Hardship Depreciation

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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145 Responses

  1. ScarletNumbers says:

    Wendy Davis

    Ugh, a disaster as a human being.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    A person with a full time minimum wage job may be in the top 8.7% of the world’s population by income and still live a horrible life from a materialistic perspective. Its like saying that nobody in the world is poor now because nearly everybody lives better than we did during the Middle Ages so don’t complain about inequality. Its just a ridiculous and meaningless comparison because its always relatively easy to find somebody at some place or time worse off.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

      It’s not ridiculous to say that hardship is relative. In fact, much of the conversation about dialogue about wages revolves around comparisons of income. But if one is going to allow for certain comparisons and disallow others, then there needs to be some justification provided. Usually, it’s missing.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @vikram-bath — Because a faraway thing you could never hope to have is far less troublesome than a nearby thing that maybe you could have, but wait no, actually you cannot.

        For the same reason the Gods punished Tantalus with temptations near.Report

      • That is indeed a justification. I would submit that it is so often left unsaid not because it is obvious, but because to say it out loud would make rob the story one is telling of its drama.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I think wealthy people lecturing poorer Americans by making comparisons to wages and lifestyles in developing nations or worse are pretty tough to chew.

        At the very least it shows a lack of judiciousness to make 500,000 a year or more and lecture someone who needs to work multiple jobs to make ends meet about how multiple jobs person is much better off than someone in North Korea. Is it true? Yes? Does it change the fact that there are serious issues with income inequality and wage stagnation in the United States? No.

        Yes it is good that we have mass produced and affordable consumer goods. This does not change the fact that things that make income mobility possible like a college education and above, healthcare, childcare for under kindergarten age children are getting more and more expensive.Report

      • @saul-degraw

        I think wealthy people lecturing poorer Americans by making comparisons to wages and lifestyles in developing nations or worse are pretty tough to chew.

        I pretty much agree with that. As much as I don’t like some of the claims made about employers’ or society’s “responsibility” to minimum wage workers, if I make the equivalent of $20 an hour (which I do), it doesn’t help much for me to lecture someone making only $8 that they’re among the world’s wealthiest.Report

      • Damon in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @saul-degraw @vikram-bath @veronica-d

        I think the whole “You are the 1%” spoken to the entire US is appropriate and relevant. It reminds people that there are LOTS more folks that are worse off. I think that’s an important data point to keep in mind.Report

      • The post I wrote:
        – People include details that make their past hardships seem harsher and exclude details that make them seem less harsh.
        – The media will generally go along with this and further exaggerate the story to amp up the hardship because it forms a good narrative.
        – The need for a hardship narrative may be so severe that the hardship doesn’t even need to be experienced by the subject themselves.
        – Those who experience greater hardships will be skipped over because it interferes with the hardship narrative.
        – The rich will eventually figure out ways to gain hardship narratives for themselves and their children.

        The post you want me to have written:
        – Poor people need to quit whining because they aren’t really that bad off.

        Edit: OK, I apologize for making assumptions about what you want me to have written, but I just wanted to point out that I haven’t written the latter type of post. If I had wanted to, I would have just linked to the many people who have already done it.Report

      • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        as is usually the case, I prefer to make the same point by anecdote.
        Poor people in other countries have been known (Yes Recently!) to give their daughters (not of marrying age) to Americans, because they know the American is likely to give the girl a better life — and hopefully to marry her.
        It is sad that the only coin they have to pay for a girl growing up, is her servitude/sex slavery in a legal marriage…Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        “The post you want me to have written:
        – Poor people need to quit whining because they aren’t really that bad off.”

        Well, you see, it’s those darn dogwhistles. There are people who just keep insisting that they hear them even when you tell them that you’ve never blown a dogwhistle in your life. In fact, the harder you say you aren’t blowing whistles, the louder these people hear them.Report

      • – Those who experience greater hardships will be skipped over because it interferes with the hardship narrative.

        You’re right, and in one sense, perhaps I was too quick on the draw to join Saul in criticizing you for the 8.7% comment. At the same time, and on that point only, I don’t think all hardship narratives need to be confronted with, “well, what about the people in Bangladesh?”

        Of course, you didn’t say “all hardship narratives should be confronted with….” Your saying it’s inconvenient for the narrative. And that’s true. You’re also saying that those who use the narrative, e.g., HRC, don’t necessarily acknowledge where they’re fortunate. That’s true, too. And as I say below, I agree with most of your OP.Report

      • Robert Greer in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        But there’s also little justification of the “global top 8.7%” comparison. Incomes are almost never fungible given the suite of resources that are available in certain areas, and the expenses that are necessary in some places but not others. Having an extra few thousand dollars a year isn’t all that great if the bulk of it needs to go to heating costs and expensive, out-of-season food. I would rather have very little money in Costa Rica than minimum wage in St. Louis or Boston. There are very good reasons people usually compare American minimum wage earners to wealthy Americans and not to the rest of the world; they’re just usually too elementary to require pointing out every single time.Report

      • @robert-greer

        I think I largely agree, at least with the gist of what you’re saying, especially inasmuch as you’re saying there’s just a lot we–by which I mean “I”–don’t know. I don’t know anything about what it’s like to live in Costa Rica or Bangladesh or France. I do know something of the US, and a lot more of specific places, so that if someone makes X income in, say, Chicago, I have a decent sense of how well off they are. (Even in that case, my sense is “decent,” but still imprecise. The income datum by itself doesn’t tell me much about how many children a person has, what their health is, what elder care obligations they have.)Report

  3. Will Truman says:

    Relative hardship certainly is more salient when the worse alternatives are removed from sight, as Veronica says. That is a distinction that should be made, as Vikram says.

    As far as the subjects of this post, though, I think Vikram’s post is pretty on-point. If HRC thinks that she can relate to our experiences due to the post-presidency squeeze, it does represent a certain tone-deafness (a very common one). Because people who are struggling on more substantive levels are not 100 years ago or a continent away. The same applies, to a lesser extent, to most of us! And it applies, to an even lesser extent though still a material one, to our poorer selves undergoing a post-college squeeze or a temporary hardship for which we have the social and family networks to see us through if need be.

    It is, as Vikram says, relative. The relativity is relevant, even if we look back 100 years or a continent away. Though the further we have to look, the less relevant the relativity is.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Will Truman says:

      Relative hardship hurts because of envy. I’m not sure that’s a value we should be basing many claims about policy or justice on.Report

      • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        Disassociation of the rich from society is not “relative hardship”, though. And it’s something I’m far more concerned about than “relative hardship.”

        When the rich stop believing in publically provided goods, of all stripes, and start saying “I can afford Global Warming”… color me a little concerned. Okay, more than a little.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to James Hanley says:

        “When the rich stop believing in publically provided goods, of all stripes, and start saying “I can afford Global Warming”…”

        It’s sort of like how world society collapsed and we all returned to the Stone Age when the rich said “I can afford to run out of whale oil and beaver pelts…”Report

      • veronica d in reply to James Hanley says:

        @james-hanley — This comment is (I suppose) the libertarian version of (when we say) “FYIGM.”

        Yes, I’m sure envy plays a role. But then, is that the right word to describe a mother with a sick kid, who cannot get decent healthcare? Is she merely “envious”?

        Really? That’s how you see it?

        A full tummy, compared to hunger? Is that envy? A decent room, uncrowded, a space of your own each night? — how much envy the poor must feel when they know of other kids who have their own rooms, when they share a room with three others.

        That job cutting grass, the long hours in the sun. Then five o’clock arrives and you rush — not home! — nope, to your job washing dishes. Arrive home exhausted and collapse next to your wife, in a room you share with another couple.

        But your desire for more is merely “envy.”

        Three bus transfers to get home. The people around you whizzing by in their cars. From the window of the bus you see them, couples with kids after a night at the movies. Tonight your boss called you a “spick.”

        How envious you must be.Report

      • “Envy” is a more judgment-laden word, which is something that should generally be avoid if something better is available. But it does get across a certain truth in that we need to know what is possible to be able to know what we are missing.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        No one should have anything to say besides constant 100% gratitude that you’re not living (briefly) in a concentration camp or the Gulag.Report

      • I would distinguish between different types of envy, or measure along some nexus of need. For the examples Veronica mentions, it’s hard for me to see “Envy” with a capital E as useful for examining the demands/requests for assistance.

