17 thoughts on “Grandmother’s Wisdom

  1. “This is Hayekian-thinking. Social norms, traditions, rules-of-thumb — unwritten standards of interacting with each other — are filtered through an evolutionary crucible.”

    I think there are some cases where these norms were functional, so they get passed on but then they become non-functional (because the environment has changed) but people still hang on to them because they’ve been around for so long.

    The Old Testament (and Koran) injunction against pork strikes me as a good example. It became a good rule of thumb not to eat pork because people were dying of trichinosis. I’d argue that we’ve improved our food preparation and cooking processes enough (as well as our understanding of germs) that this once functional rule is (while very important as a religious rule to those who practice it) not particularly practical.

    This is not to completely disagree with you – I think that there is much to be gained from listening to people (and traditions) who have experience – but I also think that traditions sometimes become obsolete but are still held because they provide a sense of connection with the past.

  2. Wally has a great point, and I’d offer a complementary perspective.

    While it is probable that some pieces of ancient wisdom were only applicable to a particular time and place and no longer apply to us, there are many that we can afford to disregard only because we have become rich both in wealth and health. It behooves us to mark the difference, and to understand the surpluses we’ve inherited that let us afford to ignore particular wisdom.

    As Wally said, pork (trichinosis) is no longer a significant health hazard because we’ve managed the danger. It is possible that the world could change so much that it becomes a wisdom again to avoid pork. Similarly, single motherhood is no longer the guaranteed disaster of extreme poverty and hardship — we are wealthy and productive, so we see single mothers who make it, though it may still be difficult for them. A significant reduction in our general wealth could make it a much more difficult problem again, as it is in many poor countries.

    Probably the most important question I learned in my career is: “How do we pay for it?” I think that’s a bit of wisdom applicable to this particular consideration. It seems to me that we pay to ignore a particular truth through the wealth of our society. In our past and in poor societies today, they cannot afford to ignore those truths. Thus, the truths became ingrained as tradition, religion, or culture.

    Today, our scientific knowledge has helped abolish much of the superstition and ignorance associated with tradition, religion, and culture. Unfortunately, many have thrown out the wisdom as well, failing to grasp that maybe they’re only getting away with it because we are such a wealthy society.

    • Adam, I disagree. While there are many examples of children of single mothers who have succeeded – Ben Carson comes to mind – single motherhood is the surest way to guarantee a life of poverty for a child. As you have stated the issue – or perhaps as I have interpreted your statement – single motherhood is not a problem because we have programs to subsidize these mothers. I think this is a short sighted approach. In the longer term, subsidizing these behaviors leads to more single mothers – unless the economic dictum “what you subsidize you get more of” is false.

      If you look at your statement – ” single motherhood is no longer the guaranteed disaster of extreme poverty and hardship” – from the perspective of incentives and the entire population, it says that we have removed the disincentive women once had from having out of wedlock babies. While it may be true in RELATIVE terms that fatherless children have a slightly better chance to succeed than in the past, in ABSOLUTE terms there are far more fatherless children than before. The net result – particularly in the black community – is that in absolute terms we have more children who face lives of poverty and hardship.

      • Mike, thanks for the response and I agree with most of your excellent points. I chose single motherhood deliberately because I think it illustrates a negative impact of our societal wealth in a very direct and measurable way. One part of your comment that I must take issue with: “While it may be true in RELATIVE terms that fatherless children have a slightly better chance to succeed than in the past…”

        My position is that fatherless children have a MUCH MUCH better chance of making it than they have in the past. I feel that I made my point poorly and will try to clarify. Part of the problem is my idea of “extreme poverty” is probably very different from most Americans’. When I say “disaster of extreme poverty and hardship”, I’m talking about people who become so desperate that they would cut off limbs and deliberately maim themselves in order to increase their charitable appeal and thus their chances for survival. I’ve seen a mother die of starvation with babe-in-arms on the side of the road followed shortly by their bodies being eaten by wild dogs and vultures. There’s a very personal and visceral difference between hearing these kinds of stories and actually living through the experience.

        It’s hard to imagine now, but there were times/places when suicide was generally preferable to being a single mother. Frequently neither the single mother nor the child would be expected survive to the child’s adulthood. The single mother could not produce enough and society could not provide enough charity to ensure their survival. In this environment, no person would choose to become a single mother. No family could possibly permit their daughters to become single mothers — it was practically a death sentence. Concepts of family honor that we hear about in the news arose from millennia of this type of poverty.

        In contrast I would suggest that most single mothers in the US made deliberate choices to end up that way. Maybe they worried that it might make them poorer, but they weren’t terrified of it. Maybe their family warned them, but it wasn’t a matter of life and death. Some of them even end up on Maury!

        Bottom line is that it used to be a much bigger deal because the margin above subsistence was so small. Today, our societal wealth makes the margin much larger. This isn’t to say that broken families are a social or individual good. They aren’t.

        I believe that broken families are still, the greatest social ill that can infect a society, and as you say, subsidizing them just encourages more of them.

        • Hi Adam – Thanks for you response. My point wasn’t meant so much to address the degree by which a fatherless child’s chance of success is increased by subsidies, but rather to point out that these subsidies have led to an increase in both the absolute number of fatherless families as well as the percentage of families without fathers – a situation which perpetuates itself.

          While I agree that personally seeing a starving mother and child is different that reading about it, I’m afraid you are guilty of falling for the fallacy of “appeal to emotion”. The situation you describe seems to have come from your experience in a third world country if I interpret your comments correctly rather than any events that have occurred in the US (discounting black swan events). It’s a favorite tactic of the left to appeal to our emotions, often using tragedies invoking children, to make their point. Unfortunately, handing out subsidies – incentivizing even more bad behavior – in order to alleviate PRESENT suffering has its cost in terms of creating even more suffering (a larger absolute and relative number of fatherless children) in the future. This is what Bastiat meant by “that which is seen and that which is not seen.”

          I too have visited third world countries and observed the abject poverty and conditions experienced by homeless children – competing with wild dogs for food scrapes in the dump – as well as people who cut off hands (sometimes the hands of their own children) in order to increase charitable appeal. I’m not convinced that rewarding such behavior is the best way to curtail it. My wife and I built and ran an orphanage in an impoverished Latin American country and discovered that much of the well intentioned US charitable aid serves as an incentive for people to NOT work. One of the projects we looked at was raising chickens at the orphanage for use as food as well as to sell. We were advised that this would be a very lucrative adventure as locals like to eat chicken. We then asked why someone had not already started such a business and with a stunned looked were told. “Why would they want to when the Americans give them food for free?” Lessons: A – Incentives matter. B – You need to distinguish between “feeling good” and “doing good”. (We “feel good” when we dole out dollars to poor starving kids in impoverished countries, but are we “doing good” in the longer run for the population as a whole?)

          The point you bring up that most single mothers in the US are that way by choice versus the inference that most single moms in third world countries are that way not by their own choice brings up several points:

          1. It supports my contention that incentives (subsidies) do matter and that they are responsible for the increased incidence of single mothers in the US, i.e. the US single moms made a choice that was influenced by incentives.

          2. Comparing the single mom problem in the US with the single mom problem in 3rd world countries is like comparing apples to arranges in terms of coming up with solutions. As you suggest, in the US people have choices and their life situation is typically determined by choices they and/or their parents make. This is because of our political institutions – or what remains of them. The problem in 3rd world countries is NOT the poverty per se, but the political institutions that favor predation. We can throw trillions of dollars of aid at these countries, but that won’t cure the problem of poverty. Poverty will only be elevated – by the people themselves – when they have political institutions that protect property and ensure that contracts are honored.

          Finally, I still disagree with you that fatherless children in the US have a much better chance of making it today than they did before the welfare handouts and other subsidies that encourage fatherless families. In the case of blacks, I think the data shows that prior to these subsidies, the incidence of out of wedlock births and fatherless families was quite low (even lower than whites) and the unemployment numbers for black teens and young adults was not so dismal. Black mothers encouraged their children to get a job versus today when they are encouraged to get on welfare (perhaps Seth can provide the link to the radio interview that has been discussed at length on this forum).

          Again, thanks for your thoughtful discussion.

          • Mike, great points and thanks for the discourse. I think we largely agree, but perhaps we look at the same problems from different perspectives. And yes, my perspective is informed by growing up in a third world country.

            I think our fundamental agreements include: incentives matter and paying money for broken homes results in more broken homes; broken homes are a bad thing for the family members and society at large; good intentions do not equal good deeds; and finally (deep breath) the primary unintended consequence of governmental charity is that it promotes dependency, not self-sufficiency, and thus causes long-term harm to those it is meant to help.

            Let me know if I mistook our points of agreement.

            The point I tried (and maybe failed) to make with a matter-of-fact statement of my experience — it was most definitely NOT an emotional appeal for more government handouts — was that my perspective on incentives starts at the negative end of the spectrum. Paying a beggar encourages more begging (positive incentive). Removing the risk of death by starvation allows beggars to flourish (negative incentive). I think our “social safety nets” do MORE harm by removing the negative consequences of bad behavior, removing the opportunity for failure lessons. Put another way, I think there are very few people who end up on welfare because they were lured there by the great benefits. But there are many who remain on welfare because they’ve learned to live with it. There is no danger that things could get worse. The wolves are no longer at the door.

          • Hi Adam – In response to your last reply (sorry, I think replies only go down several tiers), I think we agree on most points. If you haven’t listened to the radio interview Seth and I posted, I encourage you to do so. It’s simultaneously amusing, frightening and infuriating. As far as people being lured into welfare by the benefits versus remaining there once they’ve become accustomed to the benefits, I can only ask how this latter group came to be on welfare in the first place? I’ve talked with many people – including many YOUNG people in their 20’s – who looked at the various government “inducements” for not working versus working for a minimum/low wage job (what are known in the immigration debate circles as the jobs that Americans won’t do) and concluded that they would be foolish to actually work for $20K per year when they could easily get much more in government benefits. In 35 states, welfare pays better than a minimum wage job (without the “inconvenience” of actually having to show up and work) and in 15 states, welfare pays more than $15/hour. When you can hang out with your friends all day, enjoy your hobbies and leisure activities AND get paid far more money than 99% of people in a third world country, the temptation is too great for many folks to resist.

