Corak on Mobility

We started off with some discussion of the previous night’s lecture by Professor Bilgrami. Prof. Brown was especially interested in exposing the economist’s definition of “capitalism” as a system in which the means of production are privately owned.

We spent most of our time talking about the meaning and desirability of equal opportunity.

Then we returned to Corak’s discussion of the relationship between inequality and intergenerational mobility.


We had some definitional questions about the meaning of the word “meritocracy.” Ella, for instance, noted that the term “merit” can refer to either hard work or good output (with or without much effort) and so wondered if a meritocracy could reward either effort or output.

I said that, in my opinion, the term “meritocracy” is used to refer to systems that seek to make people’s rewards commensurate with their talents. I gave the example of the use of the SAT in college admissions. I said the idea was to admit students with the highest aptitude for higher education, even if they did not attend “the best” schools. To my ear, that suggested an attempt to identify talent rather than effort.

Ella was not entirely satisfied by this. Having thought about it, I think she has a point. I was thinking about the case of education, where tests like the SAT are aimed at identifying talent that the schools will develop. But I could see how it would be appropriate to use the term “meritocracy” to refer to an economic system that rewards those who produce the most, whether through effort or talent.

In any event, the dictionary says we are both wrong. It defines meritocracy as a system of government in which the best rule. Plato’s Republic would be an example of a meritocracy. So there you go.

We will encounter the kind of meritocracy, or equal opportunity, that Ella and I were talking about again when we read Williams and Rawls. (Though Peter already stole my thunder on Rawls by noting that while Rawls wants to support equal opportunity, he does not really have a reason for doing so. “Thanks a lot, Peter,” he typed grudgingly.)

Corak’s Paper

Corak presents 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.

The bulk of his argument is based on a comparison of the US with Canada. These are two very similar countries that have different levels of inequality and different rates of mobility.

Corak suggests that the difference between the US and Canada is due to political decisions. Canada, for instance, spends more on primary and secondary education while the US spends more on higher education. Since higher education does not do as much for mobility as primary and secondary education do, the US has less mobility than Canada does.

Prof. Brown said he should have considered race. The US has a history of racially based slavery and then racially based segregation as slavery was unwound. Canada’s history isn’t totally clean, but it doesn’t have anything like that.

Prof. Green said that the difference might be due to the larger percentage of immigrants at the bottom of the Canadian distribution or the greater degree of urbanization in Canada. A way to test Prof. Green’s questions would be to compare mobility among immigrants in both countries or to compare US and Canadian cities rather than the countries as a whole.


Corak, Miles. 2013. “Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 27 (3): 79–102. doi:10.1257/jep.27.3.79.