I admit that my last two posts have been pretty heavy on the facts and figures. But now we can use the conclusions to shed some light on the political polarization of the country.
Two main conclusions of Piketty, Saez, and Zucman’s analysis stand out. First, the distribution of pre-tax income is now more uneven than at any time since the 1920s. The top tenth of the population is getting almost half the national income, while the entire bottom half of the population is getting only one-eighth of it. Second, taxation and government spending are only mildly progressive and redistributive. Redistribution reduces the top tenth’s share from 47% to 39%, while increasing the bottom half’s share from 12.5% to 19.4%.
The politics of redistribution
To start assessing the political implications of these conclusions, let’s do a mental experiment. Imagine that each of the broad income groups described in the report took a position on government taxes and spending based solely on their narrow economic self-interest. We would expect people in the top tenth of the distribution to oppose the government’s redistributive role, since they pay more of its costs and qualify for fewer of its benefits. The lower-half of the population should be more supportive, since they receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes.
However, the political stance of the remaining two-fifths–those with incomes in the upper half but not in the top tenth–is likely to be more ambivalent. Their pre- and post-tax shares of national income are about the same (40.5% vs. 41.6%). What they receive in benefits offsets what they pay in taxes. Bear in mind that post-tax income in this analysis includes all forms of government benefits–monetary transfers, in-kind transfers, and general spending for the public good. If they focus on the benefits, they may support government spending; but if they focus on the costs, they may support tax cuts. (Or they can support a lot of both, and put up with deficits and more national debt.)
Since the major political parties disagree so much on taxes and spending, we would expect higher-income people to prefer the Republican Party and lower-income people to prefer the Democratic Party. This is true up to a point. Income is a fair predictor of party affiliation and voting, and the effect of income on voting has actually increased as the gap between rich and poor has widened. Gelman, Kenworthy and Su reported, “For the nation as a whole…there is a broad similarity between the trends in income inequality and the rich-poor gap in partisan voting. Each declined after the 1940s and then rose beginning in the 1970s or 1980s” (Social Science Quarterly, December 2010).
Gallup surveys have found that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to believe that the present distribution of wealth is unfair, and that higher-income groups should pay more taxes.
The role of beliefs
Narrow self-interest is not the only basis on which people vote, however, even on questions of economics. Beliefs about how the economy works or should work are important, as well as beliefs about the impact of public policy on the general prosperity. Politics in a democracy is partly a struggle for the hearts and minds of the people, especially the hearts and minds of the middle class. They may align themselves with either the rich or the poor, depending on whose interests they think best represent the general good.
The upper-tenth have a disproportionate share of the money, but only a minority of the votes. To have their way politically–and they’ve been doing a pretty good job of that lately–they need good arguments against high taxes on the rich and high spending for the less fortunate.
One of those arguments is the appeal to meritocracy. Higher-income people can defend the very unequal pre-tax income distribution as a reflection of people’s real contribution to society. The successful deserve what they get; the unsuccessful deserve less; and the trouble with redistribution is that it punishes achievement and rewards failure. A related argument is that the rich are the job creators who use their incomes and wealth to invest in economic growth for the benefit of all.
Support for these views is widespread. Gallup has reported that when Americans are given a choice between taking steps “to distribute wealth more evenly” or “to improve overall economic conditions and the jobs situation,” people of all political affiliations and income levels prefer the latter by a wide margin.
That helps explain the working-class conservatism reported, for example, by J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy. Although many low-income whites have more to gain from government spending than they have to lose from taxation, they cling to an ideology of self-reliance and hostility to government “handouts”. Reliance on government carries with it a stigma that I see as partly a racial stigma. Slavery, segregation and discrimination impeded black achievement and fostered government dependence, contributing to a stereotype of black laziness. Whites could maintain their sense of superiority by dissociating themselves from such dependency. That meant dissociating themselves from Big Government and liberal politics, especially after the Democratic Party embraced the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Progressives need to change the national conversation about economic inequality, so that it is no longer about industrious job creators at the top, undeserving slackers at the bottom, and families in the middle who should be grateful to the rich for whatever wages they are offered. They need to challenge the dubious assumption that private wealth is always invested for the public good, while government spending is nothing but a drag on the economy. Considering our low rate of economic growth, our lagging productivity, and our wage stagnation, it isn’t obvious that concentrating more and more financial capital at the top has been such a winning strategy. Meanwhile, we cannot seem to find the money to make vital investments in our human capital, so that young people can get educations without accumulating a mountain of debt. People should not have to apologize for getting help to develop their human potential, especially when that enhances their capacity to contribute to society.
Voters shouldn’t have to choose between policies that create jobs and those that alleviate inequality. In a properly functioning democracy, they ought to go hand in hand, as they did during the postwar economic boom.
Progressive beliefs have the potential to spread to all class levels, just as conservative beliefs have. Already there are many higher-income individuals, such as Warren Buffet and George Soros, who advocate for more egalitarian policies.
Trump: populist or plutocrat?
Where does President Trump fit into the politics of redistribution? As a billionaire, he stands near the top of the economic pyramid. Like many other rich men, he sees his success as a sign of his superior merit, no matter what Trump University students or other detractors say in their lawsuits. Indeed, he declares himself to be uniquely suited to save the US economy.
Trump has filled his cabinet mainly with other rich folks who are not noted for their egalitarian views. Mother Jones reported that his cabinet selections have an average net worth of $357 million. The richest 1% of American households have an average net worth of only (did I say “only”?) $18.7 million.
Why is Trump so popular? I think primarily because he presents himself as the ultimate job creator, who will boost economic growth by bringing back lost American jobs. He will use the unorthodox strategy of getting other countries to give us more favorable terms of trade, so that our manufacturing industries prosper, presumably at someone else’s expense. All Americans will benefit, especially downwardly mobile workers, when he puts America first and makes America great again.
We are supposed to be so impressed by these promises that we overlook his tendency to favor the privileged over the rest of society. Strip away his economic nationalism, and what’s left is the usual Republican tax breaks for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor. We don’t have the detailed plans yet, but all indications point to a tax reform bill that will give the biggest reductions to the top brackets, and an Obamacare replacement that will make health insurance less affordable for the poor. Although Trump appealed to enough Democrats and independents to eke out an electoral college victory, the core of his support is among Republicans.
The Trump administration has a real potential to exacerbate income inequality and political polarization. Maybe he can grow the economic pie so much that people don’t care how unequally it is divided, but I wouldn’t bet on it.