Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why conservatives can't get people to work hard

"A city is made of brick, Pharoah. The strong make many. The weak make few. The dead make none." - Moses

I'm a bit late to the party here, but I thought I'd offer some comments on Tyler Cowen's recent New York Times column about discipline and hard work. First, some excerpts:

[A]s someone from a conservative and libertarian background, I find that I am hearing too much talk about riches and not enough about values... 
Conservatives often believe that much of the poverty in the United States is an issue of insufficient discipline and conscientiousness...Yet how can such a culture of discipline be spread? [I]t has been argued that society should grant respect to business creators and to stern parents who instill discipline... 
But are such moves, when carried out, actually shifting popular culture in a properly disciplined and conscientious direction? Not really. In fact, in the United States, the red states, where conservatives are more powerful, tend to have higher divorce rates and weaker educational systems than do blue states... 
The counterintuitive tragedy is this: modern conservative thought is relying increasingly on social engineering through economic policy, by hoping that a weaker social welfare state will somehow promote individual responsibility. Maybe it won’t. (emphasis mine)
I think this is extremely insightful, and I am delighted to hear people beginning to say this.

See, this is one of the big problems I have with conservatism as an ideology: Conservatives really want people to value hard work and discipline (not to mention sexual abstinence), but they typically have no idea whatsoever how to get people to actually value these things! Like the military dad in American Beauty, they think that they can just beat their values into the populace...except instead of fists and feet, the cudgel they try to use is poverty. Without a welfare state, the thinking goes, people who slack off and party and have sex will be forced to live with the consequences of their actions; having been stung by the lash of economic hardship, they will see the light, toughen up, and go get a real job.

Sounds like tough love. No wonder people call the Republicans the "daddy party"! But unfortunately, this just doesn't work on most people. There are at least four big reasons I can think of, off the top of my head.

For one thing, people who want to party and slack off have too many outside options. They can turn to the black market (selling drugs, etc.). They can sponge off their families. They can sponge off their spouses. They can go to grad school.

For another thing, being poor in America, or any rich country, is just not that bad. Even if you work at McDonald's, you can probably afford plenty of junk food, a heated room, a comfy old couch, a CRT TV, some old video games, a cheap used car, beer, and marijuana, and you can probably find people to have sex with you. Not exactly the Ritz, but not exactly the pangs of privation either!

An even bigger reason that the "tough love" approach to social engineering doesn't work has to do with the nature of human motivation. In my life, I have experienced both positive motivation (e.g. the chance to have a future I want) and negative motivation (the fear of failure). The latter works much better in short-term crunch-time situations - for example, "I had better study really hard right now or I'm going to fail this econometrics test, and my professor will kill me on the spot."

But that kind of fear doesn't work very well over longer periods of time - for example, in getting me to finish my dissertation. Eventually, fear and panic just grind you down and impede your productivity. Far more effective over the long run is positive motivation. Thinking about things I want gives me a positive boost and improves my overall energy level, in addition to the incentive it provides. So if conservatives want to get people to work hard, beating them repeatedly with the lash of poverty is not the best way to go about it. You'll end up with a bunch of poor people who are too exhausted, harried, and depressed to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. Henry Ford is one person who understood this.

Finally, there is one more reason why the "tough love" approach doesn't end poverty. That reason is social preferences. When you structure society so that there are a lot of poor people, then the lifestyle of poverty becomes "the thing to do." There are just so many poor people around that poor kids don't come into contact with anyone else. Poverty then becomes their world, and their aspirations and desires do not escape the ghetto. They grow up thinking that gangsters, not successful businesspeople or professionals, are the Big Dogs of society. They have no idea that hard word brings middle-class prosperity, because they don't see any examples of that happening...but, even worse, they don't really want to become middle class. They want to succeed within the context of the subculture within which they are embedded (note to sociologists: I am just making up terms left and right here). To a poor kid, a rich kid's version of "success" might look kinda neat, but it's too weird and alien and remote to be worth the effort.

So there are tons of reasons why simply smashing the welfare state doesn't instill poor people (or anyone at all) with good values. The beatings may continue, but morale will not improve. To conservatives, I say: If you really want people to value hard work and discipline, you've got to come up with a real, workable plan for achieving that goal.

What would such a plan look like? Loath as conservatives are to admit it, many liberals not only value hard work intrinsically, but have thought long and hard about what kind of social engineering would actually spread those values.

