Correlation and causation

Historically, those who could learn to wait, who knew the importance of investing their time as well as their money, would be the ones to profit in the great game. In an era of self-help – Samuel Smiles’s classic manual came out in the same year as Mrs Beeton’s work – those who managed to avoid the lure of the pie shop in favour of homemade soup were the very people who had the best chance of winning at life.

This is much more than a metaphor. The University of Toronto researchers discovered that those North Americans who live in areas where there is a high density of fast food “cues” do actually find it harder to save for the future. Still, you can’t help feeling that behind the well-meaning implication that rational citizens should eschew eating in the street if they want to enjoy the good life, complete with Puccini and a pension, is a slightly different – which is to say, very old – message. And it is this: anyone who does choose to dive into KFC rather than go home for supper is morally derelict or simply ignorant. Either way, they’re heading for a fall.

Sigh. A couple of well known facts.

1) Many of the poor suffer from hyperbolic discounting, have shorter timescales, than the rest of us.

2) Fast food joints tend to be clustered in areas where the poor live.

Are we then to conclude that fast food makes the poor have short time horizons? Or that the supply is there to feed the pre-extant demand?

46 comments on “Correlation and causation

  1. I’ve noticed that travellers are attracted to areas where machinery theft, unnecessary roof repairs and tethered ponies are common. Can I have some money to carry out? Sorry, to carry out a study?

  2. Is ‘instant gratification’ not a feature of anyone’s life but that of the poor nowadays? I find that hard to believe…

  3. No causation at all.

    Puritanism is correlated with class; puritans are upper class, the lower class are less puritanical. So, non-puritan services (fast food in this case) are found in lower class areas. Nothing to do with time preference at all.

    As as we all know, the inverse proportionality between time preference and wealth is basic economics. Because a pound or dollar has more marginal utility to a poor man than a rich one.

    Bill Gates and most of his Silicon Valley cohort consumed truckloads of pizza and soda, btw.

  4. Surely the clustering of posh eateries in rich areas is proof of the same moral degeneracy among the rich.

  5. dearieme-

    There’s a pretty clear and genuine correlation between puritanism and class, so long as you accept my meaning of upper class as the current power class (rather than old fashioned ideas of aristocrats).

    I’m just tired of euphemising the c*nts as “middle class”. That doesn’t work any more.

  6. Clearly what is required is a Government programme to supply ‘the poor’ with slow cookers.

  7. First they came for the smokers, and nobody objected.

    Now they are coming for the fatsos, then they will start on the carnivores…

  8. The government should nationalize McDonalds. Assuming the queuing time reaches socialist norms within a year the problem will solve itself. “Fast food” will mean cooking at home.

    More seriously, I seem to recall students eating a disproportionate amount of fast food. It eating fast food undermines “Deferred reward” then it isn’t doing a good job.

  9. And it is this: anyone who does choose to dive into KFC rather than go home for supper is morally derelict or simply ignorant.

    What about people who choose to go in to one of Jamie’s (highly variable) restaurants? They require an investment of both time and money, therefore are clearly the worst of all possible worlds.

    If you accept his premise, which I don’t. Sometimes, “food as entertainment” has to take second place to “food as fuel”.

  10. The University of Toronto researchers discovered that those North Americans who live in areas where there is a high density of fast food “cues” do actually find it harder to save for the future.

    Someone point out to them that studies consistently find that populations of mainly African origin have trouble deferring gratification. As has been known for some time now. Ever since Walter Mischel observed it in Trinidad. Although admittedly it may have more to do with broken families and absent fathers.

  11. Ian B – “Puritanism is correlated with class; puritans are upper class, the lower class are less puritanical. So, non-puritan services (fast food in this case) are found in lower class areas. Nothing to do with time preference at all.”

    Really? This may apply to the modern British world, but it is a recent thing. Britain’s traditional upper class has never been puritanical. Given that our Prime Minister is descended from one Royal mistress and the Prince of Wales is boffing booties with a descendant of another.

    The Puritans were a highly lower class movement. That was the whole point of the Civil War. But whatever you can say about the theology of Puritans, their sociology is excellent – they do not drink, they work hard, they become rich. They have risen to the middle and upper middle classes. The present lower classes are the underclass dregs of people who rejected Methodism.

