Born on third base

If you haven’t done so already, you should read this piece by Greg Laden, as well as this one by Greta Christina, by way of intro to this piece.

One of the foundational myths of conservatism, or even of libertarianism, is that the private sector will remain competitive by selecting the best of the best through market forces. Those who are the most skilled, the most resourceful, and the most industrious will be rewarded by the invisible hand of the market with high pay and bonuses, while those who would simply leech from the system are punished.

It’s a nice story. If only it were true:

Members of the 1% are clearly at an advantage when it comes to opportunity, and that advantage carries through when it comes to finding a job. While it’s common for people to find employment through family and friends, there’s a direct correlation between a father’s income and the likelihood his son will work for the same employer, according to a report last year in the Journal of Labor Economics (via Miles Corak, who co-wrote the paper). The researchers found that that among its subjects, around 40% of young Canadian men had been employed by an employer for whom their father worked. But for earners in the top percentile, that figure jumps to around nearly 70%.

My first job (that wasn’t delivering flyers for chump change) was stocking shelves/barrels at the Bulk Barn – a bulk food store. I made $7.50/hr lifting bags of flour, sugar, basically whatever could be scooped into plastic bags and sold to strange elderly women. After several months I had made enough money to pay for driving school and my driving test, but I kept the job so that I could also go to summer camp and afford some other stuff. I kept that job through high school, and occasionally substituted as a violin teacher for a buddy of mine.

I took a job in undergrad at a research company doing manual quality checking of ScanTron surveys (basically making sure the dots were dark enough). My first summer back I was on the broom/dustpan bridage at a nearby amusement park. My second summer I worked packing boxes onto trucks at a Canadian Tire distribution center (10 hours a day, 4 days a week, with enough time to come home and help remodel the house so we could sell it). It wasn’t until my third summer that I could work full-time hours at the research centre, and even then I had to work part-time as a bouncer (and karaoke host – fun job) to make enough to pay down debt.

When I got accepted to grad school, I had zero money (I spent it all taking a trip to do three weeks of health development work in Bolivia), so I worked two bar jobs (6 nights a week) while going to classes during the day. A combination of a bursary and scholarships let me quit one of those jobs, and I scraped by playing part-time in the Kingston Symphony. It wasn’t until I graduated and, through a combination of extreme luck and no small amount of charm, managed to get the job I have now.

If, however, I had managed to snag a cushy job at my dad’s Forbes 500 company (well, not my actual dad who is self-employed – my fictitious, much richer dad), I would have had a head-start on success. I wouldn’t have had to waste all those nights wrangling drunks at the bar, or those days cleaning up vomit at the waterslide. I would have instead been gaining not only relevant work experience, but networking and hobnobbing with the upper crust from a young age. I would have at least a 5-year jump on where I am now.

This is not a particularly sad story – I had to work, but I put in the time and I ended up with a comfortable lifestyle. That’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s not the whole story, though. I wouldn’t have been able to teach violin, or play in the symphony, if my parents hadn’t paid for lots of violin lessons with expensive teachers – not to mention the cost of the instrument itself. I got the research job through a friend, and because my parents (again) paid my tuition/rent I didn’t have to work very often – only enough to cover living expenses. Getting that research job helped me get into grad school, and was instrumental in me getting my current position. Point is – I didn’t exactly start from scratch – far from it, in fact.

Take a look at this graph:

There is an adage I really like: “Rich kids are born on third base, thinking they’ve hit a triple”. While I am not above a little bit of nepotism, it would be nice if that advantage you’re born with came with even the slightest awareness of how ahead of the pack these people start the race at. Even if not every kid with a rich parent ends life richer than their parents, the offspring of the mega-wealthy get a huge bump up the ladder for no reason other than the fact that the condom broke.

It is particularly galling to hear wealthy people decry the middle-class and poor as “lazy”, as though this kind of wealth self-perpetuation was something only seen in science fiction or the works of Marx. Given what we know about the ‘knock-on’ effects of poverty, and this latest revelation (as far as this blog is concerned, at least) about the behaviours of the wealthy, this myth should be dead, encased in concrete, and launched into the sun. Instead we get to hear Newt Gingrich tell poor kids to go mop bathrooms.

I’m not saying the system has been unfair for me. I was incredibly lucky to be born to two parents who were fit and driven enough to get university degrees, and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure I had what I needed. While I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, any spoon that I was born with was at least silver-plated. And it probably had food on it. I’m happy to point to all the helping hands I got along the way. Without them, mine would be a very different story (which you wouldn’t hear, because I wouldn’t have time to blog).

