I’ve done many posts explaining why public opinion polls of Americans on numerical questions are utterly meaningless. The public is horrible at math, and their answers tell us almost nothing about what they actually believe. One bogus poll that keeps getting touted by liberals claims to show that the American public has views on income distribution that are far to the left of those of Mao, perhaps even to the left of Pol Pot. I don’t really know why liberals want to tout these poll results, as if this sort of policy regime were actually implemented we would all starve to death, just as many tens of millions starved in Cambodia and China under much less extreme attempts to impose equality.
Jordan Weissmann is the latest liberal to be sucked in by this nonsense:
Subjects estimated that the top 20 percent of U.S. households owned about 59 percent of the country’s net worth, whereas in the real world, they owned about 84 percent of it. In their own private utopia, subjects said that the top quintile would claim just 32 percent of the wealth. In fact, the ideal looked strikingly like Sweden.
If every single America had EXACTLY the same wealth at each age (i.e. all 20 year olds had identical wealth, as did all 55 year olds) then wealth inequality would still exceed the figures that Americans supposedly prefer, purely due to life cycle effects.
To give you some idea of just how ridiculous this claim really is, consider the last line of the quotation. The comparison with Sweden made me pull my hair out. Tyler Cowen recently quoted from a study of wealth inequality in Sweden:
What some may not know is that wealth-inequality is relatively high in Sweden. The top one percent own around 35% of wealth in the United States. In Sweden, because of extensive tax evasion, the number is harder to calculate. When including estimates of wealth held outside of Sweden, Roine and Waldenström estimate that the top one percent richest Swedes own 25-40% of total wealth, not far from American inequality levels, and increasing more rapidly.
At the same time, the intergenerational mobility of top wealth is chokingly low. A recent study found that a astonishing 80-90% of inequality of top wealth is transmitted to the next generation in Sweden!
So not only is it not true that the top 20% in Sweden own about 32% of the wealth, it seems the actual figures are closer to the top 1% owning 32% of the wealth, similar to the US. So even if we switched to Swedish levels of wealth inequality, we’d make almost no progress toward the supposed ideal of Americans. Indeed given the large rural/urban differences under Mao, I’m confident that even Maoist policies would not be enough for the average American (if you believe these polls). We’d need to go all in, and like Pol Pot confiscate all eyeglasses (which help nerdy students to get smarter and make more money than jocks), and then push everyone out to the countryside.
Please, no more polls on what Americans “really think” about complex issues that require numerical answers.
Now that Matt Yglesias has left it’s becoming increasing frustrating to read Slate. It is starting to remind me of a publication written by college students. But that’s probably just because I’m becoming a grouchy old reactionary, and recently everyone seems young to me.