A long time ago I wrote a kinda-tongue-in-cheek defense of keeping modafinil – a relatively safe and effective stimulant – illegal. My argument was that if everybody can use stimulants to work harder and sleep less without side effects, then people who work very hard and don’t sleep will become the new norm. All the economic gains produced will go into bidding wars over positional goods, and people will end up about as happy – and with about as much stuff – as they have right now. Except the workday would be sixteen hours, the few people who can’t tolerate the stimulants will be at a profound disadvantage, and when the side effects reveal themselves twenty years down the line, everyone is too financially invested in the system to stop.
In other words, in a sufficiently screwed-up system, doubling everyone’s productivity is a net loss. The gains get eaten up by proportional increases in the prices of positional goods, and you’re left with nothing except complete dependence on a shaky advantage that could disappear at any time.
I don’t know how serious I was. But Elizabeth Warren makes almost the exact same argument in The Two-Income Trap, and I’m pretty sure she’s very serious. At least, she used it as a platform that got her elected to the US Senate, which is a kind of serious.
So on the advice of Alyssa Vance, I decided to take a look.
Warren’s not talking about stimulants. She’s talking about the effect of an extra family income – usually moving from a system where the husband works outside the house and the wife stays at home, to a system where both parents work outside the house. Like a stimulant that removes the need for sleep, this can be expected to double economic productivity and family income.
In practice it doesn’t, because wives usually earn less than their husbands, but it comes pretty close. The average family income in the 1970s was around $40,000. The average family income in the 2000s was around $70,000 (all numbers in the book and in this post can be considered already adjusted for inflation). The husband’s income didn’t change much during this time, so the gain was due mostly to the wife getting an extra $30,000.
If families now have twice the income of families in the 1970s – who themselves were usually pretty financially secure and happy – then people should be really secure and rich now, right? But Warren meticulously collects statistics showing that the opposite is true. Home foreclosures have more than tripled in the past generation —
[Sorry, I feel at this point I should mention that my edition of the book was published in 2004, so all of these statistics about how awful home foreclosures are and everything are before the housing bubble burst and before the Great Recession. All of these statistics were when we were supposedly in a boom economy. You can assume that now they’re much, much worse.]
— Sorry, where were we? Oh right. Home foreclosures have tripled in the last generation. Car repossessions doubled in the five years before the book was published. Bankruptcies have approximately quintupled since 1980. Over the same period, credit card debt has gone from 4% of income to 12%, and average savings have gone from 10% of income to negative.
Seventy percent of Americans say they have so much debt burden that “it is making their home lives unhappy”. In 2004, for the first time, “get out of debt” passed “lose weight” for Most Popular New Years Resolution.
So, Warren argues, the common-sense conclusion that a modern family making $70,000 is nearly twice as well-off as a traditional family making $40,000 clearly doesn’t hold. Why not?
One thing that finally got me writing this up was a post on Bleeding Heart Libertarians which, like all posts on Bleeding Heart Libertarians and in accordance with the philosophy of the same name, was about how although libertarianism is commonly thought of as a heartless philosophy it can actually be reconciled with the care/harm-based ethic of deep compassion for the weak and needy.
Wait, sorry, actually it was about how we should cancel Social Security and let old people starve to death on the streets:
The baby boomers spent their entire lives buying new cars they didn’t need, buying houses that were too big, taking extra vacations, splurging on eating out, and the like. They enjoyed a higher standard of living than they could really afford. Why? Because they figured that when they retired, they could just use their voting power to force younger generations to pay for their retirement. These selfish narcissists pretty much want to steal as much as they can from their children. So, while I, Jasper, and my good twin brother Jason put tens of thousands of dollars into index funds each year, thereby forgoing fancier cars, vacations, and the like, the selfish, narcissistic baby boomers laugh gleefully, knowing that they’ll find a way to eat our nest eggs.
Jason is of course a sensitive soul and feels bad for these boomers. Not me. I say let them die. They knew what they were doing, and they spent their entire adult lives making the wrong choice over and over and over again. Does starving on the streets seem too inhumane? No problem. You’ve read Logan’s Run, right? Good idea, but wrong age limit.
