On choices – good and bad

As the election draws near, it’s clear that ‘welfare reform’ will be one of the main areas of discussion and debate.

It’s also, historically, an area littered with sloganesque arguments that fly around like empty cartridge shells at the OK Coral. [Apparently, in that gunfight, about 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds, which is roughly the rate at which clichés and buzz words are encountered in arguments over welfare.]

One of those slogans/clichés concerns “bad lifestyle choices”.

As ever, Gordon Campbell has done a very good analysis of the various ‘myths’ that surround the issue of welfare and its need for reform.

He notes that the statistics for the Domestic Purposes Benefit are not strongly supportive of the ‘lifestyle option’ thesis:

Since the DPB involves the care of children who are dependent at least until they are 18, you’d think it would reflect lifetime dependency very strongly. Yet instead, over two thirds of DPB recipients (67.7%) are on the DPB for less than four years. More than a quarter of them (26%) are on it for less than a year, even during the recession. If this is a lifestyle choice, it is hardly a fashionable one.

Similarly, the small number of teenage mothers on the DPB contradicts the statement by John Key that significant numbers of young women are on the benefit for a lifetime:

More to the point, the NZ figures on DPB recipients do not bear out Key’s specific assertion about ‘significant numbers of very young women going onto the DPB and staying there for a lifetime.”

In fact, only 3.1 % of those on the DPB are under 20 years of age – and that figure has barely flickered since 2005, when the figure was 2.9 %. Put another way, 97% of the people on the DPB are NOT the ‘very young women’ of Key’s lurid imagination. There are in fact, significantly more people on the DPB over 55 years of age (5.6%) than there are ‘very young women’ receiving this benefit.

The vast bulk of DPB recipients (nearly 75%) are what you would expect : they are aged between 25 and 54. Some 61% of them are caring for children six years or under – a figure that, again, has barely changed since 2005. Nearly half are caring for two or more dependent children.

Many of these women are caring for children alone because of a marriage breakdown, which is rarely a lifestyle choice.

There’s another aspect of ‘lifestyle choices’, however, that I want to focus on. To what extent do ‘outcomes’ in people’s lives tell us anything about the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ decision making abilities of different people?

Choices are obviously relative to circumstances. In fact, the so-called ‘new breed’ of rational choice economists would expect nothing less.

Tim Harford’s book Logic of Life (not to be confused with Francis Jacob’s book of the same title), for example, makes a point of pointing out the unexpected rationality of behaviours that, on the surface, appear maladaptive or even the wreckage of a series of ‘bad choices’.

Whether it is the preference to engage in oral sex by young girls in America (because of the chance of getting aids and getting pregnant versus the loss of reputation) or prostitutes choosing to have unprotected sex (because of the chance of getting aids and getting pregnant versus the gain in income), in Harford’s book, it’s all very logical.

The point is simple: Behaviour isn’t a good guide to how ‘rational’ or even ‘adaptive/good’ people’s choices are. We judge choices after the fact against our society’s norms of success and failure.

Real people, however, make their choices moment by moment in a flux of circumstances – more often than not, they are doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt and are responding, as economists put it, to the incentives in the situation.

But my main point is simpler yet: When you start from a very disadvantaged position, a lifetime of ‘good’ choices can lead to outcomes that – to the relatively advantaged – can appear as failures, as arising from a series of ‘bad choices’.

Similarly, when you start from a very advantaged position, a lifetime of ‘bad’ choices can lead to outcomes that – to the relatively disadvantaged – appear as successes, as arising from a series of ‘good choices’.

Let me get personal for a moment.

The high school I went to was one of the best around here. My classmates were all the sons of lawyers, chartered accountants, doctors, academics and businessmen. I was in the top class, right through high school. It hadn’t been my classmates’ choice – or mine – to be at the school. In many cases, it wasn’t their choice which subjects they took. It was their parents’ choice. They were bright enough, of course.

They were also good enough people but I remember occasions where one or other of them would go off the rails: One was caught dangerously speeding while driving four other boys at the age of 15, almost overturning the car; another punched out the lights of a teacher; several others routinely got drunk and took drugs. In each and every case they were put back onto the rails – the school and their  parents were determined that the boys’ ‘bad choices’ weren’t going to interfere with their prospects.

And, they didn’t. My classmates (those whose ‘outcomes’ I’m aware of) are now mimicking their fathers’ successes – lawyers, doctors, airline pilots, chartered accountants.

I now live in a street where it is a daily experience to see men wandering along in the middle of the day. One man has his head permanently raised faceward to the sky and, as he walks his circuit, he speaks to that ever-present sky in a loud voice.

Another tall, sun-baked man limps daily to and fro past my house. The day before yesterday he crossed the street to where I was walking our dog. He was grinning from ear to ear and, as he approached, he wildly rubbed his hair with both hands and said – loudly – “I’ve gone off my trolley again! I’m a nutter – have been for 27 years. I’m off my rocker!” I chatted with him about my dog and he went on his smiling way, calmer.

The next day he walked past and said that he was off down to the Salvation Army centre to let them know they could get a DVD on the effects of psychiatric drugs by contacting “broadcast Maori TV”. It would cost them $32. He said they could play it to the other men and it might help them understand what was happening to them. He thought it was important that more people knew about the effects of psychiatric drugs.

