Bryan Caplan  

You Don't Have to Raise the Average to Pull Your Weight

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Since there's a lot of interest in my case against high-IQ misanthropy, here's a fuller discussion from Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:

You Don't Have to Raise the Average to Pull Your Weight

        Eighty percent of success is showing up.
                 - Woody Allen

When asked, "Does the birth of another baby make the world better - or worse?," I suspect that many secretly answer, "It depends on the baby."  If he grows up to be a scientist, they think the world's better off.  If he grows up to be a janitor, they think the world's worse off.  The implicit dividing line, apparently, is that people make the world a better place if and only if they raise average income.*   If our average income is $50,000 a year, the birth of a future janitor supposedly impoverishes us by pulling down the average.

To modern ears, this "eugenic" perspective sounds true but cruel - like pointing out that someone is fat or ugly.  But it's usually not even true.  Eugenicists mistake arithmetic for injury.  A "burden on society" isn't someone who produces less than average; it's someone who consumes more than he produces.  The birth of a future janitor is nothing to worry about as long as he'll be self-supporting and peaceful.  The vast majority of janitors are.   

When Danny DeVito enters a room, he reduces its occupants' average height.  But he doesn't cause anyone to "lose height."  Shortness isn't contagious.  Neither is low income.  A janitor earns less than average, but his existence doesn't impoverish his fellow citizens.

Does the world really need another janitor?  Absolutely.  If janitors weren't useful, employers wouldn't pay them $20,000 for a year of their time.  Many think there's no place for unskilled workers in the high-tech economy of the future, but someone has to do their jobs.  When there aren't enough unskilled workers to wash dishes and collect garbage, skilled workers pick up the slack - and their other talents go to waste.  If Bill Gates spent half his time cleaning his own office, making his own meals, and watching his own kids, he'd discover far fewer new ideas to enrich us all.

The second most-popular dividing line is probably between above- and below-average intelligence.  The famous eugenicist Karl Pearson maintained that "the sole condition under which... immigration should be allowed" is when the immigrants "form from the standpoint of intelligence a group markedly superior to our natives."  Quoted in David Levy and Sandra Peart, "Statistical Prejudice: From Eugenics to Immigrants."  European Journal of Political Economy 2004, p.16.


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

You really haven't thought very hard about this, have you?

Prakash writes:

Bryan,

I don't think you are imagining the least convenient possible world. For a post that it tagged energy, environment and resources, there is remarkably less argument in it that mentions either of these.

Presently the earth looks big enough that humans can breed around with impunity.

In the least convenient possible world,

  • The world's resources are truly finite.

  • A cultural trend which begins is difficult to stop.

  • A large number of resources are horribly mispriced.

Is the ability to pay a good criteria to judge whether a person is genuinely contributing or is society subsidising him, using resources that could have gone into making present lives better?

Do you still want to start a trend of everyone, irrespective of their ability to contribute novelty to society, having more children and running smack into a malthusian nightmare?

If your answer is yes, then wow, you are a bullet biter

econo writes:

"A "burden on society" isn't someone who produces less than average; it's someone who consumes more than he produces. The birth of a future janitor is nothing to worry about as long as he'll be self-supporting and peaceful. The vast majority of janitors are."

Given that most advanced societies operate significant re-distributional welfare states funded by progressive taxation, I´d say that the answer isn´t obvious. Rather, it´s a quantitative matter, depending on how taxes and benefits are set up.


" A janitor earns less than average, but his existence doesn't impoverish his fellow citizens."

It might, if his low earnings are related to low human capital (IQ, norms) below a certain threshold*, that are in turn related to negative externalities.

If he, say, is more likely to end up unemployed, in drug abuse, or more likely to become criminal, or if his children are more likely to become unemployed or criminal, he could very well end up impoverishing his fellow citizens. Or worse. Especially as he is given power over them through the voting booth.

*Arbitrary cutoff, but as the curve is unlikely to be linear...

For a practical demonstration of how this works in practice, notice how adept high-IQ / high-SES people are at staying far away (geographically and socially) from low-IQ / low-SES people.

