Tag Archives: Bartels

Politicians respond overwhelmingly to the rich

Since the beginnings of democracy, debate has raged as to how responsive politicians are to their constituents. Though such debates stretch back centuries, only recently have academics gotten the ability to use data to test how well legislatures represent the people they ostensibly serve. So far, the evidence hasn’t been kind, with two leading academics arguing recently that, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

That’s academic for: “American democracy is a joke.”

Much of the academic work, and nearly all of the press coverage of the field, has focused solely on the United States. In a new working paper, a luminary in the field, political scientist Larry Bartels, expands his analysis to explore the relationship between policy and public preferences to the international arena. First, Bartels finds increasing demand for a stronger safety net across in many countries where data stretch back more than two decades, including the United States. (Indeed, support for more social spending has increased the most dramatically in the US). He does so by using a question that asks individuals to indicate where they would like more government spending. (The question notes that tax increases may be necessary to boost government spending.) Although there are eight spending areas in the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) data, Bartels focuses in on four: pensions, health, unemployment benefits, and education.

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While it initially appears that policymakers respond to changes in public preferences, Bartels shows that in fact the changes are endogenous. When Bartels controls for economic growth and unemployment, the apparent relationship between public opinion and public spending is eliminated. (See the dashed line in the figure below.)

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Bartels finds massive differences between the rich and poor on preferences for social spending, budget cutting and “welfare state values.” To determine public support for budget cutting, Bartels used a question that asked whether cuts in government spending as “some things the government might do for the economy.” What Bartels refers to as “welfare state values” are these questions: “On the whole, do you think it should or should not be the government’s responsibility to provide a job for everyone who wants one?” and “ “On the whole, do you think it should or should not be the government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor?”

As the chart shows, the rich are less supportive of social spending, more supportive of budget cuts, and opposed to government guaranteeing jobs and reducing inequality (“welfare state values”).

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The United States was a leader in class conflict, with the largest gap between the rich and poor on social spending of any nation, the second highest gap on budget-cutting preferences (only Finland had a greater level of class conflict) and the fourth highest gap on welfare state values (after Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand). The Nordic countries had among the highest gaps in opinion, suggesting that many of the rich may feel that the country has gone too far to reduce inequality and providing public goods. In only one country, South Korea, were the rich more supportive of higher social spending than the poor. In all countries, the wealthy were less supportive of “welfare state values” than the poor.

When Bartels compared the policy preferences of the rich and poor to actual policy results (with controls) his results were disturbing. He finds that low-income preferences had virtually no effect on policy outcomes.

Then Bartels, in a deeply original and important contribution to the literature, estimates what the effect of equal representation would be on social spending, and uses that measurement to conclude that, by contrast, biased responsiveness reduces real social spending per capita by 28 percent on average. In the United States, he finds that the gap is around 40 percent.

To repeat: Social spending in the United States is 40 percent lower than it would be if policymakers didn’t disproportionately respond to the rich.

A paper by researcher Derek A Epp, currently under review, suggests one possible source of the problem: “During periods of high inequality the government engages in fewer policy activities on a narrower range of topics.” He finds that redistribution is one of the first issues pushed off of the agenda. This is largely in line with the work of a group of political scientists who find that policy stagnation has reduced the ability of government’s to respond to rising inequality.

Further, as I’ve noted, the agendas of the poor and rich are different, the poor and middle class tend to be more concerned with issues of redistribution like poverty and the minimum wage. Legislatures are increasingly stretched, and they rely more on pre-packaged bills by organizations like ALEC and turn to interest groups and lobbyists to help analyze and draft legislation.

Lee Drutman has made this argument forcefully and frequently, noting, “The entire House and Senate combined spend less on staff ($2 billion a year) than corporations spend on lobbying ($2.6 billion a year).” The result is obvious: economic inequality only further strengthens the power of the already wealthy, creating a self-fueling cycle. As Drutman notes, the solution is equally obvious: bolster legislative capacity by increasing staff size and salaries. At the state level, we need professionalized state legislatures. (While part-time citizen legislators sound good, the research suggeststhey do a bad job representing their constituents.)

The literature on inequality and democracy continues to expand dramatically. There’s been increasing research at the state level, as well as new studies examining race, gender and the interactions of race and class. Further, studies are increasingly honing in on the donor class, differential turnout and rising economic inequality as explanations for this unequal representation.

The solutions are simple to imagine, but more difficult to put into practice. Unions promote both economic and political equality – they both push up the wages of workers and mobilize politically for the interests of the middle class. Automatic voter registration would boost turnout, and combined with non-partisan get-out-the-vote operations offers the most viable route to boosting turnout among low-propensity individuals. Disclosure of campaign donations, robust public financing of electionsand limits on the ability of corporations and wealthy individuals to influence elections could alleviate the pervasive influence of money over politics.

