Someone once defined a social problem as a situation in which the real world differs from the theories of intellectuals. To the intelligentsia, it follows, as the night follows the day, that it is the real world that is wrong and which needs to change.
Having imagined a world in which each individual has the same probability of success as anyone else, intellectuals have been shocked and outraged that the real world is nowhere close to that ideal. Vast amounts of time and resources have been devoted to trying to figure out what is stopping this ideal from being realized -- as if there was ever any reason to expect it to be.
Despite all the words and numbers thrown around when discussing this situation, the terms used are so sloppy that it is hard even to know what the issues are, much less how to resolve them.
Back in mid-May, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal had front-page stories about class differences and class mobility. The Times' article was the first in a long series that is still going on a month later. Both papers reached similar conclusions, based on a similar sloppy use of the word "mobility."
The Times referred to "the chance of moving up from one class to another" and the Wall Street Journal referred to "the odds that a child born in poverty will climb to wealth." But the odds or probabilities against something happening are no measure of whether opportunity exists.
Anyone who saw me play basketball and saw Michael Jordan play basketball when we were youngsters would have given odds of a zillion to one that he was more likely to make the NBA than I was. Does that mean I was denied opportunity or access, that there were barriers put up against me, that the playing field was not level?
Or did it mean that Michael Jordan -- and virtually everyone else -- played basketball a lot better than I did?
A huge literature on social mobility often pays little or no attention to the fact that different individuals and groups have different skills, desires, attitudes and numerous other factors, including luck. If mobility is defined as being free to move, then we can all have the same mobility, even if some end up moving faster than others and some of the others do not move at all.
A car capable of going 100 miles an hour can sit in a garage all year long without moving. But that does not mean that it has no mobility.