Oxfam report on rich bastards


The New York Times ran a story on Oxfam’s “warning about deepening global inequality”. It seems that 80 rich bastards have $1.9 trillion, “nearly the same amount shared by the 3.5 billion people who occupy the bottom half of the world’s income scale.”

Could this be right? The most valuable capital on the planet is human capital–the ability of people to produce stuff. The gross world product (GWP) is currently at about $75 trillion in nominal dollars (assuming that is also the unit for the $1.9 trillion). So if these 80 rich people wanted to be generous they could fund a 10-day vacation for everyone on the planet who is currently working. Ergo they are certainly rich but aren’t 3.5 billion people way richer if you factor in their ability to produce stuff?

Can Paris recover its association with casual romance?


The attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket were a lot more like Team America than the usual Air France poster. In working on the Indiana chapter for our book on family law nationwide we encountered the old image of Paris:

Can the mother [of the child of a casual encounter] wait until the child is 19 and then file a lawsuit for child support retroactive to the birth? “She can actually wait until the child is two years past 19,” said [our interviewee]. He sent us a case that his partner handled, In the Matter of the Paternity of A.J.R., 702 N.E. 2nd 355 (1998). As in some other states, much regarding money flows between unmarried parents is not public. This appeals court case uses initials to refer to the litigants. The mother was a 33-year-old graduate student and the father was a 23-year-old undergrad who “engaged in sexual intercourse with each other during their [1983] stay in Paris.” [emphasis added] The father went to graduate school (with no taxable income) and then worked as a research fellow at low wages while the mother became a professor at the University of Minnesota. Just as the father was completing his professional training, in 1995, the mother began pressing the father for support for the 11-year-old girl. The girl was 14 when the trial court finally ordered to pay $6,760 per year in child support going forward plus $21,710 in retroactive support (starting two years prior to the mother’s filing of the lawsuit). The father was also ordered to pay for the mother’s “prenatal, delivery, and post delivery medical services,” plus interest going back to 1983. The mother had been on sabbatical in West Africa just after starting her lawsuit and the father was ordered to pay for her trip back to England for blood testing. The father was finally ordered to pay for 100 percent of the mother’s legal fees. The total amount of the order would have been roughly $100,000 in 2015 dollars.

The appeals court trimmed back some of the mother’s gains at trial, noting that the father had only recently begun earning a professor’s salary at the time of the lawsuit and therefore it was unfair to use that salary for calculating retroactive support. The appeals court also noted that the mother should pay her own legal fees because she earned slightly more than the father, had been working at a professor’s salary for 10 additional years, and did not have two additional children at home to support as did the father.

Our take-away from the appellate case: Don’t drink too much Champagne when you’re in Paris! And child support is retroactive to two years before a case is filed. [Unlike some other states where a mother can wait until a child is an adult and still collect full child support back to the child's birth (actually more than full since judicial interest tends to be a higher rate than market interest) from a father who had been unaware of the child's existence.]

Of course, the academics-turned-litigants came back to reality after they got back home from Paris but presumably they enjoyed a romantic time when visiting.

What do readers think? Is Paris’s image as a place for a romantic weekend seriously damaged by the recent shootings?

Why was AirAsia climbing at 6000 feet per minute?


Friends have been emailing to ask why AirAsia 8501 was climbing at 6000 feet minute (BBC News) before crashing. The transport minister said “No passenger or fighter jet would attempt to climb so fast.” What is missing from these articles is that an American thunderstorm can generate updrafts of 4000 to 5000 feet per minute (see this meteorologist’s presentation to an FAA group). A tropical thunderstorm has even more energy and could presumably generate the full 6000′ climb rate even without any pilot action. Of course, it is also possible that the pilots were trying to out-climb the cloud and the rate of climb was a combination of updraft and pilot action. This is suggested by the subhead: “climbed too fast before stalling.” An aerodynamic stall occurs when a pilot pulls the nose up too high relative to the airstream in an attempt to climb, thus creating an “angle of attack” greater than about 16 degrees. This is what happened to Air France 447 (note that the pilots in that incident could have saved the airplane during the first minute or so simply by pushing the stick forward).

