Heckman on predistribution

by Harry on December 9, 2012

Last month’s issue of Boston Review has a very good essay by James Heckman, and follow-up discussion. Heckman’s essay argues forcefully for early childhood interventions of various kinds as efficient means for mitigating inequality of opportunity.
I’d especially recommend that you read Charles Murray’s comment, just so you can read Heckman’s (devastating) response, but also Annette Lareau’s and David Deming’s. And, if you want, mine and Swift’s.

One thing I am curious about. Heckman is consistently accused by lefties of not understanding that poverty, not parenting, is the fundamental problem. For all I know that is true, and it is not impossible that I have a tin ear, but when I read his essay (and hear him talk etc) everything he says is consistent with the (entirely reasonable) assumption that as things stand, though the fundamental problem may well be poverty, elected officials are pretty determined to do very little to reduce poverty in general and child poverty in particular, so we need to look for policy levers that would improve the prospects of poor children without addressing their poverty. (And, if by some chance, this pessimistic assessment is wrong, still the measures he proposes would play an important role during the long transition to a more equal society). Is it just because he is known to be, broadly speaking, a conservative that people read him the less charitable way? Or am I, indeed, missing something?

{ 108 comments }

1

Anarcissie 12.09.12 at 4:02 pm

I think the key to the leftist accusations is the phrase ‘as things stand’.

2

Watson Ladd 12.09.12 at 4:18 pm

Heckman ignores cognitive sorting by parents. Rich parents with smarts move to Scarsdale. Smart parents without money make sure the offspring goes to Stuy. The impact of even deep childhood interventions will be limited by this sorting.

3

Steve LaBonne 12.09.12 at 4:18 pm

Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say we’ve taken Heckman’s advice to such good effect that everybody in the population is well-educated, well-socialized, and in general very “competitive” in the labor market. Where will the jobs for them come from? Where will the GOOD jobs, with decent pay and benefits, come from?

4

Walt 12.09.12 at 4:24 pm

From the resulting economic growth from a better workforce.

5

Steve LaBonne 12.09.12 at 4:27 pm

From the resulting economic growth from a better workforce.

But Walt, what will prevent almost all the wealth from the increased production from draining to the top, as it’s been doing now for decades? What, in fact, will prevent production from remaining well below capacity, as it is right now?

6

Antoni Jaume 12.09.12 at 4:48 pm

I’ve still to read the article, but from my experience, while I think that poverty is the main problem, solving it won’t solve the situation of current children.

7

Walt 12.09.12 at 5:01 pm

I don’t disagree with that. I don’t think that Heckman’s proposed solutions are sufficient. But it’s certainly possible that the interventions he has in mind would make it easier to provide good jobs.

8

Steve LaBonne 12.09.12 at 5:52 pm

Maybe, but it’s also possible that like all the center-left blathering one hears from eg. mainstream Dems about education and job training being the supposed cure for rising inequality, it’s largely a distraction from the real issues.

9

In the sky 12.09.12 at 6:01 pm

First of all, congrats to the Boston Review for a great debate.

Heckman ignores cognitive sorting by parents.

Hard to square this with his papers about neighborhood effects, etc.

Heckman is consistently accused by lefties of not understanding that poverty, not parenting, is the fundamental problem.

Granted I may be pushing you too hard on this, but that’s a very peculiar accusation when you think about it. It implies (a) poverty is clearly the true problem, and (b) Heckman cannot fathom this. How’s about the alternative: Heckman doesn’t agree that poverty is the problem:

There are many calls to redistribute income to address poverty and promote social mobility. The thrust of much recent work is that while redistribution surely reduces social inequality at a point in time, it does not, by itself, improve long-term social mobility or inclusion.

Here’s a response that lefties don’t understand (aka disagree with): addressing “educational inequalities” attacks the cause of sustained poverty.

10

Walt 12.09.12 at 6:02 pm

What’s striking is that Heckman characterizes those interventions (particularly job market training) as pretty close to worthless. The models he points to are incredibly expensive and thorough early intervention programs. For each child, it would be big bucks, though concentrated in a narrow life window.

11

Steve LaBonne 12.09.12 at 6:05 pm

I get that. But I fear it may just be a different version of the same delusion.

12

LFC 12.09.12 at 6:08 pm

Fyi, re declining social mobility and increasing inequality etc., there is a piece by Lane Kenworthy in the current (Nov/Dec 2012) issue of Foreign Affairs. (I got sidetracked on other things and didn’t get to the end, where he presumably offers prescriptions.)

13

Coulter 12.09.12 at 6:38 pm

I think I still score it 1 for Murray, 0 for Heckman. Perry and Abecedarian are proof that overly involved passionate advocates can produce significant results in a small number of students in two small tests. How the federal government would find 50,000 teachers with the same skill and passion is left unsaid. Even if Obama found the congress to support this, Perry and Abecedarian would be replicated by the lowest bidder to politically connected donors providing the services on the cheap. What would be left in 5 years is billions spent, and results not achieved, which would support a dozen tenure appointments figuring out what went wrong …

14

bemused 12.09.12 at 6:51 pm

Coulter (12): See this article re Oklahoma universal preschool. Yes, Oklahoma.

15

Harry 12.09.12 at 6:57 pm

Coulter — read what Deming says, and get hold of his studies of Head Start.

Steve. I completely agree that education and training won’t transform the price of low-wage labor, even education that is offered where it might have real effects (if we’re going to have 13 years of compulsory school, let’s make it 3-16, rather than 5-18, so that instead of wasting the last two years paying teachers to be cops, we can use the first two years paying teachers to produce learning). But two thoughts. i) a change in the relative distribution of skills would have some effect on the price of different kinds of labor and ii) being better skilled in the specific ways Heckman describes (more self-control, more grit, etc) enables people in the worst parts of the labor market to cope better — eg, to be better able to psych out their line managers, etc — and, if the Perry and Head Start studies are right, make them less vulnerable to ill health, bad mental health, etc.

16

Eric Titus 12.09.12 at 7:06 pm

As I see it, one of the more controversial parts of Heckman’s argument is that inequality is a result of bad parenting. He states it most clearly at the end of his article: ” The scarce resource is love and parenting—not money.”
This claim is why Harry and Adam have to come galloping to Heckman’s defense. Early childhood interventions may be an imposition and reflect middle class white values (and accusatory sentiments such as Heckman’s), but the bottom line is whether they are better for kids. And it seems hard to argue that they aren’t–at what point of life isn’t education a plus, anyways?

I’m skeptical though, and for a few reasons. The first is that, as David Deming (dsquared’s lost twin?) points out, we already have Head Start, which is exactly what Heckman is proposing and, as far as I can tell, is not going to single-handedly solve social inequalities. It would be interesting to hear Heckman make some actual policy prescriptions–tripling Head Start funding for example. But maybe the modest gains from the precise sorts of programs he is proposing should be a signal that there is more to inequality than differences in intelligence and parenting?

But the deeper problem is what Harry calls a “less charitable” interpretation of Heckman, that his early childhood advocacy is just a sugar-coated “culture of poverty” argument. It’s because Heckman is stuck in this mindset that he believes the best we can do is to intervene in early life to provide the love and parenting children need–no need to discuss inequality among adults, they are a lost cause by age 16.
His motivations are also both highly economic and class-based:
“This powerful impact of birth on life chances is bad for individuals born into disadvantage. And it is bad for American society. We are losing out on the potential contributions of large numbers of our citizens. “
Heckman’s argument is both classist and anti-pluralist. He basically is saying: “We need to go into lower-income families at a young age to shape children into productive future citizens, because even when parents are present their methods are neither appropriate nor truly loving.”
There…an uncharitable interpretation of Heckman.

