“[C]an 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.”
"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."
"Others are investigating whether mobility in America has declined in recent years."
"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."
"The fact that Clark is measuring something broader … 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."
"But how does Clark get at the persistence of his all-encompassing concept of status? His method relies on the tendency, in most societies, for a son to bear his father’s surname (hence his book’s title: The Son Also Rises). Specifically, Clark measures the persistence of status by looking at what has happened over time to groups of people bearing names that, at some point in the past — generations or even centuries ago — indicated socioeconomic status either well above or well below that of the general population.”
"[T]he advantage of looking at surnames is twofold. First, it enormously increases the spans of time Clark can study—up to 900 years in some of his English examples. Second, it allows him to examine countries, like India, where the kinds of directly linked parent-and-child data other researchers use aren’t available and may not be for decades, if ever."
"No doubt economists and others will debate the relative merits of Clark’s method, along with what he’s trying to measure. But the important question is whether mobility is as slow as he says — and whether it really is a ‘universal constant.’ Those claims are well worth taking seriously, in part because his more comprehensive notion of socioeconomic status — a concept economists typically don’t try to grapple with — does seem like what really matters."
The Atlantic, June 25, 2014: “What’s in a Name? Everything.,” by Benjamin M. Friedman
Princeton University Press: “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility,” by Gregory Clark
The Economist, February 1, 2014: “Have and have not”