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Three More Articles On Poverty, And Why They Disagree With Each Other

[Posts are decreased in quantity and quality because I’m on vacation; normal schedule to return next week]

Wealth, Health, and Child Development is a study of Swedish lottery winners which finds that winning the lottery doesn’t make them or their children any healthier, better educated, or more prosocial. It fits in with a large literature of studies showing the same – for example, I discussed here the Cherokee land lottery, where the families of Georgians who were randomly given a gift of lots of lucrative land were no better off a generation later. And let’s not forget that the best evidence suggests poverty traps don’t exist.

Why Do The Poor Make Such Poor Decisions also involves the Cherokee, but comes to the opposite conclusion. The main study discussed follows an impoverished group of Cherokee Indians as a casino opened on their land. The casino was very successful and the profits were distributed among the (relatively small) Indian tribe, meaning each Cherokee family got about $6,000 extra. Some researchers had been studying the Cherokee before for other reasons, and found that the boost in incomes decreased behavioral problems in teenagers, juvenile crime, and improved school performance. I don’t see huge evidence that anybody’s checked to what degree this persists into adulthood, but it’s already gotten past the early childhood period where these things tend to fade out. And even if the decreased crime is just in adolescence, adolescent crime can still have a really negative impact on people’s lives. I don’t really trust a lot of the studies listed here, but the main Cherokee one seems pretty solid.

Can America’s Poor Save A Large Share Of Their Incomes? by Scott Sumner is sadly Cherokee-less. It describes a Chinese immigrant to the US who has the same sort low-paying job as many poor Americans but manages to save > $1000/month. It mentions my observation a little while ago that it was strange that the poor are earning 10x (in real value) what they did in 1900, poor people in 1900 survived just fine, but poor people today don’t find themselves with ten times the money they need to survive. Sumner suggests that it is economically possible for poor people today to save much of their income, but that they don’t because they’re not the kind of people who do that kind of thing. When the sort of people who do do that kind of thing find themselves poor – like Chinese immigrants – they tend to be poor very temporarily and have no trouble getting out of poverty even with the same jobs as everyone else.

These articles sort of contradict each other. The first contradicts the second – does giving people money improve life outcomes, or doesn’t it? And the second sort of contradicts the third – if poor people’s budget will expand to fit the money available, such that 2010’s $15000 leaves people just as desperate as 1900’s $1500, what does it matter if some people get an extra $6000?

The contradiction between the first and second reminds me of Tucker-Drob on IQ. He resolves a long-standing debate on whether intelligence is more heritable in poor than in rich individuals by finding this was true in the US but not in Europe. This suggests that American poverty can genuinely lower IQ (and presumably all the other good things associated with IQ like responsibility and prosocial behavior), but European poverty can’t. The study didn’t find this to be related to the US’ greater racial diversity, but it might have to do with the worse social safety net or just changes in the level and nature of poverty. Take this seriously, and it reconciles the first and second article. Getting more money might not help long-term outcomes in Sweden, but in certain kinds of extreme poverty in America – like the type you might find on an Indian reservation – maybe it would.

The third article is more complicated. The second article says:

What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among the poor? Nature or culture? Both, was Costello’s conclusion, because the stress of poverty puts people genetically predisposed to develop an illness or disorder at an elevated risk.

Maybe with the right genes it might be easier to rise out of poverty; I guess the stories of famous entrepreneurs who did exactly that already suggest that. With the wrong genes, it might be much harder but – at least in America, at least if given large amounts of money – still possible.

Also, regarding that Chinese immigrant – I, too, have worked a $20,000/year job and managed to save a lot of money while doing so. I think my “secret” was not having a car, debts, drugs, or dependents; it seems the Chinese guy’s secret is the same. Exactly how easy this strategy is for the average person is left as an exercise for the reader, but I’m impressed with how culturally malleable it seems to be. If we’re worse at this kind of thing today than in 1900, maybe the extra is just compensating for those sorts of problems.

I think this can be considered me slightly changing my opinion stated here to be more optimistic about the possibility of alleviating the most extreme poverty. But it still seems like money transfers are the way to go.

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966 Responses to Three More Articles On Poverty, And Why They Disagree With Each Other

  1. E. Harding says:

    I’m reminded of someone (I think Noah Smith) saying that income was the combined product of lots and lots of causes. But it also has lots and lots of effects. This post brings up the excellent question of how those effects interact with the causes.

    The source, timing, and expenditure of the income matters in lots of ways. A dollar from charity for a hard worker in Darkest Africa should not be expected to have the same effects as a dollar from work from someone who usually doesn’t do so in small-town America.

  2. Julie K says:

    “it was strange that the poor are earning 10x (in real value) what they did in 1900, poor people in 1900 survived just fine, but poor people today don’t find themselves with ten times the money they need to survive.”

    This doesn’t surprise me, because the definition of the basics of a decent life (in a first-world country) have changed since 1900 – electricity, running hot and cold water, a bathroom (not shared with neighbors), no more than 2 or so people per bedroom, fridge, washing machine, freshly washed clothes every day, wearing shoes year-round, etc. If you tried to get by without such things, authorities might come and arrest your landlord, or put your children in foster care, as applicable.

    • Nebfocus says:

      Doesn’t this apply to the Chinese immigrant as well?

      • Svejk says:

        The Chinese immigrant is more likely to be able to find others in his network willing to split expenses and live in questionable conditions, and also more able to find landlords willing to rent lodging that doesn’t meet code, on the presumption that he will not report the landlord. There are lots of landlords that specialize in providing borderline illegal or flat-out illegal housing to particular immigrant communities; this housing is unavailable to natives. Native-born poor are often ‘in the system’ through some prior contact with social services, and have difficulty escaping the different varieties of monitoring that come with this contact.

        • Nebfocus says:

          Yet Scott stated that he also saved a good deal of money while making $10/hr (20k/yr). How did he manage to get the sweet illegal housing that’s only open to immigrants?

          • Svejk says:

            The top commenter is describing restrictions affecting the poor at large (and specifically mentions children). Scott states that both he and the immigrant benefit from at least 3 factors not necessarily true of the poor at large: no dependents, no large debts, no dependency. The first factor, especially, prevents many of the poor from exercising such a strategy: having children subjects you to a stricter degree of scrutiny from the state, and makes one more hesitant to employ certain strategies. Middle class folks in the US are scared to let their kids walk to school alone for fear of CPS; raising your kids in an unelectrified squat might also be considered a high-risk strategy.

            I would add that there is a difference between doing a ‘poverty sprint’ during one’s young adulthood and being in long-term poverty (apologies to Scott if I’m mis-representing his experience). A lot of us manage to save money living like paupers in grad school because there is an end in sight, and because we have other status signifiers to comfort our primate egos. People who have spent their youth in certain types of poverty, or who see less hope of escaping, and who have a similarly-situated peer group, seem to spend a lot more money and energy performing status rituals, and on Orwell’s buttered toast and sugared tea. So it’s not that the recent immigrant has access to all sort of Secret Immigrant Strategies that the native poor can be excused for not executing, but that the experience is different in ways deeply rooted in human evolved irrationality.

          • Yalyublyu says:

            Based off of a reading of his previous blog, I suspect that he was saving up that money while an English teacher in Japan.

          • Chalid says:

            A lot of us manage to save money living like paupers in grad school because there is an end in sight, and because we have other status signifiers to comfort our primate egos

            And also because being young we are unlikely to have health problems.

          • albatross says:

            I think social forces (assumptions about acceptable working/living conditions, expectations of relatives and friends and neighbors) probably play a bigger role than laws, here. If everyone else at your professional and income level has a new car in the garage and a five-bedroom house, and you have an old beater in the driveway in front of your townhouse, you face a certain amount of social disapproval and discontent of your wife and kids–how come we don’t have all the good stuff the Joneses next door have? At a lower income level, the assumption is that everyone with your kind of job has a car and his own apartment–your lifestyle of taking the bus and rooming with two guys makes you look like a bit of a loser relative to your friends and coworkers, and so you feel pressure from friends, family, neighbors, prospective girlfriends, etc., to spend more money.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I lived poor, too, and I was living with immigrants who wouldn’t demand granite countertops.

            There was nothing illegal about our living conditions. (Although one guy had his wife and child in one room, it was very temporary.) But the social network allowed it.

            Also I didn’t get laid at all.

          • Miranda says:

            I was also able to save 1/4 of a ~$20K/year income during college, and I think a lot of it had to do with having parents and extended family who *weren’t* poor. I didn’t own a car and spent approximately nothing on vacations or recreation – and I was still able to get some of the benefits of both, in the form of occasional trips and vacations with my parents. I basically didn’t buy expensive items like backpacks or good-quality shoes, but I could expect to get these items sooner or later at a birthday or Christmas. I lived off rice and beans (it’s possible to cook delicious food fairly cheaply as a good cook, but I wasn’t) and never ate out, but I got to enjoy my parents’ home-cooked food at least every other week, and occasional restaurant meals with them. (I also rented tiny rooms and moved frequently, but kept a lot of my bulky possessions in storage at my parents’ house. Where they still are.)

        • Teal says:

          There are lots of landlords that specialize in providing borderline illegal or flat-out illegal housing to particular immigrant communities; this housing is unavailable to natives. Native-born poor are often ‘in the system’ through some prior contact with social services, and have difficulty escaping the different varieties of monitoring that come with this contact.

          My developmentally disabled sister is very much in the system — SSI, SNAP, Medicaid and until two years ago probation. None of those agencies care one bit that she lives in an apartment that’s illegal in multiple ways (in a basement, in an area not zoned for multiple family housing, no kitchen, insufficient egress).

          • Ricardo Cruz says:

            Who found the place for her? Does she not have visitations from social services? What do they say?

          • Teal says:

            She found the apartment through an ex-boyfriend. He is also native born.

            Neither social security nor DSS has ever made a house call as far as I know. Probation did but they didn’t care about the fire code or anything like that. They were just checking to make sure she wasn’t living with any other felons, had no drugs in the apartment, etc.

          • Joe says:

            Depending on how developmentally disabled she is, this could be because gov services are a lot more lenient in giving to the developmentally disabled as “clearly they deserve/need the help” vs the 90 to 100 IQ poor person who, according to many, should not need the help, or just needs help not being lazy and thus must be spied upon or what have you.

          • Teal says:

            I don’t think that’s it. These welfare organizations (social security, local DSS) just don’t care about whether or not a housing unit is legal. That’s the fire department’s problem, or the city code unit’s. Same thing with the probation department.

            I don’t know where Svejk got the idea that anyone at all is doing much to crack down on illegal housing such that you need to have deep social connections to the underground in order to find such units. Perhaps that’s true somewhere, but no city I ever lived.

          • Svejk says:

            I had in mind some of the blatantly illegal housing that targets Hispanic immigrants in the US, rather than the garden variety sub code stock available in many urban areas. As for state monitoring, I was thinking of family services, which might not be a fair comparison since Scott’s example was a single male.

        • Anonymous says:

          There are lots of landlords that specialize in providing borderline illegal or flat-out illegal housing to particular immigrant communities; this housing is unavailable to natives. Native-born poor are often ‘in the system’ through some prior contact with social services, and have difficulty escaping the different varieties of monitoring that come with this contact.

          Not USian, but there are plenty of those where I live. They’re not, I think, properly illegal, and not unavailable to natives – but natives do everything they can not to live there.

        • Lumifer says:

          this housing is unavailable to natives

          If you are willing to live in a black ghetto, you can get very very cheap housing as a “native”.

          • Nornagest says:

            “Native”/”immigrant” is probably the wrong line to cut across; a more accurate way of putting it would be that certain social networks include a norm of making cheap sub-code housing available. To access that housing, you need to be at least somewhat tapped into those social networks.

            You don’t necessarily need to have grown up in them; this can be as simple as going to the right laundromat and reading the housing ads taped to its windows. But housing like this doesn’t show up on Craigslist or other classifieds, it’s not gonna be in your college’s housing database or other semi-official channels. So mainstream middle-class folks probably aren’t even aware it exists.

          • Svejk says:

            Nornagest makes a good point. In the past, it was rumoured that there was a subset of urban housing only available to persons willing to participate in/vulnerable to Section 8 scams.

          • Lumifer says:

            @Nornagest

            I don’t think it rises to the level of “tapped into social networks”. Reading housing ads on the walls of your local Chinese laundromat or Hispanic grocery store requires just willingness to look. Well, yes, and sufficient initiative and imagination to go looking.

            Maybe more than you can expect from a corn-country native ‘Murican, but in coastal cities it’s not hard.

          • Winfried says:

            As a white man, I don’t think I would be as safe as the other black people living in said ghetto (concerning more random violent crime, not gang or drug involved crime).

            My wife would certainly not be as safe as I would, and there’s a lot I am willing to pay to keep her from harm.

            Maybe this is just an outdated reflection of my teenage years where being the only white person walking down a street could turn into trouble quickly, but I don’t think things have changed all that much.

        • onyomi says:

          Had a number of friends who were Chinese students at an Ivy League school. So they were much smarter, more educated, and privileged than the average Chinese or American, yet most of them also grew up with household incomes which would not rise above the US poverty level in absolute terms (though that is ameliorated in China somewhat by lower cost of living).

          But these were the elite of China, not the poor; while I think Chinese culture generally is more pro-work and saving than American culture, we also get a skewed picture because the ones who most value hard work and education are the ones who come here.

          In other words, there is a phenomenon where the educated elite of a poor country can show up in a rich country with less money in their pocket than the poor of that country and still vastly outcompete them because they still have the attributes (genetic/environmental/cultural) which made them educated elites in the place they came from. Of course, your average Chinese restaurant owner isn’t as elite as the Ivy League students, but they are still the ones who were risk-taking and industrious enough to come here.

          Yet something else about these educated elites of a still relatively poor country: they did still have very thrifty habits by American standards, but not in a “I will sacrifice so hard for my future” sort of way, but just a “I make my own noodles from the dirt cheap Asian grocery where all my friends shop; I take the dirt cheap Chinese run tour bus when I want to go somewhere; I will have two other Chinese roommates, who, like me, know where to get all the mega cheap deals on everything; we need something repaired? Call the mega cheap Chinese repairman…”

          It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice from their perspective because they’re enmeshed in a social network which supports, encourages, and enables it.

          • Saul Degraw says:

            On the other hand,

            I live near a university that is not Ivy but decided to cater to rich children from Asia because an American university degree is considered elite back home.

            These kids generally wear clothing and drive cars that even my upper-middle class American college educated cohort did not wear or drive at 18 or 28.

          • onyomi says:

            This was true of the Korean students at my undergrad, but not so much the Chinese.

        • onyomi says:

          And a slightly embarrassing example of the reverse case:

          I lived in China for a time on an income which would be low by American standards, but which was high by Chinese standards (about 25,000 USD/year). I didn’t end up saving much, though, a fact which I blame on my American expectations and habits. I didn’t really want a roommate, for example, so though my apartment wasn’t big or nice by American standards, it was way more space than the average Chinese expects to have to himself.

          When it came time to spend an extra $10 to buy a not-horrifically-uncomfortable seat on the 12-hour train ride, I always shelled it out. All kinds of little things, each of which alone seemed inconsequential, and which I couldn’t understand when the Chinese around me refused to shell out a little extra for comfort and convenience, really added up.

          • onyomi says:

            And in some support of the cultural aspect:

            Living in America as I lived in China would be considered a sort of just-adequate-to-not-be-vaguely-embarrassing level among most professional Americans I know, whereas it felt lavish and slightly wasteful by the standards of even the highly educated Chinese people I know.

            It was like “ooh, la dee dah, here comes mister ‘I leave on the AC just because it’s 90 degrees out.'” That is, there can be a reverse “keeping up with the Joneses” effect.

        • Bryan Hann says:

          Regarding the “Chinese Immigrant” in the third study:

          When my wife and I were finishing our degrees, it was commonly held among students that our student loans and grants were not enough to survive on. My wife and I survived, and even thrived — saving up for occasional entertainment luxuries.

          But then we were non-smokers and seldom hung out at the Breezeway (the student bar).

          (And the grad students from china that I knew ate a lot of home-cooked rice. Many people really do not know how to live inexpensively.)

          • Creutzer says:

            But then we were non-smokers and seldom hung out at the Breezeway (the student bar).

            Missing out on socialisation is a huge deal for people who are not married.

          • Rosemary7391 says:

            Creutzer, why does not smoking and not going to a bar imply not socialising? I’m single, live alone, and do a lot of cheap socialising. Usually involving going to a park, or visiting someone/being visited at home. Church(+other religious things?) also doesn’t cost if that’s something people do, and tends to come with a lot of social events built in.

            I guess socialising habits are affected by the same sort of cultural factors as general living.

          • Creutzer says:

            Not smoking isn’t much of an issue, but not going to “the student bar” is. You’re not seriously expecting graduate students to socialise at church. I agree that a culture of low-cost socialisation is possible, but there’s a huge coordination problem here. I was thinking in terms of individual choices: Good luck getting your whole peer-group to conform to your low-cost preferences. For example, shifting casual after-class drinks to somebody’s place is not trivial at all. And parks require certain weather and public drinking is prohibited in many places in the US, anyway.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I think this is part of the reason that so much more socializing is possible in university, especially undergrad: people live in residence, or near campus, and so it’s a lot easier to say “hey, want to hang out at your place? I’ll buy some beers”.

          • Universities tend to have lots of public lectures. Go to one on a topic that interests you and strike up a conversation with someone who asks an interesting question. My wife and I acquired a friend that way.

            And, as I have mentioned, I met the woman I’m married to at folk dancing. Free.

            My wife suggests that tea and home made cookies are cheap, my daughter that pizza, potato chips, soda, and gaming are another option. Not as cheap, but replaces dinner.

            I can imagine going to a student bar if I was sufficiently desperate, but it doesn’t strike me as the obvious place to find friends.

          • Creutzer says:

            A student bar isn’t the place where you go to find friends. It’s the place where the friends you already have go, and you want to go with them because if you don’t, you’ll have to find new friends.

          • Philipp says:

            Creutzer: Not smoking isn’t much of an issue, but not going to “the student bar” is. You’re not seriously expecting graduate students to socialise at church.

            Ah, but plenty of grad students do socialize at church, or in things like church, and an awful lot of them meet potential spouses there!

            Most college towns I’ve known have churches (and para-church groups) that attract students, sometimes in great numbers. St Aldate’s, the big Charismatic Anglican church in Oxford, for example, has hundreds of students in its services, many of whom also participate in its para-church groups; St Ebbe’s, another big Evangelical parish, is a little smaller, but still hugely successful at bringing in students. Even churches whose appeal is more restricted by style and affiliation (conservative Lutheran or Presbyterian, perhaps?) can still bring to bear some big social advantages for young people: even if only a handful of other students are there, you are likely to find people with similar convictions, and often similar social backgrounds; on top of that, you may find people older and younger than yourself who can fill out a wider social network similar to the one that you have grown up in. The fact of the matter is that churches can and do play a very important social role for an awful lot of students, both undergraduate and graduate.

          • Civilis says:

            I would wager that the people we want to be friends with and the things we enjoy doing to socialize are not entirely within our control, especially by the time we’re in college. As Rosemary said, “I guess socialising habits are affected by the same sort of cultural factors as general living”, but I think it’s more than just cultural. I don’t know what kinds of studies have been done on this topic, but I’d guess that what we enjoy doing is something that’s a product of our genetics and our childhood experiences, only some of which are a product of culture.

            The problem is a lot of the suggestions here start with examples of a low-cost or free socialization option when the problem is finding a low-cost or free socialization option that meets your interests.

            I’m not very coordinated, tend to be very introverted and have a contrary streak that drives me away from sports team fandom, so I don’t follow sports. Suggesting to me when I was at college that I could get free entertainment and socialization from going to a football game would not have helped, because it amounts to trying to make connections with members of a group of people that have one thing in common, an interest in sports, which I do not share.

          • Rosemary7391 says:

            Creutzer, you seem to have a very one dimensional view of socialising – I was only trying to point out that it needn’t be that way. For your interest, I am a grad student that socialises at church, so it does happen. I don’t expect others to do so, but it’s an option.

            Civilis, I agree that it isn’t always easy to find low cost (or high cost) socialising options that also interest you. However, throwing around different ideas has to be better than just assuming socialising == bar? The football suggestion obviously wouldn’t help everyone, but I’d hope it would come along with a bunch of others. One of which might be good for you, or at least get you thinking about other possible ideas.

          • Anonymous says:

            I’m not very coordinated, tend to be very introverted and have a contrary streak that drives me away from sports team fandom, so I don’t follow sports.

            These things (other than perhaps uncoordinated) need not be immutable and unchanging parts of who you are. There’s a difference between self knowledge and stubborn inflexibility.

          • Civilis says:

            These things (other than perhaps uncoordinated) need not be immutable and unchanging parts of who you are. There’s a difference between self knowledge and stubborn inflexibility.

            I can, and do, force myself into situations where I am uncomfortable. But there’s a difference between being able to function socially as an introvert and suddenly becoming someone that enjoys social interaction for its own sake. I can choose to be more social, however I can’t choose to suddenly enjoy social interaction.

            I was very fortunate to find groups of people that shared my interests, and from them find other things which interested me, some of them cheap and others expensive. Ironically, some of that has helped me be less introverted and more comfortable socially. Yes, we can change who we are, but that almost never happens as a direct goal but as a side effect of something else. I now enjoy exercise a lot more than I did as a kid, but I didn’t start out with a goal to enjoy exercise, I started out with a goal to get some alone time to think, I just discovered that exercise provided me that time, and it was worth exercising to have the time to think.

            To work this back towards the discussion, people can choose to try to be more responsible and more fixated on long term thinking, however very few will enjoy the sacrifices they have to make now as part of the process.

          • Psmith says:

            I can choose to be more social, however I can’t choose to suddenly enjoy social interaction.

            “Suddenly” is the key word here.

    • Alphaceph says:

      Also in some places the price of housing has risen extremely steeply. For example in the southeast of the UK, the Bay Area, etc, housing is probably just as expensive, relative to income, as it was in 1900.

      It is better quality housing, but a poor person is unable to take quality factors and stick them in a bank account.

    • Deiseach says:

      Can I remark on the disingenuous of that example? Sumner is not comparing “Here are Bill and Ben; both are of similiar levels of education, work in the same kind of job, have a family of three kids, live in similar neighbourhoods. But Bill is constantly finding himself in debt while Ben can manage. How is this?” It’s not “Here are Sue and Jane: both are single mothers, working part-time, living in a medium-sized town. But Jane is always one week’s income above becoming homeless, while Sue can balance her budget. Here’s how to to this!”

      No, it’s “Take a Chinese immigrant who is living in what even he considers shitty conditions but he’s hoping to get above them by hard work” and using that to scold the poor. I don’t know how much Sumner makes in his work, but by comparison with our Chinese immigrant he’s probably Bill Gates. Doe he feel he’d be helped by someone tut-tutting over why doesn’t he have as much personal value socked away as Gates? After all, if he were a Chinese immigrant with his advantages, he’d consider himself to be rolling in the lap of luxury!

      • Vaniver says:

        don’t know how much Sumner makes in his work, but by comparison with our Chinese immigrant he’s probably Bill Gates. Doe he feel he’d be helped by someone tut-tutting over why doesn’t he have as much personal value socked away as Gates? After all, if he were a Chinese immigrant with his advantages, he’d consider himself to be rolling in the lap of luxury!

        So, when I gradually transitioned from being a graduate student to being fully employed in an in-demand field, my income doubled about three times. (It was actually three successive doublings corresponding to three different role changes, which was interesting.) My discretionary expenses have increased by… actually, I’m not sure they’ve increased. Let’s stick it at 20%. (My charitable giving has stayed flat as a percentage, and thus gone up eight times, and my taxes have increased as a percentage, but I don’t count either of those as discretionary.)

        My parents are more frugal than I am, and so I do get tut-tutted from time to time. (Less, now that they see that I’ve successfully adjusted to a salary comparable to theirs.)

        This makes me a little surprised by people who are quick to jump to the “but are the rich really taking their own medicine?” because, yes! We are! That’s how we know it works!

        (Yes, there’s a difference between high-income high-consumption low-wealth “rich” and high-income low-consumption high-wealth rich, but as the scare quotes suggest I think the latter are the group doing this scolding and the group to emulate.)

        • Deiseach says:

          But Vaniver, when you are comparing your situation to others, are you comparing yourself to “Well, a goat herder in Tanzania would consider I live in riches the likes of which he’s only heard kings in legends have” or do you compare yourself to your peers?

          That’s my point about Sumner’s glib fix: he’s not comparing like with like. I’m richer than my grandparents. I’m considerably richer than a Chinese rice farmer. But the people I am comparing myself to, the ones that matter when it comes to “Am I on the same salary scale” are not Victorians or rice farmers, they are my work colleagues and age cohort.

          • Xerxes says:

            That’s called envy.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            The Jones family is keeping up with the Smith family is keeping up with the Gau family is keeping up with the Jones family. Everybody is in debt to pay so they can live somebody else’s lifestyle, believing all the while they’re entitled to live the same kind of lives as their neighbors and cohorts, not realizing what they’re implicitly agreeing to sacrifice in order to do so: They’re mortgaging significant elements of their future.

          • Vaniver says:

            when you are comparing your situation to others

            I mostly don’t. I’m content with my situation, so what more is there to think about?

            But when I do, it’s mostly to my friends who are grad students / have retail jobs (or no job), to my family / early retirement extreme folks, or Victorians, or Benjamin Franklin, or so on.

            Sometimes I compare to people outside that class, but it’s mostly to reinforce how miserable I would be if I were making their choices. I live as close to work as physically possible in order to minimize commute time (currently, a 10 minute walk down/up a hill), and whenever I hear about someone’s mansion out in the suburbs my first thought is “That commute! What misery!”

            This general trend–of reminding yourself of the virtues of people nicer than you, so that you consider adopting them yourself (I almost sold my car thanks to Mr. Money Mustache, and then Uber and Lyft left Austin because of a municipal vote), and the vices of people worse than you, so you ensure you don’t adopt them yourself, is a general technique for life success, I think.

          • Luke the CIA stooge says:

            Compromising your future and that of your children to play status games is a moral failing deserving of ridicule and contempt. No matter what your income or class is.

            A poor person who bankrupt themself so they can pretend to be slightly richer than their neighbor is no less contemptible than a ten millionaire who bankrupt himself pretending to be a hundred millionaire. In either case the only appropriate societal response to correct the behaviour is ridicule, a refusal of sympathy and a refusal of assistance.

            The only way we will see an increase in frugality and a decrease in status games is if we ruthlessly ridicule (compromise the status) of those who take such games to far.

            We have failed to create the correct incentives. If we bailout people who play games with their future, then their is no reason for them to become responsible or for the responsible to keep up the good behaviour

          • g says:

            Luke, one possibly relevant difference is that when the guy with $10M tries to live as if he has $100M and runs out of money, his end situation is generally one that most people would characterize as comfortably off; whereas when the guy living on $5k/year tries to live as if he’s getting $15k/year and runs out of money, his end situation may be homelessness, untreated health problems, and malnutrition.

            Ridiculing them both and refusing all assistance may have similar salutary effects on others around them, but the damage suffered by the poor guy is likely to be a lot worse than the damage suffered by the (ex-)rich guy.

            (I also have a suspicion that the psychological underpinnings of the overspending are different in the two cases and harder to prevent by ridicule for the poor guy than for the rich guy, but it’s only a suspicion.)

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Luke, one possibly relevant difference is that when the guy with $10M tries to live as if he has $100M and runs out of money, his end situation is generally one that most people would characterize as comfortably off;

            No, he’s likely to end up bankrupt. Lottery winners in the US declare bankruptcy two orders of magnitude more than the average American.

          • John Schilling says:

            “Bankrupt” and “comfortably off” are not mutually exclusive. Bankruptcy is intended to mitigate the personal impact of financial misfortune, particularly on family members, and usually tailored to allow very nearly the same standard of living as enjoyed pre-bankruptcy. And at the $10-100M level you’re probably talking corporate bankruptcy, with personal assets carefully isolated.

          • brad says:

            Bankrupt shouldn’t be used as a synonym for impoverished. It’s very possible to maintain a decent lifestyle while in bankruptcy and certainly on the other side.

            Edit: 2 minutes too slow

          • Cliff says:

            Bankrupt means you have negative net wealth

          • John Schilling says:

            Bankrupt means you have negative net wealth

            Which has almost nothing to do with whether or not you are e.g. living in a penthouse apartment between trips to exotic vacation spots by private jet, and reasonably expecting to do so until the day you die.

          • Wency says:

            Bankrupt means you have negative net wealth

            False. Every recent graduate who has $200 in his bank account, $30,000 in student loans, and a job offer in hand is not bankrupt.

            They do meet the IRS definition of “insolvent”, though confusingly that word is sometimes treated as a synonym for bankrupt.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            A ->B != B -> A

          • wysinwyg says:

            That’s called envy.

            It strikes me as the height of hypocrisy when someone who is staunchly pro-capitalism responds to a valid criticism of capitalism by suggesting that the criticism is only motivated by envy (with the implication that envy is a very bad thing).

            Capitalism is entirely predicated on the existence of envy. Without envy, capitalism would be unworkable. Libertarians’ and Randians’ entire ethical systems operate on the principle that envy is a good thing.

            Compromising your future and that of your children to play status games is a moral failing deserving of ridicule and contempt. No matter what your income or class is.

            That would be true if humans were actually robots. But they’re not, and people’s ability to get up in the morning and care about their lives — let alone make long-term plans and perform complex tasks — is predicated on their sense of self worth.

            See, I think this:

            In either case the only appropriate societal response to correct the behaviour is ridicule, a refusal of sympathy and a refusal of assistance.

            actually has a lot more to do with the sorts of things that inflate your own sense of self worth than they do with actually solving social problems. In fact, I suspect that scolding the poor makes their problems worse by making it seem even more difficult and less rewarding to try.

            But I’m sure you’ve got lots of rationalizations to throw at me to prove you’re being helpfully prosocial instead of a self-righteous scold.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            @wysinwyg –

            The individual you’re responding to has been banned, so I suppose I’ll answer you, as a libertarian objectivist whatever.

            Capitalism is not based on envy. Capitalism (market economy, properly) is based on exactly one thing: An evolutionary process for eliminating inefficiencies in the market. Capitalism doesn’t imply or require either consumerism or materialism, although those are easy traps to fall into an a capitalist system, precisely because of how good it is at providing consumer/materialist goods.

            You want to fix an overly materialistic and consumerist society? You don’t achieve it by insisting that a certain level of distinctly first-world materialism and consumerism are necessary to human dignity.

      • Elimelech says:

        “Do the Right Thing” is a fantastic film. A particularly good scene has these three brothers sitting watching a Korean immigrant opening and running a successful fruit stand. They tut-tut themselves and are simply defeated by inertia. Is the inertia caused by the system, by culture, or by their own laziness? Spike Lee offers all three as unsatisfactory answers.

      • No one is making claims that the economics professors live hand to mouth, can’t save money for emergencies, and require more wealth redistribution to make ends meet. No one claims economics professors are trapped in poverty.

        If people made these claims, then pointing out how economics professors live a far more lavish lifestyle than these Chinese immigrants would in fact be a valid refutation.

        Also, assuming Sumner has $500k saved up and the Chinese immigrant has $12k, Bill Gates (savings of $79B) is approximately 150,000x more wealthy than Sumner. Sumner is only 41x more wealthy than the Chinese immigrant. So your comparison is not very apt.

        • wysinwyg says:

          No one is making claims that the economics professors live hand to mouth, can’t save money for emergencies, and require more wealth redistribution to make ends meet. No one claims economics professors are trapped in poverty.

          That’s irrelevant to the argument at hand, which is that the comparison of a poor Chinese immigrant with a poor non-immigrant is misleading in several respects.

          The comparison between the economics professor and Bill Gates was made simply to illustrate the problem. That comparison is also misleading in very similar respects. This is what the experts call an “analogy”.

          Also, in the course of spectacularly missing the point, you made an invalid rebuttal: you assume that wealth should scale linearly (Sumner should be compared to someone 41x as wealthy instead of 15,000). There’s no reason to believe this is the case.

  3. Mammon says:

    I don’t see the second and third articles as contradicting each other. It’s possible that better life outcomes funge against saving money, so that today’s poor people aren’t saving because they’re spending their cash on things that raise their life outcomes.

  4. Rm says:

    It seems to me that in Europe, poverty happens to families in a much more random way than it does in America, historically speaking. Would considering the Tucker-Drob’s results separately for differing regions of America (I don’t mean it has to be North vs. South, but I don’t know enough to suggest another grouping) change the outcome?

  5. Lemminkainen says:

    The “no dependents” part of the strategy for saving money is probably a relatively novel aspect. The varieties of socially permissible child and adolescent labor have contracted a lot over the course of the 20th century. (This trend even extends into the late 20th century– my mother, who was a middle-class teenager in rural Missouri in the 1970s, did grueling farm work all summer when she was 14, and a few visits to her hometown suggest that this wouldn’t be acceptable for middle-class teenagers there today.) The expenses of childcare have probably also increased with the decline of small family businesses in the US. (When I was in Beirut, I noticed that the people who ran the small food and produce stands which were common throughout the city often had their kids with them while they worked. People working in bigger stores owned by somebody else would probably need to leave their kids with somebody else, and find a babysitter or daycare.)

    • Teal says:

      For the working poor, and at least for the first child, I’d say they go from a liability to an asset no later than age four when they can start attending pre-school under the head start program. That’s sooner than any time in history. At an earned income of $14,500 the EITC difference alone is $3300 — 22%.

    • Joe says:

      I think it is a great disservice to children and parents (especially children from especially bad/psychopathic parents!!!) that payed child labor is legally and socially banned.

      • Julie K says:

        How many people want to hire a kid, especially one from a bad family? As I’ve said before, we are no longer in the era of Anne of Green Gables, when running a farm or a household involved so much labor that it made sense to take in an 11-year-old orphan to help out.

        eta: The disappearing demand for child labor is the best argument I know that technological unemployment could be a real thing.

        • Matt M says:

          For $15 an hour plus mandated benefits? Nobody.

          If you could legally hire them for what they were actually worth – tons of people.

          • g says:

            And if they were hiring these children for “what they were actually worth”, how much incentive would they have to take good care of them on the job?

            Letting “especially bad/psychopathic parents” send their children out to do crappy work that will likely injure them or otherwise damage their health might perhaps be a good deal for those parents, but it doesn’t sound to me like a win for the children or for society as a whole.

          • albatross says:

            I’ve read the claim that small-time street criminals often employ kids as lookouts and such. That’s at least one datapoint for the idea that without restrictions on pay and safety of the job, there are jobs that child labor would work out OK for.

          • Alsadius says:

            g: We’re not talking about sending the kids to be chimney sweeps or coal miners here. Cutting grass, delivering papers, flipping burgers, washing dishes, walking dogs – all of these are perfectly reasonable jobs for a 12 year old. How exactly do you brutally mistreat kids in those jobs?

            I was 13 when I got a job riding a heavy ice cream bike all over town alone. I had a belt full of cash, a bike I couldn’t lift myself if it fell over, and no training beyond a map. I was on commission, so I made less than minimum wage most days. And it made me feel freaking loaded. I had hundreds of dollars in the bank! Hundreds!

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            @Alsadius

            We have that in Paraguay. A poor family can give their child to another family so the child does housework in exchange for food and being able to go to school.

            Those kids are sometimes treated really badly. One of them died last January in a high profile case of physical abuse and that is making many people reconsider the practice.

            This article is the best I could find that explains the situation in English, but I disagree with its assertion that it’s rich Paraguayans that use child servants. In my experience it’s usually lower-to-middle-class families using the children of extremely poor families as servants.

          • I am the Tarpitz says:

            Park a car in Liverpool in the run-up to a football match, and you will encounter children aged I would guess 10-15 offering to “mind your car, mister?”. Whether this protection racketeering operates on a self-employed/cooperative basis or under the employ of older criminals not seen at the workface I am unsure, but I suppose it constitutes a kind of work.

        • Alsadius says:

          Lots of people will happily hire a 10 year old to cut their lawn for $5 a week.

        • When our daughter was an infant, we hired a baby sitter who was eleven or twelve at the time. The original plan was that she could watch the baby while my wife was cooking dinner and similar times.

          It turned out that she was a twelve year old adult, and after a while we felt free to leave her in sole charge of our daughter.

          Our daughter is now an adult. A few years back I got an email from her ex-baby sitter, she having apparently come across me somewhere online. She is, or was then, an air force fighter pilot. Sent me a picture of her with her plane.

          Twelve year olds, like adults, vary a lot, and there are quite a lot of ways in which a responsible one can be useful, can replace an adult. But fewer at $15/hour.

          • Sweeneyrod says:

            Do minimum wage laws apply in informal babysitting arrangements?

          • Chalid says:

            Don’t know if they would legally apply, but as a practical manner, no one is going to enforce a minimum wage law in that context.

            And tons of childcare is completely under-the-table.

          • Evan Þ says:

            No, an informal babysitter would almost certainly be considered an independent contractor, which means minimum wage laws wouldn’t apply.

            (Once it starts getting formalized with a consistent set schedule of multiple evenings every week, then things would start getting murkier.)

          • TPC says:

            Under age 18, it doesn’t really matter, the laws for household employment (which is what babysitter, house cleaner and yard worker all are legally speaking) assume nobody under 18 would be babysitting or whatever full time. So you technically should be paying minimum wage if it’s regular, but it doesn’t have any consequences legally speaking if you hire your neighbor’s 13 year old for five bucks an hour as a mother’s helper.

            Over age 18, informal arrangements are usually completely illegal, as they tend to be very regular and “flat rate” at rates that are very, very, very low, sometimes less than five dollars an hour. I recently saw on a local bulletin board an ad for a babysitter for four children for 15 hours per week for 50 dollars total. This is a pretty typical “informal request” scenario.

