Social mobility

Ezra Klein lays out the numbers from a recent economic mobility study performed by the Center for American Progress.

The Center for American Progress just released a comprehensive study of economic mobility and income volatility. And, according to its data, Andy’s right about the American lack of fatalism, the belief in opportunity and mobility. When asked if people get rewarded for their effort, 61 percent of Americans agreed, versus 49 percent of Canadians, 33 percent of the British, and 23 percent of the French (weirdly, the Philippines win this one, with 63 percent agreeing). But of all these societies (save the Philippines), America is one of the least mobile, which is to say the least dependent on hard work rather than social station. In Denmark, the relationship between your parent’s income and yours is 15% percent or so. In Canada, it’s 19% percent. In France, it’s 41 percent. And in America, it’s 47 percent. The only country more hidebound and hierarchal is Andy’s native England (50 percent), also the country most closely approximating the American economic model.

The depressing upshot, as Klein points out, is that hard work doesn’t guarantee you’ll get ahead in America; even if you “work hard and play by the rules,” (in Clinton’s memorable formulation) there’s a good chance your children will have a hard time making what you make if you are not already wealthy. None but the most naive believe America is a meritocracy, but I still tend to be outraged personally when I’m confronted with this, usually in the form of some Ivy Leaguer getting a job through connections or plagiarizing a book and almost getting away with it. As Bourdieu goes to great lengths to explain in Distinction the upper classes develop elaborate defense mechanisms to prevent social mobility from threatening their elite status — unfair college admission practices is one strategy; high culture is another; evolving fashion is yet another. Cultural capital exists for those circumstances when the class barriers of financial capital are breaking down. Cultural capital exists so that others can be made to feel deprived, insecure, unintelligent or otherwise unworthy and undeserving. This may be the primary pleasure that high culture provides, the pleasure of watching the reactions of non-comprehending others, who you know you’ve just become superior to. Cultural capital makes hard work itself something of a joke; if you take a Veblenesque view of things, the signs of hard work are generally what become the signs of low breeding, so that the harder you work, the less likely it is that you’ll move yourself up in class. As each generation works to reproduce the society with which they are familiar, they begin with the entrenched privileges of class, passing along these barriers not consciously but as a kind of instinctual revulsion expressed at an almost sub-rational level. If you ever felt a creeping horror at being in Wal-Mart (or, the inverse, at Neiman Marcus), you know what I mean. We pass along those feelings as a way of making the social world cohere, to make it feel legible, like home. Class markers may be the primary way we orient ourselves once we are beyond the society of just our family; without those feelings of horror, unfortunately, we would probably feel even more anxious than we do when we feel outclassed or excluded.

But at the same time the preponderance of cultural/social capital at play in the class structure in America is probably what makes people think they have opportunity for social mobility when they don’t — if the markers, the surfaces, the pretenses and poses seem as important as the hard currency in one’s bank account, then one can come up with all sorts of clever, economical purchases to craft the illusion of upward mobility. One can procure credit and build the upwardly mobile existence without actually having the means to support it long-term. (By the same token, one can earn more and feel like one is slipping, due to the problems of invidious comparison and the hedonist treadmill (we compare ourselves to others to gauge how well off we are, and we adapt to every new level and become discontented with it.) Considering how much consumption is bound up with class, mobility will seem to increase as consumption increases and dominates a greater portion of our lives — consumption has already replaced work as the primary mode of self-definition; in America what we own is more important than what we do, and who we are when we are shopping is perhaps more our real self than who we are when we are working. The freedom and latitude we seem to enjoy when we are shopping makes social mobility feel real, as does the simulacrum of society created in entertainment and advertisements, where surface-deep characters model an egalitarian world, where everyone’s attention is equally valued (Nielsen doesn’t care whether the TV being watched is in a trailer park or a McMansion) and everyone can fix their lives with the same kinds of magic purchase. Perhaps the highest pleasure mainstream entertainment can provide is the fantasy that such a classfree world can exist; that culture unites rather than stratifies.