October 30, 2002
A Nation of Wild Optimists

Doug Henwood forwards a squib from Sam Smith's Progressive Review:


DAVID BROOKS, ATLANTIC MONTHLY - During the most recent presidential election a Time magazine-CNN poll asked voters whether they were in the top 1 percent of income earners. Nineteen percent reported that they were, and another 20 percent said that they expected to be there one day.

Posted by DeLong at October 30, 2002 11:56 AM | Trackback

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I'm fine with the optimists - the ones who expect to be there one day - just not the delusional ones who think they already are.

Posted by: Atrios on October 30, 2002 12:45 PM

I have long been surprised at how many middle class acquaintences identify with the rich and so with the interests of the rich. Perhaps they mistake being comfortable with being rich. This sort of identification makes populism tricky, besides the rich do all they can to pass off as common folk on political issues.

Remember, Republicans scream class warfare the moment the point is made that "the rich are not like us." Republicans are busily complaining about anyone who dares mention how skewed the latest tax cuts have been to the rich. That the rich do unduly benefit is of no account.

My guess is that we are going to have a revival of populist appeal in years to come, for the emerging American plutocracy may not prove as pleasing as many might suppose.

Posted by: on October 30, 2002 12:45 PM

This is quite an interesting mistake and bears consideration. Ah, identity.

Posted by: on October 30, 2002 12:47 PM

This is the other 80/20 rule. I can't recall the source of the survey, but it said people on average aspire to earn 20% more than they do today.

Posted by: Ross Mayfield on October 30, 2002 01:33 PM

Well, in a way, isn't this a good thing? Granted they're delusional, but one of the main benefits of high income is increased status, not increased consumption. By being deluded, those 19% are getting a large fraction of the benefits of being in the top 1%, but having it spread over 19% of the population :^).

Granted, it may be cynical to take advantage of people believing lies, but oh well.

Julian Elson

Posted by: Julian Elson on October 30, 2002 01:36 PM

Interesting also to think about this result in light of the other discussion below titled "Are You a Good Plutocrat, or a Bad Plutocrat? " -- folks might be more tolerant of the top 1 percenters if they believe they are amongst them already or will be one day.

Posted by: David on October 30, 2002 01:44 PM

The reason it's not such a good thing is that when people say "The benefits of this tax cut go overwhelmingly to the top 1%", 20% of the people think that's them, and another 20% think it could be.

So a policy that only helps 1% of the population gets selfish support by 40%.

Posted by: Mike Kozlowski on October 30, 2002 01:44 PM

What portion believes themselves to be in the bottom 1%? Are our self-images skewed rich, poor, normally distributed? Has anyone reviewed the actual poll results?

Posted by: Brian on October 30, 2002 03:27 PM

The funny thing is comparing this type of result to other income/ consumption surveys. A few years ago, I recall a survey on the average income those polled thought one needed to earn to live comfortably, or was the average, or some combination of the 2 ideas. The average response- $100,000 or so. An income earned by about 7% or so of the population.
I can't put the 2 together... it boggles the mind.

Posted by: Brendan on October 30, 2002 04:03 PM

Good point, Brian. I would bet most people simply have no idea about how rich the rich are. They probably think of professionals as the middle-upper class, and the owner of a $1M venture as upper-upper. While they might be correct from a sociological perspective (although that's debatable), they just miss how rich the upper-upper _economic_ class is.

Or maybe, it's a combination of people not knowing how to cope with a small number like one percent with misconceptions about the conceptual difference between a mean and a median (extended here to percentile.) I would guess that less than 5% of Americans can define the concept of a median (not to mention percentile and decile).

Basically this survey is asking people a quick question regarding a concept most people are unfamiliar with. It would be very interesting to know how differently people would answer after being given an explanation about the concept of percentile.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on October 30, 2002 04:15 PM

Does this mean that we can buy the incentive effect - purported to exhort those who are not in the upper brackets to work harder - relatively cheaply?

Wouldn't this damage the arguement of those who say that an unequal distribution of income is the price to pay for the strong economic growth that comes with the incentive that economic agents have of climbing towards the top bracket.

Posted by: Harry on October 30, 2002 04:43 PM

I'm having trouble googling for the poll itself. Haven't had any luck on the CNN site, but from the mentions it looks like it was sometime around Nov 2000. Anyone have a working link?

Posted by: on October 30, 2002 04:53 PM

So I suppose it would make more sense to say 40% of the tax cut goes to people making more than $300,000 or whatever the number is. Or to say to the top 1%, who make 300k or there abouts. most people know whether they themselves make 80k or 500k.

Posted by: Daniel Klenbort on October 30, 2002 08:23 PM

A related point of interest -- a major fraction of those who assert they're in the top 1% also assert they're "average" or "middle class" (even when faced with an explicit "upper middle class" alternative).

Note the top percentile is mostly an upper sucker bracket ... the real money's in the top 0.001, where most of the top 0.01 can't see it.

Note also "top 1%" usually means "top 1% of taxable income", which means (for practical purposes) "top 1% of income according to definitions constructed to exclude most real income above the million mark".

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on October 30, 2002 08:48 PM

One word: innumeracy.

