A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.
I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.
And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.
I am not pretending to be free of envy, which is of course one of the seven mortal sins. I'll confess right now that I sometimes feel bitter envy and even irrational hatred for certain famous writers who've undeservedly "made it big", like the popular novelist Jonathan Lethem. Lethem drives me crazy because his background is so similar to mine -- same generation, same city, same ethnic background, same formative literary influences, same Talking Heads albums. I don't think Lethem's novels are very good, and yet he's a gigantic success, wealthy and famous, and I'm a scrubby blogger with a day job.
I may as well admit that this painful literary envy of mine sometimes spirals out of control, and involves not just Lethem but several of my other generational literary peers. Jonathan Franzen is even more wealthy and famous than Jonathan Lethem, and I envy him too, though not as much, because at least this Jonathan is a good enough writer to deserve the prizes he's won. I used to resent the vast success of David Foster Wallace until David Foster Wallace committed suicide -- a bracing existential reminder for me that maybe I don't have it so bad in my humble perch after all.
There's a point to my embarrassing fit of honesty here, and the point is this: I sometimes feel great envy, but it would never occur to me to envy a successful businessperson. What I have always yearned for is the thrill of creative and artistic genius and renown. An investor with a six-pack of Rolexes on his wrist? That just doesn't do anything for me. A gigantic house, a luxury car? I wouldn't know what to do with them except sell them and give the money to charity.
I know that many people do sincerely yearn for business success. When I was a kid in junior high school I had a pleasant but nerdy friend named Bill Merrell who carried a briefcase and declared that he would someday be president of General Motors, Chrysler or Ford. (I don't think he ever made it, but I bet he did his best.) Me, I was born and raised a happy bohemian. I sat in class next to Bill Merrell and dreamed of writing a rock opera (who am I kidding? I wrote an entire rock opera in my head in 7th and 8th grade, and I still remember all the songs). I wouldn't enjoy the lifestyle of a corporate CEO. I don't want to wear those clothes, I don't want to drive that car, I don't want to live in that house. But it would mean the world to me if I could write a novel that millions of people would want to read, if I could invent a new way to play electric guitar like Eddie Van Halen once did, if I could just once do a hot sixteen on a track with Jay-Z and Kanye West at a recording studio instead of a karaoke booth. And I'm also often happy -- happy to have a good marriage, a loving healthy family, an exciting if frustrating career, a crazy website, lots of amazing friends. This is the only kind of success I would ever yearn for.
I suspect that a similar difference in dreams often (though surely not always) divides one brand of Republicans/conservatives from one brand of Democrats/liberals. Fellow economic progressives and left-wingers that I talk to often express strongly arts-oriented value systems like mine. Others envy great athletes or great scientists. Some have ambitions on a smaller human scale: they wish to be great doctors, great teachers, great lovers, great parents. But I don't think most people I know yearn for great financial or business success at all. We'd be happy to enjoy this success if it came our way, but it's not part of our value system, and attaining it wouldn't thrill us to the marrow.
This is an important point because many conservatives really believe that wealth envy drives the liberal agenda. We seem to be having a tough national debate about income equality right now, and the word "envy" comes up constantly in this debate. So does the phrase "class warfare", and the question "why do liberals hate the rich?".
This is a core theme, in fact, for the Koch-backed/Wall Street wing of the Republican party, and the theme is going to keep coming up for the next couple of years. Here's 2016 Presidential candidate Marco Rubio in a misty-eyed speech about how his hardworking parents made it in America:
We've never been people that go around and confront people that have been financially successful and say, "We hate you. We envy you because of how well you’re doing."
Here's 2016 Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, strumming the same chords:
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan accused President Barack Obama of capitalizing on voter "fear, envy and anger" in his rhetoric.
"I think he's preying on the emotions of fear, envy and anger,” the Wisconsin Republican said today on NBC's "Meet The Press." "And that is not constructive to unifying America. I think he’s broken his promise as a uniter, and now he's dividing people. And to me, that's very unproductive. That's not who we are in America."
Republicans have criticized the president's push to raise taxes for upper income earners, labeling it "class warfare." Ryan echoed that message today.
"I think this divisive rhetoric is fairly -- is divisive," he said. "I think it's troubling. Sowing class envy and social unrest is not what we do in America."
And, just for nostalgia's sake, here's 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney also saying the same thing:
Romney has accused President Obama of promoting the "bitter politics of envy." The president is ramping up his talks about the nation's growing income divide and the shrinking of the middle class. He is focusing on the tax benefits afforded to millionaires and executives.
Romney, who is one of those millionaires, is taking a different path. He says he's distancing himself from what he calls "a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach."
Rubio and Ryan and Romney are not pretending to believe that economic liberals and progressives envy and hate the rich. They really believe it. So do other economic conservatives I've spoken to. They really do not understand the wide variety of personal ambitions that drive typical Americans. They really don't know who we are.
When Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney hears that a liberal voter wishes for a more equitable and fair distribution of wealth because we think this would improve our society and our lives, they really do not know that this voter is speaking from the heart. When they hear that we'd like to raise taxes on the wealthy because, well, the wealthy helped squander the money that put our country in debt, and so we need them to help pay it off, they can't take this equation on face value. They think it's all a cover for envy and class hatred. This lack of basic understanding is deeply felt, and it seems to be at the core of our divisive current political debate.
Money, taxation, wealth: these are heavy, emotionally-charged topics that subconsciously drive many of our allegedly rational policy debates. Do the math? Sure, but let's also do the psychology. Understanding each other's personal motivations better is a necessary first step towards finding a compromise that can solve our nation's economic problems. When I hear a rich person reveal his belief that everybody envies him, I only want to say this: I'll respect your dream if you'll respect mine.