Monday, February 9, 2015

Why The "Politics of Envy" Is A Stupid And Evil Idea

From 2011. I can only think it's gotten worse. Source: The Atlantic.

 Nothing pisses me off quite like hearing that being mad about rising income inequality and thinking something should be done about it means embracing a "politics of envy." What a cynical and manipulative piece of bullshit.

The phrase, I take it, is meant to suggest that if you think it's problematic that some people work hard and have huge vacation homes, while other people work hard and have unpredictable shifts at McDonald's. you're somehow suggesting that the latter people envy the former. If you're poor and you can't afford healthy food for your kids, and you're mad that someone else just bought a new yacht -- well GEE -- that's one of the seven deadly sins dude! Just say no!

The reason it's such a bullshitty idea is that the issue of inequality isn't about desires or longings or "coveting" or whatever but just about justice and fairness. You can see how ridiculous the expression is when you try to apply it to other contexts where it seems more obvious that fairness and justice are the issues.

Let's start with sports, where for some reasons people who can't wrap their heads around distributive justice seem to have a finely developed sense of fairness and right and wrong. Suppose you had a sporting competition and one team showed up with some wildly successful device that allowed them to win every time: special jumping tools for the basketball players, or sticks with magnets -- or, just say for instance, specially deflated footballs.

People would be outraged. Not fair! Cheating! Even if -- unlike the deflategate case -- there wasn't a rule specifically about these objects, you can believe people would fall all over themselves to make a rule about it. "Unfair!" "Not a fair competition!" would be the rallying cry. OK. Would you say that the eternally losing teams had a "politics of envy" toward the always winning team? No, I didn't think so.

Next, what about that whole high-frequency trading kerfuffle? Basically, the idea here is that in certain circumstances it's possible to exploit tiny differences in the speeds of information transfer to get an advantage in some finance markets. In his book Flash Boys, Michael Lewis's describes people actually moving their desks from one end of a room to another to gain an advantage.

Large advantages to those with fast connections is widely considered unfair. Not by everyone, but certainly by a lot of people, including investors and industry professionals. Now what if you approached those investors and industry professionals and said, "Unfair? Oh -- that's a politics of envy. Just because some people can finagle things with higher speeds -- you just envy their awesome computer power dude! Chill it with the deadly sins already and just embrace losing!"

Finally, think about discrimination. Suppose suddenly it became widely agreed that to address the wrongs of the past, there was going to be radical preferential treatment agains straight white men. Straight white men would always be last to be considered on any list for anything. What do you think would be the general response? "Oh -- all those white guys begging for coins while the rest of us prosper? That's just a politics of envy." Yeah, right. It's hard to imagine a world in which "unjust and unfair" wouldn't be the main rallying cry against this.

So, WTF? Why call it politics of envy when it's general inequality? How did people become so convinced that the status quo is somehow just or fair?

Look, you were born with certain advantages of smart and healthy and strong and able or you were weren't. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. You were born to a family that nourished you and prepared you for life and gave you an inheritance or you were born to one that abused and ignored you. It wasn't your choice or effort or lack thereof, and it's not to your credit or discredit either way. It's just like a team or a trader with a great modem -- not fair.

As long as we live in capitalism we probably can't disconnect success from luck and get rid of this problem -- but what we can do is make it less bad. Especially at the bottom. No one in a rich country should have to work three crappy jobs with unpredictable hours and still not make enough to get by. It's ridiculous, and not fair. It has nothing to do with envy. Sheesh.

In this article about Clinton's preparing for the presidential run, Larry Summers uses says how important it is to find a way to talk about inequality without "embracing a politics of envy." The article also talks about how to talk about anything other than growth and opportunity is to want to "punish the rich," and is "vilifying the wealthy."


Please, just stop. It's not about envy -- and it's not "punishing" or "villifying" anyone -- to want to take some baby steps toward ameliorating the harshness of the radically different life outcomes that result from factors completely beyond your control.

2 comments:

thefringthing said...

This reminds me of a stand up bit I heard recently on Put Your Hands Together.

The comic mentioned that some extremely wealthy person had said publicly that he was worried about an impending Holocaust of the wealthy or something like that.

The comic said that this made him realize he supported doing everything to the extremely wealthy that the Nazis did to the Jews aside from actually killing them. But then again, if someone offered him a lampshade made out of Mark Zuckerberg, he'd accept it.

That's certainly not envy, anyway.

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