Voting Behavior and Relative Deprivation
Tyler Cowen asks, “Why do affluent, middle-class, and poor voters all seem so exquisitely sensitive to election-year income growth for the wealthiest families?”
Oddly, the voting of lower-income voters is relatively insensitive to their own election-year incomes. One option is that media reporting is biased toward coverage of the rich and famous. Another option is that we, as voters, are biased toward considering our pleasure or displeasure with the strength of the high-ranking members of our tribe.
Well, yes. This is what social scientists call relative deprivation. A classic postwar study of military personnel by Samuel Stouffer and colleagues found a curious result. Promotions in the Army Air Corps were much faster than in the military police, yet the members of the latter group were much likelier to be happy about their rank and feel the promotion system was fair. Why? Because more airmen had associates who were moving ahead of them and were disgruntled because they felt just as, if not more deserving, than the fast risers. The MPs were relatively satisfied because they were all in the same boat.
By any meaningful measure, Americans are better off economically than our generational forebearers. We live longer, have bigger houses, more clothes, more social mobility, more toys, more access to information, and so forth. Our objective deprivation has, at the aggregate level, decreased substantially.
At the same time, though, there is a wider gap between those at the top and those in the middle. People naturally resent that 20-year-old basketball players, 30-year-old computer nerds, or even 50-year-old CEOs are making geometrically more money than they are. Despite moving ahead on a fixed scale, they feel like they’re falling further behind comparatively.
There’s an old Russian joke about a peasant with one cow who resents that his neighbor has two. One day, a genie appears to grant him a wish. “Kill one of my neighbor’s cows!” is the instant reply.
That story used to be used to illustrate the difference between their society and ours. Westerners are supposed to be motivated to get a second cow — or even a third! — of their own. By and large, we are. But human nature is still there beneath the surface, so we resent others’ success even while trying to emulate it.