This claim is pretty common. If true, it would explain the phenomenon cited above – that even with twice as much money, the Boomer generation is much less financially stable than their parents’ generation. But in Chapter 2 of Two-Income Trap, “The Over-Consumption Myth”, Warren tears it apart.
The Boomers “spent their entire lives buying new cars they didn’t need”? Warren, page 47:
When we analyzed unpublished data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we found that the average amount a family of four spends per car is twenty percent less than it was a generation ago. [Families spend $4000 more on automobiles in general, but instead of luxuries they are spending it on] something a bit more prosaic – a second car. Once an unheard-of luxury, a second car has become a necessity. With Mom in the workforce, that second car became the only means for running errands, earning a second income, and getting by in the far-flung suburbs.
In other words, it sounds like a family with two working parents requires two cars as a sound money-making strategy, but that Boomers compensate by spending less per car than past generations.
The Boomers “splurge on eating out”? Warren again:
Today’s family of four is actually spending 22 percent less on food (at home and restaurant eating combined) than its counterpart of a generation ago.
The Boomers “buy houses that are too big?” Warren:
The size and amenities of the average middle-class family home have increased only modestly. The median owner-occupied home grew from 5.7 rooms in 1975 in to 6.1 rooms in the late 1990s – an increase of only half a room in more than two decades…the data showed that most often that extra room was a second bathroom or third bedroom.
The BHL article doesn’t mention appliances, but in case you were worried, moderns spend 44% less on appliances than their parents’ generation, which is partly compensated for by a 23% increase in home entertainment (probably things like DVD players). Warren says that:
This same balancing act holds true in other areas. The average family spends more on airline travel than it did a generation ago, but less on dry cleaning. More on telephone services, but less on tobacco. More on pets, but less on carpets. And when we add it all up, increases in one category are offset by decreases in another. In other words, there seems to be about as much frivolous spending today as there was a generation ago…Sure, there are some families who buy too much stuff, but there is no evidence of any epidemic in overspending – certainly nothing that could explain a 255% increase in the foreclosure rate, a 430% increase in the bankruptcy rolls, and a 570% increase in credit card debt. A growing number of families are in terrible financial trouble, but no matter how many times the accusation is hurled, Prada and HBO are not the reason.
Curiouser and curiouser. Today’s families earn twice as much, spend the same amount on luxuries, yet are much less financially secure.
So as to not keep anyone in suspense: the problem is nice suburban houses in good school districts.
Around a vague period of time centering on the 1970s, a couple of things happened.
First, the cities became viewed, rightly or wrongly, as terribly unsafe ghettos full of drugs and gangs and violence. As far as I can tell, this is a pretty accurate description of the 70s, although things have gotten a little better since then. Families didn’t want their children living in terribly unsafe ghettos full of drugs and gangs and violence, so they moved to the suburbs. Warren gives the testimony of a suburban mother:
We were close to The Corner and I was scared for my sons. I didn’t want them to grow up there. I wanted something away from this neighborhood to get my boys out to better schools and a safer place. The first night in [my new] house, I just walked around in the dark and was so grateful…at this house, it was so nice and quiet. My sons could go outdoors and they didn’t need to be afraid. I thought that if I could do this for them, get them to a better place, what a wonderful gift to give my boys. I mean, this place was three thousand times better. It is safe with a huge front yard and a backyard and a driveway. It is wonderful. I had wanted this my whole life.
Second, education started to be really, really important. As Warren puts it:
A generation or so ago, Americans were more likely to believe that there were many avenues for a young person to make his way into the middle class, including paths that didn’t require a degree. I recall my parents encouraging me to attend college, since my grades were high and they hoped I might become a teacher one day. But they were equally pleased when my eldest brother joined the Air Force, my middle brother entered a skilled trade, and my youngest brother became a pilot – even though all three of the boys had given up on college. My parents’ views were pretty typical a generation or two ago. Education was valued, but no one in our neighborhood would have claimed it was the single most important determinant of a young person’s success.
