About 10 years ago, Senator Barack Obama gained national attention when he talked about the social stigma young blacks acquire when they “act white” by devoting too much time to schoolwork. Around the same time a young academic was making a name for himself with his work on the economics of “acting white” versus “acting black.” One of the questions his research addressed was why, given that “acting black” is associated with poor socio-economic outcomes, do so many urban youths nonetheless neglect their studies.
Among his findings, economist Roland Fryer demonstrated that in certain circumstances people rationally choose to strive for popularity within a community by conforming to local cultural norms – instead of seeking to escape that community via good grades and mainstream cultural norms. Or as one commentator put it, “some individuals can receive social benefits large enough to outweigh benefits they might otherwise receive via education and wages. In a purely rational sense, these individuals prefer peer acceptance to the benefits of education.”
In a certain environment, the long-term promise of college and a career dont outweigh the short-term social cost of “acting white.” Reciprocally, the short-term rewards for “acting black” are not easily sacrificed for the long-term gains potentially realized by being a more conscientious student. Fryer’s research has yielded great insights on the persistence of American urban subcultures associated with poverty, violence, drug abuse, low educational attainment, and poor long-term life outcomes. And it is no less powerful in helping to understand the popularity of Hamas in Gaza.
One begins by asking why Hamas is so successful at recruiting young men to its cause. Assuming that young men everywhere have similar interests – power, popularity, money, women, etc. – the obvious answer is that Hamas offers young men a shorter path toward their goals than other options. The big problem, common also to America’s poorest urban areas, is that in Gaza there’s scant opportunity to improve one’s life via education and hard work. People rationally choose to go about improving their lot through undesirable means, such as affiliation with Hamas.
The good news from Fryer’s research is that people are sensitive to their options – one might therefore be able to steer them away from making bad choices simply by providing them with superior alternatives. (There’s an analogous line of research in the social sciences showing that, across the globe, women with more education tend to have fewer children – that if you give women the option of choosing school and career, fertility drops like a rock.)
Israeli policies toward Gaza created and now unwittingly sustain Hamas. The blockade leaves young Gazans with few possibilities for work or commerce. It used to be one could acquire skills and sell one’s labor in Israel, or produce goods for export to Israel or elsewhere. But the blockade forecloses either of those two ordinary avenues, leaving individuals with few options to obtain the things they want, literally driving the population into the arms of Hamas.