“Not an income gap, a stupid gap”

Why do right-wingers hate poor people so much?

A reason for the “wealth or income gap”: Smart people keep on doing things that are smart and make them money while stupid people keep on doing things that are stupid and keep them from achieving.

People who get an education, stay off of drugs, apply themselves, and save and wisely invest their earnings do a lot better than people who drop out of school, become substance abusers, and buy fancy cars and houses that they can’t afford, only to lose them.

We don’t have an income gap. We have a stupid gap.

Because of course only stupid people need to go deep into debt to get an education, or get laid off in late middle age, or get sick and lose their job and then their health insurance, or have their employer go broke and dump their pension into PBGC, or have a spouse die when the kids are young, or have a child with expensive special needs. Poor people are poor because they’re drug abusers. And of course all the folks who made millions of dollars driving the economy into a ditch – and in many cases bankrupting their own employers, or leaving the taxpayers stuck with the tab – were very, very, very smart; their bonus checks prove it.

In studying contemporary wingnuttery, it’s essential not to lose site of one of its main motivations: the insensate hatred of poor people, especially but not exclusively minorities and immigrants.

Glenn Reynolds calls this the “comment of the day.” That’s an understatement. For the right wing, it’s the comment of the decade.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

31 thoughts on ““Not an income gap, a stupid gap””

  1. You didn't say who made this "comment." Following the links, it comes from someone identified only as "Woody," posting a comment on the generally excellent "Tax Prof Blog," attached to an item on new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities about the increased concentration of wealth at the very top of U.S. society. The actual blog post is much more interesting than the stupid, ignorant comment.

  2. The comment is still an excellent distillation of the driving depravity behind much of the right: Not only is it stupid, but you know what, in America, God's country (where freedom flows like mother's milk), it is downright *immoral* to not be rich (and awesome).

  3. The foundational assumption that one's worth as human being is clearly indicated by one's material success — a uniquely American idea.

    One smallish flaw in an officially classless society is that there is no marker for status except money. Money becomes the stand-in for every quality indicator: aristocracy, political power, self-respect, standing in the community, and (sooner or later, along with these) moral virtue and God's favor. Logocally culminating with enabling our official outlook as a society to become, essentially, "If Santa didn't bring you any toys, well, you must have been a bad boy."

    Meanwhile, the Swiss think that no Swiss should live in conditions less than dignified. No autistic or disabled child in Switzerland goes without societally-sponsored home and life assistance. No parent of an autistic or disabled child in Switzerland is sent off to deal with their situation alone. Because the SWISS think that the SWISS by virtue of being SWISS are entitled to the dignity of decent treatment — regardless of the luck of the draw, and without making any superstitious conclusions about the shining of Providence's favor on one household or another.

    I'm still waiting for Americans to decide the same about ourselves — that we deserve decent treatment because we are Americans, by God.

  4. It's been fascinating watching the Republicans lately. They've got a few vague core ideas in there, but really, because their main motivation is identity politics and opposing everything liberals do (I'm not referring to Congress here, I'm talking grassroots rhetoric), it's more and more true that just about everything they believe in is just wrong empirically, wrong morally, just wrong. Worse than wrong: it's backward, they're moving backwards. I was listening to WTAM in Cleveland tonight, a show called "The Real American," don't know who the host is. He went on a little tirade about how the Republicans better have some massive victories this year or else the country's finished. He kept saying it, that the country would decline into some irretrievable hellhole if Harry Reid ekes out a victory in November (he more or less said exactly this). And I just thought, wow, Mr. Super Patriot, apparently you (a) dislike more than 50% of Americans, and (b) have so little faith in the country that a few elections can make you write off the whole country. Way to go, you've got it all totally backward — yet again.

  5. Not just the decade. Half a century ago National Review was referring readers to backwater Tennessee college professors for craniometric evidence that Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided.

    The ambiguity on which the coherence of the rightwing coalition turns is in the meaning of “smart.” There are office-park Nietzscheans whose sense of themselves is based on having scored 120 or 125 on a middle-school IQ test, but more people have a sneaking fear that their only talent was to have been born into the greatest mass prosperity the world has ever known. They’re disoriented & enraged by a sense that the world is too complicated for them to understand. ( Glenn Beck’s audience doesn’t think it’s smarter than, say, George Soros.) But they can assure themselves that they’ve played by the rules. So the linked comment conflates intelligence w/ adherence to the conservative personal virtues.

