The Bellend Curve

Lawrence M. Mead, third of his name, professor of politics and public policy at NYU and former speechwriter for Henry Kissinger, has recently published a ‘commentary’ on ‘poverty and culture’ in the American social sciences journal Society. A jeremiad against ‘racial minorities’ and the ‘non-Western cultures’ that they ostensibly hail from, the piece has attracted considerable attention on social media. As a historian of poverty and inequalities across the Atlantic world, I have seen his exact argument (that ‘culture’ is to blame for poverty) several times before, though usually in my case in seventeenth-century primary sources purporting to explain why slavery was somehow beneficial for the enslaved, or in allegedly beneficent improvement proposals (in need of funding, of course) aimed at the eyes of sympathetic officials.

I would not be at all surprised to see one particular constellation of internet commentators (loosely organised around outlets like Quillette) latch onto both Mead’s piece, reassuringly evidence-free and full of misleading generalities, and onto any controversy it manages to court. After all, clicks are the only currency that matters when you’re shilling for dollars at the Liberty Fund or the Adam Smith Institute or when selling ad space in your digital magazine. Mead’s piece will remind them, I imagine, of the work of Charles Murray (who he cites), and you can certainly draw a line between the cooked data that Murray used to ‘prove’ racial differences in IQ and the sloppy claims and poor evidence base that Mead uses in his own work.

Personally, I would plot that line as a curve. A Bellend Curve, if you will.

Scholars across a range of disciplines are already mobilising to demand a retraction from Society, though having looked at their editorial board a little bit, I don’t think this one slipped through so much as it was positively encouraged. Personally, I’m not interested in getting Mead’s piece retracted, I suspect that plays into the hands of people who I never wish to assist, even by accident, and that it would just mushroom up again in some other fetid context. Instead I would much rather provide some resources to dismantle the piece. It is an example (I mean, just look at his footnotes) in the tired, vacuous, and racist tradition of blaming the poor collectively for their poverty. And the ‘scholarship’, such as it is, is miserably lacking. It should have been rejected, even as a five-page ‘commentary’, on those grounds alone.

I mean, just look at this trash, almost all of it from thirty years ago, and this is before we even get to Murray. Heard of page numbers Lawrence?

So, I am going to do two things in the remainder of this piece. I am going to pick out a handful of the key assertions in Mead’s commentary and show how they fail even the most basic scrutiny. The second thing I am going to do is suggest a few accessible works in the footnotes that interested readers can migrate to in order to actually find out about poverty in contemporary America in a responsible manner.

Meadiocrity:

Even the most cursory glance at Mead’s book-length publications immediately reveals his politics. Mead made some hay in conservative circles the 1990s with two books, Beyond Entitlement and The New Politics of Poverty; the kind of stuff probably on Newt Gingrich’s bookshelf around 1994 (and sadly also on Bill Clinton’s) during that period of ‘welfare reform’ in America. He comes from the same conservative intellectual circles as Gertrude Himmelfarb, and while she made functionally identical claims about ‘cultures of poverty’ in 19th century England (she was a historian of poverty in addition to her prominent role in American conservatism), she at least did so from a position of distant sympathy and some ability, and in so doing produced usable scholarship. Scholars subsequently took a look at the data that Mead based his claims on (his central claim was the exact same, then as now), and found they could not replicate the data on the effects of wage claims on Black-White joblessness rates or duration. Mead was making shit up. Most serious scholars of poverty and inequality have paid only enough attention to Mead’s work to see it for what it was, but his publications and his ideas about ‘entitlements’ have clearly found some purchase in public policy over the years. And therein lies the problem. We ignore these people at our peril.

Mead clearly doesn’t know anything about inequality in American history either, evident when he writes:

“In the orthodox view, the problems are all due to lack of the resources and other advantages enjoyed by the middle class. The trouble with this view, however, is that American cities were never this troubled a century or two ago.”

This is really only possible to write if you are willing to (a) ignore literally everything ever written about economic circumstances in colonial America, and (b) pretend slavery never existed or that it had no consequences after its abolition. Mead should read some Gary Nash or Billy G. Smith or hundreds of other perfectly middle-of-the-road histories of early America. He won’t though.

It takes more work to refute this garbage than it probably took to write it, and so in the larger knowledge economy, in the vast and vibrant sub-fields focused on poverty and inequality; most scholars trying to crack on with the business of actually improving understanding somewhat have simply given Mead a pass, or when they did comment, they have pointed out just how ‘Jim Crow’ the guy sounds (seriously, read the amazon reviews of his latest book, two types of people clearly get it).

Instead of doing that some more (it really is tempting), I’m going to examine the central claim and assumptions from his poverty and culture commentary, and hopefully show in a concise fashion how wrong they are. In order to do this, I cannot take the ‘bait’ inherent in the piece, which is that restoring ‘traditional family dynamics’ in ‘poor neighbourhoods’ will effect a sea change in cultural attitudes to work. There are far too many rancid assumptions in that assertion to unpick in a Medium post, it really piles them on. And by page 4, Mead is not even trying to hide his racism:

“Academics blame black social problems on white oppression. By that logic, the problems should have been worst prior to the civil rights reforms in the 1960s. But in fact the opposite occurred. The collapse of the black family occurred mostly after civil rights rather than before. Most blacks came from a highly collective society in Africa, then lived under slavery and Jim Crow in the South.Those structures kept disorder at a low level.

I mean what the hell. What do you even say to that other than David Duke is on the line, and he wants to endorse you.

I am going to try to confine myself from here to Mead’s evident lack of understanding of two absolute basics: the difference between inequalities of outcome and inequalities of opportunity, and the problem inherent in using a ‘utility of income maximisation’ to examine economic behaviour of impoverished people.

