Polly on Social Mobility

Good grief, we\’ve got something interesting here:

Social mobility is one great question raised in these studies. Why were the 1958 children more likely to move upwards than those born just 12 years later, in 1970? The right claimed it was the demise of grammar schools, while the left blamed it on 1970 children entering secondary school during Thatcher cuts and unemployment. Research said it was neither: there was a one-off sudden demand for more white-collar workers, pulling up the 1958ers regardless of education.

So social mobility has not stalled because the camel train is coming apart? It\’s not because the gap is ever wider and thus harder to cross? It isn\’t globalisation, the destruction of manufacturing industry (Ha!), taxes that are too low nor the structure of the education system? Not even private schools?

Nope, according to Polly we\’re now at natural levels of such mobility, the comparison everyone is making is to a simple one off event, one due to a structural change in the economy, not something anyone planned or meant.

Well, OK, if you say so (I\’ve posited this before): but that does mean that we can stop all of those plans to restart social mobility by playing with the tax system, blaming inequality or shafting the schools system, doesn\’t it?

Which, err, rather invalidates some 50% of Polly\’s columns.

The rest of the column though is extolling the merits of social research, longtitudinal cohort studies and the like. I agree, excellent work is done on these and excellent results can be garnered from them.

This is a little off though:

More valuable is the also blindingly obvious discovery that economists\’ reductionist view of humans as rational economic units is nonsense: people\’s motivations are just as often not financially motivated, which explains why economists are not very good at predicting even tomorrow\’s stock market movement, let alone the next crash.

Economists never assume that people\’s interests are only financially motivated. There might be a reductionism to money, yes, but that\’s as a method of comparing apples with apples. What is the value of leisure time as against the extra income garnered by more hours at work? That\’s a most interesting question, one that thousands upon thousands have researched answers to. One that, by its very structure, is both acknowledging and researching the fact that economists already assume that people are not motivated purely by financial returns.

They\’re motivated by utility maximisation. Sex, food, time with the kinds, time to sit outside and stare at the stars, cars, dosh, bling, status, novels, sport….all make up (along with thousands of other things) the motivations of human beings and there\’s not a single economist out there who would try to argue differently.

But there is one much larger question. If Polly assumes (rightly) that great things can be learnt from the social sciences, why is she so resistant to the idea that great things can be learnt from the social sciences? That incentives matter, that there are always opportunity costs, that the Laffer Curve really does exist, public choice……?

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