Mobility and equality

Social mobility has been all the rage this week, with the appointment of Alan Milburn as “social mobility tsar” (a wonderfully self-contradictory term when you think about it) and Nick Clegg’s speech on the subject.

Social mobility is one of those things which everyone is in favour of – so long as the mental picture is that of the bright working-class kid who gets to Oxford or whatever. The moment it’s suggested that those bright working-class kids might dare to edge out the middle classes, it becomes apparent that social mobility is only acceptable so long as it doesn’t interfere with the natural order of things: that is, existing social relations.

Hence the cross-party popularity of social mobility. It enables Conservatives to feel at ease about inequality, because “those who have what it takes can still make it in life, wherever they start from”. It enables Labour to feel at ease about its inability (or unwillingness) to make a serious effort at reducing inequality. And it allows Lib Dems to feel that warm inner glow of niceness which is of such importance to them.

As such, “social mobility” is an inherently conservative concept, and indeed a hopeless one. It takes it for granted that existing social relations and levels of inequality are unchangeable, and that the post-industrial lot of what we used to call “working-class communities” cannot be substantially improved for the better. All we can do is let ladders down into the abyss so that a few able people can scramble up into the middle class.

In addition, social mobility without reduced inequality is a chimera, as can be seen in this chart from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, the authors of The Spirit Level (src):

(It’s worth noting that this is an update of a chart in The Spirit Level, which originally only had data points at the top and bottom of the regression line, and was criticised by some for this reason. Subsequent research has added in more data points which confirm the relationship.)

As the chart (and the research behind it) demonstrates, social mobility is significantly lower in countries with high inequality. The USA, despite its supposed ideological commitment to social mobility (“the American Dream”), has far lower levels of social mobility than any of the other “rich countries” for which data is available – and is also the most unequal. (It’s probably relevant that the concept of the American Dream originated at a time when the USA was one of the most equal societies on the planet.)

One reason for this relationship (which I think Wilkinson and Pickett suggest, though I’m working from memory here) is that more unequal societies not only make it harder for people to ascend from the bottom, but make those in the “sharp-elbowed middle classes” (and upper class, Dave) far more determined to hang on to what they have rather than see themselves or their children sink irrevocably into the “lower orders”.

Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the only way to ensure true social mobility is to reduce levels of income inequality. I predict that this government will achieve neither.

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4 thoughts on “Mobility and equality”

  1. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the only way to ensure true social mobility is to reduce levels of income inequality.

    That’s a self-contradictory sentence. It is only clear that the way to ensure social mobility to to reduce income inequality if income equality is the explanation of social mobility.

    Your chart doesn’t establish cause. It doesn’t even establish definitions, for that matter. It also seems to me to be a little weird–how can you have “social mobility” in an equal society? If there’s nothing to move to, how can lots of people be moving to it?

    1. The authors of The Spirit Level address the question of causation in the book. As a general point, they have pointed out in debate that they are epidemiologists, so are experienced in working out how to demonstrate causation from this type of data.

      As for how you can have social mobility in an equal society: first, no-one is talking about completely equal societies here. Countries like Sweden and Finland are not 100% egalitarian: they’re just less unequal than the UK and US.

      And if (for the sake of argument) one did have an entirely equal society then it’s true that the concept of “social mobility” would be a little odd, but that’s because it’s a concept that arises entirely from living in an unequal society, that is, one that has different levels between which it is possible (or not, as the case may be) to move.

      But the key point is we’re not talking about a binary choice between “US or UK levels of inequality” and “1960s Cuba”. We’re talking about more or less unequal countries.

      1. I doubt epidemiology is a good preparation for economics. Discovering causality in economics is not a matter of looking at charts.

        The point still stands–the more equal a society is, the *less* we should see “social mobility,” whatever that means. That is, if the vast majority of people are clustered tightly around the mean, then the vast majority of people should stay rather close to the mean. If social mobility is high, I suppose that would mean that people tended to bump away from the mean for a very short time before being pulled back in. But then *net* mobility is still rather low.

        Unless by social mobility, you mean “the child of a teacher grows up to be a bureaucrat,” “the child of a bureaucrat grows up to be a restaurant manager,” and the like.

  2. Here’s something I’ve been thinking about every since you advanced this theory that income inequality actually causes your life expectancy to go down and women to be oppressed. Let’s say there’s some quaint little village out in, I don’t know, Wales. Everyone in the village makes very close to the same income, lives in a very similar house, eats a similar diet, etc. What you’re saying is that they will have the highest life expectancy in the world and virtually no social problems. Okay, let’s grant that for the sake of argument.

    Now, suppose that the couples in a small percentage of the houses discover they have quite a knack for horticulture and start beautifying their homes with some really fine flowers. Now our little village has become more unequal, since some people’s homes are now significantly more beautiful than others. And let’s say that the they get *so* good at what they do, that they start selling their flowers to surrounding villages on the weekend, or perhaps the wives go do it a few times a week. Now, not only are the homes unequal, but there’s a new inequality in income.

    What you’re saying is that because of this, everyone will start oppressing women more and dying younger. I don’t see the causal mechanism. It simply doesn’t seem obvious to me that an increase in my neighbor’s fortune would make me take ill at a younger age, or turn me into a chauvinist. Is the theory that jealousy and envy will make me start beating my wife, cause an ulcer, and send me to an early grave?

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