Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

A signaling theory of class x politics interaction

53 Post author: Yvain 17 October 2011 06:49PM

The media, most recently The Economist and Scientific American, have been publicizing a surprising statistical finding: in the current economic climate, when more Americans than ever are poor, support for policies that redistribute wealth to the poor are at their lowest levels ever. This new-found antipathy towards aid to the poor concentrates in people who are near but not yet on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The Economist adds some related statistics: those who earn slightly more than the minimum wage are most against raising the minimum wage, and support for welfare in an area decreases as the percentage of welfare recipients in the area rises.

Both articles explain the paradoxical findings by appealing to something called "last place aversion", an observed tendency for people to overvalue not being in last place. For example, in laboratory experiments where everyone gets randomly determined amounts of money, most people are willing to help those with less money than themselves gain cash - except the person with the second to lowest amount of money, who tends to try to thwart the person in last place even if it means enriching those who already have the most.

"Last place aversion" is interesting, and certainly deserves at least a footnote in the catalogue of cognitive biases and heuristics, but I find it an unsatisfying explanation for the observations about US attitudes toward wealth redistribution. For one thing, the entire point of last place aversion is that it only affects those in last place, but in a massive country like the United States, everyone can find someone worse off than themselves (with one exception). For another, redistributive policies usually stop short of making those who need government handouts wealthier than those who do not; subsidizing more homeless shelters doesn't risk giving the homeless a nicer house than your own. Finally, many of the policies people oppose, like taxing the rich, don't directly translate to helping those in last place.

I propose a different mechanism, one based on ... wait for it ... signaling.

In a previous post, I discussed multi-level signaling and counter-signaling, where each level tries to differentiate itself from the level beneath it. For example, the nouveau riche differentiate themselves from the middle class by buying ostentatious bling, and the nobility (who are at no risk of being mistaken for the middle class) differentiate themselves from the nouveau riche by not buying ostentatious bling.

The very poor have one strong incentive to support redistribution of wealth: they need the money. They also have a second, subtler incentive: most redistributive policies come packaged with a philosophy that the poor are not personally responsible for the poverty, but are at least partially the victims of the rest of society. Therefore, these policies inflate both their pocketbook and their ego.

The lower middle class gain what status they have by not being the very poor; effective status signaling for a lower middle class person is that which proves that she is certainly not poor. One effective method is to hold opinions contrary to those of the poor: that redistribution of wealth is evil and that the poor deserve their poverty. This ideology celebrates the superiority of the lower middle class over the poor by emphasizing the biggest difference between the lower middle class and the very poor: self-reliance. By asserting this ideology, a lower middle class person can prove her lower middle class status.

The upper middle class gain what status they have by not being the lower middle class; effective status signaling for an upper middle class person is that which proves that she is certainly not lower middle class. One effective way is to hold opinions contrary to those of the lower middle class: that really the poor and lower middle class are the same sort of people, but some of them got lucky and some of them got unlucky. The only people who can comfortably say "Deep down there's really no difference between myself and a poor person" are people confident that no one will actually mistake them for a poor person after they say this.

As a thought experiment, imagine your reactions to the following figures:

1. A bearded grizzled man in ripped jeans, smelling slightly of alcohol, ranting about how the government needs to give more free benefits to the poor.

2. A bearded grizzled man in ripped jeans, smelling slightly of alcohol, ranting about how the poor are lazy and he worked hard to get where he is today.

3. A well-dressed, stylish man in a business suit, ranting about how the government needs to give more free benefits to the poor.

4. A well-dressed, stylish man in a business suit, ranting about how the poor are lazy and he worked hard to get where he is today.

My gut reactions are (1, lazy guy who wants free money) (2, honorable working class salt-of-the-earth) (3, compassionate guy with good intentions) (4, insensitive guy who doesn't realize his privilege). If these are relatively common reactions, these would suffice to explain the signaling patterns in these demographics.

If this were true, it would explain the unusual trends cited in the first paragraph. An area where welfare became more common would see support for welfare drop, as it became more and more necessary for people to signal that they themselves were not welfare recipients. Support for minimum wage would be lowest among people who earn just slightly more than minimum wage, and who need to signal that they are not minimum wage earners. And since upper middle class people tend to favor redistribution as a status signal and lower middle class people tend to oppose it, a recession that drives more people into the lower middle class would cause a drop in support for redistributive policies.

Comments (60)

Comment author: Vaniver 18 October 2011 02:40:04AM 10 points [-]

I suspect the simplest explanation is that poor people are pitiable in the abstract but disliked in the concrete. People in rich neighborhoods support welfare because it makes them seem more compassionate than their neighbors; people who deliver pizzas quickly learn to dread the days welfare checks arrive.

