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Your summer reading list on inequality and opportunity

Before you finish packing for your vacation to the cottage, the beach, the backyard or the balcony, I thought you would appreciate some suggestions for your summer reading. (If you live in Australia, New Zealand, India, or anywhere else south of the equator, I hope you will read for the sheer pleasure, at work if you must!)

The first book on your holiday reading list is, without doubt, …

 

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I am honoured to have won the “Doug Purvis Memorial Prize” for my research on inequality and social mobility

It is a particular honour to have my paper, “Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility,” chosen for the 2014 Doug Purvis Memorial Prize. The prize is awarded annually by the Canadian Economics Association “to the authors of a highly significant, written contribution to Canadian economic policy.”

That is certainly honour enough, but I’m particularly grateful for another reason.

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Social mobility, fixed forever? Gregory Clark’s The Son Also Rises is a book of scholarship, and of scholastic overreach

[ This post is a book review of: Gregory Clark (with Neil Cummins, Yu Hao, and Daniel Diaz Vidal and others), 2014. The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. ]

The Son Also Rises forcefully advances the idea that social position is determined by innate inherited abilities, an idea that is potentially pregnant with policy implications. “Once you have selected your mate,” Gregory Clark counsels, “your work is largely done. You can safely neglect your offspring, confident that the innate talents you secured for them will shine through regardless.”

With this book Professor Clark (an economic historian with the University of California at Davis) dons the mantle of Francis Galton, who more than 100 years ago examined the transmission of status across the generations of 19th century England, and who is equally known for the statistical methods he developed to study the issue.

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Joseph Fishkin’s book, “Bottlenecks,” explains why inequality lowers social mobility

Bottlenecks

[ The Brookings Institution has been having an online discussion of Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, a book by Joseph Fishkin. This post is a re-blog of my contribution, "Money: a Bottleneck with Bite." ]

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Families need insurance for wages and for family responsibilities

[ This post is a summary of a presentation called "Public insurance to promote social mobility" that I made to the "Social Mobility Summit" held at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC on January 13th, 2014. It is intended for an American readership, and is also posted in an abridged form on the Brookings website. ]

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The two (irreconcilable?) states of the Union

sotu_slide_audience

When President Obama approaches the podium to deliver his State of the Union address he will have two past presidents looking over his shoulders.

Lyndon B. Johnson who in 1964 declared a “War on Poverty”, and Ronald Reagan who in 1986 surrendered victory with the claim that “… poverty won the war. Poverty won in part because instead of helping the poor, government programs ruptured the bonds holding poor families together.”

President Obama will surely celebrate Johnson for initiating the War on Poverty fifty years ago this month, but to advance his agenda he will also stress that government programs are a force for the good.

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Employment in Canada is up by a million … but that is hardly enough

one-in-a-million

“Employment is up by one million since the recession ended.”

A statement like this may indeed be a big talking point when Statistics Canada releases the results of its monthly Labour Force Survey on Friday.

While a million more people at work sounds like a lot, the Canadian population has also increased by roughly the same amount with the result that the fraction of Canadians working has been pretty well unchanged for the last five years, and has yet to return to rates before the recession.

A million is a big number, but it’s not enough to signal a complete recovery from the recession.

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America’s children are the silent victims of the Great Recession

Children at risk a red and green water colour

The Great Recession has disrupted the lives of families and their children in an unprecedented way.

It has changed everyday life in some ways that can be measured by money, but in others that cannot, and at the extreme it has even led to a six-fold increase in the risk children will be physically abused.

Lost jobs, falling incomes, and foreclosures will likely compromise the capacity of children to become all that they can be, with the effects of the recession echoing not just across years, but also across generations.

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An American idea about the Canadian middle class

The suggestion that the middle class is stagnating, the linchpin of Justin Trudeau’s economic platform—to the extent it exists—is an idea shamelessly borrowed from the United States.

Shameless it may be, but it is, nonetheless, true.

Clearly there are some ways in which we are all better off not withstanding what President Obama tells the American public, and notwithstanding how closely Canadian political leaders listen to him.

In 1980, a cell phone was something carried in a brief case; and a Sony Walkman—you surely recall the portable cassette player the size of a thick paperback that strapped “conveniently” to your belt?—was the cutting edge musical accessory.

But shops filled with more variety, and more quality, make us and our kids better off only to a degree, and not only because the power to blow your ear drums out has increased exponentially.

In 1980 middle-income Canadian families reported a total of $57,000 on their tax returns, and 30 years later, … well exactly $57,000.

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Mr. Keynes and the Austrians: a battle over a suggested interpretation of unemployment

Arthur Cecil Pigou made lasting contributions to the science of economics, but for macro-economists of a certain generation he will always be considered a laughingstock.

Arthur C Pigou

Professor Pigou taught at Cambridge University during the first decades of the 1900s, and had the misfortune of making a cameo appearance in the opening chapters of what is arguably the most influential economics book of the 20th century, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, written with eloquence, and at times a very caustic pen, by his colleague at the same university, John Maynard Keynes (whose last name, by the way, sounds like “Canes”).

Pigou’s big mistake was to suggest that the unemployed themselves were to be blamed for their predicament. To Mr. Keynes, the notion that the persistently high unemployment rates of the Great Depression were in some sense voluntary was worthy of scorn and ridicule.

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