Corak on mobility

Notes for Thursday, September 18, 2014

Main points

We spent most of our time talking about Corak’s discussion of the relationship between inequality and intergenerational mobility. He presented a lot of evidence of a correlation between higher levels of inequality and a lower probability of leaving one’s parents’ place in the income distribution. This is especially pronounced at the tails of the distribution: the high and low ends.

He also provided several theories suggesting that the relationship is a causal one: greater inequality leads to lower mobility.

Our discussion

We spent most of our time speculating about the differences between the US and Canada that Corak based his article on.

At the end, we talked about whether we find the phenomena that Piketty and Corak discussed troubling. One thing that was striking to me was the variety of reasons for caring about inequality. Here’s the list we started with. Thanks to Peter for taking a picture of the board.

  1. It’s undesirable for people to have false beliefs about mobility (Scott).
  2. The US gains significant prestige because people believe it is possible for anyone to get ahead there. The good will that this generates gave the US an advantage in the Cold War and enables it to attract talented immigrants and students (Xiaoyu).
  3. Limited economic mobility means limited freedom; people are not in control of their lives (Sarah).
  4. Democracy doesn’t work well with too much inequality (Dani).
  5. Economic equality (in some sense) is important because people are moral equals (Danny).
  6. Patrick combined Dani and Danny’s points: moral equality requires genuine political equality and genuine political equality is possible only if economic inequality is limited.
  7. Effort should be related to outcome: you should be able to get ahead with hard work (or behind without it, I assume) (Patrick).

At the same time, we have to be careful not to overclaim the importance of equality or equal mobility. Here are some cautionary remarks:

  1. People have never been (economically) equal (Peter).
  2. Inequality that is the result of work is OK (Chrissy). Interesting to compare this with Patrick’s use of the same basic premise.
  3. It’s more important that people have enough than it is that they are equal to one another (Matt).

Let me make special mention of Matt’s point. It is obvious why we care about absolute measures of well-being: people need a certain level of food, shelter, and health to live decent lives. But it is less obvious why we care about relative measures, such as how much income people have compared with what others have. Locke can be understood as posing the challenge. As long as everyone has enough (define “enough” as you think appropriate), why would inequality be troubling?

I should add that I myself do care about relative measures. At least, I think I do. My point is simply that it’s not easy to say exactly why I care. That’s what makes this interesting! If it was easy, anyone could do it.

By the way, can I mention one more time that Marissa and Sally really got to the core of Locke’s view? I’m writing this, so, yes I can. I’m persuaded that they’re right and I’m going to put their story front and center when I teach Locke in the future.

Liberal arts vs. professional education

One thing Corak pointed out was that the economic returns to higher education are much greater in the US than they are in Canada.

At least one reason why the returns to higher education in the US are so high is that the four year college degree is a requirement for professional education. (This is probably true in Canada as well; if so, it wouldn’t explain the difference Corak noted.)

I told a tale about how a president of Harvard made an undergraduate degree a requirement for professional education. His name was Charles William Eliot and he was President of Harvard from 1869 to 1909; you can get a feel for what he was about by reading his essay “The New Education” (Eliot 1869). When Eliot assumed the presidency, only half of the students in the Harvard Law School and one-quarter of those in the Harvard Medical School had undergraduate degrees; the numbers were zero and five percent for the respective schools at the University of Michigan. Harvard appointed Eliot, in part, because undergraduate enrollments were declining at an alarming rate in the 1860s. By making an undergraduate degree a requirement for law, divinity, or medical school, they hoped to reverse the trend.

It took a long time. The Harvard Medical School only started requiring an undergraduate degree for admission in 1900. But the idea obviously took.

My source for all this is a wonderful book by a Pomona graduate: Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (Menand 2010, 43–50). If you’re at all interested in questions about the liberal arts curriculum and the history of higher education in America, I highly recommend it. It’s short and Menand is a dandy writer.


Eliot, Charles W. 1869. “The New Education.” The Atlantic Monthly, February.

Menand, Louis. 2010. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W.W. Norton.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted September 20, 2014 and updated September 21, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being