economics, equality, freedom, justice, philosophy, poverty, work

Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

free money

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this, or – better still – buy this wonderful book). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.
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economics, poverty

Poverty and Sadness

I know poor people and I know rich people. There are sad and happy ones in both groups. However, in general and on average, higher levels of self-reported happiness correlate with higher income and wealth. This also corresponds to intuition. Poverty is a burden – both financially and psychologically. Being poor means being anxious about the future, about your children and about your self-worth. This anxiety is a form of unhappiness. Money can buy happiness, not in the sense that having money causes you to be happy, but because having money means that poverty related anxiety is mitigated, if not completely eliminated (although of course your feelings of apprehension, self-doubt and vulnerability may have reasons unrelated to poverty). Money also allows you to “buy away” some of the more specific causes of unhappiness associated with poverty, such as ill health, vulnerability to crime, a bad job etc.

A look at the data confirms all this. For example, it seems to be the case that people living in rich countries are happier than those in poor countries.

We establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries, and find no evidence of a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries have no further increases in subjective well-being. We show that the estimated relationship is similar to the relationship between subject well-being and income observed within countries. Those enjoying materially better circumstances also enjoy greater subjective well-being and ongoing rises in living standards have delivered higher subjective well-being. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (source)

This study, based on two cross-country happiness surveys (one by Pew and another by Gallup in which people report their own levels of happiness), found that richer countries are happier than poorer ones, and that this is reflected internally in countries (rich people are happier than their poor compatriots).

life satisfaction and real gdp per capita pew

life satisfaction and real gdp per capita gallup

These data are confirmed by another study by Lane Kenworthy, based on the Penn World Tables (for cross country analysis) and the General Social Survey (for U.S. data):

happiness and income cross country

happiness and income

(source)

Additional confirmation by Angus Deaton:

gdp and happiness

(source)

If you look carefully at some of these graphs, then they seem to contradict the Stevenson/Wolfers quote given above. It looks like there is a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries or individuals have no further or slower increases in subjective well-being: higher income is positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction but the association may be curvilinear in the sense that more income means greater happiness but less so at high levels of income than at low levels. This has been called the Easterlin paradox, but Wolfers and Stevenson argue against it (somewhat technically: a lot hinges on the type of scale used, namely a logarithmic one).

On the other hand, there is this survey showing that countries which report themselves as being the happiest tend to be poor and middle-income countries, while the gloomiest are rich countries:

happiness and gdp

(source)
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economics, equality, income inequality, poverty, work

Income Inequality (31): The Strange Case of the Rising Middle and the Hollowing Out of the Center

There’s an interesting contrast between what’s happening to income inequality at the global level on the one hand and the inequality trends in most countries on the other hand. Apart from many Latin American countries and a few elsewhere in the world, income inequality has been increasing, including in some of the wealthiest countries - as you can see in this graph for example:

evolution of gini

(source)

Income inequality for the total population of the globe, however, has been trending downward, albeit ever so slightly:

global inequality and country inequality

(source)

The first phenomenon – increasing inequality in many countries – has a series of different causes: taxation, globalization, unionization, wage setting, technology etc., with a different mix of causes and importance of causes for different countries. One cause has given its name to the phenomenon itself, even though it’s probably not its main cause: the hollowing out of the labor market in certain developed countries. Mid-level jobs are disproportionately hit by automation. And if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Hence inequality itself has become known as the “hollowing out”.

Here are two graphs showing how US employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs, resulting in a distribution of wages that is similarly polarized and more unequal than it used to be:

hollowing out

(source)

jobgrowthbyskill

(source)

And the recession of 2008-2010 hasn’t helped:

NELP-Analysis-640x451

(source)

Something similar happened in many other countries. As to the second phenomenon – decreasing global inequality – this is what it looks like:

world income distribution

(source)

There’s a clear shift to the right, towards higher average incomes, resulting in a rise of the middle – quite the contrary of the hollowing out in many individual countries. Someone came up with a catchy name for previous and current world income distributions: from a camel to a dromedary shaped distribution of world income. And if you squint you can see the respective animals in this animation:

world income distribution

This rise of the middle has led to the observed decrease in global inequality. The underlying reason of the rise of the middle is poverty reduction in large developing countries such as China and India. Around 20% of the world’s population is now poor in the sense of earning less than $1 a day (red lines in the graph above), compared to 75% in 1820. Poverty reduction often went hand in hand with increasing national inequality (in particular in China and India), but the effect on global inequality has been positive.

Additional reading: a blogpost by Bryan Caplan, and a paper by Branko Milanovic.

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citizenship, international relations, poverty

Migration and Human Rights (51): “Tsunami of the Poor”?

World-War-Z-special-effects-wall-12

scene from World War Z

Arguments against open borders or relaxed immigration restrictions are often economic in nature, at least on the surface. One such argument points to differences in prosperity between countries. Opening borders would cause a “Tsunami” of poor people. Prosperous countries would be overrun by masses of citizens from the developing world who, understandably, seek a better life. A better life is not what they’ll get, however, since they’ll end up in countries that are destroyed economically by the fateful decision to open the borders.

Now, take one of the largest free movement zones in the world, the EU. Wealth differences are quite high between countries of the EU, especially since the recession and the Euro crisis. And what do we see? Very low levels of migration:

[F]reedom of movement with[in] the EU remains a remarkable achievement. Half a billion people now have the right to work and reside anywhere within the union. This has not resulted in catastrophe. Indeed, it has not even resulted in mass migration. Only 2.5% of the EU population lives elsewhere within the EU. And when relatively large numbers have migrated, as occurred after the last major enlargement in 2004, the trend has been temporary and followed by return migration. Kieran Oberman (source)

Emigration costs money, and moving from the developing world to the West is especially expensive (if not lethal). So it’s not the poorest of the poor who move. Here‘s a paper by Michael Clemens showing that emigration is more common in relatively well off developing countries:

stocks_hires

(source)

More posts in this series here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

A Primer on Poverty and Economic Growth

Both China and India have seen their economies grow at breakneck speeds over the last decades. At the same time, the number of poor people residing in these two countries has been reduced substantially, although somewhat less spectacularly in India compared to China:

global-poverty-decline

(source)

Other indicators of wellbeing point in the same direction. Life expectancy in India is now 65 years as opposed to 42 in 1960; in China the numbers are 73 and 42 respectively. The number of Indian children dying before they reach the age of 5 is now about 60 for every 1000, compared to almost 200 in 1970. In China: about 20 for every 1000 now versus more than 100 in 1970.

It’s not outlandish therefore to assume that there’s a link between good economic growth and large reductions in poverty rates. Given the fact that some other potential causes of poverty reduction - such as foreign aid and good governance – have not been prominent in those two countries (to put it mildly), the growth hypothesis is even more persuasive.

Take a look at these correlations for a larger set of countries:

(source)

economic growth reduces poverty

(source unknown)

Here’s the example of Africa, where growth and poverty are almost absolute mirror images:

one dollar a day poverty and gdp growth in subsaharan african

(source)

However, does this mean that economic growth is a sufficient condition of poverty reduction? I don’t think so. A growing level of GDP per capita in an economy means that the average person is better off, financially as well as on some other dimensions given the strong correlations between GDP and other indicators of wellbeing. But improvements for the average person can go hand in hand with stagnating or even worsening poverty rates. A lot depends how the proceeds of high growth are distributed among the citizens of a country; distributed either

  • intentionally by government policy: through taxation and welfare policies that can be more generous in a richer economy
  • or automatically by some form of trickle down effect: more aggregate national income or production means more jobs, better paid jobs etc., at least in theory.

Trickle down economics has been somewhat discredited of late, so perhaps the causal effect of growth on poverty reduction must pass through government redistribution, at least in part. The anti-poverty efforts of India’s successive governments are well-known. Less well-known is the fact that in China as well governments have implemented a strong although probably insufficient social security system. (Insufficient because inequality has risen dramatically in China, and somewhat in India. Greater inequality dampens the poverty reducing effect of growth).

The crucial role of government led redistribution has been confirmed by this paper in which Lane Kenworthy compared growth and income data for 17 developed countries. Specifically, he looked at the ways in which the incomes of people in low to middle income groups benefit from economic growth. The nature of government transfer systems is the reason why the effect of growth on the incomes of the poor is not the same in all countries.

[W]hen households on low incomes got better off, it was due most often to a rise in net government transfers. Where net transfers increased, incomes tended to increase in concert with economic growth. Norway, the UK, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark illustrate this pattern. Where net transfers were stagnant, income trends were decoupled from growth of the economy. We observe this in the United States, Canada, and Switzerland. This is an important finding. It means that, as a general rule, growth has not trickled down to low income households through wages or employment. And it means that, when government transfers haven’t grown, wages and employment haven’t stepped in to take their place. (source)

So we can conclude that economic growth, although important, is probably not a sufficient condition for poverty reduction, at least not in all cases.

A final remark: it’s interesting to note that poverty reduction is one of the drivers of growth. So the causation goes both ways, as is often the case in correlations.

Policies that are effective in increasing the incomes of the poor–such as investments in primary education, rural infrastructure, health, and nutrition–are also policies that enhance the productive capacity of the economy in aggregate. (source)

Some other interesting studies on the topic are cited here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (79): Poverty Traps

BrickWallLounge_Blog

(source)

Many among us will experience short spans of poverty at some stages in our lives. I lose my job or my unemployment benefits, I have a catastrophic but transitory health problem, an extreme weather event destroys my crop, or an economic crisis forces me to declare bankruptcy. As a result, I have to live off my savings or my parents and friends will have to lend me money. Still, in time I find another job; my health improves as I benefit from cheap healthcare (perhaps provided or subsidized by the government); the weather returns to normal and I can resume my profitable farming activity; or I can start a new business under the protection of bankruptcy laws that don’t burden me with debt.

However, I may also be what’s called a “structurally” poor person, meaning that I’m poor for most if not the whole of my life. Perhaps I was even born into poverty. The reason may be that I find myself in a “poverty trap”, a self-reinforcing mechanism which causes poverty to persist. In other words, I’m poor because I’m poor. And because I’m poor I’ll always be poor. I’ll die without ever having had an “adequate” standard of living, all the while passing on my poverty to my descendants.

Here are some examples of poverty traps:

  • I have a job, but the wage is low. As with many low wage jobs, I have almost no control over my work schedule. That means I can’t take on a second job and I can’t send my kids to child care. I have to spend time, money, effort and other people’s good will to take care of my kids. My job is physically hard and so I tend to have some health problems. My life is relatively expensive and it’s hard to find a better job. My salary doesn’t really cover my spending needs, hence I’m poor.
  • I can’t afford to pay the security deposit for a rental apartment, so I’m stuck in an expensive motel or I have to live with my parents who can barely afford their own survival. I also don’t have a refrigerator or a microwave, so I have to buy more expensive food. I have to wash my clothes by hand because… you guessed it. This takes a lot of time, time that I can’t spend on wage labor.
  • I don’t have tap water or heating because those aren’t things that people have where I’m from. I use wood for fuel like everyone else. The result is deforestation, soil degradation, lower crop yields and yet more poverty. My children have to help me – which is why I have a lot of them – to the detriment of their education. My kids will probably inherit my poverty because of this.
  • A lot of the things I’m forced to do because I’m poor are illegal. The lights of my car broke down, and I got a fine. I should have made the financial sacrifice and get them replaced, but I gambled on not being caught. I couldn’t pay the fine and my car was repossessed. Now I have to take public transport but can’t pay for that either. So I often get a fine for that as well. I know some homeless people who get a fine just for being homeless.
  • My calorie intake is too low to give me the strength to work. The quality of work I’m able to offer is inadequate for obtaining the food I require, and the food I do get isn’t enough to allow me to deliver quality work. My productivity is low, my earnings are low, and ultimately I can’t even keep a job or work the farm. My low calorie intake levels lead to health problems. My inadequate housing makes those problems even worse. My ill health, caused by my poverty, makes my poverty worse. I’m more likely to catch a disease, and also less likely to recover from it.
  • Like many poor people I have a low credit rating, making it difficult to get credit. The credit I do get is very expensive, which sort of defeats the point. Now, I do need the credit because I don’t have any savings. People say that I exhibit a high discount rate, that I’m too present-oriented and that I’m unable to delay gratification. Instead of borrowing money at high interest rates as a means to satisfy my unrealistic consumption desires, I should moderate myself and save for the future. But I’m present-oriented because I live in an environment in which I can’t trust people. Better to consume what I have than to save it and lose it later.
  • People also say that my issues with gratification extend to my sex life. I was indeed a teenage mother, and my education suffered as a result. This in turn affected my job prospects and my income. But this wasn’t just stupidity on my part. Being a mother gave meaning to my life. Other meaningful options just didn’t seem realistic.

So, there you have it. I think a lot of these stories are very real, and the problems that poor people face are often self-reinforcing. Of course, I don’t want to deny human agency. There are people who, even in the face of the worst possible circumstances, can fight their way out of poverty traps. So “trap” may be too strong a word. Individual responsibility still plays a role. Yet, let’s not forget that a poverty trap is sometimes intergenerational, as I’ve said before. Some children are born into a trap, and you can’t insist on responsibility and agency when we’re talking about children. A child growing up in a poor family may suffer in its early development. Undernourishment for instance can have a lasting impact on learning ability and earnings as an adult. Children of the poor are perhaps even more affected than the parents because the latter need a minimum calorie intake to work. They have to eat first. If they choose not to eat first, they will only make the poverty of the household worse.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking about an entire economy or country being stuck in a poverty trap. If you were expecting a post about that, I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time. I’m not wading into the treacherous debate about the necessity of large foreign aid injections to break the cycle of poor nations that can’t save enough to finance investment necessary to growth.

This post seems to be going on forever, so I’ll limit myself to a description of the problem. The solution – how to get out of poverty traps – is a topic for another day.

More on poverty traps here and here. More posts in this series are here.

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economics, measuring poverty, poverty, statistics

Measuring Poverty (16): The Capabilities Approach and the Unstraightening of the Poverty Line

Fun_is_not_a_straight_line_by_jinchilla

(source)

We usually define poverty as a level of income or financial assets below a certain “poverty line”. This poverty line is set, often implicitly, at a level that is supposed to make the difference between decent survival and a life unworthy of human beings. The line is typically a single line, identical across all individuals – or even across nations. The best example is the $1 a day line. This is a single, universal line, adjusted only for purchasing power parity. Many national poverty lines are also fixed and identical for all citizens.

The problems with these fixed and uniform lines have been noticed by many, notably by Amartya Sen. According to Sen – and he’s right I think – being poor means being unable to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing, for example the state of being sufficiently nourished, of being mobile, of being free of disease and ignorance, of being sheltered against the forces of nature etc. Poverty is about what people are or are not able to do and about who they are able to be. Poverty is capability-deprivation.

A poverty line only makes sense if it’s set at an amount of money, income or resources that is sufficient to guarantee the required capabilities. A first problem: it’s not at all clear that existing poverty lines are indeed set at a level sufficient to guarantee this. $1 a day in particular seems low, intuitively. Of course there are pragmatic reasons to set the line at a low level (one has to make priorities in life and help the worst off first). But then you’ll have a hard time calling it a poverty line, given the definition of poverty as the inability to achieve certain minimally satisfactory states of being and doing. Call it a survival line instead.

A second, and more serious problem arises from the fact that poverty lines are fixed and uniform. People, however, are obviously not uniform. Different people require different things in order to achieve the same capabilities. A pregnant women or a young mother needs more nutritional resources than the average person in order to achieve the state of being sufficiently nourished. A physically handicapped person needs more resources to achieve the capability of being mobile. If you focus on the average person – which is what you do with a uniform poverty line – then you’ll fail to identify some as being poor, while erroneously identifying others as being poor. And the environment also plays a role. A person living in unsanitary conditions may be forced to drink infected water. This affects his or her calorie absorption, implying a larger than average amount of food necessary to be sufficiently nourished. Cold weather means more effort to protect against the environment. And so on.

Identical capabilities require different levels of resources or income. A single, fixed poverty line obscures this reality. The only good poverty line is individually specific. However, that’s completely impractical. Differentiation across demographic groups, regions, occupations, lifecycle etc. might be more feasible, but at the cost of simplicity. Be that as it may. I would already be happy with increased awareness that there is indeed a problem. Talk of a “line” reduces this awareness, but I’m realistic enough to understand the appeal of something as simple as a line.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (78): High Discount Rates and Lack of Delayed Gratification

grasshopper & ants

(source)

You talk to conservatives about the reasons why poor people are poor, and chances are that the discussion turns to lack of self-control, high discount rates and inability to delay gratification. “High discount rates” means that things in the present or near future are viewed as having a higher payoff than things in the distant future. If you have a high discount rate, you focus on immediate gratification. This in turn shows up in low savings rates, high debt, obesity, teen pregnancy, drug use, high drop out rates, low school attendance and other vices supposedly common among the poor.

Some even argue that differences between people in the apparent levels of self-control, discount rates or time preferences – which is all the same thing – appear at a very early age and are therefore probably innate. The famous marshmallow test will then get a favorable citation: you give kids a marshmallow and tell them they can either eat it now or, if they wait a few minutes, have two marshmallows. Kids who wait do better later in life.

However, recent studies have suggested that the marshmallow test does not, in fact, reveal innate (in)ability. The environment in which tests such as these take place determines to a large extent the levels of self-control revealed through them. Whether or not people are capable of delayed gratification depends not on their abilities but on their assessment of the reliability of the world around them. When the world is not worthy of trust, the best course of action is often to live for today.

This attitude towards the world and the future is probably internalized from a young age onward, which makes it hard to change. What it takes is to offer young children a reliable environment allowing them to develop levels of trust which will in turn yield low discount rates and the ability to delay gratification later in life. But in order to do that we’ll need to reduce parental poverty. Claims about lack of self-control as a cause of poverty then have things completely backward. Rather than a cause we’re dealing with an effect of poverty.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (77): The Lottery of Birth and the Country You Live In

mcdonalds-vegetarian-india-2

McDonalds in India

(source)

Charles Kenny explains to what extent the country you live in affects your livelihood:

[P]overty in Africa and Asia isn’t the result of something about individual Kenyans and Pakistanis, it is instead something about Kenya and Pakistan. Individuals the world over have the same drives and capacities, but the societies and places in which they live present radically different opportunities to turn that drive into wealth, health, and well-being.

That’s clear from evidence compiled by Princeton economist Orley Ashenfelter for the National Bureau of Economic Research. He looks at the wages earned by staff working at McDonald’s franchises around the world and compares what they earn to the cost of a Big Mac in that same franchise. The Big Mac is a standard product, and the way it is made worldwide is highly standardized. The skill level involved in making it (such as it is) is the same everywhere. And yet McDonald’s employees worldwide earn dramatically different amounts in terms of Big Macs per hour.

In the United States, a McDonald’s employee earns an average of $7.22 an hour, and a Big Mac costs an average of $3.04. So the employee earns 2.4 Big Macs per hour. In India, an employee earns $.46 an hour. The average Indian Big Mac (made of chicken, which is cheaper than beef) costs only $1.29. Still, the employee earns only one-third of a Big Mac for each hour worked. Same job, same skills—and yet Indian workers at McDonald’s earn one-seventh the real hourly wage of a US employee. There’s a huge “place premium” to working in the United States rather than India.

The place premium affects more than just low-end service jobs. Economist Michael Clemens, a colleague of mine at the Center for Global Development, studied a group of Indians working in an India-based international software firm who applied for a temporary work visa to the United States to do the same work in the same firm, just on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Some of them then won the lottery by which visas were issued, while others lost. The winning workers, who were still in the same firm and still doing the same type of job on the same projects, suddenly saw dramatic differences in their pay.

The ones who moved to the United States started earning double what their colleagues back in India were earning (adjusted for purchasing power). They were earning more not because they were different from the colleagues they left behind—selection was not based on education, talent, or drive but was entirely random. And once they returned to India, they went back to earning pretty much the same as their colleagues who had never left. They briefly earned more in the United States simply because they were in the United States rather than India. (source)

Some more numbers:

place premium

(source; how much more workers in the U.S. make compared to identical workers in developing countries, e.g. Nigerians and Yemenis stand to gain upwards of 10 times as much from moving to the U.S.)

The place premium is a strong argument in favor of reducing migration restrictions: it doesn’t seem just that people’s income is determined by the good or bad luck of having been born somewhere, and the use of force to keep people in their country of birth only aggravates the injustice. However, by the same logic we can also argue for a more generous welfare state: it’s not just your country of birth that affects your income. Your parents, social class, genetic endowment, health prospects, looks etc. are also a lottery that affects your income and good fortune.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (76): Farmer vs. Hunter Thinking

caveman-hunting-illo-md

(source, illustration by Grant Coghill)

Tim Harford mentions an interesting study about the origins of different ideas about justice. Farmer cultures seem to stress desert, whereas hunter cultures believe that solidarity is the more important focus of justice. Hunters tend to share because their “incomes” are volatile: some days they catch too much, other days not enough. Luck also determines farmer incomes, but to a lesser extent. Bad weather means bad luck, but it’s also bad luck for neighboring farms. A sharing culture won’t solve that kind of bad luck in the same way as it will in the case of bad luck while hunting. Another reason why a sharing culture will be less important in farmer cultures is the fact that farm crops can be stored more easily than meat in primitive societies.

A farmer mentality will therefore stress self-sufficiency over sharing, and perhaps this will fuel desert-based theories of justice even centuries after farming or hunting has ceased to be an important social role. That may have an impact on the way a society deals with poverty. If you adopt a desert-based theory of justice then you’re normally less inclined to enact policies that reduce poverty since you believe that poverty is deserved. If people deserve their poverty then they can’t claim assistance, and if assistance were to be given anyway that would be an injustice to those whose stock of means is used as a source of assistance, because they too deserve what they have.

It’s tempting to use this farmer-hunter difference to describe the different approaches to poverty in Europe and the US. There’s more opposition to the welfare state in the US, and desert-based theories of justice are more popular there. Hard work and self-sufficiency are common topics of political talk in the US, whereas words such as solidarity and equality are more often used in Europe. Here are some data from the World Values Survey which tend to confirm these national stereotypes:

equality and incentives hard work success

And of course the US was founded as an agrarian society (Thomas Jefferson for instance was a staunch agrarian), with the South of the country remaining agrarian deep into the 19th century.

However, careful with national stereotypes. It’s not as if the whole of the US is hardhearted. It’s a matter of degree:

Beo_px5CIAA60EM

Steven Pinker has come up with a similar story, although he contrasts farmer and herder cultures.

More posts in this series are here.

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annals of heartlessness, housing, poverty

Annals of Heartlessness (54): Homeless Man Outside a Diner in Milwaukee

Homeless man sleeps outside a diner in Milwaukee

Homeless man sleeps outside a diner in Milwaukee

(source)

This is a tough one. The image nicely represents the invisibility that comes with homelessness and the casual neglect and indifference often shown by the non-homeless (“smile at the camera!”), but it’s also difficult to call this a case of heartlessness without accusing everyone of heartlessness. Who among us hasn’t been indifferent in this way?

More in the annals of heartlessness.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (75): Different Types of Colonization

colonists

Some time ago, Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson argued that areas of the globe where early colonists did not face a high mortality risk – such as North America and Australia - are now much richer countries. Many ex-colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, on the other hand, where colonists did face high mortality rates because of tropical diseases such as malaria, are now poorer.

Why is that? AJR claim that the reason is institutional. In those poor countries, the only institutions that were created in early colonial times were extractive. If only a small elite of colonists could survive the local diseases, colonizing nations had little incentive to create durable and non-extractive institutions or provide public services like health and education to the masses of the local populations. More livable colonies could be occupied en masse by the natives of the colonizing nations. These natives required institutions and had the knowhow to create them. The societies that developed there were therefore better organized and far more equal (if you leave out the indigenous populations who were often exterminated). The early institutional built-up, the argument goes, has survived until today, and it’s commonly accepted that good institutions play a key role in development.

Make of it what you will. Perhaps it obscures more than it reveals. In the wrong hands, this argument can be used to exonerate present-day autocratic rulers. After all, it takes time to build institutions, especially in countries burdened by a long tradition of (the wrong kind of) colonialism. Path dependence can be a lousy excuse.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (74): Family Structure, Ctd.

single mother

The more traditionally minded among us often blame family structure for high poverty rates. Family structure is of course a euphemism hiding several very specific moral judgments about people’s behavior, about single motherhood, divorce, paternal negligence and incarceration. Those are the things that supposedly make people poor. “Family structure” just sounds nicer and more neutral.

At first sight, this does make some sense. It is a lot harder, financially and otherwise, to raise kids on your own, and if you find yourself in this situation it’s often your own fault or the other parent’s fault. Having a kid or not is a choice given the availability of contraception and abortion. Divorce is a choice. Finding yourself in prison as a parent is a choice. And even if you’re not a parent, marriage or cohabitation is just plainly cheaper than living on your own because you can share costs. You’ll have to buy just as much food as a single person, but the cost of rent, heating, internet access, the use of a car etc. can be split. A lot of consumption goods are non-rival, and marriage and cohabitation are wonderful places for non-rival goods (the park as well, but you can be lonely there).

Given the high rate of children living with single parents it’s not a priori crazy to assume that there’s a link with poverty rates. It does seem to be the case that poverty rates among single parents are higher than average:

brady-lis-single-mother-poverty1

(source)

However, we have to be careful when assuming causation. While it can be the case that your income is lower than it would have been had you (remained) married or chosen not to be a single parent, it might just as well be true that your preexisting poverty causes you to be single.

Suppose you are a single person making $9,000 a year and therefore live in poverty. Now suppose you meet someone else making $9,000 and you are considering marrying them. If you marry, the family income goes to $18,000 and is therefore above the poverty line. On a very superficial take, this seems like it would be a real improvement. But that is only if you assume your potential spouse will necessarily remain employed. If they lose their job, you will go from supporting one person with $9,000/yr to supporting two people with $9,000/yr. On the low-end of the labor market, precarity is very common and so this is a very real risk. (source)

There’s also some literature about how teenage pregnancy results from poverty: poor teenagers often see parenthood as one of the few meaningful options that are available (work, education etc. may not be realistic options).

Another point: traditionalists who make the argument that we should promote marriage in order to reduce poverty can perhaps be somewhat dishonest about their motivations. It may be that what they really want is more marriage for its own sake and just dress it up as an anti-poverty measure because arguing outright for more marriage for its own sake is just not that convincing anymore. It’s telling that cohabitation doesn’t figure as an equivalent alternative in their arguments, even though in theory marriage and cohabitation have the same effect on poverty.

And there may be another hidden motivation. Traditionalist proponents of marriage are often situated at the right of the political spectrum, and being right-wing often also implies being opposed to the welfare state. Arguing that poverty should be solved by way of increased marriage rates is perhaps just a roundabout way of downsizing the welfare state: why should we have a welfare state if marriage can solve poverty? Some make this argument explicitly, saying that welfare destroys marriage because it allows people to survive without getting married (I can’t find a citation just now).

What I dislike about the focus on family structure is not really these possible motivations, but rather the inherent simplifications and victim blaming. There are a lot of causes of poverty, and behavior is probably not the most important one. Many single parents are doing a fine job, both financially and otherwise. Low marriage rates are common in many countries, including those where poverty rates are low (see the graph above). And those single parents who struggle probably do so for other reasons than family structure. It’s also true that many working married parents are poor, whereas most celebrity divorcees don’t have a trouble in the world.

A final remark: even if higher marriage rates would be an effective anti-poverty measure, how on earth do we get more people to marry? Tax cuts? A government sponsored dating service? Flower shop vouchers? It all seems so impractical, especially given the ease of other anti-poverty measures (for example…). And not just impractical but also paternalistic and lacking in respect for people’s choices.

More here, here and here.

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economics, equality, income inequality, poverty

Income Inequality (29): The “Get Off the Couch” Solution

0407010320431dog1

(source)

When leftists complain about high levels of income inequality, their opponents on the right sometimes argue that inequality is the natural outcome of personal desert. If you’re wealthy, you should be praised for your work, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of inequality you should invest more effort and try harder to be socially mobile. If you think inequality is a problem, then in fact you blame the industrious for being industrious and you exculpate the rest. Societies like the US offer lots of opportunities to escape the social class of your parents, and many do in fact escape. So if you don’t, look at yourself first.

This view is actually quite common on the right. According to a Pew survey, 38 percent of Americans are judgmental, declaring that poverty stems from a lack of individual effort, while 46 percent does not fault the poor, agreeing that their plight is the outcome of unfavorable circumstances. A large majority of Republicans – 57 to 27 – says that people are poor because of a lack of effort.

The right-wing view has a certain prima facie appeal. We all believe that effort should be rewarded. And when social mobility is easy and people aren’t artificially held back and tied to the class of their parents, then perhaps inequality is indeed the result of unequal effort and lifestyle choices. In other words, inequality is what people deserve. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility and people have some level of equal opportunity, then they basically choose their position in society: they choose to invest effort and develop their skills, or they don’t.

However, upon closer inspection the narrative is unpersuasive. It’s not always true that individuals can simply decide to develop their skills and invest effort in their social mobility. Skills aren’t just “developed”; some people are born with more talent than other people, or with talents that yield more financial profit than other talents. True, talent requires development and effort, but even effort may be a naturally acquired capacity or a capacity that requires favorable conditions in early childhood. I think we all agree that a stable and reasonably affluent family life as well as a good education are indispensable, on average, for the development of talent and of a personal ethic that favors effort and discipline. Many people at the wrong end of inequality can offer some of this to their children, but to a much lesser degree than wealthier parents. Here are some data on so-called enrichment expenditures:

enrichment expenditures on children

(SOURCE)

And it’s not just expenses. The children of wealthy parents have other advantages compared to poor children, advantages they wouldn’t have in a less unequal society, for instance networks, internship opportunities etc. Because of extra expenses in education and other less material advantages, these children are more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. As a result, inequality counteracts social mobility. And we see that in the numbers: the more unequal a society, the less social mobility. That’s the message of Miles Corak’s famous Great Gatsby Curve:

correlation between income inequality and social mobility

(SOURCE, THE “INTERGENERATIONAL EARNINGS ELASTICITY” IS A MEASURE OF CORRELATION BETWEEN THE INCOME OF GROWN CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS—HIGHER VALUES SUGGEST LESS MOBILITY)

Here’s another version showing other countries:

income inequality and social mobility

(SOURCE)

If you argue that income inequality is not really a problem when there is a high level of social mobility and when people have good opportunities to become socially mobile – in other words when they have good opportunities to climb the social ladder and escape the social class or income group into which they were born – then you’re really taking things backwards. Social mobility can’t be a solution to inequality because inequality makes mobility very difficult. High levels of social mobility assume that we create more equality of opportunity. However, this is a dead end. As I’ve argued here, equality of opportunity is a highly problematic and unrealistic concept.

More posts on income inequality are here.

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human rights cartoon, poverty

Human Rights Cartoon (77): The Poverty Time Bomb

Untitled6

(source)

A powerful image, but a bit dubious in its meaning. For example, studies have shown that poverty isn’t the main cause of terrorism. On the other hand, we all share the belief that deep, widespread and longterm poverty must at some point lead to rebellion and that this rebellion can have an “explosive” nature in some cases, especially when the state tries to suppress unrest and protest. (That’s the pressure cooker metaphor, made famous by Marx). The problem is that this belief often overshadows other causal stories with a stronger basis in fact. For example, poverty and inequality are widely cited as the main drivers of the Arab Spring revolts, but they were at best only one among many causes.

More cartoons.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (73): Low IQ?

The brain, "the most complex human organ", and yet we think that 1 number based on a 100 or so short questions is a good measure of its ability

The brain, “the most complex human organ”, and yet we think that 1 number based on a 100 or so short questions is a good measure of its ability

This kind of reasoning is all too common: the poor are stupid and they are poor because they make stupid decisions. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly the rich who indulge in this kind of pop-psychology, because if true it would also mean that they are wealthy because they are smart. They imagine a correlation somewhat like this:

income iq correlation

Had they cared to look up the actual data, they would have found that the rich don’t necessarily have higher IQ. There’s no correlation at all between wealth and IQ, not even a weak one:

iq and wealth correlation

(source)

And that’s not really surprising: a lot of high paying activities do not require high IQ (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin). Conversely, it’s not uncommon for smart people to be poor.

So, if the wealthy aren’t making a living that is proportionate to their intelligence, then their wages are determined by other factors: specific skills if we want to be kind; networking, nepotism, degrees paid for by their parents if we want to be nasty. And the wages of the poor aren’t caused by their IQ either.

However, let’s just assume for a minute that the poor do indeed have lower IQ than average. Maybe all this would tell us is that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities. So, if there’s is an effect, the causation goes the other way: the poor aren’t poor because they are stupid; they are stupid – if they are indeed stupid – because they are poor.

dstupid2A more fundamental objection to the “poverty is caused by low IQ” narrative: IQ itself is a highly dubious notion. Children’s IQ scores are all over the places, changing almost overnight (up and down). Over longer periods of time, average IQ among populations rises (which is known as the Flynn effect). There is also no agreement on the heritability of IQ – the fluid nature of IQ results seems to argue against heritability. So intelligence is neither fixed nor obviously innate. Environmental factors – including education – change people’s IQ. Much has been made of the fact that African Americans score lower than European Americans on IQ test. However, when black or mixed-race children are raised in white rather than black homes, their test scores rise dramatically. And then I don’t even mention the cultural, gender or race biases inherent in a lot of the IQ test questions (for example, it’s clear that IQ tests are designed for very specific roles in a post-industrial advanced society).

Even more fundamentally: there is no one single and fixed quality or ability called “intelligence” that IQ tests could measure. What these tests do measure is one very particular type of intelligence. They don’t measure planning abilities, long term memory, creativity, emotional intelligence or any practical intelligence such as street smarts, and yet most of us would consider those abilities as essential parts of intelligence.

But again, let’s assume that the “poor = low IQ” claim is true, that the causation goes from low IQ to poverty and not vice versa, that IQ is a good measure of intelligence, that we have a good and objective definition of intelligence, and that the scientifically ascertained lack of innate intelligence among the poor is impervious to any social intervention such as education and redistribution. What would that imply? Inherited disadvantage is unfair and unjust. People should not suffer from inherited disadvantage. Even if the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor are the result of innate IQ, that would not lead to a conclusion favorable to the “poor = low IQ” crowd, because the conclusion would be that the poor need to be compensated.

More on poverty and IQ here. More posts in this series are here.

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economic human rights, economics, housing, poverty

Economic Human Rights (44): Homeless Man Makeover

I don’t know anything about the context of this. I do hope they didn’t just dump him on the streets afterwards but gave him something more than a new look:

According to the video, Jim (that’s his name) has now decided to enter Alcoholics Anonymous and has his own housing. Again, it can’t possibly be as easy as this, so I really hope there’s more to it than a haircut. A gimmick, or real change? Did they really help this guy get off the streets, or is it just a commercial? I can’t tell. The website of the charity behind this video is here, and it looks for real.

More on homelessness, and on the reasons why this is a human rights violations. More posts in this series are here.

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economics, poverty

Poverty is Decreasing: From a Camel to a Dromedary Shaped Distribution of World Income

Someone came up with a catchy name for previous and current world income distributions:

world income distribution

Obviously, the current distribution is better since fewer people find themselves at the left side of the graph: about 1 billion people – or less than 20% of the world’s population – are still poor in the sense of earning less than $1 a day, compared to 75% in 1820. However, let’s not rejoice too soon: 1 billion poor people is still a lot, and global inequality is still a fact. Perhaps someday we can speak of something like the hockey stick distribution.

The image above violates a number of statistical rules. For example, the y-axis isn’t labeled (it’s actually number of people), the x-axis is vague etc. But the general idea is enlightening. If you want more detail, the data are here. Similar distributions for some large countries are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty, work

The Causes of Poverty (72): How Unemployment and the Incentive Theory Aggravate Poverty

unemployment

Not all poor people are unemployed. Even in developed countries some of the poor are “working poor“, i.e. people who have an income that is below the poverty line. Hence, if some who work for a living can’t make ends meet, it’s obvious that the unemployed are even more at risk of being poor. At best, the latter only have a temporary replacement income in the form of unemployment benefits. This income is often lower than even the lowest wage income, and in most countries it’s also limited in time. Hence, poverty is the likely result of unemployment, even in wealthy countries.

To some extent, this result is intentional: governments want to “incentivize” people and “nudge” them into the labor market. High unemployment benefits that aren’t limited in time – combined with the fact that many jobs don’t pay enough to avoid poverty – may trap some people in unemployment. Low and limited unemployment benefits, on the other hand, invoke the horror of poverty which in turn may force people to look for work.

It’s obvious why many unemployed people are poor – their incomes are just too low, and intentionally so. But why are poor people unemployed? The incentive theory tells us that poor people shouldn’t be unemployed. The horror of poverty should drive them out of unemployment. While some people are probably “incentivized” in this way, this is not something that will work for all the unemployed poor. It will only work for all the unemployed poor if jobs are abundant, and indeed that’s what the incentive theory assumes. Of course, this assumption is wrong. There’s something called the natural rate of unemployment. Even in the best of economic circumstances, there’s always some level of involuntary unemployment, and during recessions, this level is higher than normal. From the graph below you can see that during a recession (starting from 2008 in this case) more poor people than normal indicate that their unemployment is due to their “inability to find a job”.

why the poor don't work

(source, data for the US)

So, there are no conceivable incentives that will push all unemployed poor into the workforce, not even at the best of times.

Notice how the same graph shows that the inability to find a job is just one reason among many, and definitely not the most important reason why poor people don’t work. Choice (“home or family reasons”) is another reason. And that’s one which can sometimes be influenced by incentives. However, the reason that’s cited most frequently, namely “sickness or disability” cannot. The horror of poverty will not force you into employment if you can’t work for health reasons. Hence, even if we assume, unrealistically, that there is an abundance of jobs and no natural rate of unemployment, it’s unrealistic to assume that all poor unemployed people will one day join the workforce.

This has implications for the incentive theory. If you put too much emphasis on incentives, you’re likely to put unemployment benefits at a very low level with a strict time limit. After all, the closer the horizon of poverty, the more likely that people will act and look for a job. However, if there are not enough jobs or if people have other reasons why they won’t work, then they won’t work. And if unemployment benefits are stingy, then these people will become poor. Incentives don’t always work as intended. Sometimes they may even cause poverty.

Now, I do agree that work is important (I’ve written a entire book on the importance of work) and that we should therefore try to get as many people in jobs as we can (and, by the way, improve the quality of those jobs; that’s also in the book). Not only because working people normally – although not always – are less at risk of being poor, but also because work is important in human flourishing. I also agree that incentives can play a role in getting people to find work, and that the specter of poverty can be used as an incentive. However, we should be careful with this particular incentive. It may work sometimes, but often it doesn’t.

More on how unemployment benefits protect people from poverty is here. More posts in this series are here.

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economics, poverty

“When the Less Fortunate Are Disinvesting”, A Story of Poverty Told Entirely in Euphemisms

poverty in maine, 1982

poverty in Maine, 1982

(source)

Here it is, with bonus sarcasm in square brackets:

The poor are society’s underprivileged [all they lack are certain privileges]. They are of modest means [as opposed to "of no means at all"]. In order to make ends meet [what are those f*cking ends that are supposed to meet anyway?] they need to disinvest. In other words, the less fortunate become negative savers [as if they have any savings that they can negate]. The penniless [I'm sure they still have pennies] are in financial distress and are socially disadvantaged [they only lack some kind of advantage].

As a result of their poverty, those in dire straits [excuse me?] are marginalized [I suppose they are not in the center of attention]. They live in substandard housing [not entirely up to standard, but hey]. Or maybe they don’t have housing at all and then they are forced to become urban campers. Many of the poor have gotten the pink slip [I mean "the boot"] and are between jobs [or even "between shows"]. They are benefit claimants [yes, they claim instead of asking politely]. If they work, they work in the informal economy [they can only make a living illegally]. Their children in school have fallen in the achievement gap [forget about them]. Health conditions are a major problem ["sir, you have a serious condition"]. The uncertainty weighs heavily [much more heavily than the certainty of hopelessness].

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aid, equality, ethics of human rights, international relations, justice, philosophy, poverty

The Ethics of Human Rights (78): Our Duties to People in Other Countries

grover near and far

Grover, near and far

If we leave aside the minority view that we don’t have any moral duties to other people, as well as the somewhat more common view that we only have duties to a very limited group of people (our tribe, family or nation for example), then we end up accepting that we owe something to the rest of humanity. But what exactly? I don’t want to discuss whether we owe human beings in general the same as what we owe the people we know or the people we are associated with. What I’m interested in here is simply the nature of our obligations to “distant” people, and the basis or reasons of those obligations. Whether they’re stronger, weaker or just as strong as the obligations to “those nearer and dearer” is not the topic of this post (I have an older post about that).

1. What should we do? What are our obligations?

I think there are basically three types of obligations to distant others:

  • we have a duty to protect their human rights; this implies both abstaining from violating their rights and assisting them in the protection of their rights when those are violated (this is a legal duty)
  • we have a duty to create a more just global order (a duty of justice)
  • and we have a duty to act benevolently (a duty of beneficence).

1.1. Protect rights

This duty is in fact a set of different sub-duties:

  • A negative duty to stop violating rights ourselves. For example, if we apply a strict policy of closed borders, we violate certain rights of people in other countries (their freedom of movement, their right not to suffer poverty etc.). Our duties demand that we stop this policy.
  • A negative duty to stop assisting others who violate human rights. For example, the oppressive government of another country violates the rights of its citizens by means of weapons supplied by us (or by firms established in our country and exporting with our approval). Our duties demand that we stop assisting this government in this way.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to stop human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when the Rwandan genocide was in progress.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to prevent human rights violations. For example, the West should have intervened when it became clear that a genocide was about to occur in Rwanda.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to create the preconditions for human rights. For example, when the institutions in other countries are dysfunctional or absent (in the case of failed or weak states) we have a duty to assist these countries’ efforts in institution building, so that they end up with institutions capable of protecting the rights of their citizens.
  • A positive duty to intervene in order to assist people’s efforts to overcome their poverty. Since poverty is a human rights violation, this is not really a separate duty: we shouldn’t create or aggravate poverty in other countries, we shouldn’t assist when others (e.g. foreign governments) create or aggravate poverty, and we have a duty to end and prevent poverty, and to create the institutions that make it possible to end and prevent poverty. However, I mention it separately because some of the specific means of intervention are peculiar to poverty, and don’t apply to other human rights (take for example development aid).

Our duties to intervene can cover

  • either only gross violations of some human rights (crimes against humanity, emergency action to alleviate widespread human suffering resulting from war, civil war, famine, drought, natural disasters or other humanitarian crises) – also called r2p
  • or violations of human rights in general.

Gross violations may warrant specific types of intervention that are not allowed for violations in general, for example military intervention. More mundane violations require other types of intervention, such as aid, conditional aid, diplomatic intervention, economic boycotts, universal jurisdiction etc. Intervention can also be either multilateral through the UN, or unilateral. Preferably it’s a legal form of intervention, but if necessary it can also be illegal – morality trumps law.

Uncles from the People's Liberation Army! Quickly go and liberate our little distressed friends in Taiwan, 1955

Uncles from the People’s Liberation Army! Quickly go and liberate our little distressed friends in Taiwan, 1955

1.2. Create a just global order

Perhaps we should do more than just rid the world of human rights violations and extreme poverty. The world is a very unequal place, and will continue to be so even when all human rights are protected and poverty has been eliminated (given a certain definition of poverty). So maybe we also have a duty to create a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, resources and/or opportunities across countries.

However, this duty is much more controversial than the previous one (1.1). Contrary to human rights violations, there is also no legal standard prohibiting an unjust and grossly unequal global order. Hence, given the uncertainty about this second type of duty, it’s safe to argue that we should take it to be a negative duty at most. In other words, we should not make the world more unequal and more unjust than it already is, and we should try to remove or improve institutions that make the world order unequal and unjust. More specifically, we have to

  • remove unfair trade agreements or trade restrictions
  • remove the current system of national border restrictions and allow freedom of movement
  • pay reparations or otherwise correct the lingering effects of a violent and exploitative history
  • improve economic regimes that make it impossible to have equal and fair access to natural resources
  • improve international institutions, shaped by the wealthy countries to their advantage
  • etc.

Obviously, many of these actions also remove human rights violations and are therefore covered by the first type of duty. However, even when they don’t they may be required by morality.

1.3. Act benevolently

peter singer

Peter Singer

The classic description of this duty is Peter Singer’s. He gives the example of a child drowning in a pool. We all believe that there’s a strong duty to save this child, even if there’s a certain cost to ourselves – e.g. it’ll ruin our expensive suit. The equivalent of the drowning child happens all the time in distant places, and there are systems in place that allow us to save people all over the world, at a cost that isn’t much higher than the price of a suit. In many cases, all we have to do is donate some money.

This duty to act benevolently can be interpreted more widely. It can involve more than the requirement to save people from disaster. Singer claims that it implies a radically egalitarian obligation: we ought to help others until the next increment of aid would do more good spent on ourselves than transferred to others. Practically, this means helping others until we are ourselves barely better off than the rest. This is extremely demanding, and very controversial, but the narrow interpretation of the duty of benevolence is widely shared.

Again, these three different duties are not always clearly different. There are overlaps. The duty to act benevolently is partly justified by the rights of the beneficiaries: a drowning child and a starving Ethiopian have a right to life. Creating a more just global order will improve respect for people’s rights, and improving respect for people’s rights will make the global order more just. Still, there are differences between these duties and it’s interesting for human rights activists to consider the possibility that people can appeal to moral obligations that go beyond respect for their human rights.

2. Why should we do what we should do? What is the basis of our obligations?

So, now that we stated what we should do, how can we explain why we should do those things? There may be different reasons why we have obligations to help other and distant people:

  • We may be responsible ourselves for their predicament (or at least partially): we may have violated their rights, helped others to violate their rights, or established and maintained an unjust international order (for example because we have been colonizers or because the international trade system that we have imposed is biased in our favor).
  • People have rights, and these rights by themselves create a duty for everyone else to respect and to promote respect for those rights. The duty to protect other people’s rights is not a duty only for those who are responsible for violating these rights. And neither is it a duty limited to those who have a special relationship with victims of rights violations or to those whose social duty it is to promote respect for rights (e.g. judges or police officers). We all have this duty, and we have it simply because others have rights. Hence, we pay taxes that fund the legal institutions that protect citizens against others who violate their rights, that fund schools and hospitals etc. There’s no reason to think that this does not apply globally as well.
  • We may have an obligation to help other and distant people not because their rights create a moral duty to assist, but because other moral values such as justice and/or benevolence or beneficence create such such a duty. If it is in our power to do something about suffering, injustice and inequality without too much of a sacrifice of our own interests and without violating some deontological demands (e.g. do not kill), then justice and/or benevolence may require that we do it.
  • Duties to help others can also be based on enlightened self-interest: national governments have a duty to protect the rights, security and prosperity of their own citizens, and in some cases this means protecting the rights, security and prosperity of people in other nations. The poor and oppressed may become refugees; civil wars may spread to other countries or may foster international terrorism; unstable economies may harm the global economic system and the environment etc. Conversely, free and prosperous nations benefit the rest of the world because of the gains of trade, cooperation in science and culture etc.
(image source)
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annals of heartlessness, housing, poverty

Annals of Heartlessness (40): Scatological Solution to the Problem of Homelessness

homeless

image by Reuters/Lucas Jackson

(source)

The City of Abbotsford has apologized for spreading chicken manure over a popular gathering place for the homeless [not in the image above] in an apparent bid to drive them out of the city. …

The practice of using chicken manure to drive away the homeless came to light after local advocate James W. Breckenridge wrote a column titled “This Stinks” in the Abbotsford Today community newspaper.

According to Breckenridge, the city has waged an “ongoing war on the homeless,” driving people “from spot to spot around Abbotsford like nuisance animals.”

Meanwhile, the city has failed to provide a viable housing alternative to camping for the homeless, Breckenridge says. (source)

More in the annals of heartlessness here.

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economics, poverty, what is poverty

What is Poverty? (6): Absolute or Relative Deprivation?

shelter

Is poverty a lack of basic resources, or instead the unequal distribution of resources? Is it the absolute income or wealth of people that matters, or the fact that other people are richer and can afford more luxuries? Intuitively, one would go with the former of those options: people are poor when they are starving or homeless or when they lack some other basic necessity. People can have enough of all basic necessities and still be a lot worse of than some group of ultra-rich. One the other hand, what counts as a basic necessity is not always obvious, and people may form their ideas about necessities in light of the lifestyle of the average member of their society at the current moment in history.

This is another way of expressing the difference between absolute and relative poverty. In the US, it’s common to defend and use an absolute definition of poverty (as does the World Bank), whereas in Europe the focus is on relative poverty. The difference is an important one, because the use of one or the other definition of poverty determines who counts as poor or not. Hence, it also determines who gets government assistance.

Now, something strange is going on here. Intuitively most people favor an absolute definition of poverty – that’s what my own intuition and an unscientific sample of friends tells me –  and yet, if you ask people what one needs to get by in life, the amounts they give you are far above commonly used absolute poverty thresholds. In fact, these amounts are closer to median income. And as median income rises, the amounts supposedly necessary in order to get by also rise. This tells us that people actually use a relative notion of poverty. And this is true even for the country that is supposedly most naturally in favor of an absolute notion of poverty, namely the US:

absolute and relative poverty in the US

(source)

I made a similar point here. More posts in this series are here.

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data, democracy, economics, freedom, poverty, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (36): The Economic Case Against Democracy

wealth in China

wealth in China

(source)

Democracy is a human right. But how do we justify this right? One common argument is that democracies tend to be wealthier than non-democracies. However, there’s some disagreement about this argument: not about the goodness of wealth and wealth-enhancing institutions, but about whether democracies are in fact such institutions. Impressive economic growth rates in non-democratic countries such as China have planted doubts in many people’s minds.

Some time ago, I offered a rather “philosophical” argument against the view that democracies perform worse economically than some types of authoritarian government (i.e. China-style). But in fact we’re dealing with empirically verifiable hypotheses here. So I looked for some numbers and found this article by Dani Rodrik:

The relationship between a nation’s politics and its economic prospects is one of the most fundamental – and most studied – subjects in all of social science. Which is better for economic growth – a strong guiding hand that is free from the pressure of political competition, or a plurality of competing interests that fosters openness to new ideas and new political players? …

Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership. (source)

Some data on democracy and growth are here.

The darling of the “authoritarian=efficient” crowd is, of course, China. China has indeed performed extremely well economically under a rather authoritarian government. However, that government is much less authoritarian than it was during the post-WWII decades of stagnation and extreme poverty. So maybe it’s the relative move towards greater freedom that is the true cause of China’s economic performance, rather than its authoritarian government per se.

Moreover, China has done very well in terms of growth and poverty reduction, but in terms of levels of prosperity it’s still way behind most countries that are much more free. Its astounding progress is partly due to the very low starting point that was engineered by its authoritarian rulers.

And finally, the supposed economic success of authoritarianism in China – if it exists – isn’t necessarily proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in general (authoritarian disaster stories are unfortunately far more common than authoritarian success stories). It may not even be proof of the economic ability of authoritarianism in China, since correlation doesn’t imply causation, especially not if there are only very few observations: China’s economic success may be due to other factors – and maybe this success would have been even greater without authoritarian government.

Jesus raises the dead man Lazarus back to the living world (mosaic from Ravenna, 500's AD)

Jesus raises the dead man Lazarus back to the living world (mosaic from Ravenna, 500′s AD)

The economic case for authoritarianism is a bit like this: usually, people don’t return from the dead. But there’s this one guy, Lazarus, who did. Some claim that there was this other fellow, Jesus, who done the deed and made Lazarus walk again. There are no other Jesuses around, and this one Jesus only did his trick once. Nobody quite knows how he did it. Some say he just happened to be around when it occurred and people put one and one together. Lazarus would have walked anyway, perhaps even sooner had this other fellow not stolen all the attention.

More here, here, here and here on the myth of successful authoritarianism.

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activism, aid, economics, ethics of human rights, globalization, international relations, philosophy, poverty

The Ethics of Human Rights (72): Who’s Responsible for Helping the Poor?

St Martin and the Beggar, unknown master, Hungarian, around 1490

St Martin and the Beggar, unknown master, Hungarian, around 1490. One day as he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, Saint Martin of Tours met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me.” When Martin woke, his cloak was restored, and the miraculous cloak was preserved. Small temporary churches were built for the relic and people began to refer to them by the word for little cloak “capella” that these churches housed. Eventually small churches lost their association with the cloak and all small churches began to be referred to as Chapels.

(source)

If you’re a heartless cynic, you’ll reply “no one” or “that they help themselves” when asked who should help the poor. If not, you’ll probably offer one of three answers:

  1. Those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. The main champion of this line of thought is Thomas Pogge who we’ve mentioned before on this blog.
  2. Those who can end poverty are responsible for ending it. Who caused poverty and how is really not important. Here it’s Peter Singer who is the main proponent. (We also mentioned him before).
  3. Those who are in a special relationship with poor people are responsible for helping them. The best known representative of this view is David Miller.

The problem is that all three answers sound appealing and yet they are mutually incompatible in some respects. At the same time they seem incomplete without each other. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each answer before dealing with the relationships between them.

Answer 1 focuses on causation: those who caused poverty are responsible for ending it. And Pogge has argued very successfully that all poverty as it currently exists in the world is to a large degree if not entirely caused by the actions of people and institutions:

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. (source)

Pogge also claims, convincingly, that focusing on the causes of poverty delivers a stronger account of duty. The negative duty to right a wrong for which you are responsible is stronger than the positive duty to help irrespective of whether you’re responsible for the predicament of those you have to help. It does seem to be a widespread moral intuition that the negative duty not to harm, to prevent harm and to rectify harm once you’ve done it is at least more urgent and perhaps also more important than the positive duty to do good. The latter duty is central in answer 2. The idea that we should help because we caused harm seems to carry more weight than the idea that we should help simply because we can.

And yet, there’s a competing intuition that we should help because others have needs, whether or not we are responsible for those needs. So answer 1 doesn’t seem obviously superior to answer 2. In defense of answer 2, Singer gave the example of the drowning child in a famous 1972 paper. Nobody would condone your failure to help a drowning child because you weren’t the one who threw her in the pond. The simple fact that you pass by and that you can help at a minimal cost to yourself is sufficient to ground a duty to help. Poverty, according to Singer, is the same, even if it is poverty far away: the minority of wealthy people in the word can end poverty at a small cost to themselves. We should help people if we can and it doesn’t matter why people need help or who caused the problem in the first place.

If you wish, you can listen to his argument here:

He obviously explains it better than I can.

So we have two strong and seemingly incompatible intuitions here. The advantage of answer 1 is that it appeals to our understanding that negative duties are more urgent. Hence, focusing on causation and personal responsibility can, in theory, accelerate the struggle against poverty. We are more likely to act if we are convinced that we did something wrong.

The advantage of answer 2, on the other hand, is that it renders discussions about the facts of responsibility moot. Indeed, Pogge’s case about the West’s responsibility for poverty in the world is strong but not watertight. One can argue that people are partly responsible for their own poverty, or that local governments and natural conditions are also to blame. Hence, paradoxically, answer 1 can delay effective action because responsibilities first need to be attributed, and that is inherently controversial. Answer 2 then suddenly seems the more effective approach. Furthermore, answer 2 is able to deal with poverty that has no human causes: answer 1 seems unable to force action against poverty caused by natural forces.

The Good Samaritan by Ferdinand Hodler

The Good Samaritan by Ferdinand Hodler

And then there’s answer 3 making things even more complex. Answer 1 and 2 also accept that some people have greater duties than others – those who are responsible and those who can help respectively – but answer 3 takes this notion a step further. Those who are in a special relationship to the poor have greater duties to help. Part of the reason for this claim is that a relationship often yields a larger remedial capacity. Parents are better able than strangers to help their children because they have a special relationship with their children: they know them, care more for them, are closer and understand them better. The same can be said for national, linguistic or ethnic communities, according to David Miller. He speaks about “solidaristic communities” where people identify themselves as fellow members sharing a culture or beliefs with other members. This makes distributions easier and more effective.

It’s now the turn of answer 3 to claim to be the more effective one. And indeed, distance does play a role, not only in the effectiveness of actions but also in the willingness to help. Even Singer accepts the latter fact. We may want to change the facts but that takes time. In the meantime, it may be better to count on solidarity within groups than on the duties defended by answers 1 and 2.

It seems to be a widespread intuition that we can give extra weight to the interests of those close to us. This does not imply that we are allowed to neglect the world’s poor, but it does mean that our efforts to help them should not be at the expense of those close to us, including ourselves. If we have a duty to give, then this duty is limited by what we need for ourselves and for those close to us.

So, this concludes the description of different answers to the question in the title of the blog post. The relationship between these answers is a difficult one. They seem incompatible: either we look for those responsible for harm and force them to remedy; or we look for those who can offer a remedy and force them to act; or we look inside solidaristic communities. The duty bearers will sometimes be the same according to all three answers, and then there’s no problem if one, two or three justifications of their duties are successful in forcing them to act. But it can happen that the duty bearers are different people in the three different answers, and then there’s a problem. And we shouldn’t underestimate the probability of this. I personally tend to favor answer 2, but I don’t really have a good argument for this.

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annals of heartlessness, poverty

Annals of Heartlessness (34): Dehumanizing the Poor

Not really poor?

Not really poor?

(source)

“When the average American hears “poverty”, they are thinking about somebody who is homeless, or has an inadequate house with a hole in the roof or something, who doesn’t have food to eat, can’t put clothes on kids’ backs,” says [Robert] Rector at Heritage. “If you drove down the street and found a normal house of a poor person, you wouldn’t recognize it because you wouldn’t think that’s a poor person. It doesn’t look poor.” (source)

It??? My God… This sentiment – suitably reformulated of course – is actually quite widespread. The so-called “poor” in wealthy nations aren’t really poor at all, we hear. They have stuff their ancestors couldn’t even dream of. And compared to the poor in Africa or Asia, many of them are well-off. However, do we really want starvation and absolute deprivation to be the only unacceptable human condition? Shouldn’t we aim higher?

More dehumanization of the poor here. More in the annals of heartlessness here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (71): Poverty of Willpower and of Self-Control, Revisited

marshmallow test

(source)

Almost as old as the problem of poverty itself is the story that poverty is caused by insufficient self-control and willpower. Never mind that things may just as well be the other way around: poverty drains the will. And never mind that the most famous study cited by proponents of the willpower story is apparently misleading:

For the past four decades, the “marshmallow test” has served as a classic experimental measure of children’s self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later? … The research … began at Stanford University in the late 1960s. Walter Mischel and other researchers famously showed that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification on this simple task correlated strongly with success in later life. Longer wait times as a child were linked years later to higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and parental reports of better social skills.

Because of the surprising correlation, the landmark marshmallow studies have been cited as evidence that qualities like self-control or emotional intelligence in general may be more important to navigating life successfully than more traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ.

The Rochester team wanted to explore more closely why some preschoolers are able to resist the marshmallow while others succumb to licking, nibbling, and eventually swallowing the sugary treat. The researchers assigned 28 three- to five-year-olds to two contrasting environments: unreliable and reliable. The study results were so strong that a larger sample group was not required…

Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

“I was astounded that the effect was so large,” says Aslin. ” … You don’t see effects like this very often.” …

The findings, says Kidd, are reassuring. She recalls reading about the predictive power of these earlier experiments years ago and finding it “depressing.” At the time she was volunteering at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, California. “There were lots of kids staying there with their families. Everyone shared one big area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult,” she says. “When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.’ “

But as she observed the children week after week, she began to question the task as a marker of innate ability alone. “If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice. Then it occurred to me that the marshmallow task might be correlated with something else that the child already knows—like having a stable environment.” (source, source)

More posts in this series are here.

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economics, ethics of human rights, health, justice, law, poverty, trade

The Ethics of Human Rights (68): The Case Against the Sale of Human Organs

Torso and internal organs

Or, better, a case against it. I believe that trade in human organs is morally wrong, at least if this trade is free and unregulated (but perhaps also when it’s regulated in some way). I don’t think the same case can be made against the sale of body products such as blood, hair etc., although some of the arguments against the sale of organs may also apply to the sale in body products. I will bracket this problem for now and concentrate on organs.

I make the argument against organ sales knowing full well that there’s a huge problem of organ shortages and that some people will benefit from free organ trade, and may even lose their lives if free trade is not allowed. Hence, if I claim that free organ trade is morally wrong, then I’m not necessarily making the claim that it should be forbidden in all circumstances. If there are other wrongs, such as people avoidably losing their lives, that overwhelm the wrongs resulting from organ trade, then the former wrongs may be preferable all things considered. However, I believe that the latter wrongs are commonly underestimated by those defending the legality of organ sales. I also believe that there’s a blindspot common among those who claim that the wrongs resulting from a ban on sales typically outweigh the wrongs resulting from a free organ market: it’s not as if the only choice is the one between the status quo – which is in most cases a ban on sales resulting in organ shortages – and a free organ market. There are other and perhaps better solutions to the shortage problem, even in the short term.

Here are some of the reasons why I believe a free organ markets causes serious wrongs:

1. Coercion by poverty

Not a single wealthy person will ever need or want to sell his or her organs. In a system of free organ trade, it’s the poor who will sell their organs to the rich. Maybe a legalized market will reduce the wealth disparity between buyers and sellers to some extent, given the fact that the number of potential sellers will be higher in a free market and that the number of potential buyers will not. This increase in supply compared to demand, following legalization, will reduce prices somewhat, making it feasible for more people to buy organs. Still, it will almost always be the relatively rich buying from the relatively poor, especially if the market is a global one (and I find it hard to understand arguments in favor of a free market limited to national borders).

Many of these poor will be desperately poor, particularly if the market is globally free. A decision to sell an organ isn’t made lightly, and requires some level of financial desperation. The extraction of an organ still carries a substantial risk (e.g. 1 in 3000 die from a kidney extraction even in the best medical circumstances), and few will be willing to take this risk from a baseline situation of wellbeing or happiness that is moderately high and that can not or need not be substantially improved by financial means.

Hence, if organ trade is allowed, many sellers will be desperately poor people, and there will be more of those in a legalized market than in a black market. Now it’s clear that desperation can be coercive: it forces people to do things that they would not otherwise do, that entail risks that they would avoid at higher levels of wellbeing, that may be harmful for them, and that go against their better judgment. If coercion is wrong, then free organ trade is wrong because free organ trade multiplies the number of desperately poor people that feel coerced to sell their organs.

2. Trade instead of justice

It’s reasonable to assume that rich people are responsible for the poverty that exists in the world, if not directly through their actions (trade policy, colonization etc.) then through their failure to prevent or remedy poverty. It will almost invariably be the same rich people who will want to buy organs from poor people. Now, if you first create poverty (or fail to do something about it, which in my mind is equivalent) and then tell poor people that you’ll give them money but only if they give you their organs in return, then you add insult to injury: you have a moral duty to give them your money unconditionally. Insisting on the possibility of trade while neglecting the necessity of justice is wrong.

3. Objectification and instrumentalization

There are some other good reasons why it’s wrong to buy an organ from someone, even if this person willingly agrees to the sale on the basis of informed consent, and even if he or she isn’t coerced into the sale by his or her poverty and isn’t someone who has a moral and unconditional right to the money he or she would get from a sale. For instance, buying an organ from someone means treating this person as an object and a means. It’s a failure to respect the person’s dignity as a being that should be treated as an end in itself rather than as a shop or an organ factory. It’s not outrageous to view organ trade as a new form of cannibalism.

4. Unjust distribution

The previous 3 arguments against organ trade focused on the wrongs it imposes on the sellers. But even the buyers are treated unjustly in a system of free organ sales. If the distribution of organs is regulated solely by way of free trade, then the patients who are most in need of an organ are not the ones who will get the organs. It will instead be those patients able to pay most who will get them.

5. Crowding out altruism

There’s even an argument that points to possible harm to society as a whole. If more and more human relationships are brought within the cash nexus, then giving and altruism will be crowded out. It’s obviously the case that when people can get money for something, they will stop giving it for free. Human nature is what it is. But given what it is, we shouldn’t encourage its darker sides. It’s reasonable to assume that free donation of organs will all but disappear when people can get cash for them. And it’s also reasonable to assume that this reduction in altruism can have a ripple effect throughout society and in many other fields of life, especially when we take account of the fact that more and more activities have already been brought within the cash nexus: sex, reproduction, politics

No one assumes that everything should be tradable. Even the most outspoken proponents of organ trade draw the line somewhere: they won’t allow people to sell parts of their brains, I guess, or their children and wives, or the parts of aborted fetuses (perhaps fetuses specially conceived and harvested for their parts). So we have to stop somewhere and disallow the trade of some things. Why should it be evident that organs are not one step too far?

Alternatives

organ traffickingIf organ sales do have harmful consequences, then what are the alternatives? If we don’t want to allow those willing to sell to go about and legally sell their organs to those capable of buying them, then how do we solve the shortage problem and save the lives of those in need of organs? We can do several things:

  • We can try to increase the number of free cadaveric donations, by improving the way we approach bereaved relatives, by introducing a system of presumed consent, by promoting explicit consent (for example through the introduction of regulations that allay fears that doctors will stop life support when they need organs, or through some sort of priority system in which those who have pledged cadaveric donation can jump the queue when they themselves need organs) etc.
  • We can try to increase living donation, by way of awareness campaigns.
  • We can hope for scientific breakthroughs that make cadaveric recovery of organs easier or live donations less risky, or that make it possible to grow organ in vitro.

Organ sale is certainly not the only solution to the shortage problem.

A final remark: given the fact that proponents of organ trade often rely on the right to self-ownership – the right to do with your body as you please – we may have to tone down the importance of that right. Which is something we’ll have to do anyway: for instance, there’s no welfare state if the right to self-ownership is absolute.

More on organ sales, exploitation, instrumentalization and objectification.

(image source, image source)
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causes of human rights violations, globalization, human rights violations, international relations, poverty

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (45): Distance

cocooning

(source)

Whereas it’s obvious that distance can be a protection against human rights violations – privacy needs distance, and physical integrity requires a safety zone – it’s equally true that it often harms human rights.

We care more about our friends and family than about strangers, especially distant strangers, about whom we know very little, if anything. Maybe we don’t know their predicament and hence the idea of our possible duty to help them and safeguard their rights doesn’t even arise. Or maybe we know about their predicament but we’re ignorant about the causes. Hence, they could have themselves to blame, in which case we tend to think that we’re not obliged to help. Or if they don’t have themselves to blame, our ignorance about the causes of their predicament inhibits our effective assistance. Maybe we also assume that the causes are local, and hence not our fault.

It’s safe to say that such feelings of detachment increase proportionally with distance, because the further away the less we know and the more we assume that we are not responsible. To some extent at least: the effect of distance flattens out; we’re not more detached from people five thousand miles away than from people four thousand miles away.

personal-space - critical terrainThe effect of distance, although it decreases after a while, does start very quickly. A few meters can be enough to reduce empathy:

Drawing on motivational approaches to emotion, the authors propose that the perceived change in spatial distance to pictures that arouse negative emotions exerts an influence on the significance of these pictures. Two experiments induced the illusion that affective pictures approach toward the observer, recede from the observer, or remain static. To determine the motivational significance of the pictures, emotional valence and arousal ratings as well as startle responses were assessed. Approaching unpleasant pictures were found to exert an influence on both the valence and the arousal elicited by the pictures. Furthermore, movement of pleasant or neutral pictures did not influence startle responses, while the second experiment showed that approaching unpleasant pictures elicited enhanced startle responses compared to receding unpleasant pictures. These findings support the view that a change of spatial distance influences motivational significance and thereby shapes emotional responses. (source)

In other words: perceiving the approach of negative emotion-eliciting scenes intensifies the associated felt emotion, while perceiving receding emotion-eliciting scenes weakens the associated felt emotion.

There’s a less abstract illustration of this point in an experiment conducted by Dan Ariely:

Jacques Callot - Beggar, 1622

Jacques Callot: Beggar, 1622

[W]hat causes people to stop for beggars and what causes them to walk on by[?] To look into this question, I called on … an acting student at Boston University. I asked [him] to try a few different approaches to begging and to keep track of the approaches that made him more or less money. He made more money when he was standing and when he looked people in the eyes. It seemed that the most lucrative strategy was to put in more effort, to get people to notice him, and to look them in the eyes so that they could not pretend to not see him. (source)

So a reduction of both the physical distance (standing) and emotional distance (eye contact) resulted in more giving and less poverty.

At some point, something very interesting happened. There was another beggar on the street – a professional beggar – who … said, “Look kid, you don’t know what you’re doing. Let me teach you.” And so he did. This beggar took our concept of effort and human contact to the next level, walking right up to people and offering his hand up for them to shake. With this dramatic gesture, people had a very hard time refusing him or pretending that they did not see him. Apparently, the social forces of a handshake are simply too strong and too deeply engrained to resist – and many people gave in and shook his hand. Of course, once they shook his hand, they would also look him in the eyes; the beggar succeeded at breaking the social barrier and was able to get many people to give him money. (source)

You could argue that this whole distance thing is a red herring. If everyone takes care of those who are close, then distance won’t be a problem. Still, it will be a problem in many cases because not everyone has friends and family who can help. The beggars in the quote above probably only know other beggars and hence have to rely on efforts to reduce distance.

distance

(source)

Indeed, one way of solving the distance problem is to try to reduce distance. The beggars’ strategy isn’t the only example. NGO campaigns almost always feature close-ups of the faces of people in distress, as well as personal stories about their predicament and about how the global system has made it worse (implicating better off people far away). These faces and stories reduce distance in a way that is similar to the beggars’ eye contact. Alternatively, instead of trying to reduce distance, one can attempt to discredit the idea of distance altogether and foster a more cosmopolitan approach to caring.

There’s also another way in which distance can cause human rights violations, although you would have a hard time finding a lot of examples at this point in history (perhaps only in failed states such as Afghanistan or Somalia where a violent and extremist rebel movement tries to assert its authority):

Margaret Anderson explains that the best way to understand the dastardly public torture of criminals in early modern Europe is to consider the need of authority to establish itself over great distance, in an era before cell-phones and a legitimate judicial systems. (source)

More here. Other posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (70): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People, Ctd.

poor kids

a couple of kids, apparently poor, location unknown

(source)

In a previous post I looked at some of the reasons why rich people don’t give more money to poor people, and I assumed that the stories people tell themselves have a lot to do with it. Here’s a bit more about this.

The distant poor are the first to be removed from our stories. Archaic and morally dubious notions such as the “national family”, national solidarity etc. are advanced to justify this move. These notions may be linked to certain pragmatic arguments justifying the focus on the poor within our borders: poverty alleviation requires redistribution, redistribution requires a welfare state – adequate taxation and a strong government able to enforce redistributive programs – and there’s no such state on the global level. The merits of this argument are dubious: there are many ways to combat poverty beyond the national welfare state – international development aid, charity, an open borders policy etc.

Another pragmatic argument in favor of focussing on the poor in our own countries goes like this: it’s better for people to help others who are close by, because closeness comes with knowledge about the needs of those who should be helped and about the best ways of helping them. There are also problems with this argument: our poor compatriots are probably as distant to us as the poor in Africa; those who are close to the distant poor are probably poor as well and therefore unable to help - or at least will find it much harder to help compared to people in the rich parts of the world whose marginal utility of the next dollar of income is only a tiny fraction of the utility that the same dollar would provide to the distant poor.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, they help to explain why the distant poor are often removed from sight. The next step is to remove some of the non-distant poor as well. We don’t want to encourage begging, and that’s what we do when we give money to beggars. We want to make work more attractive than begging, and hence we shouldn’t give to beggars. We should even criminalize begging so as to encourage beggars to go find a job. That’s good for the beggars – at least in the long run – and for the rest of us as well because beggars may be a nuisance. Giving doesn’t just encourage begging and unemployment; it robs people of their agency, their self-reliance and their sense of responsibility. It traps them in dependence, and most of the time it encourages bad habits. How many beggars use their earnings to fuel their alcohol addiction? Never mind that alcohol may be the only thing that gives them some pleasure in life and that allows them to forget their misery, if only temporarily. And never mind that the same kind of paternalism is generally viewed as offensive when targeted at the non-poor.

But what about selection biases? Aren’t we more likely to give to some beggars and not to others? The old Mother Theresa like woman with the baby in her lap? The cripple showing off his amputated limbs? The clever beggar who has monopolized the busy intersection and who threatens competitors with violence? All in all, we’ll probably give to those who already get the most, and hence we don’t help the most needy. However, giving can take different forms, and handouts to beggars are just one option. If you’re worried about people abusing cash handouts, why not give them access to healthcare or food? If you’re worried about selection effects, why not make sure that everyone gets an equal share? And if you’re worried about dependency, why not give conditional aid: people only get cash or services when they prove that they are looking for a job, when their children attend school etc.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (69): Self-Destructive Behavior

drunks

drunks I guess

(source)

One important hallmark of right-wing thinking is the emphasis on the value of individual responsibility: people should take their lives into their own hands, try to be independent and self-sufficient and make it on their own. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I part ways with many on the right when they assume that the moral importance of responsibility and self-reliance implies that those who don’t make it on their own have somehow failed to be responsible.

Well, some of those probably have indeed failed to be responsible, but why would we think this is true in all or even most cases? Many people who really try hard to be responsible and to behave rationally still get their legs cut off from under them (there are many causes of poverty after all). Others are irresponsible and still make it (or get bailed out when things go wrong). The word “bank” comes to mind.

It’s not because responsibility is a generally important value and a “good thing” that a lack of it always leads to bad outcomes such as poverty (one bad outcome that does always follow from lack of responsibility is obviously irresponsibility, but that’s tautological).

However, let’s assume, arguendo, that many on the right are correct in their belief that bad things such as poverty are almost always the product of irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. The idea of desert is important here: if poverty is a form of self-destruction resulting from irresponsible actions, then poor people deserve their poverty and they should, somewhat confusingly, be called “the undeserving poor” (“deserving poor” would perhaps be a better name). The flip side is the idea that people with good lives have not failed to act responsibly. And because they have been responsible they deserve their wealth and wellbeing and should not be forced by way of taxation to help those who have not been responsible.

Some on the right do indeed believe that poor people should not be assisted, for 3 reasons: 

  • poverty is what they chose when they acted irresponsibly, and hence it is what they deserve
  • helping them would send the wrong signal and would undermine the value of individual responsibility
  • helping them would mean taking funds away from those who acted responsibly and whi deserve the proceeds of their responsible actions.

Poor people should therefore try to make it back on their own. Assistance in the form of charity for example is allowed, of course, but it can’t be enforced without undermining responsibility, both among the beneficiaries of enforced assistance and among those who are forced to give (the latter may well conclude that self-reliance is futile if the proceeds are taxed away).

It’s true that this is not the standard right-wing view. Some conservatives or libertarians make room for enforced assistance, on the condition that this assistance promotes responsibility and that poor people genuinely try to be responsible while and after they are assisted. Assistance would then be withdrawn in case of continued irresponsibility, and also when it becomes clear that assistance produces dependence and a lack of self-reliance.

While I share the enthusiasm for values such as responsibility, desert, self-reliance, independence and conditional assistance, I also see some problems.

1.

Why would the arrow of causation only go from responsibility to success and from irresponsibility to failure? Might not the reverse also occur? I believe it’s at least possible that poverty and failure lead to irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, and that a life of riches, especially during childhood, fosters responsibility and other virtues. For example, it has been shown that the stress of poverty in early life as well as later in life can lead to misjudgments and irrational behavior. In addition, a life of poverty can destroy people’s aspirations, which in turn may make them decide that they “don’t give a fuck”. From a distance, this may look like irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, but it can be explained as the consequence of poverty rather than the cause. Similarly, the bee sting theory of poverty argues that people in poverty just give up after a series of calamities or misfortunes.

2.

A Yemeni man chews qat in the main qat market in Sanaa May 9, 2007

A Yemeni man chews qat in the main qat market in Sanaa May 9, 2007 REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah (YEMEN)

Some apparently self-destructive, irrational and poverty-inducing or poverty-perpetuating behavior may be a price that poor people are willing to pay for other goods. For example, the widespread use of Qat in countries such as Yemen causes all sorts of problems for productive and rational behavior. And yet, people who refuse to take it risk social ostracism. The need for social inclusion and acceptance then outweighs the material cost for many users. Something similar can be said of those poor people who spend a lot of money on celebrations and festivals while their calorie intake is below standard.

What looks like self-destruction may in fact be an elaborate and tragic strategy for social survival. Does this mean that people who are willing to pay the price of poverty should not be assisted, given that they are willing? No. They are only willing because the better alternative – both social inclusion and lack of poverty – is not available to them.

3.

Until now, I’ve granted the right wing starting point that many poor people act irresponsibly – strategically or not – and that their behavior causes their poverty. But what if all this is just a visual illusion? Is it not possible that the poor are just as responsible or irresponsible as the rich, but that they have a much smaller margin of error? Some forms of behavior that have little or no consequences for wealthy people, may lead to worse outcomes for poor people or for people on the edge of poverty. Poor people perhaps only look more irresponsible.

4.

snooping

snooping

That last point is important. The only way of detecting responsible or irresponsible behavior is to look at the consequences of it – we can’t detect people’s motivations. But this means that we can be wrong: consequences that look like they are the product of lack of responsibility may be something else. We see behavior that has self-destructive consequences for the actor, but we may be dealing with a person who is not really irresponsible but simply out of luck, mistaken or misguided, or someone with a small margin of error.

So our assessment of responsibility is necessarily an approximation which can sometimes be totally wrong. Any being wrong in our assessment whether or not to help people may have terrible consequences. Furthermore, this assessment is not only difficult and often mistaken; it’s also invasive. Ideally, in order to detect irresponsible poor people – and treat them like this – we would have to monitor their lifestyles and long term attitudes over long periods of time. Only then can we minimize the risk of error. But the result would be dictatorship. I’m sure right-wing thinkers don’t really want to go there. Hence, they should think twice before making desert and responsibility the cornerstone of their worldview.

Other posts in this series are here.

(image source, image source)
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aid, causes of human rights violations, democracy, economics, governance, human rights violations, international relations, law, poverty

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (44): Corruption

Corruption, or “the misuse of public office for private gain”, is immoral and bad in numerous ways, but it’s not a human rights violation. At least not as such. To my knowledge, human rights law doesn’t contain an explicit right not to suffer the consequences of corruption. However, it is the case that corruption causes various rights violations. For example, it can often be viewed as a form of theft and hence a violation of the right to private property. And in the case of corruption in the justice system, the right to a fair trial is violated.

Moreover, corruption has a negative impact on GDP (see here) – mainly because it’s a tax on investment – and hence also on poverty reduction (given the correlation between GDP and poverty reduction, see here, here and here). And there is a right not to suffer poverty. Corruption also has an impact on poverty on the level of individuals rather than countries. It’s obvious that individuals – especially those who are poor or near the poverty line – can make better use of the funds that they have to spend on bribes.

Furthermore, corruption eats away at the rule of law. Even in the most corrupt countries, corruption is usually illegal. If illegal activity becomes normal practice, the rule of law is obviously undermined, with possible consequences for judicial protection in general, including protection of human rights. The rule of law is also harmed directly by corruption, namely by corruption inside the judiciary and the police force, and this has an immediate impact on human rights. Even more seriously, corruption is associated with political instability since it tends to reduce citizens’ trust and faith in institutions. It can therefore destroy democracy, and democracy is both a human right and a means to protect human rights in general.

So, if we can agree that corruption is a cause of various human rights violations, then the question is: who is responsible for corruption and hence for the rights violations occurring because of it? I would say that it’s the government officials taking bribes (and possibly the banks safeguarding the proceeds) rather than the private persons or companies paying the bribes, at least in general. The latter would presumably prefer not to pay bribes and often find themselves in situations in which they have no choice.

Now, you could say that some corrupt officials, especially those at the lower levels of government, don’t have a choice either: without the proceeds of corruption they may well end up in poverty. Demanding bribes is then the alternative for a failed economy and a failed state. However, I think it’s fair to claim that they still have, in general, a wider set of options than many of those having to pay bribes. If you’re stopped by the police and they ask you for a bribe, it seems that your options are more constrained than the options of the police asking for the bribe. It seems easier for the police to find additional non-corrupt sources of income than it is for you to escape the demands of the police. Of course, this isn’t the case in all types of corruption. For example, a large multinational company may find it relatively easy to pay a bribe, and may have more options than the official who’s asking the bribe (and it may very well solicit the payment of the bribe in the first place as a way to outsmart competitor companies).

corruption cartoon by Michael Kountouris

cartoon by Michael Kountouris

(source)

Next question: what to do about it? Everyone agrees that corruption is bad, and many believe that it’s bad for human rights, but almost no one seems to know how to stop it. And it is, indeed, a problem that is as old as history. One thing we could do is spell out the issue of corruption more clearly in terms of human rights. However, human rights claims by the victims of corruption are probably not very effective, since one consequence of corruption is the weakening or destruction of the judicial institutions necessary for the enforcement of human rights. In that sense, linking corruption and human rights may seem futile or at least of limited practical use.

However, human rights claims aren’t just legal claims that depend on functioning and non-corrupt institutions to be enforced. They are also moral claims and they can have some effect as such. They can be used to denounce widespread systems of corruption and thereby help to change a culture and a mentality, especially over the long run. But moral claims will not destroy endemic corruption by themselves. Countries that suffer high degrees of corruption probably need external help in institution building. Also, economic development will probably reduce corruption, given the correlation cited above between low levels of GDP and high levels of corruption. Helping countries to develop will then also help them to fight corruption.

This is an interesting talk about ways to fight corruption (the relevant part starts around the 5th minute):

More on governance and corruption. More posts in this series.

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freedom, poverty, what is freedom

What is Freedom? (10): The Ability to Do Things

G.A. Cohen photo by Chris Bertram

G.A. Cohen, photo by Chris Bertram

(source)

Sooner rather than later you’ll stumble across the following view when you read about definitions of freedom: people lack freedom when they can’t do what they want to do because governments – or also, in a relaxed version of the idea, fellow citizens – intervene in order to stop people from doing what they want to do (“stop” can mean different things here: literally stop someone, forbid something, coerce someone, prevent someone from doing something etc.).

When people can’t do what they want to do because of some other reasons – lack of resources, lack of money, lack of capabilities, handicaps, natural impediments, natural disasters etc. – then they don’t lack freedom. They merely lack ability.

My view is different: I accept the first part of the argument above – interference does indeed limit freedom in one sense of the word – but I reject the second part. And I have some illustrious company. G.A. Cohen, for instance, has argued that

while the poor are formally free to do all kinds of things that the state does not forbid anyone to do, their parlous situation means that they are not really free to do very many of them, since they cannot afford to do them, and they are, therefore, in the end, prevented from doing them. (source)

Hence, it’s wrong to claim that there is a fundamental difference between a lack of freedom and a lack of the means or ability to use freedom. Cohen again:

lack of money, poverty, carries with it lack of freedom. I regard that as an overwhelmingly obvious truth, one that is worth defending only because it has been so influentially denied. Lack of money, poverty, is not, of course, the only circumstance that restricts a person’s freedom, but it is, in my view, one of them, and one of the most important of them. To put the point more precisely – there are lots of things that, because they are poor, poor people are not free to do, things that non-poor people are, by contrast, indeed free to do. (source)

A lack of freedom and a lack of the means or ability to use freedom are fundamentally the same thing.

A similar post about the link between money and freedom is here, and one about poverty as a denial of freedom is here. More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (68): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People

An illustration of Andrew Carnegie, originally published on July 25, 1903

An illustration of Andrew Carnegie, originally published on July 25, 1903

(source)

You can criticize trade policy, immigration restrictions, bad governance or any other commonly cited cause of poverty, but you shouldn’t forget the obvious: there are a lot of wealthy people in the world who could, without losing much wellbeing (due to the diminishing marginal utility of money), help to lift every single poor person in the world to a much higher level of wellbeing.

The fact is that they could but don’t. We do have progressive taxation systems and other means of redistribution, we have development aid, we have charity etc., but none of these things yields enough money to lift everyone out of poverty. And there’s not enough public support to strengthen these redistribution mechanisms. Development aid is already unpopular at current levels, and don’t even start to talk about tax increases. The tireless efforts of Peter Singer and company to promote giving also have only a small effect.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

The insufficiency of giving and other means of redistribution is hard to understand, in particular given the fact that rich people are generally not very dumb and able to understand the law of diminishing marginal utility. Of course, I know about loss aversion, the endowment effect, habit formation, the importance of status etc. But again, wealthy people should in general be the ones best able to overcome biases, to distinguish the important things in life from the unimportant, and to see how helping others can be beneficial to ourselves, both psychologically and socially (helping makes you feel good, and living a good life amid misery is socially untenable). But perhaps I’m wrong about rich people.

And then there’s something else stopping us from giving more (or allowing ourselves to be taxed more, which is roughly the same thing), namely the stories we tell ourselves. For example, you often hear that it’s better to allow people to look after themselves first, so that they can create the conditions in which they unintentionally help. Allowing entrepreneurs to get rich – i.e. not taxing them too heavily and not insisting that they should give their money away rather than invest it – will be much more beneficial to the poor. Many of the poor will get a job thanks to them, and their products and services will also make the lives of many a lot better.

However, this is not incompatible with giving. True, what you give you can’t invest, but we can allow people to delay their giving until the day that they don’t need to invest a lot more. The example of Bill Gates comes to mind. So we can accept that there is some truth to the story that free enterprise takes care of a lot of poverty, and at the same time insist that there should be more giving.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

Another story we tell ourselves goes like this: giving people money isn’t a very good way of helping poor people. Many of them will just waste it, middle men will confiscate it, third world governments will misuse it, people will become to depend on it etc. Well, that doesn’t seem to be completely correct. Experiments with conditional cash transfers are very promising. And even if it’s correct to some extent, that’s just an argument to be smarter when giving money: invest it in businesses, healthcare etc.

And finally, there’s the story about agency: helping people is disrespecting them as self-authors and self-governing moral creatures. You may make them materially better off – at least in the short run because dependence on help may create motivational problems in the long run – but you take away their dignity and make them psychologically and morally worse off. People may not want to be helped, and even if they do it may not be in their best long term interest. The problem with this story is not that it’s false as such; it’s that people may not have a long term if we fail to help, and that starvation or homelessness is also an affront to dignity, and surely one that is a lot worse than receiving help.

More about giving is here. More posts in this series are here.

(image source, image source)
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economics, ethics of human rights, philosophy, poverty

The Ethics of Human Rights (65): The Deserving Poor and the Spectacle of Libertarianism Eating Itself

mermaid eating itself

“this sauce is so good, I can’t help eating myself”

(source)

It’s a common right-wing complaint, especially among right-libertarians, that the welfare state helps the poor whether or not they have only themselves to blame for their poverty. If there should be a duty to help the poor, it should be limited to the deserving poor (although some libertarians think that even this goes too far since it implies a form of slavery for those who have a duty to help). All the others should suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions – their teen pregnancy, their lack of effort at school, their alcohol problem etc.

One could reply that people’s bad decisions aren’t always their own decisions, in the sense that making good decisions is something you have to learn, and this learning may be difficult in an environment of poverty, especially during childhood. However, let’s bracket this objection, for the sake of argument, and assume that there are indeed some people who only have themselves to blame. They may not be as numerous as those on the right tend to believe, but even if there are only a few we should decide what to do with them – help them or not.

The criticism that our current systems of social security don’t differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor is sometimes illustrated with an analogy. If we assume that governments fund their welfare system through taxation, and that taxation is a kind of involuntary charity or enforced charity – the government steps in in order to take the money which we don’t give voluntarily to charity – then it’s only right that the government takes every effort to make sure that our money goes only to the deserving poor. If we voluntarily give money to charity, we also want to be sure that it goes to a good cause, and those collecting our money have a duty to spend it well and not waste in on people that aren’t going to use it constructively. Given the libertarian view that taxation is a form of stealing it’s all the more important that the tax money is spent well; you can perhaps argue in favor of stealing if the harm done by stealing is compensated by the greater good that is done with the stolen money, but you certainly can’t if there is no greater good and if the money goes to undeserving poor who are rewarded for their bad behavior.

Isn’t it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support? (source)

Now, it’s here that the problem begins and that libertarians who follow this reasoning tend to undermine their own libertarianism. If you want to help only the deserving poor, and if you want to be very strict about helping only those people, then you’ll have to accept systematic and wideranging intrusions into people’s privacy. How else would you be able to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving? You’ll need detailed biographies of all potential welfare or charity beneficiaries, records of their decisions and behavior, of their job applications, their diet, their sexual mores, etc.

obesity

You’ll have to accept these intrusions whether or not you believe that charity is the perfect and only solution. If you believe, correctly I think, that charity will never suffice, then you have all the more reason to be worried, since it’s the state who will have to monitor deservingness. Either scenario is anathema to libertarians.

