Envy, Anger, Greed, Sloth - (4 Out of 7 Ain’t Bad)

March 8, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many people in the US are concerned about the great increase in economic inequality. They point out, for example, that 95% of all income gains since 2008 have gone to the 1%.  Are they motivated by envy?

Arthur Brooks thinks so. His latest op-ed in the Times is “The Downside of Inciting Envy.”

Claiming to know what a person is feeling when the person himself denies that feeling is always a tricky business. When you’re attributing emotions to others, you ought to have pretty solid evidence

Undoubtedly, inequality has gotten much more attention lately. But is that attention borne on a rising tide of envy in the US? Here’s Brooks’s evidence:
  • the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s. (GSS data)
  • 43 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.” (Pew data)
  • 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. (Pew)
  • In 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.
First, Brooks’s reading of the GSS data is barely true. Respondents mark their opinion on a 7-point scale.  In 2012, 24.3% chose #1, the most redistributionist option. That was only slightly higher than in 1990 (22.6%) and 1986 (22.7%). (Using #1 and #2 combined puts 1990 highest.)

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

It’s understandable that in the Great Recession years, economic hardship would inspire more people to look to government to assuage inequality.  But before then, the average redistributionst sentiment in Republican years (Reagan-Bush41, Bush43) is higher than in Democratic years (Clinton). This might be relevant for Brooks’s assertion
we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation.
Do Republicans foment bitterness for their own political ends? Do Democratic presidents reduce envy? More to the point, do any of Brooks’s indicators really measure envy?

Two of the items are not about envy, they’re about policy. Two others are about economic reality. (Technically, one is about satisfaction with economic reality.) That too is not envy. 

Suppose Brooks had sampled attitudes about poverty and low income.
  • Should the government reduce spending on food stamps, unemployment insurance, and welfare? 
  • Do safety-net programs encourage people to avoid work and become dependent on government?
Some people will say that those programs encourage sloth and that we should cut those programs. Are these people envious of the poor (“they’re getting government handouts, and I’m not”)?  Or rather, do these questions merely tap beliefs about the effects of government policy? In my hypothetical questions and in Brooks’s real ones, it’s probably some combination – emotion (anger, envy, resentment), and beliefs about what policy would be best for the country as a whole.

Dissatisfaction and even anger are not envy. Teabaggers and others on the far right are very dissatisfied, and they vent a ton of anger at Obama. Does that mean they are envious of Obama’s political power? No, they just think that they and the country would be better off if one of their own were president. Are the Occupy people envious of the wealth of the Wall Street oligarchs? I doubt that any of the Occupiers in Zucotti Park wanted a bank account with gazillions of dollars. They just wanted what they see as a fairer tax structure and more government action to create jobs. Nevertheless, Brooks and many others automatically assume that those who are concerned about increasing inequality are motivated by personal envy.

Meanwhile, inside the Wall Street buildings, those who occupy the trading desks and offices have been known to complain (here, for example) about their mere $3 million bonus because someone else got $5 million. Now that’s envy. And greed.

(An Esquire article based on their own highly unscientific sampling of Wall Street workers had this graphic on satisfaction with the year-end bonus.)

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