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Upward Mobility: Reality and Illusion

Ezra Klein:

Ezra Klein : [Russell] Shorto... [thinks that in] the Netherlands.... [T]here's "a cultural tendency not to stand out or excel...the very antithesis of the American ideal of upward mobility." But... Americans are in the odd position of fervently believing in upward mobility while not actually having very much of it. Eruopeans, conversely, don't really believe in economic mobility but have plenty of it.... Brookings... examined the relative mobility in other Nordic countries. And the United States doesn't come out that well.... The United States believes itself to be uncommonly meritocratic. But compared to European countries who don't believe themselves very meritocratic, it actually exhibits less income mobility....

If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you're likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won't want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won't be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it! On the other hand, if you don't believe your country is terribly mobile, then you're less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don't believe the outcomes are fair, you're likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don't spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don't believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. What's odd is that the public perceptions in Europe and America don't seem to be changing much in response to actual outcomes.

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