The Elite Stay Elite

The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility
Gregory Clark, 2014

I just finished reading a book that claims social mobility in modern America is basically the same as in modern Sweden, and that both are in fact just about the same as in sixteenth-century England. Everywhere, Gregory Clark says, persistence of social status is much higher than we normally suppose. Where most sociologists estimate persistence in the range of 40%, Clark puts it between 75% and 80%. And as mentioned, he says it has never really changed throughout history and that it's the same pretty much everywhere. As a result, the descendants of the victorious Normans  of 1066 are still disproportionately represented in the British Parliament, and the famous but tiny Pepys family has sent many more than its share of young men to Oxford and Cambridge.
First, I've gotta say that it doesn't really come as a surprise to me that the elite stay elite or that it can take 20 or 30 generations for a family at the top of the heap to "revert to the mean." Although Clark says it's statistically improbable for the Pepys clan to have continued to send more than its share to the best British schools, I don't think it's socially improbable at all. In fact, it's the outcome I expected.
The interesting thing about this book, though, is that Clark posits (without ever really coming right out and saying it) a genetic component to elite status and persistence. Rather than saying that the Pepys boys were accorded special privileges at elite British schools or that the sons and grandsons of hereditary MPs were more likely to be elected to Parliament, Clark says there's something called underlying social competence, and that it is inherited.
Hang on, what? Clark says that elite status is in the genes? Well, not exactly. What he says is that there's an unknown cluster of characteristics that, taken together, make a person socially "competent," and that these characteristics seem to be inherited. Although Clark's equation has a term built in for dumb luck, he thinks the randomness is much less than we normally believe it to be. If you're looking for a marriage partner, Clark says, don't trust the status of the individual alone. It might be luck. Look at the status of the whole family, and you'll get an indication of your potential partner's "competence" genes.
I haven't been able to find any reviews of this idea by historians (and just a couple by economists), possibly because the book was only published in 2014 and the glaciers of academic reviewing haven't ground it down yet. However, Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution wrote a three-part take-down called "
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" in March 2014. Reeves, who also recently wrote a long essay supporting the rags-to-riches perspective of Horatio Alger, says Clark's perspective is racist. Or at least genetically deterministic, which he suggests is basically the same thing. Clark responded that he wasn't being racist, some of the elite groups he tracks in the book are in fact of African descent. But Reeves has a point. "Racism is not History," he says. Yeah, the guy from Brookings is saying the effects of slavery and the rest of America's racist history are still being felt. Wow.
Clark's main point isn't really about race, though. He uses adoption and twin studies to suggest that there's an element to life success that isn't explainable by nurture. Even if that effect isn't as complete as Clark implies (I think he brushes by some of the caveats and exceptions in the studies he cites a little to quickly), it's a challenging idea.
The problem is, there's not enough to grab onto. The 11 herbs and spices remain secret -- we never find out what mental, emotional, physical, or other characteristics make a person "socially competent." And it's hard to believe that the factors that made people successful in the sixteenth century are all the same as those that make people successful today. Nor is there any real explanation of how particular families got to the top of the heap in the first place. The mobility equation takes center stage, and we don't really get to look under the hood at the social factors that could have led to success and then sustained it. This is unfortunate, because since Clark hasn't really identified the machine working behind the scenes, it's entirely possible that the effects he's measuring to derive the equation are in fact social rather than biological.
When Clark says the social mobility in Sweden is as low as in America or early-modern England, he's not saying that inequality is the same. The penalty of being at the bottom in a welfare society like Sweden is obviously much lower than it was in England or is in the US (I wonder if the lesser downside of low social mobility in Sweden doesn't have something to do with it continuing?). Clark does suggest that in a society like the US where Reeves's Horatio Alger dream is pretty much an illusion, we ought to think harder about our safety net.
Clark's numbers suggest that a person's status at birth can predict a lot about their life chances. That's a slap in the face to the American Dream. But let's think about it. If he's right at all -- even if we have no idea why he's right and disagree with the theory he advances to explain it -- then we really ought to be doing more to make it less painful to be average or poor in America.