The Heritability of Privilege

My concerns about the alleged “hereditary meritocracy” aren’t the same as Paul Caron’s:

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.

I have a number of problems with that including:

  • Not all smart people are well-to-do.
  • Not all well-to-do people are smart.
  • There is a natural predisposition to want your children to be at least as successful as you’ve been and to take steps to see that happens.
  • There’s a rising body of scholarship suggesting that emotional intelligence, social and emotional capabilities, are better predictors of success than cognitive abilities.
  • Emotional intelligence tends not to be tested for.
  • Emotional intelligence while apparently somewhat heritable is not as heritable as cognitive intelligence see here.
  • After two standard deviations there’s not much correlation between Q and financial success. There may even be an inverse correlation.

My SAT scores are the same as Bill Gates’s (but reversed). My income and wealth aren’t a hundredth of his.

In ancient China jobs in the massive civil bureaucracy were predicated on passing the civil service examination. That meant that in theory the smart kid of a peasant could get a guaranteed well-paying job for life. In practice the system was corrupted so that the children of the rich, regardless of innate ability, always passed. IMO that’s the way any “merit” system will inevitably work out.

10 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I appreciate your more analytical take than the linked article. Wealth and privilege have always been the bounty of inheritance, with one of the few public policy restraints being the estate tax. I did a quick check on tax the law prof. and he appears to recognize the importance of the estate tax, but argues in an article entitled “Revitalizing the Estate Tax” that its effectiveness has eroded over the last 30 years. The proposals sound good.

    (Anecdotaly, I think that such wealth/asset inheritance is often not sustainable across too many generations. The grandchildren or great-grandchildren lack the skills or drive or desire that created the initial bounty, and drift into either low-challenging or self-indulgent lifestyles)

    I think many of the changes in the economy have provided more opportunities based upon intelligence, and in that sense have opened doors that did not exist over 30 years ago. In that sense, opportunity has expanded. However, IQ is about 0.50 heritable, and is not the whole story. Some of the environmental factors that are listed are a bit dubious or overrated. One doesn’t need to be a power couple to provide a “stable” environment, which I think is important to IQ and probably EQ. It may be better to think of environmental factors that might erode intelligence, like witnessing crimes, parental neglect (including by power couples), poor nutrition, etc.

    But the real issue is whether the economic changes are providing less opportunity for those of average intelligence, which given the Flynn effect is likely higher than it was 30 years ago.

  • Andy Link

    Well, I have a college degree and married well (Engineering PhD). We are in what I would consider the upper-middle class. Both our parents are classic middle-class. Our siblings have had a wide range of economic success – my brother has a successful construction business, but he also works 60-80 hours a week. My sister has never been able to keep a decent job, but married well. Her husband, sadly, became and alcoholic and eventually died and now my sister barely gets by in a small apartment with a part-time job.

    Looking at my own kids, I have a daughter who is about as perfect and low-maintenance as one can get. I don’t have to check any of her school work and she gets A’s. She has lots of natural initiative (much more than me or even her mother). Her brother, a year younger, was diagnosed with ADHD and struggles to get C’s. He has very little natural initiative. He is easily distracted. Both were tested and possess about the same intelligence – (the boy is theoretically a bit better analytically) the difference is in their ability to focus, prioritize, their social skills and emotional intelligence.

    Not sure about my 4 year old yet.

    So, I don’t see what Paul Caron sees in my family or my wife’s family.

  • steve Link

    I think your caveats are correct. There is probably a certain threshold one needs to meet on standard IQ tests to be successful, but beyond that other factors are much more important. The perfect SAT score from aid who has practiced taking the test probably isn’t much different than the score 100 points lower from someone w/o the prep. So CalTech, which claims to admit solely upon merit, is really admitting based upon the combined merit of student and parent.

    As in many things, I think we need a bit of humility about the process. We don’t really know for sure what predicts success and we don’t know how to measure a lot of the things we think might be important, like emotional intelligence. We do know that the system is biased towards those that send out signals of affluence (see Ron Unz). We should at least try to minimize those.


  • We do know that the system is biased towards those that send out signals of affluence (see Ron Unz). We should at least try to minimize those.

    Those are actually substantially less and more subtle than they used to be. When I applied to my elite (co-ed) alma mater, they required “posture photos” of women only if you can imagine such a thing.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @steve, I’m skeptical that test prep helps anywhere near 100 points on the SAT, unless that person is from a disadvantaged background. Racial minorities use test prep much more than whites, and more likely to take a course or use a private tutor (while whites tend to buy a book or video). So it’s conceivable that test prep is particularly useful in correcting educational deficiencies that blacks tend to suffer more.

  • steve Link

    PD- 60 points is what I have seen, which comes from private tutoring and classes. Books help minimally. Add in the fact that you can take the tests over and over, and choose the highest scores and 100 seems pretty realistic to me. (Three parts to the test and hard to believe you wouldn’t vary by at least 10 points per part.)


  • PD Shaw Link

    @steve, SAT scores correlate with IQs; the studies of heritability of IQ range from .25 to .75. I think it’s most likely that for those with high IQ its closer to .75, and those with low IQ its closer to .25. In other words, I think environmental factors like not experiencing violent crime on a daily basis, poor nutrition, deficient teachers, fetal alcohol syndrome, chaotic homelife, etc. are far more influential than taking a child to a battlefield or a science museum or learning how to take a test. And I’m skeptical of the importance you place on how much wealthy people pay for tests, when those same people have been spending on their children since birth, and have been doing so long before the testing industry sent upper-middle class aspirants into an anxiety-ridden arms-race?

  • TastyBits Link


    Your son might have BOOMMS (Bored Out of My Mind Syndrome). He might not be so easily distracted if there was something interesting being taught. He also might have different and better answers than the standardized answers, but these non-standardized answers are wrong and discouraged.

  • steve Link

    PD- Are you aware how much people pay for “college bootcamp” where kids (and parents I presume) go to learn how to write their personal essays and what to do to attract attention from top schools? It is not just the tests. It is the ability to afford to take the texts over and over until you get a better score. To afford to have people coach you on writing your essays. Advising you on which extracurriculars are in right now. (Trips to South America are in, trips to Africa out.) AS I said, I think Dave is correct that kids probably need to meet a certain threshold to succeed at a given school. Beyond that the differences are not meaningful.


  • jan Link

    I missed this thread entirely. However, am glad to have at least belatedly read it, and the varied commentary below the topic at hand.

    “There’s a rising body of scholarship suggesting that emotional intelligence, social and emotional capabilities, are better predictors of success than cognitive abilities.”

    This point I totally agree with. I’ve seen it up close and personal with my own son, and displayed frequently in others passing through my life. There should be more emphasis on emotional intelligence, IMO, enticing it, augmenting it directly in the K-12 classroom. And, like Tasty insightfully added, there is a lot to be said about the BOOMMS, in the poignant need to address and then reform the stagnate curriculum that is so pervasive in our antiquated, tightly unionized school system opposing creative changes and school choice.

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