A Wonk in Hollywood

Okay, moving to Hollywood seventeen years ago might have been a mistake. No, it’s not the tourists everywhere, or the weekly World Premiere of a Major Motion Picture up the street at the Chinese Theater – the red carpet and the lights and all the fans behind the barriers are amusing. Yes, most of those movies somehow go straight to cable, but some don’t – you never know. And that premiere with all the balloons a few years ago was neat. And Oscar weekend, save for the traffic headaches, as they do close some rather useful local streets, is a hoot. And the Friday morning a few years ago when, just over the hill to the west, they carted Paris Hilton off to jail, was interesting. Seven news copters just over your roof at dawn allows for close observation of just who is flying which model, and you get to see how they cooperate to keep out of each other’s way and still get their shots.

Hey, it’s a guy thing. Every young boy wants to grow up to be a pilot – and almost none do. But other than that, this is a silly place. As mentioned before, more times than justified, F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Jazz Age Paris, who wrote the Great American Novel, that Gatsby thing, spent the last years of his life in an apartment just down the street here on Laurel Avenue, typing away at The Last Tycoon, his Hollywood novel, the novel he never finished. How could he? This is not a serious place. And if you grew up in gritty Pittsburgh you remember the words of another guy who grew up there, Oscar Levant – “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath.” Yes, it’s like that.

And of course it’s hard to be a wonk here – unless you’re into the relative merits of various Panasonic lenses or the special nuances of the latest digital editing software. The two union halls just down the street are the International Cinematographers Guild and the Motion Picture Editors Guild – full of such wonks. But as much as folks talk about Hollywood being a hotbed of liberal politics – full of what those on the right like to call limousine liberals and flaming left-wing radicals – there are few political wonks, few who like to dig down into the substance of policy issues, and into what motivates voters to latch onto this or that issue, often against their own best interests. Actors have opinions, and passions, but aren’t big on details.

The one exception might be Robert Vaughn – he has a PhD from USC and published his dissertation as Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting – but then he’s a character actor, specializing in schlock over-the-top dastardly villains in second-rate movies. Well, he did carve out a somewhat respectable career for himself. But think about it. He’s a brilliant man, and a serious political wonk, but that doesn’t get you far in this town. The rest are amateurs, or they are spokesmen for this cause or that – dilettantes actually, but doing what good they can, in a vague sort of way. But they are not policy people. They are not wonks.

But some of us in Hollywood are. Down on the Sunset Strip no doubt something is up at the Roxy or Whisky a Go-Go (yes, it’s still there) or the Viper Room, but some of us are thinking about a recent article in Scientific American – Ilyana Kuziemko, an assistant professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton, and Michael I. Norton, an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, write about The “Last Place Aversion” Paradox – what they call the surprising psychology of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Now THAT is wonky!

But what is the surprise? It seems to be this:

If ever Americans were up for a bit of class warfare, now would seem to be the time. The current financial downturn has led to a $700 billion tax-payer-financed bank bailout and an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above nine percent. Onto this scene has stepped the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which seeks to bring together a disparate group of protesters united in their belief that the current income distribution is unfair. “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%,” says their website. In an era of bank bailouts and rising poverty – and where recent data show that the top 1 percent control as much as 35 percent of the total wealth in America – it would appear that the timing of this movement to reconsider the allocation of wealth could not be more perfect.

Or, maybe not.

Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available. Other surveys have shown similar results.

And they have the data to support that change in thinking, a big swing toward rejecting redistribution, and an explanation:

First, the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities – and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.

Our recent research suggests that, far from being surprised that many working-class individuals would oppose redistribution, we might actually expect their opposition to rise during times of turmoil – despite the fact that redistribution appears to be in their economic interest. Our work suggests that people exhibit a fundamental loathing for being near or in last place – what we call “last place aversion.” This fear can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them.

