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“The Misguided War On Envy”: Conservatives Love To Hate The Envy Their Policies Caused

Conservatives have launched a War on Envy. This week, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute lamented “a national shift toward envy” which, he said, would be “toxic for American culture.” Venture capitalist Tom Perkins recently made the same point in much more inflammatory terms: He equated those who criticize rising inequality with Nazis persecuting Jews, a salvo attack that quickly drew censure from those now running KPCB, the VC powerhouse that he once led.

Both conservatives and progressives agree on basic facts: The percentage of Americans who see this country as a land of opportunity, in which hard work leads reliably to material reward, is falling rapidly. This shift brings envy, resentment, cynicism and despair. And these negative emotions undermine our social structure and bring unhappiness.

But that’s where the agreement ends. Conservatives insist the problem is one of perception. They think that if the media would just stop talking about inequality things would get better. They say that if our leaders (read: President Obama) would simply offer up “an optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success,”  the envy would dissipate and everything would be just fine.

That is not going to work.

It won’t work because the sense that the dream is slipping away, the sense of diminished mobility, of a system that’s increasingly rigged, is not a fantasy that can be dispelled with clever rhetoric. It is the everyday, lived experience of millions of Americans. The only consequence of elites refusing to discuss it will be to confirm that those elites are indeed out of touch with ordinary Americans and their problems. That aloofness is reflected in the appallingly low approval ratings of the current Congress.

Brooks and other influential conservatives fail to acknowledge that the envy they lament, and the loss of opportunity that fuels it, results directly from the policies they have championed over the years. Consider higher education, which is acknowledged by both liberals and conservatives as the single most powerful force for economic mobility. Conservatives have succeeded in slashing taxes at all levels of government, and these cuts have gutted state funding of higher education.

Tuitions have spiked as a result. The soaring cost has put college out of reach for many middle-class families and nearly all of the poor and near poor. In 1971 an American family at the median income level had to pay 13 percent of its annual income to send each child to a public four-year university. That’s tough but it’s doable, with considerable sacrifice, savings, loans, a part time job and so on. Now the cost has more than doubled to 29 percent of income. This puts college out of reach for many, and leads to students graduating with staggering debt burdens. To put it mildly, this much debt does not encourage entrepreneurship.

That’s not the only way that conservative policies have limited upward mobility and destroyed confidence in the American Dream. Conservatives have long championed corporate tax policies that accelerate the harsher aspects of globalization, outsourcing and offshoring. As a result, American workers in many industries have seen their wages stagnate even as productivity has gone up, profits have soared and those who hold stock and options have done exceedingly well. Hard work now means breaking even for most Americans, rather than pulling ahead.

Here’s another example: Conservatives have championed individual tax structures that reduce the share of taxes born by the richest and increase the share born by the rest. Tax law changes such as the reduction in top tax brackets, lowering of capital gains rates and elimination of estate taxes confirm many Americans’ suspicion that the deck is indeed stacked against them.

I built and enjoyed a successful career in business before becoming an advocate for a sustainable economy. One of the things I learned in my career was to look for the true root cause of problems and not waste time attacking symptoms. Another thing I learned was that if what you’re doing isn’t working, stop doing it and try something else.

We are not going to bring optimism back to ordinary Americans by belittling those who discuss the real state of our economy. Waging war on envy won’t make people more confident in their job prospects and more entrepreneurial in their careers. Not if the reality of our tax, trade, labor and other policies is to strip away the rewards of working Americans and concentrate more and more wealth at the top.

It’s good that both left and right want to make the American dream credible again for more people. It’s good that both sides see loss of optimism as a problem. But diminished opportunity won’t be solved by refusing to talk honestly about its causes, and envy won’t be eliminated by more of the policies that kindled it in the first place. The success of the American economy and the American political system depends on people having the genuine conviction, based on the reality of their day-to-day experience, that hard work brings upward mobility.

By: David Brodwin, U. S. News and World Report, March 6, 2014

March 9, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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