Does less income mean less representation?

by on May 6, 2013 at 1:17 pm in Economics, Political Science | Permalink

It is a common argument that American government is run in the interests of rich people.  But Eric Brunner, Stephen L. Ross and Ebonya Washington are in this month’s AEA Economic Policy journal with a different perspective:

We assemble a novel dataset of matched legislative and constituent votes and demonstrate that less income does not mean less representation. We show: (i) The opinions of high- and low-income voters are highly correlated; the legislator’s vote often reflects the desire of both. (ii) What differences in representation by income exist vary by legislator party. Republicans more often vote the will of their higher income over their lower income constituents; Democratic legislators do the reverse. (iii) Differences in representation by income are largely explained by the correlation between constituent income and party affiliation.

Here is one version of the paper (pdf).

JG May 6, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Looking through the paper it seems sensible. I think it ignores a few issues though (the methodology isn’t great for it).
A) What issues are voted on. Obviously control of the legislative agenda can greatly affect outcomes.
B) Vote already reflect for the most part what’s “passable”. Negotiations take place pre-vote not post-vote. To make a slightly ridiculous example, let’s say roughly 60% of bills that get a vote pass the senate (it’s probably higher). Then I can take a random bill and say it has a 60% chance of passing? Even if it’s sponsor is in the majority it’s probably less than 5% that it will eventually pass. So there’s obviously a lot of time between point A bill gets proposed and point B bill is voted on for people to influence the outcome of a ballot. Good lobbyists and legislatures will try not to risk power by taking many votes that are politically unpopular among constituents.

Matt Young May 6, 2013 at 2:59 pm

How does one do a study of representation in the USA without performing a long division?

Here, let me help the deluded. California’s 54 Congressional delegates get two Senators. Maine’s one congressional district gets two Senators. OK, so is anyone getting the picture? There is no study that can factor out the horrendous undemocracy in the USA, none. Researchers who think they can are seriously mis-educated.

Patrick May 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Senators do not make the USA an undemocracy…they still represent the citizens and residents of the State. Just not in the proportions you would prefer. Undemocracy is when citizens don’t have a mechanism to vote on issues or representatives with authority.

Dan in Euroland May 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Senate structure leads to more supermajoritarian rules, which is a good thing.

Jan May 6, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Yeah, if you support gridlock.

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly May 7, 2013 at 12:44 am

Or stability.

I concede the difference between the two lies largely in the eye of the beholder.

mrwiizrd May 7, 2013 at 11:48 am

I sure as heck do. It’s the only thing saving us from their gross incompetence.

KenF May 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm

This is based on an extremely narrow set of data which has no relevance to the question of whether “American government is run in the interests of rich people”. Of course it IS run in the interests of the rich, but much of that is at the federal level, not the state level. In any case, the rich are clever enough to convince many poor people that running things in the interest of the rich is in poor people’s best interests…

Ray Lopez May 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Also don’t the rich vote more than the poor? Thus they are more represented. And they give campaign funds more.

The Original D May 7, 2013 at 12:06 am

And they benefit the most in defense spending. It protects more assets, and defense contractors benefit handsomely.

KevinS May 6, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I think the better way of stating would be this (and let me note this is especially true on the state level):

Legislators represent the issues of large groups. For Republicans that means corporations. For Democrats that means large labor unions. Neither group is particularly interested in individuals, only in increasing their profits/influence.

Jonathan Ladd May 6, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Marty Gilens addressed this issue in what I consider a more convincing way using the legislation as the unit of analysis. See http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Inequality%20and%20Democratic%20Resp/Gilens%202005 and http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9836.html

john personna May 6, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Given gerrymandering in this domain, I’m not sure it is a sufficiently random data set from which to extract other influences.

TR W May 6, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Issue number one with wealthy people is immigration. They want cheap labor in their companies or to wipe their butts at home. As we have seen time and time again is politicians, Democratic, Republican and everything in between, favoring more immigration, favoring wealthy people. Issue number two with wealthy people is lower taxes. Once again politicans favor the wealthy as their taxes have been lowered dramatically in the last 60 years. When you look at the issues that matter to wealthy people the most, those things are getting taken care of by politicians. For issues that matter to middle and lower-income Americans, those things are in perpetual limbo, never really being taken care of. If politicans listened to middle and lower-income Americans as much as high-income Americans this country would look very different.

Patrick May 7, 2013 at 12:08 am

Remember, most politicians are super rich or rich. They don’t have to work a full-time job to live. The political office is just a hobby for most of them.

In the balance between the business owner/management and lower labor, who is more essential to a nation? The business owner can also be an employee, so the laborer/employee is not as essential. For larger ventures, more people are required, but it is the business owner that drives the activity, not employees.

Thus, legislation that favors business owners/management is in the right balance to advance a nation in the marketplace of the world.

Steve Sailer May 6, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Under the bipartisan 1982 Voting Rights Act, a large fraction of Democratic House seats are gerrymandered majority-minority to elect black and Hispanic Congresspersons. This means that the Democrats tend to be the Party of the Diverse and the Republicans tend to the Party of the Rich.

This leaves the nonrich nondiverse without a party that cares much about them in particular.

Mo May 7, 2013 at 9:19 am

If that were the case, then you would expect the Senate, which can’t be gerrymandered, to better represent the “nonrich nondiverse”. However, judging by the differing politics of the two chambers, this is not the case.

mulp May 7, 2013 at 12:38 am

The study on Medicaid was an RCT with a large group of subjects in the test that produced more significant results than this test (depression was reduced 30% and debt reduced significantly), yet it was interpreted as failing to show the benefits of Medicaid.

This for a very limited sample in California showed a 5% and 3% change from the norm for the two parties.

As much as I would like to opine that this shows the radicalization of the Republicans historically aligned with the poor (farmers) against the rich (monopolists), the paper can only be useful in the context of a similar number of papers as supporting climate change – in the thousands, which means no conservative/Republican would be convinced even then.

I hope the published work gets them jobs, that’s all its worth.

Politics Debunked May 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

re: “It is a common argument that American government is run in the interests of rich people. But Eric Brunner, Stephen L. Ross and Ebonya Washington are in this month’s AEA Economic Policy journal with a different perspective:”

That isn’t quite the right description. Actually they deal with the correlation of *votes* of those from different income levels with legislative votes. This is a *far* different question from whether things are run in the *interest* of rich people. People aren’t necessarily making accurate assessments of what is in their own interest. They may be rationally ignorant of what would be truly in their best interest, vs. what they believe to be so. A policy that superficially favors the poor may damage the economy and hurt them more in the long run. It may be a policy which benefits “crony capitalists” but merely pretends to be for their benefit, like the misnamed “Affordable Care Act” which is likely to drive up prices for the benefit of those in the industry. (e.g. see http://www.politicsdebunked.com/article-list/healthcare ). In addition of course much regulatory capture for the benefit of special interests (some of which are rich interests, not all) involves regulations rather than legislation, or may rely on the *details* of a piece of legislation which may superficially appear to match the intent of a ballot issue but have details that lead to unintended consequences benefiting e.g. the rich.

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