Political Animal


July 22, 2012 3:02 PM On representational inequality

By Kathleen Geier

Can you tell that I’m sort of obsessed with the subject of inequality?

As such, I was excited to learn from no less an expert on the subject than Larry Bartels about a book he calls “the best book in decades on political inequality.” The book is Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. It’s published by Princeton University Press and it’s written by Princeton University politics prof Martin Gilens. The current issue of Boston Review has a symposium on the book, which includes a book excerpt plus responses by such luminaries as Bartels, Matthew Yglesias, Mark Schmitt, John Ferejohn, and Russ Feingold,

Here’s some of what Gilens has to say:

When preferences diverge, the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has almost no relationship to policy outcomes. Policies favored by 20 percent of affluent Americans, for example, have about a one-in-five chance of being adopted, while policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time. In contrast, the support or opposition of the poor or the middle class has no impact on a policy’s prospects of being adopted.


Greater representational equality would have a substantial effect on several important economic policies. We would have a higher minimum wage, more generous unemployment benefits, stricter corporate regulation (on the oil and gas industries in particular), and a more progressive tax regime. Some of these policies are favored by a majority of Americans at the 90th income percentile as well, but not with sufficient enthusiasm to overcome opposition from business and other interests. We would also see a more protectionist trade strategy and less foreign aid.

There’s much more, including some theories about the mechanisms by which the affluent get their preferences represented, why representational inequality has risen over so dramatically over the past several decades, and what steps might be taken to ameliorate it. I’m not so sanguine as he is about the possibility of changing things, at least not right this minute. But it’s an interesting problem to think through, and I look forward to reading the other contributions in the symposium.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Hedda Peraz on July 22, 2012 4:04 PM:

    " policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time"

    Down at the Side Track Tap the regulars have distilled all this heavy thinking down to bumper sticker size.
    "To the victors go the Spoils."
    "Might makes Right."
    "It ain't what you know, it's who you know."
    "I'll scratch your back, if you'll scratch mine."

    America changed when we stopped trading Things (see earlier NYT article about 'craft') and started trading credit default swaps.

  • John Haber on July 22, 2012 4:09 PM:

    I bet it's a typo: the Boston Review symposium link takes you a second time to the book's page with the publisher, Princeton UP.

  • c u n d gulag on July 22, 2012 4:22 PM:

    Money doesn't just talk.
    It shouts with a sound system The Who would envy.
    And that volume makes politicians jump!

    As for the rest of us, our voices are a like a whisper made upwind into a hurricane.

    We need to find a way to either amplify our voices, or stifle the shouting that money does.

    Unfortunately, the SCOTUS recently turned that sound system for the rich and corporations, to 11.

  • Kathryn on July 22, 2012 4:52 PM:

    Per esempio, the consistent polls that show Americans by a wide margin favor letting the income tax rates rise slightly for the wealthy, even Republicans. No one is home on the House of Representatives for that proposal, too busy shrieking about Government employees influence in the Muslim Brotherhood, gun violence being proof of the weakness of the Judeo-Christian hold on our culture and all those card carrying commies in the Democrat Party. One thing I know for sure is that there are at least 10 GOP congresspeople who are bat shit crazy and not qualified for any elected office, looking at you Michelle and Louie!

  • Joe Friday on July 22, 2012 5:07 PM:

    What a BLITHERING IDIOT this Jennifer Rubin person is !

    During her appearance at the roundtable on the ABC News 'THIS WEEK' program, she repeatedly insisted that the previous "assault weapons ban" was ineffectual and had no impact on gun crime.

    According to the 'National Institute of Justice' (which is part of the U.S. Justice Dept), the ban worked QUITE effectively:

    * Murders of just law enforcement officers by offenders utilizing assault weapons declined from 16 percent of the gun murders of law enforcement officers in 1994 and early 1995, down to ZERO PERCENT in the latter half of 1995 and 1996, after the ban was implemented.

    * Crime gun traces of assault weapons dropped 20 percent in the year following implementation of the ban. This 20 percent drop was DOUBLE the overall decline in garden-variety gun murders that year.

    * The ban had "clear short-term effects on the gun market" immediately after the ban was implemented, leading to semiautomatic assault weapons becoming "less accessible to criminals", according to the Justice Department report.

    The assault weapons ban prohibited the MANUFACTURE and IMPORTATION of 19 of the deadliest assault weapons and large capacity ammunition clips. To protect the rights of law-abiding citizens, more than 650 types of hunting and sporting weapons were specifically EXEMPTED from the ban.

    The Washington Post should be ASHAMED of itself for employing this dangerous imbecile as one of their columnists.

  • Lance on July 22, 2012 7:04 PM:

    I suppose this means if you want your policies adopted, sell them to the upper quintel.

  • Russell Sadler on July 22, 2012 7:11 PM:

    Kathleen, you are on fire this weekend. Lots of good stuff. Thoughtful, introspective,worth our time. I'm apparently not the only one who thinks so. You draw lots of comments ;-) Look forward to seeing you again soon.

  • Doug on July 22, 2012 8:36 PM:

    "...while policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time." Martin Gilens cited by Kathleen Geier

    If Mr. Gilen's thesis is correct, then it may very well be BECAUSE the Great Recession wasn't as severe as the Great Depresssion and the same severe economic effects WEREN'T permitted to be generated that we've seen such obstruction and refusal to face reality on the part of politicians, especially those in the GOP. In other words, the fear for their economic standing that grew in in the top 20th quintile during the early 1930s, which was what allowed much of the New Deal to be enacted, didn't have a chance to grow during THIS economic crisis. Because we did what we were supposed to!
    This is one of the things I've meant when I refer to the effects of the Great Depression on those who lived through it. Too many of those who were "affluent" in the 1920s were directly affected by either vastly reduced incomes or, just as importantly, the THREAT of vastly reduced incomes following the Crash in 1929 and as the country slowly spiralled into a Depression. The Hoover administration's refusal to help any but the "job creators" of that time, if nothing else, shows that the GOP STILL hasn't learned the necessary economic lessons!
    As soon as the economy got out of the depths of the Great Depression, roughly by 1935-36, much of the old sense of entitlement and superiority returned. THIS time that happened before the end of 2009. In other words, the Great Depresssion was the proverbial 2X4 that got the attention of those whose support was necessary for getting New Deal legislation passed and this time we used a fly-swatter.
    While it's fortunate that THIS time, we didn't spend four years slowly sinking to the bottom, it's also dispiriting to realize that, apparently it DOES take a 2X4, aka a near-complete collapse of the economy, before enough of these people FINALLY realize they're in the same boat as everyone else. Which certainly doesn't say about the analytical skills of the 1%-ers.
    Or, using Mr. Gilens' terms, the 4%-ers...

  • billb on July 22, 2012 10:18 PM:

    The rich are at the feeding trough that used to be our country.
    The only thing that gets their attention is a row of guillotines.

    Look at romney-bot , he and the princess wife do not live in
    our peasant-world. They wrote off 76k on her bloody horse.

    They own the congress , the courts , the cops , and the spooks.
    [hi spooks , keep up the good work]

    If you want to do something instead of just worrying about it ,
    then take to the streets , be loud , and never quit. They count
    on us wooosing out , and we generally do.
    [except that american revolution thing , the king didn't see that coming.]

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  • zandru on July 23, 2012 11:00 AM:

    Lance has got it right: for the short term, as long as wealth is a measure of political power, then if you want something done, you will need to convince the folks with money - and business - to advocate for your position.

    Businesses are the easiest - they exist to make money, period. Ideology, though strong among the US Chamber of Commerce set, won't override the bottom line. If you want change - like higher personal income tax rates on the millionaires, etc - go to your local Chamber of Commerce and the specific business associations, maybe to individual businesses. They - or their accountants - should know the difference between personal tax and corporate tax rates; what "marginal tax rate" means; the distinction between profit and gross income. Moreover, most businesses being "small", there are very VERY few business owners or "executives" who pull in over $1,000,000 in gross taxable income every year. So it's not their oxen who will be gored by higher rates on the top incomes.

    Don't just be cynically defeatist - this is information we can USE!

  • Paul Wilson on July 23, 2012 12:06 PM:

    The link at "Gilens has to say"


    takes you to the symposium.