Editor’s Note: If you think you’re too short, you should have chosen taller parents. Thankfully, inherited physical traits, like height or eye color, aren’t often considered predictors of future socioeconomic success. In America, we’re taught that your social status, unlike your stature, can rise; it’s not pre-determined.Longer article. Please read.
But what if social status is inherited, just like stature? In that world, surnames would be a pretty good indicator at birth of future social mobility. That is our world, says economic historian Gregory Clark. He makes that case in one of the most provocative economics books of the year, “The Son Also Rises,” using surname-based intergenerational inequality correlations.
Over the past week, Making Sen$e has featured Paul Solman’s never-before-published conversation with Clark about his 2007 book, “A Farewell to Alms,” broken into five parts. Clark traces economic history, beginning with hunter-gatherers, and argues that in England, where the Industrial Revolution was born, the takeoff was due, above all, to “the survival of the richest.”
That argument, like the one we present today, strikes at the heart of the belief in equal opportunity for economic growth and social mobility. “We can predict the majority of status variation among people at birth just from their lineage,” Clark writes. In other words, our society’s divergence of fortunes — which as Clark points out, isn’t just about income, but also social status – is relatively fixed. That’s something no one ever wants to talk about.
Clark is here to talk about it, and to explain the implications for public policy of a world where, he thinks, social mobility is, and is likely to remain, slow.
— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor
Everything we thought we knew about social mobility is wrong. And the evidence is hiding in plain sight. Just look at our surnames. Surname evidence suggests social mobility rates are slow, and impervious to social policy. Practically speaking, this means the poor will be much better served by policies to reduce the inequality of social outcomes than by those designed to speed up social mobility.
What we thought we knew was that high rates of social mobility were possible, but only achieved by some societies; that nurture mattered more than nature in social outcomes; that the right social policies could generate near equality of opportunity; that the U.S. was a laggard when it came to such policies; and that the right policies would eliminate in the U.S. the legacies of past disadvantage within two to three generations.
A study of the changing social status of surnames across many societies and epochs, however, dashes all such fond hopes. There is, everywhere, social mobility. All elites eventually get replaced. All underclasses eventually rise. Unfortunately, the process happens over a very long timeframe: many generations, in fact. The study of surnames shows that in the near term, social mobility rates are everywhere low and utterly unaffected by social policy; the pattern of mobility is consistent with nature rather than nurture being the main determinant of social status.
The hard truth is that underlying social status is inherited from parents as strongly and mechanically as height. This iron law of status means there is no way that a merit or incentive system can be used to justify a winner-take-all society.
Social mobility rates can be summarized by one number: the degree to which the social outcomes of children – earnings, education, wealth and health – correlate with that of their parents. The closer that correlation is to zero, the less family, lineage, race and ethnicity matter to the next generation. All is possible at birth. The closer that number is to one (in essence, 100 percent) the more status is predictable from family circumstances alone. Birth is fate.
The figure below, adapted from egalitarian economist Miles Corak, summarizes the conventional wisdom, as seen in estimates of the correlation between income inequality within families and in the economy as a whole across various countries. The correlation varies greatly. But where the income distribution is more unequal, the correlation between the economic status of children and their parents is higher. The correlation is low in prosperous, egalitarian Nordic economies, but high in in-egalitarian and poor Latin America. At the extreme, outcomes in countries like Sweden seem largely unpredictable at birth. There seems to be near equality of opportunity. (The U.S. lies in the middle both in terms of social mobility and in inequality.)
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The varying strength of conventional status inheritance across countries suggests that institutions control social mobility rates, and that many societies have suboptimal social mobility rates. By this argument, nurture, not nature, determines social success and social policy is the answer. In particular in the U.S., many children of talent are denied their potential by the circumstances of their families, according to this story. The U.S. is failing children from disadvantaged families. So, in general, is any society with high inequality. But as it turns out, that’s far from the whole story.
Conventional social mobility estimates look at only the inheritance of individual aspects of social status, such as income, across single generations.
How your income correlates with your parents’ income turns out to be a very imperfect measure of how your underlying social status correlates with theirs. The most famous philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, maintained high social status despite giving away all the money left to him by his father, the steel magnate Karl. The crucial point is that a lot of what is conventionally estimated as social mobility is just the froth around much more slowly changing underlying social status.
The key to why the correlations are misleading is not that they are based on income, but that the current measures mainly capture random transitory fluctuations in income and wealth at the individual level. But for elite groups as a whole, the systematic downwards movement of income or wealth or education is much lower.
A different approach is to use the average status of surnames distinctive enough to track families across generations. Using surnames, we can measure the inheritance of that underlying status between single generations, and also over multiple generations.
Take supposedly mobile Sweden, for example. Conventional estimates imply that social mobility among Swedes should wipe out all past advantages and disadvantages within three generations, reminiscent of the 19th century English adage, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” But consider the name Leijonhufvud, for example. It is a Swedish name created for a family ennobled more than 300 years ago, 10 generations in the past. According to the conventional notion of Swedish social mobility, Leijonhufvuds today should be no more distinguished than Swedes bearing surnames of low-class origin such as Andersson.
But Leijonhufvuds remain significantly wealthier and more educated. They live in fancier suburbs. Their social status has survived for three centuries. Measured through surname status, contemporary Sweden has rates of underlying social mobility that are extremely slow, and no higher than in pre-industrial Sweden or medieval England.
The result of my research is that this same strong conservation across generations of surname status is seen everywhere: in Thatcher’s England, in Tony Blair’s England, in medieval England, in Industrial Revolution England, in the huddled masses of the U.S., in Communist China, in capitalist Taiwan, in socially homogenous Japan, in the Chile of Pinochet and the Chile of Allende. Indeed there seems to be a universal constant rate of social mobility, with the few exceptions being even more immobile societies such as India. This rate is so slow that it implies that we can predict the majority of status variation among people at birth just from their lineage. The figure below shows this pattern.
Overall I agree with the thesis of the article. This can be restated in a lot of ways- advantage begets advantage, inheritance both financially and by privilege is a key determinant in the eventual outcome of social status and income. In the U.S. we see families like the Trumps, Kochs, Limbaughs (yes, Russ comes from privilege. His dad was a judge). and other families that impart status at birth and the money to go with it.
There are exceptions, perhaps minor, but in my case it holds true generationally. I am one of only two of 8 siblings that achieved a college degree. All 3 of my brothers and my father served in the military. My sister married a mailman and their son became a mailman. My (combined) retirement income is just over $50,000 a year, which puts me dead smack in the middle of the middle class. One brother was a school teacher, another a civil servant like me.
If there is a variant, it would be the level of intellectualism and/or focus on goals provided to the children by the parents. A wealthy child strictly raised to accept the mantle of wealth (think royal family in England, or the Walton family) versus a child raised in wealth that only succeeds because of the parents (Paris Hilton) We see sob stories of movie stars/rock stars/ celebrities that become very wealthy and then blow it all on mansions and trinkets. To a degree that is almost predictable, because they lack the "breeding" to deal with the wealth acquired. Had they been taught to understand and utilize the newfound wealth, it would not happen.
The Kochs inherited their wealth and apparently want everybody beneath them to be servants or minions. Donald Trump, trumpeting (sorry) himself as a self made man, inherited 100 million from his father. The irony is in my version of the real world, he would be a useless individual.
I would like to get input from the Brits on here, because in their society the class system is more pronounced than in the U. S.