Seeing Green

Is Mitt Romney Right about Envy?

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins, a malicious X-rated feeling that we don’t like much to acknowledge or discuss. And yet, with the wealth gap widening exponentially, you would have to be psychologically illiterate to fail to grasp that today the feeling is quietly pandemic.

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney inadvertently opened up a discussion of the green-eyed monster. The former governor went on record saying that the current grumbling about inequality is really about envy. On the Today show, Matt Lauer pressed him—even offered him a chance to mute his message—but Romney seemed almost proud to repeat, “You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare.”

Later, Romney bizarrely added that it was legitimate to discuss the problems of economic inequalities “in quiet rooms,” but again insisted that for the president to even publicly recognize the wealth divide was nothing less than divisive.

Of course, progressives growled that the vitriol about the wealth gap is not the voice of envy but instead expresses a profound concern about distributive justice and equal opportunities. But Romney is right—justice and job prospects are not the only motivations behind the placards and chants of the occupy movements. Envy is also an engine, just as it was the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.

Envy is a feeling that we are embarrassed to own. Nevertheless, like other emotions, this one has its reasons and reveals something about our relationship to the world. As William Hazlitt reflected, “Envy among other ingredients has a mixture of the love of justice in it.”

Post-Freudians that we are, we live by the creed that it is better to talk about troublesome feelings than to quickly turn the page. Kierkegaard taught, “Envy is unhappy admiration,” and I have to admit, I unhappily admire the advantages that the Thurston Howell brigade is able to offer their children. 

The rich ought to recognize that they begin life with so many advantages that to a struggling outsider it seems as though it would take work for them to fail. Those flush with money enter what we like to think of as a meritocracy on steroids. This year one of my fat-cat friends was, without furrowing a brow, able to plunk down ten grand on private SAT tutoring for her son. In an article in the Education section of the New York Times, Neal Gabler noted that is mostly the economic one percent who make it into the top one percent of the academic institutions. “As a result they dominate Rhodes, Marshall, and other prestigious scholarships. They get catapulted into the most selective professional and graduate schools. And they land the highest-paying jobs.” And the privilege goes on.

I have a student in one of my college classes who was raised in refugee camp in Thailand. She came to the United States at fifteen, unable to speak English. I have another who is the wealthy son of a very involved father who is also a surgeon. Both students want to be doctors. Ready…set…go! I wonder who has the best prospects.

In the afternoons, I work in a boxing gym. Most of the young men and women who come to hit the bags, and perhaps to vent some of their anger and envy, have never had one of their parents read them a book. Mom and dad hardly ever speak English at home. Their parents are always working and when they are not they are flat out exhausted. These youngsters are not squinting over which unpaid internship they’ll take, or whether it will be Hawaii or Bermuda for spring break. It would not be unreasonable for some of these teens to put their heads on the pillow at night and think, “Why does it seem that I’m the only one who has to get up at 5 a.m. in the to deliver papers before going to school?” Or maybe, “Why can’t my parents afford to get my teeth fixed?”

Given the dearth of opportunities for economic and social mobility these days (the Land of Opportunity now ranks tenth), it does not take President Obama to trigger that glass in the gut feeling that means no one good. Because the vast proportion of Romney's income comes from investments, he only paid 13.9 percent in taxes last year. And then Romney infamously remarked that in addition to capital gains he makes “a little money” ($375,000) from public speaking. That is of course a stick in the eye to any working person and enough to cause someone making that median income of around $26,364 to feel that we are not living in one nation under God but in two quite distinct realms. 

Since Romney sorely hankers to lead the rich and the poor, he should be candid enough to concede that he has to depend on his imagination to empathize with the multitudes born with plastic spoons in their mouths. Let him and others born into the money and influence stream be humble enough to confess that they have been protected from the worries that haunt most of us on a daily, if not hourly basis. Indeed, let the 1 percent and especially the top 50 percent of that flock concede that they abide in what amounts to a different world. Just a dollop of that kind of honesty and self-reflection would take some of the sting out of the awareness of the stark differences in life prospects between the have-everythings and the have-nots.

