Born into a class, you’ll die in that class

That’s not some Marxist firebrand sloganeering. It’s one of the many insights one can conclude from an academically rigorous book that came out earlier this year by economic historian Gregory Clarke, “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility” (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Ingeniously using as data the prevalence of surnames in elite groups over the centuries in several countries and constructing a mathematical model involving the mass of data unearthed, Clarke demolishes a long standing myth: That modern civilization, especially under democracy and capitalism, have made it possible, for the first time in humanity’s history, for a determined person to escape his social status and move to a higher economic stratum.

“The fact is that after a century of redistribution, public education and social policy seem to have done nothing to improve the social mobility rates. Social mobility is no higher in modern Sweden than in the United States or even preindustrial England,” Clarke writes. Clarke’s investigation yields the same conclusion in different nations (Sweden, USA, England, India, China, Japan, and Chile): social mobility is so slow that it takes centuries for one family’s wealth to dissipate.

Quite surprisingly, Clarke concluded that even such communist political upheavals as China went through in the 20th century hadn’t really overthrown the elite. After the communist takeover in 1947 and even after the Great Cultural Revolution that Mao claimed eliminated the “last vestiges of the old Chinese ruling class,” it is still the descendants of the old Chinese families that had dominated the pre-communist civil service that are now at the top echelons of power of the Communist Party.

In short, Clarke says, the social class your grandfather was born in is the predictor of what yours would be now.

Think about it in your own personal experience. Your gardener’s children and grandchildren most likely will be as poor as he is, as his grandfather and great grandfather were. The children of a woman who did our laundry for decades, I recently found out, even after her heroic attempts to put them to school, remained impoverished minimum-wage laborers.

Cover of book on social mobility, or lack of it.

Buena familia
There is a quaint term the Filipino elite use to describe themselves, which reflects the rigidity of our class structure: Buena familia. If you lose your wealth in bad business decisions or squander it on gambling, you would never lose your buena familia status.

A recent reunion of my Ateneo high school batch mates reminded me of this reality of the class-structured world. With, of course, a few exceptions (as there are in all phenomena of nature and society), those whose parents were capitalists are capitalists while those whose parents were professionals (especially doctors, but including teachers) and corporate executives are professionals and corporate executives. Living in an advanced capitalist society had no impact at all: Those who emigrated to Canada and the US were in the same social class their parents and their grandparents were born into.

Out of a hundred or so in our batch, probably just a handful had moved out of the social status they were born into: one who, after failing in most jobs he took on made his mom-and-pop roasted-chicken business into a billion-peso food conglomerate; one who was lucky to marry into a rich family and cleverly invested his in-laws’ wealth in high-profit ventures; one who stumbled upon a new industry nobody knew at that time would boom in the next ten years — information technology. But these are the outliers in the bell curve, my average classmate remained in the social status they were born in.

The issue of social mobility has become a hot topic, indeed, in the US, with economists’ new studies after the Reagan era that the American Dream has turned out to be a myth. Thomas Piketty’s unexpected bestseller “Capital in the 21st Century” had crunched mountains of data that conclusively showed that the nature of capitalism itself has led to concentration – untenable he theorizes – of wealth in America, and that the myth of wealth democratization there and in the Western world owed to the unique impact of World War II on the economies of the US and the rest of the world.

Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s studies have also demolished the myth that in America, anyone can be rich. He points out in a recent column his observations on US society that are also applicable to the Philippines:

“Here’s what you need to know: Yes, the concentration of both income and wealth in the hands of a few people has greatly increased over the past few decades. No, the people receiving that income and owning that wealth aren’t an ever-shifting group: People move fairly often from the bottom of the 1 percent of the top of the next percentile and vice versa, but both rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags stories are rare.”

It is not individual greed, or lust, or selfishness that is the root of evil in this world. To borrow a term used by a Russian novelist to describe the inevitability of death, the “most general evil” in the world that no religion, no “Ten Commandments” had ever pointed out as Evil, is society’s class structure that condemns billions of humans to live a life of misery — those born into the have-not social class.

Root of many evils
It is the root of many evils in the world: Wars as undertaken by ruling classes to expand the foundations of their class and crimes against property as desperate attempts to claim upper classes’ wealth.

In fact, it has been religion that had helped foster the myth of a classless society. Kings, nobles, clerics, peasants, laborers are all children of God, and each is assigned his place in life by the Deity. If you don’t like your social status, just be patient and wait to enter the classless Heaven. Every Sunday is a ceremony called the Mass in which everyone in Church is made to feel that they are all equal.

In the modern era, the emergence of states in which the people vote rulers into power has served to mask society’s class structure.

The myth foisted is just as in the political realm, each citizen has one vote and therefore all citizens are each, in the economic realm each citizen has as much opportunity to be rich.

Masked, though, are factors that would make one rich, which the have-nots will never have access to: Wealth, transferred to you by your parents or grandparents that would make up your first working capital; clan and social networks, which Filipino-Chinese businessmen have particularly relied on for capital and business connections; education, especially an expensive MBA, preferably from US universities; even your parent’s predispositions, for example, a Chinese businessman hammering day in and day out on his son’s or daughter’s head that his or her fate can only be “take over the business.”

Feudal-age Shakespeare was wrong when he wrote in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.” It’s certainly not due to one’s stars, but to one’s ancestors, at least as Clarke’s rigorous research shows.

If Sweden, England, and the US — after more than a hundred years of efficient bureaucracies, strong states independent of elites, and wealth redistribution policies such as high income and inheritance taxes — still have low social mobility, it’s certainly a lot worse in our case. Our leaders aren’t even aware of this most general evil in the world. Such a long, long journey our nation has to take.