Yet another man walks his Jack Russell down our street every day. His face is like a weathered craggy outcrop. He told me on the day of the February earthquake – as he was walking his dog around the neighbourhood to check on people – that he’d been in the street for a couple of years now.

Before that he’d been up in Papanui (north Christchurch) but he had to get out because they were all into dope in the house where he flatted (he would now be in his late forties, early fifties probably). He’d been into it, too, for about twenty years, but he knew he had to do something. So he moved here, to our street.

He explained that, before going on to the dope, he’d been in therapy for years, but it didn’t help. Seems that when he was young he was sexually abused – “every day” he said.

Now he’s on medication. He says his mind’s hopeless and he can’t remember well. He doesn’t know whether it was the dope or the medications. I assume he’s on the invalid’s benefit. I assume all these men are.

Were his choices ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

I’d say ‘good’. After all, here he is, walking his dog everyday, chatting to his neighbours, checking up on them. Not a bad ‘outcome’, given where he started.

By the same standard, were my classmates’ choices ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

Or, is ‘choice’ simply not the point?


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7 Responses to On choices – good and bad

  1. just saying says:

    Beautifully put. I just wish more people were able to open their hearts and their minds, and understand that ‘there but for fortune….’

    • Puddleglum says:

      Yes, I was actually thinking about writing the last line as:

      “Whatever happened to the saying, ‘There but for the grace of God’?”

      If anything, I was raised as a socialist atheist – though more by example than instruction – yet those ‘moral/religious’ sayings were commonplace enough and I just assumed that thanking your lucky stars that you didn’t have to bear the life that others did was just part of universal, human nature – a kind of existential gratitude that went hand in hand with human compassion. But, apparently I was wrong.

      Far too frequently for my liking, it seems that others only have a sense of self-congratulatory relief that they are the (deservedly) chosen ones able to enjoy the benefits of an unjust world.

      A strange mix of thinking it’s all down to their efforts but also some kind of reward from the universe for having the good sense to ‘choose’ to be who they are.

      • rosy says:

        An important post.
        I think the last line is right. So many people deride the choices others make. But some bad experiences lead to ‘bad’ paths being accepted – it’s a passive thing. You go along with bad stuff because there is no other logical way to respond. On occasions interventions from other people occur and if you’re lucky, you’ll be aware that there is a chance to make things different, but it can be a hard road.

        It’s much easier when you don’t have psychological protection (I’m not sure I’ve worded that correctly) to remain with what you know. Those interventions, though, are really important even if it’s only years later that the recipient is aware of what they mean. Your Jack Russell man seems to indicate that.

        • Puddleglum says:

          Hi rosy,

          Thanks very much for taking the time to comment!

          You’re right about the potency of ‘interventions’ from others. Work in developmental psychology suggests that the difference between someone following a ‘bad’ path can be a single person in their life who provides some alternative perspective on the situation they’re in and ‘support’ – which may be as little as not dismissing the person out of hand.

          One of the points I was trying to emphasise was that – just from someone’s ‘outcomes’ – it’s actually pretty hard to determine whether they have made ‘good’ or ‘bad’ decisions. In some cases the ‘good’ decision could be something as fundamental as not killing yourself. Where you start from – i.e., just where you are ‘at’ at any point in time – is the better measure of determining whether or not someone has made ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ decisions; not some normative list of ‘success’ in life.

          The problem with the ‘better measure’ is that we don’t know each other well enough to use it. So we rely on normative outcomes – are they holding down a job, have a family, avoided jail, etc.. Just to clarify, I’m not saying that the lives of people who don’t ‘measure up’ on these normative outcomes are somehow ‘equally as ‘good” as those lives that do. That would be to ignore the suffering that such lives involve. I just wanted to remind people that a painful, seemingly ‘dysfunctional’ life may actually have been a better outcome than it could have been if other ‘choices’ had been made by the person.

          But as you highlighted, the last sentence says what I really think: Talking about lives in terms of ‘choices’ just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to understanding how things happen in people’s lives.

          Thanks again for commenting.

          • rosy says:

            Thanks for writing! I do pop in here now and again for some considered insight.

            Yes, I fully agree that it’s hard (actually it’s wrong) to judge decisions by whether the outcome is ‘good’ by some sort of societal norm. Doing something that might endanger could well be as an escape from something that is totally dangerous in a more soul-destroying way. Another example of this is teenage parenting – although it’s considered that a young girl having a baby means lives are wrecked – accidental young mums who are doing well might well say that a child has given them purpose and they may otherwise have fallen into destructive lifestyles.

            The context of an action or a response to a negative situation is all important. People understand things from their own circumstances and from there it’s quite difficult to empathise with people who don’t do what is best for themselves, or follow the rules that will allow them to access services – healthcare, education etc. That’s something that doesn’t seem to be understood very well imo.

          • Puddleglum says:

            Hi rosy,

            It’s no problem to write replies. I have only a few comments usually so I’m able to provide ‘individual attention’ 🙂

            The optimistic side of my point about people often doing the best with the hand life has dealt them (even if it still looks like a mess from the outside) is that there is hope that, when presented properly, help from the services you mention can find a willing ‘customer’.

            Irrespective, it’s always seemed to me that those of us who have advantages need to keep making ourselves (even if only through our taxes) available for those who are doing their best to cope with their lives in hard circumstances.

            all the best!

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