Warren is a Harvard professor. Think about that for a second. How many Harvard-professor-producing-type families can you think of today who are also happy with three of their children getting non-college-degree jobs? As Warren puts it in what might be my favorite passage from the whole book:
97% of Americans agree a college degree is “absolutely necessary” or “helpful” compared with a scant 3% claiming that a degree is “not that important”. According to one recent poll, 6% of our fellow citizens believe the Apollo moon landings were faked. In other words, Americans are twice as likely to believe that man never walked on the moon as they are to believe that a college degree doesn’t matter!
Certain school districts are known to be vastly superior to other school districts in terms of test scores, college admissions, et cetera. Usually these are school districts inhabited by rich people with very high property taxes and therefore very high levels of per-pupil spending in schools – although we’ll get back to that eventually.
These school districts are positional goods. Not everyone can be in the best school district. Only the people willing to spend the most money on their houses can be in the best school district. But rightly or wrongly, people believe that being in the best school district is vital for their children to succeed and become Harvard professors, as opposed to gang members or drug addicts or menial laborers. As Warren puts it, good education is the ticket to the middle class. And being in the lower class is too horrible to contemplate.
People want the best for their children . They’re not going to say “Well, we aren’t as rich as those other people, so we should probably live in a crappy school district with other people of our approximate wealth level”. They’re going to leave no stone unturned. And there are two big stones available for modern middle-class families: working-motherhood and debt.
If your family earns $70,000 and the other family earns $40,000, you have $30,000 extra to convince the banks to give you a really big mortgage so you can buy a much nicer house and get your kid into Oak Willow River View Hills Elementary, while their kid has to go to City Public School #431 and get beaten up by scary gang members every recess.
On the other hand, this is everybody’s cunning plan, so what you end up with is all houses costing a lot more, everyone working two jobs without any extra money, everyone burdened with massive debt, and everyone living exactly where they would have anyway.
Warren lists some points in support of her hypothesis:
A study conducted in Fresno found that, for similar homes, school quality was the most important determinant of neighborhood prices – more important than racial composition of the neighborhood, commuter distance, crime rate, or proximity to a hazardous waste site. A study in suburban Boston showed the impact of school boundary lines. Two homes located less than half a mile apart and similar in nearly every aspect will command significantly different prices if they are in different elementary school zones. Schools that scored just 5% better on fourth-grade math and reading tests added a premium of nearly $4,000 to nearby homes, even though these homes were virtually the same in terms of neighborhood character, school spending, racial composition, tax burden, and crime rate.
A lot of the causal claims here are very complicated and iffy at best, but here are two numbers that cuts through a lot of the debate: between 1984 and 2001, the median home value of the average childless couple increased 26%; the median home value of the average couple with children shot up 78%. So families are spending a lot more on houses nowadays and the disparity seems to be heavily concentrated in families with children. Combine that with the observation that houses only have 0.4 more rooms today, and you get a pretty good argument that families with children are competing much more intensely on house location.
When Warren does a very unofficial Fermi-estimate style breakdown of what is happening to the extra $30,000 that modern two-income families earn over traditional one-income families, she thinks they are paying about $4,000 more on their house, $4,000 more on child care, $3,000 more on a second car, $1,000 more on health insurance, $5,000 more on education (preschool + college), and $13,000 more on taxes.
The taxes are not a result of higher tax rates nowadays, just a result of the family making more money and so having to give more money – plus maybe being in a higher tax bracket. The health insurance isn’t surprising either to anyone who’s been paying attention. And the $4,000 extra on the house is a big part of what she’s been talking about the whole time.
The $4,000 on child care, $3,000 on the extra car, and $13,000 on taxes are the results of the second income. Mom needs a car to get to work, the children need care now that Mom’s not home to look after them, and not only does Mom get taxed but Dad may move into a higher bracket. That means that of the $30,000 Mom takes home, $20,000 gets spent on costs relating to Mom having a job – meaning that Mom’s $30,000 job only brings in $10,000 in extra money.