        For other examples, I think envy is useful. If the complaint is, to pull a real world example, that supervisors at McDonalds make more money than some adjunct professors, then I think envy–along with something I find hard to differentiate from class snobbery–is at play, regardless of or in addition to what might otherwise be good points about adjunct salaries.*

        *See: http://uicunitedfaculty.org/2014/02/faculty-letter-students/ Scroll down to the following [bold added by me]: “On the average, [university name redacted] professors—almost all with doctoral degrees representing 3 to 7 years of study beyond their bachelor’s degrees—are paid less than your high school teachers. Some are paid less than they would if they were managing a McDonald’s.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:


        I think in general, making claims that a class of workers is undercompensated is yet another thing beyond hardship narrative or envy. Discussions about appropriate compensation, whether for individuals or classes of workers, seems to me to be a vital part of the general operation of a market society. There actually isn;t necessarily an envy component to any demand for more or for appropriate compensation. It’s a vital p[art, again, if the working-out of labor prices. Nor are justifications for such demands that compare classes of workers necessarily envy-based. The entire labor market construct is based on the presumption that workers will seek and advocate strongly for appropriate, indeed, maximum compensation (which can take various forms, and which advocacy won’t of course in all instances e pursued to the last bitter negotiating feint). As far as I can tell, where envy comes in there is simply as one idea about what it might be that makes greater rather than lesser compensation something worth pursuing for workers in the first place. Is that idea really one in need of interrogation? it doesn;t seem that problematic to me for workers to be seeking better (maximal) pay, and even if we want to criticize that desire, doing so from a position that wanting better pay stems from envy unnecessarily freights a reasonable, natural assumption about human preferences with a highly judgmental label.

        Ask yourself: if you were offered a position and the institution bizarrely said you could have a salary of either $X or $X+$5000, would it be because of envy that you chose the latter? Is the component of the reason why you would choose the latter that is envy really very important, concerning, or even worthy of mention? I don’t think it is.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        This comment is (I suppose) the libertarian version of (when we say) “FYIGM.”

        No, but if you want to use shallow buzzwords to make yourself feel morally superior, go for it.

        Yes, I’m sure envy plays a role. But then, is that the right word to describe a mother with a sick kid, who cannot get decent healthcare? Is she merely “envious”?

        How is that just relative hardship? That’s absolute hardship. Are you bad at reading for comprehension, or do you not understand the difference between relative and absolute?

        A full tummy, compared to hunger?

        Again, you’re conflating relative and absolute well-being. Anything you say that rests on that error will be utter nonsense.

        A decent room, uncrowded, a space of your own each night? — how much envy the poor must feel when they know of other kids who have their own rooms, when they share a room with three others.

        OMG, some kids have to share rooms! Heh, even when you do look at something relative you manage to come up with something that’s a truly a first-world problem.

        That job cutting grass, the long hours in the sun. Then five o’clock arrives and you rush — not home! — nope, to your job washing dishes. Arrive home exhausted and collapse next to your wife, in a room you share with another couple.

        Heh, I’ve done almost all of those. I’m so incredibly underprivileged!

        But your desire for more is merely “envy.”

        Nope. Dead wrong. Again, based on your inability to distinguish between absolute and relative gains. If you learn the difference, you won’t sound so much like a teenage Marxist.

        Three bus transfers to get home. The people around you whizzing by in their cars. From the window of the bus you see them, couples with kids after a night at the movies.

        Been there, done that. I was envious of the couples because I was alone, but not of the folks in cars.

        Tonight your boss called you a “spick.”

        Relative? Or absolute?

        How envious you must be.

        Of your inane response? Oh, absolutely.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Mike Schilling,

        How’s the physical therapy going for the repetitive motion injury injury to your left knee?Report

      • @michael-drew

        First, I should admit something that you didn’t call me on, but that you very well might have and would have lent support for your position. I singled out one sentence of a very lengthy online post that discussed reasons for a faculty union’s decision to organize and potentially strike. A lot of those other reasons are at least discussable and deserve consideration.

        Second, I agree with this:

        There actually isn;t necessarily an envy component to any demand for more or for appropriate compensation.

        That’s true. And to answer your parting question, I would never refuse a higher salary just because someone else, somewhere earns less. And I also agree that comparing salaries is not necessarily envy. If, for example, the “full-time”* adjuncts at that university say they earn less than a supervisor at McDonalds, it could mean that they want to drive home the point that they earn less than they’re worth. I might personally have problems with using “worth” as an argument in order to argue for a wage increase, but you’re right that that’s not envy. It’s just trying to shed light on what their current salary is and how it compares to others.

        I don’t think that’s the only way to parse the McDonald’s statement, though. And I do detect a hint of envy or snobbery.** Why choose McDonalds? Is it really so bad that someone at McDonald’s might earn more than someone with a PHD? It strikes me that the labor organization in question sees the salary discrepancy as an indignity. Or if the organization does not see it that way, the statement appeals to such a feeling.

        I suppose the only way to answer my questions or assess whether I’m right is to ask everyone supposedly covered by that organization’s organizing efforts, or to ask the authors of the “McDonalds” statement what their feelings were, or to interact with the union’s leaders or its members to see if one detects a sense of snobbery or envy. That, of course, is something we probably can’t do online, and even in person the results may vary.

        But I do detect envy and snobbery there. It resonates, maybe not in exclusion to the other uses to which the claim is put, but in addition to it. I do ask you, and whoever else is reading, whether they can honestly deny it doesn’t play a part. If you deny it honestly, you deny it, and maybe I’m just being oversensitive. That’s not impossible, mind, but my own assessment is my honest assessment, too.

        *For reasons I won’t go into, I have some questions about what the labor organization counts as “full time” and about how many of its members actually earn the lowest salary the organization claims. But for the sake of this discussion, I assume the organization means what most people mean when we think of “full time.”

        **I confess to moving the goalposts a bit here. The original discussion was supposed to be about “envy,” and now I’m introducing “snobbery.”Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        If you had an objective basis for where to set the bar for absolute hardship, you’d have a response other than an insult.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        That’s an amazing excuse for not doing any thinking. Who do you know that draws a wholly objective line between absolute and relative well-being? There’s no chance in hell that you seriously do it, but you’re going to complain that I didn’t meet a standard you wouldn’t?

        There’s also no chance that you don’t draw any line–a fuzzy one–between the two, just at a different place than I might draw it. So you’d ultimately say about the same thing I did, just in reference to a different standard.

        I have this vision of you saying, “I’m not really an idiot, I just play one on the interwebz.”Report

      • veronica d in reply to James Hanley says:

        @james-hanley — Maybe you’re missing the context of the conversation. Above it was pointed out that the poor in America have an income above most of the rest of the world, which I guess is true (although I question how we really get a proper PPI on this stuff, but never mind that). I pointed out that relative poverty also plays a role. @will-truman referenced this. Then you chose to analyze it as “envy.”

        That is callous in the extreme, and is perhaps the worst way to characterize what the American poor experience.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:


        A fair and thoughtful response, thanks.

        I wouldn’t straight-up-and-down deny that people axiomatically want more money in part because of envy. I don’t concede that it’s axiomaticallypart of the desire (I can hardly deny that it’s part of the desire in some cases), but I don’t absolutely deny it either. I just think that part is not important at all. That’s because I don’t think we as a general matter have a problem with people wanting the more money in the first place. Maybe some do; I don’t see any reason to (at the same time, I don’t see any reason to have big problems with taxation that clearly improves overall utility. Earn all you want and want all you want; just let it be taxed away at reasonable rates is where I’m coming from.) If we don’t have a problem with the desire to have more in the first place – with the assumption that you’ll take $X-plus-$5k rather than $X if offered, then we shouldn’t have a problem to find out that a component of the reason why that is is because of Factor E.

        Broadly, though, I don’t think that the desire to have more is about envy, no. OTOH, I don’t think it’s envy exactly to go over to your friend’s house, see the gaming system he has, decide you want it, get a job (or work more hours), and buy it. To me, envy is something subtly different, something about your relationship with that friend that lingers due to that experience of seeing his stuff, not about your desire for a carbon copy of his PSX. Maybe that’s an idiosyncratic view.

        Also, I think that envy itself is merely human, hardly a purely evil part of human nature (and you cannot name a virtue that is pure good and cannot turn evil at the extreme), very salient in affecting personal utility, and as such something that’s perfectly appropriate to be a consideration in policymaking.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to James Hanley says:


        A valiant effort.

        Now try it without the insults.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        One of the problems comes up when you look at, for example, the children sitting there at the border.

        Why did their parents send them to the US? Was the vision of the US that the parents had a mistaken one? If we send the kids back to their parents, will we be able to do so with a clean conscience?

