Philosophy Weekend: Wealth and Envy

A video that’s been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America’s treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that’s worth “a six-pack of Rolexes” has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.

I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don’t know how much a Rolex costs, but I’ve never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn’t want to wear it. I don’t wear a wristwatch at all, and really don’t understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn’t strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.

And yet I’ve heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don’t think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that’s as far as the envy goes.

I am not pretending to be free of envy, which is of course one of the seven mortal sins. I’ll confess right now that I sometimes feel bitter envy and even irrational hatred for certain famous writers who’ve undeservedly “made it big”, like the popular novelist Jonathan Lethem. Lethem drives me crazy because his background is so similar to mine — same generation, same city, same ethnic background, same formative literary influences, same Talking Heads albums. I don’t think Lethem’s novels are very good, and yet he’s a gigantic success, wealthy and famous, and I’m a scrubby blogger with a day job.

I may as well admit that this painful literary envy of mine sometimes spirals out of control, and involves not just Lethem but several of my other generational literary peers. Jonathan Franzen is even more wealthy and famous than Jonathan Lethem, and I envy him too, though not as much, because at least this Jonathan is a good enough writer to deserve the prizes he’s won. I used to resent the vast success of David Foster Wallace until David Foster Wallace committed suicide — a bracing existential reminder for me that maybe I don’t have it so bad in my humble perch after all.

There’s a point to my embarrassing fit of honesty here, and the point is this: I sometimes feel great envy, but it would never occur to me to envy a successful businessperson. What I have always yearned for is the thrill of creative and artistic genius and renown. An investor with a six-pack of Rolexes on his wrist? That just doesn’t do anything for me. A gigantic house, a luxury car? I wouldn’t know what to do with them except sell them and give the money to charity.

I know that many people do sincerely yearn for business success. When I was a kid in junior high school I had a pleasant but nerdy friend named Bill Merrell who carried a briefcase and declared that he would someday be president of General Motors, Chrysler or Ford. (I don’t think he ever made it, but I bet he did his best.) Me, I was born and raised a happy bohemian. I sat in class next to Bill Merrell and dreamed of writing a rock opera (who am I kidding? I wrote an entire rock opera in my head in 7th and 8th grade, and I still remember all the songs). I wouldn’t enjoy the lifestyle of a corporate CEO. I don’t want to wear those clothes, I don’t want to drive that car, I don’t want to live in that house. But it would mean the world to me if I could write a novel that millions of people would want to read, if I could invent a new way to play electric guitar like Eddie Van Halen once did, if I could just once do a hot sixteen on a track with Jay-Z and Kanye West at a recording studio instead of a karaoke booth. And I’m also often happy — happy to have a good marriage, a loving healthy family, an exciting if frustrating career, a crazy website, lots of amazing friends. This is the only kind of success I would ever yearn for.

I suspect that a similar difference in dreams often (though surely not always) divides one brand of Republicans/conservatives from one brand of Democrats/liberals. Fellow economic progressives and left-wingers that I talk to often express strongly arts-oriented value systems like mine. Others envy great athletes or great scientists. Some have ambitions on a smaller human scale: they wish to be great doctors, great teachers, great lovers, great parents. But I don’t think most people I know yearn for great financial or business success at all. We’d be happy to enjoy this success if it came our way, but it’s not part of our value system, and attaining it wouldn’t thrill us to the marrow.

This is an important point because many conservatives really believe that wealth envy drives the liberal agenda. We seem to be having a tough national debate about income equality right now, and the word “envy” comes up constantly in this debate. So does the phrase “class warfare”, and the question “why do liberals hate the rich?”.

This is a core theme, in fact, for the Koch-backed/Wall Street wing of the Republican party, and the theme is going to keep coming up for the next couple of years. Here’s 2016 Presidential candidate Marco Rubio in a misty-eyed speech about how his hardworking parents made it in America:

We’ve never been people that go around and confront people that have been financially successful and say, “We hate you. We envy you because of how well you’re doing.”

Here’s 2016 Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, strumming the same chords:

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan accused President Barack Obama of capitalizing on voter “fear, envy and anger” in his rhetoric.

“I think he’s preying on the emotions of fear, envy and anger,” the Wisconsin Republican said today on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “And that is not constructive to unifying America. I think he’s broken his promise as a uniter, and now he’s dividing people. And to me, that’s very unproductive. That’s not who we are in America.”

Republicans have criticized the president’s push to raise taxes for upper income earners, labeling it “class warfare.” Ryan echoed that message today.

“I think this divisive rhetoric is fairly — is divisive,” he said. “I think it’s troubling. Sowing class envy and social unrest is not what we do in America.”

