Bryan Caplan  

Murray, Frum, and the Hurricane Analogy

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David Frum's critique of Charles Murray's Coming Apart begins with an analogy:

To understand what Murray does in Coming Apart, imagine this analogy:

A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers. The social scientist writes a report:

The evidence strongly shows that living in houses is better for children and families than living in tents and trailers. The people on the waterfront are irresponsibly subjecting their children to unacceptable conditions.

When he publishes his report, somebody points out: "You know, there was a hurricane here last week." The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, "I'm writing about housing, not weather."
For Frum, the "hurricane" is stagnant or falling wages for half or more of the population:
Across the developed world, we see the wages of the bottom half (and in some cases more than half) have stagnated, even as gains have accrued to the top 20%, bigger gains to the top 5%, and the biggest gains to the top 1%.
But Frum's story makes little sense.  Divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and low labor force participation are expensive.  If you're worried about being poor, you'll studiously avoid them.  So how could economic distress be their "root cause"?  To rewrite Frum's hurricane analogy:

A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers. They're also malnourished because they keep leaving their food on the beach, where the evening tide quickly carries it out to sea.  The social scientist writes a report:

The evidence strongly shows that the hurricane is causing severe malnutrition.  Back when these people had houses they kept their food inside.  The government is turning its back on the indirect effects of natural disaster.

When he publishes his report, somebody points out: "You know, those hungry people could keep their food in their tents at night." The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, "I'm writing about malnutrition, not food storage."
My point: The hurricane should have made people more careful with their food.  Yes, they experienced a natural disaster.  But instead of prudently adjusting their behavior, they're being bizarrely short-sighted and irresponsible.  And it makes you wonder: If this is how they act after a hurricane, would their behavior would have been even worse if the hurricane had never hit?

Update: David Frum replies, and Tyler weighs in.



COMMENTS (13 to date)
david writes:
But Frum's story makes little sense. Divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and low labor force participation are expensive. If you're worried about being poor, you'll studiously avoid them.

No you won't. As Karl Smith pointed out, if you were "a poor black kid", these are enormously rational things to do. Your long-term job prospects are horrible anyway, so why bother deferring consumption?

Chris Koresko writes:

david: As Karl Smith pointed out, if you were "a poor black kid", these are enormously rational things to do. Your long-term job prospects are horrible anyway, so why bother deferring consumption?

Wait, are you confusing cause and effect here? Does a poor black kid who is virtuous not have a real shot at a better life?

I remember listening to an EconTalk podcast interview with a researcher who was studying poverty (among blacks, if I remember right) in a particular city over time. One of the problems her study ran into was that a lot of the poor people she started the study with had become middle-class before it ended.

J Storrs Hall writes:

Some years ago, at a Cato seminar, I asked Murray if he thought the leftists were doing it on purpose. The idea was that if someone were a crypto-racist and wanted to do as much harm as possible to the poor -- and were at the same time actually intelligent and crafty -- they couldn't do a better job than the social programs of the latter 20th century.

Murray said no, he thought they were honestly trying to help.

History may record this as his greatest mistake.

ThomasL writes:

His analogy makes sense if first you see "divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and low labor force participation" as unavoidable disasters that befall someone, like a hurricane, earthquake or tornado.

George writes:
If this is how they act after a hurricane, would their behavior would have been even worse if the hurricane had never hit?

Blame the Jews... I mean "international bankers" and Occupy Wall Street would be my guess.

Mercer writes:

"For Frum, the "hurricane" is stagnant or falling wages for half or more of the population:"

Wages have fallen for lower class men. Wages did not fall for women. This is a big cause in the decline of marriage. Look at the first chart on this link:


http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2012/0203_jobs_greenstone_looney.aspx

Milton Recht writes:

Behavior that is often labeled shortsighted, not prudent and costly can be rational and economically maximizing.

For example, suppose you are a young black female who would like to have kids someday. Your reality is one out of four black males is sent to prison, black males have a very high US unemployment rate and the absentee father rate is very high. When is it economically rational to have kids?

When she is young and when the largest pool of males is available. When the mother is young, her mother and her grandmother are around and physically capable of helping the mother with the child. Having children while she is young allows the mother to continue schooling while her child is watched, enter the workforce after a few years when the children can enter school. The mother will still be young and can work without having to take a maternity break from her job. Taking breaks from jobs for child rearing is the single biggest reason for lower pay of women. Working continuously at a job increases the chances of raises and promotions and having marketable experience.

If you only look at the mother when she is young and pregnant, the behavior makes little sense. If you look at the mother over her work years, early, out of wedlock pregnancy can make a lot of sense.

The Murray's, the Frum's and all the others concerned about inequality fail to look at lifetime earnings and lifestyle choices.