Andrew writes:

By your own logic, if unskilled workers suddenly became more skilled, we would be worse off because then skilled workers would have to do unskilled work and Bill Gates couldn't come up with new ideas? This almost sounds like an argument for a Brave New World society. I don't think this is what you want to be arguing.

I think the real argument is this. More people are better than less people, but higher skilled is still prefered to lower skilled.

Miguel Madeira writes:
I think the real argument is this. More people are better than less people, but higher skilled is still prefered to lower skilled.

I think that Caplan's argument is that lower skilled people are better than no people.

agnostic writes:

"If Bill Gates spent half his time cleaning his own office, making his own meals, and watching his own kids, he'd discover far fewer new ideas to enrich us all."

Cleaning one's office is just about unnecessary and makes you look bad -- high achievers are supposed to have messy desks and strange spots on the floor. So cleaning adds 15 min a week to his load; basic tidying up at the end of the week.

Making meals takes no more than 20-30 min per meal, and no more than 10 min for breakfast, plus a 1-hour trip to the supermarket per week. This adds 7 to 9 hours.

Watching kids takes no time because they don't need to be watched -- that's just helicopter parenting speaking. Unless they're infants, but then the male isn't going to be looking after them. Let them play and have their own life. This adds no hours.

So unless Bill Gates only works a part-time job of 20 hours a week, it will be impossible for him to spend "half his time" doing this stuff. Rationalizers of outsourcing everything blow all these tasks out of proportion to make it sound like it's the difference between riding a horse vs. riding a plane. Get real.

And you again demonstrate the disbelief of economists in the idea of diminishing marginal returns. Bill Gates will make most of his wonderful discoveries using the first chunk of work hours -- say 40. After that, he's picked the low-lying fruit for the week, so he'll get less per hour at the office.

Taking away 5-10 hours per week *at most* is not going to cripple his innovations. He'll re-order things so that these hours taken away are the least productive ones. And if he's already working 60, 70, or 80 hours at the office, the least productive 5-10 come from the point where the returns have basically plateaued.

agnostic writes:

"A janitor earns less than average, but his existence doesn't impoverish his fellow citizens."

Then why in the IQ misanthropy post did you advise people who want a better life for their kids to "use your brains to make some extra money and move to a nicer neighborhood"?

We all know what "nicer neighborhood" means. Something isn't so hot about where the person lives now, in a not-so-nice nabe. What makes it that way? Probably a fair amount of low-IQ living there. Maybe the majority are law-abiding and have jobs, but still everyone wants out, and you advise them to that effect.

Of course living in a nice neighborhood costs a ton of money, so more low-IQ people does impoverish the rest -- as they spend to flee not-so-nice neighborhoods. Moreover, with more low-IQ people, the neighborhoods get worse than before, causing more people to flee, driving up demand and thus prices for nice neighborhoods, further impoverishing the rest.

Steve Sailer writes:

So that's why I'd prefer to live in Karachi rather than in Oxford: Karachi has more people!

Richard A. writes:

Why must those who do unskilled labor be of limited education? Japan has denied itself the fun and excitement of a growing underclass. I strongly suspect that those who do the unskilled labor in Japan are much better educated than the unskilled in the US.

If he grows up to be a scientist, they think the world's better off. If he grows up to be a janitor, they think the world's worse off.
I suspect a much higher percentage of scientists listen to classical music than the unskilled.
Bill writes:

"It depends on the baby."
If they turn into another high IQ bureaucrat that thinks they know how to run other people lives, then not so good.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

A burden on society...someone who consumes more than he produces. The last time I checked, banks prefer to originate money (make loans) based on what people consume, rather than what they might produce with their own business.

econo writes:

"If they turn into another high IQ bureaucrat that thinks they know how to run other people lives, then not so good."

True. High-IQ people produce negative externalities as well, through mechanisms such as consumption of ideology, etc. Which is why strong norms can be very valuable for everyone, regardless of IQ.

Mercer writes:

"banks prefer to originate money (make loans) based on what people consume, rather than what they might produce with their own business."

