Interesting and lengthy article about social mobility by Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph today, questioning whether it’s such a good thing. One of its key points, incidentally, is admirably summarised in a new blog that looks well worth watching, Heraklites.
Anyway, obviously we want — well, I do — everyone to have the opportunity to make the best of his life, but should we be that worried that, in the event, most people’s income ends up falling in pretty much the same quintile as did their parents,, which is apparently how ‘social mobility’ is measured? That is, if you take everyone’s income and then say, 20% of the population earn between this much and this much, then the next 20% earn between that and that, and so on, then if someone ends up in a different 20% bracket than did his parents,we’ve got social mobility. If, on the other hand, he ends up in much the same bracket as did his parents, we haven’t got social mobility and we should, apparently, find this a cause for concern.
I’m really not sure about the full implications of this, other than that, on principle, I begin to worry when politicians of all parties seem to agree that such-and-such is a good thing and begin to vie with each other about how they’ll deliver more of it. If we were to have a completely socially mobile society, it seems to me, there’d be just as good a chance that the son of the richest man in the country would end up in the gutter as there was that the son of a beggar would end up in the Sunday Times ‘rich list’ — 1 in 5. In practical terms, I’m really not sure how we’d achieve this or whether we’d want to. I used to joke to my interpreter and PA in Russia that Communism had clearly managed to achieve one of its ends, since the grand-daughter of a Kievan merchant prince had ended up working for the grandson of a dirt-poor Irish farmer (Inna had as black a sense of humour as, at times, do I, or otherwise I wouldn’t have dared crack such a joke, obviously — and, besides, I felt a little retaliation was due).
Similarly, when I come to think about it, the sequence of events that led to an East Prussian aristocrat and land-owner, finding his land occupied by Russians and Germans who seemed to want to contest the matter, eventually removing, along with his son, to Hull, finding there a job as a street sweeper and, in time, having a grand-daughter who ended up married to the grandson of said dirt-poor County Clare farmer whose son, my father, became a very senior civil servant of Her Majesty, certainly represents social mobility, and undoubtedly represents good news for my side of the family, but the social upheavals — 2 World Wars, the Russian Revolution and the Irish Civil War — that eventually led to our marriage being solemnised according to the rites of Camden register office were a tad drastic. Well worth it, of course, at least from my and my late wife’s point of view, but a bit disruptive and outside anyone’s planning.
My point, I think,is that social mobility is a zero-sum game. It has to be; the way the terms are defined, at least in current debate, mean that everyone starts off with an equal — one in five — chance of ending up in a different economic position to his parents. The practical implications of achieving that — should we wish to achieve it — are pretty frightening, at least to me. Means, for one thing, my cousin Bob can’t leave the wealth he’s deservedly accumulated over the years to his two children, any more than can his wife — a very talented woman from a wealthy family — leave to his two children anything. Means I can’t leave them anything, either. Ann and Andrew almost certainly don’t deserve it — ungrateful little buggers never thanked me for their last Christmas present, after all — and it’s doubtless very unfair that they’ll eventually come to inherit the sackfulls of ill-gotten dubloons in which Bob and his wife find themselves standing knee-deep to their hips, let alone what I’ll add to the pot after a former mistress is taken care of (one of the pleasures of drawing up a will is that you can put in clauses like that) , but I can’t see what else to do with the money. Give it all to the Exchequer and hope they’ll use it wisely? Don’t think so.
I think, too, that there’s a dreadful confusion, the implications of which I’ve not yet properly thought through, between class and status. More, though, on this later