Award-winning Economist Portia Antonia Alexis talks about genetic endowments and wealth inequality

Updated: Jan 03, 2020, 17:34 IST | Partnered Content | Mumbai

Award-winning Economist Portia Antonia Alexis, in a brutally honest interview, talks about genetics and wealth inequalities

Portia Antonia Alexis
Portia Antonia Alexis

Economic Global Influencer Portia Antonia Alexis got her biggest break before her life began. Her mother, G grew up in an Africa constrained by decades of tradition and identity. Portia's mother was incredibly intelligent, but her future was constrained by custom and she went on to become the Miss of her country and competed in various beauty pageants.

Although Portia's grandfather encouraged her mother's scholarly inclinations, there were no colleges in the area, and sending his daughter away for education would have been unseemly. G went on to gain an education in the West despite her father's objection as well as start a fabric manufacturing company. The company sold recently for an 8 figure amount.

By the time Portia was born, her mother and father had become first-generation immigration success stories. Determined for their children not to face the same constraints they had her parents devoted their time to honing each child's skill set. Portia's lay in mathematics, which her mother and father spent hours making fun of her.

Portia from a young age began to climb nearly as dramatically as her parents. She was head girl of her high-school class, she studied mathematics and economics, and she has worked for corporates such as McKinsey & Company, Newton Asset Management, Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Now she researches income inequality and social mobility at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Portia is widely considered to be one of the most influential social scientists of her generation. The work that has brought Portia such fame is an echo of his family's history. She focuses on revealing patterns of upward mobility, racial disparities, income inequality, and stagnation.

For a woman who has done so much to document the country's failings, Portia is curiously optimistic. She has the confidence of a scientist: If a phenomenon like upward mobility can be measured with enough precision, then it can be understood. If it can be understood, then it can be manipulated. This week we sat with Portia to discuss the compelling relationship between genetic inheritance and economic inequality.

Good Afternoon Portia

Portia: Good Afternoon, it is ever so lovely to meet you.

Tell us about genetics?

Portia: Geneticists study hereditary traits, their transmission over generations and their variation. It has sought to identify the genes involved in diseases in an attempt to cure them (medical genetics), to determine the genetic part of quantitative traits such as size, weight, and crop yield … to improve the cultivated varieties or livestock breeds (quantitative genetics), to study the factors that govern the evolution of characters within populations (population genetics) or to understand the adaptation and evolution of species.

Today, genetics opens endless lines of research because the functioning of genes and genomes is far from being elucidated. Genetics is modern science, which has experienced an unprecedented boom since the 1970s, thanks to the discovery of molecular biology techniques, the development of genetic engineering, and then the appearance of large-scale biology.

Who would have thought that the genetic inheritance would explain economic inequality?

Portia: The most frequent way of explaining inequalities is given by the theory of human capital, which rests on a neo-classical hypothesis of perfect orthodoxy. First point: investment in education is the main determinant of an individual's human capital, to which, for example, one can add the professional experience acquired during an active life.

Second point: This built-in capital determines a good part of the productivity of the individual, given the physical equipment that his work implies (machines, etc.) or, for example, the organization of collective work; in other words, it is the marginal productivity of labor.

Point three: If the labor market is efficient, the remuneration of labor is equal to this marginal productivity of labor. Otherwise, it may be added to the effects of discrimination. Thus, through the labor market filter, individual income will flow relatively directly from human capital and thus from the educational investment that the person will have received.

What is the relationship between genetic endowments and wealth inequality?

Portia: Most people think that wealth is hereditary; the children of rich families grow up in an environment where the standard of living is very high, but above all, whose energy level is very high. Perhaps they are also disconnected from social realities. But that's not the point. The wealth comes naturally, even if they do not know the secrets of success, for a good part of them. They have been in abundance since childhood. They are used to, and subconsciously have the right attitude and the right thoughts.

The inheritance of wealth is matched by the inheritance of poverty. The future for a child who evolves in a negative atmosphere, of destitution, of resignation, with a very low level of energy, where primary needs are not even met is also well known. The legacy of poverty, the path is all drawn. The few who become wealthy despite this legacy must develop extraordinary energy. The structures of resources and expenditures in both cases (rich and poor) are well-known.

Actually, the myriad studies on the impact of education and different socio-economic factors on inequalities have led to insufficiently convincing results. New leads are needed. Economists are now looking at the relationship between genetic wealth and wealth inequality.

A work published in May 2018 "Genetic Endowments and Wealth Inequality" and led by three economists Daniel Barth (University of Southern California), Nicholas Papageorge (Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) and Kevin Thom (New York University) use data of molecular genetics and various estimates of associations between genetic markers, that is, genes detectable by their location on the chromosome, in relation to educational attainment. They actually found that genes are directly related to the wealth of the individual. These genetic markers also predict family transfers such as inheritance, mortality, and risk preference.

According to the authors, Genetic heritage also contributes to the formation of life expectancy estimates. However, the individual who expects to live a very long time will have a greater propensity to save. This genetic score, therefore, reveals, a more patient approach to investment and a better adaptation to complex decisions.

The results of this study should influence the redistribution policy. Indeed, according to the authors, if genetic variations have such an impact on wealth inequalities, the redistributive effort of the State should be reinforced in terms of pensions rather than increasing the egalitarian policy in training systems

Is genetics independent of inequalities?

Portia: Science is independent of morality and can in no way modify the universe of values in which we live. Genetics can neither deny nor confirm a moral or political ideal. The ideal of equality – considered philosophically – defines the humanistic ideal of modern societies, ideal both liberal and democratic: it requires not only the equal freedom of individuals but also and above all the equal consideration or respect of their dignity, regardless of their differences, of which genetic differences ("natural gifts") are obviously part.

This implies the abolition of privileges and the meritocratic conception of success. This, however, poses a problem for democratic humanism. As the place of sport or art in the democratic imaginary shows, the neutralization of the privileges linked to birth and the social environment leads to the valorization of the natural hierarchy. The success of great athletes cannot be more aristocratic.

Sport, however, is democratic in that it provides an almost perfect embodiment of the ideal of equal opportunity: everyone is lucky because social origin has little connection with performance. In the end, however, an elite and a hierarchy emerged relentlessly. Work (physical and technical training) of course plays an important role in success, but, obviously, the champions we admire owe their superiority to a natural and genetic talent that others do not have.

Indeed, the debate on genetics and equal opportunities is reminiscent of the egalitarian-constructivist phantasy that reigns within the projects of Education, symbolized by slogans such as "success for all," or "excellence for all," is based on the ideological denial of the natural inequality of talents – which logically leads to the project of destroying the meritocratic ideal. Denial is justified by the sociology of Bourdieu, which allows deconstructing the ideology of "gift," by replacing it with "habitus," that is to say the idea of a predisposition resulting from social structure and no longer of nature.

The keystone of this "democratic" educational policy lies in the idea that differences in academic performance (failures and successes) can be explained neither by freedom (responsibility of parents and students) nor by nature (donations) but exclusively by social determinism.

Can we explain the inequalities between countries by genetics? Can we say that the identity of a people constituting its genetics will determine its position in the world hierarchy? 

Portia:  The answer is undoubtedly negative. Indeed, in the course of history, the rich countries of the North and the so-called poor countries of the South did not remain unchangeable the same. The wheel has always turned, but the world continues to share, structurally between privileged and non-privileged. In fact, according to various historians, the competitive dynamics between the states has resulted in a series of hegemonic cycles, the most striking aspect of which is the shift in the center of gravity of the capitalist world-economy. There is talk at this level of the recomposition of the world economic order through a process of ascension and decline of the central hegemonic states.

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