Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Inequality Starts At Birth

This isn’t a nature or nurture argument; this is a nature AND nurture argument (excerpt):

Inequality Begins at Birth

Over the past year, the lack of universal pre-kindergarten for American four-year-olds has become a national issue….Even as these efforts are being made, however, new research is making it increasingly clear that educational disparities start much earlier.

The value of universal access to early education has long been recognized: it improves the life chances of disadvantaged children and is crucial to keeping a level playing field for all….

…Scholars have long documented that children who grow up poor face greater obstacles to social development and good health, obstacles that often remain with them the rest of their lives. They are more likely to have chronic diseases like asthma or attention deficit disorder, few of them graduate from high school, their wages are lower, and they often end up on welfare. Poor teenage women have more unwanted births.

But neurological evidence from recent years strongly suggests that the causes of these poor outcomes are neither solely cultural nor a function of a weak gene pool…there is new biological evidence that a high-stress environment for very young children does not simply affect cultural and psychological conditions that predispose the poor to failure; it can also affect the architecture of the brain, changing the actual neurological functioning and quantity of brain matter.

In other words, pre-K is not enough. What is concerning, moreover, is that these findings have been known for some time but are not getting adequate attention. In fact, the original documentation was published back in 2000 in a vanguard book edited by Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, and corroborating studies have multiplied since then.

I’ve long been in favour of universal pre-school in Malaysia. But the more I read around the subject (here for instance), it’s becoming increasingly clear that expanding access to pre-school won’t go nearly as far as I’d hoped in addressing inequality.

It appears from the evidence that children are effectively “programmed” even before they get to the pre-school stage. A high quality, inclusive school system might go some way to addressing shortfalls in cognitive and non-cognitive development, but you’ll be expending effort to catch up, not in forging ahead.

So what’s the solution here? More on more it seems that educating parents, especially first time parents, is a critical and required adjunct to any effective reform of the education system, and that this education should ideally happen before babies are even born. It’s not rocket science stuff either, it’s simple things like talking to your children (no, studies show the TV is NOT a substitute), and providing the right environment.

This won’t wave away the advantages children of higher income families have, such as being able to afford tuition outside the formal school system and access to more extra-curricular activities. But equalising initial conditions would be a good first step towards creating a more equitable society.


  1. For Muslim couples, there is a mechanism to introduce parental education, which is during the mandatory kursus kahwin. However, how many classes is needed to really make the lessons effective? Weekly? Monthly? Any thing is good for now?

    Btw, can you comment whether the current boycott Israel campaign will have a negative impact on the national economy? Would love to hear an economist view on the matter.

    1. @anon2.18

      The kursus kahwin has effectively zero parental education. Almost all the content relates to rights and obligations of each partner, not on how to develop children.

      On the boycott Israel campaign, I doubt there is much effect. It's too small and too limited, and most of the effect will be distributional rather than on growth e.g. you shift your fast food spending to other types of food, not stop eating entirely.

  2. The Brits bequeathed a perfectly good education system to us.

    Yet, in the name of anti-colonialism and nationalism, we decided to mess with said system.

    With consequences that are being felt till now.

    When will we learn to leave well enough alone?

    Singapore may have made many mistakes, but they didn't screw up the education system they were handed upon Independence. They built on it, enhanced it - maybe a bit too geared towards the "scholar" syndrome, but, by and large, orders of magnitude better than what we have in Malaysia.

    What's that about inequality and education?

    Someone do a thesis on correlating the state of a country's education system with the inequality in that country.

    1. You said Singapore "didn't screw up the education system" that they inherited but instead "enhanced it" and their education system became "orders of magnitude better than what we have in Malaysia". On the other hand, you said that Malaysia "messed" with a "perfectly good education system" and that "consequences are being felt till now".

      You asked "What's that about inequality and education?"

      Well, the "consequence" of Malaysia messing our education system, according to the World Bank, is that our Gini (%) is 46.1% whereas Singapore is 48%. Despite Malaysia 'messing' up its education system while Singapore "enhanced" it, we both grew to become highly inequal societies.


  3. "there is new biological evidence that a high-stress environment for very young children does not simply affect cultural and psychological conditions that predispose the poor to failure; it can also affect the architecture of the brain, changing the actual neurological functioning and quantity of brain matter."

    The key is found in the phrase "high stress environment" = crowded home, fights over limited resources, parental squabbles over money, alcoholism, drugs escapist routes etc - neurological defect=inequality

    Nothing "equalisig initial conditions' are gonna change Next, what excuse will all this crappy concern about inequality going to generate.....education in the womb would be pre-initial wouldnt it...you know, mummy fixing a speaker blaring Mozart onto her bloated tummy while daddy spouts the Bard even as elder bro/sis memorises Eistein aloud in the background .......hahahaha.

