April 15, 2012


According to Page and Jacobs, Americans are conservative egalitarians who accept higher taxes and more government spending so as to give people equal opportunities (ANDREW GELMAN, APRIL 14, 2012, Monkey Cage)

As the saying goes, everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Or, to put in political terms, people want lower taxes and more government services--with the gap filled, presumably, with a mixture of borrowed funds and savings realized by cutting government waste. In their new book "Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality," Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs put together survey data and make a convincing case that this cynical story is not a fair summary of public opinion in the United States. Actually, most Americans--Democrats and Republicans alike--support government intervention in health care, education, and jobs, and are willing to pay more in taxes for these benefits.

Page and Jacobs recognize that Americans are confused on some of these issues, for example not realizing that sales taxes cost lower-income people more, as a percentage of their earnings, while the personal income tax hits higher-income groups more, on average. The result is widespread confusion about what are the most effective ways to pay for government spending. People are also confused about how to cut the budget. To choose a well-known example that is not in the book at hand, Americans overwhelmingly support reducing the share of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid, but they also vastly overestimate the current share of the budget that goes to this purpose (average estimate of 15%, compared to an actual value of 0.3%).

Confusions on specific tax and budget items aside, Page and Jacobs are persuasive that majority public opinion is consistent with tax increases targeted to specific government programs aimed at bringing a basic standard of living and economic opportunity to all Americans. They discuss how survey respondents generally feel that such an expansion of the role of government is consistent with generally expressed free-market attitudes, a philosophy which they call "conservative egalitarianism."

It's simply easier for us to accept the idea of helping folks up front--with defined contribution programs--in ways that level our start in life, than the idea of leveling unequal outcomes later.

Posted by at April 15, 2012 6:58 AM

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