Undeserving Poor

Undeserving Poor

Our nation encourages us to look at the outcomes within our lives as the product of our own doing. How hard we work, how much effort we make to learn and get ahead, and how well we do with making good decisions determines whether we are successful, poor, addicted to drugs, healthy, and happy. This is the narrative that drives our lives, and any failure within any area of our life ultimately represents some type of personal or moral failure by us as individuals. However, is this really an accurate way of looking at humans living within complex societies? Should everything be tied to this sense of hyper personal-responsibility?
Matthew Desmond questions this idea throughout his book Evicted, but he also shows how dominant and entrenched this idea is. Even among our nation’s poorest who have faced extreme difficulties and poverty, the idea of personal responsibility is still the driving narrative around life. Writing about individuals in poverty living in a trailer park Desmond writes, “Evictions were deserved, understood to be the outcome of individual failure. They helped get rid of the riffraff some said. No one thought the poor more underserving than the poor themselves.” Even those living in the deepest poverty, those who have ostensibly failed the most within our capitalistic society, see each other as personal failures, not as victims of a system that was stacked against them. They don’t see themselves as getting swept up in a system and society that didn’t help provide enough support, guidance, and opportunity for them. They only see the bad choices that have landed people in the trailer park, and subsequently driven them out through eviction.
The reality is that as individuals we still exist within a society. We are still dependent on numerous social systems and institutions which shape the reality of the worlds we inhabit and the opportunities and possibilities available to us.  Drug use, for example, use seems like an individual decisions, however research on adverse childhood experiences and the impact of loss of meaning, social connections, and opportunity, shows that there are social determinants that drive drug use across communities. What seems like simply an individual decision based entirely on personal morality has numerous dimensions that cannot be explained simply by individual level decisions.
Desmond argues that evictions are also not something we should see as simply personal failures. There are numerous factors that can push an individual toward a downward spiral that ends in eviction. There are numerous points where social systems and institutions seem designed to drive poor people to failure. Blaming individuals for their own failure and subsequent eviction hides the ways in which we are all responsible to a system that either lifts us all up, or allows some of us to fail spectacularly. Focusing just on an individual’s poor decisions, and not seeing those decisions as a consequence or symptom of larger structural failures means that we can never address the root causes that push people toward failure, poverty, drug use, and eviction. It is easy to blame the individual, but it is inadequate.
Evidence of Structural Racism

Evidence of Structural Racism

What is and what is not racism in America today is a difficult question. We easily denounce racial slurs and instances of racism where someone openly states they dislike people due to race, but we have trouble identifying racism that is not so explicit. We have trouble identifying structural and systemic racism, but we know that it exists and that it has real world consequences for black people in our country. A couple of weeks ago, in a post on his blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen noted that racial segregation is increasing in many parts of America. White people choosing not to live near black people can be explained in many innocuous ways, but ultimately we must accept, the statistics of racial segregation reveal a system of structural racism in our country.
In the book Evicted, author Matthew Desmond confronts structural racism directly. He writes, “In Milwaukee’s poorest black neighborhoods, eviction had become commonplace – especially for women. In those neighborhoods, 1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants.” Eviction is a downstream consequence of structural racism. Structural racism can appear rational and equitable on the surface, but it often is built upon decades of deeply racist policies. When a population has been consistently held back due to racist policies, then racially neutral policies will still produce racist outcomes years after the deliberately racist policies have been removed. I think that Desmond would agree that this is what is at the heart of the racial disparities in evictions in Milwaukee and across the country.
Desmond continues, “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” Black men have been arrested at rates that don’t match their likelihood to use drugs or commit crime relative to white men and this has often meant that black mothers had less support for raising children and providing housing, food, and basic needs for families. This is part of why black women in Milwaukee are evicted at rates beyond their proportion of city residents. While we cannot look at any single incident and determine that racism is the cause of why a man was arrested or a woman evicted, we can look at the overwhelming evidence of segregation and disparate policing and evictions to see that structural racism is defining the lives of poor black men and women. We can see the evidence of structural racism and know that it is shaping lives and worlds that white and black people in our country experience. We cannot always say that a single instance is the outcome of racism, but we still know it is shaping what is happening.
After I wrote this piece Cowen also wrote about attractiveness, citing a David Brooks column. The column itself cites a study showing that the attractiveness bias in the United States is especially punishing to black women, demonstrating additional barriers that black women can face due to structural racism that creates beauty standards that outcasts poor black women. More evicdence of structural racism.
When Personal Responsibility Runs Into Trauma