            PS: almost nobody in America appears to know this, but there is no such thing as independent contractor for domestic/household labor. If you pay that way for house cleaning, babysitting or yard work above a couple thousand bucks a year, it’s illegal, you’re supposed to be taking out w2 taxes and applicable unemployment and worker’s comp, dependent on your state’s laws.

          • The Nybbler says:

            PS: almost nobody in America appears to know this, but there is no such thing as independent contractor for domestic/household labor. If you pay that way for house cleaning, babysitting or yard work above a couple thousand bucks a year, it’s illegal

            That’s too broad to be true. A nanny is almost certainly an employee (hence the “nanny tax”), but the rules are the same for domestic and household labor as they are for other labor. Most house cleaners and landscapers (at least in my area) provide their own equipment, make their own personnel decisions about helpers and such. And the employer in those cases controls only the result of the work (e.g. “is the house clean”), not how it’s done. So they’re likely independent contractors just as they claim.

          • TPC says:

            “That’s too broad to be true. A nanny is almost certainly an employee (hence the “nanny tax”), but the rules are the same for domestic and household labor as they are for other labor. Most house cleaners and landscapers (at least in my area) provide their own equipment, make their own personnel decisions about helpers and such. And the employer in those cases controls only the result of the work (e.g. “is the house clean”), not how it’s done. So they’re likely independent contractors just as they claim.”

            This has regional variation, in the regions of America I’ve lived in, equipment was mixed together (employers’ and employees’) and buying supplies like gas or cleaning fluids was often an implicit expectation. There was also back and forth about what work was done and how it was done. No, it’s not definitive to say that they are independent contractors, they very often are not, but the money paid out is usually not much above the several thousand a year that triggers tax liabilities and regulations, so it’s something I’d label a semi-victimless crime. Semi because more clarity and sanity around these regulations would probably improve the overall conditions, status and pay of this work for many doing it and make people who currently reject such work as low-status possibly do it instead of waiting for work they deem socially acceptable. (Which is a real poverty-class issue, the status of jobs.)

            Also, the rules aren’t the same, I can assure you they are very, very different.

          • The Nybbler says:

            “Clarifying” the rules so that more people are classified as employees rather than contractors is more likely to result in fewer people getting the job done, I think. Hiring someone as a contractor to do your lawn or clean your house is as easy as writing a check. Hiring an employee is a big deal and triggers all sorts of laws (in addition to the tax issues, which are also a real pain).

            The IRS has a 20-factor(!) test for determining between contractors and employees.

          • TPC says:

            Nybbler, these jobs have poor enough status that many native-born Americans simply refuse to do them, while immigrants are more likely to jump on them even when they are being paid “just a check” under employee-like conditions.

            Anyway by clarifying the rules I mean things like raising the amount of cash exemption before the employee stuff is triggered. If it was 10 or 15k before household employment regulations came into effect, native-born people would be more likely to do it since it’s “tax free money wooooo!” Some of this stuff would be compelling as a summer gig again. Right now people are vaguely aware there are “rules” about it all, and there is in many markets a tendency to offer low hourly wages or pay criminally low “flat rate” prices because anyone who wants real wages will “probably want them to take taxes out and what a hassle for five hours a week cleaning my house!”.

      • Deiseach says:

        And you imagine abusive/psychopathic parents would let Johnny or Susie keep their pay? If they don’t realise Susie is staying away after school working, they’ll realise when she’s not around to do things they want her to do, and then it’ll be “So you’re able to pay for your keep, okay start paying rent”.

        • Anonymous says:

          I know a family who required their son to rent his room once he was employed. They seemed the opposite of abusive/psychopathic, but I’ve only known them for like five years.

          • Anon says:

            I am employed but live with my parents – as a result I pay rent. Rent which is cheaper than living in an apartment on my own.

        • Matt M says:

          Is it your belief that most parents are abusive and/or psychopathic?

          • g says:

            She was responding to a comment that said “I think it is a great disservice to children and parents (especially children from especially bad/psychopathic parents!!!) that payed child labor is legally and socially banned.”.

  6. Svejk says:

    Also, regarding that Chinese immigrant – I, too, have worked a $20,000/year job and managed to save a lot of money while doing so. I think my “secret” was not having a car, debts, drugs, or dependents; it seems the Chinese guy’s secret is the same.

    Interestingly, both you and the ‘Chinese guy’ are replicating important aspects of European-style poverty: no large debt traps, no dependents or dependency. In your case, the experience of a few years of ‘genteel’ poverty, with the knowledge that if it came to the worst, you could probably call upon reliable members of your social network, is different from the general US experience of poverty. Poverty in western/central Europe is similar to your experience, except that you can call upon the social services instead of established relatives. Because the modal European has considerably less material wealth than the modal American, the material signifiers of reduced circumstances are much less conspicuous – everybody is on the bus in the same worn-but-well-cared-for clothes they wore yesterday, with a fresh button-front shirt. Many of the US poor, on the other hand, are embedded in complicated reciprocity networks that continually drain them of time and resources. It may be that the ability to escape these networks, and their obligations, is a factor aiding immigrant success: imagine if you could drop all of your deadbeat cousins and acquire a new network of similarly ambitious people who are also bootstrapping themselves to success and don’t expect you to spend a lot of resources on social signalling.

    • lunatic says:

      Do you have sources that give more detail on your claims?

      • Svejk says:

        If you’re interested in the topic of modern reciprocity networks, looking for papers that cite Carol Stack (starting with her 1974 work All Our Kin) is a good way to start. Her initial work was an ethnography(!), but it has percolated through development economics and a lot of recent work in discussing the economic norms of immigrant communities worldwide. The role of these networks is by no means resolved – there is some recent economic work modelling the effects of kin systems in ameliorating or exacerbating ‘poverty traps’ under different conditions.

    • lunatic says:

      Actually, this has me wondering: is the distribution of incomes of a person’s facebook friends predictive of their own life outcomes independently of the things like their own income, IQ and whatever other personal factors you can measure, and if so how strong is it?

    • JayT says:

      The Chinese guy doesn’t have anyone to call on though. In fact, he probably has less of a social safety net than the average poor American.

      • Nicholas says:

        I didn’t read the article, and thus don’t know what year it was lived in, but I know that up until about 10 years ago there was a formal network dedicated to helping Chinese immigrants get jobs and open businesses; the reason it seemed like everyone working at the local dry cleaners was Chinese is because the owner would have owed the immigrant network a favor, and was preferentially hiring their recommendations.

    • DensityDuck says:

      “Many of the US poor, on the other hand, are embedded in complicated reciprocity networks that continually drain them of time and resources.”

      EXACTLY.

      The guy next door to me has, in a two-bedroom condo: Himself, his daughter and her boyfriend, his son and girlfriend and their three kids (one his son with another woman, two with the current girlfriend). We were talking the other day and he said “yeah, my son’s is just staying until he can figure something out”. (He’s been trying to figure something out for four years now.) At no point did my neighbor indicate that this was something out of the ordinary, or something that should be dealt with.

      Get a little money? Dad needs it because he “helped you out” that one time. Get a place to stay? Mom and boyfriend just got kicked out of their place, now they live in your front room. Got a car? Six different relatives need rides to the doctor, the post office, the library, a job, night school, and the mall to hang out / score weed.

      • Walter says:

        Absolutely. It is the rats in a trap thing. No one can climb out, but everyone can pull someone else down.

        I know someone who is underwater financially and asked me to look at what’s going on. Her fundamentals looked fine. She makes X per month, spends .8*X. So what’s up? She says yes to any one time favor, and these eat her up. Pay for her son’s car repairs? Sure. Bail another tenant’s kid out of jail? Be evil not to, right?

        The son who has been ‘figuring something out’ for four years is pretty exactly analogous to what she’s got going on, only in her case it is an ex girlfriend who she puts up in her apartment, along with her current guy.

        She’s a soft touch, and everyone knows it, so they help themselves to what she has. The fool.

      • onyomi says:

        I have heard this offered as a reason, also, while many third-world societies stay poor: complicated reciprocity networks are totally embedded in their culture such that any time anyone gets some sort of windfall, it’s expected that he spread it around his extended network. The negative effect this has on capital accumulation can be imagined, though it raises a different question:

        A lot of posts here have been about how poor people lack social networks, but it seems more likely in this light that they have social networks which are pulling them down rather than lifting them up.

        This makes the problem harder in that you can’t just give poor people the opportunity to interact with smart, hard-working, productive people so long as they’re also interacting with their deadbeat husband and four brothers who drain off any excess wealth accumulated thereby.

        • Matt M says:

          And the thing is – the smart, hard-working person – as soon as they see that the poor person is being dragged down by his network and won’t disassociate from it, will then disassociate themselves from the poor person rather than risk falling into the same trap.

        • Jaskologist says:

          We did have an institution where the high and low in a community would regularly rub elbows.

          (Hint: go to church lol)

          • John Schilling says:

            I think this is mostly a Catholic or Mormon thing. With Protestant Christianity, there’s often at least a rich-person denomination and a poor-person denomination, with separate churches. And a specifically black denomination if there are enough blacks, but that at least gets the handful of rich blacks hanging out with the poor ones.

          • bean says:

            My pastor once said that in church, you should look around, and if the church is full of people you would normally hang out with, it’s not doing its job. It should serve as a uniting factor across other boundaries. It was one of the more profound things I’ve gotten out of a sermon in some time.

          • John Schilling says:

            If the church is full of people you would normally hang out with, it’s not doing its job

            Oh, that is good – I’m going to have to steal this shamelessly and repeatedly.

            And yes, kudos to the Mormons for deliberately setting it up that way. Not sure whether it is accident or design with the Catholics, and we’ve lost our local expert for the time being.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Nowadays in many places the communities themselves are often split high and low. And/or the churches split that way.

            Edit: obviously I was late to the party. I don’t just mean different congregations; I mean your poor population might be mostly Catholic or Southern Baptist while your wealthier population is more Methodist or something. (and with those examples there’s obviously there’s a racial element as well)

          • Jaskologist says:

            Protestants churches are indeed sorting more and more. Very likely this is one of the downsides of religious freedom, combined with neighborhood sorting and greater mobility. FWIW, every church I’ve attended regularly has been aware of the issue and actively sought to work against it. But these days, the mere act of physically socializing with people outside my age bracket is almost counter-cultural.

            Catholic churches have been geographically based pretty much from the beginning. How much of that was accidental, intentional, accumulated Burkean cultural wisdom, and divine intervention is as hard to disentangle as ever.

          • keranih says:

            Not claiming to be the theologian D is, but a lot of Catholic traditions/practices are historical holdovers that still make sense.

            Parishes and Dioceses are based on geographic divisions of responsibility, back when geography was the primary driver of the ability to project power. And there were still rich areas and poor areas. Today, while nearly all Dioceses(*) have a defined geographic region, it is not required that a Catholic attend the parish where they are geographically located. It is still strongly suggested – for the reasons given above.

            However, the colonial period – and the spread of the Faith to the Americas – had some interesting side effects – to include groups of immigrants from different countries with different pastoral customs and languages mixing in the same region. So you could have a city in the USA/Canada with a French Catholic parish and one for each of the Irish, Italians, Poles and Germans. This was a push-pull thing, too – different ethnic groups tended to move to areas where a church of their language already was.

            Now the tension is between older, multi-ethnic Euro-descent churches, and those with large Asian or Hispanic populations. Sorting out what is asshole behavior and what is just misunderstanding can be a bear, and when people are going to the parish for someone to understand their problems, cross-culture clashes can be very harmful to the group.

            (*) The US military has a diocese that is not defined geographically

          • Anonymous says:

            I think this is mostly a Catholic or Mormon thing. With Protestant Christianity, there’s often at least a rich-person denomination and a poor-person denomination, with separate churches.

            Correct. This is one of the… I don’t want to say flaws of the Reformation, Luther had strong complaints and the Papacy was rotten at the time, but one of the hard-to-predict long-term consequences of getting rich people out from under the thumb of the one catholic and indivisible Church, and able to set up their own churchy thing. Make no mistake, the reason rich men joined the Protestant cause wasn’t disgust with indulgences or bad theology, it was a desire to break free of a supranational system which pervaded culture and was in many ways a check to them.

            It’s my personal experience that people don’t really understand what an advantage Europe had in the old church system, or what we lost in breaking it. They kinda just point to the valuable decorations on Catholic churches and go “yeah well Voltaire said a bunch of mean stuff about it”, and that’s at best, and assuming they’ve read Voltaire.

          • bean says:

            Jaskologist:
            Protestants churches are indeed sorting more and more.
            I’m not sure this is even remotely true. Mainline Protestant denominations have been as much social as religious for at least the past century, maybe more. In the USN during the WWII era, it was considered helpful to an officer’s career to be (IIRC) Episcopalian. The 1st and 2nd Baptists go back at least that far.

            Very likely this is one of the downsides of religious freedom, combined with neighborhood sorting and greater mobility.
            I suspect that similar social sorting happened within all churches throughout history. Paul condemns it in his letters. All religious freedom did was allow the different groups within the church to be in different churches. On the whole, it’s better to have the people in the same church, as you have at least the potential for interaction, but we shouldn’t pretend that getting everyone in the same building will immediately lead to the situation the Mormons or the better Catholics have.

            FWIW, every church I’ve attended regularly has been aware of the issue and actively sought to work against it.
            Likewise.

            But these days, the mere act of physically socializing with people outside my age bracket is almost counter-cultural.
            I guess. I’m not in tune enough with culture to be able to counter it.
            That said, I don’t spend a huge amount of time with the old people at my church, but at least I shake their hands on Sundays and occasionally end up talking with a few at a potluck or something.

            John Schilling:
            Oh, that is good – I’m going to have to steal this shamelessly and repeatedly.
            I don’t think he’ll mind.

            And yes, kudos to the Mormons for deliberately setting it up that way.
            The most annoying thing about the Mormons is that for all their weird doctrine, they do a far better job of implementing practical Christianity than do basically all Christians. (I admire them for it. It’s annoying that we can’t do the same.)

          • Randy M says:

            I’m not in tune enough with culture to be able to counter it.

            This is such a beautiful meta-contrarian sentiment that I wish I could agree with more.

          • Civilis says:

            As a Catholic, the geographic distribution of the various parishes does tend to group similar people together to some degree, however the larger Dioceses do tend to spread the wealth of the wealthier parishes around a bit. Further, at least based on my experience, the ability to bring in visiting priests and religious from other parts of the world seems to be used to great effect as a fundraising tool for helping the poorer parts of the church.

            There are other factors, some of which may not have been anticipated. I’d guess the demographics of my parishes other masses are very different from those of the Spanish language mass.

          • Jaskologist says:

            It’s not wealth money we’re talking about spreading around, it’s norms, habits, and social connections.

        • John Schilling says:

          but it seems more likely in this light that they have social networks which are pulling them down rather than lifting them up.

          They have social networks which are keeping them at their current level.

          Considering what would happen if they fell below their current level, this may not be a bad thing. But it is a thing, which we (and they) have to account for it if we want to move them to a different level.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Native Americans have this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch

          I think Scott posted a link to this a few months ago, but I can’t find it now.

  7. Thursday says:

    I think this can be considered me slightly changing my opinion stated here to be more optimistic about the possibility of alleviating the most extreme poverty.

    Based on one anomalous study?

  8. Jack Lecter says:

    Scott, this blog repeatedly puts me in a bind;

    I process slowly, elliptically, over days or weeks- and your posts never leave me short of food for thought. By the time I’ve formulated any specific comment, I suspect everyone, including you, has moved on from the original post. Given these circumstances, this comment will be *markedly* off topic.

    I wanted to mention how much I enjoy this blog. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m not the only one, and I’m not sure if another voice is likely to make any difference at this point, but:

    Just after I discovered this blog, some months ago now, I read a quote from it over the phone to my mother. “That’s fantastic,” she said, “Is it from your friend Bertrand?” She meant Russell, whom I *also* quote incessantly, and I told her, no, it was this blogger I was reading, but, actually, the comparison had occurred to me as well. Your work resembles his in its combination of clarity with psychological realism- you both analyze arguments logically and humanize the people making them.

    For whatever it’s worth, I wish you well.

    • Julian R. says:

      That’s interesting, what was the quote?

      • Jack Lecter says:

        “I mean, we live in a world where the Chinese Communist Party is the group that enforces Chinese capitalism and oppresses any workers who complain about it. We live in a world where the guy who spoke out against ritualized purity-obsessed organized religion ended up as the founder of the largest ritualized purity-obsessed organized religion of all time. We live in a world where the police force, which is there to prevent theft and violence, is confiscating property and shooting people right and left. It seems neither uncommon nor unexpected that if you charge a group with eliminating an evil that’s really hard to eliminate, they usually end up mildly tweaking the evil into a form that benefits them, then devoting most of their energy to punishing people who complain.”

        One of his best, I think.

        • eyeballfrog says:

          From one of his best articles, IMO. Though I’m not sure he agrees with that sentiment.

    • Jack V says:

      I think the sensible thing to do is put long-after comments in open threads. But I agree, I don’t often feel like that really moves the conversation forward.

      • keranih says:

        What if – perhaps during slow periods, or once a week, or once a month – Scott reposted something from the archive, +/- brief comments on whether he thinks there is new data to affect the conclusion, or an observation on how the commentary went that he thought was good/not relevant to the original post?

        • Julie K says:

          Reruns!
          I like it, especially since I wasn’t around when this blog got started and I’d like to comment on the earlier topics if the discussion were live again.

        • Neanderthal From Mordor says:

          This is done all the time on the subreddit.

  9. test says:

    > Also, regarding that Chinese immigrant – I, too, have worked a $20,000/year job and managed to save a lot of money while doing so. I think my “secret” was not having a car, debts, drugs, or dependents; it seems the Chinese guy’s secret is the same. Exactly how easy this strategy is for the average person is left as an exercise for the reader, but I’m impressed with how culturally malleable it seems to be. If we’re worse at this kind of thing today than in 1900, maybe the extra is just compensating for those sorts of problems.

    I don’t know anything about you but some money had to go somewhere – your savings could easily be justified if someone else’s money was spent, instead.

    (Worked at 16k/y but I live in Israel so maybe the comparison isn’t good)

  10. Anomaly UK says:

    Cultural expectations may well be relevant; Amy Chua made it clear in World on Fire that saving money then starting a business is what you’re supposed to do if you’re overseas Chinese.

    • Aapje says:

      And it seems to be working very well for them, as Chinese expats seem to be doing quite well relative to other groups of migrants.

      Unfortunately it’s hard to discuss these things as these cultures are often linked to ethnicity, so discussions about the strength and weaknesses of cultures is often seen as racial commentary.

      • ChetC3 says:

        Culture is just PC doubletalk for genes. Overseas Chinese do better than other groups because of their high-IQ genes, and if you say any different, you’re a dirty SJW.

        • Alsadius says:

          Not at all. Culture is a real thing that really matters. Look at Iraqis a millennium ago versus Iraqis today – basically the same genes, not at all the same culture, and one was vastly more successful than the other.

        • As Thomas Sowell points out in Ethnic America, West Indian immigrants do quite well, rising to the median income in about one generation. That’s evidence against both the genetic and the discrimination explanations for poor black outcomes, since the West Indians are blacker than the average American black both genetically and in appearance. Sowell thinks the difference is cultural, that West Indian slavery produced, for reasons he discusses, a more functional culture than southern slavery.

          • Sir Gawain says:

            1) Someone arguing that either discrimination or genes (or for that matter anything besides culture) causes poor native born black labor market outcomes relative to whites can argue that self-selection in the immigration process may account for some or all of the difference between African-Americans and West Indians.

            (I suspect this is substantially correct.)

            2) Someone arguing that discrimination causes relatively poor black labor market outcomes relative to whites can simply say that outcomes for West Indian immigrants would also be higher without discrimination, and the West Indian/African-American income ratio would be the same.

            (I suspect this is substantially incorrect, at least as far as it posits market discrimination is an important factor in inter-group gap.)

            I do quite enjoy Sowell’s books on culture (as well as his books on economics), but I’ve always thought this was a rather deficient argument. (Though it may be useful rhetorically to confound proponents of the discrimination hypothesis.)

            Incidentally, the question of why African-Americans have been so relatively unsuccessful in U.S. society after the 1960s strikes me as an interesting and important one that has not received a very satisfying answer. De jure discrimination has been completely outlawed, public education is universally provided, at least moderate public assistance programs have been widely enacted to aid the poor, many African-American communities are located in economic hubs like New York and Los Angeles and African-Americans who do reach a given threshold of merit are eligible for Affirmative Action. Yet liberals make arguments essentially unchanged from the ones of their 1960s forebears, despite the massive changes in institutions and racial attitudes that have occurred over the past 50 or so years. If the black-white gaps in income, wealth, IQ, education and criminality persist in 2034 or 2064 or 2094 even as racial attitudes become more progressive, it will be difficult to accept arguments about “massive discrimination” and the “legacy of injustice” as credible. I’m not predicting they definitely will persist, nor am I implying that genetic differences are necessarily the best explanation, to be clear. I do wonder how many liberals would accept a Bryan Caplan style bet about the future of inter-racial gaps, though.

          • Furslid says:

            I’m not sure that this type of argument works, at least regarding genetics.

            There is a filter effect. Out of 1000 West Indians who want to immigrate, how many get to? Some will realize it’s hopeless and not apply. Others who apply will get rejected by immigration. So those who make it to the US are the cream of the crop.

            It is possible that the West Indian population is on average worse than the American population and the West Indian immigrant population is on average as good or better than the American population.

            For this argument to work you would need one of two things. A)Whatever filter INS uses is completely ineffective at selecting good immigrants. B)The genetic potential of immigrants’ children is more similar to the general population of their country of origin than their parents. I don’t think either of these is necessarily true.

            I don’t believe that West Indians are genetically worse than Americans, but this argument doesn’t prove it.

          • Cliff says:

            What the heck is “blacker genetically”?

          • Nornagest says:

            What the heck is “blacker genetically”?

            African-Americans average about 20% European ancestry. Sometimes some Native American too.

            I don’t know what the equivalent is for the West Indies, but it’s plausibly lower. Especially for Haiti, where most Europeans got kicked out of the country (or killed) following the 1791 revolution.

        • Anomaly UK says:

          Discussions about the strength and weaknesses of cultures are racial commentary. Doesn’t make them invalid.

          • “Discussions about the strength and weaknesses of cultures are racial commentary.”

            Depends on the culture. Some correlate closely with race, some don’t.

  11. Caddyshadrach says:

    I’d love to know your secret to saving “a lot of money” while earning 20K. I couldn’t do it earning 32K. My rent including utilities was never over $600 a month (sharing with 2-3 roommates in suburban Maryland), but taxes, food, transport and occasional travel home to see my parents or attend a wedding completely devoured any savings I might have accrued. I similarly had no debt, no car, no dependents, and no drugs. And I barely had any medical expenses, though when they hit, they cleaned me out. Even if I’d never had any fun whatsoever, I can’t imagine saving more than 3-4 grand. Which was more or less the price of actually enjoying my 20’s. Besides, anything I saved was swiftly consumed by tuition when I started grad school. So what’s “a lot” of money, and how did you do it?

    • Alsadius says:

      $32k in Maryland is a take-home of $24,689 per year, so call it $2050 a month.

      Rent+Utilities: $600
      Food: $250 (I spend $350 for a family of 2, and my understanding is that Canadian prices are higher than US, so this is quite reasonable)
      Transport: $100 (A Baltimore transit pass is $68, so you can afford that plus an Uber round trip a month)
      Telecoms: $100 (That’s more than generous for a cell phone and internet connection – with roommates, this would even buy cable as well)
      Clothing/Personal care/etc: $100 (as long as you don’t have too expensive of tastes or needs, this should be fine)
      Entertainment: $100
      Miscellaneous expenses: $100 (gifts, gym, whatever)
      Travel home: $100 (that’s about monthly if you’re in bus range, or 1-2x/year if you have to fly cross-country or something)

      That leaves you $600/month, and it’s by no means a penny-pinching budget. Medical expenses are the one big X-factor I haven’t accounted for, because there’s a huge difference between you having insurance versus not, but if we figure it’s $300/mo all in, that leaves you saving the $3-4k/year you mentioned quite neatly.

      Scott would have been in Michigan at the time, so his take home would be $16,806, or ~1400/mo. I think he said he was in Ann Arbor, where you can find a place with roommates near the university for $500 without too much trouble. You’d be in walking distance, so cut your transport budget in half, and as a medical resident I’m sure his healthcare plan was good enough that there’d be minimal costs there. Scott seems unlikely to have cable, so save another $50 on telecoms. That gets him within $150 of your budget outlined above, and that difference can be made up on clothing/entertainment/miscellany/travel without going too crazy.

      • Murphy says:

        wow, that transport is insanely cheap, my monthly oyster costs the equivalent of $300 per month.

        For $115 I could get just a bus pass but that would basically mean a 3 hour winding trip each way in traffic to work and back each day and trading that many hours isn’t sane.

        Renting a very very cheap room in a shared house with bills included until recently also cost me closer to $850 and for that my landlord was being foolish for not charging more.

        Is Maryland unusually cheap?

        • Alsadius says:

          Baltimore is a rather poor city, though some of the suburbs are wealthier, and some neighbourhoods are nice.

          Also, remember that London is a rather expensive city. In Toronto, where I live, a full transit pass is about $141.50 Canadian, or about $110 USD. Rent with a pack of roommates in an unfashionable neighbourhood can be had for $500 Cdn without too much trouble.

        • Matt M says:

          Another thing to keep in mind is that when we are discussing immigrants, “willingness to move to improve one’s circumstances” is a given.

          But among the traditionally impoverished, it often does not exist.

          The fact that you were born in an expensive city does not mean you have to stay there. The U.S. is littered with small towns and rural areas, many of which are actually quite nice, whose cost of living is significantly lower than virtually every major city. But an attitude of “well my family is here so I can’t leave” will prevent one from taking advantage of such a situation…

          • Alsadius says:

            It’s worth noting that some of the causes of this are rational. For one, bigger cities have much more stable job markets – if you’re in a small town, you’re less certain of finding work. For two, when you’re poor, social networks are your crisis insurance policy, and if you move, they disappear. Nobody will bail you out if your car breaks down in a city you just moved to, while they would if you stayed where you know everyone.

          • Matt M says:

            Right, and I get that. Moving away is high risk high reward.

            (Note that this also applies to people born in small towns unwilling to move to a big city where better opportunities to increase your revenues exist)

            But it makes sense that people with a low risk tolerance who are born into poverty are pretty unlikely to ever rise out of it.

          • Murphy says:

            The expensive city isn’t where I was born, it’s where I had to move to get a job in my field.

            Those nice cheap little towns are typically deserts for jobs that go anywhere though they can make somewhere nice to retire.

            It also differs by person too. My best friend growing up has a work ethic like a bee on speed but his entire extended family lives within a half mile of each other and when he did move to the other side of the world for work he came close to a breakdown after a year away living and working in crappy unsafe conditions with people he couldn’t trust and getting mugged regularly. (reeealy crappy city)

            Meanwhile my own family almost all already spread to all the corners of the globe every generation and my level of distress moving away was extremely low.

            People don’t experience equal levels of distress when they move away from family to follow the work. For some it’s easy.

          • Matt M says:

            “The expensive city isn’t where I was born, it’s where I had to move to get a job in my field.”

            And the fact that you were willing to do so suggests to me that “poverty” is not likely in your present or future.

            “Those nice cheap little towns are typically deserts for jobs that go anywhere though they can make somewhere nice to retire.”

            I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in such places. Note that I’m thinking of “small town” as in like, population of 30k – 100k, not like 5k or below. While it’s true that you aren’t likely to rise any higher than middle class in such a place – my guess is that most poverty-class people in a big city would be somewhat content with a middle-class small-town lifestyle.

            My mom was a grade-school teacher and my dad was a janitor, we got along just fine in a very nice town of about 50k.

          • Psmith says:

            The fact that you were born in an expensive city does not mean you have to stay there. The U.S. is littered with small towns and rural areas, many of which are actually quite nice, whose cost of living is significantly lower than virtually every major city.

            This is true as far as it goes, but from what I can tell Murphy is correct in saying that this ain’t no free lunch, nor close to it. I’ve seen a lot of suggestions to move to Tucson or Chilicothe if you don’t like Los Angeles or Chicago rent, but not a lot of suggestions for what to do when you get there. The specific advice I hear boils down to 1) work remotely–nice work if you can get it, but I’ve never heard of someone doing this who didn’t spend quite a few years building capital in an expensive coastal city by working and/or getting a graduate degree, or 2) learn a trade. Which isn’t terrible advice as far as it goes, everybody loves Mike Rowe and all that, but as far as I can tell from the BLS wage statistics plumbers and pipefitters in flyover country pretty seldom make more than $45,000 a year. Not terrible, especially with lower housing prices, but then again you need a car in most of those places, and it’s not exactly “raise a big family with one stay-at-home parent and no debt and ample savings” money in any case. I suspect most of those “I have a Ph.D. and my plumber makes more than I do!” stories are coming from humanities adjuncts. (Z’s comment downthread is also of interest here.).

            This is of more than purely academic interest to me, and I would like to be wrong, but I don’t see it. Unless you’re on some kind of fixed income, I’m inclined to think cost of living pretty much comes out in the wash.

          • Matt M says:

            Psmith,

            I’m not intending to suggest that moving to a lower cost area is a magical solution to one’s economic problems.

            I am suggesting that “willingness to move if necessary” is probably a trait that correlates with wealth – and that people who talk about cost of living in terms of “this is what transportation costs” are looking at the issue in the wrong way.

            I have a ton of lower-class cousins who would never ever consider moving away from their family. And that’s fine – if that’s what they want. But I’m not so interested in hearing their sob stories about how they can’t get a good job and/or about how housing costs too much. That is not some external situation forced upon them, it’s a result of their own decisions about where to live.

          • John Schilling says:

            but as far as I can tell from the BLS wage statistics plumbers and pipefitters in flyover country pretty seldom make more than $45,000 a year.

            OK, but we aren’t talking about alternative lifestyles for the SSC commentariat here, we are talking about actual poverty(*). People who would need a stepladder to lick the boots of the people making half that salary, who maybe cannot escape because of limitations in their current communities, people we can’t figure out how to help except shoveling money at them faster than they can spend it and despairing at all of the ways they find to spend money and be no better off in the end.

            If there’s a plan that reliably leads to being a plumber pulling down $45k/year in Tucson, then Mission Fucking Accomplished and they get to start kicking in a bit in taxes to help the next guy up the ladder.

            I am open to the possibility that plumbers’ jobs in Tucscon are not so reliably available as this model may suggest, and I can understand the reluctance of an individual poor person to leave their support network behind on what may be an uncertain path. I am open to the possibility that, while becoming a plumber in Tucson might be clearly the smart move for any one poor person, there might not be enough such jobs to go around. But if we’re fighting a war on poverty, we need to be clear on the victory conditions. This one, if it can be achieved, looks like victory to me.

            * I do understand there are a few people here who are actually poor, but it isn’t really part of the group culture.

          • Psmith says:

            we aren’t talking about alternative lifestyles for the SSC commentariat here, we are talking about actual poverty

            Fair point in general (that is, some of the advice I’ve been hearing may not have been aimed at me), although I’ll note that this subthread started with a guy talking about how high his own cost of living was in London.

          • Saul Degraw says:

            What is the employment situation like in those lower cost towns?

            Also you are discounting the need or want to stay near support circles like family.

          • TrivialGravitas says:

            That and that there’s no such thing as small town FTFY employment. The lower rent doesn’t help much if you have to string together a bunch of seasonal part time jobs.

            People who do that successfully are almost always transplanting an already successful small business.

          • Murphy says:

            @Matt M

            What i was trying to get across in my earlier comment was that it’s not just a dedication or work ethic aspect. Many people can’t move away from family easily through no particular choice of their own any more than someone could give up insulin through force of will.

            I had an interesting chat on the subject with someone specializes in working with autistic children. Apparently people slightly on the spectrum often find themselves reasonably well adapted for the modern economy in that regard since they’re far less likely to get distressed and can even struggle to understand why normal people might find it hard to move to the far side of the world away from everyone they ever knew beyond the most practical aspects.

            Another aspect is that the risk of moving is often magnified by paranoid local governments. If I stayed in my home country and ended up unemployed I’d at least have rights to unemployment benefit if things had fallen through and I’d lost my job. I wouldn’t have ended up homeless. For quite some time after I moved I had the right to nothing. If I lost my job I was SOL and would have ended up homeless on the street since I hadn’t built up and rights.
            Even if I’d then moved back I might have been away too long and been unable to claim in my home country.

            The risk is massive and we tend to only see the fraction who succeed. Many don’t.

          • Matt M says:

            Murphy,

            I want to once again stress that I am not trying to claim “every poor person can magically lift themselves out of poverty by moving somewhere else.”

            I appreciate that there are significant trade-offs, one of which is that doing so is potentially high risk. You say a lot of people cannot easily move. Emphasis mine. I posit to you that lifting yourself out of poverty will never be easy. It will require sacrificing something. It will require accepting some risk. But I think your comparison to a physical substance without which one will literally die is a bit much.

            There are also ways in which you can mitigate the risk. When I was 18 I moved all the way across the country, to an area where I had no friends and no family. It was a very low-risk proposition. I faced an incredibly minute chance of getting laid off or suffering economic hardship. How did I do it? By joining the military.

            My point there is not “all poor people can be successful if they join the military.” Just that there are options out there that people don’t consider because they just say to themselves “I could never move away from my family” and leave it at that – rather than conducting a true risk assessment or cost-benefit analysis or researching ways in which you could find some sort of alternate support network in the new location.

            Edit: I might also posit that “learning how to overcome adversity without having to lean on your traditional support networks” may in fact be a genuine helpful life-skill that people need to master to achieve true success. The fact that I flat out refused to ask my parents for money was one of the motivating factors to my joining the military in the first place.

          • sconn says:

            If your mom is taking care of your kids while you’re at work, for cheap or free, then you really *can’t* leave. That’s how a lot of the very poor manage, is swapping childcare for free with their social networks.

            Strangers won’t do that for you, and even if they did, you wouldn’t trust them the way you trust your mom.

        • ReluctantEngineer says:

          wow, that transport is insanely cheap, my monthly oyster costs the equivalent of $300 per month…Is Maryland unusually cheap?

          For comparison, a monthly pass for NYC’s MTA (subway + bus) is $116.50, the equivalent in Boston is $84.50, and in Washington, D.C. it is $237 (D.C.’s system is also by far the least reliable of those three, and I think the pass doesn’t let you ride the bus).

          • brad says:

            For NYC it is worth noting that the unlimited metrocard doesn’t include commuter rail (LIRR, MetroNorth, and NJ Transit). There are parts of NYC proper where commuter rail makes far more sense, but the cost difference is significant.

            For example, if you live in Bayside, Queens you can pay $218.00 + $116.50 = 334.50/month and have a 55 minute commute to midtown or you can pay just $116.50/month and have 1.5 hour commute to midtown.

          • bluto says:

            The monthly pass may cost $237, but $130/month (with no plan just paying the fare) covers my monthly commute and any pleasure trips I wish to take on bus/rail in DC.

      • Chalid says:

        I did a similar budget in Boston as a grad student. I paid significantly more for rent+utilities but it was within walking distance of work/campus so my transportation budget was essentially zero. World of Warcraft and Netflix provided very cheap entertainment on a per-hour basis. Clothing budget was essentially zero, as anyone who’s ever met me would guess.

        • “Clothing budget was essentially zero, as anyone who’s ever met me would guess.”

          You were in Boston. The Garment District is a place in Cambridge that sells second hand clothing by weight–I think it used to be fifty cents a pound. You can do pretty well there with a clothing budget of a dollar or two a month.

          • Chalid says:

            I lived a few blocks from that, actually!

            For clothing, it wasn’t really the money, it’s that I really hate shopping for clothes and don’t care much how I look. I make a lot more money now and still basically dress like I did in grad school (jeans+t-shirt+running shoes or similar) unless required to do otherwise for professional reasons. Fortunately it hasn’t ever been important for any status competition that I cared about.

            (I suppose it is also possible that it was important, and I was just oblivious.)

            Not that I am especially virtuous or ultra-thrifty, just that I have other vices.

  12. Peter Gerdes says:

    I worry that the effects of socialization, regular employment, pride, better stores, travel, entertainment etc.. may overwhelm the actual effects of cash in the Cherokee casino example. Yes, the cash was distributed to the whole tribe but the description clearly indicates it was a small group and the casino opened on their land.

    A casino on an Indian reservation surely has a host of effects apart from money.

    Also, an Indian reservation presents a particularly unusual place to study this effect. As you yourself point out what component of poverty effects is purely positional versus absolute is unclear. An indian reservation is more isolated (legally, culturally, etc..) than most other communities and every resident on the reservation gets more money. Maybe this gets processed as only an absolute shift (like GDP increasing) or maybe it is *particularly* positional as a result of racial tensions.

    Also, there are unusual selection effects in reservations. For instance do people who go into the outside world and hit a rough patch preferentially return to the reservation or stay away (in comparison to other poor neighborhoods)? Are people even poor for the same reasons (i.e. do a higher percentage of people stay out of a sense of loyalty/culture despite better opportunities elsewhere or do a higher percentage of people get out of dodge.) Seems so different as to be almost useless to compare with other non-reservation studies.

    I’m assuming that land owned by the Cherokee that is eligable for a casino is a reservation but I may be wrong and if so correct me.

    • Matt M says:

      “A casino on an Indian reservation surely has a host of effects apart from money.”

      Yes, this is what I’m wondering about too.

      Perhaps given this setup, the Cherokee did not see this money as “a random gift from some charity” or “good luck from the lottery” but rather as a return on their collective investment. All of a sudden, they think of themselves not as impoverished and helpless, but as business owners and entrepreneurs. This could lead itself generally to an attitude shift that might manifest itself in any number of ways.

      Don’t we generally believe that people are more likely to frivolously spend “gifts” or “found money” than they are to spend money earned from legitimate income?

