The “Irrationality” of American Inequality
Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist and author of Predictably Irrational, has done some research into the gap between what Americans say they want and what our political system (and their voting behavior) has given us. From Radio Open Source:
First, when he asks his thousands of respondents to estimate the real division of wealth in the US, and then to propose an ideal distribution, we Americans confirm our sentimental attachment to a polite tilt of privilege. We cherish our mythic legacy of quasi-egalitarian social democracy, with no extreme concentrations of wealth or poverty. But what our answers really confirm is our delusion about the economy we live in now. The top 20 percent of the people in fact own 84 percent of the goods, and the bottom 40 percent of us, barely floating on a sea of debt, own less than half of one percent of the wealth of the nation. We live across roughly double the rich-poor gap measured in Germany, Japan and Denmark. By the standard “Gini coefficient” of wealth inequality, the US ranks with Turkestan and Tunisia, just a tad more equal than Chad and Sri Lanka.
The second key question in Ariely’s survey is even simpler; the answer is a slam dunk. Respondents were shown two pie charts — one with the actual American shares of wealth, in which 60 percent of the population nearly disappears with less than 5 percent ownership altogether; in the alternative, modeled on Sweden, the top 20 percent owns 36 percent of the wealth (almost double its claim by sheer numbers) and the bottom 20 percent owns 11 percent (about half its numerical share). In Dan Ariely’s study (with Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School), 92 percent of us Americans want to live Swedish-style instead. Women (93 percent in favor of the Swedish model) are a ever so slightly more egalitarian than men (90 percent for Sweden). But the results come out very nearly the same — Republicans and Democrats, richer and poorer, NPR listeners and readers of Forbes Magazine.
Among the most interesting things Ariely describes in the interview is why this happens. Ariely has done significant work around anchoring, the cognitive bias that explains the common human tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.
Ariely seems to suggest (@7:15) that politicians act as anchors for our understanding of income inequality and taxation, education and healthcare, and the size and role of government. Politicians want passion, not reason, and those passions act to move our voting patterns away from our own expressed interests and values.
Still, he’s ultimately optimistic:
It might take a generation. That might be a reasonable time scale. The current generation that is running things might not be the right one. It might be that the generation that went to college during the financial crisis is the right generation — even if a lot of them are out of work. They’re thinking about what to do. They don’t have the Princeton-to-Wall Street path. They’re thinking of other things they might do with their lives, and because they don’t necessarily have jobs they are open to following their passions. My understanding is that volunteering is up. People are trying all kinds of things. There’s an increasing interest in graduate degrees — education is always counter-cyclical to the economy. This is a generation that saw the breakage of some ideologies of perfect capitalism, ready to revise their thinking. And they might be the right people to envision a new approach.