When Personal Responsibility Runs Into Trauma

Recently, my reading and writing has been critical of the idea of personal responsibility. Because we live in a society that is hyper focused on personal responsibility, because we live in an economic system where success is taken a representation of individual characteristics, and because the dominant religious views in our nation have viewed success as rewards for good individual choices and attributes, I find it necessary to push back against that narrative and look for examples of how personal responsibility can be discounted in evaluating the success or failure of another person. Perhaps living in a society that hyper devalued personal responsibility I would feel the need to highlight the role of individual responsibility in our lives, but as things are, it feels important to me is to write about the ways that structural and systemic forces can influence our lives, including the level of personal responsibility we are able to bring to individual situations and circumstances.
Trauma is one of those large structural and systemic forces that should make us re-think personal responsibility. Entrepreneurial autobiographies, self-help books, and even philosophical thinkers (like Ryan Holiday who I really find influential) talk about the importance of being able to overcome obstacles to become successful. However, a failure to adequately address and process trauma, something almost no one can (perhaps no one at all), can do on their own can prevent individuals from being able to overcome even the smallest of obstacles. Trauma can originate from incredibly early on in our lives, at a time when our brains are in their infancy and unable to even remember and recall the trauma. This doesn’t mean that trauma won’t still influence a life for decades to come. There have been lots of studies that look at childhood violence, food scarcity, and other traumatic factors and life outcomes for individuals as adults and found that those who experienced trauma have worse economic outcomes later in life.
This isn’t surprising, but somehow these findings never seem to properly make it into self-help books or our narrative around personal responsibility. Often, if past trauma is addressed in our personal responsibility culture, it is presented as another personal responsibility of the individual facing the trauma to seek out the proper help and therapy to be able to reprogram their mind.
This leaves individuals who have faced trauma in a precarious position. Their trauma is ignored and when it is recognized, it falls back onto the individual to do something to overcome it. Larger structural forces and systems don’t make an effort to understand an individual’s trauma and we don’t have larger systems and structures to provide a robust social support system to encourage and provide therapy to those who need it.
In $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer demonstrate how severe the trauma of others can be in shaping their lives and driving them into $2.00 a day poverty. Regarding one individual presented in the book they write, “surviving repeated abandonment by the adults in her life and a nearly constant exposure to danger had left Rae with underlying feelings of rage. Even at the relatively calm Parma store, Rae’s temper could flare up unexpectedly with slight provocation.”
For Rae, past trauma made it almost impossible for her to function in an individualistic and capitalistic society. Our individualism and capitalism has helped propel America to be the richest country on earth and has given us great luxury and has improved our world in many ways, but it has also left those who faced severe trauma, such as repeated abandonment as a child and physical danger, left alone with no appropriate way to cope with routine stresses and anxieties. It is no surprise that Rae had trouble holding a job, trouble connecting with other people to be a stable roommate, and  trouble containing her anger when provoked by rude customers. When living with the kind of trauma of physical abuse and abandonment that Rae experienced, self-preservation required a fierce and powerful reactions to threats, and that mindset could not simply be turned off even if Rae had read the best self-help book on the market.
We need to think of the trauma of others in our daily interactions and judgements of them. The United States does not have ample social support systems such as professional therapists, well trained mentors, or robust family networks for most people to receive the support necessary to overcome severe trauma. It is easy to dismiss someone who seems to act irrationally, as we can imagine Rae often did on the job or in her personal relationships, because we focus so intensely on the individual and personal responsibility. However, if we don’t recognize the role that trauma plays and the importance of social support for individuals who have been traumatized, then we risk pushing people to ruin, to $2.00 a day poverty, and potentially to suicide. It is not unreasonable to argue that our society needs to do more to support these people than say it is their personal responsibility to seek out the help they need on their own.
A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

