Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nature vs. Nurture

Why Rich Parents Don't Matter

by Jonah Lehrer
Wall Street Journal
Janurary 22, 2011

How much do the decisions of parents matter? Most parents believe that even the most mundane acts of parenting—from their choice of day care to their policy on videogames—can profoundly influence the success of their children. Kids are like wet clay, in this view, and we are the sculptors.
Getty Images
As wealth increases, adults play a much smaller role in determining the mental ability of their children.

Yet in tests measuring many traits, from intelligence to self-control, the power of the home environment pales in comparison to the power of genes and peer groups. We may think we're sculptors, but the clay is mostly set.

A new paper suggests that both metaphors can be true. Which one is relevant depends, it turns out, on the economic status of families.

For a paper in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia looked at 750 pairs of American twins who were given a test of mental ability at the age of 10 months and then again at the age of 2. By studying the performance of identical versus fraternal twins, the scientists could tease out the relative importance of factors such as genetics and the home environment. Because the infants came from households across the socioeconomic spectrum, it also was possible to see how wealth influenced test scores.

When it came to the mental ability of 10-month-olds, the home environment was the key variable, across every socioeconomic class. But results for the 2-year-olds were dramatically different. In children from poorer households, the choices of parents still mattered. In fact, the researchers estimated that the home environment accounted for approximately 80% of the individual variance in mental ability among poor 2-year-olds. The effect of genetics was negligible.

The opposite pattern appeared in 2-year-olds from wealthy households. For these kids, genetics primarily determined performance, accounting for nearly 50% of all variation in mental ability. (The scientists made this conclusion based on the fact that identical twins performed much more similarly than fraternal twins.) The home environment was a distant second. For parents, the correlation appears to be clear: As wealth increases, the choices of adults play a much smaller role in determining the mental ability of their children.

Children from wealthy households get all the advantages that money can buy, from music lessons to SAT tutors. Although parents might fret over the details of such advantages—is it better to play the piano or the violin?—these details are mostly insignificant, subject to the law of diminishing returns. As the science blogger Razib Kahn notes, "When you remove the environmental variance, the genetic variance remains."

These results capture the stunning developmental inequalities that set in almost immediately, so that even the mental ability of 2-year-olds can be profoundly affected by the socio-economic status of their parents. As a result, their genetic potential is held back.

Though this latest study doesn't speculate about the causes of these class differences, previous research has focused on a panoply of factors, such as the variety of words directed toward the child (more variety leads to higher test scores), the number of books in the home and even the ratio of encouraging remarks to discouraging warnings. By the age of 3, children from wealthier households hear, on average, about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. The ratio is reversed in households on welfare.

Such statistics have led many researchers to highlight the importance of improving the early-childhood environments of poor children. Economists such as James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, have long advocated for increased investments in preschool education, but this latest study suggests that interventions need to begin even earlier. One possible model is the "Baby College" administered by the Harlem Children's Zone, which seeks to equip brand-new parents with better parenting skills.

Eliminating such inequalities in the early years of life would simply create a new kind of inequality, driven by genetics. But such a world would at least let more children come closer to their mental potential, unconstrained by the mistakes or impoverishment of their parents. The greatest luxury we can give our children, it turns out, is the luxury of being the type of parent that doesn't matter at all.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Jewish superiority

The London Sunday Times

November 5, 2003

Russia: hapless victim in heist of the century

In the convulsive aftermath of perestroika, seven cunning men seized economic power

