Bryan Caplan  

Bill Dickens on Me on Poverty: A Rejoinder

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One of my great privileges is to have a mentor and critic as good as Bill Dickens.  And truth be told, the best criticism of a project is early criticism.  Here's my reaction to his initial critique of Poverty: Who To Blame, the book I plan to start writing around 2015.  Bill's in blockquotes, I'm not.

Before you get too heavily into this new book, what happens in countries with more generous social welfare systems? Is there more or less self-destructive behavior? My sense is that there is much less and if I'm right this does suggest that there is a causal link from desperation and poverty to self-destructive behavior.
If you do a cross-country comparison, I suspect you're right: Low-income Swedes do seem less self-destructive than low-income Americans.  If you do an over-time comparison within countries, however, the opposite seems to be true.  For starters, the American poor had very high rates of employment and high marital stability when the welfare state was smaller.

In any case, have you considered the possibility that countries with relatively prudent low-income populations can afford to have more generous social welfare systems?
Also, the white working class in the US wasn't pathological when there were jobs they could do that would support a family.
It's still easy for today's white working class to get jobs that would support a family at the income level of the 1950s.  U.S. per-capita income in 1950 was under $10,000 (1990 dollars).  That actually understates the ease of maintaining earlier living standards because modern household technology and family size make it a lot easier for mothers to work.
If the causality is all running from bad behavior to poverty why did working class America suddenly start behaving badly?
"All running" is very strong, but there are many plausible stories to tell.  For starters:

1. The decline in traditional morality across the board.

2. Stigma dynamics.

3. Increased generosity of the welfare state.

4. As women's labor market opportunities improved, their interest in low-status men with stable jobs declined.  This in turn led many low-status men to either give up on work and women, or try to impress women in other ways.  Some of these "other ways," strangely, are self-destructive behavior like non-remunerative crime and substance abuse.
I can point to structural forces that changed the income distribution (and would have whether people used drugs or not).
No argument there.

Note that if all you want to say is that bad behavior is bad for you I don't think anyone will disagree. If you want to say that curing bad behavior is the way to cure poverty then can you show us how to cure bad behavior?

I'm not merely saying that "bad behavior is bad for you."  I'm saying that bad behavior is a major cause of poverty.  If I'm right about this, there is a great, neglected remedy for poverty: Poor people should stop engaging in bad behavior. 

If this seems flippant, that's not my intention.  Poverty: Who To Blame will largely be a work of economic philosophy.  Part of my project is to provide intellectual foundations for what I perceive as Americans' justified frustration with welfare recipients.  (Another part of my project, by the way, is to destroy the intellectual foundations for what I perceive as Americans' unjustified frustration with Third World immigrants).

Think about it this way: How do you, Bill Dickens, respond when your students don't come to class, don't study, fail the final exam, then come crying to you?  Whether you tell them or not, I strongly suspect you're thinking, "Your failure is your own damn fault."  You don't give them the same assistance or sympathy that you'd give a hard-working student who's struggling with the material.

I think such meritocratic moral intuitions are sound, and ought to guide public policy as well as private conscience.  If people are poor because they're behaving irresponsibly, they should be far down our queue of people to help - if they belong on the queue at all.

That said, I also happen to think that reducing the generosity of the welfare state and making assistance conditional on good behavior will (eventually) reduce bad behavior.  Whether I'm right or wrong on this point, though, the fact that poor people are often the authors of their own destitution is morally significant and sadly neglected.

If I'm right that economic security greatly reduces the extent of self-destructive behavior then all you will be doing with your book is giving people an excuse to ignore the plight of those currently being victimized by a system that has taken away their livelihoods and their ability to provide for a family in the way they have been accustomed to.

If a lot of poverty is caused by self-destructive behavior, then talk about "victimization" is premature.  Yes, there has been some fall in the demand for low-skilled labor.  But even if that counted as "victimization" (which I would strongly dispute), there's no reason to ignore the poor's contributory negligence.  If the American working class had responded to long-term economic changes by forming stable two-earner marriages, they'd still be doing fine.

And with specific respect to your argument, let's reflect on what behavioral economics teaches us about the sorts of decisions involved in choosing between pleasure now and pain in the future. We know that people are very very bad about making trade-offs between the present and the future in a rational way...

