Signals vs. Causes: Reynolds’ Law

I hadn’t realized that someone had dubbed confusing signals with causes, Reynolds’ Law. Glenn Reynolds does a nice job of summing up the disease:

The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.

Yes. And by undermine, I believe he means changes.

Home ownership, for example, was once a reward for making tough choices to live beneath your means, save for a down payment and protect the value of your equity stake in your home by keeping it up.

By bending the rules to make ‘home ownership’ a participation trophy that anybody could get by signing theirs’ (or their dog’s) name on the dotted line, it changed what home ownership meant. As someone (can’t remember who) correctly put it, someone with no equity in their home is a renter with a mortgage, not a home owner.

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