Putting Things in Perspective

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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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  1. Avatar Dylan
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    I make about 20k before taxes which puts me in the top 12 percent of the world. The problem is that things are more expensive where I live, in the US. So it hardly makes sense to say that I’m actually in the top 12% because my buying power is limited by the costs of goods where I am, not in any other country.

    I’m at least in the lower 50% of this country (where the average earnings are around 30k). So it pains me when people try to say that the poor here have it really good, just because their earnings translate into a lot more in some developing country.

    For more on this check out Toynbee’s concept of the internal proletariat (vs. the external proletariat).Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Dylan
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      says:

      @Dylan,

      Shorter: I don’t live like the wealthiest 1% so I’m not really wealthy.

      Also, it’s not just a function of how expensive goods are, otherwise what’s to stop someone who makes 120,000 before taxes in Manhattan or Honolulu from complaining about the same thing, though they make 6 times your income.

      What it comes down to is there’s a pretty decent chance you live in a building that has a complete roof and running water. You’re in a country with a reasonable amount of security, so no chance of marauding warlords riding into town and kidnapping a nephew or something. In a country with unemployment insurance, food banks, public transit, free museums, parks, free education, and now subsidies for health care.

      There’s an exceptionally low chance of the people who live near you dying of malaria because they don’t have nets, or for that matter tuberculosis or contracting a parasite. Infectious disease is the number one killer worldwide, but only #3 here. The lifetime risk for maternal death in the developed world is 1 in 2,800 and 1 in 16 in sub-Saharan Africa. I could go on.

      The poorest of the poor in America don’t necessarily have it really good. The mentally ill, homeless, and often sick. However a wider swath of the poor, especially the working classes have “it” better than most people currently living and a sizable chunk of most people who have ever lived.Report

      • Avatar Mopey Duns in reply to Kyle
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        says:

        @Kyle,

        It really doesn’t stop the guy with $120,000 in Manhattan from complaining. He probably does think of himself as, if not poor, at least put upon in some indefinite way by the wealthier people around him.

        Even the millionaires I’ve met have griped pretty consistently about money when it has come up.

        Covetous monkeys that we are, people always compare up when looking at material assets. Forget remembering the poor dollar-a-day bastards slaving away in Africa; we don’t even compare ourselves to Joel from accounting whose house isn’t quite as nice as ours, and whose TV is smaller. We compare ourselves to that prick Andrew from marketing, who got the raise you were gunning for and just bought a new Mazarati.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to Mopey Duns
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          @Mopey Duns, I have a pet theory that the marginal utility of income is declining and has been for at least a decade. To move up the income scale you typically have to accept some personal cost – living in an expensive place, taking on more responsibility, having less free time. And then what does the income actually get you? A bigger TV, a nicer car, a better college for the kids, perhaps a nicer home (although since you have to live somewhere very expensive, probably not). They’re all small improvements – its no longer the case that more income means you can have something poorer people don’t have at all, unless you’re at the very, very top of the income scale (private yacht, mansion) or at the very, very bottom (apartment, car).

          There are ways to finesse this – you can be very smart and take one of the jobs (eg. in academia or research) that pay well without much stress, or you can live and work in different income brackets (eg. by telecommuting) or you can give up some parts of the standard upper-middle-class lifestyle (don’t buy a house, have a small TV, drive a regular car). But I suspect an increasing number of people are choosing just not to accept the costs of increasing income giving the relative unimportance of what it buys. I suspect this is part of the explanation for the statistics on inequality people bandy around.Report

          • Avatar trumwill in reply to Simon K
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            @Simon K, there is sort of a collective action problem. Particularly in the US with children. Even if you don’t want as large a house, if you want your kid to go to a great public school you want to live in neighborhoods with big houses. If you want to live in neighborhoods that are bereft of crime, you want to live next to people that want big houses and want to keep the small houses far away.Report

            • Avatar Simon K in reply to trumwill
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              @trumwill, Interesting. I live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the US, and round here moderately expensive houses (the kind you only need to be in the top 5% of the US population to afford) still tend to be tiny. The “land” is most of the cost but what you’re really paying for is the city and the school district.Report

              • Avatar trumwill in reply to Simon K
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                @Simon K, I was kind of under the impression that houses in those markets tend to be tiny not because people are saving up but because that’s all anybody that isn’t grotesquely wealthy can afford. And that most of those people, if they lived in Atlanta, would be purchasing larger houses.Report

              • Avatar Simon K in reply to Simon K
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                @Simon K, Yes, absolutely. I was basically agreeing with you, but adding the observation that round here the collective action problem is much worse – since the value of the house just is the neighbourhood (really, about 1/4 of the value of this very house is its actual construction cost) there’s nothing at all you can do to reduce the housing cost if you want to live there. Except start mugging old ladies and refusing to donate to the education foundation, I suppose …Report

      • Avatar trumwill in reply to Kyle
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        says:

        @Kyle,

        Well said. I mean, how many people would choose to live in a third-world country even if they made their current wages? Even if we set aside the “I don’t want to be far from family” rationale, would the extra money be worth it if you had to live in a place where you’re surrounded by abject poverty, where electricity is inconsistent, and so on? Not having to do that is what money buys and is why it’s so expensive in the US.

        I actually live in Podunk Nowhere. Cost of living here is quite inexpensive. But the money saved has far less utility because there’s not much to spend it on. I would have killed for this kind of disposable income back when I was living in the city. I suspect that becomes more and more true when you leave the country for less developed nations. You can do anything you want, but not what you want to do.

        I personally get frustrated by people that live in New York City and San Francisco that talk about how hard it is to make ends meet. I want to yell “Then, dude, move to Boise!” But they don’t want to live in Boise. Much less Mumbai. The ability to live in New York City or the United States of America is worth the cost.Report

        • Avatar Kyle in reply to trumwill
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          says:

          @trumwill,

          yub. yub.

          Yeah, I mean I get that few people if any like to pay more than they have to and most people feel they don’t have enough income. People want more. Shocker.

          I just have a hard time getting worked up about the rich and economic inequality, when in the macro view, the panned out view, our situation is a lot more like a real housewife complaining that Steve Jobs is richer than she.

          Can’t we make arguments for continuing improvements in our society while also recognizing that life here is pretty good and there are a lot more people whose lives we might meaningfully impact if we thought more about them than ourselves? What’s the point of making progress if we’re consumed by avarice?Report

          • Avatar trumwill in reply to Kyle
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            says:

            @Kyle, not to get too hippie liberal, but I think relative wealth is important and I do think that the level of economic inequality we have is damaging to our country as a whole (even if we’re only looking at those that have jobs and not the destitute, homeless, and mentally ill). But it still remains very much only a part of the overall picture. As is absolute wealth, though I would say that’s a larger part of the picture.Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to trumwill
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              says:

              @trumwill,

              Can you elaborate on what about economic inequality is damaging to our society? This is something I don’t really get, in part because in a relative sense countries that tend to have less economic inequality also tend to be less diverse, so I wonder how much of their quality of life has less to do with people making similar amounts than it does that more people have a greater agreement on social values and prerogatives in the first place.

              My hippie (not really liberal) stance (developing over the past few months to be sure) on this is that relative wealth in most cases shouldn’t be personally important because that implies/requires a common standard of comparison. The simple thing to measure is money: salaries and purchasing power. If the measurement stops there, isn’t that a depressing thought? What about all the other facets of life that make up happiness?

              If Person A, B, and C, make $10 grand, $10 million, and $1 billion in a year, but they each value money differently, they each value the opportunity costs of money differently, then how can we compare them and make any kind of normative judgment?Report

              • Avatar greginak in reply to Kyle
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                says:

                @Kyle, Somewhat related. There is a ton of psychological research showing that people judge their own well being by their immediate peers. So people with a million feel rich or poor based more on how they directly compare to others, not in some absolute sense of how much they have.Report

              • Avatar Kyle in reply to Kyle
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                says:

                @greginak,

                I don’t doubt that one bit but naturally it begets wondering to what degree that’s culturally conditioned?Report

              • Avatar trumwill in reply to Kyle
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                says:

                @Kyle, Greg touches on it. I don’t think that it’s culturally conditioned. I think that envy is pretty firmly ingrained in human psychology. I think that it’s a scab that forces in this country pick at, but it’s something that is going to exist in some proportion to the degree to which someone is constantly exposed to what they do not have.

