Saturday, January 11, 2014

Congress is a millionaires' club. Why that matters, and what we can do about it.

This week at the Monkey Cage blog, Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes wrote a fascinating pair of posts arguing that, when it comes to America's political system, class matters -- even more than a lot of us thought. The posts are based on his recent book, White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making. It's hardly news to American voters that our elected officials tend to be wealthy, to a wildly disproportionate degree. But the extent to which this is so is stunning.

Carnes points out that, although millionaires make up only 3 percent of the population, they "have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5 to 4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House." At the same time, working class people -- whom he defines as "people with manual-labor and service-industry jobs" -- make up more than half of the population, yet people from working class backgrounds have never held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

You might suspect that a legislator's class background would not independently affect the policies she supports -- that, once you control for other factors like political party and constituents' views, the impact of class would disappear. But this is not the case; as Carnes writes, "even after controlling for these factors using a variety of statistical techniques, there are still significant differences between politicians from different classes."

Looking at roll-call data in Congress, Carnes discovered that:
Like ordinary Americans, legislators who worked primarily in white-collar jobs before getting elected to Congress — especially profit-oriented jobs in the private sector — tend to vote with business interests far more often than legislators who worked primarily in blue-collar jobs.
Moreover, Congress is hardly the only government institution where class matters. Carnes also found that:
At every level of government, in every time period and in every stage of the legislative process, the shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts economic policy in favor of the conservative outcomes that more affluent Americans prefer.

Inequality round-up, 1/11/13

I apologize for my neglect of this blog as late. I've been insanely busy over the past couple of weeks.  I'll have a new post up later today. For now, here is a round-up of inequality news I found especially interesting over the past week:

-- Last weekend at the Washington Monthly, I noted a surprising fact about economic inequality in the U.S. If you look at the growth of economic inequality between 1979 and 2007, the increase is even bigger if you account the impact for taxes and transfers than if you don't. As I wrote, "This doesn’t mean that taxes and transfers don’t make things more equal than they would have been absent taxes and transfers — they do.  What it does mean is that they're not as effective at ameliorating inequality as they were in 1979. In plain English, we’re doing a far worse job at redistributing wealth than we used to."
-- Paul Krugman has a pair of very interesting posts today.  This one is about how the disappearance of jobs has affected Kentucky. Krugman, citing William Julius Wilson, argues that the social problems of poor folks in Appalachia have been created, not by a "culture of poverty," but by lack of employment opportunities -- which is precisely what Wilson was arguing back in the 80s about urban poverty. Krugman's other post is about how North Carolina's decision to slash unemployment benefits has devastated the economy there.

-- Yesterday's job numbers confirmed a long-standing trend: large numbers of Americans are leaving the workforce, and no one is quite sure why. The New York Times' Binyamin Appelbaum and Wonkblog's Brad Plumer discuss various theories that attempt to account for the phenomenon.

-- An alarming Census report has found that growing numbers of Americans are experiencing poverty.  Nearly one out of every three Americans experienced poverty between 2009 and 2011, and the length of the median poverty spell has also increased significantly.

-- A new study shows that, beginning in the mid-1980s, median life expectancy in the U.S. fell sharply behind median life expectancy in the other OECD countries. The reasons for this disturbing development are unclear, but our "fragmented" health care system has been identified as one possible cause. (H/T Economists' View)

   -- Wonkblog's Lydia DePillis looks at how getting married makes male economists richer and female economists poorer, along with other depressing evidence that progress for women in the economics profession has taken a giant step backwards over the past 20 years.

-- In These Times' Michelle Chen reports about how the case of a domestic worker abused by a diplomat shines a harsh spotlight on the plight of domestic workers worldwide. Domestic work is a large and increasingly globalized sector of the economy, but in the U.S., domestics lack basic legal protections and experience high rates of violence, sexual assault, wage theft, and other forms of abuse and exploitation.

-- In France, Goodyear workers facing mass layoffs due to plant closure have taken two of the firm's top executives captive in protest. This tactic is surprisingly popular there; previous polls have shown that close to half of the French public approves of locking up the bosses. Vive la France!

-- Finally, Maureen Dowd unpacks the class politics of Downton Abbey. Yes, on occasion Dowd writes a sharp column, and this is one of them: she's dead-on about how the show greatly sentimentalizes class relations.  But I would also argue that every now and again the show exposes the cruel realities of the class system (the episode where the maid Ethel gives up her baby is one example), and those moments pack a punch.