT people. Progressives aren't generally concerned about utility: they're concerned about justice. Even the Animal Rights movement, essentially founded by arch-Utilitarian Peter Singer is focused on the class relations between animals and the humans who oppress them.

In this case, the oppressors are wealthy business owners who are exploiting the labor of the poor and helpless AND exploiting the rest of us by placing the burden for care on taxpayers.

I know this summary of liberal thought probably sounds strawman-like. I don't mean it to be taken as a summary of progressive arguments on these issues. There are good arguments for progressive positions, many of which I agree with. Rather, this oppressed-oppressor lens is just the initial conceptual frame most progressives have in response to any political issue.

I'm not saying there can't be real instances of oppression or that ending oppression doesn't increase utility. But when all you have is a hammer, everything you see looks like a nail etc. Conservatives and libertarians have similar non-consequentialist frames through which they view every issue. See "The Three Languages of Politics.

The extent to which any ideology can be "true" is mostly just the extent to which their central heuristic is useful and actually describes the world. There is a minority of libertarians and an even smaller minority of progressives that actually appear to mainly care about the consequentialist effects of policy. They happen to over-represented here, but they're pretty unusual in the rest of the world.

BIG + no other welfare state and no minimum wage is probably preferable to what America has now. I sort of worry about how hard it would be to hire someone if the BIG got too large but it probably couldn't be worse than trying to hire someone in an environment where they could lose their house, health coverage and disability check if they begin making too much.

Comment author: Brillyant 25 November 2013 10:22:18PM 8 points [-]

None of the major political ideologies are particularly consequentialist in the way they approach policy.

I like your whole comment, but disagree with the first sentence.

Apart from reading about it explicitly on LW, I was also able to approach politics as less of a mind-killer once I realized that different ideologies approach issues believing different outcomes would be ideal. But neither side realizes that (or how very different "ideal" is to each), so one just says, "ABC will work! XYZ is crazy!!" and the other says, "What?! ABC will never work! History shows XYZ is clearly the best policy!" Each side means something different by "work", and so spiralling mind-kill ensues...

Actually, I've found my best friends, with whom I end up discussing politics with, are very consequentalist, and care very much about what ends up "working best". Those who disagree with me simply don't define "working" or "best" in the same way I do, and so we really ending up talking past each other and giving each other funny, mind-killed looks.

For instance, as a liberal, I concede de-regulation is better for maximizing economic growth and so I concede that right-wing fiscal policy is "better" to that end. But I'm admittedly more interested in anti-oppressionizing the world (a la your strawman progressive) and providing the basis for relatively economic equality than I am in max growth, so I am for more regulation and wealth redistribution to that end. We each believe the best possible world looks differently, and so we are asking different questions when we ask the same question. But we are approaching the issue from a consequentialist standpoint.

And so my righty friends still think I'm a bleeding-heart weirdo and I think they are greedy and heartless ;) ...but at least we've moved our discussion passed arguing over definitions without realizing that's what we were doing.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 November 2013 07:01:25AM 3 points [-]

The other half of this is that you and your friends presumably don't assume that those with opposing political views have the (real or hypothesized) ill effects of their preferred policies as primary goals.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 26 November 2013 03:20:23AM -2 points [-]

But I'm admittedly more interested in anti-oppressionizing the world (a la your strawman progressive) and providing the basis for relatively economic equality

What do you mean by this? Would you support policies that make everyone worse of if the resulting distribution is more equal?

Comment author: Brillyant 26 November 2013 03:29:10PM 0 points [-]

It would depend on what you mean by "worse off". I wouldn't define it as less wealth, per se. Though even if I did define it in strictly economic terms, I'm not sure any policy or redistribution could "make everyone worse off", since a large portion of the world has zero wealth.

Comment author: Desrtopa 27 November 2013 04:37:22PM 5 points [-]

Though even if I did define it in strictly economic terms, I'm not sure any policy or redistribution could "make everyone worse off", since a large portion of the world has zero wealth.

In economic terms, with wealth defined more or less as "stuff people want," I find it hard to see how that could be the case, since it should follow that there's nothing that you could take away from them which would leave them worse off. Do you think that's accurate?

Comment author: Lumifer 26 November 2013 03:50:51PM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure any policy or redistribution could "make everyone worse off"

Look beyond the short term.

Comment author: Brillyant 26 November 2013 03:59:44PM 1 point [-]

Okay. Please help me understand a scenario where everyone was worse off in the long term because of the redistribution of wealth.

Comment author: Lumifer 26 November 2013 04:30:12PM *  3 points [-]

Take a simple scenario of two cities -- one is high-tech and one is a big stone-age village in the hills of New Guinea. The high-tech city is much richer.

You take half of the city's technological bounty and bring it over to New Guinea -- you redistributed wealth.

Fairly quickly the technology becomes completely useless in New Guinea, but the villagers liked it for the short period that it worked -- so they abandon working in the fields and build something resembling air strips with mock airplanes sitting on them...

Comment author: Brillyant 26 November 2013 04:57:04PM 1 point [-]

I must be misunderstanding. I can imagine many hypothetical scenarios where redistribution of wealth would have a net negative effect, in terms of technological advancement, economic growth, etc.

In the globe we currently inhabit, there exists some huge chunk of people who live in utter poverty and, therefore, have no wealth. In strictly economic terms, they cannot being doing any worse than they are right now. Therefore, any redistribution of wealth will either (a) not affect them or (b) benefit them. This seems to me to be true in the short term, as well as the long term.

Comment author: Lumifer 26 November 2013 06:32:35PM *  6 points [-]

there exists some huge chunk of people who live in utter poverty and, therefore, have no wealth.

That is not true. A small value does not equal zero. The number of people who literally have nothing is vanishingly small. Almost everyone who lives in utter poverty has some wealth, just little.

In strictly economic terms, they cannot being doing any worse than they are right now.

This is not true either. Consider a country like Haiti where a large chunk of population is very very poor. A few years ago they had a large earthquake. Beyond the loss of life, you are arguing that the poor did not become worse off in the aftermath of the earthquake. I don't think this is so.

Since you are talking about a large number of people, presumably you have in mind somebody like Chinese and Indian peasants. Do you really believe they "cannot being doing any worse than they are right now"?

Comment author: Dias 28 November 2013 12:26:09AM 3 points [-]

I'm not sure any policy or redistribution could "make everyone worse off", since a large portion of the world has zero wealth.

Easy. Kill everyone. Perfect equality has been achieved, so the egalitarians are happy, and everyone is worse off.

Or if you think some people's lives are currently worse than death, instead go for the (slightly more logistically challenging) option of torturing everyone equally.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 25 November 2013 04:35:34AM 8 points [-]

None of the major political ideologies are particularly consequentialist in the way they approach policy.

Political ideologies are big squishy categories that contain more consequentialist and less consequentialist strains. So I think that's the wrong way of looking at it.

E.g. amont libertarians, there are those who focus on supposed good consequences of libertarian policies, and those who focus on arguing coercion is always wrong even if it leads to good consequences. And among progressives there are people who are basically as you describe, and people like Matt Yglesias and myself and I think Yvain (I think it's fair to call Yvain progressive).

Comment author: Jack 25 November 2013 06:15:33AM 9 points [-]

Political ideologies are big squishy categories that contain more consequentialist and less consequentialist strains.

I mentioned those strains. But they're a very small minority-- over-represented among wonks, bloggers and people smart enough to be in your social circles-- but still small. Yglesias drives people to his left nuts with his stuff. And you and Yvain are not representative progressives for what I think are obvious reasons, right?

You can put me in that category of progressive too (though I like left-libertarian or liberaltarian as well). We should also be skeptical that we are actually progressives for consequentialist reasons and not merely coming up with consequentialist rationalizations for our progressive intuitions. Disagreeing with non-consequentialist liberals seems like a nice start, though.

How small that group is, sort of isn't the point though. The point is that one dimension along which you differ from many other progressives is whether you look at policy chiefly through a lens of consequences or a lens of oppressor-oppressed. As such it is unsurprising that you find yourself disagreeing with progressive talking points from time to time.

Comment author: Desrtopa 27 November 2013 04:34:39PM 5 points [-]

Progressives by and large see the world through the following lens: There are some people who are oppressed and others who oppress them. Government policy ought to focus on emancipating the oppressed and punishing/overthrowing the oppressors. Criminal Justice: white people oppressing brown people. Abortion: Christian men oppressing women. Foreign policy: America oppressing the rest of the world (unless it's America saving some oppressed foreigners from an oppressor). Housing policy: landlords oppressing tenants. Labor: captital oppressing unions. Taxes: the one percent oppressing the 99%. Marriage equality: straight Christians oppressing LGBT people. Progressives aren't generally concerned about utility: they're concerned about justice.

I think you're rather generalizing Social Justice Movement mentality to progressives as a whole. They're a vocal subset, but I think a lot more people would identify as "progressive" given an explanation of the options than would ascribe to the oppressed/oppressor lens.

Comment author: Jack 27 November 2013 08:46:03PM 2 points [-]

I think a lot more people would identify as "progressive" given an explanation of the options

If you have to explain the options to them, they're not ideological. I'm talking about the people setting agendas and writing talking points.

I'd also second what Eugine said.

Comment author: ChristianKl 24 November 2013 11:49:21PM 3 points [-]

I know this summary of liberal thought probably sounds strawman-like.

I don"t think it"s a complete strawman. Marx basically says that every social conflict is about the struggle between oppressor and oppressed.

Not everyone who's political left subscribes to that ideology but it's certainly something that real people believe. It deeply buried in the core assumptions of socialist thought.

Comment author: satt 25 November 2013 02:15:34AM 4 points [-]

I know this summary of liberal thought probably sounds strawman-like.

I don"t think it"s a complete strawman. Marx basically says that every social conflict is about the struggle between oppressor and oppressed.

Marx was a liberal?!

Comment author: Lumifer 25 November 2013 02:44:45AM 7 points [-]

"Liberal" is a funny word, it had quite different meanings through the history and even now tends to mean different things on different sides of the Atlantic ocean.

Comment author: satt 25 November 2013 03:07:32AM 1 point [-]

Quite true, but can you identify any reasonable interpretation of "liberal" that fits Marx nicely? As far as I can see, none of the usual meanings of liberalism I can think of (classical liberalism; neoliberalism; squishy, mainstream, contemporary welfare state left-liberalism) sum up his ideology well.

Comment author: Lumifer 25 November 2013 03:11:25AM 2 points [-]

It shouldn't be particularly difficult to establish a path from Marx to "contemporary welfare state left-liberalism". It would focus on hostility to capital and the need to help the oppressed.

Marx, of course, would barf at contemporary welfare state, but he's dead so we can conveniently ignore all that :-/

Comment author: satt 25 November 2013 03:26:00AM 1 point [-]

Sure. But the path from Marx to contemporary welfare state left-liberalism is sufficiently long (and with enough branches!) that using one as a representative of the other is dubious at best. As you say, Marx himself would probably take a dim view of CWSLL, if he were around to witness it.

Comment author: Lumifer 25 November 2013 03:33:31AM *  2 points [-]

Yeah, I agree. People calling contemporary progressives "Marxists" are usually just looking for a derogatory adjective.

However there are certain similarities and the connection between Marx and CWSLL can be made -- it will be twisting and turning, and will require a fair amount of bending and averting eyes -- but it will probably pass the laugh test. I don't think that this connection is important or that pointing it out is useful, still, it's not quite the young-earth theory.

