05 January 2011

Why aren't the poor more angry?

If Frances Piven wants the unemployed and the poor to get angry (see below), her insistence begs the question of why they don't seem to be as angry about American inequality as many leftists think they should be. Michael Barone offers a familiar answer, arguing here that, despite the reality of inequality, most Americans don't resent the super-rich because their own relative poverty is a far less miserable state than that endured by, say, the poor of a century ago. As long as they can afford to shop at Wal-Mart, and the assumption is that anyone can, Americans don't feel either the objective privation nor the envy toward the wealthy that Republicans sometimes attribute to them. If anyone feels class envy, Barone writes, it's the intellectual class of which Piven is a representative -- the people who resent the superior status, rather than the greater wealth, of mere businessmen compared to themselves.

Barone in turn directs us to an article by Tyler Cowen, who discusses "The Inequality that Matters." For Cowen, income inequality itself isn't cause for alarm. In most cases, he writes, it reflects the inevitably difference in rewards for the real strivers -- those who get incentive pay and bonuses for their efforts -- and what Cowen calls the "threshold earners," -- a category that presumably includes most working Americans. I found this distinction interesting because it tends to confirm my suspicion that entrepreneurial Republicans espouse a "success ethic" rather than a "work ethic." Here's how Cowen defines the term.

A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person’s income will never rise much above the threshold....If the percentage of threshold earners rises for whatever reasons, however, the aggregate gap between them and the more financially ambitious will widen. There is nothing morally or practically wrong with an increase in inequality from a source such as that.

There'd be nothing wrong, arguably, as long as the economy makes it possible for people to "get by" on their eight hours a day. That's the "work ethic" as I think it's commonly understood: I put in my time and in return I'm entitled to a decent life with a little leisure thrown in. Ideally, there should be no contradiction between that work ethic and a success ethic that rewards extra effort. But I worry about the advent of a success ethic that overturns the traditional work ethic and requires everyone to maximize their productivity, or else. If not yet a major factor in income inequality, this may be a factor in the current persistence of unemployment. Meanwhile, Cowen himself is concerned with the leading edge of inequality, the enrichment of the top 1% of the population and particularly the aggrandizement of the financial sector. Reckless financial risk-taking increases inequality, he suggests, both by offering the risk-taker astounding rewards and by burdening the rest of society with the obligation to bail out banks and brokers when their failures threaten the overall economy. He sees no simple solution, but at least he sees a problem.

In any event, neither Cowen nor Barone notice any widespread resentment of the rich in general among the poor in general. In part, that may be because the relatively poor recognize themselves as "threshold earners" and concede that those who work harder deserve more. On the other hand, it's hard to know how to measure how the poor really feel. Like Piven, these writers may base their opinions on whether or not the poor form mobs and start riots. But there's probably a difference between how people act and what they believe. The difference has a lot to do with the kind of political action people believe they're entitled to take. You may well resent the hell out of rich people, but you may also feel that you don't have a right to start a riot, or even a right to demand a bigger, more equitable share of the nation's wealth. The more conservative the observer, the more likely he may be to assume that the poor, if not content, are at least complacent. In some cases, cowed may be a better term to describe their mental state. It may be as simple as a lack of class consciousness, or a carefully cultivated failure to consider what workers' fair share of national wealth might actually be. The answer could be simpler yet; acknowledging some accuracy to Cowen and Barone's observations, we might conclude that the poor aren't yet poor enough to feel truly deprived or angry. You'd hope they wouldn't have to get that poor first, but foresight hasn't really been anyone's strong suit lately in this country.

1 comment:

Crhymethinc said...

If their parents and/or grandparents were part of the "beat" generation, there is no reason to assume that the poor of today don't feel the same way - "beat".

I don't imagine many poor people take part in - or are even invited to take part in - whatever polls may be used to decide whether the poor envy the wealthy or blame the wealthy or are angry at the wealthy. I can't imagine why any credence should be paid attention to Cowen.

Insofar as the "success" ethic, I will again argue that many of these people who claim their success merits them the rewards they take, that their "success" would not exist if not for all those people working under them. And what is their reward for making the top dog successful?