The incoherence of looking at the world through the lens of privilege

I think too many social commentators overestimate the role or weight of parental wealth/intervention at explaining exceptional individual success; except for the crust of the crust or maybe extreme outliers like Tiger Woods, it does not matter as much as conventional wisdom would seem to suggest. As I argue in the post The Limitations of Wealth and Fame at Guaranteeing Success, sometimes the apple can fall far from the tree. Outcomes for children under even the most privileged of upbringings can fall well-short of their parents. The only Kennedy who has some recognition is Robert Kennedy Jr., mostly for his controversial views on vaccines. Dylan Douglas, the son of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, has just three minor credits to his name in his IMDB profile.

You don’t need exceptional, doting parents when information is readily available online, and also top schools love to give scholarships to talented poor or middle class kids (such as Princeton and Harvard offering free tuition for families earning under $100k/year). Parents are less important, except for top .1% of wealth (like Will Smith’s kids, Trump’s kids, or Kim Kardashian’s kids). Otherwise, just being in the top 1-10% of wealth is not going to cut it:

Rich people are uncommon, but not as uncommon as top spots or elite positions in society. The fact that wealthy parents have to donate millions of dollars to try to get their dull or untalented kids admitted to Harvard or other top schools, shows the limits of money and also just how much money is required to move the needle. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars, not just top 1% wealth. As the Varsity Blues scandal showed, merely spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is only good enough to get a foot in the door to sub-elite colleges, and is easily detected and carries significant risk. Same for Hollywood: to get the nepotism boost, you need A-list parents, not extras. This again excludes almost everyone in Hollywood.

It’s a sort of blind spot of pundits to systematically underestimate the rarity of wealth and overestimate the rarity of high-IQ/talent, when it’s the opposite. One may be surprised to learn that having a high enough IQ to qualify for Mensa (top 2%) is much rarer than being a millionaire (top 10% of American adults) even though the latter seems much less obtainable (inflation notwithstanding, a million dollars is still a lot of money). Brains are much rarer than just having money. Only screening for wealth or pedigree means the inclusion of a lot of ‘midwits’ (I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, but this describes people whose IQs fall within a single standard deviation above average). Thus it would be irrational or disadvantageous for employers and colleges to only consider wealth.

Back in the 60s and earlier it was easy for rich but mediocre people to get far in politics, academia, creative arts, etc. thanks to name recognition alone. JFK’s Harvard application essay is underwhelming, at just 100 or so words (but he included a doodle of himself, so I guess he got extra points for that):

With the end of the ‘Jewish quotas’, the Ivy League began to copy the approach of MIT by selecting for merit more so than bloodline. Among among Ivy League admittees, the vast majority are only middle class:

According to a NYTs infographic, fewer than 20% of Harvard admittees are from the top 1%. This torpedoes the common pundit narrative of how the Ivy League is composed of only the children of the elite or wealthy; the vast majority of students are neither, being just middle class.

But the bad news is, thanks to the leveling effects of the meritocracy, things are much more competitive, because the pool of applicants is consequently much bigger. To even have a shot of getting into a top-10 school you need some combination of prefect grades, distinguishing extracurriculars (volunteering at soup kitchen will not cut it), top SAT scores, etc. Consequently, acceptance rates for top schools keep falling:

High placings, like math competitions or coding competitions, are expected of applicants for STEM-focused institutions like MIT or Caltech. Save for a handful of legacy and athletic admissions, today’s admittees for top schools are the most qualified ever by any objective metric.

Not just limited to college, if you look at the most successful people in tech, academia, Youtube, Substack, podcasts, writing…etc. almost all of them have unremarkable middle class or worse childhoods. Not too many silver spoon recipients on the Google or Facebook roster.

For example, from the bios from Wikipedia of some of today’s top tech CEOs, Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, and Sundar Pichai:

Cook was born in Mobile, Alabama, United States.[10][11] He was baptized in a Baptist church[12] and grew up in nearby Robertsdale. His father, Donald, was a shipyard worker,[13] and his mother, Geraldine, worked at a pharmacy.[10][14]

Pichai was born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India.[13][14][15] His mother, Lakshmi, was a stenographer, and his father, Regunatha Pichai, was an electrical engineer at GEC, the British conglomerate. His father also had a manufacturing plant that produced electrical components.[16][17]

Nadella was born in Hyderabad of present-day Telangana, India[7] into a Telugu-speaking Hindu family.[8][9][10] His mother Prabhavati was a Sanskrit lecturer[11] and his father, Bukkapuram Nadella Yugandhar, was an Indian Administrative Service officer of the 1962 batch.[12][13][14]

Above average? Yes. But none of these upbringings stand out as exceptionally privileged, like JFK.

