Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Labor Conditions in Colonial America

Back in 1934, the Bureau of Labor Statistics produced a fascinating and very readable book entitled History of Wages in the United States From Colonial Times to 1928 : Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 604. There’s lots of cool stuff there, but it quickly becomes apparent that Colonial America was a whole other country than today’s America.

I want to quote extensively from the beginning of the book. (Note – I’m not going to copy footnotes.) It begins with a chapter entitled “Early Working Conditions and Wage Legislation.” The chapter begins with this:

“ High American wages” date from the beginning of the country, to judge from evidence contained in the earliest colonial records in which reference to wages is found. Letters and reports from agents of the British companies engaged in colonial settlement and from the early colonial governors, express consternation amounting to distress over the “ exhorbitant demands” of craftsmen and laborers. A colonial treasurer of the Virginia Colony declared, about 1625, that the wages paid there were “ intolerable” and “ much in excess of the sum paid to the same class of persons in England.” In 1633 Governor Winthrop, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, noted that the “ excessive rates ” charged by workmen “ grew to a general complaint ” which called for legislative action, and a colonial governor in North Carolina complained that “ the Price of Labour is very high.”

From the workman’s side of the story comes similar testimony treated from a different viewpoint. Gabriel Thomas, who wrote a history of “ the Province and Countrey of Pensilvania” in 1698 for the purpose of inducing the poverty-stricken workers of England to emigrate, asserts that “ the encouragements are very greate and inviting, for Poor People (both Men and Women) of all kinds can here get three times the wages for their Labour they can in England or Wales;” and William Penn says in a letter that “ all provisions are reasonable but Labour dear, which makes it a good Poor Man’s country.” Another promoter, with a zeal suggestive of present-day publicity methods, wrote glowingly of the “ happy circumstances” in which laborers in New Jersey were placed in 1641.

Moving on:

Governor Winthrop, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared in 1630 that the “ scarcity of workers caused them to raise their wages to an excessive rate;” a century and a quarter later Governor Dobbs, of North Carolina, reported that “ artificers and labourers being scarce in comparison to the number of Planters, when they are employed they won’t work half, scarce a third part of work in a Day of what they do in Europe, and their wages are from two shillings to 3, 4, and 5 shillings per Diem this currency.”

Today’s Planters, er, farmers sympathize.  Of course, today’s outrage is that workers get paid more in the US than in Mexico.

A bit later, still in chapter 1, we get a section entitled “Control of Workers”:

Both of these conditions, the scarcity of labor and the resulting high wages, were met differently by the northern and the southern colonies… The New England colonies undertook to meet them by regulation and legislation. If local laws limiting property holding and citizenship to “ freemen” and “ commoners” operated to exclude needed tradesmen from a town, the laws were either suspended in given cases or the town found some way to get around them in order to secure the desired services. Both Boston and Charlestown in 1640 waived certain of the citizenship requirements to obtain carpenters. As early as 1635 Lynn voted to admit a landless blacksmith, and later granted him 20 acres of land, thus keeping both the blacksmith and the letter of the law requiring that residents be landholders.

These concessions as a rule had strings to them. When 20 citizens of Haverhill, Mass., raised a subscription among themselves to purchase a house and land in order that a blacksmith could come into the settlement, they required that the smith agree to remain for seven years, and did not permit him to work for any person other than the 20 subscribers. The town of Windsor, Conn., presented a currier with a house and land and “ something for a shop,” but it was to belong to him and his heirs only on condition that “ he lives and dies with us and affords us the use of his trade.” Otherwise the property was to revert to the town. In 1656 William How was granted “ twelve acres of meadow land and twelve acres of upland ” in what afterwards became the great textile center of Lowell, Mass., “ provided he set up his trade of weaving and perform the town’s work.”

