The wealthy may be just as politically polarized as the rest of the country. But when it comes to the deficit, they are largely united.
A new study from scholars at Northwestern and Vanderbilt universities asked members of the top one percent of earners to list the "very important problems" facing the nation. Fully 87 percent listed the deficit, making it the most common response.
When not prompted with a list, one-third said deficits or excessive government spending were the most pressing national problems. Many also spoke of "government overspending" during the survey.
The authors of the study – Benjamin I. Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern University,and Larry M. Bartels of Vanderbilt University – said the wealthy's deficit fixation stands in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where only seven percent of the population cite deficits as the top problem. For the broader population, jobs and the economy tend to rank much higher.
The wealthy are also far more likely to cite government spending cuts as the solution to the government's debt issues.
The question is why the rich care about deficits more, and whether this matters for policy.
Benjamin Page, the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making in the department of political science at Northwestern, said that the wealthy care more about deficits out of "economic self interest."
He said they oppose raising taxes on high incomes (themselves) and favor cutting entitlement programs.
"These programs are of little personal benefit to wealthy people," Page said. "However, since they pay a lot of taxes, they are well aware of their costs."
Page said that since the wealthy exert more influence on government, their fixation on deficits is shaping public policy toward cost cutting rather than government spending.
"We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of U.S. citizens want the government to do," the authors state in the report. "If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory."
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The paper, however, also offers another explanation: the wealthy simply understand the economics of government better than the rest of the population. After all, the wealthy tend to have more education and better information about government, the economy, and public debt.
"It's possible that the wealthy are right," said Page.
While Page said that the information that the wealthy may be inherently "biased" toward their own lives and elite surroundings, they may be right to focus on the deficit.
As the study states: "the distinctive policy preferences of wealthy Americans may reflect better information, deeper thinking about the problems facing the country, and a clearer-headed understanding of economic and social reality than most citizens have – including the possibility that government may often be incapable of achieving what we would like it to achieve."