A couple of alert readers have sent me interesting “inequality in the news.” Ankur sent me this story from the NY Times Economix blog reporting results from the 2009 American Community Survey — not surprisingly, inequality reached a historic high last year due in large part to the declining economic prospects at the bottom of the income distribution. I’ll take more about this soon, but for now, here’s a somewhat related perspective from the Onion.
Tom sent me coverage from the Huffington post on this report by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton. The authors surveyed a representative sample of Americans in an online survey asking them to choose their preferred distribution of wealth in society divided between five quintiles (groups of 20%) — complete equality, a distribution that looks like Sweden (where the top 20% control 36% of the wealth), and the United States (where the top 20% control 84% of the wealth). The second part of the experiment asked people to pick what percent of the total wealth they thought each quintile actually owned, and how much they should own. From the abstract:
“First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups – even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.”
First of all, I think this an exceedingly clever study design — simple, elegant, and easy to understand. The real question is how much traction these kinds of results get in the real world. It’s unlikely, as the authors concede, that people are likely to shift their political behavior once they are suitably informed about the wealth distribution in the real world. Another observation is that there are deeply ingrained beliefs not only about how much inequality there is in society, but how inequality comes about. So talking to non-experts about inequality engages a whole set of beliefs about personal responsibility, incentives, the power of free markets, and welfare.