*Affluence and Influence*

The author is Martin Gilens and the subtitle is Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.  A few points:

1. It is an interesting book.

2. It is poorly written and the first fifty pages should have been abolished.

3. It argues, using a comprehensive data set, that the preferences of poor and even middle income people are neglected or underrepresented in the policy process.  The preferences of the wealthiest ten percent seem to have more sway.

4. It should take greater care to distinguish the preferences of the (often ill-informed) poor across means and ends.  Say a poor or middle class person feels “I want tariffs” and also “I want prosperity.”  The elites then push through free trade to produce prosperity and for that matter to get reelected and perhaps also to serve commercial interests and donors.  Have they met or frustrated the preferences of the poor?  By the metrics of Gilens the poor did not get their way but that is not obviously the correct conclusion.  Matt makes a related point.

5. Many lower- or middle-income voters decide to vote retrospectively over outcomes (mostly), rather than over policy inputs.  That suggests we should judge the responsiveness of the system in terms of how well it aims toward those outputs, not whether it gives lower-income voters their preferred policy inputs.

6. What is wrong with this simple alternative hypothesis?:  Politicians seek some measure of redistribution-weighted prosperity to get reelected.  Wealthier voters are better educated and smarter, so they have a better sense of which policies will bring that about.  It seems the wealthier voters are getting their way on policy inputs, but a deeper look shows the pressures on politicians are quite general.

7. I would be falling prey to the fallacy of mood affiliation if I simply assumed the author wanted policy to be more responsive to the wishes of the poor and middle class.  Still I can ask whether this would be a desirable end.  Aren’t they less educated and less well-informed on average?  Don’t they also care about politics less and derive less of their status from political processes and outcomes?  Do I want them to have a greater say over social issues, including gay marriage?  No.

Here is a Boston Review symposium on the book, including many responses from the notables on the sidebar, along with a response from the author.


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