What the Success Sequence Means

[continued from yesterday]

…This is a strange state of affairs.  Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty.  And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ.

Consider this hypothetical.  Suppose the success sequence discovered that people could only reliably avoid poverty by finishing a Ph.D. in engineering, working 80 hours a week, and practicing lifelong celibacy.  What would be the right reaction?  Something along the lines of, “Then we shouldn’t blame people for their own poverty, because self-help is just too damn hard.”

The underlying moral principle: You shouldn’t blame people for problems they have no reasonable way to avoid.  You shouldn’t blame them if avoiding the problem is literally impossible; nor should you blame them if they can only avoid the problem by enduring years of abject misery.

The flip side, though, is that you should blame people for problems they do have a reasonable way to avoid.  And the steps of the success sequence are eminently reasonable.  This is especially clear in the U.S.  American high schools have low standards, so almost any student who puts in a little effort will graduate.  Outside of severe recessions, American labor markets offer ample opportunities for full-time work.  And since cheap, effective contraception is available, people can easily avoid having children before they are ready to support them.

These realizations are probably the main reason why talking about the success sequence so agitates the critics.  The success sequence isn’t merely a powerful recipe for avoiding poverty.  It is a recipe easy enough for almost any adult to understand and follow.

But can’t we still blame society for failing to foster the bourgeois values necessary to actually adhere to the success sequence?  Despite the popularity of this rhetorical question, my answer is an unequivocal no.  In ordinary moral reasoning, virtually no one buys such attempts to shift blame for individual misdeeds to “society.”

Suppose, for example, that your spouse cheats on you.  When caught, he objects, “I come from a broken home, so I didn’t have a good role model for fidelity, so you shouldn’t blame me.”  Not very morally convincing, is it?

Similarly, suppose you hire a worker, and he steals from you.  When you catch him, he protests, “Don’t blame me.  Blame racism.”  How do you react?  Poorly, I bet.

Or imagine that you brother drinks his way into homelessness.  When you tell him he has to reform if he wants your help, he denounces your “bloodless moralism.”  Are you still obliged to help him?  Really?

Finally, imagine you’re a juror on a war crimes trial.  A soldier accused of murdering a dozen children says, “It was war, I’m a product of my violent circumstances.”  Could you in good conscience exonerate him?

So what?  We should place much greater confidence in our concrete moral judgments than in grand moral theories.  This is moral reasoning 101.  And virtually all of our concrete moral judgments say that we should blame individuals – not “society” – for their own bad behavior.  When wrong-doers point to broad social forces that influenced their behavior, the right response is, “Social forces influence us all, but that’s no excuse.  You can and should have done the right thing despite your upbringing, racism, love of drink, or violent circumstances.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should pretend that individuals are morally responsible for their own actions to give better incentives.  What I’m saying, rather, is that individuals really are morally responsible for their actions.  Better incentives are just icing on the cake.

This is not my eccentric opinion.  As long as we stick to concrete cases, virtually everyone agrees with me.  Each of my little moral vignettes is a forceful counter-example to the grand moral theory that invokes “broad social forces” to excuse wrong-doing.  And retaining a grand moral theory in the face of multitudinous counter-examples is practically the definition of bad philosophy.

Does empirical research on the success sequence really show that the poor are entirely to blame for their own poverty?  Of course not!  In rich countries, following the success sequence is normally easy for able-bodied adults, but not for children or the severely handicapped.  In poor countries, even able-bodied adults often find that the success sequence falls short (though this would be far less true under open borders).  Haitians who follow the success sequence usually remain quite poor because economic conditions in Haiti are grim.  Though even there, we can properly blame Haitians who stray from the success sequence for making a bad situation worse.

Research on the success sequence clearly makes people nervous.  Few modern thinkers, left or right, want to declare: “Despite numerous bad economic policies, responsible behavior is virtually a sufficient condition for avoiding poverty in the First World.  And we have every right to blame individuals for the predictable consequences of their own irresponsible behavior.”  Yet if you combine the rather obvious empirics of the success sequence with common-sense morality, this is exactly what you will end up believing.


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Correlation and causation

Bryan Caplan has a new post where he claims that people can avoid poverty with three simple steps:

If you live in the First World, there is a simple and highly effective formula for avoiding poverty:

1. Finish high school.

2. Get a full-time job once you finish school.

3. Get married before you have children.

This made me wonder if Bryan was confusing correlation with causation.  He denies this:

A more agnostic criticism doubts causation.  Sure, poverty correlates with failure to follow the success sequence.  How, though, do we know that the so-called success sequence actually causes success?  It’s not like we run experiments where we randomly assign lifestyles to people.  The best answer to this challenge, frankly, is that causation is obvious.  “Dropping out of school, idleness, and single parenthood make you poor” is on par with “burning money makes you poor.”  The demand for further proof of the obvious is a thinly-veiled veto of unpalatable truths.

