I am very smart and it isn’t fair (to other people)

Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias have alerted me to the fact that Ben Bernanke just gave a speech denouncing meritocracy. Here’s Bernanke:

We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.

This is a good opportunity for me to make a point I’ve been meaning to make about the genetics of intelligence ever since the thread on Star Trek and human enhancement.

Here’s the thing: I have been acutely aware of being much smarter than most of the people around me since grade school if not earlier. What does that mean? It means getting a nice mix of As and Bs in school without ever working especially hard. In fact, while being downright lazy. With the exception of first semester organic chemistry, almost all the (limited) difficulties I’ve ever had in school have been the product of my own laziness.

And when I talk about laziness… the baseline of “easy” for me is when, on a freshmen honors chemistry example, I saw a problem involving quantum chemistry and realized, “oh great, I don’t actually have to know any chemistry for this problem, I just have to solve some differential equations.” This was not a sarcastic thought. It was the classes where I couldn’t just solve some equations (equations that were no doubt giving my classmates headaches) and actually had to learn some significant amount of new stuff where my laziness sometimes caused me problems.

Oh and then there’s getting a 1590 on my SAT (back when the SAT was out of 1600) without really doing anything to prepare, and getting a 1600 on my GRE with modest preparation. Little things like that.

Some of my smartness may be environmental. Both of my parents are well-educated (PhD in biochemistry on my mother’s side, dentist on my dad’s side). My mother read to me when I was a kid, explained evolution and negative numbers to me before school had gotten to them, kept books around the house, limited my TV and video game time, and made sure I did my homework. Those things probably helped. And then there’s things like good childhood nutrition, pediatric care, and not living in a house with flaking lead paint.

But I have a hard time imagining they account for all of my smartness. After all, I have a lot of smartness. And I’ve read that while about 50% of the variation in people is genetic and 50% is environmental, the environmental 50% is mostly not parents but maybe peer group (and I didn’t have an especially smart or studious peer group). So my guess is that at least 50% of my edge over other people is genetic (update: see also Wikipedia on the heritability of IQ), and in any case none of the plausible environmental explanations are things I can claim any credit for.

The reason the “Star Trek and human enhancement” thread got me thinking about this is because of a comment by James Croft:

Intelligence is not a generally well understood concept nor an uncontroversial one/ I’d say we would need to know an awful lot more than we know currently about how human cognition works before we can even speculate as to what might be a desirable use of any enhancement technology of this sort we might develop.

We may not understand everything about intelligence, but we know enough to know that some people (like me) start life, or at least leave early childhood, with a huge advantage over everyone else that they did not earn. If you could somehow isolate that advantage in pill form, and the pill had no side-effects, what would be the objection to doing so?

In the name of full disclosure, I should mention that if I found a pill that would make me even smarter and I knew that there would be no side effects, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it, moral qualms about fairness be damned (though I’d want other people to have access to the pill too; I wouldn’t be so unfair as to try to keep it to myself). But for those who are particularly worried about the “fairness” aspect of human enhancement, why aren’t you worried now about the current problem of some people being a lot smarter, no thanks to anything they did themselves?

  • eric

    Not sure I get the ‘its unfair’ argument, on two fronts:

    1. Pragmatically, a regulated meritocracy may be like Chuchill’s Democracy – the very worst system, except for all the others. IOW, I don’t see the question of whether its fair by some objective stadard to be relevant, because we may not be able to meet that objective standard with any practical human system. The question is really how regulated meritocracies stack up against the viable alternatives. Inherited titles anyone? Theocracy? Extreme communism?

    2. Whatever my intelligence, I derive benefit from the people in charge making good decisions. Those will (ideally) increase my prosperity, lower my costs, reduce my risks of death, lower crime, reduce social inefficiencies, and so on. So how is it unfair to me that competent people are put in charge of stuff? I gain when that happens. Bernanke is wrong because he assumes a meritocracy only benefits the people born smart etc. But in reality, it also (albeit indirectly) benefits the people who aren’t.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Well, what alternative to meritocracy is on offer? I think a system in which capable people get rewarded for their capabilities is certainly better than one in which the children of rich people get all the opportunities to remain rich. (Which is arguably the current dominant mode).

  • cripdyke

    @ Reginald and eric:

    The thing is, as is pointed out in the OP, meritocracy means children of rich people get a disproportionate number of opportunities to remain rich; and competent people being put in charge of stuff isn’t the problem. The problem is competent art historians earning $130k/year while competent advocates at an anti-domestic violence shelter get $22k/year.

