Social mobility – reprise

I’m currently reading Robert Peston’s book, WTF, which discusses, among other things, the decline in social mobility and the increase in and entrenchment of inequality in Britain and the USA. Social mobility has been in the news too with the resignations from the UK social mobility board. This reminded me of a post from 2014, which I thought I’d repost as it still seems relevant (and this blog has a few more followers than it had then).

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haves and have-nots

Repost starts here:

I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘social mobility’ lately. You tend to hear the words spoken by politicians in worthy discussions about improving the lot of the poor, reducing child poverty, enabling people to move up the social scale. Not like the bad old days when people were all trapped in the class they were born to. It sounds quite a good thing, this social mobility.

But the picture that it evokes, of a social ladder (like, if not identical to, the property ladder) that we are all trying (encouraged) to climb, seems problematic to me. It suggests that we can all go up indefinitely, or at least that no one is going down. No one mentions that social mobility might go down as well as up the ladder, or that there might be snakes too. ‘Social mobility’ seems to be a way of avoiding talking about redistribution of wealth (we don’t want to scare the party donors after all).

But wait – am I confusing upward social mobility with increased wealth? Aren’t these two different things? Possibly, but there is a long and complicated discussion to be had. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfiFTEaz_0U for a classic view of the distinction – when social mobility seemed impossible and ‘innate breeding’ was an accepted notion – how much has changed since then?) Grant for the moment that in our consumer society, money is the bottom line. This is why, for instance, educational qualifications (which, in another world/time, might be valued purely for the sake of the learning they represent as a good in itself) are now justified in financial terms as a means to an end – the return on your investment of time and money (debt) will be greater lifetime earnings, they say. So I will pursue this line of thought on the assumption that social mobility and increased income/wealth are very closely related, if not identical.

But if positive social mobility is possible without a balancing negative mobility, that is, without redistribution of wealth, there must be an ever-growing pot of resources to enable us all to have more. The myth of unlimited growth hovers in the background. [2017 comment: Peston seems to accept growth as a permanent goal at least as far as I’ve read.]

Let’s look harder at the ladder. The people at the bottom have no jobs and their incomes are (more or less grudgingly) paid by the rest of society, through taxes or charity. They have little or no power or freedom to choose how they live their lives. They are surplus to requirements. This is the position that the philanthropic politicians want to lift people out of (incidentally reducing the benefits bill).

The next rung (or the first rung, like the ‘starter home’) is a minimum wage job, not much more power or freedom here (maybe less actually) than at the ground level but at least you’re not so dependent on benefits (this is the theory, remember). As you go up, you get paid more for your labour/time. The idea is that you and your time are worth more because you have become more skilled. You have joined a more exclusive group and the law of supply and demand requires that your price goes up. So we must all get more skilled, get degrees, certification, continuous professional development, etc., to make ourselves rarer and more expensive. (There’s a bit of a paradox there, isn’t there? If we are all getting more skilled we can’t be getter rarer, so how can we be worth more?)

Anyway, what about the top of the ladder? The logical progression of increasing value, increasing return to time, is the place the city traders all want to be, where you have acquired so much wealth that you don’t need to work at all anymore, because your money will work for you, and you can live comfortably, nay luxuriously, on the interest alone. These lucky few have escaped from the law of supply and demand. Like the people at the bottom, they have no jobs, but that does not matter, because they have money. If this is the top of the ladder, it is very clear that we can’t all get there – someone needs to be doing the work that holds the ladder up. That is to say that the top of the ladder depends on there being people further down, whose work is undervalued enough to generate excess returns which are the interest on which the truly wealthy can live without working.

What if you try to define social mobility in other terms, not just money? What might it mean? Social mobility seems to carry with it a notion of hierarchy. (I used the term ‘social scale’ above, without really thinking about it. Did you notice? Did it grate?) We talk of ‘upwardly mobile’ people, and there is a sense of rising status in society, of becoming more socially valued, of people ‘bettering themselves’, like the virtuous Big Issue sellers pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Is this just to fall back into old assumptions of class divisions? When we talk of social mobility are we just aiming for a society where everyone is at least middle class? Where everyone aspires to be management level and every job requires a degree?

