Monday, September 27, 2021

Inequality/opportunity survey

I was interested by a simple survey run by the Archbridge Institute on attitudes regarding inequality vs. opportunity, and  equality vs. equity issues. 

Reducing inequality, "there should be no Billionaires" is only the top issue for a quarter of people. Equality of opportunity, and help for those on the bottom garner about 60%. The demographic consistency is interesting. Yes, the young and the credentialed skew more left -- our education system is passing on its values. But not nearly as much as you'd think. Minorities are not much different than the rest. Redistributionist opinions are a bit of a luxury belief, but again not as much as you'd think. 

The meaning of "equality," the founding concept of our nation (Jefferson) is even more stark. Equity -- end up in the same place -- scores dismally. Even starting in the same place scores dismally. Extra help for the disadvantaged, something I would choose as #2 goal, scores dismally. "Equality before the law and people have a fair chance to pursue opportunity regardless of where they started" is the overwhelming winner. Again, the demographic consistency is surprising relative to the Standard Narrative. And heart-warming.

What is the best way to get ahead economically? Employment, college degree, and family and social support completely drown out even the fable of "well-designed" government assistance programs. 

The report goes on like this, with a nice executive summary. 

Even around Hoover, I hear passed along a conventional wisdom: Income inequality is a Huge Problem. It will lead to social and political unrest. "We" must do something about it or our country will fall apart. 

Not, apparently, according to vast quantities of survey respondents. Opportunity remains a problem in the US, and if I were to design something to appeal to these survey respondents, that's the word I would be using. 


  1. I think one factor this post skipped over is the significant number of respondents who said that "ensuring that Americans do not live in poverty" is the most important goal of public policy. Support for this also seems to be substantially higher among younger respondents compared to older ones, suggesting that this idea has been gaining ground over time. It seems to me that, when combined with the responses to the other questions, Americans do believe that individual effort is indeed the only effective way of climbing the income ladder, but at the same time there is significant support for the idea that extreme poverty should not be as extreme as it is now, and that, in general, falling into poverty should be a softer landing than it is now. Also, it seems that the group that is primarily concerned about inequality and the group that is primarily concerned about poverty combined are around 50% of the population and form the core of the Democrat coalition. This is not surprising, since the Republican party in its current state does not seem to be particularly concerned about poverty in general (whether or not the problem is framed in terms of inequality). If somebody is a moderate Democrat who is okay with the idea of inequality and need for individual effort in the abstract sense, but wants to see solutions for issues such as homelessness, food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, etc., the Republican party in its current state does not have much to offer.

    1. "[T]he Republican party in its current state does not have much to offer [in terms of alleviating poverty]."

      The problem here is that you're looking at the Republican platform through the lens of someone for whom "doing something about poverty" means "the government doing something about poverty." That's how you can claim that Republicans do not seem to be concerned about poverty in general.

      If you approach the problem from that angle, there never will be a case where 'the government doing less' of something is an acceptable answer, or a sign that one is concerned about poverty. But that's certainly not how Republican voters conceive of their views.

      There are plenty of circumstances where governmental regulations and licensing requirements seriously increase the costs and time it takes to open a new business. And starting a business here can be as small as just a person trying to use their personal skills (baking, cooking, driving, hair styling, etc.) to make a little bit of extra money on the side. None of this is particularly complicated to do, all of it is in demand everywhere and they are therefore clear cases of a lot of mutually beneficial exchanges not taking place because people who are not party to those transactions decided to determine on behalf of everyone what are the acceptable conditions under which adults in a free country are allowed to trade those services. They also happen to be clear cases where the poorest among us could easily turn a quick buck at relatively little expense.

      Now, I could be uncharitable and say that Democrats want the poor to remain poor so they can sell them the story you wrote above. The reality is slightly different. People who put forth regulations do not always think further than the first hand problem of helping someone in particular. They do not always think about how rules can be gamed by big players to keep little players out of the market, or be exploited by crooks in dubious, yet legal civil lawsuits. The consequences of creating barriers to entry that sometimes hurt poor people and of opening up the door for regulatory capture by rent seeking firms is rarely in that picture for the simple reason that no one ever has the full picture.

    2. Democrats don't desire the end of poverty more than Republicans do (and both care about it very little), but Democrats (and you) do desire to perceive themselves (and, even more so, to be perceived by others) as working to end poverty.

      And there is a big difference between both things. Quoting Huemer “In Praise of Passivity”:

      "There is at least one way of distinguishing the desire for X from the desire to perceive oneself as promoting X. This is to observe the subject’s efforts at finding out what promotes X. The basic insight here is that the desire [to perceive oneself as promoting X] is satisfied as long as one does something that one believes will promote X, whereas the desire for X will be satisfied only if one successfully promotes X. Thus, only the person seeking X itself needs accurate beliefs about what promotes X; one who merely desires the sense of promoting X needs strong beliefs (so that she will have a strong sense of promoting X) but not necessarily true beliefs on this score."

