Saturday, December 6, 2014

Economic mobility and American Exceptionalism

A recent article by the economic historian Gregory Clark argues that economic mobility in the U.S. is far from ideal. Of course, Clark is not the first to write about economic mobility, but his historical comparisons help convey the ideas to his readers about how mobile American society is relative to other societies in the past and present. I like this style of economic history: in some ways it is similar to Piketty's recent work which makes sweeping but compelling claims about the future of our economic system. Quoting Keynes, it is the type of great economics which studies "the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future."

When reading Clark, I was reminded of Joseph Ferrie's research on the history of economic mobility in the U.S. He used linked census data to study intergenerational occupational mobility in the late-19th and early-20th century. He groups occupations into four categories to make his comparisons with post-WWII studies of mobility using Current Population Survey data.

Ferrie separates out mobility into two ideas: prevalence and association. Prevalence measures the ratio of, say, white collar to farm workers across generations. Association compares the odds that the son of a white collar worker becomes white collar to the odds that the sone of a farmer becomes white collar. Using both measures, Ferrie finds that occupational mobility rates were higher in the late-19th century than in the 20th century. In other words, Clark's argument is blown a little out of proportion: while the American Dream may not be easily realized today, it was relatively more easily realized in the late-19th century.

What about late-19th century mobility relative to Britain? Ferrie is referring here to the "American Exceptionalists", a group of social scientists beginning with Tocqueville and Marx, and later Werner Sombart, who argued that the lack of a socialist politics and class consciousness in the U.S. is due to Americans' obsession with "moving up the ladder" and other materialist concerns, as well as geographic mobility (to the frontier - more on that later). Ferrie does indeed find that mobility was higher in the U.S.; for example, 51.3% of British sons of unskilled fathers were able to move up the ladder, while 81.4% of American sons were able to do so, between 1850 and 1880. So, again, Clark's argument is blown a little more out of proportion: the American dream was real in the late-19th century and likely attracted people from other countries seeking a better life.

The causal story is much less clear: what was it about American society that made workers so mobile? One one level, it's a Kuznets-style story of the transition out of agriculture to industry which is capturing some of the mobility findings. Other explanations include the rise of public education and geographic mobility. The emphasis on geographic mobility and the "frontier" more generally has a long history in American scholarship. The frontier would serve as a safety-valve for urban growth and the growth of a "dependent class". Ferrie finds that Americans who moved were twice as mobile as those who didn't, suggesting that geographical mobility is an important part of the story.

It would be interesting to link this work up with recent discussions of the role of inequality through the so-called "Gatsby curve". To wit: is our modern capitalist system preventing economic mobility through a failure to effectively spread the wealth around? And to what extent did that same mechanism operate in the 19th century? Obviously many things have changed since then, including institutions and the role of the state. Still, it could be an interesting additional factor to consider.


  1. How I Was Rescued By A God Fearing And Trusted Lender {}..

    Hello, I am Andrew Thompson currently living in CT USA, God has bless me with two kids and a lovely Wife, I promise to share this Testimony because of God favor in my life, 2days ago I was in desperate need of money so I thought of having a loan then I ran into wrong hands who claimed to be loan lender not knowing he was a scam. he collected 1,500.00 USD from me and refuse to email me since then I was confuse, but God came to my rescue, one faithful day I went to church after the service I share idea with a friend and she introduce me to LEXIE LOAN COMPANY, she said she was given 98,000.00 USD by MR LEXIE , THE MANAGING DIRECTOR OF LEXIE LOAN COMPANY. So I collected his email Address , he told me the rules and regulation and I followed, then after processing of the Documents, he gave me my loan of 55,000.00 USD... So if you are interested in a loan you can as well contact him on this Email: or text +1(816) 892-6958 thanks, I am sure he will also help you.

    how fast you can be to get the new programmed blank ATM card that is
    capable of hacking into any ATM machine,anywhere in the world. I got
    to know about this BLANK ATM CARD when I was searching for job online
    about a month ago..It has really changed my life for good and now I
    can say I'm rich and I can never be poor again. The least money I get
    in a day with it is about $12,000.Every now and then I keep pumping
    money into my account. Though is illegal,there is no risk of being
    caught ,because it has been programmed in such a way that it is not
    traceable,it also has a technique that makes it impossible for the
    CCTVs to detect you..For details on how to get yours today, email
    MRS AMANDA: ( Tell your loved ones too,
    and start to live large. That's the simple testimony of how my life
    changed for good...Love you all ...the email address again is

  3. We went for the wedding of some friends in Chapoo Restaurant and the truth is that we loved it, they have grilled meats and fish Delicious The service of the waiters very well, they were very attentive and they left us all the time we needed after the meal. What we liked the most and they told us that they have it on the weekends is the children's entertainment with the inflatable castles so that the children are entertained while the older ones can talk calmly. We will be back.

  4. Rental of houses and rural apartments in the Alto Tajo in Guadalajara. Complete houses with kitchen for 2, 4 and 6 people. For weekends or fortnights. We carry out mushroom and truffle picking activities. All our houses are decorated by artisans from the area and have access to the best bathing areas of the Alto Tajo (Guadalajara). Pets are welcome in all accommodations. Visit our website to find out about all the services: :

  5. Surfing the net looking for "How to solve security problems in my house" I found the web Alarmas Casa where I found answers to my questions How to avoid thefts by the Bumping method ?, What is a monitored or Robotized house? Where to buy anti-dumping locks?, How do you use the ganzones?, They have information on house alarms by provinces, Relations of Security Companies and many other things. Information about scams and scams .

  6. I being hearing about this blank ATM card for a while and i never really paid any interest to it because of my doubts. Until one day i discovered a hacking guy called Engineer Ben Sadeghipour, he is really good at what he is doing. Back to the point, I inquired about The Blank ATM Card. If it works or even Exist. They told me Yes and that its a card programmed for random money withdraws without being noticed and can also be used for free online purchases of any kind. This was shocking and i still had my doubts. Then i gave it a try and asked for the card and agreed to their terms and conditions. Hoping and praying it was not fake. One week later i received my card and tried with the closest ATM machine close to me, It worked like magic. I was able to withdraw up to $10,000. This was unbelievable and the happiest day of my life with my boyfriend jame. So far i have being able to withdraw up to $78000 without any stress of being caught. I don't know why i am posting this here, i just felt this might help those of us in need of financial stability. blank ATM has really change my life. If you want to contact them, Here is the email address ( or WhatsApp +27722182467. And he can help you as well

  7. Browsing the internet looking for general culture information, I find CULTURAL BLOGS have Literary information, Books, novels, Ibero-American culture, Magazines. etc in World Travelers.

  8. A very good and interesting article, but I would like to inform you of the wedding of some friends in Chapoo Restaurant and the truth is that we loved it, they have meats and delicious grilled fish. The waiters service very well, they were very attentive and left us all the time we need after the meal.
    I found the website House Alarms where I found answers to my questions How to avoid theft by the Bumping method ?, tired of finding spyware and Stalkerware programs on my cell phone.

  9. An interesting analysis. The mobility and exclusivity of America, like any other country, has a place to be.

  10. I'm extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one today.. Top Tutor online

  11. Purely commendable piece of content allocated by you. There is no denying that this information might turn out to be valuable to a greater part of seekers. Keep up with this appreciable job and continue updating.
    TheTuitionTeacher in Delhi and Lucknow.
    Chemistry Home tutor | Home Tuition services

  12. That is a great tip especially to those new to the blogosphere, Simple but very precise information… Appreciate your sharing this one.

    Online Dissertation Proposal