Tuesday, March 22, 2005


A new Harvard student group called DormAid offers a dorm-cleaning service. This much seemed uncontroversial until the Harvard Crimson ran an op-ed last week criticizing the service for creating a new way for those with money to separate themselves from those without money. For reasons that remain unclear to me, this op-ed gained traction until finally today the New York Times ran an article covering the controversy.

As a practical matter, money, status and more generally a desire to have nice things will always find ways to out. Even school uniforms, ostensibly to cut down among other things demand for expensive clothing, still allows for brand name socks and ties and more subtle ways of demonstrating advantage. Even in Iran where women wear burkas, nose jobs are a way for women to distinguish and beautify themselves.

If anything, clean dorm rooms do not reach the same level as expensive socks because anyone can have a clean room in minutes. It is really only the bragging value that seems to be at stake here, and I'd be surprised if people really bragged about this. People don't really like to brag they go to Harvard, and the process of revealing this information is called "dropping the H-bomb." I've heard people wonder whether they should just say they go to school in Boston, and whether this might backfire if they're forced to reveal this after stonewalling for as long as possible. Then that might seem all the more snobby by making it seem to be a bigger deal than it actually is. All this is not to say that there are no snobby people at Harvard; only to say that it is very likely that many students get this service not for any bragging value but because they genuinely value this service.

To the extent that some people can afford the cleaning service more readily than others, this is a problem. But the solution is not to cap spending by the better off; those worse off are not going to benefit if their richer counterparts can't hire someone to clean their rooms. It smacks of spite. Rather, the solution is to increase the spending power of the less well off so that they can all share in the things that the commercial marketplace has to offer.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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3/22/2005 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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3/22/2005 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger sling said...

You're talking about increasing the spending power of other less well-off Harvard students? I don't see how that can be done. There will always be inequality. There will always be people less well off who will not be able to share in "all" things the commercial marketplace has to offer.

Why just talk of a way to benefit other less well-off Harvard students? This, in my opinion, is a problem that trascends all of society. We could extend this discussion to those who are less fortunate in general. Why don't we spend more effort to increase the spending power of those with less money? Well, because of the way society works, some people are going to have do the tasks that others don't want to do. Also, the rich in this country do get richer, as clearly evident by the housing market. This in turn leads to not only wealth or jobs being handed down, but also a plethora of opportunities that wealthier kids have growing up. Unless those in power, who unfortunately are usually those who are wealthier, take measures to reduce the ways in which the rich get richer, I don't see any solution to this situation, which in my opinion is a problem since inequality is perpetuated.

3/22/2005 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger bum said...

i have to agree with mr. specs (yes, thats what i said). as a bum, i have realized and accepted that we are all at different points along the economic scale. some may not like it, but its just the way it is. as mr. specs said, i don't think most people mention where they are along that scale,...directly (i can make a great argument how they do indirectly, whether it be unconcious or not), because there really is no reason too. if you do its out of term.

now onto the issue of the cleaning service, i see this as no different then laundry service or even types of meal plans. i think the confusion is just looking at this from a financial perspective. lets remember, college students are lazy and if they can find a shortcut to do things, they will find it, even if they have to pay for it. i heard no mention of this cleaning service being exclusive or that one has to sign a longterm contract in order to participate. so is it that unreasonable that a young HARVARD man might employ this cleaning service so that his place will be tidy for when his lady friend comes over? i don't think so. whoever thought of this idea, should be applauded. its a great idea and i am sure no malice was intended when he/she thought up the idea.

i think some at HARVARD are just overly sensitive, much like some minorities (people, not the entire groups) are overly sensitive when certain issues come up. i know i am just a bum - but let me give you guys a few words of advice - don't take everything so personally.

3/22/2005 04:53:00 PM  
Blogger putonyourspecs said...

In response to sling's comment about the need to impose upper limits on wealth, let me offer this hypothetical from Robert Nozick's work. He offered the example of Wilt Chamberlain. He became wealthy because ordinary people were willing to pay to see him play. If you had imposed a cap on how much he could earn, then you would have imposed penalties on the ordinary people in the sense that they would not have been able to see Chamberlain play.

Even if many forms of capping wealth do not directly affect the choices of those less well off, neither are they likely to improve their status. Forced equality is meaningless if it does not improve the status of those who are worse off.

I focused on spending power of the less well off because that is the real way to make a difference in people's lives; by raising the floor not imposing a ceiling that can only have deadweight losses. You're right that raising the floor is an impossibly hard thing to do, and is a society-wide problem, not one confined to Harvard students. I left the question of remedy open because there are so many possibilities, and they are all disputed. Some possibilities include raising the minimum wage, offering subsidies or special discounts for those who can less afford it (e.g., food stamps), just to name two possibilities. There are no easy answers, but that doesn't mean that we have to go after the better off instead to achieve "equality" that makes no one better off.

3/22/2005 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger sling said...

What is wrong with limiting Chamberlain's basketball salary to like 100k or 200k (in today's money) and maybe even everyone else who makes more than that amount? The excess money he could have been making could be used to provide healthcare for those 40 million or so Americans who don't have it or to help small businesses pay a higher minimum wage or to provide greater tax benefits/refunds for those in the lower income bracket. Instead, right now we have people making millions of dollars, when it is even questionable whether anyone is "truly" worth that much. Does someone really have the right to extreme luxuries when others are starving? I am convinced Chamberlain and all athletes would still be playing their respective sports... Even in a society where the richest aren't making that much more than the poorest, people would still strive for dominant careers merely for status purposes. By imposing a cleaning, we can begin the process of raising the bottom higher.

It would be nice though if those with money didn't feel as if they are entitled to services such as having others clean their room or doing their laundry. I do see your point though.

3/22/2005 05:43:00 PM  
Blogger putonyourspecs said...

If you impose a cap on player salaries, owners keep that money for themselves. In any event, to the extent that you can redistribute money, you lose some of it to deadweight loss.

But in any event, there's a legitimate argument to be made for progressive taxation and other forms of redistribution, and I would very much like to see some of this go towards eradicating the social ills that you speak of.

In a way, this discussion of whether to cap wealth or focus on raising the floor is a false dichotomy because they really depend on each other. Raising conditions for the poor depends on redistribution. But this does not mean that all forms of caps on wealth help the poor. We should only consider caps if it actually helps those less well off.

The point about the Harvard cleaning service is that shutting down the program is not going to help the poorer students in any way; the students will just spend the money on themselves in other ways instead.

3/22/2005 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger bum said...

sling, your argument is incomplete. you can't just argue for wilt's salary to be limited...you would also have to argue for ticket prices to be slashed, a limit on advertising, how much the owners can take in, and the list goes on and on. stop arguing for a limit on wealth, its a poor man's (and in my opinion a silly) argument. maybe instead of arguing for a cieling (which won't happen unless a new form of government takes form (most likely socialism), argue for a floor. i think specs mentioned something about raising the minimum wage and/or the minimum living standards. that's more realistic and doesn't limit someone's economic potential.

good idea deleting ciarra, cionne or whatever that commenter's name was. it made no sense whatsoever.

3/22/2005 05:56:00 PM  
Blogger sling said...

You guys are right. My argument is incomplete. What I had in mind was a system where the owners still have an incentive to maximize their profit. Perhaps something more like how the federal income tax work, but a lot more severe where it's like 80% if you reach the 1 million+ salary. Perhaps this system can be implemented for both owners and players.

I like the idea of arguing for the floor but it seems like it's not entirely relevant and you guys seem to support that anyway.

Wouldn't such a system be interesting. I kind of like the idea of redistributing property and wealth along with this system of heavily taxing people. Also, limiting the amount that people can pass down.

But let's go back to the Harvard students' laundry. Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't expect others to do their laundry? Maybe we should strive to change people's attitudes so that no one thinks they are above another person. Everyone should take greater responsibilities in doing the menial tasks of this world so that there doesn't have to be as many menial workers.

3/23/2005 12:43:00 AM  
Blogger Ha ha hit him again said...

I do believe the maxmium (federal) tax rate is 35%, not 80%. Medicare is an extra 1.45% (Social Security is phased out after about 90K), plus state taxes of say 8% max, perhaps we get near 50% but that's about it.

slinga: Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains?

3/23/2005 01:01:00 AM  
Blogger sling said...

i know it's not 80%.. but i want it to be "like" the federal income tax, where the more you make the more you are taxed.. graduated income tax. that was my main point.

well i think chains are good. we need order... that's why we set up government. and people are too insensitive to the suffering of others as evident in this world.. which is why the government should help the people at the bottom.. we have enough resources to take care of all of our citizens in terms of giving healthcare or food.. why not do it???

3/23/2005 01:21:00 AM  
Blogger bum said...

hmm...i think you increased the federal income tax by way too much. i am sure you have taken an economics course and probably could figure out that there is no incentive to make a whole lot of money if you are going to be taxed that heavily. a person would only aspire to make 1 million dollars (your suggestion not mine) but then you would have to make around eight million dollars to make what you were making when you were at 1 million dollars (but only taxed at 35%). your plan doesn't work.

i find this funny. i am the bum yet you are the one arguing for a redistribution of wealth.

3/23/2005 06:23:00 PM  

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