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April 06, 2011


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Re. optimism bias here, in his 'Capitalism Unleashed' (p. 179) the late Andrew Glyn quotes a poll from 2000 where 39% of Americans apparently believed that they were in the wealthiest 1% or would be 'soon'.

john h

I'm not entirely sure why people think social mobility is a good thing at all, aside from its effect on equality (at putting aside whether equality itself is good).

It's a zero sum thing. For anyone that moves up in the income share, someone else has to move down. making it so that the poorest 50% of children switched places with the richest 50% in the income share would give perfect social mobility. but there would be no net gain in welfare (or generally, goodness) at all.

it's like someone moving up in the tennis rankings. someone else has to move down for that to happen.

isn't what we want as much opportunity as possible for the worst-off or for the average person. this has nothign to do with social mobility.


Social mobility is usually considered positive as people tend to relate social mobility with moving upwards in the social scale. However, it can also imply moving downwards, which is more and more common in the present financial word circumstances.


@john h
It depends why people move up and down the income ranking. If the reason why people move up the ranking is because they are hardworking or intelligent, it would benefit society as the most productive people fill the most important role. In other words, we would see increased social mobility if society became more meritocratic. I think this is one of the reasons why people like social mobility. Currently your parent's income plays a large role in determining your income level. If we decrease this influence, then factors like effort and intelligence will become stronger determinants of income. And people think this is fair

Dain (Mupetblast)

Optimism bias? All I've heard about is pessimistic bias. Which one wins out and when? Hm.

gastro george

@john h, @Talosaga

It's not just about fairness. It doesn't help if we get idiots running the country and the economy because their parents were rich. But that wouldn't happen, would it. Oh, hang on ...


Wouldn't you think that the X-factor, Big Brother, Tabloid newspapers and Football provide a more compelling background for wanting to be socially mobile than government policy alone?

I'm not entirely sure that government sponsored schemes have an over-arching influence. But they provide more attractive short term options for e.g. further education rather than low skilled work.

In short, there's no such thing as no social mobility whatever the government does.


I may have misunderstood: Are you saying that it is better to remove the hope of social mobility so that we can more easily maintain higher taxation?
In other words it is preferable to have higher taxes and less social mobility, so people on lower wages remain so?

Nick Rowe

Every week, lots of people put themselves behind the Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance, and vote for increased inequality, even at the cost of reducing average wealth. They buy lottery tickets.


@ Rebecca - any increases in social mobility will be tiny. Sufficiently tiny to be offset by the possibly significant decline in support for the worst-off which would result from the interaction of cognitive biases and that small rise in mobility.
For the purposes of this post, it is the illusion of social mobility that's a bad thing.
I happen to think that actual social mobility would also be a bad thing. But as there is no chance of achieving this, my objections are irrelevant.

john h


so social mobility is not good in itself, it is supposed to be an indicator for some other good thing- i.e. more meritocracy. it is obviously the case that if there were no social mobility at all, we would be rightly suspicious that something funny was happening, just as we would if the tennis rankings never changed.

problems with this: we should not claim that an increase in social mobility must be good. it might show increased fairness, but that is different.

then the question becomes how much social mobility should we want? as I've said above, we clearly don't want as much as is possible.

you say that family wealth heavily determines children's future wealth, which means that effort and intelligence do not have a big impact. so, decreasing this influence would increase the effects of effort and intelligence.
this is debatable. parental wealth may be a large determinant of intelligence, educational standard and effort. it's likely that the most intelligent will be richer on average. so, there's reason to think this intelligence will be passed down to their kids. it's all very obviously true that richer parents have better educated kids on average.

so, i think there are good reasons to think that there are strong tendencies against social mobility in a meritocracy.

and of course, even if it would be more fair to level down the better off to make things aligned with merit, fairness isn't everything.

gastro george

@john h

You're rather conflating intelligence and "better educated". There's no doubt that the rich pay for better exam results, but that does not entirely correlate with intelligence. No doubt the better education received by some rich children will lead them to be more informed and cultivated, which will correlate with an appearance of intelligence.

On the other hand, the more intelligent children of the rich will probably find it easier to express that intelligence while getting a "good education" than the poor do.

The question here is waste and undue privilege. Why should thick rich kids prosper, while we waste the intelligence of the poor.

john h

I don't think I'm confusing intelligence and education.

I said that the more intelligent will likely be more successful/richer on average and that this will be passed down to their kids. I was referring here to the genetic endowment. I think it is plausible to say that the more intelligent will gradually rise to the top in a meritocracy (supposing that meritocracies reward intelligence).

It is also true that the rich tend on average to have considerably better educated children, independent of how naturally intelligent they are. this may or may not count as merit.

I disagree with your final paragraph. Is it bad other things equal, that thick rich kids prosper? I do not think so. I am ok with that. The issue is how far it is at the expense of the intelligent poor and if it is whether this matters. we do, after all, sometimes think it just for a stupid person to be better off than a clever one. say if he luckily won a big hand of poker for example.

now, this all supposes that one believes in meritocracy after all. But according to a meritocrat, which you apparently are, you could equally say "Why should thick poor kids prosper..?"
I find this a distasteful view. what is wrong with thick people prospering?


@Nick: for me, the National Lottery is the greatest right-wing ideological achievement in this country's history. It trains everyone to believe in pie in the sky and striking it rich by magic. It trains everyone to expect that one day they might need a tax advisor. It gives a few wankers all the money they need to confirm all the snobbish prejudices the middle class holds about the working class. It transfers a wedge of responsibilities for the country's cultural life off the government's books, but still lets the government fiddle for cheap press reasons (remember Tessa Jowell, the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, and why it got that offensive, infantile "Big Lottery Fund" name). It does all this while essentially imposing a hugely regressive tax on the poor, most of which goes straight to profit. I despise everything about it. I would abolish it in a heartbeat.

It's well worth remembering just how much advertising (including from the BBC) it got back in the 1990s.

Bar Humbug

@Alex - I disagree, people are not as stupid as you may believe. The National Lottery provides a lot of short-term pleasure, even for those, like me, who have never won more than a teener (twice, whoopie). A little hope, once or twice a week that all my worries (and not just financial ones, this is self-delusiona after all) will be lifted from my shoulders; something we all need now and again. And, the predictable little downer I get after checking that my numbers have once again not come up is not enough to entirely spoil my pathetic little fantansy. Most people doing the lottery know their chances of winning big are close to zero, but consider it is well worth a quid or two in order to buy the dream.

Luis Enrique

Yes, well really I more in favour of real social mobility than delusions of it.

If I had to choose between greater equality or greater mobility, I might choose greater equality too. But this is nowhere near me being "against" equality of opportunity, the position you seen to hold, to my continued bafflement.

I'm not convinced there is much of a trade-off. Most of the evidence I'm aware of suggest that equality of outcome and social mobility tend to be found together. I don't know where that leaves your laboratory experiment - why don't countries with higher mobility (Scandanavians) have lower taxes on the rich?

I can't help feeling we are talking at cross purposes.

I'd like to see a society in which your parents' position in the distribution is a weaker, rather than a stronger, predictor of your position in it. Do we disagree? Would you prefer the opposite? Do you think social mobility is a "bad"?

To make this concrete, all else being equal, would you prefer the quality of education available to the children of poor households to be closer to or further away from the quality of that available to the rich? Would you prefer the frequency with which individuals from poor backgrounds get "top jobs" to be greater or lesser?


Random social mobility isn't a very structured approach, I agree.

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