                Some inequality is good in that it motivates us to work harder and do better and all that. Where I get concerned is what happens when substantial portions of the population realize that it doesn’t matter how hard they work they will never, ever have anything close to what they see (or perceive) a lot of other people having.Report

              • Avatar Kyle in reply to Kyle
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                says:

                @Trumwill,

                I think this is interesting so – if you’ll permit – I’d like to keep pushing here.

                How is that different from saying that museums are bad because they expose people with little artistic ability to grand works of art that they’ll never be able to reproduce? Or from saying that because not everyone can become a professional athlete, televising games and building giant stadiums allow many people who will never achieve that level of fitness to be constantly exposed to people who do exhibit it?

                IOW, what makes economic inequality unique among forms of inequality? Is there something uniquely damaging about being the only guy on the block not making six figures that isn’t analogous to being the only guy on the block who isn’t an Olympian?

                Also, even if wanting the things that everyone around you has isn’t culturally conditioned – a proposition I find somewhat dubious – our concept of who our immediate peers are is, or for that matter who our peers are in the first place.Report

              • Avatar trumwill in reply to Kyle
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                @Kyle,

                I would say the primary difference is that people without artistic ability are given the opportunity to enjoy the art as a consumer. It’s a lot easier for the unathletic to enjoy athletic events as a consumer than for someone to enjoy the guy with that bigger house that they’re not allowed to go into or with the electronics that they can’t play with.

                Further, there are fewer people with allstar athletic ability than people that are Richer Than Me. As I said above, I don’t think that the problem is with the wealthy oddity in the millionaire mansion. Most people seem aware that they’re not going to get that. The problem is with what they perceive a lot of people having but that they don’t.

                The number of people that lie awake at night wishing that they had more artistic talent or a faster 40m dash is much, much smaller than the number of people that lie awake at night wishing they were better off financially.

                Having a lack of money actively hurts you in a way that having a lack of artistic talent does not. It’s much more tangible and much more difficult to escape.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to Dylan
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      says:

      @Dylan, I’m not sure what exchange rates this site uses, but usually these sorts of comparisons are made at some kind of purchasing-power parity rate. At such rates, two similar incomes do indeed buy the same things. PPP rates do differ from market rates, but not by very much, so don’t imagine that $20k doesn’t put you in the top 20% or so of the world population, because it does. Vast numbers of people are living on less than $1 per day at PPP rates,

      The point isn’t that the poor here “have it really good”, whatever that means, its that the majority of the world population have it much worse in actual material terms.Report

      • Avatar Dylan in reply to Simon K
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        @Simon K, Of course then you have to consider that many lifestyles can be lived at $1 a day and that income does not necessarily indicate poverty (although I’m not sure that’s the point of this, I can’t think of what the point would be otherwise).

        For example, a person can live on $1 a day by being self-sufficient in any number of ways: farming, sorting/selling scrap, etc. And indeed large swaths of people throughout the world do live like this and (in the case of farming) have lived like this for thousands of years.

        These people’s lives may be less secure in ways we are familiar with in the developed world (unemployment benefits? medicinal security against pathogens? having trouble thinking of ways in which the developed world would be more secure in a way that warrants the cost. can you?), but maybe are more secure in certain areas (food secure, in a crisis — a la new orleans — we can’t rely on food coming from the other side of the country or farther; health secure — wild, right? — in that their rates of heart disease and other disorders resulting from a stressful, overworked, sedentary lifestyle are lower; etc.)

        I just want to note that the argument that the poor in the developed world get a fairly raw deal (sometimes rawer than those at the other end of the ppp scale) is indeed valid and that certain ingrained myths of development can mislead us to think otherwise. I’d also like to note that impending resource depletion and the impacts of climate change are going to gradually (over the next 30 – 50 years) force all those under a certain income level in the developed world to shift to lifestyles more and more resembling those in the third world, which might encourage us to look at such ways of life with a more optimistic mind set (as they are less environmentally destructive and thus more sustainable over the long run).Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Dylan
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          @Dylan, Disagree on the last paragraph Dylan ol’ boy. Things’ll change but there are plenty of industrial power sources that aren’t foreseeably finite that we’ll turn to to keep us from devolving into legume munching subsistence farmers living on the brink of starvation.

