Economic Mobility and the Genetics Myth

Economic MobilityLast week, I published a quote from an academic paper, Poor Little Rich Kids? The Determinants of the Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth. The researchers looked at the economic standing of adopted children and compared it to that of their adopted parents. The reason they did this was to take genetics out of the equation. A normal thing that apologists for economic inequality claim is, “Of course the children of the rich are also rich; they are smarter and harder working…” The fact that this line of reasoning has a very strong connection to racist arguments over the centuries is generally ignored in polite debate. But if that’s the truth — if it is all about genetics — then adopted children of the rich should not end up rich.

What the researchers found was that environmental factors were far greater than any genetic factors. And this was true before looking at inheritance. It’s even more after inheritance. But the factors of wealth — like not growing up in a stressful environment, having enough to eat, getting a good education — have a huge effect on the children. So it isn’t genetics. And we really need to get past this idea. Like I noted before, it is ultimately a racist argument that one could have heard coming from any eugenicist a hundred years ago.

Given this background, an article by Anne Kim at Washington Monthly has a very big punch, The Myth of Mobility. It summarizes a paper by two Stanford researcher, Pablo Mitnik and David Grusky. They looked at the income of parents back in the late 1980s — when the children were in their late teens. Then they compared these data with the income of the children 20 years later. Their conclusion: “children raised in low-income families will probably have very low incomes as adults, while children raised in high-income families can anticipate very high incomes as adults.” Welcome to the American dream!

Of course, many other people who have looked at the data have found the same thing. And it goes along with our intuitions. The people you went to high school with are doing about as well as you are. You probably work with the kind of people you went to school with. If you grew up poor, you probably aren’t working with many people who grew up rich. And vise versa. In fact, the way our society works is so well known that it is surprising that people even study it. I’m glad they do, of course.

But studies won’t matter. Conservatives are dedicated to maintaining the status quo — as though the way things are is the way that God intended them to be. (It isn’t surprising that modern conservatives are overwhelmingly believers in one of the Abrahamic religions.) The idea that the current ordering of society is more or less random would destroy their view of the world. And they aren’t going to give that up without a major fight. But that’s why I think we need to really focus on the genetics issue. Because no level of inequality is bad if it is the case that the winners are simply that much better than the losers. If Mitt Romney really is 400 times as smart and 400 times as hard working as the average person, then maybe he does deserve to make 400 times as much as the rest of us. But we know that isn’t true. And we have actual data to prove it. Conservatives can ignore it, if they wish. But we should be shoving it in their faces at every opportunity.

Update (2 August 2015 3:52 pm)

That’s right: an update that is before the publication date. I’m three days of publishing ahead. But in the meantime, Mark Thoma came out with a blog post that combined the same two articles. So damn him to hell!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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