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Compound Interest Is The Least Powerful Force In The Universe


I’m still iffy on Vox. Some of its reporting is excellent – their article on Governor Cuomo and the shift away from progressivism in the Democratic Party was especially enlightening. Other parts, especially the editorials, are atrocious and utterly without subtlety.

Ezra Klein’s article on compound interest was the latter.

The reaction to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magisterial essay on the lingering effects of American racism is polarized around people’s reaction to the word “reparations.” But much of the story he tells is about something simpler, and completely uncontroversial: the power of compound interest.

You might remember, as a kid, getting this problem on a test: Would you rather have $10,000 per day for 30 days or a penny that doubled in value every day for 30 days?

The answer, of course, is you want the penny that doubles in value every day. If you take the $10,000 you end up with $300,000 after the first month. Take the penny and you end with about $5 million.

What Coates shows is that white America has, for hundreds of years, used deadly force, racist laws, biased courts and housing segregation to wrest the power of compound interest for itself. The word he keeps coming back to is “plunder.” White America built its wealth by stealing the work of African-Americans and then, when that became illegal, it added to its wealth by plundering from the work and young assets of African-Americans. And then, crucially, it let compound interest work its magic.

Today, white America is one of the richest and most powerful populations the world has ever known. And it wonders why African Americans just can’t seem to keep up. “In America,” Coates writes, “there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”


“The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter,” Coates writes. It’s also the intellectually unserious response of people who believe that because they never owned slaves or drank from a whites-only water fountain they weren’t the beneficiaries of American racism. They may not be the villains of American racism, but they are the beneficiaries of it. The average white southerner in 1832 was far poorer than the average white southerner today, and part of that vast increase in wealth and income and knowledge and social networks is the result of compound interest working its magic on what the slaveowners and the segregationists stole.

It’s as simple and clear as a child’s math problem. The people who benefitted most from American racism weren’t the white men who stole the penny. It’s the people who held onto the penny while it doubled and doubled and doubled and doubled.

There are many many complicated moral arguments for and against reparations. Like Klein, I don’t want to get into any of them except the financial aspect of how much modern whites benefit from the lingering effects of slavery, and how much modern blacks are harmed by them.

I want to make one very loose argument and then one based off of empirical research.

The loose argument is that the best way to determine whether modern whites have gained from owning slaves (and I know Klein’s argument takes into account other forms of oppression beyond slavery, but slaves will be a good first approximation) is to see if formerly slave-owning societies are richer than formerly non-slave-owning societies.

The state with the highest percent slaves before the Civil War was South Carolina, with Mississippi number two. Mississippi is the poorest, and South Carolina the fifth poorest of the fifty states today. Except for Virginia, every single state in the former Confederacy is poorer than the US average.

This is somewhat confounded by the high level of poor blacks in these states, but remains true even when you look only at the income of white residents. For example, if Mississippi whites were their own state, they would be 39th out of 50 in terms of per capita income. South Carolingians would do better but still be below the national average. If all states suddenly became all white, Mississippi and South Carolina would drop right back down to the bottom.

So the whites who had the most opportunity to benefit from a supposed ability to earn compound interest on slavery earnings clearly didn’t do that.

While one could make the argument that the gains from slavery left Mississippi and the Deep South to enrich all whites, this seems a bit forced. The US was much less interconnected in those days. And other places that had no connection to slavery still outperform the Deep South: Italian whites, for example, still do comfortably better than whites from most Southern states.

One could always argue that Southerners would be even poorer today if not from all the compound interest they received on their slavery earnings. But Southern poverty is already a bit of a puzzle. To make them too much poorer would require them to descend into levels of squalor totally unknown in any First World country.

I think we should at least look at an alternate hypothesis: people are really really really bad at passing ill-gotten wealth through more than a generation or two.


The descendants of rich people tend to stay rich even three hundred years later. For example, Gregory Clark looked at social mobility in Sweden. A famously mobile society, Sweden is also a good place to study social mobility since nobles and commoners had different last names back when the feudal system was in place around 1700. Non-nobles are forbidden to change to noble-sounding surnames even today, so names should be a fossil record of who’s descended from the really rich people.

Clark found that among highly-educated well-paying professions like doctors and lawyers, people with aristocratic surnames are represented around four to six times the level expected by chance. He uses this to describe a statistic “b” signifying the rate of regression to the mean with each generation.

Suppose nobles are eight times more likely to be doctors at the end of the feudal period. If b is low, say 0.35, then they will quickly regress to the population’s average – according to Clark’s graph, it will take about 80 – 90 years (= 3 – 4 generations?) before this happens. If b is high, say 0.75, it will take practically forever – he demonstrates that even after 200 years, there will be noticeable differences.

Clark finds b to be between 0.6 and 0.8 in Sweden, and then goes on to show it is similar pretty much everywhere and across all time periods. The Economist describes his research by saying:

With surprising consistency across countries and eras, mobility is found to be painfully slow. Birth has predicted more than 50% of one’s income or education status, Mr Clark reckons. Erasing the legacy of past prosperity takes 10-15 generations rather than the three or four implied by sunnier estimates. So the shadow of 18th-century wealth still darkens income distributions today.

This sounds very promising for Ezra Klein’s compound interest argument and really bad for my “Southerners are really bad at holding on to wealth” argument. But Clark takes it in a totally different direction. The Economist again:

The most unexpected finding [is that] efforts to democratise education and eliminate discrimination over the past century appear to have had no discernible effect on mobility, leading Mr Clark to conclude that mobility is strongly linked to underlying social competence—an “inescapable inherited” trait. Only the intermarriage of people who are more prosperous and educated with those less fortunate will dilute the genetic resources of well-off families, slowly pushing them back towards the average and preventing the rise of a permanent overclass.

I just want to briefly pause our economics discussion to point out that Professor Clark has written two books on his theories, and they they are called A Farewell to Alms
andThe Son Also Rises. Please take a moment to be delighted by that.


Okay, so wealth lasts a really long time, and Klein thinks that’s because of compound interest and Clark thinks it’s because of “inescapably inherited social competence” which sounds a lot like a euphemism for genes. To differentiate between these two hypotheses we would need to randomly select a bunch of people, give them a lot of wealth, and follow them for a couple of generations to see whether their descendants compounded that advantage or regressed back to their genetically programmed level.

I am familiar with only one well-studied example of this happening.

In 1830 the government stole the land of the Cherokee Indians. Lots of white people wanted to settle the newly available territory, so the state of Georgia proposed a lottery, where the winners would get large fertile farms on the conquered area. Not only were the farms available in the lottery much bigger than those owned by the average Georgia farmer at the time, but lottery winners were totally allowed to sell the farm they had just won to someone else and pocket the cash. Nearly every single white person in Georgia at the time entered the lottery, because hey, free money.

Bleakley and Ferrie track the winners and losers of the land lottery for several generations. They find that the first-generation winners did very well. The average farm won in the lottery was worth $900 in 1830 dollars, which was the equivalent of three years’ unskilled labor (so think about $60000 today). It was also a gift that kept on giving, since most people would farm the land and be able to grow lucrative crops every year indefinitely. According to the study “two decades after the lottery, winners are on average $700 richer than a comparable population that did not win the lottery”. Remember, this is back when $700 was real money.

In a second study, they look at the effect a couple of generations down the line. They find:

Sons of winners have no better adult outcomes (wealth, income, literacy) than the sons of non-winners, and winners’ grandchildren do not have higher literacy or school attendance than non-winners’ grandchildren. This suggests only a limited role for family financial resources in the formation of human capital in the next generations in this environment and a potentially more important role for other factors that persist through family lines […]

[This] should have relaxed the budget constraint faced by poorer households and allowed them to invest more in the human capital of their children. If human capital was unaffected in the next generations, this is evidence in favor of the view recently advanced by Clark and Cummins that a substantial portion of the intergenerational correlation in outcomes is driven by fundamental, family-specific effects (the family’s cultural and genetic infrastructure)

Studies of modern-day lottery winners show much the same, albeit on a much-reduced time scale. And closer to the original issue, studies attempting to compare enslaved blacks versus free blacks appear to show it didn’t actually take that many generations for outcomes to equalize.


I am disappointed that all we have to go off of are these kinds of hints and whispers.

This seems like maybe the most important question in economics. Certainly in sociology. It seems terribly important to public policy, not just in terms of reparations but in how much we spend helping poor families and more important how we help poor families. If Clark’s view is right, the best we can do is alleviate their suffering by making sure that being poor isn’t an especially unpleasant state and everyone has good access to social services. If Klein is right, we should be making huge cash transfers to get people out of poverty traps so that their descendents will reap the compound interest and become rich.

(there’s also the slight confounding factor of the South being demolished during the Civil War, which could disprove Klein’s particular example while not necessarily supporting Clark or the general case)

I want to repeat Clark’s quote to the Economist for emphasis:

The most unexpected finding [is that] efforts to democratise education and eliminate discrimination over the past century appear to have had no discernible effect on mobility.

If Clark is right, almost everything we’re doing is a waste of time.

There are some good arguments about why poverty might make people less successful over long time periods, like cognitive load effects. But there are also some good counterarguments – if that’s true, how come the second-generation descendents of Vietnamese boat people, who came to America with nothing, now have notably higher household incomes than white Mississippians, with all their years of benefitting off other people’s slave labor?