And, just for nostalgia’s sake, here’s 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney also saying the same thing:

Romney has accused President Obama of promoting the “bitter politics of envy.” The president is ramping up his talks about the nation’s growing income divide and the shrinking of the middle class. He is focusing on the tax benefits afforded to millionaires and executives.

Romney, who is one of those millionaires, is taking a different path. He says he’s distancing himself from what he calls “a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach.”

Rubio and Ryan and Romney are not pretending to believe that economic liberals and progressives envy and hate the rich. They really believe it. So do other economic conservatives I’ve spoken to. They really do not understand the wide variety of personal ambitions that drive typical Americans. They really don’t know who we are.

When Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney hears that a liberal voter wishes for a more equitable and fair distribution of wealth because we think this would improve our society and our lives, they really do not know that this voter is speaking from the heart. When they hear that we’d like to raise taxes on the wealthy because, well, the wealthy helped squander the money that put our country in debt, and so we need them to help pay it off, they can’t take this equation on face value. They think it’s all a cover for envy and class hatred. This lack of basic understanding is deeply felt, and it seems to be at the core of our divisive current political debate.

Money, taxation, wealth: these are heavy, emotionally-charged topics that subconsciously drive many of our allegedly rational policy debates. Do the math? Sure, but let’s also do the psychology. Understanding each other’s personal motivations better is a necessary first step towards finding a compromise that can solve our nation’s economic problems. When I hear a rich person reveal his belief that everybody envies him, I only want to say this: I’ll respect your dream if you’ll respect mine.

13 Responses

  1. Nothing persuasive here. I’ll
    Nothing persuasive here. I’ll continue to belief that envy is a powerful force in progressive thought. It’s an easy interpretation to support with quotes from the left.

    Ignorance of how wealth is formed and how it is sustained also plays a permanent role–hence the repetitive failures of foreign aid programs and of welfare policies that institutionalize poverty, contributing to a permanent underclass. It’s nearly impossible to solve the problems of poverty by sending money–and it’s completely impossible to eradicate inequality by making laws. The left has tried totalitarianism numerous times and how things really work is well-established by historical analysis, available to anyone so inclined.

    Yes, liberals are nice people who just want good things for everyone. But they have no vision for lifting people out of poverty that is true enough to actually work very well. They lack such a vision because, as this essay demonstrates, they are fixated on their own sensitivity and their own emotions, and don’t bother with the hard work of knowing things as they really are.

  2. Thanks for the reasonable
    Thanks for the reasonable critique, Michael.

    You say that progressive envy is an easy interpretation to support with quotes from the left. Well, I can’t think of any examples — can you? I believe you will find quotes expressing anger at the rich, particularly for the excesses leading up to the crash of 2007/2008. But I don’t know where you’ll find quotes showing envy of the rich.

    I disagree about the effectiveness of foreign aid and anti-poverty programs. I won’t pretend to be an expert on this topic, but I was persuaded by this great piece recently published by Bill Gates titled “3 Myths The Block Progress For The Poor”.

    And you say “it’s completely impossible to eradicate inequality by making laws”. Of course, there’s no such thing as eradicating inequality, but there certainly have been laws in the USA in the last century to alleviate the problem — minimum wage laws, workers’ rights laws, child labor laws, consumer protection laws, fair banking laws. It seems to me that the general comparative prosperity of most western democratic nations around the world is a credit to the effectiveness of these laws.

  3. Examples of envy among
    Examples of envy among liberals? I’ve encountered this innumerable times. It’s a structural principle of reality, like sunshine. If you don’t see it arguments will have no effect. Most recently, I was dismayed at the utter hatred toward Romney in the last campaign I encountered with several liberals I talked with–because he was rich and “uncaring”–that was precisely the emotional reaction propagandists for O sought with tens of millions of dollars in high inaccurate and hateful ads. They were hating in unison, all with the same dishonest talking points. It was the dirtiest campaign I’ve seen, and it worked. I particularly remember trying to discuss her thoughts with a normally quite sweet progressive woman–and the sneering twisted hatred in her face talking about Romney, repeating precisely the message of the ads, which were extremely inaccurate about Romney’s real biography. Creepy, by my lights.

    I’d say none of the policies you cite in your last paragraph take aim primarily at “inequality,” though minimum wage laws come closest. The extent that minimum wage laws are actually beneficial to the poor overall is contestable, though for sure they have at least short-term benefits for particular workers. The rest of those laws aim at other things: one can be in favor of mitigating obvious dangers in the workplace without being in favor of leveling incomes.

    Working to assist the poor and improve their circumstances is, I think, a primary human obligation. But that’s not the same thing as seeking economic equality, which is mainly useful to an inner party trying to create a servile society–as anybody knows who has seriously looked into the matter. Many of the poor in America society today do not actually suffer from hunger and cold–and have cars, telephones, access to healthcare, and video games. They are afflicted not by the historical curses of poverty so much as by envy. Others have so much more–72-inch televisions, private boxes at the Superbowl, vacations in paradise, etc etc etc etc….It’s a horrible affliction.

    A wise people would try to reduce and minimize envy, but for the left encouraging it and fanning its flames is a political strategy, in a precise mirror of the way some on the right portray all of the poor as shiftless and lazy.

    I do think it’s possible to work toward a society in which we have “all things in common”–which again is not the same thing as income equality, though it would eliminate most of the pathologies of poverty. But only a society in which people first had in common some fundamental moral beliefs and practices, of precisely the sort progressives undermine at ever step, could pull it off.

    However, I think the revolution has been largely accomplished, and we no longer live in a Constitutional republic but are governed by principles of demagoguery, and we’ve passed a point of no return. For the future, people of good will should look for forms of community quite distinct from the state, and minimize to the extent they can the intrusion of the state into their families and churches and communal organizations. Forming a “we” of the nation no longer seems within the realm of likely futures.

  4. Michael, when you hear a
    Michael, when you hear a liberal say that they disagree with the pro-wealth policies of a Mitt Romney or a Paul Ryan, why won’t you take it on face value that they disagree with the policies? Why must you insist that they are expressing an emotional feeling like “envy” or “hatred”?

    Liberals like me are concerned about the hazards of plutocracy (rule of the wealthy, which is basically the Mitt Romney position). We’re also very aware that pro-wealth policies since the age of Reagan have helped the wealthy get wealthier while the middle class gets poorer. We have rational objections to these kinds of policies. It has nothing to do with envy.

    Personally, I hated Mitt Romney too — back when he had a chance to become the next terrible President of the USA. As soon as it became blissfully evident that he would not become President, I stopped hating him.

  5. Obama ran a dirty campaign
    Obama ran a dirty campaign against Romney? Bending reality is a conservative mainstay, Michael Umphrey. I think most liberals feel that conservatives have to change reality to fit their constituents’ demands. Maybe liberals do it too, but I don’t believe it is anywhere near the scale of conservatives.

    Consider “Pro Life” as a way to describe anti-abortion when another main socially conservative demand is the death penalty. Calling criticism from the Left to the Right “class warfare” and saying that welfare programs institutionalize poverty, when Capitalism, at its very definition depends on poverty and divisiveness, is an absurdity. The biggest bending of reality, I think, that we as Americans need to constantly associate, is the criticism of Obama and liberals as inviting government into our lives, as if to reference dictatorial regimes. Every time I hear a Republican say we should take the government out of our lives, all I hear is “we should invite corporations and their hegemonic social standards INTO our lives.”


  6. Levi, It wasn’t that long ago
    Levi, It wasn’t that long ago – from the 1930’s say up until the end of the 70s that being extremely rich was looked down upon by most people. The “captains of industry” had to tone down their image through philanthropy and civic good works. Look at the portrayal of the rich in popular culture: Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. or my favorite from the Kinks “Victoria”: “Long ago, life was clean/Sex was bad and obscene/And the rich were so mean”. I don’t agree with the sex part, although Davies was describing the Victorian age, but “The rich were so mean” true then true now.

    Then in the 1980s we had a shift in perception. Ivan Boesky saying that “Greed is good” and this being echoed in “Wall Street” by Boesky surrogate Gordon Gecko. So being a greed-head was considered socially acceptable.

    But what normal people feel about these ultra rich buffoons like Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers is not envy – who would want to be like that – so clueless and insensitive – no the feeling is contempt and disgust for their naked, unabashed greed.

    There is nothing wrong with making money and being successful, but to make money your religion, and start saying that you as the rich are a privileged class and that special exceptions should be made for you and that these exceptions will somehow “trickle down” to everyone is sheer unmitigated bunk.

    Think back to the portrayals of the unequal society in Dickens or Upton Sinclair. Do we really want to go back to an era where workers were virtual slaves and the rich were only concerned with profit at all cost – or are were already there?

    Envy, shmenvy. Let’s do like they did in Huckleberry Finn to the Duke and the King: Tar and feather them and run them out of town on a rail!

  7. well put and painfully
    well put and painfully familiar regarding literary success and envy. reminds me of that poem that starts “the book of my enemy has been remaindered…”

  8. I had a few crumbs to add to
    I had a few crumbs to add to this but after reading both of Micheal Umphrey’s comments I was aghast! Another in so many conversations between the Progressive faction and the Conservative faction that is an intellectual divide that will seemingly never be crossed. Useless to discuss anything with folks that believe what he exemplifies here and I’m sure he feels just the same judging by his own replies.

