Ashok Rao is a very impressive young man. He is originally from Chennai and is an 18-year old freshman at the University of Pennsylvia. Handle has a few personal connections at Penn and occasionally manages to drag himself away from the endless tempting delights of the District Metro and into the all-Franklin all-the-time City of Brotherly Love, and so I’d be very happy to meet up with the man and share some pleasant conversation and even buy him some fine adult beverages; purely for ceremonial purposes, of course.
I think he’ll go far in life. I fully expect him to make it into the upper quintile of the US income distribution despite having no idea how rich or poor his parents are (I suspect they do all right). That’s because I can tell he’s extremely intelligent.
And my common-sense social science theory and model of how our world and economy works is that intelligence like his is both scarce and a highly marketable asset. I also think the average marginal transformation of intelligence into income has exploded in recent years, due to advances in globalization (and thus scalability), and technology in general but especially information technology. Not to mention demand for higher education signalling credentials.
That is why almost all of Handle’s connections at Penn are smart people doing well financially. Some of them met at UPenn and got married. Or they found their spouses at the kind of places that UPenn-type people tend to end up. Strangely, they also tended to have parents who were smart and did well financially and married each other. This utter coincidence which I’ve observed repeatedly my entire life, except amongst the very oldest of my relatives and relation, presents quite the enigma.
And quite the policy challenge. Or policy excuse, depending on your social theory and point of view. This is an intolerably immoral social condition, as we all well know, and one that persists mysteriously despite the enlightened, anti-inequality opinion of most of the members of the UPenn community.
So, a little aside. “What is Neoreaction?” asks the Anarchopapist, Bryce Laliberte. I bought his book out of some combination of curiosity and solidarity (we should all write more, and we should all buy each others books to create a structure of incentives to encourage more activity). I am about halfway through it, and I’ll review it here when I’m done, but I’ll tell you I think he goes after the question in a very roundabout way. So allow me to give my own very brief answer to the question.
Man expands his knowledge about nature and humanity as well as he can through the scientific method, with due, but not dogmatic, respect given to logical argument, insight, introspection, experience, and tradition. For various reasons, some of the truths we encounter are part of what Buckley called our society’s ‘structure of taboos’, and so there is tremendous social pressure to either deny or ignore these truths as a society collectively pursues its imperatives.
As it emerged from the Dark Ages and entered the Renaissance, Western society gradually experienced a growing revolution is scientific exploration and discovery that occasionally came into conflict with social taboos in the form of Church dogma. Eventually the Church lost the upper hand amongst the intellectual class, and the respect for and excitement about the new truths and innovations of the sciences and technology culminated in a period we call ‘The Enlightenment’. But taboo didn’t disappear, and we’ve got out own set today with which we must contend.
Sometimes these taboos are harmless, perhaps even benign. Honesty is a virtue, but so are discretion, comity, and civility (the real kind, not the recent scam). At other times these taboos can lead us to massive waste and human tragedy. Of course, a lot of people will simply have to keep their mouths shut about what they genuinely believe to be the truth or face ‘social consequences’. The severity of those personal consequences for the expression of one’s honest sentiments, and the magnitude of the negative societal ramifications of pursuing policies based in taboo-derived error, determine the scale of the problem.
And right now, in the West, we have a big problem with our taboos and error-based policies. The set of truths that conflict with our contemporary taboos, as well as the social phenomenon of the set of people who believe in and explore the implication of those truths we call, “The Dark Enlightenment”. Dark only because there is an intellectual aesthetic sense, but our reality is sometimes ugly, tragic, limiting and depressing and conflicts with the human thrill of hopeful optimism and dreams of building utopia. Repulsive Ugly Truths vs. Seductive, Pretty Lies.
To give a specific instance, the Dark Enlightenment believes, in accordance with our common sense and regular observation (I’m being repetitive for a reason folks), that our current scientific knowledge of human genetics and the heritability of phenotypes makes a traveshamockery out of the progressive religion of hard egalitarianism which includes human neurological uniformity. Not like they’ll change their minds in public about it anytime soon, but as confirmation data keeps flowing and strengthening, it’s going to become increasingly embarrassing to assert the old dogmas so unreservedly. People will start calling them ‘deniers’ and such.
This, among other things, helps us to determine which social claims are ordinary and common-sensical, or extraordinary and counter-intuitive.
What is Neoreaction? If Dark Enlightenment is a set of taboo knowledge, then Neoreaction is the taboo political technology based on the taboo implications of that taboo knowledge. It is the effort to reject the pretty lies, embrace the ugly truths, and to discover how that should inform our theories of politics, culture, and social organization, inter alia. If you believe what we believe, then you think most Western countries are very much on the wrong track.
Now let’s consider Ashok’s latest post where he takes a swipe or two at Scott Winship on the subject of inequality and social mobility. I think the conversation can be reverse-engineered to extract some answers to Foseti’s question, “They believe in what?” Perhaps more important than what they believe is that their confidence in their beliefs has risen to the point where an unreal ideology is now regarded by them as an obvious, common-sense social theory. Which it most definitely is not.
But Ashok is so confident of his implicit human model that he feels something like ‘the facts are so obvious they speak for themselves’ and thus warrants the powerful legal argumentative device of Res ipsa loquitor burden shifting. Progressives should not have to prove that inequality hurts mobility, that’s common sense social theory, it’s conservatives that should have to prove it doesn’t!
Who to believe? One can always try to make this switch-flipping claim, and claim it is based on reasonable social theory, but is it actually reasonable? To address that question, we need to extract the implicit theory behind the charged words so we can evaluate its plausibility.
I know my readers are fully aware of the loaded lexicon behind these discussions, but for the sake of the uninitiated I’ll try to take a few machetes to the thicket, and I hope you’ll indulge me.
First there is the notion of ‘social mobility’.
The social ideal behind the notion is basic meritocracy / equal opportunity. Call it ‘social justice lite’. An individual’s opportunity to compete for and win various desirable positions in his society’s human organizations, for example in school or the labor market, should be based on their talent, character, and productivity at delivering what the arbiter demands. It should not be based instead merely on wasta, that is, social clout, who you know, where you came from, and so on. (I’ll use ‘productivity’ to stand for the abstract appeal or desirability of whatever the target decision-maker wants. It could just as easily translate into ‘beauty’ in the sexual market, for example).
The market should be fair, and not corrupt, or at the very least blind to such productivity or desirability-irrelevant characteristics. Indeed, it would be inefficient for the market to decide otherwise. If Ragged Dick has talent and determination and works hard, we want him to do as well as anybody else with similar ability and drive. If the heir to the Dupont fortune is dimwitted and lazy, then we don’t want him taking up a slot at Yale or being given an unearned, undeserved but lucrative position in management where he will be characteristically ineffective. He can still live comfortably off his family’s money, whatever, but he should make way for more capable people, wherever they happen to come from.
So far, so unobjectionable, as an ideal. But we run into three problems right away. The first is the question of whether, and if so when and how, we shall enforce this ideal through the government when individuals make decisions that depart from market perfection. Or perhaps even what we hope would be market perfection, like one characterized by no disparate impact, or in other words, in a very different world from the real one we actually live in.
The second problem is having one of those common-sense social theories on where the productivity comes from. Hopefully a theory that can be evaluated empirically and will be tested with as much rigorous scientific exploration as the nature of the inquiry permits. The general idea is that human achievement is some combination of nature, nurture, and character, with different weightings for different people. Is the average weighting (3,3,4) like ‘conservatives’ thing, or (1,8,1) like ‘liberals’ believe? The debate is perpetual, not because it’s unresolvable, but because there’s a lot of politics at stake.
Maybe human productivity comes mainly from the ‘nurture’ things beyond both the individual’s nature and his control. The market may still be productivity-irrelevant-blind, and thus fair in this limited sense, as far as it goes, but is an individual’s success or failure still entitled to be considered justly earned or deserved under such facts? More on this in a bit.
And the third problem is one of metrics. How shall we define ‘social mobility’ so that we can measure how well our society lives up to the ideal in a way that can be measured in a way that allows us to compare different time periods. You can see how the third problem is intimately connected to the second.
For example, let’s say you were trying to measure ‘teacher effectiveness’. You could theorize that any student’s test scores are 100% derived from the teacher’s pedagogic style. You would then test all the students, take a class average, compare it to all the other class averages, and grade the teacher on where the result fits in the broader distribution.
Well, perhaps you find that theory absurd. Just ask any teacher; they’ll confirm it’s absurd. Now what? Well, maybe you alter your theory and say that the teacher is only responsible for the improvement in the class average from the previous year. You do the same as above and less unrealistic but still pretty absurd. The teachers will still resist (in one way or another) if you try to evaluate them that way.
