Gilens on Stalled Attempts to Tax the Rich

A story in The Hill about the forces preventing adoption of new taxes on super-rich Americans quoted Public Policy chair Martin Gilens. Polls show that a majority of voters — both Democrats and Republicans — believe the country’s billionaires should pay more in taxes. Democrats in the White House and Congress have put forth several proposals for progressive taxation on the wealthy, but their chances are “slim to none in the short term and even perhaps the medium term,” said Gilens, co-author of a 2014 study showing the outsize influence of rich people and trade groups on U.S. government policies. Elected representatives spend an enormous amount of time with wealthy constituents or potential donors, and this “creates a sense of distortion about both what the public wants and what seems reasonable,” he said. “Whether taxing wealth seems like a reasonable thing to do might depend on whether you spend a lot of time hanging out with wealthy people.” 


 

Gilens on Efforts to Undercut American Democracy

Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens joined a Scholars’ Circle panel weighing threats to American democracy and prescriptions for reinvigorating democratic norms. Recent efforts to overturn elections and restrict voting rights are rooted in a long-standing lack of government responsiveness to the needs of ordinary citizens, said Gilens, noting that the nation’s elite is responsible for the latest attacks on democratic practices. “It doesn’t take a majority of the public to abandon democracy, for our institutions to be eroded or our electoral processes to be undermined,” he said. “It only takes a willingness of people to look the other way.” Gilens likened the current political atmosphere to the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th Century, a period of gaping economic inequality and dysfunctional government. Political and economic reforms were enacted, but only after decades of effort at the local, state and national levels. “The change did come, but it didn’t come quickly or easily,” he said.


 

Gilens, Ong on Forces Undermining a Just Economic Recovery

UCLA Luskin’s Martin Gilens and Paul Ong shared insights on economic and political inequality and opportunity as part of a panel organized by the UCLA Anderson Forecast, a quarterly report that frames the economic outlook for California and the nation. Released Sept. 29, the latest report identified a shift from earlier forecasts, which had raised hopes for a blockbuster recovery as COVID-19 vaccines became widely available. Heading into the final quarter of 2021, these hopes have been tempered by the spread of the Delta variant and stagnating vaccination rates, which in turn have led to consumer caution. A panel of experts hosted by the Anderson Forecast brought context to these findings, with a focus on how income is distributed unevenly across the United States. Gilens, chair of UCLA Luskin Public Policy, said political and economic inequality are intertwined, resulting in policies that cater to moneyed interests. “Taming the role of money in American politics won’t be easy, especially with an unsympathetic Supreme Court, and … won’t by itself fix everything that ails our democracy,” Gilens said. “But it’s hard to see how we can fix American democracy without reducing the dominance of money in our politics.” Ong, director of UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, focused on race and ethnicity as factors in the job, food, housing and educational insecurity that persists across generations. “I would encourage my colleagues to think much more explicitly about the fundamentals of why race and racism exist within an economy,” he said. “Simply saying that everybody should have equal opportunity doesn’t make it so.” 

View the Anderson Forecast presentation, including a keynote address by Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.


 

Gilens Sounds Alarm for Democracy

The Washington Post was one of several media outlets reporting on a statement of concern about threats facing American democracy, signed by Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens and over 100 other scholars. The statement was a response to efforts by GOP-led state legislatures to restrict voting, which President Joe Biden referred to as an “assault on democracy … aimed at Black and brown Americans.” The statement, published by the public policy think tank New America, highlighted Republican efforts threatening the fundamental principles of democracy and urged Democrats in Congress to reform or end the filibuster to pass sweeping voting rights protections. The authors called for federal protections to ensure the neutral and fair administration of elections and guarantee that all voters can freely exercise their right to vote. “Our entire democracy is now at risk,” they wrote. “History will judge what we do at this moment.” The Hill, Business Insider, Forbes and other news organizations also covered the statement.


Gilens on Debate Over How to Frame Progressive Policies

Professor of Public Policy and Social Welfare Martin Gilens was featured in a New York Times column examining a recent paper published by Yale political scientists Micah English and Joshua Kalla. The scholars contend that, “despite increasing awareness of racial inequities, linking public policies to race is detrimental for support of those policies.” The English-Kalla paper has prompted widespread discussion among Democratic strategists and analysts. “Their findings suggest that, even in this time of heightened public concern with racial inequities, Democrats are not likely to boost public support for progressive policies by framing them as advancing racial equality,” Gilens said. He called the paper “solid work” but also pointed out its limitations. “I would consider the English and Kalla results to be sobering but not, in themselves, a strong argument for Democrats to turn away from appeals to racial justice,” Gilens said.