17

Eric Titus 12.09.12 at 7:20 pm

To restate in a less incendiary way: there’s plenty of good ways to argue for government-provided preschool education without arguing that inequality is the result of bad parenting or ignoring that programs like Head Start already exist. I also think Heckman could acknowledge that there are institutional reasons for the stability of educational inequalities within cohorts–not just developmental ones.

18

Steve LaBonne 12.09.12 at 7:23 pm

It might be interesting to try to explain to the Swedes that redistribution “doesn’t work”.

19

Harry 12.09.12 at 7:38 pm

We had a couple of posts about redistribution versus predistribution a few months ago (when I first drafted this one!), and daniel argued, convincingly to me, that redistribution has a lot going for it. But, if I remember it right, his paradigm was Belgium, which engages in a great deal of redistribution. Sweden, if I am right, engages in much less — wage rates are much more equal there than in the US, so getting egalitarian outcomes takes much less redistribution than it would here. (Belgium, if I am remembering it correctly, has very unequal wage rates, and government redistribution is what gets the egalitarian outcomes).

I don’t see any reason to attribute to Heckman the claim that poor parents do not treat their children in ways that are truly loving. Younger parents, and single parents, and poor parents, on average, are under more stress, and have less resources, and live in communities which have less resources, to devote to the development of children. Money, in the short to medium term, is just not all that the children need.

20

adam.smith 12.09.12 at 7:39 pm

@Steve (18)
I think that’s the crux of the debate, which is a lot more about strategy than policy:
1. The Swedes clearly think (and we both agree demonstrate) that redistribution works.
2. But the Swedes _also_ strongly believe in early childhood education – their system is generally considered to be one of the best in the world, with free and comprehensive childcare with highly trained preschool teachers starting at age 1.

So if a conservative like Heckman believes that you only need 2., but strongly believes in funding 2. – should a leftist like Henry (or me – or maybe you) who believes that you need 1 and 2 see him as a strategic ally in getting 2 or as an opponent in getting the complementary 1 and 2?
I go for strategic ally, but I don’t think the “opponent” view is without merits strategically.

21

Main Street Muse 12.09.12 at 7:47 pm

Curious to hear what people think of Chicago Public School’s offer of $25 gift cards to parents who actually pick up their child’s report card: http://huff.to/XGsv6C

From the HuffPost story: “The program is being viewed as a way to incentivize parents to stay more involved in their children’s academic lives. All of the schools selected to participate have had continual difficulty engaging parents.”

This is a district with a host of problems, including an epidemic of truancy. http://bit.ly/RQS2YX

22

LFC 12.09.12 at 8:12 pm

What would Heckman, who (I gather from the preceding) emphasizes *early* intervention, think of programs like this? (not a rhetorical question; I frankly don’t know):

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/american-graduate/july-dec12/diplomas_12-06.html

23

bemused 12.09.12 at 8:24 pm

Harry (19): Yes. E.g. Heckman cites the natural experiment of the casino income as the intervention that facilitates parenting change in low income families:

“Strengthening the observation that conventional measures of childhood adversity are inaccurate is a study of an American Indian population that was suddenly and unexpectedly enriched by the opening of a casino. The study showed substantial improvements in baseline measures of disruptive behavior among the children. The beneficial effects of the intervention were mediated by changes within the family. With more money, parental supervision of children improved, and there was greater parental engagement. In this natural experiment, income improved parenting, but it was the changes in parenting that reduced disruptive behavior. “

I don’t think this paragraph can be read as an assertion that loving increased among these parents. Rather, the resources were provided to allow parental love to be expressed.

24

Main Street Muse 12.09.12 at 8:36 pm

I find myself inspired by this inner city Chicago high school, located in Englewood; curious to hear what people hear think about their approach: http://www.urbanprep.org

25

Katherine 12.09.12 at 8:50 pm

Sweden, if I am right, engages in much less — wage rates are much more equal there than in the US, so getting egalitarian outcomes takes much less redistribution than it would here.

Isn’t that, in fact, predistribution – ie much more equitable allocation in the first place, requiring less redistribution thereafter?

26

LFC 12.09.12 at 8:55 pm

Katherine:
Unless I’ve missed something, I think that’s what Harry @19 said.

27

Harold 12.09.12 at 11:27 pm

Main Street Muse, here is an article that addresses the problem with charter schools:
http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20121209/OPINION03/312090024?nclick_check=1

28

Meredith 12.09.12 at 11:41 pm

I think I’d go with the “strategic ally” argument (or maybe modify it to “tactical ally”). If we can get the right to agree on the value of early education and other interventions, great. Maybe then HeadStart and other programs for the very young and their parents will get more support, from both the government and philanthropies. But, as always when making temporary alliances, you don’t stop pushing back, fighting the larger war. Poverty and redistribution issues, absolutely. “Interventions” at higher ages may not be hugely successful, but they shouldn’t be abandoned. (Heckman doesn’t say so, but he seems maybe to be implying that ALL resources should be poured into the earliest interventions.)

Let’s just not create false either-or’s. Such great complexities infuse all of this that no single approach will address the problems, here or in Sweden or in Belgium or anywhere.

I was really bothered by Heckman’s tendency to make parental “love” an issue. Dammit, poor people love their children every bit as much as middle class and rich people do, of that I am sure.

But let’s not romanticize the poor, either. I’ve been talking lately with a woman I know, maybe not poor right now, but constantly on the brink, and she has sometimes been poor. She lives in a world where friends and family go to jail for this and that, lots of drug addiction all around, crummy jobs if any jobs at all. She and her husband (yep, she is married, and her husband even has work these days, with some benefits) have two adolescent children, a 16-year-old boy who barely gets to each school day and a 13-year old daughter who simply refuses to go to school, not because of bullying or sexual abuse or anything like that — god only knows why. The court (truancy) and state social services have all gotten involved.

This woman so much wants her children to do better than she and her husband have done, financially and in other ways. But I am keenly aware of their lack of resources, not so much financial (a sudden increase in their personal wealth would help them little now in helping their children) as resources of knowledge and imagination. I didn’t know her when her children were young, but I can well imagine that help then would been more effective. At least now NY state sends tutors to her home for her daughter, who still refuses to go to school. And her daughter is excited about an alternative school she’s somehow learned about, where she could draw and cook (two things she loves). Mother’s response: this school sounds great, but we couldn’t possibly afford it! My advice: look into the financial aid they probably offer (they might offer financial aid? mom had had no idea). (Son, whom I know better: well, we’ll see. A nice boy, thoughtful in his way, but, well, an adolescent boy. I’ve been encouraging him to think a trade like carpentry. Mostly, I just talk with him, ask him about things, listen. But I don’t know where his head is — well, I do. Confirms why adolescence is a little late for “intervention”).

Another point. The weight of Heckman’s argument vs. the inexorable pressures for primary and secondary schools to solve all the problems of poverty — and these days, even here in MA, for state colleges to solve all those problems — very useful, strategically, or at least, tactically.

29

Bill Gardner 12.10.12 at 1:27 am

Heckman is insistent that lower quality of parenting is the most important factor in explaining the disadvantage in school readiness of lower SES children. I was surprised to see the phrase about love; I can’t remember seeing the world previously in his writing. What he thinks really matters is “motivation, socioemotional regulation, time preference, personality factors and the ability to work with others” (I would add: “for ‘school’ goals in a ‘school’ context”, because a lot of these kids may display significant motivation and self-denial toward non-school goals). What Heckman means by bad parenting is a claim that lower SES parents spend insufficient time cultivating a ‘school’ socialization during early childhood and this what he primarily means by lower quality parenting. The invidious word ‘quality’ is unfortunate, but the same point is made (with great sympathy for lower SES parents) by Annette Lareau.

