Never mind the gap

The essence of the superior man is that he is free of … envy. Conscious of his capacity to survive and prosper within his own field, he has no desire to change places with anyone else, and hence he is incapable of envying anyone else. Thus he is inevitably a bad democrat, for democracy is a practical matter is based mainly and perhaps almost wholly on envy. — H. L. Mencken

There’s a growing gap between rich and poor. Didn’t you hear? (It’s been reported here, here, here, here and of course here.)

So. What.

I can think of no more meaningless an “issue” than this. It’s not just the recent reports on census data; the narrative is perennial. I realize income inequality is a bee that buzzes incessantly in the bonnets of progressives. The MSM leaped on the “story” like frat boys on a pizza. But take it from one who drives a 1995 Mazda Protégé: It doesn’t matter. We need to think more critically about this so-called “gap” before shaking our heads anymore in either sanctimony or shame.

The poor person in America today enjoys more goods, services and greater quality of life than any poor person ever has in human history. Inequality of outcome makes that possible. Indeed, compared to most of the rest of the world, the American poor have it made. In the United States, the poor live longer and better lives than any 18th-century nobleman.

“But people do not experience life as an interesting moment in the evolution of human societies,” rejoins Timothy Noah of Slate. “They experience it in the present and weigh their own experience against that of the living.”

It’s a funny thing. I haven’t noticed the poor pulling at the gilded gates of the rich, threatening to tear them down. Even crime is down. Many of the working poor are prepared to turn the worst of the redistributionists out on their ears in November. Why? Maybe because they’ve learned the welfare state does little for human dignity. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen where that road leads — to ghettos, crime and a permanent underclass. Maybe because they see no common sense in further weighing down those who might employ them.

Or maybe they just don’t wallow in envy.

No, the only people who notice “the gap” today are so-called intellectuals — trustafarians and others many of whom — themselves — grew up slurping at silver spoons. They often become writers, academics and activists, perhaps in order to assuage their own guilt.

The poorest in America get free healthcare, food stamps, subsidized housing, and pay virtually nothing in taxes (and of course, none of these benefits are counted by the Census as income). Their kids get free schools and free lunches. The only way leftish demagogues can continue to oil the guilt/envy machine is to relativize poverty — that is, to compare the poorest with the richest. And that is nothing more than an appeal to people’s baser instincts. It’s a political call to class warfare that the rest of America has simply left behind.

In “reporting” about poverty, both the poor and the rich are often referred to as abstractions — classes or quintiles — rarely as individuals. Unless we’re being offered some anecdote designed to divine our crocodile tears, we won’t hear about real people. We’ll be given stats framed to elicit a certain response. We rarely hear the story of a welfare recipient with an Acura, gold teeth, fat rims and a two-pack-a-day habit in Slate or Salon. But we’ll pay for his reckless lifestyle over and over again. And this person is not exceptional.

  • Sid Knee

    Wow…what a complete and utter douchebag.

  • Gord Tulk

    While quantitatively the rich may be getting richer – compound interest alone can make that happen, qualitatively the gap between rich and poor in America and pretty much around the world has never been closer.

    A hundred years ago the rich had clean running water, indoor plumbing and heating and electricity while the poor had none of those “luxuries”. Today even squeegee kids have access to all of those things even if they choose not to avail of them. Bill gates can own a thousand cellphones if he wants but he can only use one at a time and it will be hardly any better than the one I am using to type this comment. The same goes for his car, his TV, his microwave and his bed.

    Also it is the rich who are the poor’s R & D team. They are the ones who pay exorbitant prices for the latest high tech gizmos and other products. The fifteen thousand dollar flat screens that you now get for free if you open a bank account. They paid two grand for a microwave oven or a cellphone or that much extra for car with power windows and locks and cruise.
    Without the rich the poor would still be changing the TV channel by hand-turning a rotary dial.

    It also needs to be understood that it is easy to be poor and at the very least one has to be disciplined to be rich. Twenty minutes at a table in Vegas can turn a very rich person into a poor one.

    So we should respect and appreciate the rich for all they contribute to our betterment – not just theirs. By and large they should bs admired not pilloried.

  • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ theradicalmoderate

    I’m with you on your basic “envy doesn’t count” argument, but there are some things around the edges that are important markers of societal health, and some of these are not going in the right direction:

    1) Relative economic mobility. As you point out, in terms of absolute economic mobility, today’s poor are vastly better off than they were in the past. But a big chunk of the American ethos is tied up in the idea that anybody can improve his relative station in life. How likely is it that somebody in the bottom quintile makes it into one of the higher quintiles? Similarly, how likely is it that somebody from the top quintile falls into one of the lower quintiles? Interesting data at http://www.economicmobility.org/assets/pdfs/EMP_Across_Generations.pdf on this. It’s pretty clear that it’s especially hard to rise from quintile 1 to 2, but it’s even harder to fall from quintile 5 to 4. I can’t find out (given the amount of research I’m willing to put into this on Saturday morning) whether we’re becoming less mobile over time–I sort of have a gut feeling that that’s true, but no data to support it. If it is true, it’s much more socially disruptive than actual income inequality.

    2) Helplessness and uncertainty. The rich will always be very secure, and the poor will always be insecure, but those middle three quintiles are experiencing a huge erosion in security. That feeling of middle-class insecurity is hard to disentangle from the envy factor. When you see somebody who has no chance of falling in economic standing making more and more money, while you’re doing OK but hanging on by your fingernails, that’s going to cause some class tension.

    3) Disparities in those ever-popular “inalienable rights”. It’s one thing to discount the envy of a poor person on the bus as he watches a rich person climbing aboard his private jet, but it’s quite another thing when the rich person and his kids are living longer and healthier than you and yours are. I admit that that’s still a purely envy-based argument, but it’s the kind of envy that makes the villagers storm the castle walls with their torches and pitchforks.

    None of this invalidates your argument, but it ought to be prescriptive about ways to reduce the underlying societal tension: Removing the ridiculous “notch” in the welfare structure, which punishes the poor so severely when they increase their income just a fraction, would go further toward increasing absolute economic mobility than any other measure. And a thorough comparison of what goods and services are more and less affordable for the poor now than in the past would be an excellent way of ensuring that we all had a sense that everybody’s absolute economic well-being continued to improve.

    Of course, none of these measures would do as much as an end to the stupid recession. You just don’t here these kinds of complaints in good times. Unfortunately, I think we’re in for some hard years, especially since those fine folks in Washington haven’t lost their knack for doing the exactly wrong thing at exactly the wrong time.

  • flips

    Without a middle class, America is screwed.

    There will be no economic recovery if families don’t have enough income to spend.

    Robert Reich explains:
    “[The middle class] can’t go deeper and deeper into debt. They can’t work longer hours. They’ve exhausted all of their coping mechanisms,” he says. “And people at the top are taking home so much that they are almost inevitably going to speculate in stocks or commodities or whatever the speculative vehicles are going to be. … Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have this in country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anaemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.”

    • gatortarian

      Come on and admit it. Every time you give any power to the government some rich asshole buys the politicians and corrupts the intent. The only solution is to remove the power (money).

    • gatortarian

      Since my first version is in moderation:

      Come on and admit it. Every time you give any power to the government some rich *corporation* buys the politicians and corrupts the intent. The only solution is to remove the power (money).

    • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ theradicalmoderate

      This is nonsense. First, it assumes that a failure of redistribution is the underlying problem, and it’s not: The problem is that the US labor market has been in a seventy-year bubble which is now ending due to the technological innovations that allow labor to be off-shored with no degradation in the quality of the products. All the redistribution in the world won’t solve that problem; tariffs will, but the cure is vastly worse than the disease.

      Second, even if you were to do direct redistribution, you’re assuming that there will be something to redistribute. When you enact taxes on the rich that they consider to be confiscatory, oddly enough they find ways to shelter their wealth. And if you prevent them from sheltering their wealth, they take their bat and go home. Beyond a certain level of wealth, you’re playing the game for points. If the government makes it no fun to play the game, the wealth-producing rich merely become the idle rich. It doesn’t hurt them, but it sure as hell hurts the economy.

  • gatortarian

    The irony is that government has simply made the matter worse. The war on poverty has done nothing but create more poverty.

    “I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”

    -Ben Franklin