One basic idea is that hard work should be rewarded. Obvious, right? I mean, we're supposed to be economists here! People respond to incentives, and they are risk averse. A winner-take-all society is not very conducive to hard work; I'm not going to bust my butt for 30 years for a 1% shot at getting into The 1%. But I am going to bust my butt for 30 years if I think this gives me a 90% chance of having a decent house, a family, some security, a reasonably pleasant job, a dog, and a couple of cars in my garage. An ideal middle-class society is one in which everyone, not just anyone, can get ahead via hard work.

Liberals have tried hard to construct such a middle-class society. They came up with worker health and safety regulations, weekends, Social Security, labor unions, public schools, living wages, government-subsidized housing loans, grants and loans for college, earned-income tax credits, job retraining, and tax breaks for health care. Some of those ideas worked spectacularly, some failed. Many had mixed results. But the basic idea was sound: not just to give people handouts, but to make them feel as if they deserved what they were getting because of hard work.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are all too often divided on whether they actually believe that hard work works. Plenty of conservatives have undermined Cowen's hard-work-and-discipline bloc by saying that success in life is all due to natural differences in ability. These "I.Q. conservatives" see inequality as the natural order of things. They have focused on getting people to accept their place in society and learn to live with what they have, rather than strive to move up in the world. This is a very Old British sort of conservatism, a nobility-and-peasants ethos dressed up in the faux modernism of psychometric testing.

Conservatives need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: "Do we really want people to work hard and be disciplined? Or do we just say that in order to keep the peasants from getting restless, when deep down we believe that it's all about good genes?" Because if it's the former, conservatives should do some hard thinking about what actually gets people to work hard. And they should think about how to respond to those among their colleagues for whom it is simply the latter.


  1. Very thoughtful post.

    Here's some motivation for you. If you finish your dissertation, I'll buy you a beer.

    This is actually possible. For me, AA is only about a 45 minute drive.


  2. Thanks, Jazzbumpa! Since I've got 2.5/3 chapters finished, I'll soon get a free beer! :)

  3. Yay!! Go Noah go!! I will also buy you a beer (or equivalent) ;-).


    I'm not going to bust my butt for 30 years for a 1% shot at getting into The 1%. But I am going to bust my butt for 30 years if I think this gives me a 90% chance of having a decent house, a family, some security a reasonably pleasant job, a dog, and a couple of cars in my garage.

    Truest statement ever.

  4. I'm going to have to agree with rosebriar on their choice of quotes. That one rang the most true for me of everything in the post. Re: Your post about STEM majors and my post about leaving research: From now on when I need to explain the choice to people, I should just show them that quote. Why work until I'm in my 40s for a 10-15% chance of getting a professorship when I can get an MBA and work equally hard and almost definitely have a middle class living?

  5. The main reason I would add is that poverty forces people to devote mental and other resources to making trivial choices that wealthier households don't sweat over. It's hard to make sound choices under stress...

  6. Too true what To said (pun not intended.) Yet, Noah, what of Eurosclerosis? How exactly would you go about determining the right amount of welfare versus excessive welfare?

  7. Sina Motamedi2:07 AM

    Very good.

  8. Great post. Another note to conservatives: There's nothing wrong with being risk-averse! A safety net means your family doesn't starve and go without health care if you fail as an entrepreneur. With a safety net, more people can be entrepreneurs (not original with me).

    Moreover, what I gather from finance theory (as translated into blackjack theory) is that you don't pick the investment with the highest expected value, but the one with the highest Sharpe ratio (i.e., EV adjusted for risk). It is completely rational to reduce one's risk.

  9. hey noah, very cool article on mutliple levels! for one thanks for sharing cowen's piece.

    i can totally empathize with the personal motivation; quizzes and tests are so much easier to study for than papers are to write. must be something to do with a preference for the relatively mechanical process when seeking simple answers to well defined problems.

    it definitely is ironic when austerians push the 'poverity in america isn't so bad really' line to justify cutting social spending.
    they are essentially undermining all the rationale for the policies they would rather see implemented -- ones aimed to 'incentivize' hard work. but that's probably a point you already made more elegantly.

    i have only recently begun to see the term 'stern father' or 'daddy party' to describe the gop, but given their rhetoric and revealed thought process, it is a label that's just all too apt.

  10. Appolonia3:30 AM

    From the european side of the Atlantic @RJ

    For some peculiar reason, Eurosclerosis seems to hit in countries with a relatively stingy security net. The Scandinavian countries (with the most generous safety net) are not hit as hard.

