Our Kids and Coming Apart

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

Nick Lemann reviews Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam. At the descriptive level, Putnam’s conclusions seem very similar to those of Charles Murray in Coming Apart.

Of course, description is much easier to obtain than causality.

NYBooks: … By the logic of the book, access to social capital ought to be strongly associated with going to college and doing well there—otherwise, why stress it so strongly? The syllogism would be: social capital leads to educational attainment, which leads to mobility. But for his classmates, Putnam reports, academic achievement was the factor most predictive of college attendance, and the link between such achievement and parental encouragement (of the kind he has copiously praised in the main body of the book) was only “modestly important,” and “much weaker” than the link between class rank and college attendance. Not only that:

No other measure of parental affluence or family structure or neighborhood social capital (or indeed anything else we had measured)—none of the factors that this book has shown are so important in producing today’s opportunity gap—had any appreciable effect on college attendance or other educational attainment.

In the methods appendix, Putnam refers readers to his website for more detail on his findings about his classmates. There, he writes:

No measure of parental resources adds any predictive power whatsoever—not parental occupational status, not parental unemployment, not family economic insecurity during high school, not homeownership, not neighborhood characteristics, and not family structure…. Parental education, parental encouragement, and class rank were all modestly predictive of extracurricular participation, but holding constant those variables, extracurricular participation itself was unrelated to college-going.

So is it really the case that Putnam has shown that strong social capital once produced individual opportunity—let alone that the deterioration of social capital has produced what he calls the opportunity gap? The passages I just quoted seem to indicate that the strong association between social capital and opportunity that is Putnam’s core assertion has not been proven. Putnam doesn’t define “social capital” precisely enough to rigorously test its effects, even on as small and unrepresentative a sample as the one in his survey, and he doesn’t attempt to test its effects precisely in the present. It could even be that, rather than social capital generating prosperity, prosperity might generate social capital, which would mean Putnam has been showing us the effects of inequality, not the causes.

It seems possible to me that:

1. American society has become increasingly meritocratic in the last 50 years, with advancement more and more dependent on largely heritable attributes such as cognitive ability, conscientiousness, future time orientation, etc. Consequently, gaps between different SES groups have become more and more difficult to remediate.

2. External forces, such as automation and global economic competition, have placed a larger and larger premium on attributes such as those listed above, leaving Americans of below average ability at a severe disadvantage.

The consequences of these observations are exacerbated by an increasingly winner take all economic system.

If these points are correct, then Our Kids and Coming Apart are documenting consequences, not causes.

See also Income, Wealth and IQ , US Economic Mobility and Random microworlds: the mystery of nonshared environment.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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