Scottish-born economist - Angus Deaton - recently published his new book - An Immigrant Economist…
Sometimes everything comes together in unintended ways. That has happened to me this week. I am moving office tomorrow, and I am also moving home, and if that wasn’t enough, I received a call from a union I help out with advice who wanted some urgent work done. The major employer had presented a sort of ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer that if accepted would see the workers more than 8 per cent worse off in real terms at the end of the 4-year agreement than they were when they last had their pay adjusted. This sort of offer – at a time the RBA is claiming the labour market is incredibly tight just beggars belief. Anyway, the point is that I have very little time this week for blog posting. Some years ago I read a research report that demonstrated that standard economics programs at our universities breed people with sociopathological tendencies who elevate greed above empathy. There is clearly some self-selection bias because the studies have never really isolated the impacts of the teaching programs from the tendencies of the students going into the programs. But as one who has been through the mill from go to woah (PhD) the standard mainstream curriculum is pretty grim and most students in my years just went along with it. I was thinking about this when I read a Discussion Paper (No. 1938, July 2023) from the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE entitled – Are the upwardly mobile more left-wing?. After I had read that paper, I noticed a UK Guardian article (August 6, 2023) which carried the headline – Are richer people really more rightwing? – which discussed the LSE research and I thought that was a curious perversion of the original title.
The LSE study seeks to understand our “preferences for redistribution” in relation to “individual social standing”.
They find a clear link (duh!) between the social standing of individuals and their parents and how we think about “the allocation of welfare and the structure of taxation”.
So does it matter where one begins (that is, the social standing of our parents)?
What role does social mobility relative to our parents change our “political behaviour and preferences for redistribution”.
They are interesting questions.
I was talking to the post person the other day who delivered a package and we were discussing these very questions.
The things one does!
I was born into very ordinary working class circumstances.
My father earned the basic wage (the minimum wage in today’s parlance) and my mother didn’t work at all in my early years.
We lived in a rented state-provided house which was modest to say the least.
We were poor and I went to the local government school.
The neighbourhood was similarly poor and troubled (rockers, skinheads, sharpie gangs etc).
Pretty typical working class neighbourhood in post WW2 suburban Australia.
However, there were two important factors present.
First, there was true full employment and so no matter how disadvantaged an adult was in terms of skills etc, anyone could always work even if the wages were low.
Second, in addition to the government ensuring there was work for all, it also provided generous assistance to working class families in the form of cash transfers, and scholarships for kids at various stages of secondary school.
Public schools were better resourced than they are now and kids like me could stay on until the end of high school so as to ensure a transition to university if that was our penchant.
For those not academically-inclined, the state was a major employer of apprentices in the big infrastructure departments (roads, housing etc) and the railways, telecommunications, water etc.
Put together there was true social mobility upwards for kids who grew up in these disadvantaged areas and the negative influence that the parents imparted was reduced somewhat.
Not for everyone who grew up in these working class estates – but a lot.
Public education was the key along with the financial support provided by the state to working class kids.
And by staying in education, a lot of these kids moved beyond the narrowness of their parents and adopted more progressive social positions.
Not all – but many.
The bias that followed education was towards more liberal attitudes.
So when I saw this LSE study I was interested in the idea advanced that:
The wealthier are more Right-wing and less open to redistribution than are the poorer … This is often thought to reflect s elf-interest, w ith t he richer having more to lose from redistributive policies.
My narrative above reflects my experience growing up whereas the hard research literature considers the more educated one becomes the more selfish one is.
So I thought that ‘conflict’ between my experience and the research literature was an interesting thing to delve into a bit.
The authors specifically:
… estimate the link between observed intergenerational social mobility and political preferences at the individual level.
I will refrain from going into the details of the research design – but they use 18 years (waves) of UK data – so they examine the behaviour of the same people over 18 years and glean information about social status (individual and parents), voting behaviour and political preferences.
1. “that higher own status and higher-status parents independently produce Conservative voters.”
2. Higher own status leads to “opposition to redistribution”.
3. “individuals with the most Right-wing attitudes (and votes) are then those with high social status whose parents were also of high social status.”
4. A major new insight is that “upwards social mobility attenuates the effect of own status rather than reinforcing it. In other words, the wealthy are more Conservative, but less so when they come from a lower social background.”
5. “upward mobility (controlling for own social status) is associated with more Left-wing voting and preferences. Those who move up in life are on average more pro-redistribution”.
6. “Higher-status respondents are both happier and more likely to believe that society is fair … But the socially mobile, despite being happier, are concerned about fairness in society.”
Overall, they identify:
… a self-perpetuating cycle: with low levels of social mobility fewer will support redistribution, maintaining the gap – in both actual status and beliefs about fairness in society – between the wealthy and the poor … The fact that social mobility is associated with Left-wing preferences may well lead to more redistribution in practice, and therefore less inequality.
So we can see why there was so much opposition in the 1960s and 1970s to opening up tertiary education to working class kids.
The neoliberal era has been marked by a concerted effort to close off the social mobility channels that I enjoyed as a kid.
I doubt I would be where I am today if the conditions in working class neighbourhoods and the lack of support from government to poor familiies that prevail now had have been the norm when I grew up.
The finding that those who grow up in poor families form the view that society is unfair is interesting.
I recall being fairly ignorant as a kid about wealth inequality until my early teens.
I went bicycle riding from my working class suburb into the CBD one day as a young teenager (I cannot remember where I got the bike from – brother? other kids?).
The route took me along the Gardner’s Creek paths – which by the way are now brilliant bike paths that you can ride out of the city along for many kms without encountering much traffic at all.
About half the way into the city (around 10 kms from home) I was riding near the river and came across the sporting fields of a couple of Melbourne’s more exclusive private schools that abut the river.
First, the rowing sheds.
Then the massive number of football fields – rugby union, Australian rules, etc.
That was the first time I really observed inequality and it piqued my interest to start reading and trying to work it out.
Soon after I started going to the International Bookshop in the city a lot where all the Progress Publisher stock of Marx and Engels was then sold.
At 14 years or so I started to read about communism and Marx and the journey had begun!
Which leads me to admit to a tension here.
Because as I wrote in this early blog post – Education – a vehicle for class division (November 23, 2010) – education plays various roles.
We know that all around the advanced world, the educational system is an integral part of the way in which class is reproduced.
The way in which we organise and fund education ensures that disadvantage is perpetuated and a compliant low-skill workforce is reproduced to match the way in which the owners of capital seek to organise and re-organise production.
There is a bevy of empirical evidence across most countries to show that children from the lower echelons of the working class (so low income families) do not benefit from the educational system and instead soon become subjugated by inferior labour market prospects.
The disadvantage permeates the generations (their children “inherit” it) and so the “class” system is maintained.
I read a book when I was a post-graduate student by Dutch economist Jan Pen (Income Distribution, 1971, Penguin).
On page 405, he wrote:
It is a discouraging thought that we have to go back to the pre-school age. The class system uses the parents as advance secret agents. The government can hardly attach to every mother a teacher and a social worker who help from birth to bring up the child. You can just see this couple entering the front door with the message: ‘Madam, scientific research has shown that, thanks to your efforts, your toddler is bound to lag behind irreparably, especially in command of language; this leads to undesirable social stratification and to unacceptable income inequality. That is why we have come to assist you with the child’s upbringing. Kindly step aside, so that my colleague and I can undertake the elimination of class distinctions.’
The quote was in the context of how government educational policy should be tailored and targetted to reduce the perpetuation of disadvantage that is in-built
into our educational systems.
So that is my tension.
For my generation, education provided social mobility but given this latest LSE research we can also see that education generates higher incomes and social status, which then reinforces the right-wing attitudes of parents.
I need to think more about that tension and I will write more on it later.
But the issue goes to the heart of how we reduce inequality and stop wasting kids from poor backgrounds and abandoning them to drugs and crime.
Music today … Steel Pulse
Here is one of the all-time great reggae bands – Steel Pulse – a band from Birmingham, UK.
This song – Ku Klux Klan – is taken of one of my favourite albums – Handsworth Revolution – which was released in 1978.
The band sings in this song against racism and intolerance.
Just listen to the hi-hat and timbales in the introduction for musical perfection.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2023 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.