You might ask has anything like this ever happened to me? The answer is “sort of”. I once departed Teterboro, New Jersey, which is in some of the world’s busiest airspace and therefore a place in which ATC instructions need to be followed precisely to avoid the risk of collision. I was flying a Cirrus SR20, which doesn’t have the onboard weather radar of a jet. There were some scattered cells of rain in the area and ATC vectored me directly into one. Soon the Cirrus was climbing at 2000 feet per minute, despite having cruise power and pitch angle selected. I pulled the power back and pushed the nose down for a 1500 fpm descent, concentrating on keeping the wings level in the turbulence and the airspeed moderate so as to keep the stress on the airframe low (going fast in turbulence can cause things to bend or crack). The result was a net 500 fpm climb and I told ATC that I was unable to maintain my assigned altitude. Eventually the plane came out the other side and we were never at risk, but it was a sobering reminder that while the pilot has near-complete control of aircraft attitude that is not the same thing as having complete control of the aircraft’s position in the sky. Note that this was in the winter during an unusually warm spell and none of the clouds would have qualified as a true thunderstorm. The AirAsia pilots had a much more capable airplane but also much more challenging and violent weather.

Do a web search for “thunderstorm updraft airplane” and you’ll find a lot of sobering articles on the subject.


What would Martin Luther King, Jr. do for us today?


Brian Corr, the director of the City of Cambridge’s Peace Commission, ran an MLK Day Commemoration and Remembrance at an Episcopal Church here today.

2015-01-19 11.37.54

It was a great opportunity to reflect on how our world might have been different if Dr. King had lived (he would be turning 86 this year).

A number of people got up to quote Dr. King’s statements against militarism and the Vietnam War, against which he officially spoke out starting in 1967. King was, of course, right about this being a tragic mistake for our nation but the war was an important opportunity for many black individuals, e.g., Colin Powell. Might King have gained enough followers by 2002 so that he could have kept us from embarking on the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters?

The single quote reproduced in the program was one that Thomas Piketty would have loved:

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

The speakers augmented this with Dr. King’s statements about a more planned economy, such as

There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum–and livable–income for every American family.

Note that King was basically advocating for a Finland-style school system in which only top students could become teachers. I wonder what he would have made of our current situation, i.e., where we pay higher-than-Finnish salaries to teachers but mostly get teachers who had undistinguished careers as students. Note further than Martin Luther King, Jr. was in agreement with Milton Friedman regarding the idea of a guaranteed minimum income to replace the patchwork of minimum wage and welfare programs.

Another popular King quote was from 1964:

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.

Dr. King was thus implicitly backing Barack Obama’s new program to fund community college costs 100 percent with tax dollars. I wonder if King could have anticipated, however, how comfortable sitting at home on the sofa would become 50 years later. He seems to have imagined that able-bodied Americans would work for their three meals a day. He does not seem to have been envisioning a 60″ flat-screen TV hooked up to Verizon FiOS and an Xbox, funded by SSDI, TANF, free public housing, food stamps, etc., with a trip the hospital following a gaming-induced repetitive strain injury paid for by Medicaid. King talked about how he didn’t want more money spent on the military than on social programs. He got his wish, but not because the military was cut back!

Keith Harvey, the director of the Northeast region of the American Friends Service Committee, gave the keynote speech (he’s in the foreground of the above photo). Think television is useless and rots the brain? He says that it changed the “hearts and minds” of Americans regarding racism. He talked about his parents’ work with Dr. King, especially on the issue of “fair housing.” The idea was that blacks would move into the suburbs and live like whites. “We would show neighbors that blacks worked, had stable families, and mowed the lawn,” Harvey said, “thus fighting stereotypes.” I wonder if Dr. King could have foreseen that his vision of blacks behaving like whites would be flipped around starting in the 1970s with no-fault divorce. The long-term answer turned out to be whites living like the negative stereotype of blacks: a single mother cashing welfare and/or child support checks (kidscount.org).

Is King relevant to our times? I think the answer to the question is a guaranteed “yes” for today and for the next few hundred years. One reason is that King advocated for peace and the existence of war is a hard problem to solve, as Andrew Carnegie discovered. Another reason is that King advocated for more economic equality and, like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their 2012 debates, a planned economy. Nobody seems to have solve the problem of how to make a planned economy grow as fast as a market economy, however, and politicians need the tax revenues that only a market economy can yield. (Social Security, Medicare, and public employee pensions, for example could not be funded with a U.S. economy that grew like the Soviet economy.) So Americans will keep turning to Martin Luther King, Jr. for inspiration and ideas.

If only he had lived to adapt and update his philosophy…

How were the Romans able to defeat Cleopatra?


I’ve finished reading Cleopatra: A Life and am more confused than ever about one thing… How were the Romans able to defeat Cleopatra? She was the owner of the richest land in the ancient world and the only one that generated a surplus of food. Therefore tax revenues made her one of the richest people in the Roman world. It seems plausible that the Romans could conquer territories in which disunited tribes squabbled amongst themselves, but how could they win against someone with a central government and a stronger tax base? It can’t be that the Romans had military tactics unknown to Cleopatra; she was allied with Mark Antony, an experienced Roman general. Why couldn’t Cleopatra just maintain a big army and stay home in Egypt waiting for Romans to arrive in their small-by-modern-standards ships, then kill or capture each shipload of soldiers? Or, if the Romans were going to land in present-day Haifa, Israel and walk to Egypt, why not use the massive labor resources available to dig some trenches? Was there some huge advantage for offensive troops back then? In an age without aircraft or large ships it is hard to understand intuitively how Rome could project its power so far away and so effectively against another well-governed empire.