I am not at all convinced by this argument.  Indeed I don’t see any real argument being made here.  It seems equally plausible to me that the sort of person who doesn’t finish high school is different, on average, from those who do.  The dropout may (on average) be less smart, less interested in classes, less motivated, and/or perhaps a bit anti-social.  None of those traits are normally associated with financial success.  If you put a gun to their heads and forced this cohort to finish high school, would that by itself change those personal characteristics?  Maybe slightly, but how much?  Would this group then become identical to other high school grads?  I doubt it.

As for marriage, the Nordic countries tend to have a much higher share of births out of wedlock, and yet typically have relatively low rates of poverty:

You might argue that their culture is different, and that in Scandinavia even unmarried men often take an interest in raising their children.  I accept that, but again it just makes me wonder if it’s marriage that is the key, or if the deciding factor is the personal characteristics of those who fall into poverty.

I certainly agree that working hard and being responsible are useful traits, and that some people are poor due to unfortunate life choices.  I would push back, however, against any suggestion that there are simple public policy fixes, such as policies that discourage people from dropping out of high school or encouraging marriage.  Those policies might work, but simple correlations don’t prove that.  (BTW, I lean toward policies that make work more attractive, such as low wage subsidies and housing deregulation, as opposed to basic income programs that might discourage work.)

Also keep in mind that definitions of poverty are based on “households”, where the poverty line increases only modestly each time a person is added to a household.  Thus if two single people making $10,000 each decide to double up and live in the same apartment, that pushes them above the poverty line.  It’s not obvious their situation improved (otherwise no one would ever chose to live alone), but the US government treats the decision to share an apartment as an improvement of living standards.  This biases the statistics toward the conclusion that marriage improves one’s economic well being.

Thus you might just as well argue that poverty could be almost eliminated if everyone lived like Chinese college students in the 1980s, with eight people per apartment.

Even with minimum wage jobs, a household of eight will earn far more than $47,650.  But would those “households” be better off, or would people get on each other’s nerves?  (My wife shared a room with 7 other college students in the 1980s, in Beijing.)

Finally, most women have a strong preference to have children.  Finding a suitable husband is not always a “simple” process.


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The Invisible Order of the Black Family: Some Observations on Carol Stack’s All Our Kin

Part I: The Household, The Family, and the State

Carol Stack’s All Our Kin is a classic ethnography from the late 1960s. The context for the book was the Moynihan Report on the state of the Black family produced by the U.S. government in 1965. The report’s conclusion was that the Black family was dysfunctional and in disarray. Stack and others explored the validity of that conclusion and examined the question of whether the official data used in the report had missed aspects of the lived lives of Black families, particularly poor ones. Stack’s strategy adopted a radical approach: she engaged in participant-observer research by living in a poor, urban, Black community in the American Midwest, which she refers to as “The Flats.” She spent several years there, integrating herself into the community to the extent possible. This enabled her to see the workings of family structure from the inside in a way not possible when one looks only at the statistical data and similar forms of evidence. The conclusion of All Our Kin is that even though poor Black families were not functioning ideally, they were not nearly as dysfunctional as portrayed in the Moynihan Report.

I first read All Our Kin in the context of teaching about the family. One of the key insights of the book is that we have to disentangle function and form when we analyze the family, as well as other social institutions. Too often we assume that only one kind of form can provide the function we expect from an institution. With the family, we tend to treat the two-parent nuclear family this way. But we also see this with various structures of property rights, as Elinor Ostrom’s work on community responses to commons problems has shown us. If we treat one particular form as a proxy for function, we can miss the creative ways in which humans develop other practices and norms that can perform the same function. Understanding how particular social structures attempt to solve specific problems will require the kind of up close work that Stack did in this book, and that Ostrom did in her research as well. If we base policy on the assumption that there’s only one set of social practices that can solve a particular problem, we are highly likely to overlook the invisible order-generating processes that both Stack and Ostrom observed. Even if these alternative institutions do not perform ideally, they may be the comparatively best option we have, or they may point us in a different direction in the search for changes in policy or other institutions that would improve outcomes. Stack’s book shows that family policy needs to take account of the actual bottom-up sources of social order, particularly in the context of families of color or immigrant families, where histories of poverty, current discrimination, and the legacy of slavery have produced a wider variety of functional family structures.

