The Great Gatsby Curve poses three questions for economic theory, statistical measurement, and public policy

When comparing many countries, not just the rich but also across the entire globe, researchers have consistently found that the higher the level of income inequality about a generation ago, the more strongly children’s adult prospects are tied to their family backgrounds. This relationship between higher inequality and lower social mobility has become known as The Great Gatsby Curve.

Economic theory, statistical measurement, and public policy have all been most constructively informed by this picture when they explore

  1. What kind of inequality matters?
  2. What kind of social mobility do we care about?
  3. Which cross-country comparisons are most judicious, from which policy learning is best informed?

Watch this interview produced by the Institute for New Economic Thinking ,who gave me the opportunity to explain what the Great Gatsby is, and highlight how it offers a constructive framework for deeper conversations about the relationship between inequality and social mobility.

The Great Gatsby, then and now

This post is excerpted and adapted from my introduction to The Century Press edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I’m grateful to the Press for the opportunity to introduce this great novel from an economist’s perspective, and to be part of its handsome leather bound and letterpress first edition. Go to https://www.centurypress.ca/products/the-great-gatsby-pre-order to learn more about a book that is as much pleasure to hold as it is to read.

“Our faith in possibility may be glorious, but it’s easy to forget that one possibility is always failure,” writes Sarah Churchwell, introducing the chapter in her 2014 book discussing Fitzgerald’s high expectations as he awaited the reviews of what he felt was his greatest work, a novel that he anticipated would vault him into the pantheon of American literature.

The reviews were not good: “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Latest A Dud”; “a strange mix of fact and fancy”; “not a great novel … neither profound nor imperishable … [but] timely and seasonable.” The Fitzgerald scholar’s book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, which is my source for these excerpts, uses the reviews at the time to support her insightful thesis, that The Great Gatsby can be seen as solidly situated in a specific time and place, with characters and plot having real-life counterparts.

Fitzgerald’s year in New York City—the places, the people, and even the lurid stories of a double murder in nearby New Jersey that was fodder for the papers—was easily recognized by his circle of friends and acquaintances writing those reviews. To them the novel must have appeared as much diary as it did fiction, as much journalistic as imaginative narrative. Been there, done that.

Yet as the decades passed, as gossip and headlines faded from memory, Fitzgerald’s book did not fade, and a century later it continues to resonate. To appreciate why, Churchwell’s thesis should be taken further: The Great Gatsby can be seen as solidly situated in a specific economic time and place, it is not just character, but also underlying strictures of social inequality, that drive the novel’s hapless protagonist to his ending. The novel remains as relevant to our age as it did for the Jazz Age because Gatsby’s economic time and place are also our times and places.

The story helps Americans, indeed citizens of all countries facing the challenges of rising inequality, wonder all the more about the hollowness of the metaphor legitimizing it, of the unkept promise of the American Dream.

Continue reading “The Great Gatsby, then and now”

Intergenerational mobility between and within Canada and the United States

Intergenerational mobility is lower in the United States than in Canada, but the border only partially distinguishes the two countries with mobility varying significantly within each. The within-country differences and similarities hint at some of the reasons why the United States has lower social mobility than many other rich countries.

This is the main theme of a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, based upon Canadian data my co-authors and I constructed with the cooperation of Statistics Canada. Our research offers a more accurate comparison between these two countries than any cross-country comparisons made in the literature to date: tax-based administrative data, used to define similar measures of income, and coming close to covering the total population of similarly aged young people and their parents.

We cluster more than 1,000 communities in these two countries—709 American Commuting Zones and 288 Canadian Census Divisions—into four broad regions according to their similarity across a comprehensive set of five different measures of intergenerational income mobility, all referring to the strength of the tie between parent incomes and child adult incomes.

Source: Connolly, Corak, Haeck (2019, Figure 7). Click on image to enlarge.

Continue reading “Intergenerational mobility between and within Canada and the United States”

Rest in peace Alan Krueger

Alan Krueger did everything an economist should aspire to achieve: strong research grounded in a solid understanding of theory and statistical method; framed to uncover facts important to the way people lead their lives, to the challenges they face; and communicated to resonate among policy makers, compelling them to do better for their citizens.

Writing in 1924, upon the death of his teacher and mentor Alfred Marshall, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes said that the “study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with … philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject at which very few excel !”

And just as Keynes said of Marshall, that this paradox is explained by the fact that the “master-economist” needs to embody “a rare combination of gifts,” so to it can be said of Alan Krueger, the Princeton University labour economist who died on March 16th, 2019 at the age of 58. Continue reading “Rest in peace Alan Krueger”

How The Great Gatsby Curve got its name

Great Gatsby Curve

On January 4th, 2012 The New York Times published an article called “Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs.” I had spent a considerable amount of time during the New Year’s holidays talking with Jason DeParle about the comparative literature on intergenerational income mobility, and was pleased to see his article on the front page.

So pleased that I emailed Alan Krueger, the Princeton University economist who at the time was the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, to draw his attention to it, though I don’t know why I imagined that Krueger and his staff in the White House would not be reading The Times.

That is how “The Great Gatsby Curve” was born.

Continue reading “How The Great Gatsby Curve got its name”

Inequality, life chances, and public policy

Lecture series Inequality and Miles Corak European Investment Bank Luxembourg

We should care about inequality because it has the potential to shape opportunities for the next generation. My presentation at the European Investment Bank offers a framework for thinking about this relationship, and for understanding why the adult outcomes of children are more closely tied to their family background—with the poor raising the next generation of poor adults, and the rich more likely to see their children to be rich in adulthood—in countries with greater inequality.

Differences in families, labour markets, and public policy all play a role in understanding why the United States and the United Kingdom have relatively less social mobility than many other countries.

Feel free to download the presentation, which will also soon be posted online by the University of Luxembourg.