Once established in the colony, workmen were under the rigid regulation and control of a governmental system which, to quote Weeden, believed that it “ could legislate prosperity and well-being for everyone, rich or poor.” Impressment of labor was one tenet of that system, and “ either the public need or the demands of private business could enforce it.” As a rule it was only in harvest time that craftsmen were impressed into private service, but carpenters were sometimes drafted to build houses for individuals. Work on the public roads one day in the month was required of every workman in Salem, and he was subject to a fine of 3 shillings if he did not comply. When the selectmen of Dedham, Mass., decided to build a meeting house, the committee in charge was authorized to “ order men to worke upon the same.”

The next section of Chapter 1 deals with “Wage Legislation”

It was in legislation dealing with wages, however, that the authorities in the New England colonies made their most persistent efforts to control workers. Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony passed similar laws in 1630 fixing a maximum rate of pay. In Massachusetts Bay Colony:

It was ordered that Carpenters, Joyners, Brickelayers, Sawers and Thatchers shal not take above 2s. [48.6 cents] a day, and 16d. [32 cents] a day if they have meate and drinke, nor any man shall give more, under paine of 10s. [$2.43] to taker and giver; and that sawers shal not take above 4s. 6d. [$1.00] ye hundred for boards, att six score to the hundred, if they have their wood felled and squared for them, and not above 5s. 6d. [$1.33] if they fell and square their wood themselves. It was ordered that labourers shal not take above 12d. [24.3 cents] a day for their worke, and not above 6d. [12 cents] and meat and drink, under paine of 10s. [$2.43].

Although this law was not successful and operated less than six months, the court tried again in 1633, with lower rates and evidently greater determination, to dictate wages. The second ruling kept the same rate of 2s. a day for “ master” workmen—building tradesmen, mowers, and wheelwrights— but the rate with “ dyett” became 14d. (28 cents) a day instead of 16d. “ Master taylors” were allowed 12d. (24.3 cents) and “ inferior taylors” 8d. (16 cents) per day “ with dyett.” Instead of fixing the rate for laborers, or “ inferior” workmen, as did the 1630 act, that of 1633 left its determination to the town constable and “ two indifferent freemen,” probably for each and every given case.

Of course, it helps if the workers know their place.  The powers that be knew how to keep workers from developing fancy tastes that might lead them to get uppity, though truth to tell, a bit more than that might be happening in the quote below:

A few years later the court, “ aware that the board at public houses, if extravagant, not only required a corresponding price from the traveller, but also put him in the hazard of contracting a taste for similar fare at his own house, and thus promoted a costly mode of living, ever unfavorable to the pecuniary concerns of a community,” tried another way of helping the consumer. It declared that:

Whereas complaint hath bene also made that diverse pore people, who would willingly content themselves with meane dyet are forced to take such dyet as is tendered them at 12d. [24.3 cents] the meale or more; it is now ordered that every keeper of such Inn or comon vicualling house shall sell and allow unto every of their guests such victuals as they shall call for, and not force them to take more or other than they desire, bee it never so meane and small in quantity, and shall affoard the same and all other dyet at reasonable prizes upon paine of such fine as the Court shall inflict according to the measure and quantity of the offence.

This law was enacted in 1637.

Anyway, the book is chock full of good stuff. I might quote some more in later posts.

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Competition from China reduced Innovation in the US

Via Tyler Cowen, here is a piece by David Autor, David Dorn, Gordon Hanson, Gary P. Pisano and Pian Shu.

Cowen quoted the most important part, so let me follow his lead:

The central finding of our regression analysis is that firms whose industries were exposed to a greater surge of Chinese import competition from 1991 to 2007 experienced a significant decline in their patent output. A one standard deviation larger increase in import penetration decreased a firm’s patent output by 15 percentage points. Using data from the 1975 to 1991 period and a regression setup that accounts for the diverging secular innovation trends in computers and chemical, we confirm that firms in China-exposed industries did not already have a weaker patent growth prior to the arrival of the competing imports.

…The innovation activity of US firms did not merely shift from the US to other countries. We estimate similar negative effects of import competition on patents by US firms’ domestic employees and by their foreign employees. Instead, our results are most consistent with the notion that the rapid and large increase in competition squeezed firms’ profitability and forced them to downsize along many margins, including innovation. Consistent with that interpretation, we find that the adverse impact of import competition on patent output was concentrated in firms that were already initially more indebted and less profitable.

