The shadow of culture persists

A new working paper, Ancestry of the American Dream, presents some unsurprising results:

Income inequality and intergenerational mobility—the degree to which (dis)advantage is passed on from parents to children—are among the defining political challenges of our time. While some scholars claim that more unequal countries exhibit a stronger persistence of income across generations, others argue that mobility rates are unaffected by social equality and are equally low in most societies. We compare economic opportunity across U.S. areas populated by different European ancestral groups, and find a substantial variation that mirrors current differences across descendants’ countries of origin: mobility is highest in areas dominated by descendants to Scandinavian immigrants, lower in places where the Italian, French, or Germans settled, and lower still in areas with British ancestral origins. A similar pattern is observed for income equality, which gives rise to a gradient closely resembling the “Great Gatsby Curve” across European countries. We provide suggestive evidence that these differences arise mainly at the community level and that similar mobility patterns apply to the black minority population, so they are not simply a function of ancestral groups themselves being more or less mobile. A more plausible explanation is that cultural differences among immigrant groups gave rise to local economic and social institutions that are more or less conducive to mobility. Our findings suggest that present cross-country differences in inequality and intergenerational mobility are real and may have deeper historical origins than has hitherto been recognized.

Looking at county-level ethnicity data from the 1980 census as well as the income tax data that Raj Chetty uses, the authors found some interesting patterns in the “synthetic countries” within the USA:

The overall thesis that the culture immigrants brings persists for generations seems plausible.  In Not By Genes Alone Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson report data from Illinois where farmers of German-American background behave very differently from their neighbors of Anglo-American background when given the same conditions. Anglo-Americans behaved much more like homo economicus . They sold their farms when the market price was right. In contrast, the German-Americans would attempt to keep the farms within the family even through periods when it was not economically rational.

My point is that there are non-economic aspects of culture that may not be picked up by these analyses which have economic consequences.

1856 Republican vote as a proxy for Yankee dominance

The second issue is that not all Americans of “British” origin are the same culturally. Long-time readers know where I’m going with this. The argument in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is that English American New England Yankees are culturally very distinct from British Americans from the South, whose origins often range from southwest England to the borders with Scotland, as well as Ulster-Scots who arrived in the middle of the 18th century.

If you look at at the map within the preprint you see that Utah has a high fraction of British Americans, but its socio-demographic profile is more like the Upper Midwest, dominated by Scandinavians and Germans. The British Americans of Utah, of course, descend to a great extent from New England Yankees, as well as various Northern European immigrant groups converted to Mormonism by 19th-century missions. Though similarly socially and politically conservative, Utah Mormons are culturally very different from white Southerners. One way to describe it is that Utah Mormons have a lot of social cohesion and an orientation toward communalism. This is in line with their Yankee origins. Yankee migrants to the West organized their towns very differently from those from the South (to be frank, Southerners didn’t much organize their towns at all in comparison to Yankee rationalism and collectivism).

Going back to the Upper Midwest, it is important to recall that this was once termed  the “Yankee Empire”. Before 1850 the whites of New England were the most fecund subculture in the United States, and they overflowed to upstate New York, and then the northern swath of Ohio, Illinois, as well as dominated Michigan and the Upper Midwest.

Today the Upper Midwest states of Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the least “Anglo-American” predominantly white states because of the high fraction of Northern Europeans. The rise of socialist politics and the persistence of German-speaking communities deep into the 20th century attest to this density of immigrant ethnicities. But, there were cultural affinities between the natives and the immigrant groups, in particular, Protestant Germans and Scandinavians and Yankees. Unlike in old New England, the developers of the Yankee Empire welcomed migration to settle the farms of the Midwest. Though a plain economistic reading works (there was a deficit of labor and surplus of land), I suspect that conflicts between Irish Catholics and Yankees in New England, as opposed to Scandinavians and Germans (many of whom were Catholics) and older Yankees in the Midwest, were functions of contrasts in complementarity and cultural affinity.

An opposing case to Northern European complementary with the ethos of the Yankee Midwest is that of Germans (and Swedes and Czechs) in Texas. These immigrant groups were settled in the uplands of central Texas because these were the least fertile lands. In short, the white Anglo-Texans often cheated the European ethnics because they could. These Northern European Texan groups were much of the source for the progressive and Left-wing populist tradition in the politics of this state in the 20th century. But over time they have by and large assimilated to white Anglo-Texan norms and folkways. That is, they are not much different than the descendants of white British Texans.

This goes to show you that numbers matter. Where in the Midwest the original Yankees were overwhelmed demographically, that did not happen in Texas. Where in the Midwest the Northern Europeans amplified the collective populist moralism of the Yankees, making it more institutional robust with explicit socialism, in the South the Northern Europeans were eventually absorbed into the region’s customary hierarchal individualism.

Addendum: The authors of the above paper showed that the mobility impacted blacks as well as whites, indicating that the dominant ethos had policy implications which shaped society on the macroscale.

3 thoughts on “The shadow of culture persists

  1. Be interesting to see this computed for data for early periods.

    By which I mean, look at the wider historical picture, Britain seems about as “egalitarian” as Sweden between 1900 – 1960 in top 1% income distribution in Piketty, on the same trajectory as Netherlands and Denmark in top 1% until 1980 in our World In Data, lower Gini Coefficient than most Nordics until about 1990s in some data.

    Top 1%: (Piketty), (Our World In Data)

    Gini Coefficient: (Wiki), (Our World In Data). (OWID also seems to show Sverige Gini coverging on UK!)

    If it was the case that the rank order of inequality had always been the case in Europe, as far as we could know, then it would be intuitive how it would carry over to the USA. But that rank order of inequality in Europe does really not persist over much longer than 2 generations and is a recent phenomenon considering even the 20th century.

    Possible that American ethnic groups could shadow European nations even though inequality divergences between Nordics and others are a very recent (and questionable) phenomenon. Different culture groups may still respond to changes in world economic environment in similar ways. The main difference in Gini seems to be due to tax systems with same pre-tax and transfer gini (gini of market income same in Nordics and Anglo nations), so the channel for inequality shadowing would have to be governmental attitudes and response to a specific shift in those in the 1970s-1980s? Note how US, Australia, Canada all tend to have some parallel change in evolution of income inequality post 1970s.

  2. Great post, just a comment:

    “These Northern European Texan groups were much of the source for the progressive and Left-wing populist tradition in the politics of this state in the 20th century.”

    There doesn’t seem to be a lot of correlation between non-anglo populations and vote for Eugene Debs in the 1912 Presidential Election ( in the Old Southwest.

  3. When it comes to the mobility aspects, to consider is the OECD’s big mobility report this year: That dealt some serious body blows to the idea of a Franco-German (particularly German) model with stronger earnings mobility than the US, Australia, Canada, NZ, UK.

    France and Germany are majorly revised towards the lowest earnings mobility in the OECD, despite low gini, and “Gatsby Curve” becomes driven almost entirely by low development countries on the one, and the Nordics on the other, with what looks like a positive relationship between gini and mobility for the remaining OECD – (Note low earnings mobility combined with low gini is also characteristic of the former Austro-Hungarian region).

    Germany seems to have a particular issue with “sticky floors” (those born into families with lowest earnings stay in that earnings quartile) and “sticky ceilings” (same for the top): Britain has a fairly sticky ceiling but mobility out of the sticky floor in earnings into other earnings classes is actually not so low (relatively high within the OECD 16).

    The report also considers mobility of social class by changes in occupation and occupational prestige, you also see a different picture emerge in the OECD study, where Britain has relatively low occupational class persistance – – in contrast to the picture in earnings and education. Germany is lower than Britain in occupational class mobility, but not as much lower as France is.

    (I think this means relatively low earnings mobility can be compatible with high occupational class mobility, if there are divergences within occupation in earnings by social background. Southern European countries have some inverse patterns where occupational mobility is low and occupation relatively stable, parent-to-child, but earnings are not so much, which implies parents and children vary more in how much they make within the occupation.)

    Finally, educational mobility tends to be rather low in Germany as well, considering both an absolute measure – – and a correlation measure – In the absolute sense, mainly because of less increase in education in Germany, and lower absolute upward education mobility.

    (Most of these outcomes for Germany seem like they could be plausibly interrelated to Germany’s late 20th century and early 21st century economic model, as I understand it; Government coordinates with unions to restrict both wage increases across the board while increasing skills within occupations, combine with low value of Euro (lower than the Deutsche Mark would be?), and Germany maintains export competitiveness and high industrial employment. Don’t radically increase tertiary education or move to a different sectoral mix with more services where individuals will have to move up or down into different occupations and education patterns from parents. Germany rather uniquely stays in the game as a large, exporting Western European country with a high industrial share of exports, but seems like a show that to stay on the road is pretty dependent on the willingness of other nations allowing this to continue (particularly those within the Eurozone, where most purchasers of German exports are, and which take on credit from German banks to do so).)

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