Comment author: ChristianKl 26 November 2013 03:46:34AM 2 points [-]

American often equate liberal as being left. If I read someone on the internet writing liberal, than I usually don't think they mean the word in it's traditional meaning.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 November 2013 12:51:25AM 0 points [-]

None of the major political ideologies are particularly consequentialist in the way they approach policy.

You have to distinguish between what they say and what they do. The major ideologies are considerably more consequential in what they do than in what they say.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 24 November 2013 06:57:48AM 16 points [-]

Your analysis of the short-term effects is correct, but the long term effects depend on whether "low wage workers" are permanently so. Sometimes people condemn Walmart jobs as "dead-end" and that is getting at the right point.

I've heard the claim that Costo and Sam's Club (ie, Walmart) are very similar, but Costco is famous for paying its employees twice as much. But this doesn't come out of profits - Costco spends the same amount on labor, employing half as many people, twice as productive. If Walmart could make its employees twice as productive, that would be great for society, though in the short term it would lay off half of them.

If the productivity of people is unchangeable, then Walmart is doing society a valuable service by providing a niche to people capable of no more. But if Costco employees are more productive because Costco trains them, then Costco is doing a valuable service by improving their productivity. In the first case, we want Walmart to win because only a few companies like Walmart can make use of the least productive workers. But in the second case, we want Costco to win because it is making use of the same people, but making better use. But we observe that they are evenly matched, so there's no reason to expect either of them to win, let alone the right one. Eventually in the second scenario Walmart loses, not because Costco wins, but only when the Costco model expands into new industries, producing more training, bidding up the salaries Walmart pays.

In the particular example, I believe that Costco is not increasing productivity, but merely identifying more productive workers, and that Walmart is able to employ people that few other companies can. In general, I think the economy is generally trending away from investing in low-end worker productivity, which is terrible. In theory, raising the minimum wage should put pressure against this, but pressure to create new companies that work differently is less certain than pressure shifting the balance of power between existing companies.

(Also, there's a third scenario where Walmart provides the training, but the productive workers graduate to Costco. I certainly think Walmart is providing filtering, letting productive people build up a resume to show to Costco; I'm less certain of whether it improves the workers.)

Comment author: knb 24 November 2013 01:38:28PM 19 points [-]

I worked at Walmart as a teenager. Walmart does a lot of training, but the simple fact is that they work with people who have a lot of attitude and discipline problems (like the teenage me) that would make them unemployable elsewhere.

Comment author: Grant 28 November 2013 09:25:49PM 5 points [-]

This has always been my experience shopping at Florida Walmarts: the employees are horrible. Perhaps they could be making more money with a higher minimum wage, better unionizing or what have you, but I have always viewed Walmart's ability to make their employees productive as some sort of miracle of capitalism.

I can't think of another chain business I've experienced with the same or lower caliber of employee.

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 November 2013 07:37:55PM 6 points [-]

In terms of actually existing politics, which do you think people in general would dislike least: subsidizing would-be freeloaders with taxpayer money, or using that same taxpayer money to hire people (or subsidize hiring people) to do largely unproductive jobs that the market wouldn't pay them a living wage to do? There seems to be a general feeling that it's wrong to let people (figuratively) starve, but also that it's bad to give people things they don't deserve.

If the answer is "I think people in general would rather make people work for their money, even if the work itself isn't actually worth what we're paying" then we might as well let Wal-Mart do the hiring rather than have the government do it directly.

(Aside: The textbook example of unproductive make-work is digging ditches and filling them in again. A slightly less obviously ridiculous way to employ low-skilled workers is as "taxi drivers" for people who would rather spend their daily commute doing something other than driving but wouldn't go to the expense of hiring a driver themselves. After all, driving is a skill that most adults actually do have...)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 26 November 2013 08:10:36AM *  14 points [-]

Imagine that you are designing a Prisonner's Dilemma game. When all the numbers are ready, you have an additional option to increase the reward for defecting when the opponent cooperates. Would you do it?

If you expect that the player's future decisions are already fixed and your numbers will not change them, then increasing the reward adds more value to some players, while removing value from none. Thus it would be good to increase the reward.

But if you expect that people look at the payoff matrix and choose accordingly, increasing the reward for defecting will lead to less cooperation. By increasing the reward for defecting, you are reducing cooperation... and it's not obvious what will be the result.

Now let's add another complication. Let's assume that some players' voting mechanisms are broken, so they always vote to defect, and are unable to change that. It feels moral to punish those who defect voluntarily, but it feels immoral to punish those who merely randomly received a broken voting mechanism. -- I am speaking about people who are too stupid to do the kind of work that is important in a modern society. As opposed to people who could do the work, but are too lazy, if the system allows them. Both of them are mixed in the category of unemployed, with no easy way to distinguish between them.

Unfortunately, trying to set the numbers so that no one chooses this option voluntarily, and yet those who don't have an option of escaping it are treated well... seems like a contradiction.

(There is a sci-fi "Limes inferior" about a society where all people have to do public IQ tests, and those above some value are legally required to work, while those below the value are not. Everyone gets a basic income, the smart people get a bonus for being smart, and the working people get another bonus for work.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 26 November 2013 04:28:07PM 2 points [-]

trying to set the numbers so that no one chooses this option voluntarily, and yet those who don't have an option of escaping it are treated well... seems like a contradiction.

I think I'm missing your point.

It seems that one approach to this is for me to treat everyone well whether they work or not, and for me to provide additional incentives to people for doing the kind of work I want people to perform. This admittedly does not have the structure of a Prisoners Dilemma game, but I'm not sure why the PD structure is important.

If I find that some people who are capable of doing that work consistently choose not to under my incentive structure, I can experiment with my incentive structure... different people are best motivated by different things, after all.

If despite that I still find that some people who are capable of doing that work consistently choose not to... well, that means less of the work I want people to perform will get done than if they chose otherwise. Which might be a huge problem, if that work is much more valuable than the stuff they choose to do.

I have a bunch of options at that point. E.g., I can figure out other ways to get that work done (e.g. automation). Or I can figure out ways to force people to do that work.

Or I can rethink my initial conditions and stop treating everyone well whether they work or not... I can instead treat people well if they do the work I want done, and poorly otherwise, and count on that differential treatment to provide the missing incentive.

But that last option is far from the only option, nor is it clear to me that it works better than the alternatives.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 26 November 2013 06:27:12PM 5 points [-]

It seems that one approach to this is for me to treat everyone well whether they work or not, and for me to provide additional incentives to people for doing the kind of work I want people to perform.

This seems to me almost what we have now. Yes, there is a problem about defining "treating well". However well you treat one group of people, if you treat everyone else better, the former will complain. These days in first-world countries the unemployed people are treated much better than an average working person was centuries ago. But that's irrelevant. We see that they are treated worse than other people are today, therefore they are not treated well.

Even if you start treating poor people much better than they are treated now, even better than the average people are now, just wait 10, at most 20 years, and they will start comparing you to Hitler, if they see that someone else is treated even better.

I agree that we should experiment more. Preferably many different experiments in smaller regions, so it is easier to stop things when they go horribly wrong. Seems to me a good first step would be giving more independence to regions; decentralizing the state power.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 26 November 2013 10:05:50PM 4 points [-]

Expanding on my "yup" above a little... it's certainly conceivable that we could adopt an approach to defining "treating well" that isn't entirely relative.

For example, nation A could assert that A's unemployed people are being treated well if they have better conditions than the unemployed in nation B (by which standard the U.S. unemployed are generally treated well). Or that A's unemployed people are being treated well if their children don't demonstrate significantly higher levels of deficiency-based illnesses (due to malnutrition, exposure, etc.) than the children of their employed people. Or various other standards.

The difficulty I'd expect to face when proposing such a standard isn't that the unemployed under it would be worse off than the employed and therefore I'm Hitler, it's that most people have already written their bottom line about whether (for example) the U.S. unemployed are generally treated well, and evaluate the standard based on whether it gives the right answer to that question.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 27 November 2013 12:47:33PM *  3 points [-]

it's certainly conceivable that we could adopt an approach to defining "treating well" that isn't entirely relative

Yes, we could. And then some people would get political karma for insisting that this isn't the true definition of treating well, and instead is just a part of conspiracy for oppressing people.

unemployed people are being treated well if their children don't demonstrate significantly higher levels of deficiency-based illnesses (due to malnutrition, exposure, etc.) than the children of their employed people

I can imagine a situation where there are illnesses typically attributed to poverty (and some people get political karma for insisting on the poverty hypothesis), even if material poverty is not the cause. For example, you could give people tons of money to buy healthy food, and yet they could decide to spend it all on junk food and alcohol. You measure their childrens' health, and it becomes obvious the children are not fed properly. This article describes it better than I could.

I agree that it would be great to have an absolute definition of "treating people well", which could be reached, first in one country, and then perhaps globally. But I predict that the closer we would get to it, the more people would insist that it's a wrong definition.

most people have already written their bottom line about whether (for example) the U.S. unemployed are generally treated well

I think that in a long term it's even worse: the bottom line depends on information the people get. In a totalitarian state, you just have to insist that everything is great, and imprison everyone who says otherwise, and after a few years people will believe that it really is great. But if you have freedom of speech, someone will always make political karma by insisting that people should have more (who wouldn't like that?), and that not having more is completely unbearable.

Comment author: Jiro 27 November 2013 02:23:10PM *  0 points [-]

I am not convinced your article shows an example of "poverty" not being caused by real poverty.

The examples in the article tend to include both poverty-related factors and non-poverty-related factors. For instance, certainly failing to press charges against an abusive, criminal, boyfriend is something that can be done by someone of any income level, but on the other hand, poor people are more likely to steal money (like this boyfriend did), more likely to be unable to treat mental illness that might result in violence, and more likely to be frustrated in ways that lead to violence. In this case the guy was a burglar and had no job (poverty leads to no money and people with no money and no job are more likely to burgle). Those aren't 100% due to poverty (clearly frustration at poverty is only a contributing factor to violence and the person won't be violent unless something else predisposes him to violence), but poverty affects them at the margins. Not to mention that even though each individual decision to stay with a boyfriend who has no job is technically not poverty-related, poverty cumulatively leads to a high rate of joblessness.

Poor people are also less likely to be educated and therefore more likely to make poor life decisions.

Even buying junk food is related to poverty because junk food has a lower time expenditure than other food and time has a greater relative cost to poor people than to rich people--poor people often work long hours that leave them exhausted, must spend a lot of personal time on child care, etc. Poor people also are less likely to have a supermarket with cheap non-junk food within easy commute distance. Again, none of this is 100% caused by poverty--this just raises the relative cost of non-junk food, it doesn't make it completely non-affordable--but it certainly has an effect.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 27 November 2013 05:17:15PM *  3 points [-]

Well, it's complicated. For poor people, some "smart" options are not really possible. On the other hand, I also see many relatively rich people making the stupid options voluntarily. Poverty can cause "stupid" (from our point of view) choices, and also stupid choices can cause poverty.

I would like to see a society where no one is forced to make the "stupid" choice. (Organizations helping poor people to press charges against criminals, providing them food and refrigerators, etc.) But even in such society I expect many people making the stupid choices voluntarily. (And then complain about an unfair society. So if we could get halfway to such society, judging from people's reactions it would seem there was no improvement.)

Comment author: Nornagest 28 November 2013 01:08:07AM 1 point [-]

Even buying junk food is related to poverty because junk food has a lower time expenditure than other food and time has a greater relative cost to poor people than to rich people--poor people often work long hours that leave them exhausted, must spend a lot of personal time on child care, etc.