I suspect we give different predictions for support for welfare in a place where, say, 80% of the population is on welfare. The signalling theory predicts that at most 20% of the population will be opposed to welfare; my suggestion could explain that >20% opposition to welfare.

Comment author: Antisuji 18 October 2011 05:39:12AM -1 points [-]

people who deliver pizzas quickly learn to dread the days welfare checks arrive

Why would someone's speed of pizza delivery affect their attitude toward welfare recipients? (I kid, I kid.)

Comment author: Prismattic 18 October 2011 01:04:01AM 10 points [-]

I generally accept the signalling argument, but this isn't necessarily a monocausal situation. Other possibilities:

  1. Economic -- the wealthy and the very poor aren't consuming the same goods, but the very poor and the lower middle class are. Giving more money to the very poor raises the prices of the goods that the lower middle class buys.

  2. Psychological -- The lower middle class aspire to be wealthy. They don't want to raise taxes on the rich because they are hoping to be rich themselves in the future. The very poor probably also hope against hope to be rich later, but when immediate circumstances are desperate enough, the immediate aspiration is just to be not-extremely poor.

Comment author: endoself 18 October 2011 02:05:27AM 12 points [-]

Giving more money to the very poor raises the prices of the goods that the lower middle class buys.

I don't think most people think about this sort of economics.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 October 2011 10:07:04PM *  0 points [-]

Probably not explicitly, but people might attach more emotional weight to "nearby" economic changes. Maybe benefits to the relatively rich feel far off, while benefits to the relatively poor feel like a risk of being overtaken?

Psychological -- The lower middle class aspire to be wealthy.

This strikes me as an extension of signaling. The boundary between signaling something and believing something can get pretty fuzzy.

Comment author: endoself 28 October 2011 03:41:32AM *  0 points [-]

Maybe benefits to the relatively rich feel far off, while benefits to the relatively poor feel like a risk of being overtaken?

This sound like the last-place aversion discussed in the post. I agree that there could be a negative affect toward `falling into last place', but I don't think people are worried about not being able to afford as much stuff. The former is intuitive, while the latter requires knowledge of economics, which simply isn't common knowledge in our society.

Comment author: Multiheaded 08 September 2012 07:45:58PM *  3 points [-]

They don't want to raise taxes on the rich because they are hoping to be rich themselves in the future.

Yes, this is absolutely part of it - but not in the practical sense. Here's my impression. They don't literally believe (with any confidence) that they're going to be wealthy and high-status in some years or decades, but their belief-in-belief that they do expect it (and that it's a practical, reasoned expectation) is important, identity-building self-signaling to them - and signaling to their lower-middle-class peers too, particularly to "get one up" on the ones who don't engage in this signaling.

It is much (although not quite) like Steinbeck's famous saying: "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Also, as I've noticed, a lot of Western fiction - not exclusively left-wing, even - that touches on the struggles of the lower middle class, the higher-status poor, and the problems with the "American dream" explores this very kind of psychology.

Unlike the Shades, though, Cockbill Street was clean, with the haunting, empty cleanliness you get when people can't afford to waste dirt. For Cockbill Street was where people lived who were worse than poor, because they didn't know how poor they were. If you asked them they would probably say something like 'mustn't grumble' or 'there's far worse off than us' or 'we've always kept uz heads above water and we don't owe nobody nowt'.

He could hear his granny speaking. 'No one's too poor to buy soap.' Of course, many people were. But in Cockbill Street they bought soap just the same. The table might not have any food on it but, by gods, it was well scrubbed. That was Cockbill Street, where what you mainly ate was your pride.

What a mess the world was in, Vimes reflected. Constable Visit had told him the meek would inherit it, and what had the poor devils done to deserve that ?

Cockbill Street people would stand aside to let the meek through. For what kept them in Cockbill Street, mentally and physically, was their vague comprehension that there were rules. And they went through life filled with a quiet, distracted dread that they weren't quite obeying them.

People said that there was one law for the rich and one law for the poor, but it wasn't true. There was no law for those who made the law, and no law for the incorrigibly lawless. All the laws and rules were for those people stupid enough to think like Cockbill Street people.

Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

Comment author: dlthomas 27 October 2011 10:24:27PM 0 points [-]

Giving more money to the very poor raises the prices of the goods that the lower middle class buys.

This depends on how much those goods benefit from economies of scale.

Comment author: Nornagest 27 October 2011 10:46:11PM *  0 points [-]

The relative size of the two classes seems to play into that. If you've got a vast population of subsistence farmers who're suddenly empowered to buy Levis (a privilege previously available to the much smaller population of city-dwelling workers), the resulting economies of scale will be fairly dramatic once the dust settles; but if the two groups are closer in size, increased demand will probably drown out economy of scale unless it's close to some inflection point.

The current situation in the First World is closer to the latter than the former, whereas the socialist and progressive movements of the early 20th century generally happened in an environment closer to the former than the latter. I don't have any actual data showing a causal relation here, but it seems plausible.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 October 2011 01:44:18PM *  8 points [-]

I up voted this article, and I agree with the signalling theory. But I am in a way disappointed. This hasn't told me anything new, and I am surprised that this isn't common knowledge among LWers since it is one of the more apparent patterns in society.

Anyone who reads through my comments, that I and others have used the same paradigm and explanation to discuss politics (in a surprisingly nonmindkilling way) before. I wish to emphasise that It dosen't just work for wealth redistribution.

For example, hasn't anyone ever noticed how lower middle and upper lower class make displays of being "socially conservative" on some issues even though their actual behaviour is often far less "socially conservative" than the lower upper class, who make grand displays of how they aren't "socially conservative" on the same set of issues?

Furthermore in the aggregate status can be used as tool for discreet class and subcultural warfare, providing knock off benefits beyond just looking good, like damaging potential rivals for economic and other niches.

Comment author: shminux 17 October 2011 09:01:13PM *  8 points [-]

This looks like a violation of the sense of fairness ("I have worked so hard to get where I am today and they get the same thing for free"), something that is not unique to humans, probably compounded by the affect heuristic (a quick emotional judgment that this perceived unfairness has a negative effect).

it seems reasonable that the farther removed you are from the affected level, the less likely you are to find the situation unfair.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 October 2011 01:56:12PM *  6 points [-]

it seems reasonable that the farther removed you are from the affected level, the less likely you are to find the situation unfair.

It is remarkably easy to get oneself worked up over other people's unfairness even when it dosen't effect you, as long as the person over whom you are getting upset is in some sense your rival.

Comment author: Raemon 17 October 2011 07:32:19PM 8 points [-]

Interesting, and plausible. I'm pondering how I'd try to falsify it.

Comment author: Nisan 18 October 2011 01:52:41AM 4 points [-]

One could take two people off the street, throw them into a lab together, and tell one of them to present themselves as pro- or anti-welfare. Then you can measure how they're perceived, and separately measure what they really think about welfare.

Comment author: jhuffman 17 October 2011 08:01:18PM *  18 points [-]

I can cite myself as an example. When I was a teenager working in a lowly McJob I was proud to earn $.25 more than many of my co-workers. When I'd heard the minimum wage was being raised from $4.25 to $5.15 I was a bit resentful that everyone was going to earn the same, even though it also meant I would earn more. It seems to me though that last place aversion explains this just as well as the signalling explanation.

Comment author: torekp 18 October 2011 01:23:38AM *  9 points [-]

Agreed, with this note: last place doesn't normally mean last in the whole country. Each person has a smallish reference group. Moreover, wealth rankings are fuzzy (unless you define a precise metric, in which case they're artificial). You need to have a clear advantage over someone in order not to be effectively tied for last.

Comment author: Fergus_Mackinnon 17 October 2011 09:00:37PM 3 points [-]

The two don't have to be mutually exclusive, although finding the share of responsibility might be difficult.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 18 October 2011 12:43:58AM *  6 points [-]

3. A well-dressed, stylish man in a business suit, ranting about how the government needs to give more free benefits to the poor.

My gut reactions are ... (3, compassionate guy with good intentions)

My gut reactions are the same, except for #3. Empirically, my gut reactions have been trained to feel "self righteous hypocritical twit." They outnumber the compassionate guys with good intentions.

I think the poor should get more, but they shouldn't be put in a sadistic universe where working doesn't benefit them. (See earlier comment http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/83b/a_signaling_theory_of_class_x_politics_interaction/51jx.)Their money should go to them, not funneled through government bureaucracy and crony capitalism which destroys or siphons off most of the money. Compassionate people with good intentions care about the actual results of their actions.

Comment author: Prismattic 18 October 2011 12:57:40AM 4 points [-]

Interesting. My gut level reactions were the same as the OP except for 2, because of encountering too many people who buy some version of the just world fallacy, even among the lower middle class. Failing to recognize that some people try hard and still fail doesn't make me think "honorable salt-of-the-earth" at all.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 18 October 2011 01:52:24AM 4 points [-]

I had some of that reaction too.

