Friday, March 14, 2014

Americans and Envy

In the New York Times, Arthur Brooks says:  "The 2006 World Values Survey, for example, found that Americans are only a third as likely as British or French people to feel strongly that 'hard work doesn’t generally bring success; it’s more a matter of luck and connections.' This faith that success flows from effort has built America’s reputation as a remarkably unenvious society."

There are a couple of problems with this statement.  First, it's misleading.  The item he refers to asks people for their position on a 10-point scale with "In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life" at one end and the statement Brooks quoted at the other.  It's true that the British and French respondents were three times as likely as Americans to take the "luck and connections" extreme, but that's 6% to Americans' 2%.  Americans are more towards the "hard work usually brings a better life" end, but rank only 15th out of 54 countries.  The countries that most strongly believe in hard work are neither economic powerhouses nor liberal democracies:  the top four are Egypt, Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Iran.  So the United States is not "remarkable" in terms of opinions on this question, but that's probably a good thing.

The second and more serious problem is that the question isn't a measure of envy, even roughly.  Brooks opens with a quote from the singer Bono, who said "In the United States ... you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”  That sums up the usual definition of envy pretty well.   Ordinary self-interest implies that taking from the rich is good if the proceeds go to you, egalitarianism implies that taking from the rich is good if the proceeds go to the poor, but envy implies that it's good even if nobody gains.

None of the comparative surveys that I know of have a question that could plausibly be regarded as a direct measure of envy.  However, the International Social Survey Programme included two questions that, taken together, seem to get at it.  One is "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?"  The other asks about the statement "The government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed," with answers of "strongly agree," "agree," "disagree," and "strongly disagree."  My thought is that envy is represented the combination of agreement that people with higher incomes should pay higher tax rates and disagreement that the government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed:  that is, wanting to make the rich worse off but not caring about making the poor better off.  While this isn't totally watertight, I think it's a good first approximation.

High numbers represent "conservative" positions:  that the government shouldn't provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed and that the rich shouldn't pay taxes at a higher rate.  The United States is conservative on both.  High envy would be represented by positions in the upper left:  the rich should pay more, but the government shouldn't provide for the unemployed.   But there are no nations that show that combination.  Instead, there's a line that includes the US, Britain, Italy, France, Japan, and several others.  Then there are some below that line, representing relatively weak support for progressive taxes and strong support for providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed.  Denmark (DK) is an example:  support for progressive taxes is only slightly stronger than in the US, but support for the idea of a decent standard of living for the unemployed is much stronger.

Those are the countries that could reasonably be called "unenvious":  people think that there should be help for the unemployed, but that the responsibility to pay for that should be spread widely.  The honors go to Denmark, Estonia, the Philippines, Cyprus, and Israel.

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