The Son Also Rises: Tips for Optimizing Your Life

Unlike most books on Big Picture economics, which might be interesting to the average person but useful only to legislators and central bankers, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility has important life lessons for most people.

As noted in my previous posting regarding this book, Clark says that we middle-aged folks shouldn’t infer too much from the age at which our parents die. If they die young we shouldn’t spend like drug dealers and save only enough for a burial plot. If they are healthy 90-somethings we shouldn’t be saving intensively because we can in fact plan to live only three additional years beyond our conditional-only-on-our-own-age life expectancy.

What about parenting? I ran into a friend the other day at Trader Joe’s. She and her husband live in Cambridge and send their kids to an elite private elementary school so that they won’t end up in Massachusetts’s most expensively funded public school system (in which I was a volunteer tutor, an experience that I describe as “I taught third grade math… to 11th graders”). Another parent at the school asked her if she was taking the children to after-school math and music programs. She replied that she was just letting them play at home with the golden retrievers and the other parent said “So you’ve given up on them getting into Ivy League colleges.” The Son Also Rises would have been useful in this situation, with a complete chapter on “Escaping Downward Mobility.” Here are some excerpts:

For a long period, from at least 1880 to 1980, the rich and socially successful sharply limited their fertility. Their fewer children would thus each inherit more parental assets and gain a larger share of parental time and resources, than the abundant children of the poor. Yet despite a willingness to spend big in terms of time and treasure, we know that the law of social mobility exercised an inexorable pull , drawing families toward the mean.

There is strong persistence of status, but those at the top of the social hierarchy in societies such as the United Kingdom , the United States, and Sweden will inevitably see their children, on average, move down. Further, the rate of regression downward to the mean is the same for the upper echelons of society, despite their considerable investments in their children, as is the rate of upward mobility for the lower echelons, even the ones who don’t bother to turn up for the PTA meetings.

The empirical evidence that middle- and upper-class parents can significantly boost their children’s human capital and economic outcomes through expenditure on children is weak, …

This is all consistent with the idea that once parental inputs to children reach a certain basic level, which does not include Baby Einstein toys, playing Mozart to babies in the womb, or sending them to the Dalton School, parents can do nothing to improve outcomes for children. Beyond this point, social outcomes are potentially all in the genes, determined at the point of conception … [emphasis added]

In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Caplan points out correctly that upper-class parents pointlessly invest too much time in the rearing of their children. In his view, genetics is what matters, so you might as well have more children, invest less in each, and enjoy being a parent more.

Or she could have just rammed the other mom with her SUV…

Should you try to work extra hard to make more money because it will help your children? Clark cites the studies of adopted children whose future income was not influenced by parental income (i.e., growing up in a McMansion because your parents enjoyed sufficient cashflow does not make you more likely to have enough income to afford a McMansion). Clark also looks at a study of the children of winners of an 1832 land lottery in the state of Georgia. Each parcel of land was worth as much as the median wealth in Georgia circa 1850, equivalent to roughly $150,000 today. How did the children of the winners do?

They were no more literate than the children of losers. Their occupational status was no higher. Their own children in 1880 (the grandchildren of the 1832 winners) were again no more literate. Worse, they were significantly less likely to be enrolled in school than the grandchildren of the losers. … Wealth is not statistically higher for lottery winners’ children…

Clark also reviews a study of Cherokee Indians who, starting in 1998, received substantial boosts to their income from casino profits. For children who had not been living in poverty, “there was no measurable change in any educational outcomes, including high school graduation rates…” This was despite the fact that a child who graduated high school would immediately become eligible for his or her own $4,000-per-year payment.

The same chapter in The Son Also Rises summarizes a study of a Norwegian county that became wealthier as a result of an oil boom compared to other Norwegian children: “The income gains in Rogaland had no effect on the years of education achieved by children there.”