Not quite.  Some people make very very bad trade-offs; others make very very good trade-offs.  If the trade-offs are intellectually complex, you could argue that the people who make very very bad trade-offs just aren't smart enough to do better.  However, if the trade-offs are bone-headedly simple - like "heavy drinking makes you less employable" or "single motherhood is tough" - very very bad decisions are a matter of choice.  This in turn seriously undermines efforts to claim "victim" status.

...and that they get worse (become more shortsighted) the more threatened or insecure they feel in the present. Look beyond blaming the victim and you will see that if an economic change makes people lives more tenuous there are good reasons that they will make more bad decisions that will hurt them in the long run. Fix their circumstances and they are less likely to make bad decisions. At least I strongly suspect that is true.

I doubt you believe this in a general way.  If I recall correctly, you believe that (a) welfare reform reduced out-of-wedlock births, and that (b) the extension of unemployment benefits appreciably raised the natural rate of unemployment.  Why not extend this logic further, and see where it leads?

Last point: I realize that my perspective on poverty may seem fundamentally immoral to you, Bill.  But is it?  Let me close by asking you a question I publicly asked Paul Krugman:
Why are you so forgiving of people with irresponsible lifestyles, but so outraged by people who don't want to pay taxes to help people with irresponsible lifestyles?  This seems morally perverse.  If you're going to single anyone out for condemnation, it should be the person who behaves irresponsibly in the first place, not the complete stranger who asks, "How is this my fault?"


COMMENTS (31 to date)
Duncan Earley writes:

What about boredom? If you are poor and there’s almost zero chance of getting out of the trap then alcohol and random violence are cheap fun.

Plus as you have written before if you are a poor female having kids out of wedlock may be your best (only?) option.

John David Galt writes:

Re: bad behavior by the poor -- The French, at least, regularly engage in a level of violence during protests that I used to point to as an example of total barbarism -- until the Occupy movement appeared on our own streets. Even now I think the French are usually worse -- we don't see the Occupiers routinely torching people's cars, and if they ever start, most of us will start cheering on police overreaction to them. The right to demonstrate should never be seen as excusing theft or vandalism of private property.

And your question to Krugman was right on. If you subsidize behavior, you get more of it. Out-of-wedlock births are now a majority in the US, so it's about bloody time to stop subsidizing the production of more of them before the Marching Morons problem becomes worse here than it already is.

Hugh writes:

This sounds like a very interesting project: the economist's take on the social issues raised by Charles Murray's "Coming Apart".

I am sceptical that you will be able to fit your views on immigration with the data, bit I won't prejudge here.

Charles Murray's study finishes just before our Great Recession to avoid conflating recessionary effects with the long-term trends that he was seeing. How will you tackle this issue, especially if your book will be written in 2015?

R. Jones writes:

So there's two remedies here:
A. Shaming the poor and blaming them.
B. Taking away the welfare state.

I think that B is right but A is questionable. After all, is it really poor people's fault that there is a welfare state that exploits their lack of willpower and judgement?

Is promoting A politically necessary for ensuring B?
Or does promoting A get in the way of ensuring B by making its supporters seem hard-hearted?

Does blaming and shaming people make them behave better, even if it is true? If I had behavioral problems and I went to a therapist, would they shame me and blame me for my problems in order to help me? They would probably encourage me to take some responsibility for my life, of course, but I reckon it's important to recognize that a lot of things are beyond one's control.

When a person is successful, it is generally motivating for that person to believe that they are responsible for that success. It's usually natural to believe it too, even if it isn't true. On the other hand, when a person is unsuccessful it may not be so motivating to believe that they are responsible for their failure.

People must feel like they have some amount of control. Taking responsibility for one's failures may instill a lost sense a control.

However, clinically depressed people often blame themselves for their problems, yet it doesn't seem to help much. Sometimes it is motivating to accept a certain lack of control, or responsibility.

David writes:

Bryan - is your hypothesis that the poor make their choices because they are 1) dumb, short-sighted, or irrational, or 2) adept at making the best choices given their situations, even if the choices seem unfortunate to those of us on the outside?

Or is your hypothesis something else entirely?

