Kings and Queens

Posted on November 5, 2011 by


In chess, the queen is the most versatile and mobile piece, while the king is comparatively quite restricted. Similarly, Army infantry is known as the “Queen of Battle” due to its mobility and versatility, while artillery is the “King of Battle” due to its decisive yet slow-moving nature. Who would have thought that  life would begin to imitate (martial) art, particularly as the destinies and condition of the sexes are considered:

“Picking the right parents,” as Winship puts it, has an enormous impact. A child born to parents in the bottom fifth has about a 17 percent chance of making it to the top two fifths, while a child born to parents already in the top two fifths has a 60 percent chance of staying there.

It is humbling that we seem – although comparisons get very complicated – to lag other advanced countries in mobility. “Research shows,” Winship writes, “that most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility than does the United States. [W]e are definitely worse off than Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries, and probably worse off than Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.” We are particularly bad at getting people, especially males, out of the bottom. One study Winship cites showed that 23 percent to 30 percent of sons and daughters of fathers in the bottom fifth of Nordic countries and the United Kingdom remained there as adults; in the United States, 42 percent of sons stayed there.

This stagnation is less a statement about the structure of America’s economy than about its culture. As Ronald Haskins, also of the [sec-humanist, left-liberal] Brookings Institution, wrote in an essay for National Affairs, “economic mobility is constrained above all by personal choices and behaviors.” He argues that society’s leaders “should herald the ‘success sequence’: finish schooling, get a job, get married, have babies.” If Americans finished high school, worked full-time at a job that matched their skills, and married at the rate they did in the 1970s, the poverty rate would be cut by 70 percent.

These old-fashioned bourgeois virtues, and particularly marriage, rarely figure in the public debate.

Looking at this snippet of data, it appears that males in the US have a 50% higher risk of being stuck in the bottom socio-economic quintile relative to foreign men and women. The data point that is conspicuously absent in the NRO article is the proportion of US women what manage to climb out of the socio-economic basement. Do similarly situated US women have more or less mobility than men? A quick bout of googling yields the answer: less mobility for low-class women and greater mobility for the upper four quintiles. For the low-class women, this lower probability is attributed to their opting for choice mommyhood…in other words, women electing to bear and/or attempt to raise children out of wedlock. For upper (that is, the highest four quintiles) class women, their greater income mobility is a function of who they wed, and therefore is more a function of assortative mating instead of the family income of their birth.

Taken together, it appears that Mr. Lowry is correct: we have yet to figure out, reliably, how to extricate bottom-quintile men from the cellar…their fates being tied to their father’s income (or whether they grew up with their father in the home at all). They are kings alright…decisive in their own way, but less mobile on the chessboard of life. Women on the other hand, queens as they are, display much more mobility, and their mobility is a function of whom they marry, particularly if they originated from the lower classes. Moreover, given the confluence of several factors, to include increasing levels of assortative mating and a persistent innate tendency toward hypergamy, this feminine advantage in social mobility is not likely to abate. Thus, the ‘success sequence’ Mr. Lowry discusses above is a clear path to economic success for women. It is less so for males, for whom the benefits from marriage are indirect: “did your parents marry and stay married?” seems to be the salient question for males, since the presence of father appears to be a significant, if not dominating, factor that bequeaths economic and social success to sons.