The theme of this year's political science conference is "Categories and the Politics of Global Inequality," so I figured I'd better check out one of the so-called "theme panels" before I go.
So I dropped in on "Race, Inequality, and Class in America."
Interestingly, two papers on race inequalities that didn't mention economic inequalities at all, and two papers on economic inequalities that didn't mention racial inequalities at all. As discussant Jacob Hacker (of UC Berkeley) pointed out, this has been a problem in studies of inequality for a long time.
One paper at this panel was particularly fascinating. Benjamin I. Page, of Northwestern, showed an impressive array of survey results demonstrating that Americans concerned about income inequality, and they want government to do something about it. And yet, they also firmly believe in free markets and Horatio Alger. Page has a forthcoming book on this, along with Lawrence R. Jacobs, of the University of Minnesota.
For example: 67 percent of Americans (and 60 percent of Republicans) think "Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job." But then again, 76 percent of Americans (and 70 percent of low-income people) think "It's possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich." Also noteworthy: Roughly two-thirds majorities (and across both parties and all socioeconomic classes) support government ensuring broad educational access from kindergarten to college, and similar majorities support a broad range of programs to achieve universal health coverage, even if it costs tax dollars.
And yet, even though since 1984 consistently 60 percent of Americans have been saying that wealth in America should be more evenly distributed, Page and Jacobs find that most people have no idea how unequally it is actually distributed. Surveys show that on average, people think the CEO of a large corporation actually earns $500,000 a year, even though they think CEOs should earn $200,000. The reality: Try $14 million a year for S&P 500 CEOs. (So people are off by almost a factor of 30 in their guesses). Page speculated that if people knew how unequal things actually are, maybe they'd be even more supportive of redistribution.
How did things get so unequal?
Well, here's one possibility, from a panel I went to Friday where a group of scholars I've been working with for a few years (Kay Schlozman of Boston College, Sidney Verba and Phil Jones of Harvard, and Henry Brady of UC Berkeley) presented some data on which groups are represented in the Washington lobbying community. Of the 14,000 organizations listed in the Washington Representatives directory, roughly 46 percent are either corporations or trade associations. Zero represent poor people.
Well, enough overhearing passing snippets of conservations about "negative utility" and people asking each other if they've read so-and-so's book about the way the state infiltrates society -- there's only so much conferencing one can take. I'm off to the airport.
* * *
Earlier posts from the American Political Science Association's annual conference: