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Study: Most Americans want wealth distribution similar to Sweden

92 percent prefer Swedish model to US model when given a choice Americans generally underestimate the degree of income inequality in the United States, and if given a choice, would distribute wealth in a similar way to the social democracies of Scandinavia, a new study finds. For decades, polls have shown that a plurality of Americans around 40 percent — consider themselves conservative, while only around 20 percent self-identify as liberals. But a new study from two noted economists casts doubt on what values lie beneath those political labels.

According to research (PDF) carried out by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University, and flagged by Paul Kedrosky at the Infectious Greed blog, 92 percent of Americans would choose to live in a society with far less income disparity than the US, choosing Sweden’s model over that of the US.

What’s more, the study’s authors say that this applies to people of all income levels and all political leanings: The poor and the rich, Democrats and Republicans are all equally likely to choose the Swedish model.

But the study also found that respondents preferred Sweden’s model over a model of perfect income equality for everyone, “suggesting that Americans prefer some inequality to perfect equality, but not to the degree currently present in the United States,” the authors state.

Recent analyses have shown that income inequality in the US has grown steadily for the past three decades and reached its highest level on record, exceeding even the large disparities seen in the 1920s, before the Great Depression. Norton and Ariely estimate that the one percent wealthiest Americans hold nearly 50 percent of the country’s wealth, while the richest 20 percent hold 84 percent of the wealth.

But in their study, the authors found Americans generally underestimate the income disparity. When asked to estimate, respondents on average estimated that the top 20 percent have 59 percent of the wealth (as opposed to the real number, 84 percent). And when asked to choose how much the top 20 percent should have, on average respondents said 32 percent — a number similar to the wealth distribution seen in Sweden.

“What is most striking” about the results, argue the authors, is that they show “more consensus than disagreement among … different demographic groups. All groups – even the wealthiest respondents – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than what they estimated the current United States level to be, while all groups also desired some inequality – even the poorest respondents.”

The authors suggest the reason that American voters have not made more of an issue of the growing income gap is that they may simply not be aware of it. “Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States, beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth,” they write.

The authors also note that, though there may be widespread agreement about income inequality, there is no agreement on what caused it or what should be done about it.

“Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes towards economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences, suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap,” the authors argue.

Norton and Ariely’s survey was carried out on 5,522 respondents in 47 states in December of 2005. The results are to be published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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  1. Patrick says


  2. Patrick says

    I wish this article gave some information on how countries like Sweden and South Korea have managed to attain these levels of income equality. Also, why don’t we (I’m an American) care more about this?! It seems to me this is THE most important measurement of a country. I mean that being poor, and the proportion of poor, a large community (which is all a country is) has is the only way you can really judge them. Right now America is a country of 100 people in the desert, with 100 apples to eat, and 1 clever b***f***** has managed to get 50 of the apples, another 19 people have 34 apples, and the remaining 80 people are left to fight over just 16 apples! The really psychotic thing, is that half of these people still vote for a party that wants to not only keep the rich rich, but make them even richer, give them even more apples!

    • darkpolitricks says

      Thanks for your comments and that is a pretty good analogy of the situation the USA seems to find itself in.

      The thing that I as a Brit find funny is how in the USA anyone advocating a Swedish style system would be labelled a “socialist” or “communist” and then shot down as being anti-American as if a social model in which the rich don’t automatically get to buy or own the majority of the country is against their own interests somehow.

      There is a reason 99% of the worlds wealth is owned by 1% of the population and that is because the 1% have convinced the other 99% that our current economic system is the epitimy of economic evolution rather than the corrupt semi-capitalist corporatocracy it actually is and whereas capitalism equals heaven anything else (particularly socialism) equals the work of Satan.

      Not only do the Swedes and other northern European countries that have a more socialist economy have a fairer distribution of wealth I also believe that in other surveys they have a far happier population >>

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