Barry zuckerkorn writes:

Who to blame? OR Whom to blame?

Steve Sailer writes:

"Who to blame? OR Whom to blame?"

"Who? Whom?" is always a good thing to ask.

Steven Sailer writes:

In reality, America's white working class behaves fairly well, at least when compared to their distant cousins in Britain. Whites in Britain have significantly higher rates of property crime and drunken brawling (homicide is more frequent in the U.S. because we have more guns, but non-fatal batteries are more frequent among British whites). The illegitimacy rate among British whites is about twice as high.

For speculation about the reasons why working class Americans behave better, see here:

http://www.vdare.com/articles/how-much-ruin-in-a-nation-uk-vs-us-white-working-class

dgl writes:

Your point about 1950 income rates seem to ignore rises in health care and housing costs. The classroom analogy doesn't hold water either, since the very fact that these students are at a university presupposes a certain level of preparation and responsibility that you cannot always take as a given. Plus, I've found that students that don't show up to my classes consistently have physical/mental problems that are making it impossible for them to keep up in their studies--they don't belong at college, but does this mean they deserve to be cast out of society altogether?

Chris Stucchio writes:

DGL:

Your point about 1950 income rates seem to ignore rises in health care and housing costs.

Do you believe it is harder today, relative to income, to receive a 1950 level of health care? Or, for that matter, to live in a 1950 sized house?

(This article suggests house sizes have nearly doubled since the 70's. Anyone have data going back to the 50's?

http://www.realtor.org/RMODaily.nsf/pages/News2007032701?OpenDocument

)

Dante writes:

@DGL
Families nowadays are far richer than families in the 50s. That is a fact.

I guess another reason for the rise of self destructive behaviour is the fact that parts of modern culture celebrate these behaviour (Hip-Hop, reality shows.)

Glen Smith writes:

If bad behavior is a major cause for poverty then a moral man cannot construct a case for non-intervention into the lives of others. If one can show that bad behavior is mostly the result of poverty then and only then can a moral man construct a case for non-intervention. The generosity of a welfare state and the decline of traditional morality across the board would support the case that bad behavior is not the major source of poverty.

ZL writes:

You're right on Bryan.

There are no causes of poverty, only causes of wealth. Poverty is the natural state, the human condition. Only through hard work, industriousness, dilligence, and self-control (and all that entails in myriad human interaction) have we (and our forebearers) crafted the wealth we have today.

All of us are the beneficiaries of the personal efforts of untold millions before us who invented, created, and brought order to the world. As such, our 'poor' are better off than the royalty and rich have been throughout the majority of human history. They have more food choices, clean water, access to a huge trove of knowledge (the internet), cheap travel, and medical advances.

All that to say, I think it's important to re-frame the argument (as you're trying to do). Poverty is like darkness, it is the basal state. In the absence of light, darkness is all there is. In the absence of hard work, good decision making, etc, all there is is poverty -- the absence of wealth. Throwing billions down the drain at addressing 'causes' of poverty misses the point...especially when much of that 'aid' goes to incentivize actions/decisions that do not result in the creation of wealth.

Lee Kelly writes:

The obvious counterexample to the 'being poor causes bad bahaviour' argument is the relative success of particular immigrant groups. They normally arrive in countries like the U.S. as members of the poor, but they are soon middle-class or higher. Their initial poverty does not appear to have corrupted their culture and values. That is, whatever the 'cycle of poverty and violence' is, it seems to only effect particular subgroups of the poor. Another thing to note is that unlike the indigenous poor, who are self-selected for low intelligence, most immigrants are at least of moderate intelligence (or at least there children will be).

When you trace the fortunes of particular cultural and ethnic groups, the case that being poor is, in the long run, largely a product of culture and personality seems very strong indeed. Thomas Sowell has done a lot of good work on the subject.

Lee Kelly writes:

In my view, among the pervasive fallacies in these debates is the equivocation between explanation and justification. That is, implicit in many arguments is that if bad behaviour is explainable, then its perpetrator is absolved of moral responsibility. It doesn't even matter whether free will exists, but merely that the explanation is contingent on some fact which is itself not subject to free will.

