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We Need to Talk About Downward Mobility

Low levels of social mobility, more than raw inequality or slow growth, is probably the greatest challenge facing the American political-economic system today. America’s ruling class is hardening into a hereditary caste, putting more and more social and economic distance between itself and the rest of the population. And the sense that lower and middle class families are stuck in place undermines the public’s trust in our economic institutions.

Most discussions of social mobility in the United States focus, understandably, on the problem of upward mobility. How can we make it easier for children born at the bottom of the heap to break into the middle, and easier for children born into the middle to make it to the top?

But as Brookings’ Richard Reeves reminds us, social mobility necessarily goes in two directions. If we are serious about having turnover in our elite class, then upward mobility isn’t sufficient—we need downward mobility as well:

Politicians and scholars often lament the persistence of poverty across generations. But affluence persists, too. In the U.S. especially, the top of the income distribution is just as “sticky”, in intergenerational terms, as the bottom. The American upper middle class is reproducing itself quite effectively.

Class reproduction is of course driven by a whole range of factors, from parenting and family structure through formal education, informal learning, the use of social networks, and so on. Some are unfair: playing the legacy card in college admissions, securing internships via closed social networks, zoning out lower-income families from our neighborhoods and school catchment areas.

To be sure, we can and should aim for income growth at all levels of the spectrum. But increasing the level of relative social mobility means making it more likely that a child born in the bottom quintile will make it higher on the economic ladder. And for that to occur, someone else born higher on the ladder needs to take his place at the bottom. The American economy isn’t Lake Wobegon, where everyone can be above average. For capitalism to work, people need to rise and fall according to their talents and hard work.

Now, higher levels of social mobility are not always an unalloyed good. (If the United States had a Robespierre-flavored revolution every generation, social mobility would be very high, but it’s hard to argue that this would be a better arrangement than the one we have now). At the same time, there is a broad consensus that our current levels of mobility are below their optimum level. To attack this problem, we need to not only look at ways to help make it easier for people to rise—we also need to look at ways the upper class has stacked the deck, hoarded resources, and protected members of its tribe from the consequences of failure.

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  • JR

    Solution is so easy it’s ridiculous. Confiscatory taxation above a certain random level. Make sure there are no rich people. Boom!!! Done!!

  • Boritz

    The middle class and former middle class (the people who were middle class not that long ago) stand by to do whatever is needed.

  • Fat_Man

    Heroin addiction is a very efficient way to make sure that a sufficient number of rich people impoverish themselves.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Sociologist Peter Berger, who writes a column on this website, once wrote on a neglected aspect of social mobility which he called “The Blueing of America”. As the children of elite families dropped out of joining corporations and bureaucracies and joined the youth counterculture, they made room at the top of corporations for the adult children of blue collar families who went to college to take their place (sort of like Vilfredo Pareto’s “circulation of the elites”). I was the beneficiary of this circulation process and found employment in places my working class family would never had access to.

    However, since 1971 when Berger made this prescient sociological observation something else has happened in elite families. Their coddled “soft” children, who rebel at working in conformist corpocracies, have been raised in the virtual world made possible by computers. They no longer have to work for, say, General Motors or Dow Chemical or some large government water or electric utility whose organizations are based on a military model (and they don’t have to face the military draft). Sociologists would say their socialization has been “continuous” and not “discontinuous”. They can work in Silicon Valley in virtual cocoons of “softness”, including laid back work environments and casual dress, less hierarchy of organization, the proverbial “free lunch” provided by their employer, and even can work from home thus never escaping the soft cocoon they were raised in. One Silicon Valley company even sort of used an image of “sexual looseness” to attract new employees — it was advertised that employees were supposedly known to have sexual trysts in hallways, rooftops, etc. while at work (translated: work was sexually exciting and not drudgery). The New York Times journalist David Brooks, who dabbles in lay sociology, once wrote the definitive book on the sociology of the New Class titled “Bobos in Paradise”. My guess is that if Berger were to re-write his article today it would be re-titled the “Re-Greening of America”. Social class mobility is now made of silicon.

