Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution writes about the decline of mobility in American Society, in particular the tendency for the upper classes to “hoard” opportunities for their children. While he’s right in principle about certain aspects of “hoarding,” I think his focus is misplaced, and he misses a couple of key things.
First things first: “The Glass Floor” is a terrible title. A ceiling limits how high you can rise. A floor limits how low you can fall. The far better meaning for “glass floor,” one I thought I had invented until I googled it, refers to the institutions that historically protect women from the worst things in life, like military service, dangerous work, and prison time. (Detailed here in someone else’s angry, angry article.)
But let’s get to the substance:
It is important to be clear what we are talking about. There are two distinct kinds of intergenerational mobility. Absolute mobility is a measure of whether a person is financially better off than his or her parents were at the same age.
Relative mobility, in contrast, is a measure of which rung of the income ladder a person lands on, compared with his or her parents’ position. If everyone made twice what their parents did, everyone is upwardly mobile, in absolute terms — but since their rank position on the income ladder is the same as their parents’, relative mobility would be zero.
We can improve rates of upward absolute mobility by simply expanding the economy. But improving rates of upward relative mobility from the bottom comes with a sting in the tail: it requires more downward mobility from the top.
Reeves focuses on relative mobility, but never justifies why this is the more important focus. As long as people are free and are getting richer and healthier, as we generally are, why does it matter that the rank order doesn’t change much? Put another way, do you think a poor country would prefer to, say, double its income, or to have countries ahead of it become more impoverished than themselves? I think it’s pretty clear that absolute improvements in quality of life are far more important than relative ranks. That said, humans do care about their relative position in life, and relative mobility plays an important role in motivating people to succeed. Perhaps more importantly, relative mobility is a useful signal of whether the process by which these ranks are generated are fair, or at least perceived as fair. It’s important that market and government institutions earn the trust of the population, and relative mobility is a way to assess whether the process if rigged or meritocratic. It’s not a slam-dunk, of course – a fair process can give rise to little relative mobility. In fact, this is the major possibility Reeves neglects (more on that later). Let’s read on:
The problem comes if institutional frameworks in, say, the higher education system or the labor market are distorted in favor of the powerful — a process the sociologist Charles Tilly labeled “opportunity hoarding.” The less talented children of the affluent are able to defy social gravity and remain at the top of the ladder, reducing the number of places open to those from less fortunate backgrounds. …
… Harvard accepts 30 percent of these “legacy” applicants, compared to a 6 percent overall rate.
Of course, most graduates of schools like Harvard feed into the affluent strata of society, and are able to immerse their children in extracurricular activities and test prep classes. So their children will be clustered among the top end of the applicant pool.
The sophisticated reader will notice a major omission in the last paragraph: genetics. Smart people tend to go to elite colleges. Smart people also tend to marry other smart people – often smart people they meet at those elite colleges. Smart people also tend to have smart children. As a result, elite college graduates tend to have children who are desirable candidates for elite colleges. This explains far more of Harvard’s legacy acceptance rate than test prep courses. Such courses, and the resume-enriching activities that those kids get, helps at the margins, of course, against similarly bright students from poorer households. But it’s undeniable that children of Harvard grads are more likely to be Ivy League material than children in general.
Acknowledging genetics creates a big problem for people like Reeves: it means that a fair process CAN generate very little relative mobility. In a meritocratic world, heredity implies that the children of the smart are more likely to be at the top. Heredity isn’t perfect, so there would still be some changes, but in the long run, a relatively stable social order of intellectual castes could, and is likely to, emerge. This is a problem because there is no easy solution: the process (as I stipulated it, not in reality) that generates the outcome is fair by most people’s values.
Reeves ignores this complication and also doesn’t pay enough attention to the actual obstacles to a more meritocratic world with more relative mobility. The real obstacles aren’t test prep courses and lacrosse camps for the children of the rich, the real obstacles is the increased complexity of daily life. Regulation is way up, credentialism is way up, and the government bureaucracy frustrates all who come into contact with it. Lawyers, regulators, and academics play ever larger roles in the design of our institutions, with the result that the institutions are shaped to favor lawyers, regulators, academics, bureaucrats, and people similar to them. This new world is far easier to manage with the resources and connections of those at the top than at the bottom. The ridiculous American tax code, with its deductions and credits, tends to favor those who can afford advice, or who are just naturally better at handling this complexity. In a world where poor smart high school students are deterred from getting into better colleges by application fees, relative mobility won’t be improved by the introduction of a complicated insurance system. Middle-class and upper-class people won’t have much trouble navigating a giant new bureaucracy; it’s the lower classes who get left behind.
The tripwire of complexity is one that can and should be reduced. It’ll make the world a slightly fairer and more meritocratic place and, combined with a bigger role for the market (more on that later – this post is already too long), ultimately a better place.
*I tried not to make this post personal, but for full disclosure, I’ve made both an absolute and a relative jump in my lifetime, getting into an Ivy League college, a top-20 law school, and a top ten law firm. One data point doesn’t disprove a hypothesis, but it informs my thinking. Feel free to assign me any biases you see fit.