[Note that the these studies may explain an apparent paradox that we uncovered in interviewing divorce litigators nationwide. They told us that the more child support that a child was yielding for a plaintiff, the worse the child turned out as a young adult. Due to the never-final nature of custody and child support litigation, attorneys inadvertently followed children longitudinally to age 18 or 23, depending on the state. None of the children were in poverty because at least one parent had enough income to be worth suing. Children in jurisdictions where the maximum child support obtainable was reasonably close to the cost of adding a child to a home (about $4300 per year, according to UCLA prof Bill Comanor) did better than children in jurisdictions where the winner parent could live very comfortably off the child. Example maxima for a single child are $4,000 per year (Sweden), $8,000 per year (Denmark), $13,000 per year (Nevada), $20-25,000 per year (Minnesota, Texas, North Dakota), $71,000 per year (Utah), $infinity (California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin). Foreign readers: in the U.S. there is no requirement or expectation that child support dollars received by a parent be spent on the child; since the early 1990s by federal law the child of a one-night encounter will yield the same revenue as a child of a marriage.]

What if you’re not married yet? Backed up with a lot of charts and data Clark says the same thing that an Indian or Chinese grandmother would say: “look at the whole family”. Did you just meet someone who is smart and successful? Clark gives you the green light if their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, et al., are also smart and successful. If the relatives are “low status,” however, the person you just met likely was simply lucky and your mutual children cannot count on that luck. Here’s a more thorough explanation:

Is there anything that this book can say to people who want the best possible income, wealth, education, and health outcomes for their children? The one scientific contribution we can make is to point out that with the appropriate choice of mates, a family can avoid downward mobility forever. The chapters above emphasize that one of the things that slows social mobility is the assortative nature of marriage. People in all societies tend to marry others of similar social status.

But no matter how assortative mating may become, downward mobility will continue. For downward mobility is driven by the fact that people typically select mates who resemble them on the basis of observed social characteristics— their achieved education, income, occupational status, wealth, height, weight, and health. 8 This is their social phenotype, the sum of their observed characteristics. However, as we have seen above, we can usefully think of individuals as also having a social genotype, or underlying social status. Their social genotype produces the observed phenotype, but with random components in each dimension. This means that the people currently occupying the upper tails of the distribution of education, wealth, and occupational prestige tend to include disproportionately the lucky, the ones who benefited from happy accidents. Systematically, at the top, the phenotype is better than the genotype. Symmetrically, concentrated at the bottom are people who have experienced bad luck and unhappy accidents. There, the social genotype is much better than the observed phenotype. The curse of the elite is that they are surrounded by imposters, possibly including themselves , and thus the marriage market for the upper classes is full of prospects likely to underperform as carriers of a lineage. In contrast, the bottom of the marriage market is full of potential overperformers. Bad luck dominates, rather than bad social genotypes. So outcomes for the next generation tend to be better.

If the way to produce children of the highest possible social phenotype is to find a partner of the highest possible social genotype, the path is clear for those whose aim in life is to produce the highest-achieving progeny possible. To discover the likely underlying social genotype of your potential partner, you need to observe not just their characteristics but also the characteristics of all their relatives. What is the social phenotype of their siblings and their parents? And what is the observed status of their grandparents and cousins? The point here is not that any of these relatives will contribute anything directly to the social and economic success of your child. As far as can be observed, they will not. But the social status of the relatives indicates the likely underlying social status of your potential mate. This social genotype, rather than the observed social phenotype, is what your children will inherit. …

a recent study in Japan examined the effects of the educational attainment of grandparents, aunts, and uncles on both sides of a family on children’s probability of going to university. Controlling for the parents’ education, there was a positive correlation between the education level of all four sets of relatives and the child’s probability of attending university.

Clark, writing from Davis, California rather than Los Angeles or San Francisco, did not reflect on the fact that marriage is not a prerequisite for reproduction, that seeking a mate via marriage is genetically irrational, and that, in most U.S. states, having children in a stable marriage is economically irrational. As explained below, a higher status mate can typically be found for a one-night encounter than for a marriage and, holding the number of children constant, state law makes tapping the income of multiple reproductive partners more lucrative than tapping the income of just one.

Here’s an excerpt from our own book:

“Women who want to make money from the system aren’t getting married anymore,” said one lawyer. “The key is recognizing that it is a lot easier to rent a rich guy for one night, especially if he has had a few drinks, than it is to get a rich guy to agree to marriage.” Another disadvantage of marriage, from a plaintiff’s perspective, is that it prevents what attorneys call “forum shopping.” A plaintiff who is married in Texas is stuck with Texas law and $20,000 per year in child support for a single child. A plaintiff who isn’t married and who has a good understanding of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) may be able to sue a Texas defendant under California, Massachusetts, New York, or Wisconsin law and collect millions of dollars. [A factor for jurisdiction under UIFSA is “the nonresident engaged in sexual intercourse in the state and ‘the child may have been conceived by that act of intercourse’,” which can make a weekend trip to Boston or Los Angeles pay substantial long-term dividends.]