Here’s what I think is happening. Chinese imports typically enter a market from the bottom, with a low price and a reputation for low quality. After a few years, the quality begins to improve, though it takes somewhat longer for the reputation to follow.

From the perspective of incumbent players, the Chinese don’t play at the top of the market where the high margin flagships are, but they take up a lot of market share in the lower end products. But, though broadline products have slim profit margins, they keep the plants operating at capacity, and that’s what covers capital costs.

So… the existential threat to the incumbents comes from having higher costs than the new competitor. The natural reaction then, is to cut costs. Fire people, idle plants and reduce expenses like marketing and R&D.

Despite Schumpeterian theory, many of the most innovative (large) companies in post-WW2 America were monopolies or awfully close to it. Think Bell Labs, Xerox Parc or Skunk Works (i.e., Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects) for classic examples from back in the day. Ma Bell could afford the time and money needed to do world-class research.  Today’s phone companies cannot. Smaller companies have other dynamics, and often they are the source of innovation in many industries.  Smaller innovators whose technology proves successful end up being bought (and sometimes ruined) by the more established players.

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What Percentage of Americans are Attorneys?

Here’s a graph showing the number of attorneys as a share of the US population:

attorneys as a pct of US pop 20170322a

The increase seems pretty inexorable starting around 1970, doesn’t it?

For grins and giggles, here’s snide graph on which I will make no comment:

attorneys as a pct of US pop v Growth in Real GDP per capita 20170322a

If you’re wondering where the lawyers live, a quick google search turned up this post which shows attorneys by state. Needless to say, the share of attorneys as a percentage of the population is greater in the District of Columbia than any of the states, by far.

Data for (“resident active”) attorneys used in these graphs comes are from the American Bar Association. The ABA’s website seems insistent that anyone referencing their data should state it is “Reprinted by permission of the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.” I am afraid to argue with them.

Data and estimates for the US population originates with the Census, but I’m using the set cleaned up by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission since its in an easy to use format. Real GDP per capita comes from NIPA Table 7.1.

If you want my spreadsheet, drop me a line at my first name (mike) dot my last name (that’s kimel with one m) at gmail with a dot com.

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How do We Reduce Misery Caused by Poverty Around the World?

A few weeks ago I had a post looking at the success of a number of countries. I noted that countries that do well include,

(in no particular order): the US, Canada, Northwest Europe, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and, until China began applying a heavier thumb, Hong Kong. Those also happen to be the countries that would attract the most foreigners interested in being citizens, so this quick and dirty list should pass a basic smell test. (If some of these nations don’t have much of an immigrant population and don’t rank on high on the destination of potential immigrants, it is because they are very selective about the who they let in as opposed to being shunned by would be immigrants.)

So what do these places have in common? It isn’t natural resources. Just ask the Japanese. (Plus, in countries outside of the list above, being blessed by nature somehow correlates with suffering from the “Resource Curse.”) It isn’t Democracy as we know it. That’s a relatively new thing for South Korea, Hong Kong was ruled by foreigners for most of the last century, and then, of course, there’s Singapore. It isn’t coming into the post-WW2 period wealthy; quite a few countries on the list were in miserable shape in 1945. It isn’t a matter of exploiting other countries (which Americans of a certain bent are always fond of claiming is the US’ secret) – South Koreans will proudly tell you that the country has never invaded anyone in well over 2,000 years. Switzerland, too, is proudly neutral. The Scandinavians have also been pretty pacifist for well over a century as well. Small government? As much as libertarians like to claim Singapore for their own, ignoring the massive government participation in the economy (think Temasek, Singapore Airlines, Mediacorp, Singtel, Singapore Power, etc.). Nor did Japan, Inc. qualify. Something about about geography and environmental factors that these countries have in common? Nope and nope.

