Why has Freddie de Boer tried to stitch me up?

Freddie de Boer, the prominent left-wing blogger who is now writing about education at The ANOVA Blog, recently wrote a post decrying how many people commented on or tweeted about his writings without reading them in full. He went to the length of having a decoy title, opening two paragraphs, and graph, in order to bait them into replying (about a nonexistent study, and with no actual content or claims) — he wanted to show the scale of the problem.

It’s surprising then that de Boer has written a piece about something I wrote apparently without taking any attempt to read it in detail, and characterising my motivations in a way that no one who knew more, or who had read even that single old post in detail could honestly do. Quite genuinely, I have always been a moderate fan of de Boer, often sharing his stuff on Twitter, and thinking seriously about his arguments. So I’m disappointed with his extreme misrepresentation of my argument.

My Oct 2014 post “Why Does the Son Rise?” argues that the existing body of educational, economic, and behavioural genetic evidence suggests that schooling investments do not make huge differences to life outcomes at current margins. I’m attempting to make a contribution to a debate between John Cochrane, Tony Yates and Noah Smith about inequality. I say: maybe inequality is bad for some of the reasons you mention, or other reasons you don’t, but it’s not bad for filtering through the generations—because it doesn’t. In fact, lucky windfalls don’t ossify into the wealth distribution and persist through time; they peter out very rapidly.

Freddie doesn’t disagree with this, but he does misattribute lots of other arguments to me and then valiantly knock them down.

First, he throws suspicion on my motives:

I can’t deny, though, that there are many regressive ways to make these arguments. That’s particularly true given that there’s a large overlap in the Venn diagram of IQ determinists and economic libertarians. I want to take a moment and demonstrate how conservatives misread and misuse genetic behaviorism to advance their ideological preferences for free market economics.
He does so because this presumably lends credence to libertarian economics, which are based on a just deserts model — the notion that the market economy basically rewards and punishes people in line with their own merit.

OK, so I work for a free market think tank. Many free marketeers believe in just deserts. Maybe he gets to start with this assumption — I’m not exactly famous, and while you should really find out more about someone’s views before you start attributing nefarious motives to them, maybe it seemed obvious. But in this very post I implicitly disavow such a view, linking to posts where I do so explicitly and in detail.

I’ve written twice about equality before: once saying that Rawlsian-style justice demands inequality of wealth/income in certain very relevant circumstances; another time arguing that Hayekian-style information economics militates towards equality of wealth.

In those pieces, I’m very clear about my support for luck egalitarianism — the idea that your unchosen attributes do not make you more or less deserving of a good life. Compare his words:

But there’s an even bigger issue for Southwood here: no one is in control of their own genotype. It’s bizarre when conservative-leaning people endorse genetic determinism as a justification for just-deserts economic theories. Genetic influence on human behavior stands directly in contrast to the notion that we control our own destinies. How then can Southwood advance a vision of free market economics as a system in which reward is parceled out fairly, given that the distribution of genetic material between individuals is entirely outside of their control? Which genetic code you happen to be born with is a lottery. I happen to not have gotten a scratch off ticket that allows me to have been an NFL player or a research physicist. That’s not a tragedy because I am still able to secure my basic material needs and comforts. But not everyone is so lucky, and for many the free market will result only in suffering and hopelessness.

With mine in that linked 2013 article:

Some people are born with vast natural talents (e.g. Wilt Chamberlain) while others are not, or their talents are not in such high demand by the market. Some are born to dedicated, loving parents while others are raised in far less supportive environments. No one could claim they bear most of the responsibility for their genes or upbringing.

It’s not like I changed my view between the two, or indeed make any of the claims he attributes to me. Fairness is not mentioned. Whether we should redistribute is not mentioned (but I repeatedly argue that we should, extensively, in other posts that are linked to).

Second, he claims that my argument doesn’t obtain, because luck doesn’t matter. In his words:

Unfortunately for Southwood, the unexplained portion of academic outcomes (and subsequent economic outcomes) looks precisely like chance, or at least, that which is uncontrolled by either the individual or his or her parents. The last line of his post is thus totally unsupported by the evidence.

That last line?

Basically luck mixed with path dependence explains almost nothing.

Mixed with path dependence. I’m saying that when you get lucky you can’t use that luck to make your kids and their descendants permanently better off. It’s not like there is ambiguity. Consider some other lines from the post:

modern lottery winners — the truest example of pure luck in success
the proceeds of luck
Luck is certainly a huge factor in success

Finally, he says some straight-up mind-bogglingly dishonest things.

Southwood claims that genetics explains perhaps .90 of the variation at adult, but this represents extreme upper bound predictions for that influence. Most of the literature suggests significantly more modest heritability estimates than that.

Er, did I say that Freddie?

For example, we now know that the heritability of intelligence increases through life (to hit around 50–90% in adulthood)

i.e. I obviously get that 90% is the upper bound. Because I put it as the upper bound. On a range.

So, seriously, I liked Freddie and he’ll probably go onto write a whole bunch more decent or good stuff but I’m getting a bit of Gell-Man Amnesia here because his reply to me is either extremely sneaky, or very silly nonsense.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Ben Southwood’s story.