One of my great privileges is to have a mentor and critic as good as Bill Dickens.  And truth be told, the best criticism of a project is early criticism.  Here’s my reaction to his initial critique of Poverty: Who To Blame, the book I plan to start writing around 2015.  Bill’s in blockquotes, I’m not.

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

If you do a cross-country comparison, I suspect you’re right: Low-income Swedes do seem less self-destructive than low-income Americans.  If you do an over-time comparison within countries, however, the opposite seems to be true.  For starters, the American poor had very high rates of employment and high marital stability when the welfare state was smaller.

In any case, have you considered the possibility that countries with relatively prudent low-income populations can afford to have more generous social welfare systems?

Also, the white working class in the US wasn’t pathological when there were jobs they could do
that would support a family.

It’s still easy for today’s white working class to get jobs that would support a family at the income level of the 1950s.  U.S. per-capita income in 1950 was under $10,000 (1990 dollars).  That actually understates the ease of maintaining earlier living standards because modern household technology and family size make it a lot easier for mothers to work.

If the causality is all running from bad behavior
to poverty why did working class America suddenly start behaving badly?

“All running” is very strong, but there are many plausible stories to tell.  For starters:

1. The decline in traditional morality across the board.

2. Stigma dynamics.

3. Increased generosity of the welfare state.

4. As women’s labor market opportunities improved, their interest in low-status men with stable jobs declined.  This in turn led many low-status men to either give up on work and women, or try to impress women in other ways.  Some of these “other ways,” strangely, are self-destructive behavior like non-remunerative crime and substance abuse.

I can point to structural
forces that changed the income distribution (and would have whether people used
drugs or not).

No argument there.

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?

I’m not merely saying that “bad behavior is bad for you.”  I’m saying that bad behavior is a major cause of poverty.  If I’m right about this, there is a great, neglected remedy for poverty: Poor people should stop engaging in bad behavior. 

If this seems flippant, that’s not my intention.  Poverty: Who To Blame will largely be a work of economic philosophy.  Part of my project is to provide intellectual foundations for what I perceive as Americans’ justified frustration with welfare recipients.  (Another part of my project, by the way, is to destroy the intellectual foundations for what I perceive as Americans’ unjustified frustration with Third World immigrants).

Think about it this way: How do you, Bill Dickens, respond when your students don’t come to class, don’t study, fail the final exam, then come crying to you?  Whether you tell them or not, I strongly suspect you’re thinking, “Your failure is your own damn fault.”  You don’t give them the same assistance or sympathy that you’d give a hard-working student who’s struggling with the material.

I think such meritocratic moral intuitions are sound, and ought to guide public policy as well as private conscience.  If people are poor because they’re behaving irresponsibly, they should be far down our queue of people to help – if they belong on the queue at all.

That said, I also happen to think that reducing the generosity of the welfare state and making assistance conditional on good behavior will (eventually) reduce bad behavior.  Whether I’m right or wrong on this point, though, the fact that poor people are often the authors of their own destitution is morally significant and sadly neglected.

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.

If a lot of poverty is caused by self-destructive behavior, then talk about “victimization” is premature.  Yes, there has been some fall in the demand for low-skilled labor.  But even if that counted as “victimization” (which I would strongly dispute), there’s no reason to ignore the poor’s contributory negligence.  If the American working class had responded to long-term economic changes by forming stable two-earner marriages, they’d still be doing fine.

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…

Not quite.  Some people make very very bad trade-offs; others make very very good trade-offs.  If the trade-offs are intellectually complex, you could argue that the people who make very very bad trade-offs just aren’t smart enough to do better.  However, if the trade-offs are bone-headedly simple – like “heavy drinking makes you less employable” or “single motherhood is tough” – very very bad decisions are a matter of choice.  This in turn seriously undermines efforts to claim “victim” status.

…and that
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
economic change makes people lives more tenuous there are good reasons
they will make more bad decisions that will hurt them in the long run.
their circumstances and they are less likely to make bad decisions. At
least I
strongly suspect that is true.

I doubt you believe this in a general way.  If I recall correctly, you believe that (a) welfare reform reduced out-of-wedlock births, and that (b) the extension of unemployment benefits appreciably raised the natural rate of unemployment.  Why not extend this logic further, and see where it leads?

Last point: I realize that my perspective on poverty may seem fundamentally immoral to you, Bill.  But is it?  Let me close by asking you a question I publicly asked Paul Krugman:

Why are you so forgiving of people
with irresponsible lifestyles, but so
outraged by people who don’t want to pay taxes to help people with
irresponsible lifestyles?  This seems morally perverse.  If you’re going
to single anyone out for condemnation, it should be the person who
behaves irresponsibly in the first place, not the complete stranger who asks, “How is this my fault?”