My thanks to Professor Charles Karelis, author of The Persistence of Poverty, for his excellent comment beneath my recent guest post at Psychology Today's Headcase blog. I'm reprinting the comment below, but first a recap and some additional thoughts.
My post focused on a 2008 study that Dan Ariely linked to a few weeks ago, and which found that premature deaths in the US are increasingly the result of bad personal decisions (rather than causes such as accidents or genetic diseases).
After explaining the study, I mentioned that some of these decisions are made disproportionately by people in poverty. This is where Karelis's book comes into play, as its main thesis is about how the decisions faced by the poor are different in nature than those faced by everybody else. I summarized his idea as follows:
If you have so many burdens in your life at the same time—joblessness, obesity, crime—then eliminating just one of them makes a difference so negligible that you'll simply choose not to address any of them.
As Mike Konczal explained in a great post last year, Karelis posits that solving the first of many problems brings very little satisfaction, or "utility" in economic speak. The problems that remain are so many, varied, and painful that someone in poverty will hardly notice. But if the first problem does get solved, then solving each additional problem would bring increasing satisfaction, as the issues become fewer and more manageable. This is an idea that reverses the traditional economic utility function, which predicts diminishing returns for additional goods. But the point is that because solving the first problem brings such little satisfaction to someone in poverty, it won't be worth the effort to get started. "Hence the persistence of poverty," Konczal writes. (That's an extremely simplistic overview, so do read Konczal's full post for more depth, or better yet buy the book.)
Anyways, the book generated additional discussion within the blogosphere (see also Tyler Cowen in 2007), with mostly favorable reviews. But some reviewers noted that although the book's ideas were intriguing, they hadn't been tested and consequently there didn't seem to be much evidence for them.
In my post at Psychology Today, I wondered why it hadn't been investigated. Despite the discussion of utility, along with Vaughan Bell I understood Karelis's theory to be as much about psychology as about economics. And I closed my post by suggesting that if social scientists were going to design new experiments and conduct new research about personal decision-making (as Ariely recommends), they should keep Karelis's theory in mind. In other words, this seems like a situation where it's not necessarily appropriate to isolate psychological influences from socioeconomic ones, as they might interact with each other in complicated ways.
Karelis writes below that the rationalist paradigm of economics needn't be discarded for his critique of the utility function to hold, and he also responds to the notion that his theory is unproven. I thank him again for the comment and reproduce it here in full:
From the author of the Persistence of Poverty, cited in these posts. My book doesn't link the life-shortening decisions discussed by Ariely (smoking, overeating) to the utility function I hypothesized. That extrapolation seems to have been made first by Ezra Klein in his Washington Post blog, and it was carried further by Mr. Coates in his Atlantic blog and by Andrew Sullivan in his blog. But though I didn't make it in my book, I find the extrapolation very plausible. After all, it takes discipline to resist many of these life-shortening activities. They're like work, or maybe you could even say they're a kind of work. So--on the rationalist paradigm of human behavior, which has been too much disparaged by behavioral economics, in my opinion-- the prudent decision will be taken if and only if the accompanying rewards are perceived as being greater than the effort required. What my hypothesis adds here is that for poor people, whose plates are heaped high with troubles--the felt relief brought about in the short run by losing a few pounds or breathing easier as you climb upstairs will be hardly noticeable. What's one or two fewer troubles on a plate heaped high with them? So we need not embrace the (in any case distasteful) hypothesis that poor people suffer from limited time horizons in order to explain the failure to resist these life-shortening temptations.
As for the question whether my book is "empirically confirmed," I would respectfully contend that my critics have a paradigm of "the empirical" that over-relies on laboratory evidence and under-weighs the question of which among competing theories offers the simplest explanation of undisputed facts about human behavior, such as the greater obesity, alcohol consumption, and smoking among the poor; and I'd add that positivist economics has a double-standard when it comes to introspective evidence. The conventional wisdom about the utility function rests on little else besides introspection. Take down your intro econ text and look if you doubt it.