Tracking Inequality

America’s Unknown Silent Egalitarian Majority

The GOP convention in St. Paul totally — and predictably — ignored the reality of America’s ever more flagrantly skewed distribution of income and wealth. Smart politics? We have the surprising answer.

By Sam Pizzigati

Last week, if you listened really closely to the dozens of speeches delivered at the Republican National Convention, you probably would have heard just about every word that makes up the prime-time vocabulary of contemporary American political discourse. Every word except one. Inequality.

Speakers at the St. Paul GOP convention had nary a word to say about today’s record gaps between America’s wealthy and everyone else. But, then again, neither did the pundits who covered the confab. Not one major media outlet made a point of noting the convention’s total obliviousness to the top-heavy distribution of income and wealth that so defines — and distorts — America’s economy and politics.

Why this media indifference to the GOP’s inequality blindspot? Most pundits simply figure the public doesn’t particularly care about inequality. So why pound on the Republicans for ignoring it?

World wealthIronically, the week before the GOP convention opened, thousands of experts on U.S. politics gathered in Boston at a convention that put inequality — in all its manifestations — front and center. This convention, the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, drew virtually zilch national media attention.

That’s a shame. The pundits massed in St. Paul could have learned a thing or two from the goings-on in Boston. They would have learned, for instance, that the American public, contrary to the conventional wisdom of politicians and pundits alike, really does care about inequality — and wants to see much less of it.

The evidence? Benjamin Page, a political scientist at Northwestern University, has oodles of it. Page and his University of Minnesota colleague, Lawrence Jacobs, have been analyzing decades of public opinion polling data on public attitudes toward economic inequality, and last summer, with the help of researchers from the University of Connecticut, they fielded their own “original national survey to explore these matters” in even greater depth.

In Boston, just two days before the GOP convention gaveled to order, Page presented the findings from all this research. His basic theme: “Americans tend to be pragmatic egalitarians.”

The “pragmatic” part: Most Americans see differences in pay rates as “at least ‘probably necessary’ to get people to work hard.” And they’re “skeptical about government in the abstract.”

But Americans, at the same time, feel committed toward equity.

In the survey work Page and Jacobs had conducted last year, nearly three-quarters of Americans — 72 percent — agreed that “differences in income in America are too large.” By a wide margin, 59 to 40 percent, Americans disagreed with the claim that large differences in income are “necessary for America’s prosperity.” By an even greater margin, 68 to 26 percent, Americans rejected any attempt to define the nation’s current distribution of money and wealth as “fair.”

Similar healthy majorities “favor a wide range of government programs that would greatly reduce economic inequality,” everything from initiatives to create decent jobs for everyone able to work to guarantees “that those who are left behind through no fault of their own are provided with food, clothing, and shelter.”

“These are not just fleeting results from a one-shot survey,” Page and Jacobs note in one published paper on their research. “Majorities of Americans have been saying the same thing for many years.”

How far does this egalitarian ethos go? Far enough to want to tax the rich enough to create a substantially more equal United States? Or do Americans, Page and Jacobs ask, “abhor this idea as ‘class warfare’?”

Some do, the research shows. But most don’t. A significant majority of Americans — 56 percent yes, only 40 percent no — want the government to “redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.”

Page and Jacobs find this broad support for taxing America’s wealthiest “particularly striking because the drastic-sounding phrase ‘heavy taxes’ might be expected to put people off.”

“Public support for high taxes on the rich,” they conclude, “appears to be real.”

And this support would likely be even stronger, Page and Jacobs suggest, if Americans had a more complete sense of how rich America’s richest have become.

As part of their research, the two political scientists asked Americans to estimate how much people in different lines of work are taking home. Most Americans turn out to have a quite accurate sense of how much people in everyday occupations make, but tend “to underestimate earnings at the top of the income scale, for heart surgeons and especially for corporate CEOs.”

The average Americans Page and Jacobs surveyed thought big-time national CEOs average about $500,000 in annual earnings. The CEOs of S&P 500 companies, the two analysts point out, are actually averaging over $14 million. Hedge fund managers, they add, are doing “far better still.”

“If this were widely understood,” Page and Jacobs observe, “Americans might be even more concerned about income inequality than they currently are.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

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