The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications

The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility gets my vote for the most important economics book of the 21st Century (supplanting A Farewell to Alms, by the same author).

Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, Davis, shows that social mobility is much slower than we’ve been led to believe. Our focus on the correlation between parent income and child income misses a lot of other important stuff. Making $300,000 per year as a doctor is not the same as making $300,000 per year selling subprime mortgages. What might lead one to want to look carefully?

… the twenty-seven adult great-great grandchildren of Charles Darwin , born on average nearly 150 years after Darwin, are still a surprisingly distinguished cohort. Eleven are notable enough to have Wikipedia pages, or the like, such as Times obituaries , devoted to them. They include six university professors, four authors, a painter, three medical doctors, a well-known conservationist, and a film director (now also an organic farmer).

Instead of working from readily available data, a trap into which most academics fall, Clark figured out that dusty old registers of who was a doctor, who was a university student, who was a member of parliament, etc. could be used to track the success of families over centuries. To what extent does your great-grandfather being a physician predict your likelihood of being a physician? To a surprising extent in stable class-stratified England. How about in the United States, land of personal reinvention? To roughly the same extent. How about in Sweden, where every conceivable government program to reduce inequality has been implemented? To roughly the same extent.

On the flip-side, what if your extended family has had a history of low educational attainment, low income, and low social status? Chances are so will you. If by a combination of hard work and luck you’ve managed to achieve much more than your ancestors, unless you are able to mate with a person from a historically high-status family, your children are statistically likely to be more like your parents, aunts, and uncles than they are to be like you.

Every family will eventually regress to the mean, but it may take hundreds of years, not the handful of generations that the correlation between parent income and child income would suggest.

As you can see from some of the Amazon reviews, Clark upsets a lot of American readers by suggesting a genetic basis for “social competence”. This is not news in Asian cultures, however, as far as I know. “The family is more important than the individual,” is common advice given in India when a son or daughter is reaching the age of marriage. Where the Indians and Chinese have millennia of experience, though, Clark has data to back up his conclusions.

But some groups within a society resist regression to the mean, you might object. There are some groups that are persistently successful or persistent unsuccessful. Clark correlates this tendency to have higher correlation from generation to generation with lower rates of intermarriage (“marital endogamy”). Coptic Christians, for example, were a disproportionately high status group following the Arab conquest of Egypt. The low-status Coptics couldn’t afford to pay the higher tax rates on non-Muslims so they converted to Islam. According to Clark, Copts have maintained their high status within Egypt for nearly 1400 years and tend to occupy high-status occupations even here in the U.S., e.g., they are 13 times more likely to be medical doctors than average (compare to 4-5X for Jews and Asians).

Perhaps the hardest section for a parent to accept is that the home environment created by the parent is more or less irrelevant to a child’s success. Clark cites the most important studies on the correlation between adopted children and their adoptive parents. There is virtually no correlation for intelligence, income, the tendency to attend four years of college, etc. These things are highly correlated, of course, for the typical parent and child but the studies suggest that is only because the typical parent and child have genetics in common. As a parent and a teacher I find it almost impossible to accept these research results and the logical conclusions that follow. At a minimum, if an average child were adopted by Tiger Mom (my review of that book; a blog posting on the NYT review), wouldn’t the resulting adult end up with the useful skill of being able to play the piano or violin? And this video makes me think that my work as a helicopter instructor has not been in vain.

Clark’s book came out at roughly the same time as the English-language version of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. Thus I think that it is accidental that The Son Also Risesprovides probably the best refutation of Piketty’s thesis:

The lineage of Charles Darwin is a nice illustration of how large the families of the middle and upper classes could be in preindustrial England. He descended from a line of successful and prosperous forebears. His great-grandfather Robert Darwin (1682– 1754) produced seven children, all of whom survived to adulthood. His grandfather Erasmus (1731– 1802) produced fifteen children (born to two wives and two mistresses), twelve of whom survived to adulthood. His father, Robert Waring (1766 –1848), produced six children, all of whom survived to adulthood.

In a social environment where all these children had to be privately educated, dowries needed to be provided for daughters, and estates were divided among children at death, human-capital theory would predict that the heedless fecundity of the English social elites of these years would lead to rapid downward social mobility . The lower classes of preindustrial society, producing only modestly more than two surviving children per family on average, would be able to concentrate resources on the care and education of their offspring and see them rise rapidly on the social ladder. …

But we see no signs that social mobility rates in England slowed as the upper -class groups produced fewer children. Instead, as chapter 5 shows, the intergenerational correlation of status remained constant for education and wealth. By implication, human-capital effects on social mobility must be modest. Status is strongly inherited within families mainly through genetic or cultural transmission, or both.

We can simplify this by considering the case of a rich family with 20 children and a rich family with 1 child. If Piketty is right the rich family that has just 1 child should have substantially wealthier descendants than the equivalently rich family with 20 children. The data show instead that those 20 children were able to become wealthy on their own account almost as easily as the only child who inherited everything. (Clark’s data are not affected by primogeniture inheritance customs because he looks at all descendants with the same surname.)

Note that the studies of adopted children also refute Piketty. If being reared in a relatively wealthy family didn’t make the adoptees wealthy then family wealth can’t be the main determinant of life success (admittedly the stats are thin for children adopted into the crazy rich families that are Piketty’s primary focus).

I’ll write more about how to apply Clark’s new work to everyday life, but here’s a preview:

But in fact the correlation of longevity between individual parents and children is very low. For the people dying in England in the period 1858– 2012 with the rare surnames used in chapter 4 , we can measure the correlation of longevity between fathers and sons for more than four thousand sons surviving to at least age 21. That correlation is only 0.13. If we take the average of both parents’ ages at death, that correlation increases to 0.26. But it is still low. 9 In reality, your age at death is not strongly predictable from your parents’ age at death. All those saving more for retirement simply because both their parents are fit, healthy, and in their nineties should stop immediately. Your expected additional longevity relative to the average is only three years.

In the meantime elite university admissions offices have either come to the same conclusions as Clark or they are responsible for the persistence that he sees. Universities such as Harvard and Yale preferentially admit the children, grandchildren, siblings, etc. of graduates. This could be because they recognize that a family that was successful in the past is likely to be successful in the future. Or it could be that a Harvard or Yale degree is enough to guarantee success (albeit a lower income than a California prison guard) and, by giving preference to “legacies,” the elite universities are the institutions that are creating the persistence in status and success that Clark attributes to genetics.


8 thoughts on “The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications

  1. It seems that two factors need to be corrected for as a starting point: population expansion and GDP increase. If population expands jobs positions for physicians and solicitors are going to increase, thus a rich family with 20 kids can have the same success as a rich family with one kid, as measured in physician/solicitor jobs. Secondly, if GDP increases anyone who can tap into this increase will get wealthier. Thus, while inheriting 1/20 or 1/4 of the same amount of money is different in absolute terms, even a paltry 1/20 might provide enough capital to successfully invest in those activities that benefits from the economic expansion.

    Basically in expanding economies money makes money; in contracting economies poor people will be hit harder and faster by the downturn than rich people. In both cases a clear pattern of wealth inequality will be observable. Because families are *families*, and normally show a deep bias towards their own lot, patterns of inequality in a social creature such as people are, will highlight a strong family base.

    I remember that you mentioned something similar times ago, and that did not seem neither groundbreaking nor controversial, just common sense.

    What would be interesting is whether being adopted does actually alter the family dynamics, with scarcer resources allocated to adoptive children and less (adoptive) sibling help.

  2. Could we simplify things by using the phrase “economic gravity” instead of regression to the mean?
    I.e. it’s much easier to fail than to succeed.

  3. Remember: You could simplify things in this way but would not be consistent with Clark’s data or any previously gathered data. When parents did worse than average the children often do better than the parents. To see why this has to be true imagine the lowest income least successful lowest status parents in the U.S. If they have children it would be remarkable if those kids distinguished themselves as being on the very tail of the distribution as their parents had. So just due to the fact that being the least successful person in a country of 320+ million is improbable the children will probably outperform their parents.