    “As as we all know, the inverse proportionality between time preference and wealth is basic economics. Because a pound or dollar has more marginal utility to a poor man than a rich one.”

    So you would think that poor people would save more. Single Black American women have a net worth of $5.

    “Bill Gates and most of his Silicon Valley cohort consumed truckloads of pizza and soda, btw.”

    Truckloads? They work sitting down all day. Maybe they are scoffing pizza all day. But they are, virtually to a man, thin. Thus they have the social discipline not to go the Oprah route.

  12. “1) Many of the poor suffer from hyperbolic discounting, have shorter timescales, than the rest of us.”

    Having spent time with some time with a person from the far left of the wealth curve – an illegal immigrant from a S.American shanty town-I can assure you how true that statement is. And how hard for us relatively wealthy to appreciate. Mental horizons are very limited – in her case, not much past the day she was living in, when I first met her. A week in the future was an unknown & frightening land. And it’s entirely rational. If you’re hungry, the priority is to eat. Fast food is sustenance now. Food bought to prepare a meal implies you get the opportunity to cook it & eat it & that, like so many things in your life, is not under your control.

  13. I lost any hope of a good article when I read that soup was ‘fiddly to consume on the way home’.

    Don’t you drink it?

  14. SMFS-

    I did specifically point out that I am referring to the modern upper class (Tony Blair, Dame Suzy Leather, etc) not the historic Upper Class. I could not have been more clear about that. The Upper Class is the power class of the time. That is not the old aristocracy.

    Indeed, the old aristocracy was not puritanical. It was ousted by the rising “middle” who replaced it. We’ve been over this countless times and I thought we actually agreed on this, if not on our perceptions of their particular merits.

    But also the Puritans were not “lower” class. They were the petty gentry (I could be bitchy here about small minds and narrow horizons but I’ll leave that out). Not peasant farmers.

    As to the people you characterise as the “lower class”, we’ve been over that countless times too and with all due respect you know darned well that what you’re referring to is the underclass, residuum, lumpenproletariat, etc. The lower class are doing what they always did, which is working hard for not much money. Trying to pretend that the entire class sytem consists of a good “middle” (i.e. upper) class, and the residuum, is dishonest, even if by doing so it allows you to pretend that Methodism was an effective strategy.

    As to marginal utility of the currency unit, you’re not understanding how it works. When you have wealth, each pound is less important to you. This means you have a low interest rate. The poor’s urgent need for money makes their interest rate high. Which is why poor people go to pawn shops and Wonga, and wealthy people don’t.

  15. The actual article is pro (or al least resigned to) fast food and anti Mrs Beeton/Jamie Oliver moralising. If you work long hours or live in cramped/shared accomodation, you’re not going to stew casseroles for hours in the Aga you don’t have.

    As Tim has pointed out previously (when extolling the wonders of capitalism rather than – as here- saying the poor are feckless), in a modern society like the US, people, particularly women, save time on housework by using technology like washing machines and pre-prepared food.

  16. @Luke
    Where is Tim saying the poor are feckless?
    If you want to see true fecklessness, watch the wealthy trying to cope when they find themselves bereft of their wealth. The poor do being poor a whole lot better..

  17. the best summary of this class-based differential in timescales ever came from the late lamented Lefty Iain Banks in “Espedair Street”

    “But do you see the point? Jesus, I’d never have thought of that. They were looking at least four or five albums and maybe the same number of years ahead; that’s real forward planning. That’s middle-class thinking. That’s looking ahead. The middle classes are brought up like that. They get salaries they make last all month, they’ll take out Life Assurance without getting the hard sell, they’ll invest in the future, they’ll buy a wee stupid car so their kids can go to a good private school (and it makes good sense anyway; so economical). They can keep drink in the house without having to drink it all. Not like your working class at all. If you’ve got it, spend it; if it’s there, drink it. Hence the weekly wage and the local off licence.”

  18. The article presents a false dichotomy: it’s not seconds in McDonalds vs hours slaved over an aga. Cheap meals can be prepared in mere minutes, with (at worst) equivalent nutritional value to fast food. Even Saint Jamie presents a TV programme called “15 minute meals”.

