Simon Wren Lewis says that the commentariat's tendency to excuse the coalition's reckless fiscal policy is due in part to groupthink:
Very Serious People’ talk to each other more often than they talk to people acquainted with the data.
His point is broader and more powerful than generally realized. The fact that the ruling class talks amongst itself produces a systematic class bias.
A new paper by Agne Kajackaite explains how. She got students to solve some puzzles, being paid per puzzle solved. But she also arranged that, for some people, successful solutions would not just enrich them but also cause a donation to the National Rifle Association, an organization the students disliked.
She found - as you'd expect - that when subjects knew their efforts would enrich the NRA they worked less hard. However, subjects who chose not to know whether the NRA would be paid or not worked as hard as those who knew the NRA wouldn't benefit. Ignorant people thus acted as if there were no adverse consequences of their actions - consistent with the idea that ignorance has strategic benefits. Ms Kajackaite says:
Ignorant subjects are not only more likely to behave selfishly, but they are even more likely to behave anti-socially by creating a negative externality for a third party.
We should read this alongside a paper (pdf) by James Andreoni and Justin Rao. They show that the mere act of communicating with others induces those others to behave more generously.
If we put these two findings together, we get a pattern; we are likely to be generous to those we talk with and mean to those we don't.
And here's the problem. People who are in the Westminster village or inside the beltway talk disproportionately to "very serious people" - businessmen, lobbyists and wonks - and disproportionately little to those outside the elites: the low-paid, welfare recipients and suchlike*. The result is that politicians are likely to be more than usually generous to the elite and more than usually mean to outsiders. Hence we get the bedroom tax and benefit sanctions but not serious banking reform.
We all know that "democratic" politics serves the interests of the very rich. What's not so appreciated is that this happens not just because money talks - though it does - but because the very structure of the media-political system generates psychological mechanisms which serve to favour the rich and harm the poor.
* Of course, many MPs meet the poor in their constituency surgeries. But such meetings tend to take the form not so much of a meeting of equals, but of supplicants begging favours from those in power. The poor have less input into policy-making than the rich.