Matt Taibbi, one of the highest earning Substack writers, had a broken childhood:

Taibbi grew up in the Boston suburbs. His parents separated when he was young and he was largely raised by his mother. Because Taibbi was troubled with behavioral and academic problems, his parents sent him to Concord Academy.[14] He first attended New York University but was “unable to deal with being just one of thousands of faces in a city of millions” and transferred after his freshman year to Bard College, where he graduated in 1992.[21][14] He spent a year abroad studying at Leningrad Polytechnic University, where he finished his credits for graduation from Bard.[22][2]

Or Joe Rogan, the most successful podcaster alive:

Joseph James Rogan was born in Newark, New Jersey, on August 11, 1967.[7][8] He had one Irish grandparent, while his three other grandparents were all of Italian descent.[9] His parents divorced when he was five,[10] and he has not been in contact with his father since he was seven. He recalled, “All I remember of my dad are these brief, violent flashes of domestic violence. But I don’t want to complain about my childhood. Nothing bad ever really happened to me. I don’t hate the guy.”[10] At the age of seven, he moved with his mother to San Francisco, California.[10] When he was 11, they moved to Gainesville, Florida.[11] They later settled in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, where he graduated from Newton South High School in 1985.[12][13][14]

Of course there are some exceptions such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, which are always trotted out as the go-to examples of the importance of family wealth:

Bill Gate’s father: Bill Gates Sr., was an American attorney, philanthropist and civic leader. He was the founder of the law firm Shidler McBroom & Gates (a predecessor of K&L Gates),[2] and also served as president of both the Seattle King County and Washington State Bar associations.[3] He was the father of Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft.[4]

Elon Musk father: Errol Musk (born 1946) is a South African electromechanical engineer, pilot, sailor, consultant, and property developer who was once a co-owner of a Zambian emerald mine near Lake Tanganyika. In a 2018 interview with Business Insider, Musk boasted that as a result of the emerald mine “we had so much money we couldn’t even close our safe.”[4][8]

But those are two people over a half-century period out of thousands of employees, VCs, founders, etc. from far less privileged backgrounds and who are still very successful, like Mark Zuckerberg or Marc Andreessen. It’s not uncommon to read stories on Reddit or Hacker News of people who grew up middle class or worse and achieved significant upward mobility in tech. Not to mention, the vast majority of rich kids even with every possible advantage still fail to amount to much, as discussed earlier. The odds of having rich parents and being successful are still really slim, because as it turns out, rich people are not that uncommon (as the Mensa example above shows).

Andreessen was born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and raised in New Lisbon, Wisconsin.[5] He is the son of Patricia and Lowell Andreessen, who worked for a seed company.[6] In December 1993,[5] he received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC)

Does this sound like a sliver spoon upbringing? If you wanted your child to have every possible advantage at life, being born in a small town in Iowa would not be among them. However, someone can respond that Zuckerberg was born wealthy, too:

Mark Elliot Zuckerberg was born in White Plains, New York, on May 14, 1984,[9] the son of psychiatrist Karen (née Kempner) and dentist Edward Zuckerberg.[10] He and his three sisters (Arielle, businesswoman Randi, and writer Donna) were raised in a Reform Jewish household[11][12] in Dobbs Ferry, New York.[13] His great-grandparents were Jewish emigrants from Austria, Germany, and Poland.

This sounds upper-middle class, not wealthy. This demonstrates the sort of contradiction or incoherence of looking at the world through the lens of privilege. For example, let’s define ‘wealthy’ to include households that earn at least $200,000/year, which would include Mark Zuckerberg’s parents. According to the US Census, there are 120 million households. $200k/year is top 5%, so that is 6 million households. How many children of such households go on to produce anything of noteworthiness? It’s still really small. To suggest that it’s wealth, not talent (or other factors), that separates the super-successful from everyone else when the bar for what is considered wealthy is so low, seems like putting the blinders to reality or having your cake and eating it too.

I think it’s more socially acceptable or palatable to blame wealth, than factors intrinsic to the individual, like talent or IQ. When pressed on the matter, the criteria for wealth is low enough that meritocratic (or other) factors must come into play. Conversely, if they set the bar for wealth really high, then that would be an implicit admission that meritocratic factors do matter for merely upper-middle class children who became successful, like Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s sorta like how ‘non-violent drug offenders’ are blamed for America’s exceptionally high carceral rate, but even if every non-violent drug offender was released, there are simply not enough of them to meaningfully reduce the prison population. The reality is, there are a lot of violent offenders. Only twenty-percent of prisoners in federal or state prison are locked up for a drug offense, and obviously it cannot be assumed they are all non-violent.


  1. That is contrary to your older post

    You had said

    >America’s high-IQ wealthy elite won’t squander their fortunes, unlike the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, whose fortunes dissolved in less than two generations due to proliferate spending and gross mismanagement (as a consequence of low IQs and high time preference).

    The Rockefellers and Vanderbilts didn’t suck until the third generation. Their second generation was quite capable.

    You said their fortune will be basically eternal, and here you contradict your old thesis.

  2. The biggest advantage rich parents could give their midwit offspring would not be to bribe ivy league colleges to let them in, but to get them private tutors to intensively explain complex concepts so they understand them better than they otherwise could. It’s the equivalent of a few extra IQ points.

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