Friday, March 07, 2014

Your success is in your genes

Once in a blue moon, there comes along a book that knocks the hell out of all your preconceptions and convenient beliefs. Gregory Clark's book, The son also rises: surnames and the history of social mobility must fall in this bracket. I haven't had a chance to read the book myself but I have seen many the reviews (including the ones in the Economist and the Guardian), an interview with Clark and several comments on the Net. Clark's own brief exposition on his book is here.

Clark's thesis is that how successful you are in life can be traced to your ancestors 15-20 generations ago, or nearly 300 -450 years ago. This means the way society is constructed today reflects the distribution of haves and have-not in the nineteenth century or so. Here's a stunning precis of his thesis:
According to his calculations, if you live in England and share a last name with a Norman conqueror listed in the Domesday book of 1086—think Sinclair, Percy, Beauchamp—you have a 25 percent higher chance of matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge. If you’re an American with an ancestor who graduated from an Ivy League college between 1650 and 1850, it’s twice as likely that you’re listed in the American Medical Association’s Directory of Physicians.
True only of elitist societies such as the US or the UK? Not by a long chalk, says Clark. He has looked at Scandinavian countries and found that social mobility hasn't changed much. Most astonishing is his study of China. Despite the cultural revolution, despite the annihilation of large numbers of those in the elite, Chinese society is dominated by the descendants of those who were at the top before the Maoist revolution. As Clark puts it:

When you look across centuries, and at social status broadly measured — not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity — social mobility is much slower than many of us believe, or want to believe. This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

The exasperating thing about Clark's findings, one that will raise hackles amongst do-gooders, is that there isn't much you can do to improve social mobility. If you had great ancestors, you have everything laid out for you; if you are ancestors did not amount to much, chances are you won't either. The best of educational opportunities, the most open and meritocratic selection processes will not make much of a difference to outcomes. To quote Clark again:
If your surname is rare, and someone with that surname attended Oxford or Cambridge around 1800, your odds of being enrolled at those universities are nearly four times greater than the average person. This slowness of mobility has persisted despite a vast expansion in public financing for secondary and university education, and the adoption of much more open and meritocratic admissions at both schools.

Clark's conclusion is grim and unsettling:
Large-scale, rapid social mobility is impossible to legislate. What governments can do is ameliorate the effects of life’s inherent unfairness. Where we will fall within the social spectrum is largely fated at birth. Given that fact, we have to decide how much reward, or punishment, should be attached to what is ultimately fickle and arbitrary, the lottery of your lineage.
What do these findings mean for public policy? Should governments thrown up their hands and just allow genetics to play out? Not at all. Quite the contrary, perhaps. Since inequality will not be rectified in the natural course- and certainly not by providing adequate economic or educational opportunity- there is an even stronger case for affirmative action or quotas to redress inequalities in society. By the same token, since the gifted will naturally rise to the top, the case for large incentives to reward the successful is undermined.

In India, the argument that we should open primary and higher secondary education through scholarships and generous funding in order to help who have lagged behind traditionally would not wash, going by Clark's findings. If we believe that inequality is unacceptable beyond a point and that social inequities threaten peace and order in society, the case for affirmative action is even stronger than before. It is only through aggressive quotas in jobs as well as higher education that we can give a leg-up to the under-privileged.

We Indians can, perhaps, legitimately tell Clark: we knew this all along; here we say 'sab sar pe likha hai'.

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