    Is saving human lives really less valuable than saving artwork?

    The problem – deep and wide – with meritocracy as it is currently imagined is that it functions as a myth, a smokescreen, that renders it impossible to see that it is not merely merit that determines compensation. It is arbitrary choices by the monied and money-controlling that prioritize future money flows. Bernanke exposes this. Mere “merit” in one’s occupation doesn’t mean value to society. Is a really, really skilled jockey contributing more or less to society than a really, really skilled phlebotomist?

    So long as which forms of merit deserve compensation is arbitrary, the fact that within a given discipline the cream rises to the top is entirely insufficient to create a just society.

    • eric

      The problem is competent art historians earning $130k/year while competent advocates at an anti-domestic violence shelter get $22k/year.

      I think you’ve gone beyond what a ‘meritocracy’ promises or is expected to do. It doesn’t promise humans will make rational value choices, it only tries to ensure that, for any given area of human endeavor (like art history), the more competent practicioners will be rewarded more than the less competent ones.

      Is saving human lives really less valuable than saving

      Take a step back and ask: how do you propose society answer that question? Democratically? That’s essentially what we do now. Dictatorially? Theologically? Technocratically? Some one or group of people has to assign a relative value to various human activities. Right now we almost all participate in that choice, through both political representation and economic markets. “All participating” has lead to some fairly screwed-up priorities, I grant you, but on the other hand, I can’t see how any version of “let’s not let some people participate in the assignment” will be better. Those are all going to be less fair.

      it functions as a myth, a smokescreen, that renders it
      impossible to see that it is not merely merit that determines compensation.

      Here, I agree with you. In practical terms our society is not as meritocratic as we like to think – or as we like to advertise. Luck (of either the ‘born with it’ type or circumstantial type) has a lot to do with where we end up in life. This is a very good argument for why we should impose progressive taxes and support social safety nets of a variety of types – because
      people simply do not ‘get what they deserve’ a lot of the time. And you are
      also right that advertising our society as a pure meritocracy (when it isn’t) is one method conservatives use to undermine support for the social institutions I’ve mentioned above.

  • JohnH2

    “If you could somehow isolate that advantage in pill form, and the pill
    had no side-effects, what would be the objection to doing so?”

    Potentially there is a moral objection based on the cost and availability of the pill as it relates to the poor, and specifically the third world poor. Given that similar problems exist in relation to the poor in America being obese and other such things then apparently those moral issues are ones that society is okay with.

    Which is to say, we have isolated a decent portion of the advantage and it is called “having sufficient food to eat” but we (as a society) have demonstrated no qualms with denying this advantage to others in the third world even as we over indulge in “having sufficient food to eat”. We also appear to be very hesitant about improving our “pill” for the sake of those that don’t have the intelligent, will power, skills, or whatever to have it be instead of “having sufficient food to eat”: “having the correct amount of highly nutritious food to eat”, which would result significant increases in general intelligence and general well being over the course of a generation (as the current “pill” has already done so).

  • Vanzetti

    Stop beating around the bush. The problem was formulated a long time ago.

    Fairness means redistribution of resources, redistribution of resources means less motivation to produce said resources, which means less resources, which means less fairness. TL;DR: fairness is ineffective/communism doesn’t work.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      You’re assuming all gains from redistribution are always lost due to reduced incentives. Krugman presents evidence that this doesn’t happen until you reach a marginal tax rate of 70-80%. What’s your evidence for your view?

      • Vanzetti

        Actually, I’m not assuming that. Just saying that _perfect_ fairness may be so ineffective as to be impossible.

      • Chris

        I think, though I’m not sure, Krugman is talking about the work of Emmanuel Saez there. That work is certainly not uncontroversial.

        A two sentence summary: Microeconomic studies tend to show very low elasticities of labor output to income, in which case high marginal tax rates have small effects. Macroeconomic studies tend to show much larger elasticities. Some very technical (but very good) work has been done trying to reconcile those findings, but it’s still an active area of research.

  • Machintelligence

    Well if you are so smart why ain’t you rich? */snark*
    Alternatively we could use creative handicapping: basketball players over seven feet tall must play on their knees. */sarcasm*

    Of course people differ in innate abilities, no one ever said the universe was fair.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Mostly because I haven’t chosen a career based on lucrativeness, though I’m likely to try to reverse that soon, especially if I don’t get into grad school this second time around.

