(Addendum 7/26/12: This post is actually getting read, so I’ve made a quick editing pass to fix some of the late-night stylistic infelicities. The prose is now slightly better, the content is unchanged.)
GMU economist Bryan Caplan has a series of blog posts about the putative irrationality of the poor. Most of them are linked in this post, which gives what I take to be his basic argument. That basic argument goes as follows:
1. Other people often say that poverty causes all sorts of social ills, because many of those social ills are traceable to or constituted by self-harming behavior that correlates with poverty, leading those other people to think that poverty (rationally) drives that behavior.
2. But rather than poverty providing an rational incentive to engage in that behavior, poverty actually provides a rational disincentive to do so, because that behavior has worse consequences for the poor than for the non-poor.
3. Therefore, it can’t be that poverty rationally leads to those behaviors.
4. Instead, we should look for common causal factors for both poverty and self-harming behavior. Obvious hypotheses include irrationality, stupidity, irresponsibility, etc., and those hypotheses are worth considering. (Caplan: “Low IQ, low conscientiousness, low patience, and plain irrationality.”)
This form of argument gets applied to a variety of different behaviors. For example, Caplan points out that being single is financially costly, s.t. (thanks to the diminishing marginal utility of wealth) poor people should be single less often rather than more often. He concludes that poor people are single more often because they’re irrational. Similarly, Caplan points out that the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse and non-renumerative crime are worse for the poor (who, e.g., can’t just shrug off a DUI, pay for the lawyers or go into fancy rehab). So if the poor abuse drugs and alcohol more or commit more crimes it can’t be a rational response to poverty, but must reflect irrationality, stupidity, laziness, etc.
What Caplan ignores in all these cases is that the poor face a different and markedly worse set of choices than the non-poor. In terms of the version of the argument I gave above, Caplan misses that 2 does not lead to 3.
In the most abstract terms, suppose that a non-poor person has three choices: A, B, and C. And let’s assume that A is the best choice, B is the second-best choice, and C is the worst choice. Suppose that she in fact rationally takes choice A. Now suppose that she becomes poor, and it so happens that being poor makes choice B even worse than it was before (but still not as bad as choice C). Yet, all of a sudden, when she becomes poor, she starts choosing B. “IRRATIONALITY!”, Caplan cries. But what if becoming poor eliminated choice A, or made it even worse? Then choice B becomes rational, because she’s become poor, even though her being poor made choice B worse than it would have been if she were rich.
This is a general problem with Caplan’s style of argument, and there are many concrete ways in which it shows up. As a whole, Caplan very badly suffers from the fundamental attribution error: he attributes the choices of the poor to their personal failings rather than attending to how poverty radically constrains their choice sets. But for the purposes of brevity, I want to focus on just one feature of poverty and how it screws up Caplan’s argument all over the place. That feature is this:
The poor are radically more vulnerable to violence than the non-poor.
Many of the poor grow up in less safe neighborhoods and continue to live in them as adults. Many of the poor are homeless, and thus lack the basic physical protections of walls and locks. Many of the poor have associates who are primarily also poor (thanks to a lack of social capital), and in a vicious feedback loop from the above-noted correlations with drugs/alcohol/crime/etc., thus have associates who abuse substances and commit crimes, and are more likely to be violent. etc.
Now let’s look at how some of these facts constrain poor people’s choices and shatter Caplan’s argument. I’ll consider several of his examples.
First, singleness. Poor people are already less likely to be desirable marriage partners, so the choice to marry is already more costly for the poor than for the rich. But let’s think particularly about the situation of poor women. Poor women are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. Not only are many of their marriage prospects potentially violent (for reasons given above), but they are also more likely to become economically dependent on their spouses and hence have much more trouble escaping violent relationships. (The empirical association between economic dependence and domestic violence has been well-known for decades.)
