How much does social mobility ever change?

Here is Dylan Matthews interviewing Gregory Clark about his new book The Son also Rises:

Another remarkable feature of the surname data is how seemingly impervious social mobility rates are to government interventions. In all societies, what seems to matter is just who your parents are. At the extreme, we see in modern Sweden an extensive system of public education and social support. Yet underlying mobility rates are no higher in modern Sweden than in pre-industrial Sweden or medieval England.

There was one case where government interventions did seem to promote mobility, which was in Bengal, in India. There the strict quota system in educational institutions had benefited significantly people with surnames associated with the Scheduled Castes.

But the bizarre element here is that these quotas did not help those truly at the bottom of the social ladder. Instead, the benefits went to families of average social status whom the British had mistakenly classified as Scheduled Caste. These families have now become a new elite. The truly disadvantaged, such as the large Muslim community, have been correspondingly further burdened by being excluded from these quotas.

Interestingly, in China, the extreme social intervention represented by the Communist Revolution of 1949, which included executing large numbers of members of the old upper class, has not resulted in much of an increase in social mobility. Surnames of high status in the Imperial and Republican era continue to be overrepresented among modern elites, including Communist Party officials.

The families that have high social competence, whatever the social system is, typically find their way to the top of the social ladder.

The interview is interesting throughout. And you will of course note the new Chetty results — created with entirely different methods and data — showing economic mobility has not much changed in the United States for decades.

For the initial pointer I thank Samir Varma.


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