Arnold Kling  

Mobility and Marriage

From Mobility to Misanthropy... Krugman and Bastiat: Confusing...

Bryan picked up on the fact that what we call intergenerational "economic mobility" (or lack thereof) is very much a cultural phenomenon. I would like to add that marriage patterns play a role, too. If economic classes become more endogamous (tending to marry within a well-defined social group), "economic mobility" will appear to decline. The traditional artistocracy maintained itself through endogamy, and my impression is that the new economic aristocracy practices endogamy even more strictly.

In fact, I have long suspected that the contemporary significance of education is driven in part by endogamy. If you are in the affluent social group, and you want to make sure that you kids stay there, send them to a schools that sort students into gifted-and-talented classes, and as long as those classes are stocked with kids from other affluent parents, you're likely to see your kid marry within his/her social group.

If social engineers really wanted to increase social mobility, they would enforce more randomness in mating. One way to do that would be to abolish the gifted and talented track, including elite colleges, and instead maintain social contact across economic groupings. I am not saying that I want this social engineering project to be undertaken, but I am just trying to be forthcoming about what it involves.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Thomas Leahey writes:

You have just re-stated the key thesis of The Bell Curve by Ricard Herrnstein and Charles Murray.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Another way to think about this is the possibly unconscious desire to link wealth to specific geography or place. The danger there is in a return to primary wealth residing in real estate which the Industrial Revolution had gone to such pains to erase in the first place. A big part of the need to entrepreneuralize skills is regaining economic mobility, for wealth can only decline wherever it is attached to specific place.

Robert Easton writes:

"my impression is that the new economic aristocracy practices endogamy even more strictly."

You obviously aren't familiar with this horse of a man:

... sorry, I didn't actually have any relevant point to make there.

celestus writes:

"If social engineers really wanted to increase social mobility, they would enforce more randomness in mating."

I wonder if societies in which people get married earlier have more random class in high school and social class in adult life are only slightly correlated, so if everyone gets married out of high school then things should be less stratified. Even in "good schools" the overall student body will have higher adult-level social class, but within that group the correlation will be low.

Brandon Berg writes:

This obsession with "mobility" seems to me to be another example of left-wing creationism. Someone who actually believed in natural selection would acknowledge that the traits associated with success in a market economy are likely to have a genetic component, and that we would therefore see some correlation between parental income quintile and children's income quintile even in the absence of any structural barriers to mobility.

Really, a world in which any child had a twenty percent chance of ending up in any income quintile would be a nightmare dystopia. You'd have to eliminate any relationship between pay and performance to get there.

Honestly, I find it pretty surprising that a child of bottom-quintile parents has as much as a 17% chance of being in the top two quintiles. That's nearly half what you'd expect from pure chance.

Chris writes:

For what it's worth, Greg Clark has a book coming out soon that talks about social mobility in which he argues that it's basically constant across centuries and across very different societies. A summary of it is here.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Remember the component of the Industrial Revolution that existed because of the "downward mobility" that was happening, i.e. offspring of the upper classes didn't have enough room in the geographic constraints of the time. However, being able to emigrate to the U.S. solved that problem, and allowed the success oriented genetic component to further flourish. The fact that I promote mobility in the present has little to do with left thinking, but rather a desire to tap into the present day success genes which continue to look for outlet in economic life. This is why argument exists to create new frontiers of the mind ("entrepreneurial skills wealth creation") so that the present genetic advantages of previous success stories aren't just for naught.

chipotle writes:
If social engineers really wanted to increase social mobility, they would enforce more randomness in mating.

Okay, to a normal person, this seems like an obvious reductio ad absurdum.

But Arnold knows enough about social engineers' mindset--the kind that informs readers of the New York Times who imagine they are experts on EVERYTHING--to know that no problem is too private and no decision is too personal for the do-gooder busybodies to believe they can help make social outcomes more optimal.

Bottom line: I am completely serious when I say that Arnold should take care not to give would-be social engineers any ideas!

Andrew writes:


The first two paragraphs are spot on. But the third paragraph seems like the wrong punctuation mark. Surely upward mobility is not the only goal of social engineers.

perfectlyGoodInk writes:

This also argues in favor for anything that helps the poor gain a college education.

Steve Sailer writes:

Engineers used to have secretaries, and they used to marry their secretaries. For example my working class mother met my middle class father at Lockheed at the end of WWII. More strikingly, my mother's close friend in the secretarial ranks, another working class girl, married a brilliant Skunk Works engineer who went on to design the 2500 mph SR71, the fastest airplane of all time. They had six kids. Some became lawyers, others enlisted in the Navy. That's not the kind of high-churn pattern you see much of these days.

Shane writes:

Would liberal immigration policies also lower (international) income inequality, by introducing quite poor people from country A to quite rich people in country B? That is, cross-ethnic marriages might reduce the income gaps between them?

Andreas Moser writes:

"Randomness in mating" won't be achieved by sending kids to different schools or putting them into different classes.
Their parents will still take them to the same church on Sunday or tell them to look out for the guy with the sports car.
People are shallow.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

A TGS-like thought is that the Internet makes it incredibly easy to associatively mate with those of similar intellectual quality (, Eharmony, etc.).

I remember my first long-distance electronic hook-up with a physics grad student I met on Usenet...

Miguel Madeira writes:

Well, at least in Portugal I am sure that assortative mating is less common than some decades ago - today is not much uncommon to see a woman with a law degree living with a construction worker (something that will be almost unthinkable some decades ago).

I don't know who is in the US...

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