    One clue as to why this may be is that it may be an expectations game. As a society we take paid employment as the default position for all prime-age citizens. The role of the government is to assist that and not allow a culture of non-employment spread. This is done through active labour market policies, provision of affordable child care, rehabilitation efforts, subsidised employment for the work disabled etc etc. Of course there still are problem "pockets" of high unemployment, but these are treated with targeted measures. (So more spending ... )

    The base assumption is "spend to get people into work until the cost required exceed the social benefit - measured as value added to society, not the expected increased tax income.

    This presumption - work is good! - is at the base of e.g. Swedish social democracy. However, this kind of policy probably requires a level of social cohesion that may be unattainable in a country as large as the EU or the US.

  11. Euroschlerosis

    1. To some extent it is a myth (partly based on total growth rates and not on per capita, partly based merely on delays in technology transfer).
    2. In country's where it does exist to some extent (e.g. Italy) it is due more to employment practices (especially nepotism) rather than social security.

  12. I think that the conservative idea that results are due to innate ability (IQ) are likely the logical reaction to the failure of their incentive program. If you create a poverty-based incentive program and see productivity drop then you have two options. 1, Rethink the program (seems obvious but it requires giving up on treasured ideas). 2, Come up with some external factor that explains the low productivity (due to innate differences in ability, for example). Then you never have to change the policy because the policy can't influence outcomes.

    Of course, the position that the "policy can't influence outcomes" is a pretty certain road to disaster as it means any outcome can be justified. While I remain agnostic on our ability to improve things, I am quite certain that we (as a species) can screw them up.

  13. Two things - I live in AA - who's interested in a meet up?

    Also, John Holbo covered this several years ago:

    The frightening thing is that the extreme right-wing ideas that Frum said couldn't be implemented are now core GOP policy.

  14. Anonymous7:58 AM

    You've written this post in the terminology of control and design. We decide that we want a certain outcome and then we try to figure out how to design a system that delivers that outcome. You imagine that conservatives share this paradigm but just have their own values.

    In my experience, however, it is not the case that end goals are the most important evidence of success. Rather they are concerned with process. In conservative terminology people should be allowed to live with their mistakes and failures not b/c it is fair or instills certain values but because it is natural. The result is just because the process is just, not because the results are optimal.

  15. SteveT8:32 AM

    I remember back in the Nineties watching as it seemed Alan Greenspan raised interest rates any time anyone who earned less than $100K got a raise. At the time I cynically wondered whether his real goal was to keep a core of unemployed workers who were desperate enough to work for any wage and under any conditions.

    Today conservatives are going even further and their determined push to dismantle the social safety net looks like part of a deliberate attempt to bring back indentured servitude.

    They won't call it that, of course. But as would-be workers become more desperate, they will be forced to sign employment contracts that essentially put them into bondage.

    They will sign contracts that allow their employers to fire them for any reason but which levies a penalty on them if they leave their job without permission and includes a non-compete clause that prohibits them from working in their field for five years or more if they leave.

    They will sign non-disclosure agreements that create ruinous penalties if they reveal their employer's violation of worker safety, consumer protection or environmental laws (those that remain anyway). Their contracts will waive their right to sue their employer for any reason.

    They will sign contracts that allow their employers to monitor them at any time.

    They will sign contracts for a salary that does away with vacations, overtime and weekends, Their work contracts will even be able to be sold to other employers.

    I don't think I'm being hyperbolic here. All the provisions I mentioned are, individually, in employment contracts today. What's missing is a contract that includes all of them, and getting the Republican Supreme Court to approve provisions that are considered "unenforcible".

    Serfdom, here we come!

  16. As rude as it may be to link to my own blog; to Steve T's point, here is my take on the real road to serfdom.the real road to serfdom.


  17. Claudia Sahm10:35 AM

    one "simple" recipe for hard work: empower, respect, inspire

    I really like your point about who we (young and old) look to for our inspiration is important...I would only add that some byproducts of "success" among the 1% might be viewed instead as intolerable "failures" among the other 99%. I do like Tyler Cowen's point of bringing values in the policy long as it does not mean some people blindly foisting all their values on others.

  18. "An ideal middle-class society is one in which everyone, not just anyone, can get ahead via hard work."

    Such a subtle distinction, but such a critical one. It infuriates me when conservatives point to one or two examples of somebody exceeding spectacularly as justification for an entire economic system..."see, if so-and-so can succeed, anybody else could have too." If our standard is that one or two people can succeed against the odds, then any social order becomes acceptable. What's wrong with communism, or apartheid, or genocide, when there's always a few individuals in such systems who overcome all odds and succeed anyway?