    Orwell had it right in The Road to Wigan Pier – the poor consume tasty foods to enrich their dull lives.

    For further study, I would suggest investigating whether poor people’s discount rates change when they gain wealth. Does the former kebab-scoffer switch to slow food, or does he just move to more up-market fast food (e.g. sushi)? What about changes across ages? Fast food shops are invariably populated by young customers, not old codgers; and there’s plenty of evidence that hyperbolic discount rates are a marker of youth, not just poverty.

  19. Following on from Flatcap Army, I’ve always thought that inflicting a monthly wage on an employee is a particularly vindictive cruelty; for employees earning overtime, it can mean waiting well over two months for payment for work done in good faith. I’d like to see it banned, myself.

    Statist? Yes. But we live in a statist society. If we’re going to send the police after people with fat children, we may as well turn the State’s guns on something genuinely evil, for once.

    Yes, I have a bit of a high time preference background, me.

  20. Now they are coming for the fatsos, then they will start on the carnivores…

    The JGM

    No. They’ll get the boozers first.

  21. Ian B – “Indeed, the old aristocracy was not puritanical. It was ousted by the rising “middle” who replaced it. We’ve been over this countless times and I thought we actually agreed on this, if not on our perceptions of their particular merits.”

    We can probably agree on this. The distinction is that seeing success I think other people ought to copy it. You seem to want us to join the lumpen proles in the gutter. I don’t get that. Puritans may be unpleasant people and there is no political dispute I can think of where I take their side, but their views work. Those of their enemies do not.

    “But also the Puritans were not “lower” class. They were the petty gentry (I could be bitchy here about small minds and narrow horizons but I’ll leave that out). Not peasant farmers.”

    The more famous leaders were. But they would have needed that for an education. The split between the CoE and the Methodists was precisely a class one.

    “As to the people you characterise as the “lower class”, we’ve been over that countless times too and with all due respect you know darned well that what you’re referring to is the underclass, residuum, lumpenproletariat, etc.”

    As I specifically said. There is no working class any more. When a plumber earns more than someone with a Ph.D. in pretty much any Arts subject, you can’t really talk about the working class any more. We have a wealthy group of people who used to be working class and retain some of the culture of that class. But no more. What we’re left with in poverty is the feckless trash.

    “The lower class are doing what they always did, which is working hard for not much money. Trying to pretend that the entire class sytem consists of a good “middle” (i.e. upper) class, and the residuum, is dishonest, even if by doing so it allows you to pretend that Methodism was an effective strategy.”

    Puritan religion was undoubted an effective strategy. It took a Britain that was not much different from modern Brazil – incompetent, corrupt, usually drunk and always violent – and they created a functioning, modern, world Empire. It did change people and for the better.

    Those in the lower classes who work hard live in mansions. At least if they have been in Britain long enough. Poor they are not. The genuinely poor are like Baby P’s mother – a lot of cash may go through their hands but none sticks. And we can show this. Education for this class is a waste of time. White Trash yoof do worse in school than the children of Black African immigrants. It is not that they are unfortunate or unlucky. It is that they are radically different. You can insist that the offspring of this sort of White underclass is just like every other White yoof, but they aren’t.

  22. Andrew M – “Orwell had it right in The Road to Wigan Pier – the poor consume tasty foods to enrich their dull lives.”

    This is mildly annoying. It may have been true in Orwell’s time. But it ain’t true now and has not been for a long time. The welfare class does not have a dull life. They have an endless enjoyment of computer games undreamed of by the middle class in Orwell’s time. They are better fed than all but the richest of his time too. They have little to do but drink and watch TV. They do not need tasty food as a break from their Jeremy Kyle and dope smoking. That time probably did not even exist in Orwell’s time, but it has been long dead in modern Britain.

    “For further study, I would suggest investigating whether poor people’s discount rates change when they gain wealth. Does the former kebab-scoffer switch to slow food, or does he just move to more up-market fast food (e.g. sushi)?”