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As it happens, policies to reduce the power and influence of the elite class over politics have broad public support, across all parties. (The charts above show net support, meaning I subtracted the share of people against the policy from the share in support.) The problem, of course, is getting the politicians already under the sway of powerful interests to pass laws limiting their influence over politics.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

How to tap latent conservative support for global warming policy

Both last month’s Senate Climate Talkathon and Tom Steyer’s $100 million dollarpledge to back environment-friendly candidates indicate the same thing: Democrats are getting serious about global warming again. But even when Democrats have managed to close ranks behind previous legislative efforts like Waxman-Markey, Republicans have stymied them. Can the left forge a coalition to tackle the problem?

The environment was once a bipartisan issue. The 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1973 Endangered Species Act were all passed with bipartisan support, as was legislation strengthening those acts in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the environment has become increasingly divisive. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the decrease in support for environmental protection is not only very recent but also one-sided:

Despite that decline, Republican support for environmental causes is stronger than it might appear. Two Ph.D. students at the University of California Santa Barbara, Phillip Ehret and Aaron Sparks, found that a quarter of individuals self-identifying as “very conservative” or “conservative” support environmental regulations, even if they risk harming the economy. A Yale Study finds that 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans favor “regulating CO2 as a pollutant” and majorities from both parties favor investing in renewable energy. If Republican voters are concerned about the environment, haven’t we seen an action?

One explanation is that the framing of environmental issues is often anathema to conservatives. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s important paper on the subject, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” finds that liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.

In 1971’s Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI laid out a religious case for protecting the environment, using the language of responsibility, duty to future generations, and purity—in other words, the conservative framing under Feinberg and Willer’s standards:

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation … thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable …. The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.

In his 2006 “Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor,” E.O. Wilson showed how to use the religious framing in defense of the environment:

You have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity. Pastor, we need your help. The Creation—living nature—is in deep trouble.

The environmental movement has stumbled because it has not framed the issue as Wilson and Paul VI did. A 2012 study by Matthew C. Nisbet, Ezra M. Markowitz, and John E. Kotcher found that climate campaigns overwhelming frame the issue in terms of harm and care, fairness, and oppression of marginalized groups. These frames fall into what Feinberg and Willer would consider left-wing frames, alienating conservatives.

Adopting a more conservative framing wouldn’t lead to liberals winning more elections. More likely, moderate Republican and centrist thought leaders could make green policy a bipartisan initiative of the sort that was common during the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Sr. days. There are already right-leaning pro-environment groups, like Atlanta’s Green Tea Coalition and Ducks Unlimited. That’s unlikely to be enough to bridge the divide. Because people are more likely to respond to arguments made by someone within their community than outside of it, progress depends on more Republican voices.

But Republican thought leaders and policymakers have abandoned the environment in droves. ThinkProgress calculates that 56 percent of Republicans in the current congress deny anthropogenic global warming. Among the general public, 26 percent of adults don’t believe global warming is real (although only 11 percent of Democrats do, versus 46 percent of Republicans and an astonishing 70 percent of Tea Partiers). Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont,argues that there has been a concerted effort among right-leaning elites to downplay the environmental issue. “Partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change,” she writes. “Party sorting seems to occur only as citizens acquire information and become familiar with elite cues.” This helps explain the lack of political movement, despite evidence that conservative voters are concerned about the degradation of the environment.

Guber notes the infamous 2003 Frank Luntz memo arguing that the environment was the issue on which Republicans were most vulnerable. “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,” Luntz wrote. “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” Funders took Luntz’s idea and ran with it—with impressive success. A Drexel University study released in December bolsters the idea of a concerted denial campaign led by elites. The survey found that the climate-denial movement consists of 91 organizations supported by 140 primarily conservative foundations.

“The Republicans and (at least a large part of) the business community are against doing anything about climate change, because doing something about it would mean government intervention in the economy, which is ideologically bad but also having tangible and real economic costs on certain segments of the business world,” Benjamin Radcliff, a professor of politics at Notre Dame, told me.

Regulating greenhouse gases would hurt some big businesses. If IPCC estimates are correct, some 80 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain unused. That presents a risk for companies like Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil—companies whose donations give them an outsize influence on the political process. Recently, Exxon said it is “highly unlikely” that governments would implement policies to significantly reduce emissions. (Just to be sure, the company has donated millions to climate denial groups.)

Tom Steyer’s example aside, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page find “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” And elites are less likely to be concerned about climate change than other citizens. Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright have found that the issue ranks below “the loss of traditional values,” budget deficits, and inflation among policy priorities for the wealthy. While the wealthy in their study generally favored reducing spending on the environment (the difference between “expanded” and “cut back” was -8) the public strongly favored increasing spending (+29).

Internationally, the environment isn’t so polarized. Right-leaning politicians like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have embraced the environment, and Angela Merkel won reelection in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy in favor of renewables. And within the U.S., some Democratic governors in red states have had success pursuing environmental issues. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Dave Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a reelection margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country, including 66 percent approval among Republicans.

