Bryan Caplan  

Losing Ground, The Bell Curve, and Coming Apart: A Reconciliation

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During Arnold's video conference on Coming Apart, Brink Lindsey pointed out the curious fact that Charles Murray wrote three different books about poverty, each with a different explanation.* 

Losing Ground says that the welfare state gives the poor perverse incentives. 

The Bell Curve says that the poor have low IQ. 

Coming Apart says that the poor are increasingly lacking in virtue.

I agree that Charles Murray could have tried harder to integrate the three accounts.  And I obviously don't speak for Murray.  But in my view, his three books on poverty are complementary.  Quick version:

1. The Bell Curve emphasizes the most stable difference between the rich and the poor: The poor tend to be less intelligent.  Cognitive ability is an important determinant of success in almost any society.  Smarter workers are simply more productive, and competing employers reward them accordingly.  In the long-run, therefore, people with low intelligence tend to have correspondingly low incomes.

2. But the effects of intelligence go much deeper.  People with low IQs are aren't just less productive; they're also more impulsive.  Take pregnancy:
The smarter the woman, the more likely that she deliberately decides to have a child and calculates the best time to do it. The less intelligent the woman is, the more likely that she does not think ahead from sex to procreation, does not remember birth control, does not carefully consider when and under what circumstances she should have a child.  How intelligent a woman is may interact with her impulsiveness, and hence her ability to exert self-discipline and restraint on her partner in order to avoid pregnancy.
Or crime:
A lack of foresight, which is often associated with low IQ, raises the attractions of the immediate gains from crime and lowers the strength of the deterrents, which come later (if they come at all). To a person of low intelligence, the threats of apprehension and prison may fade to meaninglessness. They are too abstract, too far in the future, too uncertain.
Implicit: One of the best ways to help impulsive people reach decent long-run outcomes is to give them a lot of strong short-run feedback. 

3. In Losing Ground, Murray shows what happens when the welfare state shelters people from this short-run feedback.  People with ordinary levels of impulsiveness don't change their behavior very much.  Why not?  Because the long-run consequences of impulsive behavior remain bad.  But highly impulsive people change their behavior a lot - and end up with bad career and family outcomes:
The most compelling explanation for the marked shift in the fortunes of the poor is that they continued to respond, as they always had, to the world as they found it, but that we - meaning the not-poor and un-disadvantaged - had changed the rules of their world. Not of our world, just of theirs. The first effect of the new rules was to make it profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term. Their second effect was to mask these long term losses - to subsidize irretrievable mistakes. We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.
4. Another important mechanism that helps impulsive people reach decent long-run outcomes is tradition enforced by social pressure.  The impulsive are swayed more by guilt and shame than careful calculations about the distant future.  In Coming Apart, Murray shows that over the last few decades, this tradition/social pressure mechanism has gradually broken down for the working class - and transformed the working class into a dysfunctional leisure class.  The welfare state is an important underlying cause of this transformation: Removing short-run feedback led to worse behavior, which undermined traditional norms about work and family, which reduced social pressure, which led to worse behavior.

5. Murray doesn't just explain poverty; he explains elites' failure to understand poverty.  Elites live in a high-IQ, low-impulsiveness Bubble.  When they introspect, they correctly conclude that the welfare state has little effect on their behavior.  They then incorrectly infer that the welfare state has little effect on anyone's behavior.  If elites understood the world outside their Bubble a little better, they would have foreseen - and largely avoided - the welfare state's negative effects on work and family.

In sum: Murray wrote Losing Ground first, but the best way to grasp his perspective on poverty is to start with The Bell Curve, move on to Losing Ground, and finish with Coming Apart.  You have to connect the dots yourself, but Murray's Big Picture is both clear and plausible.

* If memory serves me, Brink made these comments after Arnold ended the "official" part of the videocast.  So they probably don't appear in the footage Arnold uploaded.



