Gregory Clark discusses The Son Also Rises with Prospect:
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.
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.
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?
Then he goes off the deep end…
One of the strong conclusions of the book is that if it really is the case that more than half of people’s outcomes are predictable, then we really have to rethink the idea that it’s OK in a society to make the rewards or penalties from the accident of [who] your parents [are] as large as the market is going to throw up. I started off my life as a free-market economist. But studies such as these have these have convinced me that, in some sense, the Scandinavian or Nordic model has many attractions. If you’re going to be at the bottom of the social order, it’s better to be at the bottom in somewhere like Sweden than somewhere like the United States. That’s a decision that societies have to make. You don’t need to give that much incentive to the upper group in society to still get educated, to achieve and to maintain their status. The incentives are very low, in monetary terms, in countries like Denmark and Sweden. It doesn’t change who succeeds.