That research is here (PDF format) – but that’s for real wonks. The idea is that someone has to be worse off than you, or you lose your own sense of worth. Everything is relative. So someone has to be a lazy parasite that doesn’t deserve taxpayer help to raise them up, to your miserable-enough level. And here’s some detail:

In our surveys, we asked Americans whether they supported an increase to the minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. Those making $7.25 or below were very likely to support the increase – after all, they would be immediate beneficiaries. In addition, people making substantially more than $7.25 were also fairly positive towards the increase. Which group was the most opposed? Those making just above the minimum wage, between $7.26 and $8.25. We might expect people who make just below and just above $7.25 to have similar lifestyles and policy attitudes – but in this case, while those making below $7.25 would benefit if the minimum wage were raised to, say, $8.25, those making just above $7.25 would run the risk of falling into a tie for last place.

And you can’t have that. No one wants to be in last place.

And they also found evidence of last place aversion in laboratory experiments:

In one, we created an artificial income distribution by endowing individuals with different sums of money and showing them their “rank” – with each rank separated by $1. We then gave them an additional $2, which they had to give to either the person directly below or directly above them in the distribution. In this income distribution, of course, giving $2 to the person below you means he will jump ahead of you in rank. In our experiments, most people still give to the person below them – after all, the alternative is to give $2 to a person who already has more money than you. People in second-to-last place, however, who would fall to last place when giving the money to the person below them, are the least likely to do so: so strong is their desire to avoid last place that they choose to give the money to a wealthier person (the person above them) nearly half the time.

So this becomes obvious:

If Americans behave like people in our experiments, then it could be challenging to unite those in the bottom of the income distribution to support redistribution.

Yes, that makes no economic sense. But it makes psychological sense. Political science is like that, as all wonks know. But here is where the Occupy Wall Street movement may have inadvertently squared this particular circle:

Last-place aversion – and the accompanying lack of support for redistribution – is particularly pronounced when people near the bottom of the distribution have their attention focused on keeping the people below them down, rather than on redistributing wealth from those at the top. The messaging of OWS, in contrast, divides the world into just two groups: the top 1 percent, and the bottom 99 percent. Framing the issue this way focuses the attention of people at the bottom of the distribution on those at the top – rather than on each other – and implicitly suggests that anyone not in the top 1 percent (“them”) is one of “us.”

And that neatly reframes the discussion on redistribution and inequality – just look up!

Of course there were comments:

I think there’s a simpler explanation: right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and the preaching of the so-called “prosperity Gospel” in evangelical churches. All three spend a lot of time telling people that the wealthy worked hard for their wealth and deserve it and that if people aren’t wealthy, it’s because they’re lazy and just want to “live off the money of hardworking taxpayers.” Furthermore, these same sources never pronounce the word “government” without a sneer. The most absurd aspect of this propaganda barrage is the assertion that Barack Obama is a “Marxist.” This kind of preaching has been going on for over twenty years, and it is especially effective with low-information types, who couldn’t explain Marxism if given an open-book test, but have heard all their lives that Marxism is bad.

The “scientific” explanation does not explain why an aversion to more equitable distribution of wealth has increased in the past two years. Only propaganda, which has gone into overdrive since 2008, explains this increase.

Well, maybe – but at the Washington Post WonkBlog (no, really) Brad Plumer counters with his contention that “even if Kuziemko and Norton are right and the idea of income redistribution is becoming less appealing, it’s still the case the specific policies to curb inequality garner very broad support.”

Well, yes – consider the overwhelming public support for higher taxes on the rich – and he notes that “the millionaire tax, in fact, is especially popular among those making at least $100,000.” Those too are hard-data points.

And Matthew Yglesias – the wonk up at Harvard right now – adds this:

These seem to me like two sides of the same coin. People don’t really care very much about inequality, but do care a lot about their relative social position. The status-anxiety of relatively affluent people is mostly directed at high earners, but people of modest means have a different set of concerns.

And Yglesias elsewhere points out that we’re living through massive systemic failure:

The basic economic premise of modern American liberalism, as I understand it, is that with appropriate regulation and taxation a market economy can be made broadly beneficial to the overwhelming majority of citizens. This stands in contrast to the pure capitalist view that a rising tide will inevitably lift all boats, and to the radical claim that market economies are inherently immiserating.

