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Inequality of Opportunity

Tocqueville warned of a hereditary aristocracy of manufacturers:

The Reality-Based Community: The rich man in his castle: Posted by James Wimberley

-- The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.

Welcome to America at the end of the twentieth century. The Economist does what it used to see as a central task and reports on a striking new piece of comparative economic research. The May 27 Charlemagne column "Snakes and Ladders" describes work by a Nordic team (Bernt Bratsberg, Markus Jäntti et al.) on the transmission of income inequality between generations. The paper is here and an earlier version here. Money quote:

Mobility [in intergenerational income] among men is lower in the U.S. than in the U.K., where it is lower again compared to the Nordic countries. .... The main driver of the difference in the pattern of male intergenerational mobility in the U.S. from that of each of the other countries in our study is the low mobility out of the lowest quintile group in the United States.

The elasticity of a man's income with respect to his father's is about 0.2 for the Nordic countries, 0.36 for Britain, and 0.54 for the United States.... It should actually not surprise us. In the Nordic countries, reducing inequality of condition is the central aim of huge and expensive welfare states, with not only income support for the poor, but excellent education and health care at all income levels. Britain is somewhat less serious, and the USA hasn't been serious since Roosevelt. The American left has come to focus its efforts on discrimination....

The report punctures the American illusion that socio-economic gravity does not apply in the land of the free; that you can have the pleasant fiction called equality of opportunity without equality of condition. The sad truth is that inequality, like soft discrimination, works patiently throughout a child's life, adding a minute but cumulative bias every day....

It's an old truism of political theory that democracy and republican government are at risk from great inequalities of fortune. The collapse of the Roman Republic had a lot to do with the widening gap between the great senatorial families, who did well out of the expanding empire, and the ordinary Roman for whose vote they bid more and more cynically...

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