Isn’t envy the cousin of greed?

January 28

Yesterday I raised two problems with a New York Times essay by the sociologist Shamus Khan.

Today I want to address two more issues with Khan’s arguments.

1. Greed and Envy

Khan’s main argument is not about solutions for inequality but about the viewpoints of the rich, a group he struggles not to demonize:

We can think of elites as selfish, power-hungry monsters, or we can think of them as being like others: products of their particular experience and likely to overgeneralize from it. Elites understand their own world well enough. Yes, they underestimate the advantages that helped them along the way and overestimate their own contributions to their status. But they are not wrong to think that for them there is more mobility and growth today than there was a generation ago. What they do not see (or care to see) is that for others, stagnation is the new normal.

As a worldview, there’s something seductive in imagining that what’s good for me is good for everyone. Realizing my own advantage, then, doesn’t only feel good; it’s the moral thing to do. But sadly there isn’t much evidence that greed is good.

So the rich have more stuff and want to keep it, and on average they favor policies that make it harder for the state to grab their stuff.

But doesn’t this analysis apply at least as strongly to the redistributionists? On balance, redistributionists have less stuff and want the government to take it from the rich and give it to the redistributionists, people like them, and people they favor.

As Khan puts it disapprovingly about the rich, “Realizing my own advantage, then, doesn’t only feel good; it’s the moral thing to do.” Why is wanting to keep your own stuff immoral, while wanting other people’s stuff moral? Isn’t envy the first cousin of greed?

It would be better to recognize that both those who favor increased redistribution and those who oppose it tend to support policies that promote people like them getting or keeping more stuff. Why attribute greed or selfishness to one side but not the other — at least without evidence?

Opposing greater government redistribution by itself should not be enough to be called greed. Nor is it fair to call such opponents as a group greedy, although like any income group, the rich include some people who would fit that epithet.

If one combines General Social Survey data from 2002, 2004 and 2012, it turns out that both wealthier  Americans and those who oppose expanded income redistribution tend to be more likely to donate time and money and tend to be more altruistic overall than the rest of the population. (For an analysis of the 2002-2004 data on altruism and income redistribution, see this paper at SSRN). Thus, without more evidence, it is unwarranted to treat those who oppose increases in redistribution as mostly greedy because over the years they have tended to be slightly more altruistic, more tolerant, and less traditionally racist than those who favor increased redistribution.

2. Do the rich really think that it is easier today to get ahead?

Khan also claims that the rich think there is more upward mobility today than there was a generation ago: “they are not wrong to think that for them there is more mobility and growth today than there was a generation ago. What they do not see (or care to see) is that for others, stagnation is the new normal.”

Khan offers no support for this notion. It might be true that becoming a billionaire before the age of 35 is easier today than ever, but overall, there appears to be less upward mobility than before.  Are the rich really ignorant of this?

A. 2013 Gallup Poll

Khan’s idea that elites think it is easier to move up today than they did in the past strikes me as very unlikely to be true. When I read his essay, I wondered whether there had been a recent survey covered in the news media that had found that elites today think it is easier to move up today than they thought in the past. What popped up most often was a Gallup poll from this fall.

Gallup, “In U.S., Fewer Believe “Plenty of Opportunity” to Get Ahead,” Oct. 25, 2013

gallup chart

 

Gallup Polls, 1952-2013

 


Given the massive drop in the belief in upward mobility between 1998 and 2013 (from 81 percent to 52 percent), it is likely that the rich also experienced a drop in the belief in upward mobility during the same period, not the increase that Khan claims. Gallup’s report on its survey noted: “Both lower-income Americans making less than $36,000 a year and higher-income Americans making at least $90,000 are significantly less likely than those in the middle-income group to say the economic system is” “basically fair, since all Americans have an equal opportunity to succeed.”

Thus, in the 2013 Gallup survey, the richer fifth of the population is less likely to believe in an equal opportunity to succeed, not more likely. The survey also included a question on whether there is “more opportunity in America today for the average person to really get ahead than there used to be.” Unfortunately, those results are not broken down by income.

B. Gallup 2011 Poll

Gallup did a similar survey in 2011, and their data were readily available for me to analysis through the Roper Center (requires subscription). In that survey, the percentage of people who believed that there was “plenty of opportunity” to get ahead was 57 percent. Interestingly, the rich, that is, those making over $250,000 had the same belief (57 percent) in opportunities to get ahead as the rest of the population.

The differences were at the low end. Only 35 percent of those who made under $30,000 thought there was plenty of opportunity, compared to 57 percent of those making over $250,000, and 65 percent of those making from $30,000 to $250,000.

As with the 2013 poll, the 2011 Gallup Poll did not support Khan’s assumption.

C. 2012 Pew Survey

In July 2012, Pew asked the question:

Thinking about today compared to ten years ago, do you think it is easier or harder for people to get ahead today, or is it about the same as it was?

In this Pew survey, richer families were less likely to believe that it was easier to get ahead today than poorer families. Only 7 percent of people making over $150,000 a year thought it was easier, compared to 14 percent of those making less than $10,000 a year.

There were also questions asking whether hard work gets people ahead and whether “it is more true . . . today than it was in the past, that most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard.” Combing these questions showed little or no difference between rich and poor.

D. 2014 Pew Survey

Last week Pew released a survey conducted in mid-January. The percentage thinking that people who work hard get ahead has dropped from 68 percent to 74 percent in the 1994-2004 period to just 60 percent today. Unfortunately, Pew doesn’t break down the data in such a way to distinguish between those who are rich and those who merely make more than $75,000.

Yet given that 62 percent of those making over $75,000 a year think that working hard gets people ahead (compared to 60 percent overall today and 74 percent 15 years ago), it is likely that the rich do not believe that it is easier to get ahead today than they did in the past.

E. 1977-2012 General Social Surveys

My own analysis of the 1977 through 2012 General Social Surveys on hard work getting ahead suggests something closer to the opposite of what Khan claims. From the 1970s through the 1990s, the highest income group was usually very similar to the rest of the public in its tendency to think that people got ahead by hard work, as opposed to luck.

In the last two surveys, the 2010 and 2012 General Social Surveys, the group with the highest family income tended to be less likely to think that people get ahead by hard work than the general public. For example, in 2010 and 2012 combined, only 59 percent of those making over $150,000 believed that hard work gets people ahead, compared to 69 percent of the public as a whole. So in recent years the richer are less likely than the rest of the population to believe that hard work, rather than luck, gets people ahead.

Once again, the available evidence that I uncovered suggests that Khan is probably wrong in his assumptions about what the rich think. They do not think that upward mobility is easier today than it was in the past.  And their views on upward mobility are often not terribly different from those of the middle of the income spectrum.

Perhaps Khan has evidence for his speculations about the views of the rich. Perhaps the constraints of the op-ed format prevented him from offering this evidence.

Jim Lindgren is a law professor at Northwestern University, with a BA from Yale and a JD and a PhD in (quantitative) sociology from the University of Chicago. He is a cofounder of the Section on Scholarship of the Association of American Law Schools and a former chair of its Section on Social Science and the Law.
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