Monday, October 1, 2007

Who Watches the Watchers's Stuff?

From this week's Too Much newsletter. Provided without comment....

In just five years, economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev point out, the United States will sport “more private security guards than high school teachers.”

The two researchers don't find this projection from the U.S. Labor Department surprising. In the economically “polarized” United States, they observe in a recently published paper, many millions of Americans are no longer creating wealth. They’re guarding it.

The new Bowles-Jayadev analysis, The Garrison State, endeavors to distinguish those Americans producing the goods and services we consume — what Adam Smith called “productive” labor — from those who provide guard labor, a category that covers “the police, private security guards, military personnel, and others who make up the disciplinary apparatus of a society.”

This distinction, Bowles and Jayadev acknowledge, can be difficult to draw. The two, for instance, include supervisors in guard labor but not those “involved in the production of weapons for self protection,” goods that range from security cameras to locks.

Bowles and Jayadev actually calculate several different guard labor totals, each one based on a slightly different variation off their basic definition. Under one more restrictive version, they count a guard labor population that covers about a fifth of the U.S. workforce.

The ranks of guards in the literal sense — “police, corrections officials, and private security personnel” — have boomed over recent years. That boom, Bowles and Jayadev find, reflects a statistically “quite robust” relationship between guard labor and income inequality.

Why might inequality and guard labor go hand in hand?

“Two decades of behavioral experiments,” Bowles and Jayadev observe, “have provided convincing evidence that humans in diverse cultures are inequality-averse, and that violations of fairness or reciprocity norms provoke costly conflicts.”

“Illegitimate inequalities,” they note, will always be “costly to sustain.”