    One of the aspects of this new computer work world is that one almost never has to do what one doesn’t want to do. There is no going into the military, no taking low level jobs in a fast food restaurant or as a waitress, or furniture mover, or in the construction trades as a route to occupational mobility. There is no putting up with the proverbial authoritarian boss on an assembly line. No one works their way through college anymore (as I was able to do). For the progeny of upper middle class elites there is no direct exposure to the working class nor having to do any work that involves drudgery. This creates jobs at the bottom for immigrants as warehouse managers, restaurant managers, or construction supervisors. But there is no longer an occupational ladder between blue collar jobs and white collars jobs as there once was (as described by sociologist Charles Murray). Abe Lincoln no longer could make it from log cabin to the White House (except by Affirmative Action which is another soft route to occupational mobility as personified by our current President).

    Those who serve in state legislatures and congress are almost all lawyers who are also products of this segmentation or bifurcation of the social classes. The “Ruling Class”, along with their Silicon Valley counterparts and academia, are totally out of touch with the “Country Class”, as described by Angelo Codevilla in his book “The Ruling Class”. They have never worked one day in their life at a physically demanding job, have never lived pay check to pay check, have never faced the fragility of marriages living on the economic edge, and not having any more than $500 in savings.

    Again, the exception to this is the coddled Union Class who are in protected jobs with collective union contracts and their jobs are untouchable, mainly in the government sector. Their jobs are now legally considered “private property” which are sacrosanct (see “Gary Minda’s “Postmodern Legal Movements: Law and Jurisprudence at Century’s End”).

    Conversely, the working class are exposed to the volatility of markets and the manipulations of the economy by the ruling class and the Federal Reserve. They no longer can even put their money into a savings account and save up for a down payment on a house because interest rates are anemic (0.25% per year maybe). The generational cycle between generations where retired people put money into savings and in turn that money was loaned out to younger people to buy houses and start new small businesses no longer works. Banks no longer care about the little investor and only care about the investor class. There no longer is a banker like Amadeo Giannini and his Bank of America; there is only Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, or Morgan Stanley. There are SBA loans available through local banks but one has to own a house as collateral for those type of loans. And homeownership, once a bridge to the middle class, is out of touch for those in the working class.

    The above sociological realities are hardly every written about even by sociologists, all now trained to look at the world through a Marxist cognitive lens.

    A political actor such as Trump is criticized by even conservatives such as Yuval Levin as someone who wants to go back to a nostalgic past and who has no vision of the future. Again, even conservative cognitive elites are out of touch with what is going on. What Trump “trumps” is going back to the kind of economy where the working class could save up for a future, could afford to buy a house on installment payments and not rigged zero interest loans, where there was a connection between hard work and success. Through the social perception of the working class they only people who have upward mobility are those who benefit from a system that is “rigged” in their favor by affirmative action or by being a member of a fictional protective class. This perception is not irrational or without an empirical basis. And Trump is not a populist in the sense of Mussolini or Hitler (or even Hubert Humphrey) as he is often demonized.

    There has been a collapse of a theodicy (a religious explanation of success and suffering) in America because of the “rigged” economy described above. There no longer is a hard work ethic as once described by Max Weber in his book “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism”. Mediating institutions such as churches and lodges are hollowed out or co-opted by government nonprofit enterprises. De Toqueville’s America is now a very thin strata living on the economic edge without social institutions to make sense of their precariousness. Elites, especially in academia, call them and their leaders irrational, emotional and don’t understand why the working class can’t live on cheaper imported goods alone. But as Judeo-Christian scriptures say: “Man doesn’t live by bread (or affirmative action or cheap imported goods) alone”. Many also needs meaning and institutions that embody a spirit that gives meaning. The working class, who almost exclusively fight our wars, understandably no longer want to fight wars where they can’t win and which they continually have to capture the same hill over and over again.

    I could go on and on but I don’t have time.

    • vb

      One other thing is that many children of the upper middle class go to work for NGOs as activists. In these positions, they push for laws that actually harm the poorer classes. Except, of course, for the …studies majors who land jobs in our colleges and universities.

