Matthew Yglesias posted a blog with a similar title, without the exclamation which I express for this idea. Here’s Matt, channeling his inner William Easterly:

Alternatively, one under-discussed possibility is for a guy who has a lot of money and a desire to help poor people to just identify some poor people and give them some money. It sounds banal when you say it, but one of the main obstacles to people being less poor is that they don’t have enough money. If you give them money, they’ll have more of it. Will this be optimal in all cases? Of course not. But in the vast majority of cases, you’ll do some good. It’s tempting to believe that you’re on the [v]erge of some major conceptual breakthrough in the field of philanthropy. But give some consideration to the possibility that you’re not. Perhaps if you have a special talent for anything, it’s a talent for making money. It’s not very hard to identify some people who might need money more than you do. Maybe you should just give them some, and then go back to making money.

Indeed, I think that Matt discounts the effectiveness of making simple transfers of cold hard cash (or digital numbers) from one section of society to another. Here’s me:

This tendency [to fiddle with wages] is called the “just price fallacy“, and it is very popular in politics…and unfortunately, seems to be human nature to decry prices we don’t deem to be “just”. Going all the way back to Diocletian, we can find examples of people verily condemning “price gouging” or “profiteering”. Of course, as we know from economic theory (and experience) setting price floors causes unemployment, and setting price ceilings causes shortages.

In (nearly?) all cases, simply giving poor people money is much better anti-poverty measure. Ironically, Milton Friedman, widely regarded as a “conservative economist” was one of the strongest backers of the negative income tax — a policy deemed “too liberal”! Why the tepid response to things like the Earned Income Tax Credit from the non-economist left (we know the right do it to simply score political points with constituents)? Well, it seems that it stems from what I like to call the “Barbara Ehrenreich theory of value[1]“. For those of you who do not know who Ehrenreich is, she pretty much built the industry of authors working undercover doing low-paying jobs, with the intent on writing a normative essay about the experience. Of course, the common conclusions are that we should treat these people nicer (which is fairly uncontroversial), and we should pay them more based on the humility that they face. By giving money directly to the poor, it seems that we are “justifying” employers that profit from “slave labor”. Of course, this is wrong and wrong-headed, but the view persists.

I’m guessing that I have a much weaker paternal instinct than Matthew, such that once it was identified the socially optimal level of transfer, then I say just simply give people money — which is the cheapest thing to do from a deadweight loss perspective. I am guessing that Matthew would much prefer a system of voucher payments, in order to exert more control over how poor people spend money. At least this is a tacit acknowledgement that hyperbolic discounting is a major problem for poor people. This is one of the big criticisms that I have for “solutions” politicians dream up. As I outlined in this article:

There is a very high correlation between poverty and hyperbolic discounting. Because this is true, many of the left simply deny that the fact that it exists, or worse — even if they acquiesce to the fact that poor people tend to heavily discount the future, they claim that we need better education, more information, etc., to battle the problem. The traditional hard-line right wing (not Hayek, yes Rothbard) is Mathus’ and Franklin’s prescription; let them suffer.

Why these strategies are wrong is that they both exaggerate the problem. Education is the perfect example of something that people who heavily discount the future will not tolerate. The whole problem with extreme hyperbolic discounting is that it makes people unwilling to tolerate short-term deprivation in order to receive exponential long-term benefits. The right’s preferred solution does the exact same thing. Making alcoholics ineligible for liver transplants, or not paying for cigarette smokers’ chemotherapy so that they have to suffer financially isn’t going to deter anyone, because the punishment is so far off that it is effectively discounted to zero. There is no use in kicking people after they’re down, in the same way that it is unconstructive to repeatedly tell people how badly they are screwing up.

I’m not personally all that interested in how poorly people spend their money. However, it is relatively straightforward to design incentive systems that take hyperbolic discounting into account.

Interestingly this is an area where I sort of disagree with Arnold Kling, who bills himself as a ‘civil societarian’. He believes that voluntary donation to public services will provide a superior outcome in gaining high-quality public services. I’m skeptical of this, as there are search costs, and information asymmetries inherent in judging the quality and efficacy of the vast amount of public services. I think it would simply lead to the most visible services getting all the money, with the less visible services suffering…independent of the value they create for society. For example, it is a monumentally large task to maintain records of property rights. It’s easier now, but historically it has been so difficult that possession became “9/10ths of the law”, simply because records were so poorly kept. This service creates an immense amount of value for society, but it is nearly invisible. It would probably get shafted in a voluntary donation drive in competition with Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Welfare. I think that government has important economies of scale in distribution that would be hard to match with private institutions. The problem is dealing with the inefficiencies of our institutional arrangements.

It is definitely in everybody’s interest that everybody becomes as rich as possible. To that end, we should provide poor people with the means and (possibly) the incentives to make choices that increase their wealth over time (and most importantly, increase intergenerational wealth). To that end, simply giving poor people money that is phased out slowly over the course of an income quintile is much more efficient than the hodge-podge of a safety net we currently have.


Addendum: Before I had a chance to peruse Kevin Drum’s blog, I see he commented on the same thing, taking roughly the opposite view. Although I’m confused by this statement: “The generosity of the American taxpayer is not exactly legendary, after all.” Is that taken to mean that people don’t voluntarily pay more to the government, or that Americans aren’t charitable in general?

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