Sociology told through household accounts
[See update below] Self-pity is the great vice. Or entitlement, to give it another name. It's socially un-useful, in making people grasping and uncharitable. And it's personally bad too, in focusing attention on what's not there rather than what is. One of many things I enjoy about modern China is that the average self-pity level there is pretty low.
The occasion for this homily is a modern counterpart to Mauve Gloves & Madmen. Thirty-plus years after I first read it, I vividly remember that short story of Tom Wolfe's. Its set-up was a stylish and popular and liberal-chic writer going through his checkbook and revealing his life through the deposits and the canceled checks. After the jump, a sample passage.
Mauve Gloves was in the tradition of great realist or naturalistic fiction that presents character through material circumstances. And now we have an unintentional modern counterpart, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has (unwisely) taken to the internet to explain why, on a household income that must be substantially above $300,000, he is feeling put-upon and strapped.
The details are here, in the original unwise confession; and here and here, in a merciless dissection by the economist Brad DeLong of UC Berkeley. (Earlier by Michael O'Hare here.) DeLong also very clearly explains how the ever-polarizing distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. makes it easier for everyone to feel deprived. Sample:
>>By any standard, they [the law professor and his doctor wife] are really rich.
But they don't feel rich.... Professor Henderson's problem is that he thinks that he ought to be able to pay off student loans, contribute to retirement savings vehicles, build equity, drive new cars, live in a big expensive house, send his children to private school, and still have plenty of cash at the end of the month for the $200 restaurant meals, the $1000 a night resort hotel rooms, and the $75,000 automobiles. And even half a million dollars a year cannot buy you all of that....
[DeLong comes up with the $200 meal analogy etc; it is not in the original lament.]
But why does he think that that is the way things should be?
And here is the dirty secret: Professor Henderson thinks that that is the way things should be because he knows people for whom that is the way it is....
Professor Henderson in 1980 would have known who the really rich were, and they would on average have had about four times his income--more, considerably more, but not a huge gulf....
Now fast forward to today.... He doesn't say: "Wow! My real income is more than twice the income of somebody in this slot a generation ago! Wow! A generation ago the income of my slot was only twice that of somebody at the bottom of the 10% wealthy, and now it is 3 1/2 times as much!" For he doesn't look down at the 99% of American households who have less income than he does. And he looks up. And when he looks up today he sees as wide a gap yawning above him as the gap between Dives and Lazarus. Mr. Henderson doesn't look down.
Instead, Mr. Henderson looks up.... He knows who the really rich are, and they have ten times his income: They have not $450,000 a year. They have $4.5 million a year. And, to him, they are in a different world....
And this makes him sad. And angry. But, curiously enough, not angry at the senior law firm partners who extract surplus value from their associates and their clients, or angry at the financiers, but angry at... Barack Obama, who dares to suggest that the U.S. government's funding gap should be closed partly by taxing him.<<
The original statement is worth reading, and has the chance to make the author's name live in a way he didn't intend. After the jump, some Mauve Gloves.
UPDATE: As of September 20, the University of Chicago law professor, M. Todd Henderson, has taken deleted his posts and associated comments and critiques. Brad DeLong retrieves some of them from the web archives, and adds discussion, here.