Affluence and Influence
April 12, 2014 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Gilens and Page analyze 1,779 policy outcomes over a period of more than 20 years. They conclude that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Average citizens have “little or no independent influence” on the policy-making process? This must be an overstatement of Gilens’s and Page’s findings, no? Alas, no... (pdf)
posted by anazgnos (34 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm going to call my Senators and Representative to complain about this.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:45 PM on April 12, 2014 [36 favorites]


I'm going to call my Senators and Representative to complain about this.

I'm going to favorite your comment.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:52 PM on April 12, 2014 [17 favorites]


Really, you should get the lobbyists as BigMeta on this. They've had lunch with some people.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:57 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm simply going to have my people replace these ineffective and unresponsive representatives!
posted by rtha at 1:59 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I guess since you guys all like this, I should too.
posted by Pudhoho at 2:07 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Anything in there about below-average citizens? I'd like to know my odds.
posted by michaelh at 2:11 PM on April 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


The shocking news to me here is that, according to the author of the first link at least, American political scientists have predominantly been attempting to describe or analyze the US political system as a system where every voting individual's power is equal; and the fact that economic elites have noticeably and statistically significantly more political influence (even pre-Citizens United) is big news to them?!
posted by eviemath at 2:19 PM on April 12, 2014 [16 favorites]


So if it's all a put on, and everyone who studies it for more than ten minutes can come to that conclusion, why even go to the trouble? Is it just pandering to the poor end of the hockey stick to make sure they don't rise up as one and slay the not-poor end?
posted by Mooski at 2:51 PM on April 12, 2014


What's that quote the one Metafilter user says, something like "a study from the Water is Wet Dep't at No Shit, Sherlock Labs"?

So if it's all a put on, and everyone who studies it for more than ten minutes can come to that conclusion, why even go to the trouble? Is it just pandering to the poor end of the hockey stick to make sure they don't rise up as one and slay the not-poor end?

You'll note the key term "independent influence" - the masses are not powerless, it's that on a statistical level the masses can only channel their power to the bosses and interest groups. Don't donate or volunteer for political campaigns.

Also people like to do politics so they can feel good about themselves for supporting the right team and thinking the rights thoughts and look down on / mock / oppress / hang from a lamppost people who support the wrong team and think the wrong thoughts.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 3:03 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm going to hand out copies of these at the next protest event in my area.
posted by el io at 3:15 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


tl;dr: Rich people rule!
posted by chavenet at 3:19 PM on April 12, 2014


Ah! Now we are beginning to get to the point where we realize in the data what we have felt to be the case, all along. Citizens don't count! Duh!

Now it's time to get busy! Experiment! Do little things that are different; make small positive differences in your lives - no matter how small they all add up; be kind to yourself, and others, as much as possible; don't let yourself be overcome with the sense of powerlessness - whenever you feel that way do some little thing that will make a positive difference for you and/or someone else.

I wrote in other places, long ago, that Americans - after banging their heads against the wall thinking "why didn't (name politician of choice) s/he make a difference or keep his/her promises!" - after that, would be the beginning of a small renaissance of new ideas; small experiments; new art; more cooperation among all; increased wonder of the unknown (without resorting to dogmatic spiritualism).

Finally! We are realizing that no one is going to SAVE US! We have to do it ourselves, together!. Let the new world begin. And, like TS. Elliot once said: "“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Remember.
posted by Vibrissae at 4:16 PM on April 12, 2014 [10 favorites]


You'll note the key term "independent influence" - the masses are not powerless, it's that on a statistical level the masses can only channel their power to the bosses and interest groups. Don't donate or volunteer for political campaigns.

It's more that generally the median-income respondent and the 90th percentile respondent agree; this is the section on correlated preferences. When they don't agree -- and this will almost always mean that the median-income person wants some change while the 90th percentile one prefers the status quo -- policy almost always aligns with what the wealthier respondents wanted.

the fact that economic elites have noticeably and statistically significantly more political influence (even pre-Citizens United) is big news to them

It's not really a surprise; that's just Bartels being polemical.

It's certainly true that this hasn't been a very studied topic, mostly because there are lots of inferential problems and it's hard to get the data to admit to anything conclusive. This means that studies looking at this are easy to pick apart -- I'll do it in a minute -- which makes it harder to get the work published.

The only extent to which it's remotely surprising is that it goes against some of what we see from the state level. Looking there, state governments tend to be highly responsive to citizen opinion; in the classic study, really the only thing that matters in predicting the policy liberalism or conservatism of a state is the average ideology of its citizens. But even there, we know that responses are often not what the median citizen wants (in these instances policy tends to be too liberal) and that policy changes are more responsive to wealthy voters' preferences.

To pick it apart -- the biggest problem with it is that it uses oversimplified versions of the theories it's purporting to assess. Bluntly, even if there weren't any economic bias, I'm still not at all sure we would expect to see national policy usually follow the preferences of the 50th percentile income voter because there are so many potentially distortive steps in between them and policy adoption. Even if there were no economic bias, just because the median voters likes policy X doesn't mean that the median member of Congress does. And even if the median member of the House does, or even the median Senator, that doesn't mean the policy won't still be in the gridlock interval. So figuring out what the actual prediction for economically unbiased political power would be for each of their policies would be a lot harder.

I'm also kind of troubled by their DV. Looking at policies where there was a clear and direct national poll seems... unwise. It's subject to whatever biases drive what pollsters happen to want to poll about. For example, they don't say whether the polls were taken before or after the policy was either adopted or rejected -- and we'd expect ex post polls to be concentrated on issues where the polling company expects popular opinion to be broadly against whatever the decision was. And, too, they don't indicate where these policies were, if anywhere, in the policy process. There's a strong bias towards the status quo in federal politics, and I worry that their results might differ if they looked at only policies that had some realistic chance of adoption (maybe that had been reported out of at least one chamber's committee).*

And, finally, the biggest result that emerges from their study is that policy adoption is highly random and only barely predictable by any configuration of preferences. While I don't like looking at R2s, theirs is .07, and I rather doubt it's an accident that they don't report a proportional reduction in error over the naive theory that nothing ever happens.

I don't disagree with their actual conclusion, but I think they're overselling the strength of their results.

*Obviously policies favored by the median voter not even being realistically proposed is its own thing, but it would be hard to tell without direct examination what's really going on with them.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:48 PM on April 12, 2014 [12 favorites]


Though it's entirely possible that Gilens' book, which I haven't read, deals with those concerns and more.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:50 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


You know here in Australia it feels the same. We've written in to our state and federal reps, signed petitions till we're blue in the face and marched in solidarity against the Abbott government and it changes nothing. They make promises and assurances and claim there will be due process on all sorts of issues and follow through on none. They ignore expert advice which doesn't match the outcome they want, they ignore logic and scientific evidence. It's feeling a lot like the mighty wave of people power is completely ineffective. A splash in the kiddies pool. I've never felt so at a loss and this article is really depressing because it's a confirmation that this is true.


but then Vibrissae! You've saved me! You've found some shred of hope, some perspective from which all is not lost. Thank you.

Finally! We are realizing that no one is going to SAVE US! We have to do it ourselves, together!. Let the new world begin.

posted by Raunchy 60s Humour at 9:30 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Finally! We are realizing that no one is going to SAVE US! We have to do it ourselves, together!. Let the new world begin."

Don't get your hopes up.

posted by marienbad at 11:22 PM on April 12, 2014


Paul Krugman: Why We’re in a New Gilded Age
posted by homunculus at 11:23 PM on April 12, 2014 [7 favorites]


The perspective from which all is not lost - taking individual action - is routinely mocked on this site by worshippers of Big Government as Libertarian hogwash. Unless the Government forces everyone - by force - to live by a single set of liberal friendly rules, all is lost and nothing is gained.

When it is suggested that Big Government itself is the problem - for it invariably succumbs to the influence of powerful individuals - one is derided as a Tea Party moron.

The left can only believe (ignoring its own sad history) that it is Capitalism itself which is the monster and refuses to see the current system as a terribly corrupted version of Capitalism - crony capitalism - which is enabled by the state itself. The cries for more Government and more regulation - written and influenced by the same corrupt, powerful people who benefit from them under the guise of democracy - only feed the beast.

