Ben Carson’s Comments on Poverty

United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson caused a hubbub amongst Democrats and Democrat-leaning political commentators this past week. Here’s what he said on SiriusXM’s Town Hall hosted by Armstrong Williams:

I think poverty, to a large extent, is also a state of mind. You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee you, in a little while, they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way back down to the bottom. So, a lot of it also has to do with what we teach children because parenting is a very difficult job. You have to instill into that child the mindset of a winner if they’re likely to become a winner. If you’re always telling them they’re no good, they’re rotten, they hear that constantly, they see that around them. Then, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that that’s where the majority of them are going to go.

That this statement caused a hubbub should not come as a surprise to my American readers. The divide between Democrats and Republicans (and those who affiliate with each party) corresponds to many ideological divides. The one that governs responses to Carson’s comments runs quite deep. This is the divide between those who see agents’ actions as largely out of their control and those who see them as largely under their control. The divide is deep because control is generally seen as a necessary condition on responsibility, blame, and all sorts of normative attributions. Either an agent has control of some action, or they are not responsible for it, to be blamed for it, and so on.

People on both sides of the aisle took Carson’s statements as an indication that he sees agents’ actions as largely under their control. This, however, is to assume two things:

1) That Carson believes that states of mind or mindsets are under agents’ control.

This is a natural assumption, but neither is it explicitly confirmed by Carson nor is it implied. It isn’t implied because he immediately indicates that a large (perhaps the largest?) factor in explaining a child’s mindset is the way that it is parented. Perhaps Carson thinks that mindsets are largely out of agents’ control and his main message here is that parents need to do better to instill the right mindsets in their children. If Carson holds that mindsets govern actions, mindsets are out of agents’ control, and control is a necessary condition on responsibility, blame, etc., then Carson is not asserting that agents’ actions are largely under their control.

2) That Carson is not speaking as an advocate.

What do I mean by this? Well, people in positions of power will often make claims that are not intended to be taken literally. Instead, they are meant to be taken as encouragement. In Carson’s case, if he is speaking as an advocate, we can’t infer that he believes what he says. He may deny that agents’ actions are largely under their control. Still, Carson might speak as if he thinks agents’ actions are largely under their control to effect changes in agents’ beliefs about their control. Parents express strong blame to their children when they do wrong–while knowing that the children have no control over the actions in question–because the expressions of blame (whether warranted or not) change the incentive structure surrounding that action. Carson may believe that whether agents have control over their actions or not, it is better if they believe that they have control.

On the basis of the above analysis, I would like to suggest that the hubbub surrounding Carson’s comments potentially obscures his true intentions or meaning. But the possibility of a plausible and more charitable interpretation of his comments also reveals the reason for the hubbub. Democrats and Democrat-leaning political commentators aren’t trying to be charitable when they interpret and respond to people on the other side of the aisle. Rather, they are encouraging themselves and others to have negative attitudes about Carson, and to believe that he is “the enemy”. Of course, this isn’t unique behavior. Everyone does it. It’s called signaling.

One reason to stop signaling with regard to the issue Carson brings up is this: it’s hard to see how he is not at least–partially–right. Poor people aren’t simply leaves in the wind. They have some degree of control over their income and socioeconomic status more generally. We can disagree about the extent to which they have control over their poorness, but to assume that they have essentially no control would be hard to justify. After all, we assume that they have control in other domains, as when we rightfully imprison them for murder, rape, domestic abuse, etc. Why think that some subset of actions–those that generate wealth, broadly construed–are somehow special?

But the broader question is this: why not play both games? Why not simultaneously say that poor people have some control over their poorness AND assume that they have much less control than they should? Working on both ends of the issue at the same time wouldn’t hurt, especially if it is very useful to inculcate the belief that one has control, regardless of whether it is true.

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