social mobility and social competence

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.)

19 Comments

  1. This is quite powerful, and I don’t feel able to predict how this will break out politically among liberals, conservatives, libertarians and communitarians. I could make up a theory in any direction, I suppose.

    I am going to hazard a guess that the ability to delay gratification, which correlates with g but is not the same thing, is going to end up at the center of this discussion. That will bypass the association with us poisoned HBD-ers for the moment, because even if it turns out to have a large heritable component, it still looks like, and can be sold as, something that good parents teach to their children.

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  2. ““Underlying or overall social mobility rates are much lower than those typically estimated by sociologists or economists. ” Uh huh. I kind of always thought as much. As the elite of your society die out they cannot be replaced by random folks on the street. I shall read that book.

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  3. @linton – “I shall read that book.”

    you should! i recommend it. good stuff! (^_^) there’s a whole chapter on social mobility in medieval england which is pretty neat. (^_^)

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  4. @assistant village idiot – “I am going to hazard a guess that the ability to delay gratification, which correlates with g but is not the same thing, is going to end up at the center of this discussion. That will bypass the association with us poisoned HBD-ers for the moment, because even if it turns out to have a large heritable component, it still looks like, and can be sold as, something that good parents teach to their children.”

    hmmmm. you could be right. will definitely be interesting to see which way the discussion goes. maybe they’ll just ignore him. =/

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  5. A friend had a grandfather from an Irish slum. Her son came second in his class at Oxford and seems to have gone on to make oodles of boodle. But, of course, he doesn’t have his great grandfather’s surname.

    I wonder whether there are any errors in the analysis consequent on not allowing for the fact that, historically, only half of us carry our father’s surname in adult life.

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  6. But on the other hand: “general social competence” – is there any chance that that is partly a matter of good health? I expect that good health is partly heritable. (Low mutation load?) Or, in Western societies, ability not to be brought low by booze? Also heritable?

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  7. On the third hand: how much would be explicable by men in prospering or powerful families on average marrying women of higher than average … well, health, good sense … and “general social competence”? In other words, is there a bit of the old assortative mating going on? In fact, how could there not be?

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  8. “I am going to hazard a guess that the ability to delay gratification, which correlates with g but is not the same thing, is going to end up at the center of this discussion.”

    Yes, critical in an environment where food wasn’t easily available and had to be rationed.

    .

    “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.”

    I’m not so sure of that. To me the sequence seems to have been
    ->public education
    ->social mobility for a while
    ->adoption of extremely damaging originally cultural Marxist education theories which had the effect of pulling the ladder up behind them

    I wonder if the results from the period 1880 to 1930 might differ from 1880-1980.

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    1. @Greying Wanderer “->adoption of extremely damaging originally cultural Marxist education theories which had the effect of pulling the ladder up behind them” Good point. I wish it were more widely understood.

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  9. Of course the greatest social mobility in American history involved the Ashkenazi, who arrived poor and uneducated and quickly (in a couple of generations) rose into the upper and upper-middle classes in disproportionate numbers. Something similar may be happening with the Chinese, though I doubt they will be nearly so successful. In both cases of course we have populations with above average iq. Since the Ashkenazi are so prominent among our opinion making elites I wonder how much of the emphasis on the importance of mobility — and of the ideal of equality of opportunity — is not a reflection of their unique experience. I don’t recall much talk about upward social mobility before the Civil War (except for Lincoln’s little speech about the hope of beginning as an employee and eventually becoming something more — but, again, Lincoln was a genius. What the American Dream was all about before its latest incarnation was the idea that the common man could lead a good life, not that he could “get ahead.” (Or “race to the top” — give me a break!) Keeping up with the Jones’s was more like it.

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  10. Maybe I’m interpreting this incorrectly, but there seems to be a contradiction.

    First, Clark asserts that our popular/personal/anecdotal perception of status is that our status changes only slowly or not at all. Empricial studies indicate that mobility is higher than our perceptions.

    Second (this is where I may be misinterpreting), the empirical studies overestimate mobility because of short-term randomness, whereas tracking surnames over “ten or fifteen” generations smooths out the randomness.

    Here’s my question: if the empirical evidence of high mobility is caused by short-term randomness, wouldn’t we also expect anecdotal experience to perceive a lot of that randomness? After all, a person is only alive to see 4-5 generations (the 2-3 generations both preceding and following them). Perhaps the argument is that economists only look at the changes over 1-2 generations, whereas comparing your great grandparents to your grandchildren is a sufficient sample to get the smoothing effect?

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  11. DPG – there is a lot of short-turn anecdotal randomness. Uncle so and so made it big or aunt Y married money. Of course these exceptions get all the attention, to say nothing of shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.

