Saturday, February 21, 2015

Upward Mobility

A society with no upward mobility is said to be stagnant. When people are born into social castes and have no opportunity to improve their lot in life, the entire society suffers. Since ancient times, the ability for those at the very bottom of the social pyramid to move up has been one of the ways in which we gauge the health of the entire body politic.

Even societies where there are slaves demonstrate the value of upward mobility in their rate of manumission. For instance, in ancient Rome there was such a high rate of slaves being freed by masters that in 357 B.C. the State decided to capitalize on this and levied a five percent tax on manumission.

It is estimated that 1350 slaves were set free each year in Rome after the tax law was passed. It stands to reason that before passage of the tax, even more slaves were set free each  year, since every tax tends to diminish the activity on which it is based.

In early Colonial America, the tradition of manumission was also followed, and after being freed, some slaves became extremely successful, owning land, attaining to great wealth and even owning slaves themselves. For instance, Anthony Johnson was born in Angola in 1600 and was captured by an enemy tribe and sold into slavery to Arab traders. Johnson arrived as a black slave in Virginia in  1621 and was sold to a tobacco planter named Bennet. In 1635 Johnson and his wife Mary were set free. In 1647 Johnson already owned some property; records show he bought a calf. In 1651 Johnson acquired 250 acres. He now owned four white and one black indentured servants.

This is an example of extreme social mobility. Johnson did not merely go up one rung on the social ladder, from slave to free, but also several rungs, so that he himself was now on a social par with those who used to own him. This kind of rags to riches success story, of course, is not something that can happen to everyone in a given society, but that it can happen is very important to the social fabric, because it allows for hope of reward for dedication, ingenuity and hard work. It also shows every member of the society that nobody is guaranteed any position by birth, but that the roles to be played are fluid. Just as one person may rise, another may fall.

To the extent that the opportunity for social advancement is not available to all in any given society, it is much more likely that stagnation will set in, and that the motivation to try to achieve a better life for oneself will be lessened.

In the United States after the civil war, there were no more slaves, so the lowest rung on the social ladder now became the domestic servant. According to Nobel prize winning economist George Stigler, there was a premium on domestic service between 1900 and 1940, in that because it was seen as distasteful work, employers were willing to pay more for it than for other kinds of service.

This table is from 

People in domestic service were often foreign immigrants or poor blacks. One of the benefits of domestic service was that those who served eventually learned a lot about the culture of their employers and were then able to use the information acquired in order to better their social situation.

This quote is from Stigler 1946.2

So while the position of domestic servant was distasteful in many ways, it was a tool that ambitious outsiders used in their pursuit of upward mobility.

This table is from

While some might assume that the freest society is one in which there is no social stratification, a lessening in stratification also leads to fewer opportunities for upward social mobility. For instance, in Table II above we can see that during the great depression which led to World War II, both in Germany and in the United States, and to a much  lesser extent in Great Britain, there was a drop in the employment of domestic servants.

Stigler makes an interesting conjecture about the sort of income distribution that allows for domestic service: "..the equality of the distribution of income, rather than the amount, may be a factor of considerable importance. A society with relatively many families at both ends of the income scale would provide both a large supply of servants and a large demand."  (Stigler 1946.7). What this means is that it does not matter how many dollars of income are involved, but the relative distribution of this income into high and low groups.  Unless there is a wide variety of incomes, there will be less social mobility. The more even the income distribution, the less social mobility will be available to anyone, and the more stagnant the society will become.

After World War II, domestic service in the United States went down and stayed down, with only the very wealthy having servants. The result is that very few people one meets today have ever been a servant or employed a servant. Servants are something we usually only encounter in fiction. Our society is much more egalitarian, and by extension there are also fewer opportunities for meaningful upward mobility.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Question of Nannies

Child care arrangements are one of the areas in life where there is much disagreement. In ancient and prehistoric times, mothers carried their own babies on their backs while they went about their business, including all the work of hunting and gathering that went into keeping themselves and their children alive.

With the social stratification that necessarily accompanies the invention of agriculture and food storage away from the source, many women were freed from the burden of that baby on their back, while other women, from a lower social caste, took up the task.

Sometimes a mother dies, and then somebody other than the mother must step in and care for the child. In the case of Jean Laffite, that somebody else was his grandmother, Zora Nadrimal. The upbringing that Jean Laffite received from his grandmother in fact determined the entire course of his life. His personal values derived from his earliest experiences. Even the first language Jean Laffite ever spoke, which was Spanish and not the French which was the mother tongue of his father, was determined by his grandmother. He learned to hate Spain and to plot revenge against it from the woman whose husband fell victim to the Inquisition.

The importance of the nanny, whether she be a granny or a hireling, a slave or a mistress,  should not be underestimated. We pick up our values with our mother's milk or whatever formula  serves as a handy substitute.

Some of the very first nannies were actually grannies, and in English the words "nanny" and "granny" are known to be related.  But when Jean Laffite's first wife, Christina Levine, died after giving birth to his daughter Denise, it was a black servant woman who had accompanied the family from Saint Domingue,  who took care of Denise.

Is that exploitation? I tend to think that unless Jean Laffite completely trusted and respected the woman to whom he entrusted his child, he would not have entrusted his only daughter to her care. But today, more and more children are being taken care of by the nanny state, rather than by actual nannies. And when they see a picture of a black nanny, a white baby and white mother from the 1950s, many are scandalized.

Is it a shameful thing for a white woman to employ a black woman as a nanny? Is it exploitation? Or is it actually a way for people from different backgrounds to know each other better?

Today, in America, many wealthy blacks hire nannies, and usually their nannies are not black. This is not the choice of the employers. Black nannies prefer to work for employers who are not black.

While the nanny is not always from a visibly different race than the child's mother, it is quite normal for her to come from a different socio-economic class, and often the nanny speaks a different language, and in some cases a different dialect of the same language, from the home language of the parents of the child, You can view this as exploitation, or you can view it as being exposed to a different culture in early childhood.

For instance, my father had Polish nannies who spoke Polish to him, and one of them even learned a little Hebrew in the process.
My father Amnon Katz with his first Polish nanny Manya
Of course, the nanny is going to be less wealthy than the family employing her, otherwise they could not afford to pay her what seems like a worthwhile wage. But the fact of the income inequality does not need to be a source of bitterness. It can be an opportunity to learn from one another.

When I was looking to employ a nanny for my own daughter in Taiwan, I wanted to find someone who was not only a good caretaker, but also spoke excellent Chinese.

Unfortunately, there were undercurrents of mutual distrust among the people in Taiwan that had something to do with the Japanese occupation of the Island many decades earlier, and I was dissuaded from choosing the nanny with the most prestigious dialect of Chinese.

Today, in many western countries, the practice of hiring a nanny is frowned upon. There are a lot fewer nannies found in middle class homes than there used to be, and this is partly due to the fact that the minimum wage has gone up -- or even that there is such a thing as a minimum wage and employee benefits that most people can't afford to pay. Only the very wealthy have nannies. When people work they usually send their children to day care. Some people think day care should be free, which is another way of saying that it should be provided by the state, through coerced taxation. The nanny then becomes, rather than a servant of the parent, a public servant who often stands over the parent. In some countries, they are even making child care after the age of three mandatory -- or at least seriously considering it.,7340,L-4622401,00.html

While the most natural arrangement may be for a mother to carry her own child on her back all day long, the best thing for the child is to have a dedicated caretaker chosen by the parents. Coercion in the choice of child care means loss of family unity and also a lack of choice in cultural and moral values. Make no doubt about it, Jean Laffite would not have been the same man if not for the things that he learned at his grandmother's knee.