Nerds: What do we tell MITers about cloud hosting of RDBMS?


If you don’t wear your phone on your belt you can probably stop reading right here…

We’re trying to give our students at MIT (and anyone else who wants to join, Jan 26-28) a little real-world talk about hosting an RDBMS in our modern virtualized, cloud-based, containerized world. Here’s an outline so far and comments/real-world experience would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

High-performance Hosting of RDBMS in a virtualized and containerized world

Traditional hosting: One computer, enough RAM to hold all data regularly accessed, lots of separate physical disk drives, e.g., one for the table, a different one for each index on the table, one for the logs, etc. Thus an update that involves multiple disk writes can be done in the time consumed by single disk seek and write. Downside: Moving to bigger computer means exporting data, importing (could take a weekend or longer) or using more DBMS admin skills.

Virtual hosting: This is what you’re doing right now. The virtual machine (VM) has one “disk”, which on my desktop computer right now is C:\cygwin\home\Philip\VirtualBox VMs\three-day-rdbms_default_1421369255990_87357.vmdk (4.4 GB file). Downside: slow; Upside: easy to move to bigger computer. (How slow? VMware did a study with, presumably, the best-tuned virtual machine ever to run Oracle, and found that Oracle RDBMS throughput dropped about 20 percent compared to native hardware. More typical is a friend’s ecommerce site where the VM was configured to use a maximum of 16 GB of RAM and installed by itself on a computer with 32 GB of RAM.)

Virtual hosting, real-world server: in a high-load installation the VM could have multiple files assigned, each of which was on a separate physical hard drive, would then look like a separate disk to the VM. Could even give the VM actual physical disks, but then moving to a new computer isn’t so straightforward (what if the new machine has a different number of disks?)

Idiot-proof yet modern and hip: Amazon RDS! Pick a size, a type of storage (disk or flash memory (SSD)), and an RDBMS, then let Amazon keep it all running, upgraded, backed up, etc. Amazon can also set up the system for automatic failover to a hot standby system that has been reading the transaction logs of the production server. Amazon currently supports MySQL, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, Postgres, and … Aurora (November 2014 innovation from Amazon, a “drop-in replacement for MySQL”). Note that Google has a competitive service, though limited to MySQL.

Modern, hip, and like an Asian martial arts weapon (i.e., you are more likely to hurt yourself than an opponent): Containerization (see docker.com). Instead of running MySQL as an operating system process (“Traditional hosting”) or in a virtual machine that is larded up with a full copy of Unix you run MySQL in a “container” that is easy to move from one computer to another but smaller and faster to start up than a VM. What about storage? If you’re a true containerization believer then MySQL can use a separate “storage container” when it wants to write to a hard drive. How does this work out when people try it? We did a quick Google search and found “When I run the benchmark on the native machine, I get 779.5 transactions per second. When I run the benchmark in a mysql container, I get 336 transactions/second.”

The Son Also Rises: Policy Implications


What could policymakers do to apply the results of The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility? (see my previous posting regarding this book for context)

Countries that accept immigrants could adjust their criteria, including “point systems”, to include factors that the author, Professor Gregory Clark, says are likely to make people and their descendants successful. Instead of simply asking about the education of the potential immigrant, for example, priority for immigration might include the education of the potential immigrant’s parents, grandparents, and other relatives (especially important here in the U.S. because those members of the extended family are often entitled to immigrate here as well).

Countries anxious to have a lot of future high-bracket taxpayers could encourage “high status” and “socially competent” parents to have more children. What would that look like? In terms of financial incentives, pretty much the opposite of the current U.S. system. For example, the IRS reduces your taxable income by $3,950 for each child. But under the “Phaseout of exemptions,” this benefit begins to disappear when a single person’s income is $254,200. Why not have the child exemption be a percentage of income so that it is significant even for high-income parents? As a starting point, since in theory each state has already calculated the cost of rearing children for its child support guidelines (federal law requires that “economic data” be used to create these and they’re supposed to reflect actual spending by parents on children), a married couple with two children could deduct the child support amount that the children would generate if one parent were to sue the other in their state of residence.

