Here's one school of thought: America used to be a land with great upward social mobility, but isn’t any more.
Here's another: America never was a land with great upward social mobility.
Which do you believe? Keep in mind that your answer will have significant implications for public policy.
Most politicians, of both the Right and the Left, favor the first statement. Conservatives say big government is stifling people's chances to move upward. Barack Obama says growing inequality of wealth is holding people down.
But Gregory Clark, a British-born economist at the University of California, Davis, says the politicians have it wrong. The second statement is correct, he argues in his new book, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility.
The problem with previous studies of social mobility, Clark says, is that they measure differences in income, occupation or status across only one or two generations. They found considerable differences between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren — something that looks almost like random flux.
Clark casts his net wider. He looks at mobility not across one or two generations, but across many. And he shows by focusing on surnames — last names — how families overrepresented in elite institutions remain that way, though to diminishing degrees, not just for a few generations but over centuries.
Some surname data goes back a long way. In medieval England, people with Norman surnames (from the 1066 conquest) and surnames based on place names appear in disproportionate numbers as students at Oxford and Cambridge from 1170, as members of Parliament from 1259, and in upper class probate records from 1380.
Regression to the mean — the fact that very tall people tend to have somewhat less tall children — reduces that overrepresentation over time. But through the industrial revolution, two world wars and the institution of the welfare state, the overrepresentation continues. Similarly, those from underperforming families, like England’s travelers or gypsies, remain underrepresented.
Clark finds the same phenomenon in contemporary Sweden, with its generously redistributive welfare state; in Japan, where those with samurai names continue to overachieve; in class-bound Chile; and, even more so, in caste-bound India.
Clark’s analysis touches a tender spot in American debate, for the implication is that genetics — inherited intelligence — tends to determine social outcomes. He doesn’t quite say so, but he rules out other explanations.
Many Americans resist that explanation, out of concern that extremists could use group differences in test scores as justification for racial discrimination. But ordinary Americans understand that averages are only averages, and that group discrimination is irrational.
And when one shifts focus to personal experience, Clark’s findings make sense. Consider your own extended family or others with which you are familiar.
There’s likely a range of physical differences and intellectual interests even between siblings and parents and children. But there are also patterns and resemblances, as you look back and forward a few generations.
And the differences between extended families will tend to be perpetuated by what social scientists call assortative mating — the tendency, perhaps more pronounced lately, of people to marry people with similar characteristics.
So is there anything to the notion of America as, once, a land of upward mobility? Yes. As Clark notes, immigrant groups have risen rapidly from restrictions in countries of origin to success in America.
The Jews from Eastern European who arrived in the Ellis Island years (1892-1914) are a spectacular example, and there are others. The group most disproportionately producing American physicians today, Clark reveals, are Egyptian Coptic Christians.
And statistical predictability isn’t individual destiny. “Whatever success you do attain will still be achieved only through struggle, effort and initiative.”
Children from unprivileged households do sometimes achieve great success in this country, as in modern Sweden and even medieval England. The 44th president, like the 16th, is proof of that. Upward mobility is possible, even if not probable.
But readers may still be uncomfortable with the likelihood that, in Clark’s words, “a completely meritocratic society would most likely be one with limited social mobility.”
What to do about this? Clark recommends Scandinavian-style economic redistribution. But that may not work well in our more heterogeneous society.
Another approach is to affirm the dignity of honest work and modest success — to remember that, as George Eliot wrote, "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” A society gains strength not just from its elites but from the cumulative achievements of mostly ordinary individuals.