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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Short Comments on "Why the Poor Don't Soak the Rich in the U.S."

Pam has a thought-provoking piece today on one of the central problems of political science: what drives unrest like that which is currently shaking Egypt's political system to its core? Why do people rise up against their governments?

Some quick responses off the top of my head:
  • Empirically it is a low mean level of income rather than an unequal distribution that is predictive of unrest, violence and internal conflict. Cf. Fearon and Laitin (2004), which was instrumental in spurring me to attend grad school. The irrelevance of the distribution is not a US-specific phenomenon but a global pattern.
  • That paper is about serious civil wars(minimum 1000 casualties); I bet the results differ for milder unrest and there the distribution of income might matter more.
  • The US does not do a great job promoting savings. Over the past few decades we have had net negative per person savings.
  • It makes more sense to look at consumption or lifetime income when evaluating social class identification. I currently make less than $20,000/year but I can expect to make five times that or more once I graduate.

My take is that this is really a question of why national income averages prevent unrest. I think Pam nails it when she highlights perceptions of opportunities to move up. Keep expectations high, like China, and people won't rock the boat.

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