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Everyone likes the idea of equal opportunity. This economist thinks it’s a fantasy.

Washington Post: Everyone likes the idea of equal opportunity. This economist thinks it’s a fantasy

By Dyland Matthews

His new book, “The Son Also Rises” (Clark is a big fan of Hemingway puns), traces families with particular surnames to measure social mobility over the course of hundreds of years in England, the United States, Sweden, India, China and more. He finds that there’s much less mobility than we often assume, and that government interventions to promote it more often than not fail. We spoke on the phone Monday afternoon; a lightly revised transcript follows.

What gave you the idea to look at surname data?

Initially I was interested just in extending conventional social mobility estimates into the distant past. Estimating social mobility is very data intensive. You need to link individual parents and children. There are thus no such estimates for any society before 1850.

Tracking surname status was a convenient shortcut. In most societies, all the people with a surname such as Goodhart descended from the earlier set of Goodharts. We do not know the individual linkages, but we can ask what is happening to their status as a group across generations.

And what did you find in collecting this surname data?

I found that you get radically slower estimated mobility rates for all societies when you switch to surnames. The conventional estimates of status correlation across generations are 0.2-0.6 [so your parentage explains 4-36 percent of your social status, income, etc. — Dylan]. With surname groupings it is always 0.7-0.8.

Read the full bloggpost here: Washington Post: Everyone likes the idea of equal opportunity. This economist thinks it’s a fantasy

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