Overall, these are the sort of really complicated problems I would have expected a supposedly more sophisticated media outlet like Vox to cover or help raise awareness on.

Instead it uses mere assertion to tell use that denial of compound interest is an “intellectually unserious response” and that Klein’s case is “as simple and clear as a child’s math problem.”

Sorry, Vox. I’ll keep reading you for your occasional article about the case for raising chickens in virtual reality. But intelligent and sophisticated you are not.

EDIT: Tyler Cowen gives a different perspective on the same Klein article over at Marginal Revolution

EDIT 2: The quote I stole the title from is probably not legit

EDIT 3: One could try to reconcile Klein and Clark by saying that sure, wealth doesn’t persist in families across generations but it does in societies (presumably it gets transferred from family to family within the society but continues to exist). But then there would be no reason to favor white people and their descendants as especial beneficiaries.

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151 Responses to Compound Interest Is The Least Powerful Force In The Universe

  1. anon says:

    Only a very small portion of all possible policies that might help the poor escape poverty have ever been tried. Clark’s work is empirical, but through most of history no one has been making a serious effort to help the poor. The more modern and committed policies are the important ones, and they haven’t been successful, but there are still a lot of policies to be considered besides those.

    Social science is still in its infancy. If it ever grows up and good policies are put into place, then inequality will stop being so persistent. Heritability is determined in a specific environmental context, which is something Clark’s work never seems to address.

    • Vaniver says:

      Clark’s work is empirical, but through most of history no one has been making a serious effort to help the poor.

      I think this claim would come as a great surprise to many of the people who, throughout history, did make a serious effort to help the poor.

      • anon says:

        You’re framing the issue in terms of individual efforts. I’m thinking in terms of national resources.

        • Blaine says:

          I think, perhaps, another way to think of your point is in terms of “all specifiable poor helping policies,” which is not necessarily equal to resource expenditure. We can look at all of the unique ways the poor can be or could’ve been helped and notice that there are (I would wager a guess) a near inexhaustible number of them.

          As far as computation spent narrowing down the solution space is concerned, we’ve hardly done a thing.

  2. B.B. says:

    Scott Alexander said:
    There are some good arguments about why poverty might make people less successful over long time periods, like cognitive load effects.

    Wicherts & Scholten criticize Mullainathan, et al’s “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” article here.

  3. Oligopsony says:

    {a “ridiculously slimy thing for [me] to do”}

    • suntzuanime says:

      This is a ridiculously slimy thing for you to do. Delete your comment.

      You can organize whatever you want on your own website, but to undercut Scott in the comments of his own website and demand he not look is a gross abuse of hospitality.

      • Cyan says:

        Scott doesn’t need to click on it to learn that it’s a link to, and the demand not to look at it until after the next post makes the subject of the prediction obvious.

        That you describe this as “slimy” and “undercutting” is baffling to me. Is it the mere fact that Oligopsony is trying to record predictions about the next post that you find objectionable, or is it the content of the specific proposition Oligopsony chose, or something else entirely?

        • Oligopsony says:

          I employed some negative-valence words where I could have used neutral-valence ones, so I would agree with Sun Tzu Anime that it actually was pointlessly rude.

        • Cyan says:

          Oligopsony: If suntzuanime had said it was pointlessly rude, I wouldn’t have been baffled; “slimy” has connotations of immorality, and “undercutting” is just odd…

        • suntzuanime says:

          Being rude to someone to their face is rude, but that’s part of the rough-and-tumble nature of the free internet we all enjoy so long as it does not go too far.

          Being rude about someone behind their back to all their friends and commentators, that’s what’s slimy.

        • Cyan says:

          suntzuanime: But Oligopsony didn’t say “never click this link” — he said “only click it after your next post”. I wouldn’t characterize that as behind Scott’s back, especially considering that the hurdle imposed by writing “don’t follow this link” doesn’t even rise to the level of security through obscurity.

        • Oligopsony says:

          The prediction was incorrect; downgrade my credibility by however much you downgrade these things.

        • anon says:

          Am upgrading your credibility in response to you telling me to downgrade your credibility. Only higher than baseline credibility people do that.

  4. suntzuanime says:

    Maybe the devastation caused by the Civil War, which devastated the South much more than the North, wiped out the gains of slavery and impoverished those states? This maybe undercuts the case for reparations, because it means that slaveholders have already been substantially punished for their evil behavior.

    Maybe after the South became full of black people who weren’t slaves, the racist slaveowners who got rich off slavery said “to heck with this” and moved elsewhere, leaving only the poor whites? It would be better to track former slaveowner families, rather than former slaveowning states, because families can move.

    • Steve Reilly says:

      Your first point is possible, but consider Germany and Japan after a more recent, and more devastating war. No one looking at economic figures for those countries today would realize what happened in them in the mid 1940s. By the same token, I don’t think anyone looking at economic figures for the south today would realize that Sherman burned Atlanta and spared Savannah, for instance. Whatever the reason for the relative poverty of the South, I don’t think the Civil War is it.

      • nydwracu says:

        Consider Germany and Japan after a more recent, more devastating war, followed by American-led rebuilding campaigns attempting to redevelop them as quickly and as much as possible to prevent the spread of Communism, to understand the South, which was subject to a devastating war followed by periodic social upheavals and not a whole hell of a lot of redevelopment from outside, probably due in part to age-old enmities between them and the people who would have done the redevelopment. (And in part to the fact that there was no way in hell the South would turn Communist or whatever.)

        Also, I haven’t checked this at all so this is pure speculation, but my guess is that hotter areas and highlands [with a possible exception for the ones out west, which were only recently settled] tend to be poorer, and the South has both.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Channeling Robin Hanson, “Reconstruction was not about reconstruction”?

        • Steve Reilly says:

          Yes, Germany and Japan received money from the US federal government. So did the South. Still does, as southern states receive more than they get.

          Social upheavals might be a better explanation. The South had social upheavals, but Germany had the Berlin Wall, and from what I can tell the former East Germany is pretty markedly different than the former West.

          Also you might be right about the heat. I just moved from New York to South Carolina, and Christ it’s hot.

        • peterdjones says:

          Don’t forget that Germany and Japan were not allowed armies of their own until recently…that’s a saving.

        • Zathille says:

          Technically, they were allowed military infrastucture so long as they were employed for self-defense only, which usually meant less military strenght. Of course, the political palatability of pacifist constitutional clauses seems to be decreasing in some quarters.

        • Nornagest says:

          The Bundeswehr was created in 1955, the Japanese SDF in 1952 or 1954 depending on how you’re counting. That’s not too recent in the context of post-WWII history.

          The JSDF might call itself a civil defense force instead of an army, but that’s splitting hairs — by most measures it’s one of the more powerful militaries in Asia. Both it and the Bundeswehr are constitutionally forbidden from offensive warfare, but the JSDF seems more serious about it; the Bundeswehr for example sent troops to Afghanistan. That’s more a matter of domestic policy than an American imposition, though, and has been for some time.

      • Eli says:

        MAJOR confounder: the South has been poorer overall than the North since the Industrial Revolution, as the North shifted to an industrial-capitalist mode of production (manufacturing, technology, finance, services) while the South tried to remain fundamentally based on agriculture and resource extraction, with bits of manufacturing eventually splashed in as a way for originally Northern or foreign companies to save money on labor.

        My hypothesis: the Southern white slaveholding families could have been massively, multigenerationally rich after the Civil War, but by reason of sheer cultural preference they bit their region’s livelihood on chief industries that turned out to be just plain less productive than the industries more favored in the North.

        So now the South is really, really poor (like, Third World poor in some parts), but hey, at least they have farming. That is, after all, what they wanted.

        Oh, and politics. I have no idea why, but for some goddamn reason the South is able to dominate the politics of the entire USA.

        • suntzuanime says:

          If the South were able to dominate the politics of the entire USA, we wouldn’t have integrated schools.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Well, less populated (rural) states are advantaged by non-proportional representation in the senate and the attending electoral college advantage. Which is why we have a staunchly conservative Senate fighting a liberal House… oh, wait.

          But seriously, I think this is a case of median US politics being a lot more Southern than your beliefs and therefore looking Southern to you while also being a lot more Northern than what the southerners believe. I’m pretty sure the southerners think the yankee elites are running the show…

    • Damien says:

      The case for reparations doesn’t stop with slavery. There’s also 100 years of Jim Crow — including forced black labor via prisons — plus sundown towns, redlining, labor discrimination…

      The South, and elsewhere, has had oppotunity to profit from blacks since slavery.

      “If the South were able to dominate the politics of the entire USA, we wouldn’t have integrated schools.”

      There was a shift. But the (white) South has definitely had a disproportionate political influence — in fact helped by the end of slavery, as blacks went from being counted as 3/5 of people to 5/5 of people for Congressional representation, while still not getting a vote in the South for 100 years.

      • “The case for reparations doesn’t stop with slavery. There’s also 100 years of Jim Crow — including forced black labor via prisons — plus sundown towns, redlining, labor discrimination…”

        I’m glad you mentioned all of that. There are so many good books on all of those topics and more.

        It’s not as if these are unknown things that we are forced to speculate about. There is a lot of data about, for example, the racial prejudice in housing sales this past century. Also, there is a massive amount of research that shows racism continues in every aspect of our society to this day, structurally and institutionally.

        We have all this knowledge about what did happen and what continues to happen. But yet the discussions about race in this country involve people who have read little if anything about the topic. One of the best books written recently about racism is The New Jim Crow. Every American should read that book to understand the actual data for why people make such arguments as reparations, but probably only a tiny fraction of a percentage of Americans have or will ever read that book.

        This makes meaningful public debate almost impossible.

    • hyperfluous says:

      The purpose of reparations is not to punish the slaveholders, but to compensate blacks for the effects of generations of varying degrees of affirmative action for whites. Also, considerable wealth was produced by slavery when it was legal in the north for two centuries.

    • James James says:

      Yes but the causation could go the other way — if people with aristocratic surnames tend to be more capable, then it makes sense to hire them.

  5. Amanda L. says:

    This is interesting! I’m going to check out A Farewell to Alms and The Son Also Rises from my library.

    To counterbalance “simple exposure –> unwarranted increase in belief” effects, could anyone recommend me one or two of the best books arguing against Clark’s claims of primarily genetic causes for lack of social mobility? Thank you in advance.

    • Charlie says:

      I don’t think Clark claimed causes were primarily genetic – I think that was Scott’s interpretation of something “inescapably inherited.” Culture can be pretty inescapable too, and my prior for Clark referring to both culture and genes is high.

      This looks like a nice article summarizing effects of parenting.

      • Amanda L. says:


      • anon says:

        No. Clark says that the lack of mobility is a good thing, as it shows we’ve reached a society where genetics are the only thing that matters. With reference to culture, Clark emphasizes that his work holds up across time and space, implying it’s not a cultural effect. You should view one of his TED talks, or something, if you doubt my characterization of his work.

        • Zathille says:

          But if his findings hold across time, how can we say we’ve reached a society where genetics are the only thing that matters since saying so pressuposes it’s a recent devellopment?

          Perhaps I misunderstood?

        • Charlie says:

          Good suggestion to look for a talk by Clark!

          When I found one on Youtube, he did indeed seem to be sidling towards a genetic explanation. The disparity he has to explain is between the generation-to-generation correlation and the long-term correlation. Treating single-generation mobility as “noise” the blurs out long-term mobility (caused by genes for intelligence, or people who pay you more if you have a nice last name, or long-term persistence in peer groups, or genes for height that cause you to be more popular), is reasonable, if a bit dismisssive of single-generation mobility.

      • Paul Torek says:

        Nice find, thanks.

  6. Matthew says:

    What, no hat tip for the link to the virtual reality chickens?

    Also on Vox, I chewed out Yglesias on Twitter for letting the “Not All Men” explainer abomination on Vox , with a link to “Weakmen are superweapons,” but he ignored me.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Sorry, I actually saw it on Facebook today. I had missed that. Still, good link.

  7. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    If Clark’s view is right, the best we can do is alleviate their suffering by making sure that being poor isn’t an especially unpleasant state and everyone has good access to social services.

    There are non-consequentialist moral intuitions which would take a different approaches towards the poor depending on whether their condition is caused by factors inherent or external to themselves. Within certain kinds of utilitarianism, an argument could be made for humanely reducing the poor’s numbers through e.g. a one-child policy, so that the future need not contain a class of people who are doomed through their own nature to have an specially low quality of life.

  8. Luke says:

    I mostly read Vox for their context-setting overviews of major world news stories that I otherwise wouldn’t bother to understand.

  9. Anonymous says:

    >The state with the highest percent slaves before the Civil War was South Carolina, with Mississippi number two. Mississippi is the poorest, and South Carolina the fifth poorest of the fifty states today. Except for Virginia, every single state in the former Confederacy is poorer than the US average.

    Confound: I think Slave owning states were *always* less wealthy than free states.

    Wealthy societies may be less likely own slaves because Cthulhu swims left? Slave owning states were agrarian rather than manufacturing? Who knows…but comparing free and slave state wealth is a bad way to go about making the point you’re trying to make.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think that’s a confound. If slave-owning societies couldn’t get rich even when they had slaves, that’s a counter to Klein’s point that white people got lots of money from slavery.

      I guess it could be a confound if the South was poorer even before it had slaves, but I don’t think there was a before.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        The slaveowning lineages do predate slavery, though there may not be statistics on the average wealth of slaveowners’ European ancestors. On the other hand, there’s a much more accessible before which is ‘before the northern states didn’t have slaves’.

        But whether or not there are good alternatives, looking at the current wealth levels without even a nod to initial conditions is not a statistically sound way to determine the effect of slavery (though it’s a reasonable way to gauge whether white affluence is predominantly due to slavery). I suggest you edit to at least acknowledge that the evidence is weak, since if this post were my first time reading you I would have formed an estimate of your statistical literacy well below the true value.

        The rest of the post is great, though. I wonder whether or not it carries further: do lineages bounce back from artificial setbacks as quickly as they lose artificial gains? Off the top of my head, the Jewish population looks kind of like an inescapable-inheritance-rich group that always bounces back, but that’s about the loosest historical argument one can make.

      • hyperfluous says:

        It seems to me that limiting the analysis of the wealth accrued through slave labor to Southern states is flawed. Didn’t a lot of the wealth produced in the south accrue to the north through tariffs, etc.? wasn’t that one of the primary justifications for secession?

    • Anthony says:

      No, it isn’t. If the non-slave class (whites) of the slave states were less wealthy than the members of that same class from non-slave states, that is further evidence that the non-slave class did not significantly materially benefit from slavery, even if individual members of that class did. More specifically, it’s evidence that slavery hurt non-slaveholding whites, as well, because without slavery, overall whites would have been wealthier, even if slave-owners would not have been.

      Slavery got a huge boost from the cotton gin – before it, slavery was in decline; after, it became more lucrative for the slave owners, as they could do *some* of the manufacturing work involved in turning cotton plants into clothes.

      • White Girl says:

        I think that’s right. This is all just anecdotal, but I come from a formerly slave-owning family, and we’re noticeably richer than the USA average. When we have our yearly formerly-slave-owning-families get-togethers, most people seem to be richer than the USA average. We’re even-more-noticeably richer than average for the South.

        • There might be a selective effect– better off people are more likely to go to the reunions.

        • White Girl says:

          Nancy–that’s very possible! There’s also the effects, though, of intelligence correlating both with extra success and with a reluctance to attend slaveowner reunions.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      In the beginning, the whites of South Carolina were the wealthiest whites: it was founded as a retirement home for people who made fortunes running sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean.

      • Andy says:

        Yes, and one can argue that as the most divorced from popular opinion outside their own state, they were always the most virulently states-rights-ish of the South, and the most contemptuous of the idea that anyone would object to slavery that they just dismissed the entire conversation or anything resembling the Principle of Charity.
        The state was also the most aristocratic in structure, with both literacy and property requirements to vote, and voters didn’t even vote directly for President – the state Legislature allocated the state’s electoral votes. Call that another nail in the coffin of the idea that Reactionary states wouldn’t engage in war – South Carolina was the most irascible and fire-breathing lunatic state, until Sherman burned it down in the last year of the Civil War while the rest of the South, especially Georgia was pretty much going “You got us into this, you deserve it!”

        • Randy M says:

          Do reactionaries say that “Reactionary states” (meaning, what exactly?) won’t go to war, or that they won’t go on grand crusades to spread ideology x?

        • Andy says:

          Do reactionaries say that “Reactionary states” (meaning, what exactly?) won’t go to war, or that they won’t go on grand crusades to spread ideology x?

          This claim I received mostly from blog posts I can’t find right now and from discussions with Michael Anissimov. It goes that when states are fully sovereign, self-interested, and run by noble classes – as they were long ago – their wars are rare, as short as possible, and mostly fought in a civilized way.

          I suspect the parable of Fnargl (where an omnipotent, gold-maximizing alien brings about world peace and prosperity) also gets mixed in here somewhere.
          I define “Reactionary state” as a state where the governing structure, whether corporate or monarchic in nature, feels secure and works for its own interests, not for the good of the people underneath.
          But there’s all kinds of reasons to go to war based off pride, or history, or kings can be completely nuts, all of which were in play in South Carolina.
          EDIT:Most telling was the complete and utter lack of respect many Southern intelligentsia, especially the South Carolina “fire-breathers,” had for any Northern opinion and sensibilities. The Reactionary position relies on monarchs negotiating with each other rather than going to war, and the South Carolinans had absolutely no respect for the North. My favorites were the theory that Northerners, being descended from Anglo-Saxon peasants, were naturally inclined to be submissive to Southerners descended from Normans, and the politician who offered to drink all the blood spilled as a result of secession, though he never went through with it.

    • What does “Cthulhu swims left” mean?

      • Vanzetti says:

        Neo-reaction meme. Comparing social progress to Cthulhu.

        It’s bloody stupid, but telling. They essentially admit they can’t win.

        • suntzuanime says:

          If I remember my Lovecraft Mythos correctly, Cthulhu was dealt a temporary setback by driving a boat into his head. Better than nothing!

