Is a riskier society more mobile? Paul Krugman writes in today's NYT that

...economic security is a thing of the past: year-to-year fluctuations in the incomes of working families are far larger than they were a generation ago. All it takes is a bit of bad luck in employment or health to plunge a family that seems solidly middle class into poverty.

If we take Krugman seriously, then this is an argument that the U.S. is becoming a more mobile society. Let's we rank order every family in the U.S. by income. Then for every family who is driven down to a lower rung of the income ladder by bad fortune or by the workings of the global economy, someone has to rise to take their place. If there’s more downward relative mobility, there has to be more upward relative mobility as well; that’s simply the way the numbers work.

It should be clear that having more risk in an economy creates more churn and more opportunity for mobility, both up and down. This is not something that either the Republicans or Democrats want to hear.

Consider the following example: Suppose a small economy with 100 workers is ranked by wage, from highest- to lowest-paid. Now let’s suppose that the five best-paid workers are laid off and forced to take much lower-paying jobs. As a result, the people right below them move up in the ranking: No.10 becomes No.5, and so on. This is mobility, as defined by economists, and as the term is used by the journalists who quote them. In other words, a mobile society is one where the order of the income distribution can be rearranged relatively easily.

We can draw a political analogy: In Congress, if the incumbents get re-elected every year, then it’s hard for newer members of Congress to move up to more desirable committee seats (such as the ones that control lots of money). But in a year in which an abnormally high number of incumbents are forced out of office, there’s a lot of upward mobility for the ones who remain.

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