Policies Reflect Preferences of Affluent Americans, Gilens Finds

Professor of Public Policy and Social Welfare Martin Gilens was featured in an Atlantic article about the influence of wealth on politics. In his research, Gilens has found notable differences in the policy preferences of affluent Americans compared to the middle class. These differences are not limited to economic matters like taxation, but also include funding for public education, racial equity and environmental protections, which the wealthy are less likely to support. These differences in policy preferences are significant because of the influence the rich have over government officials. In one report, Gilens analyzed thousands of public survey responses and found that, on issues where the views of wealthy voters diverged significantly from those of the rest of the populace, the policies ultimately put in place “strongly reflected the desires of the most affluent respondents.” Gilens concluded that the policies on these controversial issues “bore virtually no relationship to the preferences of poorer Americans.”


Gilens Publishes Research on Campaign Finance Regulations

Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens‘ research into the impact of campaign finance regulations was published in American Political Science Review. Many scholars have expressed concern about the dominance of moneyed interests in American politics, and studies have shown that lobbying group interests and federal policies primarily reflect the desires of well-off citizens and well-funded interest groups, not ordinary citizens. While previous reports have faced difficulties drawing causal inferences from observational data, Gilens and his co-authors were able to analyze the effects of an exogenous change in state campaign finance law. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision held that corporations and unions have the same speech rights as individuals, and that corporate spending to influence elections does not give rise to corruption, as long as it is not coordinated with a political campaign. Gilens and his co-authors analyzed the impact of the ruling, which affected 23 states that had bans on independent expenditures by unions or corporations. After the bans were lifted under Citizens United, the states adopted more “corporate-friendly” policies on issues with broad effects on corporations’ welfare, they found. The authors concluded that “even relatively narrow changes in campaign finance regulations can have a substantively meaningful influence on government policy making.” The article, “Campaign Finance Regulations and Public Policy,” was written by Gilens, a professor of public policy, political science and social welfare; Professor Shawn Patterson Jr. of Southern Oregon University; and Professor Pavielle Haines of Rollins College. — Zoe Day


 

Gilens on American Attitudes Toward Welfare

A Fortune article summarized Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens’ analysis of American attitudes toward welfare in order to better understand the effect of the pandemic on the country. New studies have found that the poorest Americans have gotten poorer during the pandemic, despite unemployment benefit programs such as the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. On the other side of the U.S.-Canada border, Canadians received $2,000 deposited directly into their bank accounts days after filling out an online form as part of the Canadian Economic Recovery Benefit. Canada’s social safety net and collectivist mindset have supported Canadians during the pandemic, resulting in fewer deaths and COVID-19 infections compared to the U.S. after adjusting for population size differences, the article stated. It cited Gilens’ book “Why Americans Hate Welfare,” which argues that individualism, economic self-interest, the trope of the “undeserving” welfare recipient and racial discrimination each contribute to American attitudes on wealth redistribution through taxation.


Gilens on the Gender Gap in U.S. Politics

Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens was featured in a New York Times article on the gender gap in U.S. politics. Over the years, women have been more likely than men to favor government spending on social issues. Trying to explain the gap, some scholars argued that women were voting in their self-interest. The article cited a counterargument Gilens wrote in the 1980s. “I do not believe that ‘women’s issues’ such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) or abortion, nor economic conditions such as the growing number of impoverished women, are primarily responsible for the gender gap,” he wrote. “The gender gap reflects traditional differences in male and female values and personalities, differences such as men’s greater competitiveness and concerns with issues of power and control, and women’s greater compassion and nurturance, rejection of force and violence, and concern with interpersonal relations.” In 2020, Gilens noted, “women see [President Trump] as being the opposite of someone who is caring.” 


Ideas and Expertise Exchanged at Post-Debate Forum

The UCLA Luskin Public Policy community came together after the final presidential debate of 2020 to hear insights from an array of experts on the U.S. political landscape: Dean Gary Segura, an authority on polls and other measures of political opinion; Chair Martin Gilens, whose research focuses on political inequality; Professor Mark Peterson, who specializes in health-care policy; Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative; and Chad Dunn, director of litigation for the UCLA Voting Rights Project. During the 90-minute Zoom gathering, the speakers assessed the exchange between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which was deemed a step up from previous matchups, then fielded questions from students and alumni. The conversation touched on the accuracy of polling, the threat of voter intimidation, the electoral pathway to victory for each candidate, and even the risk that the country might veer toward fascism. Unless the vote count is tied up amid irregularities in a single, decisive state — as it was in Bush v. Gore in the 2000 race —Segura said the chance that the election’s outcome will be seriously challenged is small. “Try not to let the demons in your head and the demons from 2016 keep you awake at night,” he advised. The conversation was part of a series of forums designed to bring policy students, alumni, faculty and staff together to share concerns, perspectives and experiences within an informed and supportive community. At the next Policy Forum, on Nov. 5, faculty experts will parse the results of the election.