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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Social Mobility in the Long-Run

Andrew Norton:

Is there complete social mobility over time?, by Andrew Norton: Over two generations, socioeconomic class tends to be ’sticky’. Statistically speaking, the occupation of a parent influences the occupation of a child. But what about the very long term?
Robert Wiblin has drawn my attention to this very interesting paper by the economic historian Gregory Clark, which argues that over multiple generations there is a class ‘regression to the mean’, with the inequalities of one generation washing out over time.
Clark’s method is to use English records of surnames, which can be used to roughly trace the class progress of people with different family names. Some surnames reveal class backgrounds because they are taken from medieval occupations (eg Smith, Clerk/Clark, Shepherd, Cooper, Carter). Clark furthers his study by studying the names in records of wills, tax payments, and court appearances. Over time, the share of names appearing in lists of those with large estates or criminal defendants can roughly track class progress.
What Clark finds is that England over the 800 years from 1200 was without persistent social classes. The handful of aristocratic families who can trace their family trees back centuries are outliers.
I will be very interested to see what other historians make of Clark’s thesis. Over the last 250 years I find it intuitively reasonably plausible that there are very high levels of multi-generational class mobility. The modern industrial world created many opportunities for social and economic advancement, and relatively speaking devalued the traditional source of wealth, holdings of agricultural land. But high mobility in the earlier period conflicts with my (admittedly superficial) understanding of the pre-modern world.

It goes against my priors as well, especially claims like " It was a world of complete social mobility... It was, despite all appearances, a world of complete equal opportunity." Here's more from the paper:

Was there ever a Ruling Class? Surnames and Social Mobility in England, 1200-2009, by Gregory Clark, January 25, 2010: Abstract This paper reports on a preliminary investigation of surname distributions as a measure long run social mobility. In England this suggests two surprising claims. First, England, all the way from the heart of the Middle Ages in 1200 to 2009, is a society without persistent social classes, at least among the descendants of the medieval population. It was a world of complete social mobility, with no permanent over-class and under-class, a world of complete equal opportunity. However, for some recent immigrant groups it may no longer be true. Instead of moving from a world of immobility and class rigidity in medieval England to a world of equal opportunity, we may have moved in the opposite direction. Other modern societies such as the US and Brazil also show sign of persistent social classes. There was, however, a gain from being in the upper class in any generation in the form of leaving more copies of your DNA permanently in later populations.


In 1886 Francis Galton – the famous anthropologist, eugenicist, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, polymath, statistician, tropical explorer, and second cousin of Darwin – published a fabulous discovery which he labeled “regression towards mediocrity.”1 Galton’s paper showed the tendency of both tall and short parents to have children whose heights tended towards the mean of the society. This might seem small potatoes, but Galton had uncovered a general process – regression to the mean - with potentially profound social implications, since it applies to all personal characteristics including education, IQ, income and wealth. It is a process that has led free-market economists such as Gary Becker to proclaim

Almost all earnings advantages and disadvantages of ancestors are wiped out in three generations. Poverty would not seem to be a “culture” that persists for several generations2

If Becker is correct Galton’s discovering shows that there cannot now be social classes – meaning persistent groups of privileged and poor – in meritocratic societies such as England and the USA where regression to the mean is strong. Within a few generations, a very few generations, there must be a complete churning of the society: the descendants of the poorest and the richest will be equally represented. Whatever its appearance in the small, we live in a profoundly egalitarian society once we move to the scale of generations. Class is the illusion of the moment.3

Yet even now we live in a world where the average person has a strong belief in the reality and persistence of class. We all know there is some social mobility. But we assume still that the children at Choate, Hotchkiss and Groton, or at Eton, Harrow and Rugby, are mainly drawn from some timeless elite. When we see pictures of inner city deprivation we do not think these are the ultimate offspring of middle class households like our own. Rather we assume them the latest generation of a permanent and persistent underclass, which thankfully our own descendants will never inhabit.

English historians, similarly, while debating the degree to which the preindustrial English upper classes were an “open” elite, still assume that

The English elite of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was full of old families….Great families, often growing more prosperous and prestigious over time but important even in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and frequently retaining their original patrimony….Many of their names are familiar to any student of English history: Berkeley, Cavendish, Courtenay, Herbert, Howard, Lowther, Manners, Pelham, Stanley, and Talbot. (Wasson, 1998, 35).

Elite society was not closed to new entrants, but it had long persisting members. Our impression of long run social rigidity is reinforced by the accounts of families such as that of the Earls of Derby. The current Earl of Derby, Edward Richard William Stanley, 19th Earl, can trace his family back to Ligulf of Aldithley, an English landowner who appears in the Domesday Book. His ancestors include Thomas Stanley, the 1st Earl of Derby, 1435–1504, who crowned Henry VII after Battle of Bosworth Field and Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, 1799-1869, Prime Minister of the United Kingdon, 1852, 1858-9, and 1866-8. A family that can survive 29 generations at the upper reaches of English society implies a strong social rigidity, and persistent social classes.

Social mobility is, of course, a matter of keen interest to all upper class parents in any society. While we celebrate mobility in the abstract, we struggle ferociously in the concrete to frustrate it. At the personal level we desperately hope that there is a ruling class, and that our children and grandchildren can remain within its warm embrace. We do not see the future of our offspring as an eventual decline back to mediocrity.

The central question this paper addresses is whether this is a grand illusion? Was there ever – even in the dark heart of medieval England - a ruling class? A ruling class, that is, in the sense of a persistent, upper class, strata within the society? Was there, in conjunction, even in the era of lord and serf, ever a persistent underclass? Can most members of the group with the top ten percent of incomes now trace their origins to the ruling class of medieval England? Can most members of the bottom ten percent of the income distribution trace their origins to the landless laborers of the medieval manor? Similarly was there ever a criminal underclass?

What we will learn are two astonishing things. First, pre–modern England, all the way from 1200 to at least 2009, was a society without persistent social classes. It was a world of complete social mobility, with no permanent over-class and underclass. It was, despite all appearances, a world of complete equal opportunity. George Orwell could not be more incorrect when he observed:

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege (George Orwell, 1941).

Second, persistent social classes have only emerged in societies like England and the United States in recent years. We congratulate ourselves that we have created a meritocracy with access for all compared to the bad old days. Yet instead of moving from a world of immobility and class rigidity to a world of complete mobility we have moved in the opposite direction. The US, for example, now exhibits persistent upper and under classes and there are indications that the same may be true for modern Britain. Why this has happened is, of course, of considerable interest and concern. ...

1 Galton, 1886. Galton had announced initial observation on regression to the mean with sweet pea sizes in 1877, but in the 1886 paper he announced the finding as a general law applying to all hereditary traits.

2 Becker and Tomes, 1986, S32. Gary Solon and others have since established that regression to the mean is less strong than Becker and Tomes believed. But that just means the quote would need to be amended to “wiped out in five generations.” See Solon, 1999, Bowles and Gintis, 2002.

3 The dystopic vision of Herrnstein and Murray, 1996, of a modern society divided into classes based on genetically transmitted IQ has also been criticized as incompatible with the strong observed regression to the mean of all human traits.

    Posted by on Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 03:24 PM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (56)


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