If banks want their loans to be repaid they should care about what people earn.

If someone earns 20k per year and has a child under age 18 they pay zero income tax. Taxpayers will pay 10k per year for public schooling per child. Taxpayers also pay for the child's medical care now and for the parents medical when the new law takes effect.

When someone receives more in government spending then they pay in taxes I think it is accurate to call them a burden to society.

stephen writes:

There are so many weird things about this conversation. Where to start...

First off, equilibriums matter. Brian is arguing about a hypothetical economy in which there are more Bill Gates' then there are people to service them. Something that has, to my knowledge, never, ever happened in the history of humanity. Everyone seems to be concerned with the way they think the world actually is now.

There is no linear, time invariant valuation model for individual people. The value of individuals in society are not independent.

In general I would say that, on average, a society getting smarter is a good thing, and a society getting dumber is a bad thing.

Smart people automate boring, time consuming tasks.

Networks matter. Each person affects everyone else in some way, to some degree, depending on the variables in question. The Danny Devito analogy is (intentionally?) bad for this reason. Height is not a salient parameter, unless the "room" is a basketball team, for instance.

Like all highly non linear dynamic systems there are "tipping points", but good predictions are almost impossible.

sourcreamus writes:

If someone receives more money in government benefits than they pay in taxes, they are are burden to government not society. Government is not society. Society will still get the benefit of their labor, which in the hypothetical is 20 Gs. Society will have to pay the taxes to the government that supports the low skilled worker, but only the poorest and the criminal get more in government benefits than the value their labor adds to society.

John B writes:

Hmmm... I guess I'm taking this in too much of a hypothetical direction, but:

It is neither good nor bad. The birth of a baby happens. It is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad, until that baby grows up to become something, at which point they become good or bad (productive or a drain).

Arguably, everyone has that choice, so the event of birth does nothing to tip the scales either way.

Peter Finch writes:

Let's think about the harm you would have to cause in order to regulate fertility.

Suppose, for the purpose of this argument, that most low-IQ people, like most high-IQ people, have positive externalities.

Suppose, for the purpose of this argument, that a higher fraction of low-IQ people have some very bad trait that causes negative externalities. Perhaps they are inevitable-murderers.

Well, to snuff out the inevitable-murderer population (assuming that's what you want to do), you've got to hit the whole low-IQ population, because you don't know a-priori who are the inevitable-murderers. There's a lot of noise in your low-IQ signal.

Even if, netted out, the total low-IQ population is causing harm, it's doing so because of the actions of a fraction of that population. And it seems unfair to hit the fraction that isn't causing the problem. I complain about laws like that when they hit me.

This is easier to analyze when you work in a vacuum, and I recognize that the current system of subsidy and tax complicates things.

Kurbla writes:

stephen is right, assumption that people have their place in the system dependently on IQ, but that system itself is fixed and it doesn't depend on average IQ is strange.

Stephen, you should start blog.


HH writes:
Steve Sailer writes:

So that's why I'd prefer to live in Karachi rather than in Oxford: Karachi has more people!

Steve, this is beneath you. There are a some legitimate practical issues with Bryan's idea, but your comment makes no sense.

1. You're familiar with ceteris paribus. Nowhere does Brian claim that more people automatically means everything is better for everyone. It's assumed that all other things are held constant, and you know this.

2. Bryan has clearly and repeatedly specified that he is talking about PEACEFUL low-IQ people. Knowing Bryan's work, I'd assume he'd consider any sort of violence, including confiscatory policies, coercion, etc, to be non-peaceful. [My practical objection is that additional people are more likely to support such policies in real life, but it's his theory so don't fight the hypothetical.]

3. You should probably have noticed that the peaceful poor people of Karachi aren't making your life any worse. Such people may make life more difficult for one another through additional competition, but competition is also a good thing.

If you disagree with a point made, you have better ways of attacking than glib and irrelevant one-liners. You've made good arguments on other issues before.

