Tax Refund


Do you think about the world as “zero-sum,” where resources are limited and my gain is your loss? Or do you believe that resources are plentiful and we all can benefit from one another’s success?

The answer says a lot about how you see taxes, as well as immigration, universal healthcare, affirmative action, and many other policy choices. But new research suggests that the way people think about these questions and their links to policy preferences are more complicated than they may first seem.

Complicated Relationships

For instance, belief in a zero-sum world is correlated with race, age, and even family history of scarcity and hardship. But relationships with income, education, and political party are more complicated.

For example, those with incomes in excess of $150,000 and those with graduate degrees often hold the zero-sum view and back government policy to redistribute income, even though it could result in them paying higher taxes. And White, rural, and older populations, who often benefit economically from government redistribution, oppose it.

It’s a big study, with a lot to dig into. Researchers from Harvard, the London School of Economics, and the University of British Columbia surveyed more than 20,000 US residents on a wide range of issues and personal characteristics. They used survey responses to develop a zero-sum belief index that differs from other often-cited values and beliefs that may explain policy views.

Government actions can attempt to help the disadvantaged in many ways, including through a progressive tax code, as well as race- and gender-based affirmative action. But while those who take a zero-sum view lean left on these issues, many also favor more restrictive immigration policies.

Crossing Party Lines

And while those with a zero-sum mindset are, on average, more likely to align with Democrats than Republicans, the authors found a wide variety of views within parties. 

For example, Democrats generally support immigration, but many favor more restrictive border policies. President Biden and congressional Democrats perhaps responded to this phenomenon when they backed immigration curbs in a Senate bill earlier this year (the measure is stuck in the Republican-controlled House).

At the same time, while Republicans are more likely to believe that people share a growing pie, a significant fraction favor some economic redistribution. For example, the paper found broad support even among Republicans for raising taxes on high-income households. This finding confirms work done by my TPC colleague Vanessa Williamson and many others, including economist Stefanie Stantcheva, a co-author of the new paper.

The authors argue that this cross-party phenomenon also may help explain why 13 percent of those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 12 percent of those who voted for Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 general election. This was especially true for strong zero-sum thinkers.

Why? The authors explain that Trump often spoke (and still does) in a zero-sum way. For example, he routinely framed the world as immigrants vs. native born residents, China vs. the US, or ordinary people vs. the Washington elite. That worldview aligns closely with voters who share the zero-sum worldview, including Democrats.

It also may explain why Trump is polling relatively well among Black Americans. In this research, Black survey respondents were among the strongest believers in a zero-sum world, along with people who had lower incomes and people who were younger. Thus, some members of these groups may support Trump due to this perceived shared worldview even though they may not benefit from his economic policies.

The authors note that a zero-sum mindset can result from a desire to correct past wrongs or procedural unfairness. They also found these views are more commonly held among those who have not experienced economic mobility, such as younger respondents, who mostly lived through periods of relatively slow US economic growth.  

By contrast, those who have experienced economic mobility, including many immigrants, are much less likely to see the world in a zero-sum way. Even those whose families immigrated to the US two or three generations ago and native-born people who grew up in communities with many immigrants tend to be less likely to see the US as a zero-sum place.

Tax Policy

What does this mean for tax policy? Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they would sign a petition that said in part Congress should “raise the tax rate for high-income families to increase funding for programs that help low-income families.”  

People who held zero-sum beliefs were more likely to back the petition, and those who explicitly favored income redistribution were much more likely. But even many respondents who were less sympathetic to the zero-sum view backed the petition.

All of this has important implications for both politics and policy. One example: This research suggests it may be possible to build a coalition that supports both the progressive idea of raising taxes on high-income households and restrictions on immigration often backed by conservatives.    

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