By the way, John Derbyshire pointed out in the comments that Americans think Derbyshire must be a classy surname, but in England it's bog common.
It would be interesting to make up a list of surnames that are well-known in England but rare in America.
... In his new book “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility“, Clark argues that conventional ways of measuring social mobility between generations have prevented us from seeing that it has always been much slower than we tend (or like) to think. In the standard picture, mobility rates are also held to vary dramatically across societies, with more unequal societies, like the US or UK, having notably slower rates than, say, the Nordic countries.
Clark’s research tells a rather different story. This is because, rather than tracking changes over two or three generations, as most conventional studies do, he tracks status over centuries using surnames as his guide.
His conclusions are chastening: “Underlying or overall social mobility rates are much lower than those typically estimated by sociologists or economists. The intergenerational correlation in all the societies for which we construct surname estimated… is between 0.7 and 0.9, much higher than conventionally estimated. Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height.” The political implications of that are unsettling, to say the least.
I spoke to Clark when he visited London last week.
JD: In your account, then, there was no “Golden Age” of social mobility?
GC: Right. One of the things that will make this book controversial is that it’s claiming that all the standard methods for measuring social mobility in fact miss the mark, and are likely to find differences in social mobility across societies and time periods that are in fact just spurious. People look at income correlations across generations and extrapolate from that. What this book says is that although there’s a lot of random fluctuation in terms of people’s income or occupation, there’s a much greater underlying persistence. And only by looking at things like surnames do you see that feature.
Q. If the standard ways of measuring social mobility are faulty, how do you measure it?
A. If you look at England, for example, what we measure is whether you were at Oxford or Cambridge; how long you live, which is another good indicator of social status; occupational status; are you a member of parliament? Now one of the interesting findings here is that it doesn’t really matter which measure you use. For the families we’re looking at, all these things are actually highly correlated. The wealthy at any time are also the educated, members of parliament, those who live long. What the book shows is that there’s an underlying physics of social mobility which all of our political efforts seem to have no effect upon. And the startling conclusion is that we may never be able to change social mobility rates.
Q. That sounds like a counsel of despair.
A. No doubt people will read this as a gloomy book. But the title, The Son Also Rises, was deliberately chosen to emphasise that there are some very positive elements in it. One of the things it emphasises is that the current data, which finds rapid social mobility in Sweden and slower social mobility in Britain and the US, and slower mobility still in South America, seems to suggest that you have massive social failures going on in a bunch of societies. The book finds no evidence of these failures because it finds very similar social mobility rates everywhere. Another implication is that if even in meritocratic Sweden you get very slow mobility, then it must be based largely on people’s abilities, aptitudes and drive. All that we’re discovering here is that we’re living in a surprisingly fair world—one in which, at birth, we could predict a surprising amount about your prospects. Is that a gloomy fact about the world?
Q. I suppose it depends what you mean by fairness! Is the UK experience as far as social mobility is concerned similar to the US one?
A. In terms of the estimates in the book, they look identical. One of the things the book is emphasising is that in a society like the US, there’s a lot more private expenditure by people on education than in a society like Sweden, where it’s mostly provided by the state. So you’d expect, on normal accounts of social mobility, that the US would be a more rigid society with slower rates of mobility. But we don’t see any sign of that. So my interpretation here is that whatever educational system you set up, however fair and however open-access it is, there are just families that are better equipped to figure out what they need to do in the system, how you get ahead. And it’s impossible to stop those processes.
Q. Well, impossible unless you introduce highly illiberal legislation for which there’s probably little popular appetite.
A. Right. There are extreme cases like India where they say, “We’re reserving a quarter of all places at university for people who the British happen to have assigned to the various scheduled castes.” Though it turns that, in India, that most of the former “untouchables” don’t benefit from [the policy]. It’s people who were misclassified and are relatively middle-class who are able to take advantage. The surprising finding is that however you construct a social system, it’s still going to be highly predictable that from three or four generations ago elite families are still be found heavily among the elite.
Q. So when President Obama said that social mobility had “stalled” he was making a mistake?
A. Because America is such an unequal society there has been more emphasis on the possibilities of social mobility. How else are you going to justify the incredible inequalities in the US? So it’s going to be very unwelcome news for people in the States that there really are very slow rates of social mobility. Now what’s interesting about this book is that its message seems to be equally unwelcome to both right and left. The left loves the idea that there are slow rates of social mobility. But they want to hold on to the idea that there’s going to be a political programme that will end this problem. But the book says that there’s absolutely no sign of our ability as a society to change that. The right hates the idea that there are very slow rates of social mobility, but they love the idea that there’s nothing you can do about it. So it’s an odd book in that it’s welcome and unwelcome to both sides.