Good sentences: Tyler Cowen on mobitilty

Tyler Cowen:

“How much of immobility is due to “inherited talent plus diminishing role for random circumstance”? Is not this cause of immobility very different — both practically and morally — from such factors as discrimination, bad schools, occupational licensing, etc.? What are you supposed to get when you combine genetics with meritocracy? I do not know how much of current American (or other) immobility is due to this factor, but I find it discomforting that complaints about mobility are so infrequently accompanied by an analysis of this topic.”

This sentence gets at something I’ve wanted to address for a while: is income mobility important, in that it’s a social goal worth pursuing, beyond the notion that we should allow people to rise to their potential? Is high income mobility required for a “just” society?

Imagine a society where 1) high-ability people tend to create useful things, and are rewarded for doing so, 2) people tend to sort themselves into relationships (and thus have children) based, in part, on being of similar intelligence and motivation, and 3) intelligence and other components of ability are inherited (although imperfectly). Inter-generational mobility (in relative income) in that society might be extremely low. People would be largely sorted into their relative income position at birth, because their parents were similarly productive and occupied a similar position in the income distribution.*

Such a distribution could persist even in a perfectly non-discriminatory society, where kids from wealthy families have no socially-conferred advantages (connections, better access to education, &c.) over kids from lower-income families. Would that society be unjust, because it has low mobility?

*Absolute income would hopefully increase across the board; I’m making no assumptions about the pattern or justice of how that growth is distributed.


About Joe Colucci

From Michigan, now in Boston via DC and NYC. BA in Economics from NYU. A geek and a nerd, of the type that thinks there's a meaningful difference between the two. Avid fan of good TV, good argument, good beer, good food. I work at the Lown Institute on reforming the health care delivery system, and I blog on anything else that strikes my fancy at Obviously, anything that I post on Twitter or Wordpress is my own rambling, and is not endorsed by any employee, colleague, or acquaintance, past, present, or future. View all posts by Joe Colucci

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