Heritage Can't Spin Away Growing Concern About Wealth Distribution

January 13, 2012 6:17 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Over at the unofficial think tank of the one percent — better known as the Heritage Foundation — Lachlan Markay claims Americans don't much care about the ever-widening gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of the country. 

That's no surprise. Heritage, after all, is lavishly funded by millionaires and billionaires for the clear purpose of expanding the gap between the rich and everyone else. It does so by churning out spurious arguments in favor of polices that redistribute wealth upwards, like the impressively dishonest claim that a cut in capital gains taxes paid almost exclusively by the wealthy would primarily benefit the non-wealthy — not to mention the callous argument that the poor are doing just fine because they have access to refrigerators. It then denounces anyone who dares study the inevitable results of these policies. The Heritage Foundation claiming people don't care about the predictable results of a system rigged in favor of wealthy elites is a bit like Jesse James insisting nobody cares about bank robberies.

Markay's argument has two components, neither of them convincing. First, he writes:

A new poll shows that, despite attempts by liberal protesters and politicians to inject class resentment into the national debate, Americans, by and large, remain unconcerned by income inequality.

Gallup reports that only 2 percent of Americans list the "divide between rich and poor" as the most important economic issue facing the country. Those findings come from an open-ended survey, meaning respondents were not confined to a pre-selected group of responses. Unemployment and the national debt top the list, but all told, a full 17 economic issues rank higher in the American political consciousness than income inequality.

Though Markay pretends they're the same thing, there's a difference between few people thinking income inequality is the nation's biggest current economic problem and Americans "remain[ing] unconcerned by income inequality." This difference is magnified by the fact that several of the economic issues mentioned more frequently than the "divide between rich and poor" have a great deal to do with that divide.

Though few Gallup respondents offered the "divide between rich and poor" as their biggest current concern about the economy, they did largely name problems that almost exclusively burden the non-wealthy. Among the most common responses were "jobs/unemployment," "continuing economic decline/economic instability," and "outsourcing of jobs overseas." It's safe to assume few of these respondents were expressing concern about unemployed millionaires, or about companies sending hedge fund management jobs to India. 

The second component of Markay's argument is no more convincing. He points to a Pew poll finding that 66 percent of Americans see "very strong" or "strong" conflict between rich and poor — a 19 percentage point increase in just two years — and concludes that "many Americans perceive class conflicts (perhaps due to the significant media attention devoted to income inequality and the 'Occupy' protesters hollering about it), but the vast majority do not themselves buy into those conflicts."

The weakness of Markay's evidence is, itself, enough to dismiss his conclusion that Americans don't care about the gap between rich and poor and the policies that lead to it. But that Markay's conclusion is based on such a shaky foundation is only half the story. 

In December, Pew found:

Roughly three-quarters of the public (77%) say that they think there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States. [...] Reflecting a parallel sentiment, 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy and just 36% say the system is generally fair to most Americans. [...] The public also views Wall Street negatively, little changed from opinions in March. Currently, just 36% say Wall Street helps the American economy more than it hurts—51% say it hurts more than helps.

Pew also found that, asked what most bothers them about the tax system, a whopping 57 percent of Americans say it's that the rich don't pay their fair share of taxes, dwarfing the 28 percent who said the system is too complex and the 11 percent who identified the amount they personally pay as their greatest complaint. That's consistent with countless polls showing public approval of tax increases on the wealthy (examples can be found here).

In October, a CBS/New York Times poll asked, "Do you feel that the distribution of money and wealth in this country is fair, or do you feel that the money and wealth should be distributed among more people?" Sixty-six percent said wealth should be distributed more broadly; only 26 percent said the current distribution is fair.

There's plenty of other polling available that more directly addresses Americans' attitudes about distribution of wealth than the two polls Markay cherry-picked and over-interpreted to make his case. But even more compelling than a majority of Americans who say the country's economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy is the fact that they say this despite not knowing just how rigged it is. Here's a chart illustrating the disconnect, which Mother Jones ran last spring — before the Occupy Wall Street movement and the media attention Markay suggests have skewed public opinion:

Mother Jones

Americans think the distribution of wealth is more skewed in favor of the wealthy than it should be — and they think that despite underestimating how skewed it actually is. No wonder the one percent's favorite think tank is spinning so desperately.