COMMENTS (23 to date)
Luke G. writes:
If memory serves me, Brink made these comments after Arnold ended the "official" part of the videocast. So they probably don't appear in footage Arnold uploaded.

No, I remember his saying that in the YouTube myself. Those comments are in there.

Dave writes:

I'm skeptical of the biological determinism at the root of this chain of reasoning, but I think you are right that it is internally consistent, for whatever that's worth.

Collin writes:

Maybe Charles Murray needs simply quote by Jesus Christ "The poor will always be among us." Or on the opposite end we have Judge Smails "The world needs ditch diggers."

One thing I noticed is Mr. Murray is fixated on the world in 1960 where this country went through a tremendous national identity from the victory in WWII and The Cold War. That world has long since passed.

Frank in midtown writes:

This ignores the asymetry of opportunity and uses "intelegence" as the sop variable that explains the varience created by that asymetry. The reason the "elites" don't get it isn't because they are in some "bubble", not getting it is how they deal with the cognative dissonance created by the truth that their "specialness" isn't really the cause of their position.

DPG writes:

I think it's a pretty simple sequence.

1. Low IQ puts people at risk of poverty
2. Virtue can compensate for low IQ
3. The welfare state removes incentives for virtuous behavior

Glen Smith writes:

Understanding the real meaning of the broken window story is instructive. The glass guy doesn't want to hire the thug to break the shoe guys window directly, he does so through a so-called war on poverty where he makes sure any productive work the ruffian can do is meaningless so he has time to break other guys windows. The rich don't misunderstand poverty because if they did, they wouldn't be able to construct a system where they hire the ruffian and still get to whine about it and maybe even get a warm fuzzy from their efforts without having to pay the full costs.

david writes:

The problem with combining these accounts is that you fall prey to a Karl Smith sort of attack that you can't be held ethically liable for your lack of self-control. This is especially the case if you wave your hands about IQ.

Then the leftist wrings his hands and proclaims both a nanny state and a welfare state.

blink writes:

Your synthesis of the three books makes sense, but how does it square with Murray's NYT recommendations? How do those very strange proposals fit with this Big Picture?

david writes:

@blink

The NYT recommendations are Murray wringing his hands and proclaiming both a nanny state and a welfare state. ;)

Steve Sailer writes:

Well said.

And this is even better:

"1. Low IQ puts people at risk of poverty
2. Virtue can compensate for low IQ
3. The welfare state removes incentives for virtuous behavior"

And why is Brink Lindsey amazed that Murray gave, over a period of 28 years, three different accounts for a massive, complex phenomenon? Why would we expect him to come up with the most controversial, socially disapproved explanation at a young age? In reality, The Bell Curve was inspired by an eye-opening remark of Karl Hess's .

steve writes:

Why dont we see the same thing in the rest of the world? In other OECD countries, the poor are more able to leave poverty. What is unique about the US?

Steve

shecky writes:

Trying to concoct a grand unifying theory after the fact seems interesting enough, but it's curious that Murray himself doesn't seem all that interested in undertaking the task.

That they don't quite dovetail might be better attributed to the fact that they were concocted over the course of a three decade career, ending up being more political than scientific treatises. Murray comes across as a curiously glib character these days, not quite the social conservative or libertarian in practice as the self described "Republican libertarian" positioned himself in the past. He clearly knows how to whisper sweet nothings to sympathetic crowds. Perhaps he's made peace with the idea that whispering sweet nothings may be his true strength.

steve writes:

Why dont we see the same thing in the rest of the world? In other OECD countries, the poor are more able to leave poverty. What is unique about the US?

Steve

D writes:
In reality, The Bell Curve was inspired by an eye-opening remark of Karl Hess's .

Go on.

Curt Doolittle writes:

1) RE: I think it's a pretty simple sequence.
1. Low IQ puts people at risk of poverty
2. Virtue can compensate for low IQ
3. The welfare state removes incentives for virtuous behavior

===
Brilliantly succinct.