But lets say you test each student for their IQ and average test scores. You could even measure all their social statistics. You then put them into tracked, leveled classes according to both cognitive ability and prior knowledge, so that the teacher can teach in one way and use time more efficiently than if she had to deal with a large variation in ability and preparedness. Then you come up with an ‘average expected value added’ tailored to each student given similar profiles around the country.
And then, finally, you grade the teacher relative to her peers on the basis of how much value she actually added to the students based on what we expected her to be able to achieve. Now the teachers might relax the grip on their pitchforks and actually get on board your bandwagon. That’s because you are now measuring something that they know aligns with the notion of ‘teacher effectiveness’ and accords with reality, and not concocted utopian fantasy.
In other words, your latest social theory is now tempered with a lot more common sense reality than when we started. But, you know, it’s funny, we aren’t actually measuring teacher effectiveness or school quality in this realistic, common-sense way. Why not? That ‘structure of taboos’ thing, that’s why not.
Now, how should we measure how close we are to achieving our ideal of social mobility? It’s some function of “where people end up vs. where they came from”, but it also inescapably demands a theory of where they should end up. Social Scientists have decided to measure the ‘came from’ and ‘ended up’ in terms of an individual’s parents’ household income, and then their own income, relative respectively to the societies overall income distribution profile.
As a purely technical matter, measuring income is itself highly problematic, and not just in Scott Sumner’s sense. Handle had his children when he was a student and earned no income. Bottom quintile? Maybe an average over the lifetime of the child? But maybe some years, like early-development and college-prep, are more important than others. A weighted average? What if instead I earned a lot, but was a nasty scrooge and didn’t spend any on my kids so they didn’t feel my income?
Is this before or after taxes, because taxes are different in different states and cities, and the same income can leave someone with enough disposable income in one quintile in New York but another in Texas. And what about local cost of living, because people get paid more in expensive locations, but can’t afford any more ‘lifestyle’ for their kids. What makes you middle class in Kansas makes you poor in LA County. What about welfare benefits? I could go on forever. It’s a tough nut to crack. As usual, for the sake of convenient analysis in a language of common metrics, researchers just tend to avoid cracking it.
Suffice is to say that I think this is a horrible way to measure ‘social mobility’ as the tendency of the society to fulfill its meritocratic ideals, and I suspect it was chosen not for its meaningfulness but precisely because it generates the kind of results that assist with the sale of policy. Alas, it’s what we’ve got. But even if you pick some default income metrics, you’ve still got the problem of determining where people would be predicted to end up under ideal social mobility given their origins.
You could assume, for example, that God loves all his children and creates them, if not ‘equally’, then with an eye to group-statistical equal impact (quite the strange Divine Entity, that one; a very Progressive one) and that therefore the potential for high productivity in marketable traits is not heritable but instead randomly distributed to children in each quintile. We start with an ordered deck of cards in terms of the parents’ household income, but in ideal social conditions, the kids’ deck would be perfectly shuffled, with 20% of the kids from each parent’s quintile going to each kids’ quintile. You could interpret any deviation from this as social injustice per se, and warranting compensatory government intervention and economic redistribution.
And that would be a completely absurd theory.
Ok, maybe you don’t expect such perfect deck-shuffling. Maybe there are aspects of biological reality that constrain ‘perfect’ social mobility to some lesser amount of churn.
Still, if we assume the people are more or less the same in every country and in any generation, then we can compare the churning across nations and through time to give us some idea of this ‘cap’ on social mobility, and also to tell us whether we are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than some other country, or ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than we used to be.
But those assumptions are also absurd. In fact, the only people I know who believe them are the kind of people who have spent most of their life surrounded by other very intelligent people. When you want to deny the unique circumstances of your social group you have to twist elaborate knots like Michael Chabon attempts here. ‘Trained’ my ass.
It’s not exactly a ‘sheltered’ existence, but certainly segregated from sharing the experience of the bulk of humanity. The self-created niche-bubble machine of the blogosphere just amplifies this intellectual isolation. Every iPad an ivory tower. That helps to enable a feeling of plausibility to otherwise faulty assumptions. A kind of reality apartheid. It’s only in that kind of rarefied social environment that extraordinary and false claims would seem ordinary and obvious.