            Here’s a link to a radio interview Seth and I have posted about in the past:

            Please note, while you may question Lucy’s ethics, she is intelligent and certainly more than capable of earning a living and she understands well the incentives and the tradeoffs.

  3. Good point from both of you that some traditions and norms become obsolete. I think that raises a couple of questions. How best do we separate the wheat from the chaff? And, how best do we go about changing it?

    I would tend to give more credence to the same evolutionary processes that brought us those traditions. Be cautious and let trial and error separate them out. I think there is some danger in believing we can out think those norms and force changes as they could have negative unintended consequences.

    That means it may not happen on the time scale some folks would want. But, it also means that those unintended consequences that were not thought about would be better sorted out.

    Though, I must say, I might be more open to faster changes if they were toward individual freedom, in the sense of less exposure to the coercion of others (not the sense of less consequences of your individual actions).

    Adam — I think you also make a good point that few people recognize all the luxuries we have from our wealth. I do believe that one reason divorce rates increased in the 70s was because people could afford it. I also think that’s one reason we spend more on health care that other countries — because we can afford to.

    • Seth – I think we need to be careful with some of Taleb’s analogies.

      “An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived! Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior.”

      I’m afraid that from an individual standpoint – which is what Taleb uses in his argument – I disagree with his logic which implies that the person survived BECAUSE of the wisdom. Correlation is not causation. Perhaps the person (and their relatives) survived because of some favorable genetic trait that had nothing to do with whatever nugget of “wisdom” was passed down in the family. It wash’t that “wisdom” that helped them survive, but rather their genes.

      While Taleb may be correct that the idea survived because the holder of that idea survived, it’s invalid to conclude that because the holder of the idea survived the idea is superior. What if the idea was that the moon was made out of green cheese and the person was an African with sickle cell trait in an area with a very high incidence of malaria?

      • Hi Mike — I agree. But, notice he says that the grandmother’s wisdom is superior to what you learn in business school, not just superior.

        It’s not clear to me that he is saying that the wisdom caused or even contributed to survival, just that you should respect it because it may have. Who knows? At least it has a track record, where the stuff you learn in business school does not — or, not as long of a track record.

    • Seth, you wrote: “How best do we separate the wheat from the chaff? And, how best do we go about changing it?”

      Something I try to do in the form of a thought experiment, is consider individuals or very small groups, living as subsistence farmers/hunters, and then ask if a particular bit of wisdom would have helped or hurt their society. Could an individual survive very long on laziness or incapacitating drug addiction? Would a group survive very long if every individual did not follow rules about separating food and latrine areas? Can a village thrive in an environment of promiscuous uncommitted “free love”?

      I don’t have all the answers, but I think asking good questions is the place to start.

      • Hi Adam — I’d be cautious about that thought experiment because sometimes the answers are not obvious and it’s too easy to miss some of the effects that occur in the complex, dynamic world that can only be gained from experience.

        Consider pork consumption. Perhaps the practice of avoiding it is useless with modern technology, but the question is has it really hurt the populations who avoid it? Has it caused that part of the population to be less likely to survive and thrive?

  4. Adam, you wrote: “Something I try to do in the form of a thought experiment, is consider individuals or very small groups, living as subsistence farmers/hunters, and then ask if a particular bit of wisdom would have helped or hurt their society.”

    I like the thought experiment. It’s neat to consider the ins and outs of survival in a hunter/gatherer society. I think there is a real value to understanding our history but I’m not sure that it should limit the way we frame our thinking about modern culture. We don’t live in villages anymore. As you pointed out earlier, it is important for us to remember (come zombie apocalypse time) that not cooking pork properly will get us killed (via trichinosis) but we can keep this historical knowledge while we eat our bacon tuna melts.

    Why shouldn’t we as a culture be asking questions like: “Can an individual participate meaningfully in modern culture and be a drug addict?” (I suspect my music collection would be in for a big hit if I answered no to this question.)

    • LOL! Well said. I would think they “can” participate, but their output would be impacted. Would they be able to execute intricate melodies while impaired? Or is the drug addiction simply how they spend their leisure time?

      Another related question: Are we all better off, do we have more variety and freedom in our lives, because our society is rich enough that people can thrive while performing sub-optimally?

      • “Are we all better off, do we have more variety and freedom in our lives, because our society is rich enough that people can thrive while performing sub-optimally?”

        Not sure but I suspect that one man’s suboptimal judgement may be another man’s dream life.

  5. Pingback: Great Grandma’s Wisdom II: The power of consistency and making priorities | Our Dinner Table


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