Try again. What is social mobility without an assumed hierarchy?

To be socially mobile is not to be trapped in a particular place in society. It is to have many ways of living life open to one. Having more money is only one way of achieving that (though there is surely some minimum level of financial resources which is necessary). More important, it seems to me, is having the ability to choose the goals you want to pursue, the things that will make your life valuable to you, and having access to the resources (financial, but more importantly educational and institutional) to apply yourself to those goals. In these terms, education matters not because it (theoretically) gets you a better paid job, but because it gives you the skills to make those choices and to pursue those goals, whatever they are, in a considered way (to live well for less, as the supermarket ad has it).

But why call this social mobility? Why not just say we want to achieve a society (à la Rawls) which provides to all the basic goods necessary to live a life they can find worthwhile? It’s not about moving up a hierarchy determined by socially accepted notions of value, whether that’s in terms of money or class. It’s about freedom to choose, a freedom which depends on some fundamental things: education, health, a sustainable place to live. And if that involves some redistribution of wealth, some restraint of the ‘free market’, so be it.

Is there any conclusion to these ramblings? Only this perhaps – I think ‘social mobility’ is a red herring. It quietly accepts a hierarchical view of society, while suggesting that hierarchy is ok as long as there’s a chance of moving up it.

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Some (half-baked) thoughts about ‘growth’

We live in an econo-system based on infinite ‘growth’. But we also live in a finite ecosystem. This is a problem, a problem barely acknowledged in the old buzzword ‘sustainable growth’.

But what is it that is supposed to do this necessary and desired economic growth? Population? No – obviously endless population growth is a problem – even before we run out of space, population growth implies spreading limited resources ever more thinly. Material goods? No again – there is a physical limit to how much stuff we can ‘produce’ (the inverted commas are to remind us that ‘production’ is actually transformation of what already exists – nothing comes from nothing), at least as long as we remain on this finite planet. Living standards? Well theoretically, yes, but that is not what the economic tables measure – and when the pursuit of growth is allowed to outweigh preservation of a liveable environment or provision of social services it seems that generally improved living standards are not the point anymore, if they ever were.

It comes down of course to money, or to the exchange of ‘value’ in an easily quantifiable form. The economy is growing as long as more money is generated by our activities, and money only really exists when it is in motion, moving from buyer to seller, from lender to borrower and back again. So endless growth implies endless increase in monetary transactions; the more times money changes hands the better. And whether those exchanges are of goods and services that are actually good is beside the point.

Endless growth requires both consumerism and debt – consumerism being the endless purchasing of more things, mostly to be thrown away and replaced by more things, debt being the endless growth of money from money. We are sometimes told that lending, and hence indebtedness, is a way of making the unused capital of savers useful, funding investment in new productive businesses, enabling the heroic entrepreneurs who drive ‘progress’ to realize their ideas. Of course most of those ideas are not ways to improve lives, but ways to generate more things to spend money on. Value is turned on its head: instead of making a thing because it is of use to us, and then attaching a monetary value to it when we need to exchange it, the thing is made purely because it can be exchanged for money. And the making is performed because it produces wages and profits, regardless of the usefulness of the thing made. (So you can justify preserving a destructive industry because it ‘creates jobs’.)

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21st century icon/relic

But consumer debt is even better than consumption or investment in new production, because it creates/moves money (grows the economy) without actually having to make any corresponding things (‘nothing comes from nothing’ – except money?), and the faster the money moves the better. So let’s cut the transaction costs, deregulate the movement of money (though not of people) – create as near as possible a frictionless system of finance where buying and selling is done in a nanosecond by algorithmic traders, and so on and so on. In this system, if robots were to replace us all as workers, we would still be needed as consumers and more importantly borrowers, to feed the spinning growth machine.

Meanwhile, averages and totals hide that other growth – increasing inequality, and the concentration of wealth in a smaller and smaller and more obscenely rich few, hiding their self-perpetuating wealth away so it can’t be ‘stolen’ by the taxman to help those huddled masses who have the bad judgement to be poor and, fortunately for the rich, in debt.

Social mobility

I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘social mobility’ lately. You tend to hear the words spoken by politicians in worthy discussions about improving the lot of the poor, reducing child poverty, enabling people to move up the social scale. Not like the bad old days when people were all trapped in the class they were born to. It sounds quite a good thing, this social mobility.

But the picture that it evokes, of a social ladder (like, if not identical to, the property ladder) that we are all trying (encouraged) to climb, seems problematic to me. It suggests that we can all go up indefinitely, or at least that no one is going down. No one mentions that social mobility might go down as well as up the ladder, or that there might be snakes too. ‘Social mobility’ seems to be a way of avoiding talking about redistribution of wealth (we don’t want to scare the party donors after all).

(But wait – am I confusing upward social mobility with increased wealth? Aren’t these two different things? Possibly, but there is a long and complicated discussion to be had. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfiFTEaz_0U for a classic view of the distinction – when social mobility seemed impossible and ‘innate breeding’ was an accepted notion – how much has changed since then?)  Grant for the moment that in our consumer society, money is the bottom line. This is why, for instance, educational qualifications (which, in another world/time, might be valued purely for the sake of the learning they represent as a good in itself) are now justified in financial terms as a means to an end – the return on your investment of time and money (debt) will be greater lifetime earnings, they say. So I will pursue this line of thought on the assumption that social mobility and increased income/wealth are very closely related, if not identical.)

But if positive social mobility is possible without a balancing negative mobility, that is, without redistribution of wealth, there must be an ever-growing pot of resources to enable us all to have more. The myth of unlimited growth hovers in the background.

Let’s look harder at the ladder. The people at the bottom have no jobs and their incomes are (more or less grudgingly) paid by the rest of society, through taxes or charity. They have little or no power or freedom to choose how they live their lives. They are surplus to requirements. This is the position that the philanthropic politicians want to lift people out of (incidentally reducing the benefits bill).

The next rung (or the first rung, like the ‘starter home’) is a minimum wage job, not much more power or freedom here (maybe less actually) than at the ground level but at least you’re not so dependent on benefits (this is the theory, remember). As you go up, you get paid more for your labour/time. The idea is that you and your time are worth more because you have become more skilled. You have joined a more exclusive group and the law of supply and demand requires that your price goes up. So we must all get more skilled, get degrees, certification, continuous professional development etc., to make ourselves rarer and more expensive (i.e. more valuable). (There’s a bit of a paradox there, isn’t there? If we are all getting more skilled we can’t be getter rarer, so how can we be worth more?)

Anyway, what about the top of the ladder? The logical progression of increasing value, increasing return to time, is the place the city traders all want to be, where you have acquired so much wealth that you don’t need to work at all anymore, because your money will work for you, and you can live comfortably, nay luxuriously, on the interest alone. These lucky few have escaped from the law of supply and demand. Like the people at the bottom, they have no jobs, but that does not matter, because they have money and the freedom that bestows. If this is the top of the ladder, it is very clear that we can’t all get there – someone needs to be doing the work that holds the ladder up. That is to say that the top of the ladder depends on there being people further down, whose work is undervalued enough to generate excess returns which are the interest on which the truly wealthy can live without working (like the landed gentry of old).

What if you try to define social mobility in other terms, not just money? What might it mean? Social mobility seems to carry with it a notion of hierarchy. (I used the term ‘social scale’ above, without really thinking about it. Did you notice? Did it grate?) We talk of ‘upwardly mobile’ people, and there is a sense of rising status in society, of becoming more socially valued, of people ‘bettering themselves’, like the virtuous Big Issue sellers pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Is this just to fall back into old assumptions of class divisions? When we talk of social mobility are we just aiming for a society where everyone is at least middle class? Where everyone aspires to be management level and every job requires a degree?