A lot of “high status” and “socially competent” women have important jobs these days and don’t want to take time off work to be pregnant, give birth, care for children, etc. The government could clean up some of the laws and regulations around surrogacy so that it was easier and cheaper to hire a surrogate (see this posting for how the woman who carries the baby gets paid less than the paper shufflers). The government could also expand the number of agencies that can bring in au pairs so that au pairs were cheaper (right now just a handful of agencies are selected by the U.S. government and they earn monopoly-style profits). If the expanded tax exemption system above is not implemented, the government could make payments to a nanny or au pair fully tax-deductible, thereby taxing working parents only on the profit that they make from work rather than the revenue.

A lot of “high status” and “socially competent” people are abandoning the suburbs due to traffic congestion (previous posting). Even if they have a high income to go with their high status, the cost of rearing multiple children in the city may be unaffordable due to the cost per square foot of real estate and the need for private school. These people might have more children if either (a) congestion pricing were implemented so that it was possible to live in the suburbs and commute, or (b) schools in the city were improved to the point where high-status parents wanted to send their kids there. (I put forward some ideas for improving schools in my Economic Recovery Plan document.)

What do readers who’ve read Clark’s book think? What other policies would change if we were to put these results to use?

The Son Also Rises: Tips for Optimizing Your Life


Unlike most books on Big Picture economics, which might be interesting to the average person but useful only to legislators and central bankers, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility has important life lessons for most people.

As noted in my previous posting regarding this book, Clark says that we middle-aged folks shouldn’t infer too much from the age at which our parents die. If they die young we shouldn’t spend like drug dealers and save only enough for a burial plot. If they are healthy 90-somethings we shouldn’t be saving intensively because we can in fact plan to live only three additional years beyond our conditional-only-on-our-own-age life expectancy.

What about parenting? I ran into a friend the other day at Trader Joe’s. She and her husband live in Cambridge and send their kids to an elite private elementary school so that they won’t end up in Massachusetts’s most expensively funded public school system (in which I was a volunteer tutor, an experience that I describe as “I taught third grade math… to 11th graders”). Another parent at the school asked her if she was taking the children to after-school math and music programs. She replied that she was just letting them play at home with the golden retrievers and the other parent said “So you’ve given up on them getting into Ivy League colleges.” The Son Also Rises would have been useful in this situation, with a complete chapter on “Escaping Downward Mobility.” Here are some excerpts:

For a long period, from at least 1880 to 1980, the rich and socially successful sharply limited their fertility. Their fewer children would thus each inherit more parental assets and gain a larger share of parental time and resources, than the abundant children of the poor. Yet despite a willingness to spend big in terms of time and treasure, we know that the law of social mobility exercised an inexorable pull , drawing families toward the mean.

There is strong persistence of status, but those at the top of the social hierarchy in societies such as the United Kingdom , the United States, and Sweden will inevitably see their children, on average, move down. Further, the rate of regression downward to the mean is the same for the upper echelons of society, despite their considerable investments in their children, as is the rate of upward mobility for the lower echelons, even the ones who don’t bother to turn up for the PTA meetings.

The empirical evidence that middle- and upper-class parents can significantly boost their children’s human capital and economic outcomes through expenditure on children is weak, …

This is all consistent with the idea that once parental inputs to children reach a certain basic level, which does not include Baby Einstein toys, playing Mozart to babies in the womb, or sending them to the Dalton School, parents can do nothing to improve outcomes for children. Beyond this point, social outcomes are potentially all in the genes, determined at the point of conception … [emphasis added]

In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Caplan points out correctly that upper-class parents pointlessly invest too much time in the rearing of their children. In his view, genetics is what matters, so you might as well have more children, invest less in each, and enjoy being a parent more.

Or she could have just rammed the other mom with her SUV…

Should you try to work extra hard to make more money because it will help your children? Clark cites the studies of adopted children whose future income was not influenced by parental income (i.e., growing up in a McMansion because your parents enjoyed sufficient cashflow does not make you more likely to have enough income to afford a McMansion). Clark also looks at a study of the children of winners of an 1832 land lottery in the state of Georgia. Each parcel of land was worth as much as the median wealth in Georgia circa 1850, equivalent to roughly $150,000 today. How did the children of the winners do?

They were no more literate than the children of losers. Their occupational status was no higher. Their own children in 1880 (the grandchildren of the 1832 winners) were again no more literate. Worse, they were significantly less likely to be enrolled in school than the grandchildren of the losers. … Wealth is not statistically higher for lottery winners’ children…

Clark also reviews a study of Cherokee Indians who, starting in 1998, received substantial boosts to their income from casino profits. For children who had not been living in poverty, “there was no measurable change in any educational outcomes, including high school graduation rates…” This was despite the fact that a child who graduated high school would immediately become eligible for his or her own $4,000-per-year payment.

