Envy or Honest Outrage?
Catherine Rampell offered a theory the other day, in a piece entitled: “Income inequality isn’t about the rich — it’s about the rest of us.” She says:
People don’t hate you because you’re beautiful. People hate you because they are getting uglier. . . .
Yes, anti-inequality rhetoric has grown in recent years. But it’s not the growing wealth of the wealthy that Americans are angry about, at least not in isolation. It’s the growing wealth of the wealthy set against the stagnation or deterioration of living standards for everyone else. Polls show that Americans pretty much always want income to be distributed more equitably than it currently is, but they’re more willing to tolerate inequality if they are still plugging ahead. That is, they care less about Lloyd Blankfein’s gigantic bonus if they got even a tiny raise this year.
She proceeds to review polling data to show that this is so, and then advises the 0.1% that if they want to be left alone then “they should probably support policies that “promote the upward mobility of other Americans. . . “ such as Pell Grants, higher minimum wages, and early childhood education.
That’s not bad advice, of course, but I wonder what people will think of the 0.1 % when they understand more fully that their efforts to get ahead aren’t independent of the 0.1%’s efforts over the years to manipulate both the poitical and economic systems. And that further, the primary cause of the failure of poor people and the middle class to gain ground over the past 40 years is due to the deliberate efforts of the wealthy to structure both economics and politics in such a way that both nominal and real wealth would flow increasingly from the bottom to the top.
I suspect that the more people come to understand the increasing rigging of the game over a long period of time, the more likely it is that they will be bothered by increasing inequality all of the time, even when they themselves are living through a good year or two when they are making marginal gains. It is also more likely, that when they come to that understanding, the pitchforks and guillotines will come out, because people will blame the rich for the extremes of inequality and will replace any sense of fleeting envy they may have with a continuing sense of honest outrage at the Koch brothers, the Petersons, the Walmart family, and their compatriots, who have created the conditions that have made them periodically unemployed, ill-educated, financially insecure, subject to difficulties in getting medical care without going bankrupt, in staying in their homes, and to lack of opportunities and declining hopes for the future.
In short, I’m saying that:
People don’t hate you because you’re beautiful. People hate you because you are making yourself more beautiful AND are making them uglier.
So, even though the rich are periodically unpopular when the economy falls into bad times, it is nothing compared to what people are likely to direct at them, when they understand who is to blame for the plight of most of the population. That’s when the proverbial s__t will hit the fan.
My advice to the oligarchs is this. You aren’t involved in a low risk, predictable game, here. You’ve ruined people’s lives through your actions for many years now. Once the conditions for them are present, which will happen when people see your role in their plight clearly, mass movements can emerge at any time, and they can easily get out of control, as many seemingly unassailable oligarchs have found out in the past.
The wise thing to do is to give way to the inevitable thrust toward greater economic, social, and political democracy. Play the handmaiden to that transition, because then you may be able to keep most of your ill-gotten gains and have a place of honor besides.
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)
Picture from mSeattle licensed under Creative Commons