For example, consider the observation that humans often develop a 'live fast, die young' attitude when they growing up in dangerous circumstances and violent cultures. One could rally quite convincing argument from evolutionary psychology why this would be so; we may also reason that, from their perspective, such bad behaviour might, in principle, be economically rational. It may even seem all but inevitable that poor people would develop bad habits and exhibit bad behaviour. We might feel pity for their circumstance--victims, it would seem, of an unjust world.

However, at what point does this explanation become a justification? That is, when is the "disadvantaged" 16 year-old single-mother absolved of personal responsibility for her decisions? Even if free will does exist, it is always operating in a context out of its control--there will always be some happenstance which could have been different and might have changed a particular decision. To borrow Sowell's phrase, moral responsibility need not satisfy the requisite of cosmic justice.

Ironically, it is usually those who have been the unluckiest (in a cosmic sense, e.g. bad genes, bad parents, bad culture, etc.) who, in the long run, need moral responsibility more than anyone else, but it is exactly what so many well-meaning "explainers" of bad behaviour seek to deny them.

Floccina writes:

Another data point on his first objection is that Mexican immigrants come here and work hard and show low levels of bad behavior. Their much better off children with much more opportunity show higher levels of bad behavior not lower.

Further Dickens needs to show that poor young people see themselves as having less opportunity. I do not see that. And he also needs to explain how they can succeed at sports if it is a feeling of defeat due to poverty that keeps them under achieving.

And with specific respect to your argument, let's reflect on what behavioral economics teaches us about the sorts of decisions involved in choosing between pleasure now and pain in the future. We know that people are very very bad about making trade-offs between the present and the future in a rational way...

A point on this that is seldom brought up is that some people over save. As Brian's earlier book tries to combat, some people over defer having children in the face of economic uncertainty. When the economy declines upper middle and middle class people stop having children.

Mm writes:

Milton Friedman always demolished those arguments about comparing the behavior of poor Americans with poor Swedes by pointing out that poor Swedish-Americans have very low rates of antisocial behaviors as well. The same applies to educational statistics- German-Americans do as well as Germans etc. The cultural capital remains after you get off the boat for at least some time.

collin writes:

Bryan,

Outside of single motherhood and incarnation rates, aren't most social issue rates declining the last 20 - 30 years. Violent crime (esp. murder rates), teen sex and pregancy, divorce rates, drug use, etc. are all down.

So should the poverty rates be dropping?

CR

Tom West writes:

These arguments are all mis-directed if the main reason for alleviating poverty is that it makes those who are wealthier feel bad.

In such a case, the cause of such poverty is immaterial to the desire to prevent at least the worst suffering. Bryan's attempt to attack the intellectual foundations of the welfare state are bound to fail if it is the wide-spread support for the *emotional* foundations that keep it strong.

As for bad behavior, there is more of it because we can afford more. As we continue to get wealthier, there will be even more bad behavior. If we get noticeably less wealthy over a long period, such bad behavior will decrease.

One of the things we purchase with our wealth is the ability of people to behave badly without catastrophic consequences.

danah gaz writes:

So Mr. Caplan, I'm having trouble with your fundamental point about bad behavior, and I was hoping you'd clarify some things for me:

1. Is cheating and lying considered bad behavior?

If so, how do explain things like this? http://www.livescience.com/18683-rich-people-lie-cheat-study.html

Also, compulsively lying. See Willard Mitt Romney.

2. Is being born to people who are not rich, considered bad behavior in your estimation?

If so, obviously folks like Mitt Romney made the appropriate choice to be born into power and money. I guess the rest of us should have thought of that before we decided to be born into families of limited means, right?

[Incorrectly spelled name edited with permission of commenter--Econlib Ed.]

danah gaz writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness.--Econlib Ed.]

Seth writes:

"...but does this mean they deserve to be cast out of society altogether?" -dgl

Has anyone suggested throwing those with bad behavior out of society?

Bob writes:

I think in most societies the people who do the worst are people who exhibit bad behavior. Even in Stalinist russia, where there was a great deal of randomness in who got disappeared, I suspect that good interpersonal skills (knowing when to keep quiet, whose palm to grease, etc) were big determinants in avoiding gulag. The difference is that in some societies, outspoken people with bad people skills make less money, whereas in Russia they were tortured and worked to death.