    Amazing to be living in this country of opposites, never knowing who agrees with you or not.. and it does make a difference. With a President who was duly elected following 8 years of Dubya Bush and we’re now into 13+ years of political division and the most opinionated public ever in our history abusing the hell out of this internet and the abuse of freedom of speech. I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of opinions, opinions, opinions and not an ounce of wisdom to be heard. Damn!

  9. Levi, if you’re concerned
    Levi, if you’re concerned about being ruled by plutocrats and/or the wealthy, then the fact that the number of millionaire Dems in Congress outnumbering their Republican counterparts should be bothersome.
    Is there envy? maybe, but when politicians (including the President) make statement along the lines of “you’ve made enough” and “share the wealth”, what reaction do you think the low information voters have? if not envy, then possibly outright hatred because of their belief that they aren’t receiving their fair share of America’s bounty? The inherent view here is that the pie is of a fixed size – and if someone is getting more than “their fair share”, then someone else (or many someone elses) is being prevented from getting “their fair share”.
    Do I resent someone who has multiple rolex’s or other trappings of wealth? No, I might think it’s gaudy, but it is their money to spend as they see fit.

  10. A good discussion. Personally
    A good discussion. Personally, I don’t envy or hate the rich. I echo Levi’s sentiment that the relative freedom of being well-off would bring is appealing, but that’s about it. Material success doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest when compared with genuine impact on hearts and minds of people. That said, I do think there are people out there who envy and hate the rich. Life isn’t as simple as taking people’s comments on face value and everyone has different dreams, envies and motivations.

  11. I think it comes down to this
    I think it comes down to this: The majority of people are invested in the stories that make up the world. They think the stories are real and act in accordance with them. Their beliefs give them the self-awarded privilege to do as they see fit in the name of ‘wealth creation.’ Which is just another name for selfishness.

    Some of us know that all the stories about the world are made up. There are no countries, or corporations, or economic systems, or governments, or religions, or currency, or educational criteria, or property rights, except for the ones we humans invented. None of those things were here on the planet when we found the place and they will disappear from it when we are gone.

    All those things were invented to organize society, but we have forgotten that those systems were supposed to serve, and now those systems enslave. Making that single realization–that all the stories are invented–is the definition of enlightenment.

    The people who envy the rich are those who believe in the systems but have no means to participate in it.

  12. To all those who argue for a
    To all those who argue for a redistribution of wealth:

    Would you sacrifice your big screen TV for it? Would you sacrifice your car for it? Would you sacrifice your house or your designer clothes for it? Of course not because anyone who has these things and still argues for a redistribution of wealth must either want more of these things and bigger better versions or they fear the impending doom of a post apocalyptic style depression. If it is the former then it would seem the republican rich have a point, it is envy when you get right down to brass tacks. If it is the latter then maybe we should see just where the rabbit hole ends…

    What is a post apocalyptic style depression anyway?

    It’s a place where banks close, where the dollar and the tp square have equal footing, where crops dry up due to the lack of government subsidies and supermarket shelves are never restocked. It’s a place where there are no jobs and people starve because they can’t buy any food and everyone is killing and climbing over each other for scraps to live on. But alas, all these fears would be meaningless after a few months and then the thing we as Americans fear most would come to bear. After all the factories and roads and Walmarts and wall sockets and strip malls and gas stations and office cubicles where gone we’d have to actually live a sustainable, electronic entertainment free, hunter, gatherer, grower, family supporting, slow, low tech, localized lifestyle. We would have to dig wells and walk out doors in the cold night to poop. We’d have to walk everyday and lift things and hammer on things and sweat and churn and pulverize and soak and wait. And worst of all we wouldn’t have a TV or computer or cell phone to continuously distract us from life. No, we wouldn’t just shrivel up and die, but “wealth” as we know it would cease to exist. Also we would no longer be destroying our habitat and any and all politics would happen in the designated neighbors living room. And unless one is arguing for the swift installation of such a “catastrophe” how can that someone possibly be arguing from any place but a place of envy? Only those who cannot put food on their table and a roof over their head can honesty argue for a redistribution of wealth and have a leg to stand on. And if that is your circumstance then why not argue for the revamping of land ownership and taxation laws so that the poor and/or otherwise might have a free or easily acquirable place to create a sustainable lifestyle and community? Ask around, I think you’ll find that such a concept is considered ridiculous and extreme and somehow wickedly communist and if that is the case aren’t we all just grabbing for Rolex’s after all?

    To hate the wealthy is to either hate that they have more than you (because what is “a wealthy person” compared to you but that alone) or to hate how they got that way and how it’s harming the world around it. And as long as you are sucking up your own copious amount of polluting energy wastage with your laundry dryer and your air conditioner, and as long as you’re shopping at their stores making them richer – creating a demand for the sweatshop workers and the quarrying and the deforestation and the strip-mining – how pray tell are you any better than they are and how could your argument be based in anything beyond envy?

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