Suppose that a woman is one of the “people who want the best possible income, wealth, education, and health outcomes for their children” about whom Clark writes. What the attorney above says regarding “rich guy” would apply equally to “high status man from family with high social competence.” Clark talks about “the assortative nature of marriage” in which a high-status man would only be willing to marry a high status woman. But the attorneys interviewed say that these assortative rules don’t apply to brief encounters. Here’s a Massachusetts attorney quoted in our book:

“There are a lot of women collecting child support from more than one man,” Nissenbaum noted. “I remember one enterprising young lady who worked as a waitress at Boston’s Logan airport. She targeted three airline pilots, had a child by each of them, and back then [1980s] was collecting $25,000 in tax-free child support from each pilot.”

Informed by Clark’s book, a young woman today could get a job in or near a hospital and, after making what seemed like small talk regarding family background (“Are your parents also doctors?”; “What do your grandparents do back in the old country?”), identify fathers for her future children. Nearly every state makes it more profitable to have children with multiple co-parents, so she will want to have just one child with each man. For example, at the top of the Massachusetts guidelines, which cover up to $250,000 in parental income, four children with one father would yield $58,188 (tax-free; more than the median household income for the state) for a 23-year period while four children with four different fathers would yield $160,576 per year in tax-free revenue (plus health insurance, day care, and other direct expenses of the child), roughly equivalent to earning $250,000 per year pre-tax. Using this method instead of marrying a high-school sweetheart of average status, the mother would have a superior genetic endowment for her children. Without working, she would have more spending power than any of the defendant fathers yet without investing time or money in college. [Why more spending power? She’ll have the same after-tax income as each father, but she herself is not being tapped for child support by anyone.] Her household income will be comfortably in excess of what The Son Also Rises says is sufficient to create an environment that enables children to flourish as adults.

[If the mother were to find high-status fathers earning more than $250,000 per year, we found that judges in Middlesex County at least would tend to extrapolate beyond the guidelines and, in the words of Judge Maureen Monks, “Maybe there is no limit” (prior to awarding a plaintiff $94,000 per year in child support for a single child; see “Women in Science”). So if this young lady were to reside in Cambridge and target medical specialists she could easily find herself with a tax-free income of over $400,000 per year.]

Attorneys also pointed out that when seeking child support profits via a brief encounter, their plaintiff clients don’t limit the search to men who are currently single. Having a child with a married man may be more lucrative than having a child with a single man. Why? When child support is discretionary, e.g., in higher-income cases, a plaintiff can ask for 100 percent of a married defendant’s income on the grounds that the defendant’s wife can support him and any marital children while he supports the plaintiff and her out-of-wedlock child. Attorneys also told us about larger-than-guidelines cash transfers that they negotiated in exchange for keeping an extramarital encounter, and the resulting child, out of the public record.

Does anyone actually target physicians? An Arkansas litigator described some of his work with medical professionals: “When I see young doctors working with attractive nurses I think that’s just like hunting in a baited field.”

Note that despite the gender-neutral nature of the laws in most states, the above optimal strategies for producing high-status offspring (and living comfortably without working) are not available to men in the U.S. Women are able to decide whether or not to carry a baby to term. Attorneys in every state except Alaska, Arizona, and Delaware (where 50/50 custody is the norm and a high-income mother would have exposure to paying the father) told us that a woman would be able to retain primary custody, and therefore the associated child support cash flow, of a child born out of wedlock.

One objection to this method of producing high-status offspring is that children of separated parents in the U.S. tend to be psychologically damaged compared to children reared in a two-parent home. However, a comprehensive Swedish study by Malin Bergstrom suggests that the damage comes not from separation but from the American system of selecting a “primary parent” and relegating the other (secondary) parent to an every-other-weekend role. Children in Sweden who grew up in a 50/50 timeshare arrangement with separated parents were almost as healthy and happy as children in intact families. What’s the value of having high-status offspring if they aren’t happy or healthy? The necessary tweak to the above strategy is the mother persuading the fathers to take care of the children 50 percent of the time. By Massachusetts formula, as long as she doesn’t herself work, her child support revenue will not be reduced in this event. What’s the incentive for the fathers to cooperate? They must take care of the children at least 33 percent of the time or be exposed to the judge ordering them to pay more than the guideline formula amount. If they already have allocated a room in their house to the child for 33 percent of the time the extra cost of hosting the child half the time is minimal. So as long as the fathers have at least some interest in the long-term welfare of the children (email them Bergstrom’s study!) they should be agreeable to this.

