Are We Resigned to Living Vastly Unequal Lives?
Top academics are exploring why more Americans aren't protesting our nation's grand economic divide.
Billionaire Warren Buffett is still paying taxes at a lower rate than his secretary. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pocketed $117.5 million last year. The life expectancy gap between Americans of affluent and modest means has widened by five years over the last three decades.
Economic inequality in America hasn’t been this stark since the 1930s. But Americans took to the streets in protest by the millions back then. Why so little protesting today?
Americans aren’t loudly protesting, conservatives argue, because they really don’t care if some people become phenomenally rich.
Many Americans, progressives counter, simply don’t yet understand how staggeringly unequal the United States has become. With more awareness, they posit, would come more resistance to our unequal social order.
In 2011, a group of four top-flight academic researchers — including Emmanuel Saez, the world’s top expert on super-high incomes — decided to test this absence-of-information thesis. They prepared a detailed survey instrument and spent over 18 months quizzing a random sample of 5,000 Americans.
These researchers have just published their findings. On at least one key question they probed — whether information can change attitudes about inequality — their survey results do offer a clear answer. Yes, people do get more concerned about inequality once they know the facts.
The information the researchers shared with the thousands surveyed compared America’s current distribution of income to the nation’s much more equal distribution in 1980.
The survey presentation went on to detail how the incomes of average Americans over the past century have grown the fastest during those periods when America’s richest paid taxes at higher rates.
The impact of all this and related information? The share of survey participants who felt that inequality poses a “very serious problem” rose by a robust 40 percent.
But the researchers also found that this significant increase in awareness didn’t automatically translate into appreciable new support for public policies that could narrow America’s income and wealth divide.
The increase in the number of survey participants supporting higher taxes on millionaires, for instance, didn’t come close to matching the 40 percent jump in the number of participants feeling that inequality poses a significant danger.
So what’s going on here? Why isn’t more concern about inequality generating more support for government policies that could reduce inequality?
One factor: Exposure to more information about inequality, the researchers found, “also makes respondents trust government less.” In effect, quips commentator Tim Noah, many Americans feel that a government “incompetent enough” to let inequality fester isn’t going to be competent enough to fix it.
The researchers behind this new study — and the first analysts to comment on it — seem distinctly bummed by the study’s results. Should the rest of us who worry about inequality be feeling blue too?
A little historical perspective might help here. If these researchers had conducted their work back in 1928, a previous high point in American income inequality, they would have encountered a similar social landscape: a massive divide between the rich and everyone else coupled with little sign of mass resistance.
Yet, less than a decade later we had resistance everywhere. The columnist Walter Lippmann wrote in 1937 after the death of America’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, that the American public “has turned wholly against the private accumulation of so much wealth.” That same year, in workplaces across the nation, Americans were challenging plutocratic power.
Out of this ferment would come a much more equal United States. In 1928, no researchers could have seen that future coming. Researchers today, even with all their carefully calibrated survey instruments, can’t see the future either.