Thursday, October 31, 2013

pulling the bung on iq

"No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype."

The line, of course, is from Annie Hall, and, despite what the thought police believe, stereotypes are often true.  They help each of us get through the day.

For example.  You are at a Manhattan cocktail party talking to a twenty-something woman.  Bryn Mawr graduate.  Carefully-coiffed.  Turned out in Jason Wu's take on the little black dress.

The talk turns to recent books.  The effects of poverty, to be exact.  She appears to be well-read.  Until you notice she continually mispronounces Sendhil Mullainathan's name.  And her discussion of his main points sounds as if she had lifted from Cliffs Notes.

Even Dr. Watson could see the disconnect.  This bright young spawn of the Manhattan elite has not even touched the book.  She knows about it the same way most of the people at the party know what they claim to know.  By reading the book's review in TNYRB -- to the initiated.  Or The New York Review of Books for those of us who do not have grandfathers who dined with the Vanderbilts.

Cultural stereotype, indeed.

Having now dissed the species, let me paint myself with the same brush.  Let's talk about a book I haven't read.

Whenever I head north, I feel like a stranger in a strange land.  Everything is familiar, but there is something going on between citizens of The States that I cannot quite corner.

I now think I know what it is.  The Economist recently ran a review of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.   An interesting study by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir concerning the effect that scarcity can have on individuals.

The author's have concluded that whenever people feel they lack something, their minds will actually alter.  That seems obvious.  But it is not only feeling the lack of necessities that can alter the way people think.

A "scarcity mindset"  can be caused by feeling strapped for money, friends, time or calories.  The mental result is almost indiscernible.

They argue that scarcity can have two diametrically opposed results.

The mindset concentrates the mind on pressing needs.   And it gives individuals a keener sense of the value of anything they feel is scarce.  To avoid scarcity is one of the driving forces of the Protestant Work Ethic.

But feeling the existence of scarcity can also have negative effects.  People start losing hope.  Seeing a narrow, cramp world with little future.  What should be done goes undone.

That anxiety can be measured.  And the authors have done just that.  According to their studies, the scarcity mindset can reduce a person's IQ.  The effects can then accumulate -- and more things do not get done.

We associate those spirals most often with the poor.  Especially, the desperately poor in places like Haiti or Somalia.

But the authors point out that developed countries are just as subject to the syndrome.  The most obvious one is time -- a commodity that is perceived to be in such short supply in The States that it is calculated in hen's teeth.

Here is an experiment.  The next time you are in an American airport, stand under the big screen showing all departures.  And watch the circus in front of you.  People nervously glancing up and down the board like a stoat avoiding a falcon.

They rush to the board.  Quickly scroll through it with brows furrowed.  And then rush off in another direction, probably retracing their steps along the way -- several times.  You are just as likely to see them later in the day pacing back and forth.  Like a person who is losing his mind.  And, according to the book (or book review), they are.

They are losing their sense of rationality the same way as people, stuck in a long line of cars, start honking their horns when the person holding up the line is not even aware of the line, let alone the honking.  Crazy.

I have been doing a lot of thinking this past week about American poverty programs.  The problem with American society is not a gap in wealth.  It is a lack of hope on the part of many Americans that they can escape their current conditions.  Especially, individuals who are poor.

The ironic thing is that the American welfare system has forgotten that it is designed to help people out of poverty.  Not to doom them to a Sisyphean future.

A properly designed welfare system would provide a means to avoid starvation, but the total benefits would be noticeably lower than the income from a job.  And that is not the system that exists.  In many states, the benefit package is greater than starting wages for a job.  No rational person would give up one for the other.

But no one seems to be basing policy decisions on that type of rational goal.  The food stamp fight is an example.  Republicans talk about cutting costs in the hopes of balancing the federal budget.  The Democrats accuse the Republicans of starving poor people.

Neither side is talking about what should be a common goal.  Designing a welfare system that will allow individuals to escape its gravitational pull.

What saddens me is that this one seems like such an easy target.  Democrats and Republicans put together a welfare reform system in the 1990s -- a system that worked within its limited scope.

There is no rational reason why it cannot happen again.  Well, of course, there are reasons.  But they are not very rational.  Between the White House and Congress, you can hear the scarcity of reason pulling down those IQ scores.

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