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Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution: The POUM Hypothesis

  • Roland Benabou
  • Efe A. Ok

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 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 6795.

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Date of creation: Nov 1998
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Publication status: published as Benabou, Roland and Efe A. Ok. "Social Mobility And The Demand For Redistribution: The Poum Hypothesis," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001, v116(2,May), 447-487.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6795
Note: PE EFG
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  1. Solon, Gary, 1992. "Intergenerational Income Mobility in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(3), pages 393-408, June.
  2. Torsten Persson & Guido Tabellini, 1991. "Is Inequality Harmful for Growth? Theory and Evidence," NBER Working Papers 3599, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas & Jonathan A. Parker, 1999. "Consumption Over the Life Cycle," NBER Working Papers 7271, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Roemer, J.E., 1995. "Why the Poor Do not Expropriate the Rich in Democracies: A New Argument," Department of Economics 95-04, California Davis - Department of Economics.
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  6. Piketty, Thomas, 1995. "Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 110(3), pages 551-84, August.
  7. Bénabou, Roland & Ok, Efe A, 1998. "Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution: the POUM Hypothesis," CEPR Discussion Papers 1955, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  8. 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.
  9. Roland Benabou, 2002. "Tax and Education Policy in a Heterogeneous-Agent Economy: What Levels of Redistribution Maximize Growth and Efficiency?," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(2), pages 481-517, March.
  10. Alesina, Alberto & Rodrik, Dani, 1994. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 109(2), pages 465-90, May.
  11. Roland Benabou, 2000. "Unequal Societies: Income Distribution and the Social Contract," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(1), pages 96-129, March.
  12. Peltzman, Sam, 1980. "The Growth of Government," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 23(2), pages 209-87, October.
  13. Shorrocks, A F, 1978. "The Measurement of Mobility," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 46(5), pages 1013-24, September.
  14. 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.
  15. Hirschman, Albert O., 1973. "The changing tolerance for income inequality in the course of economic development," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 1(12), pages 29-36, December.
  16. Dardanoni Valentino, 1993. "Measuring Social Mobility," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 61(2), pages 372-394, December.
  17. Hungerford, Thomas L, 1993. "U.S. Income Mobility in the Seventies and Eighties," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 39(4), pages 403-17, December.
  18. Marhuenda, Francisco & Ortuno-Ortin, Ignacio, 1995. "Popular support for progressive taxation," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 48(3-4), pages 319-324, June.
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