Originally published at the Dollar Vigilante. There is an active commentary thread at the end and I respond to posts.

rich“Bellwether” is an archaic word for a sheep with a bell around its neck that leads a flock. It now refers to an indicator or predictor of a trend.

Bellwether was the word in my mind as I finally reviewed a study that, in the words of one reporter, has “gone viral.” The study masquerades as a voice for “the people”’ in reality, it serves the interests of the politically elite. It says exactly what those in power wish to be heard. The study and the awed response of the media indicate what to expect as America’s political narrative in coming years. The rich are to blame for everything; the rich are the oppressors of the people. This is predictable but there is a dramatic and dangerous twist.

A Statement of the Glaring

In April, Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) released an early draft of a study entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The professors announced the obvious and, then, got everything wrong. The study analyzed data on 1,779 national policy issues for which the preferences of four classes could be gauged: average people; economic elites (the rich); mass-based interest groups; and groups representing business interests.

The glaringly obvious: “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Government doesn’t care about or pay any attention to average people. Those with all the impact are the “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests.” (p.21)

The wrong: “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.” (p.24) To assume their power, the average person should vote.

In other words, the people being treated with utter contempt by government should do exactly what the government tells them. They should cast a ballot. Otherwise the rich win.

An Ominous Aspect of Being ‘Rich’ in America

The ominous twist to the study is how it defines who represents “the rich.” The authors state, “We believe that the preferences of ‘affluent’ Americans at the 90th income percentile can usefully be taken as proxies for the opinions of wealthy or very-high-income Americans, and can be used to test the central predictions of Economic Elite theories” (p.11). A “wealthy or very-high-income American” is then identified as anyone who receives about “$146,000 in annual household income” in 2012 dollars. The authors acknowledge in passing that such people are “neither very rich nor very elite.” Then they proceed to use the assumption at full speed to argue toward the conclusion they clearly wish to reach. The incredibly low threshold for who represents “the rich” is ominous for several reasons.

First, this is precisely the sort of study used to formulate and justify political programs. Indeed, even before its official publication, the draft was being cited to support President Obama’s manuevers. Obama minces no words about his antagonism toward “the rich.” The Atlantic (April 10, 2013) offered a condensed sense of his 2014 budget: “Tax the rich; Spare the poor; Remember the young.” The study will be widely quoted and badly used.

Second, Obama has a long history of lowering the bar on what constitutes being “rich” so that he can tax an ever wider range of people and do so more heavily. In 2008, for example, he pledged there would no tax increase for people making less than $250,000 a year, with that figure being the threshold of wealth. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Biden publicly lowered the figure to $150,000, which is approximately the same level used by Gilens and Page. For the time being, Obama seems to have settled at $200,000. Nevertheless, in his 2014 budget, Obama violated his prior and oft-repeated pledge not to raise taxes on those earning less than $200,000 a year. So who knows where the threshold really is.

Third, the study’s blurring of the affluent and the wealthy is based on blatant ideology. Gilens and Page straight-forwardly use “Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of the capitalist state” (p.8) as part of their theoretical social models. Only two links are offered in the study: one to census data; and, the other to a copy of the Communist Manifesto. (p.36) It is unnerving to see raw politics being displayed as meticulous research. But, perhaps, that is how common the practice has become.

Fourth, the media does not question the ideological bias nor does it seem to notice glaring contradictions. During a fawning interview, one of the authors readily admitted, “we really don’t have good info about what the top 1 percent or 10 percent want or what issues they’re engaged with. As you can imagine, this is not really a group that’s eager to talk with researchers.” The interviewer failed to ask the most obvious of questions; namely, how could the study reach sweeping conclusions based on “no info?” The media will apply equal precision when politicians go further in downwardly redefining “the rich.”

Speaking of the Media…

An article in the influential DC paper The Hill called the study “shattering” and “a loud wake-up call.” The typical media response has been awed and unquestioning. A few scattered reviews remarked that the study is of no import because it merely states what the average person already knows. Both reactions are inaccurate. The study is important, not for its conclusions but for the new framework it sets for who represents the wealthy and their interests. The knee-jerk praise is also inaccurate. The paper is pretentious and predictable drivel.

For one thing, it is a classic example of misusing meta-analysis. This is the currently popular research technique of analyzing the results of existing studies in order to extract patterns from them. The technique allows dishonest or lazy researchers to cherry-pick from masses of data in order to find just the right ‘evidence’ to support a preferred conclusion. For example, to support conflating the affluent with the rich, Gilens and Page cite “the 2011 Cooperative Congressional Election Study” which asked “13 policy preference questions.” Apparently, on this one survey, “the preferences of the top 2% of income earners (a group that might be thought ‘truly wealthy’) are much more highly correlated with the preferences of the top 10% of earners than with the preferences of the average survey respondent (r=.91 vs. .69). Thus, the views of our moderately high-income ‘affluent’ respondents appear to capture useful information about the views of the truly wealthy.” (p.11)

“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” is pseudo-science at its worst. At one point, the authors
even admit the imprecision of their own approach. And, yet, incredibly, they use that imprecision to bolster their conclusion rather than call them into doubt. Gilens and Page write, “the imprecision that results from use of our ‘affluent’ proxy is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making. If we find substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, therefore, it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater.” (p.11) In short, their conclusions rest on a lack of precision from which inferences are drawn in a manner they themselves decide is “reasonable.”

The study is pure rubbish but it is a clear bellwether. It is slated to be taught in universities this fall; it will continue to be lauded in the media and used to pseudo-analyze social problems; politicians will cite it as they grab for taxes; Gilens and Page will be invited to the White House.

And anyone who makes more than the American median income of $51,371 (as of 2012, the latest figure available) is at risk of eventually being considered “rich.” The statement seems hyperbolic. But this is a world in which nations tax the wealthy at over 100% of their income (France). And America contains at least one state with a top marginal tax rate of 367,100% (Hawaii). Hyperbole seems inadequate.