To be blunt, there doesn’t seem to be a factor or group of factors that can be applied to these countries but not to countries that are “developing.”

Let’s go the other way on this post. Most of us care about poverty. We’d like to see a world with less poverty, and more opportunity for everyone. Put a different way – it would be a wonderful thing if Bolivians, Burundians and Bangladeshis were able to live the lifestyle enjoyed by people of Switzerland, South Korea and Singapore. But wishing is easy. And useless. So… how do we get from here to there in a reasonable amount of time?

My answer is that it will take changing the culture. For example, most countries that do well tend to have a reputation for punctuality which is rarely shared in less developed countries. Of course, there is more than just punctuality. Find out what other aspects of the culture of South Korea, to use a specific example, work and export that culture. After all, South Korea was in very bad shape at the close of WW2, and by the 1980s was a force to be reckoned with. If Burundi makes the same transformation over the same period of time, many, many people’s lives will be much improved.

But at this blog, a lot of people don’t like “culture” as an answer. For reasons I frankly don’t get, saying culture is a big driver of economic outcomes is viewed is racist by many people. OK. Fine. But if then how do we do it? How do we reduce the misery that comes from the poverty that is so pervasive around the world?

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No evidence to back idea of learning styles

On Sunday, the Guardian published a letter signed by a number of prominent psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists and the like. Coincidentally, the list includes Steven Pinker who I happened to be quoting in a post from the same day.

Here’s the title:

No evidence to back idea of learning styles

Here are the first two paragraphs:

There is widespread interest among teachers in the use of neuroscientific research findings in educational practice. However, there are also misconceptions and myths that are supposedly based on sound neuroscience that are prevalent in our schools. We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported.

Generally known as “learning styles”, it is the belief that individuals can benefit from receiving information in their preferred format, based on a self-report questionnaire. This belief has much intuitive appeal because individuals are better at some things than others and ultimately there may be a brain basis for these differences. Learning styles promises to optimise education by tailoring materials to match the individual’s preferred mode of sensory information processing.

Here are the last few paragraphs:

Finally, and most damning, is that there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment. Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style. The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK has concluded that learning styles is “Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence”.

These neuromyths may be ineffectual, but they are not low cost. We would submit that any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected. Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.

One way forward is to draw attention to practices that are not evidence-based and to encourage neuroscientists and educationalists to promote the need for critical thinking when evaluating the claims for educational benefits supposedly based on neuroscience. As part of Brain Awareness Week that begins 13 March, we support neuroscientists going into schools to talk about their research but also to raise awareness of neuromyths.

Your thoughts….

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Sadistic Gods

I was re-reading random parts of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and came across this:

In an insightful book on the history of force, the political scientist James Payne suggests that ancient peoples put a low value on other people’s lives because pain and death were so common in their own. This set a low threshold for any practice that had a chance of bringing them an advantage, even if the price was the lives of others. And if the ancients believed in gods, as most people do, then human sacrifice could easily have been seen as offering them that advantage. “Their primitive world was full of dangers, suffering, and nasty surprises, including plagues, famines, and wars. It would be natural for them to ask, ‘What kind of god would create such a world?’ A plausible answer was: a sadistic god, a god who liked to see people bleed and suffer.”  So, they might think, if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, why not be proactive about it? Better him than me.

I haven’t read James Payne referenced in the paragraph above, but The Better Angels of Our Nature is a very good book which I highly recommend. Still, the second half of this paragraph doesn’t quite ring true for me. Your thoughts?

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A Bleg

Good evening.  Or a fine morning to you, whatever the case may be.   I am working on a project in my spare time.  Some of the data I am collecting might make for good blog posts.