          Though if climate change claims turn out to be true the planets current population of legume munching subsistence farmers have some serious trouble coming down the pipe, but then again who doesn’t?Report

          • Avatar Dylan in reply to North
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            @North, I’d encourage you to look a little harder at the facts considering you didn’t mention any of these power sources of which there are “plenty”, and because you feel the need to characterize subsistence farmers as “legume munchers” (a cheap shot at worst and inaccurate at best, unless it’s fair to characterize Americans as “sugar slurpers” too lazy to even chew their insipid diet) who are “devolved” (as if, in our present state, we were somehow more evolved!) and “living on the brink of starvation” (something we can only afford because of low fuel costs and unaffordable government subsidies, which are hardly different things).Report

          • Avatar North in reply to North
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            @North, Oh don’t worry Dylan, legume munchers is an affectionate term I use for farmers, my relatives in particular but I also roll it out for leftwing luddites who yearn for a return to subsistence farming cultures. As if filth, misery, starvation, ignorance and disease are somehow validated by the fact that such a culture doesn’t hurt Gaea much.

            As to your other points. First we’ll set aside that when oil actually starts actually becoming scarce the populace will be forced off driving en masse by market forces leaving enormous amounts of fossil fuels that will be far too expensive for mass recreational or commuting driving but will remain eminently economical for farming, fertilizer and mass transportation. So fossil fuels for farming shall be available a lot longer than the daily commute will be. But setting that aside; alternative power sources!

            Starting with the most charming ones, the biofuels canard turned out to be a crock when it was made using foodstuffs but if fossil fuels start becoming genuinely scarce you can be sure that huge resources will be diverted to producing feasible biofuels out of either algae or cellulose. Chemistry and biology tell us that it’s possible. Faced with the alternative of squatting in a yurt cracking nits while freezing to death in the winter I have no doubt we’ll whip some of that up.
            Solar, wind, tidal and geothermal of course are all renewable and crank out electricity that could pop out hydrogen fuel cells. Again if the alternative is counting your ribs while your daily rat roasts over a cow dung fire I have no doubt we’ll get those working quickly.
            Finally, the big enchilada, nuclear power is only marginally more expensive than many fossil fuel based power sources. While it makes environmentalists instinctively faint there’s no doubt that the masses will embrace it with vigor when faced with the prospect of devolution (yes I used that word again, I’ll touch on it in a moment) to subsistence farming. With the appropriate modifications to the fuel cycle we have tens of thousands of years of nuclear fuel available and don’t start about the waste; thorium reactors for instance just burn the waste up like normal fuel.

            So yes, the technology and the power sources exist in abundance to keep us from devolving back into subsistence farming. None of them are quite as cheep as fossil fuels or quite as easy but the advanced first world countries will switch over as the fossil fuel runs out likely with nary a large bump. There’s one thing for sure one can say in favor of the global warming concern and that is that it’s focused useful attention on non-fossil based energy sources. Now as for devolution, it’s a harsh word, but I feel an apt one. Subsistance farming was an evolution up from hunter-gatherer societies. Surplus farming was an evolution up from subsistence farming and so on and so forth. Going back to subsistence farming pretty much means erasing the social progress of centuries. Women’s rights go out the window if the Mrs. has to churn out fifteen babies until she drops dead just to make sure that enough survive for you to have manpower for the farm and someone to maybe look after you in your dotage. Education and enlightenment go out the window if you’re working sunrise to sundown just to get enough food to keep the ticker tocking. So yes, a society of subsistence farmers would be a devolved one, nasty, brutish and short lived to make our current one look like a nirvana.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    My God.

    This is why COPS is still on the air.Report

  3. Avatar Kyle
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    says:

    I thought I’d start a new thread.