30

Steve LaBonne 12.10.12 at 2:09 am

“School socialization”- and I say this as one who values education and has an advanced degree – is not an end in itself. It was a route to economic opportunity. But that link has seriously deteriorated. Educational improvements at any level will have much less than the hoped-for results until the structural problems that are destroying that link are attacked head-on.

31

Colin Reid 12.10.12 at 2:09 am

I’ve definitely heard the argument put forward that persistent poverty as it exists now in places like the UK (or more generally, places with a reasonably robust system of public services – the US is perhaps not such a good example) is mainly caused not by simple lack of money, but cultural problems. The evidence for this is that people of recent Indian or Chinese descent, whose ancestors came here with little money or social status in the UK but with a culture of commercial and educational ambition, have rapidly climbed to prosperity, whilst the White British poor as a group, together with second-generation immigrants whose ancestors were low-status famrers and labourers, have the lowest educational attainment among the poor and the least social mobility.

32

chris 12.10.12 at 3:13 am

Younger parents, and single parents, and poor parents, on average, are under more stress, and have less resources, and live in communities which have less resources, to devote to the development of children. Money, in the short to medium term, is just not all that the children need.

This seems somewhat contradictory — if the parents had more money, they could quit the second job, move to a nicer neighborhood (if *all* the parents had more money they could just improve the neighborhood they have), and by definition, they and their community would have more resources. And it would be surprising indeed if all of this didn’t decrease their stress.

Oh, and the children would be at less risk of malnourishment, which is already known to cause potentially *lifelong* impairment of brain functioning.

Money can’t buy you love, but it certainly can let you spend less of your time trying to get enough money to meet your basic needs, so that you have more to spend with the children you already love (but have to express that love by working long hours to feed them, rather than staying home and reading to them).

Also agree generally with Steve’s point — education may help an individual climb the ladder, but it won’t change the overall shape of the income distribution and the fact that the people at the bottom end are making really lousy wages. That’s basically a political issue and criticizing the home environment of anyone is at most a sideshow. Garbage must be hauled and someone will end up hauling it; if everyone in society has a postgraduate degree, then someone with a postgraduate degree will haul garbage.

It seems to me that this works equally well against Heckman’s points too: if, hypothetically, everyone in your society has a wonderful supporting home environment, then someone who has a wonderful supporting home environment will grow up to haul garbage anyway. So you’re either a society that treats and pays its garbage haulers decently or a society that makes its garbage haulers live in abject poverty or somewhere in between; individual efforts to secure more prestigious jobs won’t get society off the dilemma, because not everyone can succeed at that kind of thing at the same time.

Now, of course, a more pleasant home environment is desirable in its own right, which may or may not be true of education. But if you expect it to solve poverty on a societywide level, I think you’re in for a disappointment — an individual with those advantages escapes poverty, effectively, by taking the place of someone else who therefore falls into it. The whole economy isn’t zero-sum, but the competition among individuals for a place in the pecking order is.

33

adam.smith 12.10.12 at 3:23 am

@Harry (sorry for name confusion earlier on)
” Sweden, if I am right, engages in much less — wage rates are much more equal there than in the US, so getting egalitarian outcomes takes much less redistribution than it would here.”

The second part is right – Sweden does have lower inequality pre tax and transfers – but the difference to the US is actually relatively small. What accounts for the _much_ lower income inequality of disposable income are the generously redistributive transfers, see p. 2 here:
http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—travail/documents/publication/wcms_160436.pdf
(that’s also the point that Lane Kenworthy hammers on over and over)

34

Bill Gardner 12.10.12 at 3:51 am

“Garbage must be hauled and someone will end up hauling it”

Perhaps this is off the track of the Heckman discussion, but are you sure? My guess is that robots will be able to haul garbage soon enough. Then what happens? I really, really wouldn’t want to be without a good education in the later 21st century.

35

Gareth Wilson 12.10.12 at 3:58 am

On that particular point, no-one actually hauls my garbage. A mechanical arm picks up the bin and drops it in the truck, and the truck dumps it in a pit. The “garbage men” spend their time operating complex and dangerous machinery, and probably require more than a high school education.

36

Charrua 12.10.12 at 4:00 am

A couple of points: while it’s probably true that parenting more focused in achieving “motivation, socioemotional regulation, time preference, personality factors and the ability to work with others” would produce better educated kids, it’s not neccesarily true that it would produce more equal adults. As Steve says the distribution of jobs matter. And to a certain point, that distribution of jobs (which includes some degree of unemployment as a protection against inflation) changes what kind of parenting kids get. If we assume that, in a capitalist society, it’s necessary that a certain percentage of the population be unemployed (and Central Bankers seem to think this), and it happens that such misfortune tends to happen to the same people or their families (those of lower productivity, maybe), then what could be the motivation of such parents to prepare their kids for a middle class existence they aren’t going to achieve? Just to make sure they get really frustrated and angry?
Another point is that education is an arms race; you improve the education of poor kids, wealthier parents improve the education of their kids even more (as a parent, you want to make sure your kid isn’t among the frequently unemployed, right?), and after some time, a certain subset of the population has such low RELATIVE productivity that their jobs prospects make the possibility of a middle class life too distant to care.

37

bianca steele 12.10.12 at 4:28 am

The idea that better educated kids become more equal adults seems to go with one of two, related and very similar narratives: (1) There are a lot of good jobs for kids with high school or at least college diplomas, and a lifetime of underemployment awaits those who don’t graduate, security for those who do. (2) It’s possible for anyone who works hard to make it up from poverty or the working class to a decent salaried job (like teacher), and for their kids to then make it to the professions. But to the extent these aren’t appropriate any more, as noted above, there is something insulting about it, and it’s not surprising that to some it sounds misguided.

And (1) is, obviously, the flip side of “if you’re not at home by 9 every night including weekends, you’re clearly going to be pregnant by the time you’re 16 and you’ll never graduate or amount to anything” and similar narratives–something which nobody would ask of those upper-middle class suburban kids who think an elite college is their birthright.

38

QS 12.10.12 at 4:58 am

From the beginning he is blaming inequality on some transcendental force rather than the man-made socio-economy: “the accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today.” This sets an ominous, pop-intellectual tone for the article. Next, he says American society is divided into “skilled and unskilled,” which entirely leaves out “capital and wage labor” or “skilled but unemployed” or “skilled but deskilling via white collar drudgery” or “skilled but employed as a barista and drowning in debt” etc etc. He goes on to target the “family environment” not mentioning that the family operates in a much larger “environment” which largely determines whether both members (if the child is lucky to have two) have to work 40 hours a week and come home exhausted to “parent” their child. Good luck with that! Worse, a parent is unemployed and the child gets to deal with the alternate scenario which is living with the diminished resources of poverty.

The elephant in the room here is capital and its capture of the state. More and more people have less and less money and have to work harder/further/worse jobs to make their money, many drowning in debt of some form or another. Meanwhile, the state continues its retreat to the horizon and social safety nets disappear with it. We then blame parents and education, shifting attention from the basis of the economy to its symptoms.

Early education and family life matters, but they require state expenditure (vs. neoliberalism) and parents with time and energy for their kids (vs. slaving over jobs they can’t give up because they’re lucky enough to have health insurance/need to pay bills/the kid needs day-care etc etc). Sharply redistribute wealth to early education by taxing capital and reduce the work-week to 30 hours, then you’ll find programs for pre-schoolers and parents with more energy and time for their kids.

In sum, those who bemoan poor social outcomes without talking about neoliberalism contribute to the status quo. Heckman is speaking to a choir that already knows the importance of early education. Tell me: are you surprised by his findings? Do you plan on pre-schooling your kid? Those Others who are The Problem are going to remain so until enough Americans decide that the actual wealth redistribution taking place (up, not down) is destructive to society and makes demands for economic democracy, true universal education, universal health care, etc etc.

