“Money is Not Speech” Misses the Point

The news of the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee approving a constitutional amendment allowing Congress and the States greater power to restrict political spending may bring attention to the issue of campaign finance. A fairly popular phrase in populist circles (especially on the left) used in favor of campaign finance restrictions is “money is not speech“.

Notably, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens used the phrase when describing his opposition to the Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and other associations to make independent expenditures on political campaigns. Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin even claimed that treating the spending of money as free speech would require that prostitution be protected as a form of free speech.

Frankly, the “money is speech” characterization is disingenuous. The point is not that spending money on things generally is a sign of one’s preferences and thereby a form of “free speech”. The point is that spending money on resources and labor directly used in the act of communication is protected.

For instance, most publishing companies are corporations. If a publishing company spends money from its general treasury to publish a book containing political advocacy, should that act be protected under the First Amendment? I would say so. In this case, the free speech rights of the authors would be at stake.

And yet this not was the view of the government in Citizens United (see this link, pp. 26-29). The case was later re-argued, and the government decided that there might be other reasons justifying a challenge to restrictions on book publishing (see this link, pp. 64-65), but the same basic argument still applies to broadcast media, which was the issue in Citizens United. Should a TV broadcaster be allowed to spend its general treasury funds on producing and distributing political content?

When the issue is phrased in terms of spending money on speech, rather than just spending money, it becomes clear that restricting political spending is, in fact, a form of censorship.

Two Thirds of Nordhaus’s 1999 DICE AGW Damages Are Based on Unsubstantiated Guesswork

William Nordhaus is one of the top experts on the economics of climate change and for a long time has worked on his series of DICE models (Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy models) that examine how standard predictions of the effects of climate change on climate variables (such as global mean temperature) will impact the economy. His work is important because DICE is one of the three Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) of climate-economic interaction that the government’s Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon uses in its analysis of the impacts of climate change. In other words, DICE is one of the three models used to calculate the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC), which is meant to represent the damage caused by one additional ton of CO2 in the atmosphere. The SCC was devised so that the government could weigh different strategies to slow down COemissions and (in theory) reject any that cost society more than the damage caused by the COemissions they prevent. In this post I highlight a problem economist Robert Murphy had found in Nordhaus’s 1999 version of DICE and add an observation of my own. To be clear, Nordhaus has since updated his model, and the issue likely does not persist, though I have not yet read the 2013 DICE specifications.

A long time ago, I was reading Murphy’s 2009 article Rolling the DICE: William Nordhaus’s Dubious Case for a Carbon Tax, and I was struck by the section discussing the possible economic damages from low-risk catastrophic climate scenarios (such as the shutting down of the thermohaline circulation of heat and salt among the world’s oceans). These are, again, doomsday scenarios that scientists do not believe will happen, but to which they still assign a low probability of occurring. These numbers are needed to create the model’s damage function, which describes the loss of Gross World Product (GWP – also referred to as world GDP herein) due to increased temperatures. How did Nordhaus get his probabilities for these catastrophic scenarios? He relied on a survey of experts he published in 1994, worded as follows:

“Some people are concerned about a low-probability, high-consequence output of climate change. Assume by ‘high-consequence’ we mean a 25 percent loss of global income indefinitely, which is approximately the loss in output during the Great Depression. (a) What is the probability of such a high consequence outcome for scenario A, i.e., if the warming is 3 degrees C in 2090 as described above? (b) What is the probability of such a high consequence outcome for scenario B, i.e., if the warming is 6 degrees C in 2175 as described above? (c) What is the probability of such a high consequence outcome for scenario C, i.e., if the warming is 6 degrees in 2090 as described above?”

Yet the results from 1994 will not do in 1999, since Nordhaus claims that new research has placed increased emphasis on the possibility of these catastrophic events. What does he do, then? And this is where Murphy picks a fight with him. To cite Nordhaus,

“To reflect these growing concerns, we assume [that] the probability of a catastrophe with 2.5 C warming is double the estimated probability for a 3 C warming from the survey, that the probability associated with a 6 C warming is double the survey estimate, and that the percentage of global income lost in a catastrophe is 20 percent higher than the figure quoted in the survey.”

Murphy summarizes what has happened as follows:

“To restate the issue: Nordhaus in 1994 asked experts to estimate (among other things) the probability of global GDP loss of 25 percent in the event of 3.0 C warming [...]. The surveyed experts gave him their answers, from which he computed the mean. By 1999, further research had made these scenarios seem more plausible or catastrophic. So Nordhaus and Boyer took the original average of probabilities reported by the experts, doubled it, and then assigned this new figure as the probability for a 30 percent loss of GDP rather than the 25 percent the experts had been told to consider, for a less significant warming of 2.5 C rather than the 3.0 C mentioned in the original survey. [...] More recent research suggests that at least some of these catastrophic scenarios were false alarms”

Why does it matter that Nordhaus apparently arbitrarily took the results of the survey of experts, doubled their answers, and then used these as probabilities for a different change in temperature and a different economic impact? Nordhaus claims that a 2.5C temperature increase would result in a loss of 1.50 percent of world GDP. And yet, 1.02 percentage points of these 1.50 percent are due to the low-probability catastrophic scenarios discussed above. This means that 68% of all the economic damages are based on numbers that Nordhaus arbitrarily manipulated.