The same chapter in The Son Also Rises summarizes a study of a Norwegian county that became wealthier as a result of an oil boom compared to other Norwegian children: “The income gains in Rogaland had no effect on the years of education achieved by children there.”

[Note that the these studies may explain an apparent paradox that we uncovered in interviewing divorce litigators nationwide. They told us that the more child support that a child was yielding for a plaintiff, the worse the child turned out as a young adult. Due to the never-final nature of custody and child support litigation, attorneys inadvertently followed children longitudinally to age 18 or 23, depending on the state. None of the children were in poverty because at least one parent had enough income to be worth suing. Children in jurisdictions where the maximum child support obtainable was reasonably close to the cost of adding a child to a home (about $4300 per year, according to UCLA prof Bill Comanor) did better than children in jurisdictions where the winner parent could live very comfortably off the child. Example maxima for a single child are $4,000 per year (Sweden), $8,000 per year (Denmark), $13,000 per year (Nevada), $20-25,000 per year (Minnesota, Texas, North Dakota), $71,000 per year (Utah), $infinity (California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin). Foreign readers: in the U.S. there is no requirement or expectation that child support dollars received by a parent be spent on the child; since the early 1990s by federal law the child of a one-night encounter will yield the same revenue as a child of a marriage.]

What if you’re not married yet? Backed up with a lot of charts and data Clark says the same thing that an Indian or Chinese grandmother would say: “look at the whole family”. Did you just meet someone who is smart and successful? Clark gives you the green light if their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, et al., are also smart and successful. If the relatives are “low status,” however, the person you just met likely was simply lucky and your mutual children cannot count on that luck. Here’s a more thorough explanation:

Is there anything that this book can say to people who want the best possible income, wealth, education, and health outcomes for their children? The one scientific contribution we can make is to point out that with the appropriate choice of mates, a family can avoid downward mobility forever. The chapters above emphasize that one of the things that slows social mobility is the assortative nature of marriage. People in all societies tend to marry others of similar social status.

But no matter how assortative mating may become, downward mobility will continue. For downward mobility is driven by the fact that people typically select mates who resemble them on the basis of observed social characteristics— their achieved education, income, occupational status, wealth, height, weight, and health. 8 This is their social phenotype, the sum of their observed characteristics. However, as we have seen above, we can usefully think of individuals as also having a social genotype, or underlying social status.  Their social genotype produces the observed phenotype, but with random components in each dimension. This means that the people currently occupying the upper tails of the distribution of education, wealth, and occupational prestige tend to include disproportionately the lucky, the ones who benefited from happy accidents. Systematically, at the top, the phenotype is better than the genotype. Symmetrically, concentrated at the bottom are people who have experienced bad luck and unhappy accidents. There, the social genotype is much better than the observed phenotype. The curse of the elite is that they are surrounded by imposters, possibly including themselves , and thus the marriage market for the upper classes is full of prospects likely to underperform as carriers of a lineage. In contrast, the bottom of the marriage market is full of potential overperformers. Bad luck dominates, rather than bad social genotypes. So outcomes for the next generation tend to be better.

If the way to produce children of the highest possible social phenotype is to find a partner of the highest possible social genotype, the path is clear for those whose aim in life is to produce the highest-achieving progeny possible. To discover the likely underlying social genotype of your potential partner, you need to observe not just their characteristics but also the characteristics of all their relatives. What is the social phenotype of their siblings and their parents? And what is the observed status of their grandparents and cousins? The point here is not that any of these relatives will contribute anything directly to the social and economic success of your child. As far as can be observed, they will not. But the social status of the relatives indicates the likely underlying social status of your potential mate. This social genotype, rather than the observed social phenotype, is what your children will inherit. …

a recent study in Japan examined the effects of the educational attainment of grandparents, aunts, and uncles on both sides of a family on children’s probability of going to university. Controlling for the parents’ education, there was a positive correlation between the education level of all four sets of relatives and the child’s probability of attending university.

Clark, writing from Davis, California rather than Los Angeles or San Francisco, did not reflect on the fact that marriage is not a prerequisite for reproduction, that seeking a mate via marriage is genetically irrational, and that, in most U.S. states, having children in a stable marriage is economically irrational. As explained below, a higher status mate can typically be found for a one-night encounter than for a marriage and, holding the number of children constant, state law makes tapping the income of multiple reproductive partners more lucrative than tapping the income of just one.

