Our Kids are Coming Apart, Part II

What causes the heritability of socioeconomic status (SES), and thereby leads to inequality of opportunity? We need to understand the mechanism by which this occurs if we hope to devise a remedy.

From these authors, I see two ultimate spheres of explanation: 1) biological and 2) social. 1) can be further divided into 1a) genetic and 1b) developmental factors, and 2) as 2a) cultural and 2b) tribal factors.

1a) The base from which all other factors are built upon. We all begin as raw genetic material inherited from our parents. While not concretely determinative, our genes set our limits and predispositions.

1b) The actual implementation of the genetic blueprint. This is where the environment interacts with genes to produce the individual, and when when some portion of our potential is realized.

2a) Different cultures have different values. Some values are more or less amenable to success in different contexts. For example, the famous ‘Protestant work ethic’ is often invoked in explaining the success of Northern European cultures in the context of the rise of capitalism.

2b) Humans have innate desire to form in and out groups, often based on some sort of tribal identity. I use tribal in the loosest sense: Cubs fans are a tribe; Republicans are a tribe; Texans are a tribe. In a society we both identify with and are identified as belonging to a tribe (but these need not be the same). This area gets into deep questions of identity, but sufficient for now is the assumption that people tend to want to associate with others they identify as belong to their tribe.

Both Putnam and Murray stress the importance of sorting in the inheritance of SES, and I can’t see any scenarios of increased divergence play out without it.  What I’d like to do now is run through some quick monocausal explanations for inequality of opportunity through each of the four factors above (with sorting assumed), and then go into what these authors feel is most responsible. I should reiterate that this discussion is taking place in the context of the modern American economy. One hundred years ago, when much of the economy was still agriculturally based, we would be telling a very different story. For 1), the cognitive requirements of the information economy are paramount in success; for 2), they are less so.

1a) Cognitive ability is mostly determined through genes: on average smart people tend to pair up with other smart people and have smarter children.

1b) Cognitive ability is mostly determined by early childhood development: children exposed to poor environments will grow up to be less successful and unable to provide a good developmental environment for their own children.

2a) Regardless of cognitive ability, success is dependent upon possessing particular virtues. Children raised in cultures that don’t value ethics like industriousness and honesty will be less successful than those that do.

2b) Even if there is no meaningful difference between two groups of people, if one possesses the levers of power and the other does not, the tribal nature of humans leads to the group in power towards directing resources and opportunities away from the out group and to the in group.

I think Putnam (and most people in the center-left policy space) view 1b) as the primary culprit. Specifically, low income families are not able to provide such that children reach their full potential in early childhood (particularly with regards to cognitive ability), which has lifelong repercussions. Lacking the capability to perform cognitive tasks at the level of those who were raised in an environment of abundance, such individuals end up at the bottom of the income distribution, and the cycle continues.

Murray is interesting because he falls so far outside the usual discussion space. His primary culprits are 1a) and 2a). Put simply, he believes that cognitive ability is mostly genetic and there is a strong sorting mechanism via elite institutions (i.e. Ivy League schools). Since most people meet their partners in college, and elite institutions sort their members by cognitive ability, you have high ability people only mating only with other high ability people. Where 2a) comes into play is that Murray also thinks that certain values are critical for success and can even make up for a lack of cognitive ability, but those values (his four ‘Founding Virtues’) are currently lacking in the low SES culture (as to why that is he does not address in Coming Apart, but his other body of work suggests he believes the incentives of the welfare state are the culprit).

Next time I’ll get into what I find most convincing.


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