The bandwidth tax

There’s an interesting book doing the rounds called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (actually, I have no idea if it’s interesting or not; I’ve read no more of it than this review).

It suggests the following: It’s not that foolish choices make you poor; it’s that poverty’s effects on the mind lead to bad choices. Living with too little imposes huge psychic costs, reducing our mental bandwidth and distorting our decisionmaking in ways that dig us deeper into a bad situation.

Apparently asking people to contemplate a £1000 car repair bill reduces your IQ by 13 or 14 points.

But… ‘Their most arresting claim is that the same effects kick in – albeit not always with such grave implications – in any conditions of scarcity, not just lack of money. Chronically busy people, suffering from a scarcity of time, also demonstrate impaired abilities and make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. Lonely people, suffering from a scarcity of social contact, become hyper-focused on their loneliness, prompting behaviours that render it worse.’

Right… So anything you’re short of makes you so fixated at the shortfall that you become crap at making up for it. I don’t know if the reverse is true, but I suspect it might be: if you’re good at something or have loads of it then you’re more set up to acquire still greater amounts. Those who are able to find girlfriends, write songs or get fit with ease will continue to do so because they have no paralysis of doubt, nor do they need to spend so much of their brainpower working out how to do something they already know how to do.

The review continues…

‘Scarcity ends up reaffirming one of the oldest truths: that what really explains the world is its division into haves and have-nots. The clear message to those with resources – money, time, or anything else – is to resist the urge to judge those without them. If you faced the same scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir demonstrate, you’d make the same mistakes. Indeed, in some area of your life – if not your spending, then your work/life balance or your diet – you’re almost certainly already doing so.’

Well, that’s just a version of another clear truth: if you were born with the genes and circumstances of anyone else on the planet you’d be doing exactly what they are doing, and that extends to child molesters and traffic wardens.

There but for the grace of chance…