Posted on December 2, 2013

Income, IQ, and Effort

Thomas Lifson, American Thinker, December 1, 2013

Liberal media bon pensants are in a huff over remarks delivered by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson suggesting that IQ and effort have something to do with income. See, for example, Steven Erlanger of The New York Times:

Boris Johnson, the flamboyant, self-mocking and ambitious mayor of London, has put his gilded foot in his mouth once again, suggesting that the poor of Britain are victims of low I.Q. and that greed is good. (snip)

. . . his comments on Wednesday night in the Margaret Thatcher Lecture at the Center for Policy Studies here have created an uglier fuss, with the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, accusing Mr. Johnson of a “careless elitism” and discussing humankind “as if we are a sort of breed of dogs.”

Mr. Johnson is no scientist, but he has stepped into the kind of debate over the relationship of I.Q. to race and poverty that has tripped up many others before him. He was defending the record of Mrs. Thatcher and her belief in hard work and meritocratic reward, and he urged both helping the poor and giving more support to the brightest. But as he did so, he appeared to mock the 16 percent “of our species” who have an I.Q. below 85 and urged that more help be given to the 2 percent who have an I.Q. of 130 or above.

You can watch excerpts of his talk here:

Britain’s Guardian, which regards itself as the leading organ of the left wing intelligentsia, busied itself ginning up an editorial pretending that Johnson is probably a racist:

[Johnson used] a bizarre metaphor–“The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top” – which was likely designed to confuse with colour, and make sure that this ambitious politician didn’t say too much. But entrusted with the reins of the most unequal city in an unequal country, in emphasising that “human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability”, he was plainly using his shattering fact to rally to the defence of an unequal order.

Moreover, the Guardian insists Johnson must be a scientific ignoramus:

As a matter of convention, average IQ has been defined as 100, with the distribution calibrated–again, purely by convention–to a standard deviation of 15. Seeing as IQ tests have evolved to secure the same bell-shaped (“normal”) curve found in physical natural phenomenon, it drops out as a matter of logic that roughly 16% of people will indeed be assigned an IQ below 85, and about 2% a score of 130+. These statements convey no information about anything except the way that IQ is defined. Any idea that they say anything about “our species” is, well, specious. An intelligent man (which Mr Johnson undoubtedly is, whatever his IQ) ought not to claim they are “relevant” to debates about pay.

Is the Guardian really pretending that just because IQ measurements have been normalized that there isn’t a a distribution of intelligence across the population? This question was treated in depth in the monumental 1996 work The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which the Guardian editorial causally slurs as “pop scholarship.”

In fact, Johnson’s lecture was far from racist or hard-hearted. It was a plea to be honest about the origins and solutions for the rising inequality of income in Western democracies, a phenomenon that concerns both conservatives and liberals. Erlanger summarizes:

He said that inequality was inevitable and essential to spur envy and ambition, and hailed greed as a critical spark for economic activity, even as he said he hoped that the financial boom of London would not produce the cruelty of the past.

“I also hope that there is no return to that spirit of Loadsamoney heartlessness–figuratively riffling bank notes under the noses of the homeless,” he said. At the same time, he spoke about growing inequality as a danger to civic peace and made an analogy comparing people to cornflakes in a cereal box that, when shaken hard produced some cornflakes that rose to the top.

“For one reason or another–boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and God-given talent of boardroom inhabitants–the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever,” he said, adding, “We cannot ignore this change in relative economic standing, and the resentment it sometimes brings.”

David Paulin comments on this:

I remember reading years ago in some academic studies that, in fact, you tend to have a range of IQs among various professions and vocations. And I took that to mean that you might have some doormen or janitors with IQs comparable to physicians, and physicians who have IQs no higher than the smartest janitors. (Heck, I know this from personal experience!) But as generalizations go, I don’t think it’s at all controversial to say that well-adjusted people with talent and drive, and other qualities (including IQ), are going to tend to head toward the top of the socio-economic ladder, and you will thus have inequality as a consequence.

Just so. The left is the group that wants to pretend: that effort has nothing to do with outcomes, that all people are equally endowed with talents, and that the only just outcomes are equal, as if effort and ability deserve no reward.

My own take on the reasons for rising inequality is similar to Johnson’s metaphor of shaking the box of cornflakes. Globalization is the primary box-shaker. The worldwide scale of, say, Facebook and Google, has made the rewards going to the innovators and entrepreneurs that succeed far greater than the rewards that used to be possible. At the same time, globalization has brought competition to many occupations that once upon a time were able to monopolize national labor markets through unionization and regulation. The most obvious example are automobile workers. At one time, the UAW was able to extract the highest standard of living the world has ever known for semi-skilled laborers, because foreign automobile manufacturers were not a meaningful factor in the US market in the 1950s and early 60s. But as foreign competition has increased, that standard of living has necessarily declined.

The time for left wing fantasies about social justice is ending. It is time everyone admitted that talent and effort count. Yes, there are people whose intiial starting point in life is less advantageous than others. But effort and ability (and ability is plastic, I believe–it can be enhanced by study, practice, and effort) count for more than does life’s starting point.