Here’s an excerpt from our own book:

“Women who want to make money from the system aren’t getting married anymore,” said one lawyer. “The key is recognizing that it is a lot easier to rent a rich guy for one night, especially if he has had a few drinks, than it is to get a rich guy to agree to marriage.” Another disadvantage of marriage, from a plaintiff’s perspective, is that it prevents what attorneys call “forum shopping.” A plaintiff who is married in Texas is stuck with Texas law and $20,000 per year in child support for a single child. A plaintiff who isn’t married and who has a good understanding of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) may be able to sue a Texas defendant under California, Massachusetts, New York, or Wisconsin law and collect millions of dollars. [A factor for jurisdiction under UIFSA is "the nonresident engaged in sexual intercourse in the state and 'the child may have been conceived by that act of intercourse'," which can make a weekend trip to Boston or Los Angeles pay substantial long-term dividends.]

Suppose that a woman is one of the “people who want the best possible income, wealth, education, and health outcomes for their children” about whom Clark writes. What the attorney above says regarding “rich guy” would apply equally to “high status man from family with high social competence.” Clark talks about “the assortative nature of marriage” in which a high-status man would only be willing to marry a high status woman. But the attorneys interviewed say that these assortative rules don’t apply to brief encounters. Here’s a Massachusetts attorney quoted in our book:

“There are a lot of women collecting child support from more than one man,” Nissenbaum noted. “I remember one enterprising young lady who worked as a waitress at Boston’s Logan airport.  She targeted three airline pilots, had a child by each of them, and back then [1980s] was collecting $25,000 in tax-free child support from each pilot.”

Informed by Clark’s book, a young woman today could get a job in or near a hospital and, after making what seemed like small talk regarding family background (“Are your parents also doctors?”; “What do your grandparents do back in the old country?”), identify fathers for her future children. Nearly every state makes it more profitable to have children with multiple co-parents, so she will want to have just one child with each man. For example, at the top of the Massachusetts guidelines, which cover up to $250,000 in parental income, four children with one father would yield $58,188 (tax-free; more than the median household income for the state) for a 23-year period while four children with four different fathers would yield $160,576 per year in tax-free revenue (plus health insurance, day care, and other direct expenses of the child), roughly equivalent to earning $250,000 per year pre-tax. Using this method instead of marrying a high-school sweetheart of average status, the mother would have a superior genetic endowment for her children. Without working, she would have more spending power than any of the defendant fathers yet without investing time or money in college. [Why more spending power? She'll have the same after-tax income as each father, but she herself is not being tapped for child support by anyone.] Her household income will be comfortably in excess of what The Son Also Rises says is sufficient to create an environment that enables children to flourish as adults.

[If the mother were to find high-status fathers earning more than $250,000 per year, we found that judges in Middlesex County at least would tend to extrapolate beyond the guidelines and, in the words of Judge Maureen Monks, "Maybe there is no limit" (prior to awarding a plaintiff $94,000 per year in child support for a single child; see "Women in Science"). So if this young lady were to reside in Cambridge and target medical specialists she could easily find herself with a tax-free income of over $400,000 per year.]

Attorneys also pointed out that when seeking child support profits via a brief encounter, their plaintiff clients don’t limit the search to men who are currently single. Having a child with a married man may be more lucrative than having a child with a single man. Why? When child support is discretionary, e.g., in higher-income cases, a plaintiff can ask for 100 percent of a married defendant’s income on the grounds that the defendant’s wife can support him and any marital children while he supports the plaintiff and her out-of-wedlock child. Attorneys also told us about larger-than-guidelines cash transfers that they negotiated in exchange for keeping an extramarital encounter, and the resulting child, out of the public record.

Does anyone actually target physicians? An Arkansas litigator described some of his work with medical professionals: “When I see young doctors working with attractive nurses I think that’s just like hunting in a baited field.”

Note that despite the gender-neutral nature of the laws in most states, the above optimal strategies for producing high-status offspring (and living comfortably without working) are not available to men in the U.S. Women are able to decide whether or not to carry a baby to term. Attorneys in every state except Alaska, Arizona, and Delaware (where 50/50 custody is the norm and a high-income mother would have exposure to paying the father) told us that a woman would be able to retain primary custody, and therefore the associated child support cash flow, of a child born out of wedlock.