        At the end of the day, this all comes back to the whole debate of whether poverty should be seen as absolute (Heritage is good at this one) or relative (tah-dah, other people). The problem that absolute measures usually fail to deal with is the importance of how people feel about stuff. As for relative, the problem is that there are a lot of people out there who would trade (and do) risk everything for a shot at US levels of poverty… and pulling the blind down over the faces pressed to the glass before giving a speech about how awful poverty in the US has become feels dishonest.Report

      • @michael-drew

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. Even though I see envy in such cases as I cite, I’m not sure it’s something necessarily always to criticize. But I do find building a policy based on a point of view admitted to be constituted primarily of envy is wrong. Of course, it depends on what I mean by “admitted to be” and “primarily” and even “envy.”

        Accordingly, I agree with almost all of the following:

        I think that envy itself is merely human, hardly a purely evil part of human nature (and you cannot name a virtue that is pure good and cannot turn evil at the extreme), very salient in affecting personal utility, and as such something that’s perfectly appropriate to be a consideration in policymaking.

        I hedge a bit on the last clause, but I can sign on to most of the rest.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        Then you chose to analyze it as “envy.”

        Ya know, I had the same initial reaction: that there’s tremendous desire – incentive, almost – to analyze these types of issues in terms of the psychological and emotional dysfunction known as “envy”. I’ve seen lots of commenters here do that very thing often enough. But I don’t think James was doing that, to be honest. I think he was providing one type of account for those types of behaviors and not an analysis of them.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:


        Thanks likewise. I’d be interested in exactly what your hedge is. I struggle to see, given all those factors you agree to, what DQs it for consideration in making policy (if that’s what your hedge provides for). Per @vikram-bath, here’s where I start to wonder if linguistic associations with traditional vices take over. If we weren’t calling it envy (or snobbishness), would we still feel the same way about the same thing? (Though I’m not sure we’ve arrived at 100% agreement about exactly what the thing we’re talking about is, either….)Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to James Hanley says:


        If you were to tell me I could live in the poorest section of rural America, the most violent urban neighborhood, or North Korea; I would pick the options in the U.S. without any hesitation.

        That being said, this does not mean that it would be a pleasurable experience to live in those circumstances in the U.S. I don’t think you would enjoy living in East New York or the most crime ridden neighborhood in Chicago or Detroit or ultra-Appalachia either even if it was a million times better than living in North Korea.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        …Also, not to nitpick, but since you copped to a slight goalpost move above, for us to figure out what role (including if that’s none), the thing we’re talking about (also gotta figure out exactly what that is, and THEN consider, as you say, whether it is “envy” or not) should play in policy, it would be further necessary to acknowledge that “perfectly appropriate to be a consideration in policymaking” is not the same as “building a policy based on a point of view admitted to be constituted primarily of envy is.” (And acknowledging your concession of having to hammer out “primarily,” though actually to me the more significant divergence between those two is between “perfectly appropriate consideration in” and “building based on,” even without the “primarily” modifier, but obviously especially with it.)Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        That being said, this does not mean that it would be a pleasurable experience to live in those circumstances in the U.S.

        It depends on whether you’re talking relatively pleasurable or absolutely pleasurable. Again: there are people who are risking their lives to live in those circumstances.

        That’s weird, right?Report

      • @michael-drew

        I’d be interested in exactly what your hedge is. I struggle to see, given all those factors you agree to, what DQs it for consideration in making policy (if that’s what your hedge provides for).

        My hedge is that building a policy to appease envy might be called for if it would, for example, stave off a violent revolution. My hedge against that hedge is that I think we can set our sites higher than that. My hedge against that hedge is that “envy” is such a loaded term that if I believe people are being envious, then maybe there’s an underlying or covalent reason to take them seriously, even if I don’t wish to appease the envy.

        If that’s unclear, then I’ll discuss the unionization effort I’ve referred to, albeit in vague terms.* I would not dismiss the unions’ supporters as indulging only in envy-driven arguments or having a solely envy-driven view of the work relations they were trying to modify. I do think envy, along with a certain default sense of entitlement and a decision not to acknowledge fully certain realities about funding and prevailing attitudes toward public employees, plays a big role in the way they view things and plays a bigger role in the type of rhetoric they adopt. Most of that is just good ole fashioned union organizing and/or bargaining. Not in itself a bad thing. But the way they frame the issues could very well come back to haunt them. And I’ll add that the contract they sought (and for the most part won) may work out the way they want, or it may do harm, or it may be neutral. The jury’s out on that.

        *For more information, see: http://www.uicufdissenter.blogspot.com [Disclosure: As I’ve said on another thread, the author of that blog may or may not be the same commentator here who was formerly known as “Pierre Corneille.”]Report

      • it would be further necessary to acknowledge that “perfectly appropriate to be a consideration in policymaking” is not the same as “building a policy based on a point of view admitted to be constituted primarily of envy is.”

        You know, MD, rereading those sentences (yours and mine) suggests to me that both of us could do better in the “writing more clearly” department 🙂Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        That’s well-understood where my writing is concrend, @gabriel-conroy. 🙂 I didn’t think anything you wrote was particularly unclear, though. Probably my fault for thinking that, however.Report

      • Thanks, MD, but my writing does have challenges.

        Your “nitpick,” by the way, is well taken.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        Mine, too obviously. Have a good one, @gabriel-conroy .Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        …One last point to clarify what I’ve said a bit. I stand by my slighly halting defense of envy as a potentially legitimate target of policy. But I would want to remind that it’s a frame placed on feelings of hardship, privation, etc., by those critiquing such feelings (and implicitly policies targeted to address them). That’s why to me it makes a difference whether I’m allowing that envy is an appropriate consideration or advancing it as a specific aim of policy. My aim would be to aid those struggling in our society. It is others who would say that such struggle might likely be envy, given the overwhelming moderateness of such struggle in the global context (or whatever context). My response is, first, I’m not at all sure that’s envy, but if it is, *then* apparently envy can be an appropriate consideration in crafting policy. I have no desire to frame it that way, and certainly don’t hold out envy as a leading value in policy formulation, so that we’d consciously aim policies at alleviating it. My view is that e should seek to aid the struggling, those experiencing (something we might agree to be, or disagree that it is,) hardship. As it happens, if push coming to shove in the course of that means it needs to be so that envy becomes an appropriate consideration of policy, so be it, I think that can be justified. But that is not my agenda. The “envy” frame is someone else’s agenda, placed upon a conversation about helping those struggling to succeed in the context of our society.Report

      • We might be close to agreement then. What you just said matches what I think I was trying to say with my third “hedge” above.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        I kinda thought that (tbh I forgot that hedge as I wrote that – I was more concerned with my own possibly having suggested views I don’t hold), but wasn’t sure. That was one of the vaguer parts of your otherwise clear and compelling explanation of your hedge, but I liked what I thought it might mean… 😉Report

      • veronica d in reply to James Hanley says:

        @jaybird — I don’t know if it’s “weird”; it certainly is complicated. But also you are conflating the experience of immigrants, who have one sort of experience, with non-immigrants, who have another. Which is only to say we don’t need to treat poverty as a monolith.

        But we can also look at lifespans, diabetes rates, availability of medical treatment, availability of affordable healthy food, on and on, and still say, “Dammit we want life in our country to be better for everyone here,” and at the same time notice it is worse elsewhere.

        On the other hand, if you want to also redouble our efforts to help people in other countries, I’m willing to listen. It’s a much harder problem than helping people closer to home, but it is worth doing.

        While we can solve neither completely, surely we can provide help for both. Yes?


        The reality, of course, is that people bring up the poor in other countries largely to derail the conversation about the poor here. They have no intention of helping anyone anywhere, and thus want to turn the lens away from hardship. What they really mean is “Do not help the poor.”Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        One of our favorite charities is Heifer International (“The Heifer Project” should not be confused with “The Red Heifer Project”). We like to give bees to people in the name of people we don’t like. We can imagine the people we don’t like standing in an elevator stuck between floors as it slowly fills with bees.

        Actually, maybe only I do that last one. Do we need to compare receipts before I’m allowed to continue talking? If not, I’ll dive ahead anyway.

        Anyway, I’m one of those “absolute standards of poverty are oh-so-much-more interesting than relative standards of poverty” folks for a bunch of various reasons, most of which include thoughts about my responsibilities toward it. In a previous conversation on this topic, we hashed out that relative poverty theories allow for such things as poverty meaning not having access to technology that didn’t exist in 2014 which is something that I cannot wrap my head around. (Might future definitions of poverty include lifestyles similar to the one I live now? That’s effin’ crazy if you ask me… but it seems to me that if the definition could, indeed, allow for that then we’ve found that we’re working with an absurd definition.)

        Anyway, I find that these discussions usually benefit from people coming out in the first place and saying that they are using either a relative standard or an absolute standard and then moving from there.