Anyway, there are a few things whose trajectory I’d like to measure historically.  I have come up ideas for most of them, but there are a few for which I wouldn’t mind if somebody had a better idea than the one I came up with.  Here are the ones that are troubling me.  From colonial times to the present, I would like to find proxy variables for:

1. Social cohesion (i.e., how strong it is, and how strong it is perceived to be)

2. Equality under the law (i.e., whether it exists, and whether it is perceived to exist)

3.  Justice

4. Conflict between the Federal Government and the States

5. Conflict between the Executive and Judicial Branch

To use #2 as an example, obviously equality of the law increased with the Emancipation Proclamation, and again, as the suffragette movement gained strength.  One potential measure for this would be percentage of the adult population that is eligible to vote.  However, that leaves out other forms of inequality before the law, including (but obviously not limited to) other discriminatory restrictions on voting.  No measure of any social value will be perfect, but good proxy measures for the five listed above would be appreciated.  Bonus points if the data is readily available going back to the Colonial period.

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A Non-Distortionary Tax

Dead people aren’t allowed to drive.  They aren’t allowed to vote.  They aren’t allowed to testify in court, acquire weaponry, check out books from the library or acquire a pilot’s license.  This makes sense.  After all, dead people don’t have a functioning brain.  As a result, we wouldn’t want them driving or voting or wandering around the local library.  But there is one thing dead people are allowed to do.  They’re allowed to dispose of assets, or rather, to direct how assets should be disposed of.  We call that bestowing an inheritance.

Now, you might argue that the dead people aren’t actually disposing of assets.  Instead, pre-deceased people are disposing of their assets, with the disposal being on hold until expiry is complete.  The time in between can often be measured in many decades.

But this just makes the concept even less logical.   After all, you don’t get to decide that someone else can use your driver’s license when you run out the clock, or vote on your behalf when you croak.

A second, bigger problem is that the concept of inheritance is anti-capitalist.  The beauty of capitalism as described by Adam Smith is that the magic of the free market, guided by the Invisible Hand, moves resources in the direction of their highest marginal product use to society. This works through everyone’s personal greed, or enlightened self-interest.  Each person faces benefits and costs, and they try to maximize the difference between the two.  But for dead people, there are no costs or benefits when disposing of assets.  Cadavers don’t care.  (In that respect, they’re sort of like the honey badger, but quite a bit more so.)

The process of inheritance also causes the Invisible Hand to break down with live people.  A person making decisions in the construction of his/her will or trust bears no cost for their decision.  They might gain a benefit in the form of a sense of satisfaction for taking care of their heirs, or derive some enjoyment from the groveling of would-be heirs, but without a cost, that amounts to a free lunch.  And a free lunch is a violation of the Invisible Hand.  It is, or it generates, an inefficiency.

So what would be an alternative to inheritance and bequest?  Whatever it is, it would need to fulfill the point of inheritance, which is for someone to benefit their loved ones by bestowing assets on them.  And it turns there is just such a thing:  a gift.  In other words – if you want to give someone something, give it to them.  Now, later, whenever.  But do it when you’re alive.  If you give it to them when you’re dead, you literally had your cake and ate it too.

Actually, to keep the Invisible Hand operating, outright gifts aren’t strictly necessary.  Simply stick the name of the beneficiary on the asset as a co-owner.  Make them part owner of the business you want to pass on to them, or give them check writing and withdrawal privileges on your bank account.

The argument against it – “but I don’t trust that person and I need that money/business/farm/collection of Davy Crockett figurines” – is, quite frankly, disingenuous.  If you don’t trust them with your business or your money when they’re alive, but you do when you’re dead, it’s a sign you don’t care about what happens when you’re dead.  Which is another way to say the Invisible Hand breaks down when it’s pointing at you.

All of which raises one more question – if a more capitalist system was adopted, what would happen to the assets held by a person who died?  Well, if the assets were held jointly, with both parties having equal decision making power, then the surviving asset-holder would simply gain sole control over the asset.  Thus, those who wish to pass their assets on to their children would simply give their children equal rights to their assets while still alive.

But if a single person held an asset in its entirety in its entirety and passed away, then the asset would revert to the government. Call it a tax.  A 100% estate tax.  (Small exceptions could made in the case where the pre-deceased chose to create a trust to benefit minor children, the severely disabled, or other special cases. Or maybe more effective ways to transfer and protect minors and the severely disabled could be found.)

