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Bee Stings

Charles Karelis ’67, former philosophy professor and current visiting faculty member, thinks about poverty differently.

IMAGINE GETTING A bee sting; then imagine getting six more. You are now in a position to think about what it means to be poor, according to Charles Karelis, a philosopher and former president of Colgate University.

In the community of people dedicated to analyzing poverty, one of the sharpest debates is over why some poor people act in ways that ensure their continued indigence. Compared with the middle class or the wealthy, the poor are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, to have children while in their teens, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to not save when extra money comes their way, to not work.

To an economist, this is irrational behavior. It might make sense for a wealthy person to quit his job, or to eschew education or develop a costly drug habit. But a poor person, having little money, would seem to have the strongest incentive to subscribe to the Puritan work ethic, since each dollar earned would be worth more to him than to someone higher on the income scale. Social conservatives have tended to argue that poor people lack the smarts or willpower to make the right choices. Social liberals have countered by blaming racial prejudice and the crippling conditions of the ghetto for denying the poor any choice in their fate. Neoconservatives have argued that antipoverty programs themselves are to blame for essentially bribing people to stay poor.

Karelis, a professor at George Washington University, has a simpler but far more radical argument to make: traditional economics just doesn’t apply to the poor. When we’re poor, Karelis argues, our economic worldview is shaped by deprivation, and we see the world around us not in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated. This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

I find discussions of poverty that don’t mention IQ to be silly. But read the whole thing for a different take.

In challenging decades of poverty research, Karelis draws on some economic data and some sociological research. But, more than that, he makes his case as a philosopher, arguing by analogy and induction. This approach means that he remains relatively unknown, even among poverty researchers. The book in which he laid out his argument, “The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can’t Help the Poor,” wasn’t widely read when it was published last year.

A few, though, have taken notice, and are arguing that Karelis does have something important to say.

“There’s not much evidence in the book, and there are a lot of bold claims, but it’s great that he’s making them,” says Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University. It “was a really great book, and it was totally neglected.”

A common fate for the ideas of we Williams philosophy majors . . .

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