    • Aapje says:

      A casino on an Indian reservation surely has a host of effects apart from money.

      The biggest might be employment opportunities. Historically, it has had major effects on a region when jobs came to a region or left.

  13. Econopunk says:

    On the first article, it would be interesting to compare lottery winners in tax-heavy, welfare-rich Sweden to a relatively tax-light, welfare-light country, perhaps the U.S. Well, really, you’d want an international study of lottery winners, including developing countries. After all, quality of life standards in the worst parts of the U.S. can be closer to that of developing countries than developed countries.

    Overall, our findings suggest that in affluent countries with extensive social safety nets

    That’s the one thing that the study couldn’t control for. While cases like post-slavery and Native American situations in the U.S. are unique historical instances and thus the number of studies you can do on them may be limited, I would speculate that lotteries are pretty common throughout different parts of the world. It would be interesting to see that. The reasons for post-lottery immobility may be different – in Sweden, HDI may be so high that even lottery winners are usually not poor and already have great living standards, so the positive wealth shock doesn’t improve health-related living standards much for them, whereas in the U.S., it could be for the reasons stated in the later linked articles that cause the lack of generational continuity in wealth, mainly that human capital is the main decider of wealth continuity.

    On the “Compound Interest is the Least Powerful Force in the Universe” article:
    -Someone once claimed to me that “there are more private jet owners today than there were white slave owners back then in the U.S.” So perhaps most southern whites have always been poor then and now, white slave owners were rich then and are rich now but importantly, their wealth today isn’t enough to tip the statistic of the average wealth of whites in the south to become competitive with the north, and black southerners have been the poorest then and now. (This also still allows for the possibility that white southerners today would be poorer if it weren’t for slavery and discrimination.)
    -Perhaps white southern wealth was either heavily damaged during Reconstruction or couldn’t keep up with the north in the periods after that. It could simply be that modern industrial and financial development centered on the north, causing both black and white southerners today to be poorer than black and white northerners. So really, there is value in comparing the wealth gap between whites and blacks in the same southern state or region today instead of going across regions to the north, where so many other historical factors are at work.

    While one could make the argument that the gains from slavery left Mississippi and the Deep South to enrich all whites, this seems a bit forced. The US was much less interconnected in those days.

    Not sure about this claim. At least the rich have always been interconnected across regions and borders, IMO.

    One could always argue that Southerners would be even poorer today if not from all the compound interest they received on their slavery earnings. But Southern poverty is already a bit of a puzzle. To make them too much poorer would require them to descend into levels of squalor totally unknown in any First World country.

    And that would be fine. The poorest regions in the US back then probably compared negatively to other First World countries back then (perhaps Northeast US and Europe). The poorest regions in the US today, also, compare negatively to other First World countries today.
    -Black Americans weren’t only oppressed by slavery but by government-sanctioned discrimination as well that continued for another 100 years. Instead of reaching back to slavery-era wealth data on southern states, perhaps pre-civil rights era wealth data on southern states would provide that starting point. How much has the relative wealth of black southerners, white southerners, and black and white northerners changed from the 1960s to today?
    -Devil’s advocate: if lack of intergenerational continuity of wealth means that the current poverty of black Americans cannot be explained by slavery, then reparations today won’t cause much negative intergenerational effects on the future generations of families today that would have to pay those reparations. If we shouldn’t rejoice too much when we win free money (lotteries), we shouldn’t feel too bad about losing money (paying reparations), since supposedly, it’s not going to affect our happiness or living standards that much.

    On the second article featured, the contradiction goes away when you factor in what I said about Sweden vs. the US (and in this case, it’s an extreme portion of the US, making the comparison starker). Are you making Swedish people (already decent, perhaps) richer or Native Americans (really poor) richer ?

    On the third article featured and the commentary, as someone else noted, it’s hard to compare life today to the 1900s unless you factor a lot of things in, notably living standards and such. Poor people today may make 10 times in real value what poor people made 100 years ago, but poor people 100 years ago may have had living standards that are more than 10 times worse than the living standards of poor people today. It would basically depend on how real value is calculated, I suppose, and how comparable it is across 100 years.

    poor people in 1900 survived just fine, but poor people today don’t find themselves with ten times the money they need to survive.

    This claim sounds very cavalier, unless there are sources. Poor people today struggle with making rent and healthcare. Poor people 100 years ago struggled with colonial and racial oppression, famines, child and mother deaths (measured from 1950, measured from 1935 – pdf), selling relatives into prostitution, etc. I mean, it’s an order of magnitude of difference. What poor people dealt with back then regularly, today would get on the news, featuring the worst parts of the poorest and least stable parts of the world. Poor people today, especially the “average” poor person (yeah, I know, not the best definition), can find access to internet, a cell phone, food, and utilities. That’s pretty rad compared to poor people back then. Our definition of “survive” has changed immensely for the better.

    What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among the poor? Nature or culture? Both, was Costello’s conclusion, because the stress of poverty puts people genetically predisposed to develop an illness or disorder at an elevated risk.

    If we allow that poor people’s human capital is negatively affected by financial poverty, then it still allows the idea that ethnic groups that are doing worse today are in that situation because the stress of poverty and oppression they experienced generations ago damaged their human capital back then and that has yet to recover today. It could also explain why immigrants can sometimes be better at getting out of poverty if they and their older generations didn’t face the same human capital-damaging oppression as previously settled ethnic groups. Some of these immigrant groups are self-selecting – depending on the originating country and circumstances, the most hard-working, determined prospective immigrants may be the only ones who actually make it to the US. Their older generations have had different experiences and thus different kinds of influences on their human capital compared to the people and older generations of previously settled ethnic groups. So it then seems natural that they may better at climbing out of poverty than people (and their descendants) who didn’t move to the US with the same sort of drive or in the same sort of circumstances.

    Very much enjoyed these articles, thank you! They are selected very well as they really play off each other.

    • Murphy says:

      -Someone once claimed to me that “there are more private jet owners today than there were white slave owners back then in the U.S.”

      This would appear to be false.

      There were 19258 registered private jets in 2012

      11,261 registered for use in the United States and 7,997 in the rest of the world.

      ( http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2013/02/13/thirty-amazing-facts-about-private-jets/#13dd66022730 )

      Almost one-third of all Southern families owned slaves. In Mississippi and South Carolina it approached one half. The total number of slave owners was 385,000

      88% held fewer than twenty, and nearly 50% held fewer than five.

      ( http://www.civilwarcauses.org/stat.htm )

      • John Schilling says:

        Steelmanning this, the numbers look plausible for the number of private jet owners to be greater than the number of antebellum plantation owners, and the number of private aircraft owners (mostly nonjet) being greater than the number of antebellum slave owners (mostly 1-2 slaves rounding out the family business).

        With both slavery and aircraft ownership, the central examples in popular culture are the rich-guy versions but the real-world median is upper middle class.

        • Econopunk says:

          Interesting point, thanks. I think in the end, the claim is just too weird and it sounds like someone trying to twist statistics. I mean, you had to do some mental gymnastics to make the claim work. Also, simply by the fact that populations grow (Wikipedia says the southern white population back then was 5.5 million and it seems that in the 1980 census 40 million southerners identified as white) using absolute numbers alone is too awkward and so it should involve percentages. Really, any comparisons like this across ages needs to start with and use rigorous data, I think. It’s not too hard to start with a conclusion and then cherry-pick for the sound bite statistic you want.

        • Murphy says:

          From what I can find the total count for all airplanes of all kind worldwide is ~312,000 including helicopters, single-engine piston-powered airplanes, multi-engine turboprops etc

          The median slave owner appears to have owned ~5 slaves since it’s “almost” 50% that owned less than 5 slaves

          So if you restrict it to people who owned, say, 2 or more slaves in the US alone ignoring other countries with slavery and include all types of flying machine worldwide and don’t cut out company-owned aircraft then the numbers start to line up.

          • John Schilling says:

            Yeah, it’s not a particularly useful statistic even if it does turn out to be true. At best, it’s an interesting curiosity, and even then one mostly limited to the United States.

        • bean says:

          But don’t a lot of private jets have more than one owner? AIUI (and I know far more about the airline side of things than the private/GA side), quite a few business jets are owned on more or less a timeshare basis. For that matter, how do we count participants in things like flying clubs, which I believe do the same thing with light aircraft.

          • ReluctantEngineer says:

            “Shared ownership” is definitely a big thing for “private jets”. I use the quotes because outfits like NetJets are more like very exclusive airlines (although maybe a taxi service is a better analogy — you call the company, tell them where you are and where you’re going, and they send a jet to take you there. You are typically charged for each individual flight). The ownership bit is a legal fiction designed to reduce taxes.

          • John Schilling says:

            At the lower end, actual shared ownership of small single-engine light planes is quite common. Two or three people who know and trust one another pooling their money to buy one airplane to use between them, or as bean notes formal clubs organized as nonprofit corporations.

            For typical private-aircraft usage, the optimum seems to be about 0.1 airplanes per pilot, and having 3-4 airplanes in a common pool is sufficient to mitigate schedule overlap. OTOH, there is a step function in utility when you don’t have to ask permission or schedule anything with anybody, so there are a lot of lightly-used single-owner airplanes as well. Not sure what the actual mix is.

            And now you’ve got me wondering if there was ever such a thing as shared ownership of private slaves, but I don’t think that was ever a big thing if it happened at all.

      • Econopunk says:

        Great stats to know, thanks. The 385,000 figure seems odd to me, though. So that would mean 385,000 X 3 = ~ 1 million white southerners back then? But that seems way too low. Wikipedia says 5.5 million, and I doubt just counting or discounting a few states would make that big of a difference.

        The other possibility is there’s a big skew in family size. But playing around with the math, you get some weird figures. For example, let’s say the total white population is 5.5 M, and 5 M of those are from large families of 10 and 0.5 M of those are singles living on their own. That means 5 million people are part of families of 10 (which is 500k families of 10) and 0.5 million people are living on their own (500k “families” of 1). That’s a total of 1 million families. If 1/3 of all families owned slaves, that’s ~300k slave-owning families. But if the total number of slave owners was 385k, that means most slave-owning families were singles on their own, which doesn’t seem likely. (You basically need a large portion of the population being large families without slaves in order to accommodate these statistics.) Either the 385k figure is only talking about few states or the 5.5 M figure is including a lot more white people.

        • Murphy says:

          Or only count the head of house as a slave owner. The wife and kids might legally own almost nothing even if they’re living a life of luxury.

          • Econopunk says:

            That would make the numbers much better. 385k slave-owning families (or heads of households) would mean that there were roughly 385k X 3.3 = 1.3 M white families. That would mean roughly an average of 5.5/1.3 = 4 people counted per family, which seems reasonable.

    • Julie K says:

      I don’t think slave-owning was really such a gold mine, compared to hiring workers at subsistence wages. Adam Smith concluded that “the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that done by slaves.”
      I would go further and say that slavery was a “Resource curse” for the south- because it was so central to their society, they failed to follow the north’s lead and industrialize.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Not a gold mine for Southern society in general. But I’ve been to a few plantations, and it sure was a goldmine for the families that owned those plantations.

      • Barry Cotter says:

        Adam Smith was a genius but in that case at least he was wrong. Not if you include the costs to the slave but if you do slavery can be really profitable. I’m not sure if it’s been improved upon but Robert Fogel’s “Time On The Cross” is a great economic history of slavery in the US South. Southern US slavery wasn’t as profitable as Carribean sugar island genuine hell on earth slavery but it was a lot more economically efficient than share cropping and the slave owners kept much more of the productive surplus.

        The South’s lack of industrialisation is also largely a post Civil War thing. Getting most of your capital stock destroyed is not helpful to economic growth. The South was more industrialised than at least some European countries that did great. I guarantee more industrialised than the Russian Empire, I think more than the Hapsburg.

        • Jaskologist says:

          This isn’t my area of expertise, but both Fredrick Douglass and Alexis de Tocqueville remarked (pre-Civil War) on how much less developed the South was. Douglass had some obvious motivations to emphasize this fact, but it’s worth noting that he said it was was counter to his expectations. Tocqueville lacked those motivations, and he still considered slavery to be a major cause of the South falling behind.

        • Vaniver says:

          Smith was wrong about the effect of abolition on the Caribbean, because the freed slaves mostly went from producing cash crops for export to subsistence farming. The main thing slavery does is it allows the owner to pick a different spot on the income / leisure tradeoff, at the price of increased enforcement costs.

          But the main economic argument, that slavery is just another form of capital, is correct. You shouldn’t expect slaves to be any more productive per dollar than any other asset that can be bought, because otherwise the prices would shift so that they were as productive.

          (For example, one reason why slaveowners liked slavery was because it insulated them from wage increases during agricultural peak times. This is just an extreme example of farm-owner opposition to labor mobility. But this mainly is an uncertainty reduction benefit–note that you can rent out your slaves, and so the opportunity cost of a slave working on your plantation is what you could have earned renting them to another plantation. So you’re still paying high labor costs, it’s just implicit!)

        • Alexp says:

          Maybe more than the Hapsburg Empire, but which part? The Austrian part was pretty well developed, probably more so than most of Germany. The Hungarian part- much less so. In fact, one of the dividing issues was that Hungarians thought the Austrians were treating them like a backwater agrarian colony.

          • Matthias says:

            Though they were making great strides. By 1900 Hungary was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

            (That’s also around the time the famous Hungarians were born that largely went on to build the bomb in America 40 years later.)

          • “the famous Hungarians were born that largely went on to build the bomb in America 40 years later.”

            And do much else.

            My theory is a supergenius Casanova.

          • Jiro says:

            Many of those famous Hungarians were Jewish and we know what happened to the Jews in the 1930’s-1940’s.

          • Alternative to the supergenius Casanova theory– the genes haven’t gone away, so I’m betting on something about the educational approach.

            I’ll throw in a trauma theory– it’s easier to think deeply about math and physics if you feel sure you’re not going to be murdered.

        • JayT says:

          The South hasn’t done as well as the North, but in comparison to most countries, the South has done quite well over the last 200 years. They might have been far more industrialized than Russia in the middle of the nineteenth century, and that wouldn’t be surprising. The South is currently better off than Russia.

        • Michael Watts says:

          Southern US slavery wasn’t as profitable as Carribean sugar island genuine hell on earth slavery but it was a lot more economically efficient than share cropping and the slave owners kept much more of the productive surplus.

          I read Time On The Cross. It emphasized that while slave plantations were significantly more productive, the economic surplus was not going to slavers (it was going to customers).

      • Murphy says:

        It’s not just labor you’re getting out of slaves, you also get more slaves who can be sold for a hefty profit.

        And they can be forced to do work that free men and women would only do for a hefty markup such as prostitution.

        If slavery wasn’t reasonably profitable people wouldn’t keep reinventing it.

        • keranih says:

          It’s not just labor you’re getting out of slaves, you also get more slaves who can be sold for a hefty profit.

          Not true for all regions, and esp not true for all regions in the Americas. North America was noted at the time for having an increasing slave population even after importation was banned, while most regions in the Caribbean and Latin America had net losses year on year. Nearly all slaves in the Caribbean and Latin America were born in Africa, while there were people in slavery who were fifth-generation Americans by the time of the Civil War.

          It’s justification for investigating the impact of slavery on the gentics of that population, imo.

          • Luke the Cia Stooge says:

            I’ve often wondered to what exstent the modern plight of african americans was do to the genetic effects of slavery.
            This is a population that has been exposed both to the selection pressures of living in slavery. In “THinkd Like a Freak” Dubner talks about how the harrowing sea voyage selected for people with high salt sensitivity (and thus higher rates of heart disease), but they were also forced to mate with the worst of the south, possibly forced into situations of inbreeding (not much selection on a plantation) and also having the very best of their population, in terms of intelligence, escape to Canada. The old rich families in Toronto almost all have one or two highly successful escaped slaves in their background. This is often a suprise to these families as almost all of them are now indestinguishably white.

            That being said the failed social policy of the sixties combined with the drug war has to be atleast 50% of it, I remember reading about how almost every crime community (Germans, Jews, Irish, Itallian) all went legit after acumulating a certain amount of money and status. The differnece with the black community is mass incarceration and the police state kicked off while they were still a decade or two away from making the jump.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            but they were also forced to mate with the worst of the south, possibly forced into situations of inbreeding (not much selection on a plantation) and also having the very best of their population, in terms of intelligence, escape to Canada.

            Overseers were not ‘the worst of the South’; they were people who were considered trustworthy and competent enough to control slaves and get them to work hard without damaging or killing them.

            Slaves were able to interact with people outside their plantation; I don’t know the frequency of the interactions, but ‘checks Douglas’

            http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23/23-h/23-h.htm

            She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary—a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master.

            When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue.

            ///

            The differnece with the black community is mass incarceration and the police state kicked off while they were still a decade or two away from making the jump.

            I don’t think that is the issue. The black homicide rate diverged from the mainstream to such a degree I don’t think their trajectory would have been the same even without the increase in imprisonment.

      • LPSP says:

        I’d point back to American Nations and the like on the “why of slavery” question – the Cavalier-bred leadership of the southern states had an ideological attachment to slavery and so happily tolerated its higher cost.

        • Samuel Skinner says:

          It isn’t cultural. You could grow cash crops in the South that you couldn’t in the North and you needed lots of labor for them.

          • Michael Watts says:

            Also, Africans were not well-adapted to the climate of the north, and tended to die when they were imported. Complementarily, whites were not well-adapted to the hot, muggy south.

          • Vaniver says:

            The south was going to have agrarian slavery because of climate, but the cultural piece is that the people who moved to the South deliberately chose there, knowing that it would be a good place for the plantation lifestyle. And people who didn’t like the plantation lifestyle to a sufficient degree self-selected themselves elsewhere.

          • LPSP says:

            Vaniver supplies my answer to that point. Only the Cavalier were interested in installing themselves where black slave labour proved the ideal if not sole means of production. Other groups weren’t interested in massive numbers of slaves and so moving to the colder north proved more productive.

          • John Schilling says:

            Other groups weren’t interested in massive numbers of slaves and so moving to the colder north proved more productive.

            Except that the Puritans then went and tried to import slaves to the cold north. And didn’t turn around and sell them to the south when that didn’t work – even if the slaves didn’t actually freeze, Massachusetts slaveowners were notorious for turning slaves out to starve when they were to old or sick to work, while those dastardly Virginia Cavaliers kept feeding and housing their worn-out and economically useless “property”.

          • LPSP says:

            I never said the Cavaliers exclusively liked slavery for ideological reasons, nor that various groups believed that slavery was efficient and viable/attempted to make it work-out economically. Merely that ultimately it persisted in the Cavalier states, even after it became apparently unviable, because of their characteristic worldview and beliefs.

            (I’m also not trying to shit on the Cavaliers, or present them as the worst of the English-derived American Nations. Generally I don’t say anything I don’t… well, say.)

    • Lemminkainen says:

      White southerners’ wealth was significantly damaged by the end of the Civil War because it was mostly invested in slaves, who were also the main form of collateral they used to get loans. So, emancipation basically caused a giant asset to disappear, and then caused a credit crunch. Their Northern counterparts, meanwhile, had mostly been investing in things like factories and railroads, which often became even more valuable as the war and the growing American state which came with it sparked demand.

      The recent literature that I’ve seen on the southern form of capitalism (ie: Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams,” Ed Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told”) argues that plantation-owners preferred to invest their money in this form of capital. Slaves insulated them from labor shocks, and unlike a lot of other assets, they were fairly easy to move to places where they would be more valuable. Of course, southern slaveholders might have been collecting on a market inefficiency caused by value differences– rich northerners were less likely to trade in slaves for moral reasons, which probably caused them to be lower-priced than similarly valuable assets.

      • Econopunk says:

        Good point. That makes comparisons of black and white Southern wealth before and after the Civil War (intergenerational continuity of wealth across the Civil War) much harder. When claims are made that “the descendants of white slave owners didn’t benefit much from slavery,” the reason for that may not be for reasons in common with other parts of the world or other historical instances. Instead, it was a unique, one-off devastation and then legal result (emancipation) of a war that erased a lot of that white Southern wealth.

        I think a good starting point then is some time right after the Civil War. You still have three groups you’d want to track: white Southerners who were formerly slave-owning (or their ancestors were slave-owners) and have had their assets newly depleted, white Southerners who did not formerly own slaves, and blacks. Then, track their wealth progression to today. Also, see if there is a noticeable change in trends around 1960/70 when civil rights laws came into being.

        You’d also have to be careful of new immigrants, of course. Not just new white immigrants but black immigrants from Africa:

        In terms of socioeconomic profiles, foreign-born blacks have a median age of 42, compared with 29 for U.S.-born blacks. Twenty-six percent have a college education, compared with 19 percent of native-born blacks, and black immigrants are less likely to live in poverty (20 percent vs. 28 percent) and have higher incomes. About 48 percent of black immigrants who are 18 or older are also married, compared with 28 percent of blacks born here, a finding that is likely related to the higher median age among immigrants.

        That’s also another example of what I mentioned about an ethnic group’s human capital being the result of the history of their ancestors – the human capital of African Americans on average has suffered because of the oppression they experienced while recent African immigrants 1) do not have the same historical experience and 2) are self-selecting.

  14. scav says:

    There must be a level of poverty below which it would be an *extraordinary claim* that more money wouldn’t help. If significant numbers of people are below that level, there’s something wrong with your country.

    The factors that affect whether more money will help *long term* are complicated. I’d venture to guess adequate childhood nutrition and access to books might be such. Again, if this is something you need to address on a large scale, you are doing civilisation wrong.

  15. benwave says:

    I sort of wonder – when we’re talking about Americans who have a USD 20,000 pa job are we not already a significant step above the poorest Americans? From what I’ve read, I get the impression that even finding a job at that level is a big problem for a lot of poor people.

    • Z says:

      I can verify from personal experience that $20,000 is considered a decent wage by my peer group (mostly poor Southern retail workers). When I left retail for a $30,000 factory job I was considered to have “made it”. Most of us were making around $15,000 stocking shelves for 34 hours a week. This was a few years ago but I can’t imagine the situation has changed much.

      • Deiseach says:

        You do realise, Z, you should be prepared to lose that $30,000 a year factory job if the company finds it more economic to move to China, and that you should be (a) glad that a poor Chinese is now lifted out of global poverty by taking over the job at a knock-down rate (b) ashamed that your high level of expectations, rather than pricing your labour at a reasonable rate, made the company unprofitable and drove them overseas?

        (That’s the advice I see a lot of people being given by their betters in columns and blogs, anyway!)

        • Chrysophylax says:

          This comment was needlessly provocative for the point it made, which is itself provocative, and said nothing you haven’t said before. It was not kind or necessary and is dubiously true. You usually do better than that.

        • YayForCleanDrinkingWater says:

          >you should be prepared to lose that $30,000 a year factory job if the company finds it more economic to move to China

          Sounds similar to how my employer is prepared to lose me the moment I find another job I think works out better for me.

          >you should be (a) glad that a poor Chinese is now lifted out of global poverty by taking over the job at a knock-down rate

          That does sound like a good thing.

          >(b) ashamed that your high level of expectations, rather than pricing your labour at a reasonable rate, made the company unprofitable and drove them overseas?

          No more ashamed than when buggy whip makers decided to do other stuff when the automobile got popular.

      • albatross says:

        The differences in cost of living in different regions have a huge impact on this sort of thing. I make more in my current job than any but the highest paid people in the small midwestern town where I grew up, but I’m nowhere near the top of the income or prestige distribution here.

    • Matt M says:

      I dunno – a lot of my extended family is in this situation (where finding a 20k job is difficult) but it’s not that they’re in that situation because of “bad luck” or whatever. They had a job before – and it didn’t just randomly go away due to outsourcing or some evil capitalist firing them to improve profitability or any such thing. The usual story is “they had a job, and they didn’t like it, so they quit” or “they got fired because they failed their drug test” or “they came in late so often the boss punished them by moving them to night shift and they didn’t want to work night shift so they quit” or “they called in sick and their boss saw them at the bar that night and fired them” and so on and so forth.

      Unemployment and welfare benefits keep them going long enough in the stretches in between how long it takes for them to find a new entry level job that they will either quit or be fired from within a year or two.

      • Nicholas says:

        What region are you living in that 20,000 is an entry level position?

      • Walter says:

        “they called in sick and their boss saw them at the bar that night and fired them”

        All the damn time! I’ve seen this whole deal (‘sick day’, but got caught at the enjoying themselves) at least 3 times over the years, which is a lot when you consider that it isn’t hard to get away with this.

  16. In my opinion, the best predictor of the impact that giving unearned money or windfalls will have is whether the recipient is a wealth accumulator or not. By this I mean that the person already lives below their means and saves before they receive the unearned money or windfalls.

    If someone tends to live paycheck to paycheck and even borrows a little bit in addition to this, they will tend to quickly dissipate their newfound wealth. We see this all the time with lottery winners, celebrities, and athletes. In the book The Millionaire Next Door, they talk about “economic outpatient care” that wealthy parents provide to their children. Even the children of millionaires also tend to dissipate their wealth from inheritances and gifts because they aren’t wealth accumulators.

    It also seems that hard-won wealth is more durable than easily obtained wealth.

    My guess is that different cultures would generally have different responses to receiving unearned money or windfalls, because different cultures have different views on saving and accumulating wealth. As The Millionaire Next Door shows, immigrants to this country become millionaires at a much higher rate than people born in the U.S. You would think that being born in the U.S. would give you an advantage, but it’s not the case because our culture doesn’t lend itself to becoming wealth accumulators. Instead, we are consumers.

  17. Alsadius says:

    I think a big part of the problem with poor people not being able to save 90% of their income is an increase in the standard of living seen as necessary. In 1900, a poor person didn’t need a phone to get a job, never mind the internet. They mostly lived in absurdly crowded housing with lovely features like one bathroom per ten apartments. Their eight year olds could go get jobs to support the family. They could quite reasonably have only one set of clothes for each person. They didn’t have to pay indirectly for a century of safety regulations. They sweated in the summer and shivered in the winter. They didn’t have to pay prices intended for people with 10 times the income, either.

    If someone today tried to live like a poor person in 1900, it would generally be illegal. Insofar as it wasn’t illegal, it’d be considered grossly inhumane, and probably banned in short order.

    • Murphy says:

      Especially when the first couple of kids died from preventable causes or suffered stunted growth from malnutrition.

    • Anonymous says:

      >In 1900, a poor person didn’t need a phone to get a job, never mind the internet.

      Cheap dumbphone, new, $40*.
      Yearly supply of prepaid credits, $60*.
      Internet at the local library, free.

      >They mostly lived in absurdly crowded housing with lovely features like one bathroom per ten apartments.

      Been there, done that.

      >Their eight year olds could go get jobs to support the family.

      Don’t have an eight year old, I’m afraid.

      >They could quite reasonably have only one set of clothes for each person.

      A kilogram of secondhand clothes, $35*.

      >They didn’t have to pay indirectly for a century of safety regulations.

      Good point.

      >They sweated in the summer and shivered in the winter.

      Been there, done that. Hell, am here, sweating, did shiver last winter too. Paying for heating is for wimps.

      >They didn’t have to pay prices intended for people with 10 times the income, either.

      We don’t have to, either. Shops stock “cheapo” store-brand stuff that’s like 90% as good as the regular stuff, and costs like 2-5 times less.

      If someone today tried to live like a poor person in 1900, it would generally be illegal. Insofar as it wasn’t illegal, it’d be considered grossly inhumane, and probably banned in short order.

      I’m glad they didn’t ban most of that here, because otherwise I’d have a hard time saving as much as I do.

      * (All prices using local figures and estimates, converted to dollars for accessibility. Prices may vary in the actual US.)

      • Alsadius says:

        I’ve lived extremely poor too. Heck, in some ways I still do. But the level of material wealth we have on hand is absolutely ridiculous compared to a century ago, even when we do so. To take a simple example, that old phone and prepaid plan you described would be 7% of a poor 1900-era family’s annual income.

        • Anonymous says:

          Understood. But note that the amount of utility per buck has also increased. Food is cheaper, thanks to the Green Revolution, for instance.

          • Alsadius says:

            Yup, though in general that’s spent on higher quality, not lower costs. For example, the most lethal form of cancer used to actually be the now-mostly-defunct stomach cancer, because they ate so much pickled food that it was actually mutagenic.

          • JayT says:

            The higher quality is far cheaper today then it was back at the turn of the century though, so costs for quality are certainly much lower now.

            I wouldn’t be surprised if the low quality food was also cheaper today, but I would have to do some research to know for sure. One problem is that 1900’s cheap food couldn’t be legally sold today.

          • Alsadius says:

            Yeah, that was more or less my original point. A lot of 1900-era cost saving tricks are illegal today, because the government wants to ensure nobody ever lives that poor again.

    • Matt M says:

      In terms of the eight-year old getting a job…

      The economic benefits of having children were never expected to manifest themselves until you became old and unable to work and needed someone to take care of you. Child labor wasn’t even expected to break even the expenses of housing and clothing and feeding the child itself. It’s an investment that doesn’t pay off until you’re old and feeble. No poor person at any point in history has ever seen their immediate living standards improve by having children and sending them to work…

      • Barry Cotter says:

        Citation needed. I just finished reading The Anthropology of Childhood, David F. Lancy, and the latest I remember anyone becoming independent in terms of calories produced was early twenties. This is for hunter gatherers. Pastoralist children are probably paying for themselves by 14 at the latest. Settled farmers have a lot of work, some of it very simple that even children can do. The Chore Curriculum is a big part of the book. Children working in gradually more complex ways is normal. I’m sceptical of your claim for at least some farmers. There exists a break even point and some parents turned a profit on their investment in their children before becoming infirm themselves.

        • Matt M says:

          I’ll admit to having not done much research on this and am willing to concede this point.

          I would still suggest that the primary motivation for having children was “someone to take care of you in old age.”

          Perhaps the fact that some children could be “profitable” by Age 10 or 12 or 14 was meant to offset the ones who were likely to die before reaching that age?

          • albatross says:

            Before the invention of reliable birth control, there was at least one other pretty powerful motivation for having children.

          • Walter says:

            Uh… (consults cylon detector)

            I think the number of people who sat down and said “We should have a child so that one day they can take care of us when we are old and feeble” is very small.

            Much more often the situation is:
            #Couple enjoys sex
            #”Honey, you are going to be a father!”

          • John Schilling says:

            I think the number of people who sat down and said “We should have a child so that one day they can take care of us when we are old and feeble” is very small.

            Whereas I think that the number of people who did this is approximately equal to the number of people who ever lived up until about 1900 AD. Though perhaps not without the explicit discussion, on account of “have kids so they’ll take care of you in your old age” being so pervasive a social norm that you’d only talk about it if you weren’t going to do it, or if you had some other oddball reason for having kids.

      • Mary says:

        In colonial America, quite young (under 8) pauper children were regularly “bound out” — indentured to someone until adulthood. The cost of their early years would be compensated by their labor in the later ones, and this was after factoring in the danger of their dying young, since they could bind them out.

        Poor families would probably work their children almost as hard, since the alternative might be genuine starvation.

        So, yeah, put the children to work. The biggest obstacle probably was lack of capital.

    • Mary says:

      “They could quite reasonably have only one set of clothes for each person.”

      If that. Some families in NYC didn’t have enough articles of clothing to go around and so could not all leave home at once.

  18. Deiseach says:

    The Scott Sumner one irritates the ever-living fuck out of me because it’s basically “If you’re poor, pull yourselves up by your bootstraps! If you’re not prepared to live six to a room on gruel and sock away every spare cent, then it’s your own fault!”

    We had people living six to a room on gruel. We called those conditions “slums” and “ghettoes” and the great urban planning/civic renewal programs of the 40s-60s were all about knocking the inner city

    The idea that even the poor might not want to live like that, because they would quite like to have a bed of their own in a room they can turn around in, and hot running water to wash in may be a luxury but heck, throw another pea in the pot and hang the expense! – no, sorry, if you’re poor, you don’t deserve amenities.

    Live in grinding poverty, save save save, haul yourselves out by your bootstraps, or else you are plainly dumb, ignorant, lazy and too selfish to do anything, i.e. the undeserving poor who should be left to stew in their own juices.

    Unless Scott Sumner is living six to a room on gruel and saving every spare cent from his job, even though he can afford better, he can go fuck himself. Live as you advise others to do, then I’ll listen to you.

    (Yes, I’m bloody angry about this. I’m not going to do an imitation of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, but I’ve lived in conditions that no, I would not go back to, even if it meant I could save €€€€ and then aspire to a middle-class lifestyle of luxuries like heating and indoor plumbing. I don’t think I need to prove I deserve a certain level of basic amenities).

    • Alsadius says:

      There are cultures which do what Sumner suggests, and they do get out of poverty pretty quickly. There are cultures which don’t, and they stay poor for generations at a time. I totally understand why doing that is hard, and why poor people(especially ones surrounded by friends and family who don’t do that) would find it basically impossible. But empirically, he’s correct.

      Remember, the universe doesn’t give a damn about you. It doesn’t care if you have hot water, because it doesn’t even care if you survive. The Second Law of Thermodynamics translates into English as “The universe hates you and wants you to die”. If you cannot produce enough wealth to give you the things you want, you don’t get to have the things you want unless someone else is generous enough to hand them to you. If you want to do better than that, work to get there.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’m going to get myself banned for sure this time!

        FUCK YOU TOO AND THE HIGH HORSE YOU RODE IN ON, ALSADIUS.

        While we’re at it, why give the poor access to antibiotics? Or vaccinations? The universe doesn’t care if you live past your fourth birthday or die of measles! And yet we somehow have come to the conclusion that in a civilised society in the modern world, people are entitled not to die of preventable diseases, even if they’re not wealth-producers.

        Perhaps you do mean to say “If you’re poor, you have no human rights”. In that case, I hope a disease-ridden tramp infects you with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis as you step over him lying in the gutter on the way to your valuable life of economic productivity. If the only vengeance the poor may have against others is to drag you down with our plagues, so be it.

        The universe doesn’t care about the rich or the hard-working or the productive either, Alsadius. If the improving moral message of our day is that you don’t need fripperies, you can save even more money by living in squalor, then I suggest you haste to a local flophouse and betake yourself to living in wretchedness. Think how much more money you can spare from your (presumably) good-paying job by not wasting it on things like square footage per head!

        Well I know that the universe is heartless. Are we to be likewise?

        I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
        So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
        Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
        With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

        Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
        Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
        A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
        A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

        The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
        They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
        Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
        More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

        Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
        Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
        Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
        I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

        • Xerxes says:

          You somehow feel you have the right to make others pay for your luxuries.

          If this is a human right, then get in line behind the 2 billion people worse off than you. No, even better. You have the obligation to work more, save more, spend less and then use those resources to find a way to make their lives better.

          If, however, this is not a human right, and just human envy and greed in another package. Well, then. Take your manufactured outrage elsewhere. I understand it is an effective strategy for getting what you want. But I don’t tolerate it from my children, and I certainly have no sympathy for it from adults.

          • Deiseach says:

            And you, Xerxes, what have you done to earn the air you breathe? “I work hard, I look for nothing from no-one, I stand on my rights and am a good citizen!”

            And what rights have you that you can claim, that are not dependent on society, law, custom and culture agreeing you have such rights? Your very life is not your own, if any other person thinks he would be advantaged by taking it.

            Not even a person. A tiny animacule too small to be seen with the unaided eye can take your life at any moment. Nature’s indifference, chance, ill-luck, age, time and sickness erode your boasting. Every breath you draw brings you nearer the grave. Tomorrow may be the very day you are plunged into poverty – it has happened to better, wiser and more prudent than you, and why do you think you should escape war, trouble, or economic crash?

            And yet you get up on your hind legs and crow on your dunghill about your superiority to the rest of humanity!

          • Xerxes says:

            I’m not the one claiming I cannot improve my lot. I’m not the one claiming that others somehow have an obligation to help me.

            Yes, what success I have leans mightily on the fruits of civilization. Other people who have worked to succeed, and built an environment to allow others to do so. I owe them greatly. And my payment is to help pass that along.

            Despite the ingratitude that we’ll earn from certain quarters.

          • Psmith says:

            I’m not exactly waving the red flag myself, but a little sense of “there but for the grace of good fortune go I” would go a long way here, dude.

          • Matt S Trout says:

            > You somehow feel you have the right to make others pay for your luxuries.

            I don’t read that from what Deiseach said at all, merely that they think that, below a certain level of lifestyle, it’s reasonable to choose to spend the money to have basic amenities rather than to save the money in the hopes of doing better later (with, so far as I can see, no suggestion at all that anybody but Deiseach should then be considered responsible for said choice).

            As such, your dripping condescention is none of kind, necessary, or true, and I’d suggest you re-read what Deiseach actually said and apply the principle of charity rather than rounding it to your nearest imaginary weakman of an ideological opponent and then attacking that in the most blindly arrogant way possible.

          • Xerxes says:

            OK, sure. With some worse luck in my past, or some bad luck in my future, I could easily be in the same position, or worse.

            So what?

            That doesn’t change the analysis. The vast majority of first-world “poor” people can improve their lot. If whining and shirking pays off, then we get more of it. If we have a culture of shaming people who are well-off, and shaming any attempt to analyze the things poor people to harm themselves, we will be worse off for it.

            At some level of personal difficulty, I expect that I would whine about my condition if it sufficiently paid off (materially or psychologically.) But from an neutral viewpoint, the system is better off if I am instead told to go do what I can to make things better.

          • Xerxes says:

            Matt Trout:
            From Deisach:
            “Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world – should be eliminated from the church. Then the poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.

            (and much more of the same)

            Yes, Deisach wants others to pay for their luxuries. And is ANGRY if we suggest they take other steps to improve their situation.

            I am reading exactly as charitably as the situation calls for.

          • Cypher says:

            That is not Consequentialist reasoning, Xerxes. “Deserve” has nothing to do with it, the way you think of “deserve.” Everyone “deserves” a perfect life with infinite resources at their disposal, we just can’t afford to give it to them.

