Thursday, March 19, 2015

Long Post Nominally About Envy

The idea is commonly put forward by lovers of the idea of free markets that any expression of dissatisfaction with the degree of income inequality generated by the economy in its current form is attributable to nothing more than envy; and envy being a base emotion that can by definition only have origin in inferiority, either inherent or demonstrated, and failure, it is not a ground from which legitimate complaint or criticism can be launched. Given the variability in thought and behavior among human beings generally, as well the widespread concern permeating even into relatively thriving quarters of the population that at least some aspects of this inequality are contributing to serious problems, this dismissal is a little too aggressively simplistic for my liking. To the extent that envy is ever the ruling passion it is asserted as being here, my sense is that it tends to surface rather higher than lower on the scale of accomplishment, among people who actually have attained some desirable position relative to the general population, but simply not desirable enough to themselves. To be truly consumed with envy about another person's money in the sense that free market champions want to ascribe to its critics would appear to require a certain degree of passion or obsessiveness about, and the conception of oneself as a genuine competitor in, that arena. In most instances, and certainly at my level of society, I suspect that the prevailing emotional response to the spectacle of ever-phenomenally expanding wealth for the few who have grasped either how to create or lay claim to a share of some torrent of revenue while the remainder of the cognoscent feel more palpably the extent to which they are being left behind not just financially but intellectually, socially, politically, etc, every day, and the non-cognoscent descend into a state of existence only tangentially related to any kind of advanced civilization at all, would properly be described as anxiety rather than envy. Anxiety does not carry with it the same sting of reprehensibility that envy does, and is a deeper set state of mind, less susceptible to being overcome by mockery or dismissal as well. Grown large enough, unlike the rank envy of petty individuals, I do not see how it will not have effects on the public mood and discourse.

Still, this does not address the popular arguments that are always pressed, such as that income inequality, or at least the amassing of incredible wealth by the savviest people, is not a problem and not only has no significant effect on the life of anybody else, but in fact improves the lives of the lower orders in ways that they are usually too dense to perceive.

First I will speak for myself, since with regard to envy I suppose I might be considered by the productive class a prime example of a person who must be seething with it towards every more realized person around him based on the disparity between my private self-conception and actual demonstrated value. And when placed in very near proximity to men with some similarities of background to myself who are very popular with women, who live in New York, who work or are otherwise involved in the arts or Bohemia to some extent (and consequently socialize frequently with the sophisticated and artistic women of those circles), who seem to be able to travel a lot, who are notably brilliant or at least are widely considered to be so, I have probably felt some twinges of jealousy for the things they are able to do that I am not, though in doing so I am usually acknowledging the superiority of these rivals and not attributing their success to undeserved luck or scheming how to cut them down to my level. But I am rarely in proximity to such people, especially in recent years, and real envy seems to have little pull when remote either in physical space or cultural background. Again most of what might be attributed as envy on my part seems to me much more like anxiety.

Around the time I began plotting this essay, I came upon this nasty article, which gives some examples of this attitude that petulant envy is driving most of the expression of discontent with the current direction of economic life. Like most people who hate anyone with the vaguest leftish sympathies, the aiuthor's ardor is mainly directed towards people who are as worked up on behalf of their own world views as he is for his own; still I don't like the overall tone of the piece and think the point with regard to inequality concenr is as usual missed entirely.

First there is the inevitable comparison of inequality complainers to Holden Caulfield, whose supposedly  whiny and passive aggressive, competition-averse persona has long since become a cliche for manly right wing pundits to tag their enemies with. Holden Caulfield is a teenaged character in a novel who suffers a nervous breakdown because his mind is out of step with the prevailing society all around him. I suspect he would have had little more use for modern day leftists than he would even for Republicans. The idea that there is a large class of adults, developmentally delayed or not, in 2015 that deeply identifies with this character to the point that he informs their politics to a delusional and unhealthy degree, strikes me as improbable. His book retains its popularity among some reasonably intelligent people because it is a good read, is funny, and nowadays evokes strong nostalgic associations about things like New York City and boarding schools and the 1940s, though the book nominally does not intend for them to be regarded in this light. Perhaps it appeals to people who lean somewhat leftward to begin with (though the boarding schools and the socially unjust world of the 1940s would seem to be counterintuitive or at least problematic as sources of leftist nostalgia), but its main character hardly represents the default personality of all people who are not absolutely worshipful of capitalism in the form it has taken over the last twenty years.

