On representational inequality

Can you tell that I’m sort of obsessed with the subject of inequality?

As such, I was excited to learn from no less an expert on the subject than Larry Bartels about a book he calls “the best book in decades on political inequality.” The book is Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. It’s published by Princeton University Press and it’s written by Princeton University politics prof Martin Gilens. The current issue of Boston Review has a symposium on the book, which includes a book excerpt plus responses by such luminaries as Bartels, Matthew Yglesias, Mark Schmitt, John Ferejohn, and Russ Feingold,

Here’s some of what Gilens has to say:

When preferences diverge, the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has almost no relationship to policy outcomes. Policies favored by 20 percent of affluent Americans, for example, have about a one-in-five chance of being adopted, while policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time. In contrast, the support or opposition of the poor or the middle class has no impact on a policy’s prospects of being adopted.

[. . .]

Greater representational equality would have a substantial effect on several important economic policies. We would have a higher minimum wage, more generous unemployment benefits, stricter corporate regulation (on the oil and gas industries in particular), and a more progressive tax regime. Some of these policies are favored by a majority of Americans at the 90th income percentile as well, but not with sufficient enthusiasm to overcome opposition from business and other interests. We would also see a more protectionist trade strategy and less foreign aid.

There’s much more, including some theories about the mechanisms by which the affluent get their preferences represented, why representational inequality has risen over so dramatically over the past several decades, and what steps might be taken to ameliorate it. I’m not so sanguine as he is about the possibility of changing things, at least not right this minute. But it’s an interesting problem to think through, and I look forward to reading the other contributions in the symposium.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee