Sunday, February 23, 2014

Heritability of Personal Characteristics Does Not Imply Heritability of Social Characteristics

Gregory Clark has a very interesting article in the NY Times regarding research he has conducted tracking surnames and high status occupations. I recommend reading it.

However, while the data presented is fascinating I find the conclusions he draws highly questionable.

For example he writes that:

The notion of genetic transmission of “social competence” — some mysterious mix of drive and ability — may unsettle us. But studies of adoption, in some ways the most dramatic of social interventions, support this view. A number of studies of adopted children in the United States and Nordic countries show convincingly that their life chances are more strongly predicted from their biological parents than their adoptive families. In America, for example, the I.Q. of adopted children correlates with their adoptive parents’ when they are young, but the correlation is close to zero by adulthood. There is a low correlation between the incomes and educational attainment of adopted children and those of their adoptive parents.
Then goes on to say that:

These studies, along with studies of correlations across various types of siblings (identical twins, fraternal twins, half siblings) suggest that genetics is the main carrier of social status.
If we are right that nature predominates over nurture, and explains the low rate of social mobility, is that inherently a tragedy? It depends on your point of view.
I have to confess that I'm not as familiar with studies showing correlations between children's incomes and their adoptive parents, what little I have read does seem to indicate the correlation is much stronger than it is with IQ making this assertion questionable.

The real problem, however, has to do with the vastly different timing of reversion to the mean in IQ and social status. Dr. Clark is writing about reversion to the mean taking 15 or more generations. However, reversion to the mean with IQ only takes a couple of generations. I found this blog post by  Steve Sailer illustrating this, I'm not really familiar with the blog so can't vouch for the source but it is consistent with what I know from more formal reading:

The speed of the regression to the mean.
If one starts with two parents whose IQs are 160 and looks at the average IQs across generations the speed of the regression to the mean is quite fast.

Parents 160, 160
Children average 136 (assume these mate with a 136)
Grandchildren average 122 (assume these mate with a 122)
Greatgrandchildren average 113 (assume these mate with a 113)
How can genetic reversion to the mean explain the very slow social reversion to the mean? There is almost an order of magnitude difference in speed (2 generations vs 10 - 15).

Furthermore, while IQ studies tend to show high correlations between IQ and job performance the correlation between IQ and social status or income is much lower. The data certainly hint that social outcomes are the result of something other than merit and it stands to reason that something other than genetic heritability of merit is at work. Of course, there could be a strong genetic component that is not linked with ability, it is pretty well established that people tend to like and hire people more like themselves so it may be that non-performance related characteristics are being selected for and leading to unequal social outcomes. But the implications of this are very different than if elite selection is based on performance related personal characteristics.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why Not Help Those Not Willing to Work for It Out of the Labor Force?

I was reading a wonk blog post that mentioned this statement by President Obama, "He’s said he wants to create 'more chances for folks to earn their way into the middle class as long as they’re willing to work for it.'"

The obvious corollary to this should be helping those who are not willing to work to get into the middle class to not have to. A major problem for many employers of lower wage workers is that they have issues finding employees who can do basic things like show up to work on time and spend their shift working rather than goofing off. This understandably makes them reluctant to take chances on lower wage workers more generally by giving them opportunities for greater responsibility and instead instills an attitude that low wage workers are dispensable.

This raises the question in my mind of why we consider it a good thing to make everyone work? Someone that doesn't want to work and is content living in a rat's nest of an apartment eating Cheetos, getting stoned, and playing video games isn't going to be anyone's idea of a model worker. Why is it a good idea to make someone willing to work to get ahead to have to compete with losers in the job market? Most businesses have crude measures for recruiting low wage workers, its hard to distinguish Mr. Cheetos from someone that has worked hard at multiple low wage employers with high turnover. Most small businesses won't bother trying.

Yet we constantly hear of policies that are designed primarily to punish Mr. Cheetos until he is willing to go out and get a job. This makes no sense, Mr. Cheetos is a terrible worker no one wants. Why not pursue policies to keep Mr. Cheetos on the couch so employers only have Mr. Willing To Work to choose from?

Wouldn't everyone be better off in this scenario?

Of course, if you believe in labor exploitation it makes a lot of sense to get Mr. Cheetos off the couch because this produces more labor supply and makes it easier to exploit Mr. Willing to Work but this isn't a theory often mentioned in polite company.