Why is the austerity movement so powerful in the US? Many people are hurting, and corporate, CEO, and finance sector gains since 2008 have been enormous. Why not expect a little more from the wealthy? Why are states from Arizona to New York going after poor Medicaid patients and schools instead? We know the economic case for austerity in a deep recession is bunk. Why its enduring appeal?
Perhaps voters have lost faith in the ability of the state to do anything competently, including redistribution. The always-insightful Elisabeth Young-Bruehl suggests as much, noting:
[Americans] have been led to believe that their well-being and their democracy depend upon the success of capitalism, with its limitless growth ideology; but this very capitalism is taking over their state. They have been promised that if America has a strong, competitive, innovative economy, the benefit of that will trickle down to all, just as Ronald Reagan promised it would. Even Barack Obama speaks this language. But it is becoming obvious that there is not going to be any trickle down. . . . [The system] is a closed loop, which is not designed to trickle anything much down to support those who are not in the loop[.]
As plutonomy advances, buying power is being segregated by the very wealthy into closed circuits of spending and investment. Young-Bruehl makes a similar case about political power in a post-Citizens United world. As Martin Gilens has shown, in the US, “actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle income Americans.”
Yet that still leaves a puzzle. The wealthy in the US may have extraordinary influence over the political process, but they could use it in many different ways. Warren Buffett complained about being taxed less than his secretary, and Bill Gates’s father has fought for the estate tax. Progressive thinkers like Bruce Judson, Robert Reich, and David Callahan have all hoped for the rise of a conscientious superclass. At some point the marginal value of money diminishes; why not spread it around a bit?
Anxious at the Top
I think Reich, Callahan, and Judson have failed to take into account the enduring anxietes of of America’s rich. Consider two studies, and an anecdote, reflecting worry at the top of the income scale: