Why aren't Americans doing more to protest inequality?

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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A recent interview at Inequality.org explores the question of how Americans view economic inequality and why more aren’t protesting it. The interview, a Q&A, is held between Sam Pizzigati, editor of the Institute for Policy Studies inequality monthly Too Much, and Benjamin Page, a Northwestern University political scientist who co-authored a 2014 report arguing that the U.S. is becoming less and less a democracy. 

What follows is the portion of that interview.

Too Much: A good many pundits these days are wondering why Americans aren’t doing more to protest inequality. Most Americans aren’t protesting, one school of thought holds, because they admire the rich and want to become rich themselves. You’ve spent a great deal of time studying poll data. What have you learned?

Ben Page: That conventional wisdom is about half right. Average Americans really do like the idea of social mobility, of having a chance to get ahead. In fact, people have exaggerated ideas about how well they or their kids might do.

But we also have all sorts of evidence that people are really quite unhappy with the present high level of inequality and unequal opportunity.

The more complicated question: What do they want to do about it?

If you ask abstract questions about whether the government should take money from the wealthy and redistribute it, there is not a lot of support for that.

But if you ask about concrete policies — like taxing the wealthy at higher levels or getting rid of loopholes that favor hedge fund managers — average Americans turn out to favor many policies that would have strong redistributive effects.

On the spending side, we see lots of support for things like jobs programs, the earned income tax credit, and Social Security. Most people want to increase these programs — at the very time when many political figures and pundits are telling us you have to cut, cut, cut.

Too Much: So do we have, in effect, a silent egalitarian majority?

Ben Page: Larry Jacobs came up with a phrase for our Class War book, “conservative egalitarianism.” Not so much egalitarianism in the abstract, but a great deal of desire for the government to make it easier for people to get ahead and to help those left behind

Too Much: You’ve observed in the past that most Americans don’t really realize how unequal we’ve become as a nation. How wide has the gap grown between inequality’s reality and public recognition?

Ben Page: There is a gap, but it’s not as big as it once was. People have figured out what’s happening. If you ask what proportion of the wealth is owned by the top 1 percent, the average person now comes fairly close, saying 40 or 50 percent.

But if you ask people what a CEO of a major corporation earns, they’re way low in their estimates. And likewise for hedge fund managers and even surgeons and other top professionals.

But what’s remarkable: Even with these income misperceptions, people still feel that individuals in high-paying positions should be paid less than they’re paid now.

The full interview can be read here

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address isvrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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