Stack’s book is of interest to Econlib readers in particular for several reasons. (I have a more extensive treatment of Stack in my chapter “Reciprocity, Calculation, and Non-Market Exchange,” in  Commerce and Community: Ecologies of Social Cooperation, Robert F. Garnett Jr., Paul Lewis, and Lenore T. Ealy, eds., New York: Routledge, 2015.) The first reason is that it represents a challenge to the way governments collect data and use them to make policy. In that way, Stack’s book anticipates some of the themes in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, written three decades later. The Moynihan report approached its subject matter with a framework that was based on a particular view of the family and that wanted to organize what it found in ways that were amenable to public policy, particularly the policies from the era of President Johnson’s Great Society programs. In choosing that approach, it could not see the way people “on the ground” actually organized their family life and how that structure enabled them to respond to poverty and discrimination in reasonably effective ways. All Our Kin is a great story about human adaptability and the importance of bottom-up social coordination, both of which are frequently overlooked by the state.

The specific ways in which families in “The Flats” responded to poverty are also relevant to classical liberals. The Moynihan Report noted the frequency of fatherless families and portrayed them as evidence of the black family’s dysfunctionality. Many non-resident fathers did take on varying degrees of responsibility for their children, but this did not always, or even often, involve legal marriage. Unlike the standard model of the family held up as the ideal by the Moynihan Report, the families of “The Flats” (like other poor families, both historically and globally today) relied on persons outside the nuclear family and physical household to provide income and various forms of household production such as child care. For poor, Black families of this era, the “family” and the “household” were not coterminous in the way they tended to be for white observers.

What observers term as “extended family” was crucial to this adaptability. Mothers relied on their relatives, especially other women, to provide both physical resources and time. In addition, if the father stepped up and took responsibility for his child, even outside of a legal marriage, his extended family was brought into the kin network of the mother and child and could be drawn upon for various kinds of resources. Of additional importance is that the biological mother need not be the de facto mother for purposes of identifying whose extended family will be drawn upon. Motherhood, as well as a variety of other familial relationships, were defined within the community through a long-standing system of evolved norms. Stack argues: “The system of rights and duties should not be confused with the official, written statutory law of the state,” and that these rights and duties are “enforced only by sanctions within the community” (1974, 46). The evolution of norms and the social coordination that results, though pressed upon these families by poverty, are very much a Hayekian spontaneous order process, and one that was hidden from the official view of the state.


Part II coming next week.

*Steven Horwitz is the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise and Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy in the Department of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He is also an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute of Canada, and the economics editor at the Cato Institute’s libertarianism.org. He is the author of four books, including most recently Austrian Economics: An Introduction. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

For more articles by Steven Horwitz, see the Archive.


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Kurt Vonnegut and The Idle Rich

Final in a #ReadWithMe Series

Read the first two parts here and here.


The second half of the book takes us to the Rhode Island Rosewaters, who were swindled out of their fortune by a cunning ancestor of their Indiana cousins.  Although Fred Rosewater is an Ivy League graduate, he doesn’t get to slurp from the Money River; his disappointed wife “married Fred because she thought everybody who lived in Pisquontuit and had been to Princeton was rich” (155).  She spends her idle and modest days in envy of her idle and rich friend Amanita Buntline. The Buntlines got to slurp from the Money River, so they are now among the rich people who will never have to work.  Neither will their kids.


Before the questions, I can’t help myself but take another jab at the academy.  Attorney McAllister asks, with a blend of horror and incredulity, “How dare a university teach compassion without teaching history too?” (169).  Oh dear, if he could only see today’s post-Marxism, identity politics, and grievance studies!


Lest I spoil the dénouement, I will focus here on questions, rather than commentary.


1- Pisquonquit is “populated by two hundred very wealthy families and by a thousand ordinary families whose breadwinners served, in one way or another, the rich” (134). One need not be a deeply committed Randian to admire the movers who employ those who lack the capital or imagination to drive the economy and create jobs.  Without the capital and jobs provided by the 200, where would the 1,000 work? Is there any nobler task than meeting payroll faithfully every two weeks?


2- There is a second unsung hero in Vonnegut’s pages. The idle rich may provide capital for business and funds for charities (a point Vonnegut does not entirely neglect) – but Vonnegut doesn’t have much respect for them.  He clearly admires the manual work of Harry Pena and his sons (182).  And Fred’s unglamorous sales slog does not enrich him – but it does allow widows and orphans to have basic necessities after the family breadwinner dies (146).  Yet Vonnegut also suggests that “real people don’t make their livings that way any more…  That’s all over, men working with their hands and backs.  They are not needed” (185-186).  What do you make of this?  Are workers somehow more deserving of esteem than the idle rich, even if they live lives of quiet despair?


