Will the poor be always with us, as the Bible warned? Comparing the family wealth to those with the same surname today, a new study
suggests that the richest families in Florence 600 years ago remain the same today.
This study, by two Italian economists, Guglielmo Barone and Sauro Mocetti, analysed Florentine taxpayers back in 1427 to those in 2011. In almost 600 years, they found “The top earners among the current taxpayers were found to have already been at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago.”
Thus they challenge the orthodox view where most scholars, who have studied intergenerational mobility empirically, have focused on the correlation in socioeconomic status between two successive generations – parents and their children – and have shared a common view that the economic advantages and disadvantages of ancestors vanish in a few generations.
Barone and Mocetti found that “The top earners among the current taxpayers were already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago – they were lawyers or members of the wool, silk, and shoemaker guilds; their earnings and wealth were always above the median. In contrast, the poorest surnames had less prestigious occupations, and their earnings and wealth were below the median in most cases.”
They also found that a) intergenerational mobility in the 15th century was much lower than at present, as might be expected, and b) evidence of dynasties in certain elite professions such as lawyers, pharmacists and goldsmiths.
If that is not bad, in England, the elites have persisted for over eight centuries, according to another study, by economists Greg Clark and Neil Cummins. They examined educational status and surnames in England between 1170 and 2012. Surnames were first adopted by the upper classes in England, often from their estates in Normandy and recorded in the Domesday Book
of 1086. It is England’s oldest surviving public record and in essence, the first census. Many of the surnames in it are still at the top of the elite in Britain such as Darcy, Percy, Montgomery, Neville, Baskerville and Talbot.
Attendance at Oxford or Cambridge has an even stronger correlation than elite names. It was very hard to get into either of these colleges. Both had their own special entrance exams until 1986, and until 1940, the exams for Oxford included a test in Latin. You only learnt that in posh private schools.
“Social status is more strongly inherited even than height,” according to Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis and Neil Cummins of the London School of Economics. “This correlation is unchanged over centuries. Social mobility in England in 2012 was little greater than in preindustrial times.”
Clark and Cummins had expected that that the expansion of state support in the 60 years to the 1980s (when university fees were re-introduced) for secondary and college education would stem the tide of the same names appearing. “There is no evidence of this,” they said. “The earlier surname elite persisted just as tenaciously after 1950 as before.”
The rise in inequality over recent decades has been felt by many affected and has manifested itself in rising populism and rightward shifts in the US and Europe. The traditional left in Europe appeared to be taken with much of the apparent “modernism” and fashions of neo-liberalism such as privatisation, de-regulation and lower taxes for the “job creators”. Hence of those who were left behind by policies which drove inequality felt they were not represented.
Inequality will continue to be entrenched forever unless we do something about it. Evidence points to what needs to be done to redress it. Evidence also shows that fairer societies work better and are better places in which to live.
Paul Sweeney is former Chief Economist of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He is a member of the Economic Committee of the ETUC and chair of TASC’s Economists’ Network. He was a President of the Statistical and Social Enquiry Society of Ireland, a member of the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland, the National Statistics Board, the ESB, TUAC, (advisor to OECD) and several other bodies. He has written three books on the Irish economy and two on public enterprise, including The Celtic Tiger; Ireland’s Economic Miracle Explained and Selling Out: Privatisation in Ireland, chapters in other books and many articles on economics.