Personal responsibility in the United States is huge. It drives much of how we understand ourselves, others, and our economic and political systems. We believe that the individual has the power to shape their life for the better, to overcome obstacles, and to find success as long as they take the responsibility to do the right things. We reward those who are responsible and succeed and we offer little aid or assistance for those who can’t seem to figure it out on their own.
“Yet laying the blame on a lack of personal responsibility obscures the fact that there are powerful and ever-changing structural forces at play,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States there is opportunity to achieve the American Dream and to reach for a better life, but there are also challenging factors that limit the opportunities for some while amplifying the opportunities for others. There are real structural forces which limit the opportunities and second chances for some people, and are ignored by those who don’t face such challenges.
Writing specifically about the low-wage job market, Edin and Shaefer continue, “whatever can be said about the characteristics of the people who work low-wage jobs, it is also true that the jobs themselves too often set workers up for failure.”
Edin and Shaefer explore commonalities among low-wage jobs that seem designed to provide marginal benefits to employers by making the jobs themselves more challenging for the employees. Service sector jobs often have unpredictable hours, don’t come with any benefits, don’t include opportunities for promotion, and can be physically demanding without appropriate supplies and materials for employees to complete their work. When low-wage workers are desperate for employment, they cannot complain to any government agencies about unfair or poor working conditions. If the employer is shut down, then they loose their source of income, even if it is dehumanizing. As a result, hard work doesn’t pay in these low-wage jobs. After enough poor experiences where working hard doesn’t help someone get ahead, it is not surprising that many opt out all together or put forward minimal effort when they do get an opportunity.
The larger structural forces, however, often end up being ignored. In the United States we chose just to focus on the individual and their responsibility, blaming them for quitting a job which was designed to make them fail. We blame the individual for not being smart enough, skilled enough, or resilient enough to stick it out and get to a better position after starting at a minimum-wage, dead-end job. Personal responsibility and structural forces clash, but from the outside we are only able to focus on the failures of the individual, giving little thought to the larger forces at play.
The Life and Death Consequences of Epistemic Vices

The Life and Death Consequences of Epistemic Vices

For the last couple of months I have been writing about ideas and thoughts that stood out to me in Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Cassam specifically analyzes epistemic vices, asking why they exist, whether we should be blamed for having them, and what real world consequences arise because of them. To this point, most of my posts have focused on relatively harmless aspects of epistemic vices. I have written about how they limit knowledge and how they can cause us to make suboptimal decisions about investing money, making career choices, or relating to political figures. However, epistemic vices do have life and death consequences, and can be much more vicious than I have written about to this point.
In his book, Cassam uses an example of weapon bias to demonstrate the tragic consequences that can arise from epistemic vices. He describes work from Keith Payne to outline the concept. He writes, “Under the pressure of a split-second decision, the readiness to see a weapon became an actual false claim of seeing a weapon. It was race that shaped people’s mistakes, and Payne found that African American participants were as prone to weapon bias as white participants.” This quote shows that a bias influences the way we perceive the world and directly influences the beliefs we come to hold. It becomes an epistemic vice by inhibiting knowledge and causing us to have inaccurate views of the world. And these biases, these epistemic vices, are endemic to our nation. It is not one group of biased people, but an entire system that promotes and fosters weapon bias based on racism, hindering knowledge for everyone, creating life and death misunderstandings across our country.
Cassam continues. “By causing errors in perception weapon bias gets in the way of perceptual knowledge, and the practical consequences hardly need spelling out. In the US innocent African American men are shot with alarming frequency by policy officers who think they see a gun when no gun is present. If weapon bias is an epistemic vice then here is proof that some epistemic vices are quite literally a matter of life and death.”(It is worth noting that Cassam is at the University of Warwick in the UK).
Failing to see the world clearly can have life and death consequences. In terms of our police, we encourage them to think of themselves as needing to react in a split second when they perceive the threat of a weapon, potentially another vice that should be addressed. Systemic and structural racism biases police toward seeing a harmless item, like a tool or phone, as a gun, forming the base of weapon biases. The end result is a lack of knowledge via false perceptions, and in the United States disproportionate numbers of black men killed in police interactions.
Cassam’s book is a dense and deep dive into epistemic vices, but the life and death consequences of epistemic vices such as weapon bias demonstrate the importance of understanding how our thoughts, actions, and behaviors can obstruct knowledge. It is important that we recognize our own epistemic vices and work to build systems and structures that limit the acquisition of and negative consequences of epistemic vices. Seeing the world more clearly can literally prevent unnecessary death.
Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether we can understand the behaviors of an individual based on individual characteristics or if we have to rely on larger structural and systemic explanations for their behavior. The question is important for Cassam because his book focuses on epistemic vices, which are vices that get in the way of knowledge. If such vices change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways, then they are something we should think about and work to change in ourselves and others. If, however, they don’t make a difference in people’s behaviors because larger structural explanations exist, then they are not worthy of our attention.
Given that Cassam wrote an entire book about epistemic vices, it is not surprising that he believes that they are useful in explaining behavior. He writes, “Epistemic vices are obstacles to knowledge that can in appropriate cases explain how people think and what they do. Sometimes, though, structural or systemic explanations are better.” This sentence feels a little weak, as though Cassam is admitting that epistemic vices can take a back seat to structural factors. However, the sentence is a useful summation of how we should think about individual level factors and larger structural and systemic factors.
Our lives are shaped to a great degree by large structural and systemic forces that are beyond our control. Family structures drive specific types of behaviors. Markets produce predictable outcomes. The rules of a sport determine what actions can and cannot be taken. However, within these larger structures and systems there is room for individual variation. Cassam’s argument is that we can understand some of the individual variation within larger structures by understanding epistemic vices.
Case explanations can include individual choices, characteristics, and epistemic virtues and vices to help us understand behavior. These explanations can be built on top of structural and systemic explanations which shape the range of possibilities and narrow some of the individual variations. We cannot entirely define someone by their individual choices and differences, but we can view them within a system and ask how their choices within a system differed from others, whether their differences were positive or negative, and why.
Standard Stories

Standard Stories

No matter who you are, what you do for a living, or where you live, your life is made up of stories. We use narratives to understand ourselves and our places in the world. We imagine grand arcs for ourselves, for others, and for the planet. We create motivations for ourselves and others, impart goals to people and societies, and create meaning between events. But what does it mean for us all to live in stories?
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam looks at one aspect of stories, the fact that they are not perfect reflections of reality. They can only include so much, and they focus on certain aspects of life over others. He writes, “the problem with standard stories, it might be argued, isn’t that they ignore trivial situational influences on human conduct but that they ignore very far from trivial structural influence.”
This quote comes within the context of Cassam discussing situationists and structuralists. Situationists argue that who we are and how we behave is in many ways influenced by the particulars of the situations we find ourselves in. In our personal narrative we may be calm, rational, and kind, but in a stressful situation we may be impulsive, cruel, and rash. Contrasting situationists are structuralists, who look at larger social and systemic factors that influence our lives. We might be cheerful, energetic, and optimistic people, but being forced into a dead-end job to earn enough to get by could crush all of those character traits. Larger structural forces can influence the situations we find ourselves in, ultimately shaping who we are and how we behave.
What Cassam is specifically highlighting in the quote is the idea that our narratives often rely too much on the particulars of given situations and ignore the larger structural systems that shape those situations. Our stories highlight individual level motivations and desires, but those are in turn situated within a larger context that becomes the background of our narratives. We focus on the individual conflicts, struggles, and arcs without recognizing how larger forces create the environments and rules within which everything else takes place. Standard stories fall short of reality and fall short of helping us understand exactly what is possible and exactly what shapes our lives because they don’t recognize structural forces. Without acknowledging those larger structural forces standard stories can’t help us understand how to change the world for better.

Acquisition Responsibility

We are not always responsible for the acquisition of our virtues and vices. For some of us, being good natured and virtuous toward other people comes naturally, and for others of us, being arrogant or closed-minded comes naturally or was pushed onto us from forces we could not control. I think it is reasonable to say that virtues likely require more training, habituation, imitation, and intentionality for acquisition than vices, so in that sense we are more responsible for virtue acquisition than vice acquisition. It is useful to think about becoming versus being when we think about virtues and vices because it helps us better consider individual responsibility. Making this distinction helps us think about blameworthiness and deservingness, and it can shape the narratives that influence how we behave toward others.
In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam writes, “a person who is not responsible for becoming dogmatic might still be responsible for being that way. Acquisition responsibility is backward-looking: it is concerned with the actual or imagined origin of one’s vices.”
In the book, in which Cassam focuses on epistemic vices, or vices that obstruct knowledge. Cassam uses an example from Heather Battaly of a young man who is unfortunate enough to grow up in a part of the world controlled by the Taliban. The young man will undoubtedly be closed-minded (at the very least) as a result of being indoctrinated by the Taliban. There is little the man could do to be more open minded, to avoid adopting a specific viewpoint informed by the biases, prejudices, and agendas of the Taliban. It is not reasonable to say that the man has acquisition responsibility for his closed-mindedness. Many of our epistemic vices are like this, they are the results of forces beyond our control or invisible to us, they are in some ways natural cognitive errors that come from misperceptions of the world.
When we think about vices in this way, I would argue that it should change how we think about people who hold such vices. It seems to me that it would be unreasonable to scorn everyone who holds a vice for which they have no control over the acquisition. Being backward-looking doesn’t help us think about how to move forward. It is important to recognize that people hate being held responsible for things they had no control over, even if that thing lead to serious harms for other people. An example might be people who have benefitted from structural racism, and might like to see systems and institutions change to be less structurally racist, but don’t want to be blamed for a system they didn’t recognize or know they contributed to. Being stuck with a backward-looking view frustrates people, makes them feel ashamed and powerless, and prevents progress. People would rather argue that it wasn’t their fault and that they don’t deserve blame than think about ways to move forward. Keeping this in mind when thinking about how we address and eliminate vices for which people are not acquisition responsible is important for us if we want to continue to grow as individuals and societies and if we want to successfully overcome epistemic vices.
Systematically Obstructing Knowledge