But let’s talk about some societal changes that might make comparisons along a time series illegitimate. For one thing, starting about half a century ago, baby boom women in the West starting going to college and entering the work force in large numbers. They delayed childbirth, and tended to meet their mates at school. It’s called assortative mating, and one sees it everyday. For another, as I mentioned earlier, the economic returns to intelligence have exploded. And finally, intelligence is strongly heritable genetically and varies amongst ethnic groups – expression of belief in which is a strong social taboo which will get you fired. Note the pseudonymity of the still-employed.
Once upon a time, and before it really broke out in terms of marketability, intelligence really was more randomly distributed across wealth and income classes. Plenty of those peasants and hicks down on the farm had plenty on the ball. There were also plenty of ‘mixed-marriages’ with regards to cognitive-ability, which kept the churn and ‘regression to the mean’ phenomena going. Gradually, that changed.
The educational system (in combination with the white collar labor market) is particularly sensitive and adept at finding individuals of talent and creaming them from their localities to our cognitive concentrator cities in a kind of intra-national brain-drain to complement the international one. The selection, sorting, and mate-pairing mechanisms of higher education have been working on the American society for generations now, and we are witnessing the effects as we slowly but surely solidify into something like rigid castes.
And the US immigration system has its own effects, which themselves have changed over time. In the past, the US accepted a lot of immigrants from European societies at a similar, pre-sorted-by-intelligence stage of development and which a similar intelligence mean and distribution. And these immigrants were generally very poor. This meant that, after a generation, the children of these immigrants, despite all originating in the bottom quintile, tended to have a cognitive potential distribution similar to the overall host society, and there was a lot of social mobility and integration. On the other hand, this never happened for the involuntary immigrant blacks or for their descendants.
Nowadays things are quite different and there are two main immigrant streams. The first stream is of millions of low-skill workers mainly from Mexico and Latin America that tend to have less cognitive potential than the American mean, on average. The children of these individuals are, as you would expect, not catching up even after multiple generation in the country. The second stream are of truly elite intellectuals from all around the world, but principally from Asia. They are, on average, well above the American mean, and their kids are not regressing to that mean either. Most of them are quite elite, if not prodigies like Ashok Rao.
The sponsorship system plays a role, where, for example, Brahmins, already disproportionately represented amongst the existing US South Asian population may prefer to bring over others of their group instead of random Indians. And Visas for education and work (for certain companies with pull) tend to prefer the most competitive, brainiest types from East and South Asia, and it even helps if both spouses in a marriage have PhD’s which may be a top percent of the top percent kind of intellectual power-couple in the countries of their origin.
This is good for the US (mostly), good for the power couple, and probably a mixed bag for the country of origin. But it also means the elite couples have elite kids who are not at all representative of the populations of those countries, tending to be at least two or three standard deviations above the mean. That kind of brain power sure helps a lot with social mobility. I’m betting Ashok Rao knows a thing or two about all this. If he doesn’t he should walk around the quad a little. Also take a stroll a little Northwest of 42nd street after dark, but be sure to check the local crime stats first.
There was once this guy called Charles Murray who wrote two unmentionable books on the subject chronicling the History of what happened, but who cares what that guy has to say, wasn’t he excommunicated or something?
So, no, we can’t do such naive comparisons and pretend the results mean anything. So, just like in our teacher-evaluation example, what we really require is an empirical theory of individually-tailored expected social mobility. Only then could we evaluate whether income inequality, by itself, causes statistically significant deviation from our expectation.
People using anything like the absurd assumptions of the social mobility theories I’ve mentioned above are indeed making extraordinary claims which defy the incessant data signal from our own lying eyes, and therefore require extraordinary evidence. Evidence they do not have. Social theories reliant on these taboo-derived-errors should not be presumed to be obvious or accord with ‘common sense’ by any means.
And they shouldn’t be afforded the advantage of shifting the burden of proof upon detractors of their advocacy for radical shifts in government policy. Because, while they are definitely not Communists, of course not, that’s ridiculous, it’s just that they seem to really want to redistribute from those with ability to those with needs to make everyone economically and socially equal. Which I must emphasize again is completely different from Communism. Because Democracy, or something.
But I do respect Rao for owning up to the moral origins of his policy preferences, and even going so far as to explicitly acknowledge a possible trade-off between economic growth and the enactment of his morality-enforcing redistributionist policies. Few writers are that honest, and instead tend to try and justify their preferences in terms of the means of achieving some other social good.
