Your Ancestors, Your Fate


New York Times
By: Gregory Clark
February 21, 2014

Inequality of income and wealth has risen in America since the 1970s, yet a large-scale research study recently found that social mobility hadn't changed much during that time. How can that be?

The study, by researchers at Harvard and Berkeley, tells only part of the story. It may be true that mobility hasn't slowed -- but, more to the point, mobility has always been slow.

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.

Because our findings run against the intuition that modernity, and in particular capitalism, has eroded the impact of ancestry on a person's life chances, I need to explain how we arrived at them.

Let's start with Sweden, which -- like Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway -- is one of the world's most equal societies in terms of income. To our surprise, we found that social mobility in Sweden today was no greater than in Britain or the United States today -- or even Sweden in the 18th century.

Sweden still has a nobility. Those nobles no longer hold de facto political power, but their family records are stored by the Riddarhuset (House of Nobility), a society created in 1626. We estimate that about 56,000 Swedes hold rare surnames associated with the three historic tiers of nobles. (Variations on the names of the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of "Hamlet" are on the list.)

Another elite group are Swedes whose ancestors -- a rising educated class of clerics, scholars, merchants -- Latinized their surnames in the 17th and 18th centuries (like the father of the botanist Carolus Linnaeus). Adopting elite names was limited by law in Sweden in 1901, so a vast majority of people holding them are descended from prominent families.

Given the egalitarian nature of Swedish society, one would expect that people with these elite surnames should be no better off than other Swedes. That isn't so. In a sample of six Stockholm-area municipalities in 2008, rich and poor, we found that the average taxable income of people with noble names was 44 percent higher than that of people with the common surname Anderson. Those with Latinized names had average taxable incomes 27 percent higher than those named Anderson.

Surnames of titled nobles (counts and barons) are represented in the register of the Swedish Bar Association at six times the rate they occur in the general population (three times the rate, for untitled-noble and Latinized surnames). The same goes for Swedish doctors. Among those who completed master's theses at Uppsala University from 2000 to 2012, Swedes with elite surnames were overrepresented by 60 to 80 percent compared with those with the common surname prefixes Lund- and Berg-.

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on February 24, 2014 3:31 PM.

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