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The Rich and the Rest

Recently, Paul Krugman considered the disconnect between Republican candidates who continue to attack Social Security and the overwhelming majorities of American citizens who support the program.

His explanation? It’s all about the big money.

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics, but we’ve never seen anything like what’s happening now: domination of campaign finance, especially on the Republican side, by a tiny group of immensely wealthy donors. Indeed, more than half the funds raised by Republican candidates through June came from just 130 families.

And while most Americans love Social Security, the wealthy don’t. Two years ago a pioneering study of the policy preferences of the very wealthy found many contrasts with the views of the general public; as you might expect, the rich are politically different from you and me. But nowhere are they as different as they are on the matter of Social Security. By a very wide margin, ordinary Americans want to see Social Security expanded. But by an even wider margin, Americans in the top 1 percent want to see it cut.

The study Krugman references is fascinating–and deeply troubling.

Titled “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” it confirms the old adage that “the rich are different from the rest of us.” A few sentences from the abstract are instructive.

We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1 percent or so of US wealth-holders. We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation,and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct
from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.
Cliff’s Notes version: the minuscule number of obscenely rich donors who are financing Americans elections are intent upon “buying” their preferred policies. It doesn’t matter what American voters want or think. (And thanks to gerrymandering, in most districts, those voters cannot show their displeasure by “throwing the bums out.”)
And that is, indeed, a “serious issue” for democracy.