      Government efforts don't promote the end of poverty. It has been tried once and again. From Johnson's "War on Poverty" to Mao "Great Leap Forward", to Cuba's "zafra de los 10 millones" to Maduro's "miseria cero" in Venezuela. From this experience the only possible conclusion is governments don’t end poverty. Like never, ever. So, why keep they talking about ending poverty? Easy, been perceived as promoting the end of poverty serves to win elections (but not to end poverty).

      California's homelessness problem is another good example of the same thing: pretending to want to end a problem is a far cry from ending a problem (you don’t even came up with the same discussions, much less the same measures, in both cases).

      The examples are so widespread that you should be extremely skeptical about anybody (and more so if they are politicians) pretending to be worried about problem x. If they are willing to implement policies to solve problem X you can bet problem X will very likely get worse (if past experience is a guide).

  2. John reads this information with an optimistic eye, which is nice. But I am disappointed that a quarter of the country chose 'close the gap between rich and poor' instead of 'ensure nobody lives in poverty'. Basically, a quarter of the population doesn't care if the poor stay poor as long as the rich are less rich. That seems like a real problem. I agree with the other points.

    1. There is an issue of how exactly the respondents understood the question. It is not impossible that making this point more salient would change their response.

      Say that situation A has everyone earning 50 000$ and situation B is identical, except a few people earn 60 000$. If you asked them, do you prefer A or B, it's not clear to me that they would choose A. Some people might choose A because the scenario in their head is something like teamwork and an even workload, but if you explicitly said that situation B is a few people decided to do extra hours from which they got 10 000$ more dollars, they would pick B.

      The issue is that questions provide limited background information -- and this missing background might matter a whole lot for triggering moral sentiments. Said differently, you can't assume everyone actually thought about all or even most possible implications of their answers and I'd assume that the closer you are to the language of the survey the likelier it is to be representative of what they'd choose.

      Those questions do map relatively neatly unto public discourse on policy and you can reasonably assume that this is a good indicator of which ideas will resonate with them. If you want to sell some policy program, start with opportunities.

  3. You are reading too much into this survey. This survey doesn't actually say these people DON'T think income equality is a doesn't ask that question. It asks what they think the most important policy goals SHOULD be. It asks nothing about whether they think society overall is ACHIEVING said goal. One could very easily think ensuring everyone has a fair chance of achieving success is vital, and think we are NOT currently achieving that goal, which causes income inequality, and thus believe that income inequality is a significant problem.

  4. Interesting survey. There is a great deal of menu dependance due to the fact that respondents can only select a single item from the list. This is especially relevant for Table 7. If you don't have the chance to pursue opportunities and be treated equally under the law, of what use would any of the other items be?

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  6. Income inequality is a good thing. It provides incentives for extraordinary performance.

  7. I continue to believe in the common sense of Americans. At some point there will be a repudiation of all these woke ideas. Hopefully, it will begin in November 2022.

    1. Americans are the most reality-oriented people on earth. Their
      outstanding characteristic is the childhood form of reasoning:
      common sense. It is their only protection. But common sense is not
      enough where theoretical knowledge is required: it can make simple, concrete-bound connections—it cannot integrate complex issues, or
      deal with wide abstractions, or forecast the future.
      -Ayn Rand

  8. I continue to believe in the common sense of Americans. At some point there will be a repudiation of all these woke ideas. Hopefully, it will begin in November 2022.

  9. Humans care about fairness more than unequal outcomes. Nobody disputes unequal sports outcomes, because the rules are transparent. In fact unequal outcomes is the whole point, obviously. Nobody disputes that LeBron James should earn 100 times more than the 15th man on the roster, because he's clearly 100 times more valuable.

    However the rules of capitalism and democracy can clearly be captured to unfairly compound unequal outcomes. That's the potential problem, not inequality in outcomes. Unfortunately I don't see much focus on this fairness of the rules of the game angle, and whole avalanche of concern about unequal outcomes.

    1. Chris,

      "A good is considered non-rivalrous or non-rival if, for any level of production, the cost of providing it to a marginal (additional) individual is zero."

      Rule #1: Government should focus on the production and delivery of non-rivalrous goods.

      Government bonds are a rivalrous good in that the interest payments made on them compete with other government programs for available tax revenue.

      Rule #2: Government should focus on equalizing opportunities not equalizing outcomes.

    2. Capitalist fairness is not Christian-Marxist fairness. Capitalist fairness is based solely on production for a market.

  10. > "equality," the founding concept of our nation

    This increasingly influential Marxist absurdity contradicts the fact that the Enlightenent is the ONLY basically individualist culture in history, the product of 400 years (four centuries) of basic cultural change from Christian supernaturalism to the concretes of the material universe. See "Nation Of The Enlighbtement"by Leonard Peikoff, in his _Ominous Parallels_ for more.


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