The Global Cities Initiative and the Centre for London have just published a pamphlet entitled Nations and the Wealth of Cities. It’s by Greg Clark and Greg Clark. No, that isn’t a typo. One Greg Clark is the Minister for Cities (who, by the way, I used to work for), the other is a leading academic expert on urban policy.

However, today’s Deep End concerns a third Greg Clark – the Scottish-born economist, whose new book The Son Also Rises presents a radically new perspective on social mobility. In an interview with Clark for Prospect, Jonathan Derbyshire begins with an introduction:

“Clark argues that conventional ways of measuring social mobility between generations have prevented us from seeing that it has always been much slower than we tend (or like) to think. In the standard picture, mobility rates are also held to vary dramatically across societies, with more unequal societies, like the US or UK, having notably slower rates than, say, the Nordic countries. Clark’s research tells a rather different story…”

Indeed, his key conclusion is a stark one:

“Underlying or overall social mobility rates are much lower than those typically estimated by sociologists or economists… Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height.”

Furthermore, this appears to apply across a wide range of cultures and political systems:

“One of the things [the book] emphasises is that the current data, which finds rapid social mobility in Sweden and slower social mobility in Britain and the US, and slower mobility still in South America, seems to suggest that you have massive social failures going on in a bunch of societies. The book finds no evidence of these failures because it finds very similar social mobility rates everywhere.”

Clark tries to put a positive gloss on his findings:

“Another implication is that if even in meritocratic Sweden you get very slow mobility, then it must be based largely on people’s abilities, aptitudes and drive. All that we’re discovering here is that we’re living in a surprisingly fair world—one in which, at birth, we could predict a surprising amount about your prospects.”

In other words, Clark’s argument is that social status is hardwired across the generations due to factors that can’t be budged by government intervention. Which is why systems that try hard to even things up (e.g. Sweden) produce similar results to those that don’t (e.g. America).

There is, however, another interpretation. Instead of concluding that all conceivable attempts to promote social mobility are futile, one could go with a rather less sweeping assumption – which is that the policies that have been tried so far are the wrong ones, but the right ones could still be discovered.

If social status really is as dependent on family background as Clark suggests, then one needs to identify the mechanism of transmission. Controversially, some people might point to genetics – but if that were a significant factor then why hasn’t the availability socialised healthcare (in those countries have it) made a bigger difference? Equally, if the inheritance of capital were the key factor, then we’d expect to see higher rates of social mobility in countries with more redistributive tax systems.

It isn’t only genes or property that get passed from generation to generation. Arguably, more important than either of those are values – in particular those that encourage hard work, personal responsibility and respect for education.

In seeking to promote social mobility progressive governments have mainly intervened to make-up for variations in biological and financial inheritance, when they should have focused on cultural inheritance. Perhaps the fundamental problem is that advocates of state intervention tend to be liberal, while the values that enable social mobility are conservative.