The author makes a claim about underlying mobility rates that I find plausible, though I have my doubts and it has at least hints of the Marxist notion of class which I've never completely agreed with:
If these estimates of social mobility were anywhere near correct as indicating true underlying rates of social mobility, then we would not find that the aristocrats of 1700 in Sweden are still overrepresented in all elite occupations of Sweden. Further, the more equal is income in a society, the less signal will income give of the true social status of families. In a society such as Sweden, where the difference in income between bus drivers and philosophy professors is modest, income tells us little about the social status of families. It is contaminated much more by random noise. Thus it will appear if we measure social status just by income that mobility is much greater in Sweden than in the USA, because in the USA income is a much better indicator of the true overall status of families.Then he makes a claim that I don't feel follows:
Many commentators automatically assume that low intergenerational mobility rates represent a social tragedy. I do not understand this reflexive wailing and beating of breasts in response to the finding of slow mobility rates. The fact that the social competence of children is highly predictable once we know the status of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents is not a threat to the American Way of Life and the ideals of the open society.There are several separate streams of evidence that make me sceptical of this claim. First of all, I've been reading both Sorkin's Too Big to Fail and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Something remarkable in each book is how many of the major players in each book place a high value on loyalty. While the characters in Romance at least have the excuse of Confucian morality as well as being only semi-historical the major players in Too Big To Fail lack these excuses, they're supposedly from a meritocratic society.
The children of earlier elites will not succeed because they are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and an automatic ticket to the Ivy League. They will succeed because they have inherited the talent, energy, drive, and resilience to overcome the many obstacles they will face in life. Life is still a struggle for all who hope to have economic and social success. It is just that we can predict who will be likely to possess the necessary characteristics from their ancestry.
Now, while loyalty/betrayal is supposedly one of the moral foundations, it isn't one that has an equally strong influence on individuals. Assuming that ability and the strength of one's moral/betrayal foundation are distributed heterogeneously makes the idea of society sorting based on ability problematic. While individuals with a weak sense of loyalty/betrayal are likely to promote and select based on merit, without regards to variation in loyalty/betrayal, those with a strong sense of loyalty are likely to take this into account. Over time this will weaken an organization as those with strong task specific ability but with a weak loyalty orientation are selected out, limiting the talent pool to only those with a strong loyalty/betrayal foundation.
On a societal level, in the long term this will select for families which display strong characteristics of loyalty/betrayal. They will reinforce this through reciprocity that will help their scions to succeed in life, despite having being relatively weak in terms of ability. Individuals of exceptional ability may spring on the scene, but unless they are willing to engage in the reciprocal behavior, undermining their independence in the process, they will be selected out of the elite in a few generations.
A second problem is that social selections proceeds vastly more slowly than does genetic variation. An interesting study on this looked at variation in folktales across ethno-linguistic boundaries compared to genetic variation. While there is little recognizable variation in genetics across European subgroups substantial variation is shown in folk tales based on these boundaries. It takes a very large distance to lead to the same level of variation that crossing an ethno-linguistic does.
While something of a leap, it is not a large one to wonder if something very similar occurs with social networks. Anyone that has lived in a small town can appreciate this effect, it is much easier to find a job and do business with people that one has grown up with than it is to do the same when one has just moved to a new area. People from a certain social stratum are much more likely to have peers that can connect them with good jobs, give them access to activities that will get them into good schools, and once in business, have access to networks that can get them face to face with the folks they need to talk to, rather than doing long hours of grunt work to achieve the same thing.
Given the persistence of social networks and the difficulty of breaking into them compared to the high level of variation in genetic traits, the more reasonable null hypothesis is that observed inter-generational social mobility is low do to social institutions rather than individual level differences. It is possible that it is in fact a combination of nature and nurture, rather than institutional differences that are at work but this runs contrary to what we know about the strength of social networks, the observed variability in the weak measures of ability we have, as well as human biases.*
I'd also note that all of these societies mention show a high degree of continuity. As long as the social fabric remains intact elites have generally been able to maintain their social position. However, if the social fabric is deeply upset, like in some of history's larger invasions (you don't see a lot of surnames from Latin classical works that still wield large fortunes today), then this persistence seems to dissolve. It also needs to be noted the product of the state, persistence of elites occurs across regime changes as we see in the French Revolution and in changes in Chinese dynasties. Disrupting elites requires disrupting them in their social base of power to destroy the bonds of loyalty between these families, otherwise their elite position can be maintained. It does seem that their social position can be somewhat eroded through egalitarian policies that are meant to erode barriers to acquiring skills and security but bonds of loyalty and tradition mean that only the most exceptional individuals can compete against those with social advantages.
I also need to add that despite popular opinions about modern meritocracy, there is no particular evidence that exceptional ability has ever been blocked by social institutions. The Ming Emperor was a peasant, the father of the Emperor Justinian a mercenary. Looking at economic history, many powerful merchants in all societies have risen from obscure origins. The idea that our society is any better at selecting for the best and brightest has little support. We certainly reward them better, but there is little reason to think that this leads to people of more ability rising to the top; rather it seems to increase the rewards to incumbent groups. Where growth comes from isn't from rewarding exceptional individuals or society's elite, these people will do well regardless. What meritocracy can achieve is a better match between aptitude and reward throughout the income scale. This is where we are doing an increasingly poor job and part of why we're in danger of declining. The challenge isn't to reward and attract the best and brightest, it's to make sure we reward the 10th percentile of aptitude at a proportionate level to the 50th percentile of aptitude to the 90th percentile of aptitude. Every society will award the top fraction of a percent as they deserve; the question is how much of the proper reward accrues to the lower tiers of aptitude and how much is captured by the families that historically occupy the top rungs of society due to social institutions rather than native ability.
*A large bias, particularly strong in the US, is that we tend to prefer narratives based on individual effort to social determinants. It makes a better story. We tend to attribute things to intentional causes rather than diffuse unintended consequences. We also have a bias towards believing in a just world, people like the idea that good gets rewarded and evil punished and we tend to rationalize away evidence to the contrary. This plays a powerful influence on which stories gain traction and we should always be extra sceptical of a good story that confirms the status quo and exalts the powerful. These stories aren't necessarily false but deserve an extra dose of scepticism when we encounter them; especially since they are apt to ring true to our gut.