Monday, December 10, 2012

Moral Culpability: Exploitation for Some, Miniature American Flags for Others!

It's not always easy to drill down to one and only one exploiteur in a morally objectionable situation. I admit to some remnant childhood conditioning here. My American History textbooks had lithographs of political cartoons featuring robber barons caricatured as mustachioed villains, standing astride forests, oil fields and iron mines, bags of gold coin strewn haphazard at their feet. The myth is that greedy, rapacious titans of industry oppress and exploit scrappy, resilient, put-upon workers (or so goes the Pulitzer-era journalism), but is this true? Does it comport with basic moral intuitions?

Last week, I had the delightful opportunity to torment some of my dear friends and colleagues with the following thought experiment. The feedback I got was interesting, particularly in that the answer I got from my non-economist friends was closer to the neoclassical response. I'll offer a few reasons why I think this might be the case after I share with you the scenario. Which I shall do now (below the fold):
Picture if you will a man. His name is Adam and he is a lazy man. Adam has no job, no education to speak of, and no prospects. Adam spends his days eating hot pockets and Cheetos while playing Call of Duty on a stained, malodorous couch. Despite being a powerfully lazy human, Adam has a better half, Beth. Beth is high-school educated, has a 9-to-5 job, pays her taxes one leg at a time, and is long-suffering. 

[situation A]
Beth cries uncle and gives Adam a (credible) ultimatum: get a job or get lost. For the purposes of this thought experiment, assume that Adam has no other outside options. His parents are dead and he has no (real-life) friends. His BATNA for acceding to Beth's demands are slow starvation and exposure.

[situation B]
A freak disaster wrecks Beth's apartment and her place of work. She has her hours cut and her refrigerator was sucked out the kitchen window and exploded by, I dunno, lightning or something. That happens, right? With her reduced hours, she's able to support herself only and not both of them. Again, Adam's BATNA for working is slow starvation and exposure.

So, in both scenarios, Adam finds the one and only one employer willing to hire him. The job is a caricature of an exploitative labor agreement: The employer is indifferent, the supervisor is cruel and demeaning, Adam must work unpaid overtime and the product of his labors is something he finds distasteful, offensive even. The factory floor conditions are dangerous and the coffee is terrible. Most pedestrian folks would claim that Adam's new employer is exploiting his unfortunate situation. 

To the question then: is Adam's employment situation have more, less or the same level of exploitation in situation A or in situation B? 

Trained euvoluntaryists will quickly recognize that the employment situation described above is non-euvoluntary. You may also conclude that having a crappy job is better than starving to death. However, your moral intuition may tingle when you see that situation A involves some human agency. The consequences are the same either way, so you might expect trained economists to conclude that from Adam's perspective that both situations are identical. Yet, this isn't the answer I got (from an admittedly small sample). Many of my colleagues (who, I must note are grad students and may not have had long experience in the wider world) came to what I'd call the common-sense conclusion, that Beth shares some of the moral culpability for the exploitation when she's the one establishing Adam's lethal BATNA in situation A.

My working colleagues tended to find no moral culpability with Beth, some even going so far as to praise her discretion. I tentatively conclude that a few decades of living, perhaps having some first-hand experience with  scuttle-bums yields some insight into Beth's motives.

So why bring this up? Why is it relevant? To some extent, I think the thought experiment sort of gets at moral intuitions behind things like the 1996 welfare reforms. Clinton and the Congress were a bit like Beth, kicking some folks off the federal welfare rolls. Does DC bear some moral responsibility for any resulting decline in people's quality of living? What about further reforms? What about change in the other direction? Do legislators earn moral credit for increasing the scope of transfer programs?

I'm not sure what the answers are to these questions. My regular readers already know that I agree with Munger that a basic minimum income is a good replacement for the hodgepodge of in-kind transfer programs that exist at various levels of government, but this opinion is consequentialist, not deontological. I have no moral dog in the fight, so to speak. Well, other than the moral principle that a better outcome is preferable to a worse outcome, anyway. At any rate, please feel free to leave your reaction in the comments and ask around.

And for a nice little flourish, after you get a reaction, follow up with this: "does your answer change if you switch the roles of Beth and Adam?" That's Mrs. Spivonomist's contribution, and I confess I'm a little chagrined I didn't think of it myself. It's nice being married to someone smarter than me.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?