The end of empires: The role of social mobility, how we lose it and how we get it back

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some lessons take a long time to sink in. This one is about empire, and productive work, and how selfishness can make an empire fail when people care too much about themselves and their own, and too little about the society they belong to. This lesson started with a history lesson I learned in a muddy road below a rocky field.

Forty years ago, I went to Crete, and visited the Lassithi Plateau. It was a strange place, with fields sitting high above the muddy roads, each field walled with stone. The plateau has a bowl shape, and the rock below it is not easily permeable, so before the fields were raised, they tended to be muddy, and not very productive.

Those raised fields are like the islands of Venice, except that the water table is usually below the level of the roads, which are muddy because they are also drainage canals. This is not coincidental: Crete fell away from the crumbling Byzantine Empire, become a center for Muslim piratical activity, then after the Fourth Crusade the Venetians took over, and ruled from 1205 it well into the 17th century, when their own empire faded.

The Venetians saw the swampy land, realized that the same solution that had turned Venice from a swamp to a series of island farms, then city blocks, could work to turn Lassithi into productive farmland. A similar process turned the area west of Bangkok into a network of canals and gardens, which I documented in a photo essay here. The difference is only the level of the water table at Lassithi, and the fact that it is high in the middle of an island rather than at a position near river and sea suited to become a center of trade.

It's a reminder of the too-often forgotten empire that brought back the riches we now admire in Venice. The empire withered away as the vitality of its leaders was sapped by its selfish elites, who would not allow the sort of bold young merchants who had once joined their class to have a chance anymore. Now the city of Venice is a beautiful mausoleum that entombs the symbols of the empire it once ruled.

I've discussed the changes within Venetian society that caused there empire to wither in this post, based on my reading of some economists, including Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, who's book, Why Nations Fail, is to my way of thinking important, and one all of us should read. I discussed further the forces at work in our own country tending in the same direction in this post. The troubling fact is that while we once prided ourselves on being the land of opportunity, we now have less social mobility than most of Europe. The below chart comes from this story in The Gaurdian:

Each bar is a measure of how strong the link is between parents' income and their offspring's income. How high the bar is shows how high the bar is for anyone trying to rise out of their class. We can comfort ourselves that Italy and Great Britain have worse social mobility than we do.

In the case of Venice, it was a vibrant and growing empire as long as the engine of social mobility continued to revitalize its elites. Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, links the fall of Venice to our present-day situation in an essay adapted from that book, published here, which I recommend you read. In it, she says:
It is no accident that in America today the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the Gilded Age. Now, as then, the titans are seeking an even greater political voice to match their economic power. Now, as then, the inevitable danger is that they will confuse their own self-interest with the common good. The irony of the political rise of the plutocrats is that, like Venice’s oligarchs, they threaten the system that created them.
But of course, even as the system they destroy suffers, they will maintain their positional status and increased power to shape society. It is no accident that the party they finance, the Republican Party, has a standard-bearer who is one of their own, a man who when he thinks he is talking to his own kind shows contempt for those who are not part of his set.

How many times have I heard Republican politicians decry any effort to level the playing field as "class war?" At the other end of the chart from the US in The Guardian's chart above is Denmark, which has far greater social mobility. Do you suppose they lie awake at night worrying about class war? No, they provide opportunity for those of every class.

How is it done? Well, you need to provide a good education for everyone. It is one of the ironies of our system that while educators may want to give every one of their students the best opportunity possible, parents wants their own children to have a better opportunity than anyone else. They bid up the price of homes near good schools and send their children to the best schools they can afford, or if they don't do these things, they are viewed as bad parents. To provide an educated work force and open opportunity to people who aren't rich, we've decided to have public schools, both at the K-12 level and at higher levels.

But they are being starved for funds. The great lie of the tax revolt was that tax dollars don't build the economy. A society that educates its workforce will be more productive than one that doesn't. States subsidize colleges not merely because the individuals that go to them benefit, but because the society as a whole benefits. A bright young person may not have the money to finance a college education at a private school, but we know that educating that person will likely result in a productive person who can pay taxes to educate the next generation.

That means that state-subsidized higher education funding is as much a compact between the generations as Social Security is. It is one example of the paths to social mobility that we need to keep open, and open further.

Of course, there are other examples of what it takes to produce social mobility. Public health is important -- reducing the lead exposure of young children has a surprisingly large impact on academic achievement (PDF), which means that when lead was removed from gasoline because of ecological regulation, many children benefited from this in the same way getting lead out of their living quarters does. There's some evidence that children whose immune systems must fight off many diseases are developmentally disadvantaged.

That means that ecological legislation and public health efforts like water treatment and sewage treatment are important not just for keeping ordinary citizens alive, but for ensuring that you don't have to be rich to be healthy enough to compete in our society.

And it means that those who chip away at support for higher education, a healthy environment, and other necessities aren't just cheapskates. They are trying to undermine the equality of opportunity that we say we want, in the interest of restricting opportunity to them and theirs. Often, they are the people who have been smart, hard working, and fortunate, and want to pass on the advantages they have gained to their children. This is the most natural thing imaginable, but it can, in the end, undermine the society that gave them their chance.

Social mobility doesn't happen by accident. It takes a corrupt social justification to enable the destruction of a society. In the Gilded Age, we had great inequality, justified by Social Darwinism. Now we have admirers of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy is essentially Social Darwinism without the bogus biology, claiming that we are a society divided into producers and takers. This way of thinking allows them to have contempt for the less fortunate, and to justify policies that result in the diminution of social mobility in the name of equality of opportunity.

That's the crossroads we face in this coming election. One election won't decide our entire future, but it will be a major decision point along the way.