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Social Mobility Memos

Social Mobility and The Son Also Rises: The Ugly


See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on Gregory Clark’s book “The Son Also Rises.”

Greg Clark suggests that while mobility is very low, the world is “a much fairer place than we intuit.” How can this be? Well, because the elite only stay elite because they have inherited “social competence.” Clark addresses a range of possible explanations for this inheritance—cultural traits, family economic resources, and social networks—and concludes that these cannot explain the low economic mobility seen in the data. The inheritance must be more direct: through genes. A good proportion of the superiority of the elite, then, is hard-wired into their DNA.

Genes Don’t Explain Much

It is a challenging argument. The role of genetic heritability is an important one in discussions of social mobility. But our reading of the current evidence is that it can explain at most a small fraction of the differences in outcomes of any particular generation. In any case, the real story is epigenetics—the way genes interact with the social and physical environment. You can’t separate genetics from circumstances.

“True Underlying Social Status” and Race

Where Clark goes seriously awry is in the application of his argument to racial gaps. As The Economist’s review puts it: “[It] may not be a racist book, but it certainly traffics in genetic determinism.”

Clark highlights African Americans and Latinos as two groups forming part of the “underclass” (his word, not ours), and points out that they are regressing towards the mean (with regards to income and occupation) more slowly than they ought, given society-wide estimates of mobility.

If that’s true, why? Clark suggests it may be because “the underlying social competence of the Jewish and Asian communities is higher than that of black and Latino populations” (p. 125, our emphasis added).

Racism Is Not History

One reason black Americans are so far behind whites today is the United States’ history of slavery, oppression, and discrimination. Clark agrees, but suggests that discrimination is no longer playing any significant role. Future gaps will result, instead, from the differences in “underlying social competence.”

Clark is badly wrong here. We cannot dismiss the persistent effects of racism, and the hard facts of institutional, financial, and education gaps between ethnic groups in the United States as explanations for current inequalities and ongoing mobility gaps. Indeed, given his insistence that it takes centuries to remove inequalities, it is startling that Clark appears to think the effects of America’s racist history have effectively disappeared, just a century and a half after the end of slavery, and a few decades after the Civil Rights era.

Race Equality: Not even by 2240

If the mobility patterns described by Clark continue, black Americans will reach equality with white Americans. They will just have to wait awhile. In medicine, for example, one area analyzed by Clark, black-white equality will remain elusive two centuries from now—if mobility continues at the same slow rate, in the year 2240 blacks will be represented in the medical profession at half the rate of the general population. And if he is right, there is not much to be done to accelerate that process.

It seems unlikely that black Americans will be willing to patiently wait hundreds of years for race equality. Surely no American will be comfortable with that timeline. Who could be?


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