Progressive policies are good for rich folks

You don’t have to be an altruist to earn like an Episcopalian and vote like a Puerto Rican; you just need to understand that, at the margin, a dollar spent on public goods gives you, personally, more benefit than a dollar spent on private consumption.

No doubt Keith (citing Jonathan Haidt) is right to say that poor people who are victims of Republican downward class warfare and who vote Republican anyway because they think Republicans agree with them on “values” questions aren’t necessarily acting irrationally. As as Weber pointed out a long time ago, “ideal interests” are just as genuine as material interests.

I don’t think it’s irrational for me to vote according to my beliefs about what would make a better world, independent of the effects of specific policies on my individual situation; why should I think it’s irrational for other people to behave the same way?

Of course, there’s a different question hidden here; the progressives asking “What’s the matter with Kansas?” mostly think that some of the “values” Red voters are voting for – expressing their prejudices against blacks and Latinos, a sexual-purity fetish, opposition to women’s personal and economic independence, and hostility to scientific inquiry – are themselves irrational. But “People shouldn’t believe that” does not imply either “People don’t believe that” or “People who believe that are acting strangely if they act on those beliefs.”

Where I disagree with Keith is on the flip side of the question. He thinks Warren Buffet and other Blue-team rich folks are favoring their ideal interests over their material interests just as much as the Red-voting poor and working-class folks. I disagree: they’re voting (consciously or not) for what’s good for them and their families.

Some prosperous types would be willing (certainly I would) to sacrifice material to ideal interests – to favor a redistribution of income that would reduce their material standard of living in order to make people on the bottom half of the totem pole better off – but the question mostly doesn’t arise.

I can’t speak for Warren Buffet, but as someone who “earns like an Episcopalian and votes like a Puerto Rican” I see progressive policies as being very much in my narrow self-interest. As Robert Frank points out, I’m not competing socially with home health workers or Wal-Mart clerks; I’m competing with other well-paid professionals. If we all pay somewhat more in taxes, I don’t come out behind in the status race, and most of the material things I want – especially housing – simply have their prices bid up as my competitors and I earn more money. So a downward redistribution of income takes no skin off my back in standard-of-living terms, while the benefits to me of living in a more egalitarian (and therefore less stressful, healthier, and less crime-ridden) society would be substantial.

Similarly, my primary unfilled material desires – better air to breathe, for example, or improved knowledge about how to prevent and treat disease – are mostly public goods rather than private goods. There’s no possible improvement in the car I drive that would be as much use to me as having less congested and better-maintained roads to travel on, or – better yet – reliable public transit that would free me of the need to drive altogether. I’d be much better off, personally, if my taxes went up and, in return, my local NPR station could stop running fund drives and art museums stayed open convenience-store hours.

Progressives are, rightly, proud of our concern for the dispossessed and our willingness to make sacrifices on their behalf. But the unfortunate result has been a failure to claim, correctly, that progressive policies are – even putting aside the question of macro-economic management – in the selfish material interests of the rich. The truly irrational voters are the secular rich folks who vote Republican.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

27 thoughts on “Progressive policies are good for rich folks”

  1. The way to phrase this is that THE problem of human society is co-ordination mechanisms.
    Economics (ie prices, salaries and so on) are PART of the possible co-ordination mechanisms, but they are not the whole. On the positive side, they ignore a variety of human motivations which don’t respond to money (or respond badly); on the negative side they ignore (assume away) the fact that people who perceive they have no stake in the system are not economically inert but will take active measures (up to and including armed rebellion and war) to destroy the system.

    So anyone with a big picture view of the world, of COURSE, supports a larger set of social interactions than just money-mediated libertarianism.
    Why would anyone think otherwise? Well that’s how religions work. They present a simple and easy to understand world view that purports to explain everything; they provide a set of rationalizations that allow any discrepancies between reality and the myth to be excused away; they provide a set of prophets, saints and ur-texts offering easy answers whenever decisions have to be made; and the human brain appears to be so constructed that most people want this sort of thing.

