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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Smarts and wealth: Defending an egalitarian distrubtion of brains

The best and surest way to get wealthy and stay wealthy still seems to be being born wealthy. Go figure. Despite the myth of the meritocracy, the rich aren't smarter, they're just born into wealth and have all kinds of social support from other wealthy people to stay that way. Of course, the other implication of this study - not stated in the article (see below) - is that there are various systems out there that prevent plenty of smart people at the bottom from rising to the top, like white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism. Let me explain.

So, as the AFP reports today:
Intelligence has nothing to do with wealth, according to a US study published Tuesday which found that people with below average smarts were just as wealthy as those with higher IQ scores.

"People don't become rich because they are smart," said Jay Zagorsky, research scientist at Ohio State University whose study appears in the Journal Intelligence.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics survey included 7,403 Americans who have been interviewed repeatedly since 1979. Based on 2004 answers, people who are now in their mid-40s showed no link between brain- and earning-power.
One problem is that everyone with money thinks they earned it. This despite the fact that they generally have little conception of where wealth actually comes from (surplus value) or the way that historical trends have contributed to their social position (slavery, for instance). Further, they tend to have little appreciation for the way that these various systems that keep others down might in fact be functioning to promote them. For instance, white folks generally chalk up their better access to resources and income to hard work. Of course, this implies that those without money and resources don't work hard. It likewise supposes that those who have money and resources must work very hard.

But, when we look at the Third World, we see many people who work very hard and yet receive little to no compensation despite it. We also see people attempting to resist the imposition of the social system of work in defense of their independent lives. For instance, I heard a story on NPR recently about a woman who collects from the mouth of the Ganges river the coins that bereaved family members toss in while upstream performing funerals. This often takes many, many hours of wading in the river for just a few coins. These she uses to support her family. No doubt that is hard work. No doubt that kind of creativity requires at least some level of intelligence. Still, she remains quite poor.

Of course, these same systems operate in the First World. Witness the disparities that continue to exist between whites and non-whites, women and men. Earlier this week, several news outlets reported that the wage gap between men and women in the US remains vast. Compensating for time off and other factors - a common excuse that apologists for sexism use to defend the wage gap - researchers found that women remain underpaid for the same work as men, even if they had college degrees.
For every dollar that a man in Delaware makes, a woman makes 77.5 cents. That's slightly higher than the national average of 77 cents, ranking Delaware 17th highest in the country.

"Progress is being made, but it is slow in coming," said Avis Jones-DeWeever, director of poverty, education and social justice programs at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank. "The reality of things is we still live in a paternalistic culture, which values men's labor over women's."
This despite many decades of equal pay legislation, including the Equal Pay Act signed by Kennedy in 1963. Clearly, the legislative route has not solved the problem. At the same time, it surely cannot be said that women do not work hard in this country, or that they are not intelligent.

In capitalism, intelligence has little to do with one's advancement, while privilege of various kinds has a lot to do with it. Such privileges interact in a sometimes complex way so that, for instance, while women of all colors suffer economically compared to men, white women do substantially better than Black women in terms of income as they advance up the ladder. Further, access to resources follows similar patterns. A recent New York Times article highlighted the disturbing rise in infant mortality amongst Blacks in the Southeast.
To the shock of Mississippi officials, who in 2004 had seen the infant mortality rate — defined as deaths by the age of 1 year per thousand live births — fall to 9.7, the rate jumped sharply in 2005, to 11.4. The national average in 2003, the last year for which data have been compiled, was 6.9. Smaller rises also occurred in 2005 in Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. Louisiana and South Carolina saw rises in 2004 and have not yet reported on 2005.

Whether the rises continue or not, federal officials say, rates have stagnated in the Deep South at levels well above the national average.

Most striking, here and throughout the country, is the large racial disparity. In Mississippi, infant deaths among blacks rose to 17 per thousand births in 2005 from 14.2 per thousand in 2004, while those among whites rose to 6.6 per thousand from 6.1. (The national average in 2003 was 5.7 for whites and 14.0 for blacks.)

The overall jump in Mississippi meant that 65 more babies died in 2005 than in the previous year, for a total of 481.
Although science has apparently yet to discover the many oppressive systems in this society, one researcher still attempts to suggest an explanation for the figures on intelligence and wealth, honing in on a metric that probably comes from personal experience:
Zagorsky said you only have to look in the parking lots of the nation's universities to see that intelligence and wealth are not necessarily linked.

"Professors tend to be very smart people," he said. "But if you look at university parking lots, you don't see a lot of Rolls Royces, Porsches or other very expensive cars. Instead you see a lot of old, low-value vehicles."
Indeed. Zagorsky's a scientist, so he would never explain it this way, but I would put it like this: there are plenty of smart scientists, and yet we still have atomic bombs and genetically modified plants. There are a lot of factors that can get in the way of someone rising based on their intelligence and even ability in a capitalist society. I've discussed a few, but throw in prisons, police, unequal access to social resources like decent education and you start to get a picture of how American capitalism really works, despite all the gilded promises from the capitalists and politicians about equal opportunity, meritocracy and social mobility. This shouldn't be surprising to anyone. After all, why would the architects of society, themselves very wealthy, want a system in which they could be challenged from below?

Nevertheless, in a strange way, we may be on a verge of a distinctive break from this history. The emergence of "cognitive enhancers," drugs that increase intelligence, may have a major effect on society in coming years. Ever optimistic (or ignorant of how capitalism really works), some British scientists explained the looming trend this way in a recent report issued from their government think tank.
The report stated: "In a world that is increasingly non-stop and competitive, the use of such substances may move from the fringe to the norm, with cognition enhancers used as coffee is today".

Other possibilities, it said, would be drug testing of children before they took exams to ensure that some did not cheat with cognitive enhancers, or "cogs".

"The ethical debate about whether or not to use drugs to improve performance in normal schoolchildren and students will probably be resolved over the next 20 years," said the report.

"Similarly, there will be continued debate about the ethics of using cognition enhancers in the workplace".
In a real sense, the questions scientists ask about these drugs reveals the depth of their ignorance about how society really functions. Not suffering from a similar poverty of understanding, we anarchists ought to be insistent with them and demand from scientists precisely what social mechanism they believe will distribute these drugs in a way such that the prime issue will be one of choice, not income and access. Because the truth is, far from being equally distributed, the distribution and access to these drugs will certainly follow established social paths of privilege, wealth and power. Obviously, in a society in which health care is not equally distributed, why would pharmaceuticals - especially non-essential ones?

As with most everything else, the rich and a few of their lackeys will have access to them. Yet the availability of these drugs may serve to undermine this egalitarian distribution of intelligence throughout society. Because, as we have seen above, if wealth isn't equally distributed, at least smarts are. But how long will this remain true?

More likely, any brain-altering drugs available to working class folks will be of a different sort.
In addition to drugs that boost pleasure and sexual performance, the Foresight research raised the possibility of drugs that cause selective amnesia, for instance of a bomb attack, after the discovery that drugs called beta blockers can reduce memories of stressful situations.
I'm sure somewhere there is a well-meaning scientist laboring late into the night developing a drug to make us working class slobs forget about how shitty things are at work. Something other than beer, that is.

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