Lotteries can be useful natural experiments; we can use them to test the accuracy of standard sociological theories, in which rich people buy their kids extra smarts, bigger brains, better health, etc.
David Cesarini, who I met at that Chicago meeting, has looked at the effect of winning the lottery in Sweden. He found that the “effects of parental wealth on infant health, drug consumption, scholastic performance and cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be bounded to a tight interval around zero.”
As I once mentioned, there was an important land lottery in Georgia in 1832. The winners received an 160-acre farm. But by 1880, their descendants were no more literate, their occupational status no higher. The families in the top 2/3rds of income managed to hang on to some of their windfall, but lower-income families did not.
This remind of a story by Gerald Kersh, “Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo? ” – about a medieval soldier who stumbled into immortality. Someone asks him (in 1945) – why hadn’t he saved his pay? With compound interest, yaddaa yadda.
” Why didn’t I save my pay? Because I’m what I am, you mug! Hell, once upon a time, if I’d stayed away from cards, I could’ve bought Manhattan Island for less than what I lost to a Dutchman called Bruncker drawing ace-high for English guineas! Save my pay! If it wasn’t one thing it was another. I lay off liquor. Okay. So if it’s not liquor, it’s a woman. I lay off women. Okay. Then it’s cards or dice. I always meant to save my pay; but I never had it in me to save my pay! Doctor Paré’s stuff fixed me–and when I say it fixed me, I mean, it fixed me, just like I was, and am, and always will be. ”
Low leverage of wealth on your children’s traits is something that exists in a particular society, with a particular kind of technology. Back in medieval times, a windfall could have kept your kids alive in a famine, and that certainly had a long-term positive effect on their cognitive skills. Dead men take no tests. The most effective medical interventions today are cheap – everyone in Sweden and the US already has them – but there are places where those interventions are not universally available. Some families in Mozambique can afford artemisin, some can’t – this must make a difference.
Suppose we had a method of dramatically improving a kid’s genetic potential for intelligence and success, one that cost five million dollars a pop: then wealth could influence the next generation in ways that it can’t today. In other words, Cesarini’s conclusions are correct for Sweden-now (but not for Sweden in 1700), probably correct for the US today, but maybe not true tomorrow.
It is not just wealth that has a small effect on your kid’s potential: playing Mozart doesn’t help either. Other than locking away the ball-peen hammers, it’s hard to think of any known approach that does have much effect – although we don’t know everything, and maybe there are undiscovered effective approaches (other than genetic engineering). For example, iodine supplements have a good effect in areas that are iodine-deficient. We now know (since 2014) that bromine is an essential trace element – maybe people in some parts of the world would benefit from bromine supplementation.
What about the social interventions that people are advocating, like Pre-K ? Since shared family effects (family environment surely matters more than some external social program) are small by adulthood, I think they’re unlikely to have any lasting effect. We might also note that the track record isn’t exactly encouraging. If there was a known and feasible way of boosting academic performance, you’d think that those teachers in Atlanta would have tried it. Sure beats prison.
Maybe there’s an effective approach using fmri and biofeedback – wouldn’t hurt to take a look. But even if it did work, it might simply boost everyone equally, and obviously nobody gives a shit about that.