A while back, a friend of mine informed me that poorer Americans consume junk food because it's one of the few pleasures aside from alcohol that's easily and cheaply available to people of that socioeconomic stratum, and that what she referred to as "food politics" is therefore symptomatic of privilege.

It sounded like rationalization to me at the time, and I still find the availability and time constraint arguments more convincing, but she'd have had more personal experience than I.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 28 November 2013 02:27:14AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: gattsuru 02 December 2013 12:04:38AM 7 points [-]

There seems to be some evidence that the article is at least describing a general case, and not the author's immediate experiences, or worse

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 28 November 2013 09:37:57AM *  3 points [-]

Great article! In this specific case, replacing a state-subsidized work (if the author has one of those) with state-subsidized free time would be an obvious improvement. At least replacing one of these two jobs.

I am a bit confused because my first idea of a poor person is a person who can't find a job, not a person who has two jobs (and therefore has no time to optimize their lives using the typical middle-class methods). I wonder how much should I update, and how much of this is a cultural difference. Or different kinds of poverty. Perhaps "having two jobs" is just a little bit higher economical level than "not having a job" (which explains why people keep doing it, instead of giving up). But maybe it's something completely different than I am not aware of.

Reading the article again, I don't quite understand why a person with two jobs complaining about a lack of time is also attending a school. Okay, it would make sense if the school is necessary for getting a better job in the future. But even then this is probably not a situation of a typical poor person.

EDIT: Everyone who was influenced by this article, please update! It is actually a hoax.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 November 2013 09:12:51PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: TheOtherDave 26 November 2013 07:34:03PM 3 points [-]

This seems to me almost what we have now. Yes, there is a problem about defining "treating well".

Yup.

I agree that we should experiment more.

I'm all in favor of experimentation.

And if we're already experimenting to the limits of our existing regional independence, such that increased independence will relax the rate-limiting constraint on experimentation (which I doubt we are, but is I suppose possible), then yes, increased regional independence would make sense as a next step. Though perhaps it's best to do so in a small region, so it's easier to stop things if it goes horribly wrong.

Of course, if we believe for_ other_ reasons that decentralizing state power is a good idea, then we should endorse doing so for other reasons, but that's something of a nonsequitor.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 November 2013 06:09:27PM 10 points [-]

I used to have rock-paper-scissor preferences for that kind of thing (if A = “John is paid to do nothing, i.e. basic income guarantee”, B = “John is paid to do something useless, e.g. digging ditches and filling them again”, and C = “John is not paid at all”, I preferred B to A to C to B). I realized that and forced myself to resolve this when reading this post and its comment thread.

Comment author: satt 28 November 2013 01:25:59AM 4 points [-]

Upvoted for uncovering a psychologically plausible, real-life example of cyclic preferences.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 27 November 2013 06:56:27PM 5 points [-]

The traditional argument for B over A (that is, make-work over basic income) used to be that idleness is a vice and industriousness a virtue; that it is better to work than to sit on your ass. This seems like a lost purpose, though — the reason that work is usually better than idleness is that work accomplishes something useful. Work without purpose features prominently in depictions of hell, from the myth of Sisyphus to The Far Side.

A fourth alternative, D, might be "John is paid to take classes and learn skills." John enrolls in art school and learns to make decorative pottery; or goes to math school and learns category theory; or goes to woodsman school and learns to build log cabins and tan squirrel hides; or goes to media-critic school and learns to write essays about reality television; or something else. Sure, there may not be a lot of demand for potters and squirrel leather, but that's okay since the robots provide pretty much everything there is demand for.

However, I realize that in proposing D, I'm probably exposing my own bias for learning as a leisure activity ....

Comment author: jaime2000 28 November 2013 01:09:13AM *  10 points [-]
Comment author: ialdabaoth 28 November 2013 04:29:14AM *  9 points [-]

give them lots of freedom and they simply use it to destroy themselves and others.

From that link:

Moreover, political authority in the countries in which I worked was arbitrary, capricious, and corrupt. In Tanzania, for example, you could tell the representative of the sole and omnipotent political party, the Party of the Revolution, by his girth alone. Tanzanians were thin, but party men were fat. The party representative in my village sent a man to prison because the man's wife refused to sleep with him. In Nigeria the police hired out their guns by night to the armed robbers.

Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.

I don't understand how one can say "The party representative in my village sent a man to prison because the man's wife refused to sleep with him. In Nigeria the police hired out their guns by night to the armed robbers.", and then one paragraph later say "I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England."

It seems to me that giving a man a choice to give you his wife for sexual favors, or go to prison, involves a significant loss of dignity, and a significant amount of self-centeredness. What is causing this disconnect? Is it simply that such vacuity is more problematic when it's exhibited by the lower classes, than when it's exhibited by the ruling elite?

Comment author: [deleted] 28 November 2013 08:27:11PM 6 points [-]

Yvain mentioned that here:

These are real costs, and they are certainly worth taking seriously; nevertheless, the crowds of emigrants trying to get from the Third World to the First, and the lack of any crowd in the opposite direction, suggest the benefits outweigh the costs.

Comment author: jaime2000 28 November 2013 05:00:28AM *  6 points [-]

Is it simply that such vacuity is more problematic when it's exhibited by the lower classes, than when it's exhibited by the ruling elite?

This is not as implausible as you might think. In the spirit of Yvain's Versailles-building czar, imagine a king of lousy moral character who likes to go around randomly raping the wives of men. In fact, he does this every week, so in a single year there are 52 men who have had to suffer the indignity of having their wives so violated. Sounds horrible, right?

Now, Wikipedia tells me that the rape rate in the U.S. is around 27 per 100,000 per year. The United States has a population of 320,000,000 or so, which works out to around 86,000 rapes per year. If the aforementioned king came to power in the United States and enacted policy changes which reduced the rape rate by even 1%, he would have paid for himself 16 times over.

What does this tell us? That a society where vast swathes of the population suffer from social pathologies is probably going to be worse than one where a tiny fraction of elites occasionally indulge themselves in transgressions against the common man. I know that, in practice, the most powerful politicians and the richest of celebrities in the U.S. could probably make my life pretty damn miserable if they wanted to, maybe because I somehow pissed them off or because they have sadistic predilections they just randomly decided to satisfy at my expense, and yet, I am not nearly as afraid of them as I am of the members of the underclass I occasionally pass by on the street.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 28 November 2013 05:19:04AM *  4 points [-]

What does this tell us? That a society where vast swathes of the population suffer from social pathologies is probably going to be worse than one where a tiny fraction of elites occasionally indulge themselves in transgressions against the common man.

But that isn't a society in which "political authority ... was arbitrary, capricious, and corrupt", or where "you could tell the representative of the sole and omnipotent political party, the Party of the Revolution, by his girth alone", or where "the police hired out their guns by night to the armed robbers" - that is a society in which a vast majority of elites, not a tiny fraction, indulge themselves regularly in a wide range of transgressions against the common man. And that isn't merely a society in which one in a million people have to suffer their wife being raped; it's a society in which all but one in a million people have to suffer poverty and malnutrition, and arbitrary death due to poor conditions, poor safety regulation, and poor concern for welfare in general. I think that a slight risk of street crime from the underclasses pales in comparison to the kinds of organized depravations inflicted regularly on the populace in such places.

If we're still talking consequentially, that is.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 29 November 2013 10:19:44PM 6 points [-]

And that isn't merely a society in which one in a million people have to suffer their wife being raped;

It's also a society in which an equivalent number have to suffer being raped.

I'm a little bit appalled to find a line of argument here that implies that only men are people!

Comment author: [deleted] 29 November 2013 11:27:54PM 6 points [-]

It jarred me too, but I don't like to point out factor-of-two mistakes in arguments relying on orders-of-magnitude differences because this.

(Well, that may be problematic for different reasons too, but I was stunned speechless by the fact that a discussion mentioning rape had managed not to mindkill anybody thus far, and was afraid that calling that out could break the spell.)

Comment author: ialdabaoth 29 November 2013 10:48:04PM 1 point [-]

It's also a society in which an equivalent number have to suffer being raped.

I'm a little bit appalled to find a line of argument here that implies that only men are people!

The problem with letting yourself be distracted by that kind of phrasing, is that you spend so much time crusading for Right Thinking that you never get to make your actual point. Clever debaters will notice this, and will start deliberately trolling you just to see how many times they can derail you.

Also, declaring that only men are people is a statement of value, not a statement of fact. Oftentimes, when you find someone whose values you disagree with, it is more fruitful to take their value system as given and find discongruities WITHIN it, or discongruities between that value system and the behavior of the person espousing it, than it is to merely declare that you are appalled by that value system.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 November 2013 11:41:23PM 2 points [-]

Couple of things.

First, it might well be that fubarobfusco does not believe that your value system actually embeds the idea that only men are people, and therefore your suggestion about what is more fruitful to do when such a value conflict arises might not seem apposite to them. They might have instead been (as they said) objecting to the implications of the line of argument itself.

Second, do you mean to imply that fubarobfusco was actually allowing themselves to be derailed/distracted from something in this case? Or are you just expressing your concern that they might hypothetically be in some other, similar, case? (Or is this just an indirect way of suggesting that their comment was inappropriate for other reasons?)

Comment author: Nornagest 28 November 2013 05:40:09AM 2 points [-]

It's true that one person committing personal crimes with impunity doesn't have much measurable effect on crime rates in a society of any size, but that's neither surprising nor particularly informative. No matter how shiny that person's hat.

Comment author: Moss_Piglet 28 November 2013 04:34:22PM 2 points [-]

You'd be surprised how quickly even normally very rational people go to the "but... Versailles! Droit du seigneur!" emotive argument when someone suggests that there can be socioeconomic benefits to a high level of inequality.

The same scope insensitivity which makes people care more about a single sick puppy than millions of starving people makes it very difficult to see that the highly-visible opulence of the elite costs much less than the largely invisible 'welfare' superstructure which provides our underclass their bread and circuses. Not to mention that one produces value for society while the other annihilates it.

If a rationalist knows anything it should be how easy it is to forget to multiply or use inappropriately anchoring null hypotheses, especially when ideological sacred cows are involved.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2013 07:33:39AM 1 point [-]

I think this depends on how you read "I never saw the X." Consider something like "I never saw the death due to accident in England that I see in Tanzania." If you view this as the claim that no one ever dies in accidents in England, then obviously this is wrong. If you view this as the claim that death due to accident is qualitatively different in England and Tanzania, and worse in Tanzania, then it seems sensible.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 28 November 2013 02:19:11AM *  2 points [-]

We're likely to end up in a society where human labor is unnecessary one way or another, simply because of the advance of automation and ultimately AI. We do not have the choice of preserving the "work paradigm" indefinitely — that is, unless we end up in a Bad Ending where the future of humanity is vastly warped or curtailed.

So, if humans need work, we are doomed; because productive labor aims to extinguish itself. Moreover, the extinction of labor is already in progress.

My question is: How shall the extinction of labor be distributed? I see no reason to declare that the people who currently own the robots should get to be the ones to move into a post-labor civilization, and everyone else can go to hell.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 November 2013 08:37:05PM *  3 points [-]

We're likely to end up in a society where human labor is unnecessary one way or another, simply because of the advance of automation and ultimately AI. We do not have the choice of preserving the "work paradigm" indefinitely — that is, unless we end up in a Bad Ending where the future of humanity is vastly warped or curtailed.

