Envy or Honest Outrage?

By Joe Firestone

(Updated)

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. . . .

And then later, she says:

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 chidhood 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.

17 responses to “Envy or Honest Outrage?

  1. It’s like a person who mutilates other people’s faces going around saying people hate me because I’m beautiful.

  2. This is a brilliant quote:

    “People don’t hate you because you’re beautiful. People hate you because they are getting uglier. . . .”

    Americans are not envious. They are in despair…

  3. –seemingly unassailable oligarchs–

    Tough advice to those who have been able to accumulate wealth by hook or by crook — now is the time that they should listen to the bell. So many movements in the world were motivated by economic factors — recent one is the Arab Spring!

    • Joe Firestone

      They should have listened to the bell in 2008. But, their arrogance and will to power is overwhelming them.

  4. Joe Firestone

    Anonymous and Cory: Thanks for your comments. They led me to update the post a bit. See the change just after “In short . . . ” above.

  5. Viva la revolucion? We’d be better off trying to create market-specific economic computer models as an entry point to setting up our own hedge funds (the online Yale finance course actually gives one an idea about how one might go about doing that and SFCM simply screams out that it is designed specifically for doing that) than getting agitated about a “revolucion” that has never gotten any traction in the American system.

  6. In my mind
    “People don’t hate you because you’re beautiful. People hate you because you are making yourself more beautiful AND are making them uglier.”
    morphs to:
    “People don’t hate you because you and your children seem to live beautiful lives. People hate you because in rigging the game at our expense, you are determining that the rest of us and our children are leading uglier lives.”

  7. Joe, I think it is interesting that the people who occupy our elite punditry are so mystified by popular objections to and resentments over inequality, and struggle so awkwardly to come up with an explanation of these feelings. Have they never encountered such a thing as a sense of justice? Or is their own sense of justice so entangled with their conviction of personal merit and excellence, or by the lame Rawlsian Difference Principle taught in the Schools, that they just can’t get it?

    It is a mark of the morally corrosive and anti-social effects of modern American hyper-individualism among America’s elite that they all assume by default that people will only be worried about inequality if they are angry that they personally are not getting more and that their outrage will disappear so long as all boats are rising together on the tide, no matter how different the boats are in size.

    I would submit that most people who are exorcised by inequality are concerned about the political futures of their countries, about democratic institutions, about grotesque injustice and exploitation in everyday economic relations, about the humiliations they see others suffer and about their fellow human beings in general. It is not all about resentment over personal deprivation. Believe it or not pundits, some people actually care about other people.

    I helieve there is a very elementary code of economic justice that pervades American workplaces, although it deviates from the scholastic nonsense that passes for theories of justice in ivy-encrusted elite institutions. The code is this: if Smith isn’t working harder than Jones, then Smith doesn’t deserve to have more than Jones. I see this code in paly every day in the workplace. Believers in this code don’t always act politically on it, because they have been taught as well as everyone that resistance to the overlords is futile, and all they can achieve is a rising tide. But it is the code that lives in their hearts.

    No doubt the knowledge class is aghast at this kind of principle. After all, isn’t it obvious to everyone that since people in the knowledge class, who got the best board scores, went to the best schools and have the best jobs have won the genetic lottery, God clearly intended them to have more?

    • Joe Firestone

      Joe, I think it is interesting that the people who occupy our elite punditry are so mystified by popular objections to and resentments over inequality, and struggle so awkwardly to come up with an explanation of these feelings. Have they never encountered such a thing as a sense of justice? Or is their own sense of justice so entangled with their conviction of personal merit and excellence, or by the lame Rawlsian Difference Principle taught in the Schools, that they just can’t get it?

      I often wonder about that too. It seems that sense of justice is slumbering in all of the western world and especially here in America. The only thing that gives us hope is that we know it must awake some day. And then, if it isn’t tempered with mercy, there will be hell to pay!

  8. Good stuff Joe.

    Someone needs to invent a board game “Oligarchy” to educate the young.

    • Joe Firestone

      Lambert Strether’s a perfect candidate for that. His “oligarchy consciousness” is unmatched. See Correntewire.com and naked capitalism.com

    • They have, it’s called Monopoly. The two economic activities missing are debt and taxes which could be added with an interactive spreadsheet. Borrowing for development and taxing assets would add a twist.

  9. I don’t know who Catherine Rampell is but here’s something much more specific from one of those who challenged capitalism “Excuses won’t work, particularly in light of a handful of oligarchs in Ukraine having been allowed to loot Ukraine’s economy for tens of billions of dollars. I point specifically to Akhmetov, Pinchuk, Poroshenko, and Kuchma, and this is certainly not an exhaustive list. These people can single-handedly finance 100% of all that will ever be needed to save Ukraine’s orphans. None of them evidently bother to think past their bank accounts, and seem to have at least tacit blessings at this point from the new regime to keep their loot while no one wants to consider Ukraine’s death camps, and the widespread poverty that produced them..”

    http://www.p-ced.com/1/node/64

  10. Nikolaj Nielsen

    Beauty as a metaphor for money? Yeah right. Because money, like beauty, is just something you are born with, or not. And beauty, like money, can be shared with others.

  11. “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.”

    Forgive me for the chunk of c/p but I love how you said it and think it should be repeated every hour, on the hour, Fox News style. That’s the essence of it; it’s the increasing sense the “game is rigged”, and of course, it is!

    It’s weird, really, but telling. The “envy” hook has more real world currency in the oneupsmanship games among the 0.1% and with the CNBC type “WS celeb wannabes” than with anybody else. There’s absolutely no rational explanation, whatsoever, why Donald Trump has the pitiful following he does except that he’s rich and can buy it, and/or that there are others envious of him and want to emulate him. He makes no sense half the time, he’s failed at business innumerable times (wherein he’s survived to “fail again and again” simply by virtue of his debts being so big it hurts his debtors too much to cut him loose completely like he was so much worthless flotsam tangling the line which is how most working from the lower demographics up are not only cut loose but blackballed from the kind of quick turn around 2nd chances Trump’s been given).

    I’m not envious. I’m disgusted. Lately, I’ve been in the 1%, and even though I’m not now nor ever have been in the 0.1% demographic, I don’t identify with the defensiveness because I don’t see any pitchforked hordes of irrational people trying to send me to the guillotine because my mortgage was paid off, or even wag any scolding fingers over what I’m driving or wearing or putting in my grocery shopping cart. Where’s the sign’s this is an “envy” problem????

    Whereas there are signs on Every Side there are structural problems. And that the money funding the pushback is coming from the beneficiaries of those structural problems. And this big money pushback is so pernicious it’s tantamount to election rigging, seriously. It’s disgusting! And that’s just one tributary of The Disgusting bullshit game rigging.

  12. In our critique of how fractional reserve banking allows wealth to accumulate in the hands of a minority, there was a warning:

    19. We can choose to not reform capitalism, leave human beings to die from deprivation – where we are now – and understand that that puts people in self-defense mode.

    20. When in self-defense mode, kill or be killed, there is no civilization at all. It is the law of the jungle, where we started eons ago. In that context, ‘terrorism’ will likely flourish because it is ‘terrorism’ only for the haves, not for the have-nots. The have-nots already live in terror, as their existence is threatened by deprivation, and they have the right to fight back any way they can.

    21. ‘They’ will fight back, and do.