Even The Facts Are Polarized : Planet Money As Iowans prepare to make their selection for the Democratic presidential nominee, a new study sheds light on just how polarized Americans are, even when it comes to reality itself.
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Even The Facts Are Polarized

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Even The Facts Are Polarized

Even The Facts Are Polarized

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So in case you've been stuck in a cave with no access to the Internet or the news or a calendar, this is an election year. And...


Also, take us with you.

GARCIA: Yeah. Can we get some space in that cave? - 'cause that sounds great.

VANEK SMITH: We could do THE INDICATOR from a cave.


VANEK SMITH: I would be very excited about that. Anyway, so for Democrats, election season actually kicks off tonight in Iowa. It is the first state where voters will choose who they want to oppose President Trump in the general election. And as in any election year, the differences between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, will be on full display. After all, that is part of the whole point of an election.

GARCIA: Yeah. And everyone knows that people on left and right disagree about which ideas, which policies are best for the country. But a unique new study from three economists shows something else, too - the extent to which people on left and right also have completely different perceptions about facts, things that can actually be checked.

I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, how U.S. voters are polarized about reality itself. We look at three economic issues - the American dream, inequality and immigration. And we tell you which ones the left and right have right and wrong.


GARCIA: Stefanie Stantcheva is a professor of economics at Harvard. And for a new study, she and her co-authors, Alberto Alesina and Armando Miano, had an idea for how to apply their economic methods of doing research to understanding how people form their social and political views.

STEFANIE STANTCHEVA: This idea came from a long line of research that we have done, and that shows that Americans are not just polarized in their views on policy issues and attitudes towards government and society - we see that. We know that - but actually, in their perceptions of the same factual reality.

VANEK SMITH: So to see how Americans with different political affiliations disagreed about the facts themselves, Stefanie and her co-authors sent carefully designed online surveys to thousands of people in the U.S.

GARCIA: And what did these surveys find? Well, we're going to take a look at three economic issues that people were asked about in the surveys and which show this divide between how conservatives and liberals perceive reality. First issue - the American dream or, as it's known by economists in blander terms, social mobility.

VANEK SMITH: But clear, though, you know? It's just the facts, ma'am.

GARCIA: Very economist-y (ph). Yeah. This is the idea that someone born into a poor family can work hard and ascend into the middle class or maybe even become rich. That is social mobility.

VANEK SMITH: So for example, Stefanie asked people, what do you think are the chances that a kid whose parents have incomes in the bottom 20% will grow up to have an income that is in the top 20%? Here's what Stefanie found.

STANTCHEVA: So what we see is that when it comes to the making it really from the bottom to the top, there - there's barely any disagreement. Both Republicans and Democrats overperceive this chance. So both groups are too optimistic about it.

GARCIA: Specifically, conservatives think that kid has a 12% chance of making it big, and liberals think the kid has an 11% chance. So they're pretty close to each other on this issue, but they're both wrong about reality. That kid's actual chance of going from poor to rich in America - less than 8%.

STANTCHEVA: But once we get into the chances of making it from the bottom into the middle class, there the views differ quite drastically.

VANEK SMITH: So what is that same kid's chances of growing up to make it into the middle class? Ask conservatives, and they will tell you it is about a 24% chance. Liberals are a lot more pessimistic. They think the kid only has a 19% chance of getting into the middle class. And actually, the liberals have this one right. A kid born into a low-income family does indeed only have a 19% chance of getting into the middle class.

GARCIA: The second issue that Stefanie looked at - inequality. There's a bunch of different measures of inequality, so we're going to focus on wealth inequality. If you add up all the stuff you own - your cash, your retirement savings, maybe your house, your car - and then subtract the money you owe - like, on your mortgage or your credit card debt or your student loans - tally that all up, and that's your wealth.

VANEK SMITH: So how much of the overall wealth in the country is owned by the super-rich, as we'll call them - the richest 1% - versus everybody else? Ask the average Republican, and they will tell you that the super-rich own 53% of all the wealth in the country. Ask the average liberal. They think it's way more - that the super-rich own 64%. And in reality, they are both wrong. The super-rich actually own about 42% of the wealth in the U.S.

GARCIA: Both Republicans and Democrats think that wealth inequality is bigger than it actually is. And Stefanie says it's not unusual for both groups to be wrong even when they disagree with each other.

STANTCHEVA: What I want to highlight here is the systematic gap between Democrats and Republicans in the direction you may expect. So Democrats tend to think there's more inequality, less mobility. Republicans tend to think there is less inequality, more mobility.

GARCIA: And Stefanie is quick to add that these tendencies affect even beliefs about things that are really simple to check. For example, what is the highest federal income tax rate, the top tax rate applied to people who make the highest incomes? This is an important question because a higher top tax rate would, all things equal, tend to reduce inequality. Well, Democrats think it's 28%. Republicans think that rate is 31%.

VANEK SMITH: And they are both wrong once again. The top tax rate is 37%. So there is a partisan gap in exactly the direction you might expect. Republicans think the rich are paying a higher tax rate than the Democrats think they're paying, but the rich are actually facing a higher tax rate than everybody seems to think they're paying.

GARCIA: The final issue - immigration. How much of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants? Believe it or not, on this one question, there is no partisan gap. Everyone on left and right thinks that about 36% of the population is made up of immigrants.

VANEK SMITH: And everybody is wrong once again. Everybody is overestimating the share of immigrants in the country. In reality, only about 14% of the population is made up of immigrants, and that includes undocumented immigrants. Stefanie says she was not shocked by this. Immigration has been in the news a lot. And when an issue gets a lot of attention, she says, we tend to overestimate how big that issue is.

GARCIA: Stefanie says that where Democrats and Republicans do disagree is in the composition of immigrants - their religious and ethnic backgrounds, how educated they are and other variables.

STANTCHEVA: So for instance, Republicans and Democrats both think there are more Muslim immigrants among all immigrants, but Republicans think there are many more Muslim immigrants than Democrats do.

VANEK SMITH: Republicans think 1 out of 4 immigrants is Muslim. Democrats think it's closer to 1 out of 5 immigrants was Muslim. The correct number is 1 out of 10.

GARCIA: And Stefanie found something else interesting about this particular misperception when she asked people if they would be willing to pay money to see the correct information about immigrants.

STANTCHEVA: And what we see is that people who started with the most inaccurate views about immigrants are least willing to pay for the extra information.

VANEK SMITH: And this relates to the question of how two different views of reality can exist side by side. So one idea is that our existing political preferences will influence which sources of information about reality we will choose to trust. And another idea is that those existing preferences will also affect the kind of information that we are willing to actively seek out.

STANTCHEVA: And this is how even the information we receive may be completely different from - that other people receive. And this is how echo chambers and, really, tribes can form where the information received matches with what is already believed in.

GARCIA: So what does it all mean? Well, a lot of us like to think that our views about the world are shaped by the information we get. We look at the facts. We try to connect them, and then we form an opinion. What Stefanie's research suggests is that sometimes it's the other way around. We start with those views already formed, and then we look for information that confirms them while screening out the information that does not, further reinforcing our polarization, even about reality itself.

VANEK SMITH: By the way, at npr.org/money, we've posted a link to the full working paper of this if you want to check it out in more detail. And also, this episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin and edited by Paddy Hirsch. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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