  • Highlarious

    Weren’t you whining just the other day how hard it is to learn to speak foreign language? Your amazing smartsiness didn’t help you there?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Apparently it didn’t help enough, though I never had trouble getting As in Spanish classes. Partly, I thinking really mastering a foreign language is just that hard, but I’ve also heard there are people who find languages as easy as I find math.

      My natural aptitudes do seem to be not evenly distributed across areas, but on the other hand they’re not entirely confined to math and math-heavy fields. See: high verbal test scores, finding undergraduate philosophy classes very easy, etc.

      • JohnH2

        Were you immersed in the language, preferably with someone that at least partially understood English but would not (or could not) use it around you?

        I took Spanish classes in HS which only barely helped in actually learning Portuguese; taking classes in college or HS isn’t really a good way to learn a language; even going to a foreign country won’t necessarily help (force one?) to learn the language if one is always resorting to English. Going to a foreign country with someone that already speaks the language there to help and being forced to attempt to communicate in the language by say, knocking on doors (or in the case of Brazil, clapping), is a great way to learn a language very quickly and pretty much everyone that does it, regardless of aptitude otherwise, ends up being a least moderately fluent in the language. There is however a wide range of speaking (and reading and writing ability) even in this case and that comes more from how much English is resorted to (and the companion allows English to be resorted to) then it does with anything else.

        Knowing a second language makes learning other languages much easier. My experience is limited to moving along branches of a single language family with a common alphabet (Indo-European: Latin and Germanic) (which makes some of the languages essentially free), I imagine if I were trying to learn Korean knowing a second language might help some, but it would still be incredibly difficult.

      • Alexander Johannesen

        Hmm. I know about 6 languages, 4 of them fluently. But I suck at math (insert long rant about why no one told me as a kid about axioms and models before it was too late).

        Again, intelligence is … tricky. Problem solving? Pattern recognition? Logic? Structuring? Semantics? Physics? Physiology? The list is long of properties that all fight for the right to be the most important thing in “intelligence.”

        Some people are amazing with philosophy but sucks at logic, some can program amazing software, but suck at interfaces (the human factor), some are amazing at sports but can’t draw a hand, some are amazing at visualising the concrete, others the abstract, some are amazing at engineering and applied physics, others really know how to carry a conversation and to inspire people through mere words, and … well, we all have smarts and not-so-smarts.

        And then there’s a handful of people who seems to have it all, to be polymath in the extreme, with all the baggage of their “charming” character and behaviour to go with it.

        I don’t believe in intelligence (although I do believe in people’s abilities to score highly on tests), because we can’t all agree on what it is. Same for when we transfer this definition into “artificial intelligence”; I doubt we’ll agree to what either of those two words mean.

        • mikmik

          Classifying intelligence, I think, is like classifying art. It is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it.
          Speaking of which, I don’t often see creativity listed as an aspect of intelligence. I think it is the most important.

          • Alexander Johannesen

            I agree, and I can testify that without my engorged creativity glands I would be in a much sadder negative place. Creativity is what drives us, in art as well as science or business. And it is, like you say, far underappreciated.

    • Amakudari

      I consider myself intelligent, and mastering a second language (in my case Japanese) is, in my own experience and those of expatriates I know, almost entirely a product of practice. Being ultimately able to, say, write literature in that language might have something to do with intelligence, but beyond a certain level intelligence just doesn’t help that much.

      • josh

        Which brings up the interesting point that much of what your brain is doing minute by minute isn’t what we call intelligence. If you want to learn to be an expert football catcher, you basically have to do it over and over, although I suspect some people will acquire the skill faster than others. That’s a specific, complex, involved brain problem that doesn’t seem to relate all that directly to ‘smartness’. In some ways learning a language might be similar (after all, almost everyone can do it with time).

  • Richard_Wein

    I seem to have high natural intelligence, of an academic kind. I got a first at uni (in statistics) without much effort. I was too lazy even to do a practical project which contributed to the final assessment. (I calculated that the contribution was small.) But in my case this sort of academic intelligence comes at the expense of more practical and social abilities, so I don’t see it as entirely a boon. There’s such a thing as being too smart for your own good!

    I did well in language exams at school (French, Russian and Latin), but I’m not the sort of person who absorbs foreign languages naturally, by osmosis. Few Brits seem to have that ability. I put that down to being brought up in a highly mono-lingual environment. But Welsh speakers and children of immigrants are often bilingual. My niece is bilingual as her mother is Czech, and I expect she’ll grow up to be good at other languages too.

    In later life I got my Russian up to quite a high level. Besides learning from books, I forced myself to practice with tapes and having conversations in my head. Then I had three months in Russia, speaking only Russian. I found the mental effort exhausting, but I improved a lot. Unfortunately I haven’t used it much since then, and I’ve lost much of it.

    Like JohnH2, I’ve only learnt Indo-European languages. (I have a few words of German and Greek.) The thought of learning an entirely unrelated language horrifies me!

    Incidentally, I think that my early interest in language and linguistics may have helped with my more recent thinking about philosophy. I’ve come to a Wittgensteinian view of language, and see much of philosophy as misguided due to “the bewitchment of our intellect by our language”.

  • Norm Donnan

    I remember being told there are 7 recognized types of intelligence. My father in law is a professor of statistics,quite good at maths apparently.Point is he sucks at the most basic abilitys to do with anything practical,and his social skills leave a lot to be desired .

  • Steve

    Honestly, I don’t think we need everyone to be extremely smart. I know that sounds like a mean or cynical thing to say, but it’s not. The truth is, we need people to hold jobs that mop the floors and pick up the trash. Our society needs these jobs, and they don’t require geniuses. Instead of trying to make everyone super-smart, we should teach that those simple kinds of jobs I mentioned are respectable, important work, and we should make sure that they are paid solid living wages for their labor. Not everyone can be a neurosurgeon. If everyone was that, society would collapse. Instead of human enhancement, I propose we treat the kind of jobs and people we look down on for being “stupid” with more fairness and respect.

    • Nox81

      Those simple jobs will be automated away as robotics and computer technology advance, even faster where required by law to pay decent wages. Yes, we should treat everyone with fairness and respect. But “let’s be nice” cannot replace enhancement as a human right and a prerequisite for Terran civilization’s long-term survival.

      Pats on the back are no substitute for the freedom to pursue a more intellectually fulfilling vocation, and neither is a good salary.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    It is unfortunately the case that the most brilliant people can make the most spectacular mistakes, e.g., Alan Greenspan’s foolish confidence that market discipline would deter financial institutions from taking too much risk in the absence of regulatory oversight. The smartest people are often the least able to recognize the gaps in their understanding.

  • Jerry Lynch

    The biggest attempt at countering meritocracy has been the introduction of pass/fail in schools. When we hear from a guy that was truly smart who did not give his best or strive very hard when grades were given, then we can better understand the statistics about the mediocrity of our students, how poorly America ranks internationally. Where is the motivation? What’s the freakin’ point? Trying to level the playing field through tweaking the system to more or less pardon those incapable to keep up or compete at the highest level, does a disservice to all. We cannot impart equal worth on all through tampering gestures.

    Obviating pain may be one of the worst thing we can do to our children. Hurt, disappointment, loss, failure, disillusionment: the nurturing and necessary stuff of great character and the well-adjusted life. The unalienable fact that some will always be crushed by these things and others grow to extraordinary heights, makes trying to manipulate these things, for a feel good fairness, seem not just ridiculous but evil.

    I loved playing football and I was very good at it: college scholarship quick, great hands, and wiry. The final score really didn’t matter to me and I needed no speeches to try harder. My merit did not come from achieving a record or winning the game but from being. Sweat was bathing, a baptismal, in the river Jordan. The sheer joy of the physical endeavor was more than enough, a Gregorian Chant. My mind, legs, heart, hands, and spirit were fully engaged. Out play me, out wit me, hurt me, and I appreciated it. Very early, like the author, I learned my attitude was exceptional. Was I smart?

    Meritocracy is about outward value: the score, the point, the job, the goal, the things, the praise, the grades, the girl, the guy, the awards, the respect, the fame, the prestige, the wealth, the…sorry, I am getting tired. Getting outweighs being. In other words, our values are outside in.

    Can we change? The awareness of the evils of meritocracy has led to rather insipid attempts, like pass/fall, to counteract its debilitating punch to esteem, which many times leads to mediocrity, addiction, or hopelessness. How do we get inspired to reach if there are not grapes just out of grasp? In the Denial Of Death, Becker makes the point that we are noble because we know that perfection is beyond our taking yet we seek it anyway. A divine discontent. But remembering the sweetness of playing football, the intricate weave of joy and peace in it, I think there is a better way.

  • Andrew Scicluna

    There is a drug that makes you smarter, its called concerta


    Okay, it doesn’t literally make you smarter… but a lot of college kids like to abuse it