    And as far as the link between the safety net and entrepreneurship, my own experience is I am currently effectively dismantling a small business I started last year with great success...because I was offered a full-time corporate job with health insurance and my wife has pre-existing conditions. Maybe (BIG maybe) I won't have to make this choice in 2014, but for now the choice came down to a successful business or knowing my wife and I would never have to choose between her health and not going bankrupt. But on the plus side, that lack of a social safety net allows me to work a lot less now that I'm not working entrepreneur hours...

  19. @econcircuit: That's what really drives me crazy when I argue policy with the hardcore, Ron Paul libertarians. The end results don't matter, it's ensuring that the process does not insult their rigid personal morality. If pressed, some admit that the assumption is that we'll all be better off if we ensure that success is rewarded and failure punished, but none of them can describe the actual mechanism that can make this happen.

    I attribute this to an unspoken conviction on the part of a lot of conservatives that if we all act according to their strict moral code, God will reward society for being righteous. And once you throw "Well, I guess God will do it" into your formula for prosperity, I shake my head and walk away.

  20. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Beatings will continue until morale improves.

  21. @ Appolinia:

    This presumption - work is good! - is at the base of e.g. Swedish social democracy. However, this kind of policy probably requires a level of social cohesion that may be unattainable in a country as large as the EU or the US.

    This was always my initial concern of using Scandinavian countries as an example of large welfare state policies in a democracy, their population is too small when compared to the US. There is also the difference in volume of immigration.

  22. Anonymous11:36 AM

    Noah, you might like this video:

    I've done open source software since Linux began, 20 years ago now, largely without pay.

    I came to what I think is a relevant observation recently - it's point of reference is the so-called Marxist Creed, which is actually from the New Testament: "from each according to ability, to each according to need."

    I think conservatives think socialism is just "to each according to need." But in fact, both parts are necessary, and just as necessary to decouple them at the level of the individual. This is thus necessarily a collective creed - a societal creed.

    What would an analogous capitalist creed be? I think it's obvious: "to each according to ability." It's entirely individual, but doesn't consider need at all.

    The capitalist version I've suggested here might also be phrased: if one doesn't work, one doesn't get paid (what one might need). But that's just one of two necessary perspectives - that of the employer. An employee's perspective necessarily, I think, thus becomes: if you don't pay me, I won't work; or, I'll work for how much I'm paid.

    And there you have it.

    I'm a Christian, a socialist, and I have a Ph.D. (you know by now that lazy people don't earn Ph.D.s), and I have been unemployed for more than 2 years now. But I still get up every morning and do what I'd do if I were being paid to do it - I write software - that I intend to give away. What I do and what I need have long since been different things in my mind.

  23. Anonymous11:36 AM

    Excellent post. I would say that the one issue that isn't discussed explicitly here but plays a very large role in these debates is marginal tax rates and how much they matter. Conservatives attack high welfare spending on the grounds that it creates high implicit marginal tax rates and of course also attack progressivity in the tax code.
    But the empirical literature suggests that responses to marginal tax rates are pretty small.

  24. Anonymous12:00 PM

    Another thought, Noah - relative to my comment about the Marxist Creed.

    Consider that "anyone can succeed" is an entirely different proposition - in logical terms - than "everyone will succeed."

    Conservatives, I think, tend to conflate the two. That the former is almost trivially true, however, says nothing about the latter. The former is existential; the latter universal. And that also, I think, is the difference between what might be called the capitalist ethic and the socialist ethic.

    The difference is also something likely not lost on a Ph.D. student like yourself...

  25. Anonymous12:13 PM

    I apologize for the serial comments, but one more about the Marxist Creed and its origins in the New Testament.

    Consider Matthew 6:24-34, the well-known "lilies of the field" passage.

    Verse 24 asserts: "You can't serve both God and Money."

    Verse 25 starts "Therefore..." so the rest of the passage is about that same thought - the difference between serving God and Money, but specifically talks about the intellectual burden of seeking material needs.

    And then verse 33 - which I'll translate from the original Greek: "But seek first the _government_ of God and it's righteousness, and all these things will be available to you as well."

    And first 34, which echoes your own comments: "sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof."

    Christians miss the message of this passage, because they think "kingdom" - in KJV English - means "church", and take this passage as an exhortation to pray for material needs. In fact, the word is _basileia_ - from "bases" - i.e., foundation - and more likely means "infrastructural government", or provisional government, or that role of government by which needs are met. So this is Jesus advocating socialism.

    von Mises saw this (see Ch. 29 of Socialism ...). But he hated both Christianity and socialism.

  26. @Barry: How long are you around? I'm a bit busy this week...

