“Nobody gives it to you. You have to take it” – counsels Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed”. These lines (delivered with a thick Boston accent) probably best explain my distaste for the concept of monarchy. What has the Queen of the United Kingdom done for her exalted status? She didn’t have to lie, steal and cheat like normal politicians. She didn’t have to mercilessly climb the corporate ladder made out of personal betrayals and broken promises. She just happens to be born in the right family. Queen Elizabeth II only had the strength of foresight not to have any brothers. Thomas Paine once said that a hereditary monarch is an absurd proposition as a hereditary doctor or mathematician.
But these gripes with the concept of monarchy stem from principle not from hard facts. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham thought that the game of push-pin can be more valuable than music and poetry if it furnishes greater pleasure. Perhaps the Royal family brings some great benefit to the British national psyche that cannot be rationalised by an ill-tempered foreigner.
Keeping up with the Windsors
The West in general and the United States in particular were built on the idea of prosperity through hard work regardless of circumstances at birth. This idea is the core of the “American Dream” which like a Siren has attracted weary travellers to the shores of the US. I wholeheartedly subscribed to this ideal. But eventually I realised that the House of Windsor are not the only ones who benefit from their family name.
Admittedly there are plenty of rags to riches stories. John D. Rockefeller who is widely regarded as the richest man in history started his career working as a bookkeeper earning 50 cents a day (presumably after taxes). These anecdotes stick in the mind but they are the exception. The junkyard of hard-working people who failed is far bigger but we look away.
The most recent study of social mobility in the US found that the American Dream falls short of its promise. Nearly half of adults in the bottom and top 20% of income distribution were born to parents who were also in the bottom and top 20% respectively (1). In the 19th century the United States were far more socially mobile than Europe. Now the US is on par with the UK and Italy (Europe’s least socially mobile developed nations) and far behind Scandinavian countries (2). Bottom line is that if you want to live the American Dream then go to Denmark.
From a global perspective the picture is even worse. Two factors determined at birth (citizenship and income of parents) explain more than 80% of person’s standing on the global income distribution (3). Then other factors beyond a person’s control such as gender, race and luck also play a significant role. Personal effort can do very little to alter a person’s standing on the global income ranking. Citizens of Nogales, Arizona (US) and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) are separated only by a large fence but incomes of the latter group are three times smaller (4).
On top of that there has been a widening divergence between rich and poor countries. In 1820 the prosperous Great Britain was thrice richer than the poor and populous country of China measured in GDP per capita (at Purchasing Power Parity). Despite breakneck economic growth the average Chinese citizen is now 4 times poorer than the average Brit (5). In the 1960s Morocco was 4 times poorer than Spain (per capita in PPP terms) now it’s 6 times. In the past (19th – early 20th century) income was largely predetermined by class of parents (5). Nowadays income is most strongly influenced by location. You decide which situation is worse.
Learning to Succeed
The impediments to social mobility vary greatly from country to country and are beyond the scope of this article. Here I want to examine the relationship between social advancement and education in the developed world.
Not surprisingly studies show that education is the main driver of social mobility. I believe that education is also part of the problem. Rich parents have been so successful in passing prosperity to their children because they invest heavily in education. In the United Kingdom 70% of High Court Judges went to a fee-paying private school compared to 7% of the population (6). One study found out that test scores between US children of the top and bottom 10% have risen by 30-40% in the last 25 years (2). Since education is attained by greater number of people the relative importance of a few prestigious educational institutions has grown tremendously.
Here I must quote master satirist Stephen Colbert (8):
“Everyone is looking for that edge to help them spend a quarter of a million dollars on a worthless philosophy degree. And folks, it’s getting harder and harder. You are up against an army of overachieving geniuses with an 8.0 GPA, played a violin since the second trimester, and whose extra-curricular activities include flying the chopper that got Bin Laden”.
Imagine the race to Harvard as the Tour de France: you practically cannot win it without “outside assistance”. Only reasonably well-off parents can foot the bill for private schools, private lessons, expensive test books and lessons in Mandarin. But it’s not just universities that are important for one’s destiny in life. All rungs of the education ladder have risen in importance. Getting your kid into the right kindergarten can mean the difference between an Ivy League education and an overpriced diploma from a low-ranking university.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds increasingly face bleak prospects unless they exert great effort. It has been reported that in the US (7):
- Poor kids who succeed academically are less likely to graduate from college than richer kids who do worse in school.
- Even if they graduate from college, the children of the poor are still worse-off than low-achieving children of the rich.
Coming from an underprivileged background has subtle psychological effect that damages children’s prospects. For example, Indian children from “low” caste perform worse in solving mazes if their caste has to be made explicit (9). Likewise African Americans have lower test scores if they have to indicate their race on the cover sheet (10). It seems that negative stereotypes have direct influence on a child’s ability to perform. These and many other factors such as bad nutrition conspire against children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Future of an Illusion
“I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me” are the first words uttered by Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed”. These words are nothing less than wishful thinking. We are all products of our environment – more so than the class we were born into. Isn’t it hypocritical that developed countries such as the US perpetuate the “truthiness” of success through hard work regardless of background? Is it practical for countries with low social mobility to adopt the same stance? The answer here is a decided maybe.
I can sympathize with the argument that some illusions or half-truths must be maintained because they bring net benefit to society. Take for example, the allure of entrepreneurship which is an indispensible part of American culture. Only a small percentage of start-ups make it past two years. However, entrepreneurs are often blind to the odds which are stacked against them. Most of them go out of business and become “entrepreneurial martyrs”. Their effort has enriched the economy with new ideas.
More entrepreneurs in the economy equal higher chance of ground breaking innovation. That is why our daily lives are filled with products and services from US companies. It may be wise to tempt people with the promise of unfettered success through effort. Most of them will hit a glass ceiling but some minority (no pun intended) will break through. Why discourage people with the bitter pill of knowledge.
Ministry of Truth
The removal of illusions can bring cathartic effects to society. To mildly paraphrase Karl Marx: “Criticism of low social mobility has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that the underprivileged shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that they shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower”. Unfounded belief in the existence of high social advancement will not spur demand for change.
High social mobility is an idea that every party from the political spectrum can get behind. Yet the main focus falls on policies that affect inequality. The problems of low social mobility should have a prominent place in political discourse and people must be aware of them. Every country has its own idiosyncrasies but the one area of public policy which can bring positive change is education.
Mistakes were made
An intriguing double standard is applied by the British monarchy: as revealed by the terms “The Royal Mint” and “The National Debt”. But we commoners similarly tend to credit our achievements on effort and talent but blame bad luck and circumstances for our failures. If nothing else I hope this article brings some humility to readers in their reflections on past accomplishments. After all, you were born to achieve them.
(1) Bengali, L., & Daly, M. (2013). US economic mobility: the dream and the data. FRBSF Economic Letter, (Mar 4).
(2) “Repairing the rungs on the ladder”, “The Economist” (2013), url: http://goo.gl/9IV1x
(3) Shachar, A. (2009). The birthright lottery: citizenship and global inequality. Harvard University Press.
(4) Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. (2012). Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. Random House Digital, Inc..
(5) Milanovic, B. (2011). The haves and the have nots. A Brief Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality.
(6) Rogers, S., (2012) “Social mobility: the charts that shame Britain”, The Guardian, url: http://goo.gl/l4hb8J
(7) Jonathan Chait, “No Such Thing as Equal Opportunity,” New York, November 7, 2011, pp. 14–16.
(8) I's on Edjukashun - Study Drugs, “The Colbert Report” June 2012; url: http://goo.gl/BK29dd
(9) Hoff, K. R., & Pandey, P. (2004). Belief systems and durable inequalities: an experimental investigation of Indian caste (Vol. 3351). World Bank-free PDF.
(10) Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1998). Stereotype threat and the test performance of academically successful African Americans. The Black-White test score gap, 401-427.