The Life Course Dynamics of Affluence

A new paper by sociologists Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank (H&R) on PLOS One casts doubt on the arguments that electoral arrangements in the US place disproportionate power in the hands of a tiny elite of rich citizens, at the expense of the interests of ‘the masses’:

Social awareness of the growing distance between top-level earners versus the rest of the income distribution helped to spark the Occupy movement and focus media attention on economic inequality. Much of the associated rhetoric presumes that the same individuals persist in top-level percentiles, in particular the 1 percent. This presumption is erroneous to the extent that year-to-year mobility functions to turnover incumbents. To the extent there is turnover, then this functions to buffer inequality, e.g. take the hypothetical case of 100 percent annual turnover within the composition of the top 10 percent, creating the condition of no inequality at this percentile level when measured across a decade. This study explores this empirical possibility, and other possibilities, by analyzing mobility associated with top-level income in the United States. (p.7)


H&R’s findings indicate that some 11% of all US citizens will find themselves in the top 1% during some time of their life and that only 0.6% can hope to retain membership of this percentile for ten consecutive years (p. 6). The oft-cited research of Gilens and Page (G&P) focuses on the top 10%, and H&R’s findings indicate that over half of the U.S. population experienced one or more years of top 10th income percentile (p.8) and that, conversely, ‘54% of the population will experience at least one year in poverty or near poverty’ (p.3). Given the levels of income mobility involved, G&P’s findings that the political preferences of the top 10% and the median voter coincide on all but a few issues is unsurprising. As Rank put it in an article last year in the New York Times:

Rather than talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent as if they were forever fixed, it would make much more sense to talk about the fact that Americans are likely to be exposed to both prosperity and poverty during their lives, and to shape our policies accordingly. As such, we have much more in common with one another than we dare to realize.

Even if we grant G&P’s argument that the preferences of the rich are more strongly reflected by the electoral system, the level of mobility demonstrated by this article would indicate that the classical principle of rotation – to rule and be ruled in turn – is not entirely inapplicable to large modern states. The US is at the high end (.47) of the ‘intergenerational elasticity statistic’, indicating that ‘nearly half of the father’s economic position is handed down to his son’. Social democratic states like Finland, Norway, and especially Denmark (.15) show much lower levels of intergenerational income elasticity (i.e. weak correlation between the income of father and son) so, by inference, H&R’s findings would be even more applicable to European style political systems than the US.

If we want to build a solid argument for election by lot, we would be well advised to look elsewhere than to blindly follow the siren calls to enfranchise the 99% at the expense of the rich ‘n powerful. Given the claims on this blog that the commercial media act as a megaphone for the interests of the 1%, I’m surprised that this published research paper has, by sharp contrast to the feeding frenzy occasioned by G&P’s online draft, received hardly any media attention.

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15 Responses

  1. The wealth inequality data belie your little apologia. Wealth inequality is even more extreme than income inequality (and has been growing even faster):

    Saez and Zucman show that, in America, the wealthiest 160,000 families own as much wealth as the poorest 145 million families, and that wealth is about 10 times as unequal as income.

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  2. Yoram,

    Don’t shoot the messenger (it’s not my apologia), and G&P’s argument is couched in terms of income, not wealth.

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  3. Keith,Yoram is right. It is wealth, not income that is at issue, and it is not the one per cent but a tiny fraction of one per cent in which the wealth is concentrated. It is true that ,given the extraordinary differences in rates of pay between management and top professionals, on the one hand and median pay on the other, most of the successful in either of the former categories can expect to be in the top one percent of wages at the height of their career and to leave that peak on retirement . So what!

    The really rich don’t have much in the way of personal incomes, but profits from asset sales,the enjoyment of perks etc, and it is well established that big money is quite stable. The Koch bros could afford to give almost a billion to the Republicans without a second thought. I’m sure it was a sound investment.

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  4. John,

    Then Gilens and Page need to rewrite their article in terms of wealth, rather than income, differentials.

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  5. Keith,
    Did the author or you develop the presentation that “and that only 0.6% can hope to retain membership of this percentile for ten consecutive years?”
    Since this is about who makes up the 1% (by income), it would be normal to say what percent of that group stays in that group over ten years. It seems like an intentionally misleading way to phrase an observation by giving it as a percentage of the whole population. The best explanatory phrasing would be that 60% of the top 1% can expect to stay in that group for at least ten years. Using the “0.6%” figure instead of the normal 60% figure seems like it is intended to minimize the longevity of members.