We can tie this to our earlier discussion of scholarships and race. While it’s easy (and fun!) to point the finger at racial minorities as being responsible for taking “our” spots in schools and jobs, the fact is that a much larger injustice is happening, whereby simply being born well-off is your passport to greater riches. Instead of doing the “crabs in a barrel” thing, we should try to turn our focus to those areas where we can truly make success a product of merit, not inheritance.

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  1. says

    May I also point out that the study was of father to son transmission? I bet the rate of father to daughter or mother to child transmission is low, low, low, thus illustrating yet another disadvantage faced by both women of the second generation and children of single mothers. Poverty hits women with a double-whammy.

  2. Crommunist says

    I’m actually not so sure that it would be as dramatic as that. While there is sure to be some sexism, I’d be really surprised to see that rich dads only help their sons and not their daughters. The low number of moms in the 1% would definitely make statistical inference difficult.

  3. astrosmash says

    Have you read Sam Harris’ blog entry called “A New Year’s Resolution For The Rich”? One of his best jabs was that for the rich, being born without a club foot or not being orphaned at five is seen as a personal achievement

    Violinist too? Where does it end? I was a composition major and pianist. The string players awed me. I still have no idea how people can play those instruments. Envy alert!….

  4. Crommunist says

    I have the same type of envy when it comes to brass players. Can’t play trumpet to save my life. I guess that’s where it ends. I consider myself a violist rather than a violinist. While I taught violin, I haven’t really played it in earnest since I was 14.

  5. astrosmash says

    Also, the us-them paradigm goes like

    1 Rich white male

    2 rich white female

    3 middle class male

    4 middle class female

    not meaning to be exact at all, it’s just that I imagine the RWM would confer privelege to a woman from his group before a man in a group decernably further “down”

  6. Crommunist says

    It’s REALLY tough ranking ‘overall’ privilege like that. A low-class black man can still assert male privilege over a rich white woman. A poor black woman can assert able-body privilege over Stephen Hawking. It’s more situational than ordinal.

  7. says

    Actually, I think it would (of course we’re both speculating–I wondered if the original researchers mentioned it all in their paper, but said paper is behind a paywall). With all of the cultural pressure for fathers to bond with sons and take them under wing, it would be expected for guys to bring their sons on board with them, but girls “wouldn’t like all that guy stuff”. Even now, I think many men would feel more comfortable getting their sons a job in the business they work for. There’s still an Old Boys’ Club in a lot of places.

  8. Crommunist says

    My view of the ultra-rich is probably quite a bit less cynical (although I cannot speak to its accuracy) than yours. I think there will be a lack of encouragement for daughters to follow in family footsteps, but not outright discouragement. Then again, I honestly have no idea how this kind of stuff works, because there was no “family business” for me or my sister to get into.

  9. Crommunist says

    I’ve peeked behind the paywall – no mention of daughters. I think this approach was taken because the data were available only on this kind of relationship.

  10. michaelswanson says

    I mostly have myself to thank for being where I am today. Which is why where I am today kind of sucks. 🙂 And I’m happy to keep my fretless instruments confined to bass guitars, where is there is plenty of room for fat fingers to find notes, thank you very much!

  11. Crommunist says

    Funny story about that. A guy I went to high school with used to say that a viola was a violin for people whose fingers were too fat to play the smaller instrument. I joked to my buddy Mike, who is a virtuoso on bass, that his instrument was for even FATTER fingers.

    We then joined forces and started a band called “Instruments for Fat People”. We actually gathered a bit of a following before going our separate ways for uni.

  12. says

    I just got back into them lately, and started going through more of their stuff. “Pimps” is good on the same topics, but “My Favourite Mutiny” in one of the best songs I’ve ever heard for walking around when you’re pissed at injustices.

  13. says

    My first job was hard labor: shoveling rocks for the parks department. At 13.

    My second job(s) — every summer after that, until I got into college — were all agricultural. Stoop labor in the fields, in the sun.

    I got to keep none of the money from those jobs — they all went to buying my school clothes and supplies. I worked a second job mowing lawns on the weekends, and the deal was that I got to keep all that money for myself.

    I went to college and grad school because there was no way I was going to live like that for the rest of my life.

  14. Crommunist says

    I remember saying much the same thing after the water-park job (except it was “nothing outside my field from now on”). There was only so many times I was willing to scoop human feces out of a toilet with my (gloved) hands. Water parks are disgusting.


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