Thursday, May 14, 2015

End of the middle?

The New York Times had a story the other day about how presidential candidates are avoiding the term "middle class" in favor of terms like "everyday Americans," "working families," etc.  The idea was that they are trying to appeal to a growing group of people who think of themselves as a little below the middle (what Australians would call "battlers").  Leaving the question of whether candidates' language has changed, I wondered whether people's views about their position in society have changed.   Since the 1970s, the General Social Survey has regularly asked "Compared with American families in general, would you say your family income is far below average, below average, average, above average, or far above average?"  Over the whole period, 1.8% said they were far above average, 17.0% said above average, 45.5% said average, 22% below average, and 5% said far below average.

As an aside, I'll mention what's perhaps the most ridiculous claim about public opinion that I've ever heard, which was made by  David Brooks in the New York Times and picked up by other media outlets: "the most telling polling result from the 2000 election was from a Time magazine survey that asked people if they are in the top 1 percent of earners. Nineteen percent of Americans say they are in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday."  The figures were actually from a question about something else--whether people expected to benefit from George Bush's proposed tax cuts (it mentioned in passing that Al Gore had said the cuts would benefit mostly the top one percent).

Returning to the main point, if we count far below average as 1, below average as 2 ... far above average as 5, the means are:


Something really has happened:  Average perception had gone up and down with no clear trend, but since 2006 has dropped to its lowest levels ever.  Looking at the distribution of individual responses, there seems to have been some shift even before then.  In the 1970s, less than 5% said far  below average, less than 2% said far above average, and about 55% said average.  By the early 2000s, about 6% said far below, about 3% far above, and less than half said average.  The last few years have seen a shift from average to below average.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Clever Fellows Strike Again

None of the stories on the British election that I read mentioned the popular vote, so I looked and found it here.  (Slightly less detailed results are now on Wikipedia).  The comparison with 2010 is interesting:

                    2010        2015    Change
Conservative       36.1%       36.9%   +0.8
Labour             29.0%       30.4%   +1.4
UKIP                3.1%       12.6%   +9.5 
Liberal Dem.       23.0%        7.9%  -15.1
SNP                 1.7%        4.7%   +3.0
Green               0.9%        3.8%   +2.9
BNP                 1.9%        0.0%   -1.9

In terms of seats, the Conservatives gained and Labour lost, but in terms of votes both were up very slightly over last time (Labour actually gained more).  I looked these figures up yesterday, and this morning saw a story in the New York Times called "Appeal to Dwindling Core Proves Costly for Labour Party in Britain." It said that  Labour had moved left to try to appeal to the manual working class, and lost the center.  Everyone they quoted said basically the same thing, but the best summary was:   "The more Labour drifts from the center the more it hurts, and they [Labour] may not like it, but Britain is a very moderate country . . . and risks outside the mainstream worried voters.”  

The figures above show, the mainstream (Labour, Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats) parties went from a combined 88% of the vote in 2010 to 75% in 2015, with the big loser being the party of the center.  The "outsiders" of the left (SNP and Greens), went from 2.6% to 8.5%, while the outsiders of the right (UKIP and BNP) went from 5% to 12.6%.  

In other words, the analysis was exactly backwards--the middle lost and the non-mainstream parties gained.  So why would someone offer an analysis like this?  My guess is that they think back to the elections of 1979-92, when Labour moved to the left, lost voters to the center (Liberals and Social Democrats, then Liberal Democrats), and lost four straight elections.  Journalists and academics are familiar with that history, so when Labour moves to the left and loses an election, it's natural to pull it out again.  Natural, but totally wrong.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Clever fellows on the one side, damned fools on the other

I heard a piece on NPR's "Marketplace" about the upcoming British election.  They started by talking to two authorities who said that the economy was doing very well under under the Conservatives and had done much worse under the previous Labour government (according to one, Labour had "virtually destroyed the country").  Then they talked to some ordinary voters who said that things didn't seem so great to them.  So the story left the impression was that "all the clever fellows were on the one side, and all the damned fools were on the other," to quote the Duke of Wellington.

Here is a figure showing the unemployment rate in the US and Britain from 2007 until the beginning of 2015 (data from the Conference Board).  The vertical line at May 2010 shows when the current Conservative government took office.


British unemployment started out higher than American.  It rose as the recession got worse, but not as fast as in the United States.  By the time the Conservatives took office, it had stabilized at a bit under 8%, about 1.5% lower than the American rate.  For about eighteen months after that, unemployment declined in the United States, but actually rose in Britain.  Overall, Labour's record looks good considering the circumstances--8% unemployment is not where you want to be, but it's a lot better than 10%--while the Conservative record is fair or poor.  "By God, the damned fools were right," to finish the quotation.

