Poverty Makes People Stupid Not Vice Versa

Rutger BregmanRutger Bregman is the Dutch writer who recently went to Davos and created a stir by telling the rich assholes, “Just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes.” This matters because as of what Anand Giridharadas has been talking about: the rich see themselves as problem solvers. It is just that they can’t imagine proposing solutions that might cost them any money.[1]

This got even more attention when Tucker Carlson interviewed Bregman for his show, only to freak out when Bregman noted (among other things that Carson’s concern for the poor was only quite new and that he had “jumped the bandwagon.” He said, “You’re like, ‘Oh, I’m against the globalist elite, blah blah blah.’ It’s not very convincing, to be honest.”

The Poor Don’t Deserve to Be Poor

But Rutger Bregman has been around for a while. A year and a half ago, he gave a great talk at TED, Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character; It’s a Lack of Cash. I’ll provide an overview below, but it’s worth watching:

What Bregman talks about is research that demonstrates that people aren’t poor because they are stupid; they are stupid because they are poor. One of the studies is shocking. Researchers look at farmers who get paid once a year at harvest. As a result, they are relatively rich for half the year and relatively poor the other half. So they were given IQ tests before and after harvest. And there was an average 14 point increase during the rich time over the poor time. Fourteen points!

The Marshmallow Test

“For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed.”

The elite of this nation love Walter Mischel’s marshmallow studies because it supposedly proves what they want to believe. It supposedly tests how long children can forgo a pleasure (one marshmallow) for a better pleasure (two marshmallows). Children that can wait for the second marshmallow did better in school. QED, am I right?!

The problem is, this trivializes Mischel’s work. For one thing, Mischel found that ten years later, there was no difference between the children in terms of their self-restraint. But it turns out, Mischel wasn’t even testing self-restraint (“grit”) but the ability of children to find their own self-distraction strategies.

The most fascinating follow-up test primed the children by disappointing half of them with a similar test. “Sorry kid, but I can’t give you want I promised.” When the children were then given the marshmallow test. The half who weren’t previously disappointed waited (on average) 12 minutes; the disappointed kids waited 3 minutes.

The implication to poverty is obvious, as the study’s authors pointed out, “For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed.”

Double Punishing the Poor

What’s especially awful about the elite’s position on this is that in addition to letting the poor suffer, we blame them for that suffering. (At the same time, in addition to letting the rich live in ridiculous luxury, we tell them it is because they are so great.) And that’s wrong.

After his speech, the TED audience gave Rutger Bregman a standing ovation. But I have no doubt that after a month, all those elites had totally forgotten about it and returned to normal: assuming the poor are poor because they just aren’t good enough.

But even if not, the Davos crowd showed what’s really going on. It’s one thing to say that the poor shouldn’t be poor. It’s quite another thing to say that the rich need to foot the bill. The first claim is airy and might mean that the middle class needs to pay for the solution. The second claim leaves no doubt.

And Bregman didn’t even give them an out. He said that philanthropy was not nearly good enough. They needed to do something that wouldn’t give them glowing articles in The New York Times. They need to accept that they don’t deserve their riches. Above all, they need to accept that they need to pay much more in taxes — not because they are good people but because it is the law.


Bregman is in favor of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). I have a bit of a problem with it. It’s fine the way that he thinks of it. The problem is that tons of conservatives have been attracted to the UBI. Why? Because they see it as a way to get rid of the safety net. So they are fine with giving everyone $10,000 per year but at the cost of education, healthcare, and everything else.

So be careful when you talk to people about the UBI. A lot of them are not proposing it in good faith. It’s a great idea. But when Rutger Bregman and Martin Friedman agree on a policy, it is certainly because they are talking about different things.

[1] I disagree with Giridharadas in that he seems to think they are good people who just don’t see their own blind-spots. That’s clearly not true; their blind-spots allow them to think of themselves as good. And they clearly aren’t. You work out if their convenient blind-spots are natural or manufactured.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Poverty Makes People Stupid Not Vice Versa

  1. What’s wild about how that marshmallow study is commonly misrepresented, is what the misrepresentation entails. Essentially, that some people are genetically hard-wired for success, and others for failure, based on their inherited long-term planning skills. (As if Trump ever delayed gratification one day in his damn life.)

    Yet fear not, marshmallow-eaters! For there’s a whole slew of books out there you can read which teach you how to retrain your brain, think as the successful do. Such as, set goals and stick to them. But don’t be afraid to jettison a failed plan if something better comes along. Failure is the sign you’re doing something wrong, except when fighting through failure proves you were right all along. Think horizontally, strive vertically! Blahblahfuckmeblah.

    Seriously, every ambitious corporate professional has at least two of these things on their bookshelf. They’re like the office-drone equivalent of angel figurines.

    I suppose it was bound to come to this. For years, the argument for tax cuts on the rich was “trickle-down,” which never worked (although I always enjoyed the inadvertent metaphor of the rich pissing on everyone else). Then it became a silly philosophical argument about “taxation = theft,” which didn’t last long as most companies rob customers & employees blind.

    Now, naturally, it’s wrong to tax the rich because they are Superior Beings. How dare ye! (So thunders Bezos from Olympus, or at least Puget Sound, with its lovely view of the Olympic mountain range.) Mortals such as thou knowest not the way of godkind!

    Oh, well. At least folks like Bregman and Richard Wilkinson get paid for TED Talks, and gigs like that usually have good catering.

    • As Thomas Frank noted in a more restricted way, these books are not written for people who want to learn; they are written for people who want to be comforted that they are the good kind of people. “The book says I should get a college education and I have!”

      The new argument for not taxing the rich seems to be particularly vile: you only have a job because the rich pay no taxes; you wanna keep your job, right? Of course, they’ve always been said to be super beings. But I don’t need to go into it. As usual, Stewart Lee says better what’s on my mind:

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