One objection to this method of producing high-status offspring is that children of separated parents in the U.S. tend to be psychologically damaged compared to children reared in a two-parent home. However, a comprehensive Swedish study by Malin Bergstrom suggests that the damage comes not from separation but from the American system of selecting a “primary parent” and relegating the other (secondary) parent to an every-other-weekend role.  Children in Sweden who grew up in a 50/50 timeshare arrangement with separated parents were almost as healthy and happy as children in intact families. What’s the value of having high-status offspring if they aren’t happy or healthy? The necessary tweak to the above strategy is the mother persuading the fathers to take care of the children 50 percent of the time. By Massachusetts formula, as long as she doesn’t herself work, her child support revenue will not be reduced in this event. What’s the incentive for the fathers to cooperate? They must take care of the children at least 33 percent of the time or be exposed to the judge ordering them to pay more than the guideline formula amount. If they already have allocated a room in their house to the child for 33 percent of the time the extra cost of hosting the child half the time is minimal. So as long as the fathers have at least some interest in the long-term welfare of the children (email them Bergstrom’s study!) they should be agreeable to this.

What if you reject the insights of this book and decide to wing it?

But the law of mobility tells us that the rags-to-riches path is the anomaly and the exception. The elite of any generation typically come from families only modestly less elite. On average, the fabulously rich and the extravagantly talented are the offspring of the moderately rich and moderately talented. The truly poor and completely talentless are the children of the modestly poor and somewhat untalented.

Not news: Protest shuts down Interstate 93 in Boston


A group of protesters shut down Interstate 93 in Boston yesterday (New England Cable News) by chaining themselves to 1200-lb. barrels filled with concrete. This was right in the middle of the morning rush hour and yet many local friends were unaware of the multi-hour traffic stoppage.

From this we can conclude that a massive traffic jam preventing people in Eastern Massachusetts from getting to work is so common that it is not newsworthy!

The theme of the protest was “Black Lives Matter,” which, again judging by the lack of news coverage and public awareness of the event, is not true for the average Bostonian. And it also seems to be an uncommon belief nationally, to judge from the coverage of the global jihad last week. A variety of people around the world died in the name of Islam. The white Christians at Charlie Hebdo received a lot of press coverage. The Parisian Jews who died in the immediate aftermath received about 1/1000th as much ink. The black Nigerian victims of Boko Haram received about 1/1000th as much ink as did the Parisian Jews (perhaps less, if adjusted for body count).

Separately, if highway shutdowns become more common I wonder when the government will start investigating to what extent the helicopter industry is funding the protesters. Certainly yesterday was a great advertisement for Boston Medflight (background: Guidestar says that this non-profit org has roughly $25 million in annual revenue and that Suzanne Wedel, the CEO, is paid about $250,000 per year), though this story says that the weather at the time was not conducive to flying.


The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications


The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility get my vote for the most important economics book of the 21st Century (supplanting A Farewell to Alms, by the same author).

Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, Davis, shows that social mobility is much slower than we’ve been led to believe. Our focus on the correlation between parent income and child income misses a lot of other important stuff. Making $300,000 per year as a doctor is not the same as making $300,000 per year selling subprime mortgages. What might lead one to want to look carefully?

… the twenty-seven adult great-great grandchildren of Charles Darwin , born on average nearly 150 years after Darwin, are still a surprisingly distinguished cohort. Eleven are notable enough to have Wikipedia pages, or the like, such as Times obituaries , devoted to them. They include six university professors, four authors, a painter, three medical doctors, a well-known conservationist, and a film director (now also an organic farmer).

Instead of working from readily available data, a trap into which most academics fall, Clark figured out that dusty old registers of who was a doctor, who was a university student, who was a member of parliament, etc. could be used to track the success of families over centuries. To what extent does your great-grandfather being a physician predict your likelihood of being a physician? To a surprising extent in stable class-stratified England. How about in the United States, land of personal reinvention? To roughly the same extent. How about in Sweden, where every conceivable government program to reduce inequality has been implemented? To roughly the same extent.

On the flip-side, what if your extended family has had a history of low educational attainment, low income, and low social status? Chances are so will you. If by a combination of hard work and luck you’ve managed to achieve much more than your ancestors, unless you are able to mate with a person from a historically high-status family, your children are statistically likely to be more like your parents, aunts, and uncles than they are to be like you.

Every family will eventually regress to the mean, but it may take hundreds of years, not the handful of generations that the correlation between parent income and child income would suggest.

As you can see from some of the Amazon reviews, Clark upsets a lot of American readers by suggesting a genetic basis for “social competence”. This is not news in Asian cultures, however, as far as I know. “The family is more important than the individual,” is common advice given in India when a son or daughter is reaching the age of marriage. Where the Indians and Chinese have millennia of experience, though, Clark has data to back up his conclusions.

But some groups within a society resist regression to the mean, you might object. There are some groups that are persistently successful or persistent unsuccessful. Clark correlates this tendency to have higher correlation from generation to generation with lower rates of intermarriage (“marital endogamy”). Coptic Christians, for example, were a disproportionately high status group following the Arab conquest of Egypt. The low-status Coptics couldn’t afford to pay the higher tax rates on non-Muslims so they converted to Islam. According to Clark, Copts have maintained their high status within Egypt for nearly 1400 years and tend to occupy high-status occupations even here in the U.S., e.g., they are 13 times more likely to be medical doctors than average (compare to 4-5X for Jews and Asians).

