Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Notes on ageism, Pt. II: On the objections

This is the second of a three part series. The first, "You can't have capitalism without ageism," is here.

In the first part of this series, I described a mechanism of capitalist wealth distribution that is fundamentally ageist. Because capitalism ties wealth to labor opportunities that only emerge over time, older people will have more opportunities to earn wealth than other people. This is not a particularly obscure or complicated insight; the only real questions is whether it has appreciable effects on economic outcomes, and whether we should do anything to mitigate those effects. It seems clear to me that the answer to both of these questions is "yes" - here are some standard objections, and why they're wrong.


1. Old people are poor - they are the ones who need state assistance.

This either/or framing obscures the actual state of affairs, which is that inequality of opportunity on the labor market hurts the old and the young. This problem is directly reflected in median household incomes when we break them down by age:


Obviously, since the very old and the very young cannot work, capitalism guarantees an economy where neither will be able to earn much money. If you want a capitalist economy that also compensates for inequalities of opportunity, then, you will need to additional mechanisms that distribute money towards the very old and the young.

When we look at net wealth (rather than income), we see that this is already (if inadequately) taking place for the very old. This is largely because we have things like "savings" and "interest" - financial mechanisms that disproportionately benefit older people - as well as dedicated programs like Medicare and Social Security, among other things. In the absence of these, the elderly would certainly be in the same position as the very young, with no opportunity to control a share of the wealth. Instead, what clearly happens is that the totality of these mechanisms somewhat offset the opportunity costs of old age, while doing relatively little to help the very young.

Any capitalist economy that aspires towards justice will compensate for the inequality of opportunity faced by the very old and the very young. This obviously means redistribution from those with the most opportunities for income, who will tend to be in the middle of the curve.


2. But there are other poor people too because of other reasons.

Again, this objection is not a counterpoint - it's just an additional consideration. For instance, on top of ageism, our economy is also overrun with rampant problems of racism, and there are all kinds of ways that this problem should also be addressed: through affirmative action programs, for example, or reparations, or other redistributive programs that disproportionately benefit people of color. Alternatively, you could make radical changes to our economy that would ameliorate many of these problems at the same time - such as abolishing private property and placing the means of production in the hands of the proletariat, for example.

None of this contradicts the narrow point that if you are going to have capitalism you have to somehow compensate for its systematic ageism. And this will generally take the form of redistributing wealth from high income earners to the very old and the very young.


3. Young people don't need income because their parents take care of them.

Ultimately, this objection depends upon all kinds of philosophical / ideological premises about human nature (when do we become entitled to democratic agency and our share of the commonwealth?) that seem difficult to defend on pluralistic grounds, but one doesn't need to take on such edge cases to see how far away we currently are from anything even remotely defensible.

For example, as a matter of settled law, we already agree in the United States that anyone who is at least 18 years old has a right to vote. Yet as noted in Part I, inequality of opportunity under capitalism means that 18-year-olds do not even have the chance to participate in our democracy as equals: they necessarily have less income, which means that they have less wealth, which means that they have less to invest in political activism. For the sake of equal democratic representation alone, it would seem reasonable for our economic system to compensate young people in full for the built-in disadvantages they face under capitalism.

If (like me) you begin with the premise that everyone has an equal right to the commonwealth, it seems to follow trivially that even babies are entitled to their fair share. Whether that share should be held in escrow, allocated to legal guardians, or distributed in some other way is a separate question; however, one doesn't need to tackle these questions to accept that by the age of 18 some kind of redistribution is probably in order.


4. It's okay to have an economy that systematically discriminates against the old and young since everyone gets to be privileged middle-agers at some point, too.

This isn't a line of reasoning that we would accept in any different context: ordinarily, we don't excuse temporary injustices just because they are temporary, or because they may be compensated for at some point. But more fundamentally this problem runs into the basic problem touches upon in Part I. On a level democratic playing field, would young and old people consent to this economic arrangement? We can never know, because the arrangement is already in place, creating an unlevel playing field.

This argument also faces the minor complication of being factually untrue. Some people die long before they get to experience the privilege of their high-income years, and even more people die before they reach the austerity of old age. The way that our economy is arranged effects everyone differently, based not just on how old they happen to be at any given moment, but on how long they live. The "that's just how the lifecycle goes" defense doesn't take this into account.