1. Inequality of Opportunity versus Inequality of Outcome:

First of all, Mead has clearly never read a lick of actual work from economists of inequality, and appears to have no understanding whatsoever of ‘choice’ and ‘constraint’ and the roles that they play in individuated economic decision-making. His cack-handed theory about ‘cultures of the poor’ necessarily assumes that individual poor people could simply choose to get hired into steady employment should they actively wish to do so, an assumption violently at odds with the realities of the modern gig and service economy in the US. Equality of opportunity is also only possible if all circumstances beyond an individual’s control, such as family background, ethnicity, gender, and health, have no practical effect whatsoever on a given economic outcome at scale (like, say, a particular age bracket of Black men getting hired).[1] This isn’t me just spouting off, that is literally the definition of the term in economics. It is, in other words, a theoretically useful idea but it is extremely difficult to produce in reality, which becomes immediately evident when we look at data which breaks down modern poverty rates by race or ethnicity, as household income data generally does (there are a range of reservations about this data even so).

In his commentary, Mead also writes that:

“ Today, the seriously poor are mostly blacks [sic] and Hispanics, and the main reason is cultural difference. The great fact is that these groups did not come from Europe. Fifty years after civil rights, their main problem is no longer racial discrimination by other people but rather that they face an individualist culture that they are unprepared for. Their native stance toward life is much more passive than the American norm.” (3)

This claim is both visibly stupid, and again, fundamentally racist (large numbers of poor families in the United State can trace their ancestral residence in the country back hundreds of years, for starters, so how exactly is ‘their’ culture any different from ‘American’ culture?). Nowhere does Mead provide any evidence of this sort of claim, probably because virtually every usable study of racial disparities in American poverty has shown how those disparities are produced by powerful and enduring externalities, by a stark and obvious lack of equality of opportunity, the very thing Mead assumes all the American poor to have access to (merely by dint of living in the US, one assumes). I think the closest he gets to proof is a debunked study from the 90s about the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Moreover, nowhere does Mead discuss either debt or inheritance, the two crucial mechanisms by which inequalities are passed on and perpetuated. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his essay “The Case for Reparations”, wrote: ‘many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were determined to be in debt — and they often were — the negative balance was then carried over to the next season.’[2] I would be mildly interested in hearing from Mead how that situation from the Jim Crow era is meaningfully different to the well-documented debt peonage pushed on Uber drivers, for instance. I guess Uber hasn’t loaned them a flat yet, but is anyone willing to take bets on that?It must also be a coincidence that workers of colour are over-represented in that precarious workforce, as in others. Oh and by the way, the simple fact that BIPOC workers are statistically over-represented in precarious jobs with shitty conditions, on its face, clearly disproves Mead’s arguments about a ‘culture of laziness’ inherited somehow from Foreign Places. I’d like to see this guy, even in his prime, try a shift working one of these gigs.

2. The Social Utility of a Life Spent Maxing My Income

Mead’s main goal appears to be changing the ‘culture of poverty’ which allegedly convinces poor minority populations in the USA to eschew any path to rational income maximisation and thus into the middle classes, presumably by… what, educating people to a higher standard? Not like there isn’t a 300 year history of that particular stand-alone tactic. He doesn’t actually say what he would do to help, and his only real suggestion appears to be that ‘external order must be enforced’ in ‘inner-city’ communities lacking it, which sounds like something Donald Trump would say if he could form complete and coherent sentences.

Mead does write this about the ‘free life’ he wishes the poor to be more ‘willing’ to lead:

“Why attempt more? Better-off Americans have more income, but their lives are filled with responsibilities to others, including families and employers. We call them “privileged,” but they are less free in this inner sense than the poor. For many poor adults, the point of life may not be to maximize income.” (4)

Sitting behind this condescension about forms of living not dedicated to ‘maximising income’ are ideas about the utility of individuals and the ‘sum’ of their social uses; a general approach to social utility that the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen rinsed when he described it as ‘supremely unconcerned with the inter-personal distribution of that sum’ which ‘should make it a particularly unsuitable approach to use for measuring or judging inequality’ (emphasis mine).[3]

Sen’s work was instrumental in the latter half of the 20th century in developing understandings of poverty that pushed well past this tired old idea of rational economic actors maximising themselves in the marketplace (and measuring poverty by looking only at those outcomes which facilitated this view). Most of us practising in the field today often forget that there are still people out there, like Mead, who insist on holding to this view despite the mountains of evidence (and widespread global acceptance) that poverty is far more complicated and harder to measure.

Mead is using a set of indicators to construct his ‘culture of poverty’ that have not been used in international scholarship since at least the 1950s. I suspect that is deliberate.

Anyways:

It is my view we need to start doing more than just getting retractions and removals when pieces like Mead’s come up, although in this case the scholarship is just so shoddy that, for the preservation of basic expectations, we ought to see it happen. Mead’s thesis regarding ‘cultures of poverty’ among BIPOC populations in the states is a textbook example of racism couched in superficially scholarly prose, and I don’t want to give it any more air after this. But I did think that maybe, just maybe, if I could point out just how much this guy obviously doesn’t know, how much he is blowing smoke, it might help to flatten another curve that clearly needs it: The Bellend Curve.

[1] See Anthony B. Atkinson, Inequality: What can be done? (Harvard, 2015); p. 9.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (Penguin, 2017); p. 165.

[3] Amartya Sen, On Economic Inequality (Oxford, 1973); p. 16.

Further Reading:

Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American city (Penguin, 2016). Won a Pulitzer and everything.

Billy G. Smith (ed), Down and Out in early America (Penn State, 2004).

Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (Penguin, 2006)

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright, 2018)

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David Hitchcock

David Hitchcock

Historian of poverty, utopia, and colonialism. Author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 and co-editor of the Routledge History of Poverty.