Is "Debt Gene" Behind US Spending Pathologies?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/22/2010 12:05:00 AM
We recently received news that the US government ran up $221 billion dollars of debt in a single month--February 2010, to be exact. While certain (American, naturally) colleagues would wave this off with "deficits don't matter because everyone else is running large ones"-style reasoning I'll discuss more later, it seems the rest of the world is quite astounded by this feat. Even by US standards of fiscal depravity, it's something else--$221 billion! What is it in the American psyche that compels these endless jihads against fiscal sanity? Sometime ago, I came across an interesting book by Peter Whybrow entitled American Mania: When More is Not Enough. There, he makes the interesting argument that genotypical factors lie behind Americans' legendary levels of fiscal and dietary indiscipline in swallowing debt and grub like there's no tomorrow (which there probably isn't anyway). These, of course, are mutually reinforcing pathologies as widespread obesity sends health care spending into vertiginous ascent. The Amazon review has a pretty good summary of Whybrow's argument:
The indictment of American society offered here—that America's supercharged free-market capitalism shackles us to a treadmill of overwork and overconsumption, frays family and community ties and leaves us anxious, alienated and overweight—is familiar. What's more idiosyncratic and compelling is the author's grounding his treatise in political economy (citing everyone from Adam Smith to Thorstein Veblen) as well as in neuropsychiatry, primatology and genetics. Psychiatrist Whybrow (Mood Apart) diagnoses a form of clinical mania in which "the dopamine reward systems of the brain are... hijacked" by pleasurable frenzies like the Internet bubble. Genes are to blame: programmed to crave material rewards on the austere savanna, they go bananas in an economy of superabundance. Americans are particularly susceptible because they are descended from immigrants with a higher frequency of the "exploratory and novelty-seeking D4-7 allele" in the dopamine receptor system, which predisposes them to impulsivity and addiction. The malady is "treatable," Whybrow asserts, not with Paxil but with a vaguely defined program of communitarianism and recovery therapeutics, exemplified by his friends Peanut, a farmer rooted in the land, and Tom, a formerly manic entrepreneur who has learned to live in the present moment. Whybrow's analysis of the contemporary rat race is acute, and by medicalizing the problem he locates it in behavior and genetics—away from the arena of conventional political and economic action where more systemic solutions might surface, but toward a place where individual responsibility can turn "self-interest into social fellowship."
Although picturesque, I have a number of qualms with this claim: why is it that presumably "low aspiration" British who stayed behind and didn't migrate nearly as full of debt as the Americans? They could lose some blubber too, you know. However, the real problem with Whybrow's book is that he didn't bother to quantify the extent of "American Mania" with empirical evidence. More recently, I found a work right on our LSE website which aims to do just that by identifying genetic predispositions towards loading up on debt. And yes, it features an Anglo-Saxon sample of British and American university students. The press blurb from the LSE website is below and you can download the entire paper too:
Some people have a genetic bias toward running up credit card debt, a new academic study has discovered. The researchers found that those of us with an inefficient version of a gene previously linked to impulsive and addictive behaviour are significantly more likely to have overspent on credit cards...[they] argue that since about half of the population carry the inefficient gene there may be a need to protect them by law from genetic discrimination.

The study was carried out by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve from the London School of Economics and Political Science and James Fowler of the University of California. They looked at a sample of 2,500 people, aged from 18 to 26 to see which of them had credit card debts. At the same time, they examined the data for each person to see if they also carried a 'low efficiency' version of the gene known as MAOA.

The results were stark – people with the transcriptionally 'inefficient' version of the gene were on average between eight and 16 per cent more likely to admit being in the red on their credit cards. The MAOA gene is linked to the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline, which, among other things, control mood, heart rate and cognitive ability. How efficient the gene is at controlling production of an enzyme that degrades neurotransmitters, part of a natural cellular cycle in the brain, influences the chances of someone being impulsive and prone to addiction. The gene has both high efficiency and low efficiency variations (or alleles), and since we get genetic material from both parents it is possible to have one low or two low alleles. The study found an average increase in debt reporting of eight per cent for those with one low and 16 per cent with two.

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve said: 'It's clear from our data that having this inefficient gene, which partly governs our impulses, is significantly associated with getting into credit card debt. Of course, it isn't the only factor – our environment, other genes and the interaction between them will also play their part – but it's clearly a significant one. [Think of highly financialized societies like the US and UK for the environment where pushers of debt range from financial services concerns to the government promoting home ownership..."junkies' paradise".]

'About half the people in our sample carried this debt-correlated gene and because it was representative that suggests half the population does. This raises serious policy questions because it would be possible to do a simple genetic test – on hair or saliva – to see if someone has a higher risk of getting into debt. 'So a bank or credit leader could use that information to decipher your genetic information before deciding whether to lend to you or to charge you an extra premium. That's why we suggest governments should introduce legislation to outlaw all acts of genetic discrimination.'
Now this is the sort of interdisciplinary study I like and believe will play a greater part in future political-economic research. In contrast to the authors given the magnitude of America's woes, I would venture that limiting credit to these people is precisely what the doctor ordered. This may be the case especially for those contemplating public service--those in executive and legislative bodies. While everyone else may enjoy poking fun at hapless Yanks just cadging their brains out and getting hopelessly obese--it may indeed be the genetic case that they can't help it. Worse, there are real consequences for the world economy given these pathologies for them and the rest of us. Yes, fiscal bankruptcy is equivalent to moral bankruptcy. Given typical American double standards and lack of guilt over inflicting its enormous deficits on everyone else, it is indeed time that we explored more of this kind of research.

Americans are great at GM foods; perhaps in the future they should churn out genetically modified persons who have "thrifty" genes once these are better understood. Certainly, time is running out for them and us as they run up, well, $221 billion in debt in a single month. But deficits don't matter, right?