Want success? Pick right dad

THE RICH GET RICHER? A woman shops in a Louis Vuitton store in downtown Shanghai. Prof Clark's theory says social status is inherited. PHOTO: REUTERS


    Mar 18, 2014

    Want success? Pick right dad

    GREGORY Clark's startling new book, The Son Also Rises, asks you to rethink everything you thought you knew about social mobility. His research, if it is correct, is not good news.

    It says that socio-economic status is mostly a matter of nature, not nurture, and suggests that trying to help the disadvantaged move up will not make much difference.

    These findings defy the prevailing consensus, and one wants them to be wrong. But what if they are not?

    Professor Clark, of the economics department at the University of California, Davis, proposes a new way to measure mobility across nations and over time. He tracks the persistence of rare surnames at different points on the socio-economic scale. The information he gathers is absorbing in its own right, quite aside from its implications.

    Samuel Pepys, the diarist, was a top civil servant and member of Parliament in 17th century England. An earlier Pepys first surfaced as a high-status Englishman in 1496, when he enrolled at Cambridge University. There were never more than a handful of Pepyses - as few as 18 by 2002 - but for more than 500 years, people with that surname have been consistently successful.

    Prof Clark and his collaborators have dug deeply through decades and centuries of data connected with rare surnames - for rich people, poor people and those in between; not just in England, but for the United States and many other countries, too.

    The same pattern emerges: Social status is amazingly persistent. There is some regression to the mean - names at the top move down and names at the bottom move up - but it is an agonisingly slow drift.

    Even more remarkably, this persistence of status hardly varies from country to country, or period to period. This finding too defies the consensus - and, many would say, common sense.

    Social mobility is not any higher in Sweden, say, than in the US - or, for that matter, any higher in modern England than in mediaeval England.

    The surname evidence asks us to believe that cultural and environmental differences do not matter much, that the advent of universal education and the modern welfare state, political upheavals, revolutions and world wars, made little difference. Through it all, social status was inherited as strongly as though it were a biological trait, such as height.

    The surname data does not prove that genetic transmission is the main driver, but it is hard to see what else could be.

    Prof Clark considers evidence that would be capable of ruling this out (asking, for instance, whether the status of adopted children is correlated more strongly with that of their adoptive or biological parents) and concludes: "By and large, social mobility has characteristics that do not rule out genetics as the dominant connection between the generations."

    Or, if you wanted to put it in more inflammatory terms, low-status groups may stay that way for centuries because of their genes.

    The Economist's reviewer wrote: "The Son Also Rises may not be a racist book, but it certainly trafficks in genetic determinism."

    As a rule, one trafficks in things, such as illegal drugs and pornography, not in scientific findings. Genetic determinism is a horrible thing to contemplate, and it is a theory one wants to be false. Unfortunately, that does not make it false.

    Prof Clark's results are hard to dismiss because he offers a plausible theory of why they differ from those of other researchers. Socio-economic status is a bundle of characteristics: income, wealth, education, profession, type of residence and so on. These individual measures are noisy.

    The son of a rich family may choose to work as a poor academic - downward mobility in income. The daughter of well-educated parents may drop out of college to start a software company - downward mobility in education.

    Underlying social status, the whole bundle, is much less variable, and that is what gets passed along to the next generation. So the individual measures that formed the consensus have systematically understated the real persistence of social status.

    If Prof Clark's findings are correct, it does not mean that efforts to help the poor are pointless. On the contrary, he argues, the findings strengthen the case for redistribution. (In a world of low social mobility, the costs of redistribution are lower and the need greater.)

    It does not follow, either, that efforts to improve mobility will have no effect at all - only that they will have, at best, much less of an effect than one would wish.

    This does not seem good enough. Impressed as I am by this fascinating book, I would love Prof Clark to be proved wrong.

    And he must be wrong... mobility in modern welfare-state societies is no higher than in pre-modern times? Please. Yet that is what his data - ingeniously gathered and carefully analysed - seems to show.

    Do not tell me he is a closet racist to say these things. Tell me where his analysis went wrong.