On Class Envy

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Per my BofA colleague AZBlueMeanie in a recent post:

One of the right-wing talking points I see pop up with more frequency is the use of “liberal envy” of the wealthy elite Plutocrats who rule over us as the reason for issues like income and wealth inequality.

Liberals are just “envious” of the über-rich top one-percent and that is why they want to tax the rich more, so we are told.

This talking point only makes sense if one is a member of the privileged one percent. It’s a safe bet that most, if not all of you, are not.

Meanie cites a series of sources, that are worth the read, debunking that assumption but I’d like to take on the general idea that wealth qua wealth is what drives liberals (and others) into a sputtering fury of envious rage.

I’m a fairly mediocre person (as are most people) and the list of people I envy and/or admire is endless. They include, in no particular order of importance: Olympic athletes, professional musicians and singers, gifted writers, stand-up comics who can make the crowd bust a spleen for 90 minutes, scientists, people with easy fashion and decorating sense, people who have the patience to garden or organize their closets, women with the ankles of Angie Dickinson, people who know several languages, candidates who kept at it until they won that election, doctors and nurses, bloggers who get 10,000 times the hits that I do, etc. etc. Some of those things are pure luck of birth (ankles) while others (most) require a combination of native gifts and hard work. Still, I’m in envious awe of all of them.

But rich people? That’s a lot more complicated. I certainly envy the money they have and the freedom it gives them, but do I envy them as a group? Do I aspire to be more like rich people, even in my wildest fantasies where I imagine myself having the money they have? Well, no. That’s because there’s no characteristic that stands out about them, as a group, as something worth coveting outside of their being rich. Are all rich people smart? No. Are they all creative? No. Hard working? No. Good-looking? No (though money goes a long way toward ameliorating any shortcomings they have in that area). Granted, there are far fewer paths to wealth than there are to poverty but there is certainly a large enough sample size of wealthy people in the world, along with my own many social encounters with rich people, for me to safely conclude that wealth corresponds more with dumb luck and a willingness to fuck other people over (and great ankles don’t hurt) than it does with any of the qualities I truly envy and admire.

To put all this another way, I can carry a tune at a karaoke bar but I will never match what Renee Fleming can do with a song.

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Link, since videos won’t embed here for some reason.)

Fleming is a virtuoso. I envy her. She might be rich, and that’s fine with me. But some other rich people don’t entertain and inspire people. Instead they are assholes who have dedicated themselves to amassing wealth and power while hurting people below them. I don’t aspire to be like them at all. Don’t confuse my anger at them with envy. I envy people who bring good things to the world, not assholes. Assholes, rich or not, are a dime a dozen.

9 responses to “On Class Envy

  1. I think you try to put too fine a point on why you hate the rich. You say it isn’t envy, it is their evil habit of amassing wealth and power while screwing the people below them. Were it someone else, I might say they were using hyperbole to make a point, but I accept you at face value. You really can’t see any other way to build wealth than to hurt other people. You see the economy as a zero sum game where one person cannot gain a dollar without taking that dollar from someone else. Therefore, the amassing of wealth MUST hurt other people. That is economic naiveté in the extreme, but, sadly, you are not the only one who feels that way.

    The fact is you become wealthy by providing goods and/or services that people want. They are willing to exchange their hard earned dollars for what you are offering. You pay the people you hire to provide those goods and/or services and they, in turn, use the money you paid them to buy goods and/or services that other people provide. It’s called economic expansion as it continues throughout the economy. In other, more wealth is generated as this cycle spreads.

    But who is responsible for providing those goods and services? The workers certainly provide them directly, but are they responsible? No, they are not. If it weren’t for the business owner, the workers would be sitting on their butts wondering what to do with themselves. I estimate 95% of the population is destined for the workforce at some level or another. It is that other 5% that creates the jobs by coming up with the goods and services that people want to buy. Without them, there would be no economy. And it is that 5% that you hate with such passion.

