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From William Galston’s review of Tyler Cowen’s book, Average Is Over:

There’s nothing we can do, says Mr. Cowen, to avert a future in which 10% to 15% of Americans enjoy fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope of a better life, tranquilized by free Internet and canned beans.

Bread and circuses is not the policy of a republic, but rather of an empire entering moral senescence. Nonetheless, Mr. Cowen seems untroubled by his hyperpolarized vision.

The kindest description of his stance is moral indifference: “It will become increasingly common to invoke ‘meritocracy’ as a response to income equality,” he writes, “and whether you call it an explanation, a justification, or an excuse is up to you.” While allowing that some might consider extreme socioeconomic inequality unjust, he revives the neoconservative canard that relatively well-off academics lead the charge against such inequality because they envy the status privileges of the wealthy. He seems not to have considered the possibility that his depiction of our future might fill them with justified revulsion.

Over the course of writing this blog about universities and professors, UD has encountered the neoconservative canard about envious academics again and again. A few years ago, Jonathan Chait gathered a few of many examples in a Los Angeles Times column titled Envy Them? No. Tax Them? Oh Yeah. Greg Mankiw, Chait noted, thinks that academics concerned about staggering personal wealth in the context of rising inequality are simply caught up in “the politics of envy.”

What’s depressing is that even highly credentialed conservatives such as Mankiw equate any discussion of class inequality with “envy” of the rich. The accusation is actually bizarre. Liberals want to make the rich pay higher tax rates not because they hate them. (In fact, as conservatives love to point out in other contexts, many liberals are rich.) It’s because somebody has to pay for the government, and the rich can more easily bear higher rates.

Paul Krugman echoes Chait.

To show concern over the growing inequality is to engage in the “politics of envy.”

But the real reasons to worry about the explosion of inequality since the 1970’s have nothing to do with envy. The fact is that working families aren’t sharing in the economy’s growth, and face growing economic insecurity. And there’s good reason to believe that a society in which most people can reasonably be considered middle class is a better society – and more likely to be a functioning democracy – than one in which there are great extremes of wealth and poverty.

Reversing the rise in inequality and economic insecurity won’t be easy: the middle-class society we have lost emerged only after the country was shaken by depression and war. But we can make a start by calling attention to the politicians who systematically make things worse in catering to their contributors. Never mind that straw man, the politics of envy. Let’s try to do something about the politics of greed.

Krugman and Chait were writing in 2005. That Cowen can happily continue the canard suggests that it will be very difficult to kill. You can call it a canard; you can call it bizarre; you can call it a straw man. It will keep coming at you.

What UD has tried to do in some of her writing here is, as Krugman suggests, look in a different direction: the politics of greed. She has been intrigued by this statement from Robert Hughes about the art market:

[T]he present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological.


A certain amount of envy toward the rich is normal. It is to be expected. Indeed, that envy can be an engine, a motivator, a thing that helps our economy of entrepreneurs hum along. The politics of envy crowd, however, wants to scare us into believing that this emotion is becoming pathological, even violent, a threat to the republic. Lawrence Kudlow writes that the envious are really saying

“How dare they be successful earners and investors… Should we go out and shoot [the super-rich] for their success?”

Eric Cantor also seems to have in mind French revolutionaries using envy of the rich to trigger civil war:

There are politicians and others who want to demonize people that have earned success in certain sectors of our society. They claim that these people have now made enough, and haven’t paid their fair share. But, pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream.

I believe, with Galston and Krugman, that the greater menace lies in the “moral senescence” of a country of “great extremes.” Senescence, not riots. As Robert Reich remarks, “If you give up on democracy, you are basically saying to the moneyed interests, the powerful people and institutions of society Take it all… Then we are a hundred percent plutocracy.” This is why, on the subject of universities, I dwell on obscene endowments and the universities who pay each of their money managers $35 million a year to make their endowments grow toward… what? They are already in the tens of billions. The hundreds of billions? It’s why I talk about universities who honor trustees like Steven Cohen, a man with a personal fortune of nine billion dollars, and a man in constant trouble with the SEC.

