What's in a Name? Everything

Social mobility has never been easy.
Ben Wiseman

Who gets ahead is always a topic of intense interest, especially in a society like America’s, without a legally established aristocracy at the top of the pile. As Tocqueville observed after visiting the new republic, the widespread perception that anyone can get ahead creates a presumption that everyone has an obligation to at least try. Nearly two centuries later, both the perception and the sense of obligation that follows are still firmly in place. According to the World Values Survey, while 60 percent of Europeans say they think “the poor are trapped in poverty,” only 29 percent of Americans think so. Instead, 60 percent of Americans think “the poor are lazy,” compared with just 26 percent of Europeans.

But can anyone get ahead? With the gap between rich and poor widening to Gilded Age levels, if not beyond, lately the question has attracted even more attention than usual. (When was the last time a book on economics created a sensation like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century?) Vast inequality may be acceptable to most citizens if anyone, or at least anyone’s grandchild, has a fair shot at the top. But if wealth and poverty simply perpetuate themselves within families, ever wider inequality becomes ever harder to justify. In America, the debate about inequality is, inevitably, also a debate about mobility.

Mobility is hard to measure, however, turning not just on who earns what today but on how what people earn—and what they have—relates to their parents’ income and wealth, and their grandparents’ and prior generations’ too. Economists, to their credit, are increasingly stepping up to this difficult empirical challenge. Some are tackling the politically touchy question of whether mobility is greater in America than in western-European countries. (Our traditional civic myth notwithstanding, the answer is no.) Others are investigating whether mobility in America has declined in recent years. (Contrary to President Obama’s recent statements, it apparently hasn’t.)

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California at Davis, has looked at these questions through a different lens. Clark, too, finds that mobility here is no greater than in Europe, and that U.S. mobility hasn’t declined. But he comes to a more fundamental, far more powerful conclusion. Clark argues that mobility is always the same—in all societies, and in every era. Mobility, he claims, is “a universal constant”; over time we thrive or not according to a “social law of motion,” a “social physics of intergenerational mobility.” And to make matters worse, the universal speed at which families and groups change their social position is slow—a lot slower than everyone thinks on the basis of previous research.

The implications are profound. If mobility is constant, then the ability of social institutions to affect it must be negligible. Clark points to such changes as the movement from feudalism to democracy and then the expansion of the franchise, as well as free public education and redistributive taxation. But if modern America and modern Sweden have the same rate of mobility, and that rate is the same as what prevailed in medieval England and in 19th-century China, then none of those changes mattered. And if the journey from unusually high or low status to the middle can, as Clark claims, “take ten or fifteen generations (300–450 years),” the mobility-based defense of inequality becomes strained, here and everywhere else.

Why does Clark find mobility rates to be so much slower than other economists do? To begin with, he’s measuring something different. Most economists assess intergenerational mobility by looking at what people earn, or in some cases what they own, compared with their parents’ income or wealth. Clark is after something broader, encompassing not just people’s income and wealth but also their education, their occupation, their likelihood of holding elected office or other distinguished positions, or of belonging to elite groups. He refers to the entire constellation of such attributes as “status,” or “fundamental social competence,” or “general social competence or ability”—ultimately, “an inescapable inherited substrate, looking suspiciously like social class.” Clark argues that this more comprehensive concept of mobility is what most of us really care about, and he’s probably right. The zillionaire’s son who spends all his time on philanthropy earns a lot less than his father did, but he enjoys a pretty high social standing nonetheless.

Social mobility is always the same—in all societies, and in every era.

The fact that Clark is measuring something broader—or, to put it the other way around, that most economists are measuring only one element of overall socioeconomic status—helps explain why he estimates mobility to be so much slower. What’s actually being measured, by Clark and everyone else, is not mobility, but its opposite: the degree of persistence (in income, say) from parent to child. Each particular element of what makes up Clark’s “general social competence or ability” is of course subject to random variation. Any one individual, like the son-of-a-zillionaire philanthropist, may have an unusually small income but be a Princeton alum and belong to all the right clubs anyway. Conversely, a parvenu earning a bundle may have attended State Tech and be unable to join anything more exclusive than the local Y. But muddying up a statistical relationship with lots of purely random noise inevitably lowers the estimate of whatever is the object of interest, and so looking only at income (or education, or any other single feature) means finding less parent-to-child persistence. And that in turn means concluding, as many economists have done, that there is more mobility. By examining instead the whole array of attributes that constitutes socioeconomic status, Clark averages out the purely chance variation in any one factor, like income, and therefore finds greater parent-to-child persistence—in other words, less mobility.

Presented by

Benjamin M. Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard and the author of The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, among other books.

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