      • Johnathan Swift Jr.

        Yes, always, members of the “Connected Class” as I call them are the most stone cold racists that have ever strode the face of the planet. They have turned ghettos and barrios into completly disfunctional enviornments and care not a whit, a long as the cycle of dependency assures them votes. They have pushed virtually any gainful employment out of the inner cities, leaving behind the occasional fast food job, or sweeping up at the bodega for a young person, they trap children in expensive and nearly worthless schools and oppose vouchers – one of the few ways to create some social mobility in the inner city – as well as susidizing dependency and dysfunction. Black Lives Matter is the latest calamity, a commuinist front group that seeks to make things worse, to create even greater resentment and dysfunction, all aimed at those who are in no way responsible for the prediciment of those in the inner cities which are all blue from top to bottom.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Another aspect of the class system I did not have time to mention is the social cancer created by political correctness and protected categories of people in the New Class who in return get protected jobs, benefits, and sinecures. Let’s take the newest category: trans-gender persons (which is a purely socially constructed category). The Obama administration has tried to ramrod protections for this “new class” of victims in public schools and now even in the military. To those in the working class this is just one more proof of how the social class system is rigged. Transgenders get to leap over them to become the next general, secretary of defense or admiral. But to the New Class, and their academic intellectuals, it is proof that the working class are all bigots, homophobes, and red necks. This is why Trump’s anti-PC message resonates with the working class and why he intentionally uses crude anti-PC language to puncture the New Class norms they have been enshrined into laws for themselves at the expense of everyone else. Again, the New Class seizes on his use of anti-PC language as proof that Trump is a danger to democracy as they define it (democracy being a system of social class privileges disguised as “civility” and a number of other double-speak terms). Even conservative members of the New Class see Trump as a threat to social civility and social decorum that can never speak truth to power. If we are both liberal and conservatives going to return America to its original vision of equality for all we must root out this social cancer. We cannot live with a social class system that is a disguised Nomenklatura Class** working in powerful positions who can dictate their social construction of reality to those who work in the Capitalist social class system and the military (** the Nomenklatura were the influential posts and industry to be filled by Communist Party appointees and apparatchiks). The two don’t and can’t coexist peacefully together. As we can see by what is unfolding on our streets recently, it leads to fake victimology, provocation of the working class who mainly serve as police and victimization sometimes resulting in actual homicides that, once again, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This social cancer is deadly and has reached the stage where it has metastasized and is almost irreversible because so many have been infected with it especially in positions of those who control cognitive reality. For those who think that this writer is some sort of bigot, homophobe or whatever they might ask where I learned what I write? I learned it by taking graduate classes in social stratification from very illiberal sociologists and doing a lot of reading and observing on my own. It also comes from being a “marginal man” not fully entombed in either the Knowledge Class or Working Class.

        • werewife

          Whoever you are and whatever else you’ve done, Mr. Lusvardi, at the moment you are a social critic of rare perceptiveness, sensitivity, and eloquence. You should have your own column at one of the big blogsites such as Townhall, PJ Media, or Hot Air. If you don’t have a blog yet, start one ASAP!

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Thank you for the compliment. I wrote as a journalist for about 4 years for a conservative think tank on water and energy. A new editor who was a self announced member of one of the protected classes I just mentioned came in and pushed me and five other colleagues out. The conservative websites like PJ Media, First Things, Forbes, City Journal, the Claremont Review won’t have anything to do with my submittals; as well as liberal websites like the New Republic, the LA Times, New York Times, Real Clear Politics are the same.

