Monday, September 23, 2013

The 1% Consensus

Image: Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran (source)

So--there's this proposal in Iran that's not very controversial. 71% of the general public support it, with wide agreement among different age and racial groups. There are two political parties. Supporters of one political party favor the policy 91% -9%, and supporters of the other political party are split down the middle (50% in favor, 48% opposed). Since the Iranian government refuses to implement this policy, would you call Iran a democracy?

This doesn't describe Iran, of course; it describes the United States and the incredible, widespread public support for increasing the minimum wage. If a rational person would argue that Iran is not a democracy if it disregarded popular opinion so blithely, why should that not be true of America? How would you not conclude that the American government does not serve its people, but rather its corporate overlords? Remember, the Democrats--whose supporters favor a minimum wage hike 91% to 9%--controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress from 2009 to 2011 and had a fillibuster-proof majority for most of 2009. Granted, there were other important legislative priorities, like health care reform (though that, too, was a shameless corporate sellout), but when the Democrats were one vote shy of 60 in the Senate, how could they not find one single moderate Senator in a party where 50% of voters support increasing the minimum wage? It's almost like they weren't even trying. And, it's interesting that a minimum wage hike would require breaking a Senate filibuster but the Wall Street bailout didn't.

(for the record, here is my post arguing against the minimum wage)

I started writing this blog when I realized I was having the wrong debates. I thought there was some uncertainty over the best way to fight poverty without sacrificing economic growth or job creation; there isn't. The reason we don't fight poverty is not because we don't know how, but because our political system doesn't want to. The bifurcation of the middle class into the sort-of-wealthy and working poor doesn't have to happen either; there's no controversy over how to prevent that from happening, either.

However, there is significant controversy over our policy goals. This controversy is usually unspoken; not even Republican Ayn Rand disciples would have the nerve to say that they want people to remain poor, even though that is exactly what they want. Our government usually gets the policy outcome it desires, even if that policy goal is unspoken. Poverty remains high because our government does not desire poverty reduction.

Our political system only values the interests of the rich, often at the expense of everyone else. Political science data bear this out:

Gilens has been collecting the results of nearly 2,000 survey questions reaching back to the 1980s, looking for evidence that when opinions change, so too does policy. And he found it--but only for the rich. "Most policy changes with majority support didn’t become law," Hacker and Pierson write. The exception was "when they were supported by those at the top. When the opinions of the poor diverged from those of the well-off, the opinions of the poor ceased to have any apparent influence: If 90 percent of poor Americans supported a policy change, it was no more likely to happen than if 10 percent did. By contrast, when more of the well-off supported a change, it was substantially more likely to happen.
Unfortunately, Gilens' data only allowed him to divide Americans by decile; he was not able to resolve the top 10% to see the opinions of just the top 1%.  More data, about Congressional representatives:

I examine the differential responsiveness of U.S. senators to the preferences of wealthy, middle-class, and poor constituents. My analysis includes broad summary measures of senators’ voting behavior as well as specific votes on the minimum wage, civil rights, government spending, and abortion. In almost every instance, senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes...These income-based disparities in representation appear to be unrelated to disparities in turnout and political knowledge and only weakly related to disparities in the extent of constituents’ contact with senators and their staffs.
Avoiding the fabricated "pox on both your houses" of professional moderates, I'll avoid misquoting Bartels, who does find that Republicans are twice as responsive to rich voters than Democrats. This is nothing for Democrats to be proud of; this simply means that Democrats can only look good in comparison to Republicans.

Bartels' research was confirmed by another study, with the caveat that Democrats are only responsive to middle-income voters when they don't hold majority control of Congress. In other words, they will fight for your vote, but once they win it, they will stop paying attention.

The single most important piece of the 1% consensus is that the concerns of the rich are usually perpetuated automatically. Because--if it's not a problem to the rich, it's not a problem to our political system. I previously wrote about the fact that the recession has resulted in greater inequality. No one decided this should happen; nobody made plans to ensure that it did. But since no one rich is adversely affected, it's not a problem our political system recognizes. Problems that adversely affect the rich are quickly solved; those that affect everyone else are never brought to the government's attention, except through herculean grassroots efforts easily countered by moneyed interests: that's how you get travesties like Obamacare.

Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly in play in the sequestration cuts. Poor children are getting thrown out of Head Start as a result of budget cuts; this will without question perpetuate their poverty. And, as a result of sequestration, federal defendants are losing their Constitutional right to competent counsel. Congress permitted these cuts to continue. Yet, when those same sequestration cuts inconvenienced rich airline passengers, Congress obediently leaped into action (and President Obama obediently complied), patching FAA funding--and only FAA funding. There can be no better example of the 1% consensus in action (I wrote about this here and here).

The final piece of the 1% consensus is cognitive bias:
In 2006, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler at The University of Michigan and Georgia State University created fake newspaper articles about polarizing political issues. The articles were written in a way which would confirm a widespread misconception about certain ideas in American politics. As soon as a person read a fake article, researchers then handed over a true article which corrected the first. For instance, one article suggested the United States found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The next said the U.S. never found them, which was the truth. Those opposed to the war or who had strong liberal leanings tended to disagree with the original article and accept the second. Those who supported the war and leaned more toward the conservative camp tended to agree with the first article and strongly disagree with the second. These reactions shouldn’t surprise you. What should give you pause though is how conservatives felt about the correction. After reading that there were no WMDs, they reported being even more certain than before there actually were WMDs and their original beliefs were correct. 
They repeated the experiment with other wedge issues like stem cell research and tax reform, and once again, they found corrections tended to increase the strength of the participants’ misconceptions if those corrections contradicted their ideologies. People on opposing sides of the political spectrum read the same articles and then the same corrections, and when new evidence was interpreted as threatening to their beliefs, they doubled down. The corrections backfired.
(More examples of political cognitive biases here)

So it's almost impossible to get a conservative to acknowledge (at least early in the Iraq war) the fact that there were no WMD's in Iraq. Now, imagine how hard it is to get a rich person to acknowledge that 1) they don't deserve their wealth and 2) their undeserved wealth is directly related to others' unnecessary poverty and suffering.

Our country is governed by the 1%:
Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent.
But what that really means is that we're governed by the cognitive biases of the 1%. The 1% are not consciously greedy money grubbers. Their cognitive biases make them unconsciously greedy money grubbers. It's not that rich people are evil; it's that they're human. They really think that what they're doing is best for the everyone. No one wants to think that their views or actions are harmful. Rich people have cognitive biases just like the rest of us--and that's why it's so dangerous to have so much power in the hands of so few people. 

Example of a 1% consensus
A 1% consensus occurs when the American ruling class--the richest 1%--reaches an agreement that stands in direct contention with the views of the bottom 99%. Social Security cuts are a 1% consensus; the Republican position is well-known, and President Obama's commitment to chained CPI, a Social Security cut worth $200 billion dollars (and widespread, though far from universal, Democratic acquiescence), makes this a bipartisan consensus (the only reason entitlement cuts haven't passed is because Republicans don't want Obama to be seen as a moderate). But, incredibly, just 10% of Americans believe Social Security should be cut and just 15% think Medicare should be cut. 55% believe that keeping Social Security and Medicare funded at current levels is more important than reducing the budget deficit.  In this way, the bipartisan consensus on entitlements is opposite the consensus of the 99%, making it a 1% consensus.

The hypocrisy of the 1% consensus on entitlement cuts (and the "journalism" that gladly trumpets these views) is best summarized in this must-read piece by Ezra Klein.

Update: Family leave is a another example of a 1% consensus:
The poll, commissioned by Make It Work and conducted by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners, found that 65 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Americans overall believe that equal pay, paid leave, and affordable and accessible child care are “good for the nation.” 88 percent of respondents overall said that they generally favored paid sick and family leave policies, with 73 percent saying government has a duty to make sure employers offer those benefits.

No comments:

Post a Comment