Across societies that are free, there is this belief that one’s station in life is not shaped by genetic determinism. Plus the belief that opportunities are limitless for those with drive and talent—with some lucky breaks. After all, free societies with universal education and the safety nets are supposed to thrive with “up-from-the-bootstrap” narratives.
In these societies, the mantra is that for those determined to scale the ladder of upward mobility, for those who aim to rise in the world, it is not the surname, the one passed on to you by your forefathers, that counts. Rather, it is the talent, the drive and the determination to succeed. Very much like the “Sipag at Tiyaga” spiel of former presidential candidate Manny Villar.
Gregory Clark, an economic historian at UC Davis, has written a book, “The Son also Rises—Surnames and the History of Social Mobility” that dispels upward mobility as either junk or is very slow across generations. Clark’s book says that it takes ten to 15 generations for wealth to dissipate, or some 300 to 450 years, and not much can be done to break that chain. The accepted longevity by most social scientists is three generations.
The poor? Well, they stay poor because of that condition of slow mobility. It takes that long period, 300 to 450 years, to get out of poverty. The books just falls short of admitting that, well, if you have lost in the lottery of inherited status and wealth, you will be condemned to that status forever.
Clark did not just base his book on mobility in America. He studied mobility in modern Sweden and feudal England and the Qing Dynasty. Using surnames of people, he made some interesting conclusions such as:
Despite Mao’s purge of the elite during the Cultural Revolution, the surnames with relatively high social status before the purge are the same families with relatively high social status today. Even one of the bloodiest and the cruelest cleansing of the elite in recent history did nothing to change the status of families in China.
English surnames listed in the Domesday book of 1016 (Sinclair, Percy and Beauchamp), names associated with the Norman conqueror, are blessed with a present generation that has a 25 percent higher chance of matriculating at Cambridge or Oxford.
If you are a present-day adult American that descended from an Ivy league graduate between 1650 to 1850, it is twice likely that you are included in the Directory of Physicians that is compiled by the American Medical Association.
Even Sweden ‘s original aristocrats, the original members of its “House of Nobility” are still the same families with high social and economic status in Sweden. Sweden, take note, has a reputation of a country with inspired and sustained social mobility.
Birth predicts the income and status of individuals by more than 50 percent
The issue of slow mobility resonates in the Philippine context and it is the driving force behind the efforts to rein in political dynasties. Some political families have been in control over specific political territories for over a century. Which means a political control that even preceded the proclamation of the republic in 1946
The critics of the Ortegas of La Union say that the family has been in control of La Union politics for over a century. The critics of the Fuentebella family in the tough-luck part of Camarines Sur also claim that the family has been in power of the Partido section of CamSur since time immemorial.
At the Senate, at least from Clark’s reckoning of longevity, there is one surnamed Recto and another surnamed Osmeña.
President Aquino’s great grandfather was a revolutionary general. His grandfather was a senator and cabinet member. His father was a senator and would-be-president. In the next 300 to 450 years, we will have a leader surnamed Aquino. In fact, right now one is a senator who might one day run for president.
At the other end, which means below, here is a three generation narrative of my family: Grandfather was a herdsman and occasional sharecropper, Father was a sharecropper, the present generation (myself) remains a farmer. This is a typical story of a peasant family. Will the peasant Ronquillos rise up in this world and break away from the peasant/OFW bondage? Maybe in 300 years.
Of the 10 Filipino dollar billionaires recently listed by Forbes magazine as among the wealthiest in the world, just one or two would be classified as “self-made” but this would mean stretching the meaning of “self-made” very far.
Mr. Villar, who would be in a list of top 100 wealthiest Filipinos indeed expended a lot of “Sipag at Tiyaga” to get to where he is now, but his life story can’t be told without stating two things: he married into a wealthy and politically-connected family and he was trained in money matters at the best university in the country.
You can’t take away the attributes of “smart and driven” from the Filipino wealthiest. But it would be a stretch to say that they truly represent true and genuine narratives of amazing and spectacular upward rise in life.
Better, in a society that swoons at the lives of the rich, at what Pope Francis calls “the deification of money,” there is neither anger nor envy from the general public on their great wealth. Ours is one of the few countries in the world that are blissfully oblivious to the great chasm that divides the wealthy and the poor.
The public would rather punch at the excesses of their preferred villains—politicians and corrupt public officials—leaving the “ malefactors of great wealth” free from public wrath and criticisms.