Thursday, April 16, 2015

Does inequality make us more conservative? Maybe, but so does liberal policy enactment

Thomas Edsall cites disturbing research indicating that as inequality has grown in the U.S. over the last forty years, Americans' support for policies that redistribute wealth has shrunk. Specifically, more recently, support for universal healthcare has declined over the period in which the ACA was debated, passed and enacted:
The erosion of the belief in health care as a government-protected right is perhaps the most dramatic reflection of these trends. In 2006, by a margin of more than two to one, 69-28, those surveyed by Gallup said that the federal government should guarantee health care coverage for all citizens of the United States. By late 2014, however, Gallup found that this percentage had fallen 24 points to 45 percent, while the percentage of respondents who said health care is not a federal responsibility nearly doubled to 52 percent.
This shorter term shift is unsurprising.  As I've noted before, Henry Aaron and Gary Burtless calculated in early 2014 that the ACA would directly distribute income only to Americans in the lower 20-25% of the income distribution. Data recently published by HHS bears this out: 68% of the 11.6 million private plan buyers on the ACA exchanges have incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level -- and all 12 million beneficiaries of the ACA Medicaid expansion have incomes under 138% FPL. We all stand to benefit if the ACA really is helping to control healthcare cost growth, as from the certainty of available (and, in periods of low income, affordable) insurance -- pre ACA, a third of the population in a three-year period suffered periods of uninsurance. Large portions of the population also suffer periods of poverty. But the perception that the ACA right now is primarily benefiting the poor is grounded in reality.

That fact highlights a perpetual dilemma for Democrats: it's politically advantageous to be perceived to be helping the middle class -- and politically hazardous to be perceived to be helping primarily the poor. The claims Edsall excerpts from research by inequality apostle Emmanuel Saez, and political science scholar Matthew Luttig do not directly address this divide in redistributive policy. Saez, though, finds that rising inequality decreases trust in government action generally, and Luttig -- seconded by Jacob Hacker and Robert Frank -- finds a long-term shift in U.S. attitudes:
Both the absolute level and the changing structure of inequality have largely been a force promoting conservatism, not increasing support for redistribution as theoretically expected.
While I of course have no grounds to gainsay that disturbing thesis, I do want to point to a well-understood political dynamic that at least partly explains a shorter-term shift toward more conservative attitudes, especially with regard to the ACA.  As Brendan Nyhan often reminds us, public opinion grows more liberal in conservative administrations and more conservative in liberal ones. As John Sides puts it:
the public is simply a thermostat. When government spending and activism increases, the public says “too hot” and demands less. When spending and activism decreases, the public says “too cold” demands more.  
Summarizing political scientist James Stimson, Nyhan recalled (in one of his many swipes at invocations of Ronald Reagan as 'the great communicator") that "once Reagan took office and began to enact his agenda to reduce the size and scope of government, public demand for government actually grew, reflecting the thermostatic pattern Stimson documents." Here's the documentation (via Nyhan) in short form:

Note liberalism beginning to fall off the cliff there in 2009. In fact the rhythm of Obama's presidency closely mirrors that of Reagan's as recounted by Stimson:
Conservatism peaked with the election of Ronald Reagan; it was not produced by him. The 1980s did see pretty fundamental change in Washington, but ... [t]he first 100 days or so of the Reagan administration produced it all. The spring of 1981 saw Reagan's tax cut, his one serious effort to limit domestic spending, and the buildup of defense. The rest of the Reagan years, and the 1980s generally, were a time of conservative retreat... [T]he nation saw then a public opinion that encouraged conservative action before it happened and then said "enough" when it did...
Democrats may hope in 2016 to mirror another Reagan-era pattern: in the wake of a two-term presidency, economic growth outweighing fatigue with the ruling party's policy preferences.

Of course, Stimson's long-term trend does not negate those identified by Luttig and Saez. But it may moderate our worry a bit. Inequality may also be cyclical  While the swings from liberalism to conservatism and from relative equality to relative inequality may be out of sync, both do swing.

As a footnote, swings in attitude about the ACA's individual mandate make a nice object lesson in the thermostatic nature of public opinion.  Edsall notes that the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey of attitudes toward the ACA and its various provisions found the public opposed to the mandate, 64-35%. Way back in 2008, when Kaiser polled this question, 67% favored ""requiring all Americans to have health insurance, either from their employer or from another source, with financial help for those who can't afford it."  But -- when asked, " "What if you heard that this could mean that some people would be required to buy health insurance that they find too expensive or did not want?"..suddenly 69% opposed it. The ACA as administered by the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to ensure that those who can't afford insurance on offer are exempted from the mandate. But of course, Republicans have relentlessly highlighted alleged mandate victims, and the public has responded. Actual substantive policies require tough tradeoffs, and those who implement them pay the price in public opinion.

1 comment:

  1. great article again/

    three quick and related comments:

    a. I doubt that inequality is worse today than it was in 1932. And we voted for a new deal then.
    What matters is what the middle class is earning, not what Bill Gates is earning.

    b. if 23 million people got health insurance from the ACA, that would be a voting bloc to elect any President.

    Except it is not. Medicaid recipients have low voting rates, thanks to Republicans.

    3. The public would have supported an expansion of Medicare. Mandates are crap.