What Price The Moral High Ground

Via WinterSpeak and apropos my last post I just found David Warsh’s review of Robert Frank’s What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments He notes:

The title essay argues that moral satisfaction often can explain salary differentials better than the differences in education and training traditionally employed by economists. Many people settle for lower-paying government or non-profit sector jobs, Frank argues, because they see them as being socially responsible and are compensated by increased self-esteem: school teachers, police officers, nurses, community organizers and the like. Women in particular often earn less for jobs they consider morally responsible.

He argues that moral behavior is infectious so there is more value created here than meets the eye. However in this fantastic essay, he reviews work on the changing shape of the work force as a result of computers and notes:

There are jobs for janitors, cafeteria workers, security guards and the like, that pay poorly and offer little chance of advancement. There are more of these jobs than there used to be, but the greater growth has been among higher-paying jobs — managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and technicians.
About the lowest-paying jobs, Murnane and Levy have relatively little to say. It has long been noted that technological change creates losers as well as winners, and mechanisms whereby winners can make life easier for losers without seriously diminishing their own gains. Often these take the form of tax-financed retirement and health insurance systems. Combined with a little day-to-day respect, such measures can go a long way in conferring dignity on menial work.

Why should anyone worry about basic fairness? Because “Our market economy exists in a framework of institutions that requires the consent of the governed,” they write. “People doing well today have a strong interest in preserving this consent. If enough people come to see the US job market as stacked against them, the nation’s institutions will be at great risk.”

In a world with terrorists with WMD, our institutions may require the consent of everyone! And the debate shifts from attempting to achieve consent to whether that is possible and then what other institutional framework is required. As Zimram Ahmed of Winterspeak notes:

Whether or not to negotiate with an entity does not rest on whether it is a “death cult” or a “(virtual) state”. It depends on whether there is a geniune zone of agreement where both sides can agree, and whether negotiation is preferable or not to not-negotiating. Personally, I cannot see any possible zone of agreement between jihadis and the rest of the world, which means there can be no value to negotiation. If jihadis want a state, they can contest for one in countries that allow elections, or they can fight for one in states that do not allow elections. And they are fair game for those who protect states — armies and police.


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