    I think it’s a mistake (and thus unhelpful in solving the problem) to assume that most people who buy into this ideology are doing so because of self-interest; I think the religious aspect is far more important. We’re probably not as badly off as 16th century Europe (or Israel) — it does help to calm down the potential passions if the stakes aren’t souls and damnation and eternity. (Though “democracy” and “freedom” are ersatz stakes that certainly ramp passions up to an irrational 11.) If we look at the closest similar case in history, the Soviet Union and communist ideology, we see that that withered away after perhaps two generations of clear failure, and without an internal civil war to the death ala 30yrs war. On the other hand, our situation is very different in that there’s a lot more leeway for true believers to insist that any failure is the fault of the Democrats (even when they control all branches of government, this is still an excuse that will fly with many).

    We can hypothesize all we like about how this might play out, but all indications are we’ll get an answer as soon as next year, when we get another round of budget fighting. This will pit the true believers (“cut taxes, cut the budget, let the chips fall where they may, and who cares about credit ratings”) against the people who really ARE motivated by self-interest. I suspect the true believers will have the upper hand in this battle, at least for a while.

  2. What we have here (with respect to the voting behavior of the affluent) is, I think, a classic prisoner’s dilemma matrix. Individuals can either cooperate (vote for policies that benefit everybody, knowing that this will benefit them, too, but only if everyone or almost everyone cooperates) or defect (vote for policies that benefit them — but only if they’re the only beneficiaries, or at least if the number of beneficiaries is sufficiently small).

    While you can justifably say that both strategies are guided by self-interest, these are two very different kinds of self-interest, and I wouldn’t conflate them.

  3. Very good points. But poor(er) people who vote their values are being condescended to here. It’s not primarily about hatred of minorities or sexual purity fetishes. It is sometimes about abortion, which is seen as a human rights issue (Yes, it is) and also about the idea that economic growth thru unfettered markets will make it more possible for them to rise. My (many) working class relatives who vote Republican try over and over again to make it as small business owners, and have mostly given up in despair because of what they see as intrusive and burdensome regulations. I agree with the need for most of them, but I see my relatives point of view as a legitimate one too.

    1. I’ve noticed some resistance to the demand-side recession we are currently experiencing among some people too. For example, a libertarian I know sent around a link to someone who gave a speech about how people don’t eat because they’re hungry, they eat because someone made a sandwich. Who was supposedly “brave” because he said these (very stupid) things somewhere in the vicinity of Wall Street. Quite, quite bonkers.

      Since noticing that many people lack the cash to support small business wouldn’t fit the GOP party line, people blame themselves instead, but that’s too painful so it must be “the regulations.” (Not that we don’t have too many — I can well believe there are some bad ones. But, does anyone do the work of trying to figure out which ones they are? Uh, not that I can see.)

      This recession has really battered down a whole bunch of perfectly nice, responsible people. I am very sorry to hear about your rels. And I think we on the left should remember to respect people’s sense of agency, even as we point out the innumerable number of macro things going wrong. You’re right about that.

      1. It ought to be pointed out that a fairly strong tendency exists among our entrepreneurs to complain that taxes are too high (they are, actually, at a historic low) and that there is too much regulation (although they are seldom able/willing to specify just which regulations they have in mind). Not to be unkind, but small businesses fail and have failed constantly because they simply can’t get some of the efficiencies that are available to bigger businesses, they tend to be under-capitalized in the first place, and, if we are going to be brutally honest, many people aren’t very realistic when it comes to planning for their future. Most people just aren’t great managers and a surprising number of would-be small business owners have no clue about putting together a business plan. I’d also suggest that, given the rather obvious cartelization of large areas of American business, small businesses stand as poor a chance as they ever have.

        1. I’m not saying that all of my relatives had good business plans, nor that the deck is not stacked in favor of bigger fish with better access to capital and economies of scale. Nor did my relatives complain about taxes. I’m saying that, from their point of view, regulation was a major stumbling block, and that their orientation was that of a business person rather than a wage earner.

      2. Sensible regulations can hurt some types of small business indirectly, by not being enforced.

        A friend of mine tried his hand at a home remodelling business. He knew what he was doing and worked very hard. The trouble was he was doing relatively small projects and trying to conform to rules about licensing, insurance, and so on. Too often, he was underbid by someone who paid no attention to these niceties. I don’t know if that was an issue for EB’s relatives, but it clearly is a problem if the effect of regulations is to drive law-abiding people out of business.

