Monday, October 15, 2012

S'more thoughts on the marshmallow game

Continuing the thread of Joseph's recent post on the Marshmallow game...

Everybody reading this has probably run across the persistent (and well-subsidized) narrative that goes something like this: virtually all of the variability we see in wealth can be explained by intelligence, talent and character with luck and inequality of opportunity playing little role in a person's success. In this narrative the labor market is now strongly efficient and the decrease in social mobility is simply the consequence of that current level of efficiency and a very large genetic component associated with those traits needed for success.

There are entirely reasonable parts to this narrative (I don't know of anyone arguing that being smart and hard-working won't won't help you get ahead), but if you try to take that case to the extreme and argue that money, social position and connections don't factor in, you have to start explaining away a large number of counterexamples and potential problems with the narrative.

The new findings in the marshmallow game are one example, showing that deprivation can cause people to be less likely to delay gratification rather than the causality necessarily running the other way.
"Being able to delay gratification—in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow—not only reflects a child's capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting," says [researcher Celeste] Kidd. "Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay."
How about the poor irresponsible spenders who are hopelessly bad with money? According to Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard that's not the case.
Mullainathan claims that although planning is a central part of poverty, poor people are better at making financial decisions than the rich and middle class. 
“If you go and stop people at a supermarket and ask them for their receipt and say, ‘Hey how much did you just spend,' middle class shoppers have no idea. The poor know what they just spent," he said.
What about on the other side? Are the well off and educated consistently better with their finances? Perhaps not: (via Thoma)
But college-educated people were more likely than those with high school or less education to be above this 40 percent threshold - considered to be a risky amount of debt for most households.
Another, more amusing example, comes from some of the same think tanks and pundits who promote the inequality-reflects-ability narrative. It's the idea that a small increase in the top marginal rate would create a large hardship on those close to the cutoff.

As discussed before, if the cutoff is 250K of taxable income, a family would have to be making in the neighborhood of 300K gross to pay any of the higher tax. To see an increase of three or four thousand in its tax bill, the family would have to be bringing in something like 350K. If someone, even with a family, is making more than a third of a million a year and is so financially shaky that additional expenses of four thousand will cause financial hardship, that person has to be at least one of the following to an extreme degree:

1. Unlucky

2. Undisciplined with limited capacity for delayed gratification

3. Bad with money

So one of the main conservative attacks on increasing the tax rate presupposes that either luck plays a large role in economic outcomes or a significant number of the well-to-do lack the very traits that Charles Murray and company use to explain the success of the upper classes.

As mentioned at the beginning, conservative think tanks and pundits have expended a great deal of money, time and energy promoting the idea that wealth and poverty simply reflect relative contributions to society, that the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. Perhaps those proponents are right, but you have to wonder what would happen if they trusted the marketplace of ideas enough to let this idea stand or fall on its own merits.

1 comment:

  1. Re: “If you go and stop people at a supermarket and ask them for their receipt and say, ‘Hey how much did you just spend,' middle class shoppers have no idea. The poor know what they just spent," he said.

    As John Scalzi, the science fiction writer, puts it: "Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs."

    He had a classic blog post on this at: