Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Tolerance, part 4

My last post on tolerance mentioned the idea that its relationship with ideology is shifting.  In this post, I'm going to look at the evidence from the General Social Survey, which asks about whether certain kinds of people whose ideas are often considered "bad or dangerous" should be allowed to teach in a college or university:  a Communist, someone who is "against churches and religion," someone who "believes that Blacks are genetically inferior," and someone who favors "doing away with elections and letting the military run the country."  I look at a count of the number of these cases that the person thinks should be allowed to teach, broken down by education (college graduate vs. not) and self-rated ideology (liberal, moderate, or conservative). 

First, people without a college degree:

A pretty steady upward trend in in all groups, although a little faster among moderates and conservatives, especially in the early years. The gap between liberals and conservatives was about two-thirds as big at the end of the period for which data are available (1976-2018) as at the beginning.

Next, people with a college degree:

Upward trends among moderates and conservatives, but a slight downward trend among liberals.  At the end of the period, liberals are still the most tolerant group, but the gap between liberals and conservatives is only about 30% as it was as at the beginning.

So college-educated liberals are still the most tolerant group by this measure, but the gap is smaller than it used to be.  College-educated liberals are the one group that has become less tolerant over the period.  

To return to contemporary controversies, I think that the pressures for intellectual conformity have grown and the range of acceptable opinions has shrunk over the time that I've been a professor (since 1987), and that this trend has probably accelerated in the last ten years or so.  If that's true, one possible explanation is that the trend among college-educated liberals is stronger among university faculty--that is, tolerance has declined sharply rather than slightly.  The GSS sample isn't large enough to test this--there are only about 500 "post-secondary teachers" in the cumulative file.  However, based on personal observation, I doubt that's the case--for example, I'd guess that if there were a referendum by secret ballot of Princeton faculty on whether there should be "a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty" it would be rejected by an overwhelming margin (and that many of the faculty who signed the letter calling for it would vote no).  Rather, I think there's a process of "crankification" (to borrow a term invented by Paul Krugman) in which almost everyone who takes a public stand commits themselves to extreme positions, even if those aren't popular with the relevant public.  Strangely, although casual observations suggests that "crankification" is pretty common, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of theory and research about when and why it happens.  (This paper by Cass Sunstein has some relevant material, but he presents it as a "general law" rather than a variable).

Saturday, July 25, 2020

More taxes

I've had several posts arguing that most people don't support high tax rates on large incomes.  Robert Lane summarized public opinion as: "facilitating earning is good, giving to the truly needy is acceptable, but taking, even from the rich, is bad," and this seems pretty accurate.  You could also say that ordinary people aren't bothered by inequality in itself--what they care about is fairness.  So what taxes, if any, might reduce inequality while being consistent with popular views about fairness?  I think that there are several:
1.  A minimum tax rate for high earners, or closing "loopholes" more generally.  People are upset when people with high incomes pay at lower rates than middle income people.  In a previous post, I mentioned a poll from 2012 which asked whether people with incomes of $1,000,000 or more should be have to pay at least 30% of their income in taxes:  60 percent said they should.  
2.  Taxes on corporations:  In 2017, a poll asked "President (Donald) Trump has said that he wants to cut the tax rate on corporations from its current top rate of thirty-five percent to fifteen percent. Would you favor or oppose this? And do you strongly favor/oppose or somewhat favor/oppose this?"  38% were in favor, and 50% were opposed (32% strongly opposed and 21% strongly in favor).  
3.  A wealth tax.  In 2019, a Fox News poll asked about "Creating an annual two percent wealth tax on an individual’s worth over $50 million dollars in addition to income tax?"  68% were in favor, 45% strongly in favor.  I don't think that's because people prefer wealth taxes to income taxes in principle, it's just that two percent doesn't sound like a high rate.  
4.  I think people distinguish between different types of income, and would favor higher taxes on "unearned" income or "speculation."  This is more speculative:   I couldn't find any questions on this subject, except one: "Do you favor or oppose raising taxes on financial transactions such as the sale of stocks or bonds?"  On this, only 33% were in favor and 59% opposed. Still, I think that a tax on high-speed trading might be popular. 

Many intellectuals are concerned about inequality in general, and look for the most efficient way to reduce it.  From this point of view, high marginal tax rates on high incomes are attractive--they address the problem directly.  Some of the taxes I mention above might be less efficient (for example, most economists seem to favor low corporate tax rates).  However, they might get more support from the public.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Further thoughts on taxes

Andrew Gelman had a post discussing my posts on public opinion about tax rates.  His post and the comments on it raised some interesting points.  Rather than reply to them one by one, I'll discuss what I think are the main themes.  But before I do that, some self-promotion:  I have a new book with the imaginative title of Public Opinion, which discusses some of these issues in more depth and is reasonably priced ($22.95 in paperback).   

1.   Do people even have opinions about this?  Most people don't have "positions on the issues" the way that a politician does--they've never had to take a definite stand or cast a vote on proposed legislation.  With tax rates, there's the additional issue that math is involved:  many people don't grasp the difference between marginal and average tax rates, and even if they do, the  questions may be open to different interpretations.  Finally, as Andrew pointed out, taxes can't be separated from spending.  If ordinary people had to serve as legislators, they would probably find that their proposed tax rates wouldn't raise enough revenue to pay for the programs that they want.   So they might reluctantly decide to raise taxes, but whose taxes, and by how much?    As a result, there's a good deal of fuzziness--it would be foolish to make an exact statement about the tax rate that the public favors.  However, if you look at a range of questions, I think it's clear that most people do not favor high taxes on people with high incomes--that they think that the rate on the top 1% should be something like 25%, not 50% or 75%.  One comment pointed to a poll which asked "Would you favor or oppose Congress passing a new law that would require households earning $1 million a year or more to pay a minimum of 30% of their income in taxes?" and found 60% in favor, suggesting that this counted against my argument.  I don't think it does--30% is only a little higher than the numbers I cited, and it didn't ask how many should pay substantially more than the minimum.   So you could say that, on the average, people think that people think the tax rate on high incomes should be about 30%, or 25%-30%, but it's still not 50% or 75%. 

Another way to put it is that people favor only a moderate degree of progressivity.  One survey (from 2012) which I didn't mention in my post asked "what maximum percentage do you think...individuals and families with incomes" in different ranges "should pay each year in income taxes?"  The averages:

50-75,000          17%
250-1,000,000   27%
1,000,000+        31%

The actual federal income tax rates paid in those income groups according to the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation (in 2015):  4%, 15%, and 27%.  So taken literally, income tax rates are lower and the tax system is more progressive than people want.  Of course, I wouldn't take it literally--I don't think that most people distinguish clearly between different types of taxes, so when they answer the question on "income taxes" they're thinking more of taxes in general.  But if you take "combined income, social insurance, business, and excise" (table A-6) the average rates are 15%, 27%, and 33%.   If you consider state and local taxes, tax rates are somewhat higher and less progressive, but overall, what people say they want is not that different from the way things are.

In an article published in 2013 I said " There is little support for direct redistribution from the rich to middle-income people, or even for making the rich bear the primary burden of financing general government expenses (Kluegel and Smith 1986; Hochschild 1981). Most people favor some 'safety net' for the poor, but seem to believe that the cost of this aid should be spread widely . . . rather than placed primarily on the rich (Miller 1992)."  I think that the evidence that's emerged since then continues to support this summary.

 2.  Are opinions consistent?  I argued that you could reconcile people's opinions about desired tax rates and changes in those rates by considering beliefs about what people actually paid.  You could wonder whether there was any point in trying to reconcile them.  Some observers, notably Larry Bartels, argue that many opinions are just logically inconsistent.  That's not necessarily because people lack intelligence, but because they don't have an incentive to think deeply about political issues (also, someone who's answering a survey doesn't usually didn't know that it was coming, or what it would be about--it's like a answering a pop quiz in a course that you didn't even know you were taking).  This is a matter of judgment, so I'll just say that I'm inclined to try to find some consistency. 

2.  Could opinions change?  Most of the time, things just roll along, but sometimes people get engaged and focused on some issue.  Although these times of high engagement are rare, they are important, because they can lead to lasting change (the weeks since the death of George Floyd may turn out to be an example). But I can't think of a case where opinions about general economic inequality have rapidly shifted to the left (maybe the 1930s in the United States, but that was the infancy of surveys, so it's not possible to be sure).  In the years after the 2008-9 recession, there was a turn to the right in the United States, with the rise of the Tea Party and big gains for the Republicans in the 2010 elections; in Europe, overall there didn't seem to be much change in public opinion.  So while you can't rule out the possibility that things might change suddenly, I wouldn't bet on it.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tolerance, part 3

About a month ago, I had a post about trends in tolerance.  That was inspired by the controversy over Tom Cotton's op-ed piece.  Since then, there have been a number of related controversies, including the appearance of an open letter saying that "the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," which provoked indignant responses including a counter open letter  .  There was also a letter signed by a distressingly large number of Princeton University professors calling for, among other things, "a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty."  

Historically, the left has been associated with support for relatively free expression, while the right has favored more restrictions.  As I mentioned in my last post, some people argue that this is changing, or has changed.  A number of ideas about why this might be happening have been proposed.  The simplest and most plausible one is that it reflects a change in the distribution of power.  Most people would prefer to suppress views that they find objectionable, but the left has favored the interests of marginalized groups--that is, groups that don't have the power to suppress other views--so it turned to support for the general principle of tolerance as a second-best alternative.   However, now the left has a dominant position in some major social institutions (particularly academia and the media), so it has the power to repress and is starting to like it.  On the other side, the right is weak in those institutions, so it's now calling for tolerance.  This process is not necessarily as cynical as it sounds:  any particular case has special features, so someone might say (and believe) that they support the principle of free speech, but we need to make an exception here, or this isn't really a free speech issue, or some other justification.  On the other side, the main argument is there is some basic psychological affinity between the left/right views and attitudes towards authority--the left tends to be suspicious of authority, while the right tends to be pro-authority (and sometimes authoritarian).  This suggests that the traditional relationship will endure. 

Since the 1970s, the GSS has had a series of questions prefaced by "There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people.  For instance..."  Then it asks whether different kinds of people should  be allowed to do various things, including teaching in a college or university.  The types of people regularly asked about are an Communist, an opponent of religion, a gay man, someone who supports doing away with elections and having the military run the government, and someone who believes that blacks are genetically inferior.  I computed the associations between opinions about teaching in a college or university in "early" (1972-89) and "late" (2008-18) periods for people with and without college degrees.*  All of them were positive--if you favored allowing one kind of person to teach, you were more likely to favor allowing any of the others to teach.  The averages in the two periods:

                                   Early             Recent
College                       2.50                  2.08
Non-college                1.99                  1.75

That is, the tendency to be uniformly tolerant or intolerant became weaker.  This is unusual--for most issues, "attitude constraint" (the ability to predict opinions on one from opinions on the other) has increased in recent years.  You could argue that the example of a gay man should no longer be included, since most people today would not regard him as "bad or dangerous,"  but omitting that example doesn't change the pattern.  I wondered if there would be a growing opposition between "left" and "right" pairs--Communist/anti-religion vs. militarist/racist--but there was no sign of this.

This does not directly address the possibility of a change in the association between tolerance and ideology, but it shows that there is some kind of change.  I'll consider ideology in a future post.

*Since the variables are binary, I used the log of the odds ratios to measure the association.

PS:  My last post noted that there seemed to be a general trend towards greater tolerance.  I said I expected it to continue, and that I'd give my reasons in a future post, so here they are. First, growing educational levels:  more educated people feel more comfortable with evaluating information and making choices, so they tend to favor letting everyone have their say.  Even if the ideas are totally without merit, you should let people express them so you can know those people for who they are (a number of NY Times readers' comments on the Tom Cotton controversy defended the decision to run his op-ed on these grounds).  Second, the growth of a consumer society, where people are constantly offered choices and come to think of making choices as a basic part of life. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The public vs. the 1%?

I realize I left something out of my last post, which said that Americans were not in favor of high taxes on the rich.  The Paul Krugman column that I mentioned said "A . . . large majority has consistently said that upper-income Americans pay too little, not too much, in taxes."  He is right--since 1992, the Gallup poll as asked if upper income people are "are paying their FAIR share in federal taxes, paying too MUCH or paying too LITTLE?"  In the latest survey (2019), 9% said too much, 27% fair share, and 62% said too little.  The share saying too little has never gone below 55%.  But as my post pointed out, when you ask how much high-income people should pay, most people don't suggest high rates.  In addition to the questions I mentioned last time, here's a Gallup/USA Today poll from 2011:  "Now thinking about the wealthiest one percent of Americans, what percentage of their income do you think they should pay to the federal government in income taxes each year?"  Among those who gave an answer (28% didn't), the mean was about 24%, and only 10% said 40% or more.

How do you reconcile these results?  The answer is that most people seem to think that people with high incomes are taxed at lower rates than most middle-income people.  A 2003 survey asked "In the United States, which group do you think pays the highest percentage of their income in total federal taxes: high-income people, middle-income people, or lower-income people, or don't you know enough to say?"  25% said high-income people, 51% said middle-income people, and 11% said low income people (13% said they didn't know).  Even among people with college degrees and people earning $75,000 or more (the highest income class distinguished in the survey), most people thought that middle income people paid the highest percentage. Other surveys show that most people know that in principle marginal tax rates increase with income, so presumably they think that high-income people are able to get out of taxes by finding loopholes. 

So when people say that high income people should pay more, they are just saying that they want them to pay at the same rate that middle-class people do, or maybe a slightly higher rate.  In reality, they already do pay at a somewhat higher rate.  Most people haven't thought about the issue all that much, so you can't make precise statements about public opinion.  But in a rough sense, Americans are getting about as much redistribution as we want.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]