    Come on the solution is never gonna be piecemeal or halh s*&t...its got to be holistic - initial till terminal or else everyone should just quit yapping about it, leap on their harleys, feel the wind on their napes, sip in the view, gun through a never ending reel of different horizons to a point in time where the grass up yer nostrils is smells every bit as heavenly as the fresh dewy clump by the turnpike.

    There are solutions out there staring at everyone in the face but for some obvious reason called 'vested interest', no one dares to broach them lest their vest rips apart and all those accumulated interest falls outta that pot-bellied natural waist pouch they call a tummy.

    Inequality arises from inequitable distribution, access, hoarding whatever etc of resources, capital etc....It is a product of inequality itself and so the solution whether one likes it or not is simple meaning the solution must also be inequitable to reverse the damage. By default that means some people will feel worse off so that many other people feel better off. And that will release a cacophony of whines, threats, etc of course...thats a given!!.

    Try reasoning that to Li Ka Shing or the other super wealthy fatty cats out there and their retinue of advisers! They know that is the truism but avoid that with their mawkish malarkey as they exfoliate (phew...that's a "mighty" word) about the sad state of society while downing drams of Don Perrignons....ditto the wealthy everywhere since time immemorial,...hahahaha. Dickens couldnt have put it better.

    The problem is simple; the solution is simple and ranges from the harsh and to the harshest for Mr Fat Cat and advisers. Take the most palatable of that menu of measures and wolf it down the food pipe or watch the Banes of this world take the path of least resistance to your hoard of indecent stolen wealth.

    That's what the super duper wealthy all fear but will not be able to stop unless they quit their hypocritical, nay, podsnappish concerns about inequality......Humbugs that are in dire need of instant fumigation for their incessant mindless nighttime humming and their continued daylight buggery of the masses.....hahahaha .

    Bane ...are you lurking out there here, perchance?

    Warrior 231

    1. Aye Warrior!, As you know humbugs, chatterboxes, hypocrites, dolts, toolheads, condescending POSeurs privileged charlatans and Big time Charlies and their like will crawl out of the woodwork and have a field day showering us with their idiotic views, inane theories, imbecilic postulations, half baked mouldy assertions while conveniently forgetting historical realities, ethnic misbehaviour, unearned advantages etc all in the name of "concern" till the merry go round starts to spin again when this issue is broached once more.

      Fact of the matter is less and less people are being stupid anymore and that bodes ill for the capitalist rodents.

      Selamat Hari Raya Warrior and to Hisham too


    2. Bull's eye, Bane! Mindless commentary devoid of real world facts masquerading as erudite, informed insights have been the bane (haha) of problem resolution. Its all part of the game, I suppose, something which Ed Bon succintly encapsulated here:

      "Yes. "Games". Politicians play games. If cant stomach the game or win, don't play it. As professionals a game is a game. Don't be fooled," tweeted Bon.

      Bon urged his followers on Twitter to not be fooled by political manoeuvring.

      "You call it out as a game then you see the realism of it all. In next few weeks things will die down. Hugs. Then love. Do you think all that wayang in Parliament is real? Ask how close some from the Opp bench are with Govt. Don't be fooled. I'm not," said Bon."


      That's democrazy for you. A game conmen play and the gullible fall victim to. The powers that be are actually unbothered or least concerned about inequality even when the solutions are straightforwardly staring at them in the face. In fact, the solutions have been there all these years and no one in power, save one or two, had even bothered.

      They purposely don't want to go there lest it upsets their applecart of votes and vested interests. so why take the risk when lip service and empty platitudes more than suffice!

      If more 'fans' quit the game and stay focused on the actual pix, change in elite mindsets will be inevitable unless they wanna taste something very unpalatable. And no one would definitely like going there!

      Selamat Raya Bane. May Allah bless you and the family, inshaallah

      Warrior 231

    3. @Bane and Warrior

      Selamat Hari Raya to you and your families too.

      As for the rest of your comments, I'm not at all sure what you guys are trying to say.

      Absolutely agree that a true approach to abolishing inequality has to be holistic - the above post is one, tax policy is another, affirmative action is another still. None will be wholly effective without all the others. You have to get it all right.

    4. @Warrior,

      Actually what I'm referring to is your writing styles. It's so dense, words jumbling and almost stumbling over themselves, almost a stream of consciousness approach; it barely resembles English.


    5. "it barely resembles English" stream of consciousness...hahahahaha...those are good ones, dud. Bet Virginia Woolf would be lisping in her slumber...hahahaaaaaaaa! .

      Ah...by Jove, the mental cum moral contortions we affect to barely evade the reality barbs aimed at our immoral universe....hahaha. ;D

      Simple English = Inequality arises out of inequality, the solution to which would naturally be inequitable and deaf to all caterwauls.

      Bane and I know the solution thanks to our still functional moral compass.

      Now if we can get to the levers of power......

      Warrior 231

    6. ooops........ Freudian slip showing there as in "dude" not "dud"

      Warrior 231

  4. Hi Hisham, I remember we once had a discussion on where and what intervention was required in the market and your views were something along the line of this article. I was going to, but forgot to, say that they sounded logical and novel but didn't strike one as the kind policy makers would ordinarily intuitively implement. How do you propose to facilitate that?

    1. @The Slug,

      Talk, write, talk, write, talk, write, until somebody listens. The more of us discussing this, the more we're likely to get it done.

  5. Also, what are your views on the proportion of the pie vs the size of the pie. I personally would prefer to have 5 and my peer 20 rather than 2 and my peer 1. It is my concern that some redistributive policies and campaigns have the effect of causing the pie to be smaller. Of course, if you are arguing that too much inequality will hinder the growth of the pie in the long run, that is a different matter. But if this is not the case, then theoretically, over several generations the lowest of the expanding but unequal pie will be better of than all but the highest of more equal but stagnant pie. I am not saying this is the case all the time nor (deep breath) with Singapore but is there something worth considering here?

    1. @The Slug,

      The problem with inequality is that unless there are mitigating redistributive policies, it has a tendency over the long run to get progressively worse i.e. the proportion going to the less off actually shrinks, and income and wealth become increasingly concentrated at the top. Note that SG actually does have a fairly decent social transfer system. Nevertheless, this does no more than keep inequality from increasing, but not actually reducing it.

      There was a good paper that provides the theoretical basis for this view, that I posted on ages ago. I'll link it if I find it again.

  6. Oh, and if you will bear with me, could I just give my further views. Remember my analogy of the track team? One of my views is that not only can inequality never fully be eliminated, some inequality might actually be good as it can be a powerful motivating factor (see track cycling races where chaser often wins).

    But what I'm saying is that perhaps past a certain point of crucial basics, the effect of income and social inequality becomes less. For the track team analogy, the worst is that if only the coach's son and the rich favourites get to race. Less but still very bad is if the poor kids are so malnourished, or ignored or do not receive training or do not have money to buy shoes and have to run barefoot. But we shift further along the scale and let's say we have the privileged but not so rich lower middle class kids. They have enough nourishment and they have enough time to go for track training (as opposed to manning the family stall), which is more or less uniform. Sure they cannot afford top of the end Nike spike shoes or the special formula Power Bars. Sure you know the coach is going to give his own son special training. But if you are a less privileged kid, you know you have got a shot. Of course, you have to be reasonably talented and you have to work twice, maybe thrice, as hard. But you have got a shot.

    My point is- it's never going to be equal. And perhaps part of the beauty of the capitalist system is that advantageous are able to be accrued and passed down to later generations. Now, this creates inequality but it also generates tremendous incentive. Of course, the accrual should not be at the expense of the less fortunate, which is what happened during Marx's time.

    But my point is that wealth accrual is not a zero sum game. Still on track and field, Singapore's track and field team has by all measures been trailing further behind it's rivals. It is no longer a regional powerhouse. But still over time the national records have been tumbling. It is just that other countries have already reached a different strata. But a very talented Singaporean athlete would still be in with a shot. He will not, at the start, have the same equipment and training programme (and steroids?) as some of the more established running nations. But if he is really good and he works really hard, he will catch the attention of sponsors and overseas coaches.

    And just like capitalism allows for accrual and inter-generational transfer of benefits, sometimes catching up requires time, sometimes generations. My grandfather made sure my Dad had a secondary education. My Mum and Dad took multiple jobs to ensure I could read law in university. And if I have children, I am going to ensure that I use every relative income and resource advantage I have to ensure they remain in front. And I will encourage them to make full use of those advantages and continue working hard to break through to the next level, lest someone hungrier who works twice as hard overtakes them.

    So, my point is. Perhaps the key would be to find a minimum level where everybody has a shot (even if it be a difficult one) rather than focus on the absolute gap between the haves and the have-nots. It is never going to be equal. But everybody should have a fighting chance (even if it means fighting twice as hard). What is that level, that minimum threshold? That is the tough question I think which needs to be worked out.

    Lastly, I know my views may not sit well with some here and I have no intention of stoking anyone's ire. I just enjoy reading the discussion and sometimes, adding to it. I hope that there will not be any vitriolic as I am untrained in economics or policy making,

    1. @The Slug

      I'm not aiming here for complete inequality of outcomes - that has never been the point.

      But to address some of the issues you've brought up - transferring benefits to our children certainly provides an incentive for parents to work harder and be more productive.

      But ask yourself, what does providing those benefits do to incentives for the children? If they start off with major advantages over everyone else, will they compete and perform to the best of their ability, no matter what the level of competition?

      So I'm thinking not just in terms of one generation, but how to maximise human capital across all generations.