Sunday, November 1, 2009

Brief: Too smart for their own good or just showing off?

Returning to the theme of whether people favor policies that benefit their narrow self-interests, let's have a quick look at who says the government should provide a minimum income. The self-interest view says that as people make more money, they should be less likely to favor such a policy -- they earn too much to qualify, and they'd pay for it through higher taxes. Indeed, that's just what the GSS shows, whether we look at real income or self-described class. Here are the results, where red is support, blue is neutral, and green is reject:

But what about support for the policy based on your brains? The self-interest view predicts the same pattern as above -- college graduates are very unlikely to qualify, yet they'd have to pay higher taxes to fund it. And in the GSS, real income increases steadily as your intelligence increases (data not shown here), so we'd expect smarter people -- who are also wealthier people -- to want the policy less. That's mostly true, except at the very high end:

Support for a minimum income policy decreases as you poll smarter and smarter people -- until you reach the high end, who get 9 or 10 out of 10 questions correct on a makeshift IQ test. Similarly, support erodes as you poll more and more educated people -- until you reach the high end, who have more than 2 years of post-graduate study (i.e., not just a masters but a doctorate).

You might think that overly brainy or overly educated people make less than those just below them -- think of the English PhD who works at Starbucks -- but remember that using this measure of IQ, the upper end makes more money than those just below them. You might also think that the high end has simply been exposed to more silly ideas -- again, think of the English PhD who had to read some Marxist stuff for his theory classes -- but why doesn't this hold for those with 1-2 years of college, 3-4 years of college, or who hold a masters? Surely they've been more exposed to silly ideas than those just below them, and yet they are less and less likely to support the policy. And remember that the reversal also shows up in IQ, which just measures how smart you are, rather than how much time you've spent listening to professors.

So perhaps there is something to the idea of people at the upper end of the intelligence scale being "too smart for their own good." Minimum income policies will keep more poor and low-skilled people out of work because an artificially high price (i.e., a wage or salary higher than what employers and workers would agree to) means that employers won't offer as many jobs as they would if the wages were somewhat lower. As people have more intelligence to see this -- or at least sense it intuitively -- support for the policy generally drops off. But maybe being at the upper end makes people arrogant -- "Well, that's the obvious answer, so it can't be right. There has to be a more complicated and different answer!"

Alternatively, the high end could be trying to signal their braininess -- "I'm so smart that I can hold all sorts of ridiculous views and not suffer any consequences." Why don't people on the high end of income and class try to signal their status in the same way? Because income and class are more acquired traits, whereas differences in intelligence in modern societies mostly reflect different genetic endowments. If you're trying to signal how good your genes are, the trait that you claim to be so high on -- "I'm so X that I can afford to..." -- would have to show a strong genetic influence.

These data don't allow us to decide between the two main explanations, but they do rule out the strong version of the self-interest view.

GSS variables used: govminc, realinc, class, educ, wordsum


  1. A good post agnostic; I don't disagree with any of your points, even though as a smart person I am inclined to disagree with everyone else just to show how smart I am :P

  2. The effect seems to be stronger for education than intelligence. I bet if you controlled for education that would significantly reduce the support among the intelligent.