Simple arguments complicated by needless econ-jargon

I’m all for novel arguments, but this one is a classic case of over-complication. The argument belongs to Charles Karelis, and reaches me via this article, called ‘The Sting of Poverty’ (bees feature as an extended metaphor), in the Boston Globe. The topic is relative poverty (in America, implicitly) and why poor people don’t take actions to drag their sorry selves out of poverty. Hold that thought, especially if you see an obvious answer, and let’s go through the Karelis argument, as characterized by the article.

“Compared with the middle class or the wealthy, the poor are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, to have children while in their teens, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to not save when extra money comes their way, to not work.

To an economist, this is irrational behavior. It might make sense for a wealthy person to quit his job, or to eschew education or develop a costly drug habit. But a poor person, having little money, would seem to have the strongest incentive to subscribe to the Puritan work ethic, since each dollar earned would be worth more to him than to someone higher on the income scale.”

I don’t think so. For whom is it more costly to do all those naughty, naughty things? For the person with a beautiful job, beautiful house, beautiful spouse or the person with a low wage and low prospects? News: when your labor is worth less money, you have less incentive to work, not the ‘strongest’ incentive to ‘subscribe to the Puritan work ethic.

And while we’re on the subject, ‘to an economist, this is irrational behavior’ is literally offensive to this economist. First of all, please don’t ever use the phrase ‘irrational behavior’. Second, even to the most traditional, boring economist in the room, the motivation for the behavior being described is not difficult to speculate on. I just did, and I didn’t even think that hard.


“It also means, Karelis argues, that at one level economists and poverty experts will have to reconsider scarcity, one of the most basic ideas in economics.

“It’s Econ 101 that’s to blame,” Karelis says. “It’s created this tired, phony debate about what causes poverty.” “

No-one is more depressed about Econ 101 than me, but, yikes, economics is all about scarcity! If there was no scarcity, we can all go home and think about something different instead. I’m always disappointed when someone bashes Econ 101 for the wrong reasons, or bashes some jargon from Econ 101 then uses it anyway.

“The economist’s term for the idea Karelis takes issue with is the law of diminishing marginal utility. In brief, it means the more we have of something, the less any additional unit of that thing means to us. In many cases, Karelis says, diminishing marginal utility certainly does apply: Our seventh ice cream cone will no doubt be less pleasurable than our first. But the logic flips when we are dealing with privation rather than plenty.

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. Karelis’s name for goods that reduce or salve these sort of burdens is “relievers.””

A couple problems. This is a costs issue again, and the ‘good’ we’re talking about is something like ‘a car with no dents in it’, which you either have or you don’t. Diminishing marginal utility of a non-dent is something too esoteric even for an economist, methinks, and that is not a statement I ever thought I’d write. I’m also struggling very hard not to be facetious about the fact that ‘money’ turns out to be the ‘reliever’. Yes, money is a pretty decent ‘reliever’ of financial hardship!

But then, at last, Karelis actually comes over to the light side:

“Karelis argues that being poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all.

“The core of the problem has not been self-discipline or a lack of opportunity,” Karelis says. “My argument is that the cause of poverty has been poverty.” “

Ah. So it is a cost thing. And there’s one of those simple answers I was holding in my mind from the start: many things conspire to make it difficult for poor people to become rich, not least the fact that the problems pile up. Actually, we call those poverty traps (thanks, Wikipedia!).

What lessons can I take from this exercise? First: don’t mess around talking about people’s motivations and incentives, their ‘utility’ and preferences, when it is not necessary to do so. Maybe it sounds nice and jargon-y, but let’s have a bit of Occam’s Razor and just check if, in fact, it’s just a cost thing. Second: a bee sting or car dent metaphor does not a new economic theory make, especially if your new theory calls for a reconsideration of scarcity(!).

The actual policy prescription Karelis is pushing is to simply give the poor money instead of bending over backwards with possibly more costly benefits-in-kind. The debate there is so involved and long-running that I’m not even going to try to describe it in one sentence, but suffice to say it exists, and of course anyone is welcome to join it. I just wish Karelis didn’t invoke ‘economics’ to make his particular arguments, which are much simpler than they are made out to be, and require no dressing.

One thought on “Simple arguments complicated by needless econ-jargon

  1. Plus, the bee metaphor doesn’t hold water at all. If had one bee sting, I’d pour myself a glass of wine and complain. If I had six bee stings, I would seek medical help — for the sixth, and, by that stage, for the previous five. I am not an economist, in fact I’m kind of the opposite of an economist, I more of a fritter-away-ist, but even I can see this whole thesis is balderdash.


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