Worry About Inequality Isn't Just Envy of the Rich

Concerns over rising income inequality are about more than just envying the rich.
"Don't you dare envy me." Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

In an article Sunday in the New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, made an interesting argument about the debate over U.S. income inequality. The focus on inequality is causing a "national shift toward envy," he wrote, warning about the "toxic" effects of envy on people who experience it: increases in depression, neuroticism and hostility, and a decrease in happiness. You may envy the well-to-do, in other words, but it will cost you.

But I kept wondering if Brooks had proved his underlying point. The public opinion polling he cited doesn't illustrate any such increase in the levels of envy in the U.S. Instead, it says this:

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."

Fair enough. But does the belief that the government ought to reduce income differences necessarily entail a rise in envy? I'm not so sure. Some people who think the government should do more to reduce inequality may be motivated by envy; others may be motivated by a sense of fairness, economic growth, social well-being, worry over civil strife, or any number of other concerns. It seems a stretch to argue that proposals to reduce the wealth gap are in the main motivated by animus toward the most successful Americans.

Last month, Harvard University economics professor and former Mitt Romney adviser N. Gregory Mankiw mined a similar theme, when he disputed the view that the rich don't deserve their wealth. He noted that Robert Downey Jr. made $50 million for the 2012 film "The Avengers," then asked this of readers:

Does that fact make you mad? Does his compensation strike you as a great injustice? Does it make you want to take to the streets in protest? These questions go to the heart of the debate over economic inequality, to which President Obama has recently been drawing attention.

Like Brooks, Mankiw was proceeding from the premise that a desire to stem the growth in economic inequality is motivated by the public's personal feelings, rather than some legitimate policy preference. For Brooks, it's envy; for Mankiw, it's the assumption that the wealthy must not deserve what they've accrued.

So what does this portend for the inequality debate? To my mind, it suggests that smarter policy proposals won't be enough to carry the day. It suggests the logjam over federal policy initiatives isn't just the result of hyperpartisanship, but reflects a sense of persecution -- real or perceived -- in some quarters.

It's not clear how, if at all, proponents of policies to address inequality can ease that sense of persecution. But Brooks and Mankiw have done a useful service simply by demonstrating the way in which those policies are interpreted by some in the conservative community. Addressing those concerns is part of the challenge facing those who are worried about inequality.

(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @cflav.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    --Editors: David Shipley, Stacey Shick.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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