            “Work-to-live” will result in the complete replacement of humans by emotionless machines, since we are not the most economically efficient configuration of matter.

          • Xerxes says:

            @Cypher

            I completely disagree with how you’re using deserve. In my view, none of us “deserve” anything. In a hypothetical universe where we have limitless resources, none of us deserve a scrap of it. “Deserve” is a word like “rights” that is like an “applause light” noise. Or like a whine from a child.

            In the present reality, someone else’s failure to be productive makes me and future generations poorer. Undermining the culture that encourages contribution and productivity makes me and future generations poorer.

            What arrangement might make more sense under future conditions is debatable, and can be applied when those conditions pertain.

          • Svejk says:

            Scott had a post a few years ago entitled “Burdens”, where he described the construction of modern civilisation as a sort of eminent domain action on the natural supports of human livelihood. To paraphrase and extend: the frontier is closed, and there is no longer a commons that one can legally retreat to to practice basic subsistence, or even rudimentary agriculture. Society overall is more productive, and persons with certain traits can earn a large surplus. But some who could have been perfectly productive over many of the regimes found between the present day and the savannah are ill-suited to the environment we’ve created. And many who are currently very productive would have been much less so 200 years ago or hence. Our new regime invites a greater degree of envy, as the accruable surplus has grown, and the disadvantaged are susceptible to the misfortune of experiencing this particularly immiserating vice as a consequence of their evolved nature.
            It is impossible to ascertain with certainty who of the presently disadvantaged claimants was actually damaged by this shift; some would have bad outcomes in any context. And many of the forms of compensation we can devise would introduce a risky degree of moral hazard into our modern framework. But the post resonated with me because it was one of those occasions where one sees one’s odd inner thoughts echoed on the internet, and it demonstrated that many sincere people are still grappling with the topics of entitlements, deserts, and obligations, even within a natural law context. Scott, if you ever decide to return to this topic, I would be very interested to know if these ideas still inform your views about the appropriate level of the social safety net.

          • onyomi says:

            Re. the fact that there is no commons to retreat to nowadays, this seems largely a function of governments (and at a subsidiary level in many cases, I’m sure, private companies and individuals) claiming ownership of vast tracts of unused land.

            I did like the story about Russia being willing to pay you to move out east, but I think all governments of large territories should be morally obligated to, if not pay people to do so, then to at least let people settle in big unused spaces for free (not counting national parks and areas very specifically set aside for some reason; talking about land which literally no one is using for anything nor particularly cares about, other than as a piece of the sovereign landspace–and there’s plenty of it).

            For this reason I was especially annoyed about all the legal barriers thrown up to fight the “neocolonial” charter cities idea. One could complain, “oh, this is exploitative for these multinational companies to set up a jurisdiction within some third world nation’s sovereign territory and not have to abide by all its rules,” but they were always picking parts of those territories which were uninhabited and unused!

            IMO, the real problem the third-world politicians had was “we don’t want our citizens having an alternative to our crummy system, because that would make us look bad.”

          • “But some who could have been perfectly productive over many of the regimes found between the present day and the savannah are ill-suited to the environment we’ve created.”

            I’ve seen and discussed this argument, which is sometimes used as a justification for a welfare system, to compensate those who are worse off as a result of the commons being converted to property. It’s one approach to the libertarian problem of justifying ownership of unproduced property.

            One problem is that it doesn’t justify anything close to the pattern people want for an actual welfare system. Consider someone who is seriously handicapped. In a state of nature commons he starves to death. In a developed society where land is propertized he can probably survive as a beggar if nothing else.

            There might be people who are able and hard working but for some reason badly suited to modern civilization who would be better off if all land had remained a commons, but they are not going to be a significant fraction of the worst off people in a society like ours.

          • Randy M says:

            But the post resonated with me because it was one of those occasions where one sees one’s odd inner thoughts echoed on the internet,

            Your summary likewise does with me, with the caveat that when I had these thoughts prior I may have been unknowingly echoing a that post having read it previously.

            Anyway, thanks for the recounting.

          • SUT says:

            @svejk

            I take the Pinkerian view of the noble savage’s economic opportunities. Sure there were times of plenty and egalitarianism, but there was also times when everyone walked in a different direction until they died or got food e.g. the disappearing Pueblo Indians. It seems the willingness to take that risk is necessary to live the lifestyle of freedom from authority.[0]

            Today, one of the tradeoffs we make in favor of the freedom of self-determination and against economic security is the choice of free markets for labor and consumption. The alternative is a Brave New World command and control society. Now each of these societies has scientists, doctors, electrical engineers – what SSC comentariat considers thriving. But what the controlled society lacks is exactly what the low-IQ person might have an advantage in: filling an unnoticed market need, a novel artistic interpretation of an old form, the willingenss to pursue a dream vocation even if they “aren’t cut out for it”, and just good old-fashion non-autist people pleasing a patron. This freedom is unprecedented in any society of history, and if I’m right, it ought to convey more advantage to more right-brain inclined. But there seems to be a discrepancy between that prediction and reality.

            I’m going to argue downthread that it’s not our increasingly specialized division of labor, not our automation technology that are advancing structural poverty (in fact they are helping) but it’s the third big change – the changing role of women, children, the legality of indenturing servants that is creating the ill fit between our current economic systen and our natural human state. Boy this sounds terrible right now, but the tentative idea is that awknowledging that everyone needs to be Financed be someone or some organization – as in “you didn’t build that” – and that we’re particularly bad at that in the failing cultures in the US, and particularly good at it in the thriving cultures of the US.

            [0]: There are brief moments when agri-tech, horses, and a plague opened up the North American frontier. But Malthus closes all such paradises within several generations, and as such, frontiers or “free land with zero resistance” are the exception, not the rule in Neolithic.

          • Julie K says:

            at least let people settle in big unused spaces for free

            Probably a lot of that land is unused for a good reason, i.e. it’s not suitable for farming.

          • onyomi says:

            “Probably a lot of that land is unused for a good reason, i.e. it’s not suitable for farming.”

            True, but there are lots of other things you can do with land besides farming nowadays. See, e. g. Las Vegas and Hong Kong. This may not entirely solve the “people who would have been better off in the commons” problem, but having more options in the form of a larger number of competing jurisdictions seems a pretty unalloyed good to me.

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            @Julie K,

            You’d be surprised. Remember the Bundy case a while back?

            The Bureau of Land Management has an absurd amount of land under it’s purview ideal for ranching, lumber and mining. In the past they were more open to allowing people to use that land commercially, to the point where they were informally called the “Bureau of Lumber and Mining,” although they’ve tightened their grip recently.

          • Nornagest says:

            Just to give you an idea of how absurd. Most of that land is desert, but not unusable desert, and between the BLM and the Forest Service, we’re looking at something like half the land in the Western states.

            Where I grew up, half of local politics consisted of disputes between some combination of federal land management agencies and local conservationists and private landowners or developers.

          • cypher says:

            @Xerxes
            So those future generations who don’t exist yet count, but modern people who do exist don’t?

            This strikes me as continually investing and re-investing to get more money without ever taking out dividends, defeating the purpose of investing in the first place.

            Why is being richer a good thing? Generally because you can do things like live longer, or have more and higher-quality goods, or even work less.

            The question of “why should we pay for the minor luxuries of the poor” – aside from the more obvious issue that economies don’t care about “deserve” either, and it could be you under the bus soon enough – is not that hard. A lot of minor luxuries aren’t that expensive, and they’ll get a good marginal return on investment, utility-wise. Wealthy men are not utility monsters capable of thousands of times greater happiness than the typical fry cook, and certain ideological thoughts about human motivation aren’t as grounded in reality as people like to think they are.

            And if we’re worrying about the wealth of future generations, why should the wealthy receive luxuries instead of reinvesting all that extra money into technological development?

          • Xerxes says:

            @cypher
            I don’t value other people’s utils directly. I value having a culture that encourages virtuous and productive behaviors, rewards virtuous and productive behaviors, and punishes destructive behavior. And with the understanding that “virtuous,” “productive,” and “destructive” are complex assessments that can shift over time, I value the sense that such a culture should persist over time, even after I’m dead.

          • cypher says:

            @Xerxes

            I must admit I find your value system foreign. What is the point of productivity or virtue if not their usefulness in generating resources and experiences for utils? This seems to be a confusion of the instruments with the goals of using those instruments.

            Is this your emotional-level preference?

            It also occurs to me, re: emotionless machines having greater potential efficiency, that if morality is genuinely true, then it should be universal in principle, so if it doesn’t work under what is, in my opinion, a quite reasonable extrapolation based on current knowledge, then that’s a problem.

            It’s similar to observing the evidence for evolution, observing various animals, pondering that it’s possible for non-human sapients to exist, and that calling into question ideas for limitations to personhood based purely on closeness to human DNA.

          • Xerxes says:

            @cypher
            Is it really that foreign? Imagine a modification to our present system where people who are obnoxious get even more utils than they currently get, at a smaller cost from people who are conscientious.

            I disprefer that system. I imagine you do, too. Not for instrumental reasons, but because I find the system displeasing.

            I don’t place a large direct value on other people’s utils. Most people don’t. So the aesthetic pleasure I get from being part of a culture that rewards certain types of behavior SWAMPS the details of the actual util accounting.

            I’m not an AI trying to govern a society. I don’t have to pretend to value some slacker’s $100 extra spending this month. I just don’t care.

          • cypher says:

            @Xerxes
            Well, for one, I expect to be one of the people thrown under the bus with your “just work harder, or you deserve to suffer and die!”-type viewpoint, at some point. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s a non-trivial possibility.

            For two, when we’re having discussions like this, it’s generally about the sort of society we should have. Thus, I am thinking in terms of the AI trying to run society, because that’s sort of what a state is a crude imitation of.

            Taking one and two together, it’s obvious systems of incentivization are needed from a practical perspective, but the gloating I often see that goes with it disgusts me. You think people enjoy having executive functioning disorders or something? Or becoming injured on the job and ending up with chronic pain?

            Why try and reproduce the suffering from Nature? That’s what we built all these cars and vaccines and air conditioning units to avoid!

            We should be trying to produce SO MUCH VALUE that we can literally afford to give lots of it away. That’s what I want robots in the economy for, even though they’re going to move a lot of people into the “unemployable” category. And that process is already starting if you look for it. It already hit horses some time ago.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @cypher
            That’s nice, but here in the current world, we do not have unimaginable surplus. And without that, we cannot fulfill the requirements given

            1) Give the poor the standard of living they want

            2) …without questioning their need

            3) …nor setting conditions on them

          • cypher says:

            @Nybbler
            Yeah, but before we have robot armies and unimaginable surplus, there’s some ordinary computers and some ordinary surplus.

            In this case, it’s not talking about giving every poor person a Lambo, which is not practically feasible, but just things like warm water. Specifically, “minor luxuries”. In the developed world, that is relatively feasible, and I don’t see the problem with some minor luxuries here or there, and I have to question a lot of the “slacker” narrative.

          • Xerxes says:

            @cypher
            You had to invent “deserve to suffer and die.” You are killing these strawmen mighty well.
            You think people who are bad off deserve things? Get off the keyboard and start providing for them. I suspect, however, that you don’t ACTUALLY believe that. What you want is an excuse to envy other people their lives, their conditions, and their possessions. A reason why OTHERS should provide for YOU.
            Your position doesn’t hold water.

          • cypher says:

            @Xerxes
            It’s not enough if I’m the only one that does it, and it disproportionately puts the weight on those who care, leaving them with fewer economic resources and less wealth, meaning less power/political power, making the process less sustainable.

            You can amateur psychoanalyze that all you want.

            All I can say is, if we don’t crash the global economy through war or ecological disaster, I’ll still have the same position in the year that robots automate you out of your job.

          • Xerxes says:

            @cypher
            Your glee in describing my robot come-uppance tells me all I need to know about your psychology.

            And, if I have a moral obligation not to murder, I cannot say “Oh my murders don’t matter all that much. In the grand scheme it means nothing. And I don’t want the no-murder obligation to fall on kind people.”

            If you actually believe in a moral obligation to materially help fellow humans, allow me to point you in the direction of several fine charities that do help people quite nicely with the marginal dollar. I expect you do to everything you can to fulfill this obligation if it’s real. And I do mean EVERYTHING you can.

            http://www.givewell.org/

            Thing is, that moral obligation is a fantasy that you don’t really believe in. It just makes a nice club to bash people with. Make a token donation to these charities anyhow. You’ll feel better, and they do good work.

          • cypher says:

            @Xerxes
            I do apologize for not being an immortal robot with perfect willpower that does everything that is required at all times. I am but a lowly mortal human with an executive functioning disorder (along with clinical depression and anxiety – and not on medication for either) just trying to get well enough to function normally. If you’re worried that this doesn’t bother me, and that I secretly enjoy it – don’t. I assure you, I am quite ashamed of my condition.

            If I could just snap my fingers and transform myself into such a transcendent machine, I’d certainly consider it. What you can’t see in your amateur psychoanalysis is that the character I most admire somewhat fits that bill. Right now I’m just trying to operate on my own power and I’m holding on to small victories like that I’ve managed to avoid becoming suicidal.

            Oh, and did you just “import” glee into that comment? “That tells me all I need to know about your psychology,” as you would say. What I wanted to hammer home is that it’s not compatible with the future that is already inching up on us, with factories, warehouses, and the like getting factor 5-6x reductions in staff, robot cars in development, machines learning “intuitive” games like Go, and so on. It’s pretty obvious that it’s going to keep climbing up the ladder and it won’t be stopped by anything short of a massive catastrophe.

            There’s language upthread about how “the universe doesn’t care about you”, and I wanted to point out that this applies to you as well, and that your position, at least when it comes to what functions for the human race, is only a temporary one at best.

            I probably will eventually get better, and then my career path looks reasonably good, and I’ll most likely be contributing to automation that puts people out of jobs. Automating everyone out of their jobs became one of the things I intended to do / contribute to as a way of helping out, but of course that only works if the correct political systems are in play beforehand. And that only works if the ideological systems are prepared for it. If it’s not prepared for, then it’ll just result in a humanitarian catastrophe brought about by people holding onto philosophies which were previously instrumentally useful but weren’t meta enough to be adapted to the new situation.

            But of course, under the current system, the majority of gains will go to the owners of capital. I’m not exactly cheering for the downfall of the Capitalist system (see: Stalin, Mao), but what I do once I’m unbroken will have an impact on this, and slowly rolling out new ideological configurations and testing their politically-realized correlates (the testing is very important!) helps to curtail the resulting wave of collateral damage. (edit: IOW, if the safety net’s strong enough, I can automate as much as I want without trouble. Otherwise, I and other must restrain ourselves… somehow, given market pressures. That’s a pretty thorny coordination problem.)

            I believed that before I was in the condition I am now. I believed that when I had a higher expectation of being one of the people that would have to foot the bill.

            But you know, maybe you’re right and I’m just here to bash people.

            I will be sure to hold you to your own immortal robot willpower standard in all of your future posts, of course. Since you seem to insist on holding everyone else to it, that’s only fair.

            (Edit: Also, comparing murder to the implication of taxation to support a standard of living beyond a cot in a dormitory? Seriously?)

          • Xerxes says:

            @cypher
            I don’t claim that people have absurd rights and obligations. Feel free to hold me to that continued reasonable stance.

            You seem to want to defend an indefensible claim, and seem very invested in it. You ascribed hateful desires to me, characterizing my explanations as “gloating” and belief that people “deserve to suffer and die.”

            You claim helping the poor is a moral obligation. I’ve heard this claim many times before. With nothing to back it up. And, worse, tangible evidence that the claimants don’t follow up on the claim. IN THE LEAST.

            It’s virtue signaling. Simple explanation. Something humans do all the time.

            My job potentially being taken over at some point speaks not at all to the issue of whether this alleged moral obligation exists at all. So why bring it up?

          • cypher says:

            @cypher
            > I don’t claim that people have absurd rights and obligations. Feel free to hold me to that continued reasonable stance.

            I didn’t say anything about “rights.”

            > You seem to want to defend an indefensible claim, and seem very invested in it. You ascribed hateful desires to me, characterizing my explanations as “gloating” and belief that people “deserve to suffer and die.”

            I’m sorry, I just tend to see the more hostile variant that does, indeed, have gloating, elsewhere.

            > You claim helping the poor is a moral obligation. I’ve heard this claim many times before. With nothing to back it up. And, worse, tangible evidence that the claimants don’t follow up on the claim. IN THE LEAST.

            “Obligation” is not quite the correct term. Quite simply, it would be better, in Utilitarian terms, to do so. This is not a strict binding obligation to infinite effort. Some is good. More is better. Infinite effort might hypothetically be best, but realistically that won’t happen with mere humans. This is why some people want to build some sort of super-AI to make it happen, regardless of how realistic that might be.

            In fact, with this “better” continuum, I would go so far as to say that not acknowledging it as a continuum is rather counter to the whole Utilitarian thing in general. Yes, no starving orphans is ideal, but one starving orphan is better than two starving orphans.

            And you, I think, are falling into the “perfect is the enemy of the good” trap, here. Although you seem to be applying it to people.

            Unless you wanted a justification for Utilitarianism in general? That could fill a book.

            > It’s virtue signaling. Simple explanation. Something humans do all the time.

            If I vote for someone who will raise my taxes to fund social programs, does it stop being virtue signalling at that point?

            Or, wait, no, anything short of immortal robot levels of willpower (from a mere mortal human) mean that one is a hypocrite that doesn’t believe it would be a better outcome. This is why the commenter Feeble satirized your comments elsewhere in the thread.

            You’ve managed to bring up an old memory from a more optimistic time. The original plan, years ago, was to set things up so that there would be some amount of tax based on a %GDP, and then we’d cut them all a check, and then it’s not my responsibility anymore. I expected to be the one paying the tax, not the one receiving the check. But there are always bad things happening to people in all sorts of miscellaneous ways, and it made more sense to be that way than having thousands of random charities. (Yeah, it was limited to the nation, but this “whole world” thing you’re jumping on repeatedly has a lot of built-in assumptions about how nations, politics, and economies work.)

            > My job potentially being taken over at some point speaks not at all to the issue of whether this alleged moral obligation exists at all. So why bring it up?

            Because then you’ll be one of the poor whom you apparently think there is no obligation to help. The idea is to try and provoke some empathy out of you on the matter, or alternatively get you to realize that, should certain reasonable (though not currently certain) projections hold true, your position is not self-interested. And is, potentially beyond merely not self-interested to the point of being not-species-interested.

            My goal is not to personally maximize my own virtue for the entertainment of internet forum-goers and immunize myself against their accusations of hypocrisy. My goal is to establish (or contribute to) the necessary political environment for the emergence of a minimum basic income, negative income tax, wage subsidy program, or similar political device around the next major stage of technological unemployment, which I predict will come about in another twenty years or so, after the arrival of automated cars. Maybe that means trading with Conservatives so people have to do busywork. Maybe it means sticking people in schools indefinitely, chasing the last jobs. Lots of details to work out. Some experiments will have to be run, too. We don’t know what the exact effects would be.

            For me, private ownership and income inequality were never good or evil, per se, but merely tools to accomplish some other goal.

          • Jiro says:

            “Obligation” is not quite the correct term. Quite simply, it would be better, in Utilitarian terms, to do so. This is not a strict binding obligation to infinite effort. Some is good. More is better. Infinite effort might hypothetically be best, but realistically that won’t happen with mere humans.

            If all you mean is that doing so is better, and there’s no binding obligation, then that implies believing in murder offsets. Figure out that giving X produces the same amount of utility that is lost by committing murder. Then giving 10%+X and committing murder is no worse than giving 10% and not committing murder.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Jiro:
            Elsewhere on this page, I mentioned how I like to push the idea of multiple virtues being in tension with each other, and that this was required to form a stable “good”.

            I think this applies to utilitarianism just as well. I think it’s a mistake to try and dismiss the importance of utilitarianism by simply showing that we can break it by pushing it to an extreme. Roughly, everything can be broken in this kind of manner.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @cypher

            Unimaginable surplus and ordinary surplus are qualitatively different

            1) Ordinary surplus can be exhausted. And the needs of the poor can exhaust them, if we’re not questioning them or supervising them. You want the poor to have warm water? I suppose you want them to have a kitchen and bathroom from which to obtain it, too. And living space. And this should be near their support network… in Manhattan, for quite a few of them. You probably want food going into this place. And if they sell the food to obtain cigarettes, booze and drugs, well, they still shouldn’t go hungry, especially not if they have children… your surplus seems to have vanished.

            2) Ordinary surplus is zero sum. Taking from an inexhaustible surplus to provide food, water, and cocaine for unproductive people doesn’t hurt anyone. Taking from a surplus produced by others does. Taking away Bill Gates’s lambo to pay for the drug habits of 1000 poor people (remember, we’re not questioning the needs of the poor or telling them how to live) may work out in some calculation of qualys, but personally I don’t blame Gates for being a bit miffed.

          • Cypher says:

            @Nybbler
            If we have to means test then we have to means test, or whatever. This was always more about people saying the poor deserve no “minor luxuries,” anyway. People tend to take the “hey wait a minute” in response to that and run too far with it. Not everyone who takes issue with the idea that all poor must live like ascetic monks wants to fund drug habits or what-have-you. As pointed out by Feeble’s satire, the “no luxury” stance can be extended all the way to clean water.

            @Jiro
            Humans cannot be trusted with murder offsets. It’s too easy for them to come up with BS reasons to kill people that don’t need killing, which is why common morality limits it to things like active shooter situations and wars.

            Any species that could be trusted to handle it probably wouldn’t actually use them.

            @all
            This thread is making me anxious, which is impeding the precious productivity I’m supposed to have so that I don’t have to live like an ascetic monk. I think I’ll cut out here.

          • Jiro says:

            Humans cannot be trusted with murder offsets.

            That’s fighting the hypothetical. The point isn’t specifically about murder; I just used murder as an example because it’s considered unambiguously wrong by most people here.

            The problem isn’t that utilitarianism allows murder offsets, the problem is that it allows any-bad-thing offsets. Murder offsets are just a specific case of that. Or do you think that any bad thing I can substitute for murder, is something with which humans can’t be trusted?

        • Deiseach says:

          I’m with St John Chrysostom on this:

          Saint John Chrysostom (347–407 AD):

          If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness; you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him. You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts.

          Now don’t tell me that you actually work hard. If you call earning money, making business deals, and caring for your possessions “work”, I say, “No, that is not work. But alms, prayers, the protection of the injured and the like – these are genuine work.” You charge the poor with idleness; I charge you with corrupt behavior.

          Don’t you realize that, as the poor man withdraws silently, sighing and in tears, you actually thrust a sword into yourself, that it is you who received the more serious wound?

          Let us learn that as often as we have not given alms, we shall be punished like those who have plundered. For what we possess is not personal property; it belongs to all.

          God generously gives all things that are much more necessary than money, such as air, water, fire, the sun – all such things. All these things are to be distributed equally to all.

          “Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world – should be eliminated from the church. Then the poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.

          Enjoy the fruits of the world while you can lay hands on them, Xerxes and Alsadius. Then in eternity when you are howling with the misery of the damned, the saved poor man Lazarus shall rejoice when beholding your sufferings.

          (Do I shock the tender-hearted that the blessed should not compassionate the sufferings of the damned? If in life the damned spoke so of their brethren – If you cannot produce enough wealth to give you the things you want, you don’t get to have the things you want unless someone else is generous enough to hand them to you* and If one claims that one cannot save money, and yet on analysis it turns out that this claim is based on the claimant’s refusal to execute on a plan that others are seen able to execute on – then in their day they rejoiced over the sufferings of others (even if it did not seem that way to them but mere pragmatic good sense to say no more than “the idle must work, the shiftless must learn thrift”) and now by strict justice, they are done by as they did unto others).

          *GENEROUS? How dare you take the divine name of charity into your mouth in such fashion! Be rebuked by St Basil the Great and learn that your condescension is not generosity but justice:

          When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man who has the power to clothe the naked but does not do so be called the same? The bread in your larder belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every man whom you could help but do not.

          • Xerxes says:

            Your response is apparently devoid of any actual content unless I believe silly fairy tales about invisible friends and their zombie meat-avatars.

            If you don’t like the way your life is, and you haven’t done all you can do to improve it. Well, then.

            And then to blame me? Unmitigated gall.

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            For the record, I do support a limited form of community welfare (such as benefit societies) and like the general idea of Distributism / corporatism. Supporting members of our community, that is in our actual community not random strangers, is worth doing and points to the greatness of our society.

            That said, this sort of rant is exactly why Christianity is correctly called a slave morality. The rich and powerful must submit to the poor and weak, else be destroyed in the next life by the poor’s jealous (or perhaps envious) god. A cosmic crab bucket where charity exists to exhaust the wealth of the successful and ensure all rest evenly on the bottom. It’s an abhorrent ethic, utterly without pride.

          • Anonymous says:

            That said, this sort of rant is exactly why Christianity is correctly called a slave morality. The rich and powerful must submit to the poor and weak, else be destroyed in the next life by the poor’s jealous (or perhaps envious) god. A cosmic crab bucket where charity exists to exhaust the wealth of the successful and ensure all rest evenly on the bottom. It’s an abhorrent ethic, utterly without pride.

            I wouldn’t call that rant particularly orthodox in its Christianity. I’m Catholic just like Deiseach is, but find her outrage to be mistaken and puzzling. There’s no solution to poverty*, we ought to be content that they might find recompense in the next life. The relatives of the poor, their neighbours, the Church and the occasional philanthropist should care so that the poor could be reasonably helped, as far as the extent of that help is not harmful to either party – on a voluntary basis**.

            * The Catechism does have implications that in case of there somehow coming into existence a post-scarcity situation, the intended destination of goods is universal, but so long as it isn’t, property ownership is the best known policy for everything not going directly to hell, so to speak.

            ** This is also a large part of why I oppose welfare as done through involuntary taxation – it is immoral to force people to be charitable.

          • Immortal Lurker says:

            I don’t believe in hell. But I was raised Catholic, so I think I have a pretty good understanding of how it works. And I also think that it actually helped me understand something like morality and values a bit better.

            My understanding is still a bit muddled, but let me try to explain. Since I am trying to communicate values, this will read more like literature than a concrete argument.

            Hell is where you go when you are too broken to fixed without killing you. You don’t go to heaven to be in communion with G-d, because fundamentally you don’t want it, you want selfishness, or to hurt others, or are so pigheadedly independent and prideful the idea of someone intrinsically greater than yourself offends. Or a million other possible reasons which boil down to you wouldn’t be happy there, or you would make the other people there unhappy.

            Now, it is important that there are people who are broken, but can still be fixed. With time, meditation, love, etc., you can be changed into someone does want to be in communion with G-d. Hell is not for people like that, it is for incurable souls. Sure, an all powerful being could say “Presto! You are now a well adjusted individual,” but they would no longer be the same individual. They have essentially been killed and replaced.

            So that is what hell is like. The next step, of course, is the introduction to a recent space opera, “Count to a Trillion”.

            I am operating from memory, but it is something like “The Future did not arrive.” And you immediately know the capital F Future the author means. Chrome! Post Scarcity! Universal Brotherhood! Reasonably Priced Love!

            We don’t get any of that in the book.

            I’m not sure if we can get any of that in real life. But if we fail, at least we think like maybe we could have gotten some of it. A few votes gone the other way, better planning, and maybe it all would have been better.

            So sure, says the hypothetical future person, maybe we are doomed in this universe, but that is happenstance. There are universes out there where we did everything right, and it is just a shame that we aren’t them.

            But maybe we aren’t merely doomed. Maybe were Damned. It is just possible that humanity is so fundamentally broken that we aren’t capable of having a good and happy society. Maybe we are so disinterested in the fate of our neighbor that no attempt at universal brotherhood could possibly succeed.

            Maybe an Magic Fairy Godmother AI recreates humanity, so that we can be happy. But maybe the necessary changes are drastic. So drastic that we haven’t been “fixed”, we have been killed and replaced.

            My deepest, darkest fear is that humanity is like that. Damned. So broken that the only way fix us would be to have us killed and replaced.

            So (this part is uncharitable to the above posters, sorry), when I see people who act like they don’t even understand why the misery of the poor is a sufficiently compelling reason to help them… I get nervous.

            Last note. Yes, first world poor are behind third would poor in terms of global priorities. But I always got the impression that there was no way we were going to get taxpayer money for that, so those two billion people get de-queued, leaving first world poor next in line.

            EDIT: The hypothetical people in the first sentence of my penultimate paragraph do not accurately depict anyone in this thread. I needed a straw man to properly convey my values and emotional state. Like a said at the top, this is more like literature than concrete argumentation.

          • Xerxes says:

            @Immortal Lurker

            You confuse 5 completely different concepts:
            1) It is good to help poor people.
            2) It is morally required to help poor people.
            3) It is morally required to help ‘poor’ people who live astonishingly good lives by historical and global standards.
            4) Poor people have a right to get help
            5) ‘Poor’ people have a right to get help

            I accept #1. Accept #2 with lots of serious provisos. And reject #3,#4, and #5.

          • Immortal Lurker says:

            @Xerxes

            You are correct. I am equivocating between those two very different points quite freely, and I should clarify.

            First of all, all I think that “good”, “Morally required”, and “right” are phrases that could get us into a heap of confusion if we use them wrong. So I’m not going to use them.

            It is doing useful work in your five points though, so I am going to try and replace it with something else.

            1) I would like it if poor people were helped, and I think that you should like it to.
            2) I would think less of you if you did not help the poor. Maybe I would even think you were a person that I and other people that I think are “good” should dissociate with.
            3) I would think less of you if you did not help the “poor”. Maybe I would even think you were a person that I and other people that I think are “good” should dissociate with.
            4) Society should be structured so that we are willing to spend a great deal of effort and resources to ensure that poor people have a higher standard of living.
            5) Society should be structured so that we are willing to spend a great deal of effort and resources to ensure that “poor” people have a higher standard of living.

            I accept 1, 2, 4, and 5 with this phrasing. I have the least reservations about 1, and the most reservations about 2 and 5.

            4 much, much, much, more important than 5.

            I accept only a very weak version of 2, simply because so many people do very little to help the poor. There is simply no value in disliking that many otherwise decent people. I would like it if this changed, and someone who didn’t give 10% to the poor was the moral equivalent of someone being rude to the waiter. That is, common, but generally accepted as a bad sign.

            3 is simply a much more extreme version of 2. The world would have to be much, much better before it was valuable to have 3.

            For clarity, the only hill I am willing to die on here is point 1.

          • Xerxes says:

            @Immortal Lurker.

            With minor quibbles, I am in complete agreement with your assessment of the 5 statements.

            And yes, the term “right” is one (of many) that gets us into a lot of trouble. While I agree that we should help the poor as a nation, the moment it is loudly decried that they have a “right” to help, all thinking shifts to a terrible place. And we get bad cultural outcomes and bad policy.

          • Harkonnendog says:

            This saint is just making stuff up. He is not quoting scripture and he is not a prophet.
            You may as well be quoting Stalin or Mao.

            the saved poor man Lazarus shall rejoice when beholding your sufferings

            Why would he rejoice? I think he would feel sad for them. This hateful version of Christianity you seem to be embracing is a perversion.

          • Mary says:

            I’m with Paul.

            “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion,”

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Xerxes is banned for a general posting style exemplified by this thread

        • Alsadius says:

          You want to get sweary? Let’s get sweary.

          You’re missing a really fucking important is/ought distinction here. The universe ought to give a shit about you. I would love to live in a universe that gave a shit about you. But sadly, the universe does not give a shit about you.

          You’ll also notice I said nothing about whether people should or should not be generous enough to hand things to people. As it happens, because I’m not a heartless asshole, I think they should. I think the government should keep people from starving on the streets, and I think private citizens should try to ensure people have a decent standard of living so long as they don’t abuse the generosity of their fellow man. What the fuck do you think I am, some kind of Ayn Rand caricature?

          All I said, if you’d calm the hell down and read my actual post, was that cultures who try to get out of poverty tend to be more effective at getting out of poverty than cultures who care most about making poverty comfortable. Trying to change makes change more likely than not trying to change. If all you care about is bitching and complaining about how your world isn’t catered, you’re not going to put in the effort to get yourself to a better position.

          I’m also not saying that you should stretch every last penny until it turns into copper wire. But if you’ve got a fucking clue of where you stand financially, you’re more likely to not make stupid-ass decisions that leave you poor forever. If you can look at, for example, the history of Chinese immigration to America and not come away with an appreciation of how hard work can make people better off, even in the face of oppression and disdain, then I don’t know what to say to you. Well, other than maybe “FUCK YOU TOO AND THE HIGH HORSE YOU RODE IN ON”.

          Cheers!

          • Matt S Trout says:

            While your point is (to my mind at least) entirely valid, it is, largely, orthogonal to Deiseach’s original point and as such doesn’t really invalidate it – hence why your disingenuous attempt to present stating an obvious but only somewhat related fact as a complete antithesis to the original argument was read as an attack and responded to in exactly the way one might expect under the circumstances.

          • Xerxes says:

            Matt Trout, did you read the Scott Sumner article that provoked such outrage from Deisach? It was the mere suggestion that poor people might be able to emulate those who are in similar circumstance but work hard and save.

            That thoughtful suggestion provoked righteous outrage and quotes about how the rich owe it to the poor to provide for them. And a righteous proclamation that anyone living well-off now had better shut up about how the poor might be able to making things better for themselves.

          • Two different points about Deiseach’s passion:

            1. I don’t think one can attribute to her all the views that she quotes from an equally passionate saint. I doubt, from her posts elsewhere, that she believes that all property should be held in common, which seems to have been his view.

            2. Her claim about what people deserve seems to me to be a particularly difficult problem for her, one that threatens heresy.

            If everyone deserves a decent standard of living and lots of people don’t get it, someone must be cheating them, keeping them from getting what they deserve. Who?

            There is no way that any human being could have given everyone alive in the tenth century what Deiseach thinks she deserves. The resources were not there.

            God, however, does not have a budget constraint. If everyone deserves a minimally decent standard of life and most people didn’t get it, the one person who could have given it to them must have acted unjustly, wickedly.

            I don’t think she wants to go there.

        • Alexp says:

          I hope you don’t get banned. I disagree with you 70% of the time, but I enjoy reading every one of your posts.

          I happen to agree with you this time. Nature is cruel. One of the triumphs of civilization is finding ways to fight against that.

          • Alsadius says:

            Nature is cruel. One of the triumphs of civilization is finding ways to fight against that.

            In case it wasn’t clear, I agree with that too.

          • Svejk says:

            I also find that my enjoyment of Deiseach is generally quite high, and largely uncoupled from agreement. I also enjoy Alsadius’ comments.

            This rant put me in mind of one of my favorite of Scott’s posts, a rumination on how we should be charitable toward those disadvantaged by our move away from the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, and how they should be charitably disposed toward themselves. Ages ago, strapping young men with high risk tolerance from large clans could recruit their allies to pillage from those who accrued wealth; now they (relatively) meekly ask for benefits. Whenever I encounter an argument about the coldness of nature, I think of this Pinkerian progress.

          • Xerxes says:

            Nature is cruel. One of the triumphs of civilization is finding ways to fight against that.

            In case it wasn’t clear, I agree with that too.

            Everyone in this discussion agrees with it. Implying otherwise is the usual straw-man against anyone who opposes a culture of handouts.

        • Mary says:

          Perhaps you do mean to say “If you’re poor, you have no human rights”.

          If you define “human rights” as “I have a right to slaves” — and there is no other interpretation that fits what you demand — exactly.

          To assert people have a “right” to antibiotics and vaccines is to assert that they have the right to force others to labor for them, to get them those things.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          It seems like there can be a debate over what minimum standard of living it’s reasonable to expect of the poor – that is, what standard such that, if the only reason they’re staying poor is that they’re expending extra money to live above that standard, we become less sympathetic to them.

          For example, if in 2100 every “poor” person has three beach-houses, but is still only one paycheck away from the street because they spend all their money on beach-houses and hyper-porn, it seems reasonable to say the government shouldn’t support poor people in that situation because they should just learn to get by with fewer beach-houses and less hyper-porn.

          And it seems odd that this standard would be so pegged to the current year that poor people who are very rich by the standards of the year 1900 definitely fall below it.

          I’m not saying this can’t possibly be true. I’m saying it’s not so obviously true that the comment policy, which says you’re sort of allowed to be a jerk if it’s in favor of obvious truth, covers it. I think that letting Deiseach’s comment stand would have a bad effect on debate since somebody made a potentially reasonable point and was really badly insulted for it. People might be reluctant to bring up such points in the future, and I think that would weaken the discussion.

          So, as predicted, Deiseach is banned

          • stargirlprincess says:

            I would support welfare even if “00 every “poor” person has three beach-houses, but is still only one paycheck away from the street because they spend all their money on beach-houses and hyper-porn”.

            Inequality is bad. In my opinion everyone is equally deserving to share in societies wealth. I am willing to tolerate inequality since inequality is required to increase the total amount of “generalized wealth.” (also freedom requires some inequality). But the masses deserve their hyper-porn too!

            No one should “have to get by” on anything less than eternal life, perfect health, complete material indulgence and a fulfilling social life. Any deviation from this is an aberration to be endured for now but eventually corrected.

            (note: I am 100% serious here).

          • Anonymous says:

            Inequality is bad.

            Citation needed. Inequality is a fact just like gravity.

            In my opinion everyone is equally deserving to share in societies wealth.

            I fail to see why, given that nobody is equal to anyone else. And indeed, given that nobody deserves anything.

            I am willing to tolerate inequality since inequality is required to increase the total amount of “generalized wealth.” (also freedom requires some inequality).

            I am willing to tolerate inequality because it’s a fact of life, neither good nor evil.

            But the masses deserve their hyper-porn too!

            They don’t deserve anything. You don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve anything.

            No one should “have to get by” on anything less than eternal life, perfect health, complete material indulgence and a fulfilling social life. Any deviation from this is an aberration to be endured for now but eventually corrected.