    @Anon: I dislike "everyone will win"...I prefer "everyone CAN win"...I think Marxism is lame because it removes people's sense of personal accomplishment...not all goods are material...

  27. Oh, and Marxism destroys the economy and impoverishes nearly everyone. That too. ;)

  28. Anonymous12:51 PM

    One more, Noah, and I _really_ apologize for the serial comments...

    First, the two phrases of the Marxist Creed occur almost verbatim in different places in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 2:42-45). I mention Matthew 6:24-34 because it fits your own comments better, and that connection is so easily missed.

    Second, the "capitalist ethic" I mentioned has other names, e.g., meritocracy; but there's another in the ideas of the New Testament - it's called "self-righteousness" - and it's not a good thing.

    The general attitude, "I did it, so can you" is really a false sentiment that only thinly masks the true sentiment, "I'm better than you."

    The recent part of the realization I mentioned is not knowledge of the Marxist Creed itself - I've been both a Christian and a socialist for more than 30 years - it's that capitalists see only half of it, and that their ethic is similarly only a single idea, not two. Capitalists, though, generally seem to me to oversimplify lots of things - particularly human motivations - and tend to limit themselves intellectually by so doing.

  29. Anonymous1:04 PM

    I prefer to take "everyone will win" as a societal goal.

    Capitalists like to point out that Jesus said "the poor will always be with you." It's the same idea.

    CAN is momentary - WILL is persistent.

  30. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I don't disagree about Marxism, Noah. But then, I'm not a Marxist - I'm a Christian socialist. I just like his statement of the creed.

    You know the saying: "even a stopped watch is right twice a day"? Applies to Marx as much as anyone.

    Jesus was the first socialist. And Marx was an atheist.

    My analogy is that the KKK and white supremacists call themselves Christians. I'm African-American. Being a Christian hardly makes me a white supremacist. Neither does being a socialist make me a Marxist.

  31. Anonymous1:23 PM

    As for destroying the economy - 1929? Today?

    Get socialism right, Noah - it's not about atheist authoritarianism and central economic planning, it's about public ownership - public as in democratic - and take another look. Ask a modern socialist what socialist is, and they're likely to say "economic democracy."

    Socialism saved the world economy in 1929. Agree? No?

    "... life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

    That's socialism, Noah. Call it "the one-drop rule" applied to the US, unlike how it's applied by capitalists. Mixed economy - sure, but don't just ignore the parts that are socialism.

    An aside about money. Of the US bills of $100 and less, how many of the presidents depicted on them were slaveowners? Answer: all but one.

    Capitalism and our legacy of slavery were one and the same. And part of that legacy persists, in more ways than one.

  32. Anonymous1:39 PM

    I'm a very poor person. I'm raising kids and have sent some off to college only to have them graduate with $20,000 plus in loans, others couldn't keep going through school, and didn't graduate with $10,000 in loans.

    Poor is only 1 pair of tennis shoes in Oregon in winter. Having permanent teeth pulled for caveties at age 10. Owning 2 pair of socks.

    Please, just once, use real numbers. The only way to defeat Cowan is with numbers. 2 people, working 30 hrs. each per week, can't afford 1 bedroom apartment, food and bus pass. Can't live within 1 hour each way commute of nursing home aide job or McDonalds job. Have to take day off work to get food stamps.

    No matter what wonders happen in the future, Tyler is gonna buy groceries, stocked by min. wage workers, park cars patrolled by min. wage workers, go to movies ushered by min wage workers. Tyler needs to explain why my kids go without socks so he can watch movies and pick out produce and avoid wondering if anyone is feeding great auntie.

    Make society work for min. wage workers. Anyone who shows up should get enough to live on. The rest will sort itself out.

    Most talk of slackers isn't acknowledging they are charity cases of other employed people. Working parents don't get to live in someone's basement.


  33. Anonymous1:39 PM

    The US Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Christian socialist - a Baptist minister, one Francis Bellamy - as a statement of socialist conviction.

    Albert Einstein was a committed socialist, and was as concerned about capitalism as he was about nuclear weapons.

    The US Postal Service is socialism - a public-owned institution entirely a market operation funded entirely by sales.

    WalMart is not socialism - it does central economic planning on a global scale, and is the largest retail institution in the world.

    Motivations, not mechanisms like markets and central planning - are what distinguish capitalism and socialism.

    I'll leave you alone now. You don't need distractions.

