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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gotta Love Pie in the Sky American Optimism



Yonatan Zunger / Google+:
John Oliver had a great piece talking about income inequality in the US, and how people perceive it. The key point, which he does a great job of explaining, is how people perceive laws which protect the rich at their own expense as being in their favor, in case they might become rich in the future: there's a profound psychology behind that. As he puts it, "I can clearly see this game is rigged... which is what's going to make this so sweet when I win this thing!"

There are actually many deeper levels to this thought which he doesn't go in to, but which also affect us deeply. The belief that "most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard" -- held by 60% of Americans according to a Pew study -- has as its other side the implication that if you don't get ahead, that means you personally failed.

Apart from the obvious implications this perspective has for policy (are the poor poor because they didn't try hard enough?) this has individual consequences. Michael Kimmel pointed out a very interesting one in the context of gender: to be a (white) man in the US (especially if you come from a "traditional" American home) carries with it a very strong version of this norm, that if you work hard, play by the rules, don't whine, don't ask for things, and so on, you'll succeed: the reward will be a good job, a home, a family, the respect of other men. This is the social status of maleness: it has nothing to do with your genitals, it has to do with being accepted and respected as a man. That's just the same sort of thing that John Oliver is talking about, but with extras on it: it's a belief that if you work hard, and sacrifice a lot, you'll succeed, and thus get the respect of your peers.

So what happens, in this story, if the economy is in the dumps, or if the factories close, or for any one of twenty other reasons you don't succeed? Not only do you not succeed, but you lose your status as a man: which is to say, you lose one of the things that's most core to your self-identification. You lose (you expect) the respect of your peers. The problem with this vision is that it ties absolutely everything up into one basket, and tells you that success or failure is entirely your fault. Which would be a lot better if that were actually true; but (coming back to the economics again), it really isn't, especially today. Most people could never afford to buy the house they grew up in -- not because of anything they did, but because of the relative trajectories of real estate prices and wages. Houses simply cost a lot more than they once did, which is another way of saying that wealth (things you own) is steadily becoming more valuable than your labor. Which is great if you inherit the house, but not so great if you don't -- or if, say, you lose that house in a foreclosure, which therefore not only costs you your home, but that large asset which can give you income (e.g. in the form of not having to pay rent yourself) in the future.

The myth that we "have never been a nation of haves and have-nots; we are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves" (as Sen. Rubio puts it) is captivating, but it doesn't actually make economic sense: Unless the total wealth of the country is increasing quickly enough for literally everyone to be getting not just richer, but enough richer to make a qualitative class leap, it would be physically impossible for this to work. And -- as John Oliver points out, and really, why are you reading this instead of listening to him? He's much funnier than I am -- that belief can be used by crafty politicians to fleece you.

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