        My problem is that when I go with an absolute standard, it makes me want stuff like “open borders” and I start discussing the importance of immigration and stuff like remittances (or even the joys of donating to Heifer International) and when forced to focus on the policies of domestic US poverty, I’m stuck thinking that government policies like the War On Drugs probably does a better job of maintaining the privilege of the established players than any other thing I could think of but then I’m talking about the War On Drugs again rather than “poverty” and likely to be accused of “derailing” again.

        In any case, the best thing we could do for our impoverished communities is stop making so much of it unemployable or otherwise eligible for only menial jobs. We need to improve education for those parts of the country and the best way to do that involves getting rid of bad teachers even if they do belong to a union. We need to provide birth control (depo! bring back Norplant! (Oh, Implanon seems to work for 3 years…)) so that we could get close to kicking pregnancy to after high school if possible.

        But all of those feel just as likely to be called derailings from the topic.

        So we should probably step back for a moment and just hammer out if we’re talking about absolute standards or relative ones.Report

      • Robert Greer in reply to James Hanley says:

        It’s pretty simplistic to say it’s just envy. Remember that social status is often doled out based on relative (not absolute) affluence, and social status is itself an important positional good. No matter where you are, people on the low end of their local totem poles have higher levels of stress hormones, and report poor health outcomes. If I’m remembering right, these effects show up even when you arbitrarily assign people to low-status groups, so the direction of causality can be reliably inferred. Highly unequal distributions of goods, which you claim to have no problem with, can be expected to lead to more severe social stratifications and wider class divisions, and thereby exacerbate the problems associated with low status. It seems no accident that more equal societies report being happier. Surely that’s worth something.Report

      • veronica d in reply to James Hanley says:

        @robert-greer — Right! This! +e^100

        We are animals and thus have material needs. But we are first and foremost social animals, and our deepest desires are for dignity and belonging.

        This is not about wearing diamonds and flying first class. No, this is about feeling that you belong, that you have equal chances, the same opportunities, that you are just a valid. And income disparity plays a huge role in this.

        Which, for @jaybird , is why the digital divide matters. Sure, no one had mobile Internet twenty years ago. But now everyone “who is anyone” does, and those who do not are blocked from participation. In the here and now. While around them others play reindeer games.

        And sure, we are all right now “denied access” to amazing things from the future. But those things are in the future. No one yet has them (’cept maybe prototypes). But it is not about those specific things. It is about full participation, right now, in this amazing world.

        Some get invited along. Others get to stand on the sidelines and watch. This matters.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        Thank you for trying, but I doubt that they’re capable of hearing.

        Robert Greer, on the other hand, knows how to craft an intelligent and challenging response. My take would be twofold. First, some of that low-status stress comes from struggling to cover the basics. If you’re having a hard time covering rent on basic decent housing (nothing fancy, just clean, functional, and safe), putting food on the table, and keeping your kid(s) clothed, that’s stress-inducing, but it’s not in the range of things I’m critiquing.

        Second, stress also comes from comparing oneself to the Jones’s and coming up short. The stress is real, but it’s unnecessary. It may even be an innate tendency among humans, but it can be unlearned, at least to some extent. And we know a good deal of it is learned via our culture, from general social expectations to advertising, to media focus on the lifestyles of the rich and pathetic. A little liberal anti–or perhaps just non–materialism goes a long way here.

        And I do think liberalism has something of an unresolved conflict here, being both somewhat disdainful of the materialism of the well-off while supporting the less well-off’s aspirations to the same materialism.Report

      • LWA in reply to James Hanley says:

        Actually, I agree that liberalism has this dilemma- but only to the extent that all of humanity has this dilemma.
        We want to be included, yet we want to stand out. We want transcendence and fulfillment, yet wealth and luxury. And on and on.

        As someone who strives to be non-materialistic, I agree that much of the discomfort of poverty is self-inflicted. Yet Its a bit glib to simly say its unecessary, so…what, we ignore it? Craft Public Service ads admonishing people not to pay attention to the ads which bracket it, or the lifetsyle sitcom in which its placed?

        At the very least, I think it is imperative that we have a public policy that acknowledges the conflicting desires, and makes attempts to address them at each end- offering material prosperity, while demanding some level of egalitarianism, conferring reward to individual effort, while including everyone in a share of the bounty.

        Its imperative, if for no other reason than the entire premise of society is the idea that we exist as some identifiable group.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Who do you know that draws a wholly objective line between absolute and relative well-being?

        No one; it can’t be done. Which is, you know, my point.

        Now it’s your turn to call me names, no doubt out of envy.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        No, this is about feeling that you belong, that you have equal chances, the same opportunities, that you are just a valid.

        But when it comes to my moral responsibility to make someone feel that way, it seems that we’ve really gotten into murky territory. At this point, I’m responsible for the upper levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

        I can see there being a moral responsibility for me to ensure that people have the bottom levels taken care of… but when it comes to the upper ones? I’m pretty sure that that’s not how those work.Report

      • Robert Greer in reply to James Hanley says:


        I agree that a portion of the stress generated by comparison to “the Joneses” is unnecessary materialism, but not all of it. A functional but threadbare apartment, or an inability to eat out, can create very real social problems for poor people that can’t simply be wished away. People with the bare minimum can survive, but it’s usually difficult for them to participate in many social functions, and that is no mere relative impoverishment. I’ll admit that this problem also has its roots in existing materialism, but the problem is the materialism (and attendant judgmentalism) of the rich, so it seems especially unfair to place the burden for it on the poor.

        I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict within a coherent leftism about this: If you think, like I do, that the materialism aspirations of the poor is largely instrumental to their winning a more equal and dignified spot in society, it’s easy to distinguish that desire from the apparent decadence of the rich, because the two materialisms work at cross-purposes. And while I acknowledge that liberals can be very materialistic in how they view the proper workings of an economy, I think you’re confusing a fault line between different liberal schools of thought to be an inherent inconsistency in the thought of liberal individuals.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:


        The upper levels (any levels, really) are not either your responsibility or not, independent of you. It’s *up* to you. You can take responsibility for helping others achieve various levels up to Level X to the extent you can, or not. And if you are taxed in the name of a coerced, governmental effort to take such responsibility collectively, you can either accept that action and endorse its aim, or reject it (or some protion of it) and condemn the taking you have endured (or some portion of it). Everyone always retains that right, and routinely exercises it. Everyone regards some government spending as illegitiamte, it’s just a question of what, and there’s no reason to expect agreement on the what to emerge through discourse. People simply have different values.

        So, no one (should be) saying that it *is* your responsibility to provide for Level X. No one is saying you cannot regard taxes taken for that purpose as theft. They’re saying it’s up to you whether you accept that responsibility and how you regard such taxes. And as no one can say definitively to you that the upper levels are your responsibility (only you can say that), likewise you cannot say that the lower levels definitively are society’s responsibility and taxes are thus justified to support them, but some number of the upper levels are not. You, and everyone, have to decide for yourself what levels (or what degree of aid, as I’m not sure Maslow is the right way to analyze the question, though he may be) you will accept responsibility for. Then, if we’re to have any taxation to fund governmental efforts to provide for certain levels at all, there will be some people who think they don’t have responsibility for some of the levels being supported, and thus regard some of that taxation as illegitimate. It literally cannot be other than that if there are to be such governmental efforts.

        So we accept that, and remember that the levels for which we are actually accepting responsibility are completely and solely up to us, and that literally every taxpayer has reason to regard at least some portion of her tax bill as illegitimate from a spending standpoint. That feeling makes literally no one special or unique.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        The other thing I’d say about the Upepr Levels is that it’s quite hard to separate out public commitment to them from public commitment to other levels, or perhaps more accurately, much easier to identify consensus acceptance of collective responsibility to support individuals’ satisfaction of the Upper Levels than we might think. As currently constituted, yes, public aid to adults, to the extent it exists, is largely focused on meeting lower-level needs. (Some of us would be okay with etting that expand, others not so much.) However! Our public commitment to K-12 education (the placement of the word “public” there being very consciously chosen – public, private, hoem-school, what I’m about to say applies to any and all) is very heavily focused on working to help individuals achieve the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Explicitly so, amirite, @kazzy ?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        You, and everyone, have to decide for yourself what levels (or what degree of aid, as I’m not sure Maslow is the right way to analyze the question, though he may be) you will accept responsibility for.

        Oh. Okay. This is a lot easier than I thought it would be when I started, I tell you what.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:



      • ScarletNumbers in reply to James Hanley says:

        @jaybird July 12, 2014 7:11 pm

        How would you define a “bad teacher” exactly?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        There are lots of different ways to be a bad teacher but I suppose the easiest definition would be to get children who have grade X reading/math levels at the beginning of the year and fail to get them to grade X+1 reading/math levels by the end of the year.Report

      • Patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

        If you’re focused on getting rid of the “bad” teachers, or hiring “good” teachers, you’re solving the problem at the wrong layer of abstraction and you’re probably not going to get anywhere.

        You need N teachers. Start with that.

        We’ll get the best N we can manage, but N is what we need, not X good ones or Y great ones.

        We need N.

        Now, if you need N teachers and the price point for those N teachers’ labor ($Z) is some number that isn’t to your liking, you have a problem, whether Z is too big *or* too small.

        If you need N teachers and you’re really mad because you don’t want to pay $Z for a subset of those N teachers and you wish you could pay $(Z + W) to some other subset of those N teachers you’re really lost in the woods.

        You need N. If you need N and you can’t get N good ones, you have to hire some bad ones.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        “….the apparent decadence of the rich….”

        You guys need to quit picking on Saul. He just has a keener fashion sense.Report

    • Kim in reply to Will Truman says:

      Let’s be clear: tons of million dollar homes were lost during the housing bust. Hillary should have been more clear about what aspect of “I feel your pain, because I lived it” she was referring to.Report

  4. Saul Degraw says:

    I largely agree. The Wendy Davis example is not perfect because 19 is still a teenager (if of the age of majority) and we are at a point where being married and/or pregnant at 19 is largely enough to indicate that you came from the lower-end of the socio-economic spectrum. Or at least probably did. It is pretty rare for someone to be a mother when they graduate from Harvard Law or any other elite college/university/grad program. Parents can work their way through school but usually when they can attend night classes or part-time. Harvard Law does not allow that, nor do other elite schools.

    Most people also did point that out about what you did about Tag Furlong. At least on the liberal side of things.
    People also got pretty angry at Ann Romney for her attempts at the hardship narrative.

    I think Americans are deeply involve with the idea that we are a “classless society” (even though we are not really) and really do like the idea of a self-made man. On a psychological level, our national conversation is deeply uncomfortable with the facts of income inequality and that the best indicator for wealth or socio-economic status is what strata you were raised in. It seems profoundly unAmerican to have grown up in Westchester, gone to a school, worked hard, got into grad school, and then ended up in Westchester again. That cycle of easy life is jarring to us on a very profound but collectively unconscious level.

    This is why I think people create the hardship narrative. No one wants to look like the coasted through life with relative ease. No one wants to be the out of touch rich person even if the hardship narrative is what turn them into the
    out of touch rich person.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “No one wants to be the out of touch rich person even if the hardship narrative is what turn them into the
      out of touch rich person.”

      This is what I was trying to get at below, to some degree (though I think there is more to it than just appearing out-of-touch).

      But I think this type of thinking creates a false dilemma. I don’t think people either have legitimate hardship narratives OR are out of touch aristocrats (or risk appearing as such, at least). I think there is a way people can discuss privileges they’ve enjoyed without coming across as out-of-touch or otherwise irksome. Graciousness goes a long way. Sure, some people will always rail against the rich or well-to-do, but most people will be rather non-plussed by someone who says, “I had the good fortune of growing up without want. My family was well-situated because of a variety of factors and my parents wanted to give me great opportunities for success, which I did my best to avail myself off. I recognize this is not the norm for most people and greatly appreciate the good fortune I’ve enjoyed thus far.” If they’re a politician, they can then throw something in along the lines of, “And I want to make sure we are giving those same opportunities to each of our children. And our children’s children.” And if they’re Jack Handy, they could then say, “Well, maybe not our children’s children because I don’t think children should be having sex.”Report

  5. LWA says:

    If it is incongruous for middle class Americans to complain about wage stagnation, what are we to make of millionaires complaining about confiscatory taxes?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to LWA says:

      It’s all existential. I’m sure that Hillary Clinton honestly thought that she was experiencing financial hardship. (Biggie said it best: “Mo’ money, mo problems.”)

      For some reason it always works out that the problems one is having oneself are always more difficult than the problems experienced by others. For some reason, their problems are more tuned into their circumstances so that they have a better toolkit for dealing with them that makes surmounting them less impressive than one surmounting one’s own. Those lucky duckies.Report

      • Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

        She was experiencing what was a “middle class” (for wall street) problem. It’s not a poor problem, in general, because poor doesn’t mean rural anymore.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to LWA says:

      There’s nothing wrong with complaining about wage stagnation. We’d all like to have higher wages. Demanding that the government take away from other people and give to you is where things get problematic.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        It’s certainly less damaging than the historical alternative.

        Perhaps we can return to a semi-feudal society, with the wealth and power concentrations that implies. I find that unlikely to be a stable government, in modern times.

        Interestingly enough, I think we’re skipping the first questions. Is wealth concentration something to worry about? Is wealth concentration the result of free markets, or the sign of a sub-optimal or constrained market? Will it fix itself, or will it continue concentrating? At what point will it stabilize? How will it change over time?

        And once you have the parameters of that down, you can move onto “Is this the sort of result we, as a society, are comfortable with?

        I think you’ll find an awful lot of different answers to those, although I’m seeing a narrowing down to “Oh yeah, this is bad” from all quadrants on wealth concentration (hence the fun “But the poor have iPods and refrigerators! They’ve never been wealthier!” which convinced no one, ever) but, of course, a lot of differences on what to do about it.

        And of course, lots of rhetoric.Report

      • LWA in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Why should it be problematic for the government to take away from other people and give it to others?
        I know it is a favorite tagline to use- “they’re taking my stuff!”

        Except your stuff doesn’t entirely belong to you, not all of it. There doesn’t exist any moral right to claim one’s property in its entirety.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        It’s a weird move from”confiscatory” taxation to “not owning one’s stuff in it’s entirety.” The latter justifies some taxation, but seems far too weak a claim to justify confiscatory taxation.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        What is nonconfiscatory taxation?Report

      • LWA in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Assuming you want a serious answer, nonconfiscatory taxes are what we have right now in the USA.
        I suppose an argument could be made that Eisenhower era taxes could qualify as confiscatory, or UK Pre-Thatcher taxes.
        But even then it would take some argument to convince me.Report

      • I’m making this up on the fly, but how about this?..

        Taxes are confiscatory if either their intent or practical significance is to take away wealth from the those being taxed. So, for example, income taxes on the rich in the US would largely be considered confiscatory since everyone seems to acknowledge that a major goal of it is to reduce wealth accumulation among high earners. The soda tax, on the other hand is non-confiscatory. Most of its proponents would be happy if $0 in soda taxes were collected because the purpose of the tax is to reduce consumption, not to remove wealth from soda drinkers.

        Payroll taxes, social security, and medicare would fall under the non-confiscatory umbrella, because the main purposes of those seem to be revenue gathering.Report

  6. Kazzy says:

    I wonder how much of this stems from a general discomfort in our society with discussing finances. It’s frowned upon to discuss being well-off. This can easily lead to people downplaying how well-situated they are which, in turn, can lead to overstating hardship.

    Note: This is less likely to be the case when people in the public eye are crafting narratives, but they are probably still somewhat responsive to the societal forces.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

      The examples I’ve cited come from a desire to over-share, not shyness about discussing finances. The OP is about very strategic disclosures about one’s financial status so as to create a particular impression.

      But even for those who aren’t politicians per se, I think a similar desire to frame one’s experience exists. Conversations like youtube video posted below do actually happen among friends.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I think it’s important to note that this distinction is what the post hinges on. Some in the the thread seem to be taking your point to be that people are mistaken in their genuine feelings about how much hardship they have experienced in their life, considered and conveyed accurately. I don;t see you to be making that point. The point is not about how much hardship people feel and whether that;s right or wrong, but about the benefits of creating the impression of hardship and the distortions of actual fact that are employed to achieve that end. (Though I would argue that your primary example doesn’t really demonstrate that, but instead demonstrates an attempt to dispel impressions of extreme privilege, or at least comfort, through similar distortions. I.e., I don’t take HRC to be trying to weave a hardship narrative, but to instead suggest that her family’s financial security was much more precarious than it is commonly understood, and that therefore she isn’t as out of touch with struggling families as some suggest. Which to me seems unlikely, distorting in the way you suggest, and terrible optically/politically as well. But it’s not a claim that actual hardships, to say nothing of poverty, were endured.)

        This point is well taken, but it’s fully a different can of worms from the ongoing low-level disputes here and elsewhere over whether, for example, American middle-class families are being squeezed financially in ways that create sincere feelings of, if not hardship, then stress that will be expressed in a genuine way as something like (or something that is taken to be wrongly like even is not intended to be?) the emotional burden of actual hardship, or, even more plausibly, to what event we can say that those genuinely struggling to climb to an American-middle-class standard of living and not quite making it are in fact experiencing hardship given the at least arguable reality of a global context for considering such experiences. That Hillary Clinton made such an inapt attempt to muddy the demonstrable reality of her family’s wealth and security, which, if we’re being real, is basically the subject of your piece, doesn’t speak to these much harder questions at all (which, to be clear, I’m saying you don’t at all suggest that it does – that they are being imported into the discussion and narrowly but clearly miss your point).Report

      • I don’t take HRC to be trying to weave a hardship narrative

        Eh. How many people describe themselves as “dead broke” without wanting to communicate that they are experiencing a hardship.

        I didn’t attempt to communicate it in the original post, but I should note, that I have a problem with validating the concerns of the American poor but laughing at HRC’s concerns. Either relative poverty matters or it doesn’t. HRC clearly feels she’s not among those who are “truly well off”. Given the crowd that she probably hangs with, I can easily imagine that she truly does feel like she’s not doing as well financially as she’d like to.

        The point still stands that it is an example of hardship depreciation, but I do think it still arises out of a genuine feeling on her part. (If she were fabricating a feeling from scratch, I’d sure hope she could do a better job than that.)Report

  7. Saul Degraw says:

    The just out of reach thing is a good observation.

    I grew up in what can be called the very comfortable upper-middle class. I was never the poor student who subsided on peanut butter and jam sandwiches or instant ramen even if I worked and went to grad school at the same time. When I was an undergrad, the campus was across the street from a 5 dollar (literally) greasy spoon Chinese place and I was able to eat there often enough. A student in undergrad once ripped my head off for suggesting we go there because she could only afford to eat via the meal plan.

    When I was in grad school, I had nicesh apartments on my own and they were decorated with old furniture that used to belong to my uncle. I also had classmates who were really wealthy and lived in apartments which were very nice to luxorious by NYC standards with all new and expensive furniture.

    There were times I felt like I got more class rage then my really wealthy classmates because my level of comfort seemed like it should be more in reach or universal. A nice apartment (but nothing fancy) on your own with old furniture is a lot better than a small place with lots of roommates in a not great and out of the way neighborhood. As compared to super-rich guy or gal who lives in a world class apartment with fancy stuff and goes on random fancy vacations.

    One classmate in grad school said in comparing my really wealthy classmate and I “X wears the type of clothing that is really expensive but looks cheap. You wear the kind of clothing that is somewhat expensive and looks it.” There are all sorts of class markers here.

    I think one of the reasons clothing like Brunello Cuccinelli is so popular is because it is rather ordinary but nice looking. It doesn’t look like you are wearing 1,200 dollar boots or a 500 dollar shirt. There is a blend into the background quality of his cashmere and other really nice stuff. So it is a private way of flaunting your wealth, the same with really expensive clothing that has a very distressed and downtown look, etc.Report

    • Damon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      You know it’s funny, I never wear expensive or flashy clothes. I’ve got a decent income and generally do not want for needs. But wearing such clothes seems ostentatious and drawing attention to yourself. Never seemed the smart thing to do, safety-wise.Report

  8. James K says:

    Good post Vikram, two observations:

    1) This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to the US.

    2) I came across a fascinating graph the other day looking at income growth across the global income distribution, and it paints a very interesting picture as to what is going on at a global level, with particularly interesting implications for developed countries..Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to James K says:

      (1) That was awesome (though I do marvel at how difficult I find it to understand the English of the English).

      (2) I’ve seen that one before, or a version of it. I agree it’s pretty awesome in terms of making a lot of things click in one’s brain.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to James K says:

      That is indeed an interesting chart, @james-k . It’s a genuinely and unqualified good thing that the global poor are seeing their lives improve due to globalization. That spike at the top and the trough for the developed world middle-class? That doesn’t have to be that way and it’s not a good thing.

      Globalization was the natural result of policy choices made in the ’70s and the trough/spike the result of policy choices in the ’80s. The former does not neccesarily entail the latter, which is a good thing since that situation is unsustainable and will ultimately derail the benefits of trade liberalization.Report

      • Roger in reply to Road Scholar says:


        Why don’t you think it had to be this way?

        What are your assumptions?Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Road Scholar says:

        Sorry I took so long to reply, @roger . I guess my assumption is that what I’ve been taught about economics wasn’t complete b.s. Less glibly, as I understand it, competitive market theory would argue that profits should be pushed toward zero, or more realistically, toward some minimum required to keep the owners of capital interested in that market.

        So when you argue — correctly! — that the wage stagnation, unemployment, and general malaise afflicting the working class in the developed world is the natural result of competition resulting from globalization, I’m left wondering why the same thing hasn’t occurred to the owners of capital? Why were they, presumably subject to the same kind of competitive pressures from overseas, able to not only maintain their returns, but from all indications actually extract rents? For all you want to crow about the gains to the global poor, it looks to me like the real winners from globalization are the first-world financial elites.

        Your admonitions to American workers that they basically had it too good, that they were essentially privileged to enjoy the benefits of a protected labor market, would be a lot easier to take if the first-world owners of capital were similarly sucking air in the wake of this intensified competition. It should also be pointed out that the net gains enjoyed by ordinary Americans (e.g., NOT Wall Street masters of the universe) in their capacity as consumers has been more than offset by their losses as wage earners.Report

      • Roger in reply to Road Scholar says:


        First, thanks for the excellent reply. More comments like yours would reignite my interest in discussions.

        Here is my take…

        I agree completely that over time profits will revert back to the reasonable risk adjusted rate of return for that type of capital investment. I would add to it though that profit is a signal and an incentive within markets. In this case it is a signal and reward that new opportunities exist which can be capitalized on to deliver new or better goods and services in new and or more efficient ways to more people. Where there is new opportunity, profit and loss opportunities are created. When (if) it is filled, profits are pocketed.

        The last few decades saw historically unprecedented market opportunities. Billions of new consumers entered the scene, as did billions of workers. The opportunity for capitalizing were truly amazing. And the data shows some people capitalized on the opportunities and were rewarded for doing so. Btw, I would also assume lots of wealth was also creatively destroyed* in the process, but the pie got about three times as large as before and is still growing. The individuals in the top five percent were not always the same.

        In other words, in a time of unprecedented opportunity and change as we are going through now with opening of huge markets, globalization, new technologies and such there are huge opportunities and lots of smart/lucky entrepreneurs are going to reap huge rewards as they create solutions and capitalize on the situation.

        Middle class workers and owners of now-misaligned capital in developing nations are the least benefitted as they have several billion new competitors. Yes they gain as consumers, but one step forward, one back.

        Obviously, my take on the matter is that profits and losses are socially constructive scores in the game of increasing human prosperity. Profits yeah!! I think the world would be better with more gazillionaires, as long as they make their money via Smith’s invisible hand.

        Indeed, in my take on the situation, the more capitalists earn, the faster the market equalizes and the middle class takes off again. Picketty offers a disease packaged as a cure.

        * think of how much wealth was destroyed that was owned by Sears stockholders (me at one time) or the losers of the smart phone battles ( I also bought Motorola at the peak).Report

  9. Damon says:

    I’ve always found the effort by politicians to be “of the common man” to be more annoying and disgusting than anyother rich type dude. Because the politician wants your vote, and he’s willing to “fudge” things, smacks of more evil than some non politician relaying some “common man” ancedote.Report

  10. Vikram’s main points are good ones (though I share New Dealer’s quibbles on Davis….her success at Harvard and in the legal profession seems to have come after her early motherhood….that doesn’t change the fact she’s now adopting a self-serving, and in some ways inaccurate, narrative).

    I find I have to struggle against adopting that “poverty narrative” in my own case. And frankly, I’m smart enough or careful enough (usually) not to do it explicitly. But sometimes I do overemphasize or wear on my sleeve aspects of my personal history that were more challenging or less advantageous than that of some of my peers, or fellow OT commenters, for that matter.

    One reason I find adopting such narratives tempting (even though I should know better) is personal. I had it much better growing up than my siblings, who are significantly older, did. Our parents had much less money when they were raising my siblings, and by the time I came along, they could spend what they had all on me and didn’t really have to spend as much on them. Another reason probably has to do with a certain heroic quality to such narratives: the hometown boy (or more rarely, girl) who makes good and shows the members of the elite how it is seems to be a staple of American popular culture. That makes for some good storytelling–and I strongly suspect it’s not a uniquely American thing–but at the end of the day, someone is not more noble just because they’ve faced challenges.