The winner would be government tax coffers.  (More on this in a moment.)  The losers would be those would-be heirs that aren’t quite liked enough or trusted enough by today’s asset holders to receive joint ownership of the property.

Whatever the government collects in this way could be sold off to the highest bidder.  Among other benefits, that reduces the need for other taxes.  And those other taxes are collected from live people.  If the goal of taxes is simply to fund government operations, less taxes need to be collected from the living if some is being collected off the dead.

And here I note that a tax on dead people  has one big advantage over a tax on live people:  it is closer to non-distortionary than any other I can name.  Non-distortionary taxes are taxes that don’t change people’s behavior, and don’t prevent people from doing what they otherwise would do simply to avoid the tax.  Income taxes and consumption taxes and VAT and all other types of taxes in use today cause people to engage in all sorts of acrobatics to pay less in the way of taxes.  But the dead never change their behavior to avoid taxes.  Ever.  And if the pre-deceased want to give their money to their children or their friends or relatives or favorite charity, they can do so simply, out in the open, by passing on assets while they are still alive.

TLDR:  tax the dead, so the living can be taxed less.

A couple notes…

1. Is this essay meant to be taken seriously?  Sort of.  I believe the idea is mostly sound though I’m sure it would benefit from a bit more thought.  But do I think there is a snowball’s chance in Hades that such a proposal has legs?  Nope.  Most people like the “have your cake and eat it too” model, at least when they own the cake.

2. Parts of this post first appeared December 2006.  At the time I wrote it, I was unmarried, had no children and almost no assets.  Now my situation is different along all those dimensions.  And I have less hair.  But I like to think I am still just as adorable as I was back then.  Regardless, the other day I thought about the old post and I asked myself…  do I still feel the same way now that my situation has changed?  So I sat down to write…  and came to the same conclusion. The conclusion was so similar that I inserted a few sentences from the old essay into the new one as it fit quite well.  Is that bad or good?

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Education and Externalities

Some years ago I read this NBER working paper. (Note – a couple years later a slightly modified version appeared in the American Economic Journal but I will quote from the earlier, non-paywalled version since it is available to everyone.)

Here’s the issue, in a nutshell:

In this paper, we use administrative data from the Houston Independent School District and the Louisiana Department of Education to examine whether the influx of Katrina and Rita students adversely affected the academic performance, attendance and discipline of their new peers.

Later in the paper:

…the arrival of low achieving peers hurts all native students, but this effect is more negative for low achieving natives in elementary and high achieving natives in secondary schools. By contrast, the arrival of high achieving evacuees benefits everyone, though the biggest benefit is for the low achieving natives.

If you missed that, later on the same page they write:

…we find that high achieving evacuees increase native performance and low achieving evacuees reduce native performance.

But it isn’t just performance…

By contrast, the results for discipline and attendance do show that it is enough to have 1 or 2 misbehaving evacuee children to worsen the attendance and behavior of native kids in elementary schools. In middle- and high-schools, only having many undisciplined kids in a classroom worsens native behavior.

And it isn’t just because more kids = less resources:

These results show no statistically significant effect of the fraction of evacuees on class-size in elementary schools. In middle and high-schools there is little evidence that the influx of evacuees significantly increased class-size, except for class-sizes in social studies which shows a marginally significant effect…. The results once again show no statistically significant effect of the influx of evacuees on either operating or instructional expenditures per student. This is likely because the Federal and State Governments seemed to have reimbursed schools and districts almost fully. Also, interviews with principals in Houston, suggested that schools received substantial aid from a number of foundations around the country.

Jumping to the conclusion, just to repeat the findings in case someone is tempted to misread them:

Non-linear models show that high achieving natives are significantly positively affected by high achieving evacuees and significantly negatively impacted by low achieving evacuees. Low achieving natives also generally benefit from high achieving evacuees and are hurt by low achieving evacuees in terms of their own test scores…

Of course, any parent who isn’t blind knows that a big determinant of the quality of his/her kids’ education is the quality of his/her kids’ peers. Still, its a well constructed and well executed paper. I also happen to think this situation makes a fine allegory for immigration.