    These providers, the business owners, are every bit as skilled as the comedian you admire, the singer you enjoy, the person who speaks several languages, scientists, et. al., that you admire so greatly. The big difference is that the business owners provide jobs that put food on the table and a roof over the heads of the people that work for them. Certainly, some of them are assholes and jerks. Some of them are dishonest. Some of them cheat their employees and other people. But those are a rather small minority and for you to use a broad brush of hatred to paint ALL business owners that way is not only wrong, it is just dumb.

    I don’t expect to sway you one iota, but I will say that if businesses were run on the model you have in you head, the one where businesses are mere philanthropic organizations run by a committee elected by the collective, our economy would go right down the toilet. Thank goodness there are many more rational people between you and the reigns of our economy.

    • Donna Gratehouse

      Let me guess, Steve, you’re in that 5% that is destined to lead the rest of us lumpen proles. You special snowflake, you.

      • Hardly. I have no illusions of ever being that wealthy. I don’t even think I would want to be that wealthy. I just know I work hard every day, I am more than fair in compensating my employees, my company makes generous contributions to causes and organizations in the community, and we always strive to be good neighbors in the community. My first priority is always making payroll and when times were lean, I often went without a paycheck to do that. Now that the business is well established and doing well I resent being branded as some sort of leach on society. I know many other business men and women in the Valley and most are just like me, working hard to make their business successful and to keep their employees gainfully employed and adequately compensated for their efforts. When you use a broad brush to condemn us all, you are doing a disservice to the people who make the economy work. It is government that generated the wealth, it is business that does that. Government jobs depend on private enterprise the pay for their employees as well as all the other materials necessary to make that government office function.

        Before you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, you should ask yourself if that if that is the wise thing to do. Is it worth destroying everything to satisfy that visceral anger you have toward those who are wealthier than you?

        • Donna Gratehouse

          Steve, I love how you seem to assume my daily life consists of blogging and avoiding troubling my lady mind at all with such weighty matters as hard work and meeting payrolls and whatnot! I’m kind of curious how you think I actually make a living. Do you think it’s by collecting welfare checks? Do you seriously think I don’t know what a business is and how it makes money?

          Also, do you not realize that many private businesses rely on government contracts?

          • You are correct, Donna. I have been lecturing you in a manner that was inappropriate. I am very sorry for that. I hope you will forgive me for my arrogance in doing so. Sometimes get carried carried away with my bloviating.

    • Steve, it’s ridiculous to generalize why people are rich. I know in my industry, law, there are lawyers with billing practices that make me cringe, but I have no doubt they’re more successful financially than I am. If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, you’ll see that something as random as the month of your birth can have a huge effect on where you wind up.

      Truth is, if we’re sane, we seek happiness, not money, and the correlation between those two ends before you even get to a 6 figure income. Yes, poverty can make you unhappy, but wealth doesn’t make you happy.

      Donna I think nails it with her comments about whom she envies. I like who I am and where I am in life a lot, so there are few I’d trade places with. But if I were to start naming who I envied, it might be someone with a great intellect, a Chris Hedges or a Noam Chomsky, but it would never be some guy with a billion dollar net worth.

      Neither I, nor Donna, nor BlueMeanie is motivated by envy when we write about inequality. We’re motivated by the harm we see inequality doing to our society.

      • Truth be known, Bob, I agree with you completely. There are just some subjects that I warm up to more than others. I spent 30+ years in the Army and loved it! Unfortunately, there came a time I had to retire, and there is nothing similar to the Army on the outside. So I set out to create a business. I realize I was blessed and a little bit lucky because things came together and it worked, but a lot of it was hard work. It isn’t as enjoyable as the Army was, but it is fun in it’s own way. The money is secondary and is just a means to an end.

        Anyway, I apologized to Donna for getting carried away. She didn’t deserve my sanctimonious lecture.

  2. Many of us agree with your view. Your essay will serve to counter the “class envy” charge that is levied against us.