    And the better off still face challenges, too. My wife and I are friends to a very affluent couple, and they don’t really seem at all happy to me. I’m sure the causes are many and are complicated, but I think their immense wealth plays a role somehow. I’m also reminded of something Will Truman pointed out in a thread a while back about Ms. Romney’s speech at the RNC. I had made a kind of insensitive joke about it, and he wrote (not directly in response to me, but in response to the general comments about her), something to the effect of, “yes, she’s really privileged, but cancer is scary no matter how affluent you are.” That was the type of reminder I needed to hear.


  11. kylind says:

    It’s probably partly because people focus too much on certain markers of poverty/hardship.
    Having a low income means you’re in poverty. (Then most college students get counted.)
    Or being in debt means poverty. (Then Hillary Clinton counts, because they were in debt.)
    Or being a young mother equals poverty. (Again far from necessarily true.)

    You have to take a much more holistic look at it.

    I myself was surely counted in poverty statistics for much of my early 20s. But while I lived on a very low income in a very small apartment, I always knew I would eventually earn much more and live much better. Besides, I also knew I could rely on my family in the event of an emergency.
    If you compare living in poverty to balancing on a tightrope, then I was balancing a foot above the ground, while other people are balancing above the Niagara Falls.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to kylind says:

      people focus too much on certain markers of poverty/hardship

      I think this is a valuable observation. There’s a lot of “if you did this” or “if you bought this” then you must have been poor. These are only indicators, and they might not be good ones.Report

  12. Kim says:

    I’m sorry, when does “My parents couldn’t afford to keep me fed” become looked down upon because they simply “sent me to relatives”??

    It’s still being homeless, and it causes REAL problems with schoolwork, when you’re not sure where you’re sleeping the next night.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Kim says:

      “I’m sorry, when does “My parents couldn’t afford to keep me fed” become looked down upon because they simply “sent me to relatives”??”

      When you sell it like you were a street bum wrapping your feet in newspaper and eating rotten eggs out of a garbage can, and use that as a reason why you’re an example of moral superiority.Report

      • Kim in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        I think I’d let you get eaten by the bear.
        Trolls piss me off, and you’re making me feel like punching something.
        maybe try not responding to me for a while or I’ll probably plonk you…Report

  13. Kim says:

    Also, since when does WIC count as food stamps? Did I miss something??Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Kim says:

      I guess the logic is that you get a voucher to buy food, ergo…

      But that is a good question. I referred to them as food stamps because the Washington Post did. It might be another example of the media outlet choosing the name more evocative of hardship.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        FWIW, I’ve seen major shifts in what is called ‘welfare’. Unemployment is now frequently called welfare, and not from the left.

        There’s a pretty sizable growth business in conflating non-defense spending with ‘social spending’ and then with ‘welfare’.Report

      • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        “veterans benefits are the new welfare” is my favorite slogan from the right. Just a reminder of exactly how evil some on the right are.Report

  14. zic says:

    I don’t think this is necessarily the ‘hardship’ narrative, so much as the need for political narrative that voters can identify with.

    In Davis case, the demographic that would allow her victory is probably that elusive single woman under 30; so her story focuses there. And having read through that story; I don’t think the hardship is any less relevant; she went through a lot, and worked hard to get through college and law school while caring for a child. Suggesting this was not her accomplishment (because her 2nd husband helped) is like suggesting any married man doesn’t own his accomplishments because his wife helped by working and doing the bulk of the child care.

    Another variation is the “I’ve run a business,” story; and these are also often framed as hardship stories. What’s interesting here is the variation in perception of public assistance; we sort of assume the Davises of the world received food stamps or medicaid or schip benefits; and in some circles, that’s reason to look down on her. But what about the assistance the federal government offers small businesses? There are loans, grants, technical assistance, advisory assistance; and there’s often more at the state level as states struggle to attract jobs. In mine, for instance, if you jump through the right hoops and locate your business in the right place, you’ll get five years without paying state taxes at all, and another five at 50% the normal rate.

    So the real thing going on here is the struggle politicians have to create a narrative, a life story, that’s compelling to voters in general and that helps the specific demographics they need to turn out identify with them, something that proves, as Bill Clinton said, “I feel your pain.”Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to zic says:


    • Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      The Davis thing demonstrates that everyone has an agenda. She framed her hardship in such a way that subtly encouraged the reader to reach certain conclusions that exaggerated her actual experience. Those who had a problem with it decided to exaggerate in the opposite direction so as to imply that she faced *no* hardship.Report

  15. Stillwater says:

    Anecdotes are valuable. Whatever is valuable, the rich and powerful will eventually get. If anecdotes about poverty are valuable, the rich will buy them, and they won’t all be as clumsy as Clinton in their attempts.

    Sure. (Well, maybe.) But a) why do you think anecdotes of hardship are valuable (that is, from where does the value arise?), and b) do you think this is anything new in American political life?Report

    • To answer b)….I don’t think Vikram is suggesting that it’s all that new. Or if he is, I didn’t catch it.Report

      • I don’t mean to imply it is new. I would be curious as to whether they are more important now than they once were. I know universities are more focussed than ever before on getting people from less-privileged backgrounds. I think that means that the rich will figure out the right counter-signaling methods to make their children seem less privileged than they really are.

        I can say that if I had a kid now, I wouldn’t be following the Tiger-Mother method. Becoming a professional-caliber musician is a great thing and traveling to a million countries is a great thing, but it also brands your kid as from a certain background that good universities already have an oversupply of.

        So, that part might be new.Report

  16. Burt Likko says:

    The claim to have had endured hard economic circumstances is a bid for moral legitimacy and emotional empathy. The privileged, after all, lack standing to expound upon poverty. Better if one’s current economic circumstances are comfortable or better, for this bestows upon the claimant the additional virtues of wisdom and diligence. The presumed Horatio Alger experience bestows entree into the higher tiers of a vaguely-defined but nevertheless culturally powerful social meritocracy.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


      I wonder how it would go if a politician or other public figure admitted that they were very lucky in the circumstances of their birth and upbringing and said that no one chooses how they were born.

      That being said, I still think hardship can be relative as it is with Wendy Davis and graduating from Harvard Law as a single mom or Elizabeth Warren who also went to law school as a parent and spent a few years as a solo practioner/mom out of her house and was possibly a divorced parent/single mom as well. This is much harder than being someone who went to law school right out of undergrad or otherwise as a single person without any dependents.

      We don’t have to look at the absolute worst circumstances globally and then say someone in East New York or Compton is complaining because they could always be living in North Korea. One can diminish hardship as well for a variety of politically motivated reasons.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and my first rattle was an old lever of power that had been replaced by my grandfather but kept around for the infants.

        I’m used to money and power and will do a good job wielding both on behalf of you. Vote for me!Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Very funny.

        I was thinking more along liberal lines of course. Bill Gates sort of does this at times.Report

    • greginak in reply to Burt Likko says:

      There is also the desire to pretend the good ol US of A doesn’t have classes. The hardship to success narrative verifies this since no one wants to admit they were born on third base. Gosh that might imply things people don’t want to think about. While the pic Vic used is a classic dofus photo op Clinton is the high level pol that, off the top of my head, went farthest from poverty up to success.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to greginak says:

        I try to be very open about being born in the upper-middle class and never knowing anything that can be close to “want” except unrequited crushes.

        Some people appreciate this and others do not. I admit that I have rather bougie tastes that are inherited from my upbringing. I really don’t have a strong desire to leave the upper-middle class so it is not like I am some rebel rejecting everything which would probably help with cred more.Report

      • Zac in reply to greginak says:

        Sometimes I think that the lack of an “official” class system is what makes the issue of class so hard to grapple with in this country. At least in Europe, they had a literal aristocracy, so they knew whose head needed to go on a pike.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Exactly what I was thinking Burt! Especially this

      The privileged, after all, lack standing to expound upon poverty.

      It all goes back to privilege, in my view.Report

    • I think that even when someone can accurately and not disingenuously has a hardship narrative, if that person has risen or is now in more comfortable circumstances, those new circumstances color that person’s view of the world.

      I usually don’t like it when people who are now affluent talk about their past poverty as a way to claim that they are still of the people. It’s true they definitely have a better grasp on poverty than I do, and I do respect that, but they also live today and are not in their past interests. If they presume to speak for others who are still at a lower station, that bothers me. All that said, when the narrative is used to counter an ad hominem that so and so is wrong because “they don’t know what it’s like” and the target of the ad hominem then discusses their hardship narrative, I’m less critical.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I usually don’t like it when people who are now affluent talk about their past poverty as a way to claim that they are still of the people.

