Why do mainstream economists think that, if there’s mobility, then somehow class doesn’t exist?
Alan Krueger has created a bit of a kerfuffle by invoking the Gatsby Curve in his recent speech on inequality. The idea (discussed in more detail and defended by Miles Corak, and attacked by Scott Winship) is that more inequality now will lead to less generational mobility in the future. Here’s Krueger:
The fortunes of one’s parents seem to matter increasingly in American society.
Children of wealthy parents already have much more access to opportunities to succeed than children of poor families, and this is likely to be increasingly the case in the future unless we take steps to ensure that all children have access to quality education, health care, a safe environment and other opportunities that are necessary to have a fair shot at economic success.
Adam Davidson invokes a different kind of mobility—the ability to move where new jobs exist—as the key to economic success.
The U.S. has always been a remarkably itinerant country, but new data from the Census Bureau indicate that mobility has reached its lowest level in recorded history. Sure, some people are stuck in homes valued at less than their mortgages, but many young people — who don’t own homes and don’t yet have families — are staying put, too. This suggests, among other things, that people aren’t packing up for new economic opportunities the way they used to. Rather than dividing the country into the 1 percenters versus everyone else, the split in our economy is really between two other classes: the mobile and immobile.
In both cases, the presumption seems to be that, if there is considerable mobility—within and between generations, and across the country—then somehow classes and class differences no longer matter.
But the idea of mobility presumes that there is a class structure. And even if some people, within or across generations, are able to move from one class position to another, that doesn’t change the structure of classes one bit. There will still be those who create a surplus, and others who either appropriate and/or receive a cut of the surplus. Over time, those positions may be occupied by the same people and their offspring (if there’s no mobility) or by different people and their offspring (if there is mobility).
The ability to move from one social or geographical location to another doesn’t eliminate class. All the focus on mobility does is give mainstream economists one more reason to forget about the significance of classes within contemporary capitalism.