I pictured a basically decent guy with a job, making little money, justifiably resentful of a system where his work doesn't make him much better off than people who don't work at all, who aims some of that resentment at the first guy, who I took to be not working in distinction. I don't think his generalization about the poor was meant to be absolute, and don't think it necessary for him to qualify his statement with somebutnotall.

The one line description leaves a lot open to the imagination. But I picture the salts of the earth a bit tidier than this guy. I'd call him the salty of the earth.

What I'd picture the salt of the earth guy saying is that "The government should make sure families have enough to live on, but not so much that they don't want to work to make more."

Comment author: play_therapist 18 October 2011 01:24:49AM 4 points [-]

I believe there's probably something to your theory. There are, in addition, a couple of logical explanations for the above mentioned attitudes that haven't been mentioned.

When the minimum wage is raised, it sometimes means less hiring and even layoffs in some places. If a business can only afford to spend a fixed amount on labor and the cost of labor goes up slightly, it may need to cut back on employees. This will effect the unskilled workers, which includes those making slightly more than minimum wage, more than others.

Re:" support for welfare in an area decreases as the percentage of welfare recipients in the area rises." Areas that have large percentages of welfare recipients are areas where nearly all the people are struggling to make ends meet. It makes sense for them to oppose policies that they feel will raise taxes and fees- thus making it harder for them to pay their bills.

The other factor is this- Those who live in areas where there are a large percentage of welfare recipients are more aware of cases where the system is abused than the rest of the population. I'm a bleeding heart liberal and a professional social worker, I believe that welfare and other aid for the poor is very necessary and I deplore most cutbacks- BUT I am aware of how some people routinely cheat the system, and I often hear others who are aware of cases and struggling to make ends meet themselves rant about it. I'm referring to things like extra adults living with families receiving section 8 housing or welfare, who are working, but their income and presence is not reported. Welfare money going to cigarettes, alcohol and drugs is a common complaint. Hidden incomes from under the table work is another common abuse.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 18 October 2011 01:54:42AM 0 points [-]

I've heard that people need some income on the side to survive if they're on welfare. Not true at all?

Comment author: play_therapist 18 October 2011 02:23:08AM *  6 points [-]

It is true that in many cases people need some income on the side to survive on welfare. It depends. The level of benefits differs by state as does the cost of living. For a family to survive on welfare alone in Massachusetts without subsidized housing is pretty much impossible. With section 8 housing, which doesn't include utilities,it is still tough, if not impossible. If, however, you live in one of the housing projects, heat is included. Your rent is a fraction of the family income, I believe it's 25%. If you're there, get medicaid, food stamps, free breakfast and lunch in school for your children, and extra food from food pantries if needed, I think it is doable. Also, it is permitted, even required in many cases, for parents receiving welfare to work a certain number of hours.

In any case, I'm not saying that a certain amount of cheating of the system isn't justified, even some times necessary. What I am saying is that people who live nearby and are struggling themselves and see abuses are some times disenchanted with the system.

Comment author: jimrandomh 17 October 2011 10:34:25PM 4 points [-]

If true, this explanation seriously undermines the notion that governments should pay any attention to popular opinion about wealth distribution at all, as that opinion no longer needs correlation with people's true values to explain it.

Comment author: orthonormal 18 October 2011 03:05:56PM 6 points [-]

No, it suggests a source of systematic bias- there still might be signal beneath the noise. Also, in general things go kind of pear-shaped (one way or another) when the government decides to stop paying attention to popular opinion, regardless of how stupid it is.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 17 October 2011 08:50:56PM *  13 points [-]

It's also an indication of an increased appreciation of the market distortions caused by government redistribution.

As is often pointed out, the working poor face the highest marginal tax rates, often exceeding 100%. How so? An increment of earned income can be more than offset by the loss of benefits as you're pushed over the income limit for a benefits program. Any worker near that boundary would see that with the new program, they'd be better off not working, and some non workers would be made more prosperous than they are. They know that's a rather perverse way to run a society, and so oppose the increase.

On the flip side, they've seen all the high flyers gambling on the housing market get bailed out to the tune of trillions. I mainly see that as a bailout to the investors in mortgages, whether in the direct purchase of mortgages, or in refinancing underwater borrowers, who should really just declare bankruptcy and move on anyway.

The working poor work and make little money from it, surrounded by enormous wealth and prosperity. They see the non working poor living as well as they do, and the poor gamblers above them getting checks and bailouts from the government. Both dumb and unjust. They're against it.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 18 October 2011 02:33:02AM 8 points [-]

I doubt the average person's reasoning on this issue is this sophisticated.

Comment author: magfrump 18 October 2011 06:06:17PM 7 points [-]

I suspect that far more of the population DOES reason well enough to see the points. I'm not sure if I would say enough to constitute the average person, but I'd be surprised if this was above the 60th percentile of sophistication, say.

Comment author: Jack 18 October 2011 12:01:29AM *  9 points [-]

This gives the impression that the upper-middle class support wealth redistribution at higher rates than the lower-middle class. I'm open minded but I would be quite surprised if that were actually true. That doesn't mean there is nothing to explain-- the lower-middle class still seems to oppose measures that would objectively make them richer at surprisingly high rates. But it isn't as if self-interest doesn't explain a great deal of voting behavior.

Some things to consider:

  1. Does opposition to redistribution usually increase during bad economic times? The answer is no for many examples that come to my head. But what I do know is an effect of a bad economy is animosity toward whomever is in power. It is plausible the recession simply correlates with "disputing positions associated with Barack Obama".

  2. Ideological stickiness or coalition logic

Now, one of the most interesting things about pre-fabricated political identities is that they come as package deals. There is no logical connection whatsoever between supporting a woman's right to abort an unwanted fetus and supporting subsidies for alternative energy. The strong cultural correlation between these stances creates an illusion of ideological coherence. Since most of us aren't political theorists, we tend not to see that the force determining the various planks in our favoured party's platform is the drive to craft a winning coalition cobbled together from diverse and sometimes conflicting interest groups, not Truth.

...

I think the paradox, or the irony, is that the evolution of partisan coalitions can lead to bizarrely incoherent partisan worldviews. Easy money in a recession is the objectively pro-business position. However, the rising preeminence on the right of the idea that inflation, like taxation, is largely a mechanism of unjust big-government expropriation can, through mere association, make this viewpoint seem like the "pro-business" one, even if it isn't. It's this kind of drift in the composition and ideology of partisan coalitions that can make even debate over economic policy seem like just one more front in the culture war.

  1. The Farmer-forager binary. In particular consider that fear made farmers. If egalitarianism is associated with forager thinking then fear caused by economic uncertainty would trigger farmer-type anti-egalitarianism and an emphasis on self-reliance. Those with the most precarious economic situations are the ones most likely to oppose egalitarianism as the economy gets worse.

    In particular, the farmer-forager thesis explains the following puzzle that the signaling theory does not. If opposition to welfare is driven by people signaling that they don't need it we should expect the people most likely to oppose welfare to be those most likely to be mistaken for being on welfare. In particular, we should expect lower-middle class African Americans to be especially worried about looking like they're on the dole and therefore especially vociferous in their opposition to welfare. But we in fact we find the opposite: African Americans overwhelming support welfare programs relative to whites. And this response is exactly what one would expect with the "more for mine" attitude associated with farmer norms. Fearful occasions of resource uncertainty cause us to shrink or sphere of moral concern, be less willing to share and be more suspicious of strangers especially those who look different. Also note that the rates of redistribution in more homogeneous European states-- particularly Scandinavia -- vastly outstrip rates in more diverse countries like the US.

Comment author: torekp 18 October 2011 01:17:33AM 6 points [-]

I agree that self-interest explains a great deal of voting behavior. It explains the non-voters.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 October 2011 02:31:07PM *  2 points [-]

In particular, we should expect lower-middle class African Americans to be especially worried about looking like they're on the dole and therefore especially vociferous in their opposition to welfare. But we in fact we find the opposite: African Americans overwhelming support welfare programs relative to whites. And this response is exactly what one would expect with the "more for mine" attitude associated with farmer norms. Fearful occasions of resource uncertainty cause us to shrink or sphere of moral concern, be less willing to share and be more suspicious of strangers especially those who look different.

While I am a fan of the farmer vs. forager paradigm myself you are forgetting that wealth redistribution is not perfectly efficient, and it requires a bureaucracy to support it.

For US Blacks government jobs are a major source of middle and even lower upper class employment. The status boost from those and a whole bunch of policies usually clustered with wealth redistribution due to political gains more than offset any such loss.

Also mistaking a middle class Black for a underclass Black carries heavier penalties for non-Black Americans than say mistaking a middle class White or Asian for a member of the underclass. Since non-Blacks form a grand majority of the US middle and upper class, there is far less need for status competition among Blacks of the same status.

Comment author: Alejandro1 18 October 2011 03:54:36AM 3 points [-]

Does opposition to redistribution usually increase during bad economic times? The answer is no for many examples that come to my head. But what I do know is an effect of a bad economy is animosity toward whomever is in power. It is plausible the recession simply correlates with "disputing positions associated with Barack Obama".

This was one of my first thoughts, too. Most people are uninformed about politics and economics, and do not go much beyond "blaming the government (and by extension the policies associated with it) when stuff goes badly, and credit it when it goes well". One could in principle test it by making similar polls about attitudes to redistribution in countries that have had right-wing governments during most of the recession. In general, one must first check that effects of this kind are independent of contingent, local political cicumstances, before seeking explanations in terms of universal psychological mechanisms.

Comment author: orthonormal 18 October 2011 03:09:39PM 1 point [-]

Most people are uninformed about politics and economics, and do not go much beyond "blaming the government (and by extension the policies associated with it) when stuff goes badly, and credit it when it goes well".

This has been historically validated, at least to the extent of a significant swing of a few percent (which is usually enough to tip an election if it happens nationally).

Comment author: buybuydandavis 18 October 2011 02:05:28AM 2 points [-]

This gives the impression that the upper-middle class support wealth redistribution at higher rates than the lower-middle class. I'm open minded but I would be quite surprised if that were actually true.

I wouldn't. It also depends a lot on what one means by wealth redistribution. Which programs? Bank bailouts? Medicare? Medicaid? Social Security? Foodstamps? Mortgage interest deduction?

I'd bet that the bank bailouts were only supported by a minority of the population, and that minority was clustered in the higher incomes.

That doesn't mean there is nothing to explain-- the lower-middle class still seems to oppose measures that would objectively make them richer at surprisingly high rates.

The lower middle class opposes measures that supporters claim will make them better off. If they don't believe that government redistribution will make them better off, there is very little to explain.

Comment author: Jack 18 October 2011 02:21:45PM -2 points [-]

I wouldn't. It also depends a lot on what one means by wealth redistribution. Which programs? Bank bailouts? Medicare? Medicaid? Social Security? Foodstamps? Mortgage interest deduction?

Well, we mean

policies that redistribute wealth to the poor

So I'm not sure why you picked the bank bailouts as an example. They were widely seen as the exact opposite of what we're talking about. Medicaid, food-stamps, higher minimum wage, state welfare, progressive taxation etc. is what we're talking about. You're welcome to try to find issue polls with demographic breakdowns but absent that I don't know why we'd expect the publics views on redistributing wealth to the poor to differ that substantially from the degree to which they support political parties associated with redistributing wealth to the poor. See the family income section.

The lower middle class opposes measures that supporters claim will make them better off. If they don't believe that government redistribution will make them better off, there is very little to explain.

We're trying to figure out why people believe what they do. If someone is in a tax bracket that would have a lower rate in plan A than in plan B it is a good hypothesis that the reason they support A over B is self-interest. Now it may be the case that B would actually be better for this person for obscure, hard-to-explain reasons. If the person grasps those reasons and gives those reasons then we have a good explanation. But if this person insists that B will make them better off but does not seem to have good reasons or merely parrots partisan economists it seems like there is still quite a bit to explain-- even if their beliefs are correct. This goes for the poor as well as the rich.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 18 October 2011 08:44:56PM 1 point [-]

So I'm not sure why you picked the bank bailouts as an example. They were widely seen as the exact opposite of what we're talking about.

Uh huh. Granting the government power to redistribute wealth "for the public good" had the consequence of the poor getting saddled with trillions in debt. Maybe they don't believe they benefit from such a system.

"Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." - Frederic Bastiat

Maybe the working poor believe that the wealth redistribution game is a negative sum game, and advocate that we don't play it. Yes, they might fight and claw at the trough, and get some portion of the slop. Why should they believe they'll be more successful in that fight than the rich and well connected, particularly after just witnessing the rich and well connected walk off with trillions?

It's like free speech. There is a lot of speech that offends me. I wish people didn't believe that rubbish. But I wouldn't want to empower the government to ban such speech, because having granted the government such power, why would I believe that would never be turned against speech I approve of?

This has always been the puzzle of the Revolutionary Vanguard. Why don't the Proles support us, when our policies benefit them? Maybe, the Proles think the policies of the Revolutionary Vanguard won't benefit them. There's no puzzle to solve unless you just can't conceive that the Revolutionary Vanguard may be wrong.

Comment author: Jack 18 October 2011 09:19:12PM -1 points [-]

This is both non-responsive and arguing against a position I don't actually hold. I lean 'liberaltarian', you're not arguing with Thomas Frank.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 18 October 2011 11:38:15PM 4 points [-]

The only position I'm arguing against is that it is a mystery why the working poor don't support government wealth redistribution. It isn't a mystery to me, and I gave my solution to the supposed conundrum. I think that's responsive.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 October 2011 06:57:47AM *  0 points [-]

This has always been the puzzle of the Revolutionary Vanguard. Why don't the Proles support us, when our policies benefit them? Maybe, the Proles think the policies of the Revolutionary Vanguard won't benefit them. There's no puzzle to solve unless you just can't conceive that the Revolutionary Vanguard may be wrong.

This is a very good argument. But on the other hand those pushing for wealth redistributions are (today) far from radical, basically they echo establishment sentiments. And the same people look back on history and see that this same establishment has always eventually "made the right choice" (or at least that is the publicly accepted narrative).

Don't forget people do have a progoverment bias.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 19 October 2011 09:33:15AM *  0 points [-]

This is a very good argument. But on the other hand those pushing for wealth redistributions are (today) far from radical, basically the establishment. People look back on history and see that this establishment has always eventually "made the right choice" (or at least that is the publicly accepted narrative).

I didn't mean to imply that I thought they were revolutionaries. It's a bit of black comedy that the people who style themselves as radicals speaking truth to power are completely orthodox defenders of The Man. It's a similar scene with Christians on Fox News, feeling persecuted and martyred in the US for their faith whenever there is the tiniest pushback against them having their way. They've both got their narratives playing as the soundtrack to their lives, no matter how incongruous to reality.

With the Revolutionary Vanguard cracks, I was getting at the heads I win, tails you lose nature of the Vanguard's faith in their program. If the Proles don't agree that the Vanguards program, the obvious reason, that the Proles don't think it's good for them, is overlooked, and instead theories about the "false consciousness" of the Proles sprout like mushrooms on a rotting tree stump.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 18 October 2011 01:34:58AM *  6 points [-]

...in the current economic climate, when more Americans than ever are poor, support for policies that redistribute wealth to the poor are at their lowest levels ever.

[citation needed]

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 October 2011 01:38:19AM *  5 points [-]

By absolute number this is true. See this graph. Note that this data only goes back to 1959. Prior to that there was no federal definition of poverty. So it seems at least fair to say that as far back as the federal government has been measuring it there are by this metric more poor Americans than ever before. The graph does show that as a percentage measure this isn't the highest.

Comment author: TrE 18 October 2011 07:09:56AM 4 points [-]

But isn't it the percentage that should be important for the OP's argument? The support for policies that redistribute wealth to the poor isn't measured in absolute numbers, either.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 October 2011 12:26:27PM 1 point [-]

Sure. He was asking for a citation for the specific claim. I gave that citation. I agree that it isn't the best metric, but it isn't the claim that the OP was making. (The fact that as a percentage it is highest since 1966 is still striking and does accomplish most of what the OP wants although obviously doesn't carry nearly as much rhetorical effect).

Comment author: TrE 18 October 2011 02:42:00PM *  2 points [-]

I'm not discussing here to sharpen my rhetorics. It seems that the OP is wrong here or at least his argument is flawed, as in 1959, more (in relative terms) Americans were poor (measured as in that graph) than today.

Is there a useful metric by which to measure "support for policies that redistribute wealth to the poor"? Is there historical data?

The OP's argument seems logical, but if data (at least that data which the OP has argued on, namely US poverty rates vs. redistribution policy support) contradicts, something, somewhere did go wrong (which is not to say that the idea of signaling is false/useless, it could be quite a few things which lead to this contradiction of the data).

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 October 2011 05:09:48PM 2 points [-]

Sorry if my phrasing was unclear. What I mean is that although the percentage result not being the highest detracts from the rhetorical level of the argument, it doesn't detract substantially from the logical argument in that having close to the largest percentage in poverty ever still allows it to go through.

I think your point about policy support is a stronger one: I'm not aware of any data that shows historical support levels for policy preferences about social security, welfare, medicaid, etc.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 18 October 2011 01:42:50AM 0 points [-]

That graph measures inequality of income, not poverty.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 October 2011 01:47:14AM 2 points [-]

Huh? That graph is measuring numbers and percentages of people who don't meet the poverty threshold. That's defined by an estimate that they don't have enough income to meet basic needs such as food and shelter.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 18 October 2011 08:26:06AM 3 points [-]

the poverty threshold is a much worse metric than looking directly at various parameters for living standards.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 October 2011 02:05:25PM *  3 points [-]

I agree, but poverty and efforts for its alleviation aren't really about material concerns. Everyone having say food, shelter from the elements and basic healthcare can be made to work. But poverty as in relative poverty is unavoidable.

Comment author: __Emil__ 19 October 2011 10:56:54AM 0 points [-]

But poverty as in relative poverty is unavoidable.