  4. Either 1. adoptive parents are mostly all meeting some reasonably low bar of ‘good enough’ support for their adopted saplings to grow to full potential 2. the richer adoptive parents dramatically screw up their kids in some counterintuitive way or 3. genes (no correlation detectable between adoptive parent socioeconomic class and child outcomes)

    Either 1. ‘good family’ cred helps you snap back to riches and marriage into other good families, even if you have 15 kids, 2. coaching, connections, and credibility in a specific profession transmit across generations undivided, 3. a large clan provides advantages offsetting the division of wealth, or 4. genes (rich families w/ more or less children had each grand*child snap back to full wealth+status even though single inheritors didn’t have to earn it)

    I thought “that just proves that in 1700-1900s England, upper-crust privilege was so strong it guarantees infinite money, there for the asking” would be the laziest possible anti-“genes” response, but once again my expectations were surpassed by this laconic gem: “The very fact that the author does not even mention gender casts the whole thing in doubt”.

    Economist: ‘ “The Son Also Rises” may not be a racist book, but it certainly traffics in genetic determinism.’ “*May* not be” is the most respectability you can get, buster.

  5. Jonathan: “The very fact that the author does not even mention gender casts the whole thing in doubt”. The book is an account of a massive research project involving tracking families by surname. The author does mention gender, in fact, and talks about how in some cases men from lower-status families would adopt the surname of their higher-status wife. To the extent that this book mostly tracks families through the male lineage I don’t think it reflects some sort of animus toward women but only the fact that women more often adopt a man’s last name when marrying than vice versa.

    If someone can find a practical way of tracking families over hundreds of years through both male and female descendants that would be a welcome addition to the literature. But if you believe the men and women have equal genetic endowments and influence, it shouldn’t change the results (and shouldn’t actually have needed to be mentioned in the book because it is pretty obvious).

  6. There are two good points in the comments above. I don’t know how much Jonathan Graehi was being sarcastic, but yes there are other plausible explanations than “genes!” so if you go to “genes!” right away there is some conclusion jumping going on.

    From the synopsis, the book seems to mainly debunk the Horatio Alger idea. Basically, if you have an unequal society where some families have more wealth and status than others, its extremely hard for a “new man” like Cicero, a low status individual, to crash into the group of upper families and have his descendents stay there. This could be because what produces status is behavior produced by inherited characteristics that pass through families. It could be status is produced by behavior drilled into children, and high status families, even from a branch that has fallen a bit recently, have an advantage in doing that. It could be because space aliens from Tralfamador have infiltrated into human society, disguised as humans, but because they are more advanced, their families always rise to the top. Or humans could be extremely tribal, often in subconscious ways, and are really, really good at looking out for their tribe and if they are on the top they have the tools to do so.

    Frederico makes a good point that while this study is very thorough, it suffers from the same limitation as most social studies, in that its data is from the unprecedented expansion of the world economy and population that started with the industrial revolution. Its only a matter of time before this stops and starts going into reverse (probably sooner or later), so this could wind up being an excellent study of human society and also obsolete quite quickly.

  7. This analysis may dovetail with a book that I am reading called “Families and How to Survive Them”. The thesis is that an individual is defined by his interaction with his parents (mostly mother) as a baby and young child. It is basically a more modern (1980s) interpretation of Freud.

    The book’s thesis could explain why, beyond genetics, success is passed on through families. There is a follow-on book called “Life And How To Survive It” that specifically focuses on the traits of “Olympian” individuals and families.

    The adoption data from the Son Also Rises could provide insight into this hypothesis. Perhaps adopted children are not influenced by their new family because they are largely adopted after their early formative experiences. If the sub-population that is adopted at birth could be identified, the outcomes of those would be expected to be correlated to their adoptive parents based on Freudian explanations.

    I am sceptical of the Families book as a I read it, but it does have some insights about behavior that appear revealing. Its conclusions are presented as a conversation between the psychologist and John Cleese-yes, of Monty Python fame–and omits citations, so it is difficult to see to where to look next to dig deeper.

  8. Amazon didn’t turn up “Life…”, but both authorship of both books is credited to Skynner & Cleese. On topic, I believe most of the Pythons had successful ancestors.

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