So far so good – this has been Murphy’s critique (which I consider strong enough of a challenge to the model’s results). Yet I decided to dig a little deeper and look at how the 1994 numbers were obtained in the first place. They come from Nordhaus’s 1994 paper “Expert Opinion on Climate Change” in the American Scientist. In this paper, Nordhaus asked 22 experts their opinions on various questions relating to the effects of climate change on the economy. Three refused to participate, and of the nineteen remaining, nine were a mixture of economists, four were other social scientists, five were natural scientists and engineers, and the last one was Nordhaus himself. Again, it must be emphasized that this is not a review of literature of studies attempting to calibrate damage functions to observed warming, or at least to come up with plausible costs for disasters whose workings are scientifically described. No – the study merely asked nineteen experts in the field what they thought of the question [1].

We need to stop and consider how difficult the scenarios posed are: For example, in scenario A, respondents are asked how likely it is to have a 25% drop in world GDP in the year 2090 if there is 3 C warming. In a simple survey, respondents are asked to tackle a problem worthy of the whole literature – they are expected to take into account immigration flows, capital accumulation, technological adaptation, and a variety of low-probability catastrophic events we know of (and even ones we have not yet even conceived of) through the year 2090. They’re expected to be able to model the complex dynamics of the global market, advancements in science, and the catastrophic events due to precisely 3 C of warming. Nordhaus mentions in several places that there is much disagreement even among these experts on the economic impacts of catastrophic events, as seen in the spread of guesses for his questions. He notes that

“[o]ne respondent suggested whimsically that it was hardly surprising, given that the economists know little about the intricate web of natural ecosystems, whereas scientists know equally little about the incredible adaptability of human economies.”

And yet this does not seem whimsical at all, but a fundamental flaw in the methodology of the study. Natural scientists know very little about modeling economies and the ability of economies to respond to shocks. Similarly, economists are not intimately aware of the details of the consequences of climate change. Let’s look at what it would take to give an answer for Scenario A. One would first need to decide on the probability of various catastrophic outcomes due to 3 C in 2090 (a difficult enough endeavor). Then, one would need to estimate the economic impact of each catastrophic outcome to see whether it makes the 25% cutoff. The ones that do are all added together and this resulting probability is given as the answer.

In this deconstruction of the problem, we can see why the “whimsical” comment of the respondent above is not so whimsical at all – the question requires one to answer two very difficult subquestions, where each is focused on an entirely different field – one on climatology, the other one on economics. Only when these two are combined can the answer given be fully informed. How can an economist accurately answer the first part of the question – on the probabilities of different known (and even unknown!) catastrophic events. How can a natural scientist adequately guess the economic damage due to a climate event? Not only this, but the respondents were asked to give their subjective probabilities to these catastrophic events without having conducted any studies on this specific question, but merely as a matter of opinion. Yes – expert, informed opinion, but no matter how much of an expert someone is, when giving a probability to a 25% reduction in GWP due to 3 C warming in the future of 2090, which has unknown adaptive technology, her best guess will still be a fairly uninformed guess. Some respondents do mention technology as the big unknown:

“What is missing most is an understanding of the role of technology, of how society will change as technology advances. If we had been concerned with global warming in the 1890s, it would have concerned transportation by horses rather than automobiles. It is impossible to contemplate what society will be like a century from now as technology changes.”

Another writes

“Technology will develop to adjust to and accommodate many of the climatic changes and even provide approaches to countering warming effects. However, projecting technological changes a century or two into the future is hazardous at best. All we can really say is that there will be technological changes and that as in the past they will probably offset adverse effects to some degree.”

I cite this not to dismiss concerns over warming, but to show just the enormity of the task the experts were asked to perform – “impossible” by the words of some of them (in the case of forecasting technological changes). A major rainstorm in the distant past would have done much more damage to the livelihood of the public than it would today, for example. Why? We have sturdier buildings. This shows that the damage by natural events depends on the technological progress of a society very strongly. Nordhous quotes one of the respondents, who shares my main concern:

“I must tell you that I marvel that economists are willing to make quantitative estimates of economic consequences of climate change where the only measures available are estimates of global surface average increases in temperature. As [one] who has spent his career worrying about the vagaries of the dynamics of the atmosphere, I marvel that they can translate a single global number, an extremely poor surrogate for a description of the climatic conditions, into quantitative estimates of impacts of global economic conditions.”

Combining this with Murphy’s point that Nordhaus simply decides to double the values acquired from the survey and use them as answers to a different question, Nordhaus’s model (and its policy implications) becomes dubious. To reiterate what has happened: Nordhaus created a model where two-thirds of the damages from climate change are estimated from a survey asking a mix of scientists and economists their subjective opinion on how likely it is for a 3 C increase in 2090 to cause a 25% drop in GWP given unforeseeable technology, unforeseeable geographical population spread, unforeseeable gradual adaptation, and unforeseeable economic conditions, averages the opinions of these people, some of whom point out the precariousness of asking experts to weigh in on issues they know little about, and then takes this average, doubles it, and uses it to represent the chance of a catastrophic event resulting in a different scenario – a 30% drop in GWP due to a 2.5 C increase. In this case, “unsubstantiated guesswork” might be putting it lightly.

