DOES EUROPE REALLY HAVE LESS UPWARD MOBILITY THAN AMERICA?

Tax quibbles aside, Russell Shorto's explanation of how he stopped worrying and learned to love the European welfare state is nicely done. The answer is pretty simple: He started to like the welfare state when he began to receive its services. This, incidentally, is the sort of thing that conservatives worry about quite publicly in the United States. When Ben Nelson says he'll oppose the public plan because "at the end of the day, the public plan wins the game," he's gesturing towards this point. People, in general, like the welfare state. Conservatives have an array of complicated arguments about why they don't really like the welfare state, and are just fooled by the sense that they're getting Medicare for free, but that doesn't change the fact that Medicare is wildly popular. Indeed, it's what makes the fights over new entitlements so terribly bitter: There's a (largely correct) sense that expansions of the welfare state do not go away.

Shorto also offers some criticisms of the Netherlands. It's not very consumer-oriented. Nothing is open on Sundays.. He also argues that there's "a cultural tendency not to stand out or excel...the very antithesis of the American ideal of upward mobility." But you hear this a lot, and it's not quite true. Americans are in the odd position of fervently believing in upward mobility while not actually having very much of it. Eruopeans, conversely, don't really believe in economic mobility but have plenty of it. I don't have the precise data for the Netherlands. But a recent Brookings report examined the relative mobility in other Nordic countries. And the United States doesn't come out that well:

relativemobilityinternational.jpg

These results aren't that hard to explain. But I think you need to first see these survey results:

mobilitybeliefs.jpg

The data, in other words, shows something superficially weird: The United States believes itself to be uncommonly meritocratic. But compared to European countries who don't believe themselves very meritocratic, it actually exhibits less income mobility.

It turns out that there's a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you're likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won't want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won't be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don't believe your country is terribly mobile, then you're less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don't believe the outcomes are fair, you're likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don't spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don't believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. What's odd is that the public perceptions in Europe and America don't seem to be changing much in response to actual outcomes.

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