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An Example of a Common Kind of Fallacy in the Social Sciences
Rick Garlikov

Because it makes the kind of error common in the social sciences, I want to examine a passage from a recent article printed in Hillsdale College’s publication Imprimus.  The article is “Restoring America’s Economic Mobility” by Frank Buckley and is in the September 2016 issue.  It is also online at https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/restoring-americas-economic-mobility/  I think there are a number of common kinds of errors in the reasoning stated in the article, and these errors are not errors of form, and are thus ‘informal’ fallacies.  However I don’t believe these are fallacies that have names or would be listed in lists of informal fallacies, though I could be mistaken about that.

 

“[Many people today imagine America to still be] a country defined by the promise that whoever you are, you have the same chance as anyone else to rise, with pluck, industry, and talent. But they imagine wrong.  The U.S. today lags behind many of its First World rivals in terms of mobility. A class society has inserted itself within the folds of what was once a classless country, and a dominant New Class—as social critic Christopher Lasch called it—has pulled up the ladder of social advancement behind it.

 

“One can measure these things empirically by comparing the correlation between the earnings of fathers and sons. Pew’s Economic Mobility Project ranks Britain at 0.5, which means that if a father earns £100,000 more than the median, his son will earn £50,000 more than the average member of his cohort. That’s pretty aristocratic. On the other end of the scale, the most economically mobile society is Denmark, with a correlation of 0.15. The U.S. is at 0.47, almost as immobile as Britain.

 

“A complacent Republican establishment denies this change has occurred. If they don’t get it, however, American voters do. For the first time, Americans don’t believe their children will be as well off as they have been.” [1] 

 

Social scientists often claim to be able to empirically or objectively measure something which, at least at first, seems to be either subjective or somewhat vague or nebulous.  I think all too often they fail to get it right, if it can be done right at all. They claim to equate the subjective concept or value with an objective one, or they claim what is measurable is necessary and/or sufficient evidence for the subjective determinations we make.

 

An easy example is IQ measurement by means of a test score on a certain kind of test,  whereby the higher one’s IQ score, the more intelligent one supposedly is.  However, clearly “intelligence” involves characteristics more than, and often different from, scoring high on such a test, particularly if the high score is attributable to coaching more than, or rather than, to some sort of inherent ability.  Intelligence may be about seeing connections other don’t (whether in comedy or in physics) or seeing them much faster, about learning new things quickly, about having deeper understanding and seeing ramifications, about capacity for learning and/or remembering, about having great common sense, being perceptive, etc. in ways a standard IQ test doesn’t measure or pretend to measure.  It might be about combining many different ideas over time to discover or invent something else no one has before, and which cannot be tested at some given time on a test where the answer is already known.  When one of my daughter’s was in sixth grade, she auditioned for something where one of the skill tests was sight-reading, but the piece they gave her was one she had played before.  Had she not told them, she would have likely seemed to be a great sight reader, though maybe she would have had to make some slight errors to carry out the pretense successfully


So here we are given a way to measure the notion of economic mobility and whether people have a good chance to succeed in America and “rise above their station of birth” even if they start from lowly beginnings.

 

Notice this is something of a complicated measure and is different from what it might seem to be at first.  Nothing in the measure shows whether a child makes more or less than its parent (I am using “parent/child” rather than “father/son”, since the latter seems sexist in this day and age.)  And it is misleading to claim, as it does, that this is about “comparing the correlation between the earnings of fathers and sons.” It is not that the child in the example makes half what its parent did, but that if you subtract the average income of the child’s generation in the country from the child’s income, it will be half the number you get from subtracting the average income of the parent’s generation in the country from the parent’s income.  It is the ratio of the child’s income difference from its peers to the difference of the parent’s income difference from the parent’s peers.   It is not easy to see what sort of “thing” that number represents.

