Skip to content

Rare name analysis and wealth convergence

Steve Hsu summarizes the research of economic historian Greg Clark and Neil Cummins:

Using rare surnames we track the socio-economic status of descendants of a sample of English rich and poor in 1800, until 2011. We measure social status through wealth, education, occupation, and age at death. Our method allows unbiased estimates of mobility rates. Paradoxically, we find two things. Mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated. There is considerable persistence of status, even after 200 years. But there is convergence with each generation. The 1800 underclass has already attained mediocrity. And the 1800 upper class will eventually dissolve into the mass of society, though perhaps not for another 300 years, or longer.

Read more at Steven’s blog. The idea of rare names to perform this analysis is interesting – and has been recently applied to the study of nepotism in Italy.

I haven’t looked into the details of the methodology, but rare events have their own distributional characteristics, and could benefit from Bayesian modeling in sparse data conditions. Moreover, there seems to be an underlying assumption that rare names are somehow uniformly represented in the population. They might not be. A hypothetical situation: in feudal days, rare names were good at predicting who’s rich and who’s not – wealth was passed through family by name. But then industrialization perturbed the old feudal order stratified by name into one that’s stratified by skill and no longer identifiable by name.

Let’s scrutinize this new methodology! With power comes responsibility.

This post is by Aleks Jakulin.


  1. fred says:

    “With power comes responsibility” … so with lack of power comes irresponsibility?

  2. revo11 says:

    andrew, can you point to some literature discussing the distributional characteristics of rare events?

  3. John Khademi says:

    Perhaps a little “Regression to the mean” going on?

  4. mpledger says:

    I am willing to believe his b’s for that age cohort of very rich/rich but the age cohort of the very rich/rich in the idustrial era is likely to have very different b’s e.g. a competitor getting the latest technology could wipe out a family business.

    I was kinda surpised there was any context around this e.g. the difference between class and wealth, the effect of entailed land ownership, assisted immigration and transportation of the poor etc.

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    A generation ago, Nathanael Weyl wrote two books looking at the achievement levels of common names. Fascinating stuff.

  6. Alan says:

    This is not research by Greg Clark. This is research by Greg Clark AND Neil Cummins. Please cite the other author.

  7. stuff says:

    in case you didn’t know, Clark also published an article: “Was there ever a Ruling Class? 1,000 years of Social Mobility in England” ( “Paradoxically we find two things. The first is that England does not have, and never had, a persistent ruling elite. Social mobility in the long run for the indigenous English and western European migrants has been complete. The second, however, is that mobility rates are much lower than social scientists conventionally measure, and have increased little between the middle ages and now.”

  8. Mitch H. says:

    How do they control for “protective coloration” – the tendency of strivers with low-status names to assume names more appropriate to their desired status? How many Archie Leaches becoming Cary Grants can there be in your samples before it queers the analysis?