        1. The regulatory process is also often captured by large businesses, whose needs and interests are typically very different from those of smaller businesses — even before you get to the fact that the large businesses want to see the highest possible barriers to entry.

          I know a little about this from living in a semi-agricultural community. Small cheesemakers who have to maintain microbial perfection just to get their products to set up and age properly are confronted with regulations intended to make sure some subminimum-wage factory worker doesn’t come in sick and throw up into the vat. Meat-animal farmers raising a few dozen animals a year have to meet standards designed for factories processing thousands of carcasses a day. And so forth.

          These problems are solvable, but not by slashing the regulations that keep the big players from poisoning people en masse.

          1. Y’all are making some really good points. What we need is some solid survey research in these areas, I guess. I wonder who else besides Jay’s sources works on this. We really ought to just hear what the business people have to say for themselves. Once it’s politicized, I stop listening to the other side, because it’s always the same song from GOP pols. Some things shouldn’t be political (can’t believe I just said that ; >)

          2. A good place to start for not-sensible regulation is Joel Salatin’s article Everything I want to do is illegal.

            It’s worth noting that asking busienss owners whether demand or regulation is their biggest problem misses all the businesses that people aren’t in because of regulations. (For example, chickens can be butchered on-farm and sold, and it’s easy to find pasture-raised chickens at a farmers market; beef has to be butchered by a USDA-licensed facility,a nd so it’s hard to find.)

    2. Small businesses are far more worried about demand than about regulation. This goes back a year or two, but McClatchy had a news item about this (here) as did the WSJ. My own blog post about this has a graph, based on a survey of small businesses. The survey asked what was the number one problem for their business. “Poor sales” got twice as many votes as “regulation.”

      1. Jay, I can’t get your links to work, sorry. Please fix, I’m interested. My cursor(?) can’t grab onto anything.

  4. Once again: the argument of What’s the Matter With Kansas is being misrepresented here. Mark is – probably – correctly describing the way that many progressives intend that phrase, but the point being made in the book by that name was not that it is foolish to vote for conservative social values. The author’s point, rather, is that it is foolish to continually fall for a bait-and-switch, in which right-wing politicians promise social conservatism at election time, and then always fail to deliver, and simply use the power that comes from working-class votes to deliver tax cuts to the business elite. So the white working class is foolish because they’re suckers who keep voting for something but never getting it (because their leaders aren’t seriously intending to deliver it), while also thereby voting against their economic self-interest.

    The real rejoinder to the Thomas Frank thesis, IMHO, is that he failed to foresee the rise of the Obama-era Teahadi right wing, which, in my view, is absolutely sincere about enacting social conservative policies, and indeed is either one Anthony Kennedy change of heart, or else one new Supreme Court appointment, away from overturning Roe v. Wade, at which point the social convservative voters in the white working class will no longer be suckers.

    1. I agree with everything you say except your assumption that repeal of Roe v. Wade will give the social conservatives what they want. For most of them (with some exceptions), abortion is just a proxy for subordination of women and rigid gender roles. That train has long ago left town, although I suppose a Teahadi can dream.

      And repealing Roe v. Wade won’t do too much, anyway. Poor women have a godawful time getting abortions today, and repeal of Roe v. Wade won’t affect anybody with a passport and the price of a plane ticket. And what’s more, the people leading the Republican Party will make damned sure that it won’t do so in the future. After all, they don’t want the Teahadis bossing their daughters.

      1. Good points about poor women. Bear in mind that if Roe is overturned, the GOP could try to pass a federal statute barring abortion throughout the country. My guess is that they’ll never get that far – a Supreme Court majority is much closer and easier to achieve – but if it came to pass, even upper-middle class women would be affected.

  5. Also, a point that came up in the previous thread: I understand that studies show that whites in the lower third of the income distribution are pretty solidly Democratic, but this does not disprove Frank’s thesis. The working class can be defined by education + occupation or it can be defined by income. The former definition sweeps in contractors, firefighters, plumbers and a bunch of other blue-collar workers who are often in the middle third of the income distribution but many of whom vote GOP. The latter definition includes lots of un- or under-employed college students (living off loans, doncha know), grad students, starving artists, etc. It’s true that this group is much more Democratic but whether they’re truly ‘working class’ is surely a matter of perspective.