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  12. My apologies if you have hashed this idea over before, but this http://leisureguy.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/the-germ-theory-of-democracy-dictatorship-and-all-your-most-cherished-beliefs/ got me to thinking. Could a germ theory help explain differences in in-breeding vs. outbreeding in differnt cultures? (If this has already been turned over, please post a link). I beleive the going theory is that the Catholic Church spurred outbreeding in Europe to prevent concentration of wealth. However, this theory seems to have some potential flaws. For example, unless outbreeding was somehow advantageous to the outbreeder’s offspring, it seems unliekly that even the church could enforce the practice. The church has historically had lots of rules that have been routinely ignored. In addition, large political institutions like the church tend to ride the waves of cultural changes as often as drive them. It seems possible that the requirements for outbreeding were merely a stamp of approval on something that was happening anyway.

    A couple of possible explanations on how disease could drive outbreeding (pure speculation here, no data at this point, but I am interested in opinions on plausibility and data for and against). Outbreeding results in a more variable set of genetic traits, including traits for disease resistance. In a culture with a lot of trade, associated travel, and high density living, diseases will not only be more frequent, but a wider variety of diseases will spread. In an inbreeding society, eventually a disease will come along that wipes out an entire branch of decendants. With outbreeding, it is more likely that at least some descendants will have resistance to the bug of the year, and survive to pass on their genes. With further outbreeding of the survivors in future generations, when the particular bug that is deadly to the survivors comes along, their descendants will have a mix of disease resistance traits that will ensure at least some of them survive. I’m not sure Occam would approve, but any thoughts?

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    1. @brasidas “unless outbreeding was somehow advantageous to the outbreeder’s offspring, it seems unliekly that even the church could enforce the practice. ” They could be pretty persuasive. The most important decision of your life is whom to marry. In traditional villages that was done by a matchmaker if “Fidler on the Roof” is right, or call her a wise woman or a bunch of them. As regards to outbreeding they obviously set matches between young people they knew. Whatever the story is on immune response (and the current thought is optimal immunity requires optimal diversity of the Major Human Histocompatibility Group genes … not too much inbreeding and not too much oubreeding) it’s clear that fertility requires an optimal degree of consanguinity. So if the wise women were saying marry kin, the church obviously was going to defy them and say marry out. The biology meant that the traditional communities had more babies. The didn’t burn the people getting married, but they sure burned the wise women at the stake in enormous numbers. I suspect the revulsion at that cruelty contributed to the reformation.

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  13. @brasidas – “Could a germ theory help explain differences in in-breeding vs. outbreeding in differnt cultures?”

    yes, i just linked to that article in this week’s linkfest (newest post)! (^_^)

    it might do — a correlation between inbreeding (consanguineous marriage) rates and the amount of pathogens in the environment has been found, but it wasn’t the strongest of correlations (r = 0.39) — see this post for more details.

    also, the one area of the world with the absolute highest rates of inbreeding — the arab world — happens to have the *lowest* pathogen rates (see same post) — so it’s hard to see how that fits.

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  14. @brasidas

    “Could a germ theory help explain differences in in-breeding vs. outbreeding in differnt cultures?”

    I don’t think it explains the differences but it might well be one of the reasons why inbreeding is the human default. That to my mind is the critical point with all this. Inbreeding, clans etc was the global norm.

    .

    “I believe the going theory is that the Catholic Church spurred outbreeding in Europe to prevent concentration of wealth.”

    The original reasoning of people like Thomas Aquinas was that reducing clannishness would reduce violence.

    .

    “However, this theory seems to have some potential flaws. For example, unless outbreeding was somehow advantageous to the outbreeder’s offspring, it seems unliekly that even the church could enforce the practice.”

    There needs to be at least one other factor. The Catholic Church’s cousin marriage ban may be the key driving mechanism but it had to be enforced for the effects to apply and in practice it doesn’t seem as if the ban was enforced equally. One candidate for a second factor is manorialism which was a specific agrarian form centered in the regions of northern Europe. Not only was the land owned by the Lord of the Manor rather than by the village commune as it was elsewhere the manor with its central manor house and church was a model of combined civil and religious authority. Those villagers who wanted to get ahead with their own little plot of land had to be respectable and that meant if married it had to abide by the church’s rules.

    I don’t think that was universal personally. I think laborers often carried on as before with common law marriages and the aristocracy might pay the church to ignore the ban (i think part of the reason for extending the ban to more distant cousins was likely a money-making scam) but the people in the middle: the artisans and small farmers, they had to be respectable and imo it was that class who also had a lot of descendants.

    So I think it was reproductively advantageous to be culturally respectable in the manorial environment. I also think it probably led to a lifting of inbreeding depression so had unintended genetic advantages as well.

    .

    “It seems possible that the requirements for outbreeding were merely a stamp of approval on something that was happening anyway.”

    There was a lot of resistance to the cousin ban in some parts of Catholic Europe but not others.

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