18 May 2017
Can You Choose Your Race?
May 8, 2017
Recently, in the feminist journal Hypatia, philosopher Rebecca Tuvel argued that what allows people to change their gender (transgenderism) also allows them to change their race (transracialism). More specifically, she argued, the same reason that society has to recognize that people can change their gender should make it recognize that they can change their race.
Tuvel’s article produced a firestorm. Hundreds of academics signed an open letter of protest. This list included academics from top shelf schools such as MIT, Oxford, and Princeton. Hypatia’s editorial board stated that the article should not have been published and apologized for the harm it caused. University of Tennessee philosopher Nora Berenstain went a step further claiming that the article was discursive violence toward trans people.
The board’s statement and apology are a troubling break from philosophical tradition. Traditionally, philosophers respond to arguments they disagree with by refuting them, not by denouncing the author and publisher and then demanding an apology. Attacking philosophers, rather than engaging their ideas, is an ominous sign for philosophy.
Tuvel begins her article by noting that Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner transitioned from being a man to a woman and then graced the cover of Vanity Fair. Tuvel compares Jenner to Rachel Dolezal. Until recently, Dolezal was the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. In 2015, Dolezal resigned after she was outed for presenting herself as black when her parents are white. One can see why Dolezal might have seen herself as being black. She had four adopted black siblings, was married to a black man with whom she had a child, had a black father figure whom she called “dad,” and attended Howard University, a traditionally black university.
Tuvel asserts that in order to successfully change one’s gender (for example, from male to female), a person must identify with a sex other than the one she was born into and her society must accept that she is a member of the group with which she identifies. Oftentimes trans people do this by changing their appearance, sometimes via surgical transformation. Tuvel then argues as follows. People can change their gender. Gender and race are similar. Hence, people can change their race. Just as Jenner can go from male to female, Dolezal can go from white to black.
Tuvel faced the objection that gender and race are dissimilar. The idea is that gender involves changeable features (consider, for example, secondary sex characteristics, hormones, or identification). In contrast, the objection goes, race involves an unchangeable feature, specifically, one’s genetic ancestry. Citing Charles Mills, Tuvel responded that race is changeable because it is a function of factors such as culture, experience, identification, how one thinks about her ancestors, and how others think about her ancestors. Because some or all of the factors are changeable, she concludes, race is changeable.
A second objection Tuvel faced is that even if gender and race are similar in that they are constructed and changeable, society should not recognize that people can change races because it is insulting and harmful to allow white people to become black. She notes that Dolezal’s adopted black brother claimed that her transition was like a white person appearing in blackface. Tuvel responded that changing from white to black need not be insulting. It might be affirming in that the transition in effect suggests that it is good to be black.
The problem with the argument is that sex (biological categorization) is not socially constructed and gender (the way in which society views men and women) is not entirely socially constructed. Contrary to Tuvel and her fellow travelers, gender tracks sex. Sex depends on some combination of genetics and secondary sex characteristics and the concept of gender depends on the concept of sex. Just as we think that what makes a rhinoceros male or female does not depend on how a rhinoceros thinks of herself or how other rhinoceroses think of her, the same is true for human beings.
The fact that there are intermediate cases of sex and gender (consider hermaphrodites) does not mean that there are not paradigmatic cases of men and women (or male and female) and that these cases are independent of what society thinks or values. By analogy, the fact that there are cats that are part lion and part tiger (ligers and tigons) does not mean that there are no lions or tiers or that what makes something a lion or tiger depends on how others think of them. Genetic makeup and sex characteristics (breasts, vagina, etc.) can diverge because of, for example, hormone insensitivity. At most, this tells us that the concept has unclear boundaries or, perhaps, that secondary characteristics take priority over genetics.
Race is also not socially constructed. There are evolutionary lines that have produced different biological groups (whether groups of killer whales or humans). Again, neither the degree of similarity in most psychological and physical features nor the existence of intermediate (mixed race) people, prevents these ancestral lineage being what makes someone white, Asian, black, and so on. For example, Pygmies are a distinct evolutionary line.
Basic kindness tells us that people who want to be treated as if they changed their sex or gender and make a serious effort in that direction should be treated as if they had successfully done so. The same argument applies to those who want to change their race and make a serious effort in that direction. The suicide rate among trans people is truly alarming and we should do what we can to make their lives less traumatic.