    Plenty of studies of lottery winners show that they retain their former attitudes – the money rains down and drains away. I don’t know of any winner who has substantially changed their lives, although statistically there must be some. The best studies come from American sports where some people have literally hundreds of millions of dollars pass through their hands. But something like three quarters of NFL players end up bankrupt in a decade. Mike Tyson is supposed to have earned $400 million in the course of his career. He went broke. The interesting one is the vile Michael Vick – in 2006 he was earning something like $25 million a year. Even before he was convicted in 2008 he had declared bankruptcy. As part of the court case, his spending was made public. Google it.

    Does anyone think a single British football player is going to lift his family into the middle class?

  23. ken – “Beckham Lineker”

    Beckham’s oldest is about 15? Too early to tell. And he has a thoroughly middle class wife to help him out. Lineker was married from 1986 so what’s his oldest doing these days?

  24. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the _New Statesman_, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! _That_ is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level.
    – Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell.

  25. MOst of this debate has been had already, but as a side note I would dearly love to see the socio-demographics of who is buying Jack Monroe’s austerity cooking book.

  26. From Wikipedia, “Lineker’s father was a greengrocer, as was his grandfather William and great-grandfather, George”

    Sounds like he started off fairly solidly middle-class (LMC at least), so can’t “lift his family into the middle class”. He might lift them within it, but that wouldn’t be the point if you’re looking for someone whose earnings have actually changed inherited class attitudes.

    And as for his children, his eldest had leukaemia as a child so it wouldn’t be fair to expect much from him; the next eldest seems to be about 18.

  27. “I would dearly love to see the socio-demographics of who is buying Jack Monroe’s austerity cooking book.”
    Bearing in mind the cost of the book, very few poor people.
    But if it’s like most of its genre it won’t be very much use to the poor anyway.
    A while ago I introduced some Spanish friends, suffering under el crisis, to the delights of my East End gran’s famous bread puddin’. Their kids adored it. Raw material’s mostly stale bread. But the lard, dried fruit, eggs, nutmeg, set me back north of 7€. A worthwhile investment would produce a couple dozen tasty & filling desserts over a period. If they’d the 7€ out of their stretched food budget to make it. And the oven to cook it in – which their small rented apartment doesn’t run to. So it’s 3€’s worth of cakes from the supermarket or go without
    Which regrettably is how it works. Economical cookery is damned hard to do if you’re actually needing to be economical. More than anything, it’s what keeps people poor. Because being poor is actually a quite expensive lifestyle. See: Capt Vimes’ Boots Theory.

  28. bis,

    Have a like for that.

    My first protracted fight with the now Mrs S-E was over her habit of buying cheap shoes, complaining bitterly about the poor fit, and then binning them when the (normally) heels wore through (and weren’t practically fixable) after six weeks or so.

  29. @ SMFS
    Do you know any history? Have you read 1984?
    “The Puritans were a highly lower class movement. That was the whole point of the Civil War.”
    The Parliament that opposed Charles I was wholly upper- and middle-class, comprising a hereditary aristocracy and a Commons elected by a franchise that was wholly upper- and middle-class. Cromwell and most of his colleagues were landowners (“the Squirearchy”). The Rump Parliament contained a large minority of the hereditary peers. The very visible “London ‘prentices” contained, by definition, the future Lords Mayors of London. Puritanism was an *intellectual* movement, so most of its adherents were, at least partially, educated.
    “Lower class”? YMBJ

  30. @ Andrew M
    “Fast food shops are invariably populated by young customers, not old codgers;” possibly because old codgers’ idea of “fast food” is fish and chips, possibly because most of us are now, totally or partially, out of work so have time to prepare a quick meal at home in less time that it takes to walk to McDonalds or Pizza Hut or to walk to Tesco and queue up to buy a packaged sandwich/meal. However, more probable is that we were brought up when real GDP/head was about one-quarter of the current level so (i) middle-class kids of both sexes were taught how to prepare simple meals and (ii) we are less inclined to throw money about at junk

  31. ukliberty – “When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! _That_ is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level.
    – Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell.”

    Again this is nonsense. Even in Orwell’s day it was nonsense. You can go to India and see real poverty and, no, they are not tempted. When you are genuinely poor, you are genuinely careful. In 1979 most Chinese people would just drink boiled water – not even tea. Because they were actually poor.

