Tag Archives: poverty

The Bandwidth Tax

The brain has limited bandwidth.

Scarcity is the limiting factor that can make life more difficult whether the scarce resource is money, time, energy, etc.  It becomes more difficult to make appropriate decisions when the brain’s cognitive capacity is focused on that scarce resource.  Thinking of cognitive capacity as ‘bandwidth’ allows us to realize that there is only so much bandwidth available.  If we are already heavily using it, for instance, by trying to figure out how we will pay this month’s bills, there is little left over for other important decisions, such as planning how to save for a college education.

This issue of scarcity and how it affects decision-making is taken on by authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives. A major point of the authors is that scientific research has shown that scarcity actually reduces IQ: when scarcity pressure reduces bandwidth, there is too much going on to effectively process all that needs to be done or decided.

Mullainathan and Shafir devote a large portion of the book to discussing poverty and its relationship to scarcity and bandwidth reduction.  Many of those who are poor may appear to make unfortunate decisions.  It is not because they are incapable of making better choices, but because their cognitive bandwidth is over-taxed due to their inadequate resources.  In one experiment, “The poor responded just like the rich when the car cost little to fix, when scarcity had not been rendered salient.  Clearly, this is not about inherent cognitive capacity.  Just like the processor that is slowed down by too many applications, the poor here appear [italics in original] worse because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.”  p. 52   “We would argue that the poor do have lower effective [italics in original] capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” p. 60

Poverty is a serious issue for the future since it affects the children.  “Nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States will at some point be on food stamps.  About 15 percent of American households had trouble finding food for the family at some point during the year.” p.147  Not only are children going hungry, but their parents have trouble parenting due to reduced cognitive bandwidth.  “Being a good parent requires many things.  But most of all it requires freedom of mind.  That is one luxury the poor do not have.”  p. 137  How can children do well in school when their cognitive bandwidth is occupied with hunger and a chaotic home life?   “An overtaxed bandwidth means a reduced ability to process new information…Our data…suggest that much of the correlation between income and classroom performance may be explained by the bandwidth tax… Absorbing new information requires working memory.” p. 158

Many of the poor are striving for  better lives for themselves and their children.  A college education is now considered a basic requirement for many jobs, but the cost of a college education has sky-rocketed at the same time as grants and scholarships have become more difficult to obtain and/or cover less of the cost.  Students are then forced to go heavily into debt, work while taking classes, or both.  These students are experiencing scarcity of money and of time. “…the financially strapped student who misses some easy questions looks incapable or lazy.  But these people are not unskilled or uncaring, just heavily taxed.  The problem is not the person but the context of scarcity.” p. 65

Poverty will be a multi-generational trap that is impossible to escape if nothing is done to reduce the load on cognitive bandwidth.  The poor have to constantly re-certify to get food stamps and other government programs. But the neediest often fail to do so because of the bandwidth tax: they forget.  This is a tax on poverty.  “To see the logic of taxing bandwidth, think about it this way.  Imagine we imposed a hefty financial charge to filling out applications for financial aid.  We would quickly realize that this is a silly fee to impose; a program aimed at the cash stretched should not charge them much cash.  Yet we frequently design programs aimed at people who are bandwidth-stretched that charge a lot in bandwidth.” p. 222   “…the bandwidth tax was sizable: roughly thirteen to fourteen IQ points, with an equally large effect on executive control.  These are … very large effects on cognitive function… the bandwidth tax plays a similarly large role in the lives of the poor everywhere.”  p. 161-62

Benefits to the poor, such as food stamps, should be paid weekly rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of month.  This smooths out the boom/bust cycle.  We need to “…create long periods of moderation rather than spurts of abundance followed by heightened periods of scarcity.”  p. 223   “The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place.  Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed.” p. 161

There are a number of ways in which government and business could reduce the bandwidth tax on the poor.  If you are poor and have kids, having highly-subsidized day care frees up lots of bandwidth and makes life easier. “We’d be taking a cognitive load off.  As we’ve seen, this would help your executive control, your self-control more broadly, even your parenting. It would increase your general cognitive capacity, your ability to focus, the quality of your work… [H]elp with child care…is a way to build human capital of the deepest kind: it creates bandwidth.” p. 176-77

Jobs paying minimum wages require those with children to work two or more jobs in order to be able to pay the bills.  This situation is aggravated when these jobs do not provide consistent work schedules.  “In the United States, something as simple as inconsistent work hours…can cause juggling and perpetuate scarcity.  A solution would be to create the equivalent of unemployment insurance against such fluctuations in work hours, which to the poor can be even more pernicious than job loss.”  p. 178