The hostility about the supposedly misattributed Balzac quote was bizarre. I admit I assumed that Balzac was the source of the "behind every great fortune there is a great crime" quote since everyone has always attributed it to him (the author implies that he knows this because, unlike all of the people who flourish this statement as if it contained any truth, he has read a great deal of Balzac's corpus; for my part I must confess I have only read Pere Goriot, though I did perceive the genius in it, and  Cousin Bette and Eugenie Grandet at least are on my list for someday--what I gathered from Goriot was again that the author tended to view everybody as more or less equally petty, selfish, and slavishly striving after social status, regardless of political orientation). Anybody who is a semi-conscious adult  has seen examples of moneyed interests using their resources to circumvent or otherwise protect themselves from the consequences of breaking existing laws to preserve and expand the wealth that they already possess, so it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the same ethos might in some instances have been applied in the course of amassing the original fortune. But even granting that the origins of all great wealth are founded purely in solid business acumen, at a certain level of the game artificial advantages begin to accrue to existing wealth that considerably aid the multiplication of that wealth, and enable its possessor to generate sums of money in a hour that a laborer could not make in ten or twenty years. It is this aspect of the business that I most dislike because it seems more excessive and unnecessary in its unfairness. The unfairness lies in the circumstance that all people need money, and most have a devil of a time trying to get any of it, while some few have access to sums larger than the economy of entire nations or regions. Surely there is some point at which this becomes ridiculous, if it cannot be demonstrated to be wrong or applicable to any moral system at all. But there is at present no unified movement of capable people able to apply any restrictions on its practice, which dearth of ability devoted to organizing a more empowered and juster mass society I think will eventually bring our civilization to doom.

With regard to his point about Harvard and Yale and a handful of other prized colleges, while it is true that I know a few people, albeit in my own generation, who made it into those schools from relatively ordinary backgrounds as a result of their talent and hard work, I do not know that their efforts, coming from a similar background, would be sufficient to land them there now. There does seem to be more of a suspicion than there was thirty years ago, at least when it comes to native born Americans beyond the first or second generation, that if the family has not been able to accede to some prominence by now that perhaps there is something deficient in its genetics that the top institutions would be better off not associating themselves with, apart obviously from the very rare cases where some overwhelming talent has been demonstrated during the teenaged years. I do not see how people can claim that having important or significantly wealthy parents is not a marked advantage in being admitted to these schools, even if the talented aspirant without good connections is perhaps not completely devoid of hope. I am not even going to argue in this instance that it is wrong that the children of the best people are given some priority, since wherever they congregate is naturally going to be desirable. However the entering classes at the most coveted schools remain so small that after they accomodate all of these people there are not very many spaces for the remainder of the top 1-3% of the intelligence distribution that is scattered out in the hinterlands. Despite the fearsome reputation for snootiness of Oxford and Cambridge, something like 2% of all 18 year olds in Britain matriculate at one of these two universities. That is ten times the percentage of US 18 year olds in the entire Ivy League. The anxiety about the Ivy League among people in these top few percentiles of the intelligence distribution clearly stems from the circumstance that graduates of these schools, which are inaccessible even to most people in the very top percentile of smarts and achievement, appear to be disproportionately represented among the powerful and influential (and the merely gainfully employed) in government, journalism, finance, certain fields of the arts and so on, and in many instances offer a much surer entry into these professions vis-a-vis other individual schools, many of which have many times the number of students. Part of this effect is exaggerated because media such as The New York Times cannot resist identifying people as Harvard or Princeton educated even in stories where it is not otherwise relevant (such as people taking winemaking seminars in France) which they do not feel a need to do if the person is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. There is also a degree of hype regarding products of these schools that gives them an aura of being almost superhuman in intellect and ability compared to everyone else just as a result of their school connection which is decidedly more pronounced than it was thirty years ago. All of this contributes to anxiety among people who want to be recognized as mentally capable but do not know any surer way than through academic credentialing.

He also states that the middle classes inherit a much higher percentage of their wealth than the mega rich. I am not sure where the cutoff between one class and another is in this instance, but this seems like one of those sleight of hand arguments aimed at people without any grasp of mathematics. There is a lot of ground here on which to shift. Some relevant data here would be actual figures of cash dollars, which are not given. Obviously if a middle class person has no essential wealth from his $50,000 a year income, any inheritance will make up the vast majority of his overall wealth. I do not pretend to know anything about the finances of whenever constitutes the wealthy in this statistic, but it makes it sound as if either no one is passing on these massive fortunes, or they are being passed on to people who are independently even more successful than the original bequeathers, all of which sounds suspicious to me...  

Right wing thinkers really do seem to crave a docile underclass that eagerly and cheerfully works for low pay, with no hope or expectation of that pay ever increasing unless the worker demonstrates such truly superior skill that his employer determines him to merit it, goes devoutly to church, marries in the traditional sense and sets a sober, humble example of behavior for their lower class children, asks for nothing in social services or assistance of any kind, seeks no health care or retirement that is not self-funded, and does not demand schooling for their children at government expense. That kind of society requires the underpinning of a serious and fairly deep cultural structure, which on the whole business is not commited to nor interested in developing or upholding. So that isn't going to happen anytime soon.

I have not even addressed the argument that in global terms the American middle class is the 1% and that their wealth and income, if we want to be truly just, should be cut down and redistributed to people in Indonesia and the like. But after two weeks of trying to write this post I need to end it and move on...

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