Tuesday, September 21, 2004
Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, cites an article in The New Yorker (heh) as evidence that the "average voter is an idiot." Maybe. But both Louis Menand's underlying New Yorker article, to which Campos does not link (but which is, apparently, here), and Campos' reduction of it, are arresting examples of American academic liberal snobbery.
Menand's article is worth reading insofar as it is a good brief history of the study of voters and voting. And it is surely true that a significant percentage of voters -- more than enough to sway a presidential election -- cast their votes without anything like the analysis that Campos and Menand would require (have either of them ever voted for a Republican for president? - eds.). But Menand's examples of so-called voter irrationality betray his own inability to see all sides of an issue:
Rephrasing poll questions reveals that many people don’t understand the issues that they have just offered an opinion on. According to polls conducted in 1987 and 1989, for example, between twenty and twenty-five per cent of the public thinks that too little is being spent on welfare, and between sixty-three and sixty-five per cent feels that too little is being spent on assistance to the poor.
What's so stupid about that? Back in the day, before you had to work for your welfare, there was a huge goddamned difference between spending money on welfare and assistance to the poor. Had I been questioned in connection with one of those polls (in fact, I may have been), I definitely would have said that we were spending too little on assistance to the poor, and too much on welfare. The fact that Menand thinks that this inconsistency demonstrates the electorate's -- shall we say -- simplicity, as opposed to its wisdom, says a lot more about Menand than it does about the average voter.
There are other such examples, such as Menand's description of alleged voter irrationality over the estate tax:
When people are asked whether they favor Bush’s policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes—even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion—Bartels [the author of a study cited by Menand - eds.] refers to it as “unenlightened self-interest”—that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it’s supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes.
Of course, it does not occur to Menand (and perhaps not to Bartels, although I have not read his article) that people might oppose the estate tax as a means for addressing that inequity because they believe it is profoundly unfair. Lots of people think that it is outrageous that death should trigger another tax on assets that have already been taxed via income taxes and property taxes. Lots of people think that it is appalling that the estate tax randomly hits people who haven't taken advantage of sophisticated estate-planning strategies, when the really big financial wealth escapes taxation. Lots of people think that it is destructive to communities when farms, small businesses, and family newspapers have to be sold -- usually to consolidators -- to pay punitive federal and state estate taxes. And, of course, in any case it isn't the "rich" paying the estate tax, it is (for all intents and purposes) the heirs to the residuals of the estates of the rich, many of whom are not rich at all. Again, Menand's estate-tax paradox might well be understood to prove the deeper sophistication of the average guy, rather than the Camposian view that the average guy is a dope.
Whether or not Campos and Menand are correct that the average voter is an idiot (and one might well seize upon the recent popularity of Jim McGreevey as proof of same in New Jersey, at least), these examples and others they give hardly make the case.
This reminds me of a dinner my wife and I had with some friends who were staying with us in our summer rental last year. They have been very active in the Democratic Party (in fact, the wife comes from a powerful politcal family -- you would know the name).
In discussing the political scene, they both made a similar argument -- that there should be some sort of test required before one was allowed to vote. "Those people in the red states just aren't smart enough to vote," or something to that effect.
Hmm, or maybe a poll tax, I thought. Same result -- cut out those you don't want to enfranchise.
Had to end the discussion because they were staying for another few days.
Considering that 1 in 125 people have a net worth of over $1 million (according to a study on high net worth individuals), the fact that 2% of the total population (a statistically significant number because it affects the high net worth individuals the most) are affected by estate taxes lends weight to the assertion that estate taxes are punitive.
a. The estate is burdened by taxes on property that has been paying taxes all along
b. The heirs many times must sell the property to pay estate taxes -- and there's closing and/or transaction costs involved.
c. Of the high net worth individuals, many are small businessmen/women whose businesses end up disappearing after years of work by the entire family, because of the costs added by inheritance taxes.
So, who's the idiot? Campos, or the electorate?