Poverty does not cause social problems (and the cream rises to the top)

September 16, 2017
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Pity poor New Hampshire:

Manchester is at the heart of New Hampshire‘s opioid epidemic, which has first responders, lawmakers and health care administrators scrambling for solutions before the situation spirals further out of control.

Though other New England states such as Vermont and Maine have seen spikes in opioid-related deaths, the granite state ranks No. 2 in the nation, behind West Virginia, for the number of opioid-related deaths relative to its population. It ranks No. 1, though, for fentanyl-related deaths per capita.

So what makes New Hampshire so special?  Why so many deaths of despair? Perhaps because it has arguably the most successful economy in the entire world, with extremely high income, high education and extremely low rates of poverty:

Pop quiz:

Which U.S. state had the highest median income in 2016? . . .

New Hampshire.

The Granite State’s median household income last year was a whopping $76,260, nearly 30 percent higher than the national median of $59,039, according to the Census. . . .

One of the chief drivers of New Hampshire’s high median income is its poverty rate, which is the lowest in the nation. Only 6.9 percent of the state’s residents live below the poverty line, compared with a national average of 13.7 percent (in Mississippi nearly 21 percent of people live in poverty).

New Hampshire’s workforce is also among the best-educated in the country, according to previously released census data. Better-educated workers tend to make more money.

New Hampshire also has a very low level of inequality.

Of course it’s silly to argue that affluence causes addiction—correlation doesn’t prove causation.  But it’s equally silly to suggest that people in West Virginia become drug addicts because they are poor.  There are a billion poor people (by American standards) in China, and very few are heroin addicts.

Liu Qiangdong is one example of a Chinese poor person who did not become a heroin addict:

Liu Qiangdong is making up for lost time — and with vertiginous speed.

Again, like so many of China’s new titans, Liu’s family was so poor that until he went to university aged 18 he only tasted meat once or twice a year. His family, peasant farmers in arid coal country, 700km south of Beijing, had a few rice fields but they also had to hand over the crop to the government; these were the dire days after the Cultural Revolution. “From June until September we were able to eat corn — cornmeal porridge for breakfast, corn pancakes for lunch and dry cornbread for dinner; cornbread so tough it made your throat bleed,” he tells me. “The other eight months we ate boiled sweet potato for breakfast, sweet potato pancake for lunch and dried sweet potato for dinner.”

Now he is 43 and worth nearly $11bn.

Yes, that’s anecdotal, but consider this:

Virtually every Chinese millionaire or billionaire is self-made because capitalist reforms to the centrally planned communist economy only began in the early 1980s and did not really take off until the 1990s. But the modern super-wealthy often turn out to be descended from an earlier capitalist class. Richard [Liu] is no exception. Before the 1949 revolution his family were wealthy shipowners who transported goods along the Yangtze river and the ancient imperial canal from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. They lost everything when the communists took over and were forcibly resettled at least twice. One academic survey found more than 80 per cent of Chinese “elites” (those with income at least 12 times higher than the average in their area) are descended from the pre-1949 elite. Richard puts this down to “family culture”.

“My parents and grandparents taught us a lot — not Chinese or maths but a sense of values, of how you should be and how you should treat others,” he says. They also drilled into him the knowledge they had once been very rich but everything had been taken away — a lesson all too relevant even now.

You often hear a debate about what would happen if everyone suddenly lost everything, and the entire population was equally poor.  Liberals claim that people like Bill Gates become rich because they come from upper class families, with all sorts of advantages.  Conservatives claim that even if income were made 100% equal, within a few years the rich would regain their position and the poor would fall back.  Mao’s China provided a near perfect test of this theory, and we now know that the conservatives are right about this issue.  The cream does rise to the top.

Of course this is not true in every single case.  Sometimes highly talented people have bad luck and end up homeless.  Occasionally an idiot will win $100 million in a lottery, or maybe even get elected President.  But on average the more talented, more ambitious and harder working people will tend to succeed.  Being born white in America does give a person some advantages, but that doesn’t really explain very much.  Certainly not income gaps between American whites and Asians, or between Christians and Jews, or between immigrant blacks and American born blacks, or between Korean-Americans and Laotian-Americans, etc., etc.

PS.  RIP Cassini.  This is my all-time favorite NYT article, and it contains almost nothing but pictures and a video. In my view, Saturn (and her moons) is the most beautiful object in the Solar System.  This is also worth examining.

PPS.  RIP Harry Dean Stanton.

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