The Persistence of a Fantasy
June 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
I have seen reports of polling data disclosing that most Americans are indifferent to wealth inequality. They oppose measures designed to diminish economic inequality by increased taxation of both current and inherited wealth. This is surprising to me. The standard explanation for this phenomenon is that, as John Steinbeck wrote, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In other words, if you expect to become wealthy, you do not favor high taxes on wealth.
That explanation was never satisfying to me because it merely left me with another question: “What the hell makes you think you have any realistic chance of becoming wealthy?” Today I think I found a clue to the answer to that second question. I discovered an online web magazine (the hip word is ezine pronounced “ee-zine”), Ozy.com (named after Shelly’s sonnet, “Ozymandias”). It recently featured a story that included a statistic I had never before encountered: 77% of Americans, at some time in their life, have an annual income of $100,000 or more. But only 4.6% retain that income level for five years or more.
Stop and consider this. That gives a new and more nuanced meaning to Steinbeck’s remark. Having once experienced having a $100,000 income, it is not so hard to understand that a person might identify with wealthy people. Of course, as the Ozy article states, there are many circumstances that may lead to an increased annual income: a temporary windfall, like a bonus, an inheritance, a tort settlement, a fortuitous marriage, being hired for well-paying job. There are also lots of reasons for sudden losses of annual incomes: bad investments, job losses, medical catastrophes, death. Another likely factor at play here is that, if a working class person finds himself with an annual income of $100,000, he might well believe that he has joined the wealthy class; not realizing that, to the appropriate targets of redistributive taxation, $100,000 is pocket change.
Here is a link to the article: Accumulating Wealth
Thinking about this has also reminded me of one of my favorite literary metaphors: The unstable coach described in Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”. Because, to me, this is relevant to our present situation, I will close this post with an extensive quote from the first chapter of that book:
“By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those
days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to
compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and
dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was hunger, and permitted no lagging,
though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a
road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down, even at the steepest ascents. These seats on
top were very breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, their occupants could enjoy the scenery at their
leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team. Naturally such places were in great demand and
the competition for them was keen, every one seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for
himself and to leave it to his child after him. By the rule of the coach a man could leave his seat to whom he
wished, but on the other hand there were many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all
that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were
slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope
and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly. It was naturally regarded as a
terrible misfortune to lose one’s seat, and the apprehension that this might happen to them or their friends was
a constant cloud upon the happiness of those who rode.
But did they think only of themselves? you ask. Was not their very luxury rendered intolerable to them by
comparison with the lot of their brothers and sisters in the harness, and the knowledge that their own weight
added to their toil? Had they no compassion for fellow beings from whom fortune only distinguished them?
Oh, yes; commiseration was frequently expressed by those who rode for those who had to pull the coach,
especially when the vehicle came to a bad place in the road, as it was constantly doing, or to a particularly
steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the
pitiless lashing of hunger, the many who fainted at the rope and were trampled in the mire, made a very
distressing spectacle, which often called forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach. At
such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to
patience, and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while
others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. It was agreed that it was a great
pity that the coach should be so hard to pull, and there was a sense of general relief when the specially bad
piece of road was gotten over. This relief was not, indeed, wholly on account of the team, for there was
always some danger at these bad places of a general overturn in which all would lose their seats.
Chapter 1 7
It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of the misery of the toilers at the rope was to
enhance the passengers’ sense of the value of their seats upon the coach, and to cause them to hold on to them
more desperately than before. If the passengers could only have felt assured that neither they nor their friends
would ever fall from the top, it is probable that, beyond contributing to the funds for liniments and bandages,
they would have troubled themselves extremely little about those who dragged the coach.
I am well aware that this will appear to the men and women of the twentieth century an incredible inhumanity,
but there are two facts, both very curious, which partly explain it. In the first place, it was firmly and sincerely
believed that there was no other way in which Society could get along, except the many pulled at the rope and
the few rode, and not only this, but that no very radical improvement even was possible, either in the harness,
the coach, the roadway, or the distribution of the toil. It had always been as it was, and it always would be so.
It was a pity, but it could not be helped, and philosophy forbade wasting compassion on what was beyond
The other fact is yet more curious, consisting in a singular hallucination which those on the top of the coach
generally shared, that they were not exactly like their brothers and sisters who pulled at the rope, but of finer
clay, in some way belonging to a higher order of beings who might justly expect to be drawn. This seems
unaccountable, but, as I once rode on this very coach and shared that very hallucination, I ought to be
believed. The strangest thing about the hallucination was that those who had but just climbed up from the
ground, before they had outgrown the marks of the rope upon their hands, began to fall under its influence. As
for those whose parents and grand-parents before them had been so fortunate as to keep their seats on the top,
the conviction they cherished of the essential difference between their sort of humanity and the common
article was absolute. The effect of such a delusion in moderating fellow feeling for the sufferings of the mass
of men into a distant and philosophical compassion is obvious. To it I refer as the only extenuation I can offer
for the indifference which, at the period I write of, marked my own attitude toward the misery of my brothers.”
I read this book long ago but the anger it evoked in me has proved to be permanent, although I have found less self-destructive ways to deal with it than I did when I was younger.