Leslie McCall spoke in the sociology department here the other day to discuss changes in attitudes about income inequality as well as changes in attitudes about attitudes about income inequality. (That is, she talked about what survey respondents say, and she talked about what scholars have said about what survey respondents say.)
On the plus side, the talk was interesting. On the downside, I had to leave right at the start of the discussion so I didn’t have a chance to ask my questions. So I’m placing them below.
I can’t find a copy of McCall’s slides so I’ll link to this recent op-ed she wrote on the topic of “Rising Wealth Inequality: Should We Care?” Her title was “Americans Aren’t Naive,” and she wrote:
Understanding what Americans think about rising income inequality has been hampered by three problems.
First, polls rarely ask specifically about income inequality. They ask instead about government redistributive polices, such as taxes and welfare, which are not always popular. From this information, we erroneously assume that Americans don’t care about inequality. . .. Second, surveys on inequality that do exist are not well known. . . . Third . . . politicians and the media do not consistently engage Americans on the issue. . . .
It is often said that Americans care about opportunity and not inequality, but this is very misleading. Inequality can itself distort incentives and restrict opportunities. This is the lesson that episodes like the financial crisis and Great Recession convey to most Americans.
What follows is not any attempt at an exposition, appreciation, or critique of McCall’s work but rather just some thoughts that arose, based on some notes I scrawled during her lecture:
1. McCall is looking at perceptions of perceptions. This reminds me of our discussions in Red State Blue State about polarization and the perception of polarization. The idea is that, even if American voters are not increasingly polarized in their attitudes, there is a perception of polarization, and this perception can itself have consequences (for example, in the support offered to politicians on either side who refuse to compromise).
2. McCall talked about meritocracy and shared a quote from Daniel Bell (who she described as “conservative,” which surprised me, but I guess it would be accurate to call him the most liberal of the neoconservatives) about how meritocracy could be good or bad, with bad meritocracy associated with meritocrats who abuse their positions of power and degrade those below in the social ladder.
At this point I wanted to jump up and shout James “the Effect” Flynn’s point that meritocracy is a self-contradiction. As Flynn put it:
The case against meritocracy can be put psychologically: (a) The abolition of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege; (b) the persistence of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for class stratification based on wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.
Flynn also points out that the promotion and celebration of the concept of “meritocracy” is also, by the way, a promotion and celebration of wealth and status–these are the goodies that the people with more merit get:
People must care about that hierarchy for it to be socially significant or even for it to exist. . . . The case against meritocracy can also be put sociologically: (a) Allocating rewards irrespective of merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise environments cannot be equalized; (b) allocating rewards according to merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise people cannot be stratified by wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.
In short, when people talk about meritocracy they tend to focus on the “merit” part (Does Kobe Bryant have as much merit as 10,000 schoolteachers? Do doctors have more merit than nurses? Etc.), but the real problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy.”
This point is not in any way a contradiction or refutation of McCall. I just think that, to the extent that debates over “just deserts” are a key part of her story, it would be useful to connect to Flynn’s reflections on the impossibility of a meritocratic future.
3. I have a few thoughts on the competing concepts of opportunity vs. redistribution, which were central to McCall’s framing.
a. Loss aversion. Opportunity sounds good because it’s about gains. In contrast, I suspect that, when we think about redistribution, losses are more salient. (Redistribution is typically framed as taking from group A and giving to group B. There is a vague image of a bag full of money, and of course you have to take it from A before giving it to B.) So to the extent there is loss aversion (and I think there is), redistribution is always gonna be a tough sell.
b. The path from goal to policy. If you’re going to cut taxes, what services do you plan to cut? If you plan to increase services, who’s going to pay for it? Again, economic opportunity sounds great because you’re not taking it from anybody. This is not just an issue of question wording in a survey; I think it’s fundamental to how people think about inequality and redistribution.
I suspect the cognitive (point “a” above) and political (point “b”) framing are central to people’s struggles in thinking about economic opportunity. The clearest example is affirmative action, where opportunity for one group directly subtracts from opportunity for others.
4. As I remarked during McCall’s talk, I was stunned that more than half the people did not think that family or ethnicity helped people move up in the world. We discussed the case of George W. Bush, who certainly benefited from family connections but can’t really said to have moved up in the world–for him, being elected president was just a way to stand still, intergenerationally-speaking. As well as being potentially an interesting example for McCall’s book-in-progress, the story of G. W. Bush illustrates some of the inherent contradictions in thinking about mobility in a relative sense. Not everyone can move up, at least not in a relative sense.
5. McCall talked about survey results on Americans’ views of rich people and, I think, of corporate executives. This reminds me of survey data from 2007 on Americans’ views of corporations:
Nearly two-thirds of respondents say corporate profits are too high, but, according to a Pew research report, “more than seven in ten agree that ‘the strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business’ – an opinion that has changed very little over the past 20 years.” People like business in general (except for those pesky corporate profits) but they love individual businesses, with 95% having a favorable view of Johnson and Johnson (among those willing to give a rating), 94% liking Google, 91% liking Microsoft, . . . I was surprised to find that 70% of the people were willing to rate Citibank, and of those people, 78% had a positive view. I don’t have a view of Citibank one way or another, but it would seem to me to be the kind of company that people wouldn’t like, even in 2007. Were banks ever popular? I guess so.
The Pew report broke things down by party identification (Democrat or Republican) and by “those who describe their household as professional or business class; those who call themselves working class; and those who say their family or household is struggling.”
Republicans tend to like corporations, with little difference between the views of professional-class and working-class Republicans. For Democrats, though, there’s a big gap, with professionals having a generally more negative view, compared to the working class. Follow the link for some numbers and some further discussion for some fascinating patterns that I can’t easily explain.
6. In current debates over the federal budget, liberals favor an economic stimulus (i.e., deficit spending) right now, while conservatives argue that, not only should we decrease the deficit, but that our entire fiscal structure is unsustainable, that we can’t afford the generous pensions and health care that’s been promised to everyone. The crisis in the euro is often taken by fiscal conservatives as a signal that the modern welfare state is a pyramid scheme, and something has to get cut.
When the discussion shifts to the standard of living of the middle class, though, we get a complete reversal. McCall’s op-ed was part of an online symposium on wealth inequality. One thing that struck me about the discussions there was the reversal of the usual liberal/conservative perspectives on fiscal issues.
Liberals who are fine with deficits at the national level argue that, in the words of Michael Norton, “the expansion of consumer credit in the United States has allowed middle class and poor Americans to live beyond their means, masking their lack of wealth by increasing their debt.” From the other direction, conservatives argue that Americans are doing just fine, with Scott Winship reporting that “four in five Americans have exceeded the income their parents had at the same age.”
From the left, we hear that America is rich but Americans are broke. From the right, the story is the opposite. America (along with Europe and Japan) are broke but individual Americans are doing fine.
I see the political logic to these positions. If you start from the (American-style) liberal perspective favoring government intervention in the economy, you’ll want to argue that (a) people are broke and need the government’s help, and (b) we as a society can afford it. If you start from the conservative perspective favoring minimal government intervention, you’ll want to argue that (a) people are doing just fine as they are, and (b) anyway, we can’t afford to help them.
I won’t try to adjudicate these claims: as I’ve written a few dozen times in this space already, I have no expertise in macroeconomics (although I did get an A in the one and only econ class I ever took, which was in 11th grade). I bring them up in order to demonstrate the complicated patterns between economic ideology, political ideology, and views about inequality.