Fig. 1 Quartile divisions of wealth accumulation: Country A is fictional, Country B is Sweden and Country C is the United States
I am reissuing this posting, all attributed to the election of Donal J. Trump. I expect his administration to be the most corrupt adminstration in history. I am sure we will see many clowns as members of his administration. Perhaps there is some sunshine that will illuminate his administration, because I expect that he will offer no rewards for the people that elected him, and if the Democrats are smart, they will make inroads into the people who elected Trump, by recognizing LABOR UNIONS, once the center point of FDR’s New Deal.
If you were hoping that Americans were well informed about the increasing disparity in wealth distribution in America, this posting will disappoint you. Perhaps you’ve heard the story already. A few nights ago on the PBS News Hour, financial correspondent Paul Solman gave a little quiz as he walked through Times Square, interviewing different people and asking them questions based on the pie chart illustrated in Fig. 1. The three pie charts are divided into quintile (5 x 20%) sectors based on the percentage of total wealth of the country by each quintile (see wealth definition below); yellow is the top 20%, blue the next 20% followed in order by red, green and orange at the bottom 20%). Three different countries are represented by the three different pie charts. The first of two different questions Solman posed was: suppose the country’s wealth was divided into the quintiles represented by the colors–in which country would you prefer to live? The majority pointed to either Country A, which is a fictitious country, with total wealth shared equally among the five different sectors, or the Country B, which is represented by Sweden. Among those interviewed, very few selected the bottom pie chart, Country C, which is in fact the wealth distribution for the United States, in which the top 20% of the wealthiest Americans own 84 percent of the total wealth. That question by itself suggests that the majority of Americans in Solman’s sample would prefer to live in a country that has a more equitable distribution of wealth, which for them, doesn’t exist. But then the more obvious question was put forward when Solman asked, which among these three countries do you live in–which one is America? The majority of those interviewed pointed to Country A or Country B and very few selected Country C. Yet when Solman presented the pie charts to nearby entry level workers, they had no difficulty identifying the United States as Country C.
Solman’s little quiz would hardly stand the test of statistical scrutiny because his limited sample was certainly skewed, undersized and biased in many different ways. He was actually interviewing the crowd waiting to get into the Dave Letterman Show (except the entry level workers didn’t seem to be in that line). But in fact, he was merely echoing a more complete and extensive study carried out by two academics, Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely, professors from, respectively, the Harvard Business School and the Psychology Department at Duke University. The title of their paper “Building a Better America–One Wealth Quintile at a Time” was published on-line in Perspectives on Psychological Science.They had carried out a larger study asking similar questions, but with a nationally representative online sample size of 5522, with 51% female (mean age 44.4), randomly selected from a panel of more than 1 million Americans and completed in 2005. Median household income in their sample was $45,000, similar to that reported in the 2006 U.S. census data; in the 2004 election; 50.6% voted for Bush and 46% for Kerry, which was close to the actual outcome. All respondents had the same working definition of wealth which was read to them at the time: “wealth, also known as net worth is defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus the debt that he or she owes. A person’s net worth includes his or her banking account savings plus the value of other things such as property, stocks, bonds, art, collections, etc., minus the value of things like loans and mortgages.” Each respondent was told about Rawl’s expression of a just society: imagine if you joined this nation, you would be randomly assigned to a place in the distribution, so that you could end up anywhere in this distribution, from the very richest to the very poorest. So that instruction makes the study a little different than the simple interview that Solman carried out. Not surprisingly people overwhelmingly selected Country A or Country B. The actual numbers from their paper are shown in the shade covered pie charts of Fig. 2 ; equal distribution got 43%, Sweden got 47% and the U.S. got 10%; the comparisons between individual countries was Sweden 51/49 over equal; Sweden 92/8 over USA and equal was favored over the USA 77/23. These differences were robust across gender lines, political affiliations and personal income. The slight preference for Sweden over the equal distribution country implied that Americans wanted at least some inequality in the distribution of wealth. So the Norton & Ariely study was based on the idea that you had to decide which country you would join, when the economic strata you would occupy was randomized and you could be at the top or anywhere in between, but the decision would not be yours. When asked in this way, Americans chose a more equitable distribution than that found in the United States today.
The next part of the survey will surprise no one. The general strategy is displayed in Fig. 3. The upper horizontal bar graph shows the actual distribution of wealth in America. Notice that on this scale, the fourth and fifth bottom quintiles (purple and light blue) are so small that they cannot be represented adequately using the graph scale. If you find this shocking, then you should read Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book “Nickel and Dimed: About (Not) Getting by in America“ to see how problematic it is for people who do not have sufficient stability in income to keep afloat in America. We do not pay enough for entry level positions, such as maids, janitors, waitresses and WallMart employees. Today, one in six Americans gets food stamps. But, back to the graph.
The middle bar shows the estimated wealth distribution in America, projected by averaging the results of all those surveyed, as they attempted to gauge the wealth distribution of America. For this bar, each person had to estimate the relative wealth distribution for each of the quintiles. It is apparent that the group way underestimated the amount of wealth owned by top quintile You will also notice that on this bar, all quintiles have representation, meaning that the average American doesn’t know that the lower 40 percent of Americans do not have enough wealth to have representation on the scale of the bar graph. The relative wealth of the lower 40 percent of Americans is invisible graphically as well as invisible to most Americans. The very bottom bar, shows what those polled would like to see in a “perfect America.” In that non-existent state “perfect America” looks very balanced, with a progressively smaller percentage of wealth assigned to lower quintiles of the wealth scale, but every quintile as a more robust presence. So, here too Americans want to see the “wealthy” better off, but compared to the society we currently have (top bar), they would like to see a far healthier America, with wealth distribution more equitable.
There were other small differences in the outcome Of Norton and Ariely’s study, depending on whether they looked at the results by groups, based on salary differences, gender, Republican vs Democrat, but these differences were small compared to average, indicating that most Americans had similar views when making these kinds of judgements. My conclusion from this study is that American citizens don’t know how skewed the wealth curve distribution is in their own country, but if they could design a different country, they would generate a more equitable society. So, in terms of wealth distribution, social policies, including health care and social security, the formation of unions and the value of public education, Americans consistently support a view that is to the left of the current President or most members of Congress. The reason why this view does not dominate our political and social philosophy is because our political system is not based on an equitable distribution of representation (imagine how utterly skewed it is that California and Wyoming get the same number of Senators) and the financial costs of running an election are so great that every candidate at the national level needs support from a sugar daddy who is generally from from big business and is always far to the right of where most people are with respect to social policy and income equity. And, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling of three years ago, corporations can throw unlimited funds to sway our political system so that it subserves the interests of corporations–the bigger the better. Whether these problems can be politically solved or not, whether America can reach for a sense of economic justice remains to be seen, but so far the polarization in America, which is now being accelerated by paranoia and demagoguery, has yet to reveal any hint that we can avoid a train wreck in our future. The best we can do is keep plugging away, keep arguing as rationally as we can and hope that the quality of our drinking water improves so that a rational society can re-emerge some time in the near future. American business has failed the country. Perhaps we could rationalize their huge paychecks, if in return they met their responsibilities and provided good paying jobs for all Americans. But in fact the evidence is clear–the interests of big business is to remove more wealth from the middle and lower income classes and make additional profits for themselves. This cannot continue. Many have argued that the wealth distribution in America was not created by the wealthy, but was in fact a transfer of wealth from the Middle Class and the poor through their failure to keep wages growing with prosperity.