The American Dream isn't dead--it just moved to Denmark.
We like to think of ourselves as living a classless society, but it isn't true today. As the Brookings Institution has pointed out, America has turned into a place Horatio Alger would scarcely recognize: we have more inequality and less mobility than once-stratified Europe, particularly the Nordic countries. It's what outgoing Council of Economic Advisers chief Alan Krueger has dubbed the "Great Gatsby Curve" -- the more inequality there is, the less mobility there is. As Tim Noah put it, it's harder to climb our social ladder when the rungs are further apart.
And it's getting worse.
Inequality is breeding more inequality. It's a story about paychecks, marriage, and homework. Now, it's not entirely clear why the top 1 percent have pulled so far away from everyone else, but there's a long list of suspects. Technology has let winners take, if not all, at least most, in fields like music; deregulation has set Wall Street free to make big bonuses off big bets (and leave taxpayers with the bill when they go bad); globalization and the decline of unions have left labor with far less leverage and share of income; and falling top-end tax rates have exacerbated it all. But high-earners aren't just earning more today; they're also marrying each other more. It's what economists romantically call "assortative mating" -- and Christine Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, estimates inequality would be 25 to 30 percent lower if not for it.
Marriage is widening inequality today, and keeping it wide tomorrow. Well-off couples get married more, stay together more, read to their children more, and otherwise have more time and money to spend on their children's education. As the New York Times points out, economists Richard Murname and Greg Duncan have found that high-income couples have poured resources into the educational arms race at a prodigious pace the past generation. For one, the amount of time college-educated parents spend with their kids has grown at double the rate of others since 1975; for another, high-income households invested 150 percent more in "enrichment activities" for their kids from 1972 to 2006, compared to a 57 percent increase for low-income households.
It's paying off. As Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic points out, early cognitive development has long-lasting consequences that can leave less-lucky children behind from the moment they start school -- and keep them there. But even when kids from low-income households do outperform those from high-income households, it's far from a guarantee that they'll end up earning more as an adult. Indeed, Matt Bruenig highlights the chart below from the Pew Economic Mobility Project that shows that rich kids without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to end up rich than poor kids who do graduate from college.
This chart is a bit hard to follow, but the message isn't: it's hard to rise, and harder to fall in our "meritocratic" society. The red columns show which income quintiles people who didn't graduate from college end up in based on which one they were born into; the blue columns shows the same for college grads. As you can see, there's only a 10 percent chance that a college grad from the bottom quintile will end up in the top quintile, but a 25 percent chance that a non-college grad from the top quintile will stay there.
This is one part obvious and another part mystery. Now, it's no secret that the rich are different from you and me -- they have more money to leave to their kids -- or that they have a special jobs program called "working for dad". Miles Corak, a professor of economics at the University of Ottawa, found that almost 70 percent of the sons of Canada's top 1 percent had worked where their fathers worked. In other words, it's clear enough why so many well-off kids who don't get a college degree stay well-off. But it's less clear why higher education isn't more of a path to prosperity for low-income children.
Well, what kind of higher education are we talking about? As Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard show in a recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, very few high-achieving students from low-income households end up even applying to a selective college. (Here, "high-achieving" is defined as the top 10 percent of overall test-takers on the SAT I or ACT, and a "selective" college is one of the top 236 schools in the country.) This, of course, is not how high-achieving, high-income students play the college admissions game. They follow their guidance counselors' advice, and apply to a few "reach" schools, a handful of "match" schools, and a "safety" school or two. As you can see in the chart below from Hoxby and Avery, this optimal strategy means applying to schools with median SAT I scores mostly in line with their own, and a few much lower -- say, 20 percentiles or so lower. The clump to the far left, around 95 percentiles lower, are, in this case, largely specialty schools, like art or music academies.
It's a totally different game for high-achieving, low-income students, because nobody tells them how to play it. Aside from magnet school kids, they mostly don't have parents or teachers or counselors with much experience applying to selective colleges. Nor do many know, despite the best efforts of the schools to inform them otherwise, that the most selective colleges have very generous financial aid packages that can take tuition all the way down to zero. Indeed, Harvard is pretty much free, including room and board, for students whose parents make $65,000 or less.
But, again, they either aren't told or don't remember this -- or think other things are more important. Maybe they want to stay close to home to help their parents or be near a significant other. Maybe they just don't believe they could get into a top-tier college. Whatever the reason, the vast majority of high-scoring, low-income students don't apply to selective schools, but opt instead for community colleges or small state schools. As you can see below, there's little concept of applying to "reach", "match" and "safety" schools. And insofar as there is, it's not strategic; applications are pretty evenly distributed across the three groups. Still, that's far better than the mountain of applications to un-selective schools that you don't really need to apply to.
This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times points out, only 34 percent of high-achieving, low-income students attend a selective college versus 78 percent for high-achieving, high-income students. This has to be the most boneheaded way we as a society perpetuate the people at the top. The deck is already more than stacked against kids growing up in low-income households -- their parents often aren't as involved or even around -- and we're not helping the ones who do succeed to succeed more.
There is plenty to be done. We can help parents, help parents help their kids, and help kids once it's time to pick colleges. Of course, the first step in any plan to reverse inequality is, simply enough, more redistribution. But not just more redistribution; smart redistribution. Thinking small, something like a bigger Child Tax Credit or Earned Income Tax Credit would give working families a bit more security -- which, regardless of whether people invested it in their children's education, would help their kids.Thinking bigger, something like a universal basic income -- that is, cutting checks to make sure everyone has a minimum income -- would put a floor under low-income households, and, just maybe, could make lower-income men more marriageable. It sounds utopian now, but as Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post points out, it's an idea with a bipartisan heritage: none other than Milton Friedman endorsed the negative income tax.
The second step are smart interventions to help new parents. Actually, President Obama's call for universal, high-quality pre-kindergarten is somewhere in-between these first and second steps. As Jonathan Cohn has chronicled, we know that daycare is a disaster in the U.S. now, and that top-notch pre-K can make lasting impacts, but we don't quite know how to scale that up. It might be that universal pre-kindergarten is less high-quality, and more high-quantity, but even that would help working families' budgets more -- and let parents look for work without having to worry about who will look after their kids. And, of course, it might do much more than that. But it's not just about helping low-income parents juggle their jobs and children; it's about helping them do the things they don't realize they need to do. The Providence Talks program, which the New York Times recently highlighted, could be a good model here: nurses and social workers ask new parents to record all the things they say to their babies to try to get them to talk more and use more words with their infants.
The last step is by far the easiest. It's just giving high school students better information about what colleges match their scores, and what colleges costs what given different family incomes. Right now, high-achieving, low-income students get all kinds of glossy brochures from colleges looking for socio-economic diversity if they send their scores in to the College Board, but it can be hard for them to know where to start or what to trust without much adult guidance. In other words, there's a needed public good we're not providing -- a government site (and maybe mailing list) that clearly shows students what they need to know about different schools to make an informed choice. And it sounds simple -- well, that's because it is -- but schools can help by waiving their application fees for low-income students, and maybe entirely. Fees don't do much to dissuade high-income students from mass applying to schools, but they do stop low-income ones from sending out nearly as many, if any, applications as they should. In other words, stop creating barriers to the students you say you want the most!
Ask anyone about inequality, and you're likely to hear three words in response: education, education, education. Oh, and education. And it's true: school should be the ladder out of poverty. But too often it's not; if anything, the reverse. We need to stop failing early and failing late. In other words, we need to reach kids during those formative years before school begins, and to keep kids who are thriving in high school to keep thriving in the right college.
If we don't, the American Dream will be just that.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
This wasn’t terribly surprising. When Streep was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
How those three little words sound around the world
I love saying “I love you.” I’ll say “love ya” to my parents when I’m about to get off the phone with them, and “love you!!” to my wife as she’s heading out the door for work (“love you???” on Gchat means I’ve gotten myself into trouble with her and I’m searching for a way out). I tell my son I love him, and he doesn’t even get it—he’s an infant. I’ve been known to proclaim that I love sushi and football and Benjamin Franklin (I mean, how could you not love Ben?).
Many people in this world would find my behavior rather strange. That’s because Americans are exceptionally promiscuous when it comes to professing their love. In the United States, “I love you” is at once exalted and devalued. It can mean everything ... or nothing at all. This is not universally the case.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram's electric-shock studies showed that people will obey even the most abhorrent of orders. But recently, researchers have begun to question his conclusions—and offer some of their own.
In 1961, Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram placed an advertisement in the New Haven Register. “We will pay you $4 for one hour of your time,” it read, asking for “500 New Haven men to help us complete a scientific study of memory and learning.”
Only part of that was true. Over the next two years, hundreds of people showed up at Milgram’s lab for a learning and memory study that quickly turned into something else entirely. Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer—dubbed “the teacher”—would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”). Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor’s urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition—and then fell alarmingly silent. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, a full 65 percent of people went all the way.
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Heterosexual women today, in certain milieus, find themselves placed into one of two categories: too young to settle down, and too old to find a man. There is a window of opportunity to get married, but it is ephemeral almost to the point of non-existence. It falls at a different age according to region, or the idiosyncratic biases of one's circle, but hovers around 27. "Too young" refers not to teen marriage, but to any commitment entered into by a grown woman deemed still a child by those around her.
Here's how it works: A young woman hears from friends and family that she needs to focus on her career or education, not some guy. She is warned of certain dangers: unsolicited male attention; unintended pregnancy, as if intended pregnancy were also a thing; and the desire hardwired into all straight men to turn their girlfriends into 1950s housewives. To entertain the possibility of it being difficult to find a husband, to even utter the expression "find a husband," is to regress to another era. And this advice is incredibly appealing, a rejection of the quaint notion that female heterosexuality is the desire not for men, but for a white picket fence.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.