Larry Bartels confuses Washington and the economy

August 14, 2013

On Monday, I wrote a post responding to Frank Rich's question about whether "altruists" could really get anything done in Washington at a time when the "corporate fix" is in.

Now Vanderbilt's Larry Bartels has weighed in -- which should be exciting! Bartels is one of my favorite political scientists for his relentless efforts to cut through emotional debates with cold, hard data. His essay on the irrationality of voters, for instance, is a minor classic.

So I'm surprised and disappointed to sidestep the whole issue and simply declare that discussions of the policy victories of the poor — or at least those working on their behalf — are off-limits, or at least "obtuse," because the economy has been so bad in recent years.

But it's a terrible mistake — a conservative's caricature of an out-of-touch political scientist — to conflate what happens in Washington with the economy as a whole. A data-driven scholar like Bartels shouldn't be making it.

Bartels basically agrees that Washington has passed some big laws to help lower-income Americans. Obamacare, he admits, is "hugely important" for the poor. He dismisses the rise in food stamps as a mere artifact of "escalating need" — though that omits the large boost in the generosity of the program that was passed into law as part of the stimulus. He doesn't mention the expansions (which have been repeatedly extended) in various refundable tax credits for the poor — or the hike in taxes on the rich — at all.

But then, his argument isn't about anything that's happened in Washington. It's about what's happened outside Washington:

What Klein seems to me to be missing here is the big economic and political context in which class politics has played out “in recent years.” Here is what has happened to the net wealth of people at different points in the U.S. wealth distribution over the past decade (from a recent paper by Fabian Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger, and Robert Schoeni):

There's a lot of human suffering in those lines. But the paper Bartels links to is perfectly clear about what's going on here: The changes, the authors write, are attributable to "housing and stock prices, recession-related changes in employment, and savings behaviors." None of these factors are even mentioned in Bartels' post.

(A quick chart note: You'll notice that graph uses net worth, and uses percentages of 2003 net worth at that. That makes for a very dramatic looking graph. Using actual income paints a less dramatic, though still grim, picture: There, the bottom 20 percent saw their income fall 9 percent.)

The absurdity of his case is nicely encapsulated by the top line on the graph: How can anyone say the rich hold power in Washington when their net worth fell by 27 percent between 2007 and 2011? But that's only to say that net worth during the worst recession since the Great Depression isn't a measure of political power. What happens in Congress is not the sole determinant of America's economic experience — the two can even diverge sharply at times.

The shame here is I'd really be interested to read Larry Bartels, political scientist, rather than Larry Bartels, scold, on this era in governance. The question of how the rich ended up with almost a trillion dollars in new taxes (including the Obamacare tax increases) and the poor ended up seeing trillions of dollars in new transfer payments is a fascinating moment in our political economy. Hopefully there will come a day when Bartels thinks it proper to talk about.

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Neil Irwin · August 14, 2013