Friday 23 January 2015

The Economist takes a half step forwards

There is much innocent fun to be gained from The Economist’s coy avoidance of the genetics of intelligence. They are mired in Blank-Slatism, but are cautiously tip-toeing towards admitting a few things, only to then back away again, thus taking them back to where they came from. This is not all bad: by conceding the importance of intelligence and then immediately saying it is driven by wealth they keep the Faith, whatever it is, but hint that they know more than they will let on in public.

Here they are, saying the previously unsayable:

today’s rich increasingly pass on to their children an asset that cannot be frittered away in a few nights at a casino. It is far more useful than wealth, and invulnerable to inheritance tax. It is brains. Intellectual capital drives the knowledge economy, so those who have lots of it get a fat slice of the pie. And it is increasingly heritable. Far more than in previous generations, clever, successful men marry clever, successful women. Such “assortative mating” increases inequality by 25%, by one estimate, since two-degree households typically enjoy two large incomes. Power couples conceive bright children and bring them up in stable homes—only 9% of college-educated mothers who give birth each year are unmarried, compared with 61% of high-school dropouts. They stimulate them relentlessly: children of professionals hear 32m more words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare. They move to pricey neighbourhoods with good schools, spend a packet on flute lessons and pull strings to get junior into a top-notch college.

Notice that in The Economist’s view brighter people marrying brighter people is not seen as a positive development, but a practice which “increases inequality”. Of course, duller people marrying duller people also increased inequality. In fact, couples assort themselves on intelligence more than anything else:

They also fall for relentless stimulation and the “number of words heard” as a major causal variable.

Then they explain what they think needs to be done:

The moment to start is in early childhood, when the brain is most malleable and the right kind of stimulation has the largest effect. There is no substitute for parents who talk and read to their babies, but good nurseries can help, especially for the most struggling families; and America scores poorly by international standards (see article). Improving early child care in the poorest American neighbourhoods yields returns of ten to one or more; few other government investments pay off so handsomely.

So, there is “no substitute” for parents who talk and read to their babies, but child care must be improved. They do not say so, but I think they are quoting the Abecedarian study. I am a fan of that, but we still cannot be sure that it can be delivered at scale in the high quality required, and most Headstart programs have not boosted intelligence, and most no longer claim to do so.

They do not examine the usual finding that educated parents are more influential than rich parents in supposedly “boosting” intelligence. They leave out the genetic element entirely, and say it is “incomes” which are inherited. If so adoption into a rich household should have massive effects on intellect, but that is not found. If adoption cannot wipe the slate clean, what chance a kindergarten?

In a related article they spell out their concerns: An hereditary meritocracy: The children of the rich and powerful are increasingly well suited to earning wealth and power themselves. That’s a problem.

America’s elite is producing children who not only get ahead, but deserve to do so: they meet the standards of meritocracy better than their peers, and are thus worthy of the status they inherit.

So, the problem seems to be that they deserve to get ahead, the bounders!

Assortative mating of this sort seems likely, on average, to reinforce the traits that bring the couple together. Though genes play a role in the variation of intelligence from person to person, this is not a crude genetic determinism. People tend to encourage in their children what they value in themselves and their partners. Thus people bought together by their education and status will typically deem such things important and do more to bring them out in their children, both deliberately and by lived example—processes in which nature and nurture are more than likely to work hand in hand.

So, genes play a role…. but then they show histograms of SAT scores by parental wealth, implying it was “wealth what done it”. They should show a structured equation of wealth, education and parental IQ if they want to be totally honest.

As for the role genes play in scholastic attainments, Plomin and his team find they account for 58% of the variance, and shared variance (family and school) surprisingly does not account for any of the variance.

For the link between intelligence and scholastic attainment, see: I. J. Deary, S. Strand, P. Smith and C. Fernandes (2007) Intelligence and educational achievement. Intelligence 35, 1, pp13-21. For private study, email the author at the University of Edinburgh and ask for a copy.

The rest of the article is about wealth, connections and influence, with a clear implication that wealth is doing the talking.

Their third article is in the same vein, but a bit more nuanced: Getting ‘em young Early education matters, but it is not everything

Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s education team, says early-years investment does not “automatically produce gains in learning, unless systems transfer this to primary and secondary level”. He has just published research showing that in a worrying number of rich-world countries more than 15% of young people are “unqualified”. Those with a problem include France, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark—all high scorers for early-years provision. A good start is not enough on its own. The system’s stamina and consistency matters just as much—and possibly more.

So, this is about “the system” and the fact that some young people are “unqualified”. Here are some of my comments on the OECD’s views on human ability and their unwillingness to countenance differences in intelligence.

None of The Economist’s articles or the papers they quote make it clear that intelligence must be considered a driving force in economic life and, consequently, in earnings, social status and resultant wealth. Curious, isn’t it, that a magazine written by the smart fraction for the smart fraction cannot bear to mention the smart fraction in a positive light? Perhaps they fear they will be cursed by the deity, or slaughtered by the baying mob. Noblesse oblige.


  1. > And it [intellectual capital] is increasingly heritable.

    I hadn't realized that inherited traits are increasingly heritable. Will this process top off at 100%, or continue?

    > Such “assortative mating” increases inequality by 25%, by one estimate, since two-degree households typically enjoy two large incomes.

    Is this increase over the past century, or the past month? Or perhaps this is in comparison with The Best Of All Possible Worlds. Though I must have skipped over the part where Pangloss married randomly.

    I remain agnostic about the "written by the smart fraction" claim in the post.

    1. There's no evidence that the relevant inherited traits are more heritable nowadays, that I know of. Indeed, a recent study out of Finland found evidence against that notion.

    2. AMac, I take your points. If Pangloss married randomly it was for the best of all possible reasons. I share your caution about whether The Economist is written by the smart fraction, but I bet they are, and for some reasons are posing as clever sillies.

  2. It would seem worrying about "social mobility" is silly because Gregory Clark showed that it largely does not exist and never did.

  3. But doesn't Clark also argue that, historically, the lower strata of society died out - in the sense of having few descendants - and the descendants of the middle strata replaced them? If so, this latter mob were clearly socially mobile - downwards.

    1. That the lower strata became a smaller proportion of society for at least 6 centuries until 1870, and then grew again.

    2. So the lower class ended up with all the loser genes? Descendants of the ones who couldn't "make it" in the middle class.

    3. That is the implication of these findings.

  4. Biological the competitive post-2008 economy, it's unavoidable.

  5. The degree of change is hard to measure, though. College attendance (or non-attendance) for women in earlier generations had little to do with intelligence. I suspect you'd find people of similar classes and intelligence were just as likely to marry in previous generations as today, at least since the invention of romantic love. In earlier generations, the lawyer was more likely to marry a lawyer's daughter than a farmer's daughter. Today the lawyer's daughter would have a college degree. This is increased class stratification? Or is it just the advent of a handy marker (college degrees) for class membership?

    What has changed is the greater societal tolerance for children growing up in non-married households.

  6. I think that judging social status is not so hard to measure, particularly because most societies pay a great deal of attention to these matters. The markers change, as you say. For example, when I was young having a degree was a status symbol of sorts, because only 2% of the population went to university. Once 45% went then the particular university became of much more significance. Indeed, there was a time when an indoor toilet was a status indicator. Different indicators, but the same interest in finding out how a person is doing compared to others.

  7. I used to subscribe to The Economist until I realized that they were not even trying to be honest; therefore I was paying my own good money (and precious time) to feed myself with lying propaganda. I cancelled forthwith, and have never read the rag since.