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.

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