Monday, September 19, 2005
Breasts and Western Culture
In seems these days that women go to great lengths to emphasize their breasts by means of the clothes they wear. Every movie star that appears on the nightly talk shows has a plunging neckline, or as much cleavage as they can muster. Young girls wear tight fitting tops. Dresses for formal affairs like the Oscars are always revealing, as are many strapless gowns at society functions.
So women want their breasts to be noticed. However, if they show their breasts then this is regarded as slutty, or even criminal. In the movie, it would have made perfect sense for the women to be topless in the mermaid scenes, but to have done so would have made the movie unsuitable for TV as well as having given it a rating as unsuitable for children instead of the G or PG rating it had.
So, what's going on? Why is it that women want to tease with their breasts, but not show them. Whole industries have sprung up making videos of getting women to flash their breasts, especially at bars and the Mardi Gras. If women were to go topless at the same venues as men do (the beach, for example), what would change about the dynamics of society? (I realize there are special nudist or topless beaches, but that is not the norm). Was the Janet Jackson flap about showing her breast in public or just on TV?
There is obviously a religious basis for our schizophrenic behavior, the first thing the missionaries did when going to the south sea islands or interior Africa was to get the women to cover up. And many societies are even more restrictive, but there seems to be a special disconnect in western society these days. Teasing is OK, revealing is condemned. Odd...
Friday, September 16, 2005
Going back to biblical times there have been protests about the
concentration of wealth. It thus seems that there must be some
underlying reasons why this remains a popular idea. Several
arguments can be made in favor of a more equitable distribution
- The moral argument:
Many of the major religions condemn the accumulation
of wealth. The most obvious example is found in the well-known
sayings of Jesus. But many eastern religions expect their true
followers to disdain wealth, or in some cases material
- The fairness argument:
As all people come into the world equally helpless
they should ultimately reach at least approximate equality of
condition when they mature. People have an innate sense of what
is fair as many psychological experiments have demonstrated. The
intrinsic sense of fairness requires basic economic
- The economic efficiency argument:
Having a population with gross inequalities of wealth
causes economic efficiencies. For example, if too many people are
too poor there will be limited markets for the output of industry
and agriculture. This will limit the growth potential of the
economy. Some also argue that excessive wealth produces waste as
the rich spend there money on items which are economically
inefficient. Buying jewelery instead of investing in new
- The social stability argument:
When societies get too out of balance social unrest
increases. In the most extreme cases this leads to civil
disturbance or revolution. This resentment against the wealthy
may lead to their death or banishment and the forcible taking of
their property. The most popularly cited example is the French
revolution, but there are many other cases. Even where the
rebellion doesn't succeed the damage to the society may be severe
and long lasting.
- Private property is sacred (or inviolable).
Society is based upon a person's right to the product
of their labors (or their ancestor's labor) and thus the state
has no right to take it away.
- wealthy people create growth opportunities for society.
Only those with a large amount of capital can startup
or expand new businesses. If they didn't exist the economy would
not grow as fast.
- wealthy people are the only ones who can support the arts.
Throughout history it has been the wealthy who have
commissioned fine art, musical compositions, museums and other
monuments of civilization.
- Poor people are lazy (or inferior).
This argument is a variant of the Calvinist belief
that salvation is found through work. Thus those who become
wealthy are "blessed" and deserve their rewards. Those who are
poor are to blame in some fashion for their position in society
and government intervention to alter the balance will only lead
to even more lazy people and the eventual breakdown of
Let us assume, for the moment, that the arguments for
redistribution are more persuasive than those against. Then how
would redistribution be achieved? There seem to be only two
avenues. The first is through the appropriation of wealth. This
has been done several times in history. Henry VIII seized the
wealth of the Catholic church in England and kept part for the
treasury and redistributed part to his supporters. During the
French revolution much of the wealth of the aristocracy was
seized by local authorities or looted by the populace.
The results of such drastic actions are hard to foresee. It
may lead to a permanent realignment of power in society, as in
England or it may lead to anarchy and the rise of a dictator as
The second approach is via taxation. Once again there is a
historical example in Britain. During the 20th Century the
government decided that the hereditary landowners had too much
wealth. They established a plan whereby the wealth would be
transferred over many decades via death duties. As the lord of
the manor died off his heirs would have to pay a tax on the value
of the estate. This has had the effect of gradually transferring
the wealth of the aristocracy to the government. One difficulty
has been that, in many cases, the estates are worth so much that
the heirs cannot find buyers and they get transferred to the
"National Trust". This is the nub of all wealth transfer schemes.
In order to tax the wealthy at a rate that forces them to sell
part of their assets there must be buyers who can afford to
purchase the items. A painting appraised at one million dollars
is worth nothing if there are no buyers. Even assets like stocks
depend upon a pool of buyers for them to be convertible to
When the wealth of a society gets sufficiently unbalanced it
ceases to valuable since there are no people with the resources
to purchase it. During the French revolution most of the
furniture in the estates was looted and much of it was used for
firewood. It had no value in a peasant's home. It didn't fit,
wasn't practical, and the decorative detail was useless.