    But still, if we accept that was true in Orwell’s day, it does not apply to the feckless lay abouts of modern Britain. They are not underfed or hungry. They are so fat that they are eating themselves to death. They are not taking a break from poverty with a spot of tea. They are gobbling vast quantities of coke and Mars bars. They are not bored as they have 24 entertainment to interrupt their thieving off spring nicking my DVD player.

    If it was ever true, it is not even remotely true now and quoting it is utterly stupid.

  32. Richard – “Sounds like he started off fairly solidly middle-class (LMC at least), so can’t “lift his family into the middle class”.”

    Actually you don’t know do you? Thatcher’s father was famously a grocer but I expect a tad grander than GL’s Dad. Sam Fox’s father ran a barrow so was a grocer of sorts. Yet a solidly working class lass. Class is odd.

    “He might lift them within it, but that wouldn’t be the point if you’re looking for someone whose earnings have actually changed inherited class attitudes.”

    The interesting case is the vile Jade Goody. She used all the money she got to send her children to a good school. I am willing to bet it will do them no good at all. But she could see something better for her sprogs and she tried to give it to them.

    “And as for his children, his eldest had leukaemia as a child so it wouldn’t be fair to expect much from him; the next eldest seems to be about 18.”

    Anyone think they will end up doctors?

    Surreptitious Evil – “My first protracted fight with the now Mrs S-E was over her habit of buying cheap shoes, complaining bitterly about the poor fit, and then binning them when the (normally) heels wore through (and weren’t practically fixable) after six weeks or so.”

    Dostoyevsky has a character say somewhere that he is too poor to buy cheap things.

    john77 – “Do you know any history? Have you read 1984?”

    What has 1984 got to do with it?

    “The Parliament that opposed Charles I was wholly upper- and middle-class, comprising a hereditary aristocracy and a Commons elected by a franchise that was wholly upper- and middle-class.”

    This is just the apex fallacy in all its glory. Lenin was an aristocrat too. Therefore the Communists were an aristocratic movement?

  33. I know this Filipina from right out in the sticks of northern Luzon. Comes from a really poor family, not far off subsistance farming really. She’s in China illegally working, I feel sorry for her and we have become friends. I wanted to encourage her to save money to pay the fine for overstaying her visa to avoid jail and have some money to take home. So what I told her was that if each month she gave me 500RMB (50 quid) I would match it and save it for when she leaves…. she refused my offer.

  34. Dongguan John – “So what I told her was that if each month she gave me 500RMB (50 quid) I would match it and save it for when she leaves…. she refused my offer.”

    Well in fairness, and no offense, she might just doubt your intentions.

    Which in China would be a perfectly normal thing to do.

  35. SMFS, if you’re stuck on absolute poverty as the definition of poor then I’m not sure what you’re doing here except moralising in your usual tedious fashion.

  36. ukliberty – “SMFS, if you’re stuck on absolute poverty as the definition of poor then I’m not sure what you’re doing here except moralising in your usual tedious fashion.”

    Well I always do that. But I am also pointing out it is fucking unbelievably dishonest to pass off comments about something close to absolute poverty as applicable to modern relative poverty.

    You know, your usual tedious moralising.

  37. ukliberty – “What a peculiar – and tedious – entity you are.”

    And yet I am not trying to pass off a comment about absolute poverty three generations ago as applicable to the relative poverty of today.

    Which is the point. No matter how tedious I am. You know, honesty, integrity, the facts, little things like that.

  38. S-E – “My first protracted fight with the now Mrs S-E was over her habit of buying cheap shoes…”

    You told your wife to buy expensive shoes, and she complained?

  39. And yet I am not trying to pass off a comment about absolute poverty three generations ago as applicable to the relative poverty of today.

    I’m not trying do that either. See, where you went wrong is you accused me of meaning something instead of simply asking if that is what I meant. In fact I don’t think that excerpt is about absolute poverty and I didn’t indicate that I did. You just imagined I did, in what passes for your tedious, moralising brain.

    If you can’t grok the definition of “poor” then replace it with a made-up word like “roop”, assigning it to the same set of people the rest of us are happily arguing about. Now deal with the substance of the arguments instead of the semantics. The roop don’t make good quality decisions from our point of view. Why? To you they are immoral and feckless. Yes, a more interesting discussion is to be had without you.

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