The Schumpeter hotel: income inequality and social mobility: In one of his rare discussions of inequality, Joseph Schumpeter illustrated in a metaphor the difference between the inequality we observe at a moment in time and social (or inter-generational) mobility. Suppose, Schumpeter writes, that there is a multiple-story-high hotel with higher floors containing fewer people and having much nicer rooms. At any given moment, there would be lots of people on the ground floor living in cramped small rooms, and just a few people in the nice and comfortable top-floor rooms with a view. But then let the guests move around and change the rooms every night. This is what, Schumpeter said, social mobility will do: at every given moment of time there are rich and poor but as we extend the time period, today’s rich are yesterday’s poor and vice versa. The guests from the ground floors (or at least their children) have made it to the top, those from the top might have tumbled down to the bottom.
Now, Schumpeter’s metaphor was for a long time a metaphor for US inequality too. It was granted that in the 20th, and even in the 19th, century US income inequality might have been greater than inequality in Europe, but it was also held that US society was much more fluid, less class-bound and that there was greater social mobility. (That view of course conveniently overlooked the huge racial divide in the US.) In other words, inequality was the price that America paid for high social mobility.
This was a reassuring picture consonant with the idea of the American dream. But was it true? We actually never knew it, beyond anecdotal evidence of migrants’ lives, since no consistent empirical studies of inter-generational mobility existed until very recently. ...
The comforting picture of high inequality which does not impede mobility between generations turns out to be false. US does not behave any differently than other societies with high inequality. High income inequality today reinforces income differences between the generations and makes social mobility more difficult to achieve. This is also the point of my recent paper with Roy van der Weide. We use US micro data from 1960 to 2010 to show that poor people in US states with higher initial inequality experienced lower income growth in subsequent periods.
This important finding ... two important implications: (1) American exceptionalism in the matters of income distribution does not have a basis in reality, and (2) we can use, with a good degree of confidence, the easily available data on current inequality as predictors of social mobility. Thus one cannot argue that societies with high inequality in incomes are societies with high equality of opportunity. On the contrary, observed high inequality today implies low equality of opportunity.