What if you reject the insights of this book and decide to wing it?

But the law of mobility tells us that the rags-to-riches path is the anomaly and the exception. The elite of any generation typically come from families only modestly less elite. On average, the fabulously rich and the extravagantly talented are the offspring of the moderately rich and moderately talented. The truly poor and completely talentless are the children of the modestly poor and somewhat untalented.

7 thoughts on “The Son Also Rises: Tips for Optimizing Your Life

  1. A very interesting unification of these two theories! Isn’t the lynch pin in all this is whether status is truly in your genes. Not having read the book, did you find the data where the surrounding social/familial influence is eliminated convincing? Are those limited to the studies of adopted children or was that in itself convincing enough?

    One can imagine this concept being more widely publicized by your work as an alternative “career path” for ambitious young women and an explosion of such cases to occur. Maybe the young successful males need to be warned that this is a real strategy that is pursued by some.

  2. Demetri: I think that the studies of adopted children are the gold standard for nature/nurture and that is the primary basis for eliminating social/family influence. However, Clark also talks about the more or less equivalent persistence of status (tracked by surname) in countries that devote hugely different amounts of effort toward reducing this persistence. If the “genetic social competence” posited by Clark did not exist one would expect India’s quota system for certain castes and Sweden’s welfare state to have had an effect on intergenerational status transmission.

    As far as the “explosion” of lawsuits filed by unmarried women against casual sex partners… if you’re willing to consider a “steady expansion” to be an “explosion” it is already well under way according to the attorneys we interviewed, nearly all of whom report a steady year-to-year increase in the percentage of their business taken up by child support lawsuits among the unmarried. It is hard to put exact numbers on it because court systems are not forthcoming with data. In some states you can get statistics on the number of child support lawsuits, for example, but not the total dollars being awarded and transferred. In Massachusetts the lawsuits among the unmarried are literally kept secret in courthouse files and are not available to the curious researcher. At least in the Middlesex County Courthouse (Cambridge) where we did a lot of our research, they also put a limit of 10 cases viewed per day for the lawsuits filed by married people against each other.

    That the average person is unaware of the profit potential in children makes it more valuable, for both men and women, to know just how profitable children can be.

  3. If it is all in the genes, why did Ashkenazi jews transform from impoverished peasants to over-achievers when they moved from Eastern Europe to the United States? Separated twin studies say nothing about how effectively the biological traits which impact social success are passed to successor generations.

  4. Anonymous: Are you sure that Jews in Eastern Europe, including Russia, were unsuccessful compared to the average for the time and place? For example, if Jews in Czarist Russia had a higher-than-average literacy rate it might be fair to say that they were “successful” even if they were poorer than a typical American of the time.

  5. What does Clark say about religion? How much of the inertia in social mobility/success is due to religion? As a kid, I noticed that most of the wealth in the American South is controlled by Episcopalians. Episcopalians are a tiny minority in the US, probably smaller in number than Jews, yet they have tremendous wealth and influence. Maybe the best way to meet a mate is to join a religion with prestigious adherents, find a cute member of the opposite sex at church/temple functions and get yourself invited to meet his or her grandparents.

  6. Jay: Clark doesn’t say a lot about religion except as it may tend to cause people to intermarry within a group, as with Coptic Christians in Egypt for 1400 years, and therefore lead to greater-than-expected persistence of social competence (either high or low; high in the case of the Copts).

  7. The explanation for Ashkenazi Jews is this:

    They were like plants grown in poor soil that thrived when transplanted to better soil. Also, they happened to have been bred for a skill set (ability to reason and make financial calculations) that was of low, but not zero (economic) value in E. Europe but which by coincidence turned out to be exactly the skills that are highly valuable in the modern world. Their peasant neighbors, OTOH, had a skill set (ability to dig potatoes) that was of great value in their home setting but when they got to the US, was not particularly valuable (gave you ability to dig coal in a coal mine).

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