Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Politics of Envy

Everyone knows that envy is a sin. In more secular terms, envy, in an individual or a nation, produces dysfunction.

Culturally speaking, a nation that avoids envy is more likely to prosper.

Historically, envy has been notably absent from American politics. Now, Arthur Brooks explains, that is changing.

To define the term, Brooks turns to a rock star named Bono, who, effectively, delivers:

The Irish singer Bono once described a difference between America and his native land. “In the United States,” he explained, “you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”

Brooks adds a comment from Tocqueville:

Alexis de Tocqueville phrased it a little differently, but his classic 19th-century text contains the same observation. Visiting from France, he marveled at Americans’ ability to keep envy at bay, and to see others’ successes as portents of good times for all.

But, what is envy? Some would say that it is a form of desire— after all one of the French words for desire is envie— but Brooks more accurately relates it to depression.

As we know, depression is notably characterized by a diminished desire, for food and for sex.

In so doing, Brooks is following Thomas Aquinas, who linked envy with sorrow. By definition, we envy those things that other people have and that we despair of ever earning ourselves.

Envy might feel like a desire, but it is corrupted and perverted, directed toward destroying what other people have built, not building anything of its own.

Envy is the emotional core of deconstruction. It’s opposite is a work ethic.

According to Aquinas the opposite of envy is feeling happy for the good that accrues to your neighbors. 

A character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It says it well:

I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good…. 

Why does anyone feel envy? Aquinas notes that it befalls someone who believes that someone else’s gain is his loss. It derives from seeing the world as a zero-sum game.

When we envy someone else’s success, we set out to what he has, not to earning something of our own.

Obviously, theft and destruction are useful ways to express envy. But, Aquinas says, someone who suffers from envy is also prone to defame anyone who has more than he does.

The passion is especially acute when you envy someone else his good character. Since good character is an intangible good, feeling envy for those who have it will lead to slander, libel and character assassination.

People who are consumed by envy also take great pleasure in the misfortune of others.

If envy is a function of depression or sorrow, it also involves grief. At times it may involve grief for having lost something. At other times, it might involve grief for what one has never had.

If envy is about grief, it will manifest itself in a politics of grievance.

Grievance-mongering, which increasingly has come to infect our politics, is a form of envy, but it also bespeaks the despair felt by people who do not believe that they can acquire goods by their own efforts.

Many of its proponents see the politics of grievance as the only response to systemic injustice.  At the same time, convincing people that they cannot win demoralizes them and saps their initiative.

To Brooks, today’s Americans are suffering the aftereffects of a diet of envy:

In 2008, Gallup asked a large sample of Americans whether they were “angry that others have more than they deserve.” People who strongly disagreed with that statement — who were not envious, in other words — were almost five times more likely to say they were “very happy” about their lives than people who strongly agreed.

The cause of the growing envy is, Brooks argues, a decline in opportunity:

The root cause of increasing envy is a belief that opportunity is in decline. According to a 2007 poll on inequality and civic engagement by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, just 30 percent of people who believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed describe income inequality as “a serious problem.” But among people who feel that “only some” Americans have a shot at success, fully 70 percent say inequality is a major concern.

People who believe that hard work brings success do not begrudge others their prosperity. But if the game looks rigged, envy and a desire for redistribution will follow.

He adds:

According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who feel that “most people who want to get ahead” can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000. As recently as 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today, that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied, and 45 percent dissatisfied. In just a few years, we have gone from seeing our economy as a real meritocracy to viewing it as something closer to a coin flip.

Unfortunately, the American people are not deluded. Even more unfortunately, they are partially responsible for the nation’s current political conditions.

The nation’s political leadership has failed to promote what Brooks calls a “radical opportunity agenda.” To do so, he adds, it would need to get serious about regulatory and tax reform.

If government seems to be in the business of punishing enterprise, people are right to believe that it is favoring some at the expense of others.

Equality of outcomes is obviously absurd. Yet, equality of opportunity, a sense that everyone has a chance to succeed is eminently desirable.

Worse yet, Brooks adds, the government that stifles opportunity has gotten itself into the business of producing envy in those who are most likely to be suffering from its policies. It’s a cynical, demagogic manipulation.

