What Americans Want

Fantastic piece in the Atlantic by Prof. Dan Ariely in Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Dr. Ariely illustrates the disconnect between what American’s want in terms of (income) equality, what they believe is the case (in terms of distribution of wealth) and what is actually the case (again in terms of distribution of wealth). Perhaps not shockingly (okay it was shocking to me):

Americans are actually in agreement about wanting a more equal distribution of wealth. In fact, the vast majority of Americans prefer a distribution of wealth more equal than what exists in Sweden, which is often placed rhetorically at the extreme far left in terms of political ideology–embraced by liberals as an ideal society and disparaged by conservatives as an overreaching socialist nanny state.

Why are the numbers so staggeringly different? Where is the disconnect? Why is there this gap between stated preferences and political choices? The suggestion by Dr. Ariely is that Americans are collectively being decieved by why Rawls called “the veil of ignorance”:

Rawls’ veil of ignorance deals with such superficial and irrelevant influences on what we think by prompting people to consider all possible socio-economic situations rather than just their own and the interests and ideologies that come along with that.

The difficulty I have with Ariely’s conclusions (indeed its a problem he also recognizes) are that they necessitate a willingness to lift the veil. What has been painfully apparent in recent decades is a wanton obfuscation in public discourse about social policy and public finances. Indeed it is a wonderous thing that in what we jingoistically call the “Information Age” we are beholden to economic models which facilitate and lionize private bureaucracies who exercise a chokehold on vital economic information. If you doubt me, just look at what Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone digs up about the financial sector in the US. Obfuscation. Criminality. Fraud. All of it hinges on, or contributes to, the very veil of ignorance Ariely talks about.

Anyhow, I strongly recommend looking at the article.

Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don’t Realize It) – Dan Ariely – The Atlantic

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