2) Yes, what was Hess' comment that inspire the bell curve?

txslr writes:

It has been years since I read Bell Curve (right after it came out, if I recall correctly) but I remember quite clearly that Murray did not make a claim that IQ was biologically determined. He did say that it was apparently "heritable", meaning simply that low-IQ parents tended to have low-IQ children. He pointedly did not say that the mechanism for this heritability is necessarily biological.

So, for example, IQ may be variable depending upon education and upbringing, but the children of parents who had poor educations and substandard upbringings are less likely to enjoy much improved circumstances compared to their parents. So their low-IQs were heritable, but not biologically determined.

MG writes:

Steve -

I see Brian's model as explaining what I see around the world, at least economically. You may be accepting studies that show more mobility out of quintiles in some OECD countries, and suffice it so say that there are studies that refute that. Either way, I have to believe that in any country those characterized (as summarized in previous posts) as of lower intelligence and virtue could expect to outperform the rest of the population. And if they move up a bit more (perhaps because the rest is dragged down by government redistribution), I doubt they have yet "climbed" to the absolute standard of living of those living in US "poverty". So if the US is unique in terms of cultivating/accommodating/concentrating lower intelligence and virtue (is it?), it seems amzingly effective at producing economic growth in spite of it.

ajb writes:

A truly excellent summary by Bryan that only slightly misses or understates the important role of encouraging changes in social norms (in areas from religion to schooling to culture) that move us a way from a more rigid, authoritarian, often shame based society that preserved good behavior and order because it enabled elite experimentation while utterly devastating the poor.

Similarly, I would argue that large scale immigration without assimilation pressures and with self-destructive multi-culti identity rules make immigrations' effects worse on the nation than they have to be while benefiting elites who live in the bubble and want cheaper goods and services.

Richard writes:
Why dont we see the same thing in the rest of the world? In other OECD countries, the poor are more able to leave poverty. What is unique about the US?

Because the US had more income mobility in the past. The higher IQ genes became concentrated at the top of society and the low IQ genes became concentrated at the bottom.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

"He did say that it was apparently "heritable", meaning simply that low-IQ parents tended to have low-IQ children. He pointedly did not say that the mechanism for this heritability is necessarily biological."

Separated twin studies back up the partially biologically heritable part of this:

Results showed that variation in all phenotypes was influenced by genetic factors. For IQ the heritability estimates increased from 30% at age 5, to 80% at age 12. For executive functioning performance genetic factors accounted for around 50% of the variance at both ages. Attention problems showed high heritabilities (above 60%) at both ages

I personally think we should have a significant amount of research on identifying IQ-related genetic factors to be able to improve overall human IQ through gene therapy and other methods.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Yes, what was Hess' comment that inspire the bell curve?"

I wish I knew. I believe I read many years ago in an interview with either Murray or Herrnstein (probably Murray) that the Bell Curve was inspired by something Hess once said, but (frustratingly) Murray didn't say what that remark of Hess's was.

You might ask him. It didn't sound like it was particularly a secret.

Doug writes:

@steve

"Why dont we see the same thing in the rest of the world? In other OECD countries, the poor are more able to leave poverty. What is unique about the US?"

Variance of IQ is higher in the United States. This is easily explained by uhh... "demographic issues." Therefore one would predict that a higher proportion of the poor in Western Europe or East Asia is of the normal-IQ, and hence temporarily poor variety. I.e. struggling kids out of school. Rather than the low IQ low virtue variety, i.e. welfare mothers with 10 kids.

Hence one would expect higher class mobility in the former than the latter. Thus a country with a higher proportion of the latter you would expect to have ipso factor lower class mobility. Which goes exactly along with Murray's super-thesis.

Subset the populations in the US and Western Europe by their "demographic groups" and the statistical disparity disappears. Just the same as the so-called education gap between the US and Western Europe does.

Izaak Veenstra writes:

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