Friday, February 28, 2014

Clark, The Son Also Rises

Social mobility, or the lack thereof, has been a hot topic of late. James Surowiecki summarized the recent findings of a team of American economists in a recent New Yorker column: economic mobility has remained “relatively stable” and depressingly low “over the entire second half of the twentieth century. … What the political scientist Michael Harrington wrote back in 1962 is still true: most people who are poor are poor because ‘they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents.’”

Gregory Clark and his team of researchers worked on a larger canvas both historically and geographically in The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (Princeton University Press, 2014). They used surnames to track the rich and poor through many generations in various societies. They analyzed mobility not only in the American “land of opportunity” and in egalitarian Sweden but in medieval England. They studied caste and endogamy in India, mobility after Mao in China and Taiwan, social homogeneity and mobility in Japan and Korea, mobility among the oligarchs in Chile, and mobility among various religious and ethnic groups (Protestants, Jews, Gypsies, Muslims, and Copts).

The book’s claim is that “social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height.” Consequently, even though counterintuitively, “the arrival of free public education in the late nineteenth century and the reduction of nepotism in government, education, and private firms have not increased social mobility. Nor is there any sign that modern economic growth has done so. The expansion of the franchise to ever-larger groups in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has had no effect. Even the redistributive taxation introduced in the twentieth century in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden seemingly has had no impact.” (pp. 9-10)

In light of these findings, those who want the best possible outcomes for their children should not worry so much about getting their kids into the right schools and providing them with all kinds of social perks. Rather, they should choose the best possible mate. This involves looking beyond a prospective partner’s social phenotype (achieved education, occupational status, health, etc.); after all, some high achievers got there through sheer dumb luck, sometimes even fraud. “To discover the likely underlying social genotype of your potential partner, you need to observe not just their characteristics but also the characteristics of all their relatives. … The point here is not that any of these relatives will contribute anything directly to the social and economic success of your child. … But the social status of the relatives indicates the likely underlying social status of your potential mate.” (p. 283)

This thesis is supported by looking at endogamous marriage within elite groups and low-status groups. “When marriage is endogamous within an elite group … high status can be maintained forever. Witness the Brahmin class in Bengal, or the Copts of Egypt. Conversely, endogamous marriage can condemn low-status groups such as the Muslims of West Bengal to perpetual deprivation.” (p. 282) “Since Coptic surnames are those that stand out … as the highest-status group in the United States, all else being equal, if you want high-status offspring, find yourself a partner named Girgis, Boutros, or Shenouda. Chinese and black African surnames also stand out as particularly high status. So again, all else being equal, choose Chen over Churchill, Okafer over Olson.” (p. 285) Or, given a choice between two equally highly educated possible marriage partners, one of Ashkenazi Jewish background and the other of New France descent, select the Jewish partner.

The author’s thesis, it should be stressed, applies only to low social mobility, not to inequality. In fact, he argues that “if low social mobility rates really are a law of nature, … then we should spend less time worrying about them and instead worry about the institutions that determine the degree of inequality in social and economic outcomes” such as a country’s tax system and its public interventions in education and health care.

Lots to ponder in this controversial book.

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