Sunday, March 18, 2018

The myth of envy of the poor towards the rich and the rich folks' demand for gratitude

Germany just saw another storm in a beer mug about its poor. This is an annual ritual when charities and social service NGOs publish their annual reports, but the current episode was started by thoroughly average 'conservative rebel' Mr. Spahn when he claimed that people on the means tested basic social benefits program did not go hungry.

With great empathy, he added praise for food banks as "a great way to avoid that perfectly edible food gets thrown into the trash".

Faced with sarcasm and outrage, the gentleman decided to highlight the cost of social programs, declaring them highly desirable and adding that there are no unlimited funds, and that it is all about providing the right level of services without ignoring tax revenues.

Pointing out, as some did, that Mr. S. happily voted for an automatic increase of compensation of German federal MPs while insisting that any increase in benefits is subject to an annual review, would not sway anybody.

Neither would pointing out that the German poor, including those on the means tested bare bones benefit Hartz IV, have about the same tax burden as the very wealthy relative to their income.

The blogster finds two perennial aspects of the debate very revealing: alleged envy towards the wealthy and a more or less clearly stated demand of gratitude towards the "top earners of our well financed social state".

A commentary by one of the folks of conservative daily Die Welt can serve as a wonderfully phrased example of the mantra of envy. Declaring Germans to be "world champions of envy", the author bemoans that the recent arguments about Hartz IV and food banks on the one hand and upset about the compensation of the chief of automaker VW were being instrumentalized and clearly showed the alleged envy.

Nowhere in the debate has there been any question as to whether this envy is even real. The blogster cannot claim to be the ultimate authority, but it* has lived among poor Germans, and it has read up on the definition of envy: "painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage". 

And guess what?

It has not found "the desire to possess the same advantage". Ever. Also not among the poor in India. Or those in the United States.

What it has found, though, is the desire of the poorer folks to have enough money to get to the end of the month without skipping meals in order to feed their children, without fear of using too much electricity, without praying that the old car will make it into the next month.

Which is not the same as the desire to possess the same advantages as those who are well off.

In fact, resentment often goes in the other direction. Why do they need a smartphone, is an often heard question in the debate over benefits levels.

The commentary in Die Welt really shines in its use of impersonal statements to buffer increasing inequality. The gem is "modern capitalism accelerates the differentiation of society". 

In short, "modern" is the new modern, and we are not seeing inequality but "differentiation". It comes as no surprise that "there are more and more rich people in this economically successful country. Still not enough, but there is improvement in times of growth."

Lamentably, "it does not matter how much they pay in taxes, how comprehensive their contributions are for social security, how many jobs they create or secure: hardly anybody has any sympathy for the rich."

We all, the blogster included, use umbrella terms like "capitalism" and others, but we should be weary of turning to impersonal usage to nefarious ends.

On a positive note: the blogster would love to pay a million or more Euros or dollars in taxes every year, because it would mean a more than comfortable income. If you meet modern capitalism, ask him to help out a hard working blogster. 

* In praise of gender neutrality.

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