Redistribution and the Middle Class (or Piketty, Part III)

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Currently, political elites are focusing intently on the middle class. “Oh, woe! The middle class is squeezed and suffering!” And given that more Americans identify themselves as “middle class” than “rich” or “poor,” concern for that portion of the electorate is certainly expedient.

It’s easy to understand, I think, why many of us in the middle class are disappointed with our lots and susceptible to politician’s handwringing over our plight. As Psychology Professor Tim Kasser has explained, “Many psychologists believe that people’s emotional states are largely a function of how far they are from who, what, or where they ideally would like to be.”

No doubt, many of us feel let down because we grew up believing that over time our incomes would grow and we’d be able to buy more and more of the stuff we wanted. What we’ve found, instead, is that our incomes have generally stagnated, and the prices of necessities have risen. Meanwhile, the pressure to keep up with the Joneses increases even as we exhaust ourselves in our efforts to compete.

But here’s the thing. Most of us already have waaay more than we need. Our houses bulge with superfluous stuff. Meanwhile, reams of psychological studies show that our materialistic values are undermining the quality of our lives in countless ways. (I’ll probably return to this point in a future post.)

It’s true that we get a brief high when we buy something. Research shows that making a decision to buy and following through with a purchase gives us a feeling of mastery. But that feeling quickly evaporates, and then all we’ve got is the thing we bought. Ho hum.  Worse still, the credit-card bill eventually arrives. Yikes!

So, to return to the issue of unequal distribution, as I see it, the critical issue isn’t that the middle class is suffering because the 1% hog too much of the wealth. The critical issue is that we give wealth too much power. If we didn’t tie our self-respect to our place on the economic ladder and attempt to gain the respect of others by showing off the stuff we own, we could disconnect wealth from status. And if we didn’t have to spend our money on stuff to impress the Joneses, we’d have money to help the down-on-their-luck Smiths.

In any case, with the environment unraveling at an accelerating rate, those of us who have more than we need would improve the quality of our own lives and the lives of others if we reduce our consumption and redirect our goal from having lifeless things to nurturing living things.

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