So any plan that is going to shift the balance of wealth has
to deal with issues of extracting real value from the
accumulations of the wealthy without causing a drop in the
marketability of the assets.
Can wealth redistribution take place in the US? The least
disruptive approach would be changing the tax code to be more
progressive. This could be modifications to the income tax, the
restructuring (not elimination) of the estate tax, and imposition
of either wealth taxes or consumption taxes. The wealthy can be
expected to object to all of these changes. In addition they have
the political and economic clout to promote their self interests.
A concerted effort by the people can succeed. Recent examples in
countries like the Phillipines and Poland show the power the
people can have when they join peacefully for a change in the
organization of society.
The Interest in Wealth Redistribution
In the US there is, currently, little interest in wealth
redistribution. The populist impulse that existed around 1900 has
not re-emerged around 2000. Many people attribute this to a
general satisfaction with their standard of living of the
majority of the middle class. In addition there is a wide spread
native optimism which makes people feel that they have a good
chance of moving up the economic ladder during their lifetime and
thus any increased taxation on the wealthy will impact them at
some point in the future. The fact that this is not borne out by
statistics does not alter people's perceptions. In Europe the
middle class is much more aware of the limited mobility within
classes and is much more attuned to keeping wealth imbalance
The Arguments for Unfettered Wealth
This has been discussed in numerous places. Most
social critics feel that the arguments in favor of private
property are just self serving. There is no natural law of
private property. It only exists as long as there is a state
structure with a robust police function which can maintain the
property concept. Many societies do not recognized private
property and function successfully. Even in developed countries
most don't have as strong a Libertarian sentiment as is found in
the US. Many feel that excessive wealth is
- Only the rich can create economic growth
In the US this is contradicted by the history of our
country. All the great industries of the 19th and 20th Centuries
were created by individuals with no prior wealth. Andrew
Carnegie, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, etc. started with essentially
nothing and built huge enterprises. On the other hand the
children of these entrepreneurs have not been especially noted
for doing anything notable. Andrew Carnegie felt so strongly that
each generation should make its own way that he left the bulk of
his estate to charity. His children had to make their own way.
The secret of a successful entrepreneur is his ability to raise
capital to expand his enterprise. This is obtained from banks and
selling stock and not generally from personal wealth. One doesn't
need rich people to build a business. The capital of a bank can
be $1000 from one hundred people or $100,000 from one person. The
amount available to lend is the same. Wealth does not have to be
concentrated to be available for investment. In the developed
world much of the available capital comes from pension funds and
is thus not provided by the wealthy.
- Arts Patronage
In much of history the wealthy have created the
permanent emblems of civilizations: castles and churches are most
often cited. They have also been responsible for patronizing the
arts and leaving us a legacy of fine art and music. But recently
the biggest projects have not been paid for by patrons. The
monuments of the 20th Century have increasingly been things like
commercial buildings, sports stadiums and public works projects.
Whether the movies or popular music of today will be held in the
same veneration as the old masters and Beethoven future
generations will have to decide. The point is, however, that the
arts of today are democratized and not dependent on the wealthy.
The only areas which continue the patronage model and are still
the domain of the wealthy are opera, classical music and big fine
- Divine Justice
This is a remnant of the Puritan origins of the US.
By this time society should have evolved enough to realize that
much of what happens in the world is beyond the control of the
individual. Not only are inherited capabilities different, but
many people are born into segments of society which handicap
their progress up the economic ladder. Blaming the victim is just
uncharitable and mean spirited.
As is usual in discussions of public policy one can cut through a
lot of posturing if one asks the question "who's ox gets gored?"
In other words, are those objecting to change going to be
negatively affected by the changes. It is obvious that the
wealthy and their dependents (apologists, lackeys, and
beneficiaries) potentially stand to lose the most. One should
thus examine their arguments in this light. Those favoring
redistribution are usually the poor so it is clear that they will
support any position that potentially gives them more.
History has shown that when societies get too unequal bad things
happen. They either become economically inefficient or they
become subject to social unrest. In many cases both happen
simultaneously. The banana republics of South and Central America
are a good example. For hundreds of years a small ruling
oligarchy has run things. Things are even pretty good for these
people. However, the societies as a whole have not prospered.
They have been subject to continual poverty and revolution and
much of the development that has taken place is in the hands of
foreign investors. The wealth of the few has been maintained at a
high cost to the majority.
As new societies arise which are more equal and more
efficient, the oligarchical societies will fall ever further
behind. The peasant class that kept things going, inefficiently,
will no longer be enough. The capital needed for growth will not
be present and the expertise needed to deal with modern
technology will not be in place. We can see such failed societies
in parts of Africa.
We in the US need to decide if we are going to slip into an
inefficient oligarchy, risk civil unrest or redirect our
resources and wealth into more equitable avenues. No society is
perfectly egalitarian, but when we have reached a point where the
top one fifth in Manhattan makes $350,000 and the bottom fifth
makes $7,000 we are probably near an economic tipping point. How
we deal with the coming challenge is up to us.