To Whom Are They Listening?

03/04/2015 11:40 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

The most important domestic issue facing the United States is the inexorable growth in income inequality. Calculations provided by Emmanuel Saez reveal that over the two decades from 1993 to 2013, the top 1 percent of the income distribution experienced a 62.4 percent increase in income. Everyone else saw their income grow by only 7.3 percent. Nearly three-fifths (59 percent) of the overall growth of income that occurred in these years was received by a tiny fraction of the country's population. 1.

Insight into what Americans think about this growth in inequality is provided in a poll taken by the Pew Research Center in January 2014. 2. It reported that 69 percent of respondents agreed that the government should do "a lot" (43 percent) or "some" (26 percent) to reduce the gap between the rich and the rest of the population. What is even more telling, 67 percent thought that the government can do "a lot" (38 percent) or "some" (29 percent) to reduce inequality. The fact that these two responses are so similar suggests that despite the distrust that many Americans possess concerning the government's competence, a significant majority continues to understand that public policy represents the most effective vehicle to push back against economic polarization.

The responses to the survey also show that the stereotype of the country being immobilized because income inequality is a divisive and partisan issue does not hold up to scrutiny. Almost half (45 percent) of self-described Republicans favor government action either "a lot" (23 percent) or "some" (22 percent) to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else. Almost all Democrats (90 percent) agree, as do 69 percent of Independents. If this is not a consensus, it comes close to one.

One of the policies asked about in the survey was whether the minimum wage should be increased from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. There is no surprise to learn that overwhelmingly Democrats and Independents favored such an increase. But conventional wisdom concerning partisan political polarization is upended when it is also revealed that 53 percent of Republicans did so as well.

Among the American people, there is obviously a large area of agreement concerning the adoption of policies to counter inequality. Equally obviously, this public consensus has not become part of Congress' legislative agenda. To understand why, it is important to know what the wealthy paymasters of the Congress think about income inequality.

Benjamin I. Page, Larry M Bartels and Jason Seawright report that, "it is extremely difficult to identify and interview a representative sample of wealthy Americans," [because] "in the United States, income and wealth are highly private matters." 3. But by confining their sample to the Chicago metropolitan area, the authors were able to locate and survey 83 individuals who were either among or close to the top 1 percent of wealth holders. These wealthy individuals were nothing if not politically involved -- most particularly as political donors: 68 percent reported contributing money to campaigns, and 21 percent solicited donations and acted as bundlers. Further, more than half (53 percent) had made contact within the last six months with a member of Congress, the Executive Branch or an official at a Regulatory Agency. These individuals, in short, were politically active and influential. And as recent scholarship has demonstrated, they are precisely the people to whom legislators respond. 4.

The contrast between the attitudes of the very rich on the one hand, and those of the general public including Republicans on the other, is dramatic. In the Page et al survey, the wealthy respondents were asked whether it is the responsibility of the government to reduce income inequality. Only 13 percent thought the government should do so. Furthermore, only 17 percent thought taxes on the rich should be used to achieve greater equality. Even the Earned Income Tax Credit was endorsed by only 13 percent of these respondents.

In assessing their findings, these scholars are cautious. Based on their survey, they write that they "can offer little new evidence about the extent to which the wealthy actually influence policy making." But they do conclude that "on many important issues the preferences of the wealthy appear to differ markedly from those of the general public." They are of course right that "if policy makers do weigh citizens' policy preference differentially based on their income or wealth, the result will not only significantly violate democratic ideals of political equality, but will also affect the substantive contours of American public policy."

However there is no need to consider this simply as a hypothetical possibility. As mentioned above, Bartels' research has established that members of Congress respond almost exclusively to the affluent. In light of this, the new data presented by Pew point clearly to the conclusion that the reason that there has been no move by politicians to achieve greater income equality is that the wealthy elite do not want that to happen. And they use their financial clout to ensure that it does not. The problem is the structure of political financing that depends on wealthy donors, not disagreement among Americans.

1. Emmanuel Sez, "Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2013 Preliminary Estates)" January 25, 2015, Table 1.
2. Data in this and the following two paragraphs are taken from Pew Research Center, "Most See Inequality Growing, but Partisans Differ Over Solutions" January 23, 2014.
3. Data and quotations in this and the following three paragraphs come from Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright, "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans," Perspective on Politics (March 2013) Vol. 1, no.11, p. 52, 54, 55 57, 63, 66. A bundler is an individual who collects (bundles) others' campaign contributions and delivers them to a candidate
4. Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) p 280.