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Today’s Taboo, And Where to From Here?

Here is the abstract from a paper that appeared two years ago in Molecular Psychiatry:

Intelligence is a core construct in differential psychology and behavioural genetics, and should be so in cognitive neuroscience. It is one of the best predictors of important life outcomes such as education, occupation, mental and physical health and illness, and mortality. Intelligence is one of the most heritable behavioural traits. Here, we highlight five genetic findings that are special to intelligence differences and that have important implications for its genetic architecture and for gene-hunting expeditions. (i) The heritability of intelligence increases from about 20% in infancy to perhaps 80% in later adulthood. (ii) Intelligence captures genetic effects on diverse cognitive and learning abilities, which correlate phenotypically about 0.30 on average but correlate genetically about 0.60 or higher. (iii) Assortative mating is greater for intelligence (spouse correlations ~0.40) than for other behavioural traits such as personality and psychopathology (~0.10) or physical traits such as height and weight (~0.20). Assortative mating pumps additive genetic variance into the population every generation, contributing to the high narrow heritability (additive genetic variance) of intelligence. (iv) Unlike psychiatric disorders, intelligence is normally distributed with a positive end of exceptional performance that is a model for ‘positive genetics’. (v) Intelligence is associated with education and social class and broadens the causal perspectives on how these three inter-correlated variables contribute to social mobility, and health, illness and mortality differences. These five findings arose primarily from twin studies. They are being confirmed by the first new quantitative genetic technique in a century—Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis (GCTA)—which estimates genetic influence using genome-wide genotypes in large samples of unrelated individuals. Comparing GCTA results to the results of twin studies reveals important insights into the genetic architecture of intelligence that are relevant to attempts to narrow the ‘missing heritability’ gap.

I’ve been doing some reading in the field, and there’s nothing particularly special about this paper. I picked it because the abstract provided a fair summary of where the literature has been for at least a generation now. In fact, I specifically avoided a couple of papers that would have seemed hair-raisingly controversial to people who haven’t looked at the literature.

My point is simple. Cognitive science and genetics are at a place that is very, very different than most people think. And the science is getting better, faster and more precise. I believe it is, in fact, fair to say that we are in the early stages of a revolution in the biological sciences, particularly where it concerns the study of intelligence and other mental traits.

So what is going on? Why does the science seem so alien in 2017 America? To quote no less an authority than Steven Pinker:

Irony: Replicability crisis in psych DOESN’T apply to IQ: huge n’s, replicable results. But people hate the message.

As a complete outside, I wouldn’t dare argue the science with Pinker. Still, his statement is partly wrong. Sure, most people hate the message.  But some people love it.  The people who love the message love it because they can use it to justify the hatred in their heart. The rest of us hate it because we understand what it implies. If intelligence and other personality traits are largely heritable, people aren’t a blank slate. It casts doubt on many of our cherished myths. More disturbingly, it almost implies people have some sort of destiny, one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gattaca world, or worse, a Brave New one.

Of course, if something along those lines were the case, it would be useful for the majority of the body politic – say, the center left, the center, and the center right – to develop ideas and policies for how to deal with it in a way that fits our values. Instead, a monopoly on that sort of discussion has been granted to the haters… and you can well imagine the policies they have in mind. For everyone else, such topics are now mostly taboo. They can be discussed in a lab setting, in technical terms, but woe betide anyone, including a biologist who translates them into the vernacular.

But what if it turns out that the actors, attorneys, community activists, educators, HR professionals, journalists and liberal arts professors are wrong? What if the world’s most pre-eminent cognitive researchers, geneticists and neurobiologists know the science better than they do?  What if traits like intelligence and behavior are transmitted very much as described in the scientific literature?  I know. It sounds nuts. But what if? What would we do then? In such a world, what policies should we set? And how do we ensure that those are the policies that actually do get enacted?

Update. Corrected link to abstract.

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