The “makers” are much more politically organized than the “takers”

September 19, 2012

The real question, writes Tyler Cowen, is "on a given policy issue what is the relevant political influence of — on that issue — the makers vs. the takers? Very often the takers are the classic better-mobilized concentrated interest groups."

Actually, I think this is backward, at least in terms of Mitt Romney's actual comments. Cowen goes on to give examples of farm policy and patents, but Romney wasn't talking about farm policy and patents. His "takers" weren't corporations sucking at the public teat. His takers were individuals using food stamps and health-care subsidies and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Poorer people, in other words. And, in those issues, there's little doubt that "the makers" are far better organized than "the takers."

For one thing, "the makers" vote more. Folks making less than $13,000 make up 13 percent of the population but only 6 percent of the electorate. Folks making more than $200,000 make up only 3.8 percent of the population but are 6 percent of the electorate. So though the over-$200,000 group is less than a third as large as the under-$13,000 group, they make up the same proportion of voters -- and, it almost goes without saying, a much greater proportion of political donors.

Similarly, political scientist Martin Gilens has conducted an exhaustive analysis of the political system's responsiveness to the policy preferences of difference income groups. His conclusion:

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.

This might be because the poorer you are, the less likely you are to know very much about politics. According to a 2007 Pew poll, only 14 percent of Americans making less than $20,000 were very knowledgeable about politics. But 55 percent of Americans making more than $100,000 were.

In general, I notice a real desire for the Republican Party in general, and Mitt Romney in particular, to mount an anti-crony capitalism, Luigi Zingales-like critique of the federal government. But that's simply not the critique he's making.

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Ezra Klein · September 19, 2012