Sunday, April 14, 2013

The rich are different from you and me: attitudes and opinions of the one percent

One of the defining slogans of the Occupy movement is "We are the 99%", referring to the fact that  economic growth has mostly benefitted the wealthiest 1% of people in recent decades (you can read more about this trend in the US here and in Canada here).

Who are the 1% and what are their attitudes and political opinions?  These questions are the subject of an on-going a multi-year study by political scientist Larry Bartels and his collaborators. They have recently released the results of a pilot study looking at a representative sample of the one percent living in Chicago (the pdf is found here), reporting median wealth of $7.5 million dollars. Among the most striking findings of the study are:

  • The one percent are very politically active. 84% attend to politics most of the time and 99% voted in the last election. They donated an average of $4,600 to political campaigns or organizations over the last 12 months and about half had initiated contact with a US congressman in last 6 months, often on issues of narrow economic self-interest. 

  • Generally speaking, the 1% are supportive of public spending on "public goods" like infrastructure, scientific research, and education, but less supportive of social welfare spending like health care, social security, and food stamps. They also favour of spending cuts on defense, economic aid to other nations, and farm subsidies.

  • The 1% are not very supportive of programs to promote full employment and reduce poverty.  For example, only 19% of those surveyed were in favour of the statement "The government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job" compared to 68% of the general population, and only 40% of those surveyed agreed that "Minimum wage should be high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line" compared to 78% of the general population.

  • The 1% don't care much for public health insurance. Only 32% of those surveyed are in favour of a "national health insurance financed by tax money, paying for most forms of health care" compared to 61% of the general population. This is of course a major public policy issue in the US and this survey result helps explain why universal medicare has been so difficult to institute. 

  • The 1% do not believe everyone deserves a quality education. Less than a third of those interviewed agreed with the statements "The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to" and "The federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so". These statements were supported by 87% and 78% of the general public respectively. 

  • The 1% are strongly against income redistribution. Only one in six of those surveyed agreed that "It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes" and "Our government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich". These statements are both supported by about half of the general population.

  • When asked about the most important problems facing the country, by far the most common response of those surveyed was the federal deficit/government over-spending. In contrast, more than 50% of the general populations consider unemployment and the economy to be the most serious issue. Sadly, only 16% of the wealthy people surveyed consider climate change to be a "very important problem".
There were some pleasant surprises in the survey data. Two thirds of those surveyed were "Willing to pay more taxes in order to reduce federal budget deficits". Those surveyed also tended to support more regulation of the Wall Street firms (though not as strongly as the general population) and to feel that hedge fund managers and CEOs of large corporations are overpaid.


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