Perhaps the hardest section for a parent to accept is that the home environment created by the parent is more or less irrelevant to a child’s success. Clark cites the most important studies on the correlation between adopted children and their adoptive parents. There is virtually no correlation for intelligence, income, the tendency to attend four years of college, etc. These things are highly correlated, of course, for the typical parent and child but the studies suggest that is only because the typical parent and child have genetics in common. As a parent and a teacher I find it almost impossible to accept these research results and the logical conclusions that follow. At a minimum, if an average child were adopted by Tiger Mom (my review of that book; a blog posting on the NYT review), wouldn’t the resulting adult end up with the useful skill of being able to play the piano or violin? And this video makes me think that my work as a helicopter instructor has not been in vain.

Clark’s book came out at roughly the same time as the English-language version of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. Thus I think that it is accidental that The Son Also Risesprovides probably the best refutation of Piketty’s thesis:

The lineage of Charles Darwin is a nice illustration of how large the families of the middle and upper classes could be in preindustrial England. He descended from a line of successful and prosperous forebears. His great-grandfather Robert Darwin (1682– 1754) produced seven children, all of whom survived to adulthood. His grandfather Erasmus (1731– 1802) produced fifteen children (born to two wives and two mistresses), twelve of whom survived to adulthood. His father, Robert Waring (1766 –1848), produced six children, all of whom survived to adulthood.

In a social environment where all these children had to be privately educated, dowries needed to be provided for daughters, and estates were divided among children at death, human-capital theory would predict that the heedless fecundity of the English social elites of these years would lead to rapid downward social mobility . The lower classes of preindustrial society, producing only modestly more than two surviving children per family on average, would be able to concentrate resources on the care and education of their offspring and see them rise rapidly on the social ladder. …

But we see no signs that social mobility rates in England slowed as the upper -class groups produced fewer children. Instead, as chapter 5 shows, the intergenerational correlation of status remained constant for education and wealth. By implication, human-capital effects on social mobility must be modest. Status is strongly inherited within families mainly through genetic or cultural transmission, or both.

We can simplify this by considering the case of a rich family with 20 children and a rich family with 1 child. If Piketty is right the rich family that has just 1 child should have substantially wealthier descendants than the equivalently rich family with 20 children. The data show instead that those 20 children were able to become wealthy on their own account almost as easily as the only child who inherited everything. (Clark’s data are not affected by primogeniture inheritance customs because he looks at all descendants with the same surname.)

Note that the studies of adopted children also refute Piketty. If being reared in a relatively wealthy family didn’t make the adoptees wealthy then family wealth can’t be the main determinant of life success (admittedly the stats are thin for children adopted into the crazy rich families that are Piketty’s primary focus).

I’ll write more about how to apply Clark’s new work to everyday life, but here’s a preview:

But in fact the correlation of longevity between individual parents and children is very low. For the people dying in England in the period 1858– 2012 with the rare surnames used in chapter 4 , we can measure the correlation of longevity between fathers and sons for more than four thousand sons surviving to at least age 21. That correlation is only 0.13. If we take the average of both parents’ ages at death, that correlation increases to 0.26. But it is still low. 9 In reality, your age at death is not strongly predictable from your parents’ age at death. All those saving more for retirement simply because both their parents are fit, healthy, and in their nineties should stop immediately. Your expected additional longevity relative to the average is only three years.

In the meantime elite university admissions offices have either come to the same conclusions as Clark or they are responsible for the persistence that he sees. Universities such as Harvard and Yale preferentially admit the children, grandchildren, siblings, etc. of graduates. This could be because they recognize that a family that was successful in the past is likely to be successful in the future. Or it could be that a Harvard or Yale degree is enough to guarantee success (albeit a lower income than a California prison guard) and, by giving preference to “legacies,” the elite universities are the institutions that are creating the persistence in status and success that Clark attributes to genetics.


  • Clark’s summary of part of the book in the New York Times (attracted 581 comments, mostly hostile to the idea that it is difficult to escape our genetics, e.g., “This is completely illogical and I can’t believe the NYT published this irresponsible and pernicious argument for a genetic component to success.”; “This is the most absurd article I have ever read in the New York Times.”; “This is one of those articles one reads and does not know where to begin to take it apart, because it is so colossally stupid, and the day is so short.”; “The very fact that the author does not even mention gender casts the whole thing in doubt.”)
  • Economist review of the book
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