Posted by: David Glynn on October 30, 2002 09:48 PM

One is reminded of Irving Howe's "Socialism and America." The late scholar was frustrated by the fact that Socialism failed to convert the American masses. This is due mostly to the fact that the general public correctly sensed that they too could eventually become at least somewhat affluent. Thankfully, we hesitated in going down the self destructive path chosen by the European parasites.

The Democratic Party is to be congratulated for its past advocacy of progressive legislation. Indeed, a capitalist system tends to beat up on people who are limited in their ability to negotiate with their employers. A Shaq O’Neal is usually in the driving seat when negotiating a new contract, but this is rarely the case for those possessing limited and commonplace skills. Unfortunately, the Democrats failed to realize when to draw the line. They have been seduced by the childish theories of John Rawls and other economic illiterates who place far too much emphasis upon cutting up smaller slices of the economic pie instead of making it bigger for everyone.

Posted by: David Thomson on October 31, 2002 03:01 AM

A nation of optimists.

Let's hope we always will be.

Posted by: Jim Harris on October 31, 2002 04:44 AM

So I suppose it would make more sense to say 40% of the tax cut goes to people making more than $300,000 or whatever the number is. Or to say to the top 1%, who make 300k or there abouts. most people know whether they themselves make 80k or 500k.

Posted by: Daniel K on October 31, 2002 04:47 AM

>>They have been seduced by the childish theories of John Rawls and other economic illiterates who place far too much emphasis upon cutting up smaller slices of the economic pie instead of making it bigger for everyone. <<

'Fess up, David, you haven't read a word of Rawls, have you?

Posted by: Daniel Davies on October 31, 2002 07:02 AM

"29% of Americans believe that Elvis was right to shoot tv sets." -- TV Nation Poll

"11% of Americans that suffer from indigestion would rather retake the SAT then watch Jesse Helms filibuster." -- TV Nation Poll

Polling is nearly as much fun as discussing Special Relativity with a nine year old.

Posted by: Dave Romm on October 31, 2002 08:46 AM

I've heard Rawls called a lot of things, but never childish.

But let me say I've always found that Robert Nozick's philosophy is quite infantile...

Posted by: Jeff on October 31, 2002 01:24 PM

Can it have something to do with the massive amounts of anti-depressants America is swallowing everyday? :-D

Seriously, does anybody know what percentage of the the adult population is under some anti-depressive treatment in the US?

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on October 31, 2002 03:02 PM

>>Polling is nearly as much fun as discussing Special Relativity with a nine year old.<<

At least the 9-year-old asks interesting questions...

And polling can be done in a more or less "scientific" way and with more or less intellectual honesty. The fact that it has to do with opinions doesn't dismiss it per se so long as we understand that what it is informative about is... opinions (that is perceptions and not the objects of the perception).

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on October 31, 2002 04:24 PM

One more treat from the opinion poll trick-bag. 52% of voters now say they voted for Bush in November 2000, 38% for Gore (as opposed to 49/49 in actual 2000 ballots).

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on November 1, 2002 11:13 AM

I am tempted to think that what you bring up is fascinating. My only concern is with sample representativity. Ballots are as representative as it gets (this could be a joke arguably - but allow me the ellipse) whereas polling is usually only marginally representative, often with richer voters disproportionally represented (especially so in online polls.)

Let's assume for a second my concerns aren't warranted. Then what it means is that people say they to think (or say?) that they've voted for who won. That's consistent with the fact that voters don't actually like to vote (or admit voting) for a party they perceive as a potential looser (although there are lots of other things going on.) If I were an entrant political science doctoral student, I would give serious thought to your point, RonK. One has to admit that the human psiche remains a mistery to most social scientists...

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on November 1, 2002 05:23 PM

It is possible this is random sample error ... though two quite separate polls give similar results.

It is possible people don't remember who they voted for.

It is possible people suppress the memory of voting for a loser.

It is possible people answer to please the pollster.

It is possible people respond strategically, thinking their responses to other questions will be weighed more heavily if they answer this way. (They'd usually be right, but I don't think enough of them know this.)

It is possible the small fraction who willingly respond to polls are disproportionately Republican ... which is important if true, and might show up as a wave of "surprises" Tuesday next.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on November 1, 2002 06:18 PM

'It is possible the small fraction who willingly respond to polls are disproportionately Republican ... which is important if true, and might show up as a wave of "surprises" Tuesday next.'

There's an discussion of this over at Daily Kos based on this article, where Dick Morris declares polling data "is no longer reliable and won't be for several more years." The 28 states with telemarketing opt-out lists and the ever-increasing hang up rate have seriously screwed up polling.

It's not too hard to construct a very Democrat-friendly conclusion from this; the people most likely to answer pollsters would be hard-core partisans, of which there are far more conservatives than liberals, and the far right is probably more likely to answer a pollster than the far left.

The 2000 elections tend to support this interpretation; what did the polls say Bush's margin was on the morning of the election, something like 5 points?

I'm not entirely convinced, but I'll be a believer if there's a Democratic blowout on Tuesday.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on November 1, 2002 07:20 PM
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