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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is 'rich' a normative concept?

The way that most intro classes present the concepts of positive and normative is to say that normative statements are about the way the world "should" be while positive statements are about the way the world "is". I don't really like this because it's too narrow and students aren't able to see the bigger picture - if a sentence doesn't happen to contain the words "should" or "is", they get confused. So instead, I talk about normative statements as being based on values and opinion while positive statements can be empirically proven or disproven (they don't have to be true, you just have to be able to prove that they are true or not). I find that this gets them thinking beyond just whether a sentence is descriptive or prescriptive, and into actual analysis.

So on the first midterm for my Principles class, I gave my students several sentences that they were supposed to identify as being either positive or normative. The one that tripped up the most students was:

"There is a huge income gap between rich and poor households in the U.S."

The correct answer is that this is normative because although one could empirically measure the difference in income between households of different incomes, it is still a matter of opinion whether that difference is 'huge'. The Presidential campaign has also given me some good examples of how the words 'rich' and 'poor' might also be normative - to Barack Obama, 'rich' is anyone making over $250,000 and to John McCain, it's anyone making over $5 million. Could you really use empirical data to convince either one that they are wrong?

Along similar lines, a recent post on Get Rich Slowly asks what does it mean to be rich? J.D. ponders:

Kris and Rhonda tried to decide: Does being rich mean having a large income? Does it mean having a certain net worth? Are the rich selfish? Is being rich only a state of mind? Or is it something else entirely?

Are two people with equal $100,000/year incomes rich? What if one has $100,000 in credit card debt? Is he still rich? What if one has higher expenses because she has four children? Is she still rich?

I think most of us would agree that a person with a $20,000 income and three kids is poor. But what if somebody earns $20,000 a year, lives a frugal lifestyle, and is able to save $5,000 each year in a Roth IRA? If you have a small income but you’re a good saver, does that make you rich? Is this a bad thing?

“All this makes me think that money isn’t the answer,” I said after Kris told me her story. “It makes me think that being ‘rich’ doesn’t have anything to do with how much money you have. But what then does it mean to be rich?

Given the fuss that politicans make over "the rich" and "the poor", I think it's an excellent question to ponder.

1 comment:

  1. Nice way to make the distinction between positive and normative. And the rich/not-rich distinction sharpens it really well.

    ReplyDelete

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