Who Decides What’s in the Public Interest?

Martin Gilens argues that public policy in the United States is more responsive to the rich than to the poor. His work systematically draws together public opinion surveys and policies and codes them in a way that provides some support for this argument.

This is impressive work, and, to my eyes, it makes sense of many things that are otherwise hard to explain. But I am not yet convinced of the conclusions he draws from it. My doubts rest on three considerations.

First, the rich for Gilens are those in the top decile of the income distribution. While these people are better off than the other 90 percent, they are not a homogeneous group and not as a group very well off in absolute terms. In 2010 the top 10 percent of households had incomes exceeding $108,000 annually. The larger part of this broad group have seen mostly stagnant incomes for the past couple of decades. What increases the 10 percent have enjoyed have accrued to a very small fraction, the top 1 percent or less. Given Gilens’s reliance on the relatively small samples in national public opinion surveys, this broad definition of the rich is unavoidable. But it lumps together people with heterogeneous incomes and interests. Most of the members of the 10 percent are not at all advantaged by many of the distributional policies he cites (such as the elimination of inheritance taxes). A few are, but it seems like the rest of the rich are as bamboozled as everyone else outside the 1 percent.

Second, I am not persuaded that the best explanation for the pattern he exposes is the mechanical notion of influence rather than selection. As he notes, members of Congress are comfortably rich by his definition, and one might expect to observe the policy results he skillfully documents even if there were no “influence”—that is, money—at all. I don’t dispute that the measured rich take a more active part in politics and especially in campaign finance than the middle class or the poor, but I am not convinced that the mechanism of political influence he invokes is plausible at the level (and frequency) of contributions that his measured rich could be generating. At least not without independent corroborating evidence.

Let’s not reduce policymaking to class warfare.

Third, the model of democracy Gilens posits seems crude. It views all or most policymaking as principally concerned with distributional results, as a kind of class warfare. Is this plausible? For example, one could argue, as Republicans often do, that adopting a low capital gains tax rate is actually in the public interest. True, rich investors stand to make immediate gains if the rate is lowered but, insofar as investment is increased, other classes stand to gain as well in the longer term. Or one could argue, as many New Dealers did, that increasing welfare payments or other progressive transfers are in the interests of capitalists as well as direct beneficiaries. You can quibble with these examples, but my point is that arguments about policy are normally laid out in terms of competing models of the public interest and not as brute “takings.” Takings do occur, but those don’t usually generate questions on public opinion polls. Gilens’s methods, as enlightening as they can be, skate by this by identifying any motivation for any policy with the narrow material interests of its supporters (as he measures those interests).

I believe there is reason to worry about distributional issues and especially distributional trends since the 1970s. Growing income and wealth inequality do seem to threaten social peace and could undermine democratic practices. Like Gilens I worry about the effects of changing campaign finance laws and the declines of good manufacturing jobs and labor unions.

But if we are to understand the political, social, and economic forces underlying these changes, there is more work to be done. As he suggests, it is especially important to focus on the actual beneficiaries of these changes and to understand more about the mechanisms that produce them. I can only speculate on what those mechanisms may be. One set of examples, which Gilens mentions, are policies favoring globalization, which seem, over time, to have contributed to eliminating a vast swath of American manufacturing jobs. It is not obvious to me that these policies were not in some sense in the public interest. Certainly they served the interests of consumers (as well as investors) even as those in the labor force were harmed. Most people are on both sides of this equation, and it is not clear whether other policies would have been better.

These are hard questions and important ones. If I am not yet convinced about Gilens’s answers, I am persuaded that Gilens has raised profound and vital questions.