    I would say the primary difference is that people without artistic ability are given the opportunity to enjoy the art as a consumer. It’s a lot easier for the unathletic to enjoy athletic events as a consumer than for someone to enjoy the guy with that bigger house that they’re not allowed to go into or with the electronics that they can’t play with.

    I’m not sure this is the convincing argument you think it is. Spectating and participating are completely different things. If the thrill of making a goal is what I like about soccer, no amount of watching others do it will substitute. Likewise for acting, watching a great performance might be enjoyable but isn’t comparable to actually being on stage. On the flip side there are plenty of more indirect ways in which the accumulation of wealth among the super rich can result in public goods, in a way that isn’t necessarily replicated by a broader/more equitable diffusion of funds.

    Further, there are fewer people with allstar athletic ability than people that are Richer Than Me. As I said above, I don’t think that the problem is with the wealthy oddity in the millionaire mansion. Most people seem aware that they’re not going to get that. The problem is with what they perceive a lot of people having but that they don’t.

    I see this as a more convincing problem, but it’s not quite a problem with economic inequality, at least not in the traditional sense. So from the wealthy-oddity comment I gather that the existence of the super-wealthy is something that you don’t find morally questionable/problematic.

    The number of people that lie awake at night wishing that they had more artistic talent or a faster 40m dash is much, much smaller than the number of people that lie awake at night wishing they were better off financially.

    Maybe on a case by case comparison this rings true but I think if you weighed all the people lying awake wanting things that are not money but unequally distributed amongst humans against all the people lying awake wanting more money. I think the former wins. I think you have more people wanting affection, time, less stress, dream fulfillment, etc…

    Having a lack of money actively hurts you in a way that having a lack of artistic talent does not. It’s much more tangible and much more difficult to escape.

    I think for the most part how true this is inversely related to income. Which given the nature of the post places Americans in an interesting spot…

    I guess my feeling is that inequality (without a perfectly effective handicapper general) is a facet of life and it makes far more sense to address material inadequacy and how inequality makes us feel than it does to address inequality itself.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Kyle
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      @Kyle, Hmm Interesting post. I think the idea that how inequality makes us feel is a key aspect to correct is a bit off. Not because i disagree that it is a problem, it is, but because i think that kind of idea is deeply ingrained in society which makes it not amenable to change on a wide scale. As individuals we can more past possessions and greed but i think the Max Weber idea about the protestant work ethic with its focus on hard work and success in this world as a sign of godliness is part of our cultural heritage. It’s become part of our secular beliefs about what it means to be American.

      Also i think American culture, as a bit of an overly broad generalization, exalts risk taking and standing out from others. In various other countries standing out or calling attention to yourself is considered rude or bad form. America is the reality tv/ jerry springer nation. I can’t really see how we change how people feel about inequality.

      Of course inequality is part of living with others, i don’t think anybody in anything even close to the mainstream of American thought believes otherwise. What bothers me most about a large degree of inequality is that it leads to different parts of society having not having enough common needs or public interests. If there is a large enough class of rich folk that can buy all there security through private cops, buy there own nature preserves, there own clean water,etc then they have no connection to the rest of us or any public process.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to greginak
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        @greginak,

        There’s some interesting stuff here that I’d like to think about before commenting on…so I’m sure I’ll be back with an annoyingly longer comment.

        I guess the quick comment which should’ve been my shorter reply to Trumwill, is that my problem with people who honestly (foolishly) seek to end inequality because they think inequality is the problem, not material deficits that result from inequality. More so it’s with framing policy objectives, in that I think bills, movements, rallies, etc… that are designed to “reduce disparities in X,Y,and Z” are misguided because they reinforce the premise that fairness or equality can be and ought to be achieved in a universe that seems preternaturally arrayed against equality. If we were to abandon the premise but still pursue addressing deficits in x,y, and z, I think we’d be making progress in policy terms and social/cultural terms.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kyle
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      Spectating and participating are completely different things. If the thrill of making a goal is what I like about soccer, no amount of watching others do it will substitute.

      Yeah, they are completely different things. Paintings hung in museums give people a pleasure completely apart from what they themselves have and can do. Someone else’s money doesn’t really do that. Sure, there are arguments that there are indirect benefits that a society’s wealthy people bestow on the less wealthy. But it’s less intuitive. Less visceral. It’s something that has to be explained. It’s not a thought-provoking picture on a wall. And while I can be convinced that in an abstract or indirect way I benefit from it, it’s not as obvious as simply being able to consume and be entertained by someone else’s talent.

      On a sidenote, one of my great frustrations in life is an inability to convey the images in my mind onto a piece of paper. I have spent countless hours trying to teach myself to do it. As a result, I am far better than most people, but I simply do not have inate talent. But I have never looked at someone else’s art and felt bad about it. I have looked at someone else’s possessions and felt envious about it and worse than I would have felt if I did not know such a thing existed. It’s nothing I can’t talk myself down or at least distract myself from, but it’s there. Despite the fact that I am a thrifty person by nature. That’s why I think it’s really innate and not socially conditioned.

      I see this as a more convincing problem, but it’s not quite a problem with economic inequality, at least not in the traditional sense. So from the wealthy-oddity comment I gather that the existence of the super-wealthy is something that you don’t find morally questionable/problematic.

      Correct. I would go a step further and say I do not generally view wealth distribution (whether looking at inequality or redistribution) in moral terms. It’s more of a practical issue for me. The question for me is what generates the most well-being and happiness for the largest number of people.

      Maybe on a case by case comparison this rings true but I think if you weighed all the people lying awake wanting things that are not money but unequally distributed amongst humans against all the people lying awake wanting more money. I think the former wins. I think you have more people wanting affection, time, less stress, dream fulfillment, etc…

      I agree. The former wins. I would add that time, stress, and dream fulfillment – as we perceive them – are not completely unbundled from money. Or at the least if somebody has money they have more in the way of options when it comes to tackling the other problems. The big exception is affection, which is far too out of the public sphere to really contemplate.

      I think for the most part how true this is inversely related to income. Which given the nature of the post places Americans in an interesting spot…

      Yeah. I also think that the better off objectively the bottom half is the less important wealth inequality becomes. That’s one of the reasons that I view objective wealth as being more important than relative wealth. I’m not sure where exactly the working bottom has to be for me to no longer consider relative wealth to be irrelevant, but I do not believe that we are there.

      I guess my feeling is that inequality (without a perfectly effective handicapper general) is a facet of life and it makes far more sense to address material inadequacy and how inequality makes us feel than it does to address inequality itself.

      I don’t disagree that inequality is a facet of life. Our difference, I think, is that resentment over inequality is also a facet of life. Social conditioning may amplify this problem, but it doesn’t create it. It isn’t limited to money and possessions (sex is another issue where this dynamic is absolutely huge), but for a variety of reasons I think it’s unavoidably present. Wealth has such long arms that it taps into just about everything.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Trumwill
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        @Trumwill,

        I would feel comfortable taking a wager that covetousness predates society itself. So I think we agree there among other places.

        What I question/push back upon is the idea that wealth inequality is uniquely pernicious. I think it’s more obvious and because money is – as you note – related to other non-monetary things it’s also less avoidable.

        I just don’t buy the argument that “*sigh* if only we could eliminate disparities (or even extreme) in wealth, all (or most) of our problems would go away. Which, of course, you’re not making.

        I think if we reduce wealth disparities, other kinds will rise in importance. I also think it’s worth reflecting upon whether other forms of inequality, being perhaps more intractable, might be more problematic were they to become more prominent.

        With respect to this post and our previous conversations if people honestly believe that the mere existence of the super-wealthy necessarily deprives the super-poor of resources, then that argument is every bit as true for the Gates-Street Urchin comparison as it is for the United States – Peru comparison. Considering the gaps in both wealth and numbers, I have a hard time seeing how a moral obligation (if one thinks it exists) to redistribute wealth within the United States isn’t superseded by an even greater one to redistribute it out of the United States.

        IOW, I have no problem with saying these people are poor, let us work to eliminate material want. I do have a problem with non-ironic critiques of wealth disparities that emphasize the problems of comparatively minor wealth disparities between people, while ignoring the rather significant wealth disparities between the people making the critique and the rest of the (oft forgotten) world.