But why beat around the bush? Ashok and I both know the game here. Progressives wants redistribution, and they usually want it, I would argue, for its own sake, that is, for moral reasons. But in a democracy they also need to sell it, and so they are trying to do so under the guise of providing innocent children the equal opportunity they deserve to reach their assumed equal potentials, but which they aren’t getting. Because the 1%. And evil hate. Plenty of greed and evil hate.
That takes us back to the second problem I mentioned earlier – the theory of the origin of human performance and productivity. The clearly extraordinary claim would be the perfect random distribution assumption. But progressives have developed a savings clause for that, which is basically that potential is indeed equally and randomly distributed but that the pre-genius child needs just the right conditions to enable the expression of that potential. This is a very pretty lie indeed, especially if you want a lot of redistribution. It may be that God and Nature and the Market are all inherently unfair, but why should we go along with what those three dictate, especially when morality is at stake?
And here is where the definition of ‘inequality’ comes in. Now, dear reader, I’ve perused many of these papers, essays, and publications, and, quite frankly, there’s a very pronounced tendency to slip and use ‘inequality’ to just mean ‘poverty‘ which is a completely different thing. The former is a relative matter, while the latter is absolute (or so one might think). Malnutrition, for example, is associated with poverty, and in a poor society, lots of quintiles could experience malnutrition, whereas in a rich society no one does. If everyone got super-rich in reach terms, with the poorest quintile consuming 2013US$1M annually in real terms, but the top quintile getting $20M, then there is still a lot of ‘inequality’, but who cares?
The implication is that the famous ‘all we have to do’ is to take children from the lowest quintile and raise them exactly the same way children from the highest quintile are reared, and with all the same advantages, (and obviously this applies to quintiles 2 thru 4 as well) and, voila, fairness and equality will result in terms of actual performance. Social Mobility!
Now, none of that is actually true, but let’s assume it is arguendo. We might then ask, “Why all this focus on quintiles and relative positioning? Wouldn’t we really start with a theory of expected economic achievement given absolute starting conditions, one’s place in the overall ranking order merely being a function of that? What does one’s ex ante ‘rank’, have to do with human achievement? Isn’t it more reasonable to attribute performance to absolute conditions like essential nutrition, family structure, or number of books in the home, or something more absolute and concrete instead of relative?
If the number of books contributes to ‘achievement’, then what matters more, how many books in the home, or how many books you have relative to the number of books everyone else tends to have? I’d guess the former, because the latter yields some very absurd logical results. 50 Books a generation ago were enough to help you score high on an IQ test, but today that would make you score lower because most people have more, but your score would improve again if I dropped you in a social setting with different conditions? That’s crazy. Or, at the very least, it’s an extraordinary claim that defies common sense.
My common sense tells me that if you deny a child the basics you will stunt his development, but that as you begin to provide him more and better conditions you reach the point of diminishing returns. If in one generation diminishing returns hit at the third quantile, then as everybody gets richer you would see the point descend to the second, then first, then be an almost universally available minimum standard of living. We all know stories, usually in our own families, of very smart and successful people who made it big with much less.
The tragedy is that the things the government can influence easily are the factors that hit diminishing returns the earliest. The government can’t improve your kid’s genes. And the government isn’t doing a very good job at making sure as many kids as possible are being raised by both of their married, biological parents, or in cultures that emphasize hard work, determination, a love of learning, etc.
But we demand that the government do something about the inequality, and so we keep dumping more and more resources into the ‘actionable’ domains of diminishing returns, where kids can’t or wont absorb any more educational effort. That means we never, ever, make any progressive progress towards ‘closing the gap’ while allocating scarce resources away from our brightest and most gifted children who could actually benefit from the expenditure.
Which is extraordinarily absurd. And we never learn from our failures or mistakes, and just keep redoubling our efforts, and hunting for the evil hateful witches which must be cursing and sabotaging out attempts, because, really, how else can you possible explain repeated failure and still appeal for more resources? The good news, for progressives, is that there is literally no limiting principle to the nature of the argument unless and until childhood conditions of the lowest and highest quintile children are made absolutely equivalent in every respect. Only after perfect equalization is achieved would anyone have to admit that it doesn’t perform as promised.
To some of us around these parts, however, our common sense social theories lead us to believe that the promise of equal performance remains an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary proof. Ashok Rao is a brilliant guy with a long, bright future ahead of him, and he shouldn’t get off the hook so easily. And when he makes the effort to prove the progressives’ main ‘common sense’ social theories instead of asking they be let off the hook, he may discover how un-common-sensical they really are.