The Plank

How Influential Are The Rich?

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Brad has written a very interesting little essay on the influence wielded by the rich in American politics. I think the broad thrust of what he writes has a lot of merit, and I'd recommend it to anybody who hasn't read it yet, but I'd argue a bit with the extent of his conclusion.

First, Brad writes:

In politics, this all matters a great deal. Larry Bartels of Princeton has recently studied the voting record of the Senate between 1989 and 1994--a time, note, when Democrats controlled Congress. He found that senators were very responsive to the preferences of the upper third of the income spectrum, somewhat less attentive to the middle third, and completely dismissive of the policy preferences of the poorest third. In one striking example, Bartels discovered that senators were likely to vote for a minimum wage increase only when their wealthier constituents favored it--the views of those directly affected by the hike had "no discernible impact."

I haven't read Bartels's study and Brad has, so take my objections with a grain of salt. But I think this finding may explain too much. In what kind of states do the wealthiest third favor a minimum wage hike? Liberal states. And in what kind of states do the wealthiest third oppose it? Conservative states. Now maybe the preferences of the richest third are defining the political identity of those states to some extent. But maybe the dynamic is that the minimum wage is highly popular, and only in conservative states do even the richest third oppose hiking it. My point is that determining the causation here is kind of tricky.

Brad continues:

Nor is this pattern limited to domestic policy. Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Benjamin Page of Northwestern have found that the foreign policy views of the executive and legislative branches are primarily influenced by business leaders, policy experts--whose think tanks are often funded by businesses--and, to a lesser extent, organized labor. Jacobs and Page found that the views of the broader public have essentially zero impact on the government when it comes to tariffs, treaties, diplomacy, or military action.

This is an interesting observation. (I have not read that study either, but I have read another book co-authored by Jacobs, and I find his general view that politicians aren't terribly responsive to public opinion to be pretty persuasive.) I really wonder if it's true all the time, though, or only most of the time, when foreign policy isn't a top-tier issue. The 2006 election sure seemed to show politicians responding to public opinion about foreign policy.

On top of that, I'd add that I think class bias effects foreign policy think-tanks in a far more subtle way than domestic policy. I don't think it's hard to find examples of, say, businesses or rich people funding think-tanks that argue for policies that benefit their bottom line directly. But usually it's pretty tough to draw a straight line between much foreign policy scholarship and the bottom-line interests of the corporations or individuals who fund it.

Anyway, I agree with Brad that the rich have an outsized influence over American politics. Michael Kinsley wrote a classic article about this in relation to the Clinton tax hike in 1994, which TNR historical society members can read here. I just think you have to be cautious about taking the analysis too far.

--Jonathan Chait

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