The $5,000 on education is a bit more complicated. In Warren’s example family, it’s spent on preschool. She points out how a generation ago, practically no one went to preschool, whereas nowadays it is viewed as another one of those important legs up (“If little Madison doesn’t get into the best preschool, she’ll never be able to make it into the science magnet school, which means she’ll be unprepared for high school, which means Harvard goes out the window”). Warren points out that today two-thirds of American children attend preschool, compared to four percent in the mid-1960s. Once again, parents are told if they want the best for their kids they need to compete for good preschools:
The laws of supply and demand take hold, eliminating the pressure for preschool programs to keep prices low. A full-day program in a preschool offered by the Chicago public school district costs $6,500 a year – more than the cost of a year’s tuition at the University of Illinois. High? Yes, but that hasn’t deterred parents. At one Chicago public school, there are ninety-five kids on a waiting list for twenty slots.
It’s a little bit sleight-of-hand-y to put that in the family budget as Warren does – preschool only takes up two years of a child’s life, for a total of four years per two-child family. But I forgive her because college expenses are higher and also need to be budgeted for. Also, she’s saying her $4,000 child care estimate is for one child, which means that once the second child is out of preschool she’ll need to be in child care as well, for an insignificant price drop.
So I think Warren partially supports her points. The second income goes partially to increased house costs due to bidding wars, partially to increased education costs due to bidding wars, and partially to supporting the ability to have a second income. In her (admittedly slightly cooked) model, the family’s discretionary income – what it has left to spend on variable expenses like food and luxury goods – actually decreased from the 1970s one-income family to the present, $17,834 to $17,045.
In my essay on stimulants, I suggested that the benefits of the stimulants would be wasted on positional goods, leaving only the side effects. In the same way, Warren says the benefits of the second income are lost, but the side effects remain.
The most important side effect she talks about is the loss of flexibility.
One nice thing about having a non-working mother is that she can, on relatively short notice, become a working mother. This is especially true in the Old Economy where even people without much college education could get okay jobs.
In the old model, financially healthy families subsisted on one income, and financially unhealthy families put the mother to work to get back on their feet. The most common disasters were the husband getting fired or a family member becoming sick. If the husband got fired, then even if he could get a job relatively soon afterwards it might be at lower pay until he could work himself back up the totem pole. Suppose he loses his $40,000 a year job and can only find a $30,000 a year job. Luckily, as we already established a wife’s second income can contribute $10,000 to the family. So she goes to work, they have as much money as they did before, and they are able to pay off their debts and continue to have a good quality of life.
Even if the wife doesn’t go back to work, having a flexible person with lots of free time is a huge benefit. If Grandma gets very sick, the wife has a lot of time available to take care of her – whereas now, if Grandma gets sick, either one parent has to quit their job to take care of her (meaning that standard of living goes way down and the family is at risk of not being able to pay debts it took out when their prospects looked much higher) or Grandma gets sent to a nursing home, which is very expensive and also risks unpaid debts or loss of standard of living.
Last of all, it means that getting a nice suburban home is more important than ever. If in the old days children spent most of their time with their mothers, it might be possible for the mother to pass down important values like education and hard work to her children. When mothers have very limited time with their kids, schools and peer groups take over a lot of the socialization role. For example, a mother with a very young son might talk to him, read to him, take him to childrens’ museums, et cetera, providing the crucial intellectual stimulation that children need at an early age to develop their full brainpower. If the mother works full-time, then it becomes really imperative to get the son into preschool to make sure he’s not just sitting around staring at a wall and losing brain cells. If the mother isn’t around much when the child is ten, it becomes a lot more important to be certain he’s in a good elementary school that’s teaching him the right values. If you can’t watch your kid to make sure he’s not doing drugs, it’s more important his school be drug-free. And so on. I don’t know to what degree any of these social psychological hypotheses are true, but the important thing is that people think they are and so the competition for nice neighborhoods and nice schools intensifies.
The last loss of flexibility Warren talks about is divorce. Something like a third of couples with children can expect to get divorced. Consider a scenario where a working single mother gets the house and custody over the children. If the house took two incomes to afford, she’s not going to be able to afford to keep her house. Suggestions that the father be forced to pay more child support don’t work – unless he pays 100% of his earnings to her, she’s not going to have as much money as the couple did when they bought the house – and they deliberately spent every cent they could on the mortgage because if they didn’t they would be outcompeted by people who did and their kids would end up in gritty urban school districts and never get into Harvard.
