Waylaid Dialectic

April 18, 2017

Unequal Democracy (a review)

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:06 am

Unequal Democracy by Larry Bartels

My interpretation of his arguments is as follows: economic inequality in the United States has increased a lot in recent decades and the economic lot of the typical citizen has not improved much. Although Americans are not great at estimating the extent of inequality, most do not want high levels of it, and many think the issue has become worse.

There’s a clear albeit partial cure to the problem of economic inequality: inequality has risen less, or fallen, under Democrat presidents than under Republicans.

This begs the question: if Americans aren’t that keen on inequality, why aren’t they voting for the Democrats a lot more. Bartells argues that this is not because poorer Americans are becoming more conservative, but rather that the swing voters who decide elections often base their votes on economic performance (growth) in the year prior to the election. This happens even though presidents can take little justified claim for overall economic performance. Republicans have happened to be lucky, or cunning in their choice of governors of the federal reserve, because in many elections they have benefited from good economic performance in the year prior to elections when they’re holding power.

Bartels dismisses arguments along the lines of the poor are becoming more socially conservative, although I do not think he is wholly convincing in doing so. No can I totally buy the economic performance in election year argument. I was left wondering about issues of differential turnout amongst different economic groups. I was also left wondering about the importance of collective entities (unions and churches in particular) in shaping peoples views and motivating them to vote, and feeling this area needs more research.

However, there is more and it is fascinating: using the estate tax Bartels shows that most voters are not good utilitarians or even just that good at voting in their own interest on some policies that would help reduce inequality. On the other hand in areas like the minimum wage voters’ views are more progressive. Something akin to a fairness preference appears to shape voters’ views in these areas a lot more than views about optimal outcomes (either for themselves or more broadly for society).

Economic inequality comes coupled with political inequality too. Controlling for party, politicians’ votes in congress or the senate are much more likely to accord with the preferences of their wealthier constituents than their poorer constituents. I’m still wondering whether controlling for party is appropriate in the aggregate regressions but there’s more. Disaggregating by party, the absence of influence of the poor is most true for Republicans but it is also somewhat true for the Democrats.

Left-wing commentators have taken this to be a very bad thing. I can see why. However, it is possible that — if inequality tends to fall under Democrats, and if voters’ economic preferences are not wholly rational — in some areas the Democrats may be ignoring the views of poorer voters for their own good. I need to think about this more.

Also, worth noting is that Democrats’ votes in Congress or the Senate do tend to accord with the views of the second tercile of voters. In responding to Bartels’ critique of What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank argues that the bottom tercile of the income distribution may not be the ‘working class’. They may for example, be retirees, or young (see page 4 of Franks’ response). So it seems possible that if the Democrats are ignoring the views of a certain group it may not be simply the working poor. Or it might be, I need to think more about it and consider Bartels’ data more.

Even with this caveat, there seem some clear takeaways: the Democrats are somewhat better on economic inequality, most voters don’t like economic inequality, most voters’ preferences about economic policy seem more shaped by traits like the fairness preference than reasoned utilitarian calculus. The left should think about this when they think about the economic policies they campaign loudly on.


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