The Elite Stay Elite

The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility
Gregory Clark, 2014


I just finished reading a book that claims social mobility in modern America is basically the same as in modern Sweden, and that both are in fact just about the same as in sixteenth-century England. Everywhere, Gregory Clark says, persistence of social status is much higher than we normally suppose. Where most sociologists estimate persistence in the range of 40%, Clark puts it between 75% and 80%. And as mentioned, he says it has never really changed throughout history and that it's the same pretty much everywhere. As a result, the descendants of the victorious Normans  of 1066 are still disproportionately represented in the British Parliament, and the famous but tiny Pepys family has sent many more than its share of young men to Oxford and Cambridge.
 
First, I've gotta say that it doesn't really come as a surprise to me that the elite stay elite or that it can take 20 or 30 generations for a family at the top of the heap to "revert to the mean." Although Clark says it's statistically improbable for the Pepys clan to have continued to send more than its share to the best British schools, I don't think it's socially improbable at all. In fact, it's the outcome I expected.
 
The interesting thing about this book, though, is that Clark posits (without ever really coming right out and saying it) a genetic component to elite status and persistence. Rather than saying that the Pepys boys were accorded special privileges at elite British schools or that the sons and grandsons of hereditary MPs were more likely to be elected to Parliament, Clark says there's something called underlying social competence, and that it is inherited.
 
Hang on, what? Clark says that elite status is in the genes? Well, not exactly. What he says is that there's an unknown cluster of characteristics that, taken together, make a person socially "competent," and that these characteristics seem to be inherited. Although Clark's equation has a term built in for dumb luck, he thinks the randomness is much less than we normally believe it to be. If you're looking for a marriage partner, Clark says, don't trust the status of the individual alone. It might be luck. Look at the status of the whole family, and you'll get an indication of your potential partner's "competence" genes.
 
I haven't been able to find any reviews of this idea by historians (and just a couple by economists), possibly because the book was only published in 2014 and the glaciers of academic reviewing haven't ground it down yet. However, Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution wrote a three-part take-down called "
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" in March 2014. Reeves, who also recently wrote a long essay supporting the rags-to-riches perspective of Horatio Alger, says Clark's perspective is racist. Or at least genetically deterministic, which he suggests is basically the same thing. Clark responded that he wasn't being racist, some of the elite groups he tracks in the book are in fact of African descent. But Reeves has a point. "Racism is not History," he says. Yeah, the guy from Brookings is saying the effects of slavery and the rest of America's racist history are still being felt. Wow.
 
Clark's main point isn't really about race, though. He uses adoption and twin studies to suggest that there's an element to life success that isn't explainable by nurture. Even if that effect isn't as complete as Clark implies (I think he brushes by some of the caveats and exceptions in the studies he cites a little to quickly), it's a challenging idea.
 
The problem is, there's not enough to grab onto. The 11 herbs and spices remain secret -- we never find out what mental, emotional, physical, or other characteristics make a person "socially competent." And it's hard to believe that the factors that made people successful in the sixteenth century are all the same as those that make people successful today. Nor is there any real explanation of how particular families got to the top of the heap in the first place. The mobility equation takes center stage, and we don't really get to look under the hood at the social factors that could have led to success and then sustained it. This is unfortunate, because since Clark hasn't really identified the machine working behind the scenes, it's entirely possible that the effects he's measuring to derive the equation are in fact social rather than biological.
 
When Clark says the social mobility in Sweden is as low as in America or early-modern England, he's not saying that inequality is the same. The penalty of being at the bottom in a welfare society like Sweden is obviously much lower than it was in England or is in the US (I wonder if the lesser downside of low social mobility in Sweden doesn't have something to do with it continuing?). Clark does suggest that in a society like the US where Reeves's Horatio Alger dream is pretty much an illusion, we ought to think harder about our safety net.
 
Clark's numbers suggest that a person's status at birth can predict a lot about their life chances. That's a slap in the face to the American Dream. But let's think about it. If he's right at all -- even if we have no idea why he's right and disagree with the theory he advances to explain it -- then we really ought to be doing more to make it less painful to be average or poor in America.

The Dangerous Naivete of Risk Consultants

I'm always looking for places online to read and possibly write about Environmental History and current issues. Recently I discovered Medium, and today I searched on "environment" to see what would turn up. One of the articles returned was called "The Dangerous Naivete of Back-to-the-Garden Environmentalism," by Harvard instructor and Risk Perception Consultant David Ropeik. I don't know how many other people have read this article (I was first to comment; it also appeared on BigThink, Google+, and elsewhere), but I thought it represented a particular attitude I wanted to respond to.
 
The article begins with the author standing at the foot of a glacier in Iceland, which Ropeik says will someday disappear, but mostly due to forces much larger than anthropogenic climate change. Ropeik continues with a mild criticism of the idea contained in the three Abrahamic religions that humans have dominion over nature. The author rejects this idea, but excuses it. He doesn't say it's ancient superstition, but that it reflects what Einstein called the "optical delusion" of self and other.
 
But he's much harsher when it comes to modern environmentalists. Bill McKibben's breakthrough book's title,
The End of Nature, he says, is arrogantly anthropocentric and scientifically naïve. McKibben is a "modern environmental prophet of hypocrisy," although it's initially unclear to me, aside from the journalistic hyperbole of his title, how McKibben has offended. Biologist Edward Wilson is described as "another high priest of modern environmentalism." Is this continued use of religious language a clue to the real argument of this article?
 
At the end of part one, Ropeik argues that the "anthropogenic arrogance" that humans are not part of nature is a "central conceit of classical environmentalism." He uses Joni Mitchel's lyric from "Woodstock" to illustrate the naïveté of the idea that we can return to the Garden. And I agree with that sentiment. But he extends this to suggest there's something ridiculous about McKibben's claim that "we possess the possibility of self-restraint." We can't restrain ourselves, he says. Our "believing that we are
so intelligent that we can consciously conquer our ancient animal instincts" is pious, ignorant, and dangerous.
 
In part two, which begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,
Ropeik introduces James Lovelock's Gaia, which he says is an interesting example of "eco rather than anthropo-centrism." The Greek gods punished Prometheus and unleashed Pandora's box of horrors on humans, the same way the Judeo-Christian deity punished humans for gaining knowledge. Knowledge and fire (reason and technology) gave us great gifts, he says, but threaten Nature "in it's current state" (his italics). The point, apparently, is that our view is myopic, short-term, and human-centered. Nature will continue, even if we cause a few extinctions.
 
This brings Ropeik back to the refrain, the "selective hubris classical environmentalists have" that we can "solve these problems." This is my big beef with the argument. Not the straw-man "classical environmentalists," but the idea that anyone is saying we know how to fix all these problems. A lot of people are saying,
let's just try to stop causing the problems! I can't help thinking that the whole point of this article is going to be, let's keep drilling, because in the long run some new Nature will work itself out, regardless of what we do.
 
I admit, I have some sympathy for the irony of Ambrose Bierce's definition of the brain as "
the organ with which we think we think." But I'm also struck by the irony of a guy who teaches at Harvard saying this. Who is this "we" he refers to, anyway? Part two ends with a reiteration of the danger posed by believing we can think ourselves back to the Garden, when  religion has been telling us all along that reason is the enemy.
 
Part three begins in the Himalayas near Tibet. The author has apparently gone there to see an eclipse, which again impresses him with the immensity of nature and the puniness of human intention. He then goes on to draw a series of false dichotomies intended to illustrate the silliness of "classic environmentalism." We're asked to choose between monoculture agribusiness and organic local farming. Between nuclear power and wind; between biotechnology and the paleo diet.
 
The byproducts of "our" technologies, he says, are "our" monsters, and as Bruno Latour says, we must love them. At no point, though, does Ropeik recognize that those benefiting and profiting from these technologies and those facing the monsters aren't the same people. In a striking moment, he criticizes Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who he says also wants to go back to a biblical Garden. While I sympathize with Ropeik's frustration over the it-all-began-with-Francis-Bacon argument, I think he trivializes Vandana's actual position every bit as much.
 
The article concludes by admitting that humanity and the biosphere "are headed for an inevitable nasty crash that will certainly largely be our fault." And that this crash is
unavoidable, not because we've already passed some ecological tipping point, but because we just can't stop ourselves. Again the we. Is this the we that loses children when American chemical factories explode in India, or the we that can jet off to the Himalayas to watch an eclipse?
 
In an epilog, Ropeik describes meeting a cuttlefish on a dive in the South Pacific. He remarks that the area where he's diving had been barren ten years earlier, bleached by El Nino warming. The reef recovered, which apparently goes to show that we really aren't doing that much damage after all. Sort of like how a cold day in Harvard Square challenges global climate change.

Pollution Permits and Monopolies

So I'm reading this op-ed piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot. He's talking about keeping the coal and oil in the ground. Because if it comes out, it will be used. And I'm thinking yeah, that sounds logical, but impossible, given human nature. How are you ever going to get people to leave it in the ground? He talks about a global auction in pollution permits. I'm not sure if the real point of that is making the added expense to corporations a disincentive to using fossil fuels (and an incentive to explore cheaper alternatives), or to build up a slush fund (pun intended) to mitigate the effects when they go ahead and use the fossil fuels anyway.

But as I'm wondering this, an image comes to me. I was cleaning the garage yesterday and on a shelf I found a bag from the local fleet store containing a couple of packages of yellow rope. It's your basic braided synthetic, I remember buying it. And what I particularly remember is that it's made by Koch Industries.

I needed some rope for a job. I went to the store to get some. I noticed that the type I wanted had a little Koch Industries logo sort-of hidden on the back. I'm a little bit politically aware, and I thought, I'd really rather not give my money to the Koch brothers. What other type of rope will work for my job?

It didn't matter. Every variety of rope and twine on the shelves was from Koch Industries. Didn't matter if it was synthetic or natural fiber. Whatever I bought, the Koch brothers were going to get my money.

My point is, so what if big corporations have to buy pollution permits. It's just another tax that they'll either avoid, or offset with tax savings wrung from the nations, states, or cities where they operate. Or, failing that, they'll pass to cost on to their consumers.

As long as we don't do anything to address the overwhelming (and still growing) power of monopolistic multinationals, we're basically just taxing the little people.

Market Failure in Minnesota

During a recent "special" session of the Minnesota legislature, a bill was snuck through the House and Senate eliminating the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizen's Board. Established in the 1960s, the Citizens' Board had consisted of eight members and the Commissioner of the MPCA. Their bylaws called for one member to be "knowledgeable in the field of agriculture." According to former Board member Jim Riddle, "The Citizens’ Board came under fire from corporate agribusiness interests last fall, after we required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed confined animal feeding operation (CAFO)."

The owners of the CAFO didn't have enough land to spread even half the manure they would generate. They had no idea (or interest) how much their water use would impact existing farms in the area. Their water plan consisted of building a twelve mile pipeline from a well that had been permitted seven years earlier for an ethanol plant that had never been built.

The Board's request for an environmental impact statement angered the
Agri-Growth Council, whose Directors include executives from Cargill, CHS, and General Mills. Although Riddle says the Board didn't prohibit the CAFO, apparently agribusiness is unhappy with the idea that anyone has the authority to insure that "more information be provided on the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed facility, in order to demonstrate that Minnesota’s laws would be followed and the health and safety of area residents and the environment would be protected."

Advocates for a lot of schemes like CAFOs, sulfide mining on the Iron Range and pipelines through the Headwaters like to portray the opponents of these schemes as head-in-the-sand Luddites. Elimination of the Board, says Riddle, will make it "easier for industrial agriculture, mines, pipelines and other extractive and polluting activities to be approved with little or no citizen participation."

The reality, it seems to me, is that the advocates of these schemes fear their plans won't stand up to close scrutiny. The point is not that CAFOs should never be built, that copper should never be mined, or that oil should never be transported. People could argue those points, but that's not the point here. The point is that politically powerful owners and corporations want to do these things in the cheapest, sloppiest way possible, with no oversight. This makes good economic sense, if your economic perspective extends only to the next quarterly or year-end report. The corporations are acting rationally, from their economic point of view, when they behave this way. CAFOs and companies like Enbridge and Polymet have a long history of cutting corners to save money, and then trying to evade the penalties and costs of cleanup when things go wrong.

But clearly this kind of sensible economic behavior is not in the public interest, or even in the long-term interest of the companies involved. The decision to do it anyway and try to silence the opposition is what economists call "market failure." It is precisely why we can't have a completely free market (despite the fantasies of Ayn Rand-readers), and why regulatory agencies and citizen boards need to exist.