Saturday, 9 June 2012

The New IQ Elite
Have you come across “OES syndrome”? The letters stand for Overeducated Elitist Snob, and if you don’t know what that means let me draw your attention to the front benches of the House of Commons.
OES syndrome is an American term, coined by the US political scientist Charles Murray to describe the clustering of wealth, power and – crucially – intelligence at one end of the social spectrum. Murray’s new book Coming Apart: The State of White America is not as controversial as The Bell Curve, the 1994 volume in which he and Richard Herrnstein compared race and IQ. But its conclusions are every bit as alarming.
A hundred years ago, says Murray, most Americans in the top five per cent of cognitive ability had ordinary occupations. They were very clever shopkeepers, farmers, housewives and factory workers. But they didn’t somersault over their peers.
One reason is that they couldn’t marry very smart people. High intelligence was scattered evenly across America, so a gifted farm worker might have to travel 100 miles before he met a woman as bright as he was. Instead, he married an ordinary local girl, and their children, regressing to the mean, were only slightly cleverer than their schoolfriends.
The explosion of college education changed that. Universities plucked bright kids out of their home towns like a tornado and suddenly they found that they weren’t in Kansas any more. Young people hooked up with equally intelligent partners and passed on two sets of smart genes.
This mobility opened up Ivy League universities to competition from ultra-bright candidates. The old-money aristocracy at Harvard, Yale and Princeton shrank, but the average IQ at those universities soared – and with it the earning potential of alumni. The newly elite students married each other and the result, says Murray, is a hard core of Overeducated Elitist Snobs.
Members of this supercharged class don’t just separate themselves from the poor: they’re quarantined from “everybody who isn’t as rich and well educated as they are”. They also produce clever, rich children by marrying brains and money (which go together these days).
Remind you of anybody? We may tease David Cameron and George Osborne for being “toffs”, but they’re more than that. Although both inherited money, they’re also furiously ambitious academic snobs of the type Murray describes. In their meritocracy, the purpose of a superior brain is to amass money and power. Intellectual curiosity isn’t encouraged lest it jeopardise that project. Hence the anomaly of a prime minister with a brilliant First from Oxford who has never uttered a truly original thought in public.
Let’s not kid ourselves that the elitism of this Oxbridge-educated Coalition will disappear when it loses power. Labour has its own OES syndrome; so do politicians and business leaders from Palo Alto to Beijing. Free market capitalism forces the brightest people to the top. That may sound like good news, but it also creates an association between intelligence and living standards that, in the long run, will condemn stupid people to poverty.
The new marriage patterns do as much harm as good. Once bright people are taken out of the local gene pool, what does that leave? Our natural reaction is to say: “Let’s not go there.” But we really have no choice, because global capitalism is creating a cognitive hierarchy in front of our eyes – and, with it, inequalities just as cruel as the ones we thought we had abolished.
This is much the same argument as I use to assert that the UK was the first nation to become genetically stratified. It happened first because we initiated the Industrial Revolution which brought the bulk of the population from the countryside to towns and cities and opened opportunities for untapped talent outside the landed aristocracy. People marry people similar to themselves; this is called assortative mating.
Genetic stratification is not a caste system. The reason being the regression toward the mean mentioned in the blog. This is a simple and inevitable consequence of characteristics being transmitted as discrete units: genes. Its effect is that on average offspring are less extremely removed from the overall population mean of a characteristic with a metric such as that of height or IQ than their parents. For example, the offspring of the bright tend to be less bright and those of the tall shorter and vice versa in both cases.
The "on average" mentioned above allows for potential variation among offspring such that they may become more extreme than the mean value of a characteristic of their parents. Thus, even the dimmest will produce some offspring closer to the population mean intelligence and a small proportion may greatly exceed this. Of course as nature and nurture influence the expression of a characteristic the offspring of the dimmest may lack much contribution from nurture and social intervention may be required to unlock talent.
The upshot is that a genetically stratified society must be understood as dynamic rather than static. The dynamic upwards and downwards is closer to glacial growth than a fast running stream but it has immense consequences.
This reasoning supports the notion that we should move toward a true meritocracy rather than the lip service currently made. Upward and downward movement should not be partially locked as at present. Keeping talent down is both wasteful and stores up trouble from intelligent people inn the lower social strata: it is those who will become criminal gang leaders or militant trade unionists. Not allowing those of less talent than expected in their class to drift downwards is equally bad. It means that resources, especially inherited wealth, are sequestered away from those who would use them better.
So in order to further meritocracy opportunity must be unlocked. This entails radical overhaul of the education system and the introduction of inheritance tax that is no longer effectively optional for the wealthy.
Meritocracy should not be construed as dog eat dog in a scramble for wealth. I am not advocating the crass "American Dream". Meritocracy is much more than opportunity to amass wealth according to ability. What it is to do with is encouraging each individual to work hard to develop such talent as he has so that he may find a niche that gives satisfaction whether in workaday life or in the pursuit of family interests and hobbies. Some of the most talented will be drawn to entrepreneurship, others to the learned professions and academe in expectation of a comfortable lifestyle rather than wealth but with the challenge and satisfaction of following their profession most important.
The bottom of the talent pile should be considered too. There is no reason why those performing relatively menial tasks should not be instilled with pride in doing what they do well. There is no reason why they should not be valued and seen to be. Part of that value is reflected through wages. Whilst income differentials are inevitable in a society that values freedom to make one's own way and act as an incentive for achievement the grossly disparate distribution at present is indicative of market-capitalism having been permitted to enter a pathological state whereby opportunity is monopolised by the few; it must be released.
What has gone very wrong is that the rat race to wealth, reflected now in the "bonus culture", is regarded as somehow noble, that gross disparities in wealth are as inevitable as winter and that it is every man for himself, may the devil take the hindmost. Those resisting change to the status quo are displaying a selfish short sightedness that is ultimately to their detriment. The words society and community have become ill-defined, misused and sometimes derided. A society is more than the sum of individuals battling for their own interests. There is interdependence that even the most wealthy have to rely on. Some of this is enshrined in our laws.
Feelings of fair play arise spontaneously in childhood. When it is perceived to be absent historical precedent shows that nasty consequences can afflict even the most entrenched elites if they don't give grouind. They should bear in mind that so-called property rights are no such thing. They appear on no tablet of stone (not even "thou shalt not steal" is a prescription for how economic wealth should be divided up in the first place) . They are societally defined. Property ownership is in general a good that most people recognise. Yet that should not lead to unquestioning acceptance of present assumptions on how generated wealth should be shared among those who labour and those who can't labour or about how much should be inherited by those who didn't earn it.
The days of the OESs are numbered.
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