Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Zakaria on envy and aspiration

Fareed Zakaria says the Obama re-election campaign has the wrong message: instead of emphasizing 'the Buffett rule' and reducing inequality, the President, according to Zakaria, should stress his proposals to increase spending on infrastructure, R&D, and education, and Obama should contrast those proposals with the Republican focus on budget-cutting.

Zakaria believes, apparently, that the Obama campaign can't walk and chew gum at the same time: either it must focus on reducing inequality or focus on investment in infrastructure, etc. But why not emphasize both? Here's where, if I may switch from one bad metaphor to another, the rubber hits the road: Zakaria doesn't like all this talk about inequality. Why not? Because it runs counter to his shopworn view of Americans' moral psychology: Americans, he writes, are "aspirational" not "envious," therefore focusing on inequality is bad politics in the long run.

This is, to be blunt, a load of crap. The U.S. now has a more unequal distribution of income than Kenya (and several other developing countries). The notion that you must be "envious" if you want a multi-millionaire or billionaire to shoulder a slightly larger share of the tax burden is nonsense.

Americans aren't envious, they are "aspirational": how many thousands of times have you heard this bromide repeated by one pundit or another? Americans don't envy the rich, God forbid; they want to become rich themselves. What if the real situation is that Americans want a less unequal distribution of wealth and income because huge inequalities are offensive to a basic sense of justice?

Zakaria, who earned a Harvard Ph.D. with a political science dissertation on the U.S.'s growth and emergence as a world power at the turn of the twentieth century, is slated to be the main speaker at Harvard's commencement this spring. If he trundles out this platitudinous b.s. about envy and aspiration in his speech on that occasion, I hope he gets booed off the podium.


hank_F_M said...

Merriam Webster

as·pi·ra·tion noun

3 a strong desire to achieve something high or great b: an object of such desire —

as·pi·ra·tion·al adjective

Envy Noun

1 : painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage
2 obsolete: malice

The distinction Dr. Zakeria makes is quite common in a number of contexts, not just politcal commantary. While it is quite normal to want to improve or better oneself and quite legitimate it one does not to so by harming others.

Envy, sometimes listed as one of the seven deadly sins because it leads one to far worse activates, is desiring or resenting someone else good fortune leading to causing injury even it there is no possible chance of gain. Which leads to coveting and theft or harming to bring down the other person with no gain.

Dr. Zakeria's point is that while many people want to improve themselves they do not want to drag others down to do it. President Obama's equality rhetoric (intentionally or not) often sounds like he means equalizing by dragging others down not lifting up.

Most people are aspirational, they want to improve, not envious, they do not want to harm others to do it. Dr Zakeria suspects the many will not have a positive image of the tactics like citing the Buffet rule, but they would have a positive view of infrastructure projects as lifting people up but not dragging others down.

At another level, even if they don't have the vocabulary, most realize that economy is not a "zero sum game" and equalizing by bringing down the rich will not give them more just reduce the sum. Infrastructure projects would help increase to increase the sums making aspirations possible without harming others.

Whatever his other merits or demerits Dr Zaskeria has a good point on tactics.

LFC said...

What I object to is the equation of egalitarianism with envy, which is common in conservative circles. I'm all for aspiration in its general meaning, but I object to its being counterposed to envy in this specific context.

"equalizing by bringing down the rich will not give them more, just reduce the sum..."

It is not fair for large corporations and very rich individuals to pay a lower rate (for whatever reason) than those with less income pay. Seeing that this does not happen is a matter of fairness and morality. Its effects on the total economic pie are (1) highly debatable and (2) really beside the point unless it can be shown that the effects would be very damaging (which I don't believe).

The Buffett rule is fairly modest and Zakaria is right to say that it's not going to make a big difference on the deficit. But I don't see why the Obama campaign can't emphasize more than one thing at a time.