The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor isn’t only difficult in practice. It’s also theoretically fraught with problems. For example, if you assume that you have a system to find out which poor person is an alcoholic and which one isn’t, then you still have to answer the question whether an alcoholic is an undeserving poor person or not. This answer depends on the causes of her alcoholism: maybe the cause is a series of misfortunes combined with a weak character, in which case her alcoholism is obviously not deserved. Perhaps she deserves blame for her weak character was, or perhaps not. One can easily make the case that a strong character and a good amount of effort and discipline depend on our upbringing and the social circumstances in which we are born. And no one deserve those circumstances.

And finally, even if we can identify the deserving both in theory and in practice, and even if we accept the anti-libertarian consequences of this work of identification, then we can still argue against the claim that we should not help the undeserving poor. Perhaps it’s a sign of decency and civilization that we help even the undeserving poor. Maybe the claims of the undeserving aren’t as strong as the claims of the deserving, and maybe we shouldn’t help them as much or as quickly as the deserving. But that doesn’t mean we should let them starve.

More posts in this series are here.

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citizenship, poverty

Migration and Human Rights (44): Welfare State Incompatible With Multiculturalism?

immigrants

David Miller has argued in favor of an affirmative answer to this question. My view is different. Miller’s story goes somewhat like this. The welfare state predates multiculturalism: most western countries have adopted some form of welfare state in the late 19th century or during the first half of the 20th century, whereas these countries only have become truly multicultural in the second half of the 20th century (as a result of decolonization, guest worker programs etc.).

According to Miller, a welfare state requires a strong sense of national solidarity. People will only contribute to the welfare system if they know that others contribute as well and that they themselves will be protected by the contributions of others when things turn bad, when they get sick or old or when they lose their job. Hence, everyone should contribute in the same way and rules about reciprocity and fairness should be respected. A welfare state is only possible when society is a warm nest where everyone cares for everyone, looks after everyone and uses the system in a fair and reciprocal manner. Free riders by definition don’t care about others and if there are too many of them, the welfare system breaks down.

Miller fears that a multicultural society can undermine support for the welfare state because large immigration flows can undo the fairness of the system. This fairness is based on the assumption that you can only withdraw from the system if first you have contributed to it (reciprocity). Newcomers are often seen as people who withdraw without contribution.

In a sense, this is the classic welfare tourism argument. It’s a popular argument against multiculturalism and immigration, especially on the right of the political spectrum, and it’s disappointing to see a noted philosopher give credence to it. He should know better. Why? Well, first, it’s simply not true that immigrants abuse the welfare system. Some do, of course, but in many cases immigrants withdraw comparatively less than natives and they often have higher labor force participation (see here for instance). Furthermore, many of the native poor withdraw a lot more than they contribute, over a lifetime. This “unfairness” is identical to the supposed unfair use of the system by immigrants, and raises similar complaints about the “undeserving poor”. And yet, even though the unfairness is the same, it doesn’t result in arguments that all welfare states are impossible. Or is unfairness only a problem when colored people are unfair?

Hence, Miller seems to be rushing to accept defeat in the face of xenophobia. He preemptively gives up the attempt to widen the circle of empathy and to correct misinformation about unfairness. If it is really the case that a population loses trust in and withdraws support from a welfare system because it believes that solidarity is only something for “people like us” or because it believes that rules of fairness and reciprocity are violated, then perhaps we should try to change people’s minds rather than hastily agreeing with them.

Something about a similar argument by Milton Friedman - “you cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state” – is here. More on the role of group identity in public support for redistribution is here. More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (67): Lack of Hope

Despair Nr.2 by Kenneth-Edward Swinscoe

Despair Nr.2 by Kenneth-Edward Swinscoe

(source)

Esther Duflo tells us about a program in West Bengal. People were given a “small productive asset” such as a farm animal for instance, and some money so as to prevent people from eating or selling the animal.

Well after the financial help and hand-holding had stopped, the families of those who had been randomly chosen for the … programme were eating 15% more, earning 20% more each month and skipping fewer meals than people in a comparison group. They were also saving a lot. The effects were so large and persistent that they could not be attributed to the direct effects of the grants: people could not have sold enough milk, eggs or meat to explain the income gains. Nor were they simply selling the assets (although some did). (source)

The most likely reason for this is hope. The handouts broke the cycle of pessimism and lack of hope. People were finally offered some mental space to think about something else than just mere survival. The tiny bit of security that came with a farm animal and a financial buffer opened up the possibility of planning, of looking into alternative livelihoods etc. For example, recipients worked 28% more hours, mostly on activities not directly related to the assets they were given. The rate of depression among participants also plummeted.

Some older and related posts:

More posts in this series are here.

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activism, economics, human rights ads, poverty, trade, work

Human Rights Ads (84): It’s Work We Want

it's work we want

(source)

Work is indeed a human right, but it’s not true that free trade is a major cause of violations of this right. When trade barriers are removed, some jobs will indeed be outsourced overseas, notably to countries where the relative labor cost is lower. But the people overseas who benefit from this outsourcing arguably need the jobs more than citizens of wealthy western welfare states. Also, it’s not because some jobs disappear that others aren’t created. Furthermore, lower production costs often translate into lower retail prices for many consumer goods, something which may compensate for job losses or for shifts in labor markets.

The alternative to free trade is protectionism, and protectionism is a major cause of poverty in developing countries. Absence of poverty is also a human right. We have therefore two human rights that need to be balanced against each other. In this case, I think the right not to suffer poverty should take precedence, for the following reason: on the one hand, protectionism aggravates poverty mainly in developing countries and those countries often don’t have robust social security systems; on the other hand, to the extent that free trade and outsourcing do produce job losses they do so mainly in developed countries that offer social security. The harm caused by protectionism is therefore greater than the harm caused by free trade. Also, let’s not forget the numerous positive effects of free trade:

  • more specialization
  • more use of comparative advantage
  • better access to technology and knowledge
  • better and cheaper intermediate goods (raw products etc.) and capital goods (machines etc.)
  • benefits of scale
  • and increased competition.

It’s very difficult if not impossible to cite a similar number of positive effects of protectionism.

Here’s another advert making the same mistake:

victims of free trade

(source)

More human rights ads.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (66): Immigration Restrictions in Wealthy Countries

Four Immigrants and Their Belongings at Ellis Island, circa 1912

Four immigrants and their belongings at Ellis Island, circa 1912

(source)

It’s intuitively obvious: if you allow more people to migrate to wealthy countries, global poverty rates will come down because people will have more and better labor opportunities. Conversely, immigration restrictions keep poverty levels high. Here‘s a paper that actually tries to measure the effect on poverty of migration restrictions:

[R]ich nation migration barriers impose huge losses on the global economy. This paper … estimates, for the first time to my knowledge, the global poverty implications of those barriers and finds that freeing migration into rich nations would reduce global poverty by at least 40% and as much as 66%. This corroborates the conclusions drawn by others that opening rich nations to freer migration may do more to reduce poverty around the world than any other policy.

Another study finds similar results:

[O]pen borders could yield huge welfare gains: more than $10,000 a year for a randomly selected worker from a less-developed country (including nonmigrants). Another is that these gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries.

More on the impact of immigration on native wages is here and here. A related post on the possible effects of a “brain drain” on poverty rates in migrants’ origin countries is here.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (65): Grammar?

the future

This has some appeal as an explanation of national differences in poverty and wealth, but color me skeptical nonetheless:

Keith Chen, an economist from Yale, makes a startling claim in an unpublished working paper: people’s fiscal responsibility and healthy lifestyle choices depend in part on the grammar of their language.

Here’s the idea: Languages differ in the devices they offer to speakers who want to talk about the future. For some, like Spanish and Greek, you have to tack on a verb ending that explicitly marks future time—so, in Spanish, you would say escribo for the present tense (I write or I’m writing) and escribiré for the future tense (I will write). But other languages like Mandarin don’t require their verbs to be escorted by grammatical markers that convey future time—time is usually obvious from something else in the context. In Mandarin, you would say the equivalent of I write tomorrow, using the same verb form for both present and future.

Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self. (source)

I can see what Chen is doing: if your language makes a sharp distinction between past, present and future tenses, then you’re likely to divide your thinking the same way. Hence, you’ll pay more attention to specific concerns in the future. As a result, you’ll plan, you’ll try to foresee future states and you’ll arm yourself against risk. All this will tend to increase your future prosperity. If whole nations act like this because they speak the same language, then this may be an explanation of part of the differences between national wealth.

However, if viewed together with all the other possible explanations of poverty, this one doesn’t really stand out as one that is potentially important. I’m convinced that institutions, geography, trade etc. play a much bigger role, big enough to swamp micro-cultural causes such as language. Also, if Mandarin isn’t “future-oriented”, then how come China is so successful in the struggle against poverty?

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (64): Rising Food Prices

A spice vendor waits for customers at a market in Jakarta, photo by Dita Alangkara

A spice vendor waits for customers at a market in Jakarta, photo by Dita Alangkara

(source)

It seems that harvests are bad this year and that food prices have gone up. The effect of high food prices on poverty is not straightforward. Poor people do indeed spend a large proportion of their income on food, which means that increases in prices have a direct effect on their financial situation and can even cause hunger. On the other hand, many poor people make their living in agriculture. Higher prices can mean higher incomes for them. The poor are, however, increasingly urban poor, and for them higher food prices are entirely bad news. So it’s not crazy to blame poverty on rising food prices. According to the World Bank, food prices have pushed 44 million people into poverty in 2010-11.

The question is then: what’s causing these prices to rise? The weather is partly to blame – there has been an unprecedented drought in the United States and extremely dry weather conditions in Europe - but so are governments. Government promotion of biofuels, for instance, means that raw food materials are used for petrol alternatives and hence don’t go into food production. This lowers the supply of food and causes prices to rise. I’ve argued before that many make too much of this argument, but there is something to it. Land grabs can also become a problem when biofuels are subsidized or when rules mandate that x% of every litre of fuel sold should be biofuel. These land grabs for biofuel production result in displacement of local production for local consumption, impacting the income of both local producers and consumers: people have to buy the food that they would otherwise have grown, and they have to buy it from further away.

Some government policies designed to remedy the problem only make it worse. Governments that restrict exports of food in order to pump up supply and hence reduce prices – or in order to shield their national market against increasingly expensive imports – may end up pushing prices even higher. When farmers can’t export, their incentives to farm are affected. Result: supplies go down and prices rise even further.

What can be done? Well, inefficient or counterproductive policies should be halted. Biofuel mandates should be scrapped. And in countries with large proportions of poor people governments should offer insurance against drought or bad harvests as well as better safety nets.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, health, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (63): Stress, Ctd.

stress

(source)

Poor people are often blamed for their own poverty. And indeed, it’s not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of poor people doing dumb and self-destructive things. However, even if we assume – and that’s a big if – that this evidence can be confirmed by more rigorous statistical analysis, then we’re still not allowed to claim that stupidity is in general – and not just in some cases – an important cause of poverty. First, it may very well be the case that everyone, rich and poor, is likely to make the same stupid mistakes but that the poor just have a smaller margin of error. The same stupid mistake made by a poor person costs him or her more dearly. Rich people on the other hand can afford to be stupid. Second, even if it’s true that the poor are on average somewhat more stupid and self-destructive, they should perhaps not be blamed for this. There’s some evidence from psychology that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities:

In a behavioral economics experiment several years ago, researchers asked shoppers at a New Jersey mall to handle the following decision: Have your faulty car repaired for either $150 or $1,500. While the participants were considering how to decide, they were given simple cognitive tasks like solving puzzles.

The researchers, Prof. Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, both from Princeton University, and Harvard University Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan, expected that the stress from contemplating the $1,500 expense would hurt performance. They were right. But participants with above-average incomes succeeded in their tasks under both scenarios, while those with average or low incomes did worse as repair costs climbed.

Even the prospect of spending any money at all damaged the ability of low-income earners to think rationally. (source)

Other tests measured IQ before and after a harvest, i.e. in uncertain times and in more comfortable times:

The farmers had better IQ results during the season of plenty. Before the harvest they had problems making fateful decisions, because of stress. (source)

The stress of poverty causes distractions, which in turn show up as cognitive deficiencies. It’s not cognitive deficiencies that cause poverty but the other way around. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the causality goes both ways.

More on poverty and behavior, on poverty and stress, on poverty and intelligence and on poverty and brain functions.

More posts in this series.

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economics, education, equality, health, justice, philosophy, poverty, trade, what is equality, work

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

equality of opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

glass ceiling

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

segregation

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

More on equality of opportunity. More on the related topics of social mobility and meritocracy (a meritocracy can only exist when there’s equality of opportunity, otherwise people can’t be said to get what they deserve; and a society without or with low social mobility is unlikely to be one that respects equality of opportunity).

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