So Warren says that the reason so many families go bankrupt or get into debt is because the extra income doesn’t make a difference, but the loss of flexibility does. Everything has been sunk into the home for risk of getting outcompeted. And that means when someone loses their job – and Warren calculates that in a two-income family, this will happen to one parent or the other about once every sixteen years on average – or costs go up even a little, there is no buffer room and the only solution is to go deeper into debt. That just adds another unpayable cost – interest – and means the whole thing can only end in bankruptcy.
In another of my favorite passages, Warren notes that if the myth of over-consumption was true – if the guy in Bleeding Heart Libertarians were exactly right – there would be no problem. In fact, she encourages families to overconsume as the road to financial health. She says families should save, but if they can’t save, that should spend their money on restaurants, vacations, jewelery – anything but large fixed-income monthly costs like houses, cars, schools, et cetera. That way, when something goes wrong, they can easily just stop taking the vacations and be back to financial health. It’s only when money is trapped in mortgage payments that can’t be gotten rid of that things can get as bad as they are.
There’s a chapter on debt. It’s really cute. She’s all like “Did you know there are things called subprime mortgages? And that some people think banks might give them out too easily? I sure hope this doesn’t do something bad to happen.”
I am pretty sure no modern reader needs this chapter, but it sure increases her credibility.
Oh, right, I’m supposed to have an opinion.
Let’s start with the negatives. I don’t think she does a great job of proving her housing-school-positional-goods theory. When she talks about school district effects on housing prices, she comes up with numbers like “a 5% difference on test scores add $4,000 to housing costs.” Okay. That means, assuming linearity, that a 50% difference on test scores – which is way more than we could possibly expect schools to produce – would only add $40,000 to house costs. When house prices for the middle class are routinely around $200,000 to $300,000, that’s just not enough to be causing the destruction of the American family.
The whole area is really hard to research. Suppose Neighborhood A has lots of minorities, low house prices, and bad schools. Neighborhood B has few minorities, high house prices, and good schools.
You can tell a story where Neighborhood B’s good schools raise land value, which prevents crime and pushes out minorities. Or you could tell a story where Neighborhood B’s high land values push out minorities and increase property taxes which improve the schools. Or you can tell a story where Neighborhood A’s many minorities cause racist homebuyers to stay out, depressing land values, and also minorities tend to have worse school performance. Except in real life there are like twenty factors like this rather than three. Although lots of different studies try to control for confounders, that’s always hard and requires a lot of assumptions that might not necessarily be true.
There’s another problem, which is that the usual measure of school quality – standardized test scores – is not necessarily the one families are going to be looking at. Suppose only a few very smart people know where to look for standardized test scores. Maybe everyone else tries to guess at how good schools are. Maybe those people assume that schools with higher percent minorities are worse. Maybe they assume that schools in prettier neighborhoods with higher land values are better. In that case, studies could find all they wanted that test scores don’t correlate with home prices, because what’s actually happening is that high home prices are causing belief in school superiority which is causing higher home prices.
But a bigger problem here is that the average family only spends $4,000/year more on housing than they did a generation ago. Warren can talk all she likes about how that forces families to adopt a second job, but it’s really not a very big share of what the second job’s meager extra income is being spent on. The average husband earns $3000 more at his own job nowadays, which means that it would be possible in theory for him to soak up pretty much all of the extra housing cost. To say the wife gets a $30,000 extra job just to soak up $1,000 in extra mortgage money seems like a stretch, even though Warren does a good job of pointing out how many extra burdens this places on people. But when you add positional education costs to the mix – preschool and college – it becomes a little more believable.
I guess it’s just hard making the numbers add up. Suppose you have two kids, but they’re not in preschool – or that you’re indifferent to preschooling your kids versus having the mother take care of them. Then the costs of the mother getting her $30,000 job are $24,000 – $13,000 in extra taxes, $8,000 in child care, and $3,000 in a second car. Are mothers really so desperate they’ll work full-time for the extra $6,000? Doesn’t this whole model break down once the mother gets a raise and starts making $40,000?
How about the good?
The good is that Warren backs all her points up with excellent statistics, is very good at explaining complicated economic things, and has exactly the right level of contempt for everyone in politics.