Socially undesirable behavior is bad, but it's bad results are contingent on society. As such, what we are really debating here is the kind of harms society will foist on bad behaviir. A utilitarian has an easy answer here: adopt the society that maximizes happiness. I am not sure we get an easy answer from your analysis: you seem to be saying that bad people deserve their bad outcomes for deontological reasons, but ths debate is about *which* bad outcomes society will send their way (less extreme example: how much debt forgiveness? Relatively easy access to bankruptcy? Debt slavery? What?), not whether there will be any.

Bob writes:

I think in most societies the people who do the worst are people who exhibit bad behavior. Even in Stalinist russia, where there was a great deal of randomness in who got disappeared, I suspect that good interpersonal skills (knowing when to keep quiet, whose palm to grease, etc) were big determinants in avoiding gulag. The difference is that in some societies, outspoken people with bad people skills make less money, whereas in Russia they were tortured and worked to death.

Socially undesirable behavior is bad, but it's bad results are contingent on society. As such, what we are really debating here is the kind of harms society will foist on bad behaviir. A utilitarian has an easy answer here: adopt the society that maximizes happiness. I am not sure we get an easy answer from your analysis: you seem to be saying that bad people deserve their bad outcomes for deontological reasons, but ths debate is about *which* bad outcomes society will send their way (less extreme example: how much debt forgiveness? Relatively easy access to bankruptcy? Debt slavery? What?), not whether there will be any.

Evan writes:

Bryan, while I think your argument that "poverty cannot be the cause of bad behavior because poverty is a good reason to not behave badly" has a lot of merit, I think that you might be overlooking some ev-psych explanations that could resolve this paradox.

For instance, there might be some behaviors that were likely to improve one's standing in a stone age tribe, but unlikely to do it now. For instance, taking stupid risks might have motivated someone to kill more mastodons or something, and gained status that way. Or single-parenthood might have been the only way to procreate at all if one was unable to find a stable mate.

This might cause the brain to have evolved instincts that, when exposed to the fact that it has low social status (i.e. is poor), activate and begin to make things like taking risks and being promiscuous look more attractive. These instincts would persist, even in a novel environment where they are no longer useful.

So yes, poverty is a reason to avoid bad behavior. But maybe poverty also inhibits people's ability to judge how bad their behavior is.

Ronald Calitri writes:

This superficial discussion completely ignores the scientific consensus that across our three species, (chimp, gorilla, human) and beyond, social stratification is powerfully present, for the defeated increasing stress hormones, reducing nutrition and activity and shortening lifespan. Check out Robert Sapolsky on the first two, then google "Whitehall Studies" for the present lot.

As to your argument, I must suggest it is lacking in moral sympathy. Time to get down to a first-class library and read up on the intelligence, cognitive development, and health maintenance literature. If you spend any time at all following links and reviewing journal sequences, recognition will dawn that the volume of work with interesting implications is so vast that it cannot be summarized without further investigation. Hopefully, this will lead you to recognize, how numerous are the people who want to help, and how numerous their students. Each one is willing to look beyond today's 'bad' (stress hormone inducing, AC Cortex bandwidth reducing) person, to see the child who just wants to be picked for the team. Sometime around 2,500 years ago, a bit later at the Academy, that was recognized, based on the experience of societies waxing and waning in humanity, for an equal time before that.

Now that we have near universal understanding of the physical and mental requirements of a healthy life, the question is whether we should work to make that a universal reality. It is about time for the U.S. Constitutionality Team to score its first goal of the 21st century, using the 9th. Amendment's "Rights inherent within the people" to advance our people's rights to food, health, education, information, occupation, and security, so fundamental to liberty.

Matt C writes:
As for bad behavior, there is more of it because we can afford more. As we continue to get wealthier, there will be even more bad behavior.
Yup, this is definitely part of it.

However, this does gloss over the fact that "we" are separating into distinct social classes, with most of the bad behavior concentrated in the part that is getting less wealthy and less able to afford it. (Also in the part that gets policy made for them, rather than making policy.)