        • Vanzetti says:

          >If I remember my Lovecraft Mythos correctly, Cthulhu was dealt a temporary setback by driving a boat into his head

          There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern; where—God in heaven!—the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the Alert gained impetus from its mounting steam.

          This was one incredibly temporary setback. Or perhaps Cthulhu is just gaseous…

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          But don’t assume someone using it is NR. Leftish folks around here sometimes use this terminology as well because a) better to use a term loaded against you than one loaded in your favor and b) it really is quite catchy.

        • @suntzuanime

          That part was stupid and I consider it to be non-canon. I don’t know what Lovecraft was thinking.

          Cthulhu is nigh-unstoppable.

        • Misha says:

          Cthulu always does x doesn’t mean he’s definitely going to win. It just means you know what will happen when you summon him. There are other elder gods and even stranger entities

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s originally from Moldbug, but this Anonymous is using it differently, to mean that richer societies become more left-wing.

  10. Oligopsony says:

    Slavery (and more coercive labor regimes generally) tended to be established in lower-tech extractive economies, and to develop self-reinforcing institutions around that – while also enriching the global economy as a whole, because deepening of comparative advantage – so it doesn’t seem incorrect to me to say that the gains of slavery systematically radiated outwards. Acemoglu and Robinson have the generally-accepted empirics here, though deeper causal explanations can be found in world-systems theory (if you’re like me or Multiheaded) or race realism (if you’re like James Donald or Piano) or __________ (if you’re a cool dude who comes up with her own theory.)

    • Piano says:

      From wikipedia: “World-systems theory asks several key questions: … How is the world-system affected by changes in its components (nations, ethnic groups, social classes, etc.)?”
      Why is race realism at odds with world-systems theory?

      • Oligopsony says:

        No one says that explanations need to be rivalrous! (Though in this case I would say that WST is useful for constructionist accounts of ethnogenesis.)

    • Ken Arromdee says:

      Insofar as slavery enriches the global economy (or even the US economy), that means that the gain from slavery was distributed throughout the whole population, both black and white, and that still undercuts the case for reparations because black people benefit from there being a strong economy just as much as white people do.

  11. whales says:

    I don’t think Ezra Klein’s summary was particularly good, although I do think to frame this as a response to him you have to note that he’s using compound interest as a metaphor for more than returns on wealth derived from slavery, even if all you’re considered with is “the financial aspect of how much modern whites benefit from the lingering effects of slavery.”

    On the other hand, now just talking about what happened to that wealth, I think calling some of your points “hints and whispers” is even a bit generous. I’ve found we basically have start with the assumption that any two situations in social science are incomparable, and that it takes a lot of work to justify comparisons when it’s even possible. I wouldn’t expect to be able to find a general theory of generational transmission and compounding of wealth and social status as simple and broadly applicable as you seem to be looking for. (But I’m sure we agree more than we disagree — there are really important unanswered questions here.)

    In particular, the argument about white poverty is (as you observe) extremely loose. Yes, any tighter arguments have to either explain it or explain it away, but I don’t think that’s nearly as hard as you do. Can you really not think of any other reasons for general poverty extending to whites in the South? To start with, there’s, and I’m sure there are plenty of detailed studies about the next 150 years.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I totally agree the South was destroyed in the Civil War and that’s a big part of why it’s poor. But that is a reason why it’s poor, not a counterargument to it being poor.

      If all the wealth produced by slavery was destroyed in the Civil War, that would be a strong argument against Klein’s position that modern whites continue to reap the benefits of slavery.

      • Anthony says:

        Without having read either Klein’s or Coates’ articles, I think you’re missing at least part of the argument – that racial exclusion since 1865 has kept blacks from becoming as wealthy as they would have. Not necessarily that blacks were exploited (stolen from), but that they were excluded from the opportunities to become wealthy that whites had. Therefore, it’s not necessarily slavery that reparations are owed for, but (also) Jim Crow.

        I can think of a couple of counters to that argument:

        1) Black incomes relative to whites rose significantly from about 1945 to about 1965, while legal barriers to blacks mostly stayed in place; while that relative increase has stalled since 1965, even though legal barriers have been pretty much eliminated, and those which were eliminated earlier (schools) would have started to have economic effects after about that time.

        2) Deliberate granting of benefits to blacks, such as affirmative action in schools, jobs, and contracting, have not produced results beyond the life of the direct beneficiary – the kids don’t do better than would be expected given their pre-benefit family situation unless they, too, get those benefits.

        • nydwracu says:

          Deliberate granting of benefits to blacks, such as affirmative action…

          I’ve been looking for a place in this thread to reference the Patrick Chavis case. This is that place. n = 1, yes, but it’s a hell of a 1.

          (An interesting historical note: Nicholas Lemann, who was mentioned in that thread, was president of the Harvard Crimson in the mid-70s, during which time both Lemann and the Crimson enthusiastically endorsed the Khmer Rouge.)

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I totally agree the South was destroyed in the Civil War and that’s a big part of why it’s poor.

        What can this mean, other than endorsing compound interest? Of course this negates Klein’s argument, but it sure sounds like you are arguing: No crime was committed, and it was committed by someone else.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          That’s a really good point.

          Maybe a better phrasing would be “slavery produced lots of wealth. If slavery had lasted forever, that increased level of wealth might have continued indefinitely. If slavery had ended peacefully, that level of wealth would have decayed gradually over many generations, like the wealth in some of the examples above. However, in fact it was all wiped out at once in the Civil War. Thereafter, the South was regressed to the level it would have attained anyway without slavery.”

          It would be very interesting to compare states that were devastated in the Civil War to similar states that were not devastated, and see if the devastation produced a lasting effect (compound interest) or was quickly recovered from (cultural-genetic infrastructure). My guess would be the latter.

          But I admit it was a stupid phrasing that reveals I’m not thinking too clearly or consistently about this stuff.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          You understood me, but I should have emphasized that I was identifying the “that’s a big part of why it’s poor” part with compound interest.

      • whales says:

        Sure, I mentioned it as a reason that the South is hardly evidence that people are bad at passing down slavery-derived wealth. If you believe that all of that wealth was destroyed, then it’s a point against Klein’s metaphor, although as I and others are pointing out there’s a lot more to it. But, anyway, if some of slavery alone’s “quadrillions of dollars” (that Klein cites as practically besides the point, questionable as that figure might be) survived elsewhere, for example in the northern US economy which was rather reliant on Southern agriculture, you’d want to account for that.

        As another aside, what do you think is happening when individual wealth “decays”?

        • whales says:

          Oh, sorry, just saw your Edit 3:

          “One could try to reconcile Klein and Clark by saying that sure, wealth doesn’t persist in families across generations but it does in societies (presumably it gets transferred from family to family within the society but continues to exist). But then there would be no reason to favor white people and their descendants as especial beneficiaries.”

          It seems to me that white people disproportionately benefiting from the wealth of society is exactly what happened.

    • Randy M says:

      Surely looking at social science to analyze the situation is better than taking a metaphor from personal finances and assuming it holds explanatory power?

      • whales says:

        Yeah, social science done well ought to give you more predictive power and a better mental model. But what I think of as explanatory power ultimately derives from a detailed causal account of what happened (of which TNC’s article is part), and that social-science results of this kind are in a sense just better metaphors, or heuristics that tell us where to look for an explanation.

  12. Douglas Knight says:

    It is important to point out that Clark’s b is a long-term average. Measured in the short term, it is much lower. That is a direct measurement of the fact that if the children are richer or poorer than the parents, the grandchildren will regress to the grandparent. It is not a truly randomized experiment, as in the case of the Cherokee land, but it is a measurement that has been done on many more sunjects in many more places and times.

  13. Handle says:

    Better than the lottery, we have plenty of examples of black men getting very, very rich on the merits of their own successes, despite all their social disadvantages. In addition to the low but certainly not negligible representation in the typically high-earning career fields, there are celebrities of various kinds in sports (Ali!, Mayweather!), music (Jay Z! Dr. Dre!), and media (Oprah!), and there are also men who have become extremely wealthy in the illegal drug trade.

    If Klein were right, their grandchildren would be in the top tier of the US distribution. If Clark is right, we’ll probably see reversion to the mean of their genetic heritage. What do we actually observe?

    Here’s another way to look at this question. A black man and a white man both start out broke but talented and hard-working and make it through med school and residency and are now practicing doctors out of debt and earning the same high salary and accumulating wealth.

    If we are going to redistribute from the white doctor to the black doctor because of their ancestry, then what special wealth benefit from society did the white doctor get that the black doctor didn’t when they are both getting paid something approximating their market marginal productivity?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Can you explain why we would see reversion to the genetic mean of their heritage? If genetics was involved in their success, presumably they would have excellent genes that their children would inherit.

      (and okay, they would marry people who might not have such genes. But that applies equally for all races and I think we’re magicking it away by saying assortative mating)

      Also, you might be interested in the Ta-Nehisi Coales article that Klein was commenting on, which has some really good discussion on how racism especially affected high-performing blacks and their ability to save and pass on money. Although I think this is less now, I don’t think the current generation of successful blacks has had time to have grandchildren to study.