  6. I’ll disagree in Mark, in part. Mark is probably a member of the top 5%, but not the top 1%. He is certainly not a member of the top 0.1%.

    In my estimation, a rationally selfish 1%er benefits from the status quo, even when the benefits of egalitarianism are factored in. This is certainly true for the top 0.1%, who can easily replace most public services with private ones. For the top 0.1%er, the extra looting from inequality easily pays for the private services. Few public services can’t be bought on the private market. Congestion may be a real problem in getting out to the Hamptons on Friday evening, but that’s what helicopters are for. Who needs public cops when you can hire your own? You’re really worried about global warming? Buy North Saskatchewan! Mark is analytically right on cutting-edge health care–its an inherent public good. But guess what! Medical research is one of the few public goods in the US that is adequately funded.

    There is a break-even point somewhere. In my guess, it is around the top 5% or 10%. The share of inequality loot has gone done considerably at this point, and the cost of private replacements for public services starts to loom large. So Mark is probably right–for him. But I think he is wrong for the people who count. If they support oligarchic politics, they are being selfishly rational.

    1. Scrooge:

      I see your helicopter and raise you a lamp post.

      (During the last depression, machine guns were reportedly standard equipment for real mansions. It doesn’t seem to me that we’ve reached that point in the US this time around.)

  7. Can I just point out, again, that in California we recently had a very good public campaign finance proposition on the ballot, that got *absolutely no support* from the state Democratic Party???

    We have a serious problem on the left, and maybe it comes from these .1% people, I’m sorry to say. Or rather, from our leaders’ dependence on them. We have the same problem here in Los Angeles, and no one is doing a damned thing about it, since locally we’re supposed to be nonpartisan.

    We have a city in real trouble, with the privatizers not just at the gate but *already in charge* of the government, and no one cares. Heck, no one around here even notices. And our academics? Where are they? Oh but wait, being interested in the city you supposedly live in is so 1980s (I guess). And where are people like me supposed to go? You can’t be a Green after Nader. And there seems to be no liberal wing of DP left. What the foxtrot is going on here?

  8. Progressive policies are good for rich NICE folks, but bad for rich MEAN folks. Warren Buffett can build himself a society of one that offers all the benefits a progressive could dream of, but only for him, far cheaper than by paying his fair share of taxes. The fact that he’d rather do the latter is evidence that, unlike the Koch brothers, he’s not an asshole.

    1. Not so. He can’t buy himself clean air, or safe streets, or well-educated and healthy fellow-citizens.

      1. Mark is wrong here. The Kochs can buy pretty much the equivalent of most public goods on the private market. And they don’t want too many of the public goods they can’t pay for themselves, except perhaps health research. Which is why they are assholes, as Andrew said. Let’s look at Mark’s list:
        1. Clean air: Koch air can be as clean as they want indoors. The air is quite clean Montana ranch-country, if they want to go outdoors. Montana isn’t too far from Koch-land by private jet.
        2. Safe streets: Who needs safe streets when you have friendly guns at your command?
        3. Healthy fellow-citizens: Okay, that’s a public good. But healthy fellow-plutocrats is a private good, and why would a Koch want anything more?

        1. Well, they may need a few people to wipe their behinds when they get old. In theory. (Though, they make washing machines for people now, actually.)

          It is useful to have a few peasants around.

  9. Man, all this handwringing and false consciousness gobblygoop in order to avoid recognizing the obvious. Almost any way you cut it, the working class has been voting fairly consistently democratic for a long time.

    Theres has been only one dramatic change. Here’s an example of it:

    Party Identification, South
    1952: 83% = D; 15% = R
    2008: 45% = D; 42% = R

    Congressional Vote, South
    1952: 93% = D; 7% = R
    2008: 43% = D; 57% = R

    Liberals benefited from a racially coercive one-party region. Thats why both Malcolm and Martin believed they were in cahoots with the White Supremacists. Even the Southern Strategy could not duplicate these numbers.

    1. Um, what is it you’re trying to say here? I can’t quite make out your meaning. The Southern Strategy couldn’t duplicate your numbers … that appear to demonstrate the results of the Southern Strategy? If you’re saying that Southern whites shifted to the GOP, well, that *was* the Southern Strategy, afaik.

      And this: “Liberals benefited from a racially coercive one-party region.” What could it mean?

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