But at the national level in the United States, environmental progress has been stymied by elites with a vested interest in fostering denial and the economic means to do so. This is not an easily surmountable challenge, but the polling reveals that underlying support offers hope for moving climate-change policy forward; and unlike hot-button issues like abortion or gay rights, the policy solutions are well agreed-upon. Yet the environmental movement has not helped itself by framing the issue in terms that appeal mostly to the converted. Activists will find more success if they focus on promoting sanctity and responsibility, showing how protecting the environment is economically beneficial and leaving a legacy for future generations.

Originally published on The Atlantic.

Conservatives defend inequality out of self-interest — nothing more

Conservatives have justified inequality for decades, arguing that it is an inevitable byproduct of capitalism and broadly beneficial. This intellectual edifice has begun to collapse.

Supply-side economics rest on the assumption that the wealthy drive economic growth, and that by reducing taxes on them, we can unleash latent economic potential. In fact, however, investment is driven by demand, not supply (a point acknowledged by the relatively conservative Martin Feldstein). If there are viable investments, they will be made regardless of tax rates, and if there are no investments, cutting taxes is merely pushing on a string. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two top economists on inequality, find no correlation between marginal tax rates and economic growth.

Recently, two IMF papers confirmed what Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz have long argued: Inequality reduces the incomes of the middle class, and therefore demand. This stunted demand means fewer opportunities for investment, stunting growth.

Add to this growing body of research the fact that a robust defense of inequality is increasingly difficult to muster when every other OECD country has far lower levels of inequality than the United States. Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1 percent was widely decried, because a large swath of research shows that the rise of the 1 percent did not come from natural economic forces, but rather rent-seeking.

The evidence is clear: The economic benefits of inequality have been massively oversold. Inequality is, in fact, a detriment to growth. So why has the right not conceded the argument?

The answer is class interest.

“Class interest” does not mean that the wealthy are nefarious schemers. Instead, it means there are various cognitive biases that lead them to justify and perpetuate inequality. For instance, Kris-Stella Trump conducted experiments in which participants were asked to solve anagrams in a high inequality scenario (the winner received $9 and the loser $1) and a low inequality scenario (the winner got $6 and the loser $4). When asked what a fair distribution would look like, the high inequality group preferred an inequality of $5.54 ($7.77-$2.23) while the low inequality group preferred inequality of $2.30 ($6.15-$3.85). She concludes: “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality.” Inequality perpetuates inequality.

Paul Piff finds that the wealthy feel more entitled to their earnings and are more likely to show personality traits typically associated with narcissism. Recent research by Andrew J. Oswald and Natavudh Powdthavee finds that lottery winners in the UK are more likely to switch their political affiliation to the right, and also more likely to believe that current distributions of wealth are fair. As people get richer, they think that tax policies favoring the rich are fair — not because of the macro-economic benefits, but because of how they benefit me.

These cognitive biases, rooted in class distinctions, have deep implications. As a young economist argued in 1846, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright examined the policy preferences of the very wealthy and found that they generally fall in line with their class interests. The wealthy were far less likely than the general public to believe that “government must see that no one is without food, clothing, or shelter,” or that minimum wage must be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line,” or that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

This is not meant to demean the policy preferences of the wealthy — only to examine the motives. For too long, the wealthy have couched their economic ideas as being broadly good for the country, but in fact, de-unionization, capital market liberalization, and austerity benefit themwhile leaving the rest of us far worse off. It’s time that we were all honest about why we support the policies we support.

Now of course, not everyone who supports conservative economic policy is wealthy. Indeed, there is a large literature devoted to the question why the working class supports policies against their own interests. Engles calls this phenomenon “false consciousness,” writing to Franz Mehring, “the real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.” Thomas Frank proposes that working-class conservatives are swayed by social issues. Ian Haney Lopez argues that racial animus still plays a role. Rick Perlstein notes the power of identity politics. The American ethos of upward mobility certainly plays a role; truck drivers in Tallahassee vote for tax breaks on Wall Street believing that they may someday posses enough wealth that an estate tax might affect them. John Steinbeck noted the power of aspiration, writing, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

But when it comes to wealthy conservatives who favor economic policies that hurt many Americans: Bartels’ previous investigation of economic and political power finds, unsurprisingly, that those with a higher socioeconomic status have more influence on legislative outcomes. Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, and Kay Lehman Schlozman have all recorded similar findings. It seems obvious, but it is important to connect these dots: Not only do the wealthy have interests divorced from the broader interests of society, but they also have the political heft to turn those interests into policy.

It is considered rather gauche to discuss class today, and the inequality debate is therefore situated in a purely theoretical realm. Liberals are constantly confused and aggravated about why the preponderance of evidence that austerity doesn’t work (while stimulus does) and that inequality harms society is lost on a large portion of conservatives.

Well, let’s face it: Those who support austerity and inequality are not really about “trickle-down” economics or “efficiency and equity.” They are protecting the interests of the upper class.

As Jonathan Swift warned, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Originally published on The Week.