USA's Economic Disparity: What are the "Unspun" Facts?
April 5, 2010 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Help me cut through the talking points and become more informed about economic disparity, taxes, and social programs in the USA.

There is so much buzz in the media nowadays which says that any programs to help the poor are "handouts," "socialism," "spreading the wealth," etc. The "I work hard every day, why should my hard-earned money pay for x to have y opportunity" approach.

My impression is that the current system is increasingly and unfairly skewed against the poor and somewhat-middle-class. In other words, we're already "spreading the wealth" but we're siphoning it from the bottom up in unfair proportions. My impression is that many issues decried as "socialism" (or whatever) are really just attempts to correct an unjustly balanced system.

However, I'm aware that my impression is largely fueled by talking points as well: "Tax cuts for the wealthy," "Trickle down economics," "expanding income gap," "untaxed capital gains," "the top 1% own x% of the wealth," "x corporation paid only y in taxes this year," "x tax affects the poor disproportionately" etc.

I seek legitimate statistics, evidence, and unbiased sources of information so that I can become genuinely well-informed on this complex issue. (Admittedly, hope to find air-tight evidence to support my view, but if the evidence leads me elsewhere, I will change my view accordingly).

I would like to avoid a knee-jerk political debate and focus on hard facts. If you believe a statistic is misrepresented or a conclusion is drawn fallaciously, please correct it as empirically as you can.
posted by Alabaster to Law & Government (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not certain why you think (even valid, vetted, etc.) statistics will help resolve this argument. The debate seems to me to be about how wealth distribution should look, not how it does look - and so saying "X has 20% of Y, according to non-partisan sources A,B,C" really only works as a preface to saying "X should be closer to 70% of Y, because morally/practically/etc. it will result in . . ."

Could you perhaps clarify how you hope to connect facts to this sort of argument? I can see how one could make the connections in terms of competing economic ideas, but I'm not sure how it helps a moral distribution argument.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:53 AM on April 5, 2010

The Economic Policy Institute and its State of Working America report are good (though hardly unbiased) sources of information on the economy from a worker-centric view — that is, there is more on wages, living standards, job security, etc. than on profits or stocks and bonds.
posted by enn at 7:54 AM on April 5, 2010

You're asking for empirical data about a moral question, i.e. trying to derive the "ought" of economic policy from an "is" of economic data.

There's a good but hardly empirical argument to be made that this is impossible in general, but unless you're willing to lay out in some detail the way you think things should be, it's impossible in particular too.

My vote is that this is chatfilter. We can give you all sorts of links to economic indicators, but what you're asking for isn't doable.
posted by valkyryn at 8:07 AM on April 5, 2010

Can you define "social programs" a little more precisely? Are you talking about public welfare and other entitlement programs or are you talking about programs that target a certain population or social problem? As you've defined it you're including the entire welfare system, health, public health, mental health, homeless services, addiction services, etc., etc., etc. under one umbrella and it renders your question extremely hard to make a start in answering.
posted by The Straightener at 8:08 AM on April 5, 2010

There are no unbiased views on questions of what's "fair." There may be unbiased statistics, but statistics alone never tell you what should be done in the future. If a liberal and a conservative are looking at the same data about, say, the huge gap between the rich and the poor, they're going to reach different conclusions about what to do about it. So I wouldn't just try to find sources that are pure and objective; I'd look more for people with strong opinions who support them with clear evidence and reasoning.

I think you'd like The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide by Cornell economics prof and New York Times columnist Robert H. Frank (not to be confused with the Wall Street Journal columnist named Robert Frank). It's mostly a collection of his op-eds on a wide range of economic issues. He has an obvious liberal bias, but he always supports his points with evidence.

Since you yourself seem to have a liberal bias and you're trying to get a more objective view, you might be interested in the conservative Thomas Sowell (surely not an author who's frequently recommended on Metafilter!). Try Applied Economics or Economic Facts and Fallacies. As with Robert H. Frank, he doesn't try to hide his ideology, but he rigorously supports his opinions with statistical evidence. He's pretty far right, but worth reading and considering.

If you're interested in the topic of welfare in America, you need to read up on what things were actually like before 1996. If you're just reading liberals complaining about inequality today and hoping that more welfare would make things better, you'll be missing out on the actual evidence we have from when welfare was given out more generously. I recommend John McWhorter's book Winning the Race, which argues that misguidedly benevolent liberal policies are largely responsible for the present-day African-American underclass. (Though McWhorter works for a conservative think tank, he's sufficiently left-of-center that he strongly supported Obama in the primaries and general election.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:29 AM on April 5, 2010

Response by poster: Inspector.Gadget -- good question.

I know there's no objective "answer," and that any such answer is impossible without a universal definition of "fair" and "unfair." I'm not looking for an answer, I'm just looking for accurate information. As you say, I want to know how it does look, but the shoulds are dominating the debate.

I don't have a plan to connect the facts, or to do anything with them at all--I just want to know them. If the evidence is inconclusive, so be it. I suspect that I am misinformed and uninformed. I would like to be informed.
posted by Alabaster at 8:52 AM on April 5, 2010

I think this is a worthwhile question and I am similarly uninformed so I would appreciate good answers. I wonder if you might get more useful responses by posing more specific questions (I.e. What are reliable reports/sources of data on income disparity in the US over the last decade? Or, what are reliable reports/sources of data on US welfare system effect on the wellbeing of individuals, families, or commuities? (That's probably too geberal too, but I'd love to hear about it.). Or even, what specific questions should I ask in order to get better informed about income disparity and welfare programs in the U.S.)
posted by semacd at 10:22 AM on April 5, 2010

Geberal = general. ;)
posted by semacd at 10:28 AM on April 5, 2010

Have you taken a look at the tax stats page at IRS.Gov?

The stats tell you, from a federal perspective who pays most of the tax, what percentage of income they pay in tax. However, these figures here are income tax figures, so you won't the effect of payroll and state/local when examining % of income.
posted by cheez-it at 10:43 AM on April 5, 2010

The Measure of America is very interesting and statistics-laden. The website also sells the book, which I own.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:42 PM on April 5, 2010

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