Does inequality hurt the rich too?

Wealth Gap Cartoon

Is it possible that the man on top is suffering as well?

Rodney Gist, a retired Methodist pastor in Sioux Falls and longtime member of the South Dakota Peace & Justice Center, published a great piece in the Argus Leader this past weekend, on the relationship (or lack thereof) he’s observed between wealth and happiness:

Nine years ago, while I was a participant in a short-term mission from our church to Bolivia… [a bishop there said to me]: “…you in the richest nations live with a fear that you might lose what you have, while we in the poorest nations have little or nothing, but we live in the hope that God is gracious and good and will give us all that we need to live. We are just very thankful for food and a place to be sheltered from the cold or the rain.”

I thought of the bishop’s words when I read a Dec. 30 headline in the Argus Leader, “Market drop is first ‘cliff’ fear.” Followed was the news that “Anxious South Dakotans race to shield assets against tax hits.” It is interesting that our courthouses were being mobbed by wealthy citizens afraid of losing what they have rather than by people on food stamps who might not know where their next meal will come from. Many of the poor already have fallen over the fiscal cliff and are just glad to be alive…

As 2013 dawns upon us, I have wisdom from a book by Max Webber [sic]: “One would think that the material wealth produced by advanced capitalist economic organizations would have brought great happiness. But the most successful,” he observed, “is characterized by the exact opposite of the joy of living — the earning of more and more money combined with a strict avoidance of all enjoyment of life.”

Our courthouses (and Congress) are spending more time counseling and consoling fearful millionaires than they are comforting the poor.

You tell ’em, minister – I’ll be blogging tomorrow about how the balance of power has shifted dangerously in favor of “fearful millionaires.” But today, a week out from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (and President Obama’s second inauguration – a topic I’ll return to later in the week), I’m reminded of Dr. King’s words in his immortal Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

That’s a pretty radical idea: that injustice harms not only the oppressed, but the oppressor as well. Reverend Gist points out one of the ways this radical truth plays out in an unjust economic order: instead of enjoying all their extra wealth, wealthy people just tend to worry about it more.

This not just an anecdotal observation. A number ofstudies have found that happiness and income are positively correlated only to a certain point – one from 2010 put the cut-off level at $75,000 a year in the U.S. That is, as individuals’ annual incomes approached $75,000, they reported more happiness. But after that magic number, there was no substantial increase in overall happiness. So more money doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness. But several studies indicate that more money may in fact mean less happiness, as UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center reported last fall:

[T]here’s something about the experience of high status that affects how we connect with others emotionally. In other words, a lack of empathy among the rich is a natural byproduct of inequality.“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” says study lead author Jennifer Stellar, a UC Berkeley graduate student and former Greater Good Science Center fellow…“They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering.” …

Indeed, perhaps the dominant finding to emerge from positive psychology research over the past decade is that our happiness (and health) is largely determined by the quality and quantity of our social connections. Perhaps that’s why “pro-social” behaviors and emotions—compassion, empathy, altruism—have been so strongly linked to happiness…

In general, though, research suggests that money in itself isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s status—one’s relative place above others in your society. If money were the problem, the poorest countries would be the happiest, but they’re not. The key, instead, seems to be inequality.

The idea that economic inequality hurts both parties isn’t just a self-serving attempt to justify social change as being “in the oppressor’s interest too”; it is a deep insight into human psychology and how we live in community with one another. Maybe it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle after all, not because God is out to judge us, but because we’re just built the way we are. Maybe, to quote Dr. King again, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

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About sdpeacejustice

The SD Peace & Justice Center connects a grassroots network of South Dakotans working for social justice and against violence and oppression.
This entry was posted in Economic Justice, Essays, Faith & Spirituality, Peacemakers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Does inequality hurt the rich too?

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