Birth ‘Lottery’ Does Not Preclude Meritocracy


There is a long-standing debate among economists and sociologists if the birth ‘lottery’ – factors outside of the control of the individual, such as parent’s income, IQ, and race, precludes the existence of the meritocracy.

When a child wins the “birth lottery” by being born into a higher-income family, the economic payoff is very large, say researchers.

“This result is not consistent with the American dream in which children from low-income families are supposed to have ample opportunities for economic mobility,” says David Grusky, the director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

In a new study of economic mobility, based on tax data, the gap between this ideal and the reality of the US economy is shown to be very large, Grusky says.

“The American dream is about ensuring that all children, no matter how poor their parents may be, have an opportunity to be mobile by climbing the economic ladder and moving into a higher income group,” he says.

Lately, it seems that every new study about social mobility further corrodes the story Americans tell themselves about meritocracy; each one provides more evidence that comfortable lives are reserved for the winners of what sociologists call the birth lottery…What appears to matter—a lot—is environment, and that’s something that can be controlled

To some extent, it would seem so. All else being equal, a kid with a 100 IQ from a wealth family will probably fare better in life than a kid with an IQ of 100 from a dysfunctional or impoverished family.

It would seem that children of wealthier parents are more upwardly mobile, even when accounting for educational attainment:

But on the other hand, since IQ and wealth are positively correlated, and intelligence is highly heredible, these finding could reinforce what is otherwise patently obvious: smart parents tend to have smart kids.

But it gets much murkier when comparing different IQs and different socioeconomic backgrounds. What about a black kid from the ghetto with an IQ of 130 vs. a white kid from the suburbs with an IQ of 90?

But on the other hand, there is some evidence that high-IQ blacks and high-IQ whites are equally upward mobile, as a Pew study of AFAQ scores suggests:

Pew: Individuals with higher test scores in adolescence are more likely to move out of the bottom quintile, and test scores can explain virtually the entire black-white mobility gap. Figure 13 plots the transition rates against percentiles of the AFQT test score distribution. The upward-sloping lines indicate that, as might be expected, individuals with higher test scores are much more likely to leave the bottom income quintile. For example, for whites, moving from the first percentile of the AFQT distribution to the median roughly doubles the likelihood from 42 percent to 81 percent. The comparable increase for blacks is even more dramatic, rising from 33 percent to 78 percent. Perhaps the most stunning finding is that once one accounts for the AFQT score, the entire racial gap in mobility is eliminated for a broad portion of the distribution. At the very bottom and in the top half of the distribution a small gap remains, but it is not statistically significant.

And this is corroborated by The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994):

The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) presented general readers an
update of the evidence for the hereditarian position along with several policy
recommendations and an original analysis of 11,878 youths (including 3,022
Blacks) from the 12-year National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. It found that
most 17-year-olds with high scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test,
regardless of ethnic background, went on to occupational success by their late 20s
and early 30s, whereas those with low scores were more inclined to welfare

– Rushton & Jensen

However, it’s easier to just consider individuals from the same socioeconomic backgrounds. The preponderance of empirical evidence suggests smarter people, when controlling for socioeconomic backgrounds, generally attain more success at life (as measured by wealth, recognition, creative output.. etc) than less intelligent individuals.

From the blog super-economy:

On average, an increase of IQ by one SD corresponds to ~ $30k per annum of additional income. (Somewhat less than 1 SD in income; the distribution is far from normal.)

By early middle age, individuals > 90th percentile in IQ have, typically, more than twice the wealth of individuals who are of average IQ.

And as shown below:

To quote David Brooks, we live in a capitalist meritocracy that encourages individualism and utilitarianism, ambition and pride.

But it’s also the meritocracy within the birth lottery; the two need not be mutually exclusive, and that’s the way I reconcile the birth lottery wit the meritocracy. Look at the Silicon Valley tech culture, which epitomizes the meritocracy, but is mostly restricted to high-IQ people. Lower IQ people also have their meritocracies within their own IQ caste. This ties into my post about free will; we have free will, but within our cognitive limits.

Sociologists are also obsessed with the belief that environment can supersede genes, but as I discuss here in regard to the studies by Arthur Jensen, efforts to boost IQ through intervention have been unsuccessful.

In 1969, the Harvard Educational Review published Arthur Jensen’s lengthy
article, “How Much Can We Boost IQ and School Achievement?” Jensen concluded
that (a) IQ tests measure socially relevant general ability; (b) individual
differences in IQ have a high heritability, at least for the White populations of the
United States and Europe; (c) compensatory educational programs have proved
generally ineffective in raising the IQs or school achievement of individuals or
groups; (d) because social mobility is linked to ability, social class differences in
IQ probably have an appreciable genetic component; and tentatively, but most
controversially, (e) the mean Black–White group difference in IQ probably has
some genetic component.

The achievement gap is still, in all too many instances, an IQ gap. But even if IQ is not solely to blame, there are other hereditary factors that affect achievement:

Genes don’t just influence your IQ—they determine how well you do in school

The team found nine general groups of traits that were all highly hereditary—the identical twins were more likely to share the traits than nonidentical twins—and also correlated with performance on the GCSE. Not only were traits other than intelligence correlated with GCSE scores, but these other traits also explained more than half of the total genetic basis for the test scores.

In all, about 62% of the individual differences in academic achievement—at least when it came to GCSE scores—could be attributed to genetic factors, a number similar to previous studies’ findings, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The politically correct approach to education of trying to bring everyone to the same level is flawed; we need to use cognitive screening to ascertain individuals’ strengths and weaknesses, and then create curriculum optimized around this. Beyond the basics like reading and math, higher IQ kids, for example, should be encouraged to learn high-paying skills like STEM at an early age, as well as pursuing other cognitive creative endeavors; lower-IQ kids should learn service work since that’s where the most opportunities, if there any, will be. Britain had a system similar to this, the Eleven plus exam, which tested kids at the age of 10 for future educational placement, with lower-IQ kids learning vocational work, average-IQ kids continuing with their education, and high-IQ kids going to special schools.