39

b9n10nt 12.10.12 at 5:03 am

“Deep” predistribution (in which the goal is to affect individuals’ development) will support egalitarianism and vice versa. Not only will a war on poverty allow parenting to increase and intensify, but a wise and compassionate “war” on anti- and asocial behavior will create citizens who demand and will work for a better society.

But neither of these “wars” can be fought until we have also begun fighting a “war” on the anti- and a-social elite. We have a culture of poverty in all socioeconomic classes: the poor, the middle classes, and the rich. It’s always been more polite to try and save the poor without changing the others, but ultimately any serious progress has and will require resocializing the successful.

Full employment (for the poor), sustainable growth (for everyone), and democracy (to treat the elite): wherever you start, you meet the others.

But, can’t we momentarily celebrate the Boston Review forum: we’ve evolved from “equality of opportunity! not socialism” to “equality of opportunity is socialism”.

40

Anarcissie 12.10.12 at 5:34 am

QS 12.10.12 at 4:58 am:

… The elephant in the room here is capital and its capture of the state. …

Capital is the state, in the sense that it forms the ruling class and controls the government of the state. The problem Heckman is trying to solve is how to preserve capitalism in spite of some of its destructive aspects, which necessarily include class and the injuries it produces. If capitalism produces too many losers, its political environment may become unstable. If it produces too few, it must go out of business. Heckman’s solution is to treat the presently excessive population of losers to a regime of intense bourgeois intervention at an early age, involving invasion of the family and bureaucratic manipulation of its most intimate relations. Given the likely expense, the chancy prognosis, and the lack of political will to solve far more pressing, far cruder capitalist problems, Heckman’s solution seems more like an idle fantasy than a practical plan — something to add a little flavor to the schmaltz of mainstream liberal public discourse without committing anyone to anything.

41

Meredith 12.10.12 at 5:56 am

Chris @32: “This seems somewhat contradictory — if the parents had more money, they could quit the second job, move to a nicer neighborhood (if *all* the parents had more money they could just improve the neighborhood they have), and by definition, they and their community would have more resources. And it would be surprising indeed if all of this didn’t decrease their stress.”

From “if the parents” on seems very right to me but not in competition with the part of Heckman you quote. When Heckman says, ” Money, in the short to medium term, is just not all that the children need,” he is right, at least for many people living in chronically poor environments. I’m all for taking advantage of the potential for common ground here — a strategic alliance. (Of course, it will take money to fund the kinds of program that Heckman implicitly advocates — lots of it! But giving the parents more money through redistribution, while helpful, would not address the need for other kinds of programs to help them and their children.)

As for garbage collection, or any low-skill but still important jobs, most of which no robot will be able to perform in any foreseeable future. The issue isn’t that people performing those jobs will ever need to have gotten A’s in AP English and Math. The issue is rather whether they can be relied on to show up for work on time, or even just to show up. And when they can’t make it to work, to call in and let their employer know. Really, such basic socialization can be lacking. Not to mention that basic literacy is important for balancing a “check book” or reading the label on a drug prescription, or reading an election ballot. I guess I am frustrated: do people here realize how profoundly limited the lives of generations living in chronic poverty really are?

42

ponce 12.10.12 at 6:43 am

@41

“I guess I am frustrated: do people here realize how profoundly limited the lives of generations living in chronic poverty really are?”

On average, we provide every American child with $150,000 worth of education before they enter the job market.

Maybe for some, there is a more…efficient way to spend that $150,000 on them?

43

Dr. Hilarius 12.10.12 at 7:33 am

I’m curious about how many of the commenters here at CT have first hand experience with dysfunctional underclass families. I know I’m going to get jumped on for this but there really is a culture of poverty. This culture tracks economic status but money is only part of the problem. Meredith@28’s friend is familiar to me. A large part of my law practice is representing parents (and sometimes the kids) where Child Protective Services has stepped in.

Many of these parents are incapable of coping even when given money and resources because of their deficits in the non-cognitive skills discussed by Heckman. These are people who can’t use a calendar to make appointments. This sounds trivial but not getting places on time means lost job opportunities, lost housing (getting a Section 8 voucher), going to jail for repeatedly missing court dates. The inability to disagree with someone without becoming abusive turns everyday encounters into potential fights. Jobs are lost because of absenteeism. Pre-natal care is ignored or forgotten, even when Public Health nurses are willing to drive expectant moms to their medical appointments. Mistakes of social judgment (for want of a better term) keep these parents in poverty and their children in unstable, deprived environments. What can you do with a young mother who already has three children by two fathers, whose only contribution to home life is violence, when she hooks up with a new boy friend who has seven children by seven women and supports none of them? Going to prison is an expectation for the boys. Having babies at an early age an expectation for the girls.

It is heartbreaking to watch a smart kid with great potential become increasingly mired in the parents unplanned, thoughtless lives. Sometimes there is a relative who can step in and mentor, serve as a refuge from the home, or even take custody of the kid. But all too often, no relative can be found who is any more capable than the deficient parent. I’m not talking minor problems. How about no households without a least one registered sex offender? Or none that can pass a not-very-rigorous criminal background check. Or where meth is accepted recreation? These families are not romantic proletarians who disdain “middle-class” values, they are profoundly handicapped in dealing with the greater world. Children born into these circumstances already have two strikes against them.

Heckman is correct that trying to correct early life problems is expensive and often shows poor returns. The problem is how to intervene positively in a child’s life when the rest of their existence is pulling them in the opposite direction. When I was young, schools and teachers were a refuge for some kids, including myself. But if school itself no longer serves that function, what’s left?

I don’t mean to minimize the role that economic injustice plays in the growing inequality in America. Being poor is hard work with little time left for anything beyond day-to-day survival. But the families I work with are not like the working-class kids I grew up with. There is a difference between being poor and being poverty-stricken. There is a difference between not having a good job and lacking the skills necessary for any job.

44

Alex 12.10.12 at 10:31 am

though the fundamental problem may well be poverty, elected officials are pretty determined to do very little to reduce poverty in general and child poverty in particular, so we need to look for policy levers that would improve the prospects of poor children without addressing their poverty

If it’s impossible to get any movement on poverty, why would it be possible to get any movement on education? If you think that the sources of poverty and inequality are in childhood (and there are some good reasons for thinking that), you ought to support a much better funded public education system and child-focused welfare state. I.e. welcome to the 1945 settlement, here’s your union card.

I suppose there’s some tactical mileage in appealing to “doing something for the children”. But in a political environment where any progress on poverty is ruled out a priori, I suspect what gets done will be yet another go round of this sort of bullshit going on legalised child abuse. It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a self-promoting bully to re-implement Dotheboys Hall and whenever they are given the chance they all try.

45

lt 12.10.12 at 11:52 am

It’s fascinating how everyone talks about good parenting, skills, socialization, as things other than money, or independent from money, that kids need: you do realize that when people have no money, they go to shitty jobs, that take them away from their children, who have to be left in patchwork child care arrangements, and they come home tired and stressed. Money buys time which buys rest and patience and it also buys socialization and skills. If it didn’t rich and upper middle class parents are very stupidly wasting tons of money on these things for their kids.

Also, if you’ve ever had a shit job, you know “skills required for low-wage work” basically means an ability to take shit day in and day out without showing frustration or anger.

46

Bill Gardner 12.10.12 at 12:03 pm

Heckman is concerned with the portion of inequality that derives from inequality in human capital. Socioeconomic differences in human capital formation lead to differences in the marginal productivity of workers, which lead to differences in employability and earnings. You can think this is true and also think that racism, sexism, and the capture of the state by capital also cause inequality.