        I think I know what you mean. Here’s how I see it: we live in a culture (maybe everyone does!) where social goals are rewarded by precisely how much distance you can establish from *the people*. The further you are away, the rule goes, the more “successful” you are. (Think about this Saul!) Yet, when you’ve sold yourself out to a career or interests which require “the people’s” approval, you … well … whore yourself out some more (sorry feminists!).

        It just so happens we live in a time when appearing “better than” others is no longer a ticket to the promised land. We live in times when all those privileges are being reexamined (by us privilege holders, those without em are fully educated on all this) and critically evaluated – by the privileged! Not that they’re gonna forego the privileges they already hold. Nope. THey’re just gonna massage their image in such a way as to preserve those privileges.

        Same old song and dance, really.Report

    • zic in reply to Burt Likko says:


  17. LWA says:

    Re: Relative hardship = envy.

    I don’t think so. We consider envy to be a shallow manifestation of materialism.
    But there is another aspect that isn’t being examined.

    Relative poverty, being unable to experience what others do, is a form of social ostracism.
    Our deepest, most profound desires is to be included, one of the group. To some degree, varying levels of wealth don’t break the bonds of onclusiveness, but when they rise to some certain level, they start to drive wedges into the solidarity we need in order to create a civil society.

    Why shouldn’t we base public policy on inclusiveness as a virtue? Isn’t “brotherhood” part of a “more perfect union” that forms a part of our founding creed?

    The hardship narrative is, as others have pointed out, really a narrative that says “I am one of you- we are kin, you and I.”Report

  18. zic says:

    @vikram-bath on Davis and Clinton; via Andrew Sullivan, here’s Laurie Penny, doing a lot of the heavy lifting explaining what you may be seeing:

    The particular variety of rage aimed at women who document their daily lives, especially if they don’t involve a childhood of poverty or abuse or illness, is deeply entrenched and irrational. It’s not just that we don’t think of what they are doing as art, but that it annoys us, riles us. It feels presumptuous, vain, narrow, feminine, clichéd.


    • Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      Just read the article. I have to confess I’m not sure I wholly understand it since I haven’t heard of the book before.

      Is it possible that a man writing a book about the banality of parenting would do better than a woman’s version because parenting for the woman is a given?

      I wonder whether a biography by a female CEO would do better than if it were written by a male, but I’m not really aware of any books written by female CEOs! Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t count because she’s both not a CEO and she wrote a book specifically targeted at women.Report

  19. Saul Degraw says:

    @james-hanley @lwa

    Going down thread.

    Out of sincere curiosity, what do you think a capitalistic but non-materialistic society would look like?

    I think trading and wanting “nice”* things is deeply part of the human psyche. And it seems to me that trading has always involved “nice” things or luxuries in one way or another from olive oil to wine to spices to exotic materials like sandalwood, indigo, citrus fruits etc. As we get wealthier and more connected, the luxuries get more complex. Now it might be American designed stuff made in China or elsewhere or premium Japanese denim that is made on old shuttle looms which no longer exist in the U.S. (these is partially what makes Japanese denim loved by many denim heads).

    Basically it is these luxuries which make life nice and comfortable and as a person who is unconvinced of the existence of an afterlife, I don’t see why people should not want to live comfortably or be non-materialistic. I am not convinced in that we need to live like Puritans who loved profit but hated luxury and comfort.

    I see capitalism and materialism as being largely entwined and largely innate. The great Industrialists of the 19th century got wealthy by finding a way to make luxury goods like tea and chocolate and soap available to a broader range of the public. The best way to make a profit is to sell something that people want and this is connected to desire/materialism. James, you’ve mentioned in some of my arts threads that museums and cultural stuff are manufactured goods just like premium Japanese denim and sporting events and perhaps we should let the market decide what exist. And I am sorry if this seems blunt but there are plenty of things that seem to thrive on the market that make you uncomfortable like expensive fashion items like 975 dollar handmade boots.

    I think this is true for all people. There are plenty of things that thrive on the market that make someone deeply uncomfortable or angry. This can be anything based on a person’s background and preferences. I personally think it would be cool if more people went to downtown theatre over big sporting events but I have no way of making that true. Downtown theatre is a niche manufactured good that most people don’t want or need.

    Basically I am really struggling with Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and the idea of Silas Stingy being the human ideal of how we should be. Almost everyone can acknowledge that capitalism and trade increases wealth and makes life more comfortable but why does rising wealth and comfort also leave us deeply uneasy as a society as I feel it does?

    Now I think overconsumption can be a problem for a variety of reasons but it seems to me that the whole world economy would collapse if we all became non-materialistic over night. Years ago (and again on Planet Money), they interviewed a thrifty woman who said “You don’t need to eat in restaurants, buy new clothes, buy new furniture, travel for vacations, etc.” And while she is technically correct, no one needs these things, it seems to me that if we all took her advice, the economy would break down to post-apocalypse levels but humans as a whole are still very much in love with the romantic notion of everyone being a yeoman farmer who spins his own clothes and plows his own field like it is Tolkien’s shire instead of the wealth of people going to their white collar jobs and then buying premium Japanese denim or going to a hot new restaurant. The entire American economy and possibly world economy is built on people buying things and feeling good about it like restaurant meals, vacations, drinks at bars, premium Japanese denim, video games, etc.

    *Nice is a relative term of course. Nice to Al might be a 2000 dollar tattoo. Nice to Bill might be a 2000 dollar watch.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “what do you think a capitalistic but non-materialistic society would look like?”

      For starters, it probably wouldn’t have anyone who thought they were poor.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:


      The “became non-materialistic overnight” is a non-starter. It’s not going to happen and nobody’s talking about it happening that way. You might as well ask what would happen if everybody stopped needing medical care overnight–17% of our GDP wiped out instantly! These are things that could only happen–if they even can happen–gradually. And in each case there’d be adaptation. A gradually reached endstate in which we all bought less wouldn’t be economic collapse, but plausibly a state where we produced less, and consequently worked less. Some would love it, some would hate it.

      Expensive clothes and boots don’t make me uncomfortable, no more than Ferraris and Louis Vitton handbags do. I just am amused by those who think they’re must have items, or who can’t understand why others aren’t interested in them.

      Look, overall, my point isn’t that we should all become unmaterialistic. I’m saying that nobody has to participate in the materialism. Or they can choose their own degree of materialism, since very few of us are going to become actual ascetics. And if not having as much as others is causing stress, one way–not the only legitimate response, but one way–to deal with that is turn down one’s own materialism a bit.

      And to be sure, I am not holding myself out as a paragon of non-materialism. I’m no role model for anything except the clearest, sharpest, most incisive, and most brilliantly written commentary on the internet.Report

      • Wardsmith in reply to James Hanley says:

        James, even with your clearest most incisive commentary on the net, you seem to have forgotten the recent mass experiment on a highly capitalistic society that went “non materialistic” overnight. Communist China ring a bell? Actually communism in general pushes this ideal, right into the garbage dump of failed social experimentation.Report

  20. Wardsmith says:

    @vikram-bath Great OP. You’ve hit the nail on the head here but the dissembling above where those guilty of class envy try mightily to deny it is likewise amusing. Money does not equal happiness but as Phil Robertson is fond of quoting his wife, “Honey, I’ve done dirt poor with you and rich with you, and rich is better”. His first year of building and selling duck calls he Grossed $8000! And he thought he had made it big. A truly Horatio Alger story for today. Yes he went to college (scholarship in football), but no one begrudges him the fortune he has earned. Or do they?Report

  21. Will H. says:

    I was brought up poor by homeless wolves in nothing but a life raft plunging over the falls with little to gnaw on, having to carry our electricity uphill in buckets, and we had to dress up like each other for Halloween– in the bad part of town.Report

  22. Christopher Carr says:

    The kind of poverty people experience in the developing world and in America really are apples and oranges.

    In the developing world, poverty depends on the weather.

    In America, poverty is income not keeping up with costs.

    The equivalence of the two is either glib or disingenuous.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      Question is whether using the word for both equates them. Is poverty here rightly still called overly even when we acknowledge that it’s utterly different from poverty there, or do need different words for each?Report

      • Christopher Carr in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I don’t think we need different words, just different standards. Not having the power to meet the necessities of life is not having the power to meet the necessities of life, whether that lack of power derives from drought or from getting laid off.Report

  23. Peter says:

    It’s a minor point to be sure, but the J.K. Rowling example is not correct. Contrary to popular belief she was never on welfare. For a relatively short period she collected benefits under a British program that pays aspiring writers a modest income so they can devote themselves to writing full time. Enrollment is highly competitive, requiring a demonstrated talent, and benefits are time-limited.Report