In order to solve poverty, we must realize that simply having a job is inadequate.  “Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity.  And just as a financial tax can wreak havoc in one’s budget, so can a bandwidth tax create failure in any of several domains to which a person must attend.” p. 179-80   Social programs and employment structure need to be redesigned: “…a better design will have to incorporate fundamental insights about focusing and bandwidth that emerge from the psychology of scarcity.” p. 181

Our cognitive capacity bandwidth is limited.  If it is taxed by inadequate pay, inconsistent work schedules, lack of childcare, unhealthy and/or insufficient diet, a polluted environment, inadequate social services and infrastructure, among many other scarce resources, it should not be surprising if the poor seem trapped in a cycle of poverty.   Mullainathan and Shafir have provided a method for reframing and solving this crisis.  Will we care enough to implement it?

Just Mercy

I first heard of Bryan Stevenson through his amazing TED talk on injustice in the United States’ criminal system.  When I saw that he had a new book out on the same topic, I immediately read it.

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy

Just Mercy is excellent.  Stevenson weaves into his narrative the stories of a number of individuals caught in the criminal justice system, along with his efforts to help them.  The stories are alternately emotional, heart-breaking, uplifting, and deeply sad.  I fully expect Stevenson’s life’s work to be made into a feature film in the next few years.  He and his team are the Civil Rights activists of our time.  They demonstrate that empathy and social justice can be powerful forces for change.

Below I’ve posted a number of quotes taken from  Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

“Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”  p. 16

“I’ve represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong.”  p. 17

“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”  p. 18

“Even though the restriction couldn’t be enforced under federal law, the state ban on interracial marriage in Alabama continued into the twenty-first century.  In 2000, reformers finally had enough votes to get the issue on the statewide ballot, where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it.  A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage, 40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percent are undecided.”  p. 20

“In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was human to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse.  Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would.”  p. 90

“In 2014, Trina turned fifty-two.  She has been in prison for thirty-eight years.  She is one of nearly five hundred people in Pennsylvania who have been condemned to mandatory life imprisonment without parole for crimes they were accused of committing when they were between the ages of thirteen and seventeen.  It is the largest population of child offenders condemned to die in prison in any single jurisdiction in the world.”  p. 151

“Florida had the largest population in the world of children condemned to die in prison for non-homicides.”  p. 154

“In 1996, Congress passed welfare reform legislation that gratuitously included a provision that authorized states to ban people with drug convictions from public benefits and welfare.  The population most affected by this misguided law is formerly incarcerated women with children, most of whom were imprisoned for drug crimes.  These women and their children can no longer live in public housing, receive food stamps, or access basic services.  In the last twenty years, we’ve created a new class of ‘untouchables’ in American society, made up of our most vulnerable mothers and their children.”  p. 237

“Convict leasing was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century to criminalize former slaves and convict them of nonsensical offenses so that freed men, women, and children could be ‘leased’ to businesses and effectively forced back into slave labor.  Private industries throughout the country made millions of dollars with free convict labor, while thousands of African Americans died in horrific work conditions.  The practice of re-enslavement was so widespread in some states that it was characterized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon as Slavery by Another Name.”  p. 299


Capital Tax

Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, has received a great deal of press.  Having just finished the book, I believe that most of the commentators skimmed/skipped the first two parts and just read the last two parts.  Unless you are an econ geek (I am not.), the first two parts are pretty tedious and difficult.  However, they do provide Piketty with his bona fides.  Anyone who criticizes Piketty on the basis of his credentials probably hasn’t read/understood Parts 1 and 2.

Parts 3 and 4 are where the meat of Piketty’s argument is discussed. My interpretation of his main points is as follows:

  • Income inequality is increasing in all the OECD (economically-developed and democratic) countries.
  • Wealth/capital inequality is even worse than income inequality.
  • The United States is the most unequal of the OECD nations.
  • A progressive tax on income is good, but a progressive tax on capital/wealth would be much, much better.
  • Billionaires can hide most of their wealth so that they end up paying taxes on their much lower level of income.
  • In order to implement a progressive tax on capital, banks must provide governments all data on their depositors so that wealth cannot be hidden.
  • Excessive accumulations of wealth/capital actually depress economic productivity.
  • If steps are not taken to reduce income and wealth inequality, levels of inequality will worsen and revolution of the increasingly-strapped lower and middle classes is probable.

Piketty explains his ideas in this TED video.

Inequality Faultlines

I recently finished The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi.  Instead of paraphrasing Taibbi’s words, I’ve decided to post a number of what I consider the most pertinent quotes from this extremely important book.

“We [Americans] have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.” (p.xx)

“…the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” (p. xxii)

“So the only time RICO was used to fight mortgage fraud was when the criminal was a black gang member and the victims were banks. (Ironically, nobody thought to wonder how it was possible for a Lincoln Park gang member to buy 222 houses with no money down.  Heading into that particular rabbit hole would have led to the larger crime, but nobody did.)  (p. 44)

“In 2011…New York City police stopped and searched a record 684,724 people.  Out of those 88 percent were black or Hispanic.  The ostensible justification for the program is looking for guns, but they find guns in less than 0.02 percent of stops.  More often, they make people empty their pockets and find nothing at all.”  (p. 57)

“…the very lowest kind of offender in the illegal drug business, the retail consumer at the very bottom of the drug food chain, had received a far stiffer sentence [jail for smoking half a joint] than officials of HSBC [an international bank where no one went to jail] who were hundreds of thousands of dollars deep into the illegal drug business, not for any excusable reason but just to seek profits to pile on top of profits.”  (p.63)

“There are two important concepts here that work hand in hand.  One, there’s the idea that failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons.  The second idea is that the prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction, simply by filing charges and following through long enough with pretrail pressure to wrest a plea out of the accused.”  (p.130)

“Ultimately this all comes down to discretion.  If they want, the police can arrest you for just about anything.” (p. 132)

“Here it’s the same thing.  Police make bad arrests, a settlement comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket, but the officer himself never even hears about it.  He doesn’t have to pay a dime.  And life goes on as before…You can’t secure an officer’s dismissal, can’t get a policy change, and can’t get anyone brought up on charges.”  (pp. 134-135)

“This small Georgia city [Gainesville] is ground zero for enforcement of a ferocious federal immigration rule called 287 (g) that essentially deputizes any and all state and local law enforcement officials to arrest undocumented aliens on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).”  (p. 200)

“In recent years, the residents of the ballooning Latino neighborhoods growing up somewhere on the other side of the tracks of your town–the places where factory workers and housecleaners and similar manual laborers live–awake in the mornings to find police checkpoints strategically placed on the major thoroughfares to and from the white-people sides of town.”  (p.201)

“ICE even has a UPS-style tracking system that allows immigrant families to punch in a number and see where their deported relative is in his or her serpentine journey through the detention system.  In the real justice system, you get habeas corpus; in the shadow system, you get a tracking number to see where your familial ‘package’ is.”  (p. 202)

“So the undocumented alien who kills a room full of Rotarians with an ax has a right to counsel, a phone call, and protection against improper searches.  The alien caught crossing the street on his way to work has no rights at all.” (p. 203)

“Over and over again, we hear that if you owe money in a certain way, or if you receive a certain kind of public assistance, you forfeit this or that line item in the Bill of Rights.  If you’re a person of means, you get full service for all ten amendments, and even a few that aren’t listed.  But if you owe, if you rent, you get a slightly thinner, more tubercular version of the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, and so on.”  (p. 319)

“For instance, while the San Diego District Attorney’s Office spent more than a decade sifting through thousands of dresser drawers and bringing felony cases all the way to court for frauds as small as four hundred dollars, executives in the same general area of Southern California, at companies like Countrywide and Long Beach Mortgage, were pioneering the brilliant mass fraud scheme that involved the sales of toxic mortgage-backed securities… Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no felony cases.  But when the stakes are in the hundreds of dollars, we kick in 26,000 doors a years, in just one county.”  (p. 323)

“…the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick.  And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere…What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that ‘second government’–a vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors.  These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.”  (p. 324)

“…there’s a direct correlation between need and rights.  The more you need, the more you owe, the fewer rights you have.”  (p. 325)

“…our legal system does not make sense.  Our legal system is insane.”  (p. 328)

“Month after month, Riverside County runs the same ad [on welfare fraud] and picks six new names each month to advertise.  Like welfare recipients in general, the guilty are overwhelmingly female, and usually nonwhite. ‘They don’t do this to rapists or murderers,’ says Robb.  ‘Not even to pedophiles.  It’s incredible.’ ”  (p. 349)

“If they turned life in the projects into a police state, they turned life on Wall Street into its opposite.  One lie in San Diego is a crime.  But a million lies?  That’s just good business.”  (p. 352).