47

Main Street Muse 12.10.12 at 12:28 pm

Dr Hilarious @43 describes the world where these educational issues unfold and it is unimaginably harsh and bleak. I once did a video for a Boys & Girls Club – every child we interviewed had seen, or stepped around, or had been told to avert their eyes from a dead body (murdered.) The Boys & Girls Club had started a mentoring program – they wanted to show the children that there were jobs outside of whore, pimp, dealer and gangbanger. The local HS had guards and metal detectors at the doors – and a daycare for the children of the students.

Some of these issues are economic – one resident of the housing project told me that the blacks who lived there were the last hired, first fired – when the manufacturing base dropped out in the early 1980s (when Reagan commenced his revolution), unemployment skyrocketed and families destructed.

I don’t know what the answers are – I feel we must acknowledge that we are dealing with socio-economic issues so dysfunctional and destructive that school has become irrelevant to survival. As Dr. Hilarious says – and its worth repeating:

“The problem is how to intervene positively in a child’s life when the rest of their existence is pulling them in the opposite direction. When I was young, schools and teachers were a refuge for some kids, including myself. But if school itself no longer serves that function, what’s left?”

48

lt 12.10.12 at 12:31 pm

But “inequality in human capital” can only mean two things: either the same factors of racism, sexism and capital, and the stress of being poor leads to that inequality, or you’re just saying that poor people are dumber.

49

Bill Gardner 12.10.12 at 1:19 pm

lt,
Inequality in human capital is inequality in skills or capabilities relevant to employment, whereas “racism, sexism and capital, and… stress” are causes of such inequality. I take it you want to discuss the causes. I think we probably agree on a lot of this.

It’s not clear to me what you mean by “just saying that poor people are dumber.” Poor people have on average fewer of the skills necessary to function in the “job” niche. (They have more skills necessary to function in other niches.) I don’t think this is in question. The important question is why? Heckman is not saying this is because ‘poor people have bad genes.’ Keep in mind that one of Heckman’s main enemies is Charles Murray and that he wrote a devastating review of The Bell Curve. Heckman is building an alternative theory of the familial transmission of human capital.

That’s Heckman. So what do I think are the causes of inequality in human capital? I think the causes are racism, sexism, the hand of the state on the side of capital, under-resourced schools, less access to health care, lack of good day care, more exposure to environmental poisons, more exposure to delinquent peers, …, and impoverished parents not training their kids in niche-relevant skills that the parents themselves often lack. Why don’t poor parents have employment-niche-relevant skills? Same answer: racism, sexism, … All these things matter, they all have to be fixed.

50

Tom West 12.10.12 at 1:38 pm

I’m obviously brain dead here. I’ve read Heckman’s initial piece, Murray’s response, but I can’t find Heckman’s response to Murray’s response. Would anyone be willing to provide a pointer?

Since in various arguments with others I get the IHDP study (and Peter Rossi) thrown at me, I’d like to have a decent number-based riposte to support what seems to me to be intuitively obvious.

51

liberal japonicus 12.10.12 at 1:56 pm

52

lt 12.10.12 at 2:28 pm

Bill Gardner: Right, neither you or Heckman are endorsing Murray’s line, but there are two points:

1) It’s not at all clear how much job skills actually are a factor and we do no that elites would rather talk about skills mismatches rather than deindustrialization, the war and drugs, deunionization and other driving factors.

2) To the extent that skills are a driving factor, if we accept that this is driven by poverty, it still makes sense to focus on poverty rather than approaches that think you can decouple “skills” from these issues, i.e. the phony school reform movement.

53

Barry 12.10.12 at 2:29 pm

Meredith: “….But let’s not romanticize the poor, either. ….”

An existence proof of the fact that there are some people who won’t be helped by any given program is not an argument against that program, but rather an acknowledgement that the world is flawed.

54

EB 12.10.12 at 3:06 pm

1. The “middle class parenting versus lower class parenting” idea gets at some realities, but is too simple. What geography are we talking about? what level of poverty? what nationality? The type of middle class parenting that Lareau talks about is more effective for some purposes, less so for others. And history has a lot to do with percieved differences — minority parents have always had to make sure they could control their children in public to avoid conflict with authority figures, right?

2. It’s also not “poverty” versus “parenting.” These factors are both hugely important, and they overlap. In the UK, child poverty is lower but massive family dysfunction cripples the academic and personal lives of the lower quarter of children nonetheless.

3. An intersting study that tried to identify what factors help children escape poverty, Sawhill, Winship, and Grannis’ Pathways to the Middle Class (published by the Brookings Institution in September) is helpful both in its parsing out of what individuals and society have to do to make that happen but also in that it reminds us that most children who start in the lowest quintile econmically (60%) end up escaping it. http://ww.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/09/20-pathways-middle-class

4. Dr. Hilarion is right, and if you have never seen family members sink economically because they just can’t cope, you are indeed lucky.

55

Bill Gardner 12.10.12 at 3:39 pm

56

ponce 12.10.12 at 3:49 pm

@52

“do no that elites would rather talk about skills mismatches “

Yep.

There are plenty of kids from wealthy families that do bery badly at school but still mysteriously manage to get great jobs.

57

dbk 12.10.12 at 5:12 pm

I spent a part of today reading Heckman’s BR piece, and found it very good indeed. I agree with others who’ve already noted that the argument against Heckman seems to rest on his acceptance of the income inequality status quo (as things stand). Still, he is proposing something that could address some of the vicious cyclical nature of such inequality in future generations.

It seems to me that the case for early support of children born into poverty makes sense both in terms of what we’re learning about developmental neurobiology (early deficits/deprivations cannot for the most part be compensated for later in life, particularly those caused by socio-emotional deprivation) and of what we know about more traditional forms of academic performance (skills beget skills). Btw, Heckman’s new-found use of the word love (which can be unbundled into pretty discrete components) has I think to do with his familiarizing himself with the neuroscientific literature on early deprivation, some effects of which are being shown to be irreversible from as early as age 2.

With respect to the next-to-last paragraph by Dr. Hilarius @43, I think that Heckman would respond that such early-life support/enrichment/enhancement as he has in mind would greatly strengthen psychological resilience to external adversity.

With respect to the high costs of early intervention noted by Walt@10, Heckman notes that costs factored into calculations about long-term productivity gains, which are estimated at 6-10%. Personally, it seems to me economically rational to invest in children’s early development to help them acquire all the core cognitive and socio-emotional capacities to live their lives to their fullest potential as individuals.

Overall his proposal seems a reasoned and reasonable form of societal predistribution to those born into poverty with all its concominant travails. To the commenter who noted that the real cause is poverty, and not an impoverished early environment, well, the two very often go hand in hand, but this does not mean that they cannot be decoupled for the purpose of addressing them. When it is impossible to address one, then one can attempt to address the other, pretty much as was done in passing the ACA. In neither is the better-than-it-was-before the enemy of the perfect (Single-payer, an end to economic injustice).

Any chance of the CT leadership inviting Lane Kenworthy to do a guest post on these and related issues?

58

mpowell 12.10.12 at 6:29 pm

dbk@57:

Following up on this point, I would say that the best political thing you can say for predistribution is that there is a very strong argument that it costs the state far less than redistribution in the long term. Of course, with the current Republican party (completely uninterested in actual governance) this is worthless, but there are plenty of Democrats who are basically just rational conservatives (largely because the Republicans have gone insane). And this type of argument can be very effective.

59

bianca steele 12.10.12 at 6:35 pm

There are plenty of kids from wealthy families that do bery badly at school but still mysteriously manage to get great jobs.

And there are a good number of people who rise economically without school skills having had much to do with it. Which is better more often: employee skills, entrepreneur skills, or coping without necessarily being successful skills?

