Friday, October 21, 2011

Support for redistribution has plummeted (?)

A Scientific American article by Ilyana Kuziemko and Michael Norton has received a lot of attention recently.  (I read about it here).  They say that "support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession" [their italics].  They cite the a General Social Survey question:
"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 assistanceto the poor. Others think the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor." People can pick any number from 1 (should do something) to 7 (should not concern itself).
Kuziemko and Norton are right--the mean answer was 3.59 in 2008 and 3.95 in 2010 (higher numbers mean less support for redistribution). But their article goes on to say that this is an example of "last place aversion": basically, when times are hard, people get less generous: they get satisfaction from knowing that someone is even worse off than they are. Since the GSS goes back to the 1970s, we don't have to limit ourselves to comparing 2008 and 2010--we can look at the whole history. In that time, there is pretty much no relation between the unemployment rate and opinions about redistribution. For example, between 1980 and 1983, the unemployment rate rose from 6.3 to 10.3 percent, but people became more favorable to redistribution (3.88 to 3.73). There is one thing that predicts opinions pretty well, though: the party of the President. When there's a Democratic president, the average opinion has been 3.84; when it's a Republican, it's 3.62. What's caused support for redistribution to "plummet" isn't the recession, but the change from Bush to Obama. Although the question doesn't explicitly ask people whether the government should do more or less than it's doing now, I suspect that some people have that in mind. When the government doesn't seem to be doing much, they want more; when it seems to be doing a lot, they think it's enough or too much.   So it's unlikely that support for redistribution has changed at all in a real sense.

No comments:

Post a Comment