This video, already viewed by about 800,000 people since it came out last November is, for some reason, racing around the Internet with new abandon today.
It’s not that it’s not interesting. It certainly is. It’s just that it’s not that new. It’s based on a study that actually was released in 2010 by Michael Norton, of Harvard Business School. He co-authored the paper.
He talked to Steve Inskeep about it back in 2010.And almost two years ago, PBS Newshour tried to recreate Norton’s (and his colleague’s) work. It presented several pie charts of countries’ distribution of wealth and asked people which country they’d like to live in.
Pie Chart C, based on Norton’s work, was actually the United States, although the country wasn’t named. Only 9 percent of people who took the survey said they wanted to live there.
The exercise was done as part of a series on inequality in the United States.
Watch Americans Facing More Inequality, More Debt and Now More Trouble? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
“It’s probably a good thing that the public underestimates how much wealth inequality there is,” Bryan D. Caplan of George Mason University told Business Week back in 2010, since “they tend not to understand the ways that wealth inequality is good.”
In Harvard Business Review a little over a year ago, Norton’s colleague had his own theories — that the survey reflects how we view ourselves:
Norton and his coauthor, Dan Ariely (author of the popular title Predictably Irrational and a professor of behavioral economics at Duke), believe that one reason perceptions are so skewed is because the easy availability of credit masks people’s real financial situation. If your neighbors own the same make and model of car that you own, Norton points out, there’s no way to know whether they paid cash for theirs or took out a loan for the full amount. It’s easy, he says, to think, “I have a car and you have a car, so I guess wealth is equally distributed.” This perception is reinforced by the fact that people tend to interact primarily within their own social stratum.
What is surprising given these circumstances, says Norton, is that Americans at all income levels–the very rich as well as the very poor–said they would like wealth to be more evenly distributed.
Given that there’s been so much written and reported about the haves, have-somes, have-most, and have-nots, in the last few years, there seems to be more at work here in people’s incorrect perceptions of the distribution of wealth in the U.S. It’s about how wealth is redistributed.
Both Republicans and Democrats, Norton said, had roughly the same responses to the original survey and generally agreed on the way wealth should be distributed.
As it makes its way across Viralville today, it’s mostly attached as a justification that one way is preferred, but that’s not at all what the original paper said.
Still, it’s a good starting point — and an unusual starting point — in today’s public policy debate — figuring out on what we all agree.