Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Americans Sound Confused About Equality if You Ask the Wrong Question

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According to Drew Desilver at the Pew Research Center, most Americans (65%) agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing, which is true. “But ask people why the gap has grown, and their answers are all over the place.”

Among people who said the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown, we asked an “open-ended question” — what, in their own words, the main reason was. About a fifth (20%) said tax loopholes (or, more generally, tax laws skewed to favor the rich) were the main reason. Ten percent pinned the blame on Congress or government policies more broadly; about as many (9%) cited the lackluster job market, while 6% named corporations or business executives.

But well over half of the people who saw a widening gap cited a host of other reasons, among them (in no particular order): Obama and Democrats, Bush and Republicans, the education system, the capitalist system, the stock market, banks, lobbyists, the strong/weak work ethic of the rich/poor, too much public assistance, not enough public assistance, over-regulation, under-regulation, the rich having more power and opportunity, the rich not spending enough, and simply “a lot of greedy people out there.”

This is presented as a combination of public confusion and disagreement. As Desilver notes, there are important differences in the types of things Republicans and Democrats mentioned. But it’s important to note what the question was. It asked for one main reason. Yet it’s not clear the reasons listed are in any way inconsistent. What should a respondent do if they think more than one of these is important, or work together? Personally I’d love to see a poll which asked people if they think each of these things is an important driver of inequality between the rich and the rest. Then we’d actually be able to tell whether there was much disagreement. An open-ended question that asks for one factor cannot address this.

Of course, it’s also worth asking where people are supposed to be getting a clear understanding of where inequality comes from. It strikes me that the explanations found in the media, or given by politicians, are themselves confused and contradictory. Even for individuals, like the president, explanations seem to shift over time or even within a single speech. And anything other than character flaws or skills, when mentioned, is unlikely to be explained. Systematic explanations offered in our elite discourse tend to be more vague than individual ones. Besides, the field that should be explaining this–economics–is ill-equipped to do so, both in terms of the tools it uses and the questions it asks. None of these actors has much incentive to explain to people why this is happening, since they are among the elite or depend on their patronage.

So it’s not clear there is evidence that people are confused. And if they are, the blame probably lays with elites. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to this, but every time I read one of these stories I feel there is an implicit comparison to elites, who are assumed to generally have clear and correct ideas  about policy.  Even a book like Martin Gilens’ Affluence and Influence*, clearly motivated by a deep concern for democracy, is framed around this sort of contrast. Leaving aside my opposition to oligarchy as a matter of principle, I’m unconvinced that the ruling elites are any better qualified. They are after all the people who brought us Vietnam, the Iraq War, and the Great Recession.

*More on that soon.

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Written by David Kaib

April 29, 2014 at 1:36 pm

One Response

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  1. […] recent Gallup poll (h/t Jonathan Cohn) provides another illustration of a point I’ve made before–view of Americans as presented in the media are a product of the weird sorts of questions […]


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