I will keep riding my bicycle, taking public transportation, sorting my garbage, being decent to the individuals I interact with, paying my taxes, and ignoring the calls for public action and mocking those Pollyannas who do.

The small government ibertarians have it right. I can't change the world, but I can live my life without demanding that everyone else follow me in lockstep. The less Government interferes with the People, the better off we are.
posted by three blind mice at 11:43 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


"The less Government interferes with the People, the better off we are."

Yeah, those clean water regulations are a real balls-ache.
posted by marienbad at 12:08 AM on April 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


The less Government interferes with the people, the more those people happen to be corporations?
posted by anazgnos at 12:21 AM on April 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


Also people like to do politics so they can feel good about themselves for supporting the right team and thinking the rights thoughts and look down on / mock / oppress / hang from a lamppost people who support the wrong team and think the wrong thoughts.

While this is no doubt true for some people, within and outside of politics, it seems a very ignorant and stereotypical position to take as a generalisation. All sorts get into politics, for all sorts of reasons.
posted by smoke at 12:57 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


"I will ... keep taking public transportation ... The small government libertarians have it right."

I doubt one or other of these is true.
posted by cromagnon at 3:56 AM on April 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


I doubt one or other of these is true.

Ditto for the publicly-subsidized recycling program. One of my abiding frustrations is how unaware most "yay small government!" people seem to be of how reliant they are on public services and subsidies. It's easy to make fun of the "keep government out of my Medicare" posters at those Tea Party rallies, but you see it on the left as well -- it's a really common blindspot.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:45 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


The left can only believe (ignoring its own sad history) that it is Capitalism itself which is the monster and refuses to see the current system as a terribly corrupted version of Capitalism - crony capitalism - which is enabled by the state itself.

How strange it must be to libertarians that historically states arise at all; it's almost as if free and fair markets do not spontaneously self-organize, but rather than collocations of power and force eventually condense from economic activity instead. If we are and have always been homo economicus, then homo economicus is the state-building animal par excellence.

These attempts to read this study as an endorsement of libertarianism seem to willfully ignore the presence of real, macro-level problems ranging from climate change to income inequality itself which directly align with the economic and personal interests of people who, if the state vanished tomorrow, would still be very rich, employ plenty of people with guns, and have plenty of friends with the same views and resources. Feudalism didn't exactly arise out of a strong, centralized government and it wasn't thwarted by rugged individualism and voluntarism.

Also people like to do politics so they can feel good about themselves for supporting the right team and thinking the rights thoughts and look down on / mock / oppress / hang from a lamppost people who support the wrong team and think the wrong thoughts.

It isn't exactly successful capitalists who historically ended up lynched; that's something that happens primarily to economically disadvantaged minority groups, often at the hands of conservative elements in areas with a strong tradition of nice, small, local governance. Who was more anti-federal than the antebellum South? They formed a fucking confederacy, for chrissakes.

Unless of course you were lamenting the fate of Mussolini?
posted by kewb at 4:51 AM on April 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


Gilens other book, Why Americans Hate Welfare, is really good.

Of course, if anyone makes an FPP about that, I'm sure we'll have a bunch of comments in the vein of, "DUH I KNEW THAT ALREADY!!!"
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:28 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


When it is suggested that Big Government itself is the problem - for it invariably succumbs to the influence of powerful individuals - one is derided as a Tea Party moron.

Because generally when something bad has happened you blame the entity that did it and not the entity they did it to.

I can't help but see "Libertarian wary of the evils of big business" as much of a step above a concern troll approach. It's hard to believe that is really the source of the problem with government from someone holding those political views.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:26 AM on April 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


tbm: The left can only believe (ignoring its own sad history) that it is Capitalism itself which is the monster and refuses to see the current system as a terribly corrupted version of Capitalism - crony capitalism - which is enabled by the state itself. The cries for more Government and more regulation - written and influenced by the same corrupt, powerful people who benefit from them under the guise of democracy - only feed the beast.

