Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Iron Law of Oligarchy: Inequality is Like a Mathematical Fractal

vox |  As America becomes more unequal, it’s ever harder to claim that it is a meritocratic country. It still looks like one to the people at the top, who continue to prosper. However, their view of the world is increasingly at odds with the view of people below, who like the idea of equal opportunity but don’t believe it is working.

The people at the top and the middle class are increasingly distant from each other. Elites don’t understand the challenges and frustrations of middle-class people. (As Hayes puts it, "Power narrows the vision of the powerful.")

But many middle-class people don’t believe elites when they say that the system is working well. They see institutions that are failing and corrupt. They interpret the government’s response to the economic crisis as evidence that well-connected people will get bailed out while other people are screwed over. They do not trust the traditional press anymore, and are able to find alternative sources of information that may often be wrong but at least reflect their understanding that there is something basically wrong with American politics.

While poorer people have always been at a disadvantage in the American system, middle-class people have historically had more faith in it, yet they are increasingly finding their expectations frustrated.

Hayes argues that the angriest voters are not going to be the people at the bottom, but the people in the middle, who used to expect that they and their kids could do well through enterprise and don’t believe that anymore. Experts have disagreed over whether Trump supporters are richer or poorer than the average. Yet emerging evidence is beginning to portray a more nuanced portrait of Trump's supporters than those earlier takes.

Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at Gallup, has used survey data on nearly 113,000 Americans to ask what really drives Trump support. He finds that support for the mogul turned politician is concentrated in the middle-income categories; in contrast, those who are relatively rich and those who are relatively poor are less likely to support him. Furthermore, economic insecurity is a huge factor – those who worry about their economic future are much more likely to vote for Trump. Rothwell builds on work by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren at Harvard to find that people in living in areas with weak mobility for kids from middle-class families are more likely to vote for Trump.

These findings are only the start of what is likely to be a long debate. Nonetheless, they support Hayes’s argument. People seem to be more likely to support an anti-system candidate like Donald Trump when they have a middling income, when they feel economically insecure, and when they live in places where middle-class kids have worse prospects for getting ahead.