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.