Assorted thoughts on social mobility

by Rob Horning

18 January 2012


Economic mobility is a different thing from social mobility, as any number of nouveau-riche tales of ostracized woe can testify to. Measuring whether one goes from one arbitrarily determined income bracket to another doesn’t tell us much about experiential changes; it doesn’t tell us whether one’s social circuit had changed, whether one’s children now go to a more elite school, with greater opportunities for sycophancy. Social mobility is often about establishing opportunities to be taken seriously by people with more status — or with more cultural capital, if you prefer — rather than raw income levels. Judging mainly by Victorian novels, it takes a lot of income to buy your way out of seeming like a striver when you begin hobnobbing with your betters.

But the difference between economic and social mobility is easy to lose sight of in policy discussions. Once the charts and graphs are trotted out, it’s easy to fixate on income differences that can be measured and varying rates of income change over time, with the idea that these comprehensively index the misery suffered through inequality. (More rumination, from Elias Isquith, about social mobility and whether it distracts us from inequality can be found here.)

Class and hierarchy and the ingrained sense of inferiority are not merely matters of money; they are more matters of power and assumed privilege. (That sentence felt a little tautological. I hope it makes some sense.) At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen offered a few notes on why he thinks measures of economic mobility are “overrated.” This is the one that started me thinking about this:

For a given level of income, if some are moving up others are moving down.  Do you take theories of wage rigidity seriously?  If so, you might favor less relative mobility, other things remaining equal.  More upward — and thus downward — relative mobility probably means less aggregate happiness, due to habit formation and frame of reference effects.

Much of that is econospeak for “knowing your place makes you feel better.” It’s long been a right-wing critique that increased socioeconomic mobility yields only chaos — that liberals are too quick to forget that mobility can approach a zero-sum game: when some go up, others must go down. (Cowen suggests this is why economic growth matters more than mobility qua mobility.) Conspicuous-consumption and hedonic-treadmill theories similarly assume that any symbolic gains in status will be offset when those with the power to determine which symbols have status change the rules. Once the “wrong” people are doing something, the “right” people move on to something else, propelling the wheel of fashions.

But what does that mean for the value of novelty? Novelty is sometimes regarded neutrally as simple innovation, an expansion of the possibilities offered to consumers and thus enhancing their sense of power (which some argue derives meaningfully from the exercise of choice in markets). But a lot of novelty is fashion change driven by status panic. It is meant to be exclusionary; it is meant to cause misery as much as pleasure, as the pleasure is rooted in some else’s being rejected.

We adopt the habitus of a particular social status (which to a degree is based on our income) and evaluate our condition mainly with respect to others we see as sharing that status. When downward economic mobility means we can no longer afford to hang out with our class peers and buy appropriate status symbols and amenities, that upsets us, and Cowen suggests that this upset outweighs any gains others might experience from moving up and getting to experience new nice things. That is a sort of paleo-conservative attitude, one that runs counter to the “all novelty is experienced as good” assumption that often animates discussion of consumer behavior today. It turns out that some novelty is experienced as confusion (i.e., me holding an iPhone) and not enhanced utility or pleasure, and class is the index governing this. Given consumer society’s hegemony, it may be that once novelty is felt to be threatening, we translate it into a class mobility issue—we are uncomfortable not because the newness is alienating in itself but because we are now conscious of moving up or down, or testing the boundaries of class habitus.

Concern with mobility is of particular concern to Americans; it’s an integral aspect of its founding myths: a country without an aristocracy, where merit is rewarded and no one is born to a caste. Of course, the U.S. falls ludicrously short of that ideal, but that remains a huge part of American exceptionalism. So often mobility statistics are ginned up to compare the U.S. with Europe, the ancestral bastion of inherited privilege. If the U.S. falls behind Europe, it suggests that we are failing at our national mission. Cowen has what struck me as an odd explanation of why Europeans have experienced more economic mobility: “Lots of smart Europeans decide to be not so ambitious, to enjoy their public goods, to work for the government, to avoid high marginal tax rates, to travel a lot, and so on.” I wonder to what degree one can decide not to be ambitious, as if that aspect of the self is voluntaristic. “I thought about being ambitious, but the hell with it. PlayStation time.”

Cowen claims that European parents don’t inspire their children to achieve: ” ‘High intergenerational mobility’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘lots of parental underachievers.’ ” That seems to take a systemic social problem and individualize it: society has lots of opportunities if parents would just force their kids to pursue them more doggedly. This fits with an economistic line of thinking that views the habitus as the sum total of one’s response to personal incentives rather than something produced by broader social conditions. If you are not ambitious, it’s not because of what RIchard Sennett called the “hidden injuries of class” but because of a personal choice. You just didn’t want to be ambitious badly enough. Maybe your parents or your schools failed to motivate you as much as they could have, but the failing is still yours.

The underlying assumption appears to be that mobility is mainly a matter of will, which is really the main idea at stake in arguments about it. Conservatives like to overlook inherited privilege to argue that those who stagnate in poverty do so out of choice; others see class boundaries as institutionalized and carefully policed, not a matter of choice at all.

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