Consensus that America Should Be Like Sweden


A number of people are circulating this video, graphically showing that Americans don’t know how unequal our society has become.

But I wanted to point to a few details about the underlying study, which not only shows that most Americans have no clue how unequal it has become, but asks them to describe what an ideal wealth distribution ought to be. It shows a real consensus that an ideal distribution would look like Sweden, and even agrees that that distribution ought to be effected by redistributing money from the very wealthy to the three lowest quintiles of wealth.

All groups—even the wealthiest respondents—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than what they estimated the current United States level to be, and all groups also desired some inequality—even the poorest respondents. In addition, all groups agreed that such redistribution should take the form of moving wealth from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles. In short, although Americans tend to be relatively more favorable toward economic inequality than members of other countries (Osberg & Smeeding, 2006), Americans’ consensus about the ideal distribution of wealth within the United States appears to dwarf their disagreements across gender, political orientation, and income.

The study does reflect a bit on why this isn’t driving political change, citing other studies; Americans’ ignorance about the inequality of our society is just one part of it.

Given the consensus among disparate groups on the gap between an ideal distribution of wealth and the actual level of wealth inequality, why are more Americans, especially those with low income, not advocating for greater redistribution of wealth? First, our results demonstrate that Americans appear to drastically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality, suggesting they may simply be unaware of the gap. Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States (Benabou & Ok, 2001; Charles & Hurst, 2003; Keister, 2005), beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth. Third, despite the fact that conservatives and liberals in our sample agree that the current level of inequality is far from ideal, public disagreements about the causes of that inequality may drown out this consensus (Alesina & Angeletos, 2005; Piketty, 1995). Finally, and more broadly, Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes toward economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001), suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap.

But educating Americans about our inequality is one step in that process.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. phred says:

    Wow. It is good to see a report like that getting out to a broader audience beyond our little corner of the web.

    I hope there is more of it, and I hope that it starts to force the conversation in Versailles-on-the-Potomac into more constructive directions.

    Of course, I’m sure our DC pols will just try to sell me on their latest and greatest cake ; )

  2. Kathleen says:

    I love graphs, pie charts etc. Brings it home. Were the two fellas who got it from the US or elsewhere?

    Have you read Peck’s article in the Atlantic Monthly “Can the middle class survive” You have probably all ready written something about it.

    MSNBC sure has Ron Paul blocked out.
    Are you aware that Douglas Feith and Bill Luti are heading Perry’s foreign policy team? (over at Race for Iran) Some countries war criminals are made to stand trial. Not ours…they just go get a job with the next person they think will promote their agenda. Creepy

  3. emptywheel says:

    Back in my academic days, I taught The Hour of the Furnaces in a media and narrative class.

    Most of them remembered this section of the film, which first presents the levels of inequality in Argentina. And of course the most famous sequence in the movie, starting at 3:22 (VERY graphic).

    But they reacted strongly against it. Said, “Well, such violent rhetorical strategies might be necessary if society was as inequal as Argentina in 1970. I pointed out that the US was at that level of inequality (this was in 2002, so it’s gotten a lot worse since). That really pissed them off–they refused to believe it.

  4. frandor55 says:

    I work with $12-16/hr blue collar workers, they defend the ultra-rich, thinking that they (workers) have more in common with wealthy than they do with people getting food stamps.

  5. prostratedragon says:

    That Rawls criterion really focusses the mind, doesn’t it?

    In the dark side of this report are remarks from Tom Coburn, in which he presumes that because Pres. Obama is an African-American male, he has benefitted disproportionately from government programs that “create dependency” —i.e., in many the kind of programs that could be part of a policy to mitigate or minimize tendencies toward unequal income distributions in the society. (Because let’s face it, there really are very few race-based policies operated by any level of government. Mostly, Coburn means welfare, Medicaid, school lunches perhaps, and that kind of thing I would just bet.)

    But it is the presumption that is setting me off at the moment, complete with the suggestion that much of the riling up that we are hearing about these programs, all of which have many non-“African”*-American users, is about the fact that some Black folks are “getting” something.

    Someone with different combat wiring than mine should spell it out someday.

    _________________
    * Any non-Africans here? What planet?

  6. posaune says:

    Interesting how the ruling class is trying to set up worker against worker, i.e., Verizon’s DC metro radio ads, with a woman saying that “these workers already get health care & vacation, and retirement. . .” And the guy says, “I don’t get that at my job. … who do they think they are? they should be grateful to work at such a good place.” The headline on the DC Express paper this morning? WMATA workers got $40K in over time last year. I didn’t read the story, actually. But is has to be, “hey all you serfs out there, you have to help us knock out the jobs with benefits, ’cause you don’t get any.”

  7. DWBartoo says:

    Superb, EW, thank you.

    Let the education, finally, commence.

    How much more pain and destruction will be required before it really sinks in?

    I wonder if Cregan might chance by?

    DW

  8. nomolos says:

    Well my goodness for an Irish redhead you certainly have your act together. Thank you for the video(s) and the summary, I have forwarded it to a few of my like minded friends.

    Is it the fault of the MSM, the education, the “legal” drugs, the cultural inertia..what is it that leaves americans so unaware of their plight. I hear time and time again, when I mention that America is fucked up, about ‘Merca being the best in this or that and if I don’t like to go back to Ireland, it seems people do not want to face the truth or they will feel obligated to do something and heaven forbid that they will have to get off their dead arses and actually, you know, protest…it is so un-american.

  9. Bill Michtom says:

    I have said many times, to many people, the US has the best propaganda, starting with “American Exceptionalism.”

    It is part of our ideology as Americans: we are generous, innovative, technologically advanced, spreaders of democracy. We are the place every other person in the world wants to be.

    Our news media helps the government hide reality: the mass murders of our wars, the theft of other countries resources.

    While most of us here know this, I suspect even we forget often–in our day-to-day lives–how pervasive US destruction and expansion of inequality is–how constantly this country destroys the lives of those in other countries and in our own.

  10. Bob Schacht says:

    @frandor55:
    “I work with $12-16/hr blue collar workers, they defend the ultra-rich, thinking that they (workers) have more in common with wealthy than they do with people getting food stamps.”

    One of the most defining myths of America is that of Horatio Alger. People of Europe are conditioned to know, by historical experience, that myth is extremely naive. But here in America, people believe in that “rags to riches” myth. Thus, they (wrongly) feel that the rich are not so different from us.

    Bob in AZ

  11. harpie says:

    Socialist Hellhole Blogging; Paul Krugman; 8/19/11
    http://tinyurl.com/3obvkoc

    Every time I read someone talking about the “collapsing welfare states of Europe”, I have this urge to take that person on a forced walking tour of Stockholm. If you believed what the right says, a country with Sweden’s level of both taxes and social benefits should be a wasteland. Strange to say, that’s not what it looks like, to say the least.

    Also, really good herring.

  12. Morris Minor says:

    Here is another way to describe inequality and economics: half the population is below average.

    Of course, “we” (who are above average) make a living by selling stuff to “them”. If “they” have no money, “they” will not be able to buy anything.

    The neoliberal response: “we” will sell stuff to China. Oh, and stop calling me liberal.

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