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April 16, 2012 11:22 AM Americans Are Conservative Egalitarians who Accept Higher Taxes and More Government Spending so as to Give People Equal Opportunities

By Andrew Gelman

As the saying goes, everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Or, to put in political terms, people want lower taxes and more government services—with the gap filled, presumably, with a mixture of borrowed funds and savings realized by cutting government waste. In their 2009 book “Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality,” Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs put together survey data and make a convincing case that this cynical story is not a fair summary of public opinion in the United States. Actually, most Americans—Democrats and Republicans alike—support government intervention in health care, education, and jobs, and are willing to pay more in taxes for these benefits.

Page and Jacobs recognize that Americans are confused on some of these issues, for example not realizing that sales taxes cost lower-income people more, as a percentage of their earnings, while the personal income tax hits higher-income groups more, on average. The result is widespread confusion about what are the most effective ways to pay for government spending. People are also confused about how to cut the budget. To choose a well-known example that is not in the book at hand, Americans overwhelmingly support reducing the share of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid, but they also vastly overestimate the current share of the budget that goes to this purpose (average estimate of 15%, compared to an actual value of 0.3%).

Confusions on specific tax and budget items aside, Page and Jacobs are persuasive that majority public opinion is consistent with tax increases targeted to specific government programs aimed at bringing a basic standard of living and economic opportunity to all Americans. They discuss how survey respondents generally feel that such an expansion of the role of government is consistent with generally expressed free-market attitudes, a philosophy which they call “conservative egalitarianism.”

This is a book of public opinion, not policy, and the authors offer no judgment on whether the public’s majority preference is achievable. For example, a vast majority of Americans—including 80% of Republicans—feel that “Government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to” (p. 59), and another clear majority—this time including 60% of Republicans—agree with the statement that “The government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job” (p. 62). It is an open question whether these goals are possible given the tax increases that voters are willing to accept.

However, as Page and Jacobs point out, to the extent that politicians are responding to voters’ policy preferences, it does not seem that fear of taxes or of big government should get in the way of implementing programs that people want.

Page and Jacobs discuss how the influence of lobbyists, campaign contributors, and ideological activists may be making politicians afraid to take an active part in fighting economic inequality, despite broad public support for government programs in this area. I suspect that a larger issue is the question of whether such programs will really work. The evidence is that national elections are won and lost based on economic conditions, and parties will be loath to implement policies that they think will slow the economy down at election time, however popular they might be in the moment. This is not to say the voters are wrong to support governmental action to reduce economic inequality but rather to indicate a way in which economically conservative views among the political class could blunt politicians’ responses to such desires.

In summary, Page and Jacobs offer an excellent synthesis of Americans’ majority views, demonstrating that, at least in the short term, there is broad agreement on an active governmental role in reducing inequality, within the context of providing opportunity in a free-market economy. Their data are taken from a survey conducted in summer 2007, a year before the recent economic meltdown.

And now for some detailed comments

The above is my review of Page and Jacobs’s book, “Class War?” for Political Science Quarterly. Due to space limitations, I could not give my specific comments on the book, so I’ll put them here.

xi: The authors write: “The evidence shows that most Americans are both philosophically conservative and operationally liberal” [italics included in original]. But I’m not convinced this is the case. What they’ve actually shown is that:

(a) Most Americans are philosophically conservative (in the context of their survey), and

(b) Most Americans are operationally liberal (again, as defined by their survey responses).

But does this really mean that most Americans are both (a) and (b)? Let’s pull out the Venn diagram and consider the following plausible scenario:

-35% of Americans are philosophically and operationally conservative

-30% are philosophically conservative and operationally liberal

-35% are philosophically and operationally liberal.

In this case, 65% of people are philosophically conservative (see statement (a) above) and 65% are operationally liberal (see statement (b)), but less than a third have both these characteristics.

I’m not saying this is exactly what’s happening. What I am saying is that I didn’t see Page and Jacobs ruling out this possibility. I suspect they were unintentionally overstating their findings because it’s human nature to think deterministically.

p.4: Page and Jacobs repeat the line that,because Bill Gates’s wealth was increasing by $1 million per hour (that’s $300 per second), that, “If he dropped a $1000 bill on his way to work, he could have lost money by stopping to pick it up.” This has always seemed silly to me, as it implies that he wouldn’t be making that $300 per second had he stopped to pick up that bill on the street. It seems more likely to me that his investments would’ve increased in value all by themselves during those few seconds. This is a small point, but I’m raising it because, by giving this story, Page and Jacobs are buying into the rich-dudes’-time-is-so-valuable argument that is one of the justifications of massive economic inequality. If they want to fight inequality, I’d suggest they look at some of their assumptions more carefully.

p.35: They quote someone who makes $63,000 per year and comments that “people in the middle … are definitely pinched.” I don’t doubt that people feel this way and that they have tough economic choices to make, but I’ve always wondered about the whole “middle-class squeeze” thing, the idea that, somehow, it’s worse to be in the middle. I see how being in the middle is worse than making more, but is it really worse than making less? I mean, if it was really better to make, say, $30,000 per year, I’m sure it would be possible to arrange. I suspect that what’s really going on is that a middle-class salary doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to. Still, though, people lower down are doing worse, no?

p.39: Here they interview someone who works at the Fish and Wildlife Service. Where did they find these people? I’m guessing these are survey respondents who answered some open-ended questions, but I didn’t see this explained anywhere in the book. As a statistician, I’m not so impressed by these sorts of quotes—with 600 respondents, I’m assuming you can pull out all sorts of quotes—but maybe this makes the book more readable, I dunno.

p.46: Regarding views on immigration and trade policies, Page and Jacobs write, “they have become resented symbols for millions of Americans who are worried about making ends meet or holding their spot at the economic table.” I don’t know if this is quite fair. Immigration and trade policies are not just “symbols”; they represent real choices.

p.50: Page and Jacobs write: “But what do ordinary Americans think about government? Some—especially devotees of the major political parties—may be conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to simply react by habit to the rhetoric of their tribal leaders. What’s striking, however, is that most Americans are not so easily programmed. Surprisingly large majorities defy the stereotypes of ‘government haters’ or ‘collectivizers.’” The way this is written, it seems to imply that Democratic leaders are “collectivizers.” But I don’t think that’s anything like an accurate description of where the Democratic Party, or its liberal wing, is coming from. Here I think the authors’ desire for bipartisan symmetry may be leading them off track.

p.64: Here the authors make a bunch of comparisons of life expectancies in the United States and other countries. This is fine, but they muddy the waters by inappropriately comparing males and females. For example, “A male born in some sections of Washington, D.C., has a life expectancy thirteen years shorter than a woman born in rural Minnesota.” Thirteen years is big enough that there’s no need to cheat by comparing men to women. Comparing life expectancies of men in one place with women somewhere else is the demographic equivalent of not adjusting for inflation in a price comparison.

p.65: A slight statistical significance problem. In a discussion of health care options, Page and Jacobs write, “somewhat larger majorities of Republicans support an employer-based system, while more high-income earners would prefer the direct government route.” Is this comparison statistically significant? I don’t think so. The numbers are on page 66. The first comparison is 68% for Republicans compared to 65% for all Americans. From the Appendix, the sample size is 608. Let’s assume 200 of them are Republicans: then it’s 136 out of 200 Republicans saying yes on this question, and 395 out of 608 in total. The comparison is then 136/200 – 259/408 = 0.045, with a standard error of sqrt ((136/200)(1-136/200)/200 + (259/408)(1-259/408)/408) = 0.041. The difference is not at all statistically significant. Or possibly they’re comparing the 68% of Republicans to the 59% of high-income Americans. It’s harder to figure out the comparison here, because of the overlap between the categories, but I suspect this one is not statistically significant either. My point here is not that they shouldn’t make the comparison, but rather that they should be a little more careful in interpreting what they find.

p.85: They talk about slapping a 40% income tax on billionaire hedge fund managers. This is fine, but why do they stop at 40%? There must be a rationale here, but I don’t see how it fits in with the rest of their argument. Similarly, they talk about an estate tax on estates worth over $100 million. Why do they set the limit so high? There must be lots of estates above, say, $10 million, that could be taxed. Again, there are legitimate policy disagreements on what level to set these taxes, but I’m surprised to see Page and Jacobs considering such low rates, given their stated interest in reducing economic inequality.

p.108: Near the end of their book, Page and Jacobs allude to the inclusion of nonvoters into the political process. I think they’d be interested in the work of Nagler and Leigley on the possible political effects of increasing voter turnout, not only changing the composition of the electorate, but possibly also altering the terms of political debate.

p.111: They weight their survey according to the number of adults in the household. This is no big deal, but my research with Tom Little suggests that weighting by #adults is an overcorrection; you’d be better off weighting by the square root of number of adults (or simply poststratifying).

Disclaimer: I work next door from Bob Shapiro, who collaborated with Ben Page on the classic 1992 book, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. And Page works in the political science department at Northwestern, which turned me down when I interviewed for a job there several years ago. (Actually, it was worse than that: they didn’t even fully reimburse my travel costs!) But I don’t think either of these associations is affecting my comments above.

P.S. I posted this a couple years ago but I’m reposting because I think these issues remain relevant.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.