Greg Clark visits Australia and finds high rates of status persistence

by on September 21, 2017 at 1:26 am in Data Source, Education, History | Permalink

The co-authors on this paper (pdf) are Andrew Leigh and Mike Pottenger, here is the abstract:

The paper estimates long run social mobility in Australia 1870–2017 tracking the status of rare surnames. The status information includes occupations from electoral rolls 1903–1980, and records of degrees awarded by Melbourne and Sydney universities 1852–2017. Status persistence was strong throughout, with an intergenerational correlation of 0.7–0.8, and no change over time. Notwithstanding egalitarian norms, high immigration and a well-targeted social safety net, Australian long-run social mobility rates are low. Despite evidence on conventional measures that Australia has higher rates of social mobility than the UK or USA (Mendolia and Siminski, 2016), status persistence for surnames is as high as that in England or the USA. Mobility rates are also just as low if we look just at mobility within descendants of UK immigrants, so ethnic effects explain none of the immobility.

Social mobility is indeed difficult to pull off.  Hat tip goes to Ben Southwood.

1 Roy LC September 21, 2017 at 1:55 am

The British pay a lot of attention to surnames, after all they basically gave the world all those obnoxious something-Jones type names because their was real social cost to becoming a lowly Jones.

There is a certain class in Australia that still clings to this in a way that other colonials do not, even Anglo South Africans. It is a way of saying we’re not those Australians. Thus in a old school Keeping Up Appearances way there is still a fair premium on such surnames.

Canadians on the other hand are often vaguely embarrassed by such matters when they notice them at all and this tendency increases rapidly as you leave the Toronto metro and the shadow of old Montreal.

I don’t think these studies are meaningless but there are a lot of confounders here. There is some literature though at the other end of the social spectrum. Those with an ancestor brought in chains show markedly less mobility.


2 Ray Lopez September 21, 2017 at 10:33 am

Why is all of Sydney named after that one guy? Name escape me, but he named every geological place after himself. It’s not the Ayers Rock guy, but different.

Bonus trivia: Frances Fukuyama in his excellent albeit plodding and wordy “Origins of Political Order” rightly points out that most people don’t like social mobility, the natural “selfish gene” instinct is for patrician or family ties, nepotism, and the like. Hence the Legalism movement of the Qin dynasty (pronounced “Chin”) of ~200 BC, promoting superior centralization rather than localism (some of the tyrannical first emperor’s public water works are still in use today), likewise the centralization feature of the Catholic church and Ottoman empires (both employing de facto eunuchs to carry out their work; priests and Janissarys) and, not mentioned but similar, the unifying forces of the Persian empire and brief Hellenistic empires of Alexander the Great (sadly his mixed race kid with the beautiful Afghan Roxanne was killed by his erstwhile Greek generals after his death) all helped with fostering social mobility over kinship ties. But social mobility is the human primate social exception, not the instinctual rule, as Clark has made a career documenting.


3 P September 21, 2017 at 1:56 am

It’s a strange method they chose.
Essentially they picked a set of ‘elite’ surnames, which they defined as having less than 29 individuals in 1900, including at least one who graduated a Melbourne or Sydney university.

Then they compare the outcomes over the generations to a group of people with common surnames like Smith or Wilson.

As far as I can tell they don’t compare the ‘elite’ group with the most obvious control, which would be similarly small families without anyone who graduated university.

Seems like they’re much more likely to be detecting founder effects in the small families they designated as ‘elite’, rather than anything particular about the broader system.


4 Adrian Ratnapala September 21, 2017 at 7:09 am

Wait, what is a “founder effect”?

I inutively agree that the methodology is wrong for the reason you point out. But what could a found effect be in this context *other* than the persistence of status via inheritence?


5 P September 21, 2017 at 8:35 am

Sorry, loose usage on my part. In evolutionary biology the term is used to describe a lineage developing from a small population after some kind of bottleneck.

