Sticky Status

Economist Gregory Clark’s book The Son Also Rises traces social mobility rates over hundreds of years using surnames and concludes that government interventions aimed at increasing mobility have little effect. In an interview, Clark suggests that, because socioeconomic status is so hard to change, it may make more sense to focus on raising the minimum standard of living instead:

We already live in societies of massive social intervention in terms of the provision of education and health care. Yet we have not been able to raise social mobility rates above those of the pre-industrial era. Even the most interventionist societies such as Sweden have such low social mobility rates.

But if we’re learning that we can predict the majority of people’s outcomes at conception, that should lead us to reexamine our assumption that whatever income distribution comes out in society is fine. Because if it’s the case that a lot of this is determined before someone enters the game, it weakens the case for letting the market determine the distribution.

You’d be much more likely to favor a society with much less inequality. And that’s where Sweden’s system does provide advantages over the U.S.’s. They haven’t changed mobility rates, but they’ve changed the consequences, strongly, of ending up at various points in the distribution. It’s a much better place for people who end up at the bottom of the distribution.

Yglesias makes related points, arguing that the bipartisan obsession with equal opportunity “makes no sense whatsoever as a social objective”:

[W]hether the focus groups like it or not, an opportunity to climb is no real answer for people at the bottom. A perfectly fair race is, in at least one important way, the same as a rigged race: Both have a first-place finisher and a last-place finisher. The question of what happens to the person at the bottom genuinely matters. Whether you want to phrase that in terms of the gap between the bottom and the top—inequality, as such—or simply look at the absolute condition of the people at the bottom, you can’t escape the conclusion that outcomes matter, and not just in terms of procedural fairness. Today, even poor people are able to take advantage of things like electricity and antibiotics that were rare or nonexistent 100 years ago. That’s the kind of opportunity that matters—the opportunity for everyone to enjoy a better life. But over the past generation, progress has been slow for the nonrich. And over the past 10 years, it’s been essentially absent.