        But it’s less intuitive. Less visceral IDK, isn’t some of the visceral/intuitive appeal of America a direct result of manifestations of it’s accumulation of wealth, whether it be freedoms or opportunities? I’m not sure how true it is, but I’m pondering it…Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Kyle
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          @Kyle,

          What I question/push back upon is the idea that wealth inequality is uniquely pernicious.

          I don’t know that it’s truly unique. Like I mentioned, I think that sex is another area with the same dynamics at play. But I do think that it is in a different class than most other things.

          I just don’t buy the argument that “*sigh* if only we could eliminate disparities (or even extreme) in wealth, all (or most) of our problems would go away.

          Not only would I push back against that comment for the reasons that you talk about, but I would also do so because to some extent inequality is inevitable. If you gave everybody a firm $45,000 salary, the inequalities would reassert themselves in very little time.

          Cracking down on this would not only require massive redistribution of wealth, it would require taking the freedom we have to blow the money away.

          With respect to this post and our previous conversations if people honestly believe that the mere existence of the super-wealthy necessarily deprives the super-poor of resources,

          If I had a concern about the super-wealthy, it would have less to do with their money depriving the poor because I don’t really think that’s the case. It would have more to do with political and economic leverage. Fortunately, I think that a lot of this can be dealt with by passing laws that force those with more (money and leverage) to treat those with less fairly.

          Considering the gaps in both wealth and numbers, I have a hard time seeing how a moral obligation (if one thinks it exists) to redistribute wealth within the United States isn’t superseded by an even greater one to redistribute it out of the United States.

          The simple answer is that Americans have a greater obligation and more reciprocal loyalties to other Americans than to Nigerians. The same reason that I am more quick to give money to a family member in a jam without considering that there are other people to whom the same amount of money would help a whole lot more.

          And I think that the issue of inequality itself (as opposed simply to scarcity) is influence heavily by exposure. I mean, by the standards of living 100 years from now, all but the richest among us (and probably even them) are living lives of poverty. But we don’t have a keen idea of what we’re missing. We feel it less intensely than what we see of our neighbors having.

          Likewise, someone whose only exposure to western excesses is on a small, fuzzy television, is not being hurt as actively by the inequality as someone that sees it every time they drive to work. I’m not by any means arguing that someone in a third-world country is actually better off. They’re worse off because of the scarcity. But they are less hurt by the inequality itself.

          I get queasy when we talk about such things as “moral” obligations, though. It’s sort of like when people assert something is a “right” when it’s nothing of the kind. I think that as a society we should do what we can so that the less among us can get decent health care. I think that once you make that a moral obligation or health care a right, you’ve entered a pretty slippery slope.

          (I realize some of this is tangential to the point you’re making. I think I mostly agree with the points your making or at least a lot of them.)

          IDK, isn’t some of the visceral/intuitive appeal of America a direct result of manifestations of it’s accumulation of wealth, whether it be freedoms or opportunities?

          Maybe so. I think that capitalism works in large part because it taps into and harnasses these energies. I think that the main problem with pure communism is that it tries to ignore it. Consumerist culture in the United States definitely exacerbates the psychological effects of wealth inequality. But I don’t think it creates it and I don’t know how you can really tackle it without also attacking its market underpinnings. In a market society, money is a means of keeping score. It’s hard to avoid.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird
    Ignored
    says:

    An interesting comparison I’ve seen is the measurement of “instangibles”.

    How much is ubiquitous clean water worth? How much is a crime rate under X% worth? How much is access to public education worth?

    Add all of these things together and it becomes something like “societal capital” and, when you add it to your own, personal, “cultural capital” (stuff like “parents who tell you that ain’t ain’t a word” and “teachers in the school system who take a personal interest and help you get just a little further” and “relatives who buy books and read them to you and make the Grover voice when appropriate”), the US is, like, *SWIMMING* in wealth. Drowning!

    We have so much *CIVILIZATION* around us and acting as the giant shoulders we stand upon. It’s mind-boggling.Report

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