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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Anxiety And Happiness: A Case For Economic Equality

Futurama Nibbler
Image lifted from The Scribbler

For a good chunk of my adult life, I enjoyed an extravagant income. I come from humble economic beginnings (to which I have now returned, in spades, to understate the matter, to direct your attention to the donation button to your right, to humbly point out that I am rather diligent and industrious when it comes to, say, washing dishes... Bueller?), so what I consider "extravagant" is perhaps modest when compared with your standard American Ambition. Given the state of the actual majority of Americans - not to mention the global population - it was not really modest at all, but this post is about comparative wealth, so it is worth noting.

How extravagant? With nary a thought to be given to them, the basic needs of nutrition, shelter and clothing were covered. What was left over was enough that to triage the remaining pleasures of acquiring material goods (electronics, media) vs. the most wasteful indulgences of the social pleasures (jovial nightly parties and/or pub sessions with fine companions) was more of an exercise of amusement than serious budgeting. The greedy "virtue" of hoarding (savings) was thankfully never a bee in my bonnet, so I was spared at least that particular worry.

A good life.

An expensive good life, as it would look to the majority of even working Americans - let alone the poor and unemployed - and to a somewhat lessor extent to many European workers who enjoy some "socialist" provisions in their meritocracies (not even to mention the life conditions of the majority of human population - though let's keep them firmly in mind, shall we?) But... why expensive?

I can say that I had become accustomed enough to it to have decided that it is not asking too much for it to have continued in perpetuity. Of course, when weighed against the realities of the world, I saw that it was unsustainable in the sense that it could not be universally shared, hence in any moral sense, hence my current situation. But why and what does it mean? Is there a baseline of moral, sustainable living that, if universal, would necessitate such a deprivation of pleasures?

Before I continue, I will point out at least one discovery: The material acquisition aspect of my frivolity in those times is not missed one whit. Sure, being a data and media hog, I find myself occasionally wistful for a spare $100 so I can get yet one more multi-terabyte hard drive to satisfy my voracity, but in hindsight I can see that most of my consumerist expenditures were silly, empty-calorie impulses, the "pleasure" not lingering long after the actual transaction itself and leaving me with just another thing to be responsible for, to weigh me down. (My data-acquisition fetish is probably of the same order, but the scale is so much more miniaturized that one may - may - be excused for one's denial in this regard for the time being... he implored.)

Enough with the personal trivia. I want to talk about what animates the American-esque greed-track, and recognize that it is not really rooted in some fundamental avarice in the sinful sense, but it is really a symptomatic response to envy, which itself is a derivation of anxiety. The anxiety borne of the insecurity one faces when our faces are plastered against the window, a million Tiny Tims staring in at the warm feast of security as we shiver outside with our broken pencils.

We can, of course, shake loose of that unfortunate analogy for a moment and count our blessings (we have pencils!), give a nod to opportunity (with a little work, I could be carving a Christmas pig, too!), and indulge in all of the reassurances that those currently feasting on the holiday dinner would be quick to remind us. I will not call them platitudes, as many of us - with notable and egregious exceptions on the extreme margins - can and should indeed find satisfaction and comfort in the "simple things in life," as we like to put it.

But day-to-day psychological reality is a bit less forgiving. The truth is that we are largely driven by anxiety when there are disparate lifestyles mixing it up in full view of everyone. In the mix of the meritocratic life, there is always someone to remind you just how humble and insecure your life is in comparison - whether you are trudging to the bus station as a drop-top Mercedes full of laughter flies past, or a Master of the Universe gazing out of the business-class window of a commercial airliner appraising a corporate jet.

The appropriate response to such frivolous anxiety is, of course, is to have a judicious nervous breakdown and forego the whole deal - a route which I have undertaken - but it is really a bit much to admonish the envious to simply become Zen-masters (the end game for a well-done nervous breakdown) in order to deal with it. Much too individualistic a prescription, and much too much in line with the meritocratic view of things. It is more honest to deal with this socialistically, as if it is of collective concern. Which of course it is.

If, back in the days of extravagance, some genie had come along and asked me if I would be willing to settle for, say, a modest $2,000 a month instead (which is admittedly way more than I'll ever see again at this point, my future high-water mark is now what will be left of a SocSec pension 8 years hence, if I can make it that long), if everyone else were to share a similar fate, I would have jumped on it. Certainly much more quickly than I would have entertained an offer of simply more money for me.

Why? I am not driven by a need to "bring down the rich," in spite of appearances to the contrary. What I am driven by is the simple observation that anxiety is ubiquitous, and it drives us all for the same reasons. We all have our faces pressed up against the glass. There is always someone doing "better" than ourself, and it brings up a legitimate, if lamentable, psychological response. The anxiety is genuine, our response to it not necessarily correct or effective.

Our response, in our meritocratic system, is to reach for the comfort that we perceive is being enjoyed by the other. What we do not recognize is that the "other" has some other "other" who is providing just the same torture to his peace-of-mind. It is the existence of the other steps in the stairway to prosperity that cause anxiety, not the the particular step you find yourself perched upon.

With equal wealth, life becomes a block-party, a pot-luck, a shared experience. With unequal wealth, we get gated communities, exclusive social venues. Oh, those who enjoy these special amenities will defend them with great vigor - though, in moral terms their arguments may ring hollow - but that is only the other side of the anxiety of the meritocracy: The fear of the backslide.

That is the other side of our anxiety - not only are we the shivering child on the outside looking in, we are also the wealthy (in our own way), glancing fearfully out at the hungry, peeping Tim, with "there, but for the Grace of God go I" rattling fearfully in our brain.

The anxiety is settled not only because we become free from the envy of "the better life," but also because we are assured that things will not become worse. And the latter will always dog even the most successful among us - indeed, it becomes worse. Especially when "the 99%" take notice and begin to grumble, as we see happening, once again, in our time.

Equality, balance - these are more than moral imperatives, they are practical necessities. A wheel even slightly out of balance will, un-tended, become even more so and eventually crash the machine.

Even the so-called "rich" would be happier if they weren't. One does not blame them for not seeing this, but let's not coddle ignorance.

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