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New York Times op-ed by Gregory Clark

Reprises the central argument in his new book The Son Also Rises

Clark writes in "Your Ancestors, Your Fate" on February 21, 2014 (read the full article here):

When you look across centuries, and at social status broadly measured — not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity — social mobility is much slower than many of us believe, or want to believe. This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents’. The recent study suggests that 10 percent of variation in income can be predicted based on your parents’ earnings. In contrast, my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.

We came to these conclusions after examining reams of data on surnames, a surprisingly strong indicator of social status, in eight countries — Chile, China, England, India, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the United States — going back centuries. Across all of them, rare or distinctive surnames associated with elite families many generations ago are still disproportionately represented among today’s elites.

Does this imply that individuals have no control over their life outcomes? No. In modern meritocratic societies, success still depends on individual effort. Our findings suggest, however, that the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure are strongly inherited. We can’t know for certain what the mechanism of that inheritance is, though we know that genetics plays a surprisingly strong role. Alternative explanations that are in vogue — cultural traits, family economic resources, social networks — don’t hold up to scrutiny.

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If we are right that nature predominates over nurture, and explains the low rate of social mobility, is that inherently a tragedy? It depends on your point of view.

The idea that low-status ancestors might keep someone down many generations later runs against most people’s notions of fairness. But at the same time, the large investments made by the super-elite in their kids — like those of the Manhattan hedge-funders who spend a fortune on preschool — are of no avail in preventing long-run downward mobility.

Our findings do suggest that intermarriage among people of different strata will raise mobility over time. India, we found, has exceptionally low mobility in part because religion and caste have barred intermarriage. As long as mating is assortative — partners are of similar social status, regardless of ethnic, national or religious background — social mobility will remain low.

As the political theorist John Rawls suggested in his landmark work “A Theory of Justice” (1971), innate differences in talent and drive mean that, to create a fair society, the disadvantages of low social status should be limited. We are not suggesting that the fact of slow mobility means that policies to lift up the lives of the disadvantaged are for naught — quite the opposite. Sweden is, for the less well off, a better place to live than the United States, and that is a good thing. And opportunities for people to flourish to the best of their abilities are essential.

Large-scale, rapid social mobility is impossible to legislate. What governments can do is ameliorate the effects of life’s inherent unfairness. Where we will fall within the social spectrum is largely fated at birth. Given that fact, we have to decide how much reward, or punishment, should be attached to what is ultimately fickle and arbitrary, the lottery of your lineage.

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