60

Sam Hutchinson 12.10.12 at 7:52 pm

This pretty much solves the problem

61

QS 12.10.12 at 8:53 pm

What, precisely, are “entrepreneur skills”?

62

ponce 12.10.12 at 9:02 pm

“What, precisely, are “entrepreneur skills”?”

Peter Thiel says the most successful entrepeneurs in Silicon Valley all have Asperger’s…

63

bianca steele 12.10.12 at 9:15 pm

I assume that “more self-control, more grit, etc” as described in @15 manifests itself differently for someone who’s being trained to work an assembly line or behind the counter of a McDonald’s than it does for someone who’s being trained to expect that–whether there won’t be any regular jobs or for its own sake–he’s going to start his own business, drum up sales, make business plans from scratch, etc. I assume that someone who interprets it in the latter way isn’t going to turn out graduates who perform at McDonald’s to the satisfaction who was expecting the former.

Of course, those (in @59) aren’t the only options.

64

bianca steele 12.10.12 at 9:17 pm

Another option, for example, is training people to be better supervisors. If a worker without any organizational skills is a poor worker, a supervisor without them is a nightmare. That would also make life better for the people who work low-wage jobs.

65

bianca steele 12.10.12 at 9:33 pm

Plus, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs don’t have to drum up sales, Peter Thiel does that for them.

66

Barry 12.10.12 at 9:37 pm

I’m reposting this, because I can’t post it on Boston Review – it’s the best reply to Heckman yet (my bolding):

QS 12.10.12 at 4:58 am

” From the beginning he is blaming inequality on some transcendental force rather than the man-made socio-economy: “the accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today.” This sets an ominous, pop-intellectual tone for the article. Next, he says American society is divided into “skilled and unskilled,” which entirely leaves out “capital and wage labor” or “skilled but unemployed” or “skilled but deskilling via white collar drudgery” or “skilled but employed as a barista and drowning in debt” etc etc. He goes on to target the “family environment” not mentioning that the family operates in a much larger “environment” which largely determines whether both members (if the child is lucky to have two) have to work 40 hours a week and come home exhausted to “parent” their child. Good luck with that! Worse, a parent is unemployed and the child gets to deal with the alternate scenario which is living with the diminished resources of poverty.

The elephant in the room here is capital and its capture of the state. More and more people have less and less money and have to work harder/further/worse jobs to make their money, many drowning in debt of some form or another. Meanwhile, the state continues its retreat to the horizon and social safety nets disappear with it. We then blame parents and education, shifting attention from the basis of the economy to its symptoms.

Early education and family life matters, but they require state expenditure (vs. neoliberalism) and parents with time and energy for their kids (vs. slaving over jobs they can’t give up because they’re lucky enough to have health insurance/need to pay bills/the kid needs day-care etc etc). Sharply redistribute wealth to early education by taxing capital and reduce the work-week to 30 hours, then you’ll find programs for pre-schoolers and parents with more energy and time for their kids.

In sum, those who bemoan poor social outcomes without talking about neoliberalism contribute to the status quo. Heckman is speaking to a choir that already knows the importance of early education. Tell me: are you surprised by his findings? Do you plan on pre-schooling your kid? Those Others who are The Problem are going to remain so until enough Americans decide that the actual wealth redistribution taking place (up, not down) is destructive to society and makes demands for economic democracy, true universal education, universal health care, etc etc.”

67

Barry 12.10.12 at 9:42 pm

ponce 12.10.12 at 6:43 am
” On average, we provide every American child with $150,000 worth of education before they enter the job market.”

Two comments – first, averages are misleading; a child in a poor neighborhood is going to get far less.

Second, if their neighborhoods and lives s*ck, vast spending on education is sort of like surgery for an accident victim – a large sum of money on surgery will not make the victim whole.

68

Harold 12.10.12 at 9:56 pm

The money is spent largely on educating the extremely handicapped, some of whom need one-on-one — or two-on-one attention, plus special equipment and transportation. And while it is a good thing, we need to invest in the other populations as well.

69

ponce 12.10.12 at 10:14 pm

@66

“Second, if their neighborhoods and lives s*ck, vast spending on education is sort of like surgery for an accident victim – a large sum of money on surgery will not make the victim whole”

I agree.

But it makes you think.

Say you a poor family with three kids living in a bad neighborhood.

You can either hand each kid a mediocre education, or you can deposit $500,000 into the family bank account(or buy them a $500,000 annuity, or ???).

Which is better for the kids?

70

harry b 12.10.12 at 10:42 pm

Barry — in the summer I was at an event where a feminist who works on early childhood policy said something to this effect: “Some of us have been working in Washington for years to try and get the ear of policy makers, civil servants, and politicians, and getting almost nowhere. Suddenly Heckman turns up and everyone sits up and listens”. There was no trace of resentment, she is just happy about it. He is not preaching to the choir. Unlike me, he has access to the unbelievers, and chooses to speak to them.

71

Jason 12.11.12 at 12:20 am

As I read the article, I was thinking “Is Heckman from Chicago? Was he a student of Gary Becker? This sounds just like regurgitated ‘human capital’ stuff.” Imagine my shock when I looked him up and found him in the Econ dep’t at Chicago.

72

Jason 12.11.12 at 12:23 am

Oh yeah, and what Barry said. I mean come on, Heckman’s piece is absolute drivel.

73

Harold 12.11.12 at 1:21 am

Jason is correct.

74

Kevin 12.11.12 at 2:04 am

Regarding QS’s attempted takedown of Heckman and Barry’s laudatory reposting (for which he is then given credit by the very confident Jason): Obviously, ‘chance’ is not intended by Heckman in any sort of transcendental sense and the assertion that it is the principal source of inequality is entirely consistent with the man-made socio-economy having enormously important effects once once one is born. He just means where and to whom one is born is an accident — and one that powerfully affects one’s life chances. It certainly does seem possible that those who deny this obvious point – or consider it ‘drivel’ – could be appealing to transcendental forces in ways set a highly questionable intellectual tone, though.

75

Jason Weidner 12.11.12 at 2:36 am

Sorry, Barry, for crediting you for the post you re-posted. Or sorry QS. I don’t deny the obvious point that the material life of an individual in a capitalist society is determined in large part by the chance of what socioeconomic circumstances said individual is born into. This is not only obvious, but trivial. Neoliberal theory focuses on the individual level, the individual as a source of human capital, and asks how best to maximize the individual’s human capital. It assumes that without changing the basic socioeconomic structure that all individuals can attain a sufficient level of well-being, which is odd since neoliberal theory also emphasizes the importance of competition in encouraging individuals to maximize their own human capital. However, competition also means winners and losers.

76

QS 12.11.12 at 3:41 am

@73

“The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today.”

Either Heckman is saying that the “accident of birth” causes inequality or he needs remedial education in English.

77

Peter T 12.11.12 at 4:26 am

I was struck by this @35: “The “garbage men” spend their time operating complex and dangerous machinery, and probably require more than a high school education.”

Why is operating a garbage truck more complex than operating a tractor with plough? Which plenty of people did without any education. And people with primary education fixed them, and sometimes built them. We often seem to be trying to meet the need for practical skills with formal education, which is a bit like teaching tennis through aerodynamics, and end up with many people who are overqualified but unskilled.

78

b9n10nt 12.11.12 at 4:44 am

Jason Weidner:

” It assumes that without changing the basic socioeconomic structure that all individuals can attain a sufficient level of well-being, which is odd since neoliberal theory also emphasizes the importance of competition in encouraging individuals to maximize their own human capital. However, competition also means winners and losers.”

The claim is that competition for providing services spurs innovation & technological advances that generate efficiencies in production that accrue to winners and losers alike. (“the losers today have IT goods and medical care that would be the envy of the wealthiest elite of the 70s”). To the true believers in market competition, your rendition will warm them up to a smug rebuttal, I think.

