The Human Network Book Review - New York Times

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The Human Network Book Review - New York Times

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Review: How to Address Social Immobility? ‘The Human Network’ Offers a Road Map

Review by Jonathan A. Knee - Jonathan A. Knee is professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School and a senior adviser at Evercore Partners. His latest book is “Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education.”

March 25, 2019

The outrage that surrounded the recent college admissions scandal underscored an American peculiarity: We believe in the meritocracy of our society in the face of overwhelming evidence that it does not exist.

Fifteen years ago, Daniel Golden won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles that exposed the depth of advantage enjoyed by privileged white students seeking entrance to the nation’s most selective institutions of higher learning. His book “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” revealed “the dirty little secret of college admissions”: the systematic recruitment of “substantially underqualified” children of celebrities and wealthy individuals with “no familial connection to the school” who are “flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process.”

In light of that reporting, it’s hard to understand why the recent college admissions scandals came as such a shock to many Americans. To be sure, there are differences between non-merit-based advantages bestowed by the school itself and those secured by an “admissions coach” with the aid of illegal bribes. But the intensity of the reaction most likely reflects the persistence of Americans’ belief in the uniquely meritocratic nature of our society.

And yet, as Prof. Matthew O. Jackson of Stanford observes in his compelling new book, “The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs and Behaviors,” the data demonstrates that “many people’s perceptions of mobility and reality are mismatched.”

Professor Jackson points out that 84 percent of Americans answer in the affirmative when asked whether they agree with the statement “If I work hard, I can improve my life.” But the United States ranks toward the very bottom of the scale of something called “intergenerational earnings elasticity,” a measure of how tied your future financial potential is to how rich your parents are. It is probably not unexpected that Denmark does better than we do on this measure of social mobility, but a child born in Pakistan has a better chance of escaping from poverty than one brought up here. Closer to home, by this measure, the United States “has more than double the immobility of Canada.”

Interestingly, across national geographies, inequality and immobility are quite tightly correlated. But correlation is not causation, and, as Professor Jackson convincingly shows, simplistic and expensive proposals to reduce inequality like a guaranteed minimum income are unlikely to make a meaningful dent in immobility.

But why can’t money buy you mobility? “The Human Network” is most fascinating and convincing in addressing this question. Professor Jackson has been studying how networks operate for over a quarter-century. In particular, he has focused on the implications that stem from “the general tendency of people to interact with others who are similar to themselves.” He shows that “the entrenched networks of information and norms” that underpin this inclination are the primary force behind immobility. Inequality, he concludes, can be viewed “as a result and not as the root cause.”

One study Professor Jackson highlights demonstrates how money alone will not solve immobility. In the 1990s, selected public housing residents were provided with two different kinds of free rent vouchers: those that could be used anywhere, and those that could be used only in low-poverty neighborhoods. The positive impact on the lives of the children in the latter group was powerful in terms of whether they went to college, which one they attended and their income level. Many of those with the unrestricted vouchers decided to stay put and just reduce their rent bill. The data shows this strategy to have imposed a significant cost to their children’s financial future.

Professor Jackson manages not only to present a lot of complex research engagingly but to show how the key concepts of network theory relate to a wide range of contemporary issues, from financial contagions to the spread of fake news. When it comes to offering policy prescriptions to counter the more pernicious effects of ingrained network structures, however, “The Human Network” is less satisfying — at least for those looking for quick fixes.

On the critical topic of immobility, Professor Jackson concedes that “making dramatic changes in people’s networks is likely a losing battle.” He points out that “large-scale social engineering has a history of disasters.” In the place of any radical initiatives, he makes a handful of modest suggestions, such as providing nudges to low-income parents by providing information on key educational topics that would not otherwise be readily available within their networks.

To expect Professor Jackson to deliver silver bullets to solve every deleterious effect of the network structures is not realistic. The social phenomena that are the subject of “The Human Network” are so systemic and entrenched that they lend themselves only to incremental improvements. But when it comes to mobility, particularly, the stakes are high enough that it seems well worth our while to pursue such baby steps relentlessly. Professor Jackson has provided a handy road map for where we should begin.

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