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Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution : the POUM Hypothesis

  • Bénabou, Roland
  • Ok, Efe

Even relatively poor people oppose high rates of redistribution because of the anticipation that they or their children may move up the income ladder. This hypothesis commonly advanced as an explanation of why most democracies do not engage in large-scale expropriation and highly progressive redistribution. But is it compatible with everyone -- especially the poor -- holding rational expectations that not everyone can simultaneously expect to end up richer than average? This paper establishes the formal basis for the POUM hypothesis. There is a range of incomes below the mean where agents oppose lasting redistributions if (and, in a sense, only if) tomorrow's expected income is increasing and concave in today's income. The laissez-faire coalition is larger, the more concave the transition function and the longer the policy horizon. We illustrate the general analysis with an example (calibrated to the U.S.) where, in every period, 3/4 of families are poorer than average, yet a 2/3 majority has expected future incomes above the mean, and therefore desires low tax rates for all future generations. We also analyze empirical mobility matrices from the PSID and find that the POUM effect is indeed a significant feature of the data.

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Paper provided by Institut d'Économie Industrielle (IDEI), Toulouse in its series IDEI Working Papers with number 78.

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Date of creation: 1997
Date of revision: 1999
Handle: RePEc:ide:wpaper:701
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  1. Albert O. Hirschman & Michael Rothschild, 1973. "The Changing Tolerance for Income Inequality in the Course of Economic DevelopmentWith A Mathematical Appendix," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 87(4), pages 544-566.
  2. Benabou, R. & Ok, E.A., 1998. "Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution: The POUM Hypothesis," Working Papers 98-23, C.V. Starr Center for Applied Economics, New York University.
  3. Dardanoni Valentino, 1993. "Measuring Social Mobility," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 61(2), pages 372-394, December.
  4. Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas & Jonathan A. Parker, 1999. "Consumption Over the Life Cycle," NBER Working Papers 7271, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Thomas Piketty, 1994. "Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics," Working papers 94-15, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  6. Louis Putterman & John E. Roemer & Joaquim Silvestre, . "Does Egalitarianism Have A Future?," Department of Economics 96-09, California Davis - Department of Economics.
  7. Alberto Alesina & Dani Rodrik, 1994. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(2), pages 465-490.
  8. Roemer, John E., 1998. "Why the poor do not expropriate the rich: an old argument in new garb," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(3), pages 399-424, December.
  9. Alesina, Alberto F & Rodrik, Dani, 1991. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," CEPR Discussion Papers 565, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  10. Persson, T. & Tabellini, G., 1993. "Is Inequality Harmful for Growth," Papers 537, Stockholm - International Economic Studies.
  11. Francisco Marhuenda & Ignacio Ortuño Ortín, 1995. "Popular Support For Progressive Taxation," Working Papers. Serie AD 1995-15, Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Económicas, S.A. (Ivie).
  12. Marhuenda, Francisco & Ortuno-Ortin, Ignacio, 1995. "Popular support for progressive taxation," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 48(3-4), pages 319-324, June.
  13. Durlauf, S.N. & Cooper, S.J. & Johnson, P.A., 1993. "On the Evolution of Economic Status Across Generations," Working papers 9329, Wisconsin Madison - Social Systems.
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