Isn't this just the Neoliberal call for a more perfect Capitalism, or better, freer markets? Once we get better markets, all our problems will go away.

I'm not even sure I believe in "The Left" any more, except as a bete noir that's used to scare people into blaming any regulation for whatever problem we're discussing at the moment.

And at the same time it's clear that there is an organized movement to educate society about the values and goals of Conservative elites and business interests, the better to serve those interests. Have a look at Philip Mirowski's The Road to Mont Pelerin, where he goes into great detail about not just Hayek's work, but the network of business and wealthy interests that was specifically engineered to make those interests' goals come true.

If you want to see this organization in action, Donald Gutstein's Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy gives a well-defined example. He clearly shows how the current set of Canadian Conservative think tanks were specifically created to funnel money from wealthy business men and corporations to fund a set of "objective" institutions with almost a one-to-one correspondence with Alberta's Reform Party, now pretty much our federal conservatives. These institutions advance a consistent agenda around a set of values that is more and more the face of Canadian politics. Surprised?

And why wouldn't wealthy businessmen invest in exactly this kind of promotion? And why do they complain so bitterly that "Progressive" and environmental organizations get funded by, well, anyone?

Gilens and Page could come up here for phase II of their work, because western Canada seems like a microcosm of these processes.
posted by sneebler at 7:47 AM on April 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Because generally when something bad has happened you blame the entity that did it and not the entity they did it to.

They did it together!
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 8:08 AM on April 13, 2014


I was curious, so I downloaded the data from Gilens' web page. It's available as SPSS or Stata; if someone wants it as a csv memail me and I'll convert it and send it to you in regular email (but 'foreign' in R should be able to read them). The preferences of median-income respondents and 90th-percentile respondents are correlated overall at more than 0.9, so there's not a lot of room to distinguish between them.

Of the 1779 polls, 105 ended up with policy being what rich people wanted and what median-income people didn't, out of 189 polls where rich people and regular folks disagreed. The only times there was more than a 20-point gap (ie 60% of rich wanted one side but only 40% of regular people did) were the 10 or so questions about NAFTA. The rest of the time it was a slight majority of rich people favoring something and a smidge under 50% of regular folks favoring it.

The question wording got truncated at 128 or 256 characters, so for some questions I couldn't tell at all what policy they were actually asking about. And others asked about something where I wasn't comfortable guessing what metafilter-style liberals might like or oppose (or where I'd seen people here split pretty strongly). But in the remaining issues where I was comfortable making that judgment -- but of course could be very wrong about any of them -- a Stereotypical Mefite would side with the rich people against the regular people just over a third of the time the rich people got their way. Mostly on social issues -- RU486 legality, IDX legality, gays in the military, various abortion/birth control restrictions. But also stuff like outright banning immigration for five years, the legality of public-sector strikes, outright bans on military or domestic aid to any foreign country, and so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:38 AM on April 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Who has predominant power in the United States? The short answer, from 1776 to the present, is: Those who have the money -- or more specifically, who own income-producing land and businesses -- have the power. George Washington was one of the biggest landowners of his day; presidents in the late 19th century were close to the railroad interests; for the Bush family, it was oil and other natural resources, agribusiness, and finance. In this day and age, this means that banks, corporations, agribusinesses, and big real estate developers, working separately on most policy issues, but in combination on important general issues -- such as taxes, opposition to labor unions, and trade agreements with other countries -- set the rules within which policy battles are waged...

Moreover, the simple answer that money rules has to be qualified somewhat. Domination by the few does not mean complete control, but rather the ability to set the terms under which other groups and classes must operate. Highly trained professionals with an interest in environmental and consumer issues have been able to couple their technical information and their understanding of the legislative process with timely publicity to win governmental restrictions on some corporate practices. Wage and salary workers, when they are organized or disruptive, sometimes have been able to gain concessions on wages, hours, and working conditions...

