Friday, January 10, 2014

Does Luck Have a Half-life?

More protests are breaking out around the plight of fast food workers unable to survive on the minimum wage.  They are demanding a wage increase to $15 an hour.  The news has presented the arguments pro and con, but have usually given more time to the protesters, sometimes, as in this CBS piece, picking out one as a kind of “poster child” for the cause.  The hidden problem is that minimum wage, unemployment extensions, food stamps and other proposed government solutions ignore behavioral factors.

A primary argument in favor of this issue tells us that all these people are less fortunate, that they need a helping hand to get back on their feet, that "there, but for the grace of God,” go we.  They completely ignore well-known wisdom that behavior has consequences.  We are presented with the argument that every one of these fast food workers are merely down on his luck or victims of a bad economy, and that the situation has nothing to do with consequences of behavior.  This unbelievable scenario is widely accepted by otherwise rational people.  The media and many politicians never challenge it.

This leads to an interesting comparison:  In other circumstances, how do caring people really act?  If your teenage son sits on the sofa all day playing videogames, ignoring homework and refusing to do his chores, do good parents excuse the behavior and cover for him.  Do they pass it off with, “That’s OK; he’s going through a tough time”?  Even non-parents know the answer.  Good parents will institute consequences for this poor behavior knowing that if they don’t, life and reality will later institute much harsher consequences.  Teenage sons can be very difficult, but good parents anticipate with a pattern of similar, consistent reactions to deal with natural childhood resistance and laxness.  That’s how caring people act.  They don’t always come to the rescue – behavior that makes the rescuer feel powerful, but often causes long-term harm to the one rescued.  When the bad situation is a bad break, sympathy and a leg up are appropriate.  If the son is mugged and loses a money, good parents may reimburse him for the loss.  If he loses it gambling, that’s the consequence of poor behavior.  Bailing him out is inappropriate, dulls the impact of the consequence and no learning occurs.  (For an extreme example see the recent case of "affluenza" in Texas.)

Returning to the case of minimum wage employees, especially those presented by the media and never challenged, we must ask if it was bad luck or consequences that contributed to the situation.  If it’s luck, then some temporary help is appropriate, because bad luck does have a kind of half-life or statute of limitations.  A little help can turn things around, but caring people do not bail out from consequences.  That only fosters problematic behavior.

Even in these seemingly innocent human-interest stories the determination requires only a few simple questions.  Where did those two or three children come from?  Where is the father (or fathers)?  What contribution is he making?  If none, why not?  Did all of them finish high school; were drugs ever involved; are they applying for better jobs, are they looking for ways in increase skills, etc., etc.?  What is the long-term plan, if any?  (CBS later reported that their "poster-child" example turned down promotions more than once because it didn’t fit her preferred personal schedule.  Another news story told of a kind social worker repairing at minimum cost the car of a woman who hasn't been able to work in 5 years due to a neck injury.  She can't work, but she can drive?!) 

Looking at the situation through the behavioral lens would probably determine that many of these people are not victims.  Many are living with the consequences of earlier choices.  Should caring people run to bail them out, labeling them all as “less fortunate,” as the compassionistas would have us believe?  Not only do they not learn and grow, but the next generation, poised to make the same mistakes, sees no example to discourage them from following the same path.  So, the current, non-behavioral approaches, which lump them all into the same category, lead not to solutions but to perpetual problems.

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