Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wealth Supremacism: The Real Reason the Harvard Study on Mobility is a 'Landmark' in the Eyes of American Media

The amount of hype the Chetty study has gotten is quite astonishing, but not surprising. First, we have to remember the lengths to which Harvard goes to present anything and everything that happens at Harvard as more earth-shattering than anything and everything that happens anywhere else. It is easy to roll ones eyes at this point of mine, but it is part of the politics and economics of academia. We see much the same in the lobbying of universities for Nobel Prizes — one of the reasons why some, like physicist N. David Mermin, have so strongly criticized prizes generally: "[Mermin] maintains that the prize system has run amok, absorbing far too much of scientists' time and effort." (It is also, in my opinion, a reason for the public ownership of all universities.) Check out the ancillary materials Harvard has released in connection with this study. There has clearly been an effort to market the work for popular consumption.

The more important reason this is a 'landmark' study in the eyes of NPR or New York Times or Post pundits and editors is that it fits very nicely into the outcomes that they find tolerable. It fits into the prevailing attitude of wealth supremacism. The Bill Kellers or Robert Samuelsons or Cokie Robertses embrace inequality. That want more inequality. They firmly believe that the privileged are innately superior. They absolutely will not tolerate scientific findings that clearly support a case for redistribution of wealth. This cannot be overemphasized. How many mainstream observers of President Obama's State of the Union address obsessed over any possible redistributive implications of his statements:
  • The Economist; "Obamacare and inequality — A healthy dose of redistribution";
  • Conservative, Clinton-style Democrat William Galston at Brookings;
  • Britain's Telegraph newspaper: "Barack Obama calls for more redistribution of wealth";
Consider this from an op/ed at Forbes: "[I]ncome inequality is unrelentingly beautiful." This is a common view among Americans, who overwhelmingly share the conviction, take as an article of faith, that they will soon win the lottery, that they are just about to become fabulously wealthy. But, crucially, Americans also overwhelmingly adhere to a conviction that the wealthy deserve to be so.

Here is 'noted' Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw: "Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring."

This is the thinking underlying eugenics, and it is a pervasive and growing conviction among American conservatives, moderates, and no small percentage of progressives. (And not just among Americans.) It is reflected in the cultish adoration of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary economics, and the gross misunderstandings of genetics and biology common among people generally, social scientists, and even many biologists. Stephen Jay Gould was an outstanding thinker on these issues. Richard Lewontin and others still write on these matters.

I highly recommend Dean Baker's writing on the Chetty mobility study:

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