Saturday, October 16, 2010

learning the wrong lessons from an interesting chart

Americans' self-estimations of thewealth distribution

(Via here.)

Apparently the interesting bit is:
the extent to which the public vastly overestimates the prosperity of lower-income Americans. The public thinks the 4th quintile has more money than the median quintile actually has. And the public thinks the 5th quintile has vastly more wealth than it really has...You can easily see how this could have a giant distorting effect on our politics. Poor Americans are simply much, much, much needier than people realize and this is naturally going to lead to an undue slighting of their interests.

The other interesting bit is the political breakdown. If you look at the second chart, which represents what the sample thought would be an ideal distribution, two things become obvious - one, the ideals are not very different, two, they are all significantly more egalitarian than the reality. People who admitted to voting for George Bush wanted to redistribute wealth quite radically - even when you compare their preferences with their illusory beliefs about the distribution, they want a very significant change. Compare them with reality, well...

The rest is pretty obvious - the least egalitarian group is those earning more than $100,000, the most are those earning less than $50,000, women are more egalitarian than men as a group, but no more so than declared John Kerry voters.

The problem is clearly much wider than their estimates of the lowest quintile's wealth - in fact, although the people studied were unaware of quite how bad things were, they are clearly very well aware of inequality and they want it to change. And this sweeps right across the board. Even if they were unaware of the full poverty of the poor, they were well aware of the rich.

What they need evidently isn't Blairism - scrape a bit off the top and pay it out to the poorest, with all kinds of interlocking and perverse conditions drawn up by the Yglesians of this world. This is why universalism is important - it's possible that the whole discourse of "targeting" as applied to social policy reinforces the delusion that the poor are actually rich.


Laban said...

Those overall US quintile figures are different to those given by the Bank for International Settlements for 2004 - which gives the top quintile 63% of net worth. Bottom quintile has 1%. Graph 5.

But what's really interesting is the US/Japan comparison. Wealth is much more evenly distributed there - top has 34% but bottom still has 13%.

Another interesting table is CEO salary vs market capitalisation for worldwide banks. I keep hearing that you have to pay the salary to get the top talent - those Chinese bankers must be really incompetent.

gawp said...

I'm surprised at the uniformity of the estimates across demographic groups. Looks like Americans have very wrong but common model of income distribution. I wonder if this is the case in other countries.

The actual bottom two quintiles have almost nothing, the top 3 are badly scaled in perception vs actual.

Maybe perception of wealth is a log scaling thing, like our perception of sound intensity or light. So if you have $1 you see someone with $1,000,000 as having only 6x as much wealth...

Anonymous said...

The charts do not account for the existing income redistribution. For example, 49 million Americans receive foods stamps. Likewise, the top 20% pay 80% of all income taxes in America.

Not to say the current situation is good, but not nearly as bleak as the charts appear. If America really wants to change, they need to fire their educational unions that keep lousy public school teachers employed - it is no wonder their lower tiers do not earn much, they are not well educated.

John Hughes said...

Anonymous:The charts do not account for the existing income redistribution. For example, [...] the top 20% pay 80% of all income taxes in America.

My, those rich people are hard done by, paying 80% of all income taxes.

Hang on a sec, they own more than 80% of all the wealth.

So much for progressive taxation.

Anonymous said...

The captcha image didn't appear the first time I tried to log in.

Anonymous said...

What you and the rest of the world don't understand is that the Republicans are the socialist party in America.
Deficits are a wealth tax, deal with it.
Seriously, do you think that the voters are ever going to vote for higher taxes and less services to pay back the debt? Do you think they are going to default on the pensions instead of just taxing away the rich people's money?
This isn't just a democracy, it is a heavily armed democracy that is going to stay that way.

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