QS’s reminder that dull, demeaning, and repetitive work limits a life wherein ones character can be a source of flourishing for oneself and others. But this is hardly an excuse not to intervene and support children who are caught in a maelstrom of adult delinquency. I will believe that those who are working for incremental, palliative social remedies are merely the soft winds of a storm for revolution that blows off shore. Faced with fundamental ignorance, why choose cynicism?

79

Harold 12.11.12 at 4:45 am

The machinery of today is much more difficult than that of times past. I don’t know about automated garbage trucks particularly. But sailing a container ship or maintaining a tall skyscraper requires a specialized knowledge of computers.

80

Jason Weidner 12.11.12 at 5:05 am

b9n10nt:

I think you’re conflating individuals with firms. Neoliberals of course believe competition is the best state of affairs for both firms and individuals. But “innovation & technological advances that generate efficiencies in production that accrue to winners and losers alike” is at the level of firms. You and I competing for jobs doesn’t in and of itself generate new technology or innovations. But neoliberals believe it is a crucial motivator to maximize your and my productive potentials. The theory of human capital as developed by Gary Becker and others focuses on ways of maximizing human productivity. However, a major conundrum for neoliberal theory is that if the economy is structured as a competitive game, what do you do with the losers of said game? Providing them with a social safety net is precluded by the fact that the game is predicated on the fear of losing to motivate the participants. That is why all that neoliberals like Becker and Heckman can do is focus on the factors that would boost individuals’ competitivity. Or, to put it differently, neoliberal theory REQUIRES a focus on “predistribution” (which is really anything but) because it a priori PRECLUDES redistribution.

81

adam.smith 12.11.12 at 5:15 am

@Harold -
“The machinery of today is much more difficult than that of times past. “
That not true. While some machinery is certainly more complicated, for the vast majority of jobs, especially in the service sector, technology has lowered the required skill level. There are countless examples, but perhaps scanner registers and McDonalds – style food assembly lines are the two most striking ones, not least because retail and low-end food service employ so many people.

@QS – I have no idea what you’re talking about. The “accident of birth” is a very simple argument: Whether I’m born as the kid of Mitt Romney or as the kid of a single mom in the projects is the most important determinant of where I’ll end up in society. I don’t really see what’s to argue with that? What do you think it means?

82

Kevin 12.11.12 at 5:25 am

QS: Isn’t it far more natural (in the context of his actual discussion) to read Heckman as meaning : A principal problem is how to identify measures that will effectively correct for the inequalities that arise (i.e. ‘a principal source’) as the result of vast differences of luck in the birth lottery? Answer: Yes.

83

adam.smith 12.11.12 at 5:28 am

@Jason -
I’m not sure who you talk about when you say “neoliberalism” – but redistribution is, in fact, a standard argument in the neoliberal argumentative toolkit. A typical neoliberal argument is that free trade is good because it increases total prosperity. Neoliberals are aware that via Stolper Samuelson free trade has distributive consequences. But no problem, the neoliberal says – we let the market determine what’s produced where and by whom, and then we use taxes & transfers to get to the income distribution we want .
That’s what you’ll read in pretty much any econ text book, that’s what you’ll see people like Matt Yglesias, who call themselves neoliberals say etc. Obviously there is a lot to critique about this and there have been some very good threads on critiques of neoliberalism on this blog over the last couple of years, but your pseudo-clever attacks on a strawmen are certainly no addition to that.

84

Jason Weidner 12.11.12 at 5:50 am

adam.smith:

I’m using the term neoliberal in a fairly conventional way to describe economists like Gary Becker and James Heckman, who are theorists of human capital. This has little to do with what you are describing as standard macro econ theory. It’s a radically new way for thinking about how to govern individuals in a market society.

I haven’t read enough Yglesias to understand where he fits into this, but I take it that he believes that there is nothing inherently wrong with market mechanisms but would also favor redistributive policies. Whether or not that’s really “neoliberal” then depends on how one defines the term. If Yglesias considers himself neoliberal, who am I to say otherwise. But my point was that for neoliberals like Becker and Heckman, or perhaps I should just call them human capital theorists, their theoretical commitments pretty much preclude redistribution because it would interfere with the mechanism of competition. Thus, if they wish to address the reality of inequality, they are forced from the outset to focus on improving the “stock” of human capital, and not adjust for the ways that the market ends up employing that capital.

I’m not sure which strawmen you think I’m attacking, but I’d be glad to hear what you think I’ve got wrong in my depiction of neoliberal human capital theory.

85

b9n10nt 12.11.12 at 5:56 am

add Milton Friedman’s support for a negative income tax as evidence that this neoliberal predistribution vs. socialistic redistribution dichotomy is flawed. Or simply the note the fact that Jason predicts (if taken literally) that Hickmen supports specifically replacing transfers to adults with a thousand Head Starts. Maybe he’s saying don’t seek more transfers, but that’s not the dichotomy that Jason asserts.

At any rate, to accept Heckman style predistribution does not require support for any larger policy for market liberalization.

86

adam.smith 12.11.12 at 8:00 am

@Jason
what you have wrong is that
a) Becker and Heckmann, while both generally interested in human capital, are doing entirely different things. Becker is mainly a theorist who does some applied micro and works with what I would agree are rather ludicrous assumptions about rationality (cf. “rational addiction”) Heckmann is an econometrician who throughout his career has been much more interested in establishing empirical relationships than in coming up with any larger theories.
b) even with Becker-style mico you can have “incentive-compatible redistribution” – you can google scholar this if you care about the details, but the short (and somewhat simplified) version is that as long as redistribution keeps the rank-order of the pure market distribution of income intact, it doesn’t cause a problem for people’s incentive to work. (b9n10nt’s Friedman/negative income tax example is very good here – that’s a perfect case of this type of redistribution)

87

QS 12.11.12 at 6:25 pm

@Kevin

No. Inequalities do not arise as a cause of the birth lottery, inequalities arise for a whole host of socio-economic and political activity and institutions that create the social inequalities into which you are born. You elide the source of inequality (capitalism) in your honing in on what happens to people birthed into one family or another.

88

ezra abrams 12.11.12 at 8:16 pm

if murray is correct in saying that heckman s argumnet is based on perry and abrecadarian, programs with ~ 100 students
if this is correct
then heckman is a total bs artist; you can’t conclude anything from a program that small
to quote heckman, in blood pressure…
well, what you find in almost any clinical study, you can get any damm effect you want with 100 subjects
most of these effects dissapera with larger groups

89

Harold 12.11.12 at 8:23 pm

There are lots of other studies that show substantial and life-long positive effects from pre-school. It is like smoking and tobacco.

90

C. Van Carter 12.11.12 at 8:25 pm

Heckman writes: “evidence from epigenetics, which studies how environmental factors affect gene expression in ways that are heritable, suggests that the gene-environment distinction that shaped The Bell Curve and so much other discussion about the origins of inequality is obsolete”

Complete nonsense, which leaves us with only one possible acceptable explanation: evil spirits.

91

Watson Ladd 12.11.12 at 9:03 pm

QS: Part of what lead to the postwar boom in the US was the additional investment in skilled labor the war had created. The political factors were important, but high skilled workers are capable of being more productive and so commanding higher wages regardless of competition effects.

Think about knitting. If socks cost $20 and you increase the skill of the knitter to double their productivity, you’ve increased their wages by 2x. Now, granted the price will change in response, but for some industries this is not a big effect.

