Economy

New Study Finds the Wealthy Are Different

On average, high earners have a very different idea of what makes a just society.

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“The very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “are different from you and me.”

It turns out he was right. According to a new study by the think-tank Demos (PDF), the affluent tend to hold a different vision of a just society than the public at large, and it is that vision which tops the political agenda in Washington and in state houses across the country.

The report, authored by David Callahan and J. Mijin Cha, found that “wealthy interests are keenly focused on concerns not shared by the rest of the American public, like keeping taxes low on capital gains, and often oppose policies that would foster upward mobility among low-income citizens, such as raising the minimum wage.”

The policy preferences of the wealthy (average income over $1 million annually) vary widely from those of the general public... [A recent] survey found that the general public is more open than the wealthy to a variety of policies designed to reduce inequality and strengthen economic opportunity, including: raising the minimum wage, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, providing generous unemployment benefits, and directly creating jobs. For example, only 40 percent of the wealthy think the minimum wage should be high enough to prevent full-time workers from being in poverty while 78 percent of the general public holds this view. Affluent voters are also less supportive of labor unions and less likely to support laws that make it easier for workers to join unions—even as research shows that unions are crucial to enabling people to work their way into the middle class. 

One especially significant difference between the opinions of the wealthy and the population as a whole centers on deficit reduction. According to a study cited by Demos, “87 percent of affluent households believed budget deficits were a 'very important' problem, the highest percentage of all listed perceived problems.” Jobs and education, which rank at or near the top of most Americans' list of priorities, were “a distant second to budget deficits among the concerns of wealthy Americans.”

According to an exit poll conducted after the 2012 election, 59 percent of the public rated the economy as the country's number one problem, while only 15 percent cited the federal budget deficit. But as the Demos report notes, “the affluent [not only] participate more in civic life; they also have greater influence over public policy.”

Peter G. Peterson epitomizes that finding. The Wall Street mogul and Nixon administration cabinet member has reportedly dedicated a billion dollars of his fortune to promoting the idea that “entitlements” are going to impoverish our grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Callahan and Cha note that the affluent, “are significantly less inclined than other groups of Americans to support an active role for government in addressing mass unemployment.”

These are good examples of what the authors describe as “the interplay between declining upward mobility and growing political inequality.” Perhaps the most troubling finding in the Demos report is that the wealthy are, on average, less likely to support policies that allow people to pull themselves up the economic ladder. “Even when the affluent do support policies for upward mobility,” write Callahan and Cha, “they often do not prioritize these policies over other goals, such as lower taxes.”

A case in point is higher education. While affluent Americans and business leaders broadly support access to higher education, along with the general public, spending in this area has been cut in some states where governors have prioritized cutting taxes—with strong support from wealthy voters and corporate interests.

While most Americans believe that they live in a highly meritocratic society where one's fortunes are limited only by one's innate talents and work ethic, several studiesreleased in recent years suggest that Americans enjoy significantly less upward mobility than do the citizens of a number of other industrialized nations. German workers have 1.5 times the upward movement of Americans, Canada’s economy is nearly 2.5 times as mobile, and Denmark is three times as mobile. Norway, Finland, Sweden, and France are all more upwardly mobile societies than the United States. Of the countries included in the studies, the United States ranked near the bottom; only in the United Kingdom was it tougher to shake off a low social status one had been born with.

The United States is not the first country to experience what the authors call a “self-reinforcing phenomenon” of increasing inequality and declining mobility.

Historically, prosperous societies tend to fall apart under the burden of widening inequality. But gaping disparities in wealth and income are rarely the cause of their unraveling, at least not directly. It's the nexus between economic and political inequality that ultimately tears at the social fabric of a nation.

According to MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard scholar James Robinson, co-authors of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, gross economic and political disparities create a classic vicious cycle. Wealth becomes concentrated at the top, where it is leveraged into political power to advance the narrow interests of rarified elite. “When politics gets thus hijacked,” write Acemoglu and Robinson, “inequality of opportunity follows, for the hijackers will use their power to gain special treatment for their businesses and tilt the playing field in their favor and against their competitors.”

With the field so tilted, those at the top continue to grab a greater share of income, and more political clout, which leads to the vast majority of us losing not only an opportunity to climb the economic ladder, but also our collective voice. The “best bulwark” against this vicious cycle, according to the authors, is to make sure “that those whose rights and interests will be trampled on have a say and can prevent it.”

Today, we are surrounded by evidence that this fraying of the social contract is well underway in the United States, which is leading the developed world in economic inequality. Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton, examined lawmakers' responsiveness to the interests of various constituents by income, and concluded:

In almost every instance, senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators' roll call votes (PDF).

And in the wake of Citizens United, a Sunlight Foundation analysis of spending during the 2010 midterms found that the most rarified elites – the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of households, or about one out of every 10,000 Americans – accounted for almost a quarter of all political spending in the United States, including direct donations to candidates and financing outside PAC spending.

According to the report:

The One Percent of the One Percent are not average Americans. Overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, and lawyers. A good number appear to be highly ideological. They give to multiple candidates and to parties and independent issue groups. They tend to cluster in a limited number of metropolitan zip codes, especially in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

In the 2010 election cycle, the average One Percent of One Percenter spent $28,913, more than the median individual income of $26,364.

That kind of lopsided influence means the cycle of rising inequality feeding into undemocratic political outcomes will continue until the national will is there to do something real to address the widening gap.

The Demos report offers a series of recommendations toward that end, including:

  • Limiting the influence of money in politics. That includes a call for a constitutional amendment to undo the damage wrought by Citizens United and related decision deregulating campaign finance.

  • Protecting voting rights, and making it easier for people to register.

  • Making corporate America responsive to a larger group of shareholders, including a firm's workers.

  • Reducing economic inequality through a more progressive tax system, investments in education and human capital, and several wealth-building policies.

Most of these proposals have long had a prominent place in progressive policy wishlists. Getting them enacted with a political class that embraces the interests of those at the top is the challenge. It's one that only a mass movement crying out for a more equitable and humane economy can overcome.