Still, the idea that a relatively fixed group of privileged people dominate the economy and government goes against the American grain and the founding principles of the country. "Class" and "power" are terms that make Americans a little uneasy, and concepts such as "upper class" and "power elite" immediately put people on guard. Americans may differ in their social and income levels, and some may have more influence than others, but it is felt that there can be no fixed power group when power is constitutionally lodged in all the people, when there is democratic participation through elections and lobbying, and when the evidence of social mobility is everywhere apparent. So, it is usually concluded by most power analysts that elected officials, along with "interest groups" like "organized labor" and "consumers," have enough "countervailing" power to say that there is a more open, "pluralistic" distribution of power rather than one with rich people and corporations at the top.

Contrary to this pluralistic view, I will try to demonstrate how rule by the wealthy few is possible despite free speech, regular elections, and organized opposition:
  • "The rich" coalesce into a social upper class that has developed institutions by which the children of its members are socialized into an upper-class worldview, and newly wealthy people are assimilated.
  • Members of this upper class control corporations, which have been the primary mechanisms for generating and holding wealth in the United States for upwards of 150 years now.
  • There exists a network of nonprofit organizations through which members of the upper class and hired corporate leaders not yet in the upper class shape policy debates in the United States.
  • Members of the upper class, with the help of their high-level employees in profit and nonprofit institutions, are able to dominate the federal government in Washington.
  • The rich, and corporate leaders, nonetheless claim to be relatively powerless.
  • Working people have less power than in many other democratic countries.
Who Rules America? Politics, Power, And Social Change: The Class-Domination Theory of Power

---

Who Rules America Today? The Triumph of the Corporate Rich
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:36 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]




To all of you ridiculing this study for "proving the obious": you are the scientific equivalent of "My five-year-old could paint that."

Until we formally prove our beliefs, and can quantify their validity in some way, we can't be sure we're not just self-deluding with confirmation bias. Even when a study proves what is "obvious", it has merit.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:52 AM on April 15, 2014 [9 favorites]


The small government ibertarians have it right...The less Government interferes with the People, the better off we are.

No...they don't. Despite calling themselves "The Party of Reason", Libertarians rarely use any actual reason unless it suits their religious assertion that Government is the problem in any and every case despite evidence to the contrary (see stats on healthcare / public land stewardship / sanitation as cases in which governments generally do a better job than private industry).

Only a libertarian could stare at irrefutable evidence of some particular case where government wasn't actually the problem (again - single payer healthcare and reams of evidence to support the case from a statistical standpoint) and contort their brain in such profound ways as to still maintain government ineptitude. If Rothbard, Von Mises, Friedman or Hayek suggested that stubbed toes were somehow the governments fault you'd have every Libertarian claiming the same.

Government has no special claim on ineptitude and by giving government credit for every fuck-up known to man you elevate entrenched corporate interests and give them a free pass to continue influencing popular opinion and through lobbying to further corrupt that very same government you deplore.

If Libertarians critiqued the concentrations of power that occur in the private sector with the same vigor that they do the government we might actually see a government that is both more efficient and more honest as Americans work toward removing the corrputing influence of money from our politics.
posted by jnnla at 1:34 PM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


I can't help but see "Libertarian wary of the evils of big business" as much of a step above a concern troll approach. It's hard to believe that is really the source of the problem with government from someone holding those political views.

I'm definitely not a libertarian, but I have several libertarian friends, and this is very much a big part of their problem with big government. And I think it's one of their most persuasive points. As much as we sometimes need a strong government to balance concentrations of power in the private sector, whenever you give the government power you create a big, fat target for people to try to influence that power to their own benefit. And sometimes it's a whole lot easier for rich people and corporations to seize power by influencing the government than by competing in the private sector.

The amount of money spent on ads to influence elections is huge, but it's tiny compared to the amount of money spent on ads to convince people to buy stuff. Coke probably gets a much bigger return on investment with lobbying and campaign contributions aimed at preserving corn subsidies (keeping the costs of HFCS low) than it would spending the same amount trying to take a little more market share from Pepsi.

To me, the libertarian response to this problem--shrinking government so there's less power to corrupt--is tempting, but ultimately lazy and defeatist. It's a kind of giving up. It's much harder to keep working for better government, more robust citizen participation, more openness and accountability, but I think that's what we need, and that it's not an impossible goal.
posted by straight at 5:06 PM on April 18, 2014


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