from gregory clark’s new book The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility [pgs. 3-10]:

“Most people believe, from their own experience of families, friends, and acquaintances, that we live in a world of slow social mobility. The rich beget the rich, the poor beget the poor. Between the Old Etonian and the slum dweller, between Govan and Richmond Drive, lies a gulf of generations. But a hundred years of research by psychologists, sociologists, and economists seems to suggest that this belief is fictional. Conventional estimates imply that social mobility is rapid and pervasive. The Old Etonian and the slum dweller are cousins.

“Standard estimates suggest high modern intergenerational mobility rates….

“These conclusions from conventional scholarly estimates of social mobility rates, however, sit poorly with popular perceptions of social mobility. People looking back to their own grandparents, or forward to their grandchildren, do not generally see the kind of disconnect in status that these estimates imply. People looking at their siblings or cousins see a much greater correlation in status than is implied by the intergenerational correlations reported above….

“Using surnames to track the rich and poor through many generations in various societies — England, the United States, Sweden, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, and Chile — this book argues that our commonsense intuition of a much slower rate of intergenerational mobility is correct. Surnames turn out to be a surprisingly powerful instrument for measuring social mobility. And they reveal that there is a clear, striking, and consistent social physics of intergenerational mobility that is not reflected in most modern studies of the topic.

“The problem is not with the studies and estimates themselves. What they measure, they measure correctly. The problem arises when we try to use these estimates of mobility rates for individual characteristics to predict what happens over long periods to the general social status of families. Families turn out to have a general social competence or ability that underlies partial measures of status such as income, education, and occupation. These partial measures are linked to this underlying, not directly observed, social competence only with substantial random components. The randomness with which underlying status produces particular observed aspects of status creates the illusion of rapid social mobility using conventional measures.

“Underlying or overall social mobility rates are much lower than those typically estimated by sociologists or economists. The intergenerational correlation in all the societies for which we construct surname estimates — medieval England, modern England, the United States, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Chile, and even egalitarian Sweden — is between 0.7 and 0.9, much higher than conventionally estimated. Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height. Figure 1.6 compares conventional estimates of mobility (for income and years of education) with those yielded by surname measures….

greg clark - fig 1.6

“Mobility is consistent across generations. Although it may take ten or fifteen generations, social mobility will eventually erase most echoes of initial advantage or want.

“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 similarly 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. In particular, once we measure generalized social mobility, there is no sign that inequality is linked to social mobility rates. Instead social mobility seems to be a constant, independent of inequality.”

razib suggests, given clark’s thesis of an underlying “general social competence” to which all the other social status factors correlate, that the book should be called the s factor. (~_^)

(note: comments do not require an email. social mobility indicator.)