      • Oligopsony says:

        Assume what I take to be Handle’s priors, which being that whites have on average better genes (for things we care about here) than blacks. Assume also that success is an additive function of G, genes, and other shit, O.

        If we take a sample of a black man and a white man with equivalent G+Os, then insofar as whites have better Gs on average, and also (something something standard deviations normal distributions), then it is likely that the G component of the white man is relatively greater compared to his black counterpart.

        Thus, we should see a deeper regression to the mean in the black man’s case for the same reason we see regression to the mean generally: the expected error term is larger.

        Note that if we swap realism for constructionism the same logic applies: insofar as deals-with-structural-racism is different for blacks and whites (hmm, seems to be) and gets passed down through the generations more reliably than the O “error term” (positive childhood experiences, good nutrition, libertarian free will to be really effortful or whatever) it behaves like this G, and we should see regression to the mean effects.

      • potatoe says:

        “Although I think this is less now, I don’t think the current generation of successful blacks has had time to have grandchildren to study.”

        Maybe it’s more than you might think. Remember that it came out that Wells Fargo (and I doubt they were alone in this) was specifically targeting black people for subprime lending? These weren’t just “poor” black people who were targeted. TNC also mentioned this in his article. It’s hard to keep passing your money from generation to generation if you have a giant target on your back for pilferers and thieves due to your race.

      • spandrell says:

        The extent of regression depends on the mean of the particular population; a 140IQ black man is way more rare than a 140IQ Jewish man, say. Black people regress to the mean of black people, i.e. 85IQ.

        There’s complicated math on this issue, check up on La Griffe or some of Sailer’s older work.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          The simple version is that a smart person from a stupid gene pool probably has loads of recessive stupid genes, right?

          • bbartlog says:

            The simple version is that a smart person from a ‘stupid gene pool’ is more likely to have had a lucky draw on the shared environment front, i.e. some (likely random) environmental influence will on average account for more of his smarts.

      • Handle says:

        “Can you explain why we would see reversion to the genetic mean of their heritage? If genetics was involved in their success, presumably they would have excellent genes that their children would inherit.”

        Well, exactly, but you’re missing the point. The question is which is really more important, talents/genes or just money. I guess the former, while TNC / Klein (yes, I’ve read the article) say the latter. Part of the way we could answer the question is to see what happens when we just drop money on people when we would expect their descendants to have merely average marketable talents. Lotteries are one way to do this as you mentioned, but another way is to look for ‘tournament markets’ in which only the top percent of a percent capture all the huge gains, and the rest of the unselected losers of the tournament get nothing.

        It is very, very unlikely as a matter of probability that superstars will have superstar kids, even with highly assortative marriage. They may have very talented kids with great genes, but you need to have the best of the best to ‘win’ in these tournament fields. On the other hand, there are fields where decent gains are much more widely distributed to a large fraction of people above a certain threshold of talent. So, there are superstars in medicine and law and so on, but if you are in the top 10% of cognitive talent you can usually get yourself a much-better-than-median income stream by entering these categories of profession, and if you marry another doctor or lawyer (itself much more likely than marrying another superstar), then there is a much greater chance that your progeny will also have the talent necessary to succeed at that economic tier.

        Another way to look at this question is to say, “What happens in a war or a Chicago Fire or Great Depression and a huge fraction of people get wiped out financially? Who rises to the top in subsequent generations? Is it random, or correlated with marketable talents, and are those in turn correlated with genes?

        You want the whole matrix laid out. Rags to Riches, Rags to Rags, Riches to Riches, and Riches to Rags. (For multiple generations too, of course) TNC is saying we mostly see (Riches to Riches) + (Rags to Rags) without the others, and that this is due to the legacy of racial privilege. I say we see it all in America, but for different reasons: Most (Riches to Riches) and (Rags to Rags) is probably genetic, the same for (Rags to Riches) except for luck like lotteries or extreme inheritances, but we also see plenty of (Riches to Rags) through either reversion to the mean or inheritance dissipation or bad bets or bad luck. We’ve all heard stories about newly wealthy people ‘blowing’ their fortune (MC Hammer?), and I think that’s a common aspect of human nature.

        As you pointed out, the question lurking behind all of this is the correct attribution of one’s income, wealth, and life circumstances, and the frame of debate here seems to where the appropriate mix or synthesis is between two extreme narratives.

        (1) On the one hand, you could say that people on average tend to earn close to their marginal productivity during their lifetimes, and that most of the wealth that most people have accumulated during their lives is the result of savings out of that income stream, and not out of bequests. Outside the top 1% or whatever, most people don’t inherit much and moderate estates dissipate quickly. You could also say that’s one’s marketable talents that correlate with marginal productivity also originate in strongly heritable traits like genes for intelligence, personality, attractiveness, and athletic ability. So in this story, one’s station in life is mostly the result not of inherited wealth, or racial social privilege, but inherited talents combined with ‘drive and determination’ (wherever that comes from, probably somewhat genetic too, I’ve certainly met lots of people who seem to born with it or without it.)

        Economically, it’s hard to explain how any class on average would consistently be earning amounts greater than their average marginal productivity because even if they were somehow not in competition with another class, they remain in competition between themselves. There’s no such thing as contemporary racial cartel that is able to extract rents from the other races by prohibiting entry on the basis of race and restricting the supply the other races can purchase, but that kind of thing would be necessary to support the racial ‘undeserved gains’ claim.

        In my own social milieu, this is what I tend to see. Middle class people of various ethnicities and the whole spectrum of genealogical history either in this country, or of wealthy or penurious backgrounds, and who never inherited any significant financial wealth from their ancestors – indeed often starting out broke or heavily in debt – but with talent (most in the form of inherited brains) and hard work having dug out of that hole and achieved success in life and a comfortable monetary position. These people will have a hard time believing you if you say, “It’s only because you’re European or Asian and the recipient of discriminatory benefits.”

        (2) The other story is that most of the wealth that most white people have is the result of ‘tainted’ accumulated inheritance that is somehow traceable to the surplus extracted from black slavery and other racial social measures, and that most of the destitution amongst blacks is the result of not having been able to possess this stolen inheritance.

        What is the right mix between (1) and (2) as explanations? I think if we restrict ourselves to -2 to +2 standard deviation of the distribution of each population group, we will see that most people don’t own much more than they’ve saved out of their own household income, and that income, on average, is decently correlated with their inheritable marketable abilities.

        What TNC does well is to lay out the parade of horrors that is American racial History while evading some of the more taboo details that are pariah-bait if anyone tries to push back on them. For instance, if you are a car insurance or mortgage-lending company and plug all the actuarial data into a regression analysis and it says that blacks have a greater risk of getting into an accident or defaulting, respectively, even after accounting for all the usual suspect variables, then it is ‘racist’ to charge them different rates or offer them different products? It’s debatable. Women used to get better auto insurance rates on account of their gender, but now that’s prohibited because ‘sexist’ in some states, even though gender correlates strongly with reckless driving.

        But what TNC did not so to anywhere near the degree required is really explain the origin of wealth and income for everyone else in the economy. Yes, there are old-money families which are extreme cases, but for the middle 90%, the explanation seems pretty close to my narrative (1) above. And this is what Tyler Cowen – son of a bankrupt, and who nevertheless does pretty well for himself somehow – was getting at which refocusing the spotlight squarely on white wealth to show that there is no there there.

        • Paul Torek says:

          There’s no such thing as contemporary racial cartel that is able to extract rents from the other races by prohibiting entry on the basis of race and restricting the supply the other races can purchase

          That seems to be one of the points in dispute.

  14. Oligopsony says:

    Can I just say that I find some of the moral intuitions really weird here? Like, I’m all for reparations because it confiscates wealth and moves it downwards. But inherited wealth is already unearned, so why are we stopping there? Is it that we’re compensating slaves for the work they did, and delivering it to their nearest heirs? That would sort of work in a TDT sense, although at a substantive level I’m not sure atemporally giving slaves more positive incentives to work hard (on assumption that people care about their own far-future descendants more than other people’s) is actually valuable. Atemporally punishing past slavers makes a bit more sense, and even if we’re indiscriminate it probably works because it’s reasonable to suspect they care more about far future whites than far future blacks, I’ll have to remember that as a sophisticated argument for cis scum dying, but it ultimately seems pretty inefficient. Like, children will barely learn not to do things if you time-lag punishments by an hour or something. Some of us are like that well into adulthood.

