Sometimes it’s about mandated vaginal ultrasounds; and sometimes…

… it’s about helicopters.

The Ira Rennert – Michael Bloomberg lifestyle seems finally to have alienated New Yorkers.

Throughout the race, Mr. de Blasio overshadowed his opponent by channeling New Yorkers’ rising frustrations with income inequality…

I’m sure, as Greg Mankiw, Eric Cantor, and Lawrence Kudlow insist, it’s all just petty envy. Once these millions of New Yorkers understand that their progressive politics are simply an embarrassing epiphenomenon of their desire to be as rich as Ira Rennert, no doubt they’ll go back to voting for the I’ll land my fucking helicopter wherever and whenever I fucking want crowd.

Inequality

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.

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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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