Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cry Me A River

Digby sez:

We hear a lot about income inequality these days and if you're like me, you probably wonder, other than the fundamental unfairness of it all, why this matters. After all, life isn't fair, get back to work and stop lallygagging.

As it turns out it matters a great deal, and that sense of dissatisfaction and anxiety so many of us feel is a direct result of the conspicuous consumption of the fabulously wealthy overclass trickling down through society and making it necessary for people to constantly buy more, even as they are earning the same. According to Frank, it's not just keeping up with the Joneses or class envy or any of the other things that people usually attribute to those who live beyond their means. It's a natural, human response to the context in which they live. Frank makes a compelling case that measuring yourself against your neighbors, co-workers or whatever, isn't just a matter of "keeping score." It's the way we make sense of the world. And that measure is affected every day by what the super-rich are buying.

You know, the above does very little to improve my regard for the bulk of humanity. What the hell happened to free will? At a fundamental level it doesn't matter if the über-rich are buying $13,000 grills if you get all the functionality you need with a $250 model. Anything past that is reflexive thinking, allowing a hard-wired desire for status and dominance to overcome rational thought. Depressing though it is, I'm not surprised at the prevalence thereof.

But then you've got digby blaming people like Paris Hilton for the entire situation. Attributing peoples' unhappiness and self-destructive behavior to an external locus of control only make sense in a world where people aren't expected to rouse themselves from their stupor. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. Paris Hilton and her ilk aren't the problem; the problem is that the masses aren't awake enough to realize that they can choose not to keep up with the Jones'.

This is one of the biggest problems I have with progressive discourse. There's an ambivalence about how we approach peoples' capacity for self-determination. Very often (probably too often, in my opinion) we treat people as though they have a diminished capacity for making good decisions. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it may very well be the case that such treatment is accurate and appropriate. But we are then reluctant to follow such treatment to its logical conclusion: if people are incapable of making good decisions for themselves then their ability to choose must be restricted. That may sound illiberal, but the alternative is to allow them to make bad decisions and then clean up the pieces afterwards. That just doesn't make any sense. Either we saddle people with the consequences of their own actions, or we act proactively to prevent bad consequences.

digby's complaints don't stand up to scrutiny. If people buy shit that they don't need and can't afford because they can't be expected to know any better then the blame lies, not with the rich, but with society as a whole for failing to protect these people from themselves. If, on the other hand, we believe that people have the ability to act in their own best interest then when they do something stupid we shouldn't hesitate to hold them to account for it.

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