Her view on politics is very very close to my heart. My impression is that she thinks of it as noise. It’s not good, it’s not evil, it’s something that you have to adjust for. Like, “Well, this would be a good policy but we could never pass it because the Left would throw a fit, this other thing is a good policy but we could never pass it because the Right would throw a fit, but I’m pretty sure this third thing would also help and not get anybody too enraged.” For example:
The politics that surrounded women’s collective decision to migrate into the workforce are a study in misdirection. On the left, the women’s movement was battling for equal pay and equal opportunity, and any suggestion that the family might be better off with Mother at home was discounted as reactionary chauvinism. On the right, conservative commentators accused working mothers of everything from child abandonment to defying the laws of nature. The atmosphere was far too charged for any rational assessment of the financial consequences of sending both spouses into the workforce. The massive miscalculation ensued because both sides of the political spectrum discounted the financial value of the stay-at-home mother. There was no room in either worldview for the capable, resourceful mother who might spend her days devoted to the roles of wife and mother but who could, if necessary, dive headlong into the workforce to support her family. No one saw the stay-at-home mom as the family’s safety net.
(in case you’re wondering, she doesn’t recommend women leaving the workforce. She says families where both parents want to work should keep one of the two incomes in reserve by either saving it or spending it on non-fixed luxury items. She admits that this is unfair because they will have problems getting into the best school districts, but says it is the safest solution until the wider societal problems are fixed.)
As a result of her disdain for established partisan groups, she manages to totally transcend politics. I noticed that when the Bleeding Heart Libertarians article got up on Xenosystems, one commenter protested:
The accusations of excess are no doubt sound but I always pause when someone mentions the housing excess of the boomer generation. They bought giant houses in suburbia, but how much of that was due to the lack of civilization in the city limits? If there was a sane enforcement of laws and no public schools or at least public schools where you didn’t fear for the safety of your children would they have bought so many giant houses?
In other words, the commentariat of one of the larger reactionary blogs is more or less on the same page as the Democratic Senator being pushed by the liberal wing of her party to run for President.
Her proposed solutions are also all over the map. Yes, she pushes for taxpayer-funded universal preschool, which should make liberals pretty happy. But she also pushes for school vouchers, which she hopes will decouple school quality from housing prices and let people live wherever they want and still be able to get an acceptable education for their children. She even has a states’ right style solution to one problem – she points out that banks used to be kept under control very well by state laws until the Supreme Court legalized free interstate commerce between banks which means all of them moved to the states with the fewest regulations and could not be kept under any control at all. In order to rein in banks again, all we need is for Congress or the courts to grant those powers back to the states.
And I will say one more thing in Senator Warren’s favor. She often suggests non-free-market solutions, like regulating something or banning something or proposing the government spend money on something. Every time she does this, she says very clearly something like “I understand the free-market arguments against this, and why in general we would want to use the market to take care of these sorts of problems, but this is a case where there is a likely market failure because of reasons X, Y, and Z. I recognize there is a burden of proof on someone saying something is a market failure, so I will now proceed to meet that burden of proof with a lot of statistics.”
People talk about dogmatic libertarians, but honestly this is all I ever wanted from anybody. Just an “oh, by the way, I have reasons for what I’m saying and they’re not just coming from a total failure to have ever grasped freshman economics.” I know it seems unfair to make people say it explicitly each time. But given the overwhelming number of people who say these things exactly because they never grasped freshman economics, it’s welcome a breath of fresh air.
I am sure if Warren ends up running for President, we will end up getting those ads where someone repeats “MOST LIBERAL SENATOR OF ALL TIME” on a black-and-white background, followed by saucy rumors that she once had a fling with Karl Marx.
But I for one intend not to believe them.
But aside from doing some legal work to solve the bankruptcy crisis, we need some science work as well. The question is: are good school districts really that important?
I can’t find great research on this at the school district level. The closest I can find is the teacher value-added research, which finds things like “At age 28, a 1 SD increase in teacher quality in a single grade raises annual earnings by about 1% on average”. I can’t find good data on how this adds up – for example, do twelve great teachers in a row increase earnings 12% (linear addition)? Do you need one great teacher to inspire you for life, and after that it doesn’t matter whether or not you have more (ie sublinear addition_? Or can multiple great teachers build on one another’s successes by not having to constantly go back and review things the students should’ve learned before (superlinear addition)?