Well, EY says

I sometimes think that futuristic ideals phrased in terms of "getting rid of work" would be better reformulated as "removing low-quality work to make way for high-quality work".

(But the difference might be more about where you draw the line on the map between what you call “work” and what you call “play” than about where you think people in the territory should do in the future.)

My question is: How shall the extinction of labor be distributed? I see no reason to declare that the people who currently own the robots should get to be the ones to move into a post-labor civilization, and everyone else can go to hell.

See here (and followup here).

Comment author: gattsuru 28 November 2013 03:19:08AM 3 points [-]

We're likely to end up in a society where human labor is unnecessary one way or another, simply because of the advance of automation and ultimately AI. We do not have the choice of preserving the "work paradigm" indefinitely — that is, unless we end up in a Bad Ending where the future of humanity is vastly warped or curtailed.

I lack the information necessary to evaluate what is likely, but barring very specific definitions of the word "unnecessary" I don't think it's obvious that it's impossible without massively curtailing the future of humanity. If the importance of the work paradigm exists and is fundamental to parts of human nature we like(1), there are a number of imaginable ways for those to be made necessary even if it could be made unnecessary. While some of these possible futures are dysutopian (Brave New World), not all of them need be.

(1) I'm not sure this is the case. Some sort of act-or-unpleasant-things-happen seems necessary to get a good future, but this may or may not circumscribe the work paradigm.

Comment author: Dias 28 November 2013 12:14:36AM 3 points [-]

John sits resentfully in a class with a disinterested teacher, both fully aware they are wasting their time...

You could solve this by making the free money conditional on passing exams, but that would be unfair on those who failed.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 28 November 2013 12:27:52AM *  0 points [-]

Which just elucidates that the point of the exercise should be to provide humans with the abundant wealth generated by technological advancement — not to sort humans into deserving ones and undeserving ones, then send the undeserving ones to hell.

Comment author: Moss_Piglet 28 November 2013 01:03:37AM *  1 point [-]

I understand the desire to make sure people aren't suffering, but can't we think about the suffering of future generations as well?

Paying for people to do nothing incentives doing nothing; fewer people will participate the more comfortable laying around gets compared to actual work. Worse, removing the natural selective pressures against low-IQ / high time-preference people means they will reproduce and leave the next generation with even more unproductive people for every productive person remaining to have to support. With IQ now negatively correlated with fertility, that's a recipe for genetic disaster and societal collapse.

Buying the happiness of our generation's underclass at the expense of who knows how many of their descendants when the system finally collapses under it's own weight is the opposite of compassion; it's just pushing the suffering far enough into the future that you hope you can't see it anymore. If we really cared about making people comfortable, why shouldn't we look for a solution where we promote the traits which lead people to build their own happiness in the long run?

Comment author: [deleted] 29 November 2013 02:24:15PM 2 points [-]

I thought my other comment was way too terse, and was going to elaborate, but it looks like two people disagree. But anyway: my point is that there are ways to help people now which don't also help them reproduce; education would be the most obvious one. (“Removing the natural selective pressures against low-IQ / high time-preference people” is not what has lead to the observed negative correlation between IQ and fertility; it's not that stupid people have more children than they used to, it's that smart people have fewer.)

Comment author: eli_sennesh 26 November 2013 12:28:35AM *  3 points [-]

I would actually say it's definitely better, if you're stuck subsidizing someone's survival, to subsidize them as a "freeloader", aka: someone with actual leisure.

If you're thinking that this is an incentive against the work-ethic, yes, it is. I believe our culture currently overemphasizes work-ethic, and this is all part of my sneaky evil plan to convince people to value work less.

Comment author: gattsuru 23 November 2013 08:58:23PM *  6 points [-]

Part of Sanders' argument relies on the belief that there is a possible free lunch, here : they believe WalMart could raise wages significantly without causing the company to explode, either not harming people in ways that count to the progressive movement (decreased profit to corporations) or by arguments of comparison to CostCo, Trader Joe's, or other stores that have different structures. I'm pretty sure the math doesn't work out that way, and the realistic event chain is likely to be drastically different, but it's a very common belief. From that perspective, it's more the concept that WalMart's low wages are a bad equilibrium point established by existing laws, and because it is less costly to the state for WalMart to directly pay more at a different equilibrium, the state should force them to change their actions.

If it helps, almost all of the people opposing WalMart on this tactic have called for increase welfare states of the type compatible with what you've suggested. It's likely to complicate getting interest from the right-wing in the United States, but since the right consider work requirements one of its biggest successes there are some much more pressing issues with trying to get them to accept a basic income guarantee.

((On the flip side, I think there are some issues with BIG or BIG-like systems that make them poor solutions to gwern's concerns, but these probably exist outside the scope of this thread.))

Comment author: buybuydandavis 24 November 2013 09:03:27AM 6 points [-]

but since the right consider work requirements one of its biggest successes there are some much more pressing issues with trying to get them to accept a basic income guarantee.

You just have to make an argument that would appeal to a conservative, which I think Paine's would. Amusingly enough, Bill O'Reilly basically bought Paine's argument with respect to the guaranteed payments from Alaska's oil fund, saying "It's our oil". Paine's argument was "It's our land." It's really not a great leap.

Conservatives reject liberal arguments because they're not based in anything Conservatives recognize as justice. Your need for food does not justify your stealing my dinner. They may wish to give to charity to help the poor, but they reject having their money taken by force by the government to help the poor. It's the difference between giving a gift and being robbed.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 November 2013 12:46:13AM 4 points [-]

there is a possible free lunch, here : they believe WalMart could raise wages significantly without causing the company to explode

That doesn't match my idea of what a free lunch is. I believe a better descriptive term would be the deep pockets theory.

Comment author: Larks 23 November 2013 10:45:29PM 8 points [-]

I thought this was generally a good post, but I suggest linking to some serious research rather than a Krugman blog. In his article he links to a survey article, and there are many other good ones. These contain the same information, but lack the unnecessary partisan attacks - "Republican leaders clearly feel disdain for low-wage workers."

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 25 November 2013 04:38:49AM -2 points [-]

Eh - Krugman is nice and concise, and popularizers like him are where I actually get my impressions of the empirical evidence of minimum wage laws. Also as far as I can tell he's right about Republican leaders.

Comment author: Dias 28 November 2013 12:31:33AM 4 points [-]

I think Krugman is sufficiently mind-killed on politics that it would be a mistake to get your impression of the literature from him, unless you also read the work of semi-professional Krugman watchers. In the latter case I withdraw the objection, but at that point it'd probably be easier to read the literature yourself.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 26 November 2013 03:01:58AM *  -1 points [-]

Krugman is nice and concise

And completely mind-killed about politics. (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt there.)

Also, notice his post crisis behavior. First he makes concrete predictions about what will happen with and without stimulus (things will be somewhat bad with stimulus and even worse without stimulus) meanwhile his opponents predict the stimulus will make things worse. Then the stimulus happens and things are even worse then his without stimulus prediction, his conclusion: "we didn't stimulate enough".

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 26 November 2013 06:24:20AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Douglas_Knight 26 November 2013 09:51:30PM 3 points [-]

That is not at all relevant to Eugine's point, which is a conjunction between predictions ahead of time and beliefs after the fact. If he holds now that the stimulus worked, he must hold that has previous predictions were badly wrong. Does he admit that? Moreover, he must reduce his belief in the efficacy of stimulus, even if his assessment of the state of the economy shifts more. Is he explicit that he has stronger beliefs about the efficacy of stimulus than about the future of the economy? And these economists that today have strong agreement, what did they predict ahead of time?

(I'm assuming that Eugine is correctly describing Krugman. But you didn't object to that.)

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 27 November 2013 02:38:06AM 1 point [-]

It's absolutely relevant. By Eugine's account, Krugman's opponents were predicting the stimulus would make things worse. Most economists now agree that Krugman's opponents were wrong and the stimulus helped.

Beyond that, I'm a little unclear on what Eugine is saying: "Krugman said things would be worse without stimulus" is ambiguous between "Krugman said things would be worse without stimulus than with stimulus" and "Krugman said things would be worse without stimulus than they were at the time he was speaking." Link to what Krugman statement exactly Eugine has in mind would be helpful. In any case, this is at least semi-relevant.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 27 November 2013 03:15:37AM -1 points [-]

No, Eugine is perfectly clear. The only way to interpret his "things are even worse then his without stimulus prediction" is that Krugman made absolute predictions.

The simplest hypothesis is that economists are impervious to evidence and are just backdating their predictions. Yes, inference can be complicated by mechanisms; that link is relevant, quite unlike your previous link.

Comment author: shminux 27 November 2013 09:40:16PM 11 points [-]

I don't see why a vague argument against one of many political memes deserves a post in Main.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 28 November 2013 03:40:15AM *  -2 points [-]

Useful illustration of the kind of mistakes thinking in terms of consequences can help you avoid.

EDIT: To elaborate - I think LessWrong could really benefit from accessible posts applying LessWrong-type ideas to topics that people who aren't already hardcore nerds about typical LessWrong topics might have heard about and care about.

Comment author: shminux 28 November 2013 07:33:28AM 1 point [-]

I see. I guess I am having trouble following your conclusions from your premises.

Walmart is in a low-margin business and it employs unskilled labor, so naturally they put as much squeeze on the wages as they can get away with. I don't see anything immoral about it, it's just business. Corporations are well known to behave like psychopaths.

There is a 100 year-old solution to this issue, it is called organized labor. While unions are out of place in many other industries, Walmart is a perfect target for unionizing, since individual workers have zero leverage against the company, while a union can fight for reasonable wages and benefits. Same applies to Amazon warehouses, by the way. So, an alternative to increase in mandatory minimum wage (which ought to be increased, by the way, in the US it is currently lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was 30 years ago) and to a guaranteed basic income (which shifts the burden of paying the Walmart employees from the shareholders and the customers to everyone and adds some unnecessary overhead) is to enact policies making it easier to unionize unskilled labor.

Comment author: katydee 26 November 2013 09:44:47AM *  11 points [-]

This post is almost the epitome of what I don't want to see on LessWrong, Discussion or not.

EDIT: This post was moved to Main after I made this comment. This makes me like it even less.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 26 November 2013 11:53:43AM *  9 points [-]

It has a reasonable argument at its core: giving government benefits to low-income workers effectively means subsidizing the companies that pay low wages (and there are huge companies profiting from this). That's an irony, because even the voters who want to give money to low-income people usually don't want to support companies that profit by paying low wages. Giving money to low-income people regardless of their employment (via basic income or otherwise) would have a similar result, except for requiring people to work for companies that profit by paying low wages.

It has a mindkilling title: "evil" is a loaded word, and even if we insist on using it, why not use it instead on politicians and voters who enable this behavior? The problem is, each tribe has their preferences about who should be called evil, therefore the usage of the word necessarily follows the party line.

The mindkilling effect of politics is not just that it's difficult to write a reasonable article about politics... but that even if you succeed to write a moderately reasonable article on a political topic, it is still very likely to cause unreasonable comments in the discussion. -- This is why we need more strict criteria for political articles. As it is, it is in my opinion barely okay for the Discussion, and unfit for Main. I upvoted it in the Discussion, because I appreciate the information (I am not American, so I learned something new about Walmart, which may help me understand the American culture better), but would downvote it if it moved to Main.