  6. @Betsy: "The foundational assumption that one’s worth as human being is clearly indicated by one’s material success — a uniquely American idea. "

    Actually, that doctrine derives from the teachings of one John Calvin, the leader of the Swiss (irony noted) Protestant Reformation.

  7. Suzil, good point. Still, as I recall the Calvinists believed godliness was rewarded with wealth, so they'd see worldly success as an indication of godliness, not an achievement in its in own right.

  8. Have you heard the saying, "The race goes not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."? You don't refute an overwhelming trend by pointing out some outliers in the other direction.

    Why would you even want to deny this obvious truth? Because you desperately want to believe all misfortune is the fault of somebody other than the person suffering it? Because your politics demand that you lay all blame at the feet of people who succeed? That's as, ahem, "stupid" as wanting to believe that every misfortune falls on somebody who did something to deserve it. Only a lot less likely to be true in any given instance…

  9. "…the insensate hatred of poor people, especially but not exclusively minorities and immigrants."

    I won't deny that this hatred is there – a lot of it exists. I won't deny that such hatred plays a role here – it surely does. But there is another cause which is much stronger and more immediate: the Just World Hypothesis. It's too complicated to get into detail here, but put simply: people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. It's a fundamental premise behind laissez-faire capitalism, American politics, and even American religion (Protestant work ethic). In America, 82% of people believe that "what happens to people is their own doing." Compare: Venezuela 33%, China 39%, Japan 63%, Germany 66%, Sweden 71% (Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, Ed by John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, Hulda Thorisdottir).

  10. I don't think it's a matter of "justice". Sh*t happens all the time to people who are undeserving. Heck, what did I do to deserve getting two cases of cancer at the same time?

    It's a matter of being willing to admit that being smart actually IS useful, that it leads to better outcomes. Which implies that worse outcomes will disproportionately be happening to people who are NOT smart.

    It's also a matter of looking back on your own life, and realizing that most of the misfortunes you suffered were a result of, or aggravated by, something stupid you did. That YOU would be better of if you hadn't behaved stupidly.

  11. As Brett Bellmore says, this is an obvious truth. And if you look at the graphed data in the article Peter G links to — the article that occasioned this statement of truth, you'll also see that in just a few years (roughly 2002-2007), while most of us were not getting any smarter at all, the rich more than doubled their smartness, which means that in relative terms, the rest of us were in fact getting dumber. This was a reversal from the years 1988-1994 when the rest of us were getting smarter while the rich, in relative terms, were getting slightly dumber. Must have been the cocaine.

  12. Brett Bellmore:

    Consider the roots of your word choice, "misfortune", i.e. "bad luck", and think about why you segue into allocating blame. Why do conservatives seek to assign blame at all for the life occurrences that turn out poorly, like accidents, or illness, or genes, or poor choice of parents, or starting a business when a recession hits?

    What is so bad about trying to put together systems to ameliorate some of the worst consequences of misfortune? What does blame have to do with providing health insurance and a small source of income when you lose a job, or aid to the disabled so their families don't have to drop absolutely everything else to provide care, or schools that can help kids with lousy parents, etc.? Is it really so important to conservatives to increase the sum total of suffering in the world?

  13. "It’s a matter of being willing to admit that being smart actually IS useful, that it leads to better outcomes. Which implies that worse outcomes will disproportionately be happening to people who are NOT smart."

    Except, this is not what the quote says.

  14. Note, however, that the benefits to smartness are apparently nonlinear. Just average? You're up the creek. in the top 20 percent, say IQ above 120, you'll typically be holding your own in economic terms. Only those with IQs above 130 can expect to see any notable gains in income. And pretty much all the gains to people with IQs over 140. (Which explains why my valet is even now refolding my silk socks after I remonstrated with him about the job he did while I was sleeping.)

    And of course none of this takes into account the Flynn effect, whereby JJ Astor must have been poorer than a churchmouse.

  15. I was such and idiot for letting all three of those adults to sexually abuse me when I was 12-17 years of age. If I had only been smarter, my IQ being a lowly 145, I would be healthy, wealthy and wise instead of living with constant night terrors and remarkable stress related damage to my body from 25 years of untreated PTSD. Yup it was all my fault for just being stupid.

  16. This sounds sort of like saying: 'we must solve our budget problems by spending less' 'no, by raising taxes!' I am in my anecdotage, I guess, and I worked for a year as an ambulance driver. I saw a lot of people for whom bad things had happened – some blameless, and for whom lightning had struck, and some whose choices made for utterly predictable results. Some of the choices side of thing was, maybe, stupidity, some was just very short time horizons. Some of the lightning struck side of things was due to previously unrecognized hazard (mesothelioma) some to other people's stupidity (hit by drunk drivers).

    Some people make perfectly justifiable choices (go work for Studebaker, or Enron) and then things go to hell when the company goes under. Some people choose not to put dime one into a 401(K) and then are destitute in their age. So my view is we have an income gap, and part of it is due to a 'stupid gap' (and a short-time-horizon-gap, and a schizophrenic-gap, and a childhood-blindness-gap, and maybe a congenital-predisposition-to-alcoholism-gap). I think you want to make bad choices at least somewhat costly, but it's very hard to tell where fault lies in a lot of cases, and you don't want people going destitute in their old age.

  17. Suzii, Warren Terra: the historian Simon Schama has an ingenious alternative take to the Weber/Tawney orthodoxy on the Protestant ethic, as applied to the show case of Dutch Calvinism of the golden 17th century. God had saved the Dutch like the Israelites passing over the Red Sea/Scheldt, though they didn't deserve it (Paul, Augustine, Calvin, passim.) They worked hard and intelligently because they felt guilty. The intelligent hard work made them rich. They didn't deserve this either, so they felt even guiltier. The only solution was to work even harder and get even richer.

  18. Brett,

    Have you ever considered that your situation isn't "misfortune"? Maybe you got cancer because you're stupid. You probably did something to have a higher risk of cancer like smoking or obesity. So really, maybe you *deserve* your cancer just as much as the poor *deserve* their poverty. You would be better off if you hadn't behaved stupidly. Take some personal responsibility for your actions.

  19. Brett, you go right to what I maintain is the fundamental disagreement between liberals/statists/progressives and conservatives/libertarians/free-marketeers/meritocrats/etc.

    This is the idea of human agency, human capital/social capital and why we do what we all do – with varying degrees of success. One side is fundamentally opposed to viewing things deterministically, while the other argues from it. For one side, success and failure are not socially-dependent, for the other they are inseparable.

    I personally came to this crux as a delivery driver who spent his days driving back and forth from the richest mansions to the poorest projects in San Francisco while listening to conservative AM radio. How could such social stratification be explained by simple "free" will or choice.? There was no way the denizens of the poor neighborhoods had access to anything like the agency that the wealthy did. And then you get into all the research and there's just no question.

    The only possible conclusion is that the idea of personal responsibility is an utter illusion – albeit a fantastically useful one if you want to justify your own wealth and liberty, and that to the extent that conservatives/et al buy into it they are massively deluded.

  20. James Wimberley's comment made me think of Back to the Future, where the hero gets to resolve the guilt rich kids feel about their unearned good fortune: by going back in time and becoming the cause of his father's success, he is able to deserve what he has.

  21. "I think you want to make bad choices at least somewhat costly, but it’s very hard to tell where fault lies in a lot of cases, and you don’t want people going destitute in their old age".

    Objection, your honor, assumes facts not in evidence….

    Whether it's a desire to provide the elect with the edifying spectacle of the preterite damned, or simple schadenfreude, there are a few constituencies that do want people going destitute in their old age, and even more who want people going destitute in their old age if the alternative is their being inconvenienced.

  22. "This is the idea of human agency, human capital/social capital and why we do what we all do – with varying degrees of success. One side is fundamentally opposed to viewing things deterministically, while the other argues from it. For one side, success and failure are not socially-dependent, for the other they are inseparable."