HH writes:

To all the people discussing the comment that "in a world of Einsteins, Einsteins will be washing dishes" etc. Some people seem to think that this is a waste of their talents. Perhaps so, but we'd get a couple of responses to this:

1. More automation of such tasks

2. Higher wages for such tasks.

On 2, I'm assuming that most Einsteins would prefer not to be waiters and busboys. That would create a massive shortage of such personnel, relative to demand, and wages would have to go up to equate supply and demand. We'd end up with relatively fewer restaurants, perhaps, but this would on net be a better world.

Scott Scheule writes:

Agree. Steve should start blog.

(I'd also prefer arguments over the one-liners. Maybe his points are obvious to others, but I'm floundering.)

jwoggdn writes:

But we might lose the race with other nations on tests and even, God forbid, in average income and this would hard on us considering our anti-foreign bias.

Just kidding.

Maybe we should just insist that they be better looking than us on average. Looks are true externality.


Just kidding.

[Nick modified (email address was entered in name field).--Econlib Ed.]

tom writes:

The Danny Devito example is bad.

We know that there is no short virus and that being near him cannot make me short. But if 10 guys come up from El Salvador to look for janitor's jobs, they will make the job worth less the $20,000 Bryan mentions. So unlike Mr. Devito, the immigrants will infect the janitor who is here already.

Bryan may argue that by coming here and lowering the price for that kind of work, the immigrants will open up new opportunities for the economy as a whole in the longer term. But that argument is contrary to his argument, and it is a totally different thing than Danny Devito not having a shortness virus. (Plus, Bryan ignores the longer term in the rest of the argument because he doesn't allow that manual labor will be innovated away in the longer term more if it is expensive.)

Also, Bryan gives two examples of tests that people suggest for adding new immigrants: will they raise average income, or will they raise average IQ. Why doesn't Bryan deal with the second one? Whatever number of immigrants Bryan thinks the US can hold, whether five million or fifty million, I am sure that we could get that many with IQs above 110 if we required it. Why wouldn't we do that? Then we wouldn't be talking about importing janitors and a new and more docile underclass, we would be talking about importing new armies of workers for Google, Microsoft, Oracle, etc...

Steve Sailer writes:

"Bryan has clearly and repeatedly specified that he is talking about PEACEFUL low-IQ people. Knowing Bryan's work, I'd assume he'd consider any sort of violence, including confiscatory policies, coercion, etc, to be non-peaceful."

But why stop there? Bryan could specify as well that he is talking about low-IQ people who routinely run into burning buildings to save babies, who have superb manners and witty conversation that brighten the days of everybody the come in contact, and who look like Jessica Alba or Jon Hamm.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

sourcreamus, you said, "If someone receives more money in government benefits than they pay in taxes, they are a burden to government not society." That was an important distinction, thanks. Government has been the one that has dictated the rules by which people even are able to work, and set the bar needlessly too high, too many times.

Mercer, I'm not sure if you understood my comment about banks. For the life of me I do not know why a bank would rather see us mindlessly consume, than run a productive business. Unless government perhaps thinks too many businesses don't stand a chance so just keep pushing those 30 year mortgages.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steve Sailer,
Huh? I don't get it.

Chris Koresko writes:

I'm with Bryan on this one too. His argument seems clear and to the point, and I don't understand why it's generating so much controversy. To be honest, it's kind of disturbing how this topic led so quickly talk about criminality and disease.

I'll try to expand on Bryan's argument a little, and maybe take it in a different direction:

Bryan argues that as long as a person is able to provide for his own needs, i.e., contribute as much to the well-being of others as he takes from them, then he cannot be called a burden on society. It doesn't depend on how smart he is or what job he does. A reasonable way of estimating what he contributes and what he consumes is simply to look at his earned income and his expenses. It's not exact, but it's not hard to see how one would refine it. I suspect it does not make much sense to try to add independent corrections for his consumption of natural resources, pollution of the ecosystem, etc., but I don't know how to prove that off-hand.

I believe this point is relevant in the immigration debate. In a society where individuals (or other units such as families who tend to immigrate together) are expected to provide for themselves, there is one less reason to oppose free immigration. A lot of our current restrictions seem to be motivated by the suspicion that many immigrants are a burden on society because they have access to government handouts. So it could be argued that there is a natural connection between the libertarian planks of open borders and small government.

