In this blog’s tradition of defending the indefensible, or, to put it more blandly, offering slight tweaks of attacks that we basically agree with, I wanted to put in a note on Paul Ryan, social mobility and the American Dream. Now, Paul Ryan gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation last week where he extolled America as the land of social mobility and equality of opportunity that Obama is supposedly attempting to do away with.
This speech has been thoroughly mocked by the liberal blogosphere, see Jonathan Chait, Timothy Noah* and Matt Yglesias**. The main points there are that we are obviously far from equality of opportunity and in terms of measures of social mobility, the US is actually behind Europe. Nor do I buy Daniel Foster’s semi-defense of Ryan that mostly boils down to the idea that people also prize stability. That they do, but it’s pretty much the opposite of social mobility, since when yr talking about entrenchment of class, it’s relative social mobility that is crucial. And, by that token, when yr talking about relative social mobility, it’s kind of a zero sum game by definition – someone has to move down for someone else to move up.
But I think the people who point out that social mobility is greater in Europe than in the US miss the point of what social mobility means in America, that is, how it relates to the American Dream. I mean, the generally understood thing about improving your material wellbeing and your children’s, that’s a part of it, of course. A chicken in every pot and all that. But universal material plenitude is not a uniquely American aspiration. Especially around the era of electrification, this seems as much the Soviet dream as the American dream. And hell, even the chicken-pot thing was a borrowing from the French. What made the legend of America and the American dream unique in the early 20th century, I think, is that the lack of aristocracy meant that anyone could not just improve their lot, but just might, unlikely though it may be, end up in the 1% (in the parlance of the times). Or maybe even the 0.01%. And not be ridiculed as an arriviste, but instead celebrated, for in America, an arriviste is something to be admired. I agree with the attitude that new money is better than old money (which I guess is why I have some Sympathy for the Darrell). But this kind of social mobility is only tangentially related to the kind measured by the studies noted by Chait and Noah (which measure correlations between earnings, educational levels of parent and offspring and are not about what are basically outliers). What’s more, this kind of social mobility is all but predicated on extreme inequality. I really don’t know who leads the developed world in social mobility into ultra-rich-hood, but neither the CBO study nor the Economic Mobility Project one provide answers to that question.
Not that I think that that matters too greatly. I am a believer in the idea that relative social mobility of exactly the kind measured by the studies is the important one because it is the one that addresses the issue of societal inequality. And as to why that might be important, see this TED talk by Richard Wilkinson. Now, that talk is heavy-handed, sure, but then I am pretty confident I’ve not yet seen a TED talk that I didn’t think was heavy-handed. But regardless of which kind of social mobility is important to me, I think it’s social-mobility-into-the-1% Paul Ryan talks about when Paul Ryan talks about social mobility. And the important point here is that I kind of think that that’s what most Americans envision by social mobility, too.
*Speaking of Chait and Noah, I thought Chait moving to NY Magazine and Noah getting a blog at TNR was one of those good-news-all-around situations. And yet, somehow, it’s definitely been a change for the worse. I don’t get it.
**I’m not just putting in links to Yglesias cause he linked to us that one time. It’s mostly because it’s pretty much the only thing I ever read (other than the arXiv)***
***that’s not true. The part where I claim to read the arXiv, I mean. although since I’m on the topic, I might as well link to the most succinct arXiv abstract ever.