Arthur Brooks: why is the American public shifting from optimism to envy?

Labor Force Participation down to 62.8%
Labor Force Participation down to 62.8%

An editorial by Arthur Brooks appeared today in the leftist New York Times. His topic is the shift from optimism to envy, why it is happening, and whether envy makes us happier than optimism.

Excerpt: (links removed)

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.”

[…]Unsurprisingly, psychologists have found that envy pushes down life satisfaction and depresses well-being. Envy is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the hostility it breeds may actually make us sick. Recent work suggests that envy can help explain our complicated relationship with social media: it often leads to destructive “social comparison,” which decreases happiness. To understand this, just picture yourself scrolling through your ex’s wedding photos.

My own data analysis confirms a strong link between economic envy and unhappiness. 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. Even after I controlled for income, education, age, family status, religion and politics, this pattern persisted.

It’s safe to conclude that a national shift toward envy would be toxic for American culture.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the Great Recession, such a shift may well be underway, given the increasing anxiety about income inequality and rising sympathy for income redistribution. 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. In January, 43 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.”

Why the shift? The root cause of increasing envy is a belief that opportunity is in decline. According to a 2007 poll on inequality and civic engagement by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, just 30 percent of people who believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed describe income inequality as “a serious problem.” But among people who feel that “only some” Americans have a shot at success, fully 70 percent say inequality is a major concern.

People who believe that hard work brings success do not begrudge others their prosperity. But if the game looks rigged, envy and a desire for redistribution will follow.

This is the direction we’re heading. According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who feel that “most people who want to get ahead” can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000. As recently as 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today, that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied, and 45 percent dissatisfied. In just a few years, we have gone from seeing our economy as a real meritocracy to viewing it as something closer to a coin flip.

There is a good lesson in this for people who want what is best for the poor. Simply receiving money from others is not going to make poor people happy. What we need to focus on is providing the poorest people with opportunities.

One way to help the poor is by giving poor children a better education. Conservatives support school choice, which takes money away from government and puts it back in the hands of parents, letting them choose the best school for their child. Schools have to produce good outcomes in order to earn the money, just like private businesses have to compete for customers. But Democrats oppose school choice, as when they killed the D.C. voucher program that helped poor black students. Less school choice helps public schools to be insulated from competition, which provides worse outcomes to students, especially poor minority students. If we really cared about poor, minority students, we would put pressure on public schools to compete with private schools. But the Democrats don’t want that, they prefer to give favors to their teacher union allies.

Democrats also want to punish job creators with high taxes and burdensome regulations. Democrats passed Obamacare, which punishes businesses with taxes if they allow part-time workers to work for more than 30 hours a week. Many jobs were lost because of this, and many people are now struggling to pay higher premiums for plans with higher deductibles and co-pays. Obamacare is a nightmare of intrusive regulations, too. Now the Democrats are talking about raising the minimum wage, which is going to put even more pressure on employers to lay off workers, because they can’t afford to pay them more money for the same work. For Democrats, this is all to the good, though. Because if the poor don’t have jobs, or can’t work enough hours, they start to see the economic game as “rigged” and they are more responsive to “envy rhetoric”. They start to look to big government for handouts, rather than trying to prevent the government from taxing and regulating job creators.

What we need to see is that it’s not the Democrats’ objective to help people find jobs. They gain when people become more envious, like in European countries, and start to vote to grow the size and power of government to redistribute wealth. Speeches about income inequality never have the goal of giving people jobs. None of Obama’s policies aim to do that. That’s why he won’t build the Keystone XL pipeline, or boost domestic energy development here at home. Instead, they want to extend unemployment benefits and pass the costs on to the next generation. Their goal is to get you unemployed or on disability or on welfare, so that you will vote for the government to continue to take your neighbor’s money to give it to you. That manufactured envy is what keeps the Democrats in power.

This plan to borrow from young people to buy the votes of old people today works for a while, until the money runs out. But by then, the politicians who put in place the redistribution programs are usually long gone .

2 thoughts on “Arthur Brooks: why is the American public shifting from optimism to envy?”

  1. The power of the government is the evil that generates the envy as its power is abused by both classes.

  2. Superb post. This is the essence of the Democratic Party, and why they really just promote evil….the motive for them is not what is really truly good. Since they are at base an atheist party, they have no higher value than material gain (i.e.: money). Thus, all of their policies and ideology is driven toward getting more people dependent on big gov’t largesse. Look at everything that liberals and Democrats do; it’s all got the same basic motivation: to make more people dependent and to grow the gov’t “business” (i.e.: more government), which, BTW, obeys none of the rules of any other real business; it just uses violence and threats, fines, and jail, if you don’t go along.

    Follow the logic: they will do any immoral thing necessary (they do not believe in any higher law) to get more votes. This is to entrench their power which ensures that they will get their material rewards and not have to compete or work hard to achieve rewards, like the rest of us non-gov’t workers must in the real world. More votes equals more gov’t jobs and lifetime benefits, early retirement, outrageous pensions, and lush lifestyles from age 50 on at the expense of hard working people (like me) who must submit to the laws of reality.

    It’s a damned racket, and we must proclaim this clearly and tirelessly at every opportunity. Gov’t work is shameful, destructive, self-serving, and antithetical to Christian principles. The “public servant” is far more commonly a public leach making endless rationalizations for a completely self-serving way of life that is literally killing everyone else, physically, morally, & spiritually. We should have no tolerance, and must understand our duty (as clearly stated in our founding Declaration) to abolish the despotic tyranny of oppressive gov’t.

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