Is Social Mobility a Farce?

Social mobility seems like a cruel joke to some. Harvard grads beget Harvard grads, slum dwellers remain mired in poverty. The elite remain firmly at the top of the heap. Past becomes future.

Yet social science tells us otherwise. Study after study has shown that modern society actually enjoys high intergenerational mobility. It’s as if the entropy of the universe has descended to our economy, drawing rich and poor back to the middle over just a few generations.

We may not always see this mobility at work in America, but we typically believe it’s there. Our mission statement is fashioned by life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rebranded as the American Dream, it’s a shared promise of opportunity for those with enough pluck and talent.

And if Gregory Clark is to be believed, your gut was right all along. The American Dream is a lie. All of these studies are wrong. Mobility is low, slow, and cruel.

Clark, a professor at UC-Davis, is author of the new book, “The Son Also Rises,” which harnesses a unique data set to take down nearly every mobility study in existence. Beyond having a thing for Hemingway titles (his last book was titled “A Farewell to Alms”), Clark has a knack for picking topics that raise the ire of the commentariat. He succeeds mightily.

“If Gregory Clark is to be believed, your gut was right all along. The American Dream is a lie.”

Using surnames to track families both rich and poor across generations, Clark argues that social mobility is exceedingly low. Mobility by his measure is roughly the same today as it was in the Middle Ages. In the nine countries he studies—England, the United States, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Chile, and Sweden—each generation is roughly correlated to the next.

Surnames tell us a lot about our social status, which makes this a remarkably innovative way to study mobility. Most studies use income, occupation, and education as measures of mobility, but they’re really just facets of status. Together, these measures seem to point to surnames filing clearly into elite, middle, or low statuses over time.

And time is what’s especially critical in Clark’s work. Most mobility studies look at progress across one generation (or two, if they’re particularly ambitious). There’s the chance for a lot of noise in the data when you’re measuring human advancement by decades rather than centuries. What could be a blip is instead seen as indicative of social progress.

Progress is actually a slow crawl upward for the poor and a gradual regression downward for the elite. We all converge at the middle eventually, but it takes a long while. Clark finds a remarkable number of families that seem to cling on to more status over the centuries than conventional mobility studies would say they should. That seems to cinch the deal for him.

What could explain these findings? In a word, genetics. Social status is a trait, just like height, that’s passed on from generation to generation. Fifty to seventy percent of social status is set at conception. That’s how mobility can remain so sticky and yet eventually regress to the mean.

More precisely, inherited traits inform who will have the “compulsion to strive and the talent to prosper.” Nature will beat nurture and your fancy degree, but it also won’t guarantee your progeny a faster climb up the social ladder. Seen across the expanse of centuries, “social position is largely a product of the blind inheritance of talent, combined with a dose of pure chance.”

If this sounds depressing, just remember that inherited ability is fairer than inherited privilege. And Clark points at one way to outplay nature’s hand: marrying up. It may or may not help spouses find marital bliss, but it certainly equips little Johnny or Jane with a genetic booster pack.

In this way, Clark’s findings fit with two strands of recent study. First, that the family is a significant force for economic well-being and upward mobility. Second, that assortative mating (marrying a spouse of similar ability and background) may be reinforcing an opportunity gap between rich and poor, allowing the socially well-endowed to harbor their naturally gotten gains.

Assuming Clark’s hypothesis is true, what are its implications? For one thing, we all carry a particular social status whether we know it or not. And that status is informed by our set of inherited attributes. Human agency plays a role in progress insofar as genetics allow it. 

“Mobility by Clark’s measure is roughly the same today as it was in the Middle Ages.”

The American Dream becomes little more than a myth too. There is a predictive strata of society that is impervious to the forces of capitalism. Social status in the land of the free remains strongly predictive of social mobility. This is a targeted strike at the heart of the conservative ideal of hard work and opportunity.

Most galling of all to those on the political left is Clark’s belief that policy is helpless. Government cannot hope to have much impact on increasing social mobility (though it seems well-equipped to decrease it). There are groups of people who will succeed no matter what rules or redistributive mechanisms are put in place. Indeed, Clark finds that even after China’s Cultural Revolution and elite purges, members of the Qing Dynasty lineage remain overrepresented in positions of power.

Government can simply encourage a marriage melting pot, where people wed into different social and cultural groups in order to break up elite groups as though they were big banks. In the meantime, policy can also help ensure that no social structure magnifies the “reward of high social position.”

Perhaps most surprising of all is Clark’s recommendation for families to forget about making large investments in their children. For society’s upper crust, Clark informs them that “no amount of investment in your children’s education will prevent their descendants from long-term downward mobility.” What matters is finding a mate. Beyond that, “You can safely neglect your offspring, confident that the innate talents you secured for them will shine through regardless.” Indeed.

The book reads like what it is: a solitary hypothesis stretched over hundreds of pages of data analysis. Clark harvested reams of surnames and, upon seeing some anomalies, grabbed at one theory that seemed to make the most sense. Or at least the one he seemed most enamored with. Perhaps Clark was most pleased because he knows his theory is testable and hard to rule out.

Critics can and will tear this book apart. Just give them time. Other well-researched scholarship, such as the Raj Chetty-led Equality of Opportunity project, offer critics plenty of ammunition. They will also find their fair share of weak spots.

For one thing, Clark’s definition of social status is frustratingly vague and seems to slip from chapter to chapter. It’s a term so central to his book that you’d think he’d have a better grasp of it. That is, unless he’s stretched it to fit a hypothesis he finds slipping away from him.

Moreover, where is the scientific consensus that social status is genetic? Clark doesn’t find it too surprising to think competence is inherited in the same way as height. Yet his confidence seems to stray far beyond the bounds of his training as a gifted economist. No one confidently knows where the strange mix of emotional and intellectual ability that makes up social competence resides in the genetic code or how it is transmitted. Not geneticists and certainly not economists.

Clark weaves a story of genetic determinism that simply leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The implications for race are hard to avoid. For instance, if African-Americans are poor, it is because, as The Economist puts it, “they are descended from people with low social competence; discrimination is irrelevant, except to the extent that it limits intermarriage with other groups.” This finding does a grave disservice to past injustices.

What about today? If social mobility marches on over many generations, is Clark simply jumping the gun? The Industrial Revolution—a burst of growth unprecedented in human history—only hit its full stride in the late 19th century. Wage gains didn’t boost the middle class until the mid-20th century. Civil rights weren’t widely adopted until sometime afterward. Perhaps the sunnier mobility studies are simply more up-to-date, recognizing that opportunity is greater today than it was generations ago.

Gregory Clark has done his homework. We would be well served in taking his findings seriously. We also shouldn’t take his hypothesis at face value nor leave his data unexamined. Rest assured that this is only the beginning of a debate over the state of social mobility today.

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