Actually, the experts aren't as united as the Marketplace story suggested--a lot of economists think that the Conservative focus on reducing the budget deficit has been misguided.  In fact, I called the two people who were quoted "authorities," because "experts" would be misleading.  One was described as a "financial analyst"; the other was called an economist, but his biography says he is "a Fellow in Management Practice at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. . . . He is also Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Roosevelt Group, a leading strategic management and thought leadership company."  That is, they were both financial/business people--who usually have an ideological disposition, and maybe a financial stake, in supporting the Conservatives.  Paul Krugman regularly complains about journalists uncritically accepting "tough choices/structural reform/tighten our belts" analyses, and this seems to be a case in point.





Saturday, May 2, 2015

Land of opportunity?

We're going to be hearing a lot about social mobility over the next 18 months as presidential candidates talk about how they worked their way up from humble circumstances.  Scott Walker seems to have become a front-runner in this aspect of the campaign:  a recent story by Thomas Edsall quotes Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, referring to his "working-class background," which reminded me that I'd read a number of others that said something similar.  Walker's father was a pastor, as most stories about him observe (his mother was a bookkeeper, according to the Wikipedia biography).  The Census puts "clergy" among the "professional specialty occupations," along with physicians, lawyers, engineers, and physicians. Its  NORC occupational prestige score is 68.96, which is a little below psychologist (69.39), but ahead of optometrist (67.16), and well ahead of skilled manual occupations like electrician, machinist, or plumber (45-50).  Of course, there's a lot of variation within occupations, so I thought that maybe his father led a little storefront church.  No, he was an American Baptist, which is a large denomination with a long history.  He had been an assistant pastor of a large church in Colorado before being promoted to pastor of a church in Iowa and later Wisconsin.

Walker's family was middle-class by any reasonable standard.  And when he left college, he took a job with the American Red Cross in either "finance and development" or "marketing and fundraising," (accounts differ).  So why do pundits talk about his working-class background?  My hypothesis is that the idea of the "white working class" has become mixed up with geography--the white working class is supposed to live in small cities and towns in the Midwest (basically from western Pennsylvania or West Virginia out to Wisconsin).  It seems to be part of the confusion of "red state/blue state" with individual social position that Andrew Gelman has written about.

Moving to more general issues, it's often said that Americans accept inequality because we overestimate the chance of upward mobility, as in this article.  I'm not convinced by that--although there's not a lot of evidence, what I've seen suggests that people are have reasonably accurate ideas.  I'll write about the issue more in a subsequent post, but to start with here is a question that Gallup has asked since the 1990s:  "Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with... the opportunity for a poor person in this country to get ahead by working hard?"  The figure shows the percent saying they're satisfied (some asked them if they were very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied, and for those I combined the first two).



Tuesday, April 28, 2015

None dare call it redistribution

A letter to the New York Times on Sunday protested against the language in the article in public opinion towards redistribution mentioned in my last post.  I no longer have my copy of the Sunday paper, and can't find the letter online [it finally appeared--May 19], but the author said that the issue wasn't about "soaking the rich" or "redistribution," but about fairness, and that surveys showed most people didn't think that they rich paid their fair share of taxes.

This reminded me of a story in 2013 about how the White House was avoiding the word "redistribution."  From the story:  "'Redistribution is a loaded word that conjures up all sorts of unfairness in people’s minds,' said William M. Daley, who was Mr. Obama’s chief of staff at the time. Republicans wield it 'as a hammer' against Democrats, he said, adding, 'It’s a word that, in the political world, you just don’t use.'"

Here is the distribution of responses to the ISSP question about taxes:

"Generally, how would you describe taxes in the United States today for people with high incomes?"
Much too high           Too High              About right          Too low         Much too low
  7%                               17%                     28%                    36%                12%

The median answer is "about right," but more people think they are too low than too high.

The Gallup Poll has asked "People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don't. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?"  The last time it was asked (April 2013) responses were like this:

Should not            Should
45%                       52%

Close, but most people were on the "redistribute" side.

The ISSP also asked people to respond to the statement "It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and people with low incomes."

Strongly disagree    Disagree           Neither           Agree      Strongly Agree
20%                           31%                  16%                 25%               8%

A majority (51%) disagree, and only 33% agree.

Finally, the General Social Survey "Some people think that the government in Washington ought
to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor. Others think that the government
should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor. "

should not    2           3              4                  5                6            ought to
15%              7%      14%         16%             15%           9%         22%

If you treat 4 as equivalent to "neither agree nor disagree" 46% are basically in favor of the government reducing income differences, 36% basically opposed.