“…the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process.  The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court… once the bank or debt buyer has that default judgment in hand, it can legally do just about anything to the cardholder.  It can put a lien on his property, it can attach her salary, it can even take his car or her office furniture.”  (p. 376)  ” ‘They make more on lawsuits than they make on credit interest,’ says Linda.”  (p. 382)

“Plenty of people–consumers and merchants both–are probably glad that so much credit is available, but they don’t realize that systematic fraud [by banks and debt collectors] is part of what makes it available…Legally, there’s absolutely no difference between a woman on welfare who falsely declares that her boyfriend no longer lives in the home and a bank that uses a robo-signer to cook up a document swearing that he has kept regular records of your credit card account.  But morally and politically, they’re worlds apart.  When the state brings a fraud case against a welfare mom, it brings it with disgust, with rage, because in addition to committing the legal crime, she’s committed the political crime of being needy and an eyesore. ”  (p. 383 – 384)

“Banks commit the legal crime of fraud wholesale; they do so out in the open, have entire departments committed to it, and have employees who’ve spent years literally doing nothing but commit, over and over again, the same legal crime that some welfare mothers go to jail for doing once.  But they’re not charged, because there’s no political crime.  The system is not disgusted by the organized, mechanized search for profit.  It’s more like it’s impressed by it.”  (p. 384)

“[The] Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee was given a budget of $9.8 million… Meanwhile, that same year the federal drug enforcement budget leaped from $13.275 billion to $15.278 billion.  That meant that just the increase [italics added] in the national drug enforcement budget for the year of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression was roughly two hundred times the size of the budget for the sole executive branch effort at formally investigating the causes of financial corruption.”  (p. 407)

“…in this period of extreme crisis, we not only didn’t allocate funds to investigate the [financial] crash, we actively did increase the budget to tackle street crime, incidentally at a time of declining street violence.”  (p. 408)

If you read all these quotes, you should now be furious at a system that ignores wealthy criminals, evens rewards them, while actively harassing and jailing the poor, quite often for simply being poor.  While disgust of the poor certainly plays a role in their harassment, so does a tax policy that favors the rich.  When local governments do not receive enough money from taxes, they have to make up the loss somehow.  What better way than harassing the poor with nuisance arrests?  It’s a giant scam.

To repeat one of Taibbi’s quotes: “…there’s a direct correlation between need and rights.  The more you need, the more you owe, the fewer rights you have.”  (p. 325)



International Human Rights Day

December 10, 2012 was the International Human Rights Day, a day that we remind ourselves that far too many individuals still lack basic human rights.  There are 27 million men, women, and children laboring in slavery.  Girls are too frequently denied an education and forced into early marriage when, instead, girls could be powerful forces of economic and political change.

International Human Rights will not be achieved until women have the same opportunities and rights as men; until we have gender equity.  Women’s Rights are Human Rights.

One day each year to remind ourselves that everyone deserves human rights is not often enough. But it is a beginning.

International Day of the Girl

On October 11, 2012, we will celebrate the 1st International Day of the Girl.  This past week (10/1/12 and 10/2/12), PBS aired a two-night, four-hour documentary entitled “Half the Sky” which highlighted the work being done to help girls in several different countries.  This help includes escaping sex slavery, dealing with rape, obtaining an education, and improving healthcare.  As stated on the Half the Sky Movement website, their goal is “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” If you missed “Half the Sky” on PBS, you can view it online until October 8 (Part 1) and October 9 (Part 2).

Women and girls form 50% of the world’s population.  Ignoring their needs imperils the future of us all.  One of the biggest issues for girls is being forced into marriage when they are still children.  This ends their education, increases the probability that they and their children will be and will remain in poverty, and also exacerbates healthcare issues. President Bill Clinton has called child marriage a form of slavery. Another website that gets to the heart of the issue on why education for girls matters is The Girl Effect.

I hope that you will celebrate the International Day of the Girl by making sure that the girls in your lives have the full range of education and opportunities that they need to become successful women.


Material Wealth Equals Intelligence? Part 1.5

After I published Part 1 of this essay, I heard from a friend who thought I was being too harsh in my treatment of the wealthy.  She also stated that the best way for those in poverty to have a chance to demonstrate their abilities and intelligence, and to achieve monetary success, was for them to obtain a quality education.  While this was not the point of Part 1, I do agree with her that a quality education is a key to ending poverty. Since the poor are unable to provide themselves with a quality education, the funds to provide this education must come from elsewhere.  I see two options: philanthropy and/or taxes. Both options rely on the wealthy (or at least those who have incomes well above poverty levels).  Therefore, if the relationship [>power = >possessions = >intelligence = >human] I describe is invalid, all of those with the most power and possessions would not consider the poor to be less worthy, less human, than themselves and would willingly provide the funds, whether via philanthropy or taxes, so that the poor could obtain the quality education they need to achieve monetary success.

As with every relationship, there are exceptions.  As I mentioned to my friend, Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, does invest his money to improve the lives of the poor.  In addition, Branson is working to ensure that his businesses operate in a sustainable manner in order to lessen the burden to Earth’s biosphere.  If all of those with great power and possessions/money would follow Branson’s lead, the relationship I describe would be invalid.  But I suspect I will be waiting a long time.

PS.  Happy Birthday Sir Richard and President Mandela!  (July 18, 2012)