I meant to say that the ‘elite’ group are inherently unusual because they’re both a) small and b) educated. If you then compare them to the general population I don’t know how you can decide which of those factors is responsible for any difference observed. It may be that their social advantage is unusually persistent, or they may have just been outliers from the start.


6 P Burgos September 21, 2017 at 9:25 am

Wait, did they only find relatively uncommon surnames among the elite? I know that in other studies of this kind, the researchers were able to find people with relatively rare surnames among all classes of society, not just the elite. From reading Cowen’s description, I assumed that the same methodology was followed, where the researchers found rare surnames among all classes and then followed those surnames for a period of time.


7 Ryan Reynolds September 21, 2017 at 6:37 pm

The method seems designed to measure downward social mobility, and fails to measure the upward social mobility of newcomers. The upper class (for lack of a better term) could well have expanded in size ten fold over the same period, with great additions by new migrants in terms of both money and status, and so long as the original incumbents haven’t stopped graduating from uni, their results still hold – but I don’t think anyone would describe this counterfactual as a socially immobile society.

So they find persistence. So what? Lots of other factors which predict success in a meritocratic society are also heritable, like intelligence or social capital.


8 Will September 21, 2017 at 3:32 am

The co-author Andrew Leigh is also a member of parliament – shadow assistant treasurer. Current polls indicate that his party will win power at the next election. Social mobility may soon be his problem.


9 Doug September 21, 2017 at 4:08 am

> Social mobility is indeed difficult to pull off.

Why is it social immobility necessarily a bad thing? Inequality, I understand. But why is relative ranking so important, regardless of absolute differences? Somebody has to be ranked at the bottom, and somebody at the top. Isn’t hereditary persistence preferable than random re-sorting every generation? If your ancestors were all lazy bums, chances are you’re probably better suited than most with taking a low-stress, low-work, low-paying job. Same argument goes if your ancestors were all unrepentant workaholics.

Taking Greg Clark’s findings into account, there are two takeaways. First, we should be focusing on helping the poor, by making the lifestyle of the poor not so bad. There’s too much focus on trying to give the poor opportunities, and these probably won’t work. Some people are going to be menial laborers no matter how great your free pre-K to post-graduate free education system is. Let’s focus on giving menial laborers lives filled with dignity and respect.

Second, we should try to pull out as much as possible from the people at the top. They’re pretty much going to work themselves to the bone to get there no matter what. I’ll call this the investment banker model. You want to be a master of the universe? Great, first you gotta put in 80 hours a week of work until you’re 50. Load high status jobs with high work loads and high stress. The upper quintile will show up anyway, because it’s largely genetic determined.


10 P Burgos September 21, 2017 at 9:30 am

Does pulling as much out of the people at the top imply lower or higher marginal tax rates? This is an honest question. I simply do not know whether the social value of a marginal unit of work within IT or high finance is worth as much or less than the marginal unit of work within the sciences. It could be that funneling the people who are going to put in 80 hours a week into tech and finance is a good thing, as it makes the overall allocation of capital more efficient. Or likewise, the opportunity cost of foregone scientific progress may actually outweigh those additional increments of the efficient allocation of capital.


11 LearnedHand September 21, 2017 at 4:09 am

Andrew Leighton is shadow assistant treasurer in a far left-leaning party (ALP) running on a socialist platform that demonizes the successful.

A national census recently revealed inequality has fallen over the long term and the short term results were consistent with the long term trend.

The ALP has found it difficult to push their policy of a planned marginal tax rate of 49% on the top tax bracket (over $180,000) in the face of evidence that suggests inequality is falling rather than rising.

There are a large number of studies funded by the ALP through the left wing think tank the ‘Australia Institute’ and yes coauthored by their members, to try and doctor numbers to support their claims about inequality.

By way of background, the ALP is closely tied to the labour unions who effectively select the party leaders. They see economic growth as a zero sum game between employers and employees.

