Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Review: Are They Rich Because They're Smart?

Are they rich because they're smart?

Oddly, Jack Barnes in his book of that title does not answer that question, though the implicit answer is No.

It's a very strange little book, though I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. It consists of three talks that Mr. Barnes presented to Socialist Workers Party gatherings, with portions updated to reflect the world in 2016.

The first segment, with the same title as the book, is a meditation on The Bell Curve, a famous book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (H&M) published in 1994. It reproduces some apparently off-the-cuff remarks (also delivered in 1994) in answer to a question from the audience. He admits that he hadn't read the whole book, insisting "I don't intend to read any more." It's obvious that in 1994 Mr. Barnes didn't take H&M seriously. So it is ironic that the salience of Mr. Barnes' essay today derives entirely from the continued relevance of that book. Indeed, The Bell Curve has generally withstood the test of time and is probably still worth reading even now.

So how does Mr. Barnes criticize H&M? First are ad hominem attacks. Mr. Murray is described as a "political propagandist." Both authors are accused of not being "geneticists." He makes fun of them for using the word penultimate.

Then he charges them with not being scientific. They don't really claim to be scientific. Mr. Murray is a superb writer and an excellent science reporter. Mr. Herrnstein was a professor of psychology at Harvard. Their book is ultimately about public policy, not science. If you remove the pejorative connotation, Mr. Barnes' description political propaganda isn't bad.

Finally, he just claims they're wrong, offering no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, you will never really learn anything about what H&M actually say. But never mind. You can read it for yourself: The Bell Curve is superbly written and very clear.

One thesis of The Bell Curve is the existence of the Herrnstein centrifugenamely a segregation of society by IQ. H&M predicted that smart people will tend to congregate in "smart" cities, e.g., Boston, New York, and San Francisco. The less smart will stay put in places like Kokomo, Topeka, and Fresno. Since income varies by IQ, the smart cities will become richer. Mr. Barnes quotes H&M to describe the consequences of this phenomenon.
An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution. (p. 23)
These predictions have largely come true, as Mr. Murray demonstrates convincingly in his recent treatise, Coming Apart.

The second part of the book concerns the "enlightened meritocracy." These are professional people--Mr. Barnes picks on lawyers as an example. The essay, written in 2009, champions Barack Obama as a classic representative of this social layer.
The aspiring social layer the president is part of is bourgeois in its class interests, its values, its world outlook--in who it serves. But it's not a section of the capitalist class in becoming. It's not "entrepreneurial," aside from a handful of technology and "social media" billionaires. It's not composed of the owners, top managers, or large debt holders of rapidly expanding new businesses--factories, farms, or financial or commercial enterprises. (p. 52)
People in the meritocracy, who in Mr. Barnes' telling contribute nothing productive to the American economy, are essentially bought off by the bourgeoisie to serve as foot soldiers in the class struggle. The "handful of billionaires" rather contradicts his thesis. There aren't that many billionaires to begin with, and any group with even a handful is certainly entrepreneurial, and includes owners and top managers, etc.

Mr. Barnes assigns not just lawyers to the "meritocracy," but probably also teachers, professors, engineers, most civil servants, accountants, etc. This new class, he says, number in the millions or even tens of millions of people. Perhaps we can roughly equate this professional class with the college educated part of the labor force--maybe 40 million people.

Here's what these people supposedly do:
While the existence and expansion of these strata are largely divorced from the production process, they are very much bound up with the production and reproduction of capitalist social relations. They have a parasitic existence. To maintain their their high incomes and living standards, they are dependent on skimming off a portion of surplus value--"rents"--produced by working people and appropriated by the bourgeoisie. Yet the big majority contribute nothing themselves to the creation of that value, even in wasteful or socially harmful ways.
Or put another way, it's all a big conspiracy theory. The few thousand bourgeoisie bamboozle the millions of professionals into doing their propaganda work for them. For this they get to live in nice houses and eat fancy food.

So he accuses the "meritocracy" of running a con game and of being despicable. But nowhere does he actually say that they're stupid. Indeed--it's hard to imagine they are. After all, running such an effective scam for all these generations requires some smarts. So Mr. Barnes' book is mistitled.

Mr. Barnes puts much to big an emphasis on "production workers." These, in his view, are the only people who actually produce value. Service workers apparently contribute nothing.  To make his case, he reproduces a chart very similar to this, taken from the Economic Policy Institute.

Mr. Barnes' interpretation of this chart is that production workers are getting screwed. Their surplus value is being siphoned off by the "meritocracy" and bourgeoisie.

But this is wrong. Production workers are not the only creators of value, or even the primary ones. The manufacturing cost of an iPhone is $8, or perhaps 2% of the total cost. This is partly because it's made in China, but mostly because most of the value was created in Silicon Valley (engineers and designers), Taiwan (hardware), Israel (software), and Corning, New York (touch-sensitive glass). Among many other things, the "meritocracy" organized the supply-chain logistics--very complicated for a product assembled from all over the world.

Indeed, the chart is readily explained by the obvious fact that production workers play an ever smaller role in actual production. They're replaced by robots, manufactures with fewer moving parts, or bits of software. Since 1980 manufacturing employment has decreased from 19% to 12%, while since 1982 manufacturing output has increased by 131%. Clearly production workers are not the primary actors in this drama.

The final chapter in the book is the only one explicitly about education, and it is by far the least compelling. Mr. Barnes reveals his profound ignorance of even elementary economics, stating that
In fact, higher wages and better working conditions won in struggle by the labor movement put the working class as a whole--together with working farmers and other toiling allies--on a stronger footing to fight for better living standards and conditions of life and work. (p. 93)
He's apparently never heard of labor markets, nor the connection between wages and productivity.

He also claims that education in a capitalist society is completely useless. All, that is, except for "learning to read, learning to write, learning to compute, practicing to increase our attention spans, learning the discipline necessary to study and use our minds." (p. 95). Except for all that.

I'm no great fan of the modern college (as readers of this blog surely know), but Mr. Barnes' comments are so over the top that I can't take them seriously.

I don't know who is supposed to read this book. It certainly isn't scholarly--there is no bibliography, and apart from Herrnstein and Murray, along with a couple odd references to Marx and Engels, there is no serious engagement with any literature. It's hardly a popular book. I can't see hair stylists or former coal miners reading it. Indeed, with references to the likes of James Burnham, it will be mostly incomprehensible to them.

Only Comrades, present and former, will have any interest in this. Apart from my former sympathies I should never have picked it up. It is, I think, silly to go on a drive to sell this door to door.

But if you are a former Comrade, then Mr. Barnes is a good writer, and this is a fun if completely uncompelling read.

Further Reading:

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