Posts tagged with envy

Summary: skip to the pictures after the <big> text under heading 2.


Since 2009, pundits have concerned themselves with economic inequality. Robert Reich’s infographic about the US I’ll treat as a summary.

Let me dummyise the opinionscape into three camps:

  1. John Galt. The etymology of aristo-cracy is “rule by the best people”. The market rewards output fairly. Tax the best people and you will drive them out of France and into perfect stateless seasteads. Lose them and you’ll be sorry.
  2. Maximilien de Robespierre. F—k the rich. They inherited their way to the top. Connections, luck, brown-nosing, and false confidence determine incomes more than "merit". The middle manager is no better than his underling. The applicant who got the job is no better than another applicant who was ignored. Guillotine the superfluous gentleman, the role will still be filled; the new girl may even do it better.
  3. Vilfredo Pareto. Hey—if the rich aren’t actively making the poor worse off, what does it matter?

The third view is the one I want to challenge just now.


When I see a manual farmer being destroyed by Nature, I feel:

  • privileged
  • guilty
  • sorry for the farmer
  • the longer I spent thinking about their suffering, the sorrier I feel
  • Why doesn’t somebody do something? They don’t need much. They just need a little help.
  • This is so unfair.

And somehow, gut reactions are part of real morality and ethics.



So here’s my challenge to the Paretians. Which image galls you more:

  1. a farmer suffering from drought, with the whole community destroyed—families crying into each other in solidarity as they all lost pretty much everything
    , or…
  2. next to the damned farmers weeping on their knees, stands the Monopoly Man, laughing, swirling a flute of champagne and recounting the fable of the grasshopper and the ant.

To the extent that these gut reactions translate into legitimate morals, the Robespierreans win over the Galtists and over the Paretians.

Envy exists. From this one infers that when the rich get richer but the poor don’t, that their individual utilities can still drop. But let’s go beyond society-as-a-collection-of-independent-individuals.

The image of the Monopoly Man merrily dancing next to the poor (or even indifferently ignoring their plight) curdles the blood. Gucci little piggies go first against the wall for a reason.

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The reporter’s voice singing the prosody of her profession, we are notified of several facts: millionaire, Wall Street, financial ruin, arson, scuba suit, Mount Everest.

  • Noun (phrase) used to identify victim of suicide: outdoor enthusiast.
  • Method of execution: cyanide pills.
  • Number of eyewitnesses to Marin’s death throes: more than five.
  • Ashamed that I watched such a private moment on camera?: Maybe.
  • Disgusted that I want to watch it again?: Not really.
  • Reasons for interest: [1] fascination with death [2] examining my own empathy / sympathy / lack thereof [3] the media made me watch it [4] the expression on the face of a man who has just decided to take his own life [5] videotape of physical act which begins the process of self-murder.
  • First comment by a G+ acquaintance: “Justice served? or averted?” Anti-Wall Street sentiment.
  • My feeling: Who cares? I hate to see someone at that level of suffering.

(Source: Los Angeles Times)

Another reason for economists to take a close look at inequality, social rank, envy, greed, dreams, social or cultural messages/expectations, and so on as determinants of experienced utility.

Sapolsky’s observation is that human beings engage evolutionary stress hormones in response to purely psychological stimuli. Looking at babboons, who cause each other stress as we do, he finds that lower ranked (submissive) males carry higher amounts of epinephrine (adrenalin) and glucocorticoids than dominant alpha males. (No reports in this documentary on fat-shaming or that ugly females have higher stress.)

So that may be a basis for thinking that social inequality—where a rank and a distance exist—really does mean a lower quality of life for the bottom-rungers, even if they have an absolutely high standard of living. (Sapolsky remarks that in the park he visits, food is so plentiful for the babboons that they only need to work 3 hours a day to survive. So they could be said to have an absolutely high wealth.)

Of course the “right” use of Pareto optimality always took into account the possibility that giving more money to Bill Gates could make me more miserable—but utility is so hard to pin down that a social-optimality conversation can easily be turned by “Well, it’s wrong of you to envy the rich” — casting aside the normative/descriptive distinction.

My first thoughts leap to envy-free solutions of pie-splitting problems (S J Bram, P C Fischburn)

image image image image

but maybe there are some free-lunch alternatives as well. Such as, is there something I’m doing that makes other people feel ashamed or stressed? Some subtle pitches to my voice or subtle movements of my eyes when I’m internally judging someone but trying to not say anything out loud? Why do I care anyway if some hippie wants to be an organic farmer and not get a job? I don’t think I even have a good reason to care; “ideological opposition”. Maybe you can make some arguments sometimes that I should be stressed about the possibility that my government gets overrun by a bunch of irresponsible ideologues and it’s worth the time to debate about it. Fine, but still maybe there are some free lunches in just not socially shaming other people. Just because I have more money doesn’t mean I need to look down on you as less a person. There certainly are narratives that tell that story—"Contribution to society" type narratives or "Hard work" narratives and sometimes even Smart narratives. But I don’t need to embrace those, especially if it’s suboptimal.


Minute 28 they show pictures of monkey brains lighting up in the pleasure centre or stress zones.


Making me think again of taking an integral of the chemical flows over someone’s life (how to deal with time I don’t know) as some kind of selfish evaluation of the pain/pleasure experienced over the lifetime. The naïvest thing would be to measure dopamine and integrate it up over time, perhaps convolved with a risk preference function, anti-variance or pro-variance preference, and some time preference (either NPV/Ramsey or work hard in youth for a delightful old age). Something more realistic would have to take into account that a full life should experience a variety of emotions and corresponding chemical combinations. When your father dies you don’t want to go on smiling and partying, for example.


Minute 48 we get Sapolsky’s interpretation: rank isn’t necessarily it, but rather what rank means in your culture. And our own psychological freedom to decide which hierarchy we think is important. Maybe, RS. Just because I have free will doesn’t make me Herculean, it depends how hard it is to override the bad thoughts with self-affirming thoughts.

Giving rather than receiving. Ask a middle-class parent if s/he is looking forward more to giving something to their child or receiving a present from a friend, partner, or coworker this Christmas? Yet the economics 101 just takes consumption and leisure as life’s desiderata.

So put this together with Daniel Kahneman's supposed finding of an “enough” level (around $45k for Americans I think) above which extra income doesn’t add very much to one’s sense of well-being.

That is, above $45k suponemos que income sea more of a ranking tool or a “You did right” reward. People’s happiness se determine más por the way coworkers and people around them act toward them [do I have to deal with this stressful person today? Does Mr Z laugh at my jokes? Do people look and speak to me as if I’m respectable, smart, admirable, good-looking, sexy, competent, fun, nice—what kind of person am I? Am I good?


] y menos por consumption por sí. Their home is comfortable enough, their food is good enough, life is easy enough. Money removes discomfort rather than providing happiness, kind of idea.

Hat tip @ArcAldebaran.

The most obvious image of a laughable hipster should be a half-time art-school student whose parents are going to provide him/her with a cushy job and/or money so s/he doesn’t really have to work but can just learn some stuff, party/hang out, make some art, and do a little-of-this little-of-that. Maybe have his/her own record label or vanity company or charity or eat instagrammable food or wear cool clothes or whatever, and be beautiful.




Hey, that actually sounds like a nice life I would like to have for myself.


Since art and learning and performing and consuming of those kinds of things are ends in themselves, it’s like this stereotypical character already has what the rest of us would use up our potential leisure time working to be able to afford. In that case the hipster hatred can be just a form of envy.

Bob Kenny says [great wealth] isn’t always worthy of envy, and is certainly not worth sacrificing one’s life to attain. “If … people … know that getting the $20 million or $200 million won’t necessarily bring them all that they’d hoped for, then maybe they’d concentrate instead on things that would make the world a better place and could help to make them truly happy,” Kenny says. “Don’t work too hard for money, because it isn’t going to get you much if you ignore everything else.”…

[M]oney may ease some worries, but others always remain. “Nobody has the excuse of ‘lack of money’ for not being at peace and living in integrity,” writes one [super-wealthy] survey respondent of his family, with a touch of bitterness. “If they choose to live otherwise, that’s their business.”

If anything, the rich stare into the abyss a bit more starkly than the rest of us. We can always indulge in the thought that a little more money would make our lives happier—and in many cases it’s true. But…. When the rich man takes his last sip of Château d’Yquem 1959, he tips back the wineglass to find at its bottom an unforeseen melancholy. Like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, he notes in horror, “I have drunk, and seen the spider.”
Graeme West, Secret Fears of the Super-Rich

(Source: The Atlantic)


Why do people publicly admit to reading Robert Greene's books? That's like saying "Hi, I’m manipulative and power-hungry. Want to work together?"

Several times I have googled people who publicly admit (e.g. on a blog) that they like one or more of Robert Greene’s books. So obviously my first thought is Don’t Trust This Person. Haven’t been wrong about that yet. And let me just add: all such people have been Republicans. I’m not going to say anything, but I’ll just leave this here…


I'm just saying ... the guy shot his friend in the face, campaigned against the marriage rights of his daughter, and sent cushy government contracts the way of his oil company.

It just seems obvious that the first rule of manipulating people has to be that they can’t know they’re being manipulated. Even if a tyrant wanted to rule with an iron fist (yang ), peasants will flee if they know in advance that someone’s going to subjugate them. And there is an obvious facsimile to business.



Niccolò Machiavelli is (wrongly) pegged as the progenitor of the manipulative, skulky, suspicious, power-grabbing style of leadership … let’s call it the Skeletor School of Management. But no one trusts Skeletor. And no one would really follow Skeletor. A consummate Machiavellian would never be so dumb as to let on that he’s about to manipulate you. I don’t even think Skeletor was that dumb … and he’s regularly outwitted by a monosyllabic barbarian with a claymore.


Anyway … why do people admit to reading Robert Greene?