March 3 2014
Are We Becoming More Envious?
Media and real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman—who originally supported President Obama but has turned critic—has a novel idea about how to reduce economic inequality, the president’s pet cause: by creating jobs.
Zuckerman opens his Wall Street Journal article provocatively:
A decade ago, before "income inequality" became a political watchword, the World Bank issued a report called "Beyond Economic Growth." The 2004 study concluded with this message: "An excessively equal distribution can be bad for economic efficiency. Take, for example, the experience of socialist countries where deliberately low inequality deprives people of the incentives needed for their active participation in economic activities." Among the consequences, the report noted, is "slower economic growth leading to more poverty."
That’s an idea that is lost in the current political atmosphere, when our political leaders encourage us to think of the economy as a zero sum game. And it is all too clear that there is a great deal of economic inequality (more now than five years ago). But Zuckerman argues that the emphasis should be on creating jobs, not on economic leveling.
Zuckerman says that the employment rate is actually 13 percent, if you take into consideration people who are “marginally attached” to the work force. Unemployment among young people is 14 percent, and 27.3 million Americans work in part-time jobs.
Too many of the poor are not working full time or at all. Income inequality isn't so much the problem as income inadequacy. A more robust economy, stoked by growth-oriented policies from Washington, would help produce the jobs and opportunities that millions of Americans need to climb the economic ladder.
Zuckerman cites a new study by a Harvard economist to the effect that globalization has limited the number of middle class jobs:
But there is a simpler reason that the country remains mired in the weakest recovery from a recession since World War II: Government has diminished animal spirits by displaying a hostile attitude toward business.
That attitude is evident in everything from excessive corporate taxes to the incompetence and dishonesty of the ObamaCare rollout. Government is perpetually establishing economic policies and rules that business perceives as overregulation, dampening the willingness to invest—as witnessed by the slowest rate of capital investment in decades on corporate plant equipment and machinery.
Zuckerman considers education the key to bringing back upward mobility, arguing that it is a “pipe dream” to hope for the return of traditional manufacturing jobs. But he also notes the inability of our political leaders to respond to our economic woes.
The president often turns to inciting envy—the very worst thing that can be done. The United States has in its past been a remarkably un-envious nation. In a very important article on the dangers of stirring up envy, Arthur Brooks writes:
THE Irish singer Bono once described a difference between America and his native land. “In the United States,” he explained, “you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”
Alexis de Tocqueville phrased it a little differently, but his classic 19th-century text contains the same observation. Visiting from France, he marveled at Americans’ ability to keep envy at bay, and to see others’ successes as portents of good times for all.
For decades, survey data has supported the Bono-Tocqueville Hypothesis. The 2006 World Values Survey, for example, found that Americans are only a third as likely as British or French people to feel strongly that “hard work doesn’t generally bring success; it’s more a matter of luck and connections.” This faith that success flows from effort has built America’s reputation as a remarkably unenvious society.
Does it matter? It does indeed, when it comes to our pursuit of happiness. As the essayist Joseph Epstein puts it, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
Brooks sees a remedy for the envy—upward mobility—and his solution to what ails us is remarkably like Zuckerman’s: jobs and the ability to raise oneself. But that has not been the focus on this administration.