Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Talking Points Memo Scores Big on Princeton Influence Gap Study Interview

The home that proves the rule, Thomas Piketty-style:
Hyatt Hotel heir Anthony Pritzker's 53,000 sq. ft. mansion.

Sahil Kapur, a Talking Points Memo reporter and correspondent, got to sit down with one of the authors of the recent Princeton study that made quite a stir with its declaration that the policy debate is over and it's Oligarchy 1, Democracy 0.

The interview is here, with study co-author Martin Gilens, and it knocks it out of the park. It's marvelous. Here are a few samples. First, a summary of the paper's main conclusion:
Let's talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?
I'd say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups -- of economic elites and of organized interests.
Next, on the notion that voters are dumb (love the conclusion he draws, I boldface the key point):
There are criticisms of your study within the academic community. Some say public opinion surveys are a poor measure because people don't understand policy or that their stated preferences are self-contradictory. Tyler Cowen says citizens vote retrospectively so it's better to judge on outputs rather than whether voters get their preferred inputs. How do you respond?
These are all good questions. They're questions I address in some length in my book, "Affluence and Influence." There is some truth to some of these perspectives. But in a nutshell I think citizens overall have fairly sensible policy preferences which appear not to change much if citizens have an opportunity to learn more and debate the policy and view pros and cons.
On the perceived notion that Democrats are more in tune with middle- class wishes:
Which party, Democrat or Republican, caters to the interests of the rich more? Does your research find them to be equal or is one more responsive than the other?
We didn't look at that in this paper. Other work I've done suggest it depends. There are a set of economic issues on which the Democratic party is more consistently supportive of the needs of the poor and middle class. But it's by no means a strong relationship. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.
On whether or not ordinary citizens vote against their own self-interests and whether or not it matters (hint: they do, and it doesn't):
It seems to me the paradox here is that sometimes non-rich people favor an agenda that supports the rich. For instance, middle class tea partiers want low taxes on the highest earners, just as Steve Forbes does. Isn't that still democracy at work, albeit in an arguably perverse way?
Yes, absolutely. I think people are entitled to preferences that conflict with their immediate interests -- narrowly conceived interests. That may be an example of that. Opposition to the estate tax among low-income individuals is another. But what we see in this study is that's not what this is happening. We don't look at whether preferences expressed by these different groups are consistent or inconsistent with their interests, narrowly conceived. We just look at whether they're responded to by government policy-makers, and we find that in the case of ordinary Americans, they're not.
Wow. Read all of the interview. My key takeaway is that voters aren't dumb, but they can get bamboozled into supporting policies that aren't in their best interests, and that it sort of doesn't matter anyway, except that it's possible for pendulums to swing, and it doesn't hurt if we push the pendulum if and when we get the chance. Otherwise, uh, we're sort of screwed.

Send a letter to the Roberts Supreme Court -- not that it will alter anything -- telling them their decisions are big time fucked up. Maybe the conservative members will share them with each other for a laugh over cocktails at the end of a hard day of discussing which way to hand power to the elites next.

Watch me reach into this hat and pull out absolutely nothing for the working class!

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