    I'm a 'soft' determinist; Events, including human actions, are caused. But far from being incompatible with holding people responsible for their actions, causation is essential to responsibility. We can hold people responsible for events to the extent they caused them, and 'free will' is just a way of saying that actions were caused by one's own nature, rather than compelled by external forces.

    Look, does being smart have any advantages, or doesn't it? Because only if it doesn't, wouldn't you expect smart people to be better off than stupid people, which is just another way of saying, you expect stupid people to be worse off than smart people.

  23. Brett, wait a second. I'm not sure that's what free will means. I'm not even sure what "one's own nature means". But, yeah, I completely agree we can hold people accountable. The difference is in our estimation of why we are doing so.

    I think a guy who steals a car should be held accountable. But I don't think it's his fault. How I reconcile that apparent contradiction has everything to do with the determinist view and social utilitarianism. I think we need to have laws to deter people. I think we need to reward people for doing good. There should be rich people. But none of that means that they are not total creations of social and biological circumstance.

    So, being "smart" has advantages. But what do we mean by smart? People have varying degrees of genetically-derived intellect. But that has relatively little to so with their life success, compared to a variety of other factors, including parent education, family income, issues with drugs, criminality, dysfunction, etc. You take *all* of those mitigating factors out of the equation and you barely have anything left that you could call "human." As such, our existing socio-economic order is totally socially-created and no one really creates their own life circumstance. Not the drug dealer. Not the financier.

  24. Mr. Bellmore has not heard that, in the words of Arthur D. Hlavaty: “The whole point of society is to be less unforgiving than nature.”

  25. "Look, does being smart have any advantages, or doesn’t it? Because only if it doesn’t, wouldn’t you expect smart people to be better off than stupid people, which is just another way of saying, you expect stupid people to be worse off than smart people."

    The quote isn't saying that. No matter how many times you try to make it say that.

  26. In reading the above thread I am surprised (just a little) by the unquestioning acceptance that accumulation of wealth is the measure of success.

    There have been many brilliant people who have passed through my life and most of them are not very concerned with money. They find joy in their work, play and social life and live sanely on moderate income.

    The several truly wealthy individuals I've known have come by it the old fassioned way, they were born into it. They have across the board been of moderate intelligence, not very happy and have family lives that make you want to cry. The only excepion to the born into it grouping was a man I worked for who was an out right crook and was one of the most miserable SOBs I've ever had the misfortune to have been associated with.

    Money may not be the root of all evil but it sure seems to generate an obsessive fixation that wrecks the lives of most people who have too much of it.

  27. "What is so bad about trying to put together systems to ameliorate some of the worst consequences of misfortune? "

    Nothing, in the abstract. The problem is that those systems quickly morph into systems which ameliorate (or even reward) poor decisionmaking, rather than misfortune. (Indeed, the failure to differentiate between those two categories is often a feature rather than a bug for many liberals.)

    For every person who is raising a couple of small children alone because her spouse died suddenly (and what about life insurance?), there are how many people raising a couple of small children alone because they got pregnant without bothering to get married first, and then (surprise!) the fathers didn't stick around? For every family that was foreclosed on because the recession led to long-term unemployment and the housing market collapse prevented the family from selling, there are how many families that bought houses that they had no prayer of being able to pay for without a miracle, just because they wanted a big house? Of the unemployed, what percentage are high school dropouts vs. graduates? For every family that can't meet a household budget because one of the wageearners lost his/her job, how many can't meet a household budget because divorce drastically increased the cost of living of the family members?

    Nobody sane denies that some people are the victims of unavoidable bad luck. But simply wishing that the poor are the victims of circumstance won't make it so. Obviously the rich have more leeway than the poor to make bad decisions; divorce may be expensive if you're rich, but it can be a killer if you're poor and can't afford to support two households with the same income with which you formerly supported one. Smoking may be an expensive vice if you're rich but an unaffordable one nowadays if you're poor. But being rich doesn't insulate you from your choices. There was an article in Sports Illustrated about a year ago called "How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke," talking about high-earners who often managed to blow tens of millions of dollars. Obviously bad luck played a role, but bad decisionmaking played a far larger role. Now, most people aren't in the same boat as multimillionaire athletes, but the point is that even making millions of dollars doesn't necessarily keep one out of poverty if one makes poor decisions.

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