Taking the questions together, it seems that you can conclude the following:
1.  Americans don't react negatively to the term "redistribution."
2.  What Americans do react negatively to is "responsibility of the government."  Of course, I don't know what people who disagreed had in mind, but I'd guess it's something like this--"it's the responsibility of people with low incomes to work hard and improve their own situation."
3.  People are pretty evenly divided--more are in favor of the government acting to reduce the gap than opposed, but it's not a big difference.


Friday, April 24, 2015

What Don't We Want?

The New York Times has had several articles recently noting that growing inequality over the last 40 years hasn't led to growing support for redistribution.  One of them, entitled "Why Americans Don't Want to Soak the Rich," says that since the 1970s "Americans’ views on whether the government should work to redistribute income — to tax the rich, for example, and funnel the proceeds to the poor and working class — have, depending on which survey answers you look at, either been little changed, or shifted toward greater skepticism about redistribution."  I agree with that--I'd favor the "little change" summary, but you could argue it either way.  Then it says "in other words, Americans’ desire to soak the rich has diminished even as the rich have more wealth available that could, theoretically, be soaked."

I don't agree with that--at least the "in other words" part, because taking from the rich and giving to the poor are two different things.  There are lots of survey questions about aid to the poor, but few about taking from the rich.  There are some that combine the two issues, for example by asking about "reducing differences between people with high incomes and people with low incomes," but then you don't know which aspect people are focusing on in their answers--my guess is that it's the low incomes side.  So we don't really know how opinions about "soaking the rich" have changed. The same is true for international comparisons:  there's a lot of evidence that Americans are less favorable to aid to the poor than people in Western Europe, but very little on opinions about  taking from the rich.

But the 2009 edition of the International Social Survey Programme, which I've written about before, contains some interesting information.  It had the following questions:


1.  Agree or disagree that "differences in income in [country] are too large."
2.  Agree or disagree that "it is the responsibility of the government to reduce differences in income between people with high income and those with low incomes." [the 1999 question]
3.  Agree or disagree that "the government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed."
4.  Agree or disagree that "the government should spend less on benefits to the poor."
5.  "Do you think people with high incomes should pay a larger share of their income in taxes than those with low incomes, the same share, or a smaller share?"
6.  "Generally, how would you describe taxes in [country] today for those  with high incomes?  ... much too high, too high, about right, too low, much too low"
7.  "Is it just or unjust--right or wrong--that people with high incomes can buy better health care than people with lower incomes?"
8.  "Is it just or unjust--right or wrong--that people with high incomes can buy better education for their children than people with lower incomes."

Overall, the United States is one of the least egalitarian nations, but there are differences among the questions.  I give the standardized scores, which are comparable across questions, with higher meaning less egalitarian:

2.83  government responsibility to reduce differences
2.20  government should provide for unemployed

1.27 differences in income are too large
*1.00 people with high incomes should pay a larger share in taxes

0.75  unjust buy better education
0.69 unjust buy better health
0.45 spend less on poor
*0.15 taxes for those with high incomes

The two items with asterisks involve the rich.  Americans are less favorable to "soaking the rich" than average, but the differences aren't that big--in fact, Americans are barely different from the average in views about whether taxes for people with high incomes are too high or too low.   The American mean is  3.29 and the mean for all nations is 3.34 on a scale of 1-5, with 3 meaning about right and higher scores meaning too low).

Where the United States really stands out is the two questions that mention the government's responsibility.

Monday, April 20, 2015

More about mobility

I was surprised by the results on educational mobility in my earlier post on the subject , so I did some more investigation.   People progress through educational categories in a definite order:  everyone starts at the lowest level and moves up one step at a time.  So you can regard educational mobility is as a series of transitions--how much does father's education predict your chance of going beyond grade school, going to high school, graduating from high school, etc.?  I estimated the association by generation for each transition.  This figure shows the first three (going beyond grade school, going to high school, graduating from high school).


There is an upward trend in the influence of father's education on all three transitions.  More exactly, there was an upward trend, although it's not clear that it's continued in the last couple of generations.

This figure shows the next two--attending college and graduating from college given that you attended.  Again, both show an upward trend.    

There's one more transition--getting graduate education--but the effect of father's education is near zero in all generations.  That is, if you've graduated from college, how much education your father has doesn't predict whether you will get graduate education.  

Although there may be some deviations, like the jump in the influence of father's education on going to college in the last generation--the overall picture is of a steady increase in the influence of father's education at all levels.  However, father's education has more influence on the lower-level transitions--the numbers on the y scale aren't meaningful in an absolute sense, but they can be compared to each other.  Given the rise in average educational levels, the lower level transitions became numerically less important--today almost everyone at least makes it into high school--and that masked the decline in mobility at each level.

That raises the question of why would there be a trend over a 100 year period, through depressions, prosperity, declining economic inequality, rising economic inequality,  urbanization, suburbanization, etc?