Bryan Caplan  

Conscientiousness and Poverty: African Edition

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A while back, I praised Rothbard's view that low conscientiousness is a major cause of poverty.  Today Nicholas Kristof discusses especially grisly African examples:
[I]f the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children's prospects would be transformed...

...Here in this Congolese village of Mont-Belo, we met a bright fourth grader, Jovali Obamza, who is about to be expelled from school because his family is three months behind in paying fees...

...The dad, Georges Obamza, who weaves straw stools that he sells for $1 each, is unmistakably very poor. He said that the family is eight months behind on its $6-a-month rent and is in danger of being evicted, with nowhere to go.

The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can't afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids.

"It's hard to get the money to send the kids to school," Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed...

In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine... almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.

I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.

Other villagers said that Mr. Obamza drinks less than the average man in the village...

I suspect that many economists would interpret this as evidence for self-control problems, but something tells me that stickk.com isn't the next Facebook - in the U.S., Africa, or anywhere else.  Alas.

HT: Robin

Update: In the comments, Boonton asks:
Is this conscientiousness or really a massively higher discount rate that is foreign to the lifestyle developed nations are used too?
I'd say that low discount rates are a key component of our common-sense notion of conscientiousness.  "Impulsive" isn't quite an antonym of "conscientious," but it's close.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Jason Malloy writes:

Cross-cultural measures of personality are so poor that they often show Africans as more conscientious than Japanese people.

They are based on self-rating.

Prakhar Goel writes:

All I have to say is: Latter-Day Pamphlets: I The Present Time by Thomas Carlyle.

Available here.

Boonton writes:

Is this conscientiousness or really a massively higher discount rate that is foreign to the lifestyle developed nations are used too? When life is brutal and short immediate pleasures take on more value than less certain future pleasures that are more risky and uncertain.

What struck my mind by the passage was that it sounded like a more extreme version of Angela's Ashes. There too the poor were given to make choices that seem amazingly short sighted and selfishh to our way of thinking. (But in talking to older people, this was hardly uncommon, many of our great grand parents would be hauled up today on child welfare charges if they were brought back to life and youth and given another go at raising kids!)

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Alcohol addiction is very strong.

On the other hand, if the economy was strong enough, one could afford to drink every night and also send the kids to school. Certainly my own heritage of alcoholic European immigrants shows that you can make more money than you drink in an expanding economy like that of the US.

I don't think one should bother looking at individuals until you address the systemic issues:

"The Congolese economy, long afflicted with structural problems that severely undermine the development of a more dynamic private sector, lags in productivity growth. Entrepreneurs face extensive state controls that persist from the country’s period of state socialism. At the same time, the government has failed to provide basic public goods and infrastructure.

The economy achieved marginal improvement in trade freedom, but it scores poorly in investment freedom, financial freedom, property rights, and labor freedom. Foreign investment restrictions, domestic regulations, and an inflexible labor market create a hostile business climate. The worst barrier to economic development is a profound lack of property rights, exacerbated by pervasive corruption."

[Economic Freedom of the World Report]

liberty writes:

I'm with Mr. Econotarian. It's very sad to see people squander what few resources they have, and the horrific results like this - which do shed some light on the "Just $1 a day can..." ads - but it is also human nature.

Just as we must build an economic system that produces good results even though people are greedy and selfish, we also must consider the fact that people are short sighted, stupid alcoholics as often as not (which is not necessarily bad).

The market is a pretty good choice for both: greed is channeled into profit-making, which serves consumers well, and it can create enough wealth to generally keep even the worst short-sighted, irresponsible fools and their families alive, most of the time (although the British system does a better job at the latter, perhaps).

Robin Hanson writes:

My HT goes to Carl Shulman.

Doc Merlin writes:

You have the causal arrow backwards.
If they gave up such behavior and invested the money in self improvement (education etc) they would have money in the future for drinking and partying.

hacs writes:

Yes, there is bad behaved poor people, like middle-class and rich people, if you choose the right guys. But, if you really want to understand their (poor people) situation, then it is needed to go where they live and see the life of many of them. They are not lazy, undisciplined, etc., as many scholars want to believe. Indeed, the anecdotal cases in that sense are the consequence of an oriented search for those profiles. Honest and serious field research in undeveloped and developing countries show other panorama. Predatory elites (yes, they are not hard workers, but crooks) in those countries applaud such assertions of naive freedom fighters of developed countries. Moreover, those elites come to USA to get titles from good universities, although their methods and mentality continue to be those of troglodytes. If you like of an anecdotal approach, I can mention the case of a slum that supported a local politician because they would get running water (even though they would not receive light and basic sanitation, of course, because there are more elections in the future). This basic service never was supplied (the political promise was simply a lie), consequently, the population of this slum did not support him (the local politician) again. As a retaliation, the local politician, by means of his political network, blocked any possibility of this basic service to be implemented there for many years (yes, this is possible in such places!), without any consequence for him, and no options for them (the political options were admittedly worse).

hacs writes:

There is a slum (as many others) where the fertility rate is high, and, given the presence of drug dealers in the slum, the violence and mortality rate are high also. The usual process of recruitment of children for trafficking (mainly 8-12 years old boys) causes human losses that exceed the annual rates of various war zones. The police only enter in this slum on rare special operations, or without his uniform to sell guns to the drug dealers. NGOs play "poor poor", but their actions do not have any measurable positive impact on the slum residents, on the contrary, those erected a barrier of useless recreational services that stimulate an accommodative reaction of slum residents. It is a lawless territory with no other form of social organization unless drug trafficking. This is public information, but the "best" idea to deal with it was to offer more contraceptives to women living in the slum. There are strong evidences that it is not the real problem, but who cares (excepting Julian Simon)?

ajb writes:

I became aware of how deeply cultural issues play into this when I attended a meeting of Black scholars and heard one sociologist (?) say in frustration that when he studied Koreans and Blacks in the same poor area, he was struck that the Koreans tended to consume less (of non-investment good like sneakers, booze, and clothing) than Blacks at lower levels of income. Furthermore, even successful black businesspeople on the way out of the ghetto tended to shift more quickly to spending over saving. It was not unusual to see even modest success lead to Black families buying a hot new car, while for many Korean grocers the right time to get a new car on installment was "never." Of course, this is also consistent with data showing Asians with low incomes having kids who study more and get higher test scores than Blacks with far higher family incomes.

hacs writes:

It is weird to talk about poor people who buy hot cars. Poor people cannot afford for such extravagances. A discussion on sub Saharan Africa poorness based on American poorness standards (poor people who buy hot cars; it is nonsense) is a lost of time.

ajb writes:

Poor Africans spending 10 bucks a month on cell phones while not spending 2.50 on education (see the article -- it's NOT just alcohol) is not unlike newly successful middle class Americans buying expensive cars. I am absolutely certain that not all groups of poor people have the same spending patterns and that those cultural differences are not uniformly distributed across ethnic and national groups.

Lars P writes:
The worst barrier to economic development is a profound lack of property rights

In a society without property rights, a wise man consumes what comes his way quickly, while only a fool saves for the future.

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