I’m going to be upfront about this: wealth inequality, both within the USA specifically and on a global scale, is a hot-button issue for me. It’s one of the political problems I care about the most. That’s why, since I live in New York City, I actively participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests at Liberty Square right from the start, or close to it. As a full-time student, I didn’t camp out there, and I would have felt a little guilty doing so anyway, since I couldn’t commit all day every day to the protests, but I was down there quite a bit. When discussing those protests, many of the things I would hear from fellow students were variations on the theme of: “You’re just jealous.”
As they saw it, the only reason anyone would protest against the vast wealth disparities between the top 1% (and, especially, the top .01%) and the rest of us was materialistic envy. According to this theory, I was protesting because I felt entitled to the same level of wealth and power that these über-elite banking executives enjoy, and I was demanding that they simply hand this kind of economic “success” (so-called) to me. After explaining to me what my motivations were, and why that meant that protest was misguided, these generous souls would then kindly offer me some advice on “more constructive” ways to deal with my jealousy of the banksters. The recommendations typically fell into one of two categories: 1) Sit down, shut up, get back in line, find a job at a bank, work hard, save up, and get rich myself (this advice typically came from the business school students), or 2) Remind myself that I don’t really even want to be rich in the first place, and just calm down already, because what was there to be so jealous and upset about?
Now, I’m not blaming the folks who offered this advice, or saying that they were being intentionally or willfully unhelpful. Both these ideas would have been great solutions, if my classmates had been diagnosing the problem correctly. If my anger at wealth inequality really did stem from jealousy, then either one of these solutions would have worked excellently, if I had taken it to heart and lived by it. They were, in a sense, right answers. They were just answering the wrong question.
My problem with wealth inequality isn’t that super-rich folks have nicer shit than I do. Indeed, by my own aesthetic standards, their lives are mostly a lot worse than mine. For example, my actual living quarters are a lot closer to my dream home than a giant empty mansion would be. I don’t like a high level of technology in my living space (or, really, on my planet). If someone handed me a billion dollars and made me spend it all on myself, I certainly wouldn’t waste it on luxury yachts and big-screen televisions, even if I were acting out of pure selfishness. Those things just simply don’t appeal to me in the first place.
In fact, my problem with wealth inequality isn’t, strictly speaking, even with the inequality itself. That doesn’t bother me. Some people are taller than others, some people are stronger, etcetera, etcetera. My sister, for example, is taller than I am. No big deal. But here’s the crucial difference: She didn’t cut off my legs to achieve her height. She didn’t get taller by making other people shorter. In the case of wealth inequality, however, that’s precisely how it works: the elites gain surplus by depriving the masses of what we need to survive.
I’m not against wealth inequality because the rich have more than they could ever possibly want, but because the poor have less than they actually need. I’m against it because while billionaires zip around in private jets and decide the future of the world, at least one billion of their fellow human beings have never tasted clean water. I’m against it because while executives take home six-figure annual bonuses in addition to their salaries to pat themselves on the back, one in four children in America is on food stamps because their families can’t afford both food and rent. There is enough of everything to go around in this world, but because the distribution is so massively imbalanced, almost all the world’s wealth is in the hands of only a few hundred individuals. And while they feast, the world starves. It is monstrously unethical to ask the “have nots” to simply ignore the lives of the “haves,” and enjoy what they’ve got rather than feeling entitled to something more. Most of the humans living on this planet, and even millions upon millions of people in the richest countries in the world, haven’t got enough to get by. It’s not about trying to get ahead, it’s just about wanting, for once, to be allowed to break even.
Assuming that people who are angry about wealth inequality just wish they were rich is like assuming that feminists just wish they were misogynistic. It completely misses the point. I’m angry that there are rich people, not that I’m not one of them.