The liberal view is, I think, correct. But it’s clear that for the 20 years between 1980 and 2000 what was possible in theory wasn’t necessarily happening in practice, and for the past decade it hasn’t been working at all. The story is familiar, but worth repeating. We’re seeing not just growing inequality, but actually falling wages and incomes at the median. People are outraged – and rightly so – that the economy and economic policymakers are failing them.

But Yglesias goes on to argue that the notion that Occupy Wall Street is a fundamentally a radical anti-capitalist movement is completely without foundation:

The participation of some radicals in the initial organization of the Zuccotti Park protest shouldn’t distract from the fact that the movement has grown by attracting a diverse set of adherents united primarily by an appropriate sense of grievance.

And judging from the We Are The 99 Percent Tumblr, these people aren’t a conspiracy to overthrow capitalism, they’re ordinary people struggling with hard times and looking for answers. The labor unions who’ve hopped on the 99 Percent bandwagon aren’t waging a battle to abolish private enterprise – they’re participating in a movement to say that what’s happening right now in the United States is unacceptable.

Yes, there is incoherence, but that’s not so bad:

Any movement for social and political change ultimately needs solutions and it is true that some of the solutions offered by some protestors are unsound. This is all the more reason that liberals with confidence in liberal solutions should show up and try to persuade people to champion a more sustainable set of economic policies.

But the alternative of staying aloof out of some kind of fussy disdain for drum circles helps nobody. … Liberalism, in its triumphant years, represented the “vital center” of American politics. The silence of further-left voices over the past decade has merely served to marginalize liberalism, creating an atmosphere in which center-left technocrat Barack Obama can be tarred as a radical socialist.

So it comes down to this:

The fact of the matter is that the American economy isn’t working for average Americans, and hasn’t been for some time. Meanwhile, the corporate executive class has gotten quite adept at standing in solidarity against effective regulation of the financial system, against solutions to our environmental problems, and against progressive taxes. The time is right for people who aren’t happy about that to stand up and be heard.

So last-place aversion is a minor issue:

If we were looking at full employment and rising middle class wages, I think activism around inequality would be a distinctly niche issue. I seem to recall that the big critique of global capitalism circa 1999 had something to do with sea turtles. But today living conditions are deteriorating so people are demanding that elites, broadly construed, do something about it. This isn’t about the Gini coefficient per se, it’s about the fact that people were asked to swallow a wide range of social trends in the name of economic growth and got a turd sandwich instead.

Okay – the Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality of variance – a statistical dispersion developed by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini and published in his 1912 paper “Variability and Mutability” – applied to measure inequality of incomes in a particular area. And it goes like this. Assume 0 represents complete equality, where every person has the same income, and 1 represents complete inequality, where one person has all the income and all others have none. You can look at household incomes and see where things fall between the two extremes.

So what? The information tabulated in 2010 from data from the American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau shows Utah has the flattest income distribution. Those Mormons are okay. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and New York, the state and not just the city, have the largest income disparities between wage earners, in all income categories. Those are nasty places. And the nation’s income inequality was at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967 – and we have by far the greatest disparity among all Western industrialized nations. That’s the data.

And yes, that is pretty damned wonky – you probably skimmed over it. But everyone understands a turd sandwich. And that means that activism around inequality is now not a niche issue at all. Last-place aversion may be real enough, and something wonks should consider, but when everyone’s been handed a turd sandwich, well, everyone’s in last place, one way or another.

But here in Hollywood no one is thinking about that. And maybe it’s time – late evening here – to walk down to the corner and watch the new Ferraris and tricked-out Escalades roll by on the Sunset Strip. No one out here is ever in last place after all – except the wonks.

And Obama is here tonight:

Indeed, he’s visiting the pricey Hancock Park neighborhood for a pair of fundraisers – one at the home of James Lassiter. The producer’s business partner, Will Smith, and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, are hosting that event, which costs $35,800 to attend. In addition, the president will attend a “Latino gala” at the home of Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith. Eva Longoria is hosting the $5,000-to-$35,800 party.

Hey – it’s Hollywood. And they won’t be serving turd sandwiches.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Income Disparity, Last-Place Aversion, Life in Hollywood, Politics of Grievance and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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