  34. Appolonia1:43 PM

    @RJ -- re: immigration

    It is difficult to compare immigration between European countries and the US, because a large part of our immigration is "EU-internal", comparable in some ways to interstate migration in the US. In other ways (e.g. differences in language/culture) it could be compared to proper inmigration to the US. The level of foreign-born residents is about the same (14.4 per cent in Sweden, 12.5 percent in the US). So, no, I don't think that immigration is a major factor here - as long as integration policy works. (we do have problems with integration policy and practice, but where is that not the case? Too many bad feedback loops, is my guess)

    But population size, yes, that could be an argument against designing a federal system of any social insurance. The social insurance systems of scandinavia have evolved from local systems, growing as the scope of solidarity increased.

    Our current government are hard at work chipping away at our social insurance systems, feeding suspicion of fraud, blaming the system for creating laziness, while at the same time decreasing the effort spent to make people employable. That strikes me as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    If you want people to work, it is an obligation of society to help make people employable. The way to make people employable is not to make them desperate for any job if you want a prosperous, high productivity economy.

    But I'd prefer to be "middle income" in a rich, egalitarian society, that the richest person in a poor, unequal society. My social democratic stripes are showing...

  35. "everybody wins" sounds nice, but it's important to define "win". What socialists might sensibly aim for is that:

    1. everyone who makes a decent effort can earn enough to get by and
    2. the amount earned should rise in rough proportion to the effort

    Capitalist 'hard liners' are correct that people are not equal in the sense of being 'interchangeable'. We are all unique, and not only in touchy-feely cultural ways. We are (at least nearly) unique as economic agents as well. Equality is only a formal legal fiction which expresses an ideal of (Rawlsian) fairness.

    But a winner-take-all system which doesn't provide an 'incentive schedule' that has any slots besides "#1 best in the world" and "loser" won't motivate anyone but the handful of the likely contenders for #1.

    It's a measure of how far our political culture has shifted rightward that "socialism" now can mean as little as "having a healthy middle class in our capitalist economy".

  36. Regarding the "Marxist creed" from the gospels and specifically Matthew 6:24:

    I like to call the contemporary Republican party the "God & Mammon coalition", because it is dedicated to serving both God and Mammon in direct contradiction to Jesus' teaching.

    It manages this by 'serving' God and Mammon in very different ways, summarized by the slogan: "God talk for the poor, bucket-loads of cash for the rich."

  37. How do get people to work harder? You can lower their wages and they will work both harder and longer.

    Or you can lower their hours and tie wages to output.

    Personally I prefer option number two. It gives more people jobs and a share of the gains of new labor-saving technologies.

  38. Noah, you still don't get it. No two public expenditures will produce the exact same benefit to society. It's fine if you want to motivate people to work hard...but you should be forced to consider which other public goods you would be willing to forgo in order to fund your particular brand of publicly sponsored motivation.

    All public goods have opportunity costs...not just "bad" ones like war. Allowing taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes is the only way to guarantee the maximum benefit to the country as a whole.

    Figure out why it wouldn't be a good idea to elect 535 personal shoppers to purchase Christmas presents for everybody and you'll figure out what's wrong with the current system...and what's right with pragmatarianism.

    Interestingly enough...there are several levels of giving in the Jewish charity law...ranked according to their degree of righteousness. The least righteous way to give is to give begrudgingly and the most righteous way to give is to give in a way that helps the recipient to become self-sufficient.

    Everybody wants people to be self-reliant...but no two people will respond exactly alike to the same method of motivation. Taxpayers that value helping people to become self-reliant should be able to directly allocate their taxes to the government organizations that they believe produces the best results.

  39. deep64:23 PM

    I disagree that conservatives value hard work. I think conservatives value wealth/property. Hard work is just a means for (low-income or middle-class) people to achieve wealth. The truly rich don't have to work, and historically many of them not only didn't want to, but considered it beneath them.

    Punitive taxes like the estate tax or other wealth-redistributing programs that would then require those (formerly) rich people work in order to reattain that wealth are *NOT* popular among the elite conservative base. A conservative class that truly believed in the moral and social good of work would not support such a gross inheritance system.

    But conservatives who do work, because they have to, I don't think really value work either. Who among us wouldn't like the option of work, rather than the requirement? I see most middle-class conservatives as people who were able to eek out some small amount of financial security in a harsh capitalist system, and don't want anyone else -- especially anyone who has worked slightly less, or whose labor and choices have not resulted in as much success -- to benefit from the fruits of their labor.

    I do agree there's a big difference between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, but if you've been watching the Republican debates, conservative voters not only support the removal of helpful programs and safety nets, but really want people to suffer the absolute worst consequences of their behavior. Maybe I'm selling them short, but there seems to be a real delight in seeing other people fail and suffer, if the "let him die!" folks speak for the mainstream.

