Currie on Inequality at Birth

Prof. Brown structured our discussion of Currie’s article around one, admittedly open-ended, question: what big political or ethical conclusions do you take away from this?

For example, Will said that it raised two kinds of doubt about equal opportunity for him. On the one hand, the article convinced him that it will be nearly impossible to achieve equal opportunity. On the other hand, he was struck by the implicit assumption of the article that equal opportunity would consist in making sure that everyone’s chances in life are determined solely by their genetic makeup, free from any environmental influence. That, he said, struck him as debatable or, at least, not as compelling as “equal opportunity” normally sounds.

Danny, on the other hand, thought this gave us reason to look for ways of focusing on pregnant women living near environmental hazards. Mikayla was reluctant to focus on this population rather than, say, everyone living near an environmental hazard.

Cyrus and Martin thought the article made a good case for reconsidering the size of the externalities of the polluting firms.

Maya and Ella both thought Currie’s research called into question our ability to hold individuals responsible for their behavior. Would Locke’s theory look as good if we did not read it while tacitly assuming that everyone was on a more or less equal footing?

Thomas was particularly interested in political questions. Instead of asking how we should spend our limited budget on addressing the problems Currie raises, he wanted to ask why the budget is limited. Why do we decide that other things are more important?

I added my own little twist to this. I think it is quite likely that large changes in the crime rate can be explained by the presence and then absence of leaded gasoline. I am no expert, but Kevin Drum has spent a lot of time looking into this and he has convinced me; you can read for yourself and make up your own minds. Anyway, suppose that is true. I see a story of an environmental pollutant, lead, that caused a social problem, crime, that was not understood by the society at large. And so the massive shifts in the political system brought about by reactions to the crime rate, such as the war on drugs, were misdirected. That seems interesting to me, either as a history of the recent past or as a case study of how the political system can go wrong. It’s a great PPE story because it has politics, economics, and obvious implications for our philosophical beliefs about responsibility and opportunity.

Prof. Brown had a take-away that she saved for the very end. She thinks the very end of the second section is incredibly important.

If educated white mothers respond to environmental remediation policies and others do not, then place-based policies may exacerbate inequalities. If an area “gentrifies” in response to environmental policies, then this will tend to benefit property owners but may harm renters. Clearly … it is important to understand the incidence and distributive effects of environmental policies and there is relatively little known about these issues. It may be that person-based policies such as the WIC are more equitable and effective remediation tools than place-based policies (Currie 2011, 17).

In other words, if you clean up a place, then the cost of living there goes up and the poor people get priced out. Where do they move to? Another polluted place that is in their price range. So place-based harms are inevitable and the most you can do is ameliorate the harm by addressing the people who suffer them.

So when Danny proposed public programs aimed at pregnant women who live in these areas, or Peter proposed changes in the tax code that would discourage single parent families and encourage more economically viable two parent families, they are singing Currie’s song.

One more thing

Martin and I had a quick go-round on some questions that utilitarianism faces concerning population policy. For anyone interested, I put two documents on Sakai. One is a short article by Derek Parfit on this problem (Parfit 2004). The other is a handout I prepared to explain Parfit’s ideas in advance of a lecture he gave at Scripps in 2015.

Anyone who is not interested should feel free to ignore both of these. Martin and I can have all the fun to ourselves.


Currie, Janet. 2011. “Inequality at Birth: Some Causes and Consequences.” American Economic Review 101 (3): 1–22. doi:10.1257/aer.101.3.1.

Parfit, Derek. 2004. “Overpopulation and the Quality of Life.” In The Repugnant Conclusion: Essays on Population Ethics, edited by Jesper Ryberg and Torbjorn Tännsjö, 7–22. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.