Systematically Obstructing Knowledge

The defining feature of epistemic vices, according to Quassim Cassam, is that they get in the way of knowledge. They inhibit the transmission of knowledge from one person to another, they prevent someone from acquiring knowledge, or they make it harder to retain and recall knowledge when needed. Importantly, epistemic vices don’t always obstruct knowledge, but they tend to do so systematically.
“There would be no justification for classifying closed-mindedness or arrogance as epistemic vices if they didn’t systematically get in the way of knowledge,” writes Cassam in Vices of the Mind. Cassam lays out his argument for striving against mental vices through a lens of consequentialism. Focusing on the outcomes of ways of thinking, Cassam argues that we should avoid mental vices because they lead to bad outcomes and limit knowledge in most cases.
Cassam notes that epistemic vices can turn out well for an individual in some cases. While not specifically mentioned by Cassam, we can use former President Donald Trump as an example. Cassam writes, “The point of distinguishing between systematically and invariably is to make room for the possibility that epistemic vices can have unexpected effects in particular cases.” Trump used a massive personal fortune, an unabashed bravado, and a suite of mental vices to bully his way into the presidency. His mental vices such as arrogance, closed-mindedness, and prejudice became features of his presidency, not defects. However, while his epistemic vices helped propel him to the presidency, they clearly and systematically created chaos and problems once he was in office. In his arrogance he attempted to bribe the prime minister of Ukraine, leading to an impeachment. His closed-mindedness and wishful thinking contributed to his second impeachment as he spread baseless lies about the election. 
For most of us in most situations, these same mental vices will also likely lead to failure and errors rather than success. For most of us, arrogance is likely to prevent us from learning about areas where we could improve ourselves to perform better in upcoming job interviews. Closed-mindedness is likely to prevent us from gaining knowledge about saving money with solar panels or about a new ethnic restaurant that we would really enjoy. Prejudice is also likely to prevent us from learning about new hobbies, pastimes, or opportunities for investment. These vices don’t always necessarily lead to failure and limit important knowledge for us, as Trump demonstrated, but they are more likely to obstruct important knowledge than if we had pushed against them.
Take the Outside View

Take the Outside View

Taking the outside view is a shorthand and colloquial way to say, think of the base rate of the reference class to which something belongs, and make judgements and predictions from that starting point. Take the outside view is advice from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow for anyone working on a group project, launching a start-up, or considering an investment with a particular company. It is easy to take the inside view, where everything seems predictable and success feels certain. However, it is often better for long-term success to take the outside view.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “people who have information about an individual case rarely feel the need to know the statistics of the class to which the case belongs.” He writes this after discussing a group project he worked on where he and others made an attempt to estimate the time necessary to complete the project and the obstacles and hurdles they should expect along the way. For everyone involved, the barriers and likelihood of being derailed and slowed down seemed minimal, but Kahneman asked the group what to expect based on the typical experience of similar projects. The outlook was much more grim when viewed from the outside perspective, and helped the group better anticipate challenges they could face and set more reasonable timelines and work processes.

 

Kahneman continues, “when forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.”

 

Taking the outside view helps us get beyond delusional optimism. It helps us make better expectations about how long a project will take, what rate of return we should expect, and what the risks really look like. It is like getting a medical second opinion, to ensure that your doctor isn’t missing anything and to ensure they are following the most up-to-date practices. Taking the outside view shifts our base rate, anchors us to a reality that is more reflective of the world we live in, and helps us prepare for challenges that we would otherwise overlook.