          • werewife

            Darn. I am sorry that you haven’t been able to get a proper venue. If it’s that they find you too far-out for their “civilized” websites (which strains credulity, considering the tone of the comment above), well then, why not go for broke and make a run at Taki’s Magazine or Breitbart, where they don’t seem to mind whom they irritate? Then again, if the problem is that they find you too elegant or insufficiently fierce, I’m all out of suggestions.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Look: I even tried to submit to, and other libertarian websites. No dice. Breitbart would have nothing to do with me I assure you. I make a living doing complex real estate and public utility valuations where I have to be scrupulously unbiased and clients are willing to pay for that. Writing full time is demanding and the pay is peanuts (not that I have to get paid for what I write as commentary). For now let’s try to make Walter Russell Mead’s website a robust forum and drive hits to his website where our little drop of water in the pond can resonate outward in hopefully a bigger ripple.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      Would like to add more, but this is a very thoughful post, all in agreement with similar thoughts I have posted. Despite all his rhetoric about income inequality, every one of this President’s programs has only accelerated it, which is of course according to plan. Everything is done for the benefit of the multinationals and the no borders, no barriers crowd, all for Wall Street and The City, nothing for Main Street.

      Even the regulation benefits the major corporation while penalizing the little businessman who does not have suites full of lawyers, cubicles full of complainace officials and accountants and plenty of men on K Street. Ironically, the small cute, quaint businesses that the ruling class enjoys are the ones hardest hit – the neat little book store, the French restaurant with eight tables or that gourmet cheese store. Eventually they will all become non-profits I assume, funded in places where the mega rich live so that they can enjoy the things their class has destroyed for the rest of us.

      I have always been a free trader, but one has to wonder whether at a certian point it all becomes a race to the bottom. One also has to wonder whether the meaning of life, the measure of life, isn’t worker productivity and the quantity of consumer goods flooding our homes.

      There was a rhythm of life before modernity came upon the world. Even my own grandparents lives on the farm were governmed by the seasons, as was my own to a lesser degree. Lives were governed by the weather and the seasons, there was a variety to almost everyone’s lives. Modernity has brought specialization, then greater and greater myoptic specialization. To the Harvard/Yale/Stanford class, who are all entitled to lead the rest of the world through a ring in their noses, the world was shaken up and all the intelligence ended up on the seaboards with a little rim around the Great Lakes. Once concentrated there, all decisions should be made by a very narrow class, those who were born or educated to run the world.

      The problem is that an ever narrower view, every greater specialization, is not what spurs creativity, what creates genius at all, it is often a fractious world that does, one with much greater social mobility and learning as based on life experience and experimentation as it is on formal education. Edinburgh in the Enlightenment was such a place, modern Harvard and Yale, not at all. There was a genius in the American founding, but if we look at those men, they came from incredibly different backgrounds and fueded and fought with each other, out of those disparate backgrounds, out of their vehement debates, came the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the Federalist Papers.

      Look at the lives of Robert Hoke,William Harvey, Joseph Banks, Franis Galton, Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla, Oliver Heaviside, Richard irwan, Jeremy Bentham or henry Cavendish, all of whom changed the world, but who often came from unconventional backgrounds and we able to follow their own strange path, not striding in someone else’s footsteps, a rejection of the conventional wisdom in many cases.

      • werewife

        Nailed it, Junior! Maybe you and Wayne Lusvardi should join forces; that way the truth might have a fighting chance.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Rolling back modernity is a utopian dream of the counter culture and the post modernists. The counter culture want to be hippies and the post-modernists want the benefits of modernization for themselves at the expense of everyone else. What has been lost to those in the Working Class is those mediating institutions that buffer the harshness of modernity such as churches, extended families, lodges, bowling leagues, etc.

        The two social classes, the Knowledge Class and the Working Class don’t intermingle socially in informal institutions any more. Mainline churches have been infiltrated and taken over by the Knowledge Class. Extended families are now divided – half in the Working Class the other half in the Knowledge Class or in a socially protected category of the Knowledge Class. Lodges and neighborhoods have been replaced by non-profits all dependent on government grants and inclusionary housing. Bowling leagues have been replaced by upscale gyms. For the most part this has not been entirely created by Capitalism but by the New Class social stratification system.

        People don’t vote with their head but with their herd. We are all social creatures even though we are acculturated to view everything through the lens of individualism. The upcoming election will probably be divided along the class lines I have described. If Trump is elected there is likely to be a regime change and a radical renovation of the social class system. That is why there is so much social strife and polarization and staged victimization spectacles. If Hillary Clinton is elected it is likely we will see even more penetration of the Knowledge Class into the military, into the energy industry (via phony renewable energy mandates), and more mainline churches dividing and dissociating along class lines. Terrorism has a social location.

        The question not posed anywhere of which I am aware of, is can these two class systems work together in some sort of Leftist utopia? I don’t think so given what the “terrorism” that is unfolding in our streets, on military bases, in our schools, and even in gay bars; all social areas where social class intrusion and “occupation” by the Knowledge Class are occurring.

    • Pete

      Very good analysis

    • ljgude

      This is a good example of why I read TAI. The articles are often excellent, but sometimes the comments are better

    • del2124

      You might be on to something there, but I assure you the upper middle class is still performing a great deal of drudgery. The average lawyer or doctor, or even editor or computer engineer, still spends about 20 percent of his work day doing really fun exciting things, and the rest doing things like processing and going to meetings and dealing with troublesome colleagues.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        A case could be made that for the working class in say the building trades that they work like 6 am to 3 pm have the night and weekends off and can go fishing. The white collar class, on the other hand, often is tethered to their computers for 16 hours per day and have to go to highly redundant continuing education classes (which are mostly meant to keep the competition out). So the white collar class does have a different kind of drudgery. But it has the potential for upward mobility or for making a lot more money should an opportunity arise. And white collar jobs are often somewhat less vulnerable to recessions than say construction.

        And white collar workers can often afford to buy a house or move to where they can afford a house. So based on those factors I think there is more mobility and opportunities for white collar workers.

        Blue collar workers, like construction trades and police, hit a physical wall around 50 to 55 years old — they just can’t lay brick or chase criminals anymore. They have to transition to being a superintendent or a watch commander or detective.

        Sitting all day for years also catches up with white collar workers.

        There is also monotony that can be in either job sector.

        But the physical toll of blue collar work often leads to a shorter lifespan.

  • Ofer Imanuel

    Of course upper middle class (and upper class) would like their children to stay where they are (or climb some more). That’s what good parents do. From the 3 “undesirable” effects mentioned by the author, I can agree only with the legacy admissions.
    Unpaid internships is a way for a potential employer to test the water. If the internee is game, it is no business of the public.
    As for zoning, of someone puts $1+M on a house, he is not going to be amused by the government changing the rules and devaluing his house dramatically.

    • Johnathan Swift Jr.

      “If the internee is game, it is no business of the public.” Now, those of us of a more libertarian bent agree with you. I oppose any minimum wage at all for example, believing that the person selling his labor should be able to set his price and the buyer, the employer can agree to it or not, they can come to an agreement without the self-styled geniuses in government’s supervision. On the other hand, somehow, an internship allows a person, usually one from a college program to work for nothing, zero, nada, in order to gain experience.

      This assumes that the new person, the new hire, may be worth little to nothing, to begin with, which of course is the reality, one that minimum wage denies of course. So, one set of potential employees is able to sell their services for zero in order to gain experience, while the other is often priced out of the market because their services are not worth minimum wage.

      Minimum wage effects minority children, ghetto children the hardest, young people who may struggle with English, even though it is their native tongue, struggle with basic literacy, struggue with the proper attitude, all because they are the product in many cases of a dysfunctional environment and an awful union-controlled school system that is as expensive as it is nearly worthless. The internship becomes yet another way the new ruling class, the connected class, yet another advantage, another way to cement the is success, while the lower income person has a terrible time even getting their foot on the ladder.

  • massjim

    Was this article written by Hillary or Bernie?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Typical leftist thinking, the leftists are completely focused on fairly dividing the pie, instead of as the right would have it, maximizing the growth of the pie and letting everyone grab as large a piece of the pie as they can. Reagan used to say “a rising sea lifts all boats”, and the economy under Reagan was the best in over 40 years.

  • Anthony

    Must it always fall Left or Right? Are we indiscreetly highlighting class antagonisms masked as upward/downward societal mobility (in economic terms)?

