Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Lottery Mentality

Here's a test to determine where you are on the fiscal political spectrum:
  • In 2004, the average American CEO at a large company was payed 431 times the pay received by the the average worker at their company.
  • In 1980, that ratio was 42 to 1.
  • In Japan, in 2004, it was 10 to 1.
I read these numbers in a book which only cited this article. Unfortunately, that article only provides the first statistic. I don't know where the other two numbers came from. I spent way too much time tracking down the other numbers, and while I couldn't find them specifically, I found tons of data that supports the point, which is that the gap between the rich and the poor in this country has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, and specifically over the past 10. (Of those that I found, this article probably does the best job of summarizing the issue, as well as makes most of the points I planned to make in this blog, rendering the rest of my argument redundant.)

But the point is, whether these specific numbers are accurate or not, your reaction to them will tell you where you stand politically.

If you're a liberal, those numbers bother you. A lot. Congratulations! You have a social conscience.

But conservatives, at least the ones I've talked to, are not phased by such numbers. Either they look at you like you just told them that rich people make a lot of money ("Well, duh") or they actively defend the numbers. What's the big deal? Poor people are still making more than they did. It's the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory. If rich people are doing well, it means the economy is doing well. It's better for everyone.

Well, maybe. But if you believe in any kind of fairness, how can you really justify someone making 400 times what other people make? Do they work 400 times harder than their workers? Put in 400 times more hours? Do they need 400 times the income to support their families? Is their personal risk 400 times greater than the workers? Does Jesus love them 400 times more?

Aside from the inherent unfairness of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, there are practical concerns. It's just not sustainable. A strong economy requires a strong middle class. When the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the middle class shrinks. This is bad for everyone: the rich, the poor, and the (shrinking) middle.

Like liberals, there are conservatives in every income bracket. The thing I don't get is why poor and middle class conservatives support policies that only seem to help out their rich compatriots. It's certainly not reciprocal-- the rich ones aren't looking out for the poor & middle class ones.

So why are conservatives so concerned about protecting the rights of rich people? I think it stems from something I call the "lottery mentality." A lot of people in America need to believe that, at any moment, they might strike it rich. Or maybe, through a lifetime of hard work, they will one day become a member of the wealthy elite. There's certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence for this, even if the odds of a typical poor person becoming a member of the wealthy elite are less than getting hit by lightning. But in the slight chance that that might happen, they want to protect their interests.

This belief in the lottery mentality is so strong that Americans are willing to forgo many social safety nets that exist in every other industrialized country. Their hope for winning the lottery is more important than leading a comfortable, yet modest, middle class existence.

Two examples of this: Back during the 2004 election, I heard many people bashing the Democrats for wanting to increase taxes (or just roll back Bush's tax cuts) on the richest Americans. I heard one person complain thusly: "Kerry and Edwards are already rich, now they want to stop the rest of us from getting rich!"

I don't get how increasing the tax on the wealthiest Americans a few percentage points would prevent you from getting rich. Seriously, the only thing holding you back from unimaginable wealth is having to pay a few extra grand in taxes? Really? Are are you so caught up in the lottery mentality that it personally offends you when a rich person loses more income than you'll ever make in a year?

The Daily Show sent Wyatt Cenac to Sweden a few months ago to report on the "socialist state" there. It appears that the lottery mentality does not exist in Sweden.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

They show a clip on 50 Cent showing off his huge palace in some American documentary show:

50 CENT: I want to show you my crib.
CENAC: ...the possibilities of capitalism.
50 CENT: [In a huge room with a theater-sized TV.] I be in here watching, you know, kung fu flicks and pornos.

Then Cenac visits Robin, "Sweden's biggest pop star." She lives in what looks like a modest apartment. She has a twin bed set up in a small living room for her mother-in-law.

CENAC: Let's check out the kitchen in Robin's crib. We're checking out—. Is that the biggest TV you have?
ROBIN: Yeah, that's the biggest TV. I only have that one, actually.
CENAC: [Looking at a bunch of bags under the table.] Alright, so somebody's been doing some shopping.
ROBIN: Uh, no, it's my recycling station.
CENAC: Alright. This isn't [bleeped] working. [To camera] No. Cut it, cut it.

CENAC (voiceover): It was shocking. Sweden's pop stars live like our reality show stars.

In the second part of this report, Cenac compares the American lottery mentality to that in Sweden. Our pop stars (50 Cent):

Get Rich or Die Tryin'
Their pop stars (guy from ABBA):

Live Comfortably and Die in a State Hospital

Why are Americans so scared of that message?


Dan S said...

Great post Tim. At some point, wealth becomes about morality.

Tim said...

Thanks. I don't know if it's the wealth that bothers me as much as the gap. You would think that as societies becomes more democratic, the gap between the rich and the poor would shrink. This isn't the middle ages-- there are no kings who gobble up all the resources. So shouldn't our goal be toward more toward equitable distribution, rather than away from it?

Dan S said...


And yes, maybe I should say that at some point disparity becomes about morality.