 

To see what it means or doesn’t mean, consider this scenario: suppose your mother made $100,000 a year while the median income of her age was $40,000.  That would yield a difference for her of $60,000 more than average, so she made quite a bit more money than most of her fellow contemporary citizens.  She made 2 and a half times what the median average person her age did, and she was in a much higher ‘class’ than they were (if we equate class with income).  And now suppose that by some economic booming circumstance, the average contemporary of yours makes $1 million annual income, and you make $1,001,500.  Now, you are making more than ten times what your mother made, but you are making ‘only’ $1500 more than your fellow citizens, so the comparison gives the number (1500/60,000 = .025) which would make your society highly mobile by this measure, as it indeed seems to be.  Lots of people went from lower class with their parents being relatively poor to themselves being quite rich, and you went from your mother’s upper class to being even richer (10 times richer) than she was, though not as much as your peers rose above their parents because they became 25 times richer than their parents.   And your position compared with others, declined quite a bit compared with your mother’s position relative to her contemporaries.  Yet, you are making ten times what she made.  So on this measure, compared with your peers you were downwardly mobile relative to your mother’s class compared with her peers, even though you make more than ten times what your mother made. 

 

Now suppose, that instead of your income being $1,001,500, your income is $1,030,000, while everyone else’s is $1,000,000.   That puts the correlation now at (30,000/60,000), which is .5 and is supposedly not a very economically mobile society, even though now everyone is rich, when only a few were before.  Everyone else grew the same amount as they did in the first case, and you earned a lot more too, but not proportionately as much more as they and not as proportionately higher than they as your mother was to her peers.

 

Oppositely, if the country were to fall on really desperate economic times and your income was $10,000 and everyone else’s was $5,000, the correlation would then be (5000/60,000 = .083) making it almost twice as “economically mobile” as Denmark.  But notice the “mobility,” if anything, is downward, not upward.  So this measure does not measure a good thing and insofar as it is a measure of economic mobility, economic mobility is then not a good thing – and certainly not something that shows you have a better chance of being more well off than your mother was.

 

Even if you find all this hard to follow, you can see the objective measure is not something that reflects what we would consider to be economic mobility, which should have more to do with how your income stacks up in ability to meet or exceed your needs and where you stack up in regard to whether you have resources in addition to purchase conveniences and luxuries.  How you stack up against your peers (which may determine your relative ‘class’ rung on the ladder) is not as much a sign of upward mobility as being able to live in a higher lifestyle than your parents in terms of your access to more security, conveniences, and luxuries.  In fact, the lament at the end of the quoted passage that “For the first time, Americans don’t believe their children will be as well off as they have been” is a serious problem but not one of economic “mobility”, but of economic progress, and actually would even contribute to ‘mobility’ on the measure used by the Pew Economic Mobility Project if it leveled out people’s incomes or just lowered the incomes substantially of the children of wealthier parents.

 

    Finally, consider what it means to be “a country defined by the promise that whoever you are, you have the same chance as anyone else to rise, with pluck, industry, and talent”.  You are not kept down by your original class.  At first blush that would seem to be a good measure of an economic system’s mobility, and one of the major conservative economists of the last century, Friedrich Hayek, thought that an economic system’s fairness was signified by something of this sort – that everyone had the same chance to become wealthy as anyone else.  But 1) if no one has much chance to rise, that meets the criteria but it is a hollow promise or empty enterprise, and 2) notice that everyone has the same chance of becoming wealthy by winning the lottery, but that would not make an economic system based on a lottery or any other sort of gambling or unproductive distribution of existing wealth be a fair or good system, even if there were numerous lotteries.

 

I don’t think that mobility of the sort that is desirable has to do with ratios of poor to rich or with relative changes in class among different generations of rich and poor.  What is desirable is that everyone who applies themselves and work hard will succeed, not that they have an equal chance (which could be zero or 1 in a billion) as everyone else to succeed.  And by ‘succeed’ I mean be able to have a decent life and one that fairly rewards people proportionately to the contribution they make toward the total bounty of available goods and services. What you want is that if everyone who is able to, works and has a fair opportunity to work, they all together produce enough for a good life for all and that each person receives his/her fair share of what they all produce.[2]   Upward economic mobility is about the reasonably good opportunity to have more goods and services than your parents did, particularly if they had relatively little access to security, necessities and conveniences, and you have great access to them and to at least some luxuries.



[1] He then goes on to explain why so many people will vote for Donald Trump because of this, in order to protest against and  thwart both, the Democratic and the Republican Establishment, because Trump seems to these voters to demonstrate understanding of the people’s frustration with lack of opportunity.


[2] This omits for here how it is right to treat or take care of those who cannot contribute much because of youth, old age, disability, illness, etc.  Those are important issues, but separate from what it means to be an economically mobile society.


This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.