Once again, Nordhaus has a 2013 DICE model out, which likely does not have the above fatal mistakes. I did not intend this post to make light of the danger of climate change (with which I am not well-acquainted, not being a climate scientist myself), but merely to show the importance of looking at assumptions in our models, especially when they have such large impacts on the results of the model – and when the world looks to you for guidance on the issue.

Notes:

[1] Here’s an analysis I would consider to be an honest attempt at such an endeavor: Say we’re trying to assess the damages due to an enormous rise in sea levels. We’d begin with a map of the inundated areas and assess the current property values. This amount would then get adjusted to account for possible appreciation in the housing market. Afterwards, we might try to set up a model of housing investment, price changes, and population growth and migration to look at how much the demand for housing would increase across the entire world, and, hence, how much a reduction of usable housing area would cost the economy. We’d also need to take into account adaptive behavior that some areas might take to prevent the damages from a sea level rise (walls?). And so on. And this is just for sea level rise! In short, the survey respondents were asked to create a general equilibrium model of everything in the world and extend its predictions out to the year 2090 – a task worthy of a team of hundreds of economists and years of planning and debate (and even then, the model would still fall short).

Can Privilege-Checking be Empowering?

Yes. At the very least in my experience.

Last month I decided to play soccer for the first time in too long and so I went out to the field near the gym to join a pickup game. I played there for roughly two hours (with a superbly diverse group, I must say), and then I took a break at the university library while waiting for 10 PM to come around so I could go join some friends to play even more soccer.

After the second round of soccer, I was thoroughly worn out. I had been kicked in the shins and stepped on a few times too many, and I hadn’t had to run so quickly and dynamically in years. I got on the bus to go back to my place, feeling like a wet rag.

While I was on the bus, waiting for it to leave the bus stop, a disabled black woman rolled up to the bus in her motorized wheelchair. The bus was lowered for her, the platform extended, and she got on, went to the handicapped spot in the bus, and waited for the driver to strap her chair in place.

After I noticed her and the events surrounding her, I looked away and kept thinking my own thoughts, one of which was particularly loud and consisted of my mind screaming at me how tired I was. But then, I looked again at the disabled woman and put my experience in perspective:

- Yes, I was tired, but at least I had the pleasure of playing for so long, while she did not.

- Yes, I was in pain and would likely be sore for a very long time (my knee was in fact weak for the next few days), but no more than a week later I would surely be fine again and up for more high-speed games, while she would not.

- Yes, I felt like a wet rag, but she probably had to suffer from impaired mobility for the rest of her life and often had to rely on help for some of the most basic tasks in her life, which surely can’t be a great elixir for one’s self-esteem.

In short, I checked my privilege. And it was empowering.

Suddenly, the pain and the weariness did not seem so great. Suddenly, I focused on the positives, on the fun I had just had, and on the fun I would have in the future – and even on how I would improve my game in the future.

This led me to come up with the theme for the present article. While privilege theorists believe that privilege checking can help lead to a more just society by helping people reconsider their assumptions and positions of power as they interact with others in social spaces, it’s conceivable that the result could be the opposite. If a privileged person checks their privilege and realizes they have no reason to feel discouraged in their current position, this could prompt them to continue to enjoy their privileges over other people.

In other words, checking one’s privilege could, for some people, be translated as “hey – remember that you have all of this privilege!” This, in turn, could result in them saying “hey – I do! Thanks! I feel a lot better!”

Next time you feel down – check your privilege. You’ll feel a lot better.

A Response to Philluhp’s Video on “Formalizing Privilege” – Systemic Hierarchies

My article on formalizing privilege has received a tiny bit of attention in social media (since I sent it around to a few people) and someone graciously decided to message me with his thoughts and later went on to make a video response to my article:

I’d like to begin by thanking Philluhp for taking the time to both read my article and to make a respectful video (twice!) to voice his views on the matter, which can be summarized as follows:

_________

- When we, as social justice warriors, talk about privilege, we are not talking merely about an individual advantage someone has

- We’re talking about an advantage that a group has due to beliefs or cultural practices that results in social stratification/hierarchies/put people in positions of power over others

- We’re also talking about psychological authority

- Systemic privileges are advantages that certain groups have over each other and over other groups

- We’re talking about ending the beliefs that create these outcomes

- We don’t care about individual/personal privilege

- If someone has genetics that make him 6 foot 8, have large hands, and like basketball, and he goes on to become a successful basketball player – we don’t care about that. By your [Michael's] definition, he’s very privileged, but we don’t care. We don’t care that the environment he grew up in happened to value his traits.

- We are not talking about people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment and they happened to coincide.

_________

The above are the main (and only) points Philluhp makes, and I took careful notes to not miss any of his thoughts and build a straw man against him. Still, I do have to admit that it was sometimes difficult to parse out his intention, and so I did the best to reconstruct his argument. Here is one example of an apparent contradiction in what he was saying:

4:12 – “I’m not talking about equality of outcomes, necessarily” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjzFhT8k6ak#t=4m12s

8:53 – “when I’m talking about privilege I’m giving a particular focus on the beliefs and practices that create these inequalities of outcome” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjzFhT8k6ak#t=8m53s

Of course, we always give our discussion partners the benefit of the doubt in these cases and assume the best intention on their part.

Anyway, my thoughts:

Philluhp’s response doesn’t alter my analysis in any way, because it was already broad enough to encapsulate all of his points.

Philluhp’s main theme (which is likely one that any social justice warrior [1] would have brought up “against” me) is that privilege is “an advantage that a group has due to beliefs or cultural practices that results in social stratification/hierarchies/put people in positions of power over others.”

The fact that the privilege is a feature that pertains to a group instead of just an individual is not especially relevant if the outcome is the same. Not only this, but all group privilege is a type of individual privilege – each individual receives this privilege when he/she is part of a group. Furthermore, if many individuals have what Philluhp calls an “individual privilege,” then there is a group of people that has this advantage over other people, and hence it becomes a group privilege.

Does Philluhp not care about individual privilege because he does not think that these specific privileges create group advantages that are all that large (like being naturally built in a way appropriate for basketball)? If so, then he’s ignoring a mainstay in feminist theory – interlocking privileges. Simply because 10 individual features by themselves are not very influential does not mean that when put together they will not have a significant impact. But even that ignores the point that simply because the greater power these individual privileges confer is not as great as other “class” privileges it does not mean that it’s not important to discuss it.

But I digress. The most important answer to Philluhp is: my analysis already takes into account class privileges/social stratification/hierarchies/putting people in positions of power over others. As he explains, my analysis is quite broad, and even by his definition of privilege it subsumes [2] the concept of privilege. I talk about both “individual” and “class” privileges (thought I doubt the distinction is in fact existent) because I address privilege as a thing that has the features that both individual and class privilege share. None of my analysis breaks down when you replace each instance of “privilege” with “systemic privilege” in my essay (and Philluhp has failed to point out why my analysis would break down). No part of my analysis said one’s privilege (as I defined it) may not be in part due to a prevailing social attitude. Here’s an analogy: Say I am writing a paper on why it’s impossible to just lift a book and leave it to float there by itself, and in my argument I say “all items are pulled toward the earth because of gravity. Therefore, if there is no other force to hold the item suspended, it will fall.” Someone responds, saying “aha – but you are wrong, my dear Michael! We are discussing the issue of books falling – not just ‘items’!” Well, yes, we are, but since “a book” is a generic particular [3] of “all items,” what is true for “all items” is true for “a book.”

Fundamentally, I think Philluhp’s argument is inconsistent. He states “We are not talking about people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment and they happened to coincide.” And yet this is exactly what white privilege is, for example. A person happened to get lucky with genetics (being white) and environment (a society where whiteness is valued) and they happened to coincide. Yes, his environment’s liking for his whiteness is a systemic thing – this does not change the analysis.

Try another line of argumentation: Suppose all NBA players are wealthy or at least have a fairly large yearly income (my guess is that this does not strain the imagination). Suppose an NBA player walks into a soup kitchen, sits down, turns to the homeless man to his right, and starts complaining about how he can’t afford the mortgage on his third home and how his Lamborghini just broke down, etc. etc. I think that many people would think that a good “check your privilege” would be healthy for the basketball player right at that moment No? Well, suppose that the homeless man starts complaining back about how he’s got no home, how he’s in debt, how he’s got a mental illness, and how his friends all abandoned him. The basketball player, with a look of disgust, says “well, why don’t you just become a basketball player like me and make tons of money?” In this case, a “check your privilege” would definitely be required, since the basketball player is ignoring the pathways through which he achieved his success and is failing to realize that the homeless man likely cannot do the same. Aha – so we see that “privilege” is indeed a good word for the basketball player’s characteristics.

Moreover, take beauty privilege or thin privilege. Both of these have various causal “individual privileges” (by Philluhp’s verbiage) as their roots – whether this is genetics or how health-conscious a person’s parents are or how stressful a child’s environment was.

To summarize:

- Most importantly (and again, I cannot stress this enough) – my analysis already takes into account class privilege, because nothing I said is specific to “individual privilege.” Even if all of the following points are in fact wrong, this point by itself is enough to hold up my entire thesis. My original essay remains entirely true unless someone can show my analysis does not hold for class privilege.

- There is no useful distinction between individual and class privilege in my opinion. All class privileges are characteristics of individuals [4]. And all characteristics of individuals separate people into groups and determine their success/power/hierarchical relations.

- Even Philluhp’s “class privilege” is exactly what he said it’s not -  “people who happened to get lucky with genetics and environment.” I repeat – all privilege is a mix of genetics and environment, including class privilege – to no lesser extent!

Notes:

[1] In my experience, “social justice warrior” is used somewhat derisively, but since Philluhp approached me using this terminology, I figured that it is a label accepted by the community.

[2] Subsume - to consider or include (an idea, term, proposition, etc.) as part of a more comprehensive one.

[3] A “proof by generic particular” as I learned it in Discrete Mathematics is a proof where you say “we have a category Y. Take any generic item y in that category. By virtue of being in Y, it satisfies conditions a, b, and c, from which we can deduce d, e, and f.” It’s relevant to this conversation because I said “take a generic type of privilege. By virtue of being in the group of privileges, we can deduce so and so from it.” Simply because the privilege can also be a specific type of privilege, it doesn’t invalidate things that are true for all privileges.

[4] Any students of economics reading this will appreciate here a mention of methodological individualism. If this means nothing to you, no worries.

What Does the Center for Immigration Studies Consider to be “Exploitation”?

David North has a post on his blog at the Center for Immigration Studies titled, “CIS Gets an Offer We Will Refuse from a Bangladeshi Organization”. He explains that a recruiting agency had emailed a foreign recruiting firm, offering to pay his organization for finding employment for a worker sponsored by their agency and arranging for a visa.

He then says that, “In any case, it is highly unattractive, and is an indication of how badly nonimmigrant workers are treated in such cases, and how attractive they can be to exploitative U.S. employers”.

Yet these employers are offering employment to the workers in question, employment which generally pays far better than alternatives. Conversely, the U.S. government prevents workers from offering their labor at higher wages.

If “exploitation” actually has to do with harming workers, then it is clear who is really engaged in it.

Formalizing “privilege” and exploring its logical conclusions

Recently, a friend of mine (incorrectly) told a new acquaintance of mine that I didn’t “believe in privilege.” As my new acquaintance began explaining how she couldn’t imagine how anyone could deny the existence of privilege, I decided to think more precisely on what privilege is, whether it exists, and who has it. I’ve now decided to write this post to formalize the idea of privilege and see where a consistent application of the logic behind it leads.

A good starting point for defining privilege is to describe it as a condition in your life that you did not pick but that had a benefit for you. For example, white people tend to, on average, have higher salaries than black people. White people usually did not become white of their own merit, yet they reap the benefits of this physical feature. Why? Some reasons are that they have historically been more free to accumulate capital, have not been the subject of race-based oppression by the government, and have been a majority in the US for a long time. These things often lead to higher confidence, higher income, higher levels of education, more positions of political power, etc.

One way of formalizing the idea of privilege, then, is to ask “All else being equal, does having this characteristic mean that I will be more likely to be successful?” Example: Take a person born into a middle-income family in a middle-income neighborhood. If we let the person live his entire life, then went back in a time machine and changed only his race, would this have led to a better/worse life outcome?

The next step to take is to notice that sometimes our characteristics can take on a variety of values, such as race, instead of being a binary “yes/no.” For example, a person can be white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or any number of sub-categories of these and other races, as well as a mix of various categories of races.

Therefore, we begin to see privilege as a relative concept that can be ascertained given two possible values for a specific characteristic: “All else being equal, for a given personal characteristic ci, does value cib create a more favorable outcome than value cia?”

At this point we need to add another refinement. It seems like a good idea to define privilege in relation to a specific goal that an individual has. If a person doesn’t care about total life income, having a value for a personal characteristic that only increases life income relative to alternative values for that characteristic doesn’t matter – the person doesn’t care about life income anyway. Similarly, if a person has a specific underprivilege that would only affect a goal about which he doesn’t care, then this is not a disadvantage to him, and he shouldn’t be considered to be underprivileged [1].

Given the goal-directed nature of privilege, the next step is to realize that since individuals have a variety of goals, some often polar opposites of other people’s goals, a certain value for a characteristic could be

- a privilege for one individual

- an irrelevant characteristic for another

- an underprivilege for a third

Insofar as a set of goals of individuals tends in the same direction (loosely speaking), a given value for a characteristic that is useful will tend to be a privilege for each individual, and hence can be termed a mark of privilege for the group. That is, it makes sense for two individuals in that set to look at each other and judge how privileged each is compared to the others by the values of their numerous characteristics and how they affect the achievement of the goals they all happen to share.

Let’s list some examples of privilege in the US. Each item assumes that all members of the society (the US) have identical preferences. I give some caveats in parenthesis to show examples of when an item would not be a privilege, either because there is a reasonable chance of a preference for a goal not being identical among individuals or because the specific value of the characteristic in question would not be conductive to achieving the shared goal:

- Being white (caveat: your words as a white person might hold less water when trying to convince a group of black people of something in some situations, all else being equal)

- Being male (caveat: if one of your main goals in life is to spend time with your children and you’re going through a divorce, it’s more likely your ex-wife will retain custody, your masculinity here being an underprivilege)

- Being intelligent (caveat: in some circles, intelligence might be viewed with suspicion as a sign of eliteness and superiority)

- Being physically attractive (caveat: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; being attractive to one group in society doesn’t guarantee being attractive to another)

- Higher family income (caveat: you might lead a miserable life [by your own judgment] if your parents only care about money)

This list shouldn’t be too controversial. In very many cases, having one of the above qualities will, all else being equal, make life nicer for you, and should be considered a privilege.

Now, let’s return to the definition of privilege. It’s useful to distinguish between goals you’ve achieved thanks to your privilege and goals you’ve achieved thanks to you merit. Therefore, success can roughly be modeled as a function S=f(P,M) – that is, a function of privilege and merits. The privileges are the environmental variables that made you more successful, all else being equal. Your merits are the efforts that you put in independent of your privilege. Keep these two categories in mind as we dig deeper to see whether this distinction is at all sustainable.

Let’s look again at the S function: S=f(P,M). P is some combined measure of various types of privileges a person possesses, perhaps a vector in Rn. Once again, each privilege value is defined in respect to a goal an individual wants to achieve [2]. M is some measure of how much effort a person is willing to put in to achieving success, and hence the level of merit of the person. I list M here as scalar, although it might very well be a modeled as a vector in Rm. It’s reasonable to say that this function is monotonically increasing in each variable, or that the partial derivative of S is positive with respect to either variable. That is, keeping merit constant, the more privilege you have, the more successful you will be (by the definition of privilege). Also, keeping privilege constant, the more meritorious you are, the more successful you will be as well.