            Your scenario is literally Heaven, and utterly impossible to enact this side of death. Any serious attempts at it would likely lead to a similar failure mode as Communism had – making everything worse instead.

            (note: I am 100% serious here).

            Good of you to mention. It is little hard to tell with all the impossible claims.

          • anon says:

            Wait – is she banned, permanently?

          • Jaskologist says:

            Banned or suspended? Because she’s our third best commenter.

          • Anonymous says:

            According to the register, banned indefinitely.

          • Sivaas says:

            I mean, Reign of Terror and all, but this seems like an exceptionally severe ban.

            It’s not exactly what I’d call charitable, but the occasional angry post insulting other commenters isn’t uncommon here. It’s a bigger angry post than like the Multi’s drive-by hate, but long is just her method of posting, and I feel like if we’re going to have those, it’s better that they at least detail their objections in a reasonably-thought-out way.

            Does she have a history of previous bans that I don’t know about that would explain the duration?

            EDIT: For some reason this had a really hard time getting through the spam filter, removing the commenter in question’s name seemed to fix it. Do banned users get on the list of banned terms or something?

          • Anonymous says:

            Yes.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            What banned users?

          • keranih says:

            Obvious bias is obvious – I am of D’s tribe, and so am very likely to grant her slack where I am less charitable to others.

            D’s been a long time poster here, and while she comes from a religious/nonrational stance, I think that she expresses that pov with logic, and her perspective helps keep SSC diverse. I have seen others express this as well.

            I don’t quibble with the decision to find this post (and her continued replies) beyond the pale, but I think that that SSC will lose more from a permanent ban than it will gain. On those grounds – tribal kinship, past merit, and continued utility to the group – I beseech Scott to reconsider the term of her ban, and suggest that something like a month or a season would be more useful.

            (I also had a hard time posting this – I had forgotten that the names of banned users go on the filter.)

          • onyomi says:

            @stargirlprincess

            Inequality has some downsides, but so does equality. Why do you take it as axiomatic that maximum equality is the right balance?

          • onyomi says:

            +1 requesting tempban. She’s definitely one of the more interesting and unique posters and seems a net positive, at least to me.

            Also–and this is just me–an occasional passionate outburst (and not saying what she said was called for–it was definitely over the top) feels less bothersome and disruptive to me than consistent snark (I know I’m snarky sometimes, but I try to be inconsistently so).

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            +2

            I tried posting before to say that she’s an excellent poster 95% of the time but the site ate it. It’s only on a handful of issues like this, veganism or EA that she gets worked up.

            It would be a shame to lose her permanently. A brief ban for penance should still get the point across to other posters.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            I think if I don’t give a ban for “Enjoy the fruits of the world while you can lay hands on them, Xerxes and Alsadius. Then in eternity when you are howling with the misery of the damned, the saved poor man Lazarus shall rejoice when beholding your sufferings” I probably lose all credibility when I say anyone ever gets banned at all.

            An indefinite ban doesn’t mean “forever”, it means “I am angry and I’m not telling you how long you’ll be banned for and I want you to worry it will be forever, but maybe at some indefinite time no one can predict I’ll unban you.” I think anything less would be a slap on the wrist.

            PS: The main way I have of banning someone is actually banning their names, so yeah, unintentionally her name is on the list of banned terms. I apologize for making it hard to talk about her. I’m going to see if I can fix this.

          • Matt M says:

            I would suggest that someone who blatantly and obviously chooses to flaunt the rules “as in, ‘I know this will get me banned but I’m doing it anyway'” deserves harsher punishment than someone who is in a heated exchange and accidentally crosses the line.

            This was an intentional and pre-mediated act that they KNEW would have consequences. Only seems fair that they get to experience said consequences.

          • Sivaas says:

            In your Comments page, you list the bans you’ve made, with the duration and links to the comments that inspired them, and you cross them out as they expire.

            I went in planning to find an example of a temporary ban that was for a worse comment than the one above, but I couldn’t find one. Dr. Beat’s, perhaps, but it’s not clear-cut. I applaud you for making consistent decisions in your banning.

            But I don’t see a single indefinite ban in there that was ever rescinded, so it really does look like this is effectively a permanent ban.

            Also, I would much prefer a discussion in which ” Lazarus shall rejoice when beholding your sufferings” is how we get mad at each other rather than standard insults. It feels way harder to take personally when it’s so eloquent.

          • Jiro says:

            No one should “have to get by” on anything less than eternal life, perfect health, complete material indulgence and a fulfilling social life.

            What does “have to get by” mean?

            If it means when people suffer, that is bad”, then sure, nobody should have to get by without those things.

            If it means “when people suffer, we are morally obliged to alleviate their suffering”, or worse, “when people suffer, it is okay to take money from someone else and use it to alleviate the suffering” that’s different. If “nobody should have to get by” with the slightest bit of suffering in that sense, that means you can impose potentially unlimited obligations on other people to alleviate possibly very small amounts of suffering. It makes no sense not to put a limit on the obligation here which at least takes into account the burden placed on others to alleviate the suffering compared to the amount of suffering which is alleviated.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            blatantly and obviously chooses to flaunt the rules

            Hey, if you’ve got it, flout it!

          • Vaniver says:

            I endorse the permanent ban of anyone who says “I’m going to get myself banned for sure this time!” and then goes through with the proscribed activity.

            I agree that D was a valuable contributor overall, and so it’s a shame D chose that path.

          • @Stargirlprincess:

            Could you expand a bit on what you think desert is based on? I can easily see the claim that it would be a good thing if everyone had a wonderful life, but why do we all deserve it?

            If there is something about a person that makes him deserve things, your position requires that it is something true of everyone. But if it is true of everyone then nobody can claim credit for its being true of him, which seems inconsistent with basing desert on it.

            There is a common line of argument which holds that all of the facts about someone that might result in his being happy, healthy, wealthy, or whatever can ultimately be traced back to things about him that he can’t claim credit for. The usual conclusion is that nobody deserves more than anyone else. But the obvious conclusion is also that nobody deserves anything. Any outcome pattern is equally just.

          • Randy M says:

            I think more people need to find creative ways to live within their means, even if it entails living in less comfort than they feel they deserve.

            However, some of the comments referencing Chinese or other immigrants have a kind of ominous implication to me of “Lower your standards or we will find someone to replace you.” Ominous because the nation should be serving the interests of its citizens rather than maximizing efficiency. If those citizens choose to make sacrifices to improve the lives of strangers around the planet, awesome, but I (from an admittedly non-utilitarian pov) don’t see it as equally desirable for the nation to encourage foreigners to come and out-compete them due to a lower value on personal space or what have you.

            Deiseach will be missed, but after her having written a comment with “I’ll be banned for this but” and posting it anyways, I can’t really object. Full knowledge of the law mitigates excuses.

          • John Schilling says:

            However, some of the comments referencing Chinese or other immigrants have a kind of ominous implication to me of “Lower your standards or we will find someone to replace you.”

            Many of the people we are talking about are unemployed welfare recipients. In what sense is it even plausible to talk about “replacing them” with Chinese or other immigrants? We could let in immigrants of the sort likely to wind up on welfare, but that would be in addition to rather than in place of the native-born version.

            Ominous because the nation should be serving the interests of its citizens rather than maximizing efficiency.

            Shouldn’t it be efficiently trying to serve the interests of its citizens?

            I think the implication here is that the current systems of poverty alleviation are so inefficient as to be unworkable. We spend trillions of dollars trying to turn desperately poor citizens into happy not-poor citizens, only to find them still desperately poor, and we’re trying to figure out why.

            So we look to other cultures that do things differently, and note that look, over here is a culture that very efficiently uses little bits of support to turn desperately poor people into happy not-poor people, isn’t the obvious implication is that maybe we should help our own desperately poor citizens follow the same path?

          • Randy M says:

            I’m not sure I can really defend my feeling, and I didn’t mean to imply anything about any particular posts.

            The impression is that if people would learn to live like the global poor know how to do, they could get by on low wages. If jobs do not supply higher wages, we can allow immigration to bring in workers who will do these jobs, keeping the wages low, and chide the native poor for not living like Chinese or Indians, even though others of us doing the chiding would not like to live in such crowded conditions as are present in those countries either.

            Like I said, I’m conflicted because I do suspect that more of poverty is an outflow problem than an income problem and also don’t want to imply that there is nothing to learn from other cultures about practical living.

          • Matt C says:

            I’d also like to ask that D’s ban be revoked at some point.

            There are bad actors who mostly stir up trouble, and then there are positive contributors who make a mistake or have a weird outburst that crosses a line. D is clearly in the second category. Also D is different than the typical SSC poster and adds character to this place. It would be a real shame if she was banned permanently.

          • Chrysophylax says:

            @Scott: How does a banned poster know that they have been un-banned? I worry that sufficiently lengthy bans might destroy the desire to read SSC and thereby become effectively permanent.

            Have you considered adding an extra way to un-ban people? You might want to consider either a lottery or a vote. In the first case, you could assign a probability to each banned person, summing to whatever total you like, and then run the lottery as often as you feel like. You could instead have some chance of ending a ban of your choice. For example, you could roll a die every two weeks, and if it comes up 6, go through the bans list and restore the person you’re least angry with.

            If you wanted to open it to voting, you could put up a list every month (for example) of people you’re willing to see un-banned, and let the commentariat vote. You could impose whatever rules you like here. For example, you could restore the person who gets most votes, or assign to each person a time-varying margin of victory (e.g. “D must have at least 20 more votes for than against to be un-banned”).

            Any such voting policy should probably be restricted to non-anonymous votes only.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            He said he’s on vacation. We’ll probably get a better answer when he’s back.

            In the meantime, enjoy vacation!

          • blacktrance says:

            In my opinion everyone is equally deserving to share in societies wealth.

            What is “society’s wealth”? There’s my wealth and your wealth, and you’re already free to transfer your wealth to the poor, so what this really means is that you want to take wealth from some and give it to others. While this is a popular position as you describe it, I expect it to be less popular if shown as it really is – a forcible taking of some people’s wealth to be given away to strangers.

          • houseboatonstyxb says:

            @ Sivaas
            I would much prefer a discussion in which ” Lazarus shall rejoice when beholding your sufferings” is how we get mad at each other rather than standard insults. It feels way harder to take personally when it’s so eloquent.

            Why would anyone take it personally or seriously, except perhaps another Catholic?

            @ Chrysophylax

            That’s a logical approach, but keeping track of all those time periods would be a chore for Scott. It would be simpler if after a couple more Open Threads people are still making positive comments about her, to then apply mercy in whatever form.

          • Sivaas says:

            @houseboatonstyxb:

            Scott commented that D’s ban was in part because the insults she was making would stifle discussion because people would remember being badly insulted about the topic and think twice about bringing up the topic later.

            I’d argue that someone saying I will “be howling with the misery of the damned” is less stifling than being called a “fucking idiot”. Perhaps “taking it personally” was the wrong term, maybe just “actually being insulted”?

          • DavidS says:

            Agreed with others above that I’d hope to see D back: both because
            1) enjoyable posts to read
            2) different point of view
            3) at the ‘fair rules’ level: as others have said, I actually don’t think that post above is at all stifling of debate. It doesn’t feel dismissive or like it will make people feel excluded/harassed. Drama is much less damaging.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            We should carefully consider our desire to grant an exemption to the rules to somebody because we happen to like them.

            Rules don’t exist to punish people we don’t like. They exist to punish and prevent behavior. The moment you make the enforcement of the rules conditional on how you feel about the person, you are ceasing to punish behavior, and instead punishing people for not being likable enough.

          • Jaskologist says:

            @Orphan Wilde

            I agree with that, and I agree that D merited a punishment. I just don’t like the internet death penalty as the one punishment for everything. A temporary suspension seems more appropriate; she gets punished, has time to cool off and think about what she’s done, and everybody else sees that there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

            D is to my knowledge unique in the rationalist universe. And unique is always valuable. I’d hate for us to lose that.

          • Sivaas says:

            @Orphan Wilde:

            I agree with your sentiment: however, the common reaction here seemed to be that her ban was temporary, and the indefinite ban came as a shock to most people. This suggests that, insofar as we have come to understood Scott’s banning methods, that her permanent ban was unusual for the offense committed.

            From what I’ve read of the comments, indefinite bans tend to either be for exceptionally nasty comments that are completely irreconcilable with the site’s ideals, a history of temporary bans, or a constant pattern of toeing the line on what is or is not acceptable.

            D’s post certainly doesn’t seem like an example of the first, I don’t think she has the history of the second, and if her posting style is what Scott considers just barely on the line, this would be the first I’ve heard of it, and rather surprising.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            The difference is mens rea.

            Deiseach did not merely violate the rules – a mere violation might warrant a warning – but declared, as she broke the rules, that this violation of the rules was sufficiently important to her that she didn’t care about the consequences. She stated that a warning wouldn’t help, wouldn’t correct the behavior.

            There’s no “cooling off and thinking about what she’s done” – she knew what she was doing, when she did it. She made it abundantly clear that she knew what she was doing. More, there is a specific reason she went through the effort of making that clear – because she was declaring that she so despised Alsadius that she was willing to be banned to tell him how shitty he was. Her declaration of her foreknowledge was part of the insult she was very deliberately delivering, and was intended to magnify its impact upon its recipient.

            That is, in fact, irreconcilable with the site’s ideals.

            And it’s a shame that Deiseach did that, because she is, actually, one of the few commenters whose commentary I sought out here. But it was, in fact, Deiseach who did that, not Scott Alexander, and blaming Scott Alexander for meting out what was a wholly contextually-appropriate punishment is just discouraging what actually needs to be done to keep this the place it is.

          • Skivverus says:

            Count me as one more in favor of the ban being non-permanent. For that matter, for other similar offenses to be punished with similarly non-permanent bans, the duration of which may be left to Scott’s discretion.
            I do think that a prior record of insightful, civil posts should be a mitigating factor, though as someone who thinks his own posts also fit this description I’m probably biased.

          • gygax says:

            I thought it was clear that she didnt desrve to be banned because no one deserves anything

          • HeelBearCub says:

            As someone who is (sort-of) known for being the SSC-manners-scold, and someone who has asked Deiseach to tone it down a time or two, I’ll say I don’t think a permanent ban or indefinite ban is warranted.

            And it is because I don’t agree with Scott’s prediction on the likely effect of her behavior. I don’t think her going off on one of her patented rants is really likely to stop discourse, nor do I think this was her intention. Rather, she saw what she perceived to be an insult to the mandate to “be kind” and reacted to something she perceived as particularly wounding.

            I believe she works every day with those her are poor and comes from that background herself. (I could be wrong here, but I think that is correct.)

            Perhaps I am wrong, but generally I think this kind of reaction to something perceived as personally wounding is better than many of the alternatives. For example, I think that drive-by one-line snideness and mockery is much worse as a reaction.

            That said, Scott made the call he felt was necessary, and I can’t fault him for that.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            To all of you begging mercy for somebody who knew they were doing wrong, as they did wrong:

            That is not the correct place for mercy. Mercy does not exist to spare the people you love; that is mere nepotism. Mercy does not exist to spare the talented and skilled; that is stacking privilege on privilege. Mercy is an act of grace, the recognition of circumstances that mitigate the criminal nature and intent of an act.

            It is merciful to let a child who stole to eat free. It is merciful to let a prisoner of war drafted by his government to go home. It is merciful to stay the execution of a mentally handicapped person who didn’t know what they were doing.

            It is not merciful to give a rapist a short prison sentence. It is not merciful to spare an unrepentant serial killer an execution. It is not merciful to give a plagiarist journalist a second chance. It is not merciful to keep on a researcher who faked their data.

            Those things are injustices perpetrated against the innocent, perpetrated by those who don’t understand what mercy is, or why it exists.

            Do not curse Scott, nor his actions. Curse Deiseach, for making Scott’s actions necessary.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I’ve never bought into this idea that one is responsible for the actions authority takes against you. It removes all burden of responsibility from the authority.

            That said, it’s unreasonable to expect a reign of terror to have any virtue beyond inspiring terror.

          • Skivverus says:

            @Orphan Wilde

            Can only speak for myself here, but I am not asking for mercy. I am asking for non-infinite transgressions such as hers to be matched with equally non-infinite punishments.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            Call it compassion, instead of mercy, then? If mercy is only for the deserving (I’d call that justice, but whatever), then what is left for the rest of us?

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Assigning all responsibility to the authority means that the person who stands up against an evil authority has no courage. When you do a thing, knowing what will happen, you are responsible for what happens – both for good and for ill.

            Being banned isn’t “infinite punishment”, even if it were for perpetuity. That’s confused quantization.

            And it isn’t compassion, either. Cooperating with defectors is rewarding defection; you are actively making things worse for other people, by increasing the amount of social defection going on.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Whatever
            I believe the answer to “what’s left for the rest of us” would be “howling with the misery of the damned”.

            @Orphan Wilde
            Being able to foresee something does not make me responsible for it. If someone credibly promises to kill 6 kittens every time I post, the blood of those kittens is on them, not me for posting. The authority is a moral actor in its own right; its unforced actions are its own responsibility.

            I don’t see how that robs anyone of courage.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Orphan Wilde:
            Rigid and brittle go hand-in-hand.

          • Immortal Lurker says:

            @Scott I don’t know if you want this turning into a thread talking about how were all sad that D is gone, at least for a while. Your house, your rules, so feel free to take this post down.

            That being said, I’m sad that D is gone!

            D if you are reading, I want you know that I valued you quite highly as a member of the community. You brought a different perspective which enriched us all. You are a wise and cynical soul on a board filled with idealistic twenty somethings, such as myself.

            I was super excited when you replied to my first ever post here, and I almost enjoy reading your posts.

            @everyone else:
            Is there any other joint that D frequents?

          • keranih says:

            @ Orphan Wilde –

            Your definition of mercy is not mine. Mercy is not deserved – if the treatment was deserved, then that would be justice, not mercy.

            Mercy is granted despite the legitimacy of withholding it.

            And I hold that it is in the bounds of encouraging good behavior to plead for clemency for someone who has demonstrated merit and an ability to get along with people – it encourages people to make contributions of merit and to get along with other people.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            HBC –

            That is deep wisdom. Which is to say, it can mean anything, and signifies nothing.

            The Nybbler –

            This view is tenable only insofar as you do not have perfect foresight. Imagine, for a second, somebody with true foresight; somebody who knows what everyone will do conditional on their own actions. And they see somebody who is near their breaking point, and steal their coffee, pushing that person over the edge, and resulting in a later homicide. Are they guilty merely of theft?

            Deiseach did not argue “I suspect I will be banned for this, even though I shouldn’t be” – Deiseach knew she would be banned, because she knew she was violating Scott’s rules. Worse, in publicly noting that she was violating Scott’s rules, she obligated Scott to act, to preserve the sanctity of the rules.

            keranih –

            Your concept of mercy is merely injustice to those who were wronged. Those who were wronged might have the right to request clemency. You are merely requesting favoritism.

          • Nornagest says:

            It is not merciful to give a rapist a short prison sentence. It is not merciful to spare an unrepentant serial killer an execution. It is not merciful to give a plagiarist journalist a second chance. It is not merciful to keep on a researcher who faked their data.

            Only if your theory of virtue says it stops being mercy when it’s excessive, which strikes me as bad psychology. Exercising restraint when severity would have served you better feels a lot like exercising restraint when it wouldn’t have: in either case you’re likely to be feeling a lot of pity, and it’s not clear how much is too much. (Compare righteous indignation.)

            I prefer the school of thought where it is merciful, but not just, and mercy has to be balanced by justice and vice versa. That way you have an incentive to listen to the countervailing impulses that might be telling you it’s a bad idea.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            HBC –

            In response to your earlier comment, about how you understood Deiseach’s anger, how you could relate to it:

            Your ability to understand Deiseach’s anger, and thus justify her behavior, is not empathy. Everybody’s anger is justified within the context of their own experience; all anger is experienced personally. By granting Deiseach legitimacy in her rage, you are merely denying the legitimacy of personal experience to everyone else. Because you understand her anger, you think it meaningful; all anger, everywhere, is understood by somebody. That’s not an argument.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Nornagest –

            It’s not different in quantity, it’s different in quality. I used examples to attempt to demonstrate the difference between the two situations; I included a “jaywalking” plagiarist in there, and an unspecified but execution-worthy crime on the part of the mentally disabled person, to demonstrate that it isn’t the gravity of the crime in question.

            The difference in question is one of intent (mens rea), and intent is limited by capacity to understand the ramifications of one’s actions. The reason a warning is appropriate for somebody who is new here is that they don’t know they are violating a rule, they don’t know they are undermining the community which has been built here. Deiseach knew she was violating a rule, knew she was shitting on the community norms which have made SSC the place that it is – called out what she was doing as she was doing it, even – and then did what she did anyways.

            Again: Deiseach is one of the commenters whose commentary I sought out. Yes, you’re all right, her loss is, in a not-too-poignant way, tragic. But as far as this goes, as far as she decided that her rage was more important than the community all of you come here and enjoy?

            I’m not going to say exactly how that should be regarded, or how those of you who think your favorite people should be afforded special treatment should be regarded either. But if you want a shithole where the bloggers’ favorite people are allowed to be assholes to everyone else on a regular basis, well, the rest of the internet is out there. You come here because SSC is special, and part of what makes SSC special is that people here aren’t assholes to one another unnecessarily.

            A permanent ban is entirely appropriate, again, because Deiseach made it clear that being banned was worth it to her to be an asshole to somebody, which means she’ll do it again whenever it feels like it is worth doing.

          • Skivverus says:

            @Orphan Wilde

            I’m imagining someone with perfect foresight right now. Most of what they see is the cold and dark that’s left after the stars die. /facetious

            My point about the non-infinite punishment could be better phrased, I suppose, as one of proportionality: we consider speeding a lesser offense than running a red light, in turn a much lesser offense than running into another car or person – and in all these cases the response is not, necessarily, “you don’t ever get to drive again”, though it certainly can be “you don’t get to drive for the next X months”.

            Similarly, for the offense committed here, “you don’t ever get to post again” strikes me as a disproportionate penalty (and one that I’m fairly sure Scott is not actually imposing). “You don’t get to post again for the next X days/weeks” (internet time’s faster, after all) seems a more reasonable ballpark.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            For somebody who has decided getting banned is an acceptable price to pay for saying something terrible, all you’re doing is reducing the price for them to be terrible to people, rather than preventing terribleness.

            You want Deiseach here? Why here? What makes this community worth coming to, and why do you want Deiseach to be allowed to post here, specifically?

          • anon says:

            Scott Alexander and his banning policy aren’t supposed to embody divine justice.

            The purpose of the banning policy is to make the site a better place.
            Many here believe that the site is a better place if Deiseach is around.
            Therefore, a compromise is warranted.

            Don’t call it “compassion” or “mercy” for Deiseach. The compromise is for the sake of the site and its users.

          • Skivverus says:

            You want Deiseach here? Why here? What makes this community worth coming to, and why do you want Deiseach to be allowed to post here, specifically?

            Yes.
            Because here she has context, and a perspective demonstrated different from others’.
            The community here is worth coming to – to me, at least – precisely for its diversity of mostly-civil opinion on events and themes that elsewhere would devolve exclusively into shouting matches and strawmen, without being so colorless as to lose the shouting matches entirely (and don’t underestimate how long the righteous indignation from those shouting matches can last). It’d be a much duller board if it were restricted to “people with no triggers whatsoever” or “topics that won’t trigger anyone whatsoever”.

          • keranih says:

            I absolutely disagree that mercy is only due the deserving. And I disagree that mercy to the offender is necessarily depriving the victim of justice.

            You can say that I am wrong to ask for mercy for D when I ask it because of kinship, while I would not ask it for an out-tribe member. I can accept your condemnation here, and understand that this action will earn me scorn. So be it. I’ve done worse.

            However, that leaves aside the other two parts of my motivation – the past contributions and her future use. These positives are part of D’s character, as is the negative of her rude outburst. Like the rest of us, she is made of multiples.

            I want Scott to let D back because I think that we gain more from correcting bad behavior and giving the offender the opportunity to modify their behavior than we do from removing permanently all people who commit bad behavior. At the minimum, we will eventually reach a point where the population of the community is zero, because there is none of us without sin. More likely, we would stumble along for some time in a very boring and constrained manner, without the inspiration and stimulation of the chaotic edge.

          • Psmith says:

            Mercy does not exist to spare the people you love; that is mere nepotism.

            Guess I’m okay with nepotism, then.

            What makes this community worth coming to, and why do you want Deiseach to be allowed to post here, specifically?

            It’s full of people who post interesting things. Deiseach posts interesting things.

          • Acedia says:

            Fuck everyone’s high-minded ideals about mercy and justice, I want her back because I selfishly enjoy reading her posts.

          • anon says:

            Fuck everyone’s high-minded ideals about mercy and justice, I want her back because I selfishly enjoy reading her posts.

            This is what I was trying to say! Everyone wants her back for this reason. What’s the point of following the rules if it makes everyone unhappy? What are the rules for?

          • Alsadius says:

            FWIW, as the person D insulted in her post, I wasn’t offended by it. You’ll note how I replied. It was within norms for other forums I’ve spent time in which haven’t gone to hell. Your site, your rules, but I’m I’m pro-clemency, after some suitable temporary ban.

          • Matt M says:

            The rules in general are in place to keep the discussion relatively civil and prevent this place from turning into a giant cesspool of name-calling and general trolling.

            Rules also cease becoming “rules” if they are arbitrarily waived for certain people because they happen to be popular.

          • Agronomous says:

            I, for one, think the banning of D is awesome—I’ve been trying to kick the SSC-comments habit for a long, long time, and eliminating one of the most prolific and interesting (because sometimes she’s wrong) commenters might at least get me to my 7-day chip. Any chance you can ban HeelBearCub, John Schilling, David Friedman, and onyomi while you’re at it, Scott? (Oh, and un-ban the anonymous account?)

            One other possible positive result is that she finally gets her own blog. Fun fact: Voldebug started his blog when Arnold Kling told him to “Get Your Own Blog” instead of putting posts in Arnold’s comments section.

            And, finally, maybe she’ll take the time she can no longer spend commenting here and use it to write a short story. (Long shot, but I can dream.)

            Anyway, rock on, Reign of Terror Scott!

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Skivverus –

            “The community here is worth coming to – to me, at least – precisely for its diversity of mostly-civil opinion on events and themes that elsewhere would devolve exclusively into shouting matches and strawmen”

            You can have one of two things. You can have a mostly-civil community, or you can have exemptions granted for people who violate the rules of that community. You can’t have both.

            (I see the other responses. They bore me. Ultimately they come down to “But she deserves special treatment”)

          • keranih says:

            She deserves special treatment.

            Eh.

            First off, the rules are don’t piss off Scott. The rules are not hard and fast or able to be debated in the court – I note that no one has presented actual previous ban-worthy posts in support or opposition of banning D. We aren’t arguing evidence because a) this isn’t evidence based and b) (more to the point) nobody is arguing that what she did wasn’t ban worthy. (*)

            We’re past the guilty/not guilty part, and at sentencing. Which is where we have traditionally applied various standards – some of which are not applicable here, because D is not available to come forward and declare herself repentant or not. This is the appropriate place, I think, for people to come forward and suggest that keeping the offender around – despite their offense – is worth it.

            Again, I think this is something we want to encourage – the contribution of stuff to the community at such a level that when a fault occurs –

            – and come on, we’re all going to fail at basic human decency at some point –

            – the community assessment is that we’re still on the positive side.

            That’s the point of the rules, to clearly lay out what gets you positive points vs negative ones.

            (*) Except for Alsadius, who was the victim and hence hopelessly biased so we’re ignoring that (/sarc)

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Keranih –

            No. The rules are, in short, “Don’t be a dick.” Deiseach decided to be a dick, and knew she was being a dick; there was no ambiguity, as is made abundantly clear by the fact that she said she knew she’d probably get banned.

            And to reiterate: She made it quite clear she’d rather be banned than not be a dick to people. There is no way to have a community in which people generally aren’t dicks to people while also allowing people who make it clear they will choose to be dicks to people regardless of the consequences.

          • Skivverus says:

            @Orphan Wilde

            There is no way to have a community in which people generally aren’t dicks to people while also allowing people who make it clear they will choose to be dicks to people regardless of the consequences.

            Citation needed.

            Also, as a former moderator (and current lurker) on a gaming forum, experience suggests a more gradual tradeoff curve: broadly, you have trolls and spammers, who can be slowed but not stopped by account bans, and you have ordinary community members who occasionally get pissed off at each other. There’s no clear line between “ordinary community member” and “troll”, but a permanent account ban is only likely to work to the degree that the target is an ordinary commmunity member and not a troll – that is, it disproportionately shuts out exactly the people you don’t want it to.
            Gun rights debaters may recognize a certain parallel here.

            Again, though, I am not advocating for her to receive a lighter-than-average sentence; I am advocating for the average sentence to be lighter-than-forever-in-internet-time. So, strictly speaking, we might not actually disagree at all here.

          • John Schilling says:

            @Orphan: No. The rules are, in short, “Don’t be a dick.” Deiseach decided to be a dick, and knew she was being a dick;

            Whereas you apparently don’t know that you are being a dick, subspecies “poor winner”. Now you know.

          • Homo Iracundus says:

            it’s unreasonable to expect a reign of terror to have any virtue beyond inspiring terror.

            I couldn’t say it any better, so I’ll just repeat it.
            Have fun destroying your community piecemeal. It’s hilarious how poorly thought out most “rationalist” decisions are in practice.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            @John Schilling –

            How did I win?

            One of three people whose comments I routinely seek out was banned, and for good reason. I’d love to be able to argue that Deiseach didn’t deserve it, but she clearly did; winning would either have been that business not happening at all, or Scott making an error and rectifying it.

            Not to mention that my personal philosophy is that personal insults are just an opportunity to sink into the mud and shove other people’s faces in it, and I despise rules and authority in the general case, so I’m not even arguing for the sort of community -I- enjoy, which pretty much none of you would want to visit.

            So pretty much everything about this is anti-win for me. I’m arguing the side I’m arguing because I think it is correct, not because I find it to even vaguely resemble “winning”.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            A bit late to the party, but I’d like to add my voice to those calling for D’s ban to be commuted to a suspension. I think that letting the occasional angry post slide will ultimately have a much smaller negative effect on discussion standards than removing one of the most interesting and articulate non-geeky, blue tribe, atheist posters will.

            Plus, Alsadius, the poster whom she actually insulted, said he wasn’t offended by it, which surely ought to carry a fair bit of wait when making these sorts of decisions.

        • Sigivald says:

          ACtually, mentioning flophouses brings up a point I wanted to make.

          If we’re worse at this kind of thing today than in 1900, maybe the extra is just compensating for those sorts of problems.

          In 1900, a poor single person could live in a room with a few other people and basically have just a place to sleep and some clothes and something to eat off of.

          In 2016, well, zoning prohibits that kind of density; at most you might legally be able to have three roommates in a two-bed apartment, making the cost of having shelter far higher.

          To put it roughly, “imposing middle-class minimum standards on people via zoning means they have to have middle-class incomes to live”.

          (This cannot be the entire story, of course, but it seems undeniably part of it; see also FB meme claims of “FDR’s 1935 living wage”, which in adjustment for inflation appears to be about $4.50 an hour.

          That’s not as bad if your rent is 1/3 of what it would be now because you’re living in a glorified and not very luxuriously appointed dormitory, rather than with a single roommate.

          Or, in yet other words, “not living communally used to be a luxury consumption good for urbanites”.)

    • Xerxes says:

      If one claims that one cannot save money, and yet on analysis it turns out that this claim is based on the claimant’s refusal to execute on a plan that others are seen able to execute on, this casts severe doubt on such a claim.

      And then, seeing someone hotly declaim that they somehow have a right to not live under such conditions does nothing but confirm the notion that for many people, persistent poverty is a self-inflicted wound. And modern politics tells them it’s not their fault, it’s the evil people who succeed, and they must be made to pay.

      • Wrong Species says:

        I think what Deiseach doesn’t understand is that it’s not only those with millionaire parents who think the poor who should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s also the people who have experienced similar situations. It doesn’t require financial austerity or super intelligence to escape poverty. It just takes a little discipline. I know a guy who worked retail for most of his life and ended up retiring in a nice house because he knew how to save. It’s not that difficult and it’s why I have problems feeling that much sympathy for the poor.

        • g says:

          I think it’s easy for “those with millionaire parents” to overlook how much more difficult that “little discipline” can be for some people in long-term poverty.

          Yes, it’s possible. Yes, poor people would on the whole do well to do it. But it can be really bloody hard, and the people advocating “just a little discipline” may be underestimating this for various reasons.

          Perhaps they themselves find it easy to live well below their means, and don’t appreciate how much more difficult doing that becomes as the means in question reduce.

          Perhaps they’ve existed for a while in conditions of poverty and not found it so bad, but don’t appreciate that “poor but with an obvious path forward” is much less demoralizing than “poor with no visible prospect of improvement”.

          Perhaps they haven’t been poor for long enough to experience how poverty itself can sap one’s will and health and motivation.

          Perhaps their experience of poverty has been the result of some transient thing that did them no other harm, so they haven’t thought hard about what happens when the same thing that made you poor keeps you that way. A long-standing health condition that makes you less able to work effectively and costs you money. A messed-up family situation that takes every bit of mental energy you have.

          Living below your means and saving works really well for the “Mr Money Mustache” demographic. It’s worked really well for me. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who can do it. I recommend it at least halfheartedly even to those who think they can’t — it may be easier than they imagine. But there is something indecent about comfortably-off people for whom saving half the money they earn leaves them able to eat healthily, provide their families with shelter, go about as normal-looking members of society, and generally have a pretty good time, preaching this gospel to people who have already tried to cut their spending to the bone. Probably some of those people can, in fact, spend less and save more. They probably should. But it’s going to be much, much harder for them than it has ever been for most of the people giving them that advice, and even compound interest isn’t going to transform the small amounts they can save into anything terribly impressive.

          If you think it’s “not that difficult”, and you see many many thousands of people apparently unable to do it, perhaps you should consider the possibility that it’s more difficult than it looks to you. Even if that means you might have to have some sympathy for the impoverished after all.

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            Except, I’ve also seen quite a number of people do it successfully.

            My father was one of them. He immigrated here as a kid and grew up saw-his-first-dentist-at-age-20 poor in one of the worst neighborhoods in Manhattan. Hell, his family was poor even back in Europe: his legs and arms were stunted from a childhood famine.

            I get that it’s hard: I can’t come close to matching my dad’s work ethic and I’m not nearly as frugal. But people saying that it’s impossible or requires herculean effort to live within your means and put money away get little sympathy from me because I grew up watching him do it every day of my childhood.

            That’s why the “glib rich people hate the poor” meme always rang hollow to me. The harshest criticism of the poor I’ve heard has always come from immigrants and others who pulled themselves out of poverty: their confusion and disgust that anyone could stay poor in a place so full of opportunity.

          • The Nybbler says:

            But there is something indecent about comfortably-off people for whom saving half the money they earn leaves them able to eat healthily, provide their families with shelter, go about as normal-looking members of society, and generally have a pretty good time, preaching this gospel to people who have already tried to cut their spending to the bone.

            This sense of indecency is a quirk of American society, and one which ought to go away. If the advice works if followed, there’s nothing indecent about preaching it.

            The sense of indecency is there to prevent any suggestions for doing something about poverty other than redistribution.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            My parents were born dirt-poor. They worked low-paying but professional jobs. I didn’t need “millionaire parents” to learn to not spend money.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            It’s not like you can will yourself to have more discipline. Conscientiousness is one of those personality traits that doesn’t change a lot during your lifetime.

            Dr. Dealgood and Edward Scizorhands, how do you know your experiences are typical? Maybe there is a selection effect and the sons of the normal poor parents (who didn’t escape from poverty) aren’t hanging out on the slatestarcodex comment sections.

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            @SaintFiasco,

            Atypical in what sense? I’m not sure whether you mean that it’s atypical for people who budget and save to rise out of poverty, or that it’s atypical for poor people to budget and save in the first place. And those are two rather different statements.

            I’d say that the former is false and the latter is regrettably true. Obviously you can get your savings wiped out by sudden crises even if you’ve been careful, but they have to be a lot bigger (and consequently, are rarer) the more you’ve squirreled away over the years. And you really can put away quite a large sum of money with patience and temperance even on a modest income.

            As for conscientiousness, I’ll agree with you in terms of denotation but not connotation. Yes, the willingness to delay gratification is from my understanding highly heritable and largely fixed by adulthood. But I don’t see why a character trait becomes less ethically relevant because of that: if some people actually are more disciplined by upbringing or inclination, then that doesn’t at all diminish the importance of discipline. A vice isn’t any less vicious or a virtue any less virtuous because of a genetic or cultural predisposition to it.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I wasn’t saying my experience was typical. I was saying it happened, which is something that many people try to deny.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            @Dr Dealgood

            I don’t see why a character trait becomes less ethically relevant because of that

            Some people say that telling poor people that they should do some weird metaphorical thing with their bootstraps is a mean thing to do but is necessary because otherwise you are complicit in them staying poor. You have to be mean to them to give them motivation or something.

            If however conscientiousness is innate, then telling poor people to stop being poor already is just being mean for no reason. They still have vices but their vices are more like being fat than like being a smoker: shaming them won’t change anything.

            I know people who were born poor and aren’t poor anymore and others who are still poor, but I don’t know enough about their habits and vices to have a strong opinion in the issue. I’m just curious. I myself am third-world-middle-class, which is a different kind of poverty than people usually discuss around here.

            @Edward Scizorhands

            I think people believe your experience denotationally but not connotationally. Like me, they suspect you are a special case, which comes across as denying the relevance and importance of your lived experience.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Saint Fiasco:

            I’ve twigged on something in your post and am starting a new comment tree.

