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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. Daniel says:

    As a datapoint, I did not found the $20K figure impressive. I lived in Pittsburgh a year or two ago for about that on $1600 per month (pretty close). With my wife and a newborn. We managed to get free health for the baby (not for us, we spent around $250, with a maximum out of pocket of $500). A 700 sq feet apt (1 bedroom, 1 bath, small living and kitchen) at a nice, quiet neighborhood, went for $800 per month and included gas, water, heating. Electricity and internet was extra, but not that expensive, definitely less than $100. No car. Food I think was around $200 – $250. Banking is mostly free these days. No starving diet or anything, it included milk, meat, vegetables, even some luxuries. The rest went for some new clothes and some mint-condition used clothes and even spend some on renting a car for one or two roadtrips on the cheap. Good life, no complaints at all.

    Of course, in NY, San Francisco or other places I could not even have had the rent paid, so YMMV. But it is certainly possible and it can even be confortable even with a few dependencies.

    Of course, the “no debt, no drugs” piece is a given.

  2. C7 says:

    I’m a little late to the party here on this thread… sorry if this has been said already…

    I wonder if the finding that poverty leads to lower IQs in the US is due to environmental issues that don’t exist in Europe due to stronger regulations. One vector: being in poverty leads to having to live in places with lead paint leads to lower IQ. You could imagine this with other living conditions. No evidence to support this, just purely hypothesizing.

    • Luke the CIA Stooge says:

      Hadn’t thought of that interpretation.

      I had assumed it meant the US was more of a meritocracy: thus lower IQ clustering at the bottom. Whereas european style protectionism and rent seeking made families and communities the unit of economic activity, thus locking the unconnected into poverty and the connected into wealth regardless of IQ or economic potential.

      IQ should float to the top in a dynamic economy, so the poor being lower IQ (and thus the children of the poor inheriting that lower IQ) shouldn’t be surprising in an advanced economy.

      But if poverty itself is lowering intelligence (no idea if Europe has more or less lead based paint) then that’s a damn strong argument for government programs to alleviate poverty (insofar as said programs can be scientifically demonstrated to improve IQ) as any gain in increased tax revenue over lifetime/reduced dependency should more than make up for the initial capital outlay. And can be justified as correcting a market failure (bad early childhoods producing negative externalities)

      The problem is most of this money is being spent on things we know doesn’t boost long term IQ (preschool ect.) and aren’t spending it on things that would (ripping out all lead based paint in the nation, increasing iodine in pregnant women).

      My girlfriend, med student, was also saying that drinking during the first month of/immediately before pregnancy is associated with adverse childhood outcomes so, baring attempts to prevent fertile women from drinking, increased birth control availability should reduce the number of conceptions that happen while the mother is drinking/going to drink later, with the assumption being women trying to get pregnant will refrain from drinking.

  3. onyomi says:

    There’s a long thread above about people today lacking basic home-ec skills, which seems quite accurate to me.

    But my question is: what happened? Is it just a kind of convenience trap? Is it related to women entering the workforce and so no longer teaching their daughters how to cook, sew, etc.? I personally can cook, but I also lack the manly skill of repairing cars and appliances, so I’m not claiming to be exempt from this trend. Why did our grandparents know how to do everything for themselves and we don’t? Is it just that, as soon as it can possibly afford not to, a culture will let any given skill atrophy?

    • Anonymous says:

      Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me, but I’m going to take the other side.

      We don’t know how to sew anymore because it isn’t important. Clothes are stupid cheap and come in a huge range of sizes. Sure it’d be great to know how to put on a button, but if that’s not part of some larger project, which is now obsolete, then it probably isn’t going to stick.

      Similarly with respect to fixing cars — cars are extremely reliable these days compared to even 25 years ago, much less 50. On top of that they require considerably more specialized and expensive equipment to diagnose and repair. Again, it would be nice to be able to change your own oil and such, but I don’t know that it makes sense as a standalone skill rather than the introduction to fixing cars generally.

      Specialization and economies of scale are a good thing. There’s a tendency of hobbyists of all kinds to single out their hobby as special, not-really-a-hobby but rather something everyone should do. I think that’s part of what’s going on in the “How come everyone can’t fix cars or lay down floors anymore?”

    • The Nybbler says:

      Part of it is it’s really hard to learn to do everything; there’s only a finite amount of time to learn. My grandfather could build a retaining wall; I can’t, but on the other hand there’s no way my grandfather could repair a TV, which I have. For cars, I think the skill required has gone up while the need for the skill has gone down, so it’s fallen out of the routine skills everyone (or at least every boy) learns. (On the other hand, if you claim you can’t check or change the oil in most cars I’m going to claim you just don’t want to get dirty. On the gripping hand, you don’t save much money if any by changing your own).

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Occasionally I’ve had people suggest I could change my own oil, and even though I want to learn more mechanical things, things seems incredibly low payoff.

        I’ve seen my dad do it. Drain the oil, put the new oil in. (Then find a place to drop off the old oil. Some people in my dad’s generation would let it drain into the sewer.) Not much to learn. Although I could be underestimating the benefit of just getting familiar and comfortable under the car.

      • John Schilling says:

        On the gripping hand, you don’t save much money if any by changing your own

        The mechanical knowledge, skill, and confidence associated with changing your own oil is I think strongly correlated with that necessary to understand when the dealership/JiffyLube franchise is or is not hornswoggling you with the list of other services they just discovered your car desperately needs and which happen to be their real profit center. Erring either direction on that one can be costly.

      • Nornagest says:

        Checking your oil is trivially easy and everyone should be able to do it. Changing it isn’t exactly hard, and your owner’s manual will probably tell you how to do it if you don’t know; but you do need level (ideally off-street) parking, and it’s not as easy as it was when almost every car had the ground clearance to crawl under without equipment.

        (Sure, almost every car still ships with a jack, but I wouldn’t want to get under a car held up only by the bottle jack in the spare tire compartment unless I had no other option.)

        • John Schilling says:

          level (ideally off-street) parking

          What you really want is a ditch or depression just a bit narrower than the wheel width of your car.

        • Bone Man with Shiny Hat says:

          I will never change the oil in my car. In addition to the hassle of having to go buy oil, and figure out where to take the used oil, there’s the fear that I didn’t put the plug back in correctly and will destroy the entire engine.

          On the other hand, I do lots of stuff around the house: replace the snapped shower arm (the original was plastic with a metallized coating), fix the garbage disposal, replace a light switch with a dimmer switch, fix the garbage disposal, clear the gunk from the dishwasher arm, fix the garbage disposal, replace the dimmer switch with a regular light switch because the dimmer switch makes an annoying high-pitched whine that only my wife can hear, fix the garbage disposal, reorder the light switches in a multi-switch fixture, fix the garbage disposal, replace the deadbolt on the front door because the toddler jammed a stick in it and I’m not sure its keying is exactly random anyway, and fix the garbage disposal. Some come up more often than others.

          “Fix the garbage disposal” usually means checking that it’s off, double-checking that it’s off, reaching my right hand down the sink drain (I’m left-handed), fishing around for whatever plastic thingie or citrus peel or olive pit or grape twig is gumming up the works, grabbing a 1/4″ Allen wrench, and applying it to the thing on the bottom of the disposal that’s there for that very purpose.

          (Incidentally: it’s always very easy to get the garbage disposal gears moving again with the Allen-wrench-accepting socket. I’m pretty sure they keep the torque of the motor lower than what you can apply by hand, so it’s not powerful enough to get stuck so badly that you can’t unstick it by hand. This is a good example of “slack”.)

          The other day, I got a frazzled call from my wife asking when I’d be home because the sink was backed up and the dishwasher wouldn’t drain. The solution was to… fix the garbage disposal. I’m almost positive she could have done this herself; is she just trying to make me feel useful?

          • John Schilling says:

            there’s the fear that I didn’t put the plug back in correctly and will destroy the entire engine

            The only time the plug wasn’t put back in correctly on my car, it was the technician at a local Jiffy-Lube equivalent that botched the job.

            It’s a screw. It’s very hard to get that wrong. But if it’s a concern, the guy you want turning the wrench is not the Certified Professional Screw-Plug-Turner, but the guy who is afraid he might do it wrong.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I’d suggest you replace the garbage disposal with one that doesn’t need to be “fixed” quite so often. I haven’t had to “fix” mine in years, since I was living in an apartment with a bottom-of-the-line disposal.

          • keranih says:

            Modern engines can go a lot further than you think on next to no oil. Checking the oil level before and after work every day for a couple days is a reasonable non-paranoid response to being unsure if you have a leak of some sort.

            (It’s really crazy how much one doesn’t have to do the things that I was taught one HAD to do every fill-up – manual tire pressure, oil, fluids, look at the tread and the belts, wash the windows.)

    • Luke the CIA stooge says:

      That being said their are new skills everyone should know that aren’t being proliferated: computer repair/ skillful use, personal finance, using the sharing economy, creating and executing plans, how to get certifications/occupational lisenses, how to start a small business (house cleaning, yard work, etc. ). Each of these skill could be the difference of thousands of dollars a year in money saved or earned and none of the are taught in school. Yet our resources aren’t being spent trying to teach them but instead trying to turn 5 quintile poor kids into first quintile middle class kids.

      • onyomi says:

        “Yet our resources aren’t being spent trying to teach them but instead trying to turn 5 quintile poor kids into first quintile middle class kids.”

        I think this relates to the relative value of time spent cooking, sewing, repairing vs. time spent working. If you can earn $50 an hour working, then spending time cooking probably is a waste of time in a purely economic sense (that is, beyond the possible personal enjoyment or health benefits, etc.). But if you earn 8.50 an hour, then spending time cooking some cheap, nutritious, bulk meals is well worth the money you save not eating out.

        In other words, everyone is being pushed to learn a 21st-c. upper middle class skill set (which includes not learning the skills people making $50/hour don’t need), even when they are not well served by doing so.

        I have a couple of friends whose plight I think illustrates this perfectly. They are a married couple in their 30s, both with okay-ish liberal arts degrees from 4-year institutions. They make something like $20,000/year each working at somewhere like Target (wholly irrelevant to their education) and are apparently financially unable to move out of a tiny bedroom in one of their parents’ house. They each own a car to get to their respective jobs, and these cars have sometimes required expensive repairs. They do not know how to cook, and the in-laws don’t like them using the kitchen, so they eat restaurant-prepared meals I’d say about 15x/week. And of course there are the credit card interest payments.

        Admittedly, they live in a highish-rent area, but a combined $40,000/year should be enough for a couple to live independently in an apartment of their own. Now imagine they had no student loans or credit card interest payments, cooked cheap food for themselves instead of going out all the time, and knew how to repair the car when it broke down. I think that could easily make the difference. But they have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to do any of that.

        And these people didn’t even grow up poor. Their parents are middleish class. If they were each making $50/hr, then not worrying about cooking, auto repair, student loans, and the like might be a rational calculation. But they don’t. In other words, what skill set they have was largely inappropriate for the life they ended up leading.

        Though they could have made better choices, I don’t entirely blame them, either. Their parents don’t seem to know how to cook either, and I don’t think it was unreasonable of them to expect better jobs to result from their degrees, considering all the propaganda about a 4-year degree as a ticket to a good job.

        Which is not to say I think we need to teach “poor people home ec” to one group of students and “rich people home ec” to another; rather, probably everyone should spend a lot more time in school on practical skills. If you turn out poorer than you expected, well then at least you know how to cook and fix a car. If you turn out to want a PhD in classics, well, then Plato’s always there.

        • Nornagest says:

          I don’t think this topic needs politicizing.

        • onyomi says:

          Yeah, I’d rather not. As I said, these are actual friends of mine and they are pretty happy and well-adjusted, considering their situation (probably less bitter than I’d be in their shoes).

          I just give their case as an example of how, even two people with a middle class background working full time without any terrible drinking, drug, or gambling addictions can nevertheless remain in a perpetual financial hole. And how that hole might easily have been avoided or escaped, even on the same salaries, if only we were taught more realistic life skills in school.

        • Loquat says:

          It’s very strange to me that they’re living with parents but not sharing meals with them – although if the parents don’t cook either, and just go out or get takeout themselves, it’s a bit more comprehensible. Still seems like multi-generational failure, though.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          If anyone is looking for an example of the kind of comment that I call a “drive-by”, this is one.

          I just don’t think it does anything for the discourse or the community.

        • Hlynkacg says:

          @HBC
          I am inclined to agree.

      • “Yet our resources aren’t being spent trying to teach them but instead trying to turn 5 quintile poor kids into first quintile middle class kids.”

        I don’t think the content of conventional schooling is all that well designed for first quintile kids either, which is one of the reasons we unschooled ours.

    • Civilis says:

      I think a lot of it comes down to time preference.

      I can only cook a few incredibly basic things. My failure to learn this is not obviously genetic or cultural, as my parents and brother are all pretty good cooks, able to prepare a variety of foods and willing and able to pick up new recipes quickly. For me, cooking when I don’t have to is a lot of time, effort and waste for little gain. I’d have to find a recipe, go shopping, spend the time to cook and clean up afterwards, and deal with the fact that most recipe and ingredient portions seem to be built around preparing well more than I can eat before it goes bad or I get sick of it. I’m well aware that over time, I’d probably do better to learn to cook than to eat out, but the time involved to learn to cook is heavily placed on the early part of it (once I learned to cook, it would be a lot faster and less frustrating, but the first forays into cooking will be much more time intensive and much more frustrating).

      We’ve gotten used to the choice to not have to spend time cooking, mending clothes, etc. I guess this may be what you mean by convenience trap. If you have to cook most of your meals or mend most of your clothes, you can indulge on the occasional meal out or new outfit. When almost all of your meals are eaten out and almost all of your clothes are new, it’s a lot harder to cook in or mend that outfit because you don’t have the necessary skills.

      I think a lot of this applies to work as well. Having a steady job isn’t just tied to the time spent working for money. You have to schedule waking up at a specific time, your morning routine, and the commute in and out from work. You may no longer be able to hang out with friends outside of work like you used to because of the scheduling requirements of the job. For most of us, those basic time-management tradeoffs are an acceptable part of working. For someone that has gotten used to the freedom of not having a fixed schedule, suddenly losing most of your free time may not be worth the payoff, especially if they are fixated on the short term.

  4. Bryan Willman says:

    There’s another problem with “saving a lot of you income”….

    Will it make your life better?

    If you are in the $10/hr (still) min wage crowd, saving 25% (a big number) means you build up a whopping $5K per year. After a few years of this, you can cover many emergencies and not be homeless if you get fired. Those are great things. But your standard of living is…. exactly the same. And after 40 years of this, your retirement standard of living will be … quite austere.

    Some unpoor person in say the $100K per year crowd saving 25% after a few years has a down payment on a nice dwelling, or the total cost of nice car, or the basis of decent retirement savings plan. There is an UPSIDE.

    Note also the observation that people who (a) finish high school and (b) don’t have child before being in an established household, don’t generally end up very poor. (No debts, no dependents, implication no addictions, implication employable…)

    • keranih says:

      On edit: Doing the comparison to someone making $100K is really not appropriate. That’s twice the average household income. That’s rich. We’re not talking rich, we’re talking not desperately poor so that they need assistance.

      $1K is enough to handle most emergencies at that level.

      Even $500 will keep you out of serious tail cracks. You won’t get evicted, you’ll make it work, you can take a day off with no pay and go to the doctor or to court, you can pay a traffic ticket, etc – and you’ll never have to get a payday loan.

      And someone who is contentious enough to do that saving is probably also aware enough of their situation to not speed, to leave early for work, to avoid late fees on their bills, and is extremely unlikely to stay working at minimum wage.

      It’s not so much the lack of income as it is the compound crap decisions that keep multiplying.

    • enoriverbend says:

      “you build up a whopping $5K per year… And after 40 years of this, your retirement standard of living will be … quite austere.”

      After the first $5 or 10K, a reasonable person would consider investing more widely for slightly greater returns.

      And 40 years of $5k/year at a 5% return means $600K (7% would mean $1M). I’m not sure I’d call that austere.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Being able to maintain your working-years lifestyle in retirement is what most people want.

      • Murphy says:

        5%?

        Risk-free it’s out the window and a quick glance at a simple index fund indicates you’d have only got a little over 1% in the last year.

        And that’s unusually good. It’s at 6.78 percent over the past decade. Not per year, that’s the return if you put it in 10 years ago and waited until now.

        So even low risk seems to be out the window.

        If you want higher returns then you have to take a significant risk of some of all of your money disappearing into mist which isn’t a good plan if you’re going to need that money to live.

        At a more realistic 2% you’re left with 300k, not 600k.

        Still, sounds lovely, but lets try to guess at inflation since that return isn’t adjusted for inflation, indeed it’s barely keeping up with it.

        That’s assuming there’s never any disasters of any kind in your life that suddenly require money and that’s assuming that there’s never any market crash that wipes out large portions of your savings.

        If we’d done the same exercise 40 years ago we could have shown that $40000 invested 40 years ago at 5% gain per year would leave us with 280K today.

        But lets see what happened to actual prices in that time.
        http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/bills/article-1633409/Historic-inflation-calculator-value-money-changed-1900.html

        Lets pop 40,000 into an inflation calculator for 1976.
        $303,056.40

        The value of what you could have bought in 1976 with 40K is roughly equivalent to what your 5% per year fund would have been worth after waiting 40 years.

        Odds are you’re going to be trying to get by for your entire retirement with the inflation adjusted equivalent of 200K of savings. Hope you don’t need any kind of care or medical expenses since that money will be gone fast, faster if you have to pay rent on somewhere to live.

        So after a life of severe austerity you get to have a retirement of near-starvation unless you kill yourself soon after retirement.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Something is hinky with your calculations.

          40K in 1976 has the buying power of about 168K today (according to CPI). And why 40K?

          • Murphy says:

            40K to be in the same order of magnitude as the sums we’re talking about after adjusting for inflation to today and a reasonably round number.

            I was using a UK inflation caclulator rather than a US one. I do indeed get 168K using a dollar inflation calc

        • ReluctantEngineer says:

          And that’s unusually good. It’s at 6.78 percent over the past decade. Not per year, that’s the return if you put it in 10 years ago and waited until now.

          What index are you using? Over the last 10 years, the S&P 500 has averaged over 7%/year.

          • Murphy says:

            googled the vanguard 500 index fund

            The fund has returned 1.07 percent over the past year

            it didn’t call the 6.78 percent the annual return, rather the return over 10 years.

          • nona says:

            Murphy, if you look at the graph on the right on the Vanguard site it shows you $10,000 invested in 2006 would have grown to $20,000 today. For longer time periods, investment returns are usually annualized to make them easier to compare. Also, 5-7% average real return is not a crazy assumption. And, of course, that average return includes substantially higher (and lower) individual yearly returns.

          • ReluctantEngineer says:

            it didn’t call the 6.78 percent the annual return, rather the return over 10 years.

            Are you referring to this fund? Because in the table labeled “Average Annual Returns”, under the column labeled “10 Year”, it says “7.41%”.

            Edit: Or did you just take the return for the past year, which has indeed been pretty poor, and assume that that was a typical rate of return?

  5. keranih says:

    A note on the three studies presented in the original post(*) –

    It seems to me that these studies are talking about three different things, and that perhaps only the first one (land grant) is useful to making decisions on long term policies.

    The casino income study is looking at immediate impact of more money on education, and if one looks at the various factors considered, the largest contributors to better outcomes were gender of the child, mother’s education level, and pre-distribution income. Being eligible for distribution had an impact only after these were accounted for – and even then it had ~ 20% improvement.(**) And while the effect seemed to last past the first couple of years, it’s also complicated by how the distribution worked for students – if you graduate HS, you get the distribution at age 18. Otherwise, you get the distribution at age 21. Incentives matter.

    I’m also not as sure that this was as long-term a study as we would like to think – the study started in 1993 with 9 year olds. In 1997, when those students were 13, the casino opened. The study followed them for another three years (until that youngest set was 16.) And then did followups periodically – but the number of observations in the followups for 19 years old was less than a third of the observations for in-school surveys. I didn’t see the missing data discussed and I suspect the missing population is not equal to the population that did respond to the surveys.

    The other thing I noted is a difference in criminality/arrest records. Adult parents who were AI had higher arrest rates than not – but their kids had lower rates even before the intervention. This is not replicated in all minority groups, and suggests that generalizing from this finding across the whole nation might not work. (***)

    Having said all that – this study is a lot like the last one, where we are talking relatively short term gains. The Swedish study and the Georgia land study look at longer term impacts over a generation. If we’re going to do something that is expensive and has downsides, and the upsides aren’t permanent, I’d suggest maybe we should think more on this.

    (If I missed anything or made a mistake please to note this.)

    (*) While I’m as guilty as anyone of using anectdata when it pleases me, I do like it when the commentariet discusses the studies more than our own personal experiences.

    (**) A 20% improve ain’t nothing, to be sure. A HS diploma is one of those inflection points that seem to matter in our society.

    (***) Scaling is always a bitch.

  6. eyeballfrog says:

    This isn’t quite on topic for this post, but it relates to the other post you made that you linked at the end. In the last footnote of that post, you mention an article you’ve been meaning to write about open borders. Are you still planning on writing that? Because I really, really want to hear your take on that.

  7. Lemminkainen says:

    So, I was looking through the discussions about poor people’s status-signalling spending, and I’m starting to think that a lot of countercultural practices might serve as mechanisms for averting some of the social costs of being a low-spender. Basically, counterculture creates an alternate system for awarding esteem which rewards cheaper practices, often by justifying those cheap practices in non-economic terms. If you think that it’s cool to own an old car, buy your clothes at thrift stores and consignment shops (or better yet, make and repair them yourself), live in a poorer neighborhood, cultivate and/or cook your own food, and drink cheap beer, and buy obscure products instead of big brand names, you’ll probably have an easier time living within your means. So, it might be possible to fight certain kinds of poverty by encouraging anti-consumerist ideologies. It might be more satisfying to buy store-brand ketchup if you feel like you’re sticking it to the man when you’re doing it.

    • Matt M says:

      I think you’re onto something here – but I also think a lot of what you described isn’t quite right.

      Old cars can end up costing more due to repairs. Making and repairing clothes and/or cooking your own food is cheaper in materials cost, but if you’re a middle class person (or higher) is probably *not* cheaper when you consider the opportunity cost of your time. The “cheapest” beer is still very lower class (hipsters mainly drink expensive craft beer, they MAY settle for something like PBR, but they sure as hell aren’t going down to Natty Light). “Obscure products” preferred by the middle-upper class are more likely to be weird foreign imports or locally made stuff that is MORE, not less expensive, than the name brands.

    • onyomi says:

      I was thinking in Chipotle the other day that tattoos have recently become a way for white people to signal that they aren’t “the man.”

    • dndnrsn says:

      My parents are hardly counterculture, but their ethos is one where getting deals is sticking it to, maybe not the man, but definitely someone, and perhaps the universe in general. This is sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. Examples:

      By buying the store brand instead of the name brand, you’re outfoxing the wily corporations and their cunning advertisers, who spend huge amounts of money to trick the gullible into paying a buck more for ketchup. With the exception of a few things where the name brand really is better, only buy the name brand when it’s discounted below the store brand. When this happens, Fate has smiled upon you, because what could be better than cheaper than store brand?

      By going on vacation during off-times, when costs of travel and accommodation tend to be lower, you’re taking advantage of the fact that everyone else is foolish enough to take their vacations at the same time as everyone else, and thumbing your nose at the various businesses that take advantage of this.

      It’s not so much anti-consumerist, but viewing consumerism as a sort of contest, where you show your savvy and mettle by being cheaper than everyone else, and defying those who profit off the general profligacy of our society.

      • onyomi says:

        “not so much anti-consumerist, but viewing consumerism as a sort of contest, where you show your savvy and mettle by being cheaper than everyone else”

        This is very much the attitude of most Chinese people I know. They are definitely not anti-consumerist–they love showing off their iPhone as much as your average New Yorker–but they also love bragging about how cheaply they got everything. And don’t even tell them how much you paid for something. You’ll never win.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Chinese in China, or emigrants, and what generation? My parents are first/second generation immigrants (albeit not from China), and are both of generations that saw huge increases in standard of living – especially my father.

          I’ve always noticed that they were far more careful about things like turning off lights, television sets, computer monitors, etc than seemed to be the norm with my friends’ parents – who generally are younger and have a longer family history in the country. They reuse stuff to what I am certain is a greater extent than the norm for people of their socioeconomic class in North America today: takeout containers, rubber bands from newspapers, shopping bags (and of course you’re a fool if you don’t take a reusable bag and end up paying the 5 cents or whatever for a plastic shopping bag), saving bones for soup stock, etc.

          Neither of them was ever poor by any relevant standard, and there are things on which they spend quite a bit of money – but when there’s a way to pinch pennies, they’re on it.

          • onyomi says:

            I’m here thinking primarily of Chinese I knew in China, where there’s also much more of a bargaining culture, meaning there’s more variation in what people end up paying for something and, hence, more opportunity to brag about an unusually good deal.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Aha. The ways my parents have emphasized thrift usually have more to do with saving money by substituting things or avoiding buying things, rather than haggling – not from a haggling culture.

            Less “I talked down the price of that used car by $500”, more “I saved $500 by making my own lunches for a few months”.

        • Murphy says:

          This just seems normal to me. I could spend X money on getting items that cost exactly X new or I could keep an eye out and be vaguely proud when I find a beautiful bit of clothing or furniture that I would never ever buy new for a tiny fraction of the normal price in a charity shop.

          Having a new 500 dollar TV is nice, getting an almost-new 500 dollar TV for 10 bucks because someone didn’t realize that their dead TV could be fixed by replacing a $1.50 capacitor is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Some people in the coupon-clipping-culture make it into a contest.

      • Randy M says:

        Can you believe how cheap it is to stay in Palm Springs in July? What is wrong with everyone else? Well their loss!

      • gbdub says:

        As a white dude at an engineering firm, the kind of funny “cheap” culture is “do-it-yourself-ism”. The amount of effort some people will expend to save $20 is kind of crazy, but then I think part of the draw is the ability to brag about your successful project.

        Still, people do seem to vastly undervalue their time. For example, I recently paid for professional installation of new flooring throughout my house (it’s a plank laminate, I did do one room on my own just for kicks). My coworker insisted that it was crazy to pay for something so easy and undertook the same project on his own. He saved a couple grand on the sticker price, but at a cost of: having to buy ~$500 in tools, losing 4 weekends to doing the actual work, having his house torn up for a month, and ultimately not being super happy with how it turned out. I had to spend the money, but the job was done in 2.5 days with essentially zero effort on my part.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’ve spent a month of weekends building something I could have bought at Ikea for $40, but at that point it’s less about the money and more about having an interesting hobby. If I wasn’t spending the time on that, I’d probably be spending it on video games.

          Once you gain some skill and get out of the Ikea quality range, it becomes a lot more economically viable: the markups on even medium-quality furniture are insane, and a lot of that stuff really isn’t that hard to build. (It helps that I inherited most of my tools.)

          I wouldn’t do my own flooring, though. That takes specialist tools and it’s easy to mess up.

          • gbdub says:

            Oh, I have no issues with “do it yourself” as a hobby. If the project itself is entertaining to you, that in itself is valuable (but laying flooring is not at all entertaining after about the first hour). I’d love to know how to make furniture but I already have too many hobbies and my tastes run more towards contemporary stuff that is tricky to do with basic woodworking.

            I’m more talking about it in the sense of the guys who flat refuse to pay for something they could easily afford they could theoretically do on their own. Like have their car out of service for a day tinkering with something that would cost an extra hundred bucks or whatever to have installed in an hour (or plumbing projects, etc.) If you know how to do it and you like it, great! But I find more and more that the answer to “why does this cost so much?” is “because it’s worth it” (as long as you can afford it obviously).

          • keranih says:

            Eh. Interlocking floating floors are much easier than you would think, and about the only tools you need are knee pads, pencil, straight edge, hammer, rubber tap block, pull bar (the only flooring specialty item) utility knife/box blade, and a saw. A circular saw helps a lot, but isn’t absolutely needful.

            Halfway through the process of redoing a house, we were doing about 1 square foot every two minutes or less. The bigger headache was replacing the quarter round afterwards.

            My suggestion is to get just enough from a Restore to do your largest closet or pantry. Shouldn’t take more than half a day, and by the time you’re done, you’ll know if you want to tackle the rest of the house.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Yep, there’s wins and losses with DIY. I’ve replaced shutoff valves for outdoor faucets and installed a hot water expansion tank; these were wins because the tool cost was a torch and some solder, time was a few hours total, and a plumber won’t even look at you for less than $125, plus you have to wait for him during business hours. On the other hand I installed some base moldings and it turned out to take much longer (even when taking into account Hofstadter’s law) than expected, and I bought a miter saw (though I regret nothing there).

          I also replaced just about every electrical outlet in the house (some were actually worn, some were just cosmetically damaged or the wrong color); this is also a big win, at least for the actually worn ones.

          If you’re relatively poor and own a house you’re probably best off not replacing inessential things like moldings (unless you’re also handy and can borrow tools), but being able to do simple electrical and plumbing repairs will save you a lot.

        • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

          The main draw for me is I avoid the stress of dealing with contractors. Though there’s also a certain amount of pride in my workmanship, such as it is.

        • Matt M says:

          I just recently reached the point where I’ve started opting to have pizzas delivered rather than carry out, because the delivery fee is about $5 and the whole process of driving there, picking up the pizza, and driving back takes about 20 minutes, and I value my time at a higher rate than $15 an hour.

          But it’s worth noting that to make this decision, I had to literally force myself to do the actual math. My intuition would have been “$5 just to deliver a pizza! That’s outrageous! I can easily pick it up myself!”

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            What things are safe to practice at home, at what aren’t?

            I’ve got a leaky bathroom faucet, but when I twist the knob underneath to shut it off, it doesn’t shut off completely. I don’t want to flood the bathroom. Wife got really mad last time I did that. So probably going to get a plumber.

            But I want to learn to be more handy and be able to repair things. A mistake that changes a $50 into a $100 job is a risk I can handle.

          • Nornagest says:

            There is probably a master shutoff for your home’s water supply, although it might take some finding if you have an apartment. If the sink valves don’t work, that might. Note that you’ll need to shut off hot and cold water, if you’re working with a faucet: the hot-water shutoff is usually near the water heater.

            Plumbing is messy but safe, and cleaning sink traps or replacing leaky faucets is very simple. Basic electrical work isn’t too bad if you do your research (anyone can rewire a light switch with twenty minutes of Google), but it is more dangerous. Double-check that you have power shut off and maybe get a circuit tester.

            Don’t work with gas if you don’t know what you’re doing, and gain some experience before you graduate to wiring new fixtures or anything like that.

          • Randy M says:

            There is probably a master shutoff for your home’s water supply,

            Know where this is anyway!

            Embarrassing story time:
            When my wife was in the hospital for a bit, I had a pipe burst in the toilet. Water was spraying everywhere, and I tried to get the landlord to get an emergency plumber while attempting to half bail, half deflect the flow into the bathtub, and had my eldest, six year old daughter keep an eye on the baby. Of course, not being able to keep an eye on the baby meant I had the front door closed, and didn’t hear the plumber for awhile when he arrived.

            The first thing he did, and it took about 3 minutes, was walk downstairs to the shut-off and stop the water to the apartment. I, uh, should have figured that would have been somewhere.

          • keranih says:

            What things are safe to practice at home, at what aren’t?

            Coverings>systems>structures

            Paint, lampshades, light bulbs, interior trim, window screens, central duct covers – all this is pretty easy.

            Replacing light fixtures and electrical receptacles (ie, outlets), sink drains and sink faucets are more complicated but not really hard. Do your research, measure-measure-cut, test for power two-three times, know where the main turn offs are.

            I’m much more adventuresome with water vs electrical. Water will just ruin parts of your house. Electrical will burn down your house with your kids in it. Also, you can fuss with water and tell when you’ve fucked up, because there is a leak you can’t stop. Worst case, you quit then, turn off the main line, move into a motel for a few days and call an expert. Electrical errors are more insidious.

            My advice is to never put yourself in the position where you feel trapped – where you *have* to fix this yourself because you can’t afford to call an expert. That makes you make stupid mistakes. Your best piece of equipment is a milk crate. Second best is a notepad. You get a pen and put your ass on the milk crate and think about what you are going to do. Plan out your options. Consider how much time you have left. Who do you have to help you? Where are all your tools?

            Some people do best when they work by themselves. Other people do well with a silent partner who will just hand them things and will “hold this here. No, there. Yes, that – don’t move”. Still others want someone who will argue back to them as they talk through what they think they need to do. Figure out which one is you.

        • J Mann says:

          Hmm. One of the deadweight losses from high marginal tax rates is the losses due to DIY-ism. I haven’t seen data, but I’ve read that in the Nordic counties, many more people paint their own houses or do barn-raisings – the alternative is to earn some money, pay taxes on it, then hire a house painter with what’s left over.

          Couple that with the fact that the working poor often have the highest marginal tax rates of any group – if you have a benefit programs that will each cut your benefits at $1 for every $2 you earn, you’re looking at 50% marginal tax rate, and if you are a member of three such programs, it’s 150%.

          Under those circumstances, DIY starts to look more rational. If you’re paying a 50% effective marginal tax rate to earn money near minimum wage, you’ll need to work quite a while to pay for an hour of a tradesperson’s time.

          • Bone Man with Shiny Hat says:

            Yup. If I recall correctly, there’s a furniture store chain that pretty much sells you the parts in a box, and you put it together yourself. High marginal tax rates are probably the explanation for why it got its start where it did—Sweden.

            On the 150% marginal tax rate: Holy crap, I never thought of that, and I’ve never seen anyone else mention it, either! (And I always bring up the effective-marginal-tax-rate point when arguing for a Guaranteed Basic Income.)

            I feel kind of silly now for not realizing that the interaction of more than one complicated program/formula could be much worse than any single program—especially since we have a complex set of overlapping programs to (nominally) help the poor.

        • Alex says:

          Another anecdote:

          For mostly cultural reasons I will not explain here, I spend the equivalent of ~$1000/year to have my family’s lot in the cemetery “gardened”. Technically this is work I could do myself (though obviously I’m willing to pay for not having to do it) and have done myself in the past. However, the whole experience taught me respect for the craft of gardening. The result looks more than subtly better when its done by a professional.

          I also rationalise the expense as helping the economy. Doing this myself would lower the GDP and contribute to putting a gardener out of work. Or so I like to think.

          • “Doing this myself would lower the GDP”

            This is usually presented as one of the reasons why GDP is an imperfect measure of product.

          • J Mann says:

            David – you are right, but even correctly measured, Alex doing the work himself would still lower total productivity and total utility, assuming that Alex doesn’t enjoy the activity and that the gardener has a comparative advantage at it.

    • Lumifer says:

      Well, “counterculture” is a catch-all term. There are lot of different countercultures. Some reward rejection of consumerism (e.g. grow-your-own-food) and can lead to cheaper living, but some do the reverse (e.g. the car mods subculture). It depends.

      The so-traditional-it-might-well-be-counterculture-by-now ideology to get out of poverty is hard work and thrift 😛

  8. Jill says:

    Another issue with roommates is that some people in poor areas may have trouble finding responsible roommates, just as they may have trouble finding responsible mates who might be good parents. People who live in a culture of middle classness may have tons of good roommate type people around. Someone in a culture of poverty may mostly know a lot of drug addicts or people too traumatized or too immature or even too predatory on other people, to be good roommates.

    • Matt M says:

      I thought we were to assume that most poor people were hardworking and virtuous and were only impoverished because of us greedy Ayn Rand expys who were intentionally holding them down via cutthroat capitalism?

      Now you’re suggesting that a poor person surrounded by other poor people might not be able to find any that aren’t predatory drug addicts?

      Which is it?

      • Z says:

        There’s no obvious contradiction here.

        Say for the sake of argument that 70% of poor people are hardworking and virtuous. That still leaves 30% of them as predatory addict types. I’d be nervous about finding a roommate with those odds.

        • keranih says:

          Risk avoidance is frequently low on the rational scale.

          But I don’t buy the reasoning that Jill is using above. Yes, some people of the lower income classes are less helpful than others- just like some men of that class are truely negatives in terms of being husbands.

          To me, it does not follow from that information that the average person is better off without a roommate at all, just as it does not seem to me that 70% of the lower class women (and their kids) are better off not marrying their baby daddies.

        • Matt M says:

          Maybe if your only opportunity to find a roommate is to post an ad on Craigslist or something. But surely you know other poor people, and among people you know, can probably determine who falls into the “hardworking and virtuous” and who falls into the “predatory addict” buckets?

          My impression was that most roommate situations are arranged among people who already know each other not through random shared economic arrangements, but I have little experience in this area and could be wrong.

          • Z says:

            This is only a personal anecdote, but it might be typical:

            When we were younger and working for minimum wage a friend of mine had to kick his roommate out for refusing to pay her share of the rent. He tried very hard to convince me to move in with him so that he wouldn’t have to try his luck with another stranger.

            I assume that you probably aren’t going to make a roommate out of people you know most of the time because they won’t usually be looking for a new place to live at the same time you are.

        • ” I’d be nervous about finding a roommate with those odds.”

          Why? It isn’t a random draw. You invite someone to share with you who is in the 70%. It shouldn’t be that hard to tell–these are your neighbors, aquaintances, friends.

          • Tracy W says:

            Flatting is fairly common in NZ and it’s notorious for breaking up friendships, even if everyone pays the rent (happened to me). You get on each other’s nerves.

          • Z says:

            As I said in my anecdote above, this hasn’t worked out well for people I know.

            Of course, if you have a larger circle of friends this likely becomes an increasingly viable plan.

            Regardless, I don’t think the actual odds are nearly as bad as 70/30. That was just a figure meant to illustrate that there was no inherent contradiction between Jill’s two propositions (that most poor people are virtuous and that poor people are worried about other poor people’s lack of virtue).

          • William Newman says:

            David Friedman wrote “It shouldn’t be that hard to tell”. In a way I strongly agree that that’s true, but there also seems to be an exception that I don’t completely understand that covers many of the people who’d otherwise benefit from sharing housing.

            I shared apartments (1 person per bedroom) for IIRC four years in (chemistry) graduate school. I also had a somewhat similar arrangement (in a house owned by the college) for two years as an undergrad, and I have done a few similar things like sharing housing at Go tournaments, and I knew many graduate students who similarly shared apartments. Very often when I hear about roommate histories from people who are not techies, I am reminded how even though it is pretty easy to pick boringly functional techie roommates, people in the broader could-benefit-economically-from-roommates population often have a much harder time of it. It is a sufficiently strong pattern that there is not much overlap between the shared housing headaches I hear about from non-techies and any of the shared housing experiences I heard about in grad school or experienced myself. I also have a mighty dataset of one — a half hour or so of conversation with a taxi dispatcher who also rents rooms in two houses near CMU — that suggests that it is also similarly straightforward to choose boringly functional renters among techie graduate students, with little overlap between techie renter headaches and general-population-of-renters headaches.

            As the level of material practicalities it is not difficult to share living space with another adult. But for many people who don’t move in a circle of people which is unusually rich in people who are boringly easy to cooperate with, the human side (of trust and negotiation and responsibility and such) is evidently trickier.

            (Tracy W. wrote “You get on each other’s nerves.” Maybe it is a special strain on preexisting friendships (e.g. as people find that their unstated expectations aren’t met, or something), I don’t know, but I don’t think it is necessarily a strain on casual working relationships. I never noticed a pattern of decreased friendliness among graduate students who shared an apartment, and I saw a few instances of what seemed to be the opposite.)

      • Saint Fiasco says:

        Jill’s hypothesis was that poor people were also “culturally poor” in that nobody ever taught them good number skills and money management. If they live with a roommate who can do those things, that would really help them, but the people who are “culturally rich” can afford to not live in a house shared with a poor person, so they don’t.

        “Too predatory” is the extreme case. Even just “too traumatized or too immature” is enough to drag a person already on the brink of poverty into actual poverty.

  9. Jill says:

    I agree, Jordan.

    I also think that people can be culturally rich i.e. have lived a fairly trauma free life full of constructive role models, mentoring and encouragement toward constructive activity, have learned how to be goal oriented, to do basic math, to do good money management etc.

    If your life is like this and you are telling the poor to just be more conscientious, then you might consider how someone could figure out how to do that if their life is chock full of trauma like being at high risk of injury or death by violence while walking to school each day in the inner city, if they lack constructive role models, if they have very little mentoring and encouragement toward constructive activity, if they have no one in their family or peer group who role models being constructively goal oriented, if they can’t do basic math, if budgeting is a foreign concept to everyone they were close to growing up, if you lack resources or even the awareness that many resources exist etc.

    I think cultural poverty is a bigger problem than financial poverty. Plenty of people here and elsewhere have lived in financial poverty for a while. That is no big deal whatsoever, if you do not suffer from cultural poverty.

    • “I think cultural poverty is a bigger problem than financial poverty.”

      Very possibly. But your response to financial poverty isn’t (I presume) that we solve it by having the government take over all businesses and hire poor people at good wages, because you don’t believe (I am again presuming) that government can generally do a better job of running businesses than the people who now run them.

      Your response to cultural poverty seems to be “have the government fix it.” I don’t know what the right response is, but given that most poor people spent twelve years (sometimes a few fewer) in government run schools and still emerged culturally poor, yours doesn’t seem likely to work.

      You might find Losing Ground by Charles Murray worth reading. Part of it is about the early War on Poverty programs. The theory was that they would get people permanently out of poverty via job training and the like. That didn’t work, so they gave up on that, and it ended up as a program to make being poor less unpleasant.

    • It fascinates me that even under very bad circumstances, there are a few people who find it intuitively obvious that they can work to build good lives for themselves. I’m not saying that all such people succeed, but where does the intuition come from?

  10. TPC says:

    Many, possibly most poor in America are youngish (under 40) mothers of one or two children out of wedlock or older women living only on Social Security.

    Many people in the other threads have mentioned group living and having roommates and all that, but the groups of poor people up above typically have their own private household. Their own apartment or single family house or condo or trailer. Many of these people reject the idea of sharing a household. This is as far as I can tell, somewhat broadly American-culture.

    Americans have a strong tendency to believe freedom, maturity, adultness are found by living in your own space. This is a huge driver of chronic poverty. You’ll read all kinds of human interests stories about single mothers living in *their own room in a hotel*.

    Poverty in America is not terrible on a day to day basis. You get a lot of food on average, you don’t have to do much physical activity (sometimes you can’t because you live in a high crime urban area), and you generally have some unreported cash income. It’s hard to solve this problem as long as poor people who aren’t immigrants are able to more or less maintain individual households, and have plenty of food and decent amounts of entertainment/recreation to boot.

    So, in some ways, are we really dealing with a problem? I don’t know.

    • gbdub says:

      While the sort of poverty you describe may be livable in the absolute sense, there are other toxic elements of the culture that reduce quality of living. For example many of those single mothers are single because their childrens’ father is in jail. And that seems to be a perpetuating cycle, particularly for the male children.

      So while a single mother perhaps mostly get by on part time job(s) and a government check, we’d still be better off if we could figure out how to provide additional opportunities there – society would seem to be missing out on some potential contributions by keeping so many people at the “just comfortable enough not to riot” level.

  11. jordan says:

    on a more serous note, I think a lot of bad financial decisions are actually simply related to bad number sense. People who never mastered basic mental math don’t have as firm of a grasp on what the difference between $100 and $5 is, or what 22.4% APR actually means. Translating “I have this much money in my bank account” to a subconscious understanding each time you buy a sandwich or groceries how significant of a “dent” that is making in your funds is, I think, directly related to number sense and basic math skills, skills that a lot of adults still lack. Not trying to sound condescending, just think this is part of the “mismanagement of money” by poor people problem- a lack of quantitative reasoning skills, not just a lack of “self control.”

    • Murphy says:

      I’m constantly surprised by how many adults with high level qualifications seem to struggle with interest rates.

      Or mortgages, people will weirdly fail to calculate the actual costs of increases in the percentage rate vs the cost of fees even when it’s a trivial calculation.

    • Z says:

      This has been my experience.

      I saw someone overdraft their bank account three times in a relatively short span because they didn’t add properly the first time and didn’t account for their overdraft charge when they went to put enough back into the account to prepare for the upcoming bills.

      I’ve also done the multiplication for someone once in order to demonstrate just what a bad deal rent-to-own actually was.

      Additionally, I’ve always assumed that the primary reason stores advertise products as “3 for $5” instead of “$1.67” is specifically to prey on these people.

      • Murphy says:

        I sometimes shudder when I see rent-to-own electronics. 4x prices aren’t uncommon. The entire industry seems entirely predatory.

        • Jeffrey Soreff says:

          The 0-th order heuristic that I use is that if someone with efficient
          access to capital markets is pushing a financial product hard,
          it is almost certainly in their interest to sell it to me, and
          it is almost certainly in my interest to tell them to take it and shove it.

  12. jordan says:

    lol Scott Alexander’s short “decreased in quality and quantity” posts while on vacation make him look like a very intelligent human rather than a Cyborg or strong AI posing as a mere mortal :).

  13. LatherRinseReTWEET says:

    I think many poverty studies try really hard to discover a cause other than that the chronically poor are dull and lazy. If you’re bright and/or hard-working, how long can you stay poor in a free country?

    • TPC says:

      If I’d remained unmarried instead of marrying a guy with excellent earning abilities, there is plenty of reason to believe I’d be quite poor despite being high-IQ and hard working. Those things don’t matter if nobody will hire you for work.

      • Jill says:

        If you have had few or no constructive role models in your life on a consistent basis, a very very long time.

        Oops. That was a reply to lather. I put it in the wrong nest.

    • Anonymous says:

      I think many poverty studies try really hard to discover a cause other than that the chronically poor are dull and lazy. If you’re bright and/or hard-working, how long can you stay poor in a free country?

      It’s more a question of being smart in terms of economic choices, than smart overall. You might be smart in that you think fast and reach correct conclusions, but still think that buying overpriced organic food and a new set of clothes every week to be the way to go, finances be damned. Plenty of poor are hard-working, which doesn’t really help them.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      The issue with being merely hard-working is that you have to outsource intelligence to somebody else, and the truly intelligent in our society are being re-sorted into gated middle class neighborhoods, where a merely hard-working poor person can’t ask them for advice on what to do.

      (I came to this realization talking to an older gentleman about his experiences in a coal mine, and his comment on the number of brilliant people he worked with who, today, would be engineers or programmers. And it was… oh. Those people are not in the coal mines anymore. Nobody who doesn’t have to be in the coal mines is in the coal mines. Anybody who has any options gets away from the dangerous and dysfunctional parts of our society – making them more dangerous and dysfunctional.)

    • Cadie says:

      A long time, in some cases. Low-grade mental illness or other partial disabilities can make you almost unemployable when the applicant pool is competitive, and at best it’ll make it more difficult to find work that’s otherwise at your ability level, but it’s almost never enough to qualify you for disability benefits (which aren’t enough to get you out of poverty anyway). The bar, simplified, is that if you’re theoretically able to do some kind of unskilled work, you don’t qualify. Whether or not you have a reasonable chance of actually being hired doesn’t come into play.

      Employers aren’t overtly allowed to discriminate, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in a more subtle way. And since partial disability is likely to make you unemployed for longer periods of time and have a poorer work history, employers can openly use THAT against you in hiring without running afoul of the law. They don’t know why you have a few long stretches without a job or why your jobs have all been minimum wage unskilled work, they don’t care, and they aren’t required to. Good luck finding something better than making fries part-time when there are applicants without those limitations competing with you.

      And then if you’re poor and ill, you’re less likely to be able to afford treatment than a richer person with the same illness. When you can afford it, you’re still much more limited in what treatments you can use and how much.

  14. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    testing 123

    EDIT: Oh good I’m not banned. Scott, why did SSC eat my reply to Jill? I doubt it was the spam filter, since the one URL I included was to your infamous Bravery post.

  15. Nicholas says:

    I didn’t check: Am I the first person to point out that, not controlling for regional variations, I found that making 20,000 a year made Scott’s one person household significantly RICHER than the median person they knew? Because I’m one of the wealthiest people in my social circle, and I only make about 15,000 a year with a girlfriend who makes about 12,000 a year. Many of my friends are raising children on as little as 12,000 a year and while they appear to do quite well, I’m always happy to loan them money from the ridiculous amount of income that I have.
    TL;DR: Even when Scott was “poor” he was still richer than everyone in my peer group.

    • keranih says:

      Eh. I’ve been poorer than Scott was then, and my whole extended family certainly was while I was growing up, but while I’m not first up against the wall when the revolution comes, by the time they get to the 15% I’ll be certainly feeding the worms.

    • Alsadius says:

      This is the first comment to that effect I’ve seen. Mind if I ask where this social group resides?

    • Evan Þ says:

      You have a point there… When I was volunteering with the VITA program (free tax prep for lower-income people; IIRC the program’s cutoff was around $50K/year), a little less than half our clients were making less than Scott. And I’m definitely in one of the richer regions of the country, with very high cost of living.

    • gbdub says:

      So full time employment at minimum federal wage is $14,500/yr – was the issue that people couldn’t find full time work? Or are you reporting net pay after taxes? About where do you live?

      • Evan Þ says:

        I saw a number of VITA clients in the Seattle metro area who did have gross income below that. Some of our clients were legitimately going to school part-time, others had children who were probably interfering with things, and there were probably some that just didn’t want to work full-time. But from all I could tell, there were significant numbers of people who couldn’t find full-time work.

        My guess is the biggest factors were childcare and scheduling. Once you’ve got one part-time job, it becomes harder to find another because you’ve suddenly got limited availability. And if you’re a single parent (like a lot of them were), then you also need to work around the schedule of whatever childcare you can find.

        • gbdub says:

          That’s what I was thinking. This seems to be one of the areas where things like Obamacare, mandated sick/maternity leave etc. can be harmful on the margins, because it encourages a lot of not-quite-full-time jobs that skate under the hour cutoff for guaranteed benefits. Not sure how to fix that, other than either eliminating the mandates or maybe increasing the minimum wage for part-time non benefit positions

          • Evan Þ says:

            Yep. And then on the flip side, even though Washington took the Medicaid expansion, there were a surprising number of people who forgot or didn’t bother to sign up. They got hit with the penalty… and they’re preselected to be the people who’re poor at planning ahead, and thus less likely to be able to pay the penalty.

            Meanwhile, from what I hear (I haven’t looked into it myself) the Medicaid expansion coupled with mandate creates an even steeper benefit cliff, making it more difficult for someone to increase their income and get out of poverty.

          • Tracy W says:

            Or if you’re going to do publicly-funded healthcare, don’t tie it to jobs.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Just like the minimum wage makes it illegal to work if the value of your labor is below a certain point, mandatory benefits for full-time workers make it illegal to work full-time if the value of your labor is less than the cost of those benefits.

  16. JuanPeron says:

    As far as I can tell, there’s still a completely unaddressed conflict here. The two Cherokee studies you reference come to completely opposite conclusions about treating poverty in the Southeastern USA with cash infusions, which seems to sidestep the Tucker-Dob conclusions. The idea could still be rescued (perhaps there were relatively few large-and-lasting gains available in the 1830s, and there are are more available now because better health outcomes have raised the ceiling?), but it’s untested story-telling.

    Without a decent justification for how to reconcile conflicting Southern-USA poverty interventions, I feel like I have to assign the whole mess to “still inconclusive”.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Almost everything about the present southeastern US is so different from the 1830’s southeastern US that I don’t think we can compare those two any more simply than we can compare either one with Sweden or Africa or China.

  17. dndnrsn says:

    @Saint Fiasco: You wrote:

    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.

    This got me thinking – why do some things respond to shaming, and others don’t? Comparing smoking with excessive intake of calories (and, too little exercise – but food is the more relevant factor, since exercise burns far fewer calories than people tend to think it does):

    1. There’s no “healthy” or “necessary” smoking. The problem with smoking is not that everyone needs 10 cigarettes a day to stay alive, but some people smoke 20, or anything like that. In contrast, everyone needs some food. People can’t just go cold turkey on eating. Everybody knows smoking is bad for you – the experts argue over the details of what to eat, when, how much, etc.

    2. Because any smoking is unhealthy, it’s far easier to tax tobacco products heavily. A tax brought in to, say, make unhealthy foods less affordable would run into the problem of defining “unhealthy”, and so on. And it’s still possible to overeat foods that are otherwise wholesome.

    3. Smoking has an immediate impact on those around the smoker – and as such it’s much easier to do things like ban smoking indoors, ban smoking in public places, etc. Where I live you’re not supposed to eat on transit, but I see people do it a lot. I’ve seen one person light up on transit.

    What are some other things where shaming works, and things where it doesn’t?

    • Alsadius says:

      I suspect it’s tied in heavily to personal identity. http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html is a relevant essay for what I mean.

    • Xerxes says:

      Smoking is one of the hardest habits to break. And yet, many people have succeeded in doing so. And I think a major contribution to that is shaming.

      Shaming probably works very strongly in a lot of situations. Some things are easier to shame than others. Some things are shamed widely by the culture, and therefore have support for the shaming.

      For several decades now, our culture has grown to discourage shaming for certain things (divorce, joblessness, marijuana use, obesity), and encourage more shaming for certain other things (smoking, “traditional values”, littering). Some of this change I agree with, but I also can’t help but notice a strong correlation between the changes in shaming acceptance over time vs changes in frequency of behavior.

      Shaming works.

      • jordan says:

        Totally agree. Think this is part of the reason why Asians are so thin. Not just that they are poor/ eat a lot of fish- but that it is still culturally acceptable to tease your friends when they start getting fat. Great insight-

      • Wency says:

        File this under “effective anti-smoking shaming”:

        My father, for whatever reason, has always regarded smoking as a sin roughly equivalent in magnitude to the murder-rape of children.

        Perhaps related to this, for most of her life, my maternal grandmother smoked. In one instance, while I was still an infant, she leaned over my crib and absent-mindedly blew smoke into my face.

        My father, in response, shoved and locked her outside without a coat on a murderously cold winter day and wouldn’t let her back in the house until she swore before God and the Bible that she would never smoke another cigarette. Knowing my father, he was probably prepared for her to die out there. So after several minutes of pleading, she caved.

        I’m not sure if she ever smoked another cigarette, but from my earliest memories I never saw or smelled any such signs.

    • Saint Fiasco says:

      We all believe we know what it feels like to not eat for a long time. We’ve all been hungry at some point. For a non-smoker is hard to even imagine what a smoker feels when they don’t smoke for a long time.

      It’s possible that this lack of understanding makes shaming smokers more effective. Smokers see that other people can just not smoke without expending a lot of effort and wish they could be like that. Fat people see that other people eat unhealthy food and don’t exercise enough and those people don’t get (as) fat, so they get angry at the unfairness of the world and the hypocrisy of their critics and that doesn’t help them recover.

      I think poverty is more similar to being fat in that regard. There is a random element, there is unfairness.

  18. suntzuanime says:

    Orwell on why America’s poor can’t save a large share of their incomes:

    I doubt, however, whether the unemployed would ultimately benefit if they learned to spend their money more economically. For it is only the fact that they are not economical that keeps their allowances so high. An English-man on the P.A.C. gets fifteen shillings a week because fifteen shillings is the smallest sum on which he can conceivably keep alive. If he were, say, an Indian or Japanese coolie, who can live on rice and onions, he wouldn’t get fifteen shillings a week — he would be lucky if he got fifteen shillings a month. Our unemployment allowances, miser-able though they are, are framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy. If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.

    He’s talking about the dole specifically, but the logic generalizes. It kind of kneecaps the Fight for Fifteen if you can survive on six.

    • Chalid says:

      But each individual would benefit from learning to spend more economically, and could free-ride off the visible misery of others, no?

  19. The obvious explanation of the conflict between the second and third articles is time. Give a poor person an extra $6000/year and he is still, at least for a while, the same person with the same standards of consumption. Multiply the income of poor people ten fold over a century and that’s enough time for the view of what you absolutely have to have to drift up to absorb the extra income.

    • Alrenous says:

      The suppressed premise is that poverty is a disease of low status, not low income. Status is zero sum. Clark found status has a heritability coefficient of, on average, 0.8.

  20. Jill says:

    Some of these are interesting but odd studies that have limitations on how one can generalize and interpret them. E.g. I wonder if lottery winners are generally people who buy a lot of tickets. It seems that if your main plan for wealth and success is to buy a bunch of lottery tickets, you probably are not the kind of person who manages your money well, handles responsibility well etc. You are probably the kind of person who does not know how to manage money well, or is incapable of that, or is unwilling to, no matter how much money you have. If Bill Gates had bad enough money management skills and reckless enough spending habits, even he could manage to make himself broke.

    I think someone mentioned that there was no indication that these people were poor to begin with, either. And if they were not, then it shows that lack of money management knowledge or ability or willingness can hurt you, no matter what socioeconomic class you were in. There are also other considerations with lottery winners. Some seem to be determined to fritter the money away– whether from guilt of feeling they got something very big that they didn’t deserve or what.

    The Cherokee study was a very different situation. Each family getting $6000 was not something huge and possibly overwhelming like a lottery win.

    Some studies indicate that money does increase well being, but only up to a point. And the point is not at a very high level of income. Once you can afford basic necessities and maybe a very few non-necessities, further money doesn’t make all that much difference in your well being.

    The third study is about people of Chinese descent. I do think it is unrealistic to expect most Americans to live 12 to a small room and several single adults to a bed and such.

    I guess some here would say that Chinese genes are superior. Maybe they have money management skills embedded in them? As odd as it may sound to some here to say it, I do think the Chinese culture and cultural expectations are quite different from those of most lower class Americans. And perhaps the extended families help each other out more and are able to help out more. There may be more social support from extended families and friend groups than most Americans have.

    And good role models of achievement, money management and goals orientation, seem to abound. It’s seems possible that such skills could be taught to those Americans who are willing.

    One problem for Americans is that they take the TV more seriously. And the TV tells rich and poor alike “Consume consume consume.” And if Americans are isolated, and a number of studies say that many of us are, and if we get our social needs and role models from the TV, then.. Well, most of the role models on TV really s**k big time. There are plenty of violent shows, plenty of shows that emphasize consuming, and plenty of shows emphasizing celebrities whose lives can make even middle class persons feel as if their lives are so dull that they are almost not worth living.

    People of the middle and upper socioeconomic classes may have more constructive productive social interaction due to work, school, or business contacts. I remember someone here noted that unemployed men spend most of their time watching TV. Not good. Yet one more reason not to simply hand people money, while they watch TV.

    I wonder how much of a factor depression is in a culture of poverty. Failure to initiate activity, rather than to just passively function “on automatic” from habit, is one characteristic of depression. People feel and act “stuck.” It’s possible that having mentors, social and community services etc. could help pull people out of stuckness. And if there could be a way for them to form and maintain a constructive goal oriented social network, like people of Chinese descent often have, that could go a long way too.

    • baconbacon says:

      To much of this post is caricature. First I have lived 10 to a room for a year. I got $50 bucks a week, room (a 12×20 with 10 guys in it and bathrooms 100 yards up a hill) and food. My buddy and I drove half an hour to the nearest town on weekends to work at an applebee’s. I saved over 5 grand that year making the equivalent of $5 an hour working 60 hour weeks. Not an ideal situation, but passable.

      But that isn’t necessary, the US is rich enough in most parts to avoid all that. You can live with 4 roommates in a 5 bedroom/2 bathroom house in many cities in the US and pay 250-300 bucks a month in rent. You can share cars, rent, utilities, walk or bike to work, pick up extra jobs. I’ve worked 3 at a time and I am the least (or 2nd least) hard working of my 5 siblings (although I am technically an immigrant, no one I know would think of me that way).

      Once you have a job, with few exceptions, it is possible to pull yourself out of poverty. The “cultural” issues at play aren’t clearly independent of charity/goverment largesse.

  21. eh says:

    Being able to save lots of money seems to be a function of one thing. Lucking out with cheap rent. And of course, not having kids.

    As a poor person who has browsed food banks before, resources like that can easily provide the good majority of both hygeine and food, letting someone only *need* to buy less items then one would think to look and feel healthy.

    Internet is getting cheaper every year, but that seems like a large-ish set cost. You could abuse the local mcdonalds after buying something every once in a while and bulk-downloading for entertainment. If one is willing to watch videos in 360p, that’s many many hours each week of shows and such.

    This is all with not having kids and such. I think one can subsist a cheap and decent life if one can luck on low rent, but you have to not breed.

    • sards says:

      Twice in your post, you mention that you need to be lucky to get low rent. This is very strange. Unless you are talking about lucking out and finding a rent-controlled apartment, which only would apply in a select few cities in America, what are you talking about?

      • eh says:

        Meh, I think its an artifact of the public schooling system, turned into unconscious habit.

        For about 7 years straight, you are hammered into putting some major points on the top of the essay, and at the bottom(and my post is standard length for what counts as an “essay” in U.S. schools)

        Therefore, the artifact of the public schooling system… 😛

        • suntzuanime says:

          Ok, but why did you mention it even once?

          • eh says:

            Rent is an obvious huge variable in possible locations and ability to find something.

            If a chinese immigrant(or anyone) is capable of finding two other people to live in a 1000 dollar room or small apartment, then poverty isn’t too much of a challenge.

            If only say, 700 apartments are available(no roommates), that’s 4800 less a year.

            Given that a full-time minimum wage job is $15,080 a year, then getting lucky with rent is the obvious maker or breaker.

          • Psmith says:

            I don’t know about suntzuanime, but I for one understand that rent is important–I just don’t see it as a matter of luck. Compare: “lucky enough to get cheap chicken thighs”–luck has nothing to do with it, you find the cheap ethnic grocery and buy the generic brand. Same deal. Cheap rent is not just something that happens, it’s something you actively look for and move to.

          • Randy M says:

            My family has bounced around between “nice neighborhood” and “cheap rent” apartments the last decade. Finding a two bedroom for $1250 in a nice (so California) neighborhood was a great boon. Not one that we couldn’t easily blow through with poor discipline, of course, but there was luck, as many similar ones nearby are 50% or so more.

            It wasn’t only luck, though, also persistence and my wife constantly being on the lookout for a nice and affordable one while we were living in the ones that were merely affordable.

    • “You could abuse the local mcdonalds after buying something every once in a while and bulk-downloading for entertainment.”

      For another way of abusing the local McDonalds (or equivalent) …

      The father of a high school friend fought in the Russian Civil War as a teenager (on the losing side), walked out through China, made it to America. During the Depression, part of how he managed was to buy a hamburger and consume a whole bottle of ketchup with it. Not the ideal meal, but quite a lot of nutrition for the cost.

      He ended up as a physics professor at the University of Chicago.

  22. Lumifer says:

    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.

    I find it hard to believe this paper’s results since the authors ignore race. Well, not quite ignore because they explicitly throw out results where race clearly matters:

    For instance, A. K. Cheung, Harden, and Tucker-Drob (2014) report that, in the NLSY data set, full siblings, compared with half siblings, were nearly twice as likely to be Caucasian and over twice as likely to have college-educated parents. We therefore decided that the NLSY kinship data were not appropriate for examining Gene × SES interaction.

    Given the current academic climate, I understand why they do this, but studying the interaction between genes and socioeconomic environment while ignoring the existence of races (and notably different racial composition of the US and Europe) makes no sense at all.

  23. J Mann says:

    Dave Ramsay is interesting to listen to a few times. After that it starts to repeat, but at first, his advice and how excited people are to be working with him are both fascinating.

  24. Nicholas Weininger says:

    IIRC the important point about the Swedish study was that there is still a considerable health-wealth correlation among the general population in Sweden, even though they have an extensive welfare state. If the welfare state were the reason that winning the lottery doesn’t make you any healthier in Sweden, you wouldn’t expect this correlation to be so strong. OTOH if non-lottery wealth is a consequence of the same personal characteristics that get you health, both the correlation and the lottery result make sense.

  25. dndnrsn says:

    Related, something I’ve been wondering about: I am aware of both the general idea of “people often spend money for status reasons, people with more money and people with less money just do it differently”, and the general idea of “people with less money still like nice things and it’s kind of a dick move to demand they wear nothing but sackcloth all the time”.

    Neither, however, explains something I’ve noticed living in a lower-middle class area instead of an upper-middle class area, which is that at the supermarket, I’m pretty sure people buy name brands more. I can’t imagine that spending a couple extra bucks for name-brand ketchup or whatever is a major status symbol, and having name-brand ketchup instead of generic doesn’t seem like a “nice thing” in any recognizable way. I can see not wanting to get made fun of for having uncool clothes, or wanting to take pleasure in having cool clothes, but do people get shunned for having cheaper but identical cereal, or do they take pleasure in having a fancier label on their frozen whatever?

    I don’t know the extent to which this is a generic upper-middle class thing. I was raised to almost always buy the generic, but I am noticeably cheaper than a lot of people in my peer groups: I was always the guy saying “why go to a bar to spend five bucks plus tax and tip per beer when we could just get a 24 and get 4 people drunk for the same price it would cost each of us to get one beer at a bar?” and my parents are definitely both thriftier (sometimes to the point of annoyance – whenever I’m at my parents’ place I find myself trying to figure out which plastic container goes with which lid and realizing that my parents own a vast collection of orphaned tupperware, because throwing anything out is wasteful) and better with money than the average.

    I just can’t figure out the rationale. Status symbols and having nice things are rational, to some extent. God knows I spend money in stupid ways sometimes for either reason. But paying an extra couple bucks for name-brand acetominophen just seems silly.

    I don’t want to adopt an explanation that’s just “haha they’re dumb and I’m better than they are”, and “well they are just less intelligent than in general, and that’s why their bad with money, and that’s why they’re poor” doesn’t work, because I know people better off than me (from families with more money, who make more money, or both) who spend their money stupidly.

    • Matt M says:

      Status symbols aren’t just about not wanting some rich guy to make fun of you for buying Safeway brand ketchup. They are just as much, if not moreso, about fulfilling your own sense of self-worth.

      People don’t like feeling that they are poor, whether anyone is around to notice or not. If you have a job and you aren’t living with your parents, you want to feel like you’re a real adult who is living comfortably. You don’t want to clip coupons – because you don’t want to feel like you’re the type of person who has to clip coupons. You want to buy Heinz because you feel like you’re good enough that you deserve Heinz.

      This particular sense of insecurity likely is more common among the middle class than among the wealthy. A wealthy person doesn’t need to justify themselves by buying the nice ketchup when they have a BMW sitting outside in the parking lot.

      • baconbacon says:

        I generally agree with this and would add that even if no one else notices what you buy, the mere fact that there is a bottom shelf item that you aren’t buying means that you aren’t on the bottom rung.

        • Matt M says:

          And getting back to revealed preferences – the fact that many poor people don’t buy the cheapest item indicates that they prefer to spend more money and have slightly better items than to save money and decrease the odds that they remain poor.

          So on the one hand, it’s not our place to demand they buy Safeway brand ketchup if they’re truly happier with Heinz.

          On the other hand, their complaints of “I’m poor and it’s totally not my own fault and there’s absolutely no way I can find any extra money to save” will likely fall on deaf ears if they aren’t even willing to sacrifice on something as trivial as the quality of ketchup they buy.

          • dndnrsn says:

            The generic is of the same quality more often than not, though.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

          • Randy M says:

            As I read some time ago (in one of John Stossel’s books), “name brand” food items tend to be of comparable quality, but name brand household items (trashbags, say, or maybe bandages or stationary) tend to be of enough better quality to be worth the price.

          • Cadie says:

            The simpler the food, the better the generic will usually be, in my experience. Single ingredients like beans, sugar, rice, butter, etc. are almost exactly the same product if not indistinguishable, in cheaper packaging. Processed and flavored foods vary more, with the brands slightly more likely to be higher quality. Sometimes the name brand is a lot better (mayonnaise, IMO, no other commonly available mayo compares to Hellmann’s) and sometimes the cheaper one tastes as good or better! My sisters and I actually preferred Malt-O-Meal bagged cereal over the more expensive boxed kinds, and I like Algood peanut butter a little more than Peter Pan, even though it costs nearly a dollar less. Quality varies and personal tastes might mean a generic/low-end brand tastes better to someone.

            My partner kept buying fancy chips and I was able to talk him into trying some cheaper ones, since we’re both un-picky enough to eat them even if they’re not fantastic, especially if it’s just one bag. He ended up not really liking the dollar chips, but a $2/bag variety (instead of the $3.49-$4.99 he was spending on the same amount) turned out to be his favorite.

            Sometimes buying cheaper stuff does feel kind of weird, but if you’ve tried several and actually like that one, then you can “justify” it by saying you’ve found a hidden gem and are choosing quality/flavor and value over branding. “Why are you buying this one instead of $Brand?” “They were out of $Brand once so I tried $Generic, and it tastes even better, so now I keep buying it.” He won’t downgrade just to save money but doesn’t mind picking a cheaper brand if it’s better or the same as the expensive one.

          • dndnrsn says:

            This is probably true – all the food products I can think of where the brand name thing is better are fairly prepared/processed.

          • I think there are more expensive butters which have a stronger butter flavor.

      • dndnrsn says:

        That would be the second part – the “nice things – but why would there be more status anxiety among the lower-middle class than the upper-middle class? The latter are more likely to be driving VWs or Lexuses but parking at work next to someone higher on the ladder who owns a Beemer.

        It just seems odd to me that, even if someone is buying something to feel nice, why not save on the things that are identical except for the label, and put the money saved towards luxuries where the extra money makes a difference?

        • meyerkev248 says:

          http://www.mauldineconomics.com/this-week-in-geopolitics/the-roots-of-trumps-strength

          “The fourth quintile, the heart of lower-middle class, earns about $31,000 a year before taxes per household. I grew up in a lower-middle class household (my father was a printer, my mother a homemaker, and there were two children). We owned a house and a car and took a vacation.

          Today, people in the lower-middle class are bringing home, at best, $2,000 a month, and they will not own a house but instead pay $1,200 a month to rent an apartment, with the rest going to food and other basics. The lower-middle class can no longer afford what used to be a lower-middle class life.”

          The lower middle class is boned. The upper-middle-class, once they leave the Bay Area, will do as well as their parents.

          So they hold onto the status symbols they can.

          • baconbacon says:

            Homeownership rate in the US is ~67%, as high or higher when the author of that post was growing up as a “lower middle class” person, why can’t lower middle class people own homes?

      • Andrew says:

        Just as an amusing side-note: I noticed myself consciously buying even more thriftily in the grocery store a while back for exactly this reason. I have a BMW in the parking lot (a much beloved used Z3), so why the hell do I care what the cashier thinks about my off-off-brand canned tomatoes or “good for WIC”-labeled pasta?

        • Luke the CIA Stooge says:

          That’s interesting, i know in my family (scots-irish- german), it’s common for women to brag about how cheap they got their clothes despite the fact that we’re right on the edge of upper-middle class/upper class, and i don’t mean “i got this 500 dollar jacket for 400” I mean “check out this cardigan I got! You like it? Guess how much it was! Guess!!! 2 DOLLARS!!! THRIFT STORE!!!”

          And they take this seriously! Like they take it to an almost crass level.

          I think this is why WASP is synonymous with rich old money and condescension towards poor people, the entire culture of Protestantism is insistent on frugality as a moral good.

          Hell in Canada the frugal scotsman is on our money

          • Garrett says:

            As someone who grew up in Canada, I still find it funny that Canadian Tire money is pretty much good enough to be able to settle debts with such that it might as well qualify as a separate parallel currency. I’d love to know if there’s research that’s been done on this.

    • J Mann says:

      As one data point, I’ll often pay a little bit more for the name brand. IMHO, I believe (possibly mistakenly) that Swanson or Dole or Iams values its reputation enough that their product is likely to better than the store brand’s. Yes, there’s a good chance that batch of store brand broth was made by Swanson, but maybe not, and if I start with broth that isn’t quite as good, will people like my soup as much? It’s worth $0.30 to increase the possibility that I put out good product.

      I’m more confident in that belief with regard to marquis brands like Tide, and buy if for that reason.

      • Jill says:

        Does anyone really think that the primary reason someone is poor is that they are buying name brand ketchup?

        • Alsadius says:

          The ketchup itself is basically irrelevant. The mindset behind “I’ll spend more than I have to on this, because I’m worth it” is totally a real problem for some poor people. Not all, but some. I’ve said to a few middle-class folks with money problems that they can afford anything they want, just not everything they want, and the same is largely true of poor people. A poor American can usually afford a cell phone, or an air conditioned apartment, or a PS4, or a new car, or a new couch, or a trip to Disneyland. They just can’t afford more than a couple of them.

          • Lumifer says:

            The mindset behind “I’ll spend more than I have to on this, because I’m worth it” is totally a real problem for some poor people.

            An excellent place to observe such people is WholeFoods :-/

          • Alsadius says:

            Lumifer: Yup, it’s a problem for some non-poor people too. They just have more resources to bail themselves out.

          • Randy M says:

            The worst attitude one can have with money is “I deserve this.” Nevermind the statement’s factual accuracy or lack thereof, changing one’s attitude to that of “Can I afford this?” or even better “Can I afford this as well as this other thing I want or need more?” and sticking with the honest response is a good first step out of poverty.

            It’s an easy trap to fall back into, certainly. I’ll say to myself, “I’ve worked hard this week and haven’t bought anything in awhile, I deserve to go out to eat and go blow some money at the game shop.” Thinking instead of whether I can afford it while we may need a new car and some dentist visits soon will help me avoid the expense and avoid feeling resentment about doing so.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Ketchup all by itself, no. But name-brand everything, sure. At the point of living “paycheck to paycheck”, everything matters.

          • Anonymous says:

            At the point of living “paycheck to paycheck”, everything matters.

            This is pretty true. When I was in grad school (making little money), I decided to get my finances in order. I still have the original spreadsheet. I saved $50 that month. It really wasn’t that long before I was no longer “paycheck to paycheck”.

        • J Mann says:

          Steve Sailer had a few pieces that argue that many car dealers actively work status anxiety when they can.

          I don’t remember the pitches, but there are a number of lines calculated to appeal to a buyer’s ego, that of course they’re successful enough to drive a $30K or $45K car.

        • Mary says:

          These things add up. Especially the little ones that are all the time. You save more money by reducing your weekly grocery bill by a dollar than you do by not buying a forty-dollar item. And still more by saving a quarter a day on your lunch.

          • keranih says:

            You save more money by reducing your weekly grocery bill by a dollar than you do by not buying a forty-dollar item.

            I’m…not entirely sure I follow.

            “The best way to double a dollar is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.” And buying three things on sale that you don’t need isn’t actually saving anything, no matter how much they’re discounted.

            Or do you mean something else?

          • You buy a lot of groceries and a whole lot of lunches in your life. Over time, recurring expenses will overwhelm any big-ticket purchase items.

            Therefore, to optimize spending, look closest at what you buy regularly. Avoiding generic-brand in a purchase you make regularly adds up really quickly.

          • Cadie says:

            And a lot of times you can make a small investment that ends up paying for itself quickly. I’m talking about tiny stuff like a small slow cooker pot (like $15 at Wal-Mart?), which makes it easier to cook cheap, reasonably healthy meals, and if you eat meat you can buy tougher, cheaper cuts and still get something tasty because it’s slow-cooked. A few inexpensive herbs and spices let you add variety and flavor without having to buy anything exotic and pricey. One of my best “investments” was a small coffeemaker. Not Keurig, just a standard cheapo drip coffee brewer. It cut my coffee spending dramatically, without having to decrease quality, because making coffee from a bag at home costs less than buying it by the cup, even if you use more expensive coffee.

            I’ve wondered if there are any charities or similar programs meant to get small appliances and cookware to the poor. You can’t buy those things with food stamps, but having simple kitchen appliances and tools helps people stretch their food budgets and saves time.

          • Teal says:

            Not free, but those kind of small appliances can be found really really cheap at thrift stores that exist in poor neighborhoods. They’ll be used and have cosmetic and maybe minor functional damage, but very much usable.

            Something like: “the refrigerator broke and everything inside spoiled, again” is a bigger problem in my observation than, I can’t afford a slow cooker or a microwave at all.

          • Mary says:

            If you save a dollar a week on your grocery bill, in a year you have $52, which is more than $40.

            If you save a quarter a day on your lunch, in a year you $91.25, which is still more.

            AND — you have more years than that!

      • dndnrsn says:

        There are some things where the name brand is clearly superior. Examples I can think of include fabric bandages (the name brand Band-Aids are better than any store brand I’ve seen), hand sanitizer (I find Purell leaves your hands feeling less tacky than generics I’ve used), some condiments (eg brand-name Worcestershire sauce has a different ingredients list than the generics I’ve seen), some dairy products, pens, etc. And there are some things not available generic.

      • bean says:

        Yes, there’s a good chance that batch of store brand broth was made by Swanson, but maybe not, and if I start with broth that isn’t quite as good, will people like my soup as much? It’s worth $0.30 to increase the possibility that I put out good product.
        But the problem there is that you’re not just spending $0.30, you’re spending $0.30 every time you make the soup. I almost always buy generics, and I’ve never found them to be seriously inconsistent. Try it once, and if it works, switch. If not, go back. (I’m not a foodie, so it’s possible I’m missing something, but my mom is a much better cook, and she does the same.)
        Or just go to Aldi, if they have them where you live. Aldi is sort of like magic. You get good food cheap. They’ve recently came to SoCal, and I was very excited about it.

        • JayT says:

          Even better yet, roast a chicken for dinner one night, and then boil the carcass and you get broth for basically free.

          • To do it in one step:

            Slow cooked chicken.

            Immerse the chicken in a pot of boiling water to which you have added a little sherry and ginger and maybe a bit of onion. Bring it back to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover it, let it sit an hour. Bring back to a boil, turn off the heat, cover, let it sit an hour. Check that it’s done by sticking a chopstick into the thigh–the liquid should come out reasonably clear (and, in my experience, always does, but if not repeat the process one more time).

            You now have a chicken which, unlike roast chicken, has white meat that is actually good to eat instead of dry. Cut it in bits, dunk them in soy sauce with or without a little ginger or garlic or sesame oil. Probably eat with rice.

            You also now have a pot full of chicken broth. Bring it back to a boil, boil it down to your preferred strength of broth, let cool, freeze or refrigerate.

          • bean says:

            I think you missed my point. It wasn’t about the broth per se, it was about the attitude towards generic groceries.

          • onyomi says:

            Baking a whole turkey and then boiling the carcass and whatever bits one doesn’t feel like eating as sandwiches/turkey salad, etc. and then turning that broth+extra meat into turkey gumbo makes what seems like an absurd, almost limitless quantity of food for around $20-30. If I were someone with 10 children or something, I would certainly do this quite often.

          • keranih says:

            Turkey wings are even cheaper by the pound than whole turkey and easier to stick in the oven. And god are they delish when roasted.

          • TPC says:

            Um, onyomi, have you tried making stock for 10 kids? Or even 5? I ask because it’s actually really hard to do this type of cooking without some other adults being in the house to distract the kids, which is not the typical American large family scenario (except for the Amish and similar groups).

            I do it, but it hardly is “limitless” food when you’re feeding more than one or two people. It’s astonishing how much active, healthy young children can pack away. We had a 20lb turkey and did what you described and it didn’t even last until the next Thursday.

            Our household uses money instead of time regarding food prep because it’s cheaper to buy someone else’s time from the deli section than do all this work and pay for kid wrangling. Because if kids have to be wrangled too, the cooking can’t actually get done efficiently enough or in sufficient huge quantities.

            It’s different if you were raised with that cooking style, but those people do tend to have relatives and/or friends come by to distract the kids anyhow, so it’s six of one and half a dozen of another.

          • John Schilling says:

            Um, onyomi, have you tried making stock for 10 kids? Or even 5? I ask because it’s actually really hard to do this type of cooking without some other adults being in the house to distract the kids,

            If you’ve got ten children in the house, almost certainly one of them is an adult. Arranging ten minor children and no adult children is tricky.

            If you’ve got five children in the house, for any reasonable age spread, you’re supposed to be able to trust the older ones to keep the younger ones out of trouble long enough to do some serious cooking. Losing this, if in fact it has been lost, is probably costing families in many ways, and not just the poor families

          • TPC says:

            “If you’ve got ten children in the house, almost certainly one of them is an adult. Arranging ten minor children and no adult children is tricky.

            If you’ve got five children in the house, for any reasonable age spread, you’re supposed to be able to trust the older ones to keep the younger ones out of trouble long enough to do some serious cooking. Losing this, if in fact it has been lost, is probably costing families in many ways, and not just the poor families”

            10 child families often include a set or two of twins. It’s not at all a guarantee you even have some preteens. Very much more true with five kids, since closely spacing pregnancies has gotten more common as age of first birth has risen.

            Since the kids are very likely to be closely spaced and mom doesn’t have another adult around, the kids don’t get trained and it’s a very chaotic situation for 10-15 years in many households of more than even two or three children. Mom’s always in lower health because of frequent depleting pregnancies and sometimes nursing and the kids all being at the same toddler/infant stages makes enforcing routines very chaotic. This is all well documented among the women who are having larger families right now (where right now is post-2000).

            Also, serious cooking was not considered something every woman could or even should do when larger families were more common. Communal-type cooking and selling the excess to other families was much more common than it is today.

            I agree with you that a great deal has been lost, it’s a research area of mine for years now.

          • bean says:

            10 child families often include a set or two of twins. It’s not at all a guarantee you even have some preteens. Very much more true with five kids, since closely spacing pregnancies has gotten more common as age of first birth has risen.
            Really? 10 kids with two sets of twins would be 8 separate pregnancies. It’s hard to see the spacing being much less than 18 months, which makes the oldest 10.5 when the last is born. That’s not quite pre-teen, but it’s certainly old enough to help with basic childcare. And that’s when the last one is born on a very aggressive birthing schedule. This sort of thing happens. Large families usually adapt.

            (A reference to Cheaper by the Dozen [the book, not the movie] seems appropriate here.)

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            It’s hard to see the spacing being much less than 18 months

            I’ve met several pairs of siblings with ages closer than that.

          • bean says:

            I’ve met several pairs of siblings with ages closer than that.
            Yes, but we’re not talking about 2 pregnancies, we’re talking about 8. 18 months is the average over those 8 pregnancies. Some will be closer together and some will be farther apart.

          • Tracy W says:

            @TPC: ignore the kids long enough to fill the pot with water and put it on the stove to heat. Then, once it’s boiling, ignore the kids again long enough to dunk the chicken in. And repeat.

            Yes I have cooked in small stages with a 13 month old wailing at the entrance to the kitchen as if they were being abandoned to the wolves at midnight.

            Frozen vegetables and herbs and whatnot are fantastic as they are both cheaper than fresh stuff and also don’t need peeling or chopping. I have also cooked with a baby in a sling on my stomach although I didn’t do anything then involving heat unless it was the microwave or a toaster.

          • John Schilling says:

            Then, once it’s boiling, ignore the kids again long enough to dunk the chicken in.

            I first read that as “dunk the children in”, and understood the temptation.

          • TPC says:

            Tracy W, one kid isn’t five aged 5/4/3/2/1 + pregnant. It’s not even 2/1+ pregnant. Then the baby on a sling is harder to pull off.

            Very few women have children in the amounts I’m talking about, but they are my tribe, so I have a pretty clear bead on their ability to navigate this type of frugal cooking (or fail to) with many small kids underfoot.

            The Cheaper by the Dozen family had two working parents who worked mostly at home in a workspace not very far away and had servants. They did not have dad leaving for ten or twelve hour stretches with mom the only adult the children were around for that time period, which is the new norm for larger mainstream (not Amish/Hutterite, etc) families one completely not conducive to cooking or much of anything else.

            Even Mormons doing the larger family in suburbia tend to accept some degree of household help for the SAHM of such a family. Where that doesn’t happen, cooking of the type discussed here doesn’t either.

          • Tracy W says:

            @TPC: in the 19th century a lot of immigrant women to NZ raised large quantities of kids on remote farms without any extended family (being immigrants) or home help (way too expensive), or electricity. I have heard stories of women going nuts from the isolation and desperate rides to get medical help, but never of anyone starving to death because they couldn’t find time to cook.

          • TPC says:

            I never said anyone starved to death. Anyway you’re shifting from talking about people raising large families of closely spaced children now in exurbs and suburbs with little to no walkability or safe play area or yards and not frugal-cooking for physical and logistical reasons to frontier women a hundred years ago who had no access to convenience foods as we’d understand them and whose broods had plenty of safe flat terrain to ramble around on while Ma got dinner together (I’ve seen the NZ farms, flat as pancakes for a long, long way).

            Apples and kumquats, pretty much. If the obstacles for 2016 mothers of five closely spaced kids to the type of frugal cooking described here weren’t what they tell me and I’ve seen when in their homes (bringing them food), then I wouldn’t have brought them up. I also noted that people were taking food portions that would only serve a couple of people for many days and assuming that would work with children, when that is also not the case. Those households don’t starve, they just aren’t eating as frugally as you all suggest because it’s not really workable or possible given the environmental constraints they live under.

    • sards says:

      “well they are just less intelligent than in general, and that’s why their bad with money, and that’s why they’re poor” doesn’t work, because I know people better off than me (from families with more money, who make more money, or both) who spend their money stupidly.

      This seems like poor reasoning. A general explanation doesn’t work because you know of a few exceptions to the rule?

      In fact I’m pretty sure it is true that intelligence is highly correlated with wealth and income. So why wouldn’t this be at least part of the explanation for the phenomenon you observed?

      • dndnrsn says:

        Well, it strikes me as self-congratulatory. That doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but I do want to apply more scrutiny to possible explanations that paint me in a positive light, because that’s a warning sign for possible motivated reasoning.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      “well they are just less intelligent than in general, and that’s why their bad with money, and that’s why they’re poor” doesn’t work, because I know people better off than me (from families with more money, who make more money, or both) who spend their money stupidly.

      The fact that you see a lot of people with more money being stupid with money should make it even easier for you to believe that poor people are stupid with money.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t know the extent to which this is a generic upper-middle class thing. I was raised to almost always buy the generic, but I am noticeably cheaper than a lot of people in my peer groups: I was always the guy saying “why go to a bar to spend five bucks plus tax and tip per beer when we could just get a 24 and get 4 people drunk for the same price it would cost each of us to get one beer at a bar?” and my parents are definitely both thriftier (sometimes to the point of annoyance – whenever I’m at my parents’ place I find myself trying to figure out which plastic container goes with which lid and realizing that my parents own a vast collection of orphaned tupperware, because throwing anything out is wasteful) and better with money than the average.

      This is cultural. It’s most common among relatively recent immigrant groups (i.e. up to the second or third generation). It is certainly a part of the culture I grew up in, but as a result of nasty comments a lot of people of my ethnicity bend over backwards in the other direction.

      • dndnrsn says:

        OK, maybe that’s the explanation. I fall into that category, including immigrants from a culture that is stereotypically thrifty (if you’re being nice) and cheap (if you’re not).

    • Amanda says:

      Someone close to me does this, and it always confused me. She was thrifty and frugal in other ways, but no way was she buying generic milk, she insisted on buying her meat at the most expensive store, Heinz ketchup and Starkist tuna only, etc.

      She explained that it was because growing up, they always had to eat the lowest quality food, because that was all they could afford – ham that was more gristle than meat, expired generic canned peas, etc. She’s much better off than her parents, but would still be poor by some measures, and is functionally middle class because she sought out a low cost-of-living area.

      But if she physically has the money, she will not be buying any food that could be construed as low quality. She left there, and she’s not going back, and you can’t make her, and it doesn’t matter if it compromises other financial goals. I’m also sure she could save $1000 a year by breaking this habit, and that’s $1000 she could definitely use.

      She’s not stupid, and she doesn’t make bad financial choices. She has no debt, saves in other ways, used a windfall to pay off the house, puts up with a lot of house and car problems that other people would assume “had” to be fixed, etc. She checks 9/10 boxes for bootstrapping herself and has done well.

      Interestingly, as she’s become more financially comfortable in the lat 10 years, she’s more likely to buy generic food. I don’t know if that’s because she doesn’t feel like she’s at risk of going back there, or because the memory of growing up that way is that much further behind her.

    • keranih says:

      I think there are multiple factors at play here:

      1) People are always signaling to each other. A person with a nice house in a good school district is doing a lot of signaling already, and perhaps feels free to shrug and buy the generic brands. OTOH, someone surfing on their cousin’s couch is going to splurge the only way they can – on fancy Dijon ketchups, as the song goes. Same-same with bling and fancy clothes to sit on the porch all day in – this is all they have to indicate that they have *some*money and aren’t dead broke, and so should be treated with some respect, man.

      2) The smaller the store, the lower the selection. It’s one thing to stock House Brand mustard, along with Frenches and Dijon and Grey Pupon, when you’ve got enough shelf space. But when you’re chosing between displaying ketchup *or* mustard, you’re going with only name brands.

      3) If all I’ve got is enough money to buy one bottle of ketchup, hell if I’m wasting that on some brand I don’t know that is gonna taste nasty and make my baby-daddy mad at me. The poor are risk adverse in different ways than the better-off.

      And having said all that – I am quite comfortable eating generic/store brand food. But I make too much money to drink High Life beer. I don’t care if I’m dead broke – if all I can afford is The Champagne of Beers, I’m going dry until the next paycheck. Different people have different priorities. So long as they don’t expect me to pay for their beer, they can buy what they like.

      • Garrett says:

        My personal limit is toilet paper. You are never too poor to afford good toilet paper. I’ll eat store-brand beans and rice non-stop in order to be able to have nice toilet paper. Sandpaper is for furniture.

    • bean says:

      A thought about this. Is it possible that the people in question have, for whatever reason, a lower resistance to marketing? Nobody makes adds for generic groceries, and name-brands tend to be placed to be more appealing.

  26. Anonymous says:

    What is it about this topic that compels so many to spew forth moralizing anecdotes? About the only topic that even comes close is obesity.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Because people try to deny my lived experiences.

      They say “Oh, you don’t know them, they aren’t frittering away their money of luxuries.”

      And I’m like “GODDAMN I JUST SAW THEIR NEW PS4 LAST NIGHT.”

      It tends to trigger me.

      • Matt M says:

        Theory: Whether you gravitate towards the left or the right politically is largely dependent on how responsible and hard-working the poor people you happen to know are 🙂

        • Jill says:

          Or perhaps, whether you gravitate towards the left or the right politically largely determines how responsible and hard-working you view the poor people you happen to know as being.

          And whether you are upper middle class or lower middle class, may determine the percentage of people you know who manage to be broke, despite a high income, good contacts, good role models, and lots of resources vs. people who are genuinely struggling and doing the best they can.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            Good point. Confirmation bias is always a thing.

          • Murphy says:

            And whether you are upper middle class or lower middle class, may determine the percentage of people you know who manage to be broke, despite a high income, good contacts, good role models, and lots of resources vs. people who are genuinely struggling and doing the best they can.

            This sounds quite plausible.

            If you grow up in a well off family in a nice neighborhood with peers who got lots of advantages you can look around you and see a few who ended up perpetually broke and they’ll tend to mostly be people who did it to themselves because they just cant resist buying every piece of stupid crap they see or quit every job they start because “that manager was crushing my style, so what if I don’t like turning up at 9”

            You know the people intimately and you know they’re jackasses.

            When you then run into someone who’s claiming that poverty is totally unrelated to peoples choices and is just luck of the draw and it doesn’t matter what people do to try to stop being poor and you think of all these examples of people you know intimately and this person speaking appears too stupid to figure out how to breath.

            On the other end of the scale someone growing up in a crap neighborhood with crap resources will look around and of the people they grew up with a few will have done well or gotten lucky windfalls but it’s hard to climb so even the people who are obviously smart and work hard are mostly only doing OK and you can see plainly that even amongst them some just randomly get shat upon by life no matter how hard they work or how smart they are.

            When someone comes along claiming that poverty is totally down to choices with little luck involved you think of all these examples of people you know intimately who did everything right and got nowhere and this person speaking appears too stupid to figure out how to breath.

          • @Murphy:

            Good point.

            And one reason why a thread like this, with contributors from a variety of backgrounds, is useful.

          • Luke the CIA Stooge says:

            this model doesn’t seem to work with what we already know about signalling.

            For example lower-class people who don’t take welfare look down on the slightly more lowerclass who do, despite the fact that they know the difficulty of getting a leg up, being lowerclass themselves.

            The liberal educated upper middle-class meanwhile looks relatively favorably on the poor, despite them knowing people who had all the advantages they yet still screwed up.

            You can’t really explain this with a rational assessment model (where personal experience gets over-weighed).

            I stick with the signalling model, lower-class people look down on welfare recipients to show their better and more virtuous than them, middle-class liberals insist on never seeing anything wrong with welfare recipients to prove their better than the lower-class.

            I like this model, it let’s me signal that i’m better than middle-class liberals ;D

        • enoriverbend says:

          When I was 19 I was a school drop-out working 3rd shift at a textile mill for a few pennies over minimum wage. This didn’t go far since it had to pay for the cheapest apartment I could find and I got no funding from any other source…being a bit too proud to go running back to my parents.

          Between the heat and humidity, the cotton dust we breathed in, and working with people missing digits and entire limbs from work incidents, all for extremely low pay, I gradually concluded that these people had made some severe mistakes in their life to get here. Thankfully, it occurred to me just afterwards that I was one of those people.

          Everyone at the mill was hard-working, which put them above other people living in the same community. But their (our, as I say) judgement was flawed and those flaws showed up in a vast array of judgement calls. Never-married single mothers of 4, guys on work release from manslaughter stemming from bar fights, people who could just barely afford the down payment on a new Camaro to park in front of their trailer and forgot to think hard enough about the monthly payments. And yes, high-school and college drop-outs like me that could have been more.

          Even though I’m well into the top income decile now, that experience probably shaped my thinking about poverty and the poor more than any amount of reading Hayek and Rawls.

          The poor that I knew were mostly not drug addicts (excluding alcohol perhaps) and most weren’t criminals and most weren’t lazy. But all the same, the proximate cause of their poverty was their own behavior, and they did not seem to be aware of it. And if you had given any of them a lottery ticket worth $100K, I’m not sure a look at their lives five years later would show that much improvement.

          • eccdogg says:

            I had almost the exact same experience as you though mine was working summers at a textile mill not not as a drop out (I am guessing you were in NC as well given your name).

            I came away from the experience that the folks were just not very smart. They made all kinds of bad decisions that impacted their lives in negative ways.

          • enoriverbend says:

            @eccdogg

            Interesting coincidence.

            But I think there is a quality (or an anti-quality) of poor judgement that transcends stupidity. I have seen it in all classes, including the children of rich parents just waiting to inherit (having no accomplishments of their own). And seen extremely poor judgement by very smart people.

            It’s just that the poor cannot afford nearly as many bad judgement calls as the rest of us, and they seem to make more. And for the poor, each bad judgement compounds on the next, and requires sterner measures to break that cycle. But it is possible, and I have seen it, and I have a lot of respect for those that have.

          • Eccdogg says:

            Agreed. I am using it smart more broadly than just in the IQ sense.

            One guy I worked with was pretty smart and funny with good social skills but had an awful temper particularly when drunk. You could just see that it was going to get him into trouble. Sure enough one night during the summer I was working there he picked a fight with a guy who shot him dead.

            This guy was plenty intelligent but did not make smart decisions. Mainly don’t start fights with random people over trivial slights because they may be armed. But honestly I don’t think he could help himself.

        • Yehoshua K says:

          What are you suggesting? That if the poor people I know are hard-working and responsible then I will gravitate to the right because I think they don’t need government help, but if they’re lazy bums then I’ll gravitate to the left because I think they do need government help? Or that if I know hard-working responsible types then I’ll tend to be a leftist because I’ll conclude they deserve help, whereas if I know bums I’ll stand on the right because it’s their own fault anyways? What about people who think (like me) that government is really really bad at helping poor people, that using it for that purpose is not terribly different from using a chainsaw for a surgical tool?

          • Matt M says:

            “Or that if I know hard-working responsible types then I’ll tend to be a leftist because I’ll conclude they deserve help, whereas if I know bums I’ll stand on the right because it’s their own fault anyways?”

            This is what I’m suggesting. If most of the people you know who are poor are virtuous and hard-working and just suffered bad luck, you are likely to favor expanded welfare, additional help for them (because you assume the welfare will be temporary – if only they got the proper help, they would certainly accept it and turn their lives around and not need it anymore).

            If most of the people you know who are poor are lazy deadbeats, you’re likely to see all of that as a thinly disguised “I’m going to steal your money and give it to these lazy deadbeats” style of threat – and immediately object.

            “What about people who think (like me) that government is really really bad at helping poor people, that using it for that purpose is not terribly different from using a chainsaw for a surgical tool?”

            Sounds like a libertarian and/or anarchist position. One that I 100% agree with.

        • Walter says:

          I buy that one. Makes sense.

      • Anonymous says:

        Because people try to deny my lived experiences.

        They say “Oh, you don’t know them, they aren’t frittering away their money of luxuries.”

        And I’m like “GODDAMN I JUST SAW THEIR NEW PS4 LAST NIGHT.”

        It tends to trigger me.

        You know that data isn’t the plural of anecdote, right?

        • baconbacon says:

          You know the data says that the working poor in the US have 5-10x the spending power of the working poor in the US a century ago, right?

          The anecdotes given here fit the data, and are not being used AS data themselves.

          • Anonymous says:

            You know the data says that the working poor in the US have 5-10x the spending power of the working poor in the US a century ago, right?

            As it happens I do. That is quite relevant to the discussion.

            Not useful or relevant are the endless moralizing anecdotes whose only purpose is to make the person vomiting them out feel superior.

            Just like every open thread we have to hear “I can’t understand why there are so many fat people. It is sooooo easy to lose weight all you need to do is do what I do, which I’ll explain to you in excruciating detail. You’re welcome!”

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Anonymous

            You are probably just projecting, I know my anecdotes aren’t data, but it sure as hell doesn’t make me feel superior to post about working minimum wage jobs on a site filled with people who will make more in 5 years than I will in a lifetime.

          • “Not useful or relevant are the endless moralizing anecdotes whose only purpose is to make the person vomiting them out feel superior.”

            I disagree. To begin with, data is the plural of datum, and an anecdote, if true, is a datum. I only get to see directly through one pair of eyes, and seeing indirectly through lots of others gives me a wider picture of the world. That applies both to anecdotes about people who are poor for reasons that are their fault and to people poor for reasons that are not their fault. It would be useful to have more and better data, in particular on how many people fit in which pattern, but some is better than none.

          • Yehoshua K says:

            In reference to David Friedman’s point that an anecdote, if true, is a datum, which is the singular of data, isn’t that sort of the sticking point? Anecdotes are not reliably true, not even when they are my own personal experience (human memory is a famously fluid thing), and certainly not when they are reported to me by other people. In order to qualify as “data,” those anecdotes would need to have been collected and recorded under conditions designed to achieve a high degree of reliability.

            Furthermore, even if they were reliable, it is not clear to me that “some is better than none.” If I have no data, and know that I have no data, I know that I can draw no conclusions. If I have some data, but an inadequate quantity of them, I might well err in drawing conclusions from outliers. Didn’t someone once say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?

          • Nornagest says:

            The biggest issue is that people, and I mean almost all people regardless of background or political preference, hugely overestimate how typical they and their friends are. That can lead you to wildly wrong conclusions about what’ll work on a population level, even if everyone’s got perfect recall and is being scrupulously honest.

            Works okay if all you need is an existence proof, but policy issues almost always want more than that, “if only one child…” style rhetoric aside.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I used to think a lot of things were easy, like comparing a bunch of phone plans and taking time to decide which to do. And they were for me when I was young and single. And when I got old and married and oh-my-god I can’t imagine keeping up with all that stuff any more.

          • Murphy says:

            Even if true data points collected in a biased fashion can be worse than no data at all.

            If you believe that green eyed people are inclined towards crime and hang out on a forum for people who believe the same thing and each day people relate stories of being mugged by green-eyes, seeing green-eyes shoplifting, stories of abusive greeny partners etc then after a while you’ll have a massive pile of data points supporting green-eye criminality.

            And every data point could be 100% true.

            You can point to all those stories to support your positions but it’s actively misleading.

            If you looked at an unbiased dataset the green eyed people might be utterly average but the collection of anecdotes will tend to mislead you if they’re collected poorly.

            Lots of internet communities already do this a great deal and tend to leave their members with heavily distorted views of other groups.

          • @Murphy:

            Data can mislead you. It’s still data.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Tell you what: you don’t tell me that the things I see with my own goddamn eyes aren’t actually happening, and I won’t feel the need to regale you with anecdotes about how I fucking saw them happen.

          • Z says:

            There are certainly “poor” people who buy expensive electronics, and equally certainly there are poor people who don’t and can’t.

            Anyone of any ideological bent who can imagine only one kind of poor person is bound to be either too charitable or not charitable enough.

            Consider if you might simply be talking about a different class of “poor person” than people who you see as coming to their defense.

            Speaking only for myself, I agree that people who can afford a new PS4 are not sufficiently poor as to warrant my sympathy.

      • Bone Man with Shiny Hat says:

        @Scizorhands:

        Yes, but you only know anecdotal poor people.

    • gbdub says:

      Moralizing anecdotes from lived experience, as opposed to aloof moral preening about the virtuous poor?

      Poor people are people. Some of them are diligent saints. Others are cheats, bums, and assholes. Some are clever and resourceful, others are morons. Some of the saints have terrible luck and deserve better. Some of the assholes get away with murder and deserve much worse.

      Now anybody who thinks that all the poor are dumb assholes who got what was coming to them is heartless, but in my experience that particular jackwad is no more common than the privileged amateur sociologist who adopts a ridiculously condescending, paternalistic attitude toward the poor and calls it virtue, without realizing how denying any agency to the impoverished is fundamentally dehumanizing.

      • Anonymous says:

        We don’t need that either. It’s a stupid monkey brain flaw (read: cognitive bias) that we try to force issues involving hundreds of millions of people and ultra-complex feedback systems into the framework of Dunbar number sized interpersonal jockeying.

      • Feeble says:

        It just sounds like you described two weakmen.

        • Alsadius says:

          That is the traditional form political debate takes, yes.

        • Salem says:

          Maybe, but one of the weakmen is nowhere to be found, whereas the other has posted 25 comments in this thread.

          • Feeble says:

            Sorry, having genuine trouble figuring out which of the two weakmen “has posted 25 comments in this thread”.

            Weakman 1 is “the poor are assholes”, which I see expressed by no one in this thread.

            Weakman 2 is “the poor are virtuous”, which again I see expressed by no one in this thread.

          • Alsadius says:

            I think the one we’re seeing is “the privileged amateur sociologist who adopts a ridiculously condescending, paternalistic attitude toward the poor and calls it virtue, without realizing how denying any agency to the impoverished is fundamentally dehumanizing.” – that seemed like a shot at Jill.

        • Gbdub says:

          I did, and like most weakmen they have a grain of truth to them. The point is that they exist on both sides here, and are equally wrong.

  27. szopeno says:

    Maybe The difference between the lottery studies and cherokees was the first one was about one family raising (which could alienate them with the former friends), while the second raised the whole neighbourhood, all friends, families, peers, in the same time.

  28. rey says:

    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.

    Healthcare costs are probably a big part of this difference – especially when comparing the U.S. with Sweden.

    • Jill says:

      Good point. Especially in Red States where their governors have kept sick people from receiving Medicaid.

      • Alsadius says:

        Yes, damn them for refusing to take on a permanent liability with a couple years of federal funding – after all, it’s free, and who cares about the future?

  29. cassander says:

    >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

    I can’t read the article, but given the much lower IQs (regardless of what you think this implies about actual intelligence) and incomes of blacks, I can’t see how any comparison of income and IQ in america vs other countries isn’t going to be overwhelmingly dominated by race.

    > 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

    I have sadly lost the source, but I once saw some census data on car ownership rates between various demographics. The largest delta, by far, was native born Americans vs immigrants. The difference was much stronger than income effects.

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

    “Survival” is a strong word. Defined as avoiding death, the modern poor definitely have more than 10 times the money they need to survive. I dare say they even have 10 times the amount of money needed to sustain a 1900 quality of life which, it must be remembered, means no car, basically no medical care, no TV, no radio, no phone, no electricity, to say nothing of the things invented in the 20th century.

    >at least in America, at least if given large amounts of money – still possible.

    What defines poverty? If it’s a monetary threshold then, by definition, giving them money is all you need to do.

    • Jill says:

      There is a culture of poverty. It may include lack of constructive role models, extended family members who are always in trouble and always expecting your financial help (as some above in this thread have referred to), lack of resources and information, beyond just money etc.

      Our having less of a social safety net than Europe does may be as big a factor, or a bigger factor, than race. Also people living in housing projects and other dangerous areas where their adrenaline levels are almost constantly elevated due to the crime.

      • cassander says:

        >There is a culture of poverty. It may include lack of constructive role models, extended family members who are always in trouble and always expecting your financial help (as some above in this thread have referred to), lack of resources and information, beyond just money etc.

        I don’t doubt that, but I fail to see the point you’re making, exactly. I don’t mean that flippantly, I genuinely don’t see what you think this proves.

        >Our having less of a social safety net than Europe does may be as big a factor, or a bigger factor, than race.

        Our safety net is not that much smaller, the black difference in wealth and IQ is very large. if what you say were true, safety nets would have to have to have a much larger effect than race, which would mean we’d see much bigger variations between European countries than we do, or even between various US states with more or less generous policies. that we don’t is strong evidence that safety net doesn’t have the out sized effect you claim.

        >Also people living in housing projects and other dangerous areas where their adrenaline levels are almost constantly elevated due to the crime.

        I doubt they’re more elevated than the middle class father falling behind on his payments for his kids’ private school.

  30. Edward Scizorhands says:

    There is a society in which everyone is kept down. If you are poor, it is not your fault at all.

    There is a society in which everyone is lifted up. If you are poor, it is entirely your fault.

    Those societies might exist only on paper. But I think every society in the real world fits somewhere on the spectrum between those extremes.

    Theory: One reason direct giving to the third-world works so well is that it’s full of people much closer to the first category.

    • Jill says:

      “One reason direct giving to the third-world works so well is that it’s full of people much closer to the first category.”

      Well, theoretically.

      In reality, we have a lot of poor kids here who could use help and yet they are denied it, because the fact that “not everyone is kept down” in the society as a whole, is keeping people from contributing to their welfare.

      Since not everyone is kept down in the U.S., we would have a sorting job to do– who needs help, what kind of help would be most beneficial etc. Some people indeed are not willing to do a reasonable amount to help themselves. But other poor people are. And there are a lot of people who are too disabled to do much for themselves– like sick people in Red States where their governor has kept them from being able to receive Medicaid.

      Perhaps it is the rich who are the lazy ones. They may be too lazy to sort one category of people from another. It’s easier for the lazy philanthropist to just distance and insulate himself or herself from the poor down the street from them– and to just throw some money at a country or continent far away. If it does not good, or there are problems in applying the program it funds, well, that’s okay. It’s so distant and far away from you that you will never even know that happened.

      • Bone Man with Shiny Hat says:

        And there are a lot of people who are too disabled to do much for themselves– like sick people in Red States where their governor has kept them from being able to receive Medicaid.

        This is, I think, concentrated Essence of Jill. My fellow Jill connoisseurs should clip and save it.

  31. Orphan Wilde says:

    The big difference is a bizarre cycle people in poverty get stuck in. They get money, and they spend it.

    That’s what you do with money, isn’t it?

    No. I mean, they spend it immediately. The reason they spend it immediately is because if they don’t, they won’t get to. If they have a partner, they’ll be doing this too. If they have children, the children will do it too. So within the local family, everybody spends everything while there is something to spend, which itself can create and maintain this cycle; I know a person who should have a comfortable middle-class existence whose ex-wife started him into this cycle, and he’s never managed to break out of it. He makes more than enough money to pay for his lifestyle without eliminating anything except impulsive and unrewarding purchases.

    But you don’t need a partner or children to provoke this cycle. Your cousin is going to get kicked out of her apartment if she doesn’t make rent – your uncle’s car broke down and needs a new transmission or he’ll lose his job – your sister needs to pay for an abortion. If you have any money to give, you’re a horrible person for not contributing to deal with other people’s disasters. So saving money just isn’t an option.

    Which means when an emergency comes up for you, you also don’t have money to deal with it, and lean on your family in the same way they lean on you.

    • Jaskologist says:

      So basically, they have a culture of socialism, with all the perverse incentives that entails.

      • Alsadius says:

        It’s not far off, yeah.

      • gbdub says:

        One of the major failure modes of unrestrained capitalism is the “tragedy of the commons”. Socialism makes the whole economy common…

      • Murphy says:

        Certainly strawman socialism at least. Real implementations tend to limit in some way how much comes from or goes to individuals because the people planning things out aren’t actually too stupid to breath.

        • gbdub says:

          Does the difference between theory and practice automatically render the theory a strawman? Not that Jaskologist’s post wasn’t a bit exaggerated (I suspect it was intentional snark), but I think it’s an interesting question.

          Because in theory socialism means collective ownership of most of the economy (or if you’re a Marxist, a purely transitional state on the way to full-blown Communism). In practice, successful “socialist” countries are basically capitalist democracies with higher than average taxes and stronger than average welfare and regulatory systems. So if I say, “socialism is a bad system, because collective ownership of everything creates perverse incentives”, can you really just dismiss it as, “well that’s just the theory of socialism, in practice no one really does that so socialism is great”?

          On the flip side, pretty much nobody practices pure laissez faire capitalism – but if I were to criticize Adam Smith, would I necessarily be attacking a strawman?

          • “In practice, successful “socialist” countries are basically capitalist democracies with higher than average taxes and stronger than average welfare and regulatory systems. ”

            Welfare yes. My casual impression is that the Scandinavian welfare states are if anything somewhat less regulated than the U.S., but I could be mistaken. I think one of them, possibly Denmark, gets a very high ranking in the economic freedom of the world index.

          • Gbdub says:

            By regulation I was thinking of things like French-style labor laws or various proposals to “break up big banks” which tend to get labeled “socialist”.

          • Matthias says:

            Adam Smith actually had more nuanced views.

            (By the way, you can combine laissez faire capitalism with a big social safety net. Just finance that from land.)

        • Walter says:

          It may be strawman, but I have seen this dynamic. Like, actually in the flesh seen people spend money because if they don’t someone in their network will need it. Everyone in their network is doing this, so none of them ever have any money.

          I recognize that this is just an anecdote, but I’ve seen this kind of thing more than once.

          • nomenym says:

            I don’t know if this is true in other places, but I’ve noticed this particularly of lower class blacks–they own their cars but not their homes. Houses are essentially public goods, at least for the extended family and friendship network. Lots of people don’t have homes so much as places where they are staying at the moment. Houses, therefore, fall to the tragedy of the commons, quickly becoming dilapidated and used-up. Nobody really wants to invest time and energy in their up-keep, nevermind improvements, because social norms make it very hard to reserve its use for oneself. On the other hand, vehicles are strictly private goods–it’s completely expected and appropriate to deny anyone else the use of your car. People invest in their vehicles. Subsequently, you see lots of run-down houses with pretty, shiny, and manicured vehicles out front.

            I can’t help but note that financially these social norms encourage people to expend resources on quickly depreciating assets.

          • Kevin C. says:

            @nomenym

            I’ve seen this phenomenon as well; here, it seems to be particularly common amongst Alaska Natives.

            However, I have to contrast it with a bit from this article on the traditional Chinese family system:

            Since the family was the unit of ownership (even down to the level of sharing toothbrushes), there was nothing that quite corresponded to inheritance. An important debate emerged early in the XXth century as western-inspired law sought to guarantee inheritance for women as well as for men. This was strongly resisted by many tradition-minded Chinese, who argued that there was no such thing as inheritance, and that women were provided for in the traditional scheme in that they were members of the families and segments to which their husbands belonged.

            And yet I’ve never encountered anything that indicates “tragedy of the commons” type problems occurred with the “family as unit of ownership” system of China. It may just be unreported or underreported, or it could be that the strictly hierarchical nature of the Chinese system (to quote from the article, “No two members of a Chinese family were equal in authority. “A state cannot have two monarchs,” a widely cited proverb held, “or a family two heads””) served to prevent it. After all, the two general solutions to “tragedy of the commons” are “privatization” and “government”; the traditional Chinese model could represent the latter.

    • Alsadius says:

      I’ve seen an interesting cultural approach to this, I think from some African country. You get your trusted friend to hold your money, and you hold his. When someone comes by with their hand out, you can’t give them your friend’s money, and you don’t have any of your own on hand, so you can honestly say you can’t help.

      • Jill says:

        Interesting. Also interesting that Africans would otherwise give if asked, unlike most Americans. And, to be sure, it does make more sense to give to an organized charity than to an individual who you know nothing about

        • Matt M says:

          “Also interesting that Africans would otherwise give if asked, unlike most Americans.”

          Citation needed.

          Are you missing all the people who are suggesting that part of the “poverty trap” is being surrounded by other poor people who ask for your money, and being all too willing to give it to them?

        • Alsadius says:

          You do know that the US is consistently ranked as one of the two most charitable nations in the world, right? (The other is, weirdly, Burma).

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Giving_Index

          • Pal says:

            @Alsadius: This is true, but my impression is that Jill is talking about cultural norms somewhere closer to hospitality and sharing culture than charity. When I traveled throughout West Africa in the late 80s, early 90s, the generosity of strangers in opening their homes, their kitchens, and their company to me was astounding. Neighbors, partly through need, partly through established social rules, were huge sharers between themselves as well, and strangers (again, in part through need, first worlders are more autonomous, but still) would stop everything to help push a car through the streets. The sample size of my personal experience is small, sure, but the magnitude of difference between cultural norms was so enormous that I’m confident the observation generally holds.

        • Bryan Hann says:

          I agree with Matt. Citation please.

    • I’ve heard this described before, and I never understand how come people don’t just get good at lying about how much money is in their bank account. “Sorry, I’d love to help, but that last big catastrophe I publicized has wiped me out, I can only contribute this small token amount.” seems like it would be said a lot, if the only thing keeping people down is social pressure, and it’s not like social pressure has done a great job of chiding the misers in general.

      Is there something more going on here?

      • Tom Womack says:

        Why do you think they have bank accounts? If you’re in a keep-money-under-the-bed culture then it’s not entirely unreasonable for people desperately in need of your help to at least look under the bed.

      • Z says:

        The main thing for me is that if someone in my immediate family needs something I *want* to give all I can.

        I’d rather be poor forever than watch my siblings go hungry, or my parents have a stroke because they couldn’t afford blood pressure pills.

        • baconbacon says:

          Food and (95% of) medication aren’t the issues. The issues are posting bail for someone who jumps or paying for your cousins rent instead of giving them your couch to sleep on.

          • Alsadius says:

            The sort of person who needs to beg for rent money from their poor underclass cousin might not be the sort of person you want living in your house.

          • Z says:

            I get your point, I think. That giving someone money for food isn’t a crushing expense, whereas bailing someone out of jail is.

            However, mundane things like food, medical care, transportation and assorted expenses having to do with child care collectively make up almost every personal donation I’ve ever given or witnessed. And these donations add up to real money very quickly.

            I’ve never given a family member or friend money so that they could post bail or buy drugs or any other similar thing.

            I think a lot of people (not necessarily you) are under the impression that most poor people stay that way because they live very exciting irresponsible lives where they blow all their income on drugs, fights, posting bail, buying extravagant luxuries they can’t afford, etc.

            I’ve known loads of people who run the gamut from desperate poverty to lower middle class, and there seem to be two things which they (almost) all have in common:

            1: They don’t have the intelligence, competency, drive or confidence to work any but the lowest paying jobs.

            2: They get taken in by various scams which effectively rob them of what little income they’ve got. I’m talking about things like sending money to televangelists or giving too much to the collection plate or being bamboozled by salespeople or buying cheaper clothes that wear out quickly because they think the lower upfront cost means they’re being frugal.

            Just to be clear, I have no doubt that some poor people are a drain on their family and friends because they’re addicts or criminals, but I’ve known far too many counterexamples to accept that this is the norm.

          • keranih says:

            I’ve never given a family member or friend money so that they could post bail or buy drugs or any other similar thing.

            Post bail, yes. Given money that went to buy drugs, yes. (Not my intent when I gave the money, yes.) Money for rent, etc – yes.

            In all of these cases, in that moment, yes, the people had no money for bail, rent, food, medicine, etc. And what sort of society is happy to let people do without food, shelter, healthcare, and freedom?

            The point is the people were short on money because they had spent the funds they had on less vital things. They had no reserves because they had rented an apartment where both kids could have their own room. They had gotten into rent-to-own instead of using milk crates for a few months and then picking up the minimums at a thrift store. They had frittered away time playing video games and watching movies or just hanging out for three weekends instead of looking for bargains, so when the crunch came, they had to have something at seven pm on a Sunday night and their only option was brand new at WalMart – where they also get a whole basket of other things. They buy a new car music system and go for the most expensive sort on credit, instead of just one level up.

            I had the extra money to lend because I had done those things. And I’m going to take care of close friends and relations. But not without opening my eyes and seeing how crap choices compound.

          • Z says:

            @keranih

            I suspect we agree on almost everything here.

            Most poor people make lots of crap choices. I put this down more to their being too dumb to realize how crap their choices are rather than any kind of greed on their part.

            I realize that may seem like a condescending attitude towards the poor, but from my experience it’s accurate.

            I’m not advocating that you or any other unwilling person be made to pay for anyone else’s bad decisions. I’m just explaining why I’m willing to lose so much money keeping them afloat.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Z

            However, mundane things like food, medical care, transportation and assorted expenses having to do with child care collectively make up almost every personal donation I’ve ever given or witnessed. And these donations add up to real money very quickly.

            Yes, these things add up because you are basically describing supporting another individual. “I can’t save because my baby sister is hungry and every day I give here a PB sandwich and an apple to eat” isn’t true, “I can’t save because I give my baby sister a sandwich, an apple, and I drive her to job interviews, and buy her work clothes when she gets a job, and pick up bags full of groceries for them, and pay to fix the window they broke so their landlord doesn’t find out and evict them …”.

            If you do the latter you aren’t saying “I’m going to help my sister eat” you are functionally taking responsibility for her life in any way she doesn’t (not can’t). The people I have met who got out of poverty weren’t heartless people that never helped (many in fact kept helping after they got out), but they drew a straightforward line. Are you hungry, you can come over my place any time I am home and I will make you a sandwich. No, I won’t give you $5 to go to the grocery store and get your own bread and PB. I’ll come over and plunger your toilet, but no you can’t borrow my plunger and snake.

            In my experience while many poor people act dumb everyone of them can, and will, learn who will give them money when they ask. I would bet that they could learn some good habits if 90% of the people they met had good habits instead of 10%.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            If people can spend freely on their wants, and they will be able to get others to meet their needs (fixed typo),

            1. they quickly realize this
            2. a substantial number of them will quickly adapt to gain the maximum benefit from this situation.

            This is not limited to the poor.

          • Walter says:

            @Z:

            I don’t think it is greed on the part of someone in one of these networks to spend their money instantly. It is that if they don’t someone else will.

            When people talk about getting ‘out the ghetto’ they don’t mean literally physically living in a different place. It mostly means a new social circle, with less terrible beliefs about money.

          • onyomi says:

            “The point is the people were short on money because they had spent the funds they had on less vital things.”

            True. You would be surprised how many people don’t really understand that money is fungible, by the way. Like, “I didn’t spend the money you gave me on drugs, but since you gave me that money for rent, I somehow found I had more money for drugs this month.”

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I think they absolutely know that money is fungible. They just hope the argument that you should keep on helping them with rent to work.

          • onyomi says:

            In some cases they may, but you’d be surprised how earnestly I’ve heard statements which to me indicated the (oftentimes pretty smart, educated) speaker didn’t really “get” the point that money saved on one unavoidable expense is the same as having extra money to spend on something else.

          • lvlln says:

            I’ve had experience that indicates to me that onyomi is correct. I once dealt with a roommate who arduously tried to break down how to split the first/last month’s rent, deposit, broker fee, fairly, and just WOULD NOT LISTEN when I insisted we should just sum it all up and split the final number as needed. She seemed to honestly believe that there was some meaningful distinction even when we arrived at the same results.

            She wasn’t exactly a genius, but neither was she obviously stupid. At least, she was smart enough to graduate college and get into a doctorate program.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvlln:
            That sounds like someone who has been “scammed” (one way or the other) a time or two. The kind where a bunch of things get added together, then someone pays one of the expenses in full, and manages to get double credit for their portion of that expense.

          • lvlln says:

            @HeelBearCub

            That sounds exactly backwards, since she was the one who wanted to come up with complicated quid-pro-quos – of the style of “you pay 2/3 of the broker fees, in exchange I’ll pay 2/3 the deposit and all of the last month’s rent, but then you cover my share of the 1st month’s rent, etc.” – which seems it would provide a lot more opportunities for funny “scammy” math. Instead of just considering the money fungible – in the style of, “We have to collectively pay $x to the landlord and $y to the broker for fees a, b, c, and d. That comes out to $(x+y) total spent for us, which means we should each pay $(x+y)/2 or $x/2 to the landlord and $y/2 to the broker given our agreement to split things 50/50.”

            (In the actual story, there was a 3rd roommate, and things weren’t purely split up evenly, but the logic doesn’t appreciably change).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “in exchange I’ll pay 2/3 the deposit and all of the last month’s rent”

            That sounds like she possibly was trying to run the scam on you. Broker’s fees don’t get refunded at the end…

      • Lumifer says:

        and I never understand how come people don’t just get good at lying about how much money is in their bank account

        I’m sure some do. But the psychological costs of constantly lying to your friends and family are high.

        • keranih says:

          Eh.

          It wasn’t so much lying as it was repeating the story long after it actually applied.

          The dog did get hit by a car, it *did* take thousands of dollars to attempt to fix, and it did leave me in the hole. But depending on who asks, I’m still paying that bill off, and no, don’t have money to loan/join them at the fancy eat-out place.

          (And yes, I’m still cut up about the dog, so could we not talk about that, please? Thanks, I knew you’d understand! It really is great having you around.)

          Meanwhile, I *am* glad to see/hear from them, I *do* want to know more about what is going on with them, and I *would* be glad to have them over for a home cooked supper.

          It’s not so much lying as it is being selective in truth telling in order to not help them ruin my life as well as theirs.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Point, but even so, consistently shading the truth to family and close friends carries with it a lot of the same psychological and mental cost of lying to them.

          • keranih says:

            Compared to the anger I’m still carrying around from loaning a sibling that I love very much a great deal of money so he could pay off a tremendous amount of debt, but instead he let his stupid druggie exwife get hold of before it went to the bill collectors?

            *Pffft* Bending the truth about how much cash I have on hand is easy-peasy.

          • Viliam says:

            In such situation, I would probably recommend having two bank accounts — a “public” one, and a secret one. Set it up so that 10% or 20% of your income is always automatically transferred to the secret account, and the rest goes to your “public” account.

            And then simply “forget” that the secret account exists. — Yes, here is the lying part. But the situation is optimized for compartmentalization. Besides the existence of the secret account and the fact that your salary is actually more than the amount that comes to your “public” account, you can be open about everything.

            Actually, the best thing you could do is to not even think about your secret account, except for e.g. once in a year, when you make a strategic decision about what next.

            Not sure how to explain the moments when you actually use the money from the secret account, though. Pretend that you took a loan? (Because pretending that you got a gift or won a lottery could mean a social obligation to share.)

          • Walter says:

            @Villiam:

            I think if you are able to set up bank accounts and such then you probably aren’t in this boat to begin with. Like, a 401k is mostly what you are talking about, right? But that’s not a fix for this dynamic.

      • Orphan Wilde says:

        It’s a psychological cycle inasmuch as anything else; it’s not that they’re deliberately spending the money so they can’t spend it on their family later, they’re spending the money because otherwise they don’t get to.

      • John Schilling says:

        Is there something more going on here?

        Most people aren’t very good at lying about important things, and are pretty good at figuring out that they are being lied to about important things. On the whole, this is probably a good thing for the human race.

      • baconbacon says:

        “Is there something more going on here?”

        Yes, but it isn’t the cost of lying as others suppose. Thrifty people who save look poorer than their economic peers who don’t, they go without conspicuous consumption and end up on the bottom of the social ladder right up until the day that they have enough money saved and then they move the eft out of the neighborhood. The savers never end up as role models as they are ridiculed when they live there at best and just not around by the time the savings starts to dramatically improve their lives. The only way to become a saver in this environment is to decide to do it yourself without support, and so only a few do it.

        This leaves some chicken and egg questions about how these cultures arise, but that is a better description of the current cycle (imo of course).

    • Lumifer says:

      I could never make sense of the practice of layaway (if you want to buy a big-ticket item, e.g. furniture, you give the store your money in small chunks and eventually, when the store gets enough money to pay for the item, you get your furniture), but maybe that’s a good explanation for it. It’s basically saving which masquerades as immediate spending.

      • Ptoliporthos says:

        Layaway doesn’t make any less sense than a futures contract, and probably arises for similar reasons. If the store really does have unpredictable furniture prices, a consumer might want to lock in a low price even though they can’t afford the total price of that sofa right away. I don’t know enough about the furniture business to know why layaway is worth it for the furniture dealer, but it might have something to do with wringing out that marginal sale that wouldn’t be made otherwise because the consumer has bad credit. Given how widely available credit is nowadays, even to people with lousy credit, I’d be surprised if it sees much use.

        • Lumifer says:

          Layaway doesn’t make any less sense than a futures contract

          You mean a forward contract, but yes, it does make less sense. The difference is that with a forward you agree on a price beforehand, but pay on delivery. With a layaway you pay now but get delivery later. Economically speaking, you’re just lending money to the storekeeper at zero interest rate.

          Why layaway is worth it to the dealer? Two obvious reasons. First, he get some money now and doesn’t have to do anything until later. Second, he locks in the customer who would find it more difficult to go buy the same item elsewhere.

          • Ptoliporthos says:

            I don’t think I understand the distinction you’re trying to draw between a futures/forward contract and layaway — in both you agree on the price beforehand, yes? I don’t think one usually pays the total price up front with layaway — it’s usually an installment plan, so you pay until delivery, and you can pay off the balance earlier and receive earlier delivery, right?

            I don’t think we disagree about the benefits to the seller in the case of layaway, but I think it’s obvious that the seller should prefer that you purchase the furniture on credit (obtained from some third party), so that the seller gets money now and doesn’t have the hassle of keeping track of installment plan payments and storing furniture.

          • lvlln says:

            @Ptoliporthos

            Lumifer laid out the significant difference between layaway and a futures contract pretty well, but let me repeat the point: with layaway, you pay in installments BEFORE you get the delivery. With a futures contract, you pay in full on delivery. A customer purchasing via layaway is losing the interest they could have gotten by saving the money and paying at the end on delivery.

            For a very basic example, if I buy some item X with a price of $10 on layaway, I might put down $5 now, then $5 on delivery. If I bought the same item via futures contract, I would pay $10 on delivery. The difference is that in the former case, I have 5 fewer dollars in the bank between when I made the agreement and when I received the product, compared to the latter case. That’s 5 fewer dollars earning interest and 5 fewer dollars of liquidity available during that time.

          • rmtodd says:

            re: lvlln’s comment above:

            A customer purchasing via layaway is losing the interest they could have gotten by saving the money and paying at the end on delivery.

            : Could they actually have gotten any nontrivial amount of interest? AFAIK, most bank interest-bearing checking accounts are paying basically homeopathic-level interest these days, at least in the US. (CDs might actually get some interest, but people who can afford to lock up sums of money for years at a time are probably not the sort of people we’ve been talking about all day here.)

          • Teal says:

            It’s not really fundamental to the nature of the futures contract that payment occurs at the delivery date. One can easily imagine a version where payment occurred immediately. The time value of money would just have to be taken into account. Given that the contract has optionality value the lack of a discount verses the current spot doesn’t necessarily mean that a layaway contract is ignoring that.

    • gbdub says:

      I think part of the issue is there’s a minimum level of earning where saving “makes sense”, from the following perspective:

      Modern life is full of unexpected expenses on the order of a few hundred to a thousand dollars. Large than expected bills, medical costs for family or pets, broken refrigerator, whatever. Your successful middle class family usually has an “oh crap” fund that easily covers these things.

      But at a lower income, any such minor emergency wipes out whatever meager savings you’ve been able to assemble since the last such emergency. And it turns out you can skate for an awful long time either ignoring bills completely or making minimum payments. If you have nothing, what can they take? So whenever you get a little windfall, you’re motivated to spend it as quickly as possible before it gets swallowed up by creditors. At least that way you’re broke with a few fun trinkets (plus some debt that no one can recover from you) instead of just broke.

      (As a corollary, at a low income these minor emergencies might even be more frequent – you can’t afford a down payment on a new car, and your credit sucks so you can’t get a good lease or decent loan rate, but you’re dumping a couple hundred bucks a month into your beater just to keep it running).

  32. baconbacon says:

    Anecdote time! A few years ago I had three female co workers. One a single mother in the 25-30 range, number 2 married with 2 kids in her 40s and the third 21, single with no kids.

    #1- made $13 an hour, worked 1 full time job, lived with her mother and son. She made a variety of bad decisions, the big one was driving 45 mins each way in a 15 year old car to get to work to “earn” $2-3 more an hour. Between gas, maintenance, regular breakdowns causing her to miss work and speeding tickets there is no way she came out ahead with this choice. Went to a bunch of expensive concerts, consistently complained about her cell phone bill being 2-300 a month.

    #2- made about the same, this was her 2nd job, her first a FT position with benefits. Her husband worked full time as well. They probably made ~ 80k combined, and were broke (she took the 2nd job after being evicted and were living wit friends for a short time). Bad decisions included being married to a husband that used/abused prescription drugs and drove a 40k sports car, and spending long weekends going to concerts where tickets/drinking etc probably cost 2 weeks worth of wages. They also bought a new house, with swimming pool, while I worked with her. Within 3 months they were struggling to make payments.

    #3- make $11 an hour, lived with her parents. Worked 3 jobs. Spent every dime she had on a Kia Soul with an aggressive sound system, rims and a custom paint job. Also complained about her cell phone bill being in the hundreds per month.

    To paraphrase Tolstoy- every comfortable family is the same, but there are a million ways to be broke.

    None of these women were lazy. #2 especially had one of the strongest work drives I have ever seen, job #1 3-8 am, job 2 9-4, home to cook dinner for her family every night). On her “day off” from job #2 job #1 became a 9 hour shift starting at 1 am. None of them were “stupid”. No major (obvious) cognitive problems, and none of them would ever (#3 probably has a chance still) live a comfortable life because they were oblivious, for a lack of a better word, to their terrible economic choices.

    To contrast was a 35 year old woman making $14 an hour, lived with her sister and niece, didn’t own a car, but had enough money to go on 2-3 week long vacations to France, never complained about being broke. Immigrated from Korea in her 20s.

    Or 35 year old man making $10 an hour. Worked 2 jobs (easily 60 hours a week), lived in a tiny apartment alone and sent as much money as his could back to his wife and son in West Africa (can’t remember the country). Took him 3 years to save enough for a trip home to visit and see his son for the first time (wife was pregnant when he left). He had a 10 year plan to save up $10,000 and move back home to start his own business.

    Due to my own nature and “occasionally” poor choices I have worked with a ton of people at and below what is typically called a “living wage”. Their actual comfort level is almost entirely dependent on the choices they made around those jobs once they had them.

    • Alsadius says:

      I can add to this. One of my past jobs was at a call centre, and you see a very interesting cross-section of humanity there. You can basically divide the employees into temps(usually students or new grads who expect to leave within a couple years) and lifers. The lifers were almost universally broke and bitter – lots of them complained about poor credit, high credit card balances, and the like, and other than a few who were married to high earners and doing it for spending money, almost all of them were in terrible financial states.

      The temps were the more interesting category. I was a temp, and I saved over $1000 a month from my minimum-wage pay. I was living at home for free, to be fair, but my plan was that I’d figure out the cost to live on my own, budget my finances for that, and save all the costs I didn’t have to pay so that I knew I could move out any time I wanted to(and so that I’d have a good nest egg when I did). Compare that to the girl who sat across from me – she was a university student who took a year off to make some money, and she also lived at home for free, but she never saved a dime. She did things like buying a new closet full of clothes, took her boyfriend skydiving for his birthday, and all that instead. I’m not sure that she ever really grasped what saving looked like.

      • Tom Womack says:

        Clothes last; boyfriends who you took skydiving for their birthday last; in what sense isn’t that something quite like saving? It’s not very liquid, but it’s physical capital and relationship capital.

        • baconbacon says:

          Clothes don’t last for people that buy closet full of them. They go out of style, or out of fit quickly, and are basically barely ever worn and can’t be sold for anything.

          • Just Some Commenter says:

            “They go out of style, or out of fit quickly … ”

            That’s what tailoring is for — to fix little signs of wear, easily replace linings, change hems / cuffs, let things out, take them in, etc., at a fraction of the cost of new clothes.

          • keranih says:

            Cost of tailoring can be wildly variable, and is not easy to do by one’s self – for women’s clothes you need a dummy. It’s also dependent on the type of clothing.

            The easiest clothes to mend/tailor are manual work clothes, and those you can replace at thrift stores for a fraction of the time investment.

            And I doubt this person was buying clothes that could be tailored at home.

          • Just Some Commenter says:

            re: keranih’s comment —

            My wife has her clothes tailored to fit frequently. That’s how I know about this. These are fashionable woman’s garments, both work and casual, jackets, blouses, skirts, pants, dresses.

            The point is that it’s not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than throwing the clothes away and buying new, and it often makes the garment as good as new.

            You have to find a skilled tailor / seamstress / dressmaker, though.

        • Matt M says:

          I’d be willing to guess (pure conjecture obviously) that she doesn’t have the clothes, or the boyfriend, right now.

          • Alsadius says:

            I haven’t kept in close contact with her, so I can’t speak to the clothes. But she’s still listed as being with the guy on Facebook, four years later. She did wind up dropping out of the university she was attending and going to the local community college instead, though.

        • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

          Fashion has a built in obsolescence. And if you are buying clothes new by the closet-full you are almost certainly chasing fashion. You cannot, like, oh my gawd, wear a jacket from last year!

          • Just Some Commenter says:

            It’s not quite like that. The little black dress is going to last you essentially forever. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_black_dress

            With separates, sometimes one fairly generic thing from a prior year can be paired with an of-the-moment garment, so the whole outfit doesn’t have to be new to look fresh.

            As with anything, there are ways to play the game smarter so as not to have to go to such great lengths to stay on top of fashion trends. Of course an easy way is just to always buy everything new.

          • baconbacon says:

            You only need 1 of them then. A “closetful” of clothes is totally different than a handful of nice things.

      • baconbacon says:

        I think one of the interesting points is how small differences make it hard to give people general guidelines. The car I drove to that job was older and had a higher cost to drive per mile than any of the three women. My commute was almost nothing though (5 miles) and theirs were in the 25-30 mile range. almost 6 years after I bought the car I still have it and have put < 4k miles on it a year. For a short commute and a 2nd car its a solid decision. Anyone of those three could have saved $1,500 a year (easily) by buying a 5 year old Honda Fit or something equivalent (even with less than perfect credit and payments).

        • LPSP says:

          >The car I drove to that job was older and had a higher cost to drive per mile than any of the three women.

          My god, you were driving a 50 year old car? That was COSTLIER to use as a transport that a ridden human?! (couldn’t help myself)

        • Alex says:

          #1- made $13 an hour, worked 1 full time job, lived with her mother and son. She made a variety of bad decisions, the big one was driving 45 mins each way in a 15 year old car to get to work to “earn” $2-3 more an hour. Between gas, maintenance, regular breakdowns causing her to miss work and speeding tickets there is no way she came out ahead with this choice. Went to a bunch of expensive concerts, consistently complained about her cell phone bill being 2-300 a month.

          Anyone of those three could have saved $1,500 a year (easily) by buying a 5 year old Honda Fit or something equivalent

          To be honest, I never bother to calculate total cost of ownership of my car. Maybe it would make me cry 😉 However my car is 13 years old and taken for a 45 min commute each way every day. And while it admittedly did break down twice recently (which is a new development) I’d be very surprised if I could save 1,500$/year by switching to a Honda Fit (which we call Honda Jazz here). Were the Honda given to me for free, maybe.

          Does car ownership work so differenly in different world regions?

          • Anonymous says:

            Does car ownership work so differenly in different world regions?

            In Central Europe, a beat up, old – but still functioning; might be one of those models that are long-lasting, like a Nissan Micra K11 – car costs like $500. Fuel for a year of 15km commuting costs about $1300 (highly dependent on fuel efficiency and price). Insurance for a relatively young driver can cost around $500 annually.

          • Anonymous says:

            I have a pretty good approximation of a really cheap car. I kept good records on my last car. It was a 2000 Elantra, which I bought for $3k when it was 7 years old. I drove it all the way to the salvage yard earlier this year, so about 9 years of ownership. I averaged 13-14k miles/year. I was able to do a decent amount of work on it myself (and have enough mechanic knowledge to let non-essential stuff just be broke), but I didn’t have access to a shop the entire 9 years (I was in school for a BS/PhD most of that time), so I had to pay for some repairs. I’ve never been in an accident and get few tickets, so even though I was an under-25 male much of the time, I still had reasonably cheap insurance. All together, this is probably a pretty good estimate of about as cheap as you could possibly be.

            I averaged $1300/year in gas, peaking at $1650 when we had the highest oil prices. I came in just under $400/year in repairs. My insurance was also under $400/year. All in (including depreciation), it cost me $2400-2500/year to own/operate it, which comes to about $7/day or 20 cents/mile.

            For reference, the federal mileage rate right now is 54 cents/mile, which I’d take as indicative of having something decently nice and more average repairs/insurance/etc. Using that as a quick estimate, I’d say that there’s room for saving $3-4k/year MAX off the “typical” expense for something decently nice.

            Your mileage literally may vary, and different circumstances/abilities would dictate your optimal point on the curve. I just wanted to throw in some estimates so people can ballpark the relevant figures and what might be plausible.

          • Alex says:

            Thank you.

    • Jill says:

      “To paraphrase Tolstoy- every comfortable family is the same, but there are a million ways to be broke.”

      Great revision of Tolstoy’s quote there. I like it.

      I also wonder what are the most common ways to be broke. Maybe knowing that would shed more light on the common situations.

      “I have worked with a ton of people at and below what is typically called a “living wage”. Their actual comfort level is almost entirely dependent on the choices they made around those jobs once they had them.”

      Well, these are the people you know. And I am sure there are tons of other people who are broke in tons of other circumstances. I also wonder what led to the choices each person made.

      And I wonder to what extent community social services and mental health services, and classes in budgeting, parenting, mental health, goal setting etc. for people who desire them, might be of help.

      • baconbacon says:

        @ Jill

        The most common way to NOT be broke, is to save money. The inverse in my experience has always been true. Even people who save and hit crazy medical expenses that drain them are usually back and doing Ok in 5-10 years (barring the inability to work and expensive, long term chronic care conditions). The handful of people I know who went from broke to not broke did so by saving (including me).

      • gbdub says:

        And I wonder to what extent community social services and mental health services, and classes in budgeting, parenting, mental health, goal setting etc. for people who desire them, might be of help.

        My girlfriend is a social worker. Many such programs do exist – they are often poorly attended, partially because of lack of accessible publicity but also because generally the sort of people who need a class on budgeting and goal setting aren’t the sort who will voluntarily attend one with enough diligence to do any good (kind of a chicken and egg problem there…).

        Now, she often deals with adults who are too far gone mentally or physically to be reasonably expected to be “productive members of society”, through no direct fault of their own. So they do exist. But there are also plenty of the women who keep having babies with successive abusive men, unrepentant hard drug users, and the simply lazy who are happy to live off their government checks.

        Certainly a lot of these people are stuck in bad patterns, and changing them takes more than “just a little willpower”, but ultimately they are poorly off because of their choices and will continue to be poor unless they change. It’s like substance addiction – you can force a person to go to rehab but ultimately they need to decide to change and stick with it.

    • Mary says:

      I still remember the man recounting how his sister called him out and told him how she and her husband had gone out to eat, since if you aren’t eating well, you aren’t really living, and so he could lend her the money for her phone bill.

      As explanation why he no longer is on speaking terms with his family.

      • Noumenon72 says:

        I think you mean “called him up”. “Called him out” is to take him to task for something.

  33. Just Some Commenter says:

    I wonder to what extent knowing you have a path to higher earnings paradoxically explains greater savings now. Here’s why:

    If you are making $20K / year now, but you realize there is a career path before you which will lead to $35K / year within a few years, and still higher and higher within a decade, you may take comfort in the future utility you expect to reap. When pondering, say, a nice car, or the expense of a trip somewhere, it might be easier to defer that and reason “I’ll have plenty of time and money for those things in just a few years — for now let me get started saving so I can take full advantage of greater opportunities when they come.”

    This applies to both a pre-professional student or intern, and especially to immigrants treading a path to success that other immigrants have trodden before them — they can see from prior examples how it is done, and realize that capital savings will help.

    If, on the other hand, you earn $20K per year and you expect this to be the apex of your earnings ever, (or even worse if you suspect that you may undergo reversals) it might be harder to deny yourself some comforts now. A poor person in a community of others mired in poverty may simply have no expectations for any progress. And if you believe that next year will be just like this one, and so on for decades, you might as well get some consumption enjoyment out of the now. So, paradoxically, the person who needs the savings cushion most might rationalize saving less precisely because of that need.

    • baconbacon says:

      “If you are making $20K / year now, but you realize there is a career path before you which will lead to $35K / year within a few years, and still higher and higher within a decade, you may take comfort in the future utility you expect to reap. When pondering, say, a nice car, or the expense of a trip somewhere, it might be easier to defer that and reason “I’ll have plenty of time and money for those things in just a few years — for now let me get started saving so I can take full advantage of greater opportunities when they come.””

      What about the opposite position? If you expect to make more in the future you need to save far less now and can more easily afford to go into debt.

      • Just Some Commenter says:

        Right, of course you don’t *need* to save as much if you have expectations of higher future earnings, hence the paradox. But let’s say your plan for future higher earnings includes a period of investing in a small business — every bit you can save gets you there sooner, and there’s no time like the present, etc.

        That’s why it’s sort of a paradox — when the expectation of future pleasure is sufficiently clear and firm, the person for whom saving is probably less important finds it easier to do.

        • baconbacon says:

          This just doesn’t fit with my experience. People I know who saved for decades (my parents and in laws especially) aren’t suddenly now spending crazy sums of money now that they are at retirement age. In fact they are still working in their 70s despite having more money than they would have realistically expected 30 years ago.

          • Just Some Commenter says:

            I’m not implying that the person doing the saving is going to suddenly blow it all in a frenzy, but rather that seeing a slow but steady progression in expected income enables a person to bear the relatively austerities required to save at all in the early days of a career.

            My parents also saved all their lives, and my father’s career path starting in the early 1960s driving a cab while in college, on to a period as a working engineer and grad student (some of which period I remember), and so on, including promotions and raises, and now including working long part time hours into normal retirement years, did entail an ever-rising standard of living, larger and better houses, a car, then a nicer car, then two nicer cars, more conveniences, more elaborate vacations, etc. And in retirement he and my mother have definitely done more adventurous travel.

            They didn’t suddenly shift into hyper-indulgence, but the point was that they could see at every step of the way that quite likely things were going to get better and better with more education, career advancement, etc. And I’m positing that this probably helped in the early days when saving maybe felt a lot harder to do than later.

    • Julie K says:

      I think this also explains why a “poor person in a community of others mired in poverty” is more likely than the “upwardly mobile” to have children while young and unmarried. They want to have a family, and they don’t expect their circumstances to change, so why wait? (Thus, contra Charles Murray, I don’t think it would help if the elites, who do wait to have children until they are married and financially stable, would “preach what they practice.”)

      • Jill says:

        I agree. We need more preliminary interview type research on what the lives of the poor are like and why/how they do what they do. Their lives may be different in many ways. Researchers are putting the cart before the horse, when they decide that they understand perfectly what causes poverty to persist.

        Researchers think that all they need is to test their perfect models of what causes poverty to persist. But surprise. Their wonderful models, created out of their heads, without their having much close up experience with poor people, do not work. And their conclusion is that there is no such thing as a poverty trap. Not necessarily so.

        E.g. there can be the effects of one’s body constantly being filled with adrenalin from childhood on, because kids get beaten up or even shot on the way to and from school, in the slum where they live. Although this is biological, it is not genetic.

        Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his biographical book, Between the World and Me, describes growing up in this way in Baltimore. It turned out that he personally had good enough role models for him to get past this and become successful anyway, but not every child in that neighborhood did.

        The lack of constructive role models may be another factor. Children learn and imitate constantly. And if all their examples are of dysfunction instead of competence, then what a surprise– they learn well how to act incompetently, take a lot of drugs etc. But that certainly doesn’t mean that their genes are low quality. They just learn and imitate what’s in front of them, whatever that is.

        • Chalid says:

          I believe there is a fair amount of sociological research (interview-based etc) along the lines you describe, but unfortunately I’m not really very well-versed in it. You might be interested in “Gang Leader For A Day” and “Floating City” by Sudhir Venkatesh as examples of the type.

        • Just Some Commenter says:

          “… Although this is biological, it is not genetic. ”

          It gets even weirder when you consider that it could be epigentic …

          http://www.nature.com/news/sperm-rna-carries-marks-of-trauma-1.15049

        • Anthony says:

          Just a note that the lottery-trackers, Bleakley and Ferrie, who Scott refers to in refer to “cultural and genetic infrastructure.” I would argue that a lot of the role-model stuff fits into the rubric of “cultural infrastructure.”

    • multiheaded says:

      ^ this is a good comment, and I have definitely experienced some of that myself. I never started saving money until I saw a concrete path out of my life situation. (Not poverty in any regard ever, but an unavoidably hostile environment + a degree of dependence.)

      • Jill says:

        “an unavoidably hostile environment + a degree of dependence.”

        Now there is a set of circumstances to do some research on how/where/when it happens and how to avoid it or ameliorate it, so as to help people who wish to get out of such circumstances.

      • Walter says:

        A long time ago Scott had an article where he mentioned that heroin addicts spent a lot on heroin, and complained that they couldn’t afford their official meds. He was like “well stop spending it on drugs then, dude”, and they rolled their eyes at him.

        Then later he compared it to how he did time management for blogging vs. something else that he didn’t want to do.

        I feel like the saving example you are giving is like that. I know a lot of poor folks who need to become middle class, but they aren’t about to start putting money aside to “become middle class”. They need something concrete to save towards. A car, a down payment on an apartment, whatever. I saw a guy I’d have sworn up and down was a total deadbeat hustle like a boss and save up money over several months to take his kid to disneyland as part of a “get visitation” scheme.

  34. 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:

      There’s not much point relaxing child labour law unless you relax employment law generally. The incredible regulatory burden that Western governments put on employers makes it very expensive to employ someone. And because that regulatory burden doesn’t scale with productivity, it most harshly penalises the least productive – like children, at what has been termed the “unnecessariat.”

      That’s why the go-to example is babysitting – not because it’s unskilled, but because it’s gig economy. If you had to pay a minimum wage and do full compliance, a 14-year-old wouldn’t find anyone willing to let her babysit either.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        The average babysitter makes way more than minimum wage, at least all of the ones I ever hear about.

        Actually, it’s an interesting thought problem to contemplate some societal change that prevents “that kid you know down the block” from being considered appropriate babysitters.

        Would we then expect sitter-services to provide stable employment at minimum wage? If not, would we see a budding Craig’s list type economy for sitters as we do for cleaners?

        My suspicion is no. I think “stochastic temp gig caring for my child” imposes some unique constraints. It’s why babysitting still is mostly the domain of the neighborhood kid, but, for example, lawn mowing companies turn profits.

  35. 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?”

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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