  15. Andy says:

    (there’s also the slight confounding factor of the South being demolished during the Civil War, which could disprove Klein’s particular example while not necessarily supporting Clark or the general case)

    For a class project, I made a map tracking changes in land value (measured in dollars per acre, averaged across entire counties) from 1860 to 1870, since the average land values were recorded with the decennial census.
    (Side note: if you want to look at historical census data,, a project of the University of Minnesota, have it all, free as in beer, and ask that you cite them and send them a copy of whatever you do with their research. And they have boundary lines for all the decennial censuses too, since county boundaries changed quite a bit decade to decade. Beautiful stuff.)
    I’d expected to find some value loss across the South, but once I adjusted for inflation (40% between 1860 and 1870!) big parts of the South had lost more than 75% of their land value. Some areas along the Mississippi River had over 90% loss – some counties went from $40/acre to $2. The entire map was a mixed bag – the biggest gain was in Marion County, WV, which went up 1533% after accounting for inflation.
    But what struck me was the amount of damage across the entire South. A few areas, like Atlanta, had isolated gains amid the sea of loss and woe, but that’s odd – Atlanta gained even though it was burned to the ground, but Savannah’s county, which was spared, lost more than Atlanta gained.
    (If you want to see the whole thing, I can send you the map – because it’s a 23MB PDF, I didn’t want to drop it on your inbox without warning. Not posting it here because it has my name and school on it, and I’d rather not it be public. Currently formatting it for web viewing.)
    I’m pretty sure that it can be argued that while many southerners didn’t pay in direct reparations at the time, the destruction of their economy, lifestyle, and land value was a kind of massive punitive fine. I’m not sure I agree.
    Another interpretation follows a theory I heard but haven’t been able to confirm – that Northern bankers devalued Southern land to screw over black farmers who had been given confiscated land, but I’m not sure how to test this with empirically.

  16. Ghatanathoah says:

    I think you can argue that almost no African Americans currently alive were harmed by slavery, even if Klein is 100% right.

    The argument for this was originally developed by Derek Parfit and basically demonstrates that current African Americans are also beneficiaries of slavery and institutionalized racism. If these things had never existed history would be considerably different. People who ended up having children might never have met, and even if they did they might have had sex at a different time, resulting in different gametes being fertilized. Instead of whoever currently exists being born, some different person would have been born instead.

    The end result is that all currently existing people owe their existence to historical injustices. If you went back and time and stopped those injustices you wouldn’t enrich the descendants of the people they happened to. You’d be erasing those descendants from existence and replacing them with different descendants.

    So really, the only living people who can complain about the South’s antebellum slavery are people whose lives are so terrible they’d prefer that they’d have never been born at all. I suspect that these people are a very small minority of the population.

    • Vanzetti says:

      Do you realize you can justify anything with this argument?

      • Creutzer says:

        You cannot justify any future actions with it, which is a pretty important limitation as justifications go.

        And it does actually align with my intuitions here. It makes no sense to say that any individual black person in the US was harmed by events two hundred years past precisely because the counterfactual doesn’t come out right.

        I suppose the reason why we are sometimes inclined to counterfactual-based arguments that the above strict line of reasoning would reject is that our intuitive computation of counterfactuals is not as stringent and does not have the same level of detail.

        But even intuitively, you don’t exist in a counterfactual world where your ancestors generations ago had a profoundly different socio-economic status and would likely have engaged in different reproductive behaviour.

        • anon says:

          Rephrase: do you realize you can justify the Holocaust with this? If you went back in time and killed Hitler, you’d be erasing the descendants of everyone who was affected by the genocide.

        • Randy M says:

          I have to point out that this discussion was in the of the novel Pastwatch. A group of people discovered that they could possibly travel through time and alter the past, and they do so to prevent the spread of slavery in the new world, but before doing so they have to consider (and have a global vote or something similar) that it will mean the death or unmaking of every person currently alive and many who lived in the intervening period.

          In the end they decide to do so due to widespread ecological catastrophe and the discovery that their own timeline was the result of a previous attempt.

        • Ghatanathoah says:


          This brings up the ethics of time travel, which are a bizarre and difficult questions. I think you are assuming that going back in time and stopping the Holocaust is morally equivalent to a person alive at that time managing to stop it. I don’t think it is.

          If you use time travel to stop the Holocaust you may be (depending on how time travel works) be committing an even bigger genocide, because you would be destroying everyone in a timeline that had, in some sense, existed.

          By contrast if someone alive at the time of the Holocaust had stopped they wouldn’t be destroying any preexisting future timelines (and yes, I know “preexisting future timelines” is an oxymoron, but it’s hard to use English to describe time travel).

          There are some circumstances where you could justify time travel. For instance, in “Terminator 2” or “X-Men: Days of Future Past” there are so few people left alive in the future that the amount of people in the present that the time travel saves outweighs the amount of people in the future that it kills. The “Pastwatch” novel Randy M uses as an example is similar, everyone is doomed soon anyway in that timeline. But since the human population tends to grow in most cases time travel will kill more than it saves.

          This is of course assuming rules where time travel changes everything. In a universe with other rules (like Doctor Who) it is possible to make small changes without changing everything, so using time travel to improve things is more justifiable. You won’t erase everything by helping one person.

          If I had been alive in 1940 I would have tried to stop Hitler. However, I’m not sure if I would go back in time to stop him today because I’d be killing billions of people.

          Under normal circumstances, if you are making choices that affect the future, and your choices will result in either one set of descendants who are well off, or another set of descendants who are not as well off, you should definitely pick the better off ones, all things being equal (agreeing on a definition of “better off” is kind of hard though). Neither of those sets of people exist in any sense, so you aren’t harming the less well off ones by not creating them.

          But in the case of time travel the less well off ones “already exist” in some other doomed timeline and you’re murdering them to get a new set of people. This, is, I think, gravely immoral. If some parents killed their disabled child so that they would have enough money to conceive and raise an able child we’d all agree they had done something wrong.

        • Anonymous says:

          Rephrase: do you realize you can justify the Holocaust with this?

          As long as we’re casually mentioning the Holocaust, you do realize that the logic which says: “members of ethnic group A are one average wealthier than members of ethnic group B, and some of that wealth came from immoral exploitation of B by some members of A in the past, therefore B has a moral right to strike back against A to make up for it,” is very close to how the Holocaust was actually justified, historically?

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          But since the human population tends to grow in most cases time travel will kill more than it saves.

          No, because time travel also saves / “creates” (same thing, really) all the people that are born instead – which your logic seems to be neglecting.

          If you save 6 million Jews+others but condemn 6 billion post-WW2 lives to non-existence, that’s only a 1000:1 cost if you also prevent anyone else from being born. But if in both timelines there are 7 billion people in 2014, then from 2014-perspective you’ve killed 7 billion people and saved/replaced them with 7 billion OTHER people. Which … I guess is a net wash? Time travel morality is weird.

      • Troy says:

        I don’t think Ghatanathoah was trying to justify slavery or other historical injustices. I took his point to be that currently existing people were not harmed by those injustices, and so do not deserve reparations.

        This is quite compatible with people in the past being substantially harmed by said injustices, and with their being wrong for that reason.

    • Earnest_Peer says:

      That argument sounds wrong even on face level: If you were harmed by compound interest working against you, that harm doesn’t go away just by pointing out that the source of the harm influenced whether or not you were born.

      Besides, I never really bought the related sorts of arguments:
      “I cannot be in favor of abortion, because if my mother had aborted me I wouldn’t even be here.”
      “Your veil of ignorance is slipping.”
      “Oops, sorry, tee hee.”

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        >If you were harmed by compound interest working against you, that harm doesn’t go away just by pointing out that the source of the harm influenced whether or not you were born.

        That’s irrelevant because morality has no interest in reducing harm. What it has an interest in reducing is uncompensated harm. It’s totally okay to harm someone if harming them will result in good things happening to them that compensate for that harm (of course, the good things have to be good by their standards not yours).

        If compound interest causes you harm, but it also causes a large amount of good things to happen to you that outweigh that harm, then its effect on you was good overall. That means that the only African-Americans alive today that slavery harmed are the ones whose lives are so terrible that they spend the majority of them wishing they were dead.

        >“Your veil of ignorance is slipping.”

        This discussing is not about any sort of pure utilitarianism that uses the Veil of Ignorance. This is a discussion related to nonutilitarian concepts like Just Desserts and Retribution. In these case the identity of the people we are debating is highly important and using a veil of ignorance is not appropriate.

        >Besides, I never really bought the related sorts of arguments:
        “I cannot be in favor of abortion, because if my mother had aborted me I wouldn’t even be here.”

        I don’t buy that argument either, especially since it also makes you against every other form of birth control, including abstinence. When we’re considering moral questions that will affect the personal identity of future generations I think we should just pick whatever population is morally best and not consider the fact that it will result in another population not existing to be a problem.

        Of course, there is serious argument over what makes a population morally best. Is it better to have a small population with high utility or a large one with low utility? Should we try to create a diverse population? Should we make people have human-like values or something else? But that’s another discussion entirely.

        But again, we’re not discussing how to choose a future population through a veil of ignorance. We are discussing questions of justice, reparations, and whether or not any specific person was wronged. And while it is true that our current population is not as “morally good” as a population in a world where slavery had never happened would be, that does not mean any specific person was harmed and deserves reparations for the harm they suffered.

  17. I consider it plausible that racist policies have left whites generally better off than blacks, but are still negative-sum. White are generally somewhat worse off than they would have been, and blacks are generally a lot worse off than they would have been.

    There isn’t a huge pile of white wealth which was gained as a result of slavery, segregation, and unequal government policies, there’s just damage, and most of it was done to black people.

    If true, how would this affect the plausibility of reparations?

    • Randy M says:

      Plausibility it terms of what? Elected officials opting for some kind of reparations policy? (direct cash, rather than AA, anyway) Probably wouldn’t effect it. Ironically, Democratic political power may increase with immigration, but the case–and, I’d wager, support–for reparations decreases as the proportion of society with their own family hardships or successes unrelated to American history increases.

