Night Of The Living Philistines: Money Making, Envy And You

robot businessman

Arthur C. Brooks confides to us in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that he is worried about what he calls, our “national shift toward envy.” Pity the sleepless nights the man has endured on our behalf, coming to grips with this ‘toxic’ plague poisoning the very air we breathe, and praise his sacrifice.

A not-as subtle-as-it-thinks-it-is obfuscation favored by many on the right these days as Americans increasingly take notice of things like income and wealth disparity, stagnant wages, inflated CEO pay, bought government, and a general slouching toward oligarchy, is to brand the fruits of this enhanced perceptiveness as “envy”. Are you feeling ashamed of yourself yet?

Brooks says, “…we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation. We need aspirational leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting Americans around an optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success. This will never happen when we vilify the rich or give up on the poor.”

Slippery as a snail, Brooks equates discernment of wealth disparity and unfairness with vilification of the rich. Isn’t this a rather stale defense of a louche status quo at this late date?

Holding forth in a tone somewhere between a kinder, gentler Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI with a human face Brooks instructs us, In 2008, Gallup asked a large sample of Americans whether they were “angry that others have more than they deserve.” People who strongly disagreed with that statement — who were not envious, in other words — were almost five times more likely to say they were “very happy” about their lives than people who strongly agreed. “

This call to passivity in the face of exploitation in the name of happiness strikes one as unusually odoriferous self-help advice.

Okay, I admit it, shoving that large, inanimate object up into my rectum makes me a little angry. Excuse me. Must remember to chill.

Brooks notifies us that, According to data from the General Social Survey, the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s.”

The kindest explanation (I don’t want to sound angry) is that it slipped his mind entirely to mention that employers could pay a fairer wage, and buck the trend of bottom of the barrel wages for those at the lower end of the pay scale, and sky’s the limit windfalls for those at the top.

Brooks’ disingenuousness, or perhaps it’s only genteel stoicism, extends to a forgetfulness of the current war by Republicans against the unions, indeed, the very concept of upward pressure on wages seems to escape him entirely. Unions of course are the best mechanism we have for applying pressure in the upward direction, and their demise has been strongly contributory to the currently ballooned pay divide. The other mechanism for pressing wages upward is the minimum wage laws.

Perhaps Brooks’ oversight here is only an expression of noblesse oblige, sparing us his tuneless rendition of that mythological chestnut he surely would have been required to pass along, that raising the minimum wage must produce a jobocalypse.

Most warblers of the Ballad of the One-Percent improvise with some variation on the theme that those who live on the minimum wage must work harder, educate themselves, do whatever it takes to get them out of the jobs they’re in. Wouldn’t you just know it’s their fault?

Indeed, this value system applies not only to the minimum wage worker but across the employment spectrum. Let’s stipulate that sales clerks, fire fighters, teachers, nurses, piano players, bartenders, sous chefs aren’t climbing over people’s backs to get to the top of the economic chain. Maybe they actually like what they’re doing you know? We can’t reward them for providing services we depend upon or enjoy, with decent compensation, good quality of life and longevity in the jobs they like, or even love doing?

We have reached the point in our politics, where it is left to progressives alone to extol the dignity of work. At a time when the tony set threatens not to work as hard, if at all, unless tax rates, loopholes and subsidies are just to their liking, only liberals remain in support of the work ethic.

Smoothies like Brooks no longer bother even to acknowledge that a balancing of capital and labor is beneficial, if not essential, and that the degree to which the balance currently is out of whack in favor of capital could rightly be described as fully capsized. Lincoln described what he called, the “effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” He says, “It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor.” And finally, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed.”

Of course, I guess you could make the claim this isn’t a fair and balanced view. Lincoln retained the clear bias of a rail-splitter.

Perhaps worse than anything, the pervasive libertarian/conservative perversion of capitalism in favor these days, foists a materialism as gray and grim and philistine as any communism ever could.

All value is judged by its “market” value. Money is what matters. If it doesn’t command a high monetary payoff who the hell needs it? What’s its value then? Is there room in this sterile culture for work that flows from kindness or pure creativity, which produces beauty or provides solace? Is the message here that our values dictate a choice between pursuit of wealth and material degradation, for these are the only two choices the current Austrian School regime can offer?

Perhaps tired from having such weighty thoughts as he does, Brooks never gets around to trundling out the nostrum that everyone in America dreams of, and can in fact become a millionaire. As a trope designed to encourage kid glove handling of American wealth and its aggregators, or to encourage that we abide sans effective reform or social and economic course correction, this one definitely is walking on creaky knees. Of course, whatever rationales Brooks or those he protects use to fill their moats is fine by me.

The good news is that few any longer swallow this hooey with much credulity, for to do so would indeed be naïve, if not childish. Perhaps it’s just quintessentially American, the older European and Scandinavian societies for instance with their long history of aristocracy and strict class stratification accepting the wisdom, in fact the requirement of social and economic policies intended to account for, address and mitigate great inequality.

In any case, I’m not much of a role model. I haven’t exactly made a million bucks writing this blog. Or to be precise, even one.

Oh well, onward and upward.

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