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  6. Yearly income is commonly used to measure wealth simply because it is more easily observable. As it turns out, contrary to the implications above, income disparity tends to underestimate wealth disparity rather than overestimate it.

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  7. Terry,

    0.6% was straight from the report — I provided the link and it’s very short, so suggest you take a look for yourself. Given that the focus of G&P’s paper was on the top 10% (of income), the significant statistic is that around 50% of all Americans are likely to be in this percentile at some time in their life and that a similar percentage is likely to experience poverty, hence Rank’s claim that “we have much more in common with one another than we dare to realize”.

    PS I wouldn’t have drawn this paper to the attention of this blog (it has nothing to do with sortition) were it not for Yoram’s repeated claim that the purpose of sortition is to put an end to the rule of the rich and powerful. I also would like to stress the fact that the media, rather than being a megaphone for the rich, have ignored this paper, in sharp contrast to their lionisation of G&P. This would suggest that there is a divide between the cultural elite and the rich.

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  8. Some slightly aggressive responses here – I thought it was an interesting debate opener, Keith. I suspect looking at what proportion are likely to be in the top decile at some point in their lives is a bit misleading as someone who makes it into the top 1% for one year will not be that similar to someone who spends their entire life there. Besides, surely the relevant argument for sortition is that it moves power away from a group that by-and-large is representative of the economic elite (at any given time) to a group that is more representative of the full society? I don’t think the fact that the elite has a partially-rotating membership undermines that.

    It is interesting that this response has not been picked up by the media, but I suspect this is due to their normal habit of ignoring evidence that contradicts an existing narrative.

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  9. Alex,

    Yes, and the relevant existing theory is the elite theory of democracy, part of the catechism of this blog. It would appear that the media elite also subscribe to it, and will ignore evidence that calls it into question.

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  10. “The best explanatory phrasing would be that 60% of the top 1% can expect to stay in that group for at least ten years.”

    “Can expect, can hope” are both still misleading. When rich people have low or zero income, it’s usually because they choose to. It’s not necessarily a very unreasonable choice when you have sufficient wealth already.

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  11. As a newcomer to this forum I would just say that I agree with Mr. Sutherland’s conclusion; it’s probably better if the argument for sortition is not made exclusively on economic grounds. Personally, I’ve been making an argument for sortition on the basis of biology and culture.
    I don’t know if my argument is valid or not; I’m self educated and I pretty much live under a rock so my view of things could be fairly twisted. But it seems to me that sortititon is just the only rational alternative to politics.

    By my definition “Politics” is a set of behaviors which are transmitted either biologically or culturally, but either way they’re pretty much of a given. These behaviors were useful in the pre-industrial era but they are exceedingly dangerous in the modern age. Having outlived their usefulness they should now be deliberately suppressed. Sortition would be the only apparent mechanism for achieving this.

    If any reader has the patience and curiosity to wade through a lengthy essay I’d love to have some feedback on this pet theory of mine. Am I just wacky or is this an argument that Kleroterians might reasonably adopt in an effort to discredit existing institutions? I posted this writing at various times on Daily Kos and was largely ignored but this seems like an audience that might be more receptive.

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1-nszW-yX71m2QDlqtCaPmZ-SmPTjMR5vBV2jbdRVmk8/edit?usp=docslist_api

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  12. Paul,

    That sounds interesting, I’ll read it at the weekend and respond on this thread as it seems to have more or less fizzled out.

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  13. Hi Paul,

    Welcome.

    To facilitate a discussion of your ideas I invite you to contribute a post introducing them to the readers of this blog.

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  14. Paul, I’ve read your interesting article and will hold off commenting if you’re going to post something new on this forum (if so you need to submit it via Yoram). It might pay to cut it down a bit, the trouble with blogs is that people will only spend a limited amount of time reading them, so a piece as long as your Kos paper will be unlikely to be read by many. You can always provide a link to the longer paper, for anyone who wants to take it further.

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  15. Thank you. I think Iwill take a few days to consolidate my ideas into a much smaller and tighter package. I know the existing piece is far too long.

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