Decline and Fall of Social Mobility

21 Jun

When Obama was elected he declared it a victory for the American Dream. Even a black man can become President. Surely that was evidence of the possibility of social mobility in theUnited States. Yet even a casual reader of any newspaper knows that the facts point in the opposite direction. Here is one graph illustrating the decline over the past thirty years.

(See the NYTimes for this graph and other social mobility graphics.)

Indeed, as this chart from Business Insider shows, not social mobility but social stagnation appears to be the norm.

Real wage gains are worse even than during the decade of the Great Depression, and real average earnings are barely above what they were fifty years ago.

Social mobility is the myth, call it ideology, that has defended America’s enormous income and wealth inequality. A popular feeling seems to be that inequalities are acceptable so long as everyone has an equal opportunity to make it to the top. But the opposite is in fact true. The more unequal the society, the less opportunity there is to go around. Put the other way around, the myth of social mobility turns out to be an excellent tool for sanctioning enormous inequalities – inequalities far greater than exist in societies based on other social philosophies.

The problem is not just that the United States fails to live up to its ideal, the problem is with the ideal itself. What, exactly, is desirable about a society that makes it possible to rise into the ruling class on condition that nobody ask whether there ought to be such enormous inequality in the first place?Jefferson– borrowing from the English radical James Harrington – distinguished the “natural aristocracy” from the “artificial aristocracy.” The natural aristocracy were marked by “virtue and talents” while the artificial aristocracy was “founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.”

This was a good argument for battering the walls of the ancien regime, for destroying the intellectual foundations of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. But as Jefferson himself admitted, it replaces one aristocracy with another. This hardly seems the appropriate social philosophy for a democratic society. Yet the myth of social mobility is our version of the natural aristocracy – those who rise, do so because of natural talent, and thus deserve their entry into powerful, high earning professions. Perhaps the decline of social mobility is an opportunity to rethink the aspirations of a professed democratic society in the first place.

2 Responses to “Decline and Fall of Social Mobility”


  1. What is financialization? « thecurrentmoment - July 12, 2011

    […] are wider questions to which we shall have to return – how financialization was linked to the stagnation of living standards for the working class but rising wealth for the upper class, how it was linked to industrialization and thus improvement […]

  2. thecurrentmoment - July 14, 2011

    […] this blog before, dramatic rises in incomes at the top over this period have gone hand-in-hand with stagnating real wages and rising consumer debt. It would seem one of the most significant elements of financialization […]

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