Photo: Christopher Halloran /

Related: Hocus Pocus: How Romney Made His Millions, by Charles R. Morris
Class Warrior, by E. J. Dionne Jr.



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I think the author hit it.   As I understand it, part of envy is the wish that the one envied did not have his wealth or whatever.   Does the average person wish the rich were not rich?   Not sure.  But I think they do resent the fact that the rich and powerful get to start the one hundred yard race on the fifty yard line.  

So, greed is bad, but envy is good?

About "the rich".  Not all of the rich start as rich, and Mitt Romney was one of them.  I read reacently that when he was a tiny child in Mexico (his parents were Mormon missionaries there) the Romneys were as poor as the Mexicans.  But, he claimed, the Mexicans resented the fact that the Romneys eventually prospered there, so they left Mexico.

I taugt in a predominanly black university in the 60s.  There were some students there who had been so incredibly poor as children (one kid told me, "I got tired of eating dirt") that there is no way on earth that they will ever have enough money to feel secure.  I have to wonder if maybe Mitt Romney is like them.  It would explain a lot about him.  Decent man but obviously obsessed with money.  

Here is what Romney says about the poor. So why should we even care about what he says about ANYTHING.

My sense is that those who envy the most are the middle-class activists, those who got their university credentials easily and may be feeling guilty about it.  Guilt about their luck in life and anger toward their parents for giving it to them.  For them, the poor are a means of taking revenge.


"Decent man but obviously obsessed with money."

It's easy to get that way, Ann, in a society in which you are your only bulwark against financial disaster.  If you have the talent and the drive to make money - not everyone does - you'd be foolish not to do it.


Let's us then take the hypothetical situation in which all income in excess of a basic set of needs was consumed by the government, or "reinvested" in purposes which were deemed socially or economically necessary by the government.  In this case, what would the stock of capital be?  Would a Hungarian immigrant have invented the microprocessor?  Why would a Hungarian even want to come over here if circumstances were no better than 1955/6?

The business I started 20 years ago was capitalized with income and savings taxed at the highest federal and state marginal income tax rates.  The one I started 7 years ago was started with capital taxed as capital gains from the first.  (NJ taxes cap gains at the same marginal rate as ordinary income.)  I employ a lot of people, they all get health care and drive decent cars, live in their own houses and complain about taxes. I've also had businesses fail as well, but their failure taught me a lot more about getting the good ones going.

Academics and career politicians know little of reward, and less of failure.

Greed also is one of the 7 Deadly Sins.  I see more evidence of greed than envy in our society.


Anthony J. DiStefano subscriber 02/04/2012 - 11:33am

Greed also is one of the 7 Deadly Sins.  I see more evidence of greed than envy in our society."


Yes, I think I agree.  The common man is greedy - think lottery, income tax cheating, buying cars and houses and anything else the media tell him he needs and deserves.  But the activists are envious and angry - no one deserves all that money they don't have and that they want to pass out to the poor.

I suppose most of us live in fantasy worlds of one sort or another.

My wife and i were having a conversation about envy. Is there anyone who hasn't wished he could sing, dance, speak, etc like someone else? Maybe the term we are looking for would be “esteemulation”. That is a word I just made up combining esteem and emulation. It means you would like to be able to be, do , possess, look like, etc without any subliminal or otherwise negative feelings concerning the person who is esteemulated.

Ann Oliver, you are mistaken on Mitt Romney's background.  His father George Romney was born in Mexico.  The Romney family lived in one of the Mormon colonies in Mexico that had been established by LDS Church members who objected to the federal government's actions against polygamy (and also, later, their Church hierarchy's abandonment of the practice).  George's family returned to the United States after the Mexican Revolution made life difficult for the Mormons.  By the time Mitt was born in 1947, George had become a highly successful businessman and politician.  So Mitt was born rich.  His father George was the self-made man.

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