Yes, politics, boo hiss. In my defense, the topic of this post cuts across usual tribal affiliations (I write it as a liberal criticizing other liberals), and has a couple strong tie-ins with main LessWrong topics

This reminds me of an advice for authors: don't tell me, show me. Specifically: write an article in a way that does not scream your tribal affiliations, and then you will not have to excuse yourself.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 28 November 2013 03:48:37AM 2 points [-]

Oh, and another thing:

it is still very likely to cause unreasonable comments in the discussion

Is that prediction correct? I think that this thread is full of non-mindkilled comments. The only really bad comments have been downvoted appropriately.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 28 November 2013 09:49:09AM *  4 points [-]

Yes, you are correct and I am surprised.

Now the question is, how much this is reproducible. That is, how much of the quality of the discussion can be attributed to the fact that discussing politics is a taboo here, so people breaking the taboo are extra careful because they know they will be judged more ciritically. Also, the website policy until now may have filtered away those people who enjoy mindkilling debates; having the political debates more often might invite them back.

But compared with the typical internet political discussion, this one is extraordinarily reasonable. (I also appreciate fixing the title.) I still feel afraid that having this kind of atricles more often would make things worse. But maybe we already passed some critical treshold where the existing community is sane enough to downvote the mindkilling comments even when their author is "fighting for the same side".

EDIT: Another thing that I am afraid of, is that after writing a political article arguing (sanely) for one tribe, people from the opposing tribe would feel an urge to write an article (or preferably two articles) describing the situation from their tribe's point of view. Which would lead to an arms race in the number of articles, and the quality would gradually go down.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 26 November 2013 04:36:03PM -1 points [-]

"Evil" seems a fair description of how some people seem to view Walmart, though I'll probably remove it anyway on re-write.

As for the rest, I'm just going to drop a link to what I've previously said about "politics as mindkiller." (And say how depressing it is that so many people in this community seem to have given up on doing better.)

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2013 05:42:05AM *  4 points [-]

And say how depressing it is that so many people in this community seem to have given up on doing better.

Better at... wasting time? (I don't know who you think is better off having the opinion "Grayson and Sanders are wrong about Walmart" than the opinion "I don't care what Grayson and Sanders think about Walmart." Anyone I can think of who benefits from having that opinion can easily determine so by social cues from people they want to impress, without having to think it through.)

Comment author: katydee 27 November 2013 02:25:41PM 2 points [-]

I've seen what you've previously said on this matter-- suffice it to say that I disagree. The fact that this is now in Main makes me sad for LessWrong.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 November 2013 06:41:20PM 1 point [-]

Giving money to low-income people regardless of their employment (via basic income or otherwise) would have a similar result, except for requiring people to work for companies that profit by paying low wages.

That's a big “except”.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 28 November 2013 03:40:52AM -2 points [-]

Argument?

Comment author: Ishaan 28 November 2013 08:57:56AM *  6 points [-]

Note: I didn't mind it in Discussion at all and thought it was interesting. I am of the opinion that comments + discussion should not be heavily self-censored. However, I second the opinion that it shouldn't be in Main. I'm also a relatively new user (first handle was mid 2012) so you can take my opinions on what belongs in Main with that in mind.

I think the rule of thumb is, that a post should possess at least one of the following qualities:

1) About epistemic rationality (ontology, epistemics, ethics, AI, bias reduction, scientific method, semantics, etc)

2) About instrumental rationality (self improvement, happiness, willpower, organization, social behavior, etc)

3) Furthering the Reader's Interests (Effective Altruism, textbook recommendations, etc)

4) Meta, announcements, and notifications about things of interest to LW or closely affiliated with LW.

--

I think politics can fall into any of these. News (News! not opinions!) about some political activity or press release relating to the Singularity institute or other prominant figures on LW would fall into 4. An analysis about whether or not voting is rational would fall into 3. Descriptions of how political groups behave would fall into 2. The psychology of politically induced biases, how to do science for economic policy, etc... would fall into 1.

So your post is interesting (for me, because I follow politics), not particularly mind-killing, etc...but it's not meeting the criteria for making me more rational or furthering my interests. It's not simply that it's about politics, boo on talking about politics, etc.

I can't actually do anything about the Wal-Mart meme. Knowing about it doesn't further my instrumental goals, nor does it improve my epistemic skill, nor can it really effect my behavior or thinking in any way. I might get hedons from reading and Learning about a Cool Thing, but that's moving away from the stated purpose of Lesswrong.

Edit: Looking over other posts in main, I can see that there are quite a few other which did not meet my stated criteria (including some by prominent posters like Eliezer and katydee). So I suppose my stated criteria don't actually describe things as they actually are or how they are intended to be, but how i think they aught to be.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 23 November 2013 10:25:37PM *  7 points [-]

In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees

This isn't corporate welfare to Walmart or it's employees, it's corporate welfare to our regulatory protected medical industries and guilds.

The vast majority of the supposed "welfare" spending for health care is paid in rent seeking and tribute to the regulatory state and the vested interests they entitle.

Comment author: Benito 23 November 2013 09:49:15PM 5 points [-]

Yes, politics, boo hiss.

Actually, grammar, boo hiss. Just check your post title again.

Comment author: hyporational 24 November 2013 08:11:00AM 5 points [-]

Did you defect by accident here?

Comment author: Benito 24 November 2013 09:57:57AM 3 points [-]

I'm not sure... Data point: did it come across as me being helpful?

Comment author: hyporational 24 November 2013 10:23:11AM 5 points [-]

Reflexively it came across as you being a smartass, but I quickly concluded that you were trying to be helpful. I just think you left too much room for bad interpretation.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 25 November 2013 04:40:21AM 2 points [-]

Thanks.

(If anyone is confused, there was an extra word in my post title that I noticed and fixed before reading these comments.)

Comment author: zslastman 27 November 2013 10:23:39AM *  3 points [-]

Good article. I think an important part of the idea behind the anti-Walmartism is the idea that Walmart is not only offering low paying jobs to people, but in doing so eliminating higher paying jobs that those people could otherwise take in the stores which a re driven out of business. They can do so because their business model is efficient, and people like their lower prices. But the anti-walmart crowd would argue that the low prices hide a negative externality for society at large, which reduces equity, and is a net utility loss.

Comment author: V_V 24 November 2013 04:23:44PM *  4 points [-]

Whatever your moral position is, government benefits to low-income workers are a subsidy to their employers.

If the government awarded benefits only to the unemployed, many low-income workers would find preferable to quit their jobs if their employers didn't increase their wage. Since employers need employees, employers would find preferable to increase their employees' wages enough that they don't need government benefits.
The net effect would be a redistribution of wealth from employers (especially those who use lots of low wage labour, like Walmart) to the government (and hence to taxpayers).
On the other hand, increasing government benefits to low-income workers would redistribute wealth in the opposite direction: from the government to Walmart-like employers.
Note that neither policy significantly affects the welfare of low-income workers, since their effective purchasing power remains approximately the same.

Therefore, if you think it is morally preferable to redistribute wealth from Walmart to the taxpayers, support unemployed-only benefits (and/or minimum wages), if you think it is morally preferable to redistribute wealth from the taxpayers to Walmart instead, support guaranteed basic income and/or other low-income workers benefits.

Comment author: enoonsti 26 November 2013 07:41:26AM *  3 points [-]

if you think it is morally preferable to redistribute wealth from the taxpayers to Walmart instead, support guaranteed basic income and/or other low-income workers benefits.

That's incorrect. Basic income is provided to everyone, even to those who choose not to work. Perhaps you were thinking of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is provided only to low-income workers.

Comment author: witzvo 04 December 2013 07:09:16AM 2 points [-]

government benefits to low-income workers are a subsidy to their employers.

This isn't true, literally. Why do you think it's true figuratively? If you have in mind the counterfactual situation in which benefits to low-income workers were removed, well, I think the economic consequences of that are complicated -- much more complicated than a simple subsidy.

If the government awarded benefits only to the unemployed, many low-income workers would find preferable to quit their jobs if their employers didn't increase their wage. Since employers need employees, employers would find preferable to increase their employees' wages enough that they don't need government benefits.

None of this makes it a subsidy.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 26 November 2013 03:32:34AM 0 points [-]

If the government awarded benefits only to the unemployed, many low-income workers would find preferable to quit their jobs if their employers didn't increase their wage. Since employers need employees, employers would find preferable to increase their employees' wages enough that they don't need government benefits.

They would also hire fewer employees while doing so.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 24 November 2013 10:49:50PM 1 point [-]

That's an interesting point against Basic Income Guarantees. Thank you for making me consider it.

Comment author: Ben_LandauTaylor 24 November 2013 02:46:31AM 3 points [-]

Well done. This is one of those things I'd never thought of, but is obviously correct now that you point it out.

Comments on how to expand / rewrite this post would be appreciated, as I feel like I could move it to Main with a little work.

I don't think this needs expansion. Brevity is a virtue, and this does a good job of explaining the core idea quickly and accessibly. If you run it through a spellcheck and spend fifteen minutes making the prose flow more smoothly, I'd consider it ready for Main.

Comment author: DanielLC 02 December 2013 12:36:18AM *  2 points [-]

This meme also worries me because I lean towards thinking that the minimum wage isn't a terrible policy but we'd be better off replacing it with guaranteed basic income (or an otherwise more lavish welfare state).

Funny. I think minimum wage is a terrible policy precisely because we'd be better off replacing it with guaranteed basic income. I think welfare is a terrible idea, for the same reason.

They all have the same intentions, but guaranteed basic income is the one the meshes the best with the invisible hand. Even if you have no idea if you should be helping the poor, minimum wage is the wrong way to help the poor, so clearly you shouldn't have minimum wage.

Comment author: drnickbone 03 December 2013 07:42:31PM 1 point [-]

It is of course possible to have both. Set a minimum income guarantee for everyone (so that even those who are not working, don't starve), allow the minimum income to be retained by those in work (so avoiding a high effective tax rate on low incomes), and add a minimum wage as well (so discouraging low-productivity work, and incentivizing training for higher productivity work).

By the way, the major political value of describing Walmart as a "welfare queen" is that welfare recipients are stigmatised, and this line of rhetoric redirects the stigma (and tends to dilute it). It is unfair to Walmart, but perhaps no less fair than calling anyone a welfare queen.

Comment author: DanielLC 03 December 2013 11:22:47PM 3 points [-]

You can have both, but minimum wage is still a bad idea. You're better off just having a higher minimum income guarantee.

Comment author: drnickbone 04 December 2013 05:11:46PM *  -2 points [-]

Why a bad idea, though? I guess you are disputing this point:

(so discouraging low-productivity work, and incentivizing training for higher productivity work).

Here's a simple model. Assume that full-time employees cannot live on less than $8 an hour (they starve, can't pay rent etc.) Also assume that an employer can offer untrained staff two sorts of job:

Job 1 has very low productivity, total value of $6 per hour, but a pay-rate of $3 per hour. $3 a hour is too low to live on, but employees will accept it where that supplements a minimum guaranteed income.

Job 2 has higher productivity, total value of $14 per hour, but staff must be trained to do it, and because they now have transferable skills, the employer must offer $10 an hour to retain them. The training costs average at $2 per hour over the typical duration of the employment.

The employer offers staff Job 1 because that gives a higher profit ($3 per hour, rather than $2 per hour). Staff take it because $3 is better than nothing. But there is more economic value created if employers offer Job 2 instead. A minimum wage requires them to do that. You can argue the details, but that's the general principle.

