The Very Rich are Different From You and Me

Wealthy Americans, by a sizeable margin, consider the federal debt to be the nation’s most important problem. Unlike the public as a whole, they support cutting spending on a wide variety of government programs, including health care and social security. They are much less supportive of corporate taxation, and they strongly oppose redistributing wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.

Imagine what the political debate in Washington would sound like if these people called the shots . . .

Benjamin Page has been spearheading an effort to generate systematic data on the political preferences and behavior of wealthy Americans. The results of a Chicago-area pilot survey are reported in an article by Page, Jason Seawright, and me in the latest issue of Perspectives on Politics. Cambridge University Press has kindly ungated the article, along with several others in a stimulating symposium on “The Politics of Inequality in the Face of Financial Crisis.” Scholars Strategy Network has Page’s summary of the findings, and today’s Los Angeles Times has an op-ed-size bite.

The logistical and analytical challenges in this sort of research are daunting—but the potential payoff for our understanding of the political process seems to me to be enormous.


9 Responses to The Very Rich are Different From You and Me

  1. RobC March 22, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    Though it’s true that 34% of the 83 wealthy individuals who participated in the Chicago-area pilot study said budget deficits or excessive government spending were the most important problem facing the country, it’s also true that when asked which problems were very important, 87% said budget deficits, 84% said unemployment and 79% said education. That puts the implied fixation with budget deficits in somewhat better perspective.

    And not for nothing, we might at least consider the possibility that people who have been successful at accumulating wealth might have a better perspective on how to manage budgets and the dangers of continually running large deficits than, for example, people who can’t make their money (or government benefits) last from one paycheck to the next and whose idea of financial management is to take payday loans at a zillion percent APR.

  2. You and me? March 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Very interesting work. I would change the title of this post to “The Very Rich Are Different from You.” I am a big fan of Larry Bartels’s work, but I think he might be closer to being “very rich” than most of us.

  3. Mark March 22, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    “Imagine what the political debate in Washington would sound like if these people called the shots . . .”

    Good point; (1) we probably would not have the most progressive tax code in the OECD, (2) wouldn’t have Obamacare; (3) No Medicare or Social Security; (4) Bush and Obama wouldn’t have expanded needs based programs funding; (5) would save a lot of money with abolishment of HUD, HHS, DOL etc. Things would look very different indeed!

  4. Shaun March 22, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    Whilst I don’t disagree with everything you said Mark, I’m assuming when you wrote “we probably would not have the most progressive tax code in the OECD…” you were only talking about federal income tax.

    • hk March 25, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

      There is fascinating work by Peter Lindert (The Growing Public) on the linkage between the size of the welfare state and the progressivity of the overall taxation–not just income tax. Basically, the argument is that the more regressive the taxes are, the more the country spends on social safety net. In terms of nominal income tax, I believe US isn’t all that progressive, but because of the heavier than usual reliance on the income tax, US taxes do wind up becoming much more progressive than most, as I remember it. This is, according to Lindert, why we wind up with such small welfare state in the US…

  5. j March 22, 2013 at 11:47 pm #

    Am i the only person who the Perspectives link won’t work for?

    • RobC March 23, 2013 at 12:05 am #

      The PDF link on the ungated page doesn’t work, but the HTML link does.

  6. DaveD March 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Living in Colorado where wealthy folks’ money has ruled the roost for several elections, I don’t doubt their influence, but — personal quirks and special concerns aside — are they really all that different?

    The rich don’t look so different if you compare their issues to the Pew People Press findings:

    I found an R-squared of .859 between Pew’s numbers and the numbers in the “Cambridge” link. Two of the issues mentioned by the rich weren’t on Pew. Here’s the little table; sorry it isn’t pretty.

    Priorities Pew Rich
    Budget deficit 69 87
    Unemployment 82 84
    Education 65 79
    Terrorism 69 74
    Energy 52 70
    Health care 60 57
    Poverty 52 56
    Loss of trad. Values 44 52
    Trade deficit Not Avail 36
    Inflation Not Avail 26
    Climate change 25 16

    • Larry Bartels March 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

      In my view, the issue-by-issue responses (is this an important problem?) are much less informative than forcing people to choose which is the _most_ important problem–and that is where we find the big differences between the wealthy and the general public. However, it is worth noting–as we do in the op-ed–that the general public has become more concerned about the federal deficit than it was at the time of our elite survey: “the public has come to see government debt as an increasingly important problem over the last two years, reducing the gulf between their views and those of the wealthy. Is that because the wealthy were ahead of the curve, or because their concern helped stimulate a steady drumbeat of deficit alarmism in the media and in Washington?”