Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Author J.D. Vance's older half-sister, Lindsay, has a successful life: stable marriage, three children, a house in the suburbs.

Hardly the stuff memoirs are made of. Mr. Vance has been more adventurous: after a stint in the Marine Corps he got a law degree from Yale University, though again that's not material for a best-seller.

Yet best-seller is precisely what Mr. Vance's autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, has become. The tale is not in the outcome but rather how they got there. Mr. Vance (and his sister) endured the Childhood from Hell. Their mother was a drug-addict, and J.D.'s father--one of a long succession of men who passed through his life as one of Mom's boyfriends or husbands--was an alcoholic.

So normally this book wouldn't interest me. Count me hardhearted, but tales of troubled children are not generally on my reading list. Tearjerker memoirs don't rank high, either. But Mr. Vance's book is not that, or at least not just that. It is a serious effort to understand the hillbilly culture in which he grew up. That I found fascinating, besides which it is beautifully written.

Mr. Vance credits his grandparents--Mamaw and Papaw--for his success. They were born in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky, even today known as one of the poorest counties in America. As young adults Mamaw and Papaw traveled north along the "hillbilly highway" to look for work in the industrial Midwest, settling in Middletown, Ohio, where Mr. Vance was born. He has fond childhood memories of trips back to Jackson to visit his great-grandmother, Mamaw Blanton, along with other relatives.

It's a matriarchal world. The men come and go, and the women get pregnant as teenagers. Mamaw (a heavy smoker) lived only into her mid-seventies, but survived long enough to supervise a whole passel of great-grandchildren.

"Hillbilly" (the word used freely by Mr. Vance) is a slightly pejorative synonym for Scots-Irish. If you believe Scott Alexander, that term is also misleading, as there's no Irish blood involved at all. Instead hillbillies descend from the Scottish Borders, that lowland part of Scotland that was fought over for a thousand years ending in the 18th Century. Every summer one army or another would pass through, doing, I suppose, what armies of that era did: looting, raping and pillaging.

So no wonder the Borders people were clannish, deeply suspicious of outsiders, exceedingly sensitive to insult, and prone to violence. In North America they initially settled as far from authority as they possibly could, in the mountain fastnesses of Pennsylvania, Western Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the 19th and 20th Centuries economic deprivation forced them to wander--to Arkansas, Oklahoma and California, and then to the industrial Midwest along the trail that Mamaw and Papaw followed.

From a demographic viewpoint they are a successful people. And no surprise since they possess positive character traits as well: loyalty, courage, self-reliance.

Now if you believe authors like Nicholas Wade and Gregory Clark, then the concept of gene/culture co-evolution comes as no surprise. That states that cultures select for certain genes, and/or genes favor particular cultural attributes. Either way, over time (and a thousand years is certainly long enough) cultural attributes become inscribed in the genome. Thus hillbillies are, in some sense, born that way, at least as predisposition.

Mr. Vance, born a hillbilly, definitely shows the personality traits of his tribe. He is fiercely loyal to his family (insulting his mother is the surest route to a fistfight), served as a combat Marine in Iraq, and (justly) takes great pride in his ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Reading between the lines, I infer he has a tendency toward alcoholism (he drinks throughout the book).

But in one very important way--not mentioned explicitly in the book--he is very different from most Scots-Irish. He is very smart.

He is smarter than I am. Despite my upper middle class upbringing, I could never have aspired to attend Yale Law School. Even if I survived the IQ cutoff, I simply don't have the ability to work 16 hour days. In this he differs, not just from most hillbillies, but even from most people.

So Mr. Vance did inherit something from his grandparents: a high IQ. It's pretty obvious from the book that Mamaw and Papaw, however uneducated, certainly were not dumb. Even Mom, helpless though she was, had some serious smarts about her. While his grandparents clearly rescued him from absolute disaster, his stunning success in life is less due to what they did, but more on what he inherited from them.

There are simple tests given to toddlers that measure an ability to defer gratification. The archetype is known as the marshmallow test. A child is offered one marshmallow now (placed on a plate in front of him while the tester leaves the room), but if he can wait 15 minutes then he will get two. There is a strong correlation between passing the marshmallow test and future success in life, e.g., SAT scores, time spent in jail, future earnings, etc. The marshmallow test also correlates with IQ.

So Mr. Vance clearly would've passed the marshmallow test, even as a child. But many in his family wouldn't have. His Mom would've failed. Maybe even Mamaw would've failed. The stereotype for hillbillies is precisely that they're impulsive and undisciplined. Which implies that on average they're not very smart (I don't know if that's true).

Mr. Vance and his family are obviously a huge exception.

Toward the end of the book Mr. Vance stops talking about "hillbillies," and begins to identify more with the "working class." These groups overlap, but they are far from being the same thing. "Hillbilly" refers to an ethnic group, while "working class" is an economic entity not defined by genes. "Working class" does not denote a cluster of personality traits.

Hillbillies, successful in many contexts, are dysfunctional in the modern, urban, service economy. Mr. Vance is right to be skeptical about various government programs to help them. But I don't think he's skeptical enough. For if you take the above arguments seriously, there is no way a bespoke pre-school program or some special third grade curriculum is going to magically give ornery hillbillies a personality transplant. A thousand years of gene/culture co-evolution can't be undone that easily.

The poor will always be with us

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