Evan writes:

I've been noticing in most of these polls related to low I.Q. people and immigration that an implicit assumption among many of the posters is that these people are negative to have around because they are poor, and therefore put a strain on the welfare state.

What these people seem to forget is that the welfare state is designed to benefit middle class people, not poor people. In fact, the welfare state transfers large amounts of money from the poor to the middle class. It has often been observed that one of the primary things Social Security does is transfer money from poor black men to middle-class white women (since middle-class, whites and women are all demographically longer-lived). If you are a self-interested middle class person you should want there to be more poor people in this country, so that you can leech off of them.

There are some programs that transfer money to the poor, like welfare, but they are infinitesimally tiny compared to massive transfer of wealth the middle-class receive from the poor through things like Social Security, college subsidizing, and Medicare. Overall, in a welfare state high IQ, middle class people and natives are a burden on the low IQ poor people and immigrants.

Mitchell Porter writes:

There really ought to be a blog debate between pronatalists like Bryan Caplan and antinatalists like Jim Crawford, author of Confessions of an Antinatalist. But TGGP is the only blogger I know who reads both sides regularly.

Tom writes:

My take on this that if you wish to participate in welfare, you must be on birth control. If you want children, as is your right, you need to support them. I think those who are willing to forgo welfare in order to have children will care for those children.

AC writes:

I agree with you in theory that if there were no transfers, then poor people make others better off economically. However, the US does have significant redistribution, and a significant fraction of the left side of the bell curve is actually a fiscal drain on society:

"Households headed by persons without a high school diploma are roughly 15 percent of all U.S. households. Overall, these households impose a significant fiscal burden on other taxpayers: The cost of the government benefits they consume greatly exceeds the taxes they pay to government. Before government undertakes to transfer even more economic resources to these households, it should have a very clear account of the magnitude of the economic transfers that already occur.

The substantial net tax burden imposed by low-skill U.S. households also suggests lessons for immigration pol icy. Recently proposed immigration legislation would greatly increase the number of poorly educated immigrants entering and living in the United States.[12] Before this policy is adopted, Congress should examine carefully the potential negative fiscal effects of low-skill immigrant households receiving services."

The paper reports that the average household headed by a high school dropout receives $32,183 per year of direct benefits spending and population-based spending and an additional $10,901 as their share of public goods and interest spending. The conclusion is that a person earning $10/hour is not only paying less in taxes than their share of government spending, they actually earn less money than their share of government spending. And that’s a salary which is significantly higher than the current minimum wage of $6.55/hour or the new minimum wage of $7.25/hour which will go into effect on July 24, 2009. Furthermore, people in these wage brackets are likely to spend substantial periods of their post-high school life not working at all.

http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2007/04/The-Fiscal-Cost-of-Low-Skill-Households-to-the-US-Taxpayer

Paavo Ojala writes:

If we like the idea of human rights and value of every human, we should want to limit immigration and want to have only high iq immigrants.

Having a lot of poor people around diminishes the value of individual. Our ideals of equality are threatened by high immigration.

Is Bryan Caplan happy to have substinence level people living around him? Slaves who have right to commit suicide are only positive to everyone. But most people would not be happy with having a slave society. The anti-slavery sentiments depended on the higher average income of average englishman. L

WCU krp writes:

I agree with what this article has to say. The birth of another baby would not make the world worse. Just because someone grows up to be a janitor instead of a scientist, does not make them any less important. Every scientist needs a janitor to clean up after them. Also, sometimes people have to start at the bottom of the ladder as an unskilled worker, and work their way up the ladder until they have the education or resources needed to get a better paying job.

Sure a janitor makes far less than a scientist, but as long as a janitor pays his dues, his taxes, and doesn't consume more than he produces, then it doesn't matter what his occupation is. Everyone cannot be a scientist. Also, as it states in the article "when there aren't enough unskilled workers to wash dishes and collect garbage, skilled workers pick up the slack- and their talents go to waste"

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