Why?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 18 October 2011 12:28:02PM *  1 point [-]

Can you expand on this? The poverty threshold in the US is designed to incorporate parameters for living standards regarding food and other essentials. How would you do things differently? It does have some problems certainly, like not taking into account differing costs of living in different locations, but as a rough measure for this purpose it seems fine.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 19 October 2011 07:46:10PM 1 point [-]

After further investigation I retract the "much worse" comment. It is a little more precise than I previously thought.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 18 October 2011 01:59:10AM 2 points [-]

Oh, my mistake. I thought it was measuring "relative poverty" like the EU does.

Comment author: John_D 30 August 2013 12:02:07AM *  1 point [-]

I disagree that the reason why many upper-middle class whites lean left is entirely philanthropic signalling. Some of it may be envy and power grabbing. A person making 120k a year may be living comfortably, but still not as comfortable as a person making 30 million a year. Let's not forget that many advocate raising the taxes of the top 1% of earners. This form of redistribution to the poor, if implemented, puts a burden on the extremely wealthy, which lowers the wealth and power of the elites, and thus puts the upper-middle class in closer position to vying for elite status. If anyone has data, I suspect the voting habits of the extremely wealthy are more Republican, with the 2nd tier yet still affluent being more Democrat.

It is interesting to note that many scholars disagree that many of the peasant revolts of the 14th-16th centuries were entirely motivated by famine. Typically they were spearheaded by a person or group of individuals who were well off but not quite elite, usually well-to-do merchants or a knights of lesser nobility, garnering the support of the extremely poor. The similarity between this and left-leaning ideologies throughout history is an affluent class supporting the promise to improve the standard of living of the poor. While never successful during that time period, we can use the French Revolution and later revolutions in other countries as a model of what happens if they were successful. The elites (nobility) became overthrown, and the doctors and lawyers that led the revolution become the new elite. (it is also interesting to note that the poor are in the end no better off and an authoritarian rule is created or maintained)

While modern civilization is less bloody, you can achieve the same goals by creating tax burdens on the extremely wealthy (like what is happening now in France) and reducing income disparity, putting oneself closer to elite status.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2013 12:17:12AM 0 points [-]

My gut reactions are (1, lazy guy who wants free money) (2, honorable working class salt-of-the-earth) (3, compassionate guy with good intentions) (4, insensitive guy who doesn't realize his privilege).

My Average Person Simulatorâ„¢ more-or-less agrees with that, but my own gut reactions for 1 and 3 are somewhere between that and (1, unlucky guy who deserves my sympathy) (3, hypocrite who spent several tens of centideadchildren on clothes but still has the nerve to blabber about the poor).

(I don't endorse my gut reaction about 3.)

Comment author: MattRivers 18 October 2011 02:02:08PM *  0 points [-]

Don't partisan news reporting, talk shows and organised astroturf movements considerably influence people's opinions (to the point of sometimes voting against their own interest)? Now could different groups be more exposed/ susceptible to this?

Comment author: tenshiko 19 October 2011 02:33:37AM 0 points [-]

My gut reactions are actually more like (1) uneducated radical who really should be trying harder to get a job, (2) drunk, (3) well-intentioned nice guy, (4) a pretty big jerk withoneinthreeormorechanceofapoint I MEAN A JERK (I don't want to signal supporting the privileged rich, sigh).

I know I'm rather insensitive for thinking (1), but the fact that he's clearly decided to drown his problems in alcohol that bugs me. It implies to me he's the type of poor who thinks it appropriate to blow his money on alcohol, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. I have a visceral negative reaction to this variety of poor people. Yes, I'm privileged. Bite me. The beardedness and grizzliness and ripped jeans are justified by his income but to me, alcoholism is not. Explained, perhaps, justified, no.

(2) just seems to me like a part of "one of these things is not like the others". I can trace logical paths for (1), (3), and (4), respectively circumstance (I'm poor, I want money) plus logic (if this happened I would get money), learned belief (caring for the poor is good) plus logic (if this happened it would be good for the poor which would be good), and circumstance (I'm rich, being rich is good) plus learned belief (so there are good reasons why keeping my money is good) . But... where is the logical path from which (2) can be deduced?

Comment author: TobyBartels 14 March 2013 11:52:14PM 0 points [-]

I definitely had a more negative reaction to (2) than to (1). But I'm also a loony leftist (albeit not the big-government variety), so not the typical intended recipient of the signalling.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 18 October 2011 11:30:10PM *  -1 points [-]

I agree, but the fact that we agree on the stereotypes 1-4 isn't itself proof of the theory.

I also agree that it's sketchy to translate from last-place aversion in the lab to Tea-party in the wild.