We can now determine your marginal “success-productivity” of privilege (MSPP) and the marginal “success-productivity” of merit (MSPM). The MSPP tells you by how much your success will increase if you keep merit constant and increase privilege by one unit (don’t worry about what these “units” are – we’re discussing general intuition here). The MSPM tells you how much your success will increase if privilege is kept constant and merit increases by one unit.

The key idea to take away from this seemingly over-formalization is that the marginal effectiveness of being more meritorious can depend on your current total privilege. Similarly, the marginal effectiveness of being more privileged can depend on your current total merit. I will give an analogy from economics to explain what I mean:

In economics, the output of a firm is a function of its quantity of capital and its quantity of labor. For example, Q=bKaL1-a, where Q is output, a and b are some constants, K is the amount of capital, and L is the amount of labor. (Note: this specific form of the production function is called a Cobb-Douglas production function). Now, intuitively, say that a person is willing to invest 10 days into making cars. If the capital he has at his disposal is no more advanced than that available in the mid-19th century, he might be able to produce one car in ten days. If, on the other hand, he has very modern capital including various kinds of powerful and versatile machines, in 10 days he might be able to produce 3 cars by himself. We see from this example that the marginal productivity of his labor (in this case the additional cars he can make with each additional 10 days of work he puts in) depends on the capital he has available. The more capital (or, in this case, the higher quality the capital), the higher the productivity. This can be seen if the partial derivatives of Q are taken with respect to K and L – the higher the K, the higher the benefit of adding one more unit of labor. The higher the L, the higher the benefit of adding one more unit of capital.

Moving back to privilege, we can see how this applies: If your environment is very poor, increasing your personal efforts (separate from your success due to privilege) will result in small increases in success. If, on the other hand, you are very privileged, each additional unit of merit has a high impact on your success. Similarly, if you are not very meritorious, adding more privilege won’t help as much as if you’re very meritorious, all else being equal. [3]

Now, let’s try to further refine the definition of privilege. We stated before that factors like family income confer privilege. These are environmental factors external to the choices a person makes that affect his success. Let’s look at the privilege of being attractive. This is a privilege with which you were born, and it exists thanks to the good genes of your parents and also thanks to pure chance. Sure, perhaps you spend a lot of time working out and dressing well, but there is some degree to which your attractiveness is a privilege by birth – that shouldn’t be controversial.

To better explore the limits of privilege, let’s look at the other alleged component of success: merit. How can we nail down merit? Well, merit, which may loosely defined as the effort a person puts in, is (by construction) a variable separate from privilege. But can merit ever actually be separated from privilege? After all, how industrious and hardworking a person is is due in part to their education. Generally speaking, more educated people are probably more willing to put in effort to achieve something, all else being equal. And since education is very much affected by family income, merit becomes entangled in privilege. Furthermore, the effort one puts in also depends on the values instilled in him by his parents. This, too, was out of his control, and is a part of privilege. Successful parents who care about their children will pass on better life lessons. The third big factor affecting one’s effort in life is his genetics – both his propensity toward hard work and the IQ that is conferred by his genes. The person did not choose his genes. In fact, from our discussion of the privilege of being attractive, we saw that genetic traits are a form of privilege.

We see that all the factors that affect merit (“how much effort, work, and sweat a person ‘chooses’ to invest”) are in fact a type of privilege. If merit is a function only of privileges, then there is no real category of “merit” separate from privilege. All the efforts you’ve put into life have been a product of either nature or nurture. In either case, they’re privileges (or underprivileges) that were conferred to you externally.

We arrive to the conclusion that everything is a privilege and no one deserves anything due to “merit.”

Lest you think this conclusion too radical, consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine taking a person who, in 2014, was upstanding, smart, tolerant, respectful, and considerate and instead magically making him be born in a war-torn nation in the ancient world populated by mostly racist and ignorant people. This person would likely not have turned out tolerant, respectful, and smart. If in 2014 he could have learned integral calculus and the intricacies of DNA replication, in the ancient world he would have believed that storms are caused by the gods and that the sun goes around a flat Earth. This thought experiment makes it apparent just how strongly who we turn out to be is influenced by our environment (which, insofar as it is conductive to our goals, can be called our privilege).

Our conclusion so far has been that every single part of your life that led you toward success has been a privilege, and that you didn’t really make any choices that made you deserve your success in any moral sense. This discussion about privilege, then, begins to look very much like a discussion about determinism, and I’d argue that privilege could be just a face of determinism – the one that specifically deals with people’s success. Since we saw that success in life is fully determined by privilege, it is natural to make the symmetric argument that failure in life is also determined by privilege – or, in this case, the lack of privilege, or underprivilege. That is, if something very bad happens to a person, it is because they were underprivileged.

Now, let’s analyze privilege under two different scenarios of rape:

1) A perfectly rational man living in a world with no uncertainty one day rapes a woman. He is sentenced to death for this. Question: since his action led to a state of being that any normal person would deem unfavorable (ie, being executed), and since we concluded that failure is just as much the result of privilege (and is due to no merit or dismerit of one’s own), does it make sense to say the rapist is underprivileged? After all, his environment conspired in such a way as to make him end up being convicted. And just like successes are not due to one’s merit, the same goes for failures. The woman who is raped, on the other hand, continues living. Her life is doubtless much worse for having been raped, but at least she is alive. I doubt it’s easy to argue that being raped but alive is worse than being dead (though I suppose, in my ignorance, that it could be possible). Hence, it makes sense to actually ask whether the woman who was raped was more privileged than her rapist, who will go on to be killed. However, in this case, the answer must necessarily be “the fact that he will die is not enough to show he is less privileged, despite death being really bad.” Since the man is perfectly rational (by construction) and there is no uncertainty in the world, his action maximized both his ex-ante and ex-post satisfaction (which I will use as interchangeable with success or utility). Therefore, before he committed the act, he knew perfectly, 100% well what would happen and chose to do it anyway. This tells us something about his preferences: the act was to him more valuable than life itself. Given that he chose an action that he valued more highly than all the possible satisfaction of life, it appears that the criminal may be much more privileged than the woman. Of course, there exists the possibility that this isn’t the case, but it is not easy to show that this would have a high probability a priori.

2) A man with bounded rationality and imperfect information one day rapes a woman. He is sentenced to death for this. In this case, does the same analysis as before apply? Notice we have removed the assumption of perfect rationality. Now, it could very well be that the man was very irrational and couldn’t properly assess the consequences of his actions. Moreover, he had imperfect information, and maybe he had no idea that facing death in an hour would be so awfully terrifying. The rapist goes on to lose his life, which may reasonably be assumed to be very tragic for a person. Once again, the rapists’s actions were due to his environment/privilege. In this case, since his environment conspired to lead to an outcome where one of the worst things that could happen to a person did indeed happen, his environment conferred upon him severe underprivilege. The woman who was raped is, once again, alive but very distressed by the occurrence. Yet she still can go on to have a meaningful life. (Before you disagree with me for being callous, consider what disagreement with that statement would mean: that rape victims can never have meaningful lives after the crime). Hence, the woman is in a better position to achieve success, happiness, and satisfaction than her soon-to-be-dead rapist is. As such, by definition she is more privileged than her rapist. Why? Once again, because the actions of each individual are wholly determined by environment, and privilege exists when the environment is such that the events in one’s life result in success, relative to the alternative. Since the rape victim is able to have more future satisfaction than her rapist (or present discounted value thereof), she is more privileged than he is. Of course, it could be that the rape victim could go on to have a miserable life, in which case it can be argued that no, her rapist was in fact more privileged. This is true – but I am talking about the range of possibilities. And if you object to rape as an example, use another sexual crime that is not commonly considered as heinous – perhaps some more general form of sexual assault. In that case, it’s more and more likely that the criminal is less privileged than the victim, especially if the punishment is very harsh.

We now come to the topic of telling people to check their privilege. When one checks his privilege, this can be described as him exploring the privileges that led to his present (and future) success and seeing their relative contributions toward this success. He also compares his levels of privilege to either those of the person asking him to check his privilege or to those of a group which the person asking him to check his privilege is discussing. I can see a few legitimate reasons for someone being told to check his privilege, which I shall label as Types:

Type 1) “Check your privilege: You’re failing to realize how my/the group’s lack of privilege in some dimensions is leading to my/their lower success. By doing this, you are making me/them feel bad, which is bad for me/them.”

Type 2) “Check your privilege: You’re failing to realize how my/the group’s lack of privilege in some dimensions is leading to my/their lower success. By doing this, you’re failing to understand causal pathways in society, leading to an underdevelopment of your own understanding of how society functions, which is bad for you.”

Type 3) “Check your privilege: You’re failing to realize how your privilege in some dimensions is leading to your higher success. As such, you overestimate the privilege of others, you think that others are undeserving, and hence you do not support efforts (voluntary/coercive) to improve their success.”

What are examples of justified and unjustified instances of asking someone to check their privilege? Take the example from this blog post (caution: language), where the author tells white cis college girls to check their privilege when they complain they don’t get a weekly allowance. Her complaint is of Type 1 – other people’s complaining makes her feel bad because she does not have the privileges others have. Is this a legitimate complaint? Depends on your standpoint. If you’re a third-party person reading her post in America, perhaps this seems reasonable. But if you take a global perspective, the blogger’s own complaint is itself whiny from the perspective of a starving African child. In this case, that child could easily also tell the blogger that she should stop complaining since she is privileged to live in the US. Symmetrically, the girls who complain they don’t have allowances could easily complain about someone even richer than them complaining they aren’t wealthy enough. Taking this global perspective, it becomes difficult to say when asking someone to check their privilege is appropriate. The person doing the asking surely has someone below them on the success scale who has even less privilege. It appears that the solution, then, is either to say that almost everyone should be able to tell everyone else to check their privilege or that very few people (if any) should be telling others to check their privilege when it comes to Type 1.
Another example further muddies the waters: the familiar one of the woman who is raped by a rapist with bounded rationality and imperfect information. Say that she is able to go on and have a very successful life, due to being from a very successful family and having very supportive friends. If it is acceptable to tell people to check their privilege merely because they have otherwise high success, it would not be illegitimate for observers of the rape to tell the woman to “check her privilege.” Since she will go on to have a successful life and her rapist will be killed, her success value (in present discounted value terms) is far higher than that of her rapist. Hence, if you are allowed to tell someone to check their privilege when the gap between your and their success values is high, it would be legitimate in this case to tell the woman who is raped to check her privilege. It appears to me that this is a good reason to reject the “gap” criterion in Type 1 privilege policing as legitimate. Simply because someone is more privileged than you, it is not legitimate, when taking a global standpoint, for you to tell them to check their privilege if they are complaining about something.
Checking your privilege for fun and profit

Is it useful for you to check your own privilege? It can indeed be in cases 1 and 2 – when failing to do so either makes other people feel bad or when it prevents you from understanding your own source of success.

