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Lecture explores inequalities in American democracy

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Syl Kacapyr

One of the deepest issues posed by this election is the nature and value of the American election process itself. Does it still embody democratic values?

Speaking Sept. 24 as part of the Program on Ethics and Public Life's (EPL) ongoing series on the election, political scientist Larry Bartels based his remarks on his book, "Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age." President Obama recently cited the book at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania and called income inequality "the defining issue of our time."

In the past three decades, said Bartels, the income shares of the top 5 percent and the top 1 percent, the share of total income going to the rich, has reached levels unseen since before the Great Depression of the 1930s. While some claim this inequality is caused by such economic factors as technological change, globalization and demographic shifts, Bartels maintained that politics and public policy have even more significant effects. He pointed out that other developed countries during the same time period had similar but much more modest increases in inequality due to aggressive redistribution policies.

Bartels has found substantial differences in income growth patterns under Democratic and Republican presidents in the last 60 years, which he attributes to their varying macroeconomic policies, such as tax policy, social spending and labor regulation. On average, middle-class incomes have grown about three times as fast under Democratic presidents, and working poor incomes 10 times as fast.

"People at the top do pretty well regardless of who's in charge; there's not much partisan difference in their experience," he noted.

Unemployment, on average, has been 25 percent higher with Republican presidents and the GNP growth 50 percent lower, said Bartels, with the rate of inflation about the same under both parties. "Unemployment and economic growth matter most to the income of the poor and middle class," he said. "Inflation, in contrast, matters a lot to people at the top."

Bartels then addressed why people vote Republican when his research shows that so many do worse under Republican presidents. He debunked assumptions such as that people vote on cultural wedge issues rather than economics, pointing out that low-income white voters are more reliably Democratic than they used to be and attach less weight to cultural issues than more affluent voters who care more about social issues.

And while Americans do care about equality, Bartels said that "people often fail to connect that value to specific policy preferences."

The primary reason for this voting discrepancy, according to Bartels, is the "myopia" of voters, who reward or punish incumbents for income growth -- but only the growth in the election year. This myopia affects election outcomes, said Bartels, because middle-class and working poor income growth improves under Democrats -- except in election years.

This apparent anomaly, said Bartels, is because the president's first year is something of a honeymoon, the time he's most able to achieve his policy goals.

"Under Democrats, the second year brings a big economic boom; under the Republicans, it's usually a recession," Bartels explained. "But the boom under Democrats doesn't continue, so by the election the economy is more anemic; under Republicans, the economy grows out of the recession, so by the election the economy is OK."

The EPL series continues Oct. 15 with David Schmidtz, professor of philosophy and economics and director of The Freedom Center at the University of Arizona, speaking on "Ideal for Real: Realistic Hopes for American Politics."

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

 


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