If we get noticeably less wealthy over a long period, such bad behavior will decrease.
While I don't disagree, the slide toward bad behavior is unfortunately easier than the climb away from it. That may be a painful long run.
Louisp writes:

I suggest you read a good article written by the philosopher Richard Arneson called "Egalitarianism and the Undeserving Poor", in the Journal of Political Philosophy 5, No. 3 (1997). It is a good read on redistribution and "bad behavior" on the part of the poor.

ungated version of the paper on his website: http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/

Jay Hutchins writes:


Violent and property crime is down all over America...except perhaps corporate crime. How does this support the idea that bad behavior among the "lower" classes has increased?

Joe Eagar writes:

Bryan, your comment that working-class people can earn the same incomes they had in the 1950s is not correct. If nothing else, housing expenses have massively increased since then, often due to politically-driven supply restrictions.

I think this whole debate is off-base. Why must causality only run in one direction? Why can't it be that a lack of economic opportunity and bad behavior patterns reinforce each other? In that case, the obvious solution is to solve both problems (opportunity and immorality) at once by engineering a shortage of low-skilled labor, which would drive up employment, productivity, and human capital all at once, while simultaneously provide employers incentives to "morally retrain" the workers they hire.

Of course, that would require immigration restrictions, and we can't have that.

MM writes:

"when I say the poor decide not to invest in education or labor, I'm not saying its an individually rational decision. It's an aggregate decision, based on competition strategies. Think about it like evolution- let's say 40 years ago, the poor had the same culture as the rich; marriage, education, investment, savings, less vice goods. But as the setting changes (escalating cost of education, lower social mobility, higher welfare and government support, and, as you pointed out, average standard of living climbs), the optimal strategy changes as well. Now, what incentive does a bottom 20%er have? Well, welfare supplies all their basic needs. College is almost a necessity for improving economic status (other than entrepreneurship), whereas it merely boosted you 40 years ago, but the cost of college keeps rising (incredibly so) in proportion to income. So now, a poor person has to save a much larger percentage of income, or take a much larger amount of loans to invest in education. And the rewards to a degree are much more stratified- going to University of Tennessee might help a little, but it's maybe a 5% chance to breach the top 20%. On the other hand, going to Harvard is like a 50% chance. So while UTk might move you up one or two quintiles, you also lose welfare/food stamps/medicaid, and have to devote a much higher proportion of your time to labor.

Was there a single day when everyone in the bottom 20-30% decided to change cultures? no. But over time, the strategy to work at dead-end jobs, collect government assistance, and spend all your discretionary income on vice goods and leisure becomes better and better in comparison to the "top 20%" strategy. And so a larger and larger percentage of that population adopts such a strategy. Now, the republican solution appears to be "let them work hard or starve" which, yes, would force a change in strategy. But also a lot of people would suffer, children would get malnutrition, diseases would spread (as people avoid seeing doctors or being treated) and there would be a lot of negative spillover effects. The democrats don't really have a solution- they believe that we've reached a point where we should provide survival for everyone. Neither side really seems to remotely consider ideas that would add an upside to striving- say, make college free for all, or vary its cost based on post-graduate income (australia does that, I believe). Or, say, stop CEOs and upper management from sucking up all the productivity gains so that wages had actually increased for the professions most people in the bottom 20% have a shot at getting.

Culture, at its core, is a survival strategy among populations. People may not make individually rational decisions, but at the aggregate, their decisions almost always make sense. IT MAKES SENSE for the bottom 20% to not strive, not invest, and not educate. They, at the aggregate, see little upside. And over time, the behavior of the bottom 20% will tend to match the optimal strategy.

So no, I don't agree with the narrative. It's a stupid narrative. The poor chose a culture that would lead them to fail? That's just dumb. It is far more rational, and far better matches the facts, to say that poor culture changed because the conditions changed. When working hard and investing in education lead to a substantially better life (and was much less risky a strategy, as the millions of people with non-dischargable student loans can tell you) they did exactly that- the 1960s. When the cost of education soared, the necessity of it for moving up increased, and the risk of trying increased (debt), and the rewards diminished, and the downside of not trying (starving) was erased, they stopped trying. Its incentives. Aggregate behavior is always about incentives. The landscape the bottom 20% faces has changed dramatically, and almost entirely in ways that discourages labor and investment. So they changed right along with it."

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