There is clearly a counter-argument that the minimum wage is a market intervention and can cause inefficiencies (it may result in some folks who just can't be trained losing their $3 per hour jobs). But the counter to that counter-argument is that the minimum income guarantee is already a market intervention which is encouraging employers to offer Job 1 (as it allows employees to accept it). So a corrective intervention is needed.

Comment author: Nornagest 04 December 2013 06:31:14PM *  3 points [-]

There is clearly a counter-argument that the minimum wage is a market intervention and can cause inefficiencies (it may result in some folks who just can't be trained losing their $3 per hour jobs).

That's an inefficiency, but it seems to me that a far more central one is embedded in the assumptions of your toy model: how many unskilled jobs ($3) funge against skilled or semi-skilled ones ($10). In practice, it seems to me that the kind of jobs an employer can offer are often narrowly constrained by business requirements.

A factory owner, for example, might be able to retrain unskilled line workers (fitting Subwidget A to Subwidget B) to do semi-skilled work (operating a widget-fitting machine) for higher total productivity; that's consistent with your model's assumptions. But if you run, say, a hardware store, someone's got to stack shelves, mop the floors, and run the registers, all of which take roughly the same level of training, and there's only so many places you can squeeze out more per-body productivity by investing more. Anyone you have to fire because of minimum-wage laws there represents an economic loss: they aren't getting paid, and you aren't running as efficient a business as you could be.

Comment author: drnickbone 04 December 2013 07:15:44PM *  1 point [-]

Someone downvoted your reply, Nornagest, which I really can't understand: I upvoted it myself.

The parent is now at -2; one more down and it will disappear from view, and we will get a heavy tax for continuing.

What is happening here? Are we just not allowed to have discussions on this forum about the possible economic gains and costs of minimum wage or minimum income policy?

Comment author: Nornagest 04 December 2013 07:26:41PM 4 points [-]

Someone's probably downvoting everything in the thread, most likely on grounds of being too political for the forum. My other comments here have taken the same hit.

Obviously I don't agree with that policy as it's applied locally, but I can't really blame them either. This exchange has been relatively sane, but the discussion under other comments has had points of low quality, and I'm not totally convinced that we're better off with the thread as a whole.

Comment author: drnickbone 04 December 2013 08:16:56PM *  0 points [-]

OK, a fair criticism of the "toy" model, which was simplified to make the point. There are always multiple choices of productivity and wage level, and big moves (more than doubling employee productivity, while simultaneously quadrupling the cost of labour) usually can't happen quickly.

Back in the real world, I did a quick look at the economic evidence, and was surprised. The latest evidence base is that the minimum wage has surprisingly little effect on anything. It seems to have no discernible effect on employment levels - see here - but it has no clear net impact on training levels either - see here.

One problem is that minimum wages tend to be varied only marginally, so it is hard to see a big effect. However, the UK provides a more dramatic experiment, where minimum wages were abolished in the 1990s, then re-introduced a few years later. Some UK assessment here on employment and on training. Again, not a big impact in either case, though training levels apparently did increase among groups affected by the minimum wage. This suggests the toy model is not totally daft.

Comment author: Nornagest 04 December 2013 08:58:38PM *  1 point [-]

Interesting reading, although I'm always leery of relying on a single meta-analysis of a politically charged subject. For the sake of argument, though, let's take it as given that increasing the minimum wage has no or only a small effect on employment rates. Where's the money coming from, then, and what would we expect that to do to the economy?

  • First option: It's a free lunch; the money would otherwise go to line the pockets of (spherical, behatted, cigar-chomping) capitalists. This is implausible to me on priors, but we can put bounds on how far we can stretch it: most businesses run on margins of 15 to 20%. I'm having a slightly harder time finding figures on personnel costs, but Google informs me that 38% is a decent payroll target; factor in benefits and such and let's call it 50% for all personnel-related expenses. This suggests that minimum wage laws could increase average wages by 10 or 20% without cutting too much into business owners' cigar budgets, although we should really be thinking on the margins here.

  • Second option: It's being passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. On average people are making more but also paying more; this means inflation. There are institutions trying to control inflation, though, so the costs probably end up being taken out in lower interest rates or in subtler ways. Note that higher costs of consumer goods work a lot like a mildly regressive tax; lower-income people buy more in consumer goods as a share of income.

  • Third option: The balance of labor changes. Jobs that can't economically be done at the lower wage points move to places that have less stringent laws, and trainable or higher-skilled jobs move in to fill the employment gaps. I don't think I'm economist enough to analyze this fully, but it looks like we'd expect wages for those higher-skilled jobs to go down in the affected jurisdiction as a consequence of supply-and-demand issues, probably after a time lag. In any case someone's still doing crappy jobs for crappy wages; they just don't show up in the statistics. Frictional costs also arise; outsourcing isn't cheap.

  • Fourth option: Something's masking the effect. Either the changes are slow enough that they don't show up in the available statistics, or something I haven't thought of is going on.

Comment author: drnickbone 04 December 2013 09:32:51PM *  0 points [-]

Interesting reading, although I'm always leery of relying on a single meta-analysis of a politically charged subject.

My first reference above was more of a "meta-meta-analysis" since it surveys the results of several meta-analyses! At a high level, it is going to be quite difficult to argue that there really is a big impact on employment, but somehow all the analyses and meta-analyses have missed it. As I said, I found it surprising, but this is the full evidence base.

For the sake of argument, though, let's take it as given that increasing the minimum wage has no or only a small effect on employment rates. Where's the money coming from, and what would we expect that to do to the economy?

This is the main question addressed by the Schmitt paper. To quote the exec summary.

"The report reviews evidence on eleven possible adjustments to minimum-wage increases that may help to explain why the measured employment effects are so consistently small. The strongest evidence suggests that the most important channels of adjustment are: reductions in labor turnover; improvements in organizational efficiency; reductions in wages of higher earners ("wage compression"); and small price increases."

One of the other hypotheses considered was a reduction in profits (which is what the toy model would suggest: the low-wage "Job 1" maximizes profits rather than productivity, and moving to "Job 2" increases productivity but lowers profits). However, Schmitt found not many studies and not much evidence of this, except in the UK following introduction of the minimum wage from nothing. Again, I found that very surprising: if anyone is losing out by paying the minimum wage, you would expect it to be the Walmarts of the world. But not so, apparently.

Comment author: advael 04 December 2013 06:57:47PM 1 point [-]

My knee-jerk assumption is that Job 1 would actually not be accepted by almost any employees. This is based on the guess that without the threat of having no money, people generally would not agree to give up their time for low wages, since the worst case of being unemployed and receiving no supplemental income does not involve harsh deterrents like starving or being homeless.

Getting someone to do any job at all under that system will probably require either a pretty significant expected quality of life increase per hour worked (which is to say, way better than $3 per hour) or some intrinsic motivation to do the job other than money (e.g. they enjoy it, think it's morally good to do, etc.)

It's more likely that a well-implemented basic income would simply eliminate a lot of the (legal) labor supply for low-wage jobs. I both see this as a feature and see no need for a minimum wage under this system.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 November 2013 09:55:53PM 2 points [-]

I've seen the more general claim that companies which can't afford to pay a living wage shouldn't exist. This would include not just companies like Walmart, but also small new companies and businesses with relatively poor owners.

Many of those businesses provide useful services, and I've wondered whether there's a public good argument to be made for subsidizing them rather than eliminating them.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 24 November 2013 11:04:05AM 5 points [-]

I've seen the more general claim that companies which can't afford to pay a living wage shouldn't exist.

Which is to advocate permanent unemployment for people who can't deliver value greater than a living wage.

I think you'd tend toward perverse incentives immediately if you tried to subsidize only the below living wage jobs.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 24 November 2013 10:40:26PM 3 points [-]

I think you'd tend toward perverse incentives immediately if you tried to subsidize only the below living wage jobs.

Which is exactly what we're currently doing, and exactly what the left-wingers are complaining about in this situation. Rather than the State spending its money on, for instance, useful jobs programs that can directly employ people for living wages in productive infrastructure work (would that totally eliminate unemployment? No. Is it an obvious first move? Yes.), tightening the labor market, stimulating demand, and helping to pay down private debts, the State instead spends its money subsidizing poverty-jobs.

And as the Right always says, you get more of what you subsidize. In this case: sub-living wages.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 25 November 2013 01:15:41AM *  2 points [-]

Which is exactly what we're currently doing, and exactly what the left-wingers are complaining about in this situation.

I'm glad that there are some left wingers now "demanding" a rollback in the perverse programs left wingers put in place in the first place.

But as I've asked before, are there any particularly prominent liberals doing this in the US? I'm not aware of any. Prominent liberals anywhere else?

In the US, I'm aware of prominent libertarians, and even republicans who have been advocating this for a long time.

Comment author: gjm 25 November 2013 11:58:37AM 3 points [-]

A basic-income scheme is part of the platform of the Green Party in the US. I don't know exactly what they want done with the rest of the welfare system, though.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 26 November 2013 03:34:14AM 1 point [-]

http://www.gp.org/greenpages/content/volume8/issue3/oped5.php

My first google US hit. Promising. Not only basic income, but coupled with reducing corporate welfare. And the numbers don't seem crazy - $600-$800. I consider probably the majority of the arguments used appealing to libertarians. I didn't expect much common ground at all.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 24 November 2013 10:42:06PM *  0 points [-]

Many of those businesses provide useful services, and I've wondered whether there's a public good argument to be made for subsidizing them rather than eliminating them.

I would have to contest that in this case, the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence. On general principle, lacking special cases with adorable old grandmothers and shiny MIT graduates, what is added to the public good by subsidizing businesses that are literally not efficient enough to keep their own employees alive? How can we claim such a business is adding net value to society?

Note that I'm trying to distinguish between a subsidy and an investment. When a shiny MIT graduate needs money for his start-up, there could easily be a public good of investing in him, but in that case the public deserves shares of stock as compensation -- and will be able to realize gain from those shares as capital gains or dividends when the time comes. With Wal-Mart, the public doesn't even receive a capital stake in the business. It just pays for private actors to get rich on jobs that are, judging by their wage levels, far less efficient and productive than the ones people used to have.

Comment author: Lumifer 25 November 2013 02:04:29AM *  4 points [-]

what is added to the public good by subsidizing businesses that are literally not efficient enough to keep their own employees alive?

I am unaware of any such businesses. Perhaps you want to dial down your rhetoric a little bit? It looks silly.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 25 November 2013 07:49:05AM 0 points [-]

It's not rhetoric. If a company says they cannot pay a living wage without the subsidy, then that is what such a statement means.

Comment author: Moss_Piglet 25 November 2013 11:42:53AM *  7 points [-]

What constitutes a "living wage" has literally nothing to do with how much money it takes to meet your survival needs; it is an amount of money which is supposed to support your family at a "normal standard of living" in your area. The actual cost to survive is naturally quite a bit lower than that, and can be calculated with things like the 'Food Energy Intake' or 'Cost of Basic Needs' methods of establishing poverty lines.

Adding to this confusion is the fact that the Federal Poverty Line seems to be what most people use as their yardstick, despite it being an abstraction over the entire US with no allowance for regional cost-of-living differences and appears to be a relative measure of poverty based on mean income rather than an absolute measure based on the cost of survival needs.

[Edit] Surprisingly, the Federal Poverty Line does actually seem to be an absolute measure, although I still can't find exactly what goods are supposed to go into calculating it and there is still no allowance for regional price differences.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 25 November 2013 03:02:30PM 0 points [-]

Let's assume something truly basic: a living wage covers housing, food and health insurance. That is, a worker paid a living wage will not starve, will not die of treatable disease for financial reasons, and will not be removed from work via arrest for vagrancy (because they have a place to stay).