          • I am the Tarpitz says:

            There are things I find easy which perhaps 90 or 95% of people could not do with any amount of effort, and most of the remainder would find hard. I imagine the same (albeit in regards to different things) is true of many SSC readers. I think it’s fairly clear that ease in the behaviours required to give oneself a good chance of escaping poverty is not so rare as this. But suppose that 60% of people would find it easy to escape poverty, and another 20% hard but possible, and a final 20% impossible. And suppose, too, that at least some part of this was genetic – over generations (and perhaps not very many generations) people born into poverty might be disproportionately likely to be part of the final 20%. The behaviours might be, in some meaningful sense, very easy (and recommending them a good idea) but there would still be a great many people unable to escape from poverty. Deserve got nothing to do with it, as Clint once said, but I think substantially helping those people is worth the associated cost in promoting sub-optimal behaviour.

          • g says:

            Dr Dealgood, I don’t at all deny that quite a number have done it successfully. I just say it’s harder than it looks, and harder for some than for others. (And I’m not at all saying that “glib rich people hate the poor”. At most, that some glib rich people misunderstand some poor people and their situation.)

            The Nybbler, it seems unlikely that my sense of “indecency” is a quirk of American society since I am in the UK. But, for the avoidance of doubt, let me clarify that I do not think it is indecent to say that saving is good and people should do it and it may be less impossible than it looks: you may notice that I said all those things myself. But when rich people are saying it, and when it’s being said to poor people, and still more when both apply, it could and should be said more tactfully and with more understanding that it may, in fact, be terribly hard for some.

            Edward Scizorhands, congratulations.

          • Mary says:

            “If however conscientiousness is innate, then telling poor people to stop being poor already is just being mean for no reason. ”

            Why? If personality traits are innate, no doubt the impulse to tell them so is also innate. Smearing it as “just being mean for no reason” is just being mean for no reason.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            @Mary

            Not sure if you were being serious but personality traits like conscientiousness change little during a person’s life, while behaviors like telling poor people to stop being poor is something that can change a lot over time.

            I could be convinced on consequentialist grounds (in this very thread) that I should expect more from poor people and not be so condescending. It’s hard for me to even imagine someone convincing me to be more or less conscientious.

          • Mary says:

            By that logic, people are mean to say that the poor are not conscientious, but can freely criticize any given act that is not conscientious, from spending money on impulse, quitting jobs, arriving late at work after being warned, etc. without being mean.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            @Mary

            I’m not explaining it well. The issue isn’t whether it’s mean or not, the issue is whether it has a positive effect on the problems we complain about. If telling poor people to stop being poor doesn’t help solve poverty, then the meanness is meaningless.

            It’s possible that telling poor people they should keep a budget and be punctual actually makes them more likely to do those things, in which case we should do that, but it’s also possible that it just makes them go ‘you insensitive prick, you think I arrive late to work because I want to? I can’t afford a car or a place closer to work, I have to work several jobs that are far from each other, you don’t know what it’s like, yadda yadda yadda…’ in which case we should not do that, because it only makes us feel better without actually solving the problem.

          • Mary says:

            Same applies to telling those people that they are being mean.

      • cypher says:

        Xerxes > “and yet on analysis it turns out that this claim is based on the claimant’s refusal to execute on a plan that others are seen able to execute on, this casts severe doubt on such a claim.”

        It looks simple. It sounds simple. But that’s because it’s pulling in a lot of assumptions about human willpower, mental illness, health, and other things that are actually much more complicated and not stating those assumptions.

        • Xerxes says:

          “Get your shit together,” as a simple heuristic, is quite effective in a wide number of cases. “I have a condition,” while often true, does not negate the effectiveness of the heuristic. Do I care about the complex neurological reasons for someone’s racism, or graft, or murder?

          No, I do not. Get your shit together. Can’t? We’ll make sure the harm you do is minimized.

          • cypher says:

            For murder, you have to lock them up, it’s simply too dangerous otherwise.

            But for things like mental illness, the command “get your shit together”, like it’s that bloody easy, is just not that feasible. Most people would if they could. Being mentally ill is not fun. It hurts.

            So for things like welfare, and twisted enjoyment people seem to get from shouting “get your shit together”, I have trouble caring what the shouters think, outside of practical concerns.

            And, having seen how so-called “willpower” and “stick-to-it-tiveness” can be altered pharmacologically, I suspect that a lot of it is actually biological, and the Type-As are just the ones that got the luck of the draw.

            Edit: And of course, for practical reasons, I’d love if we could patch those biological factors, but that’s just not feasible yet. Should be within the next 100 years or so, however. Will probably be a bit of a rude awakening to certain ideologies at that time.

          • Xerxes says:

            You had to import “twisted enjoyment” and “shouting.”

            Policies should be, generally, “get your shit together.” It does not need to be 100% effective in all cases to be the best general policy. I have a mental illness. Coddling me is not the solution.

            I don’t care if it’s luck of the genetic draw, or willpower or what. It is the general policy that seems to get the best results. Yes, we can take care of other cases. Blanket “oh poor thing” policies are rubbish, and have produced misery and helplessness.

            If they cannot get their shit together, then we have to do something. What exactly that thing is depends upon circumstances.

    • Anonymous says:

      The Scott Sumner one irritates the ever-living fuck out of me because it’s basically “If you’re poor, pull yourselves up by your bootstraps! If you’re not prepared to live six to a room on gruel and sock away every spare cent, then it’s your own fault!”

      It’s hardly someone’s fault to be born with the advantages and disadvantages one is born with. Blaming them for it is inappropriate. But does it, in large part, explain their circumstances? Yes.

      Live in grinding poverty, save save save, haul yourselves out by your bootstraps, or else you are plainly dumb, ignorant, lazy and too selfish to do anything, i.e. the undeserving poor who should be left to stew in their own juices.

      Being poor is not evil. Indeed, is not the Kingdom of Heaven for them?

      (Yes, I’m bloody angry about this. I’m not going to do an imitation of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, but I’ve lived in conditions that no, I would not go back to, even if it meant I could save €€€€ and then aspire to a middle-class lifestyle of luxuries like heating and indoor plumbing. I don’t think I need to prove I deserve a certain level of basic amenities).

      Don’t you?

    • Anon says:

      There’s something that people tend to forget in these type of discussions and that’s that you don’t need to live at the shown level of lifestyle to save more.

      There is most likely no need for you to live in a small box without heating and electricity and eating the cheapest food per calorie.

      What would help, on the other hand, is taking your lifestyle and dropping it one level. Instead of pre-sliced cheese of (I dunno american cheese prices) $8 per kilogram you buy a cheese-slicer of $10 that will go one or more years and big blocks of unsliced cheese for $5 per kilogram. Instead of a 75 inch 3D TV you take a 65 inch regular plasma tv. Instead of driving a 2010 car of $15000 you drive a 2005 car of $5000 (debatable, this one, w /regards to warranty).

      Heck, instead of buying the $3 meat everyday, you buy the discount-of-the-week meat of $2.

      And you can save money like that without placing yourself in inhumane conditions. Not everyone has the option and for some life will suck, but there is no need to directly drop yourself to the level where your diet can no longer contain meat and your toilet isn’t in your house.

      • Alsadius says:

        This. My routine financial advice on the Internet is that unless you’re literally living at subsistence level, someone is living with 10% less than you are. Spend like they do, and save the difference.

      • Anonymous says:

        Heck, instead of buying the $3 meat everyday, you buy the discount-of-the-week meat of $2.

        Or, hell, start eating eggs instead. Might even be better for your health, since modern people eat far too much meat (our recent ancestors who weren’t filthy rich ate meat something like once a week or even once a month (I recall a funny saying – if the farmer is eating broth, that means that either him or the chicken is ill)).

      • multiheaded says:

        “Instead of a 75 inch 3D TV you take a 65 inch regular plasma tv. Instead of driving a 2010 car of $15000 you drive a 2005 car of $5000 (debatable, this one, w /regards to warranty)….

        …And you can save money like that without placing yourself in inhumane conditions.”

        Dude, that’s like… isomorphic to saying that you can party all the time and still end up a millionaire – if you started out as a billionaire.

        • Anon says:

          Some people buy new cars. They’re laughed at by people who buy 5 year old cars – ha, you get the latest crap, sure, but modern cars already have all the stuff you could need, and a 5 year old car doesn’t plummet in value as hard as a new car!

          Some people buy 5 year old cars. They’re laughed at by people who buy 10 year old cars – ha, you pay a whopping chunk of change to get features you weren’t going to use anyway – I got navigation on my phone – all I need a car to do is drive and have air conditioning for in the summers!

          Some people buy 10 year old cars. They’re laughed at by people who don’t get why you’d first spend a fortune on drivers lessons, and then another fortune on buying a car, when you could just take public transit and, you know, sleep or read or do whatever! Haha, look at them morons stuck in traffic everyday!

          And they get laughed at by the people who buy new cars, because come on, everyone knows public transit sucks. Look at my fancy new car! It can practically almost drive itself!

        • Jiro says:

          There’s a difference between “someone is suffering” and “someone is suffering horribly (usually with the connotation that it imposes an obligation on someone else)”. I don’t consider having a too-small TV to fall in the latter category.

          EAs tend to think suffering is fungible. Most people are not EAs.

      • Svejk says:

        Years ago, I had the occasion to observe a job training skills course for the working poor. The attendees were largely individuals who had passed the training to become a nurse’s aid or auto repair tech or something similar, but needed to complete complementary training in soft skills, budgeting, home economics, etc.
        What struck me most were the sessions on home economics: budgeting for meals, performing minor household repairs, arranging one’s schedule to ensure timeliness. It became apparent that most of the attendees had received absolutely none of the survival skills training that I took for granted: they did not know where to go to buy cheap brown rice by the kilo, and used Instant Rice instead; they did not know how to soak beans, or how to combine those beans with rice for a complete protein; they did not know how to replace the trap under the sink; or what the dipstick in the car was for. No one had told them, and these basic life skills were essentially ‘unknown unknowns’. They had virtually zero cultural capital, and were paying through the nose for this deficiency.
        Secondly, I realised what a gamble the precariously employed take on a car: an unreliable car can be absolutely devastating, and the poor are disproportionately exposed to the information asymmetries of the used-car market.
        It also struck me that the working poor pay huge time premiums over a wide range of activities: paying for convenience to gain travel time or childcare time, paying for the inability to time-shift certain consumption patterns, paying for the support services necessary to work a night shift or a split shift in lieu of a reliable kin network.
        Obviously, this was a small slice of the poor population, but it helped me to appreciate the achievements of those who escape poverty.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          If someone showed that training the poor in this helped, I would donate my own money to support the classes, and/or the basic equipment (a pot) to get them started.

          • Skivverus says:

            I do seem to recall reading about a study on sustained charity – two years or so of follow-up in teaching wealth-generating habits (involving chickens, as I understand it), which apparently was enough time for the “hand up” to stick.
            Likely someone more skeptical about it than I should investigate, but it certainly seems plausible to me that charity should be bundled with solutions that allow the individuals so helped to avoid requiring further charity.

        • I am the Tarpitz says:

          they did not know where to go to buy cheap brown rice by the kilo

          Nor me.

          and used Instant Rice instead

          No idea what that is.

          they did not know how to soak beans, or how to combine those beans with rice for a complete protein

          You have to soak beans? What kind of beans? What’s a complete protein?

          they did not know how to replace the trap under the sink

          I didn’t know there was a trap under the sink. If the sink is blocked, I pour toxic-sounding chemicals down it without investigating too carefully what they are or what they do.

          what the dipstick in the car was for

          Ok, this I know. This does indeed sound like a dangerous thing not to know.

          I’ve lived in (near-central) London on the income of a call-centre worker. You can eat pretty damn cheaply buying frozen/tinned crap from Tesco. Are beans and rice more of a dietary staple and/or frozen/tinned crap more expensive where you are? I’m also not from anything resembling a poor background; the pieces of knowledge you mention do not strike me as ones a middle class person in Britain (and by extension other first world countries) should automatically be expected to have.

          • Alsadius says:

            Am I weird for living in a place where there are 8-kilo sacks of rice for like $15 are in every grocery store? There’s not even a huge Asian population in my neighbourhood.

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            Well the bit about beans and rice is either a Southwest thing or posturing. In terms of complete protein, peanut butter sandwiches on wheat bread adds up to the same thing: you’re not missing any key amino acids in your diet either way.

            The point either way is to avoid the tinned and frozen crap, because pound-for-pound it’s orders of magnitude more expensive and much worse for you health-wise. And while the tinned goods at least will keep, it’s a lot harder to store frozen food in bulk.

          • Randy M says:

            I first heard of soaking beans reading the Weston Price website a few years ago. I think most traditional food preparation techniques have been lost, due to modern shiny futuristic methods being seen as superior in the, say, 60’s – 80’s.
            Also, a lot of household maintenance techniques are not explicitly taught ime. It’s expected children will either pick up the vitals though osmosis or go to college and get a job where they don’t have to muck around with dipsticks and drains.

          • keranih says:

            cheap brown rice

            Perhaps a bit regional – buying that much rice (5kg/10lb) in the SE USA requires either a family of at least 5 or a fridge/freezer to keep it in – bugs will eat it otherwise. But yes, one would have to look very hard to find a county so insular as to not have an ethnic grocer who sold rice in huge bags.

            Instant Rice

            Pre-cooked dehydrated white rice. A cousin of mashed potato flakes, and of microwave oatmeal, bisquick pancake mix, womp-wop biscuits, and breakfast cereal that comes in a plastic bowl with a paper seal. Add hot water = something like food. Very low effort meals, with lower nutrition.

            soaking beans

            If you buy beans in a can – these are not green beans, which are a fresh or frozen vegetable, but are instead one of a variety of dried peas – cowpeas, blackeyed peas, navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, I have no clue why some are beans and some are peas – they are already cooked. You are paying for the processing and transport of the water. And the tin can. But if you buy instead the dried sort – generally in a plastic bag – they are nearly as shelf stable as the canned sort (again, bugs) and MUCH cheaper.

            They are much cheaper because cooking dried beans takes a bit of time. Some require simmering for up to 10-12 hours. If you soak the beans in an equal weight of water for 4 to 8 hours (ie, over night) and then put them on to simmer in the morning, they cook much faster (6 to 8 hours.)

            complete protein

            There are a number of amino acids which make up protein as a food stuff. These amino acids are available in different quantities in different types of food. Different species of animals need different combinations to survive. For example, cats must have taurine, but dogs don’t, because dogs can synthesize that amino acid. Cats fed just dog food develop heart malfunctions as a result of this deficiency. Animal sources (meat, milk, eggs) have all the amino acids humans need. Plant sources, however, tend to be extremely short on several AAs. To make a “complete protein”, traditional diets tend to pair certain plant foods (like rice and beans or cornmeal and beans) that together hit all the essential amino acids.

            trap under the sink

            Housing code in the USA calls for a S-shaped curve below all drains. This prevents nasty smells from the sewer leaking out (water collects in the curve and is held there until the sink/tub/toilet is emptied again.) Other things collect there as well, and because of the curve/multiple pieces, it can drip. Replacing it is…something plumbers make their helpers do while the plumber waits in the truck and checks email.

            the pieces of knowledge you mention do not strike me as ones a middle class person in Britain (and by extension other first world countries) should automatically be expected to have.

            *sigh* I think that this is mostly because we got rid of home ec classes because that was sexist. There could be other reasons.

          • Eric Rall says:

            Around here (Sunnyvale, California), you can get 20 pound bags of cheap uncooked rice at Costco and at most supermarkets.

            “Instant rice” is rice that has been cooked and then dehydrated, so it can be reconstituted by soaking in hot water for a few minutes. It’s more expensive and not quite as good as cooking uncooked rice directly, but it’s a bit faster and it’s harder to screw up. “Uncle Ben’s Minute Rice” is probably the most recognizable brand.

            Uncooked beans in the US can be bought canned or dried. Canned beans are used directly (just throw it into the pot with your other ingredients as you’re cooking). Dried beans cook faster and more evenly if you soak them first (put them in a pot with about twice as much volume of water as beans and let it sit overnight). You can use them without soaking them, but you need to adjust recipes that assume soaked or canned beans (double the cook time and add enough water to compensate for what the beans will absorb). Dried beans are much cheaper than canned, are easier to carry home from the store because you’re not carrying the water weight, and they take up a bit less space in the pantry.

            This applies to most kinds of whole mature beans (black beans, pinto beans, garbanzos, kidney beans, navy beans, etc), but not immature bean pods sold as fresh produce (green beans, string beans, snap beans, French beans, etc). One exception is that very small beans such as lentils and split peas are often used directly because they reconstitute so quickly during cooking — most recipes will specify whether or not to soak before cooking.

            “Complete protein” is a meal that contains relatively balanced amounts of the nine essential amino acids. There are 22 amino acids that the human body uses to make protein. The body can synthesize most of them from an adequate supply of organic nitrogen, but lacks the enzymes to synthesize the nine essential amino acids, which thus must be obtained from dietary sources to avoid malnutrition. Animal protein sources (meat, eggs, dairy products) are all complete proteins, but plant-based proteins usually aren’t. An easy rule of thumb for ensuring you get complete protein from a mostly-vegetarian diet is to pair cereal grain based foods (wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, etc) with legume based foods (beans, peas, peanuts, etc), since legumes provide the subset of amino acids that cereal grains lack.

            Under your sink, there should be a pipe which dips down and back up in a U shape before disappearing into the wall or connecting to a vertical pipe (or curving back down in the floor, if you have older plumbing in your house). The U-shaped section is the “trap” — its purpose is to trap some water to form a barrier against sewer gasses coming back into your house through the drain and stinking the place up. It also tends to collect bits of hair and other solid bits over time. One of the standard quick fixes for a blocked or slow drain is to unfasten the trap and clean it out by hand — it’s a separate piece for precisely this reason. Make sure you put a bucket under it before unfastening it, to catch the water in the trap and any water that’s backed up into the sink. This is also a handy way to retrieve jewelry or other small, heavy valuables that accidentally get dropped down the drain — their weight usually makes them settle at the bottom of the trap.

            Beans and rice are a traditional dietary staple in Mexican cuisine which have been adopted into southern and western US regional diets, and the nutritionally-similar combinations of beans and cornbread (a quickbread made with cornmeal) or beans and grits (a thick cornmeal porridge similar to polenta) are traditional staples in the southeast. They’re dirt cheap in bulk (much cheaper than prepared frozen or canned meals), very shelf-stable, are quick and easy to prepare if you know what you’re doing, and are more nutritious than most other similarly-cheap food options.

          • Svejk says:

            The bit about beans and rice is neither a southwest thing nor posturing, but a particular example to illustrate the point that certain ways of dramatically reducing your expenses while eating healthily and maintaining your abode/vehicle were wholly unknown to a population that could really benefit from the knowledge, for cultural reasons. I used the example of beans and rice because it is especially cheap and healthy with a long shelf life (Brown rice sealed well can last for at least 3 months before the oils go off, white rice keeps indefinitely), can be dressed up in myriad ways, and was a traditional African American food and scrounge staple just a few generations ago. My experience suggests that in its place you can substitute almost any home ec skill you find invaluable. Of course many people no longer have this knowledge; the point is that now it is more likely to be found in persons having a middle-class upbringing or recent immigrant background – and exposure to inter-generational knowledge transfer – than in the poor.

          • keranih says:

            I would like to note (and hang my head in shame) that three of us have discussed cooking dried beans and none of us mentioned how much better it is if the beans are cooked with a bit of pig.

            Pork trotters. It’s what makes beans worth the eating.

          • Alsadius says:

            Svejk: Yeah, until I got together with my second-generation Chinese immigrant fiancee, the idea of cooking rice from scratch seemed insane to me. To me, rice came in those one-minute microwave bags – if I wanted to spend longer than that on starch, I’d make potatoes. (Why yes, a big chunk of my family is Irish, why do you ask?)

          • Svejk says:

            Again, the point was not about the availability of kilo sacks of rice, but the fact that these sacks, and similar strategies, were entirely off the radar of this community. But they were obviously part of the upbringing of the upper-middle class volunteer leading the course. This is a different type of poverty.

          • Anonymous says:

            The thing is, that kind of knowledge isn’t necessary in the US. The SNAP guidelines for a single individual are $194/month. That’s little enough money that you probably shouldn’t try to go atkins, but you don’t need to worry about how to get complete proteins from plants. That’s plenty of money to have some meat everyday — chicken, pork, canned fish, even some beef. Not to mention eggs and dairy.

            Posturing is exactly the right word for this whole digression about rice and beans.

          • “and none of us mentioned how much better it is if the beans are cooked with a bit of pig.”

            Our favorite lentil recipe is from a medieval Islamic cookbook.

          • Svejk says:

            Posturing is exactly the right word for this whole digression about rice and beans.
            Anonymous, I mentioned rice to continue a line of thought found in the parent comments advising the poor to buy bulk cheese and cheaper meat. The course trainer years ago thought there were savings to be had in the grocery budget, and the trainees appeared to appreciate the advice; food benefits were more fungible in practice in the recent past, and this group aspired to move off of government assistance – that was the point of the course. Apparently rice and beans was too specific an example; I was trying (inartfully, it appears) to make a point about cultural capital, and its uneven modern distribution, in a way that might be relevant to our discussion of poverty. We have, in this thread, pondered why it was easier to live cheaply in the past, and why immigrants don’t seem to fall into these traps. If you are resource-stressed, certain skills and knowledge can serve as a resource substitute. Being able to time warp yourself into the early 1900s as a cost-saving measure requires these skills.

          • keranih says:

            @ David –

            And here I give praise to the Most Merciful, who saw fit to make me a Christian born in the South.

            And then He made me a Catholic, so I would have 40 days out of the year to remind me what I was missing.

          • anodognosic says:

            If you soak the beans in an equal weight of water for 4 to 8 hours (ie, over night) and then put them on to simmer in the morning, they cook much faster (6 to 8 hours.)

            Do people not know about pressure cookers?

          • keranih says:

            I have found it far easier to get people to use a microwave than a pressure cooker. (As previously noted, risk assessment is nonrational.)

            Also – I can get a large bowl and a slow cooker at (nearly) any thrift store in the nation for under $10. A trust worthy pressurecooker, nsm.

          • onyomi says:

            I have an accomplished Indian cook friend (cooks a lot of beans/lentils) who swears by the pressure cooker, though I’ve never gotten around to trying it. I guess I just worry about it exploding or something? Plus, I grew up making red beans and rice by just cooking it forever and that worked fine for me dagnabit… (actually, I’ve been meaning to try a pressure cooker for this purpose at some point but haven’t gotten around to it).

          • anodognosic says:

            A Presto with all the safety features you need runs about $ 30 new, and you save on electricity.

            @onyomi I grew up in a pressure cooker culture, and it seems insane to me to take 8 hours to cook something that need only take about an hour including warm-up and cool-down. And injuries are vanishingly rare, especially with the safety features of the newer models.

          • Nornagest says:

            What does simmering something for four to six hours cost in gas/electricity? Anyone have a ballpark figure?

            I’ve gone through periods where I had something on the stove most days, and I didn’t notice much difference in my utility bills, but I wasn’t looking very hard.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Googling got me this factoid:

            This means that using a conventional electric oven for one hour can cost around 20 cents while operating a crock pot for 7 hours costs only 10 cents – an energy savings of 50%.

            Obviously a lot of factors come into play if you want an exact number, but it’s still going to be pretty small.

          • Alex says:

            Re: Beans

            From the back of my head I would think that my local supermarket prices for dried beans vs. canned beans are in a ratio of about 1:4. Of course you maybe could get a better deal if you shopped around. However the absolute prices for both are so low that I wonder why bother. What kind of savings are you expecting in terms of $/month? I’d be surprised if it amounted to 20$ even if you had beans every day.

            Also note that longer cooking times as in using electricity are not had for free. Might be different if you cook on gas (or open fire?).

            Re: sink trap

            We have sieves directly in the sink that filter things out before they get trapped. Don’t you?

          • @Alex
            Part of the uncooked vs canned beans decision is that canned beans have significant amounts of salt and possibly other preservatives. Depending on your view of such things, that could be a factor. Also, I have had good luck with making a single large batch of beans at once and then bagging the beans I won’t use right away and freezing them. They reheat quickly from frozen and maintain basically the same texture without having to spend 24 hours on each small batch of beans. (but of course, freezer space is also not free)

          • anodognosic says:

            So it does look like slow cookers use shockingly little electricity.

            But you use a pressure cooker on a stove, which uses significantly less energy than an oven, and an hour is more than you’d usually have a pressure cooker going, especially if you soak the beans first–then we’re talking about under half an hour for anything except some meats, and that’s including warm-up time (here’s a chart)

            Still, we’re talking about under 5 cents’ saving per use, which is unlikely to sway anyone either way.

            My best argument is really just cooking time, but I admit pressure cookers are less set-it-and-forget-it than slow cookers.

          • Alex says:

            @Dice:

            I second the cooking something and freezing it. I’m not sure if it saves money compared with preparing individual meals but it does certainly save time.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            While lost of people think of the trap as trapping things going down the drain (because that’s where we go to retrieve something that we lost down the drain), it’s purpose is trapping the sewer gasses from coming back up the line, as someone else said.

            Catching things going down is just a side benefit (or hassle, if it gets clogged).

          • Alex says:

            Edward: If that was addressed to me:

            I am fully aware of that. In my language it is not even called a trap. My point was that I never had to manually disassemble a trap for cleaning it, partly because I take measures that it is entered by water and not solid objects (where “solid” includes residual food etc.).

            So bottom line is, I’m unsure how useful that skill is, really. Or, if you like, I assume that somebody who does find this skill useful had to do it more than once and I wonder why. Regional differences in plumbing?

            Mind you, I totally could do it, if I had to.

          • anon says:

            https://www.amazon.com/Eat-Vegan-4-00-Day-Conscious/dp/1570672571

            I’ve linked to this book in the past, and someone reacted in disbelief, because most people don’t realize the difference between buying dried and canned stuff. A kilo of dried beans holds 4 times the beans as a kilo of canned beans, because most of the latter is water.

            As far as I can tell without reading it this book explains a “trick” I’ve always known and at times practiced, which consist of:

            1 – Get most of your calories/protein/vitamins/minerals from a variety of GRAINS and LEGUMES (this includes the flour of grains and legumes as well as stuff like oatmeal)

            2 – Buy everything DRIED, never canned.

            If you do just these two things, 4 dollars a day is nothing, you can eat on 2 dollars a day if you try. Or in my case euros, but I know this works in America as well.

            And you can eat differently every day. That’s the problem with the slogan “rice and beans” – it suggests that you have to eat the same every day, but in fact there is a wide variety of such “rice and beans” type cheap food.

            In addition to that I must say that fresh vegetables are also suprisingly convenient, because you can pair them with very cheap plain calories (such as flour or rice or fats) to end up with a satisfying and nourishing meal. According to http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/133287/eib71.pdf in the 2006 US a pound of cauliflower only costs 55 cents. A pound of carrots, 77 cents. You can do a LOT with either.

            So the classic vegan diet which consist of GRAINS, LEGUMES, and VEGETABLES, is extremely cheap and ideal for the poor or frugal.
            It’s amazing that people think veganism is expensive.

        • LPSP says:

          It certainly seems to be the curse of my generation. Literally no-one tells any of us these things. The one time someone might mention a detail like how to microspruce a wobbleflange or something, it sounds so random and one-off that it doesn’t stick. “Unknown unknowns” indeed.

      • Viliam says:

        I feel like people (both those who criticize the poor, and those who defend them) often confuse two kinds of expenses: those that are necessary for long-term well-being (i.e. if you ignore them, sooner or later, maybe much later, something bad will happen to you, or you will lose an opportunity that would have helped you a lot), and those who are merely status-related (i.e. some people in your social group may have slightly worse opinion on you, but it will not influence your long-term financial situation, or health, or anything that matters). Those who criticize the poor tend to assume that everything the poor lack is merely some useless prop in a zero-sum status competition; while those who defend them tend to assume that nothing is. (Exaggerating a bit.)

        I feel like there are things of both kinds, and there are also a few ones where the boundary is not clear. Sometimes, having slightly lower status in your peers’ eyes may cost you a job opportunity; or may make your peers refuse to help you when you need it. But even if the situation is not completely black-and-white, it is worth making the distinction.

        (Also, partner-seeking and reproduction is an important part of human life, and the lower status among your peers may hurt here a lot. Even on purely economical terms, getting a higher-quality partner could be one of the most important economical investments in human life. Think about your spouse’s life-time income, their possibly damaging habits, the cost of divorce, etc.)

        Maybe the important thing is to choose whom and how to impress. Sometimes poor people spend money and time to impress their neighbors (buy a larger plasma TV, don’t miss any opportunity to drink beer with your buddies), when the same money and time could be used to get a better job, or to do something that would help avoid some expenses in the future.

        For example, as a teenager I avoided many social activities, and instead did work, so I could finally buy my first computer. Looking at my current income as a programmer, that investment has definitely paid off, but at that time it made me a lonely weirdo who stayed at home doing boring things while others had fun. Similarly, when at one moment I had a significant salary increase, my relatives suggested that I should start buying expensive clothes, so that I look as a rich person. But I don’t care about what people on the street think about me, so instead I saved most of the extra money, and a few years later I bought a larger flat in a better location, and now I am planning to rent the old one to finally get some passive income.

        Now I feel weird bragging about this, because these seem to me like simple and obvious things; many people had it much harder. My point is that even these simple things met a lot of disapproval from people around me. My family and some of my former girlfriends insisted that I use more of my income for immediate consumption and status signalling. Maybe because they felt my status reflects on their status; and maybe they didn’t believe in my long-term plans. Or maybe… maybe you can live in a “consumer culture” even while relatively poor. Maybe it’s not about how much you consume, but about things other than consumption simply not seeming meaningful to you. You can be poorer or richer, but short-term consumption is still all you can think about. At some moment I had a friend who made 50% more money than I did, but unlike me he didn’t save a single cent, because “it was meaningless” A few years later I took a mortgage and bought my first flat; he was only able to move away from his parents’ house because he lives at his girlfriends’ places.

        I guess it requires a lot of trust in your long-term plans, because if they fail, you may end up poor and low-status among your peers.

    • The Nybbler says:

      We had people living six to a room on gruel. We called those conditions “slums” and “ghettoes” and the great urban planning/civic renewal programs of the 40s-60s were all about knocking the inner city

      And that turned out to be an absolute disaster.

      The idea that even the poor might not want to live like that, because they would quite like to have a bed of their own in a room they can turn around in, and hot running water to wash in may be a luxury but heck, throw another pea in the pot and hang the expense! – no, sorry, if you’re poor, you don’t deserve amenities.

      And I’d like a cook and a dishwasher (the human kind) and my own private indoor pool. Yes, if you’re poor you have lousier living conditions.

      • Deiseach says:

        I am intrigued that you find the riposte to “let a person have a bed to sleep in” be “oh yeah and I’d love an indoor pool but I’m not rich enough to buy one and nobody is just going to hand me one, so stop complaining lazybones!”

        This reminds me very much of the arguments over torture, where it was “and I suppose you’d like us to give terrorists a hug and a teddybear, right?” from the people who thought that “but who can define what torture is, exactly?” was sophisticated enough reasoning to demonstrate why we should torture suspects.

        • Alsadius says:

          Abe Lincoln didn’t have his own bed to sleep in for part of his life – he had to split it with another dude, because beds were too expensive to afford one solo. You’re asking for poor people to have things that’d be considered luxuries two centuries ago, and you seem to be completely unaware of this fact.

          • Xerxes says:

            “But all the people around me now have all these great things,” they replied, completely unaware of their own burning envy.

          • Feeble says:

            “The poor seriously expect us to pay for their clean water? Why even {group of people who’s wellbeing we do not genuinely care about, but will nevertheless use as a contrast case to delegitimize the struggles of the whiny, undeserving poor} didn’t get clean water. If that’s not proof that clean water is a luxury, then I don’t know what is!” they replied, completely unaware of their own burning greed.

          • Alsadius says:

            Feeble: I’m not anti-luxury. I’m just pro-perspective.

          • JayT says:

            It’s kind of ridiculous to equate clean water with not wanting to live in a crowded house. One has adverse effects on your health, the other is an inconvenience.

          • meyerkev248 says:

            Why yes, clean water is an inconvenience.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Aside from the form of both being snarkily dismissive, I don’t think there’s much similarity between those arguments.

          My argument is that it’s reasonable to expect that the poor have a lower standard of living than the middle-class or the wealthy.

        • Mary says:

          I notice that your scorn does not include any distinctions between what you demanded and what he demanded.

          Your stated reason was that the poor want these things. Unless you have a valid reason to legitimate those wants and delegitimate his, he had refuted your claim. Scorn will not help.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      The belief that somebody is unable to do without luxuries – no matter how basic they regard them – provokes no sympathy; it’s a false belief, made obvious by the fact that their “basic” amenities aren’t enjoyed by the majority of humanity.

      Anybody who has lived a remotely interesting life has done without most of those basic luxuries at some point, and it’s somewhat uncomfortable, but ultimately not actually that bad. Loss aversion biases make the thought of doing without something we take for granted much worse than it actually is.

      • Anonymous says:

        Indeed.

        Water, food, shelter from the elements – these are real basics. Everything else is essentially a luxury, for which we should be thankful.

        • Cadie says:

          Unfortunately these aren’t free (well, water basically is in the US, not food and shelter though). Which means you have to earn some money, which usually means a job, and getting/keeping a job comes with tons of additional expenses. You either are lucky enough and healthy enough to live within walking distance to work and be able to walk that far, or you pay for transportation. The hygiene and grooming requirements of most jobs are much, much higher than the minimum needed for survival and protecting your health. You need shoes, you need clothes, you need to keep those clothes almost perfectly clean and in good repair constantly. You spend money on soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste. If you have visibly bad teeth you either go to a dentist to get and keep them fixed (expensive) or have more difficulty getting even an entry-level job and risk losing one you do get if you deteriorate too much. You need a telephone, preferably a cell phone. If you have children, child care is incredibly expensive. Even if you don’t you’ll probably need to pay for health care, because being sick or injured without it means you’re out of work for longer and unable to earn money for shelter. Etc.

          So it’s true that those basics are all you really need, but since those require an income and keeping a steady income comes with its own costs that chew up some of itself, it’s much more expensive to maintain than just the price of the basics on their own.

        • Feeble says:

          Amen.

          These are irrational beliefs not grounded in the value-free and purely descriptive reasoning we are currently engaging in. I do wish the perennially poor would set aside their entitled greediness to see the issues as clearly as we do.

          I would only slightly disagree with what has been said above, because I do not believe we’ve taken the discussion to its natural conclusion. We cannot say that “water, food, and shelter” are proper basics. This at least needs to be qualified, seeing as we’ve already determined that clean water counts as a luxury. I’m not even sure we can say that dirty water counts as a true basic, because there have been times in the past where people did not even have access to dirty water (turns out the world does not owe you even dirty water). We can put a lower bound on this line of reasoning if we are inclined to commit to the notion that people have a “right” to life (a dubious assumption assuredly!), which allows us to conclude that all that the poor really have a right to is access to enough dirty water to prevent them from immediately dying of dehydration.

          The same could be said of food of course.

          • Xerxes says:

            Which third-world countries have you provided clean water for? Are you or are you not morally obligated to do so? Why are you wasting time on a board when you could be fulfilling your moral obligations?

          • Feeble says:

            Good point!

            It really is paradoxical that anyone on the internet makes arguments in favor righting moral wrongs, because if they really cared about those issues they would at any given moment be actively trying to personally right those wrongs, and would not have any time to speak on the internet. Anything less than that would be hypocrisy.

            The only non-hypocritical arguments that are allowed on the internet are neutral, value-free, descriptive arguments such as those you and I are articulating now.

          • Alsadius says:

            Or the ever-ridiculous awareness-raising arguments.

          • Lemminkainen says:

            @Xerxes– he’s obviously being sarcastic

          • Xerxes says:

            @Lemminkainen

            Yes, obviously. But in being so, he shows how risible he thinks the notion is that he should get to work finding a way to help provide drinking water to those in need of it. In other words, it is clear that he does not actually view it as a moral right that compels him to do anything about. In fact, the notion is so ridiculous that it should be met with sarcastic scorn.

            And I agree. The notion is absurd.

    • Dirdle says:

      @Deiseach: Wow this is a tangled spaghetti-thread. I’ll put this reply here.

      While I don’t agree with everything you say above, I think I agree with your tone? Which is probably the wrong way to approach the problem. It doesn’t help keep heads clear and dispassionate. But, well, there really is a broad class of people who are very concerned with judging poor people for ever daring to have anything nice. Because, you know, they’re poor. Maybe they shouldn’t have had children if they’re taking out loans to buy Christmas presents for them! And if no one ever says “actually that’s abhorrent, let’s not be those people” then eventually you end up as “that forum where people clear-headedly and dispassionately suggest mass sterilization in exchange for welfare,” which I’m sure we can agree would be…

      Wait, that already happened.

      Well, never mind. Anyway. Point being. If the poor were living in squalor and still poor, I am near-certain that someone – maybe not Sumner or Alsadius or Xerxes, granted – would find it in their hearts to spare a moment to tell them how they’d all be rich by now if only they stopped being so shiftless and spendthrift already and ate plainer gruel. Just as poverty seems immune to rising income, so judgment of the poor seems immune to rising understanding of the causes of poverty.

      • Xerxes says:

        Your strawman says some terrible things. No wonder you think him a fool.

        Here’s some actual claims by an actual person.

        What material gifts do poor people morally deserve from others? None.
        Can all poor people easily be not-poor? No.
        Can many poor people become less-poor? Yes.
        Is a culture of demanding fake “rights” from more-productive people conducive to poor people helping themselves? No.
        Is it wrong for poor people to have nice things? No.
        Is it idiotic to spend money on luxuries and then complain that one “cannot” save? Yes.
        Is it worth examining how some people rise out of poverty and try to emulate them? Yes.
        Should we, as a society, let the poor rot in their own squalor? No.
        Is this because they deserve better? No.
        Is this because it is a pillar of civilization that is worth keeping? Yes.