  40. Anonymous5:48 PM

    "For another thing, being poor in America, or any rich country, is just not that bad."

    I don't know about that. Have you tried being poor and in the low-status, low-job-security workforce? It sucks. It sucks much worse than being a poor student.

    I'm trying to figure out what is meant by the Henry Ford reference...

  41. With all due respect, your post and most of the comments are a demonstration, if one were needed, that being determines consciousness and that you and your commenters have no real idea of what it is like to be poor in America.

  42. Hey Bob, I'm kinda poor. Less poor than I used to be, I guess.

  43. econcicuit: "In my experience, however, it is not the case that end goals are the most important evidence of success. Rather they are concerned with process. In conservative terminology people should be allowed to live with their mistakes and failures not b/c it is fair or instills certain values but because it is natural. The result is just because the process is just, not because the results are optimal."

    First, the conservatives seem to be able to live with insane levels of corporate subsidy and crony capitalistm; this suggests that their propaganda is just that.

    Second, I remember when these things were billed as increasing economic growth. Even now, they use terms like 'job creators'. And they always have and always will say that liberal policies are bad for the economy.

    What happened, of course, was that the promised economic benefits never materialized for the bottom 90-odd percent of the population, so they stopped mentioning that - about old things; they still *predict* using the same old lies.

  44. Bob,

    I'm not poor, and I'm lucky enough to say I never have been. I did do a stint in homelessness law, though, in which I hung out with and interviewed a lot of homeless people. I don't think these are the poor folks Noah was talking about, because they have pretty much nothing to their names. Why are they so poor, and now homeless? Many of them with their children? There are as many reasons as there are individuals, but this is what I saw, primarily:

    (1) Lack of a support network. A lot of us can be unemployed for a short time or make a single bad financial decision, but we have family and friends to help us get over the rough patches - a short-term loan from a parent or sibling, a couch to crash on for a week, etc. Those folks who end up truly destitute often didn't have that support structure in place, so when they fell, they fell hard. And then,
    (2) It becomes a cycle. With no home and no income, getting a job is far, far easier said than done. How can these folks give an address on a job application? Clean up nicely for the interview? Let alone explain their current situation to an employer who has their pick of employees. Being jobless quickly becomes being unemployable. Without social programs to give these folks a chance to break that cycle - and virtually all of them told me that what they really wanted was job training and a chance at employment - they can never break that cycle. And finally
    (3) Mental and physical disability. A hugely disproportionate fraction of the indigent population is schizophrenic, and many more are amputees, tuberculosis sufferers, etc., who can't afford treatment, and so couldn't possibly spend the time and energy, let alone money, necessary to try to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

    Again, I'm pretty sure these are not the folks Noah was talking about, and by and large, poverty in the United States is luxury compared to poverty or even a decent income level in much of the world. That destitution I'm discussing is a tiny, tiny fraction of our poor population, and it is a very different sort of problem. But when you look at the causes of that problem, Noah's point still applies with equal if not stronger force: these people's problems cannot be solved by telling them that they should work harder. They need help before they can possibly start trying to help themselves.

  45. 'working harder' may impress
    but has most to do greater
    rate of exploitation, of providing more surplus value to capital's
    Increasing labor intensity can help mitigate against a falling mass of profit and socially decrepit means of production but more rapidly wears the worker out.

    motivation is contradictded by the desire and/or need for greater profit. The employee is 'trapped' until he/she/they take the matter of control into their own hands.

  46. "For another thing, being poor in America, or any rich country, is just not that bad."

    During the Iraq War, as things fell into h*ll, the right switched from 'everything's great!' to 'not as bad as Saddam'.

  47. Outstanding post, overall, but there are some issues. Example:

    "For another thing, being poor in America, or any rich country, is just not that bad. Even if you work at McDonald's, you can probably afford plenty of junk food, a heated room, a comfy old couch, a CRT TV, some old video games, a cheap used car, beer, and marijuana, and you can probably find people to have sex with you. Not exactly the Ritz, but not exactly the pangs of privation either!"

    A young single man's view. Have children on a McDonalds wage and things get far harder, and the crime of poor neighborhoods really gets to be an issue. Get to be 40 and 50 on crap food and no health insurance and you have a good chance of some very serious consequences. Get to be an unhealthy 40, 50, 60 and lose your job, maybe end up homeless, and see everything completely fall apart. It's very different when you aren't young and single. Youth is just an amazing resource.

    But again, overall, outstanding. A comment on this:

    "Conservatives need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: "Do we really want people to work hard and be disciplined? Or do we just say that in order to keep the peasants from getting restless, when deep down we believe that it's all about good genes?""

