Social Mobility is a Lot Less Mobile Than We Thought

Inequality is the worst thing in the world. Even my racist neighbor at the top of the hill with his BLM “Equality Hurts No one” yard sign knows that. And we have gubmint programs to the tune of 36 percent of GDP per annum working like mad to un-hurt people from the horrors of inequality.

Only, writes Gregory Clark in The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, all that lovely lucre hasn’t made much difference to social inequality. The scions of the elite pretty much stay in the elite. Almost everywhere in the world, from way back.

He starts with Sweden: we all know that Sweden is the most un-unequal nation in the world. Fuggedaboutit. In Sweden, Swedes with formerly “titled noble” surnames are overrepresented six times in the lists of attorneys. But don’t worry, these “titled nobles” are only overrepresented 2.2 times in the ranks of physicians. Just to give you the flavor of things, Clark’s Figure 2.1 is a photo of the “Riddarhuset, headquarters of the Swedish nobility, in downtown Stockholm.”

Don’t worry, the Swedish “titled nobles” are regressing towards the egalitarian norm. Only it will take centuries until they get there.

What about the U.S.? Well, in the U.S. we have the Ashkenazi Jews, who vaulted from four times overrepresentation among physicians in the 1940s to eight times in the 1970s. But now Jews are regressing towards the mean. At current rates, it will take them three hundred years till they “cease to be overrepresented among physicians.” Other overrepresented groups among physicians, such as the “1923-24 rich” and “Ivy League” graduates, are also regressing towards the mean. Slowly.

I know. What about China? It should show a stunning success in the elimination of the old elite, thanks to the vigorous efforts of Chairman Mao’s Red Guard pals. Alas! The sons of the Qing dynasty elite are still overrepresented 2 to 4 times among professors, corporate board chairs, and government officials.

In Japan, folks with samurai surnames are still doin’ fine.

But there is one country that is even worse than all these laggards and cheaters in the equality stakes. In this country, there is almost no regression to the mean with respect to high-status professions. Wanna guess which country it is? Here’s a clue: “systemic caste-ism.”

Yep, that country is India, specifically Bengal. The absolute tippety-top of the caste stakes in Bengal, the “Kulin Brahmins,” are overrepresented by 4 to 5 times among doctors and judges; “other elite Hindu” groups are overrepresented about 2 times. Poor Hindus are at 0.03 and Muslims are at 0.1 in the representation stakes. At least here in the systemic racist U.S. our blacks are at a lofty 0.5 representation in the physician stakes.

I wonder what the representation of Poor Hindus and Muslims is at Brahmin Sundar Pichai’s ongoing megahit Springtime for Brahmins at Google. Pichai? Bueller? Anyone?

But why? Why, despite all the egalitarian politics of the last 200 years, has inequality persisted? Clark has two main reasons. One is “endogamy” -- inbreeding for you yokels. The other is “social competence,” the transmission of successful cultural skills from one generation to the next.

But here’s an interesting factoid. The Coptic Christians in Muslim Egypt are an “elite minority.” That’s because, according to Clark, “under the pressure of the jizya [the head tax on non-Muslims], the poorest Copts converted to Islam[.]”

Does this apply to the Jews? Clark quotes Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein to the effect that Jews were taught to become literate starting in 70 AD. And, apparently, most Jewish converts to Christianity in the early days were “illiterate and poor.”

Anyway, Clark proposes the notion that

a group retains its elite status over the long run either by practicing endogamy or by selectively losing its lower-status members.

Or both.

Okay. Now Clark looks at the other side of the coin, the persistent underclass, specifically “the major English underclass for the last four hundred years, the Gypsy or Traveller community.” The Traveller narrative is that they are “Roma (Romany), with origins in India.” But the evidence is that the Gypsies are in fact a native British underclass, from way back. You could say that the Travellers were “the homeless” centuries before our glorious educated elite invented them as a club to beat President Reagan.

Wow. Suppose that any failing underclass ends up as homeless, as the vagabonds wandering around after the end of the feudal system, as the “waste population” that the Brits sent to Virginia and Australia starting in 1584, as the Skid Row bums of the Great Depression, as the homeless of the Reagan years, the Great Recession, the COVID crisis. And more to the point: what do we do about it?

Honestly, I don’t have a clue, although I did come up with some ideas in my book The Road to the Middle Class a few years back.

Christopher Chantrill @chrischantrill runs the go-to site on US government finances, usgovernmentspending.com. Also, get his American Manifesto and his Road to the Middle Class.

Image: Picryl

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