The real problem for this argument isn’t that it caused harm. It is the implausibility of the claim that people can change their sex, gender, and race. A problem for the feminist brigade is that if people could change their race, then the many and sizable affirmative-action and diversity-related benefits could be more easily seen. This is not something that those pushing hard to discriminate against whites, Asians, and sometimes men can afford to let happen.
The Tax Code Should Not be Progressive
May 1, 2018
Donald Trump has unveiled a new tax plan. It cuts the number of personal income brackets from seven to three: 10%, 25%, and 35%. The plan lowers the top rate from 40% to 35%. It also reduces business taxes from 35% (the highest in the Western world) to 15% and reduces the rate for small businesses that constitute their owners’ personal income from 40% to 15%. In addition, it eliminates the 40% death tax (estate tax) that rich people pay.
The left immediately criticized the plan because it unduly benefits the rich. The Tax Policy Center estimates that the plan would increase the after-tax income of the top 1% far more than it would the middle class and poor. This criticism assumes that the tax code should be progressive, that is, it should tax those who make more money at a higher rate than those who make less. But why think this?
One reason to be skeptical of progressivity is that that businesses normally charge a flat fee. For example, Burger King charges the same price for a Big Mac to the rich and poor. The same is true for the sellers of cable TV, sneakers, massages, and Toyotas. No one thinks this is wrong or unfair. Whatever justifies a flat fee for these goods and services likely justifies a flat fee for government goods and services.
If anything, the poor should pay more because they use more services. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Jason Richwine report that in 2010, the average household headed by a person without a high school degree received $35,000 of taxpayer money (benefits received minus taxes paid). In contrast, the average household headed by a college graduate paid out $29,000 in taxes (again, benefits received minus taxes paid). An analogy would be if a poor family of nine insisted that they pay the same percentage of their income to Burger King as a rich family of three despite the fact that the former ate five times as many burgers. It is unclear why the business world should have flat fees, but the government should not.
Taxes should not be progressive because the poor are more deserving. Depending on the theory, deserved income is a matter of the degree to which someone works harder or longer, contributes to others’ well-being, or sacrifices to produce things. The rich work noticeably longer hours. The Free Exchange column in The Economist reports that by 2005, college-educated people worked on average two hours more per day than those without a high-school diploma. More than one out of four of the former worked more than 50 hours a week, a much higher percentage than high-school dropouts. Princeton’s Mark Aguiar and The University of Chicago’s Erik Hurst found that college-educated people have noticeably less leisure time than their non-college-educated counterparts. I do not know, though, if the rich work harder or face more pressure at work.
The rich also contribute more to others. Standard economic theory holds that in the free market those who make more money contribute more to others’ lives than those who make less. This is why customers pay more to buy their things and why firms pay more for their labor. A chief financial officer can improve or worsen a large corporation’s efficiency by tens of millions of dollars. A low level clerk doesn’t have such an impact.
Sacrifice is hard to measure but it likely tracks things like the degree to which someone put off having an income to go to school, waited until she was married to have children, had less leisure time, etc. The rich made more of these sacrifices than did the middle class who in turn made more than did the poor.
Here is another way to look at who deserves what. The Brooking Institution’s Ron Haskins points out that for people who do three things (finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children), 75% will be middle class and only 2% will be poor. For most people, this is not too much to ask.
The progressive tax rate is sometimes defended because the poor need taxpayer money more than the rich. That’s true. But if the poor are going to be given taxpayer money that they neither earned nor deserve, it is better that it be given out as welfare or, perhaps, subsidized housing, food, medicine, etc. rather than disguised as a tax return. Disguising welfare as a tax return makes it less clear the degree to which some people are carrying others. This is not good as it makes it harder for voters to assess whether taxpayers are doing too much or too little. By analogy, if a poor single mother were allowed to use your credit card, it would be better for both you and her if it was clear how much she was spending rather than commingling your and her spending.
The U.S. tax code is very progressive. Here is one way to see this. Economist Mark Perry using a Congressional Budget Office study of 2013 taxes found that the bottom 60% of U.S. households received more in federal transfer payments than they paid in federal taxes. The top 20% paid for this transfer plus almost all other costs of running the government. They did so because they pay a much higher percentage of their money in taxes than every other group, far more than even the upper middle class (households with 60-80% incomes).
There is an issue as to whether the progressive income tax even benefits the poor. There is good reason to believe that flatter and lower taxes (especially lower business taxes) would create economic growth that would benefit the poor and middle class more than would higher taxes. Still, even if this were not true, there is nothing right, fair, or just about a progressive tax.