      Has there been studies on immigrants support for Black American reparations?

    • Paul Torek says:

      Re: paragraph 1 – exactly.

      Answer to question: it probably doesn’t, because of what Ghatanathoah said.

  18. naath says:

    I think a big problem with comparing *by state* is that what the American South under slavery had was a very small number of very rich slave-owners, a large number of slaves, and also a large number of very poor non-slave-owning non-slaves (who have to work for very low wages, because the wage-payers could replace them with slaves if they demanded more). Even if all the descendents of all these people are now equally (non-)wealthy it would be a small number of rich people!

    It is perhaps worth remembering that a lot of the money in the slave trade went back to the “old world” – a lot of people in 18th century England made their fortunes on the back of the slave trade, so you’d want to come looking here for rich people rich off the back of slaves. Perhaps the slave-owners of the America South spent all their money on slaves.

    A different thing I read once (which may not be true, and I have no citations) is that slave-run cotton and tobacco plantations were actually very very badly managed and didn’t really make much money at all. The slave-owning classes were able to sustain the *illusion* of being very rich because slaves were cheap which meant “having lots of people keeping your house nice” was cheap.

    • he who posts slowly says:

      A source that argues against your last paragraph is Time on the Cross, which argues that in the right circumstances, such as cotton plantations, actually existing slave labor was more productive per hour of labor.

      Your second paragraph is not quite compatible with your first paragraph: how could slave traders make so much money if slaves were so cheap? I suppose you could reconcile it by saying that slave traders made money selling the good slaves to the Caribbean sugar plantations, and the leftovers were sold cheaply in America. (True, but not that cheap)

  19. Nestor says:

    Old money is not inherited without strings, it’s an entailment that brings responsibilities to the estate, they work more like corporations than families in the conventional sense. It’s no accident the money stays concentrated, this is old social technology that has been perfected millenia ago.

  20. Randy M says:

    “Studies of modern-day lottery winners show much the same, albeit on a much-reduced time scale”

    This seems very important. Why would this be the case? The lesser time scale bit, I mean. Some combination of:
    -Lottery winners today include people who win much more than ~$60,000, so the psychological effects are different
    -Lottery winners today select from a pool of people less math savy, given the difference in the odds
    -The winners of the land lottery back then also tended to lose out in the first generation, but historical records aren’t good enough to discern this
    -our culture is now much less valuing of thrift and investment versus consumption and instant gratification
    -our average population has less of the successful genes, so the average time to regress to mean is much shorter.

    The last two explanations are the worrying ones.

    • Two more explanations: there’s a lot more cool stuff to buy these days. Land is more obviously a valuable capital good than money is.

      • Randy M says:

        I expect that’s true, thinking of things like world travel and Rolls Royce, etc., but I’m ignorant of what the wealthy spent their money on in the 1800’s; perhaps there were less technologically advanced luxury items that nonetheless cost a lot and conveyed high status. Important textiles from China, heirlooms, fine craftmanship, rare art, servants etc.

        But then again, these things are less hedonic–I expect–so perhaps the pull was less even if there were outlets.

        • There were certainly plenty of high-status items back then. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the toys, and possibly the sales methods, have improved since then.

      • Paul Torek says:

        The second explanation is killer. Consider the vast difference in response to opt-in versus opt-out choices. In those cases, the difference is literally just lifting a finger (well, a hand with a pen in it). Selling land is a lot more work.

  21. Patrick says:

    Poor Coates. He writes a long article connecting reparations not with slavery, but with white supremacy and the hundred plus years of post slavery oppression and state sponsored terrorism. And no one notices, anywhere, on any side.

    • Erik says:

      The article opens with “250 years of slavery”, more years than the other items put together, describes a later period as “a second slavery”, uses the word “slave” and conjugates thereof more often than “reparations” and conjugates thereof, and repeatedly argues that America owes much of its wealth to slavery:

      Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves, and upon their backs the economic basis of America—and much of the Atlantic world—was erected. In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. “Whoever says Industrial Revolution,” wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, “says cotton.”

      then ties wealth and slavery into reparations:

      Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

      If Coates truly didn’t mean to mean to connect reparations with slavery, I must say he’s a master of the red herring.

      • Patrick says:

        White supremacy = slavery plus all the other stuff that everyone ignores, even though it’s present from the sub header of the article onward.

        “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

        He’s making the point that talk of systemic racial injustice done for profit, what he terms “plunder,” didn’t end in the mid 1800s.

  22. gattsuru says:

    Okay, so wealth lasts a really long time, and Klein thinks that’s because of compound interest and Clark thinks it’s because of “inescapably inherited social competence” which sounds a lot like a euphemism for genes.

    I’m not sure this follows. Social competence as a unit seems simultaneously far too complex to have developed in only a few thousand generations, prone to rapidly changing ‘correct’ values, and too evolutionary important to only show up only a small portion of the society. There’s good evidence that intelligence has a large genetic factor, true, but there’s a lot of other types of social competence. Adoption and twin studies have shown at least a few traits that are linked to parenting : education seems a far more reasonable explanation than a gene for accounting*. You’re a heavy biological determinist, but even within that paradigm, there’s still matters like lead exposure or early diet or other stuff that’s dependent on the wealth of a parent.

    * Yes, even if accountants don’t quite seem human some days.

    • Earnest_Peer says:

      Does it really sound impossible that humans spent the last 250.000 years or so evolving towards more social skills? Our large brains must have come from somewhere, and as far as I can tell, social skills are the most likely ingredient (c.f. homo hypocritus).

      I for one am not very surprised by the ‘genetic inheriting of money’ that Clark proposes, because that means even beyond our ancestral environment our genes still do exactly what they’re ‘supposed’ to do.

      • gattsuru says:

        I can believe that humans as a species evolved toward more/greater social skills for 250,000 or 2.5 million years. I can’t believe that we’ve spent that long evolving /differently/ from other humans. For starters, you’ve got too many population bottlenecks, as recent as 60,000 years ago (thus, 2-4k generations rather than 12-15 generations), plus other more recent localized events that would promote interbreeding.

        But more fundamentally, until /very/ recently social success was about as big a genetic motivator as it gets without being an actual sexual function. That’s a whole lot of selection pressure, and you have to come up with really complex stories to explain why this gene or group of genes has such a large impact today, yet didn’t provide a major reproductive advantage in the past.

  23. Troy says:

    Another point worth noting is that after you control for IQ, black income is (IIRC) 97% of white income. (Source: The Bell Curve. As far as I know, despite all the controversy over the book, this claim has not been challenged.) As Herrnstein and Murray show in the rest of their book, and as is well documented elsewhere, IQ is an extraordinarily good predictor of life outcomes generally. Parsimony suggests that either IQ (or related traits that IQ is a good predictor for) is a large part of the explanation for the difference between black and white wealth, or that the latter causes the former (or some combination). The latter direction of influence seems less plausible to me — given the resilience of IQ tests, it’s unlikely that, say, getting a worse paid job as an adult would lead you to do worse on IQ tests. If that’s right, one of the most important things we can do to try to improve life outcomes for black Americans is to raise their IQ. The best (non-eugenic) ways to do this will likely involve improving their nutrition, encouraging breastfeeding in the black community, getting rid of lead in the environment, etc.

    A rather more serious problem than low-paying jobs for American blacks, I think, is unemployment. Here both government policies and black culture probably play a contributing role. The black-white unemployment gap was virtually nonexistent until the first minimum wage laws in the 1940s, which effectively priced lower-skilled blacks out of the market. It has more or less steadily increased since then, and has also been compounded by laws disallowing IQ tests and criminal background checks on employees by companies. Both have the effect of making employers use race as a predictor for low IQ and criminal background, whereas if they could run the tests/checks the usefulness of race as such a predictor would be screened off by the tests/checks. (See, for example, this study showing that employers were much more likely to hire African-Americans, especially men, when they ran background checks:,_etal-PerceivedCriminality-oct2006.pdf).

    So I think that there are things that the government can do to make African-Americans better off, but aside from public health improvements they are not embraced by most of those who today claim to be interested in helping the poor.

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  25. Army1987 says:

    If Clark’s view is right, the best we can do is alleviate their suffering by making sure that being poor isn’t an especially unpleasant state and everyone has good access to social services.

    Also, somehow encourage rich people to have more children and poor people to have fewer, so that the next generations will have better “inescapably inherited social competence”.

    (Actually, doing that would also make sense even if Clark’s view was wrong, so let’s just do that already. Problem is, how would we go about achieving that?

  26. CaptainBooshi says:

    I see a fair number of commenters conflating individual genetics with racial genetics, so I though I would note that Clark specifically notes in an interview:

    There is no evidence of any racial differences in average ability in any of the data that I have. If you look at ethnic groups who occur as doctors at more than average frequency within American society, they are mostly non-white—black Africans, black Haitians, Egyptian Copts, Iranian Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, Filipinos. The evidence is that any group can, under the right circumstances, become elite—or become an underclass group in a society.

    He is pretty clearly arguing that genetics have a much larger effect on individuals than they do on populations as a whole.