Try again. What is social mobility without an assumed hierarchy?

To be socially mobile is not to be trapped in a particular place in society. It is to have many ways of living life open to one. Having more money is only one way of achieving that (though there is surely some minimum level of financial resources which is necessary). More important, it seems to me, is having the ability to choose the goals you want to pursue, the things that will make your life valuable to you, and having access to the resources (financial, but more importantly educational and institutional) to apply yourself to those goals. In these terms, education matters not because it (theoretically) gets you a better paid job, but because it gives you the skills to make those choices and to pursue those goals, whatever they are, in a considered and sustainable way (to live well for less, as the supermarket ad has it).

But why call this social mobility? Why not just say we want to achieve a society (à la Rawls) which provides to all the basic goods necessary to live a life they can find worthwhile? It’s not about moving up a hierarchy determined by socially accepted notions of value, whether that’s in terms of money or class. It’s about freedom to choose, a freedom which depends on some fundamental things: education, health, a decent place to live. And if that involves some redistribution of wealth, some restraint of the ‘free market’, so be it.

Is there any conclusion to these ramblings? Only this perhaps – I think ‘social mobility’ is a red herring. It quietly accepts a hierarchical view of society, while suggesting that hierarchy is ok as long as there’s a chance of moving up it.

Copyright ©2014 F. Watts

Limits to growth

I had intended to stay away from politics in this blog, but it has been hard to avoid here lately, with the Euro elections dominating the news. I even engaged in some political activism – stuck some posters on my windows and handed out leaflets in the town centre.

This morning two articles from the Guardian struck home – George Monbiot on the impossibility of perpetual growth and a report about the Governor of the Bank of England’s statement about the need for moral constraints of capitalism.

These are things which seem so simple and obvious – perpetual growth is impossible and undesirable. Suppose it were possible, suppose we lived in an infinitely replenishing universe where everyone could have more and more stuff, would we persist in wanting more and more stuff? Would we be getting infinitely better off?

I think not. My idea of a good life is to have just enough stuff to be comfortable and secure and thereby free to do the things that I value. More stuff than that is a burden and a hindrance – it gets in the way, it needs maintaining and protecting. NB, security is connected to that other buzzword, sustainability. As we don’t live in a world of infinite growth, sustainability matters, both in the natural environment and in our social relations. Living within your means is an old-fashioned idea but a powerful one.

But somehow we have set up our society so that more is not just better, but it is essential to keep the machine running. We have to produce more stuff, not because we (in the west at least) need more stuff, but because we need to create jobs. ‘Create jobs’ – what a weird concept – the job didn’t exist before, it didn’t need to be done, but it has been created to keep someone busy, to justify paying them so that they can earn money and spend it on more stuff, thereby creating more jobs… (isn’t there a joke about moving a hole in the ground from here to there and back again?). (And if you haven’t actually got the money, don’t worry – borrow it. Keep the currency flowing so that wheels of the financial markets can keep turning faster and faster and we can call it growth.)

If we are in the fortunate position of producing excess, why don’t we save it for the future? Why don’t we share out the work instead of chasing the idea of full-time jobs for everyone? Work less, use less, have more leisure to do more, to be more – more what? More thoughtful, more creative, more musical, more sociable, more active, more observant, more patient, more caring…

Here’s a little doodle from a while ago. Growth tends to be drawn as an upward curve, but it seems to me more like we are running down a steep hill, trying desperately to stay upright. I prefer the other image of growth.

 

limitstogrowth

This is not a coherent argument I’m afraid,* more a stream of consciousness, but I’d better stop now. Got to get some work done…

 

*If you want the coherent arguments, check out the Monbiot link above.

 

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts