Would We Really All Be Happier

…if Mitt Romney had less money?

Economic inequality, for the last few months at least, has been a hot topic here in the States. From the Occupy movement to the Republican primaries, the increasing income disparity between those at the very top and everyone else has been on our national mind. President Obama made the issue a central part of his most recent State of the Union address.

 “The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise [i.e., that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement] alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

For a president who’s trying to get reelected, these comments are useful. Decrying income inequality plays well in a nation with high unemployment and huge debts, and raising taxes on the very rich is a pretty popular proposition across the boardeven though it won’t do much to decrease the national debt.

And that’s the troubling thing. Why are we all so eager to demand more money from rich folks when the national benefit would only be marginal? It might be a good policy idea to raise tax rates on the wealthy, but the fervency and edginess of our outcry suggests that more than ideas are driving our behavior. No, perhaps our motives are a little more visceral, a little more individual. We aren’t so much concerned with the good of our country as we are angry that this guy is worth $200 million, and I’m not.

It’s a common reaction to inequality; we see it often among children. Timmy’s content with one cookie until his brother gets two (or, in this case, twenty). But that makes it no less foolish.

About a week ago I had the good fortune to sit down next to David, a fellow federal employee. We were attending a required seminar on efficiency in the workplace. (Uncle Sam’s attempts at efficiency are another post for another time.) David, whom I came to greatly respect during the course of our day together, is probably in his late twenties; he’s overweight and has crooked, yellowing teeth. “I brawt me a candy bawr fer lunch,” he told me, “jesta tad me over till I kin make it tuh tha Bee-Kay [i.e. Burger King].” David leaves his home in Chauncey, GA at 3:30 AM to drive 61 miles to work, where he scrapes sealant off bolt holes in C-130s.

He’s been married for ten years to “tha bayust wife in the world. Are you married? Mayun, marriage is great. There ain’t nuthin’ lack it.” After he gets home from work, he and his 5-year old son Dawson shoot the BB gun till David falls asleep. “I don’t do nuthin’ else but play with hee-um. Duh you have kee-uds? Mayun, there ain’t nuthin’ lack it. It’s the best feelin’ in the world. I wouldn’t trade it fer nuthin’.”

From the four or so hours I spent with him, its seems that David, contrary to The 99%, leads a pretty contented life. Why don’t we?

Perhaps this sounds like a vindication of the status quo. It isn’t. Should we seek to reverse the trend of rising poverty rates in America? Absolutely, but increasing tax rates for the ultra-wealthy isn’t going to help us in that regard. In addition, we should keep in mind our obsession for equality that de Tocqueville so helpfully warned us about: “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”

If de Tocqueville’s comment applies to our current national frustration, then economic inequality isn’t the problem. We are.

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