Quibbling over definitions won't get us anywhere. Let's talk about the real issue, and if it means we have to taboo "living wage", so be it.

Comment author: Moss_Piglet 25 November 2013 04:19:33PM *  8 points [-]

I have no problem tabooing "living wage" in our discussion, but it is important to remember that the word has an actual definition in policy terms; if we talk about paying Walmart / Sam's Club employees a living wage that actually means one very specific thing in terms of how much money they are going to get, and it's not a particularly intuitive amount at that.

But that's a debate for the talking heads; if I understand you correctly, we just want to know if someone working at Walmart would starve without public assistance.

Let's assume for the moment that the Federal Poverty Line is the number we're trying to avoid here; above that you're still in a shitty position but you are not actually starving (technically you're probably not starving below it either, but I can't find good Cost of Basic Needs data for the first world). An average Walmart employee makes about $17,600 a year plus minimal benefits for 35 hours of work a week, which is piddling but also enough to support yourself and one other person by federal standards ($15,510 a year). With another 15 hours a week of work in a second job at the federal minimum wage (remember, most states have a higher minimum) a Walmart employee can support a family of four ($23,550 a year). This is also assuming only one person in the family of four is working, which is a bit of a spherical chicken these days.

So without any public assistance at all a single person with Walmart as their primary job can definitely support themselves and another person at a level above the Federal Poverty Line, and can support a family of four at that level with an additional part time minimum wage job. It would be an uncomfortable paycheck-to-paycheck kind of existence, but all of their basic survival needs would be met out of their own income.

Now don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying that Walmart is morally in the right here, or that their employees shouldn't have a more comfortable and secure way of life. On the contrary, I think it's disgraceful the way real wages have fallen in the last half-century and how many good blue-collar jobs have been destroyed by our ludicrous trade policies. But the question of whether Walmart employees would be starving without EBT is an empirical claim and one which is easily disproved.

Comment author: Randy_M 25 November 2013 04:11:52PM 3 points [-]

Do you consider it unethical to pay less than it takes to pay less than it takes to live alone, but enough to hold down an appartment with a couple of roommates? Is every treatable disease, no matter the cost of treatment, included in that, or are insurance companies allowed to draw a line inconsderation of how common or expensive a treatment is? Is that insurance pool required to subsidize riskier but likely better off (ie, older) people? Is that food required to be convenient, tasty, and nutritious, or can the wage assume the employee does their own shopping and cooking with less costly food?

What if one potential employee has a different idea of what it takes to live than others?

Comment author: eli_sennesh 25 November 2013 07:06:24PM -3 points [-]

Do you consider it unethical to pay less than it takes to pay less than it takes to live alone, but enough to hold down an appartment with a couple of roommates?

Is Wal-Mart offering a couple of roommates?

Is every treatable disease, no matter the cost of treatment, included in that, or are insurance companies allowed to draw a line inconsderation of how common or expensive a treatment is?

Let's say it's every disease a middle-class person could get treated. The point is to eliminate class distinctions in medical care, not to suddenly wave our arms and inaugurate Utopia.

Is that food required to be convenient, tasty, and nutritious, or can the wage assume the employee does their own shopping and cooking with less costly food?

The food is required to be nutritious enough to never damage the health of the employee. Cooking time can be assumed to be traded off with working time, which can be taken to imply a 40-hour workweek as is legally considered full-time in most developed countries. Convenience and taste are left to taste, though I'm assuming at least some access to decadent upper-class luxuries (/sarcasm) such as iodized salt.

What if one potential employee has a different idea of what it takes to live than others?

I dunno, what if we stop trying to evade the point that Wal-Mart's wages are unlivable?

I mean, come on, we're talking about a company that set up a charity collection for its own employees. That means even Wal-Mart acknowledges Wal-Mart pays poverty wages.

Comment author: Randy_M 25 November 2013 07:32:44PM 3 points [-]

I think I was just trying to get at the fact that living wage definition can reasonably differ, and that being so, isn't it up to the workers to evaluate for themselves, based on what they can tolerate or accomodate?

You're going to have to go into more detail about that charity collection, because although I assume that Wal-Mart may very well pay below what one can comfortably live on alone long term, the fact that some or many of the employees inspire charitable giving doesn't prove that--a living wage, and one that can provide enough to live on in all foreseeable bits of bad luck are two different things, at least according to your definition. And if you work at Wal-Mart, you probably are a little worse at things like long term planning or impulse control.

On a tangent, there's another large employer I often hear about underpaying their employees--universities and grad students--but it doesn't seem to raise the same ire. Maybe I'm not clear on the details and the difference is significant?

Comment author: eli_sennesh 25 November 2013 08:30:02PM *  0 points [-]

On a tangent, there's another large employer I often hear about underpaying their employees--universities and grad students--but it doesn't seem to raise the same ire.

Would you like me to tell you about the misery of being a grad-student? I can speak from first-hand experience!

But if I do, I'm yelled at for being more fortunate than the poor sods at Wal-Mart, you see.

As to Wal-Mart and their charity incident...

Comment author: Lumifer 25 November 2013 03:53:14PM 4 points [-]

It is rhetoric because "living wage" in the US is far beyond what's needed to keep people alive. People who don't get paid a "living wage" do not drop dead in the streets from malnutrition and exhaustion.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 25 November 2013 03:58:21PM -1 points [-]

Can we drop the pointless definitional agreement and just find a study specifying what wage-level is necessary to keep people from dropping very preventably dead or being arrested for vagrancy?

Comment author: Lumifer 25 November 2013 04:15:28PM 4 points [-]

I am not particularly interested in a study. At one point in my life I was poor. Very very poor. I have quite a good idea of how much money do you need to survive in a US city. Hint: it's far below what is usually called "a living wage".

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 25 November 2013 01:24:06AM *  2 points [-]

It may be that no one is efficient enough to supply ,low cost low quality goods and services to people who can't (typo corrected) afford better and pay a living wage at the same time. At that point, you can shut down the business and hope that services and goods of better quality will be supplied by the government (when?), technology will improve so that workers in those businesses will be more productive so that it's possible to pay them more, leave the unattractive business in place as it is, or subsidize the business.

I'm not saying subsidizing the business is a great choice (keeping the system even relatively honest might be impossible), but I think it should be considered rather than just saying the business shouldn't exist.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 23 November 2013 08:57:33PM 2 points [-]

Are companies with employess on government benefits are evil?

You should fix the title. It doesn't parse in my head, and has a spelling error.

How about?

Are companies with employees on government benefits evil?

Comment author: Kawoomba 23 November 2013 10:30:11PM -3 points [-]

If not for the two top comments solely dealing with trivial spelling errors, why, I suppose the OP's title would never have been properly understood.

Comment author: peter_hurford 23 November 2013 11:02:54PM 2 points [-]

It does show a lack of care for the quality of ones work.

Comment author: gjm 24 November 2013 12:29:55AM 6 points [-]

In keeping with Muphry's law, your comment about how such mistakes show lack of care contains a similar mistake of its own ("ones" -> "one's").

Comment author: peter_hurford 24 November 2013 04:06:57PM 2 points [-]

I will not edit my post in order to memorialize the occasion.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 23 November 2013 09:20:33PM 1 point [-]

It does seem possible that welfare changes workers' wage preferences and allows Walmart to attract laborers for less money though, doesn't it?

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 25 November 2013 04:41:56AM 3 points [-]

This seems implausible. If anything, I would expect taking away governent benefits to make people more desperate and more willing to work for low wages.

Comment author: aquaticko 29 November 2013 04:14:26AM -1 points [-]

Sorry to make my first post on LW a political one, but I've been hearing too much about this discussion everywhere to stay out of it, here. I'll try to keep it short.

ChrisHallquist: I worry that this anti-Walmart meme could lead to an odd left-wing resistance to GBI/more lavish welfare state, since the policy would be branded as a subsidy to Walmart.

Quite honestly, I think this is a confused concern, or at least a misplaced one.

I'm a philosopher by education (again, my apologies), but an urban economist/macroeconomist by trade and hobby. I don't think I'm saying anything new or surprising in mentioning that, as industrial economic growth decline, and economic growth shifts to less labor-intensive service industries, there begins a decline the growth rate of the employment-population ratio. Assuming the typical level of population growth rate decline associate with this economic transition (i.e. Western Europe/North America fertility levels, not East Asian/European fertility levels), you end up with a large ratio of low-wage/high-wage laborers. Because people respond intuitively to the two population segments with more visibly-dispersed levels of income, by claiming that this is unjust, you start to get a popular movement for social welfare. The confusion/frivolousness should be becoming somewhat apparent.

The income dispersion which is a product of the development of the economic system which created it cannot be solved by that same system; this is what leads to calls for things like living wages and other types of income redistribution--or even just labor welfare generally--through government intervention. However, these interventions in a market built around the production of capital only serve to reduce its efficiency by introducing new inflexibilities in the market, e.g., if I'm looking to start up a restaurant, I can only do so provided I have enough money to satisfy OSHA regulations. If I don't have enough money to do so, I can't begin to produce capital through food service, which not only deprives me of profit, but deprives local workers of (theoretically) sharing in that profit. When economic growth slows and population growth doesn't, it's bad for everyone.

I'm pretty strongly socialist, but I'm willing to admit social welfare and capitalism simply don't go together...though maybe that's less surprising than it seems to me.

I suppose this just hits on the fact that I agree with what a few other people here have said: I don't think that people who are genuine libertarian capitalists can actually have conversations about socioeconomics with non-libertarian socialists. We have different consequences we're trying to reach, and knowing that, we can move on and not worry about convincing each other. Frankly, it leads me to respect libertarians totally, even if I absolutely disagree with them.

But American liberals, and most European social democrats, are inconsistent. Whether or not they know it, they believe that human welfare (whatever their preferred sources of utility are) is Good, but they refuse to use a system that produces it because they believe that system--socialism--is Bad, though in their defense, it's mostly because they misunderstand what socialism actually is (not that I'll lay claim to an absolute understanding). Because the morality they use is deontological in nature, you end up with people creating rules AND goals (the latter because humans are planning things), separately and simultaneously(ish), instead of deciding on one starting point and letting what comes naturally happen without interference.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 November 2013 01:52:46PM 1 point [-]

my first post on LW

Feel free to introduce yourself in the welcome thread and take the census/survey, if you haven't already.

if I'm looking to start up a restaurant, I can only do so provided I have enough money to satisfy OSHA regulations. If I don't have enough money to do so, I can't begin to produce capital through food service, which not only deprives me of profit, but deprives local workers of (theoretically) sharing in that profit.

I was going to say “Sure, fewer regulations means more, cheaper restaurants and more jobs for cooks and waiters, but also more cases of food poisoning -- and if you wonder why in a free market I couldn't just decide to avoid the kinds of restauraunt likely to give me food poisoning even if they're cheaper, I invite you to read Section 4 in this FAQ”, but reading on I gues you'd actually agree.

Comment author: Sophronius 27 November 2013 03:17:07PM *  -2 points [-]

Chris, I agree with your observation that people don't think very consequentialist here. However, there is also something to be said for a solid application of common sense.