    It's way way more than genes, as science is really finding out now. It's how your genes are developed and activated. Nutrition (and I mean fruits and vegetables and breast milk, instead of macaroni and cheese, cookies, and burgers) and parenting and environment in childhood are absolutely humongous, especially in the first two years for ability and character as an adult. Great article on this:

  48. See also this on very important article on the recently discovered Epigenetics (the actual activation and expression of genes due to the environment, nutrition, etc.):

  49. "Get to be 40 and 50 on crap food and no health insurance and you have a good chance of some very serious consequences. Get to be an unhealthy 40, 50, 60 and lose your job, "

    Important points - take a 40-year old person. What's the odds of losing their job over a decade? Especially decades like we've been having. I'd say pretty good.

    Given that age discrimination starts at 40, and that employer favor hiring the employed, and that we have too few job openings, a 40-year old have to survive 27 years in a net negative job market to hit Social Security and Medicare. And that's while taking care of children, who will probably be boomeranging back from their own problems.

  50. The inherent fallacy in the conservative argument about hardwork and values is that large numbers of people are unemployed because they have to be in order for the system to operate "efficiently." At present economists peg that number at about 5% of those actively seeking employment. Full employment either produces escalating inflation (as employers keep raising prices to match the upward pressure on the wages they have to pay) or dramatically reduced or no profits. In practice, it produces inflation as nobody has ever tried forgoing profits to achieve full employment. Central to the logic of capitalism is the sanctity of the right of capitalists (investors) to extract rents.

  51. Hey, if you're still in town (Tokyo) when you're done, I'll buy you a beer, too.

  52. @Noah, I was interested to see the culture of poverty argument in your essay. There seems to be a lot of truth in that. As for the "mix results" of liberalism... the ones you mentioned all seem pretty successful to me. I think you left out ending child labor.

    I think there's a problem with your statement here: "But the basic idea was sound: not just to give people handouts, but to make them feel as if they deserved what they were getting because of hard work." I am not sure I would subscribe to that statement. Handouts are fine and dandy. The world would be a lot better if everyone had health care, gratis (yes, someone has to pay for it, but surely it can be out of general revenues). It's very nice that everyone seems to feel that people have to "deserve" help, but it can mean that those who are in a poverty trap may not be assisted sufficiently to raise them out of the cycle(s) of poverty.

  53. RachelW3:21 PM

    I don't get "days off," because I am the mother of a special needs child. I don't own a home, I rent with my husband. I don't hold one full-time job, because I never know when either my daughter or my mother with Alzheimer's will need me. I work two part-time jobs instead, and tutor on the side. This also means no paid vacations or holidays, and no health insurance except for my kid on SCHIP. My husband has worked retail for the past few years, looking for something better. But to conservatives, it doesn't matter! I made "poor choices" by having a child! My husband made poor choices by--well, there had to have been some poor choices or we'd have Real Money and God would bless us! Good people don't live in apartments, and they don't "freeload" off SCHIP and the public school "special ed industry!" (That last is a direct quote from an elderly dude who thinks that kids like mine "dumb down" education.) People like us will never, never, *never* be able to work hard enough to please conservatives. That's a big enough disincentive to work right there.

  54. You want discipline and hard work? I think Jevons laid the foundations 140 years ago:

  55. bfuruta3:48 PM

    Plenty of conservatives have undermined Cowen's hard-work-and-discipline bloc by saying that success in life is all due to natural differences in ability.

    Carol Dweck has done 40 years of research on this fixed ability mindset versus the growth mindset. Those with the fixed mindset, like the conservatives referenced in the quote, don’t think in terms of how to make things better; they judge and categorize and seek control. They don’t expect people to improve. And they don’t want equality. They want to see themselves as better than others.

    "Hard work and discipline" are learned values and skills. Mark Thoma posted an article by James Heckman that emphasized this point--learned skills matter. He describes a successful program that used random assignment and had long-term follow-up of 40 years.

    Author Jonah Lehrer has written many times on the primary importance of self-control and grit, and how they can be improved. In one article he says,

    But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills.
    The list is surprisingly varied, revolving around activities that are both engaging and challenging, such as computer exercises involving short-term memory, tae-kwon-do, yoga and difficult board games. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain school curricula, such as Montessori and Tools for the Mind, have also been shown to consistently increase executive function.
    . . .Given the age in which we live, it makes no sense to obsess over the memorization of facts that can be looked up on a smartphone. It’s not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope that they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills of executive function directly and creatively.