No surprise, then, that poor women report dramatically more domestic violence than non-poor women. In light of these facts, Caplan seems extremely, irresponsibly hasty to attribute poor women’s singleness to their irrationality. It may be that because poor women are so vulnerable to violence, marriage is such a bad choice for them that it’s even worse than taking the big financial hit from singleness. And since poor people often lack social connections to non-poor people, if poor women aren’t marrying, poor men have less chance to marry too.
Ok, that takes care of singleness. What about crime? This is a really easy one, considering the well-known phenomenon of joining gangs for protection. In the words of my least-favorite police department: “many members join because they live in the gang area and are, therefore, subject to violence by rival gangs. Joining guarantees support in case of attack and retaliation for transgressions.” And, of course, being poor makes you more likely to living in a gang area. And, of course, joining a gang often obliges one to commit crimes (initiations, pressure from other gang members, etc.).
More generally, consider that in a community where everyone else is carrying a gun, it becomes more rational to do so oneself. Carrying a gun allows you to credibly threaten retaliation if someone else tries to victimize you. (This is a point I believe I first heard from, or attributed to, Glenn Loury, though I can’t track it down anywhere in his papers online.) In a community where others are committing crimes, it becomes more rational to do so oneself in order to signal qualities like toughness and, again, avoid becoming victimized. In a violent community in which people challenge you for dominance, you’d better not back down from the bar fight or, again, your likely outcome is routine victimization. All of these are particularly true when the police can’t be relied upon to protect you, as is the case in many poor communities.
“But,” someone might object, “your argument depends on the assumption that lots of poor people are violent in the first place, in order to give all the rest of the poor people an incentive to be violent.” To which I answer: “it only requires a few.” Intuitively: introducing a few violent people into a community, where police protection is inadequate, can give many others an incentive to resort to violence or to the tools of violence (e.g. carrying guns) in order to protect themselves. And, of course, this leads to a tipping point phenomenon in which those newly violent people give still others an incentive to resort to violence, etc. The game theory is left as an exercise to the reader. (Or just fucking read Leviathan.) Moreover, the poor are often crammed into closer proximity with one another than the non-poor are (the poor don’t get to hide out in the suburbs or in big houses, etc.), and are thus more vulnerable to this kind of spillover effect.
Again, we see the same problem with Caplan’s argument: he ignores how poverty can eliminate or greatly worsen the supposedly “better” life choices, like refraining from crime.
Finally, consider substance abuse. In his most recent post, Caplan argues that the poor don’t rationally abuse drugs and alcohol to dull the pain of poverty, because substance abuse trades off a little short-term pain dulling for much greater long-term pain.
But again, let’s introduce vulnerability to violence into the equation and things suddenly look different. Someone who is unusually vulnerable to violence has good reason to discount the future much more heavily than someone who isn’t, because the future is much more likely to contain a quick death or life-ruining disability or imprisonment. If you’re a teenager who has seen multiple of your acquaintances killed by gang violence or locked up before you even get out of high school, it’s perfectly reasonable (for a Bayesian updater) to think that you’re not likely to make it past 30, and hence to focus on short-term pleasures with long-term negative consequences. (This also can contribute to an explanation of things like irresponsible sex, failure to invest in human capital, etc.)
In all these cases, we see that a single negative consequence of poverty — a higher vulnerability to violence — radically constrains the choices of the poor, and makes supposedly irrational choices look much more rational. And this is so even though those choices are more harmful to the poor than to the non-poor.
Now think about all the other negative consequences of poverty that might constrain choices in a similar way. Lack of education (poor neighborhoods = shitty schools). Lack of social capital. Lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. Lack of access to affordable credit. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Instead, Caplan leaps to a single explanation for all of the self-harming behavior of poor people: it’s because they’re irrational and stupid. This reflects less on the supposed inability of the poor to run their lives than it does on Caplan’s inability to imagine the circumstances of anyone other than himself.
(n.b. comments are open but set to 100% moderation because I’m sick of spam; I’ll approve all non-spam comments as quickly as possible.)