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.

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