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How Elastic Are Preferences for Redistribution? Evidence from Randomized Survey Experiments

  • Ilyana Kuziemko
  • Michael I. Norton
  • Emmanuel Saez
  • Stefanie Stantcheva

We develop online survey experiments to analyze how information about inequality and taxes affects preferences for redistribution. Approximately 4,000 respondents were randomized into treatments providing interactive, customized information on U.S. income inequality, the link between top income tax rates and economic growth, and the estate tax. An additional 6,000 respondents were randomized into follow-up treatments to explore mechanisms underlying the initial results. The treatment has very large effects on whether respondents view inequality as a problem. By contrast, it only slightly moves policy preferences (e.g., top income tax rates and transfer programs). An exception is the estate tax—informing respondents of the small share of decedents who pay it more than doubles support for it and this effect persists in a one-month follow-up. We explore several explanations for our results. Extreme ex-ante misinformation appears to drive the large estate tax results. The small effects for all other policies can be at least partially explained by respondents' low trust in government—indeed, we show that priming people to think negatively about the government substantially reduces support for transfer programs—as well as a disconnect between concerns about social issues and the public policies that aim to address them.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 18865.

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Date of creation: Mar 2013
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18865
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  1. Horton, John Joseph & Rand, David Gertler & Zeckhauser, Richard Jay, 2010. "The Online Laboratory: Conducting Experiments in a Real Labor Market," Scholarly Articles 4448876, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
  2. Guillermo Cruces & Ricardo Pérez Truglia & Martín Tetaz, 2012. "Biased Perceptions of Income Distribution and Preferences for Redistribution: Evidence from a Survey Experiment," CEDLAS, Working Papers 0138, CEDLAS, Universidad Nacional de La Plata.
  3. Erzo F. P. Luttmer & Monica Singhal, 2011. "Culture, Context, and the Taste for Redistribution," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 3(1), pages 157-79, February.
  4. Weinzierl, Matthew, 2014. "The promise of positive optimal taxation: normative diversity and a role for equal sacrifice," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 118(C), pages 128-142.
  5. Alberto Alesina & Eliana La Ferrara, 2001. "Preferences for Redistribution in the Land of Opportunities," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 1936, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  6. Meltzer, Allan H & Richard, Scott F, 1981. "A Rational Theory of the Size of Government," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 89(5), pages 914-27, October.
  7. Erzo F.P. Luttmer, 1999. "Group Loyalty and the Taste for Redistribution," Working Papers 9902, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  8. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2003. "Income Inequality In The United States, 1913-1998," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 118(1), pages 1-39, February.
  9. Raj Chetty & Emmanuel Saez, 2013. "Teaching the Tax Code: Earnings Responses to an Experiment with EITC Recipients," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 5(1), pages 1-31, January.
  10. La Ferrara, Eliana & Alesina, Alberto, 2005. "Preferences for Redistribution in the Land of Opportunities," Scholarly Articles 4552533, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  11. Fong, Christina, 2001. "Social preferences, self-interest, and the demand for redistribution," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 82(2), pages 225-246, November.
  12. Slemrod, Joel, 2006. "The Role of Misconceptions in Support for Regressive Tax Reform," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 59(1), pages 57-75, March.
  13. Naoi, Megumi & Kume, Ikuo, 2011. "Explaining Mass Support for Agricultural Protectionism: Evidence from a Survey Experiment During the Global Recession," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 65(04), pages 771-795, October.
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