92

mpowell 12.11.12 at 9:09 pm

Jason @ 79:

Sorry, your argument is just terrible. There are certainly interesting and probably valid critiques of various neoliberal economic models, but you cannot refute them on these terms. It’s simply not true that rewarding productivity at the firm level only increases economic productivity. It is quite easy to see how rewarding people who do their job well will result in everyone or most people doing their job better and greater prosperity. For your argument to make sense it is necessary for you to smuggle in assumptions about any increases in individual productivity being entirely captured by the firm or alternatively, that competing for your job or increases in pay do not increase productivity at the individual level (the simple rationale here is that people can generally work more or less hard) or possibly engaging in a simple lump of labor fallacy. Either of the first two might be true, but you have to actually prove it. You can’t just assume it as part of your critique.

93

Marc 12.11.12 at 10:29 pm

Small samples have large variance, and so if you find effects in them they’re likely to be substantial. Heckman *answers* the small sample critique in proper statistical fashion – I’d encourage reading his response to Murray, which I find to be both withering and correct.

A bigger problem is that excellent programs may not scale up well to large populations, but that’s different from the question of whether you can learn anything meaningful from a small study. You absolutely can, just as you can precisely predict election outcomes with truly random samples of a few hundred. Properly accounting for systematic errors is the real issue.

94

engels 12.11.12 at 11:08 pm

The feminists support me in email!

95

engels 12.11.12 at 11:13 pm

(Apologies for the drive-by. I’m gone.)

96

Jason Weidner 12.12.12 at 12:42 am

adam.smith (@86):

I’ll admit that I hadn’t read any Heckman before this. I have read quite a lot of Becker. It appears from a casual glance at Heckman’s work that he is more empirically oriented and less theoretical than Becker, but that his empirical research is very much consistent with the theoretical framework established by Becker and others. I’ll be glad to be corrected if that’s not the case.

Now, it’s true that Friedman proposed a negative tax, although he never really did much to advocate for that, certainly nothing even close to his advocacy for privatization, deregulation, etc.–leading one to question how much that was a cover for what were otherwise regressive policies social welfare-wise.

It’s also true that other neoliberals are okay with some forms of assistance to the poor, but notice that the basis for that, as it appears to be with Heckman, is not really a question of promoting equality, social welfare, or even the general well-being; it’s a question of efficiency. For neoliberals like Becker and Heckman (and, yes, their position is fundamentally the same on this), looking through the lens of human capital means seeing poor people as wasted resources, as symptomatic of an underinvestment in their human potential.

While it is certainly laudable to wish to invest in people (and how could one not be in favor of this?) this leaves out the more important question of why some people have less ability to thrive than others. Or, rather, it focuses on the individual instead of the larger social and economic structures that are productive of the poor, the precarious, and the marginalized. But this is a point made others have already made here and in response to Heckman’s original article.

mpowell: Okay, even if we accept that for neoliberal theory competition between individuals for jobs leads to technological innovation (and I’m not convinced that’s the case), it’s still tangential to my argument.

97

slim's tuna provider 12.12.12 at 1:28 am

i think that heckman’s approach may have the benefit of solving the political problem, at the very least. if the poor behave more like the middle class, the middle class will have more trouble voting for policies to hurt the poor.

in other words, while we can debate what the causes of the “culture of poverty” are and whether it’s “real”, to the average person it sure LOOKS real. hell, it even looks real to me, a lifelong democrat. on a pissy morning, i wonder why i vote with the guys who are not subjected to the tyrranny of an outlook calendar (answer — in part because the other side also has those guys, and they want me out of the country fur being a goldurn commie immigrant jew).

on the other hand, the number of people who recently viciously turned on their neighbors who are teachers and nurses because they were in a union may make my comment look stupid.

98

purple 12.12.12 at 3:25 am

There is poverty because WalMart jobs pay $8.00 an hour. It’s not complicate.

If you want to reduce poverty a good start would be to double the minimum wage.

Then maybe those ignorant poor folks could take their kids to private ballet lessons.

99

Watson Ladd 12.12.12 at 3:40 am

purple, the poor people we are talking about are not working two minimum wage jobs with a stable family. They are alternating between various informal sectors of the economy, prison, and various support services. This isn’t about working class suburbs. This is about the South Side and rural Appalachia, places where you have families where no one has ever held a steady job. These people don’t even count in the unemployment rate, because they aren’t looking for jobs or are incarcerated.

100

Meredith 12.12.12 at 6:25 am

@99Watson Ladd, and in support: or, they’re working two minimum wage jobs (or make that three, or four, or more) with a (well, pretty, sorta) stable (= not utterly dysfunctional) family AND alternating between all the things you cite. It’s also about rural New England or probably rural anywhere, not to mention urban anywheres. OF COURSE larger issues of re- and pre-distribution are crucial. In the meantime, in-between time, as process working toward the full time, we need to attend to the real limitations and needs of here-and-now people. Both big and small at once. Ain’t we got fun. (No, and yes, if we stop quibbling with one another.)

101

Harold 12.12.12 at 6:38 am

It is definitely rural Maryland.

102

Meredith 12.12.12 at 6:46 am

Wondering about the song, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” that rattles around in my head as I think about this whole post and that I’ve known, somehow, since forever, I checked Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ain't_We_Got_Fun%3F

Worth a look. We Americans have been here before (or never really left).

103

dbk 12.12.12 at 7:44 am

Directly relevant to the OP: a piece up on alternet re: Oklahoma’s early education program, gradually introduced over the course of the past 10-15 years. Today it includes nearly all four-year-olds, and is set to include nearly all three-year-olds in the immediate future. The results, which were tested for across the entire Tulsa school system, are impressive, as are the legislative and funding strategies employed to secure the program long enough to ensure its stability/success.

Lane Kenworthy, btw, has an opinion piece up on CSM, where he cites Heckman’s work.

104

Suzanne 12.12.12 at 11:22 pm

” Late remediation strategies designed to compensate for early disadvantage—job training programs, high school classroom size reductions, GED programs, convict rehabilitation programs, and adult literacy programs—are not effective, at least not as currently constituted, and not on their own.”

Seems a tad dismissive. It’s understandable that job training programs have limited success for those who’ve already been laid off, unemployed for some time, and thus automatically dismissed as undesirables by prospective employers, to take only one possibility. I understand that in Germany, for example, workers receive their job training upgrades while on the job without being fired. I can well believe these remedies are ineffective “as currently constituted,” but that seems to miss the point.

97″…. if the poor behave more like the middle class, the middle class will have more trouble voting for policies to hurt the poor. ”

That was part of the rationale behind Clinton’s welfare reform, as I remember. Low regard for the poor does not appear to have been unduly mitigated in the decades since.

105

Greg Marquez 12.13.12 at 12:32 am

Little dissappointed that you didn’t link to Carol Dweck’s response. She’s a Stanford Prof. who’s been studying these things from a different perspective for years. She’s focusing on getting people to stop thinking that they are more or less talented, more or less inteligent, more or less good at math, and instead teaching them that talent, inteligence, math ability are growable. She’s had some great results.

106

et 12.13.12 at 4:46 am

Why is “Mother’s level of education” considered a constant?
A lot cab change in 18 years.

107

Barry 12.13.12 at 1:09 pm

Greg, could you please link to some good examples of her work?

Thanks!

108

joe koss 12.13.12 at 4:03 pm

Very nice compendium. Thanks for the post.

I lived in Tulsa for 1 year, and it seemed to me that one of the great community benefits of their Pre-K program is that it has been completely absorbed into the K-12 system, both at the policy and funding level and in the minds of just about everyone else, so that school starts at 4, or 3 even now in some parts around Tulsa, and everyone views this as the status quo.

The first policy move by the Obama and the Department of Ed to me would seem to be to mimic this, so that Pre-K and its funding isn’t something additional we tack on if we have the extra money, and cut when we don’t, but rather it is something we just start “schooling” with.

It also helps that Tulsa has George Kaiser.

Comments on this entry are closed.