Professors from Duke and Harvard recently completed a study of Americans’ knowledge of and attitudes towards the unequal distribution of wealth that has developed in the United States since about 1980.
Professors Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely find that Americans are not aware of how bad the distribution of wealth is in the United States, as demonstrated by the fact that the typical respondent in their survey thought that the richest 20% of the population own 60% of the wealth. The correct answer is 85%, according to a recent analysis by Edward Wolff, another professor, this one at NYU.
The Duke-Harvard guys report that people think that the bottom 40% own 10% of total wealth. In fact, Wolff finds that the bottom two-fifths have a negative net worth.
But what is truly amazing given the results of the recent elections is the fact that most people—be they rich, poor or in the middle—want the distribution of wealth to be more equitable than either what they think it is or what it actually is. Weird as it may seem, people want the top 20% to own a mere 30% of the wealth and the bottom 40% to own about 25% of the wealth.
Then why did they vote for people who want to lower the tax rate on the wealthy? Why did they vote for people who want to end the redistribution of wealth that comes when the government provides benefits to the poor, the elderly, students and the ill? Why do they vote for the party against universal health care and good public schools? Why do they vote for people who want to pass more laws that make unions weaker and thereby suppress the wages of the working class?
It’s completely bizarre.
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that people never gain easy access to the information that would teach them what actions will lead to the society and economy they want and what actions won’t. Perhaps we are too bombarded daily by news media propaganda about free markets and small government to analyze the actual ramifications of actions such as lowering taxes on the wealthy, mandating universal healthcare insurance coverage or taking money from public schools to give to non-unionized charter schools.
For example, I bet most people would be surprised to know how many of their fellow citizens want to take 50% of the total wealth of the country, now in the hands of the very richest, and spread it around to the rest of us to make a fairer, more equitable society. They don’t know because the Norton-Ariely study received virtually no coverage in the news media. The esteemed profs were able to get an opinion piece about their study picked up by the Los Angeles Times. But a Google News search revealed a miniscule five articles or blog entries about the study in total. In other words, all media outlets, regardless of their political propensities, ignored the news that most Americans want a society with an equitable distribution of wealth in which no one is too poor or too rich.