In his words:

… we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation. We need aspirational leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting Americans around an optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success. This will never happen when we vilify the rich or give up on the poor.


Ares Olympus said...

re: "We must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation. We need aspirational leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting Americans around an optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success. This will never happen when we vilify the rich or give up on the poor."

This is sensible advice, but also dangerous, "uniting around an optimistic vision" is only possible within a single-party system like communism, where dissonant voices who point out the failure of reality to match the idealistic vision are silenced.

I think of a friend a few years ago who participated in a union strike, something much less common these days in America, but something messy - where one side has to believe they are worth more than their employers think they're worth.

As best I can tell union leaders do drink too much of their own koolaid, and refuse to look at economic reality, but if you are willing to look at economic reality you see the professional class primarily gets everything they want without a fight, and this is because they have ZERO LOYALTY to place, because they are willing to move anywhere in the country to advance their career, and they have the resources to do so, while people who don't want to abandon family and friends, or have their family and friends scattered wide, they have to be willing to take whatever is given, and they probably do this willingly, but if they see the professions above them getting more and more share of the income pie merely for having no loyalty, this is going to generate resentment.

I don't know if it is envy, because who could envy rootless people who exist in a bubble of self-congratulations and have no idea what life is like for the rest of the people.

So if some politician comes along and says these professionals, with their 15% dividend and stock capital gains taxes is too small, and they can afford to pay more, and others say "You're just encouraging envy" that's a good way to win an argument against an ordinary conscientiousness human being who is just looking for excuses to explain why he's struggling and deserves it.

Ares Olympus said...

Krugman also says its anger (resentment) not envy:

You can't give a vision "we're all in this together" when the professional class is looking out for number one and succeeding while telling us to work harder.

Sam L. said...

And blaming the Koch Brothers and Republicans for preventing Barry from making the world rainbow shiny with unicorn dust sparkles.

Anonymous said...

Did this envy thing start with Romney, or did he just ride it because its all he had?

It is an audacious tactic - claim the 47% who pay no taxes are being manipulated to divide us by envy towards the 1% who pay the majority of taxes, so we have to encourage the remaining 46% to express resentment at the 47%'s tax-free entitlements by voting with the 1% who want lower taxes and less laws that limit their ability to control all aspects of the economy. Did I get that right?

“This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision.” - Mitt Romney, January 2012

Anonymous said...

The Hoover Institute gets credit for this recent envy tactic:
Hoover digest » 2009 no.2 » The Politics of Envy by Jeffrey M. Jones and Daniel Heil
"Sensible, time-tested steps that produce upward income mobility point to one conclusion: there are no shortcuts. The goals are to work, invest, partner, and learn, and to focus on personal responsibility. The economics of income mobility replace envy with effort."

Dennis said...

I would suggest that Romney was alluding to "stakeholders." When one pays taxes one is more likely to be a "stakeholder" in the system that makes that possible and less likely to be envious of others.
As a poor kid from a very dysfunctional family a little talent, a lot of hard work and a $35 dollar pawn shop trumpet paved the way for the life I live today.
It has always been a thought with me that if I can apply myself to working hard, taking responsibly for my actions and doing what I believe is right then I have no need for envy. And if I can do it then others who are willing to work hard can do it.
Too much time caring about what others have leaves little time to improve one's life. Channel that envy into improving one's self and there is little time to feel sorry for yourself or be envious.
I am surprised by the significant number of people who allow themselves to be affected by "class warfare" when they have within themselves the ability to rise above and succeed in life. America is still a place where, if one is willing to apply themselves, any person can succeed. Failing to accept the challenges of life and a blaming others is the biggest fault most people allow in themselves to destroy their lives. One has to have the wherewithal to believe in themselves and to take the risks that are requisite in a well lived life.

Sam L. said...

Give someone a reason to stop working so hard, or at all, and tell him the "rich" out to screw him, but "you" or "the government" will take care of him...

jgott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jgott said...