    At bottom, Post raises question of economic inequality (capital/labor distributional question) clothes as social mobility – essential to some lights but for many the same thing). Parsing the issue as left/right, middle class/working class, poor/indigent, etc. misses the point perhaps. Indeed, if the question of inequality (social mobility) requires attention (and it does), then we must be extensive as possible by patiently establishing facts, patterns, and trends (historical, current predicted) that identify the mechanisms (distributional question at heart of analysis) at work.

    Capitalism/creative destruction consequences thereof: “mobility, either economic or social, is inherently threatening because it means the possibility of movement either up or, more to the point, down, compared to the prevailing norms for the society as a whole. But when the average income in an economy is stagnant, people who allow others to get ahead of them are not only falling behind in relative terms but also losing ground compared to their own past living standards.”

    Thus, the resulting frustration takes on…

  • Anthony

    The problem is that people with high IQ’s tend to marry other people with high IQ’s, thereby increasing the chance of producing high IQ children. This is why champion racehorses are used to bread the next generation. We need to democratize access to those precious IQ points. There are deep pools of capital on Earth, and the owners of that money are hungry to get it into the hands of brilliant people. They are not, however, interested in what average or below average people are capable of doing. Here is a step in the right direction.

    • Anthony

      Anthony, you’re back! I hope there’s no confusion (and that donor ad was last seen in University of Chicago’s Maroon 2014)

  • Josephbleau

    All who have seen the elephant know the nostrum that the A students are MDs or Professors, and the B students work for the C students. Elites call Harvard grads ” the help.” Leaders have a talent that is not manifested by academic ability, rather presence and an ability to discern BS. Upward mobility is created by letting these special people (Trump?) go about their business, their cultivated pals will be hauled up (How many ex poor now millionaires stuck with Gates or Jobs thru the slog?)

  • J K Brown

    This is what you get when you have a highly interventionist, near German pattern of socialism, system. Socialism and interventionism favors the office holder. The office holder has cronies and the benefits of society are parceled out not vie merit but via connections.

    And we have as professor Peter Turchin has proffered an over production of elites. This happened in with the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy as well. Only one of the sons could be king, so the the others became established in lower positions displacing down to what we call the upper middle class now, who displaced on down the line. It is what happens when the pie is fixed as it increasingly is by the high intervention in the economy. An example of the displacement today is the college graduates taking jobs that used to go to the non-college credentialed worker.

    The solution is for as Deirdre McCloskey calls it using the British saying, more people to be able to “have a go”. That means needing fewer “by your leave” from bureaucrats and politicians. And needing less cash to pay off licensing boards, zoning commissions and the like, whether that be via fees or bribes.

  • FriendlyGoat

    At this time, we are increasingly relying only on the possibility of members of the “upper class” making bad investments to put them into downward mobility—–which is where this article suggests we need some of them to go. If that happens, it is likely that others in the “upper class” gain the benefit by being on the other side of the trade(s)—–with little lost wealth trickling down to others below.
    Meanwhile, taxes and regulation tend to ACTUALLY “unstack the deck” (per article’s last sentence), but my experience is that’s not what TAI and its readers wish to contemplate—-even while bemoaning declining social mobility in generalities.

  • del2124

    Not really. Paying the working class better just would enable it to live better. In reality there’s very little movement whatsoever between the classes. What is going is that we’ve just transferred huge wealth from the middle and lower classes to the upper class. We can accomplish the reverse without forcing the children of CEOs to become day laborers or something.

  • Jim__L

    Has anyone else bothered to point out that upward mobility and downward mobility, measured in economic-quintile terms, is a zero-sum game?

    That should lead almost immediately into a highly critical discussion of the uselessness of the Rat Race, the benefits of a culture that supports the Dignity of Labor, the importance of Family Life (as opposed to double-careerist “marriages” where “the dogs are our children”), and perhaps most importantly how standard of living in absolute terms has risen (except in terms of living space, which rabid urbanist zealots are trying to undermine at every opportunity) and other useful discussions.

    But that would be changing the subject to something the Elites don’t want to talk about, because what’s the use of being an Elite if you can’t look down on those beneath you?

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