I don’t think it matters, because it doesn’t look like there are very big value-added score differences between teachers at rich and poor schools.
What about district-level issues like superintendents? According to the Brookings Institute report, difference in school district competency explained only 1.1% of variance in student test scores. Difference in schools explained another 1.7%. Teachers explained 6.7%. The remaining 90.4% was explained by demographic factors (class, race, parent’s education level) and individual variation among students.
Teachers are kind of a crapshoot – as we saw before, going to a better school district doesn’t increase your chances of getting a good one much. So the sorts of things you can easily affect by choosing what school district to live in are 2.8% of your kid’s total variation.
The research on preschool is so complicated it would take ten posts of this size to get through it. It seems strongly beneficial for low-income children and of controversial benefit for higher-income children. I will try to route around the controversy like so: home-schooled children do much better on every measure of academic achievement than school-schooled children. Preschool is basically teaching kids to share and playing fun games with them. If the alternative to sending your kid to preschool is that they stay home with you and you teach them to share and play fun games with them, you are home-preschooling your child and can expect them to do much better than school-preschooled children. And if the reason there’s no parent at home with the child is that both parents need to work in order to earn enough money to send the kids to a good preschool…well, that’s just a little bit circular.
So I think that in addition to various legal and policy changes, there needs to be more of a scientific effort to confirm (or disconfirm) these suspicions and, if they turn out to be true, publicize them to a society that clearly believes the opposite.
I know that talking about genetics and IQ too much makes people mad. And a lot of people have asked me – why do we have to do this? It’s going to offend a lot of people, and give a lot of unsavory people a lot of ammunition, so even if we shouldn’t ban research entirely, why not exercise the virtue of silence and let the whole thing stay in a few obscure journals?
And one of many answers to this is – suppose you see some school districts in rich neighborhoods, and all of the children in those schools can do calculus and read James Joyce and get great high-paying jobs. And next door is another school district, in a poor neighborhood, serving poor kids, and those kids are struggling.
If you’re not intimately familiar with behavioral genetics and IQ research, it is obvious that the rich-person school is much better and that’s why all the children of the rich people are doing so much better. And you will do anything, make any sacrifice, to get your kid into that rich person school, and so you work a back-breaking job and gamble your family’s financial security, all because you want your kid to have the same opportunities those rich kids do.
If you are intimately familiar with behavioral genetics and IQ research, a separate possible explanation leaps to mind: the rich people made their money by things like going to college, which means they probably have higher cognitive ability on average than the poor people, and cognitive ability is 50% genetic so they pass that on to their kids, and so it’s no surprise at all to see the rich person school having smarter students. That doesn’t prove that if your child switches from the poor person school to the rich person school, she will switch from average-poor-school-outcomes to average-rich-school-outcomes, and it doesn’t even provide any evidence whatsoever that it will make her do even a smidgeon better. So maybe you should, like, not sacrifice your life for it.
I’m not saying the behavioral-genetics-informed view is correct here. That’s going to require a lot more research. But I’m saying if you at least agree it’s something we’re allowed to talk about, maybe it will pan out and do nice things like save you from the horrible zero-sum competition destroying your country’s middle class.
Because if it could be confirmed that preschool attendance and expensive school districts had low impact – or even a merely moderate amount of impact – on success for middle- to high- income children, then even in the absence of legal changes that would relax the pressure on everyone to spend more money than they have to get into the best preschools and best school districts.
Overall I recommend this book. I think the conclusion comes on a little too strong but that it sheds a lot of light on a lot of trends and throws important statistics at you such that you read them. Equally importantly, it sheds a lot of light – in a positive way! – on somebody who’s becoming an important national figure. The chapter about her meeting with Hillary Clinton and the subsequent break between the two of them seems likely to take on a lot more meaning in the years ahead.
What I really want is Elizabeth Warren vs. Rand Paul 2016. Imagine a Presidential race when both candidates have very different but very consistent philosophies, and you’d be pretty proud to see your country run by either. Wouldn’t that be a change?