Has any nation adopted the envy-based value system and NOT collapsed ? "Envy" as a value system operates as a cancer, and historically always destroys a culture. Since the sooner collapse comes, the less damage it will do, don't we have a duty to stop delaying the collapse? Watching Americans talk about their culture and economy is a bit like watching Monty Python's 'Black Knight" stand there with severed arms screaming "tis but a flesh wound". Let the fall come...the sooner the better.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

In 2008 a number of people I respect a great deal, like Jim Rogers and Jim Grant made the same recommendation. They suggested that propping up the system artificially would only make the final reckoning that much worse.

James Graham said...

Envy, the base ideology of modern Europe, gave us the "gifts" of communism and Naziism.

Anonymous said...

JGott, what is an "envy-based value system"? If 100% of people agree envy is unhelpful, and then each side of a political divide accuses the other side of inspiring envy by pointing out problems of a system, at what point are we allowed to question the validity of the accusations?

There's a political strategy of first-strike, accusing your rival of doing exactly what you're doing, and keep them on the defensive.

Apparently these tactics are effective, and so maybe we get what we deserve, but the thing is you still don't know what's true if we're limited to judging impure motives of those we disagree with.

jgott said...

"Anonymous", your focus on motives and strategies begs the question of: 'what's right?'. Such diversion into the "impure thoughts of others" inevitably sucks one into a whirling vortex of self-referential narcissistic subjective tribalism. It degrades any inquiry into the age-old "Grok tribe good, that tribe bad". Thus do I say: TO HELL with your infantilized rant on "accusations..political strategies...impure motives". If you dare to think, then please join us. btw: EVERY mention of "income inequality" presumes 'zero sum economics', and is thus envy-based.

Anonymous said...

JGott, indeed, that's why listening to partisan narratives of envy won't get you to the promised land of factual reality.

But now all is good in the world, or the U.S. apparently, with $80.7 trillion in household net assets, after our old high of $68.8 trillion in the 2007 peak.

No need for envy, since its not a zero sum game, as you show, and trickle down economic raises all boats. Now we just need a good flat income tax rate 15%, and defund all government regulations that limit the power of those newly minted billionaires to create all the jobs we need.

And if some people find themselves unemployable under the new new normal, let them go back to school, borrow money, and find something they can do that will pay off their student debt. You're never to old to borrow money to learn new skills!

There's no economic downside when debt is free, and every big bet deserves a bailout. We just have to guarantee tomorrow is always larger than today, and the billionaire trickle will keep on tinkling down upon us and the world.

Ares Olympus said...

Niall Ferguson addresses the issue of the incoherent agenda of Occupy Wall Street (the origin of the 1% argument), without resorting to questions of envy which was never in the OWS agenda.

Niall says he leans towards Charles Murray's argument that the disintegration of the working class, and failing family structure is the more important cause than greed on the top, and this extrapolates to the "47%" argument - those who are too lazy or incompetent to be capable of paying taxes, and this incompetence was enabled by the soft-left social programs that give people food without needing to work and all that "compassion with someone else's money."

I agree that's a more coherent argument that OWS's 1%, and it shows the predicament of the Republicans. But the "free stuff" argument is a pissy one, a sore-loser argument of someone who isn't used to losing, making excuses for getting 60% of the White vote, and seeing the White vote an ever smaller fraction of the population.

I'm glad the Occupy movement has diversified, including "Occupy debt" which to me a more practical approach since it doesn't need a centralized enemy to defeat, but millions of people who need to take some responsibility, and see directions where they can escape their debt-slavery, even if it means we make a "two class society" - those who have access to credit, and those who don't, since I see the days of easy credit are numbered, so better to start learning now.

Anonymous said...

The Maestro says we need to blame animal spirits, and those spirits are apparently the standard emotions of greed and fear.

If politicians must be careful to avoid envy to promote financial reform, what are the honest motives we can use to rein in the leveraged financialization of the economy?

If we could afford to just let all the leveraged debt fail and take out all the banks every 20 years, and replace their leadership, perhaps that's the fear of God bankers need to avoid risk? On the other hand, if honest banking has 1% returns, and dishonest banking has 10% returns until a crash, who wants to be honest?