        • albatross says:

          There’s a pattern here that recurs in a lot of conversations, between blaming the victim and suggesting how to avoid/recover from being a victim.

          In general, there’s a positive correlation between making good decisions and having good outcomes. But the system is very noisy–there are plenty of people who made reasonable enough decisions, but got clobbered by circumstances outside their control, and plenty of people who made pretty bad decisions but got away with it. And even people who are in a bad place mainly because of their bad decisions still deserve some sympathy and whatever help we can give them.

          Different societies end up having different correlation coefficients. My not very informed guess is that poverty in Delhi is much less correlated with the quality of your decisions than poverty in Chicago.

        • Chrysophylax says:

          Xerxes, you might understand the other POV better if you parsed “X desrves Y” as “my abstract preference rules output a higher value when X gets Y”.

          If people don’t deserve to not be very poor, but helping the poor is “a pillar of civilization that is worth keeping”, what exactly is it that makes this good? Where does the endorsement come from? Why do the rules that assign high value to a healthy society not assign high value to poor people being less poor? This seems to require either rules that don’t care about humans at all, only about societies, or rules that care more about rich people than poor people.

          In my case, the endorsement of charity comes from the belief that being a conscious mind is reason enough for me to give you infinite utility, if I can. The rules I favour for judging world-states assign monotonically increasing value, all else equal, to you being better off. I’m not at all a fan of “rights”, but I can sort-of endorse “You deserve infinite utility” – not deontologically, but because your brain is a source of utility, and I want the universe to contain more utility.

          • Xerxes says:

            Except “deserve,” like “rights” comes packaged with the connotation “and so I can force you to do this.” AND “If you disagree then you are evil.”

            There are many good things people can do with their time and effort and wealth. Some of them additionally help create support for the sort of culture and society I favor. Another example is raising children. Do we “deserve” to have another generation of humans, culturally connected to us and the generations before us? No. Can I force anyone to help participate in this? No. Is it a very good thing? Yes.

    • Gbdub says:

      How dare the successful fisherman suggest fishing lessons to the poor man, when he has so many fish he could just give away for free?

    • Divy says:

      The author isn’t giving any advice or saying that poor people should all live like Chinese immigrants. In fact, the article says: “I’ll just say people should do whatever they want—it’s their life.”

      He’s just presenting an alternative culture and lifestyle so that people who think the default US materialist culture isn’t working for them can see that there is an alternative. It’s no different from that China Study diet book about how Chinese peasants who don’t eat meat have healthier diets. Or from those personal finance blogs that teach middle-class people how to save 50%+ of their income so they can retire early. If you don’t want to live like that, you don’t have to and he’s not saying you should.

      These kinds of articles are also helpful so that we’ll realize how well-off we are compared to the vast majority of humanity and so we can be more grateful for the prosperity that we do have.

    • Jill says:

      Deiseach, are you new to the board also? This is a Libertarian board. So opinions about such topics seem to mostly fall into the category of “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you are barefoot.”

      We still have the Divine Right of Kings– only the kings are the billionaires and multi-millionaires. It’s the belief among many here that if you are a trust fund baby who does nothing but live high on the hog, or if you are a person who was lucky enough to be born with skills in some area that our society has chosen to richly reward, then you deserve every million you’ve got. And if you want to spend it on hookers and blow, good. You shouldn’t have to pay any taxes that might go to help the poor.

      That’s the board we’re on. A few exceptions, but not many. And that’s actually the culture we are in, in the U.S. as a whole too.

      The thinking is that a wealthy person has no obligation to help the poor, or even to pay taxes for government roads and other infrastructure that the companies they own are using. The poor should just get voluntary aid— but only if the wealthy really really feel like helping the poor rather than buying a 25th or 26th home in another country or instead of buying some 60 million dollar painting. If the rich don’t feel like it, fine.

      Sometimes I think the actual worst problem with the typical U. S. view of the poor is not that we won’t contribute money to the poor, but that such disdain toward the poor inhibits discussion about the plight of the poor.

      In discussions, there is some poor bashing about the laziness or whatever of the poor, but very little attention paid to what is actually happening to the poor and to the circumstances of their lives. People make up models of poverty and test them. But have any of these model creators ever talked to groups of poor people and found out what the poor think their problems are and what keeps them from solving them? I would be surprised if they did.

      There are social, and sometimes physical, walls and fences and gates, between the poor and the non-poor. The wealthy often insulate themselves from the poor so completely that– and I know the quote is said to be false but I will still use it because I mean it metaphorically– the rich think that the solution to the problems of the poor is that they should eat cake.

      I think that most solutions that middle class or upper class researchers have for poverty are probably at the same level of feasibility as having them eat cake. Very few of us have any idea of what we are talking about when we talk about poverty– except for some dry statistic about level of income and cost of living.

      Our society is really into both bashing the poor, and also bashing the guilty institution of government which does not practice Ayn Rand’s greatest virtue– selfishness. We are severely limited in our discussions of how to improve the lot of the poor, as well as how to improve government effectiveness. Because the conversation always turns instead to bashing the poor and bashing government.

      You don’t improve the lot of someone who has no right to the oxygen they breathe. You just let them die. It’s not “the world” that doesn’t care about you if you are a poor person in America. It’s the community. If you are in Europe, the universe and the second law of thermodynamics are somehow different.

      Similarly, you don’t improve, or make more efficient, or root out the corruption from, a government that has no right to exist. You just keep bashing it and trying to destroy it.

      Same with government officials. They are evil aspects of the evil government, so you just bash them and try to harm them. If you can, at election time, you elect an outsider, who knows nothing about government and is unsullied by the stain of the evil government. That will get you your revenge at those evil government officials.

      This is really a religious sort of ideology– about good and evil. And evil is not something to make improvements on. It’s something/someone to be destroyed, or at the very least left to die on its/his/her own.

      Some of this is Libertarian stuff. But most of it is just the culture we live in, in the U.S. today.

      • Skivverus says:

        It can be religious, at any rate.
        Between that and an interest in BDSM, consent has been a Very Important Cultural Value in my case at least, and one of the main distinctions between governments and the various corporations which operate in (or between) them is the role of consent.
        With a corporation, if you on balance don’t want what they’re selling, or dislike their ethics, you can refuse to trade with them, and generally they won’t send imprison or otherwise make an example of you. With a mafia, or a government, this option is generally absent.

        Incidentally, the government-bashing I’ve observed tends to be “the government is being selfish – it is acting for its own interests, rather than the interests of the people it is supposedly governing.”

        As for money, it might help to understand the viewpoint if you look at it through a slightly different lens: “the good you do for strangers, minus the good that strangers have done for you.” At its best, that’s what money boils down to, and viewed in that light, who could fault the rich for coasting for a little while?
        At its worst, as you’ve pointed out, there’s no shortage of failure modes when it comes to externalities; however, there’s nothing inherently monetary involved when two conspire to betray a third (and fourth, and fifth, and so on).

      • Alsadius says:

        If you’re wondering whether Deiseach is new, you’re not qualified to talk about the political leanings of this board.

        • Jill says:

          One doesn’t have to read this board for very many days in a row to know what its most common political leaning is. Even just this discussion today makes that obvious. What is your point in denying that obvious fact?

          I guess the tribe you are used to seems just normal to you. In American culture today, people do tend to hang out in their own tribes and to “disqualify” others from expressing their opinions, or even from commenting on the obvious nature or characteristics of the tribe, as seen from the outside.

          • Alsadius says:

            You’ll note that I didn’t disagree with you on that point. But coming in here and lecturing about what we’re all like because of a short glance around tells me a lot about your commitment to honest inquiry and finding truth. There’s probably a plurality of libertarians here, but it’s really a lot more complex than that.

          • Jill says:

            “coming in here and lecturing about what we’re all like because of a short glance around tells me a lot about your commitment to honest inquiry and finding truth.”

            Not so. You admit yourself “There’s probably a plurality of libertarians here, but it’s really a lot more complex than that”

            So, you say it’s a bit more complex than that, but tons of Libertarians here. So I remarked on something that was perhaps a little less extreme than it looks to me, but then again perhaps not.

            What’s the big deal? Except that it’s apparently hard for you to tolerate having it noted that the board is full of Libertarians. Is it supposed to be some kind of secret?

          • Randy M says:

            It’s not that it’s a secret, it’s just that it is not true. In trying to demonstrate it is, you are being sloppy with language, and it comes off as condescending.

            “A Libertarian board” implies fairly strongly that libertarianism is an official position of the board or that the libertarian position is expected to be acknowledged before one can post an opinion. Then you take “probably a plurality of libertarians” as a concession for your “extreme” position.

            This is one of the most diverse groups around. People correcting you on that point aren’t getting defensive, but trying to help you avoid looking clueless or dogmatic.

          • Alsadius says:

            Actually, my biggest reason for making the comment I did was to poke fun. I’ve been on plenty of other blogs where gentle mockery of newbies who come in like bulls in a china shop is expected – it’s a surprisingly good troll filter to have everyone cracking jokes in direct proportion to the belligerence of a new commenter.

        • Bryan Hann says:

          Frankly, I don’t know how to interpret the word “qualified” in an non tendentious way (unless it is referring to a particular scenario with documented conditions), which is why I usually taboo it in my own speaking.

      • keranih says:

        Jill, seriously, I’m gonna tell you what I wish others had told me more often:

        listen more, chatter less.

        You’re neither familiar with the concepts discussed here nor have the information to replicate the arguments others are expressing. Ask more questions, make fewer statements.

        • Jill says:

          I have a ton of familiarity with the concepts discussed. Just because I don’t agree with you in my interpretation of them does not disqualify me from contributing to the board.

          Why would anyone want to replicate the arguments others are expressing? Unless perhaps you believe that everyone here ought to have the same opinions. Which is pretty typical of American culture nowadays. People hang out in their own tribes and “disqualify” outsiders from expressing their opinions.

          • Anonymous says:

            Res ipsa loquitur.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            They don’t want you to actually replicate the arguments. They want you to be able to do so. That means understanding the arguments, how others reached their conclusions, what premises, evidence and reasoning they used, etc.

          • Jill says:

            “understanding the arguments, how others reached their conclusions, what premises, evidence and reasoning they used, etc.”

            I understand those at least as well as the average person here, although my beliefs are different. I doubt you understand those things about the views I express. Feel free to skip all my comments though, if my views are outside the bounds of what feels tolerable for you to read.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            I confess I do that already with most of the comments, because they are so many.

            I just interjected because I feel you guys are arguing past each other. You don’t understand “the beliefs among many here” if your comment (the long one) was sincere. It’s fine if you have different beliefs but it’s not fine to misrepresent the views of others because that makes discussion impossible.

            Scott himself is something-sort-of-like-left-libertarianist-ish, if you feel the need to apply such labels.

          • Gbdub says:

            Jill I don’t mean to pile on here but honestly, you do often come across as an otherwise intelligent person who hasn’t engaged very deeply with the ideas of similarly intelligent people who disagree with them.

            Your comment above about Randian selfishness and American attitudes toward taxation is such an obvious straw man caricature as to be basically a cliche, but you seem to honestly believe you’re accurately describing actual libertarian beliefs. And that’s hardly the first thing you’ve said that resembles boilerplate political propaganda than an actual rational debate. There are plenty of left-leaning commenters here who don’t do this.

            Please stick to explaining and arguing your own beliefs, which you are good at and is valuable, rather than describing caricatures of your opponents, which you are less good at and can be hostility-inducing. Please extend the principle of charity to your opponents, and I will do my best to do the same.

          • keranih says:

            Why would anyone want to replicate the arguments others are expressing?

            For the same reason you’d want to be able to express the grounds for accepting that something you held to be true was actually false. Because if you can’t articulate the argument/position of someone else in your own words(*), you’re just repeating the thoughts of other people and not actually engaging your own brain.

            Likewise, if you can’t set some objective metric by which your position XYZ is proven not true, it’s not a rational conclusion that you’ve arrived at, but a Truth you’ve received from someone else.

            It’s not required that you *agree* with the arguments/pov of other people, but you can’t effectively counter them if you don’t understand them. And I deeply feel that it is quite okay to hold Truths as being being Self-Evident, but that’s not the same as a derived Proof, and it’s incorrect to confuse the two.

            Which you do here. A lot. I wish you would do that less.

            (*)Pro-tip: regional accents. Nobody really thinks you’re just parroting Aristotle if you use a Mark Twain accent to do so.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Do you think we were all born rich? There are in fact many people who have managed to do well for themselves with little outside help and denying that won’t help your argument. If you want to say that no poor person could have ever done anything to improve their financial situation, then I’m not going to be sympathetic to your views. We don’t live in a country where class is completely hereditary. People can move between them and it doesn’t take superhuman skill or luck to do that. And honestly, I’m not even opposed to welfare. I just think anyone who thinks all poor people are innocent victims is denying reality. At least some of their problems are self inflicted.

        • Orphan Wilde says:

          Actually…

          This is going to be a very unusual position to take, but I think the major problem poor people have today is that society has become too meritocratic.

          Talk to some older people about their old coworkers and neighbors sometime. You might hear something interesting. Without good meritocratic sorting, smart and dumb people (using these concepts very loosely) were mixed pretty thoroughly. As meritocratic sorting got better, dumb people became deprived of intelligent advice; the pillars of their community were pulled out.

          It used to be that being poor was largely an accident of birth. Today, this is much less true, which is, among other reasons such as internet communities, why our bubbles are becoming thicker and less easily penetrable.

          If you’re poor today, there is probably something wrong with you. Either you’re not very bright, or you have health issues that keep you from maintaining a steady job, or you have self-control issues, or or or. The meritocracy is ruthlessly grinding out all the functional people from the underclasses, leaving communities which are incredibly dysfunctional and getting worse. Anybody worth looking up to leaves; anybody who could fix the problems goes to fix middle class peoples’ problems instead.

          In a Randian sense, these people aren’t entitled to the effort of their more functional members to keep their societies intact and afloat.

          In a practical sense, by and large, fifty years ago these people were mostly-functional, as they needed relatively light levels of social support – role models, neighbors who could give them advice, and social support in dealing with their not-insubstantial problems; it has been the systemic stripping of every person of quality which has reduced them to the level they exist at now.

          (But the alternative doesn’t actually look any better, locking people into the lifestyles they were born into or the crab-bucket mentality of pulling anybody who might succeed back down.)

          • onyomi says:

            I think this is an interesting position, and that it relates to my contention, a while back, that maybe US society has gone too far in the direction of “do everything through the official channels and not because your cousin got you a job.”

            Most places throughout history, and continuing to this day in places like India seem to be too much on the opposite side of the spectrum–can’t get ahead if you don’t know the right people.

            But is it axiomatically more just if you can’t get ahead with a low SAT score? Or if a smart, hard-working person can’t use his connections to help a less smart, less-hard-working family member find a job (relates to the idea of inheritance discussed elsewhere: those who inherit don’t “deserve” to do so, but those who made the money deserve the right to give it to their children if they want to)?

            And it’s not just about letting rich people get jobs for their nephews: the obsession with “the proper channels” functions to shut down things like Uber (hasn’t totally worked so far in that case, but they’re trying), which allow people to make money without a lot of red tape.

            And red tape itself is probably a big barrier to the poor getting ahead, really: what if a lot of what we today call “meritocracy” really just means “patience for filling out forms and other bureaucratic nonsense–a quality which standardized testing measures well”? Many of the poor and underemployed may not actually lack the ability to do jobs, but rather lack the ability to deal with the red tape.

          • albatross says:

            The thing is, meritocracy works really well for stuff where finding the very best people for some job matters a lot. If you’re trying to design new cancer drugs or get a probe to Mars or break the other side’s crypto, you’ll do a lot better if you can filter the very smartest 0.0001 of your population into those jobs, rather than if you can filter the smartest of the small set of people who are well-connected enough to get a shot at the jobs.

            I don’t know how you balance that against the downsides. Especially since most of the meritocracy isn’t filling NASA engineer slots, but rather middle-manager or clerk slots at the local business or government agency.

          • Jaskologist says:

            This also relates to a question I’ve been pondering: which kind of meritocracy are we, the kind that rewards merit, or the kind that punishes demerit?

          • Teal says:

            It doesn’t matter how important it is in the bigger picture–people are going to drive across town to avoid your gas station if you charge $0.04 more a gallon because you hired two dumb cousins to do the same job guy-across-town pays one go-getter to do.

            It’s one of those Moloch things.

          • Walter says:

            Good comment man. I hadn’t thought of this like that. Thanks for writing that.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @onyomi:

            You wrote

            And red tape itself is probably a big barrier to the poor getting ahead, really: what if a lot of what we today call “meritocracy” really just means “patience for filling out forms and other bureaucratic nonsense–a quality which standardized testing measures well”? Many of the poor and underemployed may not actually lack the ability to do jobs, but rather lack the ability to deal with the red tape.

            This is something that hit me when I left school – success in the educational system requires ability to deal with bureaucracy (especially in university), and the educational system teaches dealing with bureaucracy (especially in university).

            The incredibly frustrating and demoralizing experience of dealing with departmental underlings to submit a sick note to somebody, or planning what courses you’ll take to fill prerequisites, or dealing with departmental underlings when the computer system screws up your major, etc, all comes in really handy in the real world, because if a university with max a few dozen thousand students involves a lot of bureaucracy, how much more a city of millions, province/state of tens of millions, country of hundreds of millions, etc?

          • Jiro says:

            Paying more than 0.04 to avoid an extra charge of 0.04 is rational as a form of precommitment. You precommit to shop at the place with the lowest price even if getting there costs more money than you save. This benefits you by leading to more worlds with lower prices, but only if you’ve precommitted, in which case it leaves you worse off in the cases where you have to follow through on the precommitment.

            Precommitments are like that.

          • This was part of the argument of The Bell Curve. A century ago, the students at Harvard were not significantly smarter than the students at a state university, just richer. The high status people might have been smarter on average than the low status people, but there were a fair number of smart people in low status/low income situations.

            Social mobility/meritocracy changed that. From one standpoint it was a large improvement. But it has negative consequences as well. And once people are largely sorted by ability, assortative mating increases the amount of innate inequality, increasing the problems.

            An interesting book, that didn’t deserve the very hostile reaction it provoked.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @David Friedman:

            Murray covers the same thing in “Coming Apart”, which seems to be a lot less controversial than “The Bell Curve”.

            Have you read “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, by Young? It predicts some stuff very similar to what happened.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @Orphan Wilde

            I agree. My only argument is against people who say discrimination and oppression is what’s keeping poor people down, as if we could just eliminate that and all the impoverished could reach their true potential. But if you take the assumption that the system is meritocratic, that doesn’t automatically mean that it works for everybody. We’re living through an era where a larger class of people are becoming more and more economically useless and this might be the biggest social problem of the century(at least until someone creates smarter-than-human intelligence). It might help to minimize careers as a measure of social status and focus more on your relation to others.

      • Tracy W says:

        I think you would find it interesting to read some political debates about poverty from non-American countries, and writings from before the US became a major cultural centre (eg Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was written in the 18th century). You are attributing a lot to US culture which I think is more general.

        • Walter says:

          I recently read a book on Indian politics/culture. They’ve got a whole different thing going on over there, where poverty is all mixed in with caste, and there is a patronage party for every caste. It was an interesting read.

      • Furslid says:

        Ok, if this is the case what do we do?

        Changing the culture is really difficult. It’s not advice you can give to a poor person. “Convince this billionaire that views you as subhuman scum to help you out. Convince him to ignore that you have crooked teeth (no braces), ragged clothes, and may not have bathed today.” I can’t see how to do it, and I can’t really advise the poor on how to do it.

        The advantage of the bootstraps advice is that it is at least practical. “Stop buying fast food and cook up a big pot of something cheap every few days.” is something that many poor people can do.

        If this is our culture, we might as well treat it as a given in my opinion. The important question isn’t “How do we stop the rich from being assholes and the middle class from being indifferent?” The important question is “How do we alleviate the effects of poverty with an indifferent middle class and an asshole upper class?”

        • Jill says:

          Furslid, we probably don’t and can’t. And there are consequences of not doing anything about the issue. One is that we probably get someone like Trump for president, sooner or later. Because in a society where no one pays attention to a certain sizeable class of people, once someone does, he can get whatever he wants from them, especially if their group is getting larger.

          So, now or later, we get Trump

          • Walter says:

            Well, its not like Trump is an end state. If elected, it’ll turn out that Trump doesn’t do anything for his supporters (no one can do anything for them). So, after Trump you’ll get a better huckster, and so on.

            It isn’t a new cycle. Desperate people are easy to separate from their valuables. Just lie to them. (Obvious health care parable is obvious) Nowadays they have their votes, which are valuable. So they will attract liars, and then better liars, and so on.

        • TPC says:

          We don’t have an indifferent middle class, we have an economically insecure middle class.

          • Furslid says:

            Yes, economically insecure people tend to be indifferent to the plight of those worse off. People are worried that they might lose their house or their children might not get a decent education. They naturally view that as their most important problem. Hence they are indifferent to other people’s problems.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I think people are new are going to always through a shakeout period. We will see whether she ultimately gets in the swing of things.

        • Jill’s problem, as best I can tell, is that she is strikingly ignorant of the views of people who disagree with her views and doesn’t know it–is pretty confident not only that her political views are correct (which lots us are about ours) but that they are obviously correct. From which it follows that anyone who disagrees is either very ignorant, very stupid, or wicked.

          She doesn’t put it that way, but that’s what I got from the original response on HBD.

          That aside, she seems nice enough. Well above FB average, although that’s damning with faint praise.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          I’m not sure Jill has spent a ton of time dissecting anyone’s views, like, really breaking them down, whether or not they are opposed to her own.

          Or she has a bad case of confirmation bias, where the things which aren’t easily answered just kind of slip past. Which does happen, and to all of us, but, not that much, surely?

          She also seems to have not figured out that a bunch of people here are regulars (for example: D is Each, before she was banned).

          But, this is kind of a unique space. If you are coming over here from r/politics or something, maybe it takes a bit to up one’s game, so to speak.

      • The Nybbler says:

        My prediction on this subject:

        sha1 = 833e3c64d04f39844465709d130d558740344d0d

      • Alex says:

        What is the standard protocol for taking other commenters here aside?

        • Anonymous says:

          There is no protocol because we have no PMs. Mark Atwood is just being his typical asshole self a little more obscurely than usual.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      This tells us a lot about your anger and nothing about poverty.

    • “I don’t think I need to prove I deserve a certain level of basic amenities”

      Why do you, or anyone else, deserve a certain level of basic amenities? I can understand why you want them. But most people who ever lived didn’t get what a modern would see as that level. Were they less deserving than you? Were they being cheated?

      I understand “want.” I understand, in some situations, “am entitled to.” But I have a hard time making sense of “deserve.”

      • Jill says:

        Yes. By the same token, our system of inheritance of private property makes me think “Why do trust fund babies, or anyone else, deserve a certain level of basic amenities?”

        Why do we make inheritance of large amounts of wealth legal in our country? Maybe it shouldn’t be. Trust fund babies don’t necessarily do anything productive at all. And they are rewarded for doing nothing. Maybe laws should protect property while one has it, but keep a low cap on how much can be passed on to heirs.

        • People who inherit money mostly don’t deserve to. But if the people they inherit from acquired that money legitimately, they are entitled to decide who it goes to.

          You seem to assume that people who think inheritance is legitimate believe that the heirs deserve what they are getting. I take that as one more piece of evidence that you badly misunderstand the views of those who disagree with you.

          Nozick offers a simple example of the difference between desert and entitlement. Suppose you and I agree to bet a dollar on a coin flip, and you win. Do you deserve to get the dollar? Obviously not–you didn’t deserve to have the coin come up the way it did. Are you entitled to get the dollar? Obviously yes.

          • Civilis says:

            One of the things which irritates me in discussions regarding the ‘fairness’ of inheritance is the insistence on looking at it from the point of view of the recipient.

            In most cases, we’d much rather have parents say “I put my extra money in my children’s college fund” than “I went out and bought a brand new car; we’ll worry about the kids college education when they’re older”. In the case of inheritances, it’s the opposite. The “use it or lose it” model of massive inheritance taxes rewards conspicuous consumption rather than thinking of future generations.

          • Matt M says:

            Civilis,

            Absolutely correct. It’s not about the recipient “deserving” the money, it’s about the deceased deserving the right to dispose of their money as they prefer.

      • HircumSaeculorum says:

        If you believe in anything, you believe that people deserve something.

        I think you’re a libertarian. Do you believe that people should be free? Then surely you believe that people deserve freedom. Do you believe in property rights? Then surely you believe that people deserve property rights. Because you believe that people deserve freedom and property rights, you advocate a system where people have freedom and property rights.

        Other people believe that people should have a basic level of amenities, so they say that people deserve a basic level of amenities, and advocate a system where people have a basic level of amenities.

        I don’t see any fundamental between arguing that people deserve freedom and arguing that they deserve, say, clean water.

        >But most people who ever lived didn’t get what a modern would see as that level. Were they less deserving than you? Were they being cheated?

        Cheated? Yes, if they were in poverty because they lived under extractive regimes, or something similar. I don’t think that’s the point, though. People are arguing that, if it *can* be guaranteed that everyone enjoys a basic level of amenities, then it *should* be guaranteed. That comment seems to be something of a non sequiter.

        • “I think you’re a libertarian. Do you believe that people should be free?”

          Yes.

          “Then surely you believe that people deserve freedom.”

          No.

          “Do you believe in property rights?”

          Yes.

          “Then surely you believe that people deserve property rights”

          No.

          You might consider the simple example of the difference between desert and entitlement that I offered from Nozick.

        • Tracy W says:

          “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” – Shakespeare. (Hamlet).

      • Bryan Hann says:

        Yes. I’d be the last one at this point to say that she needs “to prove [she] deserve[s] a certain level of basic amenities.”

        For me to say that would require me to know what she means by “deserves”.

    • Jill says:

      “This tells us a lot about your anger and nothing about poverty.”

      Actually, I think it’s a useful comment on skin in the game type poverty vs. commenting on it from afar.

    • Mary says:

      And how many people WANT to live trudging to the office forty hours a week?

      Making things illegal because you think that people want better is folly.

    • LPSP says:

      (Monty Python didn’t even write that sketch, lel)

  19. Alex R says:

    I can’t say I read the linked article about poverty traps thoroughly, but I did read the introduction and conclusion. If I understand correctly, it’s using “poverty trap” to refer to poverty on a national scale (i.e. circumstance that keep a poor country poor); it mentions that the term can be used on an individual level (i.e. circumstance that keeps a poor individual/family poor), but that is not the sense in which they find that poverty traps are rare. In the conclusion, it says:

    While the evidence indicates that poverty traps are rare, this does not mean they can never exist. The clearest evidence for traps appears to come from people being trapped in low-productivity locations—whether this be remote rural regions within a country, or in low-productivity countries.

    suggesting that poverty traps on an individual level do exist.

    Can someone who’s read the article comment further?

    • WRD says:

      Yes, exactly! Also from the article:

      We deliberately restrict the scope of our paper to focus on the potential for poverty traps to account for the post–World War II growth experience of developing countries and for the persistence of poverty within households over years rather than generations.

      [Footnote moved] As a result, we do not take a view on the importance of poverty traps for understanding very long-run development over hundreds or even thousands of years as for example in the work of Galor and Weil (2000) emphasizing demographic transitions, or that of Acemoglu and Zilibotti (1997) who emphasize how fixed costs of production limited the ability of countries to adopt diversified portfolios of risky but high-return technologies in the pre–Industrial Revolution period.

      So this would not purport to answer why concentrated pockets of extreme poverty persist within the United States across many generations. Such pockets, following from William Easterly, could include the “Borders” of Appalachia, portions of black Americans (inner city and ‘sharecropper’-esque), etc. Or just the South in general, which has been poor for hundreds of years now.

    • Peter says:

      Another point is that they’re using a narrow definition of “poverty trap” – let’s call it a “K&M poverty trap” after the two authors. To be in a K&M poverty trap, you have to be stuck in a bad equilibrium, where a good equilibrium is at least theoretically possible, such that a “big push” – a concerted one-off financial effort to shift a country from the basin for the bad equilibrium to the basin for the good equilibrium – is possible. It says:

      this does not mean that aid cannot have positive effects on aggregate growth. Even if a country is not specifically in a poverty trap, people in that country may be persistently poor due to poor fundamentals, and aid-financed investments can certainly help to improve these fundamentals, thereby leading to higher growth. However, it is difficult to argue that such aid programs are likely to lead to a sharp acceleration of growth at the aggregate level as a country
      breaks free from a poverty trap.

      In other words, a K&M poverty trap is “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or at any rate stay as poor as they are”, and the scarcity of such traps doesn’t exclude the possibility of “the rich get richer and the poor slowly get less poor but some extra financial support might well speed things up a bit.” Perhaps we need “poverty tarpit” to represent a situation which is not strictly a trap as such – evennnnnnnnnnnnntually you’ll get out of it under your own steam, but which nevertheless is something that people could be concerned about and do something about.

  20. Matthew says:

    I haven’t read the second study, but in the comments of the MR-post on it the author came by to say about 50% of Swedish people play the lottery, so you can’t really say the study is just about the poor.

    • baconbacon says:

      Wasn’t the study the effect that winning had on people that were poor?

      • Matthew says:

        Sorry, I meant the first study (Swedish lottery). The abstract makes no mention of the winners being poor. In the thread at MR commenters were saying ‘this shows the poor just have bad impulse control that no amount of money can fix!’, and one of the authors of the study replied that the study wasn’t really about poor people per se.

        • Jill says:

          Interesting idea that the study’s result indicates that “the poor just have bad impulse control that no amount of money can fix!” If some of that money were spent on social services, mental health services, substance abuse treatment services, parenting classes, budgeting and financial management classes etc. for those who desire them, this might go a lot further than just giving people money, like they got from the lottery.

          We have such a hands off, insulated, distant attitude toward the poor in the U.S. We are probably not willing to just hand them money, but if we are, we would just throw it at them quickly and leave.

          Why not spend the money on social services and classes that might help the poor to help themselves? Why not give them WPA type jobs helping to repair our infrastructure, or some other type of work, so that they will have constructive activity?

          Someone did mention on a previous thread here the idea of subsidizing work that ought to be done but that people would not be able to pay a living wage for– like we do for Wal-Mart right now when their employees are eligible for welfare type services, except that the money and the work would actually benefit the community, instead of benefiting a mega-corporation. Sounds like a good idea to me.

          Regarding philanthropy for the poor, the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation etc. seem to focus all or almost all of their efforts overseas. They apparently don’t want to get their hands dirty with the domestic poor any more than anyone else here does. They want their walls and fences against the domestic poor to keep insulating them, just like everyone else does.

          So much for domestic philanthropy. It does exist, of course, but does not come close to filling the needs.

          • Alsadius says:

            Why not give them WPA type jobs helping to repair our infrastructure, or some other type of work, so that they will have constructive activity?

            Because government unions wouldn’t allow it?

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            There are many issues with the government directly hiring people the same way they did in the early 20th Century. A specific act of Congress (that Alsadius referred to, but I can’t remember the name) forces the government to jump through a bunch of hoops to make sure that labor costs aren’t being underbid. Also, you can’t just hire a million laborers off the side of the road to build a house or bridges or even that road. Most people don’t know how to build a house or a bridge or a road. They’ve specialized out of that.

            These are all reasons that I support my taxes going up to pay for a wage subsidy so that the market can find life-supporting work for everyone.

          • Mary says:

            “Why not spend the money on social services and classes that might help the poor to help themselves?”

            What are you willing to do to coerce the poor to avail themselves of the services and classes?

          • Jill says:

            Coerce the poor? Why would I do that? Programs for the poor should be voluntary.

            It might be good to figure out some way to demonstrate that social services providers are trustworthy though, because poor people sometimes have perfectly legitimate reasons not to trust them, based on past experience.

          • Anonymous says:

            Coerce the poor? Why would I do that? Programs for the poor should be voluntary.

            In which case they will be attended almost exclusively by those why don’t really need them.

          • Walter says:

            This is going to sound harsh, but if the poor were able to perform government jobs, they wouldn’t necessarily be the poor.

            Like, a lot of poor folks I know are unemployable. They drink and miss mornings, they get angry and quit. They fail drug tests. They rely on rides to get to work. These guys lose their jobs at QT after a month or two. If we hired them, and the gov acted like an employer, it would just fire them again. If we hired them and the gov wouldn’t fire them no matter what…isn’t that just welfare mk 2?

            Also, like, the foundations typically help folks overseas because they can do more good for less money, yeah? It isn’t that they hate the local poor, its that people in foreign countries need stuff more, right?

          • The Nybbler says:

            That’s the problem with rationality and etiquette. If etiquette insists you don’t say true things or do say false things, and those subjects come up, following rationality is going to make an asshole out of you.

          • Walter says:

            @The Dude

            That was an exceptionally appropriate quote. Good on ya.

          • Luke the CIA Stooge says:

            OH!!!
            So that’s why I always founds “Assholes” to be more morally virtuous than “good people”.

            It’s weird i always had this strong instinct that being an asshole was a moral obligation, (probably started with southpark) but never really had words to express it

          • Mary says:

            “Coerce the poor? Why would I do that? ”

            To make the programs of the slightest use.

          • Anonymous says:

            @CIA
            It’s an impulse that ought to be resisted. Truth-telling is not the highest virtue.

          • Luke the CIA stooge says:

            Perhaps, but I’ve yet to find a higher virtue.

            Be charitable and you incentivize complaining over perseverance.

            Be merciful and you reward misbehaviour over quality.

            Be consistent and you become rigid

            Be dynamic and you lose out on the gains of constancy

            Be courageous and you’ll get burned

            Be cautious and you’ll sink

            Have faith and you doom yourself to folly

            Be faithless and lose the ability to commit

            Commit to the truth and you’ll run afoul of all kinds of things, but if you go down at least you’ve added to the common wisdom.

            Socrates was a great asshole, it’s fitting that western thinking should follow his example

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I keep trying to push the view that all of these various virtues are in tension with each other. You need all of them to make for a stable “good”.

          • Skivverus says:

            @HeelBearCub

            Agreed; no single ideal is sufficient to cover the moral landscape (not even consent; not even truth).
            And each of those ideals has gray areas where it conflicts with other ideals, allowing plenty of room for reasoned and reasonable disagreement.
            Truth is generally pretty heavily weighted, though.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Sure truth is heavily weighted. But it doesn’t make it the only virtuous thing, nor virtuous in all cases.

            And the farther away you get from these other virtues, the less and less it matters that you are closer to the virtue of truth.

          • “The Prophet used to say that Umar always spoke the truth, however harsh, and it was for that reason that he had no friends.”

            (Umar was the second Caliph, and the quote, whose source I forget, is associated with Abu Bakr’s decision to choose him as his successor.)

          • Anonymous says:

            Please tell me he was responsible for the shia / sunni split. That would be perfect.

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s probably hopeless trying to find one person to blame, but yes, he was involved: one party held up Abu Bakr as the rightful caliph, the other one favored Ali, but Umar was the guy that nominated Abu Bakr (and who succeeded him as caliph). He was later assassinated by a slave of disputed religion and motive, but whom the Shia honor.

            The schism didn’t escalate to warfare until a couple caliphs later, though.

          • Walter, depending on a ride to get to work isn’t like the other “difficult to employ” characteristics you list– it can easily be a result of poverty rather than a personal characteristic which possibly could be corrected with effort, even though unreliable transportation still makes it hard for someone to be a satisfactory employee.

            Of course, making jitneys and hitchhiking illegal are ways that governments discriminate against poor people.

          • Nornagest says:

            Someone here, I think it might have been Onyomi, said a few threads ago that governments like to ban the symptoms of poverty and pretend that they’re thereby fighting poverty. Seems relevant.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Nornagest:
            Mmmmm, this seems more like “The law forbids the rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges”.

            There is always a certain amount of tension between a certain kind of Nimbyism vs. programs designed to help the poor.

  21. Him says:

    Bad genes migrate down to the lower class. Lower class children inherit them. Lower class people remain compulsive and unintelligent. A minority of fortunate lower-class children are gifted with a good set of genes, rising into the higher income brackets over time and continuing the process of genetic drain on the lower class.

    Genes are constantly moving in both directions. There’s nothing to fix in that sense. There will never be a classless society.

    Solutions:
    * policies that encourage the best children of the lower class to rise up in society
    * a work program so that people provide for themselves, (creating a feeling of investment in society at large)
    * free birth control of all types
    * realistic education programs focusing on vocational training instead of mimicking middle-class public schools

    Right now we are doing the worst thing, encouraging above-replacement birth rates in the lower class while leaving them underemployed and unhappy.

    • Anonymous says:

      Just so!

    • Jill says:

      And just in case, in what most consider the unlikely case that poverty is not genetic now any more than it was in the times when almost all people were peasants, maybe one might add the services I mentioned before:
      social services, mental health services, substance abuse treatment services, parenting classes, budgeting and financial management classes etc.

      Why not find out if poor people can learn budgeting, money management etc.? Why assume that they have had the opportunity to learn this and just couldn’t? There are tons of opportunities and types of role models that the average poor person probably has not had.

      I read a study which I’ll try to find, of poor kids who were successful despite the odds being stacked heavily against them. For some reason the study didn’t try to look at their genes and how those genes must be better than those of other poor kids. The study looked at their role models. What they had in common here was a highly influential constructive role model in their lives from whom they received emotional support and/or learned behaviors that helped them in their success.

      Not always a parent. Sometimes a teacher or an aunt or whatever. There was one outlier who lived in a rural area and felt guided by the spirit or strength in nature– plants, animals, scenery.

      Interesting. I do think providing constructive role models is worth a look.

      • Alsadius says:

        Well, you could try to teach the poor budgeting skills – perhaps, by writing a discussion in a public place about how poor people could go about saving more money and trying to improve their lot in life. Of course, if you did, Jill would probably just call you a heartless plutocrat, so maybe it’s not worth it.

