In fact, Professor Gregory Clark’s review of the data concludes that there has been no more social mobility in America over the past 100 years than there was in medieval England or pre-industrial Sweden. Hard work, education, seizing opportunity, and saving doesn’t make a difference, he says. Instead, the socioeconomic status of your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be closely related to your status.
Professor Clark’s students apparently are skeptical of his data — how did he get it, how did he analyze it, and did he manipulate it? — and his conclusions. So am I. The reason for the skepticism is that many American families have featured living examples of the American Dream who lifted themselves up by their bootstraps and radically changed their circumstances.
In our immediate family I can think of at least two: my grandfather, who was born into a Kentucky hill family so poor he was thrilled to get a single orange for Christmas, moved to Akron because there were jobs there, took a messenger job with a bank, rose through the ranks, and retired 55 years later as the bank’s president and chairman of the board; and my father, who made it through law school without buying a book because he couldn’t afford it, had a facility for numbers, and achieved great success as a businessman that allowed him to retire at an early age. I don’t care what Professor Clark’s numbers say — I know from direct family history that America is truly the Land of Opportunity.
Professor Clark seems to think he is some economics truth-teller who is bursting the bubbles of his students. He isn’t, because family example is far more meaningful and real than an economics professor and his dusty statistics. The American Dream is powerful precisely because we know it has happened. It sounds like Professor Clark could stand to do some dreaming himself.