The New York Times “Sunday Review” (March 2nd, 2014) published a genuine forehead-slapping essay, “The Downside of Inciting Envy”, by Arthur C. Brooks, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute one of the many Koch propaganda mills. What came immediately to mind, when I read it, was Sessue Hayakawa’s speech as Colonel Saito in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. Without a trace of irony, Saito advised his British prisoners of war, ”… be happy in your work”. I saw this film as a college freshman and never, in 57 years, had I given it as much thought as on reading the Brooks essay.
What Brooks actually said is, “be happy in your poverty people”, otherwise you will experience a “downside”. Be happy in your impoverishment and disenfranchisement. Perhaps his sponsors are worried the natives are becoming disgruntled and restless but they are also misreading the anger and resentment. The apparent discord is not necessarily directed towards other people’s wealth, it is more likely resentment over the destruction of their American dream, resentment over being driven into poverty – a new world where a college diploma is more about crushing debt than about upward mobility.
Without missing a beat, Brooks’ essay includes the standard pitch for privatized education, tax rules that favor the wealthy so they can “spark hiring”, and “recalibrating the safety net” such that people will be “happy” in their low-paying dead-end jobs. The author chastises and, not incidentally, insults those who disdain dead-end jobs arrogantly calling those jobs a crucial “first step”. Excuse me, but a “dead-end” is not a first step, Mr. Brooks, it is, by definition, a “last step”.
The author is plainly concerned, as are his patrons, with the possibility of “class” retribution or even revolution by those who perceive the game as “rigged”. If 70% of a population perceive a game as rigged it probably is rigged. What fool wants to play in a rigged game?
Let me suggest how “envy” is properly applied to today’s rigged game. Envy, of course, has to do with the desire to have or possess what others have. In this case “envy” has to do with opportunity more than material goods. The opportunity game is what should not be rigged. In a civilized viable society opportunity and access to resources must be equitably distributed, health care, for example, cannot not be a game of chance based on social class. To want these equalities of opportunity is not a “destructive social comparison”, as Mr. Brooks would have us believe, it is historically foundational to the human condition and, even more importantly, to a democratic society.
The mild form of “revolt” by Americans Mr. Brooks fears is merely asking a question as opposed to begging it, as Brooks makes the theme of his essay. Brooks seems to think he can perform bank shots with fallacies, using circular arguments and slogans such as “destructive social comparison”. Sorry, but we aren’t falling for that. When people can’t put food on their tables after 40 hours of work, it isn’t fantasy — it’s reality and no amount of bloviating around the point is going to make it otherwise. If Mr. Brooks wants us to share his “joyful mission of freedom, opportunity and enterprise for all” then his American Enterprise Institute is going to have to educate itself about shared consequences from shared enterprise for everyone. The words “share” and “everyone” are the operative terms.