LESS MEANS MUCH, NOT MORE
Commentators who think the poor don’t take enough responsibility for their woes seem to forget one thing: the poor pay a “bandwidth tax.” And it’s not just those with money problems who get taxed. If you’re time-challenged or don’t get adequate sleep, you might pay this tax, too, for your ability to focus on priorities and make the right choices is impaired. You’re anxious, stretched, distracted. That’s why, argue Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity (Times Books), “having too little means so much,” as the subtitle puts it. The book’s stark white cover with a blurb from the co-author of Freakonomics captures the theme well.
Bandwidth shortage perpetuates scarcity. It’s a vicious cycle, in other words, because the lack of money, time, and security imposes a burden, clouding our judgment and leading to short-term thinking, which can make our problems worse. MacArthur Fellow Mullainathan, a star in the field of behavioral economics, is based at Harvard, while Shafir is a psychologist at Princeton. Although they use some personal examples, the bulk of their material is based on studies conducted in places ranging from soup kitchens, universities, and train stations in the U.S. to sugarcane fields in India.
“Scarcity captures our attention, and this provides a narrow benefit: we do a better job of managing pressing needs,” the authors write. “But more broadly, it costs us: we neglect other concerns, and we become less effective in the rest of life.” That’s why poverty can be so crushing. It’s not because the poor have less bandwidth, they point out, but because the experience of poverty shrinks anybody’s bandwidth.
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