    On an unrelated note, Scott is quite right in section IV that if this is true, it should have huge implication for social policy, and we need more research like this. For example, in that same interview, he notes that:

    when you look at a society like Sweden, which has undertaken many of these programs for many, many years, you find very little ability to actually change that rate of social mobility very much. In Sweden, however, the disadvantages from being in the bottom 10 percent of the social spectrum have been very significantly reduced compared to the United States.

    and that:

    I think it’s an argument for saying we should limit income inequality, because, also, we don’t think high wages are playing that much of an incentive role in determining what people do with their lives.

    Of course, I have no real hope that conclusively showing something is true will have much of an effect on our actual politics in modern society (just look at climate change!), but it would still be good to know in case that ever changes.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Clark seems to be conflating “whites aren’t the best” with “all races are equivalent”, which strikes me as a sort of implicit white supremacism. Dude seems to be saying “Obviously black Africans can’t have higher ability than white Americans, that would be ridiculous. Clearly it’s all just random.”

      • Multiheaded says:

        I consider myself an anti-racist, but an unqualified “black Africans have higher ability than white Americans” still sounds more implausible than the opposite (ok, sure, this sounds racist as fuck, and probably is, and I’m sick of the whole scientific racism discourse); “all of our cultural expectations are white-supremacist and systemically devalue black Africans’ higher ability at things that used to matter in an African context” might be more realistic.

        I know that some of the scientific racists, like Steve Sailer, at least say that black Americans are cognitively better than whites at some things.

      • peppermint says:

        …or maybe White supremacy is just a universally acknowledged fact, so much so that rubbing it in people’s faces with White privilege is seen as gauche.

      • Doug S. says:

        I’m hesitant to dive into this discussion, but is it possible that being a black African makes you more likely to have musical talent? (Consider the history of music in the U.S.: lots of white people became famous musicians by copying the styles invented by black musicians that were kept down by racism.)

    • Tom Hunt says:

      If some of these demographics which are overrepresented include large proportions of immigrants to the US, that’s a confounding factor; those who are able to immigrate as adults are likely in a high ability cohort as regards their source populations. I seem to recall hearing that black African immigrants to the US do comparatively quite well, better than either native-born blacks or whites. This isn’t incompatible with the race realist hypothesis.

  27. Anthony says:

    Quoting Gregory Clark:

    I think it’s an argument for saying we should limit income inequality, because, also, we don’t think high wages are playing that much of an incentive role in determining what people do with their lives.

    Ordinal versus cardinal. People don’t become doctors or lawyers because they can make $700,000/year, they become doctors or lawyers because they can make more income than 99% of people, whether that level is $700,000 or $200,000. (Modulo past expenses – lowering doctor or lawyer incomes substantially without also lowering the actual debts incurred probably would drive off a lot of future doctors as well as many present ones.)

    This is probably important to discussions of inequality, somehow.

    • Paul Torek says:

      Seems plausible. You’ll get a test of your parenthetical speculation pronto, because lawyers are in deep oversupply in the U.S. right now.

    • peterdjones says:

      Doctors are paid more in the US than just than just about everywhere, which leads to undesupply in other countries due to brain drains. The same would not apply to lawyers,

  28. If you’re really serious to see how money gets passed on across generations, you would look at the direct descendents of slave owners. Of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction wiped out a lot of their wealth. Still, I’d suspect that at least some of those descendents of slave owners are still wealthier than average.

    It’s also important to keep in mind that not all slave owners were wealthy in the first place, as many of them only owned a single slave. To better test this issue, maybe the study would need to focus only on the descendents of the wealthiest of slave owners (i.e., the slave owners who benefited the most from slavery). Also, money has tended to past down to sons and so you’d need to look at those carrying the surnames of the wealthiest slave owners.

    Another factor others also have mentioned is that a focus on states isn’t a very useful way of measuring the long-term gains by slave-owning descendents.

    “But, anyway, if some of slavery alone’s “quadrillions of dollars” (that Klein cites as practically besides the point, questionable as that figure might be) survived elsewhere, for example in the northern US economy which was rather reliant on Southern agriculture, you’d want to account for that.”

    Many wealthy Southerners would have left the South after the devastation of the Civil War and the problems of Reconstruction. They likely went to the North or to the West Coast. Furthermore, many wealthy Northerners invested in or benefited from the Southern slave economy. The two economies were intertwined. The Civil War caused much of the wealth of slave owners to be shifted to the Northern economy.

    The ultimate problem is there is no way to separate the slave factor from every other factor of racial prejudice that has existed for centuries. There are a number of excellent books that look at the data such as When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson, Sundown Towns by James W. Loewen, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, etc.

  29. Thomas M says:

    “While one could make the argument that the gains from slavery left Mississippi and the Deep South to enrich all whites, this seems a bit forced.”

    OK, not all whites were enriched, but the gains from slavery absolutely left Mississippi. The descendants of slave owners are not the rural poor white people of Mississippi. Today’s rural poor are mostly descended from yesterday’s rural poor. Slave owner families left the south to pursue more lucrative industries. Now their descendants live in the wealthiest parts of America. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the gains from slavery were never centered in the South at all– the textile industry was just a part of the American economy, after all. I’d expect most of the prosperity created by racial exploitation in general to end up in, say, New York, no matter how much southerners hated the Yankees.

    To put it another way: if you wanted to investigate how much wealth was being generated using sweatshops in Vietnam, you could get some idea by looking at the demographics of Vietnamese citizens. But a better indicator would be the demographics of upper management at Nike.

    In fact, I’d even assume that this principle generalizes out pretty well. Consider: Detroit and the auto industry or Texas and the oil industry. One might comfortably predict that a hundred years from now these industries will be gone, and the host cities will suffer economic decline. But I can’t really imagine that the future descendants of the current owners of Texaco will be any less wealthy. They’ll just be located somewhere else, with investments in something else.

    • AJD says:

      I’d expect most of the prosperity created by racial exploitation in general to end up in, say, New York, no matter how much southerners hated the Yankees.

      (Anecdotally, note that the mayor of New York during the Civil War was a supporter of the Confederacy.)

  30. taintwhatyoudo says:

    The solution seems simple: reparations in the form of tax cuts for incomes above 250k or so. Should be supported by conservatives; they love tax cuts, and this way none of the money goes to the “thugs” and other “undesirables”. Should be supported by the left – reparations will be a huge progressive victory. Should be supported by the racists – at least the money will go to those with good genes. Should be supported by anti-racists – they and their friends are the ones who will get the money.

    It solves all the practical problems: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? The tax break will last until black people are represented proportionally among the one percenters, or maybe a little overrepresented – gotta make up for the somewhat higher number of black people among the poorest. It will go to whoever earns enough and is willing to call themself black in public. And everyone will pay – people are used to redistribution from the poor to the wealthy by now.

    It works under Coates’s theory, as the additional money to the rich will ensure that they get an even better staring position for the next generation. It works under Clark’s theory – the rich are more likely to have the “inescapably inherited” characteristics, and wealth concentrations among them should persist better. It is a stangely just solution – if the original injustices only were to the benefit of the few, so should the reparations. It may solve all the symptoms and indicators yet none of the actual problems. I wonder why it hasn’t been implemented yet.

    • Multiheaded says:

      What a modest proposal!

      (Although I must admit that even in blatant satire like this, conflating people who think like me with the American liberal elite – Should be supported by the left… …they and their friends are the ones who will get the money feels pretty damn insulting; I’d rather be called a bloodthirsty Stalinist!)

    • Randy M says:

      “It is a stangely just solution – if the original injustices only were to the benefit of the few, so should the reparations”

      That sounds strange because it is not fitting any definition or intuition of justice.

  31. peppermint says:

    Yes! Finally! We absolutely have this responsibility. Catholics know that the four sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance are murder, sodomy, oppressing the poor, and defrauding a working man of his wages.

    And today’s culture is full of subtle ways of oppressing the poor and defrauding a working man of his wages. But it’s all okay, because it also has transfer payments that do not work.

    When we eliminate those transfer payments, we must at the same time switch to a system that does not oppress the poor or defraud a working man of his wages.

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  33. scientism says:

    It’s an issue of values and culture. The Swedish nobility have no doubt continued to pass their values and culture from one generation to the next. Lottery winners only get wealth. Wealth without the right kind of upbringing regresses to mean. Wealth with the right kind of upbringing does not. Immigrants bring traditional values from their home countries. Liberal cultural reforms tend to hurt the poor more, since the elites essentially have their own privately-run bubble of traditional culture (including schools, churches, social clubs, societies, universities, etc). Genetics are also a factor, but there are many more things to consider; it’s not wealth vs. genetics.

    • In addition to wealth and genetics, it probably matters if people are connected in a social network which supports them being wealthy.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      As I said in my other comment, the data is not just lottery winners. Both wealth and poverty regress to the family mean. There is huge variance in a single generation, but it cancels out over many generations. Whether the family trait is due to genes or upbringing, it is not just a matter of being able to hold on to a windfall.

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  35. Mr. Cat says:

    Edit#3’s “but then” is only logical in responding to that assumption if society’s defined on a national or state level, rather than say, a cultural or racial level which might even ignore those boundaries (especially state).

    Now I’m not saying that IS the case, only that the categorical “Well obviously our society is a single society so that clearly didn’t happen” implication is stupid.