3- Where does respect come from – honest toil or good ancestry? Fred Rosewater defends his ancestors:  “The Rhode Island Rosewaters have been active, creative people in the past, and will continue to be in the future… Some have had money, and some have not, but, by God, they’ve played their parts in history!  No more apologies!” (205).  This theme comes to a climax – without spoiling the novel’s plot – with the prediction that human beings will eventually become worthless as producers (264).  What do you make of this?  What is the source of a person’s worth and the approbation of others?  What would Adam Smith have to say?


4- This brings us to the question of helping the poor. We’ve already seen Eliot’s reservations about living as a rich boulevardier, or about the arts elevating souls – versus direct charity.  Stewart Buntline worried that his money should be given to the poor, without realizing that money spent or invested also helps the poor.  I am reminded here of a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1990s.  Assigned to digging latrines for a village in Central America, he soon realized that his work might change the lives of a few dozen people in the village – but a cell phone network would changes the lives of millions throughout the country.  So he quit the Peace Corps and went to work for a consulting firm.  Using profits over charity, he helped the country develop a wireless network.  This meant, of course, not just the opportunity to share cute pictures of pets on Instagram or engage in shallow emoting on Facebook – but online banking, communication, and e-commerce.  How does one help the poor?  Are there limits to markets?


Vonnegut raises many other questions, but that they are beyond the purview of this short assay.  I hope you have enjoyed this delightful and insightful novel as much as I have.  After a short break to catch up on other reading, I will surely return to Vonnegut.



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Economic Voices: A Reading List


A little while ago, I mentioned on Econlog that I have a history of fascination with economic thinking as expressed in non economic works–and particularly with the economic thinking of people who are in the daily grit of working blue collar jobs and doing household work. I think their diaries and letters and interviews and books of advice tell us at least as much about the economic circumstances under which they were written as do articles by economists–probably more. 


If you’re looking for this kind of material, you can’t go wrong by haunting used bookstores and poking through their collections of advice books, home economics texts, and collections of tattered old magazines. Economics is everywhere, and while an increasing amount of attention has been paid to texts like these by historians and scholars of literature, I don’t think that economic historians have given them as much attention as they merit. 

Here’s a reading list of texts I really like (in no particular order)  to get you started:


‘Round About a Pound a Week, by Maud Pember Reeves (1913)

This is the book that began my fascination. Maud Pember Reeves, a Fabian Socialist, undertook her groundbreaking demographic study in the early years of the 20th century to try to understand why poor families are poor. To answer the question, Pember Reeves and her colleagues asked mothers in a working poor neighborhood of London (where the average income was “‘round about a pound a week) to record their expenses. Their findings are fascinating as an early example of this kind of social science and as historic economic data, but they are perhaps most valuable for their continuing importance to our discussions about poverty today. 


All Our Kin, by Carol Stack (1974)

After I made Steve Horwitz read ‘Round About a Pound a Week, he pointed me to Carol Stack’s similar study of networks of exchange and support among Black families in the late 1960’s.  Her analysis of swapping will be fascinating for economists, but her larger observation that families find ways to function even in the worst of circumstances is a vital contribution and, again, one that is still relevant to discussions today.


Working, by Studs Terkel (1974)

This collection of interviews with working people of every age and in every profession is a great read and a gripping way to understand the meaning of work to the people who do it. From grocery store checkout clerks, to gravediggers, to lawyers and doctors, Studs Terkel spoke to everyone, and the conversations he recorded provide us with a remarkable way to humanize the work that makes the market possible.


How to Run Your Home Without Help, Kay Smallshaw (1949)

After WWII, the job market in England changed, and it suddenly became all but impossible for anyone but the very wealthy to have daily in-home help. Smallshaw’s book of advice to English housewives who are suddenly having to make do without a “daily” captures this moment of transition, and provides readers with a fascinating picture of household production from a time that’s not that long ago historically, but is almost unimaginably far-removed technologically. The chapter on laundry alone is worth the price of the book.


The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything, by Agnes M. Miall (1916)

Live Alone and Like It, Marjorie Hillis (1936)

These advice books about managing money and maintaining homes were written specifically for single working women living away from their families–a relatively new population in 1916, and a rapidly growing one in 1936. Aside from the data the books contain about salaries for a variety of jobs and prices for household and personal goods from corsets to carpeting, they capture the best and most up to date financial advice being given to women in the first half of the 20th century. 



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