        • Sweeneyrod says:

          Right, because Scott Sumner is widely read by the poor.

          • Mary says:

            Internet is free in libraries. They could if they wanted to.

          • Luke the CIA Stooge says:

            In an era where almost all information in is freely available and “how to save” is a google search away, lack of information or lack of availability really isn’t an excuse we should accept.

          • TPC says:

            No, we should. Because incuriosity is the human norm, not nearly pathological curiosity of the type that many of us who end up in spaces like this on the internet have. People used to save very simply, now saving is associated with complexity and hassle at best and at worst as pointless because you can never get to a really impressive number quickly.

            Several poor people I know ran into the latter saving obstacle. They’d save up a few hundred and then since they couldn’t buy much with it, they blew it on additional video games or candy (not kidding) or other similar kind of childlike amusements. After a few of these instances, they just dropped saving anything out of their pay.

          • TPC says:

            Also, as someone who has been burned extremely badly by the lack of information about major things not at all being freely available, much less online (not even behind paywalls), I think there’s too much overreliance on “just google it”. Learning curves are real, and starting a particular habit or skill as an adult that used to be acquired as a child or teen presents nontrivial challenges that shouldn’t be airily dismissed with “there’s youtube videos for…stuff!”

        • Jill says:

          People who lack resources and don’t have their lives together need consistent help, mentoring and programs that go on for a while. Anyone who has the wherewithal to go to a library and get on the Internet to locate online budgeting instructions is probably not poor, in the cultural sense of lacking resources, skills etc.

          • Matt M says:

            And people who don’t have their lives together probably don’t want, or have the motivation, to seek help and enroll in mentoring programs that go on for a while.

            Someone asked you this earlier somewhere else here, so I’ll repeat it – how do you propose to force the poor to accept the help you claim they so desperately need?

        • Agronomous says:

          I read that initially as, “Well, you could try to teach poor budgeting skills.” Because then, since you’re likely to fail, they’d end up with good budgeting skills!

    • Mary says:

      “* free birth control of all types”

      Tried. Failed. You want that to work, you are going to have to apply some pressure to encourage them to use it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yeah, this approach – free contraception – sort of breeds people who utterly disregard any such things.

        You give people free contraception, some take it. All else being equal, they breed less than the ones who rejected your offer. Next generation, whatever made the previous one reject the offer is more common among the potential recipients.

    • LPSP says:

      “* realistic education programs focusing on vocational training instead of mimicking middle-class public schools*

      This here is the most crucial point. The majority of modern education is nothing but an empty status game. The poorest are forced to shell out vast portions of their money to enjoy an imitation of middle classness, and are left with no skills they can actually use.

  22. Deiseach says:

    And while I’m merrily burning all my bridges:

    Xerxes and Alsadius, is it your position that Scott (and the other EAs) are fools? Instead of donating to malaria nets, they should hold on to their money for their own needs and benefit, and leave the poor Africans go hang if they can’t earn enough to buy their own goddamn malaria nets?

    What is the point of altruism, ethical or otherwise? The poor can save themselves by hard work and thrift, and if they can’t, then they should at least beg amusingly enough to cajole some “generosity” out of potential donors. What have those African children done, other than be born, to get money from Scott? Can’t they at least do their quaint native dances in traditional dress while singing the praises of the Great White Saviour come to give them money for malaria nets as a quid pro quo? Such idle brats, encouraged in their idleness and entitlement!

    • Xerxes says:

      I’m not going to criticize what a productive person chooses to do with the fruit of their productivity. Some build classic cars. Some enjoy cigars and fine meals. Some spend it on creating more humans. Some spend it on strangers.

      I find nothing here to critique. If they try to claim that I somehow have an obligation to spend my wealth in the same manner, it will be a mightily difficult claim to back. But I’m listening.

      If, however, they conveniently find that I have an obligation to help fund them. And they themselves are unwilling to do all they can to help themselves?

      Ha.

      • Jill says:

        “they themselves are unwilling to do all they can to help themselves?”

        Where did this supposition come from?

        Oh, may they will not live 12 to a small room without heat and electricity?

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Believe it or not, people here have lived experiences. Mine includes watching people make all sorts of bad choices.

          Me: You can’t afford that.
          Then: But I waaaant it.

          And I’m not really exaggerating with the whinge there.

    • Matt M says:

      “What have those African children done, other than be born, to get money from Scott?”

      Nothing. Scott (and others, such as myself) donates to charity because it makes him feel better about himself.

      To call this “foolish” would be a value judgment that none of us are qualified to make. One who earns money legitimately is free to spend it however they would like. It might very well be that some charitable donations leave the recipient worse off in the long run – I don’t think Scott or anyone else could claim such a thing is entirely impossible (I mean, this is why we give nets rather than cash, right? Because those dumb poor people would just spend the cash on booze or whatever?).

      But the actual “value” of the charitable donation is not to the African – it’s to Scott himself. He gets value from the transaction so long as it makes him feel good about himself, which it will do so long as he believes it’s helping people. If he stops believing it’s helpful, he will spend his money in some other way (perhaps on a different charity, or perhaps on himself)

      • g says:

        Scott […] donates to charity because it makes him feel better about himself.

        On what grounds do you say that?

        And … what exactly do you *mean* by it? Suppose someone came to Scott with the following offer: “I can connect you up to this machine and it will modify your brain so that spending money on consumer electronics makes you feel 2% better about yourself than giving the same money to charity does now. It’s perfectly safe but unfortunately irreversible.” If Scott believed this person, do you think he would take their offer?

        I bet that Scott would not take that offer. If you’d bet the same way then I suppose what you mean is that while Scott *thinks*, or at least *says*, he donates to charity in order to help people, *deep down* he is really truly acting in whatever way makes him feel best about himself. This strikes me as a difficult claim to test (whether we take exactly this claim, or some more general claim about people in general rather than Scott in particular); what evidence is there for it?

        • Anon says:

          Maybe you have a preference for not having your preferences altered.

          • Bryan Hann says:

            Can you prefer your preferences not being met to their being met? Can you *strongly* prefer your preferences not being met to their being met?

          • Anonymous says:

            From your current perspective, just because your future you no longer has your current preferences, does not mean that your preferences – as defined by you now – are met.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think most people who give to charity feel better for having done it – otherwise, something very screwy would be happening. I can’t say whether it’s their primary reason for doing so, however.

        • Matt M says:

          Fine. Replace Scott with *I*. I donate to charity because it makes me feel better about myself.

          Perhaps others have some sort of pure and just and entirely selfless motives – but I doubt it. I agree with you that it’s virtually impossible to test – so I offer no particular evidence other than the general economic concept of revealed preferences (the fact that Scott donates to charity suggests that he prefers the world in which he gives to charity to the world in which he does not).

          • albatross says:

            Isn’t this like any other decision where you think the right thing to do is X, and so you do it even though it costs you something? You might believe it’s right based on your religious beliefs or based on some entirely secular moral reasoning, but the point is you think “donating some of my money for mosquito nets in Africa is a good thing,” and so you do it.

          • g says:

            Matt M and Xerxes both appeal to “revealed preferences”, in different ways. Matt, I’m afraid your argument appears to be circular. How do we know Scott’s charitable donations are really driven by wanting to feel good about himself? Well, he makes charitable donations, which must mean that they make him feel good. (But maybe I’m misunderstanding your argument. As it stands, it actually ends with “which must mean that he thinks the world is better because of them” and I don’t see how you actually get from there to “which must mean that he does it to feel good”.)

            Xerxes makes a more interesting argument: diminishing returns affect spending on one’s own happiness much more than they do doing good for others, therefore someone who gives only a limited amount to charitable causes must be stopping because of the diminishing returns in warm fuzzy feelings.

            To this I make two replies. First, that those diminishing returns on self-directed spending can be relevant in two ways. They can make charitable giving less valuable-per-dollar in “warm fuzzies” as one does more of it (this is Xerxes’s proposal). Or they can make the selfish things one can have instead more valuable-per-dollar as one gives more. An ideal utility-maximizer with a genuine nonzero weight on helping others and no concern at all for feeling better by helping others would still not give away everything.

            Second, that scope insensitivity afflicts even the virtuous; if saving 100 lives through charitable donation fails to feel like 10x as big an improvement in the world as saving 10 lives, that doesn’t have to be because the person doing it isn’t really doing it for their (hardly-diminishing-returns) benefits but for his (strongly-diminishing-returns) own; it could just be that that’s how our buggy monkey-brains always work. Which, y’know, it does seem to be.

            For the avoidance of doubt, I am not claiming that anyone’s charitable donations are perfectly altruistic, if indeed that even means anything. I’m sure Scott gets some warm fuzzy feelings from helping to prevent malaria, and I expect he would do a bit less to prevent malaria if those warm fuzzy feelings got less. What I think is not at all clear is that those warm fuzzy feelings are the whole story, that Scott donates “to feel good about himself” and not to benefit starving malaria-ridden Africans (or whomever). (And of course Scott is standing in here not only for himself but for many other EA-minded people.)

          • Matt M says:

            The only reason people take any action at all is because they prefer the hypothetical world in which they act to the hypothetical world in which they don’t act.

            We see Scott act by donating to charity. He prefers the world as it is following his donation to the world as it would be if he does not donate. The reasons why are not relevant (in my opinion).

            Conversely, Scott could choose to spend the night throwing money to working girls at a strip club. In which case, we can say that he prefers the world as it is following his night at the strip club to the world as it would be if he did not go there.

            Is one of those decisions more or less selfish than the other when you look at it in that manner? In both cases, Scott is substituting one set of outcomes for another set that he prefers to exist.

            Whether that counts as selfish or not is for philosophers or theologians to decide. We could argue for hours about the semantics of my claim “it makes him feel better about himself.” I don’t feel any particular need to die on either of those hills.

          • Feeble says:

            You give an exhaustive list of two (2) explanations for why people donate to charity:

            1) It is done by people to make them “feel better about themselves”
            2) It is done by people who are “pure and just and entirely selfless”

            And since the second possibility is so clearly implausible, 1) is the default best explanation.

            This is a very unimpressive argument, and moreover its structure hides the value-judgment it contains. Namely, that “morality” is really just self-love.

          • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

            I mean, there’s at the very least one more reason in Tax deduction.

          • brad says:

            You never come out ahead on a charitable tax deduction versus not donating at all. (Well, hardly ever.)

          • I think the problem with the argument you are sketching is that it confuses two different meanings of “utility.”

            In economics, utility is defined by what choices you make–that’s the point of revealed preference. If Scott chooses to spend on charity instead of fancy restaurants, doing so must give him more utility.

            But in philosophy, utility is something more like happiness or pleasure net of pain. People have some tendency to make the choice that maximizes utility in that sense, but not always. That, to me, is the point of Nozick’s experience machine story. It’s rigged so that you know connecting yourself to the machine will increase your utility in the second sense (by giving you the illusion of a life slightly better than the one you would otherwise live). But many people, myself among them, would not choose to connect to it, because we value things other than pleasure net of pain or happiness. So it does not increase utility in the first sense.

          • g says:

            Matt, if you adopt a definition of “selfish” that makes all possible decisions “selfish” simply because they are the decisions of the person who makes them and therefore reflect that person’s values, then the word has lost all meaning: there is nothing anyone could possibly do, for any possible motive, that you could not equally call “selfish”.

            I suggest that this is an indication that some other definition would work better.

        • Xerxes says:

          There is very strong evidence: revealed preference.

          From the point of view of a single person giving to charity, there is an inexhaustible list of people who can be helped. If I am valuing their benefit, then there is no diminishing returns.

          So, when an EA person gets an income gain, there is a long list of people who can use a $5 bed net just as much as the people they are already supplying with bed nets. There is no diminishing returns if we value the poor people’s benefit directly.

          In practice, we see people, even EA people, experience diminishing returns, despite the fact that the direct benefit experienced by the recipient does not diminish. Therefore, it is a self-centered benefit. They do it for their own personal benefit.

          Some of them have odd pseudo-religious beliefs that say they SHOULD value the recipient’s benefit directly, and should not experience diminishing returns. But I know of none of them that actually do.

          • @Xerxes:

            Do you realize that you are giving Howard Margolis’ refutation of Becker altruism, or did you think it up independently?

          • Xerxes says:

            I didn’t realize this, no! I posted similar thoughts in my livejournal back in January 2006 after I read a post on Becker’s blog.

            But if Margolis refuted it similarly, he must have beat me to it by a decade or more?

          • Stuart Armstrong says:

            That is an argument that there is a selfish component to all giving, not that all giving is selfish.

            Some people donate to effective causes anonymously, which is a sufficient refutation of the thesis that all giving is selfish.

          • Matt M says:

            “Some people donate to effective causes anonymously, which is a sufficient refutation of the thesis that all giving is selfish.”

            No it isn’t.

            The selfish benefit of “I give because it makes me feel better about myself” can still be obtained if you give anonymously. Perhaps even moreso, as in, “Not only am I generous and caring – I’m also not in it for the personal glory or recognition!”

          • Mary says:

            Notice the impossibility of refuting the charge of base motives that way.

          • Stuart Armstrong says:

            Shall we watch donors under MRI machines and other brain-scanning technologies (maybe compare levels of hormones)? Do people predict that donors will only donate to charities that maximise their measured pleasure?

            For “people donate only because they are selfish” to be non vacuous, it has to predict that certain behaviours will not be observed. So, what are they?

          • Skivverus says:

            @Stuart Armstrong

            I don’t know about ‘entirely’ – I see no need for anyone to be reduced to only a single motivation – but I do expect that when it comes to, say, medical research, people will donate more to fight (diseases their friends/family suffer from) than (diseases they have merely heard of), and (obviously) more to fight (diseases they have merely heard of) than (diseases they haven’t heard of).

          • Mary says:

            Notice that people keep donating after the money can no longer help those whom they love (’cause they’re dead).

    • Gbdub says:

      Why is it an either/or proposition with you? There is no reason we can’t expect the rich to be charitable AND the poor to consider working on reducing their time preference. Both of these things can happen at the same time.

      While Jesus taught generosity, I don’t remember the sermon that said “if you think you life sucks, do nothing – wait around for richer people to improve your lot for you, and yell at them if they dare to give you advice.”

      In fact he preached an awful lot about humility and austerity. What is buying Jordans or a fancy TV or a slightly bigger home now at the expense of a better life tomorrow for your kids if not a sin of pride and vanity? Going on expletive filled rants against anyone who suggests that the poor may have contributed to their own condition in some correctable way – perhaps that may also tick off “Pride” and “Envy” on the list of 7 deadlies?

      So no, not everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But many can, and it’s good to know how. I’d say that they have as much obligation to do so as the rich man has to do it for them. That way the excess can go to those who truly can’t support themselves.

      Finally, what of the old Christian proverb “count your blessings”? For the Chinese immigrant’s life, while austere by middle class American standards, is objectively better than that of at least half the people on earth. Does he “deserve” more? Perhaps. Does he “need” more? Clearly no. His efforts take at least one person off the dole, freeing up more for the even less fortunate. How is that NOT a behavior we should encourage? Heck, if anything, Jesus would praise the man for his thrift – and then criticize him for saving for himself rather than others.

      • Anonymous says:

        So no, not everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But many can, and it’s good to know how. I’d say that they have as much obligation to do so as the rich man has to do it for them. That way the excess can go to those who truly can’t support themselves.

        Yes.

        I recall a… some text, maybe it was an encyclical, where St. John Paul II indicated that welfare should be, if at all possible, temporary, so as not to damage the recipients and their ability to support themselves. Permanent welfare turns good – if poor – people into bums. I’ve seen it happen, living among such men.

        • Jill says:

          Of course it happens. Such is the result of throwing money at people and then turning your back, not looking at the results.

          • The Nybbler says:

            If we’re not permitted to judge the behavior of those we throw money at, and perhaps insist they modify it, what difference does it make if we look at the results or not?

    • Jill says:

      I think it is greet that Scott and the on line charity he prefers, give money to poor Africans. OTOH, I do also keep wondering why so few charities focus on the poor in the U.S. Is it only because people want to be distant and insulated from the poor or not to hassle with figuring out complex problems in your own back yard, so to speak?

      • Matt M says:

        You’re hanging out in the rationalist space too often.

        My friends and family think it’s absurd that I donate to African charities when “there are people here that need helping” (sometimes including themselves). I’ll bet you most Americans are *far* more aware and conscious of the thousands of charities for the poor in the US than they are of the thousands of charities for the poor worldwide.

        Also keep in mind that the competition for “helping the poor in the US” is not confined to organized charities. Almost every church does some of this. You can also choose to give money to panhandlers. There are plenty of ways for someone to scratch their “give to the poor in your local community” itch without having to involve a third-party formal organization…

      • baconbacon says:

        ” OTOH, I do also keep wondering why so few charities focus on the poor in the U.S…”

        Quantify “so few”.

      • Anonymous says:

        We already give a great deal to the would-otherwise-be-poor in the US via our taxes. Other than those ineligible because of their immigration status or those unwilling or unable to access government services (usually because of mental illness) we don’t have poor in the United States.

        That’s a great thing and should be celebrated! I’m not sure why you want to deny this success and pretend it doesn’t exist — indeed are so desperate to pretend it doesn’t exist that you would take food out of the mouths of starving people in Africa.

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        It’s more efficient to help those in areas where the cost of living is much lower, and where the same amount donated goes a lot further.

      • Desertopa says:

        Bigger bang for your buck. If you want to help people as much as possible, you look for places where the donation you can afford to give has the biggest impact.

        Lots of charities focus their efforts in the US, but people in the Effective Altruist movement by and large tend to favor ones that don’t, because they’d rather do more good elsewhere rather than less good in their own backyards.

        A few hundred dollars in an impoverished nation can save the lives of people who would otherwise have died, and safeguard the health of people who would otherwise be crippled by disease. Nonprofits in America don’t achieve that level of cost-effective impact. Certainly, none of the ones I’ve worked at ever came close.

    • Mary says:

      Shifting the goalposts. Your abuse was for people who didn’t think themselves obliged to hand out whatever amenities YOU pleased. People have the perfect right to do what they please.

  23. LWNielsenim says:

    Scott Alexander concludes “I think my “secret” [to escaping poverty] was not having a car, debts, drugs, or dependents.”

    One of these things is not like the others” (as the Sesame Street song goes), and it is plausible that the “thing not like the others” is bound up in the word dependents.

    To appreciate this, a useful exercise is to visit weekly the forums of Out of the FOG (OOTF) website (purpose: “helping family members and loved-ones of people who suffer from personality disorders”) and examine the most recent dozen OOTF comments, with no bias-inducing postselection or rationalized rejection (it is helpful to have at-hand OOTF’s glossary of acronyms).

    Many of the OOTF comments will be concerned poverty as causally arising from personality disorders in dependents, including crucially, parents and siblings as emotional dependents. Note that in general that shortfalls in empathy among dependents are far more problematic — in terms of causing both emotional and economic poverty — than are shortfalls in rationality among dependents.

    Perhaps I should mention too, that a young person of my acquaintance is presently undergoing a stressful healthcare internship among patients with who suffer from [severe cognitive disorder] that is associated to [profound social isolation and marginalization]. In this exceedingly challenging patient population, the sequelae of empathic incapacity are more intractable than the sequelae of economic poverty and/or shortfalls in rationality.

    The OOTF observations, interpreted as indicating a major causal role for empathy shortfalls in poverty, are broadly consonant with Scott’s postulate that

    “American poverty can genuinely lower IQ (and presumably all the other good things associated with IQ like responsibility and prosocial behavior), but European poverty can’t.”

    Perhaps the difference is that in America (as contrasted to Europe), economic poverty is more closely associated to empathic poverty?

    Is the progressive remediation of empathic deficiency acting as a primary causal mechanism for the Flynn Effect? Namely, as social environments become more nurturing of empathic cognition, do they become more conducive to the development of general intelligence?

    If so, this is very good news for everyone, because there’s plenty of social margin for further interventional enhancements of empathic cognition. And it is reasonable to wonder too, whether enhancements in empathic cognition, at both the community and individual levels, might have more effectively acted to prevent recent horrific events in Orlando, than any feasible level of purely economic incentives or ratiocination.

  24. Matt M says:

    There are also probably “cultural values” that are independent from economic circumstances.

    I was just in grad school – I’m a fairly frugal guy myself, so I opted to live in some fairly run-down (but perfectly adequate and up to code) housing a little ways away from campus. It turns out, 90% of my neighbors here are foreign students (mostly Indian, some Chinese). 90% of my American (white, black, hispanic, whatever) classmates live in fairly luxurious apartments close to campus – even the ones whose financial situation was much worse off than mine (I was going to school on the MGIB and a full fellowship – probably made money on net while studying, carried no pre-existing debt and didn’t need to take any new debt out).

    I got to know the Indian students pretty well. Even in the “cheap” part of town, all of them had roommates. It never even seemed to enter their mind to not have a room-mate, even at ages 25-30. For myself, I had a one-bedroom with a loft. Had many of them over for a party once, and to a man, they all considered this arrangement of my own to be an example of foolish American extravagance. They could not comprehend why someone (and remember, I’m cheap relative to other Americans) would need so much space for themselves.

    Were they living in “worse conditions” than I was? Well if you collected a statistic such as “people per square foot of housing space” then yeah, definitely. But is that a relevant statistic if their culture is such that they don’t particularly mind that?

    • Anon says:

      This is the sort of example I was talking about when I said to drop your lifestyle by one level and not to rock bottom earlier above.

      • Matt M says:

        As an addendum: Most of these students were not “poor”, by Indian standards. They were upper-middle class at worst in India. Many of them had parents who were “rich” by Indian standards. When I asked them why they didn’t get money from their parents – they dismissed this as far too embarrassing to consider. They came to the US to prove that they could make it on their own – and might someday return to run the family business, once they have proven their worth.

        One other thing I forgot to mention – despite living farther from campus, none of them had cars (this particular housing area was popular because there was a bus-line that went directly to the school). Most of the American students who lived within walking distance had cars (and paid a hefty sum for parking in addition to regular car expenses). They also thought my keeping a car was somewhat foolish, given that I lived right by a bus stop that went directly to campus.

        • Mary says:

          Huh. When I went to college, overwhelming the students with cars were the poor ones. They needed it to get to their jobs.

          • Evan Þ says:

            I’d guess it varies a lot by college. When I went to college in downstate Illinois, pretty much everyone who wasn’t from inner-city Chicago or out of state had a car, because they’d grown up in a culture where it was expected.

          • Matt M says:

            Clarification: This was a full-time graduate program, not undergraduate. Virtually nobody had a job outside school. I think the foreign students were under student visas such that they weren’t allowed to have jobs while here (but I’m not 100% sure on that)

    • Anthony says:

      I live in a single room with a roommate. There are two bathrooms on our apartment’s floor, and one kitchen shared by two floors. I’m fine. I’m happy. I don’t need more space.

      I cannot tell you how much pressure I get from family and friends to move to a different place. It’s incomprehensible to me — why am I not allowed to save money? Where’s the rule that says that if you make a good salary, you should pay a quarter, a third of it to horrifically inflated housing costs?

      I had a conversation with a coworker who found out how I lived. He literally thought that I was breaking the law by living in a rent-controlled apartment. “Aren’t those just for poor people?” It’d never occurred to him to move into a place like it, and none of his friends ever had, so he thought doing so was illegal.

      In my apartment, there are multiple rooms which house entire families. It’s cramped, but they’re okay. If I were them, I’d want to get out, but not if the choice was between that and debt.

      Some things about American culture confuse me.

      • Nicholas says:

        Yeah, I’m looking at moving into an apartment with my girlfriend and two other friends who aren’t a couple together. The first thing my girlfriend’s mother said, to our faces, was basically “I didn’t know you were a failure. Do you need me to buy you an apartment instead of resorting to living with losers?”

  25. Joe says:

    I wonder how much of of the dependent problem could be solved by easing or eliminating child labor law. At least let the child choose… I’ve been in a high school class and I’ve worked at Ralph Polo Lauren… at least I got to call my manager by his first name at Ralph Polo.

    Honestly, much of high school seems like a waste of time, that in the long run neither contributes to people as like an “educated person” (because they forget what they learn a year later) or helps with job skills (for the average person).

    And it wouldn’t surprise me, looking at the social science of the effects being mercilessly ranked compared to your peers, of destroying motivation through extrinsic rewards, that the whole project of public education might be analogous to indoor plumbing that is laced with lead (before we knew lead was bad)

    Seems good, probably a net benefit, but with terrible social consequences that we don’t quite understand.

    • Cadie says:

      I’d have probably been much happier if I could have spent a summer studying a bit, then taken a GED exam at 13-14, and started working full-time with it immediately instead of messing around with high school. I don’t think I learned anything in that four-year span that was useful enough to justify the time and costs, both actual costs and psychological. By the end of junior high I definitely had sufficient math and language skills for jobs not requiring specialized education. Not good enough to run a marketing department or be a high-level business accountant, but good enough for an assistant manager at a grocery store. (Not that you’d hire a 14-year-old for that; I’d need to start as a cashier or produce stocker first and work my way up over a few years. Which is pretty much what I did, but very part-time until I was old enough to work full-time because of rules against full-time work at 14 and being stuck in high school all day.)

      That might not be typical, but it would have been nice if skipping high school was an option contingent upon passing the equivalency exam early.

      • What you describe isn’t that far from what the Amish routinely do. Education through eighth grade in a one or two room schoolhouse with mixed ages, then home schooling that consists of learning to help run a farm or business or household.

      • Desertopa says:

        Americans often regard Japan as stressing education more strongly than we do, but at least over there, they recognize that you don’t really need more than a middle school level education to participate in the job market. Middle school is the highest level of mandatory schooling there, and you can enter the job market directly from there if you so choose. If you want to be, say, a factory foreman, having a high school diploma will give you an edge over someone with only a middle school diploma, but you can still work your way up on the job given a middle school education. At least to my understanding, they mostly don’t encourage people to go to college for careers that can reasonably be performed with a high school education.

    • gbdub says:

      I had summer jobs in most of high school, but I lived in a tourist / retiree town and seasonal hospitality work was plentiful. This was good – it gave me spending / gas money for the year and a bit saved away for incidentals in college. I also knew several friends who worked on farms for relatives and made some money that way.

      Unfortunately it’s a lot harder for teens to find work since the adult unemployment is high. Higher minimum wage laws would exacerbate this for teens since they (being usually “subsidized” by their parents) would be willing to work for lower wages.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >I wonder how much of of the dependent problem could be solved by easing or eliminating child labor law.

      There’s far less call for unskilled labour than there used to be. There are a few niches – babysitting is the one everyone mentions – but for more and more professions, the unskilled are unemployable at any price (eg consider many positions in retail; having someone unskilled, incompetent, or surly is a net negative, even if they work for free).

      • “having someone unskilled, incompetent, or surly is a net negative”

        None of those is necessarily true of a fourteen year old, or even a ten year old. “Unskilled” is closest, but there are lots of jobs where the new hire is expected to be unskilled, and learns the job by doing it.

        There are a lot of checkout clerks and waiters and such, jobs that can be done as well by a fourteen year old as by an adult. Some fourteen year olds are really good at dealing with younger children–better than many of the teachers who have the job of doing it.

        My sister, who is two years older than I am, taught me to read. She would have been about seven at the time. No reason why a somewhat older child who knew how to read and liked doing it couldn’t do the same for other five year olds.

        • Stuart Armstrong says:

          Yes, there is some call for unskilled labour of that type. But much less than there was previously, and, I’d wager, not nearly enough to employ children of the poor in sufficient numbers to make any difference. Most jobs are going like the military did: initially, they’d take any watm body with basic competence, but they’re starting to climb the skill ladder.

          And I notice that checkout clerks and waiters are high on the list of jobs due to be automated. Childcare seems the only mid-term safe area for children or teenagers to work in.

          • John Schilling says:

            Childcare isn’t a safe area for children or teenagers to work in the mid term because our precious, precious children are too very precious to be entrusted to anyone but a certified and regulated professional. Who will probably be a worse babysitter than David’s 12-year-old future fighter pilot, but whose signature on the Child Care Provider License Application will be legally recognized.

            Near term, it’s still an option, and I expect there will still be niches a generation from now, but the trend isn’t looking good.

          • One question that has been raised is how much of the shortage of low skilled jobs is because of government interference with the labor market which makes hiring low skilled employees more expensive.

        • Desertopa says:

          Children are often able to teach skills, but rarely able to manage classrooms. A seven year old child may be able to teach one smart and cooperative five year old to read, but is unlikely to be able to teach even one dim and uncooperative five year old to read, let alone five together along with a class of twenty others.

          A seven year old teaching a single cooperative five year old might be able to do as good a job as a teacher who has a couple other students to deal with, maybe better, and so be able to provide that service for some fraction of what a teacher would have made, but they’d pretty much have to work for parents directly, since it’s not worth it to any other employer to coordinate their services. But not many parents are likely to hire a seven year old to teach their kid, given alternatives.

          • “A seven year old teaching a single cooperative five year old might ”

            I wrote:

            ” No reason why a somewhat older child who knew how to read and liked doing it couldn’t do the same for other five year olds.”

            That was after describing my seven year old sister teaching me to read. “Somewhat older” was intended to be read as “somewhat older than seven.”

    • Walter says:

      School is mostly to keep kids out of the way, I think. I consider it to be basically state sponsored baby sitting for the most part. If you do home schooling you’ll see how very little time it takes to teach a kid the things they learn in ‘real school’. It is almost entirely makework, necessary in order to give Mom and Dad time to work and contribute to the economy.

      • Desertopa says:

        I suspect that a significant portion of the time investment that goes into school is more due to the increased difficulty of multiple kids at a time relative to teaching one. If you’re homeschooling a kid, you can get them to absorb the material several times faster than you can if you’re trying to teach even, say, eight kids at once (in my experience, the difficulty of teaching kids increases with their number on something like a log2 or log3 scale, where a doubling of teaching difficulty corresponds to somewhere between a doubling and tripling of the number of students.) If we could provide a student to teacher ratio of something like two or three, we could slash the amount of time it takes to teach the same lessons and get the average student up to par, but we’d be spending a lot more money on education in order to do it.

        Homework, on the other hand, there’s no excuse for; that’s almost entirely a signaling race at the expense of the students.

        • Matt M says:

          Random anecdote: My mom is an elementary school teacher and her and her co-workers regularly complain if they end up with “large” class sizes.

          I once challenged her with something like “oh come on, going from 25 (a size she considers acceptable) to 30 (a size she considers entirely too much) is only an increase of 20%, how much of a difference can that make?” and I thought she was going to punch me out. She insists that the difference between even 25 and 28 is huge.

          • “She insists that the difference between even 25 and 28 is huge.”

            My understanding of studies that try to control for multiple factors is that student-teacher ratio doesn’t seem to have much effect on learning.

          • Matt M says:

            Hey, I’m not saying she’s right.

            But the perspective – from the teachers – is that it makes a huge difference. Whether the difference is one of “student outcomes” or “teacher job satisfaction” is up for debate. I’d also point out that her incentive is obviously to loudly insist that fewer students = better outcomes (because they’re virtually no question that fewer students = easier life for teacher)

          • Anonymous says:

            My understanding of studies that try to control for multiple factors is that student-teacher ratio doesn’t seem to have much effect on learning.

            Why does homeschooling work, then? Do those studies also include governesses?

          • Alex says:

            Why does homeschooling work, then? Do those studies also include governesses?

            Because what is broken about school is not the student-teacher ratio?

          • Anonymous says:

            Well, my first guess would have been the ratio. What else is broken?

          • notes says:

            The most persuasive argument for class sizes being a real issue that I’ve heard is that disruptive students have disproportionate and reinforcing effects. One student who acts out can disrupt the whole class; two feed off each other and do so more often and more severely. Worse, they recruit others to do so as well. Think of it as a fission chain reaction, and teachers as the control rods inserted to keep any given classroom from going critical and reenacting Lord of the Flies: as the class size grows, the likelihood of of the class going critical approaches unity… given any material proportion of disruptive students.

            If true, class sizes can be arbitrarily large given self-motivated, self-governing students; likewise, even small class sizes will be difficult given higher proportions of disruptors. In theory, that explains why the statistical studies on the subject might miss the impact.

            College lecture classes manage to be quite large, but then such students usually have better self-control… and the students who would rather do something than sit through a lecture generally just absent themselves, which does have the virtue of being less disruptive.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Have the people here who don’t think class size matters never gone through the experience of trying to teach someone something they were having trouble understanding?

            It’s laborious. You have to work with them. It does not scale well.

            What about providing individual feedback on written work? Have you ever tried to do this? It is laborious. It does not scale well.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @HeelBearCub
            Trying to explain something to one student who doesn’t understand something doesn’t scale at all, past class size = 1. The job of the teacher in that case is to manage to keep teaching the other students. If they try to teach the one, they’ll lose them all. Smaller class sizes only help in reducing the probability of hitting that one student.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @TheNybbler:
            That is completely facile and simplistic. It is akin to saying that the only way to have a retail store is to not offer to help people find items.

            You need enough employees to serve the likely needs of the customers in the store. If you reduce staffing, your ability to serve the customer is reduced or fundamentally changed. There is a qualitative difference between the old local hardware store and the current big-box implementation.

            But it’s complete bullshit to say that the old time hardware store can’t function if there is not a ratio of 1 employee to 1 customer.

          • The Nybbler says:

            A retail store is not a classroom. If I have 50 minutes to teach a lesson which takes that long to teach, I can’t stop and help a single student who just isn’t getting it; the slack just isn’t there. If I do, I’m short-changing the other students. In a retail store, if my one employee on the register has to help a customer find things, the others will wait longer (or leave); these aren’t options with the classroom.

          • Saint Fiasco says:

            @HeelBearCub

            Don’t students ask each other for help in that situation? Then the teacher would only have to make sure *most* students get it, and then the rest can ask their classmates for help.

          • Desertopa says:

            “The most persuasive argument for class sizes being a real issue that I’ve heard is that disruptive students have disproportionate and reinforcing effects. One student who acts out can disrupt the whole class; two feed off each other and do so more often and more severely. Worse, they recruit others to do so as well. Think of it as a fission chain reaction, and teachers as the control rods inserted to keep any given classroom from going critical and reenacting Lord of the Flies: as the class size grows, the likelihood of of the class going critical approaches unity… given any material proportion of disruptive students.”

            I’m not sure if it’s the original source where you read that claim, but this is pretty much exactly the point I made a few months ago on this site. This is the primary mechanism in my experience by which class size becomes an issue, but putting it a little bit more broadly, the larger the number of students, the lower the proportion of time the average student spends focused on the content. Part of it is disruption, part of it is students feeling less pressure to be attentive when they have a crowd to blend into.

            On top of that though, most students, although not all, are going to have questions, or fail to understand the first given explanation sometimes. The greater the number of students, the greater the number of questions and misunderstandings need to be addressed on average per unit of content. If you only teach to the level of the students who always understand everything on the first explanation, eventually, not just the lowest performers, but nearly everyone ends up behind.

            By the college level, the students who don’t have the competence or motivation to teach themselves at all have mostly been filtered out, and the students who have difficulty understanding on their own can often help each other in study groups, leaving a smaller proportion who need additional instruction from the professor and can come for help during office hours. At lower levels though, classroom instruction usually needs to be somewhat more exhaustive to keep students from falling behind.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @TheNybler:
            Every class I have ever been in allowed students to ask questions. Most classes also have the teacher asking students to engage as well. For lower grades, there are almost always “work in class” times that allow the teacher to do work with individual students.

            As students get older and more mature, we see less of this in certain situations, but even in very large size lecture classes it is common to have “sections” that allow the same type of interaction.

            And you also ignored the part about written work. Do you really think that a curriculum entirely composed of machine-gradeable tests without any feedback other than “right/wrong” is going to produce the best results? At all grades?

        • “If you’re homeschooling a kid, you can get them to absorb the material several times faster than you can if you’re trying to teach even, say, eight kids at once”

          It sounds as though your model is one in which an hour of kid learning requires an hour of parent teaching. That isn’t usually the case. Unschooling, which is what we did, occasionally involves close interaction, but mostly it’s what I describe as throwing books at a kid and seeing which ones stick.

          Teaching reading took a fair amount of my wife’s time for a couple of weeks for my daughter, none of our time for her younger brother. Yes they were very bright kids, but contrast that to the idea that it takes months of adult time with a ratio of 1:1, a year with a more typical schoolroom ratio.

          • Evan Þ says:

            One more datapoint: I taught myself to read at age four, and was homeschooled into high school. Throughout elementary age, history class was basically “throw books at me and stand back while I soak them up.”

            However, for math, my mom had to spell out each lesson to me and – at least through third grade – stand close by to make sure I was actually doing the worksheets. Also, even though I was already reading, she insisted on giving me a couple years of rigorous phonics. I can’t be sure what effect all this had on my eventual outcomes; maybe full-out unschooling would’ve put me at the same place I am now, and I don’t think she had to be quite as rigorous as she was. But, I definitely think non-unschooling helped.

          • Desertopa says:

            Unschooling appears to be fairly effective in cases where the kids in question are smart, motivated, have a good environment to learn in, and ideally, good examples to follow. Without these factors, kids default to essentially the same level of ignorance as non-schooled children for whom educational materials are not available.

            I’ve taught kids who were homeschooled, alongside kids from poor inner city schools, in the same programs, and the homeschooled kids tended to fall well below the already low educational standards of the public-schooled kids, because as bad as the educational environment for the public schooled kids was, the homeschooled kids were not receiving instruction from competent adults who understood the material required to meet state educational standards, nor were they competent at self-instruction and investigation.

        • notes says:

          @Desertopa

          No, though if we traced the observation back far enough it might have a common ancestor.

          Short of some kind of wholesale technological disruption, or a significant shift in cultural values, I just don’t see how the system as a whole changes. And neither of those look easy.

    • Salem says: