pukeworthy comparisons and insight into relative depravation
Steve Levitt, has a provocative blog post up today. Forwarding a reader’s email he asks:
“What other benefits can be found in poverty? Obviously there is a difference between the regular poverty of say, a good chunk of Western college students versus the extreme poverty of many people in Africa. Depending on the situation, I am thinking there could be a connection between poverty and with things like creative resourcefulness and happiness.” Your thoughts?
As for thoughts, an orgTheorist who shall go nameless posted this on his facebook page questioning whether Steve might have had an aneurysm. Its hard to disagree with that sentiment.
But then it did make me think of Amartya Sen’s argument in Development as Freedom. In a nut shell, Sen’s goal is to shift the debate away from mainstream economists’ notions of utility and from philosophical (sociological?) questions of justice or fairness to emphasize the capability of people to do and be what they value.
Echoing Levitt’s reader’s (puke-worthy, yet nevertheless thought provoking) comparison of Western college students and “people in Africa” (whatever that means given that it is a continent of 1 billion people and countless cultures and subcultures), Sen’s argument is, fundamentally, that poverty is relative.
If a lack of income is standing in the way of doing things you want to do — worship, vote, be comfortable — then you are poor. But those restrictions can come just as easily from social norms, religious edicts or political structure as income. At the same time, simply having a low income does not make one either poor or unhappy. The Botswanan bushman who is living a full and meaningful life within a traditional society is neither unhappy nor poor because he has full capability to achieve what he wants to achieve in life.
Sen likes to point out that in his wanderings in Calcutta’s ghettos, he never encountered anyone who said that their poverty made them unhappy. The same, I venture, could not be said of your average college student living on loans. Myself, I remember spending a few very miserable winters in Ithaca eating ramen noodles. Yet, the capabilities of the Calcuttan ghetto-dweller to achieve the things they may want to achieve are vastly inferior to the capabilities of the students. So why are they happier? The difference is, essentially, ignorance: the poor in Calcutta make-due under overwhelmingly adverse circumstances while students in the US feel worse off relative to others in society. The poor may seem happier, but their happiness is in light of their relative lack of freedom compared to the US student. Which is worse? Sen argues that happy ignorance is not bliss. I’d say I have to agree.