When asked about their economic policy, the shadow treasurer said they were relying on the “animal spirits” to stimulate the economy. During the GFC the same party helicopter dropped billions into people’s bank accounts, guaranteed bank deposits in the complete absence of banking instability and whined about liquidity traps.


12 prior_test3 September 21, 2017 at 5:00 am

So far left that Labor led the government between 2007-2010, and were part of a coalition between 2010-2013.

Always fascinating to see how MR commenters look at the world.


13 LearnedHand September 22, 2017 at 3:11 am

The ALP is much further to the left than the Democrats in the US.

By American standards the ALP is a far left party. “Centre” is an objective, not an emergent political measure.

The ALP coalition in 2010 was with the Australian Greens party, key members of whom were formerly of the Australian communist party.

Reality check please.


14 P September 21, 2017 at 5:10 am

The ALP of 2017 is a ‘far left leaning party’? Are you living on a different planet?


15 SW September 21, 2017 at 9:13 am

Far Left? They’re the mainstream left of center political party in Australia, like the Democrats in the US. You’re talking out of your ass.


16 SW September 21, 2017 at 9:13 am

Sorry, meant to reply to the parent poster.


17 Steve Sailer September 21, 2017 at 4:43 am

In Britain, Hamiltons are twice as likely to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge as Smiths.

What’s the highest achieving surname across American history? Huntington?


18 dearieme September 21, 2017 at 6:20 am

“Hamiltons are twice as likely to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge as Smiths.” That’s an odd one – Hamilton is a Scottish surname so you’d expect them mostly to have gone to Scottish universities.

Maybe Hamilton families who’d moved south just took education more seriously, as is the Scots way.


19 Adrian Ratnapala September 21, 2017 at 7:14 am

As a Sydneysider, I find it difficult to think of a more aristocratic surname than “Macquarie”.

And to be sure the Macquaries moved a long way south to get here. But so did the Smiths.


20 The Anti-Gnostic September 21, 2017 at 9:29 am

Serious question, why are there so many Smiths? It seems a bit of a contradiction that in a culture that placed a lot of emphasis on lineage and geniture that the majority were content to keep the most common Anglophone surname. Didn’t even keep the “cooper” or “black” or whatever attached to it.


21 Steve Sailer September 21, 2017 at 9:56 pm

In a lot of Middle Eastern cultures, blacksmith jobs are hereditarily reserved for black Africans due to the low social standing of the job. Western culture, in contrast, seems to respect smiths:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.


22 Faubus Fables September 21, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Because “Hamiltons” are immigrants to England from Scotland. Immigration is good.


23 rayward September 21, 2017 at 7:24 am

As Cowen often emphasizes, the slump in start-ups is a major contributor to lower rates of productivity and economic growth and status mobility in America. Here is a NYT article summarizing recent data confirming the slump in start-ups: What’s particularly concerning about the recent data is that the slump has spread from retail to parts of the economy that have been associated with entrepreneurship, including the technology sector. The article also summarizes some of the possible causes of the slump, including the increase in concentration in nearly every major industry.


24 P Burgos September 21, 2017 at 9:38 am

Does this kind of research imply that the US should attempt to limit immigration from the lower classes of other nations, and encourage immigration from the upper classes of other nations? I think I can guess what Steve Sailer would say, but what about others? This research also implies that if you are upper middle class, your kids and grandkids are very likely to be so to. Is a US with more people like them, and more people to compete with them, better for them? How about a US where there are more labourers for them to tax in one way or another? In my more cynical moments, I have thought that mass low skill immigration is a good thing for my net worth, as it should bolster stock prices and simultaneously increase the demand for my labor without doing anything to increase supply of people competing with me. The downside being that more immigrants equals more competition for access to land, no matter the class origins of the immigrants.


25 JM September 21, 2017 at 10:43 am

>the US should attempt to limit immigration from the lower classes of other nations, and encourage immigration from the upper classes of other nations?

For sure, that way the lower income people will feel absolutely comfortable with immigrants.


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