by Harry on December 15, 2008

I rarely read bestsellers. I’d like to think that it is because I’m a snob, but the truth is that it is mainly because I lack the sense of urgency needed to trigger the purchase/acquisition. They’re bestsellers for goodness sake, which means there are tens of thousands of them around and they’ll be widely reviewed, so if, in a few years time, they still seem good and relevant I can get hold of them then and see what I think. I read two this year. I’ll write about Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), which I loved, later; for now I’ll recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success (UK) (one of my dad’s Christmas presents this year; I’m also getting him Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 and The Complete Ivor The Engine, lucky man — you can tell how confident I am that he never reads anything I write; I’m pretty sure he hasn’t even read my draft of the pamphlet we’re writing together).

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Mainly its servants

by Henry Farrell on December 15, 2008

“Robert J. Samuelson”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/14/AR2008121401811_pf.html turns the stupid up to 11.

A second myth is that lobbying favors the wealthy, including corporations, because only they can afford the cost. As a result, government favors the rich and ignores the poor and middle class. Actually, the facts contradict that. Sure, the wealthy extract privileges from government, but mainly they’re its servants. The richest 1 percent of Americans pay 28 percent of federal taxes, says the Congressional Budget Office. About 60 percent of the $3 trillion federal budget goes for payments to individuals — mostly the poor and middle class. You can argue that those burdens and benefits should be greater, but if the rich were all powerful, their taxes would be much lower. Similarly, the poor and middle class do have powerful advocates. To name three: AARP for retirees; the AFL-CIO for unionized workers; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for the poor.

Should people pretend to take this sort of horseshit seriously? One, could, for example, point out to serious academic research that completely contradicts Samuelson’s claims, such as Larry Bartels’ finding that “[US] senators are consistently responsive to the views of affluent constituents but entirely unresponsive to those with low incomes.” (p.275, Bartels 2008; Bartels also finds that Republicans are roughly twice as responsive to the views of high income constituents as Democrats)? Or should people just point at the silly man, and laugh (Samuelson’s claims are so pig-ignorantly ridiculous that they’re _not even competent hackery_ )? I’m genuinely of two minds.

Update: Bartels speaks further to this at “Ezra Klein’s blog”:http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=12&year=2008&base_name=the_weak_and_the_rich.

I know of two systematic attempts to measure the relative influence of affluent, middle-class, and poor people on government policy. One is in the next-to-last chapter of Unequal Democracy, where senators’ roll call votes are moderately strongly affected by the preferences of high-income constituents, less strongly affected by the preferences of middle-income constituents, and totally unaffected by the preferences of low-income constituents. That’s the more optimistic view. My Princeton colleague Marty Gilens (in a 2005 article in Public Opinion Quarterly and a book-in-progress) has a parallel analysis focusing on aggregate poilcy shifts over two decades. He also finds no discernible impact of low-income preferences, but argues that middle-class people also get ignored when they happen to disagree with rich people.

As Ezra says:

Bartels explains his research in further detail “here”:http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2008/05/16/a_political_system_utterly_unr/. Marty Gilens’ work is “here”:http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/research.html. I’d be interested to hear Samuelson respond to their findings, or describe which aspects of their analysis he finds insufficiently rigorous.