The deadline for the manuscript of Zombie Economics (last complete draft here) is only a few weeks away, and the zombies are popping up faster than I can knock them down. I’m adding a section on reanimated zombies to each chapter. Over the fold is the social mobility defense of trickle down economics, as animated by Thomas Sowell. There’s still time for me to benefit from your comments.
A good zombie movie needs a sequel, and so, it is almost inevitable that some zombies will survive to carry on the tradition. The best candidate for zombie immortality is probably the trickle-down hypothesis. As we’ve seen it can be traced back, under that name, at least to the early 20th century. But as long as there have been rich and poor people, or powerful and powerless people, there has been a market for advocates to explain that it’s better for everyone if things stay that way.
The hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’, one of the favorites in the hymnbook of my youth is, for the most part a paean to the beauties of creation. But, the real message comes in the verse ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate’. And the same message is contained in Aesop’s fable, about the tail of the snake that foolishly rebelled against its natural master, the head, with dire consequences.
With such a long pedigree, trickle down economics is unlikely to be killed. Still, given the overwhelming evidence that social mobility in the US is both low by the standards of developed countries and decreasing steadily, the task of reanimating this zombie idea looks like a difficult one. But Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institute is up to the job.
In his latest book, Intellectuals and Society, Sowell excoriates liberals for their misunderstanding of economics and sweeps aside concerns about declining social mobility with the assertion that, ‘neighborhoods may remain the home of poor people for generations, no matter how many people from the neighborhoods move out to a better life as they move up from one income bracket to another.’ He immediately contradicts himself with the observation that Harlem was formerly a middle-class Jewish community, and appears unaware of the recent (re)gentrification process in which blacks have again become a minority group in greater Harlem. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/06/nyregion/06harlem.html
This insouciant attitude to evidence is unsurprising. In earlier writing on the topic, Sowell made the observation that ‘ If mobility is defined as being free to move, then we can all have the same mobility, even if some end up moving faster than others and some of the others do not move at all. ’
In fact, on Sowell’s account, the US would remain the world’s most socially mobile society even if everyone ended up in the exact same social position as their parents.
As Sowell astutely observes ‘A car capable of going 100 miles an hour can sit in a garage all year long without moving. But that does not mean that it has no mobility.’ If the poor don’t succeed, he says, its because they are not willing to make the necessary efforts and sacrificies
Translating to the real world question, if we observe one set of children born into a wealthy family, with parents willing and able to provide high-quality schooling and ‘legacy’ admission to the Ivy League universities they attended, and another whose parents struggled to put food on the table, we should not be concerned that members of the first group almost invariably do better. After all, some people from very disadvantaged backgrounds achieve success. and there was no law preventing the rest from doing so.
Clearly, an idea so appealing to people who can afford to reward its promulgators is unlikely to be killed by mere evidence of its falsehood. Perhaps if the political left is willing to return to class politics (something the rightwing advocates of trickle down have never abandoned) it might, at least find a way to drive this zombie idea out of the assumed knowledge of political debate.