The noble Bill Dickens responded on Facebook to my recent posts on poverty.  Reprinted with his permission.  My rejoinder is coming shortly.


Before you get too heavily into this
new book, what happens in countries with more generous social welfare systems?
Is there more or less self-destructive behavior? My sense is that there is much
less and if I’m right this does suggest that
there is a causal link from desperation and poverty to self-destructive
behavior. Also, the white working class in the US wasn’t pathological when there were jobs they could do
that would support a family. If the causality is all running from bad behavior
to poverty why did working class America suddenly start behaving badly? I can point to structural
forces that changed the income distribution (and would have whether people used
drugs or not).

Note that if all you want to say
is that bad behavior is bad for you I don’t think anyone will disagree. If you
want to say that curing bad behavior is the way to cure poverty then can you
show us how to cure bad behavior? If I’m right that economic security greatly
reduces the extent of self-destructive behavior then all you will be doing with
your book is giving people an excuse to ignore the plight of those currently
being victimized by a system that has taken away their livelihoods and their
ability to provide for a family in the way they have been accustomed to.

And with specific respect to your
argument, let’s reflect on what behavioral economics teaches us about the sorts
of decisions involved in choosing between pleasure now and pain in the future. We know that people are very very bad about making
trade-offs between the present and the future in a rational way and that they
get worse (become more shortsighted) the more threatened or insecure they feel
in the present. Look beyond blaming the victim and you will see that if an
economic change makes people lives more tenuous there are good reasons that
they will make more bad decisions that will hurt them in the long run. Fix
their circumstances and they are less likely to make bad decisions. At least I
strongly suspect that is true.