Upward Mobility

I read an interesting article on economic mobility in National Review Online, which got me thinking. The article is good in that it points out some of the statistical challenges in measuring upward mobility. For example, who counts as poor? Who counts as middle class? Are we measuring intergenerational or intragenerational mobility? In acknowledging these questions, the article does well. Where the article falls short is in two key areas.

First, it assumes that upward mobility in the United States is lower than in many other countries. This may or may not be true, depending on how it is measured. For example, how much credit should be given to official statistics as reported by various countries? Certainly, focusing on the official “poverty” level will give bad results, as discussed here.  But even using income percentiles poses challenges. For example, should welfare and other “benefits” in socialist European countries be counted as income? When I lived abroad, I routinely encountered people making more money than I did, for doing absolutely nothing. The individuals in question were not independently wealthy or trust-fund babies; they were merely beneficiaries of a very generous welfare state, which rewarded them for being unemployed and sitting around various public areas all day, which making no effort to find work. The artificial support given to such individuals may mask the natural cause-and-effect relationships between work and prosperity on the one hand and sloth and poverty on the other.  The NRO article, like most discussions of economic inequality, also totally ignores wealth, focusing only on income. There are good reasons for this, chiefly the availability of data on income and lack thereof on wealth, but the distinction is still an important one and is totally ignored in the article in question.

The second and more significant failing is in the article’s assumption that increasing upward mobility is always a good thing.  That’s not necessarily true.  Certainly, increasing opportunities are always good, but one can easily imagine a very high-mobility society with an extremely dysfunctional economy.  For example, imagine a tax system in which anyone whose parents were in the top 40% of the income distribution at the time of his or her birth pays a tax surcharge of 40% of his or her gross income, which funds are then distributed to those whose parents were in the lowest 40% of the income distribution.  This would, at least temporarily, result in incredibly high mobility, but it would be manifestly unfair and strongly disincentivize anything resembling ambition or hard work.  The point is that mobility is not the goal; opportunity is. Past a certain level, increased mobility can only be achieved at the cost of stability and fairness.  For every person who moves up the income distribution, somebody else moves down, because rankings are a zero-sum game.  Foster too much movement from the lower end of the distribution into the higher end, and you are by extension fostering an environment in which many of the highest earners suffer precipitous plunges in their incomes.

These are just some quick musings on the article; I would be curious to hear what others thought.