Percentile changes tell nothing about what is happening at the individual level. If more people retire, and more entry workers are willing to take lower pay for higher possible future earnings, such as actors, entrepreneurs, writers, sports players, musicians, artists, etc, or for lifestyle reasons, such as shorter workweeks, more vacation time, etc., then in any snapshot you will see more people in lower earning percentiles and fewer people in the higher earnings percentile with higher earnings multiples of lower earners.

You can get the same numbers that people see as negatives of inequality as you would if people were making voluntary rational career and positive lifestyle choices.

Not all positive career choices show up as increases in income. Plus, workforce characteristics can change over time and changing measurements of two different periods of workers can be due to population characteristic changes (average age, male female ratio, immigrant percentage, retiree percentage, etc.), lifestyle choice changes, and willingness to take more income risk or desire for more back end payment in later years over early payment at beginning of a career.

Increases in inequality measures does not automatically connote a negative outcome. A better measurement would be to track families over their work years and see what the percentage gains in income were over the years, what were lifetime earnings in total and on a present value basis.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Values that work in one income class do not necessarily work in another. Take the virtue of patience. It works quite well when we have real prospects of doing better eventually, to defer the kinds of consumption or lifestyle we want. But to imagine patience works the same way as a poor person, can be wishful thinking. At such times, patience can become more like denial of circumstances which if seen more clearly (with less patience) are actually quite intolerable.

Floccina writes:

Yes to me, the evidence suggest that greater wealth available to single women is the biggest contributor. If so the case Murray makes is also wrong, in that divorce and being single are a benefit not something to be fixed. Now I do not believe that, I think that divorce in many cases is mistake and that the benefits are short tern and costs long term but who am I to decide for others.

Jason Malloy writes:

I'm glad that Frum was upfront about his personal issues with Charles Murray, since it makes his shrill, belabored opposition more comprehensible.

(Of course, much of the metastasizing hysteria that puzzles Cowen is explained by continuing knee-jerk Bell Curve blowback. Regardless of the content being addressed, Murray-bashing is a necessary signal that you are firmly committed to the status quo of Good Person Ideas.)

A big disappointment with both Murray and his economic determinist critics is their failure to connect these changes to sociobiological dynamics surrounding female economic independence, sexual freedom, and the differing mating behaviors of long and short-term oriented people.

Both seem to assume that socially disfavored outcomes are the result of novel limits instead of novel freedoms, which doesn't seem to be the case. With more personal freedom than ever, people aren't increasingly segregating by cognitive ability, so much as they are by life history strategy (which is both influenced by and functionally related to cognitive ability).

MG writes:

Even if you conceded whether and if so by how much income/consumption levels have stagnated since the 1970's for a significant cohort of Fishtown...the Hurricane analogy defeats the broader argument. Hurricanes come and go, often unexpectedly, and always rapidly. Whatever the challenges that the Fishtown cohort were unable to beat were in evidence for decades, and absent the factors Murray focuses on, they may have been handled more successfully, like they were by previous generations of Fishtowners.

Navin Kumar writes:

I read David Frum's "reply". I enjoyed reading his original article on the subject. He was saying something banal - "correlation isn't causation" - but put it very interestingly and reversed the story.

But his reply is convoluted and intellectually painful. Here's how it went for me.

David: Correlation isn't causation. Poverty causes bad marriages.

Bryan: But failed marriages worsen poverty. Why are the already poor doing this to themselves?

David: 1. (a point about the debate on taxing the rich; not a direct rebuttal)

2. Wages are declining. Declining wages will result in greater work only below some threshold. According to Bryan, we ought cut their wages further to induce further "good" behavior - such as working on your marriage.

Or atleast, I think that's what he said - it's not clear. Is Frum claiming that because wages are now low, the returns to staying/getting married are low as well, causing the decline? Why not phrase it like that?

3. People work for non-financial motives. So have non-financial motives to get married declined? I really cannot see the point of this argument.

In short, he's offered no response at all to Caplan's puzzler. He's offered two non-sequitors and sandwiched them around something from which an argument can be tortured out, unproven.

Reading all the "congrats! wait to smack him" comments I wonder how I ever thought that liberals were less blinded by politics than the right wingers.

Craig writes:

What I don't understand is how to square the laughably crude genetic determinism of Murray's 'Bell Curve' with the emphasis on culture in 'Coming Apart'. Surely if (as Jason Malloy says above) you believe the dubious proposition that there are long and short term oriented people, and that these traits are genetic, it will take a lot more than lectures from the new upper class to change the behavior of the poor.

It reminds me of the Cato forum on Caplan's book, with Murray as commentator. Caplan was pushing his usual determinist line on personality traits, with Murray cheering him on, until he claimed that people who get divorced have a genetic propensity for short- term behavior. Suddenly there was an awkward silence. Turns out Murray had been divorced! Not sure what happened after that as I was too busy laughing at the absurdity of both of these latter day phrenologists to finish the podcast.

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