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9 Responses to “Inequality”

  1. adam Says:

    And, um, how do you even spend nine billion dollars? Hats off to Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett for finding a way, but they are exceptions.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    adam: In the case of Cohen, no problem. He’ll be paying settlements to the government forever.

  3. Norm Says:

    People are motivated in part by basic needs for food, water, shelter, health and access to poetry and in part by what they have relative to others. Our poor have ( or have access to) all of the basic needs, especially compared to people living before 1900. What we are arguing about is the relative distribution of the remainder. I don’t think it is so unreasonable to call this the politics of envy.

    Certainly there is also some sense of basic fairness, for example did the wealth come through illegal or unethical means, was it inherited as opposed to earned, was it inherited through multiple generations instead of a direct gift from the original earner.

    Additionally our wealth allows us to worry about dignity, privacy, and everyone having some share of the good things. A lot of our disagreements concern the definition of these things and to what extent we should just give them to everyone or force them to be earned according to our imperfect rules.

    While we are right to worry about a society that has extremes of wealth, we are also right to worry about a society in which a lot of people don’t work for what they have.

  4. adam Says:

    In our capitalist society nobody complains when an entrepreneur makes a fortune by creating a product with redeeming social value. Bill Gates is a good example. Too often, however, wealth is amassed through gaming the system while creating no worthwhile product. That is the trigger for altruistic punishment (a more apt term than envy) by those with higher ethical standards. We have seen such gaming behavior in medical academics who form start-up companies, then pay themselves handsomely for years as company officers and directors using, of course, other people’s money.

  5. david foster Says:

    There are several factors which contribute directly to reduced social mobility, and hence indirectly to income inequality. One of these is the abysmal state of much of the public school system: if you graduate from high school without being able to perform basic calculations, read documents of some complexity, and write/speak reasonably intelligently, your life prospects and income are likely to be severely limited. Another is excessive credentialism–today, there was someone in a factory who would have made a good shift supervisor, but didn’t get the job because it was classified as “college degree required.” There was someone in a bank who did have a college degree, but she didn’t get the regional management position she would have been good at because she didn’t have an MBA. And there was someone who did have an MBA would would have made a good investment banker, but who didn’t get the job because his MBA wasn’t from an Ivy League school.

    BTW, I though the Tyler Cowen book was extremely mediocre, reminiscent of some of the gee-whiz stuff written about automation and “cybernetics” at the dawn of the computer age in the early 1950s.

  6. MattF Says:

    Remarkable that the review is in the WSJ. And, envy aside, may we ask what these hyper-wealthy individuals have ever actually done? “Create liquidity” doesn’t count.

  7. dmf Says:

    Tom Friedman keeps spewing this kind of social-darwinist (poor Darwin we need another term) snake-oil as the need for workers to make themselves “value-added” or be rendered useless, sadly this seems to be the kind of technocratic pipe-dream espoused by Obama and Hillary so I’m afraid that we are all going down with the ship this time…

  8. charlie Says:

    A few years back, I had to do research on the history of computer technology. Wasn’t a techno wonk then, am not one now, so I was sort of a tabla rasa in this field. Came to find out that most of what we take for granted regarding computers and internet development came from government funding and research. In other words, unnamed Joes/Janes, many working in public university research labs, funded by other unnamed Joes/Janes, created much of what we need to communicate on this here blog. Gates, Ellison, Zuckerberg are who we know, and believe got this going, the truth is no, they weren’t, computers and the internet were military applications/inventions, and actually, remain still. When you look at much of the great wealth in this country, in many cases, you will find a government subsidy somewhere or other…

  9. University Diaries » No I wouldn’t. And ol’ Bern wouldn’t either. Says:

    […] make (The rest of us have no considered moral position on this behavior and in fact are simply jealous; every one of us would behave the way psychopathically greedy people behave if we had the […]

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