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Social mobility August 4, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Have you heard of Gregory Clark? Perhaps not, but it’s worth engaging with his arguments because he’s an economist who has written a book on social structures and in particular social mobility (he’s also written a book on the genesis of the Industrial Revolution that may raise eyebrows).

His thesis is, having tracked surnames across centuries, that social mobility hardly exists, that those who were members of ‘elite groups’ – a loaded term and in some respects ambiguous, appear to remain fairly consistently within such elites across time:

…according to Clark social mobility is an unchanging constant. It did not change with the arrival of free public education, the fall of nepotism in both the private and public sectors, economic growth, the expansion of the franchise in the 19th century, or even with the rise of the welfare state and redistributive taxation in the 20th. Social mobility is not related to any of these policies, and it is not tied to the level of inequality.

And as noted in this piece from The Atlantic his approach is different to others:

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.

I doubt many of us on the left would quibble with some of that. At least in its general thrust. Elites are self-perpetuating, that’s almost the business of an elite, isn’t it?

He goes further, and into troubling territory. For him it’s not a matter of social behaviours, or not quite, that might seek to cohere immobility or dissuade or deflect social mobility. He’s a bit fuzzy on this but one can see where his thoughts are trending:

I don’t know [Is that underlying thing genetic?]. We know that status is changing very slowly. It is not really amenable to social intervention, and it seems very connected with families. Is it something cultural that families pass on to their children, or is it to do with biology? We don’t have the information that would distinguish those two views, but we cannot reject the idea that it’s mostly genetic.
If it were biological, then social groups with lower rates of out-marriage would be more likely to retain their status over time. We can observe historically some startling examples of such groups, and it is in fact the case that they don’t change their social status as much over time—Brahmins in India, Copts in Egypt, Jews. It doesn’t prove anything, but it does mean that we can’t reject the notion that it has something to do with biology.

And as noted here:

The book holds that previous studies are based on observable manifestations of the intergenerational transmission of a latent characteristic, which earnings, education, occupation and all the other indices measure imperfectly. Clark sometimes refers to this underlying characteristic as “social competence,” and at other times outright as “social genotype,” but ultimately what he means is “genes.” When measured correctly, social competence has a high degree of intergenerational transmission, with about three-quarters of any relative advantage or disadvantage being transmitted from parent to child. This equals or exceeds Galton’s estimate for height, and is as much as three times some estimates of the transmission of earnings between fathers and sons.

One can see where this is problematic – and while in no sense his fault – it is striking how many people exercised by race appear to have latched onto this in comments and pieces on the research.

I too find this problematic, as I suspect most on the left would find it problematic, not least for the implications as regards the impermeability of elites to social and political and economic change. Clark comes perilously close, and actually seems to endorse an idea, that elites are elites because they’re – well – elite, that they have something that makes them actually better at being an elite than others.

There are obvious counter arguments to his thesis, that we cannot be anywhere near clear enough as to the accuracy of lineage – for example, adoption, name changes or so on, that demographic changes would of necessity dilute an elite, that technological and cultural innovations would impact likewise, and so on.

But it’s not just the implications but also the sense that the overall thesis is awry.

The idea of a genetic aptitude to being in an elite, even if it is so vaguely described as ‘social competence’ seems difficult to sustain. It seems to ascribe some element to the individual within a social context that in a sense generates the social context. But ask yourself, how precisely would there be a genetically determined behaviour for being part of an ‘elite’ as distinct from any other social group? How would this manifest itself? I’m at a loss to think of how it might. A greater degree of courtesy, empathy, ability to work with others, to lead – even to put it in such terms is almost to see how difficult it is to sustain the idea. Or is it an ability to remain on top, so to speak? To see an opportunity, financial or otherwise and be able to use it? But given the changing nature of societies even that seems a stretch given that the array of methodological tools to engage with successfully at any given level have changed so radically. Moreover it neglects the interplay with others within the peer group who presumably would – at least in relation to opportunities – be seeking much the same.

Is it not more plausible to describe all this as first mover advantage. Elites – again troublingly under-defined in all this, but let’s go with the general sense of the term – have enormous advantages from the off once established. Let’s note that many of his examples, those from a Norman background in England, were established by force of arms and maintained by same across centuries.

Deference, servility, coercion, rape, murder, all were what sustained aristocratic and other elites across time – and continue to do so in various parts of the world. Even the advent of capitalism, a truly remarkable and modernising dynamic and one which – for all its flaws, can and should be considered as partially liberating given what came before, has had, given the depth of historical time, only a relatively short period of existence. Democracy, redistribution, let alone socialist societal transformation, less again.

It is perhaps a sign of how easily the past is forgotten how little regard is given to the nature of societies within living memory. The rupture in social relations in Britain, for example, during the First World War was profound, that of the Second World War equally, if not more, so. And yet even after WWI, in the 1920s and 1930s Britain remained hugely stratified as a society and it really was the experience of WW2 which brought about much greater informality, a massive diminution of deference and so forth. At this remove it’s easy to forget or not appreciate this – and it is telling to me how Downtown Abby and other fictions are so popular, they genuinely are windows on another world entirely.