Yes, the obvious economic argument is that Walmart is under no obligation to hire employees, and any employee is free to leave whenever, so they should be allowed to treat them any way they want. The underlying assumptions here are that the (job) market is efficient so that no single company can influence it, people can get new jobs instantly, people can rationally decide whether to switch jobs on the fly, etc. etc. Of course these assumptions are not correct. For example, if a company becomes successful by beating all competition, say by driving costs lower than anyone else can, and then one day the company fires all employees and packs up and leaves there is going to be a very real hit to the economy. There certainly is not going to be an identical company performing the same service there the next day. In the case of Walmart, they are one of the largest companies in the world. It would be extremely unrealistic to assume that if they don't pay their employees enough, everyone could just go and leave and it would be the same as if Walmart had never existed. The larger a company you are, the better a bargaining position you have, and the more capable you are of driving down wages to make a higher profit.

The point I'm trying to get across here is this: The reason many people object to Walmart's policies is because their moral intuitions tell them that there is something wrong when a company doesn't pay its employees enough for them to feed themselves. Yes, a lot of it boils down to "Companies Boo, people Jay!". No, it isn't very consequentialist. But you should probably not ignore that moral intuition, because a good helping of common sense is usually better than an overly simplistic economic argument based on unrealistic assumptions. At least in my experience.

Comment author: Sophronius 28 November 2013 02:45:17PM *  -2 points [-]

If possible, I would like to hear the reason for the downvoting of the above post. Specifically, whether the reason is:

1) It discusses politics (in response to an article about politics?)
2) The reasoning is fallacious
3) It was written by me
4) People don't like silly examples
5) It sounds vaguely leftish
6) The point I made is so obvious that it's redundant
7) people prefer to have their politics debates one-sided

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 01 December 2013 07:58:17PM 4 points [-]

I've no idea who you are and I've just downvoted you because your post is a tedious wall-of-text.

Comment author: Nornagest 01 December 2013 08:19:57PM *  3 points [-]

The single most important reason for my downvote was the invocation of "common sense", which I tend to read as "don't bother doing any analysis, just fall back on your learned heuristics"; I'm fairly sure this is a correct reading in context. Now, that's good advice in time-constrained or highly complex situations, but this is neither. To make matters worse, it's a politically polarized topic, which implies that the salient heuristics are very likely going to be split along ideological lines: half the people you're talking to are using their common sense, which just happens to say something different from yours. That in turn implies either that you aren't aware of this dynamic or that you're using rallying tactics, and I don't want to see either one on this site.

I also feel it's too long for its content. Additionally, it's in a political thread, arguing for a politicized stance, and both lower my threshold for downvoting.

Comment author: votesplainer 28 November 2013 04:26:28PM *  4 points [-]

8) It's too long, says very little and doesn't have a summary preceding it. 9) Almost all of your writing is either political or meta, which suggests you don't belong here and will only add noise. 10) You've clearly failed to learn from previous criticism.

Comment author: Sophronius 28 November 2013 05:13:54PM *  -3 points [-]

Given that immediately after you posted this, about 10 of my older and unrelated posts got downvoted in a row (and counting), I'm going to guess that you are one of the people block-downvoting me. Classy.

I wish I could say that it doesn't depress me that people would be willing to go through all that effort just to make me feel bad, but it kind of does.

Comment author: votesplainer 28 November 2013 05:18:36PM *  6 points [-]

Perhaps someone just went through some of your comments and didn't like them either. You feeling bad is probably not the sole intention of those downvotes. People will be more than happy to upvote some of your comments if they start being relevant to rationality.

I looked through some of your comments, and they're not equally downvoted. Some of them are upvoted. I expect there's some signal there if you're willing to look for it. Might not be a signal you like or care about, though.

Comment author: Pentashagon 24 November 2013 08:10:04AM 0 points [-]

I get the impression that the real problem with health care specifically is that we are keeping sicker people alive longer with more effective (and expensive) treatments, and this increased cost is not being reimbursed by valuable work done by those sick people. In simplistic economic terms it is not cost-effective to keep a certain class of people alive or healthy. Is that analysis evil? I think so; automation will almost certainly put 99% of unmodified humans into that class at some point in the future. The practical effect is perhaps what we are seeing; Walmart and McDonalds can't afford to pay enough money to keep their minimum wage workers as healthy as a Silicon Valley tech worker or a NY banker, and the difference in achievable healthcare outcomes between a low income worker and a high income worker has increased significantly in the last 50 years. Remember when cancer and heart disease and even diabetes used to kill people (rich or poor) quickly and cheaply?

Guaranteed basic income or minimum wage aren't sufficient on their own to solve the problem. Total production efficiency (or at the very least medical/health care efficiency) has to increase at a rate equal to or above the rate that medical treatments and medical technology advance. When automation unemploys people from McDonalds and Walmart they will still get sick. at roughly the same rate, and with the same diseases. The total cost of providing healthcare will not go down, barring increases in efficiency, and the cost of welfare would increase. Given those assumptions it seems like the best action is to allow McDonalds and Walmart to continue to employ people at existing, sustainable wages and leave them on welfare, and implement as much of basic income or increases in minimum wage that the rest of the economy can bear to prepare for widespread automation, and focus heavily on automating medical care to improve its efficiency.

Comment author: Nornagest 24 November 2013 08:51:07AM 2 points [-]

I get the impression that the real problem with health care specifically is that we are keeping sicker people alive longer with more effective (and expensive) treatments, and this increased cost is not being reimbursed by valuable work done by those sick people

That's a problem. The international statistics suggest it's not the problem -- health care expenditures don't correlate particularly well with longevity at the high end.

Cultural tendencies towards proactive vs. reactive care might be responsible for part of this, but I'm unaware of any high-quality research on the issue. On the other hand, I haven't been following it closely.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 24 November 2013 11:45:16PM *  1 point [-]

I get the impression that the real problem with health care specifically is that we are keeping sicker people alive longer with more effective (and expensive) treatments, and this increased cost is not being reimbursed by valuable work done by those sick people.

Does that have anything to do with Walmart or health care for workers?

Comment author: eli_sennesh 24 November 2013 10:52:12PM -2 points [-]

Is that analysis evil?

Evil? It depends on your moral code. However, I would certainly note that allowing the economy to kill people should be considered strongly contradictory with normal LessWrongian social goals like abolish effective scarcity and make everyone immortal.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 25 November 2013 11:15:42AM *  9 points [-]

People are dying for economical reasons all the time.

In most cases, when a person dies, there was an option to save them. Killed by a disease? With enough money, best doctors and medicine could be bought to save them. If that is not realistic, with some money they could be at least cryopreserved and given some chance of living again. Killed by a murderer? With enough money, there could have been a policeman standing on that street to prevent the crime. Killed by a random falling object? With enough money, something could be there to prevent the object from falling on someone's head. Killed by an obesity caused by unhealthy life style? I am sure that with enough money, something could be done to prevent this, too.

Thus speaking about not allowing the economy to kill people is merely an applause light. People die for economical reasons today, and they will also die tomorrow. The only choice we have is to move more money to some area, by taking the money from another area, so we can save some people from dying by cause X at the expense of more people dying by cause Y; and we can hope that by doing some we have increased the total value (total quality-adjusted life years, or whatever is your favorite metric).

In a perfect world, an answer to "is it worth spending $ 1 000 000 to save this person's life?" would always be yes, because in the imaginary perfect world you can always get the $ 1 000 000 without taking it from somewhere else. In real life we have choices more like "is it worth spending $ 1 000 000 to save this person's life? or should we instead let the person die and use the money to save lives of other ten people?". (And if you wish, you can make it more complicated by assuming that the first person is a Nobel price winner in medicine and invented a cure that saved millions of lives, but these days he is too old to invent anything more; and the other group contains one great poet, but also one murderer, et cetera.)

Comment author: Lumifer 26 November 2013 03:53:04AM 3 points [-]

In most cases, when a person dies, there was an option to save them.

That is not true because of one simple observation: eventually everyone dies.

Millionaires and billionaires die, too, even with the best of doctors and security guards.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 25 November 2013 03:23:44PM *  -3 points [-]

In real life we have choices more like "is it worth spending $ 1 000 000 to save this person's life? or should we instead let the person die and use the money to save lives of other ten people?".

No, that's not the problem. In real life, the choice is, "Do we spend one million dollars on a welfare state (or labor laws, whatever) that can keep people alive longer and with more dignity, in the hope of eventually abolishing human-scale scarcity, or do we allocate one million dollars to an institutional investor's mutual-fund portfolio?" You are making the extremely false assumption that our economy is already Pareto-optimal with respect to saving human lives.

No serious economist actually believes that. In fact, they wouldn't even make the claim that the economy is designed to save human lives; it would be downright silly. They would point out two things:

1) If we use wealth-accumulation as an approximation of human value, the mutual-fund portfolio could, in some sense, be said to be more valuable than the human lives, in the sense that those human lives generate little value for other humans. Of course, socialists and anarchists can argue with capitalists over whether wealth-accumulation under a neoliberal capitalist economy is a good approximation of human value or not. (I side with the socialists in saying most definitely no.)

2) Real economies rarely or never actually hit Pareto-optimal equilibria, they merely oscillate around them, and in fact sometimes even rarely oscillate near them because the assumptions behind efficient-market theories are so far from real-world conditions. (There was once a paper published, IIRC, under the title *Markets are Efficient If and Only If P=NP".)

Given these two facts, we should most probably not consider "The Economy shouldn't be allowed to kill people" as an applause light, but instead as an ethical charge to find the deadweight losses of human lives and remove them. We can argue about zero-sum tradeoffs when we're actually faced with one, but when instead faced with a case where a clear positive-sum move exists, we should take it.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 25 November 2013 04:49:30PM 4 points [-]

You are making the extremely false assumption that our economy is already Pareto-optimal with respect to saving human lives.

Actually, I don't. And it's not even necessary for the argument. Even if we nationalized all the investment funds and hanged all the evil capitalists, someone would still die because there would not be enough money to cure them.

(How could I possibly know? My country was like this. And the people here lived on average shorter than our evil neighbors. The medicine was completely free of charge, you just couldn't get it, because there was not enough made.)

Back to the original topic, an analysis that concludes that some people will die either way, is simply a realistic analysis. Unless we have already solved the problem of Friendly Singularity. We can, and should, look for the ways to minimize this number. It's not going to be zero, anyway. Even if we had a world-wide government of incorruptible angels with mandatory cryonics right now.

Comment author: Desrtopa 01 December 2013 02:04:28AM *  -1 points [-]

I haven't scrolled through all the existing comments to see if someone else has already raised this point, but while, in general, I would agree that it's usually better for people to have poorly compensated employment that leaves them in need of some public support than to have no employment whatsoever and be even more heavily reliant on public support, I think this is not necessarily the most useful context in which to view institutions like Walmart.

In general, Walmart doesn't create jobs where, otherwise, no jobs would have existed. Instead, it usually displaces jobs that would otherwise be created by smaller stores or chains which it can undercut by being able to more effectively employ economies of scale. While those economies of scale can deliver genuine benefit to consumers, in offering its employees such low pay and benefits that they need public assistance, Walmart creates an illusory benefit to consumers over smaller stores, by lowering prices and thus making themselves a more appealing shopping destination, but making the public shoulder the hidden cost of the employees' low level of compensation.

Comment author: drethelin 01 December 2013 04:44:16PM 1 point [-]

wait, in that case isn't Walmart mostly a subsidy to disadvantaged people? The vast majority of taxes are paid by the wealthy, but the vast majority of Walmart customers are the poor. This means that they get the benefit of cheaper products while paying little to none of the costs.