August 2012 Archives

Americans Love Socialism

The Atlantic just ran a nice article in which it reported an interesting survey it had conducted. In the survey, respondents (only Americans) were shown two nations' wealth distributions--one like Sweden's (but even more equitable); and one like the United States's--and asked to choose which country they'd rather live in. Respondents preferred the country with the Swedish distribution.


Well, the survey was mostly conducted like this. An important detail is that respondents didn't know the names of the countries they were judging, just the level of wealth of the different population segments within them. 

The US distribution looked like a pie with five very uneven slices: the smallest piece (shared by the poorest 20% of the country) was only 0.1% (1/100th) of the pie; the next was 0.2% (1/50th), the middle two pieces were 4% and 11% respectively; and the largest 84%. In contrast the "Swedish" pie, had five considerably more equal slices: 11%, 15%, 18%, 21%, and 36% respectively. (A perfectly "equitable" pie would have five 20% slices.)

piechart.tif




The "Swedish" distribution was favored regardless of one's outward political orientation: Democrats preferred it, and so did Republicans. The wealthy preferred it and so did the poor. The young and old, too. The voting was not even close, with 92% of all respondents preferring the equitable distribution to the one that prevails in the United States.

Another thing: respondents had no idea that the United States distribution of wealth was so lopsided. They thought the poorest 40% of the country had about 9% of the wealth (vs. only 0.3%). They thought the top 20% controlled 59% (vs. 84%).  The latter means, of course, that the vast majority of the country--everyone except those in the top 20%--has only 16% of the country's wealth.

Respondents weren't even asked about those at the very top where things are really lopsided. The wealthiest 1% controls 35% of the nation's wealth. The top 5% controls 62%.

In plain and encouraging terms, these results mean that US citizens want a more equitable distribution of wealth. We may fight about the wisdom of taxes, the deficit, the debt, the role of government -- but in many ways those are mechanisms, and wealth (and opportunity that goes along with it) is an outcome. An outcome that we agree about as a nation.

That does leave for debate the means for getting there; and the politics, which would be messy, all too likely would obscure what the vast majority of the country wants (remember: 92% prefer Sweden-on-steroids to the USA; and when respondents "constructed" an ideal wealth distribution rather comparing two that they had to choose between, they constructed one that was more equitable than any country on earth).

But, if we remember the goal that we all agree on--one of equality and inclusivity, not inequality and exclusion--it can unite us and guide constructive policy and actions.

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