Response to Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker

by Larry Bartels on December 8, 2010 · 3 comments

in Unequal Democracy Roundtable

Inequality is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s critique of Unequal Democracy seems to hinge in large part on a simple disagreement about which aspects of that phenomenon are most worthy of study. They write, “to us the critical rise in inequality is mostly at the top of the income distribution (where the top 1% has pulled sharply away from everyone else).” This is “the biggest fact about American inequality,” they say, the “crucial” trend; but my book “has very little to say about the spectacular rise of high-end incomes.” In their contribution to a recent special issue of Politics & Society, which expands on several of the points they make more briefly here, they complain about the “misplaced focus” of economic and political accounts, including mine, that emphasize “the broad spreading out of the income distribution, rather than the hyperconcentration of income at the top.”

To Hacker and Pierson, “Bartels’s argument about partisanship boils down to the claim that those on the bottom portions of the income ladder do much worse under Republicans than under Democrats.” Perhaps their diligent attention to the rarified realm of the top 1% has warped their sense of what it means to be “on the bottom portions of the income ladder.”

My tabulations showed that, since the late 1940s, the real incomes of families at the 80th percentile of the income distribution have grown 70% faster under Democratic presidents than they have under Republican presidents. The real incomes of families at the 60th percentile have grown more than twice as fast under Democrats. Families at the 40th percentile have experienced three times as much real income growth under Democrats.

These differences are enormous, and surprisingly robust given the limitations of the available data. Hacker and Pierson seem to want to dismiss them, asserting that “in his regressions, Bartels never finds statistically significant partisan differences in income growth above the 40th percentile.” That is a simple but rather crucial misreading; the t-statistics for partisan effects in my key table (2.3) are 2.9 for families at the 40th and 60th percentiles and 2.4 for families at the 80th percentile, all well beyond any reasonable threshold for “statistical significance.”

Cumulated over more than half a century, these partisan differences have been hugely consequential for the economic well-being of the broad American middle class. The partisan differences in income growth for families who really are near “the bottom portions of the income ladder” have been even larger in percentage terms—and even more consequential in human terms. To think of all this as a sort of sideshow to the real story of hyper-concentration of income going to the top 1 percent strikes me as an instance of “misplaced focus,” to borrow Hacker and Pierson’s phrase.

A second major theme in Hacker and Pierson’s critique is that my analysis is unduly focused on voters and elections—as they put it in their longer essay, on “politics as electoral spectacle” rather than “politics as organized combat.” This is a very plausible complaint, given the inevitable limitations of my own expertise. However, I think they push their point too far when they suggest that Unequal Democracy “tells us that voters are not driving policy outcomes, but it does not tell us who is.”

For one thing, there is ample evidence in the book that voters are often driving policy outcomes—by electing Democratic or Republican policy-makers. The movement to repeal the estate tax involved arduous effort by organized interests, but it is no coincidence that that effort only began in earnest when Republicans won the House in 1994, and achieved (temporary) victory within months of the election of a Republican president in 2000. Similarly, the Bush tax cuts were championed by powerful interest groups, but they never would have seen the light of day if a thousand more voters in Palm Beach had succeeded in voting for Al Gore.

In both these cases, it seems unhelpful to think of “politics as electoral spectacle” and “politics as organized combat” as mutually exclusive alternatives. The interplay of these factors is even clearer in my chapter on the eroding minimum wage. As Hacker and Pierson note, my analysis of minimum wage policy-making assigns a major role to the declining clout of labor unions. But partisan control of the White House and Congress also mattered substantially. Moreover, the terms of “organized combat” seem to have been significantly shaped by partisan politics: the estimated impact of labor union strength was almost twice as great under Democratic presidents as it was under Republicans, and the estimated impact of the partisan composition of Congress was three times as great under Democratic presidents as it was under Republicans.

There is, of course, much more to be learned about the role of labor unions, businesses, and other powerful organized interests in the politics of inequality, and in contemporary American politics more broadly. Thus, I enthusiastically second Hacker and Pierson’s closing call to “look more closely” at “the organized combat that is taking place in the trenches of American politics on a daily basis.” The primary reason why I haven’t done more of that myself is that it is tremendously difficult; the inferential challenges involved in using observations of “politics as organized combat” to “tell us who is” driving policy outcomes—and how those policy outcomes matter—are enormous. Fortunately, Hacker and Pierson’s own terrific new book, Winner-Take-All Politics, provides an excellent full-scale model of the sort of analysis they advocate, and an excellent sense of how richly analyses of this sort can contribute to our understanding of the political process.

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