As it turns out, six out of seven of Russia’s wealthiest and, at least until recently, most powerful oligarchs are Jewish. The six Jewish businessmen most frequently called oligarchs are: Roman Abramovich; Pyotr Aven; Boris Berezovsky; Mikhail Fridman; Vladimir Gusinsky; and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The seventh oligarch, the only “full-blooded ethnic Russian”, is Vladimir Potanin.
The height of their influence was reached in 1996 when the Yeltsin Government hung on the verge of political and financial collapse. Already wealthy, the oligarchs collectively put forth the so-called “loans-for-shares” deal — now notorious, but at the time grudgingly endorsed by Western advisers and Russian economists.
Essentially, the oligarchs offered loans and political support to the Government in exchange for majority shares, at a fraction of their potential market value, in the behemoths of the Russian economy, a half-dozen massive enterprises breathtakingly rich in nickel, gold and oil deposits.
Despite the inevitable rumours, these men did not become billionaires through violence or mafiya tactics. Rather, they became billionaires by playing the game more effectively and ruthlessly than anybody else during Russia’s free-for-all transition to capitalism.
Russia’s incipient corporate economy operated in practically a legal vacuum at the time, with no laws prohibiting insider trading or other forms of self-dealing. “Russia has been looted all right,” says Chrystia Freeland, in Sale of the Century, “but the biggest crimes haven’t been clandestine or violent or even, in the strict legal sense, crimes at all. Russia was robbed in broad daylight, by businessmen who broke no laws, assisted by the West ’s best friends in the Kremlin.”....
Khodorkovsky had an advantage over his fellow Jewish oligarchs: he had served in the Communist Youth League and enjoyed the patronage of senior Soviet-era officials. In the late 1980s, when Khodorkovsky ventured into private business with the establishment of Menatep Bank, he had the support and protection of the communist regime.
After 1990, Khodorkovsky served as economic adviser to the Prime Minister. In the early Nineties, Menatep went on a “mass privatisation shopping spree” in which it bought everything from a titanium-magnesium plant to glass and textile factories to food-processing companies.
In 1996, Khodorkovsky emerged from the loans-for-shares deal as the powerful chairman of Yukos, Russia’s second largest oil company, with $170 billion in oil reserves. In addition to Yukos, Khodorkovsky today controls massive mineral and timber interests. In 2002, Forbes named him the richest man in Russia...
[Update: Putin has turned on the Oligarchs.  Two are in exile and Khodorkovsky after being jailed in 2003 was convicted last month of fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 17 years in prison]
For one reason or another, in Russia’s nearly anarchic transition to a market economy, Jews rose to the top. Long before most Russians, including the country’s leaders, had any understanding of how markets work, the six Jewish oligarchs mastered the game. These men started with next to nothing. They were not particularly sophisticated. They may have been ruthless, but they were plainly smart entrepreneurs.

More on the intellectual superiority of the Chinese

Amy Chua is a hoot. Her WSJ op ed about the superiority of Chinese parenting, a take from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has blogs around the world roaring at a woman who could be so cruel to her children. I was laughing out loud throughout, partly because she clearly was having the time of her life twitting the sensitive helicopter parents who can’t bear the idea that their wonderful child is stressed or criticized in any way whatsoever. I was also laughing because the mother of my first two children was half Thai and all Chinese, and it was all so familiar. The subject heading of the email attaching the Chua article to my elder two daughters was “Bring back memories?” My own archetypal memory is when my eldest daughter, then perhaps eight years old, came home with her first Maryland standardized test scores, showing that she was at the 99th percentile in reading and the 93rd percentile in math. Her mother’s first words—the very first—were “What’s wrong with the math?”
Both children turned out great and love their mother dearly.
To get a little bit serious: large numbers of talented children everywhere would profit from Chua’s approach, and instead are frittering away their gifts—they’re nice kids, not brats, but they are also self-indulgent and inclined to make excuses for themselves. There are also large numbers of children who are not especially talented, but would do a lot better in school if their parents applied the same intense home supplements to their classroom work.
But genes play a big role in whether you can demand that your child get an A in advanced calculus or make first seat in the violin section of the orchestra. With that in mind, let’s contemplate the genes being fed into those Chua children who are doing so well.
Maternal grandfather: EE and computer sciences professor at Berkeley, known as the father of nonlinear circuit theory and cellular neural networks.
Mother: able to get into Harvard (a much better indicator of her IQ than the magna cum laude in economics that she got there); Executive Editor of the Law Review at Harvard Law School.
Father: Summa cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, now a chaired professor at Yale Law School.
Guess what. Amy Chua has really smart kids. They would be really smart if she had put them up for adoption at birth with the squishiest postmodern parents. They would not have turned out exactly the same under their softer tutelage, but they would probably be getting into Harvard and Princeton as well. Similarly, if Amy Chua had adopted two children at birth who turned out to have measured childhood IQs at the 20th percentile, she would have struggled to get them through high school, no matter how fiercely she battled for them.
Accepting both truths—parenting does matter, but genes constrain possibilities—seems peculiarly hard for some parents and almost every policy maker to accept.