Do We Care About Social Mobility? Should We?

Less than 10 years ago, it was common to hear conservatives argue that it wasn’t actually true that America had become a more economically unequal society. The unstated implication was that if it was true, it would be worth worrying about. But when the argument that increasing inequality was a myth became untenable, what we instead tended to hear about was the idea that America’s vast social mobility is what really matters. But as Jason DeParle writes in the New York Times, it turns out that America is unusually unequal and has unusually low mobility. The gaps between the rungs on the American economic ladder are unusually far apart, so it’s unusually hard to climb the ladder.

The smartest conservatives, ahead of the curve, are reframing the issue again. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether sons are able to move up the hierarchy from where their fathers were, maybe what matters is whether kids generally grow up to have higher absolute incomes than their parents.

This is a claim I like because it remind me of a senior thesis project I considered and then abandoned as too difficult. My idea was to look at John Rawls’ famous Theory of Justice and make the case for the system he briefly dismisses as “natural aristocracy.” That’s a system in which we would care most about the absolute living standards of the poor but not worry at all about what he calls “fair equality of opportunity” which is roughly speaking a form of social mobility. I turned out not to have much original to say on this and never did it, but I think it’s an interesting issue. At a minimum, I think speaking in these terms might help clarify the debate a bit. My suspicion, living and working in mostly progressive circles, is that most of the people upset about “inequality” are actually bothered by what they see as missed opportunities to raise living standards at the bottom or at the median. But it’s not totally clear. There’s a lot of ideological diversity on the left, and perhaps some people are in fact saying that it would be a good tradeoff to make America more equal even if that meant lower absolute incomes for middle class and poor families. But I don’t think that’s really something most of the people who say they’re bothered by inequality are bothered by. Conversely, conservatives should be pushed to explain how (or whether) their various policy ideas will actually raise incomes at the bottom or the middle and not just vaguely gesture in the direction of “growth.” The lesson of the three decades before the recession is that growth can be extremely unequal in its benefits, creating neither rising wages at the middle nor real increases in social mobility.