Take the example of a restaurant owner in a middle-class neighborhood that has some percentage of its patrons be poor families. Say this restaurant owner dislikes poor people and takes any chance he has to poke fun at them for not being successful. In this case, he might very well alienate patrons and have them stop coming. If he checked his privilege, he could become more understanding of their troubles and stop poking fun at them. They wouldn’t leave, and he would have more patrons.

Another example is that of the entrepreneur. If he understands that a certain social structure creates a cycle of poverty (which is, presumably, undesirable from the perspective of the individuals in poverty), he could try to start a firm that sells a product that helps people escape poverty (by, say, increasing people’s human capital). By checking his privilege and understanding why the poor people were poor, he is able to create a product to circumvent these social circumstances.

I will have more to say on the topic of why privilege checking can be of utmost importance – even to people who would consider themselves “conservative.”

Conclusion

In summary, we have learned a few things:

- Privilege exists relative to the goals of an individual.

- Since the importance of goals to various people cannot be compared (interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible), subjective privilege cannot in fact be compared.

- If we ignore this important theoretical point, we may say that insofar as people’s goals are the identical, everyone has privilege relative to an alternative value for a given characteristic.

- The social justice discussion on privilege is, at its core, an argument about the deterministic nature of the universe. Privilege is one face of determinism.

- Just as privileges reduces the emphasis on personal merit in achieving success, it similarly reduces the emphasis on personal fault for failures – including crimes against victims.

- As Peggy McIntosh points out in her seminal paper on privilege, privilege is not necessarily bad. In fact, I would argue that the goal should be to increase everyone’s privilege as much as possible.

- Analyzing events in the framework of privilege can give us odd conclusions – such as the fact that in a framework of bounded rationality and imperfect information, a woman who is raped may in fact be more privileged than her rapist. Such language is likely foreign to the discussion of privilege that exists among those interested in social justice, but is one that follows from our careful definitions.

Impact of conclusions

It is not my purpose to tie the arguments presented here into a larger philosophy in order to tell people how they should change their actions. I merely sought to follow the logic of privilege to its conclusion. Whether the framework itself is accepted is another matter. Still, I will note two impacts of my analysis:

- The existence of privilege cannot be denied by any reasonable person. The fact that you are far more successful in 2014 America than 2014 Congo, 1900 America, or 1900 Congo is stark enough evidence. Your place of birth significantly affects your prosperity.

- The importance of privilege analysis will rise and fall with the importance society places on an acceptance of a deterministic view of the world. If society decides that determinism shouldn’t affect how we view the moral positions of various actions and individuals, it logically should also not assign much importance to privilege analysis. On the other hand, if much weight is placed on determinism, much weight should be placed on privilege analysis as well. Conversely, if society decides privilege analysis is important, it should consider all the implications of determinism – for they are part and parcel of privilege analysis.

Disclaimer

Much of this article makes arguments of the form “if X is accepted as valid, Y follows.” This is not meant to be interpreted as “X is valid, and therefore Y is true.” Furthermore, I have not passed moral judgment on almost any topic related to privilege. For example, saying that privilege analysis in the case of bounded rationality points to the possibility of a woman who is raped being, overall, more privileged than her rapist does *not* imply that I think that her rapist is a more moral person than she is because he is less privileged. I simply state he might be less privileged, whatever the moral implications of that are. This stems from the definition of privilege. In fact, the hypothetical rape scenario I discuss and its conclusions on privilege are one of the reasons I find privilege analysis to not be a very good framework of normative analysis (normative specifically – it is still useful for positive analysis).

I’d like to thank my co-blogger for taking the time to slog through this post and offering constructive advice. Any hatemail you have should be directed to me, for the ideas presented stand behind my name.

Notes:

[1] Once we see privilege as being evaluated within the means-ends framework, we need to take into account the fact from economics that interpersonal utility comparisons are not possible. That is, even if a person has a privilege that objectively allows him to achieve a certain goal more easily than a person without that privilege, and even if the two people have an identical rank of their goals, it cannot strictly be said that the first is more privileged, since utility cannot be compared among people. Therefore, it is necessarily correct to say that privilege is actually *unable* to be compared across people when privileged is couched in terms of subjective valuations of ends. In the remainder of this article, I will ignore this and pretend that this utility among individuals can in fact be compared, despite believing that this is not possible even in theory and that it doesn’t make very much sense. I do this because most people do this subconsciously, and I will play along, ignoring the majority of the economics profession.

[2] The implications of the functional form and of the form of the variables P and M allow the model to generalize to intersectionality of privileges and interlocking hierarchies. For an intuition, see the economic analogy to capital and labor in an economy.

[3] I will add here that it is possible for the function f() to have a negative second derivative – that is, for your success to increase with both P and M, but more and more slowly over time. That is, the marginal benefits of increases in P and M go down as you have more of both P and M. An example would be increasing your merit in a very capital-poor society. No matter how meritorious, you likely will never be able to send a spaceship to the moon.