The Great Gatsby Curve Revisited

Last year, Scott Winship engaged in an epic “wonk fight” — I prefer “spirited exchange” – with Miles Corak and Justin Wolfers over the “Great Gatsby curve,” a concept Alan Krueger, who was serving at the time as chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, used to illustrate the relationship between rising inequality and declining mobility:

If the Administration wants to say, “There is a relationship across countries between inequality and mobility, so that would lead us to expect that with rising inequality there will be less mobility,” that’s less objectionable, in a sense, than trying to nail down a point using the Great Gatsby Curve, giving the illusion of precision. However, the claim would still be weak, for a number of the reasons I have laid out. Better yet would be to just say, we have too little mobility and to support it with the comparatively rock-solid evidence on levels of American mobility. That is, one does not have to tie insufficient mobility to inequality, and one does not have to show that mobility is declining to argue that it is insufficiently high.

In a somewhat different vein, Greg Mankiw has offered impressionistic thoughts as to why something like the Great Gatsby curve might obtain:

[I]f we looked at Europe as a whole, rather than each nation separately, we would find that Europe as a whole has more inequality and less mobility than the individual countries. That is, Germans are richer on average than Greeks, and that difference in income tends to persist from generation to generation. When people look at the Great Gatsby curve, they omit this fact, because the nation is the unit of analysis. But it is not obvious that the political divisions that divide people are the right ones for economic analysis. We combine the persistently rich Connecticut with the persistently poor Mississippi, so why not combine Germany with Greece?

The bottom line for me is that the Great Gatsby curve is a bit interesting, but neither particularly surprising nor suggestive of any specific conclusions or policy recommendations.

Though I’m inclined to agree with Mankiw, my takeaway is that the curve is consistent with the view that it is better to be persistently rich than persistently poor, and if the U.S. had the option of annexing Greece or annexing Germany, it would be wiser to annex the latter. (And yes, I have the immigration debate in mind.) 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More