But clearly not entirely, for elites continue, and in that respect Clark is correct. And one has to wonder at how much is down to the stickiness, so to speak, of social institutions in bourgeois societies for reinforcing social position. We see this in miniature in this society – a small number of private schools with those who go to them having an intrinsic advantage from the off. Most of us would tend to the view that it that advantage is not due to some aspect of those going through so much as the fact they’re going through the institutions.

Clark sees it as being a function of family within elite but I think that’s vastly too restrictive. I went for one year to a private fee-charging school (as I’ve noted here) to repeat my leaving certificate and it was an interesting and educative experience, albeit not quite in the way those who ran the place intended. What struck me strongly, and this was far from the top of the range of such schools in this state, was the network of connections that were available to those there. Connections that locked into the higher levels of economic activity in the state. Now this is in no sense to suggest there aren’t networks and connections at all levels of society, but the clear advantage that simply being familiar to those in a broad peer group is of such utility that it is somewhat curious that Clark doesn’t engage with that.

Nor does he engage with the processes by which peer groups define themselves, language, social custom and so on. Or how – and this also has struck me over the years, how they can function at times as a social support mechanism, maintaining the position of those within it who have fallen on difficult times. There are obvious ways in which this can work. For example, take informal meetings and interviews for work positions. I remember decades ago getting to talk with a view to a job to someone who headed up a national institution simply because he was a friend of my father. I didn’t get the job, but someone else did, and they did so outside even the breath of a formalised recruitment process. That was in the public sector. What of the private sector where outside larger organisations such dynamics are in evidence on a continual basis. Some, in fairness, are much better than others, but it is far from unknown. And that’s just one example that underlines how easy it is to maintain a social structure that is advantageous to a specific group.

But even within family there are clear support mechanisms, if one is in the ‘right’ family. Neil Postman once had a line that went something like this, that news consumption was largely a (US) middle class interest because those in the working class were too busy trying to make ends meet and those in the upper classes were either involved in making the news or didn’t have to worry too much about it. It was that larger area who had both the time and the resources to fret. It’s an overstatement, but there’s an element of truth there, and I think one can easily map the underlying truth onto families, that as part of elite groups the resources and time was there to reiterate a concentration on education, the retention of wealth/power/status and so on. We see this today with aspirant and actual middle classes as well – though just to note where my daughter goes to school in East Wall one would have to go a long way to find a more committed group of parents whose understanding of the importance of education to their children’s lives is self-evident and their energy and effort to see them do well, however we define ‘well’, is clear. And that, by the by, points to the reality of new dynamics intruding, that the past isn’t necessarily the absolute template for the future. That ‘social competence’ can be appropriated by anyone and applied likewise.

Perhaps, indeed the surprise isn’t that elites are so embedded, but that they’re not more embedded, that they haven’t managed to completely shape society to their benefit, that the deference they might have been given three hundred years ago, or a hundred years ago, is largely a thing of the past, at least at a formal level, whatever about the reality of power relationships. Clark himself believes that across two or three hundred years there’s a tendency for elites to ‘revert to the mean’, that is for their wealth to dissipate. That’s in itself is interesting because one can only wonder whether they can withstand the assault of long lived and genuinely egalitarian societies.


1. An Cathaoirleach - August 4, 2015

WTF – I would also refer you to an earlier piece by Dr. Clark in “Foreign Affairs” dated 26th August 2014, in which he described “The American Dream” as an illusion, pointing out that there is little or no social mobility. This article managed to annoy a lot of people of varying political hues.

One of the more interesting points that Dr. Clarke makes is that there is little difference in the levels of social mobility in Sweden against the US.

He suggests the much flatter pay scales in Sweden do work in combating the lack of social mobility.

The book is worth buying and is available for €21.09 from Kennys http://www.bookdepository.com/Son-Also-Rises-Gregory-Clark/9780691162546.

He has in the past collaborated on research with Dr. Cormac ÓGrada.


WorldbyStorm - August 4, 2015

My problem isn’t so much the argument social mobility is low which I can believe but rather the rationale presented by him for same. And again I think the Irish experience or indeed in ways the experience post ww1 and 2 suggest mobility is possible and genetic explanations are a crock. Ironically he himself comes from an Irish English background.


2. gendjinn - August 4, 2015

If it’s genetic (and as a geneticist I’m very dubious without twin studies) I’d put my money on sociopathy. That seems to be the requisite trait to be able to make money off the suffering of others.

But you don’t need genetics for sociopathy, it’s a meme that is so easily transferable from parent to offspring.

An economist engaging in theoretical genetics, might as well be asking Einstein to fix your transmission.

Liked by 1 person

3. roddy - August 4, 2015

In the North,attaining elected office (in the Nationalist community anyway) is quite easy for working class people.


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