Saturday, December 15, 2012

Failure will pile up on failure

Quite fascinating. Lane Kenworthy in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, It's Hard to Make It in America, makes the argument that equal opportunity is desirable. He then goes on to argue that unequal outcomes is due to inequality of birth and childhood circumstance. These are reasonable arguments to make. The children of the wealthy do, on average, have a better chance of becoming wealthy themselves and the children of the poor do, on average, have a better chance of remaining poor than random chance would indicate. So how does a community, particularly a heterogeneous community facilitate increased opportunity to all members of society?

Kenworthy lays out the various root causes of low personal productivity which by and large in his account consists of identifying those things that the wealthy have that the poor do not. He doesn't actually look at the root causes of individual personal productivity but makes the simplistic conclusion that the differences in productivity must arise from those things that the wealthy have and the poor do not.

It is not as if Kenworthy is unaware of the likely real sources of disparate outcomes and reduced personal productivity. In fact, he lays out just such a program as identified by the Brookings Institution, a program:
that focuses on the benefits of the "success sequence": first education, then a stable job, then marriage, and then children.
All the sociological evidence is consistent with this. Those that graduate high school, work full time and get and stay married (without children before marriage) have a less than 2% chance of living in poverty.

But knowing what needs to be done is different from knowing how to make it happen. This is where Kenworthy's argument begins to jump the logical and empirical rails. Education, work, marriage, children are substantially driven by personal choices and behaviors. Kenworthy essentially dismisses these actions to achieve personal success by observing that:
Getting people to change their behavior and routines is very difficult, so the benefits of such programs are inevitably modest.
Wow! We know what people ought to do but it is hard to get them to do that so we shouldn't expect much on that front. Really? That's your conclusion? James Heckman has done some great work on the role of behaviors (or non-cognitive skills as he terms them) and their role in life success. It is pretty rock solid research. How you behave and the decisions you make are the single biggest predictor of beneficial life outcomes. But Kenworthy would have us believe that since it is hard to get people to change their behaviors and make better decisions, we ought simply to give up on that front.

So instead of pursuing strategies that are known to work, Kenworthy seeks a work around. And what would that work around be? It would be an effort to provide the resources to replicate the outward manifestations of the wealthy. This ignores the real question - what is it that the wealthy are doing that increase the prospects of their progeny. Once we know that, we can then figure out how that knowledge can be used to benefit the poor and break the cycle of poverty. We know from both macro-economic development as well as at the level of the individual that the problem of poverty is rarely simply an absence of resources - it is behaviors, and culture, and values, and institutions, and knowledge, and beliefs and decision-making.

What Kenworthy recommends instead is that we continue all the existing programs that have already been pursued for the past forty years except with greater funding. Better day care, home visits by nurses, more money for better pre-school, better access to university through subsidies, reducing prison time as a form of punishment, allow the Federal Reserve to pump money, improve the Earned Income Tax Credit, increase affirmative action, etc.

This is nonsense on stilts. In an environment of constraints, as we are likely to face for the foreseeable future, there is no means of making additional resources available. Most these programs have already failed to achieve the desired results and there is no reason to believe that increasing their funding would improve their results and even less reason to believe that those funds can actually be made available.

I said this article was quite fascinating. That was probably a poor choice of words. It is outrageous that a nominally sentient professor at a nominally reputable university should be offering such a poor argument in such a prestigious magazine. If all we are going to do is retail already failed proposals with no chance of success and if we thereby avoid addressing the real root causes, failure will pile up on failure. This is misdirection of an almost malevolent form. Simply amazing.

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